Carbon is Like Money

Most of us are concerned about climate change and want to do what we can to minimize our contributions to greenhouse gases. It’s complicated, though. There are scores of recommendations on how to minimize our carbon footprints, some quite consequential and others relatively insignificant.

Carbon isn’t like an addictive drug we can try to quit using. We are made of carbon. We consume food made of carbon, exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), expel methane (CH4), and excrete carbonaceous feces. Plants and animals are made of carbon, too, and experience the same or similar processes. Worst of all, most of our major fuel sources involve carbon. Carbon can be found in the atmosphere, in the ocean, in earth materials, and in the biosphere as chemical compounds and life forms. So, we can’t just abstain from using carbon. We have to manage how we use it.

Think of carbon as if it were your money. Just as you can manage your money by placing it in different types of accounts, you can manage the carbon you use by directing it to an appropriate environmental medium.

Carbon in the Atmosphere is like Pocket Change

Like pocket change, you have to use a certain amount of carbon all the time. But the atmosphere is the worst place for carbon to go. Once there, it’s difficult to reclaim and it’s where the deleterious effect on climate occurs. With pocket change, you need enough to conduct your daily life but you don’t want to carry too much that might be spent frivolously, or get lost or stolen. Minimize the amount of carbon that you release to the atmosphere to the extent you can. You have to breathe, for instance, and there’s not much you can do about flatulence. There are, however, quite a few things you can do without turning your life upside down. First and foremost, minimize the amount of carbon fuels that you burn or cause to be burned by your choices as a consumer. For example, use more efficient means of transportation, like riding public transportation instead of driving. Use electric-powered tools instead of gas-powered tools. You may get your electricity from a fossil fuel plant but those facilities are much more efficient and release comparatively less pollution than your lawnmower. And yes, your back yard fire pit will release the carbon stored in wood to the atmosphere. It’s a small, even insignificant release so long as you don’t start a forest fire, but it illustrates how you have to manage your choices. Like pocket change, you need to consider whether your carbon usage is worth the benefits you receive in return.

Carbon in the Ocean is like a Retirement Account

The ocean is perhaps the best place for carbon to be sequestered because it can be locked up for centuries. Better yet, you don’t have to do much if anything to make it happen. Let the professionals track what’s going on. It’s like Social Security and some other retirement accounts. The deductions are automatic and, barring some unforeseen calamity, you can count on the deposits being safe for the long term.

Carbon in the Biosphere is like Checking and Savings Accounts

Carbon in the biosphere may not be your biggest amount to manage, but if you’re a gardener, it’s likely to be the one you think about most often. Plants extract carbon from the soil and the air and convert it into plant material. When the plant dies, it decomposes and releases the carbon back to the soil.

Your lawn is like a checking account. Carbon is locked up in the grass plants but only for a relatively short time because you mow it every week or so. Thus, there is a constant turnover of carbon. Annual and perennial plants aren’t trimmed as often as grass, so they lock up carbon for slightly longer periods. Eventually, though, these plants will lose their foliage and release their carbon back to the environment.

Trees and shrubs are like savings accounts. They might lose their foliage annually but they also lock up carbon in woody roots, stems and trunks, which last for relatively long times. In general, the denser the wood, the more carbon is locked up. Deciduous species tend to be harder than evergreen species but they lose more of their foliage every year. But just about any big, fast growing hardwood that you want to plant would be great for storing carbon. If you can use it to build furniture and structures like houses, it will probably be good for storing carbon.

Carbon in the Earth is like an Investment Account

The earth is like an investment account for carbon. Some earth media are extensive, carbon-dense, and long term, like limestone and other carbonate rocks and minerals, coal, peat, oil, and gas. The best thing to do is to leave them where they are or use them only sparingly, like living off the interest on an inheritance. Instead, we are cashing in these resources at unsustainable rates. When fuels are burned and limestone is crushed to make cement, considerable amounts of carbon are released to the atmosphere.

Soil is more like a short-term investment account. You move carbon into soil by adding manure, compost, peat moss, and mulch. Try to avoid chemical fertilizers because a considerable amount of carbon is released when they are manufactured and then have to be transported to stores. Plants will take the carbon out of the soil and store it in wood and plant materials. Like stocks, this carbon management strategy can be either short or long term.

Managing Carbon to Get the Best Return

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of managing carbon is its use as a fuel. Coal, peat, tar sands, oil, oil shales, and gas are all non-renewable because they take thousands of years to form. Once the carbon is taken out of them, it can’t be put back in our lifetimes. Consequently, we should minimize usage of these fuels in favor of non-carbon energy sources. If you must use carbon-based fuels, consider using the most efficient delivery mechanism. For example, replace tools powered by small gasoline engines with tools that are powered by electricity, which can be produced more efficiently at centralized power plants.

The country is only now developing the technology and infrastructure to generate electricity from renewable resources. Minimize your usage of electricity because it’s probably coming from a fossil fuel plant. If you can choose the source of your electricity, renewable sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal, won’t release carbon into the atmosphere.

Consider the fuel used in transportation. If you can, telework instead of commuting. Conduct virtual meetings instead of traveling. Buy locally grown produce rather than foodstuffs shipped from across the country. Compost your garbage instead of having it trucked to a landfill.

Finally, shrink the carbon footprint of your home. Minimize your use of electricity. Focus on the impact and efficiency of heating and cooling, the most substantial energy drains in most homes. Insulate and practice conservation. Replace some of your lawn with woody perennials and bushes, or even better, bamboo and trees. Money may not grow on trees but trees can help you manage your carbon footprint. Your efforts might not have a monumental impact on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere but as a symbolic gesture, they are invaluable.


June 30, 2011

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