James Lovelock wants to save the world by burying charcoal

New Scientist published an interview with Dr James Lovelock titled One last chance to save mankindon 23 January 2009. James Lovelock is the originator of the Gaia Theory. This theory has evolved over time and gaiatheory.org describes the theory as:

 The Gaia Theory posits that the organic and inorganic components of Planet Earth have evolved together as a single living, self-regulating system. It suggests that this living system has automatically controlled global temperature, atmospheric content, ocean salinity, and other factors, that maintains its own habitability. In a phrase, “life maintains conditions suitable for its own survival.”

Here are a few excerpts from the interview with James Lovelock. It is interesting that James Lovelock has a rather fatalistic view on global warming. He does, however, propose one action which has a chance of “saving the world”.

Your work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led eventually to a global CFC ban that saved us from ozone-layer depletion. Do we have time to do a similar thing with carbon emissions to save ourselves from climate change?

Not a hope in hell. Most of the “green” stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning. I am not against renewable energy, but to spoil all the decent countryside in the UK with wind farms is driving me mad. It’s absolutely unnecessary, and it takes 2500 square kilometres to produce a gigawatt – that’s an awful lot of countryside.

And later …

So are we doomed?

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

But still he is optomistic ….

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

OK, so he is a global warming alarmist. I also think it safe to say he is not a creationist.

What alarms me is the extremes to which global warming alarmists propose we go in order to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Let’s think through the charcoal burying idea.

The idea is to lock the carbon into charcoal, and prevent microbes from consuming dead leaves etc and exhaling CO2 as a bi-product. So, we should starve off a few billion microbes, close to the bottom of the food chain, to replace the fossil fuels we burn with charcoal which we then bury?

Just how much biological waste do they propose turning into charcoal? What will the effect on the food chain be? What about soil quality and fertility?

There must be a better answer than this.


6 Responses

  1. Michelle,

    Indigneous indians in parts of South America have traditionally created charcoal from vegetation and buried it in order to improve their soil. So i think that answers one of your questions.

    He needs to answer the question of the food chain, but the reduction in the number of microbes is not an issue of itself.

    Overall the idea appears to be one of the most practical suggested and needs to be investigated. I just wonder if there be enough incentive for people to do it.


  2. ‘terra preta’

  3. Graham,

    Thank you for the terra preta tip. I have read oblique references to mysterious soils and the Mayan culture. Now I have a specific term to look up I can read up on it. The little bit I have found on Google looks promising.

    Do you or any other readers have links or views on terra preta?

  4. Michelle,
    I might add that all the references are archaeological. However I have seen a programme showing people carrying on a charcoal incorporation practice so it is alive and well in one form or another.

  5. This won’t work in the long run. Ultimately, we will have to find a way to contain Earth’s population. But, ultimately, can we do this?

  6. Thanks Jeff – that reminds me of something I read last year – and gives me an idea for another post!

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