A Vision After Venice

Richard Houghton

Acting President & Senior Scientist
Richard A. Houghton

My reward for going to Venice to receive the ICCG award for the most influential think tank on climate change was not the motor launch ride through the canals of Venice at 8 o’clock in the morning or bringing home the graceful glass sculpture that came, surprisingly, with the award, but the question I was asked by a student at the end of my acceptance speech. The question seemed mild at the time of asking, and it wasn’t until two sleepless travel days later that I knew the real answer.

The question/comment was, “Your idea for stabilizing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere while transitioning from fossil to renewable forms of energy, is based on the assumption that the carbon sinks on land and in the ocean will continue.” “Of course,” I agreed, “and it’s an assumption that I am not very confident about. I would expect those sinks to have declined already, when, in fact, they have only grown in proportion to the emissions of carbon to the atmosphere.”

But the real answer that I not only missed the opportunity to present, but didn’t even have in my mind, is, “Of course. The assumption that the sinks will continue may not be valid, but what’s the alternative?”

What is the alternative to reducing emissions of carbon from fossil fuels? In theory, we could capture the CO2 released from smoke stacks and tail pipes and sequester it in underground, geological formations (Carbon Capture and Storage), but geologists are far from united that such storage is feasible or long-term. The process is energetically expensive, and the CO2might leak back out to the atmosphere. There are other geo-engineering schemes, as well, but the risks and our ignorance of the effects make them seem like science fiction, or worse, like flights of fancy that keep us from addressing the real problem: how to live sustainably within our means.

The other alternative to moving to a low-carbon economy is to let climatic disruption play out its course. That’s the course we’re on – continuing as usual. We’re headed for a 4oC warming by the end of the century, and look at the storms, droughts, and floods we’ve had with a warming of less than 1oC.

No. The alternatives to moving to a low-carbon economy are not a burned-up planet or a planet with an ingenious fix for keeping our fossil fuel interests intact. There is no alternative. And if past rates of carbon uptake by land and oceans don’t continue into the future, we’re fried anyway.

The idea of planting trees instead of cutting them down, which is, of course, the idea of managing ecosystems to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, may seem hokey and not very high-tech, but it is something we know how to do. It’s part of the solution. It’s the part that’s essential for keeping the concentration of CO2 from continuing to increase while we’re getting out of the fossil fuel business.

We can only pack so much carbon onto land in trees and soils before it’s essentially full. Doing so while developing renewable technologies and infrastructure for replacing fossil with renewable energy is part of the solution for ending further climatic disruption. It may be hokey, but it’s also cheap and something at which we’ve had centuries of practice. There are difficulties and risks (perhaps the subject of another e-newsletter), but the alternatives are worse. We have little to lose by restoring the Earth with trees and productive soils and much to gain.

Thank you, Venice and the International Center for Climate Governance, for recognizing the Woods Hole Research Center and for helping frame in my mind the importance of carbon management on land.