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  • Mathieu Provencher

Negative Carbon Footprint

(picture from Wix's library)

Hello everyone! Today I want to mention some possible way in which technology can help us avoid building too much CO2 in the atmosphere. There is often a big focus on the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This, I think, is well justified and we should indeed try to adjust our consumption expectations to align with our stark reality: we are too many people that want too many things.

Just to give you guys a little context, from the point of view of Economics of course: Thomas Malthus (around the 1800s), which I like very much, predicted that population would grow too big to be sustained by our resources (Earth in this case). His argument was based on the growth rate of population compared to the growth rate of food production. He argued that population grows exponentially while food grows geometrically… which means we’re going to starve at one point.

Fast-forward two hundred years and we’re not very concerned with food anymore. We actually produce much more than we need… except that we don’t distribute it well. The focus now is on the planet’s ability to absorb polluting elements, CO2 being one of these (because of its concentration). The worry now, somewhat similar to Malthus’ fear, is that CO2’s levels start growing faster and faster… not exactly exponentially but still they accelerate.

Just like Malthus’ proposed solution, most advocate of climate change protection focus on emission reductions. Malthus asked for humans to make less babies (we were the “polluting element” of his analysis) and scientists ask for us to make less CO2. Reducing the emission of the pollutant should, they argue, let the Earth absorb the exceeding concentrations and thus bring us back to a sustainable path.

NOW, we seem to have a new option: reducing the polluting element itself from nature, not only its emissions. I recently heard about the possibility to use CO2 in the atmosphere to produce nano-fibers (that can be used to construct different things). Also, I heard a few years ago of a closed energy system (it produces enough energy to maintain itself, and then some more) that starts by absorbing CO2. I also read, around the same time, about a plastic that would absorb more CO2 than it needed to be produced.

All these technologies mean that we could add to our emission reduction efforts, actual pollutant reduction efforts. We could bring down the global level of CO2 concentration without having to wait for Mother Nature to do it for us. In Malthus’ time, it would have been the equivalent of starting to kill people to reduce the population problems he thought we would have… not so very ethical, especially not for a member of the clergy (which he was).

It seems to me that reducing our emissions is indeed a must. However, also reducing the pollutant directly from nature seem to be a very efficient way to tackle the problem. Some industries have claimed they already do that, such as “clean” coal, but they are mostly propaganda stunts… they are NOT what they claim at all. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), for example, is just that: they put the pollutant somewhere else, they don’t get rid of it (and they will run out of places to “hide” it).

We now have the capacity to make products that have a negative carbon footprint, we should really be investing in those. Scientists and engineers can hopefully develop similar technologies for other pollutants, the greenhouse gases are much more than CO2 alone.

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