Urban planner suggests 'carbon is not the enemy'

pollution
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

(Phys.org)—Architect, author and urban planner William McDonough has published a Comment piece in the journal Nature promoting his belief that it is time to change the way the word "carbon" is used in science and in society as a whole. He believes we all need to stop thinking of carbon as the enemy so that we can start to see it as simply another part of the natural world.

As McDonough notes, is not inherently a bad thing, it is only in the way we have used it that it has come to be seen as an enemy. By burning materials that emit carbon into the atmosphere, we create . But labeling it as the enemy has led to confusion, he maintains—not only has it led to misunderstandings regarding its nature by the general public but in the way it is used to promote or argue against programs or ideas that are meant to support a cause. What does it mean to be carbon negative, for example, or carbon positive? Both terms can be used to support positive programs, such as Bhutan claiming its country should be considered to be carbon negative because its trees pull in more carbon than other sources emit. Meanwhile, some businesses claim to be carbon positive because they use carbon sequestering techniques.

McDonough suggests we switch to using the terms "fugitive carbon," "durable carbon" and "living carbon." The first is clearly the bad kind because it winds up in the atmosphere. The second comprises carbon locked into stone or coal, and the third describes carbon that is part of biological cycles—it is a necessary ingredient in soil, for example, and exists in the bodies of plants and animals.

What we need to do, he suggests, is learn to live harmoniously with carbon and to stop waging war on it. In practice, this would mean working with the carbon cycle—pulling carbon from the air, for example, to fuel biological processes, building soil carbon deposits to promote biological growth, regenerative farming and creating closed loops of carbon nutrients. The ultimate goal, he suggests, would be to use carbon as an asset in ways that do not cause other problems. He suggests the way to start is to make it a goal for all future designs be truly carbon positive, whether buildings, farms or entire cities.


Explore further

Soil modelling to help curb climate change

More information: William McDonough. Carbon is not the enemy, Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/539349a
Journal information: Nature

© 2016 Phys.org

Citation: Urban planner suggests 'carbon is not the enemy' (2016, November 15) retrieved 15 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2016-11-urban-planner-carbon-enemy.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
23 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 15, 2016
Duh! The argument is so obvious it's not worth saying. Yes, recycling of atmospheric carbon is required. Not the one way trip of naturally sequestered carbon from underground (oil, coal, natural gas) to the atmosphere via burning as we do today. One look at the photo of Russia's only aircraft carrier on the way to the Mediterranean pumping out all that black smoke with it's old and crappy engines pretty well sums it up for me.

Nov 15, 2016
Carbon isn't the enemy, how we deal with it is.

Since the 1970s there has been a real push to develop biodegradable materials/products and to reduce the amount of material going into landfills by incineration (which gives a "bonus" of power generation).

We got into this mess by pulling carbon out of the ground. Biodegradable materials put carbon into the atmosphere (biodegradable = break down into carbon dioxide and water). Incineration turns even petrochemical products (plastic) into carbon dioxide and water.

We need to start putting more carbon back into the ground. Sorry to say, but massive landfills to bury carbon is probably the easiest and definitely the most economical way to dispose of massive amounts of carbon.

Yes I know its heresy, but the argument holds.

Nov 15, 2016
Depending on what you assume for density of carbon materials going into a landfill and volume percent of carbon materials, a 1 square km landfill can remove about 2 million tons CO2 equivalent CO2 for every meter of material deposited every year.

50 landfills adding 10 meters of material a year would account for a billion tons of CO2 equivalent. 2000 landfills world wide would account for 40 billion tons of CO2 equivalent/year. That would balance out the amount of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels world-wide.

It would seem to me that we don't need breakthrough technology to solve the carbon problem, just some very large holes in the ground to put back what we took out.

Environmentalists didn't realize what they were doing (and still don't) when they advocate biodegradable materials. Until we stop taking carbon out of the ground, we need to put as much back as we can!

Nov 15, 2016
The argument is so obvious it's not worth saying.


Is it?

The public and the politicians are talking about things like "carbon tax", when in reality they mean "fossil fuel tax", and such narratives are skewing the decision making process. For example, the public believes that hydrogen cars are a good idea because they "emit no carbon" - needlessly overlooking the fact that hydrogen as a fuel is nearly useless unless it is bound and carried in a suitable hydroCARBON molecule.

Nov 15, 2016
It would seem to me that we don't need breakthrough technology to solve the carbon problem, just some very large holes in the ground to put back what we took out.


How much oil do you have to burn to capture and carry all that carbon?

You're essentially talking about un-mining the mountains and mountains of coal and oil we've dug up. Problem is, it takes more energy to do than what was in those mountains to start with, so you got to figure out how to get that energy first - without producing more CO2 - while also powering the society.

If you want to pull all the carbon out of the sky and bury it in a 100 years, you have to essentially double the global energy consumption - half of which would be used to reverse the last 200 years of fossil fuels consumption.

Nov 15, 2016
A hole in the ground is a hole in the ground. Why start with a mountain? If what you say is true then we wouldn't be able to afford landfills because of the energy required to create them. Think outside the box a little here.

My point is the drive to biodegradable materials puts CO2 into the atmosphere. Focus on that and tell me why its a good thing.

I was a kid in the 1970s and remember the trash/litter problem. We "solved" that in part by biodegradable materials which means we might as well burn everything.

And it doesn't need to be oil/coal/plastics. Burying any carbon containing material would be a start - even grass clippings, corn stalks and general crop waste would be a start.

Nov 15, 2016
As for hydrogen, anhydrous ammonia contains more hydrogen per volume than liquid hydrogen and it is much easier to ship and store. The potential energy content of compressed hydrogen is ridiculous.

Ammonia was one of the first industrial chemicals (materials produced on a massive scale). We have over a century of experience in making it. Ruthenium catalysts that decompose ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen at relatively low temperatures have been available for decades.

The pieces are all lying around for an ammonia/hydrogen economy and have been for a long time. Its just not a sexy/exciting to talk about driving your car using ammonia especially when someone else is talking about their hydrogen car.

Nov 15, 2016
You're essentially talking about un-mining the mountains and mountains of coal and oil we've dug up. Problem is, it takes more energy to do than what was in those mountains to start with


I will repeat if that was the case then coal mining has been a losing game from day one. If it takes more energy to get coal out of the ground than you get from the coal then the coal industry has been a farce and could only been sustained by a truly massive conspiracy with unlimited funds and a source of free energy.

Nov 15, 2016
Serious about forced warming? Change the albedo of the planet. Paint all the roofs and roadways white.

Give you boys something to do.


Nov 15, 2016
Damn moleculcists, lumping all the particles and giving them moleculcist's "labels"....

Nov 15, 2016
Serious about forced warming? Change the albedo of the planet. Paint all the roofs and roadways white.
/q]

Since 99% of the surface is neither roads nor roofs that's probably not serious. 70% is water right off the bat. Better yet, roof all the roadways and put solar panels on them. The power lines can be strung under the roofs. No land has to be purchased. Local businesses all over the country can be hired for construction and maintenance. Instead of reflecting a little heat from the inconsequential fraction of surface we can change, use that surface to generate the electricity that can make a big dent in solving the problem the atmosphere has.

Nov 16, 2016
That might sound crazy but how about planting more trees in areas where their aren't that many? Even buildings could be built so that the exterior rooms would be green rooms. Imagine your own little backyard on the 50th floor! I'd certainly pay the extra

Nov 16, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Nov 16, 2016
A hole in the ground is a hole in the ground. Why start with a mountain? If what you say is true then we wouldn't be able to afford landfills because of the energy required to create them. Think outside the box a little here.


Sure, you can dig a hole in the ground, but what difference does it make?

The whole issue is about how much carbon you need to put in the hole to make a significant impact, and how much carbon you have available. The waste streams of carbon containing materials - plastics, food scraps, paper etc. - is a small fraction of the amount of carbon that was and is simply burned.

I will repeat if that was the case then coal mining has been a losing game from day one.


You don't understand the problem. It's not about the mining, but how to un-burn the carbon that was previously mined, because throwing kitchen waste in your hole in the ground takes thousands of years to undo the sheer amount that has been dug up.

Nov 16, 2016
I worked through the math as an example. We burn huge amounts of carbon containing material in order to reduce the volume before it goes into a landfill.

You say burying things in the ground won't work, but have you ever looked at the number of landfills just in the US? The holes are dug, we just need to think about the carbon we put in it instead of the volume of materials.

US landfills alone could account for a few billion tons of CO2 equivalent/year. Yes it will take time to get all of the carbon out of the atmosphere, but I am trying to point a shorter path to carbon neutrality, not pre-industrial carbon. It would be a big first step.

Nov 16, 2016
The whole push to biodegradable is a disaster as far as I am concerned with respect to atmospheric carbon.

Why are we trying to invent new and more plastics that break down in the environment? People used to think that the persistence of plastics in the environment was a problem - it isn't if it locks up carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere.

Nov 18, 2016
Bottom line: Too Many People.

Nov 18, 2016
Bottom line: Too Many People.

Bottom bottom line: Why don't you start solving the "problem" by stepping off?

Nov 19, 2016
Yes it will take time to get all of the carbon out of the atmosphere,


So you want to kill all the trees? In case you didn't know......CO² is what those trees breathe & the atmosphere only has 0.04% CO².

Nov 23, 2016
You say burying things in the ground won't work


I'm not saying it doesn't work. I'm saying it takes too long to work.

The fundamental problem however is that every ton of carbon-containing trash you would bury takes tons of burned carbon for the energy to do so - to make the stuff in the first place, so for as long as energy is predominantly made by burning carbon in some form you are merely slowing down the accumulation of CO2 by a small margin.

So you want to kill all the trees? In case you didn't know......CO² is what those trees breathe & the atmosphere only has 0.04% CO².


And that's plenty.

A drop of ink is about 0.05 ml. If you drop it in a liter (quart) of water, that's 0.005% and yet that is enough to color the whole jug of water. Ten drops of india ink (500 ppm) in a liter is enough to turn the whole thing black.

Try it yourself.

Nov 23, 2016
Imagine a tree sitting out alone in the field. The tree is 10 meters tall and 3 meters wide, and the wind blows through its foliage at a leisurely 1 m/s. That is to say, every second the tree filters through 30 cubic meters of new air.

One cubic meter of air is about 1.25 kg, of which 0.04% is CO2. So, every second there is about 15 grams of CO2 coming within the volume of air available to the tree. Over a day that makes roughly 1.3 kg of CO2 and over a year, 473 kilos. Over 25 years as the tree grows, the air that passes through contains 12 tons of CO2.

And that is plenty for the tree to grow on. If you double that amount, the tree won't grow twice as fast because it's limited by its water, nutrients, and sunlight intake.

Nov 23, 2016
Yes, I get your point. If you can't solve the carbon problem all at once the effort is useless - WE'RE DOOMED!!!!!!

A ton of municipal solid waste does not require tons of CO2 to produce or to bury. Your argument on this point is silly and ludicrous. By your argument, processing MSW to burn it for its energy content would require almost as much energy (you are still collecting, transporting and handling it), yet doing so would add the CO2 for handling/processing AND add the CO2 from burning it ! ! ! Are you missing that point?

We have a surplus of landfill capacity. I am pointing out that using that capacity would at least put a dent in the CO2 problem. I admit the concept is heretical - your insistence that burying all that CO2 would produce even more CO2 just from the act of burying it than burning it all helps to prove my point.

You would rather switch entirely to renewable energy, continue burning all our trash and hope CO2 levels drop by an act of God?

Nov 23, 2016
We do not have to burn it, we can recycle much of it. The rest can be anaerobically digested into methane.

Nov 23, 2016
It's carbon dioxide that's the problem (at least some believe that) but not carbon.
Altough humans are 18% carbon so maybe carbon is the real problem we have.

Nov 23, 2016
We do not have to burn it, we can recycle much of it. The rest can be anaerobically digested into methane.

Yes. A much more potent GHG. Good thinking...

Nov 23, 2016
No, silly, it is collected instead of vented, as it would be naturally.

Any of it we use defers that much we have to frack for.

Nov 24, 2016
No, silly, it is collected instead of vented, as it would be naturally.

Any of it we use defers that much we have to frack for.

Ah, yes. Brussel sprouts and personal fart collection for every man, woman and child.
Oh - and cows, pigs and any other methane producing critters...

Nov 25, 2016
I guess you are unaware we have been mining landfills for more than a generation in California.

We get precious metals from effluent of semiconductor manufacturing and methane from covered landfills for pipelines.

Perhaps some education is in order.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more