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HOW CAN NATURAL CARBON SEQUESTRATION STRATEGIES BE A LONG-TERM SOLUTION, WHEN THEY INVOLVE SUCH SHORT-TERM LIFE CYCLES?
CARBON PERMANENCE EXPLAINED
All over the planet, various natural life cycles are pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, sequestering it for a time, and then releasing it. Natural climate solutions (reforestation, regenerative agriculture, seaweed farming, etc) aim to harness these powerful natural mechanisms, enhance their capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and by doing so, combat the climate crisis. These natural methods are scalable TODAY, while most engineered solutions will require years more development. Not to mention that natural climate solutions are 30x cheaper, approx. $20 vs $600 per ton.
To put this in perspective, $1000 invested in natural climate solutions could sequester approximately 50 tons CO2
Compare that to $1000 invested in engineered solutions, which (at 2022 price estimates) could only sequester 1.67 tons CO2.
IF THEY'RE MORE COST EFFECTIVE AND MORE READILY AVAILABLE, WHY AREN'T WE GOING FULL STEAM AHEAD WITH THESE NATURAL CARBON SOLUTIONS?
When assessing the spectrum of carbon sequestering efforts, natural solutions have one effort that has come to overshadow their immediate availability and significant cost effectiveness. Natural systems store and release carbon. At a glance, it seems like these gains and losses would completely cancel each other out, but this framing is only accurate if we're thinking of these cycles on a strictly individual level. An individual tree will grow, store carbon, decompose, and release carbon. But we don’t expect a single tree to save us, we’re talking about restoring entire forests, entire ecosystems! And this "carbon in, carbon out" understanding of carbon storage is not true at an ecosystem level.
WHEN WE LOOK AT NATURAL CARBON CYCLE SOLUTIONS ON A LARGE SCALE, THE "PERMANENCE" IS ACTUALLY MORE LASTING THAN ONE MIGHT THINK.
To get a better understanding of how these two seemly paradoxical assertions (that natural systems cycle through carbon, and consistently store carbon), let's reimagine these ideas in the context of something more familiar. Think of Earth’s various carbon cycles added up together—all those plants and fungi and bacteria, growing and dying, carbon cycling in and out of the atmosphere—like a fountain.
A fountain involves a cyclical flow of water. Endless input, endless output. If you tracked an individual drop of water through this cycle, you might conclude that the water storage of this fountain is rather temporary. None of the water stays in the fountain forever, or even for very long.
But the fountain is consistently storing water. Irrelevant to the cyclical movement, the amount of water held in the fountain’s reservoir will be the same in an hour, and in a month, and in ten years. Similarly, Earth’s carbon is in a cycle, but Earth’s capacity for carbon storage is not cyclical.
And if we add to that capacity, by restoring ecosystems that once established will maintain themselves (reforestation) or continue to be maintained for the foreseeable future (commercial forestry), we have added to that consistent amount of carbon that is being held at any given time.
When we invest in restoring the natural carbon cycles around us, that additional carbon storing capacity is here to stay!
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