Few people realise it but Earth’s atmosphere was once primarily methane and did not support life forms that depend on Oxygen based respiration. In the past 4 billion years, with the evolution of blue-green algae and later, Eukaryotic photosynthetic plants, algae and plankton, Earth’s atmosphere has been transformed by dramatically increased Oxygen content. Until we came along and invented gas heating, electric power generation and the combustion engine, which have transformed fossilised carbon (Coal and Oil) into CO2 at an exponentially increasing rate, all was stable.
Photosynthesis uses Six CO2 molecules to create a Six-carbon ring, releasing the O2 molecules back into the atmosphere. The C6 rings are Glucose molecules, which plants join together like links in a chain to make long strands of cellulose, which in turn are woven and stuck together to form woody tissue. Given that a single strand of cellulose can contain thousands of Glucose molecules and there are billions of strands of cellulose in a few kilograms of wood, this involves the extraction of a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere. That is exactly what we need right now because the overload of CO2 in the atmosphere, which has been accumulating for a century or more as a result of human activity, is acting like a greenhouse, trapping the heat from sunlight, heating up the atmosphere and creating violent disruptions to the dynamic flow of air, moisture and heat around the planet (the weather). No amount of taxation, rhetoric and good intention is going to do this like trees and plankton.
Planting Trees As If Life Depended On It
Slowing down our rate of fossil fuel burning is only part of the solution; it won’t remove any of the current surplus CO2 from the atmosphere. Even so, since we are obviously dependent on politicians and governments to do this and it appears that it will only be achieved by selling humanity into slavery to the capitalist system that caused the problem this may not happen before the crisis is upon us and it’s too late. When the time comes that it’s impossible to find a Climate Change denier to whom we can say “We told you so!” it would be a good idea to plant trees as if life depended on it. However, this would not be enough; the planting would need to be appropriate, systematic, planned, well organised and highly effective.
Some trees are fast-growing, others are not and every environment has its own best-suited, fast-growing trees. Eucalyptus leucoxylon for example, is a fast-growing gum tree (the yellow flowering gum) of the southern and eastern states coastal regions of Australia. It can grow to a size amassing a few tons of wood (fixed carbon) in just a few years. But there are limits to its habitat. Every environment will have its fastest-growing species. A concerted effort would need to be made by botanists to identify regions and a selected, fast-growing species most appropriate to each.
Propagating the seedlings for large scale planting takes time. Nurserymen would need to be engaged to collect and germinate seed, raise seedlings and distribute them.
Within a region specific locations would need to be selected for suitability and availability for planting, involving both public and private land. Calculations would need to be made of numbers of trees required for the available space and (subject to losses) numbers of seedlings required and nurserymen to cultivate them. Volunteers would need to be recruited and trained to do the planting and subsequent maintenance to ensure the trees survive in good numbers.
Distribution of the seedlings when and as they are ready for planting, scheduling volunteers to plant them and attend to their maintenance requires coordination if the planting is to be efficient and successful.
It would be futile to collect large amounts of seed material if the seedlings are fated all to die in a poorly managed nursery, or if there is no one available to plant them, or places to plant them or if, after planting, the trees die off or grow slowly due to lack of maintenance.
And Don’t Forget The Plankton
In the late 1970s when the fight for the forests was at a pitch and the “Tree Huggers” made the argument that trees are the lungs of our planet, some scientists were saying “Rubbish! Most of the oxygen is produced by Plankton.” That may or may not be true, but even the oceans’ Plankton has been diminished by 40% in the past century.
Plankton are the foundation of the oceanic food chain, which zoologists are often warning us is taking a hiding from our pollution, shipping, over-fishing and other harmful activities. This is borne out by the fishing industry reports of seriously depleted stocks. Now that we are also taking the small fish for canning and for pet food the effects have been dramatic and when studies are made of predatory sea bird populations they are typically found to be emaciated.
Plankton are photosynthetic protozoa. They live in the upper 14 feet of oceans, within the limit of sunlight penetration and they are confined to regions where there is up-swell of currents bringing nutrients from the ocean floor. There are enormous areas of ocean surface where the light penetrates but the nutrients are not available. It would be possible to vastly and rapidly increase the amount of oceanic Plankton by aerial seeding of selected areas of ocean surface with a cocktail solution of suitable nutrients, artificially creating the conditions for Plankton growth on a vast scale, and with it dramatically increase the consumption of CO2 and release of Oxygen and the breadth of the foundation of the oceanic food chain.
Although this action would be one of multiple significant benefits, it’s not within the purview of Capitalism because, contrary to the fundamental necessity of Capitalism that the actor in control of the process secures all the benefits while others bear the costs the entity here that does the work and carries the costs of nutrient seeding the oceans has no way to exercise a level of control that will capture all of the benefits. Some solutions will never be delivered by the invisible hand of market forces, even when humanity is on its knees and facing extinction.
Nevertheless, nutrient seeding the oceans offers the potential for a major contribution to the solution of our Climate Change crisis, once we have accepted that we have one.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|