Thursday, December 30, 2010

Community-Supported Carbon Sequestration: Another St Andrews Prize proposal

The Community-Supported Carbon Sequestration (CSCS) project aims to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, using existing technologies and an innovative financing mechanism that would benefit poor rural areas. CSCS would capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, based on a direct contact between concerned people who want to offset their carbon emissions, and independent small “farmers” managing carbon dioxide-absorbing synthetic trees. The idea follows the model of Community Supported Agriculture, in which a group of people pays a farmer up front in order to become shareholders in a season's produce. In a CSCS group, these shareholders would buy part of the carbon dioxide absorbed in a given year.

Klaus Lackner and the Earth Institute of Columbia University have worked on what they call synthetic trees, which use simple chemical reactions to absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to liquid form. This carbon dioxide can then be combined with minerals known as ultramafic rocks, which bind the carbon dioxide in an inert form.

There exist just such ultramafic rocks in parts of Appalachia in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. These comprise some of the poorest areas in the US. The establishment of a carbon sequestration industry, dispersed among individual family smallholdings, would bring a much-needed income infusion into the area. The construction of the synthetic tree components would also entail larger-scale factories. Hence a model of CSCS would benefit small family enterprises, as well as heavier industry. It would create green jobs in an area of poverty, destructive mining, and closed factories.

In time this model of mineral carbon sequestration through dispersed smallholder-held synthetic trees, financed through direct carbon payments from concerned individuals (and perhaps eventually larger corporate emitters), could be expanded to other areas. The west coast of the US is home to large deposits of ultramafic rocks. Even more interesting is that one of the world's largest such deposits is in the nation of Oman. Oman entertains friendly relations with the US, and collaboration on a project to promote both ecological and human well-being would be welcome in both countries. Individuals and companies in the US could buy shares in Omani CSCS projects, with communication and verification between countries facilitated by the Internet. Such a project would improve the image that residents of both countries have of one another, as well as serving as a much-needed diversification for Oman's oil-dependent economy.

Community-Supported Carbon Sequestration has the potential to durably absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while creating small, farm-like businesses as well as larger factory employment. It could be a model to simultaneously reduce the US's climate impact, as well the poverty that plagues certain parts of the country. In time the CSCS model could even serve as a diplomatic link between the US or other large emitters of CO2, with countries like Oman looking to create a sustainable economic future.

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