Pioneering environmentalist and author James Lovelock, most famous for proposing the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a giant superorganism, is publishing a new book, titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia. It's about... you guessed it... climate change. This year, Lovelock turns 90 and will take his first trip into space. New Scientist had a chat with him about what he considers to be our last chance to deal with climate change. From New Scientist:
So are we doomed?"James Lovelock: One last chance to save mankind" (New Scientist), Pre-order "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning" (Amazon)
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it.