The field of carbon capture is growing and garnering a lot of attention from policymakers, corporations and scientists. Various technological solutions are being proposed such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) where CO2 is extracted from the source (smokestacks, chimneys, car tailpipes etc), transformed into a liquid, transported by pipeline and stored underground in supposed long-term storage. In other scenarios, the captured carbon is reused in various ways such as injecting it into algae and turning it into biofuels or calcifying it to produce concrete.
Other scenarios include the planting of certain crops (referred to as bioenergy crops) that capture and store the carbon as they grow and are later used as a source of energy as biofuel, or used as what the industry calls Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Here, carbon is injected into mature, low-pressure oil reservoirs in order to push any remaining oil to the surface. This essentially means that the captured carbon will be used to produce more carbon emissions in the long run.
Most of these “techno-fixes” are largely theoretical, unproven on a large enough scale and are very expensive. Man-made carbon storage solutions are subject to leaks and the longevity of their effectiveness is unknown. What’s more, they depend on dangerous infrastructures like pipelines and underground gas storage.
When reusing carbon such as in the case of biofuel production, you are simply delaying the emissions making it a temporary solution at best. Research by Food & Water Watch found that CCS can only reduce a fraction of emissions from electricity generation after taking methane emissions from fuel production into account. These technologies would also allow or encourage increased fuel usage which would worsen air pollution that burdens vulnerable communities.
Similar to solar radiation management (see our Geoengineering article), focus on technological solutions to carbon capture divert the attention of policymakers away from the crucial task of decarbonising our economies. The fact that the fossil fuel industry is so interested in this comes as no surprise.
In reality, technological attempts at capturing and controlling carbon are just another way in which we are trying to mimic natural processes. Rain forests, mangroves and, in particular, the ocean are all excellent at carbon capture and storage. In fact, some solutions focus on working with natural ecosystems in order to speed up such processes. These include large afforestation projects, adding chemicals to the sea to make it more alkaline or dumping nutrients into the ocean to encourage phytoplankton growth which absorbs CO2. These invasive approaches are not without their drawbacks. Afforestation generally means planting forests in areas which have not been forested previously. These “planted forests” or “green deserts” usually consist of a single type of fast-growing trees like palm, pine or eucalyptus which have none of the benefits of natural forests, degrade the soil, can have negative effects if they encroach on surrounding areas of natural ecosystems, can host very little wildlife and are more susceptible to fires. These large plantations are also known to displace entire communities and indigenous people and have even lead to violence and death in the fight to protect their land.
These plantations have a much lower potential of carbon capture than natural forests. In order to extract the required amount of carbon using this method, we would need to afforest an area almost three times the size of India as well as build a facility to store a million tonnes of carbon every year between 2025 to 2050. This is just impossible.
Ocean-based interventions are largely unproven, impractical and expensive due to the scale needed for their implementation and can severely disrupt the balance of the already fragile ecosystems. Some of the minerals needed for ocean-based carbon capture methods would need to be sourced in large quantities leading to an increase in on-land mining.
Let Nature Do the Work
There is another way to achieve our carbon capture requirements and studies are finding that this is in fact the best way. Natural habitats like forests, mangroves, salt marshes, peat bogs, and the sea bed are extremely efficient at carbon capture and storage. A 2019 study found that 37% of the greenhouse house gas reductions needed to stay below 2 degrees can be provided through Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), in other words, ecological restoration. The study did not include oceans which have the largest potential for carbon capture meaning this percentage is even higher.
The research identified 1.7 billion hectares of land around the world where 1.2 trillion native tree saplings can grow naturally and create thriving ecosystems. The researchers specifically omitted any land that is already used to grow food or urban areas. Prof Tom Crowther, one of the study’s researchers, told the Guardian:
“This new quantitative evaluation shows [forest] restoration isn’t just one of our climate change solutions, it is overwhelmingly the top one […] What blows my mind is the scale. I thought restoration would be in the top 10, but it is overwhelmingly more powerful than all of the other climate change solutions proposed.”
Mangroves can store carbon 40 times faster per hectare than tropical forests and vegetated coastal ecosystems have been estimated to take in as much carbon annually as the emissions of 9.7 billion cars. Preserving wildlife is also essential to Natural Climate Solutions as it ensures the stability of the ecosystems. Wolves feed on herbivores that would otherwise eat tree saplings keeping the balance of the ecosystem in check. Rhinos eat dried grass which could otherwise start big wildfires.
Restoring natural habitats just makes sense. Their presence and protection have endless benefits, not just to the natural balance of the planet but also the people and communities that live in harmony with them. In fact, one of the core values of Natural Climate Services projects is that they must work hand-in-hand with indigenous and local communities to design and implement them.
So ecological restoration is a vital tool in the fight against the climate crisis and we are also experiencing a widespread extinction crisis alongside this. Unfortunately, such projects currently receive just 2.5% of the funding that is allocated for carbon capture while the rest goes to the dangerous, expensive and unproven projects mentioned earlier that are backed by the same people that have put us in the crises we are fighting against.
The Natural Climate Services Potential of North Macedonia
Despite its small size, North Macedonia is a hotspot for biodiversity and therefore has immense potential for Natural Climate Services to help tackle the climate crisis. It is home to rich ecosystems with massive potential for carbon capture and storage including its vast forests, marshes and swamps (like Struga and Belchista) and mountain peatlands. It hosts over 16,000 wild species of bacteria, lichens, fungi, moss, plants and animals, of which over 800 are endemic.
Unfortunately, these ecosystems and their inhabitants are under threat. According to EU classification, there are 249 direct threats to Macedonian biodiversity, 17 of which are listed as “high priority threats”. These include continuous urbanisation, open-cast mining, various types of waste and pollution issues, the replacement of traditional farming practices with industrial ones and forest fires. Between 2003 to 2013, fires devastated more than 1150km2 of forest; an area of land that is over two times the size of Skopje. An alarming number of reptiles, amphibians and plant species are also under threat. 71% of reptiles and all amphibian and vascular plant species in North Macedonia are listed on the “Red List” of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Many of these threats to the country’s natural diversity boil down to bad policies and planning (both past and present), a lack of enforcement and insufficient funding of effective conservation measures. The restoration and preservation of these ecosystems will not only increase the potential for carbon capture and storage but will also improve the livelihood of over half of the rural population of the country who currently live in degraded land. This will also ease some of the financial strain on the economy; land degradation currently costs North Macedonia approximately €45 million per year. Alternatively investing in the restoration of this land can yield €8 return on every €1 invested.
Researchers, writers and campaigners like Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot have been pushing to promote the ecological restoration approach as an aide to be implemented alongside the urgent decarbonisation of our industries. They stress that NCS cannot be a substitute for the main goal of leaving fossil fuels in the ground and that they will be essentially worthless if used as an excuse to delay serious mitigation measures. Their logic is hard to argue with; we must move our industries away from harmful and dirty energy sources while we also restore and protect our natural habitats.
1. The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering
2. Microalgae: The Potential for Carbon Capture | BioScience | Oxford Academic
3. Carbon capture, storage and utilisation technologies: A critical analysis and comparison of their life cycle environmental impacts
4. Averting Climate Breakdown by Restoring Ecosystems
5. Natural climate solutions
6. The global tree restoration potential
7. Tree planting 'has mind-blowing potential' to tackle climate crisis
8. Sucking carbon out of the air is no magic fix for the climate emergency
9. Sorry, Fossil Fuel Industry. ‘Carbon Capture’ Isn’t A Magic Climate Cure
10. Country Profile The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Investing in Land Degradation Neutrality: Making the Case
11. National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the Period 2018 - 2023
12. Red Lists: Gauging the force of nature in North Macedonia
Author: JD Farrugia