Actually, We CAN Put It Back in the Ground

One of the most demoralizing things about climate change is that it’s generally a one-way process: it’s easy for us to put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but not so much for us to take them back out–at least, that’s what I thought until recently.

True, there has been some research into carbon sequestration (putting carbon dioxide directly into underground spaces or at the bottom of the sea), but these processes aren’t very far advanced or very affordable, and some of the plan for them is just to capture CO2 being produced by fossil fuel plants and sequester that. The fossil fuel industry likes to hold this very theoretical idea out as though it’s an available technology, so as to get a free pass to burn more fossil fuels.

But I mentioned that there was some hope, and there is: biochar.

What is biochar? It’s basically charcoal, an extremely carbon-rich material made at high temperatures, from 200 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which consumes pretty much everything in the fuel except the carbon. Biochar can be made from practically any burnable material–wood, seed pods, husks, brush, paper, manure, etc.–even trash.

biochar pellets

What’s so great about that? A few things, actually! First, using the right process to make it, biochar produces energy without producing much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the process that makes biochar can alternatively make liquid fuels from renewable sources. Third, and most intriguingly, biochar is very stable: you can bury it in the ground, and the carbon won’t go anywhere for hundreds to thousands of years. Fourth, when you do bury it in the ground, it increases the fertility of the soil by making necessary chemicals more available to plants and by helping retain and regulate water in the soil. Fifth, the process is simple enough that it can be used for everything from massive plants to cookstoves.

So the cycle can go something like this: plants grow, absorbing and using carbon from the atmosphere. The plants are harvested, and some or all of the resulting plant matter is made into biochar, producing up to about six times as much energy as it consumes in the process. The biochar is then buried in the ground, accelerating plant growth. Even without this acceleration, the new plants that grow where the old ones were harvested absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, and the process continues.

If we’re willing to commission a lot of large biochar plants and to make biochar a standard part of preparing agricultural lands–including reclaiming currently unproductive lands, such as former farmland that is tapped out or turning to desert–then we can actually pull a huge amount of the carbon dioxide we’ve generated over the past couple of centuries back out of the atmosphere, and reverse the process we’ve been causing that is currently wrecking our climate with no relief in sight.

Photo by Lou Gold

Eating Local: Too Expensive for Regular Folks?

mostly-local groceries

$116.30 worth of mostly-local groceries

I guess this eating local thing isn’t for sissies! (No disrespect meant to sissies, by the way.)

If you happen to have read some of my recent posts, where I talk about the surprisingly huge negative impact of cheap meat on climate change and about the amount of oil that goes into growing and transporting typical grocery food, you won’t be surprised that I’m trying to change my food-getting to a hard-core localvore approach.

The conversation with my girlfriend, who’s a pretty remarkable person, went something like this:

ME: I’m terrified by how bad the climate change problem is. We have to go localvore right away. It will probably be expensive and a huge pain in the butt.
JANINE: I get where you’re coming from and understand all your concerns. I’m in.

OK, we didn’t literally talk like that, but Janine, who is emphatically and blessedly not the kind of person who does something just because someone else says to, already understood a lot about the problem and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. May every one of you who reads this have a significant other as smart and supportive as Janine.

So this weekend we headed out to buy some local groceries. We already tended to buy sustainable and organic products and cage-free eggs, all with as minimal a level of packaging as we could get, but we haven’t in the past paid very much attention to how far away our food originated. Now, suddenly, that’s our primary concern. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

… growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.  At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.

So if it’s between organic food from across the country and conventional food from across the county, I now know which one must win if we’re going to fight off climate change. It has to be local.

Photo by Church Street Marketplace

City Market in Burlington – photo by Church Street Marketplace

You would think that in Burlington, Vermont, at the wonderful City Market/Onion River Coop, eating local would be easy. Vermont has a strong localvore movement, and Burlington, though small, is the biggest center of commerce and innovation in the state.

Was it easy? Hell no. Was it cheap? Hell no. Was it even possible to find all the foods we wanted to get, foods that are we already know somebody somewhere does produce in Vermont? No!

The process was more complicated than we expected. Fortunately, practically every kind of food we looked at had some kind of labeling that let us know whether it was from Vermont or not. (In a couple of cases, we also bought foods from nearby New York and New Hampshire. Parts of Quebec would also be fine.) However, the label often told us only where the food was packaged and (where applicable) processed. For instance, we were excited about being able to get some Vermont meat products from a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and we got practically all the way to the registers before we realized that the products we had from that company all had an announcement on the label stating that they were sourced in different locations in the United States and Canada, but smoked and packaged in Vermont. For all we knew, the livestock in question could have been raised in the Midwest. We put the products back and got others that said specifically on the label that the livestock were raised in Vermont.

Breakfast cereals (other than granola), mustard … a variety of prepared products couldn’t be found with Vermont sources at all. We completely failed on our breakfast cereal, buying products sold by Barbara’s Bakery, a California company. Going forward, I think we’ll need to find some locally-made products that aren’t available in most stores or else simply switch the kids to oatmeal and that kind of thing. Local oats, we can get–and that’s less processing, too. Maybe that’s the way to go.

We did find mustard from New York. It’s weird mustard (dark brown in color and kind of sticky), but it tastes good.

I wanted to buy some whole chickens, but the local ones (from Misty Knoll Farms, which has a great local reputation) cost $20-$25 each, and we just can’t afford that. We did buy some local ground turkey and such, but at prices that we may not be able to continue to pay on our middle class incomes. Obviously non-meat sources will be important, too; we’re working on that.

Dairy products were a bit easier than others, although still painfully expensive. One of the delights of the shopping trip was re-discovering Strafford Organic Creamery milk: it’s a local product produced by pastured cows (instead of cows fed subsidized agribusiness corn) and sold in returnable glass bottles; you pay a deposit on them. No plastic except for the cap! We also had some pretty good yogurt and cheese choices, as you can imagine. Local eggs from free-range, pastured chickens were available but expensive.

Produce was a disappointment, and it’s a reminder that we’re going to need a winter CSA share and/or some edible plants growing in our house and/or a little greenhouse. We found bags of romaine lettuce, three heads per bag, with such a small amount of lettuce in each head that the three of them together didn’t amount to as much lettuce as one normal head. This cost over four dollars. After some continued shopping, we discovered that the four dollars and fifty cents or so that they wanted for those three tiny heads was a discount because the lettuce was getting near its time; normally the heads are $1.89 each! We sucked it up and bought the shrinky-headed discount lettuce.

We talked a lot about other options. That greenhouse might be a good idea for winter produce, and despite the electricity expense, we think we can probably achieve a substantial net carbon savings by getting an efficient chest freezer for produce and pastured meat bought in bulk from local farmers. (Pastured, local meat doesn’t have anything like the terrible carbon impact that corn-fed meat from a distant source has.) We might even try keeping some chickens in the fortunately-large back yard we have at our disposal. This is made a little more plausible because we have children who can help us grow food and maybe look after small livestock.

So we still have a long way to go, and at some point we’ll have to make difficult choices about things like citrus and the delicious fake coffee we buy (Teeccino … not my favorite name for a product, but it sure is good). We have taken the first step, though, and as long as we keep pushing forward, I think we can make huge changes for our family … then maybe help other local people do the same.

We’re Eating Oil–Literally


I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed

Where the Carbon Comes From: Getting a Clue

I’m only at the very beginning of a process of understanding how we’re individually contributing to the climate change problem, but in the past week or so, I’ve come across some useful information, and I thought I’d share some of it here.

Note to self: avoid airplanes
One of the miracles of the modern world is being able to step onto a plane and step off later that same day halfway around the world. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s also, as it turns out, a huge climate pig (no offense intended to pigs). According to this, Americans are individually responsible for, on average, about 20 tons (TONS!) of CO2 being spewed into the atmosphere every year. That’s bad enough, but according to the same page, one round trip transatlantic flight adds another 3-4 tons to the total. Just one trip! In around 16 hours of travel, we can do as much damage as we do with all the purchasing, plugging in, turning on, heating, driving, eating, wasting, etc. that we do for two entire months. For me, that’s way over the line: I intend to avoid air travel as much as possible unless and until fuel consumption for airplanes changes radically.

What’s the breakdown?
Fellow Codexian and writer Laurel Amberdine posted this chart, “Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2010,” which I found well worth contemplating.


Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about how emissions are broken down to draw conclusions about how we as individuals figure in. For instance, if I buy a set of placemats and have them shipped to me from Idaho, is the impact of the shipping figured under “Industry” or “Transportation”? Is electricity used by a light manufacturing site under “Electricity” or “Industry” … or even “Commercial & Residential”? Where do emissions having to do with building go? It’s clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about all of this.

I was dismayed to read that one British supermarket chain that had committed to carbon impact labeling for all of its products has given up the job as too difficult and time-consuming. I think carbon labeling is a desperately needed step, if it’s accurate.

A split within the climate change community
I also came to realize that there’s a quiet but problematic divide among people committed to fighting climate change. On one side are the people who think that we can go on living more or less as we currently do, consuming an enormous amount of energy and resources–but that we need to simply change over to more sustainable energy generation methods.

The other side, where I stand, is populated by those who believe that in order to make a real difference in the climate change problem, we need to radically scale back our lifestyles–to stop buying tons of cheap goods manufactured overseas, stop insisting on eating foods that are out of season a thousand or more miles from where they’re grown, stop jetting around the globe, and stop driving everywhere (among other changes).

Coal is worst, natural gas is temporarily acceptable [NOT!]
I hadn’t realized that there’s a big difference in emissions from different fossil fuel sources.  Coal, apparently, is the absolute worst–and it’s plentiful in many developing or partly-developed places around the world, where the need for energy and wealth of any kind is most acute. [Later note: A metastudy done after I originally published this article reveals that natural gas is just about as bad as coal as soon as we take into account the side effects of harvesting it, especially of fracking. Fracking can release methane, which is 20-25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in causing climate change. On the whole, gas might be a little better or a little worse than coal, but the best estimate puts it right about on par. Be wary of propaganda claiming otherwise! It is most likely based on an incomplete footprint assessment–a “toeprint,” as the term goes.]

I’ve also come across several reliable sources of climate change information now that recommend we adopt natural gas more widely for a short period as a transitional fuel until we can get to all-renewable or nearly-all-renewable sources.

All grist for the mill–although I guess we had better make that a water mill. Wish me luck getting a better handle on this. I wish the same to you.