“We need to value Living Carbon to tackle Climate Change!” - Ranil Senanayake
Biotic Carbon offers a ‘lifeboat’ to a world in search of solutions, says maverick scientist who invented Analog Forestry
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene in conversation with Dr Ranil Senanayake, Systems Ecologist and Chairman, Rainforest Rescue International, Sri Lanka
This is the full verbatim transcript of the interview, excerpts of which have been used in the short film Rethinking Carbon and Climate Change.
Question: How did we get to this point in accelerated global warming that causes human-induced climate change?
Answer: This whole question of climate change happened as a consequences of the adding of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the heating -- the warming -- of our climate. If you look at the records the scientific records that we have, starting from the scientific records, using the Vostok ice records onwards, you will find that, usually what happens in the climate change phenomena is that temperature goes up first, and Carbon Dioxide follows. Now, the common understanding now is that Carbon Dioxide goes and the temperature follows. No, temperature goes up first, and Carbon Dioxide follows.
In our case, the Industrial Revolution happened and, of course, Carbon Dioxide took a foremost place. But what is the TRIGGER to climate change?
Indeed, what triggered current spell of Global Warming?
About 500 years ago or 600 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, was a time of colonial expansion through the planet. During these few hundred years, we affectively removed most of the forests of the planet. For timber, for making of the ships, for wars, etc., and for the large agriculture that the colonial adventure required.
If you look at what was lost in terms of our forests, and if you consider that every single tree, every single large tree produces an evaporative cooling factor that is equivalent to about 2 or 3 room-sized air conditioners running day and night, you can then understand the amount of evaporative cooling that was removed from the planet.
Added to this there was the burning of the forest and all that Carbon Dioxide of the forest went into the atmosphere. Something else happened. These forests produce something that is also critical for our existence: they are called CCN - Cloud Condensation Nuclei. Clouds are produced primarily by materials from living organisms. There is moisture in the air; there are streams, rivers of moisture in our atmosphere that we cannot see. They only condense when there is a nucleus for the water to condense around. Over the ocean, the Cloud Condensation Nuclei is created by DMS – Dimethyl Sulfide produced by phyto-plankton.
On the land, Cloud Condensation Nuclei are produced by bacteria and bacterial particles - from pseudomonas and from aerogenes. These bacteria and bacterial particles live in the pores in the stomata of trees and plants, of all plants. And they, when they evapo-transpire send this into the air and that becomes a Cloud Condensation Nuclei.
And with the removal of the forest during the colonial adventure, before the Industrial adventure, we removed all these three aspects for the cooling for the planet.
What role did the Industrial Revolution play?
Now, that was the trigger that started the heating. Then came the Industrial Revolution -- the burning of fossil fuels and the addition of fossil Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. This is how the process began, we must understand this first.
Next, we must understand that fossil carbon never belong in the atmosphere. Why? Because through these millions of years, there have been huge injections of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere from volcanoes, etc. But the atmosphere always remained stable.
How? Why? This is because nature, the plants absorbed this, tied it up, and then it was decanted slowly into the fossil record, into the fossil, into the rocks. It was taken away from the atmosphere and put away -- never to come into contact with life again.
Like a balancing of a budget?
Exactly -- and this was maintaining the atmosphere that people, human beings, life could exist on. This is a process of life: the fossil fuel was…the way that life put away the poison and put it into the rocks. It never belonged in the atmosphere!
Today, what we are doing is, we are drilling into that, we are pulling this fossil out and we are burning it. Then we say “Don't worry; let’s plant a tree, that will absorb the Carbon Dioxide.”
Two things here. First, if we are going to plant trees for absorbing Carbon Dioxide then we should be replacing the forests that we lost during the colonial adventure. The moment we do that, there is no more space for planting trees on this planet!
Second factor: If you plant a tree to absorb the fossil carbon that doesn't belong in the atmosphere, that tree will live for 30 years, 40 years, a 100 years and die. Once that dies the Carbon Dioxide goes back to join the atmosphere. So all you've done is just done something which is merely a bit of window dressing, if you want to call it. Alright, tied this carbon up for a 100 years and say (snap) it's alright.
Totally wrong! What is happening also in terms of Carbon (emissions) Trade today is the non-recognition of the non-recognition of this fact…
What’s wrong with Carbon Trading?
Now, as I said before, the whole question about planting trees becomes a little absurd when you consider the past, we have to replace the trees we have cut down.
But, then again, in terms of fossil. If you put fossil carbon into a tree and the tree absorbs it, it will hold it for 30, 40, 50 or a 100 years and when the tree dies, the carbon goes back to the atmosphere. So you’ve never done anything except tie that bit of a 50 or 100 years. It's not going to save us from climate change.
The other factor about carbon trading is when done in this manner, when done in a manner that does not recognise biotic and fossil carbon, it is tantamount to carbon laundering! It's just like money laundering!
Because consider: the carbon in the biotic system is held in trees, corals, etc, and the maximum say 3,000 or 2,000 years. The carbon in the fossils has been held for 20 million years. There is no comparison!
If you pay five dollars for putting a ton of carbon from a lost forest, you should be paying at least 500,000 dollars. If you are putting down a tonne of material from fossil energy. But that's not what's happening. They too want to pay that five dollars and get away with it. That's carbon laundering! That's all it is. It is cheating. It is a fraud. It's a cheat!
And the world is going with it. It's ridiculous. It's fundamental science: any high school child would tell you the difference. And some people will say, “Oh, what's the difference in carbon.”
Is there a difference? Obviously, this one has been there for twenty million years!
So not all Carbon emissions are equal?
Look at it in another way. I take a diamond. It's carbon. I take a piece of coal, it's carbon. I take a piece of wood, it's carbon. I take an apple, it's carbon. Do they all have the same value? No!
Then, why must carbon from fossil have the same value of carbon from biotic?
It's a cheat. It's a total fraud. And why the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) hasn't addressed this horrifies me! We have to, if you want to do anything about climate change we have to address this fundamentally, squarely on. Fossil carbon has no place in the atmosphere of living organisms!
So, as Lenin famously asked, what’s to be done? What alternatives do we have?
One is very difficult and very painful. And that is putting the right price on fossil. Fossil is enjoying a huge subsidy just because oil companies and the coal companies want to make their millions. They must pay a tax proportionate to the damage they are doing. Of course, it will be more expensive for us to drive a car. We may not be able to drive cars. But do we want to live? Do we want our children to live a healthy life, or do we want to drive cars for ten year? That's our choice. But this is what we have to do.
Lovelock revisits his doomsday ideas…
Dr James Lovelock, the maverick British scientist who became a guru to the environmental movement with his “Gaia” theory of the Earth as a single organism, has admitted to being “alarmist” about climate change. MSNBC reported on 23 April 2012 that he writing a new book in which he will say climate change is still happening, but not as quickly as he once feared.
Or, as James Lovelock warned a few years ago, are we all doomed anyway -- no matter what we do (or don’t do)?
Well, I understand what he is saying. But I would rather look at it another way. I would say: massive changes will happen. We will all suffer as a consequence of what we did. Let us learn from these lessons even at this late stage, and create some lifeboats, create some examples so that our children can take our hopes into the future. What else can we do?
Is Biotic Carbon one such ‘lifeboat’?
Absolutely. Biotic carbon is! Because it is this biotic carbon that supports life. Now let me give you a very, very fundamental example.
The most important thing on this planet for us, first, is oxygen. We got to breathe oxygen. There is only one thing that gives oxygen onto the planet: photosynthetic biomass.
What do I mean? Photosynthetic biomass is the green stuff. The leaves of trees, the algae in oceans. That is photosynthetic biomass. That is the only substance that can give us oxygen.
Next, the leaves and photosynthetic biomass is the only substance that can change Carbon Dioxide into carbohydrates that we can eat and that we can live on.
Thirdly, it is this photosynthetic biomass that makes it possible for the circulation of water when it comes to evapo-transpiration, it is this photosynthetic biomass.
But up till now we have not placed a dollar’s or penny's worth of value on Photosynthetic biomass. We have placed value on timber. We say okay we got to fix carbon so we got to fix trees. And the trees will fix the carbon, but what really does fix the carbon? It's not the wood; it's the leaves!
But those engines, that engine we don't recognise we recognise only the product of it. So, therefore, one of the things that we can change in this planet is to place value on photosynthetic biomass.
If we do that, then farmers, people all over the world would be paid for enhancing the life support system of the planet and answering to the needs of planet change. That is how we can make a change and harness humanity to move towards this change.
Something else that is important in photosynthetic biomass is if we place value on photosynthetic biomass we create capital, huge photosynthetic biomass capital which retain value only as long as it is living. You take a leaf and you pluck it from a tree, no value. It's the living you have value.
Up to now, we’ve placed value on things that are dead – whether it be a fruit, or timber, or whatever we take. Now, what I would propose is that we place value on life. Give life a value, and give the life-support system a value and let us as humanity respond to this, and then I believe we can change the way this planet is moving towards, and I would then, say step back from the very dismal future that Lovelock painted for us…
Biotic Carbon in a nutshell…
“I would say it like this: Biotic carbon represents the energy of the sun. Collected by the plants, which is life, and given to us as human beings. Remember, everything solid in our body, our bones, our skin everything solid was made solid by a plant somewhere, sometime in the past. Remember that. So, if we are what we recognise what we are, if we recognise biotic carbon for what it is and that we are a part of an integrated system. That is what I would encourage people to appreciate. That we are indeed a part of an integrated system and biotic carbon represents us. Photosynthesis biomass is the engine that allows us to sustain ourselves into the future.”
- Dr Ranil Senanayake
Okay, yes we can! We saw what we did with carbon, we saw what we did with biodiversity. When the world had enough interest in it, we made the conventions, we made the instruments there is money flowing and there's markets happening.
All we have to do is have these terms, the value of photosynthesis biomass a part of the lexicon of the United Nations, and let us put a value on it. In my research at the moment, given current prices for carbon I put a value of 1 (US) Dollar 34 cents per kilogram of photosynthetic biomass. Now we could accept that or less. It doesn't matter. But the moment we do that, we have created an economic and social movement towards a total change on this planet.
Dr Ranil Senanayake, Systems Ecologist, was interviewed by Nalaka Gunawardene, Science Writer, on 19 March 2012; Colombo, Sri Lanka.