Carbon Machines

Though he did not drop into the press conference by parachute, airline mogul and consummate showman Richard Branson made an impression last week when he offered a $25 million prize to an inventor canny enough to devise a machine capable of stripping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

It's easy to see why we'd want such a device—CO2 is the chief greenhouse gas, and we show little sign that we're about to stop dumping it into the skies. Worldwide, we emit 24 billion tonnes of the gas each year, and though a few countries, like Britain and Germany, have managed to slow down emissions, the planet's foremost polluters, China and the US, to say nothing of the vast bulk of the developed nations, continue to pour more and more CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

The Kyoto process has shown how difficult it is going to be to reach a political consensus internationally, as nearly everyone uses someone else as an excuse to keep polluting.

And even if we did manage to reach an international agreement tomorrow, and if we also miraculously managed to enforce it, and cut emissions altogether, the planet would continue to heat up. "There will be CO2 left in the atmosphere, continuing to influence the climate, more than 1000 years after humans stop emitting it," says Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado.So if we're not altogether likely to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere, it's easy to see why we might want to invent a way to take it out. Luckily, though I did not invent it, I have one of these carbon machines in my back yard. And while I have no intention to claim the $25 million, I am happy to share my machine with others, though you may have a couple of these things yourself. I call them "trees."

We know they work, as they are already storing 638 billion tonnes of carbon—that's more than is currently in the atmosphere, heating up the planet. Not only that, they "breathe" out oxygen as part of the process of photosynthesis. In fact, every tonne of sequestered carbon means two tonnes of oxygen released into the atmosphere. Moreover, these carbon machines provide habitats for flora and fauna, protect watersheds and release water into the atmosphere to help regulate rainfall patterns.

Companies as diverse as Ikea, Dell, and Reckitt Benckiser use trees to mitigate their carbon footprints, and the Kyoto Protocol encourages forestation as part of its Clean Development Mechanism. So let's start planting.

And let's stop chopping these carbon machines down. Deforestation accounts for almost a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, we're destroying the things that capture and store carbon, and we're spewing out more of the stuff as we do it. We need not only to get more trees in the ground—we need to protect the ones we already have. Click here and here to learn more about trees as a strategy for fighting climate change.

We know perfectly well that planting trees is not the magic bullet for the planet's problems. But neither is there going to be a miraculous technological fix of the kind Branson may be envisioning. Getting our CO2 emissions, both past and present, under control is going to require sweeping changes and some tough decisions. But we've got inexpensive, environmentally friendly, beautiful carbon machines with all kinds of ancillary benefits at our disposal right now. Let's plant them.