Editor's Note: Make No Little Plans
Band-aid solutions—things such as carbon offsets for travel, rebates for electric cars, opt-in programs for green energy—were never going to be enough. To meet the scale of the climate crisis, we have to think bigger and act more boldly than ever before.
We must reinvent the global energy economy. But even that will not be enough to hold off the heat that will make large areas of our planet uninhabitable. We also need to remove billions of tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere, starting within a generation.
The Canadian firm Carbon Engineering is planning to build the world’s biggest direct aircapture facility, in Texas, in 2022. It will be capable of capturing 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. But current models suggest we’re going to need to remove four orders of magnitude more than that by mid-century. Clearly, major reinforcements are needed.
And that’s where we take up the conversation. So, what’s the fastest way to deplete something? To get people to scoop something out of nature by the gigaton? Short answer: Make it valuable.
It’s true of crude oil and coal—and could be true of carbon dioxide if some of the ideas and advances we explore in this issue pan out.
On page 38, check out Mark Harris’s story on upcycling carbon. His focus on the automobile is as ironic as it is illuminating. Harris takes you on a tour of car parts that now use (or will soon use) CO2 as a feedstock. Cars clearly have accelerated our climate crisis. Harris ponders whether they might also show us a way out?
Next, on page 50, Dan Ferber offers a deep dive into the intriguing prospect of spreading crushed basalt over farmlands in a bid to lock carbon in the soil while simultaneously fertilizing crops. The idea is based on chemical weathering—a natural process by which CO2 dissolved in rainwater breaks down rocks; rivers then carry the carbon to the ocean, where it is trapped in corals and marine sediments. The problem is, this takes several thousand years. A team of biogeochemists is on a mission to give one of the world’s most underappreciated chemical reactions a giant boost.
Then, on page 60, Lucy Wang turns your attention to the built environment. Engineers and architects are creating a whole new generation of carbon-negative construction materials. It’s now possible to envision a day when skyscrapers actively pull carbon out of the air.
What these and other ideas explored in this issue share is a crucial quality: the potential to go big—to scale up to a massive size commensurate with the carbon problem.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago architect Daniel Burnham completed his famous admonition, “Make no little plans,” with this: “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” In the twenty-first century, we might add, “neither do they have the power to save us from ourselves.” A
Editor in Chief
1. Idea Watch
The idea is pretty much what it sounds like. The trick is to get from here to there.
Strides in computer power and artificial intelligence have enabled scientists to gauge the almost unimaginable scale of nighttime migrations—more than 700 million birds on some nights in the US.
The quickest flight path to decarbonizing aviation could be less air travel—but it also might be a lot more of it
Wind parks could benefit the natural world—in ways beyond the generation of zero-carbon energy.
Some experts are beginning to question whether locavorism is an effective solution to ensuring food security on a warming planet
Off-grid energy production is becoming affordable for smallholders, restaurants, and even families—thanks to a startup’s innovative biodigesters that turn food and feces into carbon-neutral cooking gas, fertilizer, and hot water.
2. Deep Dives
Innovations in automaking are already incorporating carbon dioxide into new vehicles you can buy today, from the body to the tires, from the fittings to the fuel in the tank.
A geological process with a billion-year track record might boost crop yields and could lock up as much carbon as planting a trillion trees.
A new generation of building materials aims to actively pull carbon out of the air.
It was pretty audacious: suck enough water from the underside of the glacier for the whole block of ice to lose its water cushion and crash back down onto bedrock.
3. Science Shorts
"If you want a table, then you should just grow a table,” they say
To reassess current conservation efforts, researchers simulated the potential ranges of bird species on a landscape devoid of people
A small but growing group of researchers and physicians working to quantify the environmental impact of healthcare—and to reduce that impact without compromising patient care.
The major determinant of the environmental footprint of Internet activities: video, especially high-definition video, a new study reveals.
Taking advantage of bacteria's voracious appetite for organic materials, an engineering team devised a new twist on microbial fuel cells
If you want to take out a carbon “loan” (that is, emit more carbon than the 1.5 °C budget allows) you’ll have to pay interest on it
A research team found that 33% of the North American mammals they studied were negatively affected by human activity; whereas 58% were positively affected.
Researchers have now found a way to turn these plastics into foam that can be used for building insulation or flotation devices
The latest research team to tackle the question thinks it is. Their key insight: a lot of current energy use isn’t really contributing to human well-being
In a big step towards sustainable fashion, scientists create a biodegradable, carbon-capturing textile from algae
Made using a 3D printer, this is the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is tough enough for a t-shirt—or an artificial leaf
Researchers develop a method to make this crucial industrial ingredient 8.5 times faster than nature can — with potential consequences for food security and land savings
A team calculated that a decarbonized world could lose 9.5 million fossil fuel jobs—and gain a whopping 17.4 million renewable jobs.
Coupled with solar power, this new technology could provide lighting for skyscrapers and power for infrastructure monitoring systems, among other energy needs.
Carbon labeling of food shifts people’s behavior—even among those actively trying to avoid information
A clever study suggests that you simply can’t unknow your food's carbon footprint
Researchers found that stands that had shifted to deciduous dominance had a net increase in carbon storage by a factor of five over the disturbance cycle
Adding super-moisture-absorbent gels to arid soils could liberate farming from expensive irrigation and power systems
Based on a strategy for transporting organs for transplant patients, the method doesn’t ruin food by turning it into solid ice