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Explore Issue #6

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

—Kathryn Kohm

Editor in Chief

1. Idea Watch

Eat Globally

Some experts are beginning to question whether locavorism is an effective solution to ensuring food security on a warming planet

Eat Globally

Human waste is a terrible thing to waste

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.


Cloudy with a chance of warblers

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.


2. Deep Dives

The Upcycled Car

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.

upcycled carbon dioxide

Enhanced Rock Weathering

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.

enhanced rock weathering

3. Science Shorts

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