Printed: 2019-08-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Owning the Carbon Cycle

Andrew Maynard

2020 Science

January 31, 2010

For past 100 years—from the tail end of the industrial revolution, through the chemicals revolution and into the digital revolution—we have been passive observers of our effects on the planet. Over the next 100 years, we will need to take an active role in managing these effects if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts on large numbers of the world’s population.

Top of the immediate agenda (but by no means the only item on it) is global warming.  We are now so numerous and “industrious” that our actions – in this case the indiscriminate emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – are leading to planet-wide re-actions that threaten the lives and livelihood of millions of people around the globe.  Building a sustainable future will mean actively managing our role in global warming.  And critical to this is controlling the impact of carbon emissions.  We need to get a better handle on where carbon comes from, where it goes, and what it does in between.

In effect, we need to “own” the carbon cycle

The question is, how?  I’d like to suggest that owning the carbon cycle – or at least getting better at managing it – will depend on two apparently contradictory approaches: slowing down, and speeding up.

Slowing Down

The carbon cycle is a slow cycle.  It takes tens to thousands of years for carbon to cycle between being released into the atmosphere, absorbed by plants and oceans, and eventually being re-released—this balloons to millennia when you include the sequestration of carbon in rocks and sediment.  And the last thing you want to do to a slow cycle is push it too hard and too fast.  The consequences are unpredictable, could be long lasting, and may well be catastrophic.

If we are to get a better handle on atmospheric carbon and its impact on global warming, we need to learn to match our “carbon speed” to the carbon cycle – to slow down our part in the process.  Not surprisingly, this means using less energy, using alternate sources of energy, and doing more with the energy we have.

The challenge is how to slow down enough to make a difference.  In part, this will depend on finding technology-based solutions to how we generate and use energy.

Conventional technologies get us some of the way to managing our energy-use and carbon emissions.  But not all the way.  We still depend in the main on non-renewable and “dirty” energy sources, and are incredibly wasteful in how we use what we have – convenience still trumps efficiency it would seem. 

imageEmerging technologies on the other hand provide a number of solutions to slowing down our part in the carbon cycle.  For instance, we are developing LED lights that use a fraction of the energy of incandescent and fluorescent bulbs to provide the same levels illumination.  We are learning to modify the genetic code of bacteria in ways that enable them to produce biofuels from renewable and sustainable resources.  And we are constructing lighter materials, better batteries and smart energy grids that allow us to do more with the energy we generate.

Many of these emerging technologies depend on manipulating the world at the scale of atoms and molecules – the building blocks of matter.  It’s a trick we’ve been getting increasingly good at in recent years.  This area of technology often goes under the banner of nanotechnology – the science and technology of doing stuff at the near-atomic scale.  More recently synthetic biology – the science and technology of manipulating living systems at the atomic scale – has been getting increasing press.  In these and related areas, we’re making good progress.

But if we are to succeed in slowing down our part in the carbon cycle we also need new economic and social frameworks in which to operate. We need to think differently about how to develop and use science and technology effectively, and how to predict and overcome potential hurdles to progress.

Speeding Up

Then there is speeding up.  It sounds contradictory, but in parallel with slowing down as we take charge of the carbon cycle, we also need to go faster.

We have already pushed the carbon cycle out of equilibrium.  This was not a smart move, as we have started a chain of events that are going to be tough to control. As a result, we need to move fast to mitigate the potential consequences of our current actions if we are to avoid long-term impacts.  Amongst other things, this means developing and implementing strategies for actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon sequestration, like other forms of active global climate intervention, is a dicey long-term strategy.  It treats a symptom rather than a cause.  Yet we are going to have to triage the planet and mitigate some of the more severe symptoms of our presence, before we can begin working on long term solutions to owning the carbon cycle.


Approaches to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere range from planting more trees, to absorbing carbon dioxide in new materials, to accelerating parts of the carbon cycle such as carbon accumulation and subsequent sequestration in marine algae.  Some of the technologies being discussed are reasonably well established; others are still over the horizon.  Many of them rely on engineering materials at the atomic and molecular scale; another reason we need to invest intelligently in developing and using nanoscale technologies.

But there are also big questions here that go beyond the science and technology: What would it take to make carbon sequestration economically viable? What are the risks—the short and long term consequences?  And what are the social and political barriers that need to be addressed to make carbon sequestration effective?  The bottom line is that although the idea of carbon sequestration is attractive, we still don’t know whether it is viable.

Part of the issue is that the challenges of intervening in planetary-scale processes are immense.  We don’t have a good sense of the consequences of scaling up attempts to actively modify the atmosphere on a global scale.  We have no idea how to do a risk analysis on a one-shot planet-wide experiment.  And we are struggling to find solutions to social, economic and political issues that transcend normally rigid boundaries.

Nevertheless, speeding up the process of managing the impacts of carbon emissions is essential if we are to ultimately develop long-term sustainable solutions to managing the carbon cycle itself.

Looking to the Future

I’ve tried to be a little provocative here – I don’t think we will ever fully “own” the carbon cycle.  But I do think we need a mindset-change, where we begin to think about taking an active role in planetary management, if we are to pave the way for a sustainable future.

This mindset change must embrace slowing down—learning how to work with cycles like the carbon cycle rather than against them.

imageBut it must also enable some speeding up – the planet needs some rapid and drastic first aid if we are going to be around long enough to implement long-term strategies.

In both cases, we won’t get very far if we don’t invest more – far more – in supporting new science and developing new technologies, and understanding how to use these in an increasingly complex global social, economic and political environment.

The bad news is that we’re not very good at using new technologies to solve global problems.  The good news is that we are fast learners when we want to be.

The question is – are we smart enough to learn how to own the carbon cycle?  Or are we destined to remain passive observers as we face an increasingly precarious future?

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


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