23 July, 2024


An Oxygen Economy

By Ranil Senanayake –

Dr. Ranil Senanayake

Air, the last of the Global Commons that transcends political boundaries, may be the commonwealth that we can source our value transactions in the future. Air which contains the most precious substance in the known universe, free molecular Oxygen, is itself a mix of four major gasses Nitrogen (78%), Oxygen (20.9%), Argon (.93%) and Carbon Dioxide (.03%).

The current climate crisis is seen as being driven by excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by the so–called ‘greenhouse gasses, Carbon Dioxide being the major contributor, an increase in CO2 concentration leads to an increase in global temperatures, hence the interest in trees to sequester Carbon

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. The biomass so termed has the ability to increase in mass through the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation while releasing oxygen and water vapour into the atmosphere.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, is recognized as having commercial value in the carbon market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its ‘environmental services’.

The concept of a ‘Carbon Economy’ is untenable as the reasoning behind its value is flawed. The Carbon Economy is based on the idea that, because the activity of burning carbonaceous material (Oil, Gas firewood) releases climate changing Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere and planting trees and other activities will soak up those emissions (or an equivalent amount), making the polluter ‘Carbon neutral’. Here emissions are offset with certified Carbon Credits.   A company is considered ‘Carbon neutral’ when it measures its carbon footprint, reduces its emissions and buys carbon credits to balance out the difference.

What has been missed by the promoters of the Carbon Economy is that, although fossil carbon too arose as a product of photosynthesis, in the geological process of the planet these products were removed from the biosphere and changed by the action of heat and pressure to become fossilized with sequestration times that are measured in millions of years. Fossil Carbon does not possess the isotope C14 and has a very different C12 to C13 ratio compared to biological carbon. It is not interactive with the living or biotic cycle.

A tree plated to ‘absorb’ carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels may last for a hundred or so years, when it finally dies all the absorbed carbon goes back into the atmosphere. Thus paying for the growing of trees to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated by the loss of a forest is fine, but paying the same price for growing trees to compensate for carbon dioxide generated by fossil carbon is tantamount to ‘carbon laundering’. There is no way to compare the carbon from oil and coal with the carbon from a forest. One has a space in the biotic cycle the other does not. This creates for massive accounting errors. About half of the Carbon that is fixed by trees belong in the biosphere but about half is of fossil origin and cannot be ‘put away’ by incorporating it in a tree. .

To address this issue we must revisit the reasons for the current crisis. It is the burning of fossil carbon that creates the problem of producing Carbon Dioxide that drives climate change. Carbon Dioxide has one molecule of Carbon and two molecules of Oxygen. The Carbon cannot be sequestered with existing technologies but the Oxygen can be returned to the atmosphere. Turning the problem on its head might give us a way out.

Oxygen, along with fixed Carbon and clean water are are produced by the action of photosynthesis in a leaf. These services are termed Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) because they refer to the actions generated by the act of Primary Productivity, the start of all life as we know it.

Primary Productivity is the action of photosynthesis whereby the energy of the sun is stored in living tissue or biomass. This action is measured as Net Primary Productivity (NPP) or the net flux of carbon from the atmosphere into green plants per unit time. NPP is a rate process, i.e., the amount of vegetable matter produced (net primary production) per day, week, or year. The higher the NPP of an area the more Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) it will produce. As it is the leaves (Photosynthetic Biomass) of plants that deliver these services they, are the most logical proxy to measure Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) with.

A recent study that systematically analysed the global O2 budget and its changes over the past 100 years, found that anthropogenic fossifuel combustion is the largest contributor to the current O2 deficit, which consumed 2.0 Gt/a in 1900 and increased to 38.2 Gt/a by 2015. The signs are all around. A recent study on the levels of Oxygen in the ocean found that the oceanic Oxygen levels decreased by 2 % over the last 50 years.  On land, the font of Oxygen are the leaves of trees, but  another study published in the journal Nature suggests that 15 billion trees are cut down each year and the global tree count has fallen by 46% since the beginning of human civilization. Considering that a tree produces 120 Kg of oxygen each year this represents a massive loss of Oxygen to the atmosphere.

Sri Lanka identified this problem and acted on this need. In 2015 it stated:

We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognized. We would request the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC) to examine the value of photosynthetic biomass. Sri Lanka Position Paper from the Presidential delegation to the UN Conference for Climate Change (COP21) Paris 1-10 December 2015

The call to action was picked up by the Sri Lankan company, Earthrestoration p/l. A project to institute, Monitor, Record, Validate (MRV) the purchase contract for the Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) from tree plants in return for an annual payment for trending to the tree (Unit) was begun. A group of women from single parented households after the war, were chosen the project began in 2017. On the 4th of April  2019 the Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunewardena, recognized the work and made a statement in parliament of Sri Lanka where he pointed to a new area of possible growth. Here he  stated  that the  rural sector has the potential of generating enormous capital through the production of Primary Ecosystem Services. In 2021 He handed the final PES payments to initial participants. It is saltatory that the potential of this approach was illustrated by seven ladies who, over three years had produced over 5000 liters of Oxygen for the Global Commons.

This suggests a way forward, recognizing the value of PES can provide a huge economic boom, it also creates an incentive for the public to participate in the essential work of environmental repair. As photosynthetic biomass can retain value only as long as it is living. A leaf on a tree, for instance, has value only as long as it is carrying out the activity of photosynthesis and producing PES, pluck that leaf and the activity ceases, as does the value. The economy will, for the first time begin to put a value on life. Such an economy will increase photosynthetic biomass everywhere and render that area rich in environmental services as well in economic opportunities. It will change urban – rural relations into a more equitable and sustainable state and rapidly increase the biomass capital of the planet locking up Carbon Dioxide and producing Oxygen.

The possibilities that an Oxygen economy can offer are tantalizing. The global commons of air contains the precious Oxygen stock, from which we can take or return, just like from a bank. We have just glimpsed the possibilities through the data on Primary Ecosystem Services (PES) being gathered by Earthrestoration (www.restore.earth). Obviously much more discussion is needed, these ideas are new, they are radical but they do offer a new way of creating wealth that could actually save the planet.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Ranil – Most Sri Lankan ‘educated’ readers will steer clear off this article because environment, atmosphere, greenhouse gases etc,. are beyond the schooling and tutelage they have had. You must write about Eslap-pe, Youanpee, Tamemelee, Moousleme if you want to get noticed. Then you will get 150 mind-twisting comments. Nviromen will get you nowhere. Everyone, including our gold-smuggling politicians, want to go to the Middle East (West Asia) and other such beautiful duty-free deserts.

    • 0

      Hello Sonali,
      Whilst I agree with most of what Ranil Senanayake says, one of the things not mentioned is the cutting down of large trees here in Sri Lanka and the encroachment into Forest Lands.
      During the Carboniferous Period, 360 Million years ago, most of the Coal beds were laid down and trapped until we started digging them up a couple of Centuries ago. The Industrial Revolution increased coal burning and releasing CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) into the atmosphere. Marine environments held in their Sediments huge reservoirs of Oil and Gas. The 20th Century vastly increased the amount of the rate of CO2 production. So how can we stop this or potentially reverse the process? In any control system there are many parameters to think about. What is the role of the sea in maintaining the equilibrium? Could we overstep and cause an oscillation? Could we overstep and send us back into an Ice-age etc? Which International Organisations have provided a robust model of how to control the Global Temperature safely?
      We are on the brink of producing usable Energy from Nuclear Fusion. This will cut CO2 emissions drastically. The question is – “is it too little too late?”.
      Best regards

  • 0

    Dinesh Gunawardena did a little bit well with PES with the seven ladies who, over three years have produced over 5000 liters of Oxygen for the Global Commons. The whole of the rural sector must be done that way too, with the creation of forest societies the way our ancestors lived. These communities will also have little use for fossil fuel, and hence will get even more credits from IPCC to support their lifestyles. Elephant threats can be taken care of with fencing with elephants placed in secure areas. GoSl could have provided all of these instead of using country money to develop the city-scape (Christmas lights and decoration money of Colombo would have taken care of this long ago).

    Best way to do it is for the GoSL to first pay of the debt of the farmers and let them tend their plots within forest environments. Instead, Ranil is doling out titles and deeds to farmers and so they can pay off their debts and buy small, hot apartments in congested cities. Then precious Lankan land will be turned into industrial and commercial enterprise, in tandem with India, to balance Western debt.

    A long way to go, though, for reabsorbing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel. Guess that will require big scientific equipment to do so to make up for the millions of years of their sequestering.

  • 0

    Interesting. Though I can understand the 8mportant of photosynthetic biomass and recognising it and giving it an economoc value. How this interacts with the practice of

    • 0

      Sorry. Today my phone is acting up more than usual. It has acquired a mind of its own and does things on its own without me being pressing any buttons. Hence this above post. I hope it won’t suddenly spring to life and decide that I belong in the non biotic indirect photosynthetic biomass. On a more serious note, which too should be given an economic value, in the same line of argument presented by Dr. Senanayake. Any comments from him are welcome.

  • 0

    Interesting. Though I can understand the importance of photosynthetic biomass and recognising it and giving it an economic value. How does this interacts with the practice of offering carbon credits to planting trees in lieu of burnt oil, gas and firewood, the non biotic component of the photosynthetic biomass? Especially when the immediate problem is green house gas emissions not the reduction of oxygen in the atmosphere? The suggested method of mitigating climate change by promoting the increase of photosynthetic biomass seems like a long shot, when compared to the amount of photosynthetic biomass required to sequester carbon released by burning of fossil fuels and firewood. Can someone kind and knowledgeable explain? Thank you.

  • 0

    Sorry. Today my phone is acting up more than usual. It has acquired a mind of its own and does things on its own without me being pressing any buttons. Hence the repitive posts. I hope it won’t suddenly spring to life and decide that I belong in the non-biotic biomass.

    On a more serious note, should not then all living things then belong to the photosynthetic biotic biomass and be given an economic value – in the same line of argument presented by Dr. Senanayake.

    I mean, given Dr. Senanayake’s argument shouldn’t all living thing’s be considered having an economic value, regardless of whether they release oxygen to the atmosphere or not?

    Any comments from Dr. RS are welcome.

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