By Ranil Senanayake –
It is a tragedy that Sri Lanka has seen fit to follow the line expounded by the carbon emitters and polluters of the environment. The official line seems to be that our forests like the Sinharajah can absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels. This demonstrates both a lack of science and sensitivity to our history. Science tells us that forests that are mature, like the Sinharajah, do not absorb or sequester very much carbon as their potential for absorbing carbon is already filled up. This means that the Sinharajah has reached a certain height and mass that is it’s maximal and will maintain this, if undisturbed for thousands or millions of years. It will not get taller or bigger, it has reached a steady state. Thus, it is not possible for such forest to absorb much carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels. However, such mature forests have a great value in terms of holding a huge amount of carbon from reaching the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the time that carbon is locked away for is still not considered a value variable by the global trade. Accepting time as a value variable in carbon sequestering has been a theme that has been communicated to the officials representing Sri Lanka at the Climate Change negotiations, for over a decade. But up to now there has been no initiative from Sri Lanka to have this value recognised.
If we participate in the next round of negotiations, will we seek to maintain the myth that all Carbon entering the atmosphere through human activity is the same and has equal value? If we buy into agendas set by industrialised countries we will; If we are going to be scientific, truthful and have national interests at heart we will not!
The question “does all carbon entering the atmosphere have the same value?“ Is one whose resolution can put humanity on a path to real sustainable development and could avert a cataclysmic future. Thus, it is useful to study the question in the light of scientific evidence.
This point was raised by the Sri Lanka in the Sri Lanka Country Statement, at COP 21 in Paris, which stated that:
“We are aware of the great difference in carbon dioxide that is emitted from biological sources and carbon dioxide emitted from fossil sources. One has sequestered rates measured in thousands of years while the other in millions of years. Yet the cost is still the same.”
This statement suggests that the true cost of Carbon may not be paid in the current Carbon trading regimes. That the current Carbon trading arrangements cheat the countries that they are implemented in. To understand the fraud, we must look at understanding the cycles of Carbon on this planet.
Carbon (C), the fourth most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen (H), helium (He), and oxygen (O), is the building block of life. It’s the basic element that anchors all organic substances, from fossil fuels to DNA. On Earth, carbon cycles through the land, ocean, atmosphere, and the Earth’s interior in a major biogeochemical cycle (the circulation of chemical components through the biosphere from or to the lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere). The global carbon cycle can be divided into two categories: the geological/ancient, which operates over large time scales (millions of years), and the biological/modern, which operates at shorter time scales (days to thousands of years).
The Global Carbon Stock:
The Global Carbon Stock began Billions of years ago, as planetesimals (small bodies that formed from the solar nebula) and carbon-containing meteorites bombarded our planet’s surface, steadily increasing the planets Carbon content. Today such increments to the planet’s Carbon stock have ceased, but the stock has become more compartmentalized.
Since those times, carbonic acid (a weak acid derived from the reaction between atmospheric carbon dioxide [CO2] and water) has slowly but continuously combined with calcium and magnesium in the Earth’s crust to form insoluble carbonates (carbon-containing chemical compounds) through a process called weathering. Then, through the process of erosion, the carbonates are washed into the ocean and eventually settle to the bottom. The cycle continues as these materials are drawn into Earth’s mantle by subduction (a process in which one lithospheric plate descends beneath another, often as a result of folding or faulting of the mantle) at the edges of continental plates. The carbon is then returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide during volcanic eruptions.
The balance between weathering, subduction, and volcanism controls atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over time periods of hundreds of millions of years. The oldest geologic sediments suggest that, before life evolved, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have been one-hundred times that of the present, providing a very different atmosphere and substantial greenhouse effect.
The operation of life has been clearly demonstrated to change the chemistry of earth’s atmosphere to what it is today. One of the most active agents of this change were/are the oceanic plankton, photosynthetic microscopic phytoplankton that produce prodigious quantities of oxygen and biomass over time. Oxygen is released to the atmosphere and the biomass is consumed by respiring zooplankton (microscopic marine animals) within a matter of days or weeks. Only small amounts of residual carbon from these plankton settle out to the ocean bottom at any given time, but over long periods of time this process represents a significant removal of carbon from the atmosphere. This slow removal of Carbon from the primary or living atmosphere into the fossil reservoir, while at the same time adding to the atmospheric reservoir of oxygen, had a major effect on the maintenance of biotic homeostasis or ‘global eco equilibrium’.
A similar process was repeated on the land especially at Devonian times with the huge vegetation mass that covered the earth absorbing Carbon Dioxide and them being mineralized in the lithosphere into coal, effectively removing that volume of carbon from earth’s atmosphere, while the Oxygen released by these early prodigious forests again contributed greatly to the current chemistry of the atmosphere.
Through these processes, still active today, Carbon that enters the Lithosphere is removed completely from the biological cycle and becomes mineralized into cycles with ages of 100’s of millions of years.
The biological or ‘living’ carbon cycle
In the living world, the major exchange of carbon with the atmosphere results from photosynthesis and respiration. During the daytime in the growing season, leaves absorb sunlight and take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the oceans the planktonic cycle functions in a similar way. Both create biomass. In parallel, plants, animals and substrate microbes consume this carbon as organic matter and return carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The amounts of carbon that move from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, respiration, and back to the atmosphere are large and produce oscillations in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. This ‘living’ Carbon has a very significant chemical signature of carbon isotopes in the ratio of 13C to 12C and maintains the same isotope ratio in addition to quantity of the rare unstable isotope 14C. All carbon emitted into the atmosphere that lacks 14C or has a lower 13C/12C ratio, is not a part of and does not belong in the modern or biotic cycle.
The Fossil subsidy:
It is now clear that fossil Carbon and biotic Carbon have extremely different sinks and need to be valued differentially when considering the impact on the global biosphere. While the carbon balance of the planet was greatly impacted by the postindustrial human activity of clearing the forests of this planet, it was only the trigger to the exponential increase of ‘new’ fossil derived carbon into the atmosphere.
A clear distinction between fossil and biotic energy and the placing of differential values on the two sources, will go a long way to expose these addicted economies and assist ‘developing nations ‘ to avoid the pitfalls. The ‘fossil subsidy’ required for the creation and operation of future ‘development’ projects should become cost criteria for acceptance or rejection of future ‘development’ projects.
It is now clear that there is a great danger of accepting the consumption on fossil fuels as a tool for ‘development’. Once a nation or economy has become ‘fossil addicted’, they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being and the well-being of others to feed their addiction.
However, the reticence of some Governments to face up to their global obligations, underscores the great danger of accepting the consumption on fossil fuels as a tool for ‘development’. Once a nation or economy has become ‘fossil addicted’, they are willing to sacrifice their own well- being and the well-being of others to feed their addiction.
Back to the Sinharajah
So if we now go back and examine the Carbon sequestering potential of the Sinharajah. We see that it is a very valuable as a ‘store’ or bank of sequestered carbon and we can negotiate to be paid for the time that it will store or hold its carbon from entering the atmosphere. But it will not present any significant opportunities for sequestering ‘new’ carbon.
There must be a clear understanding of carbon swaps and article 6 programs in the Paris Agreement, so that the carbon trading programs permitted in Sri Lanka will not become a way to release more fossil carbon stocks
What happens at the climate change meeting will tell us how much of Sri Lanka’s input has been done with informed national interest.