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Using nature to heal the environment



John Burger - published on 03/27/19

The earth itself holds many answers.

What will it take to turn around the kind of ecological damage many scientists warn is threatening man’s survival on Planet Earth? Will it require expensive interventions, or economy-restricting regulations?

“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Sì. “At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

Some researchers are beginning to find solutions in nature itself.

The oceans of the world, which cover about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, absorb a lot of the atmospheric carbon that seems to be contributing to the global temperature rise. Around the world, oceans absorbed 34 billion metric tons of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels from 1994 to 2007, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But that is a reflection of the fact that carbon emissions are increasing, and although the ocean reduces the warming impact of emissions, it can cause other problems. “Carbon dioxide dissolved into the ocean causes seawater to acidify, threatening the ability of shellfish and corals to build their skeletons, and affecting the health of other fish and marine species—many that are important to coastal economies and food security,” NOAA says.

In an intriguing example of nature healing itself, it has been found that certain rocks can also absorb carbon, without the side effects seen in marine life. In Oman, there are rocks that naturally react with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into stone, the New York Times recently reported.

“Scientists say that if a natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale—admittedly some very big ‘ifs’—it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age,” the newspaper reported. “And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman—or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations—would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.”

Solutions like this fall under the category of “bioengineering,” a controversial approach to healing the planet that also includes “dimming the sun.” Not everyone is excited by the potential they have of providing answers to environmental challenges. Some say these technologies “present huge potential risks to people and nature, and could undermine efforts to cut emissions, not least because many are backed by fossil-fuel interests,” Reuters reported.

“These technologies provide a perfect excuse for delaying action or weakening our current emissions reduction targets,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, told the wire service.

While the sun has long been seen as an alternative source of energy, eliminating the need for some burning of fossil fuels, there are now experiments to use high-altitude planes to spray reflective sulfur particles into the stratosphere.

The United Nations Environment Assembly is considering whether to start assessing and setting rules on such technologies.

Meanwhile, there are a slew of smaller efforts to help combat the rise in global temperatures and environmental degradation.

If certain rocks can absorb carbon from the atmosphere, rocks, e.g., bedrock, can be used to improve an atmosphere. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is proving this—and reducing the need for heating fuel at the same time. In early 2017, the cathedral activated a geothermal plant to heat it in winter and cool it in summer. The new system taps ground water, through 10 drilled holes upwards of 2,200 feet deep, that is always between 52 and 63 degrees.

“The basic principle is that you’re extracting water from the earth, and in the wintertime you’re pulling heat out of that to create heating for the building, and in the summer you’re pulling cooling out of that water and injecting the hotter water back down into the earth,” architect Jeff Murphy explained. The pumped-up water is sent through one of six heat exchangers underneath the cathedral. The heating that is extracted is then sent to air handlers and fan coil units that deliver it as needed. In warmer months, the system extracts excess heat from the cathedral and pull it into the ground, where the earth absorbs it, serving as a heat sink.

Restoring forests, maintaining peatlands, and planting mangroves are other nature-based solutions that could help the world combat climate change. In a very different atmosphere from the streets surrounding St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Malteser International is replenishing and restoring mangroves, the small tree that grows in coastal saline or brackish water, in Haiti. Malteser, the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta, is installing four tree schools along the coast of the urban slum of Cite Soleil and rehabilitating and reforesting at least 25 acres of mangroves.

Scientists say that exploiting nature to heal the planet is only one piece of the battle. Jeffrey Sachs, university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, wrote recently in The Hill that the Green New Deal, introduced this year by Congressional Democrats, “endorses the science as explained recently by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We need to phase out carbon emissions,” Sachs wrote. “We’re not talking about a bit less emissions; we’re talking about a phaseout of emissions by 2050 in order to have a fighting chance to hold Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level, a rise that should not in any way be construed as ‘safe,’ just potentially not catastrophic.”

How to achieve that goal, Sachs said, would include making electricity “emission-free, through a combination of renewables (wind, solar, hydro), nuclear and perhaps some carbon-capture and storage.

“Light-duty vehicles should become electric, and heavy-duty trucks, ships and planes should run on some combination of zero-carbon fuels manufactured using clean energy,” he continued. “The electricity can manufacture hydrogen, which can be used directly (for example, in fuel cells or direct combustion) or combined with carbon to manufacture synthetic liquids and gases.”

Nevertheless, a recent study suggested that natural climate solutions (NCS) can provide over a third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C.

“Alongside aggressive fossil fuel emissions reductions, NCS offer a powerful set of options for nations to deliver on the Paris Climate Agreement while improving soil productivity, cleaning our air and water, and maintaining biodiversity,” said the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But the ingenuity that is on display in finding natural solutions may be an example of what the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference called for in 1999: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.”

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