A week ago, the BBC published an article about rapidly disappearing Posidonia seagrass in the Mediterranean. In a time in which news outlets seem to report every other week about another species becoming endangered or extinct, the news of the Posidonia seagrass might seem like just another little reminder that the 6th mass extinction might be on its way but not much more than that. However, the article reveals some shocking news: a hectare of Posidonia seagrass can capture 15 times more CO2 than a hectare of the Amazon forest.
Why are leaders and policymakers barely talking about this carbon sink when discussing solutions for the climate crisis? It seems like they are hung up on technical solutions. These Prometheans believe that the technological abilities of humans are endless and that they can use these technologies to advance humanity and alter the environment if needed. They want to decrease CO2 emissions by technological solutions such as setting new efficiency standards for refrigerators, subsidising electric car use and replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy. However, with countries failing to reduce their CO2 emissions and governments failing to come up and comply with strong treaties and conventions on CO2 reductions, policymakers and scientist also try to find solutions elsewhere. But it is not the natural world they are looking into.
One field that has been receiving more and more attention is geoengineering, the ultimate Promethean solution. The idea seems simple: if we cannot reduce our emissions, we have to find a way to minimise the impact of the emissions on earth. One form of geoengineering is carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. By removing carbon from the atmosphere, the carbon molecules cannot exert their greenhouse gas effect and no warming will occur. If enough carbon is removed, the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will lower, and global warming will decline. However, carbon removal has some disadvantages. It is very costly, and most countries won’t be too eager to pay for it. Additionally, the carbon has to be stored somewhere, and no one wants to live on a CO2 field, which could kill you if it leaks. Due to carbon capture and storage’s disadvantages, it has not been used on a large scale, and many debates arise on whether it can be used as a solution for the climate crisis.
So, while this technical carbon sink does not seem like an ideal solution, the many natural carbon sinks that already exist seem to be forgotten by policymakers.
When policymakers do address natural carbon sinks, trees seem the only ones they know. Many governments and policymakers call for reforestation and even all Dutch parties but one vouch for it. However, other leaders, like the Brazilian president Bolsonaro, do not see the added value and (illegal) logging still continues. While the rate of deforestation has gone down over the last years, overall, the number of forest areas still declines every year.
Other natural carbon sinks, such as Posidonia seagrass, receive less attention. While the EU has some protected areas for the seagrass, the hectares of seagrass have decreased and are still being damaged today. Especially anchors can severely damage seagrass. For a single anchor, it can take 1000 years for the seagrass to be fully restored. However, it is often still allowed to anchor in the protected areas, and if regulations are present, they are often ignored. With increasing temperatures, the remaining seagrass will have an even harder time surviving as it cannot withstand temperatures above 28 °C. While policymakers are focused on technical carbon sinks, this carbon sink is overlooked and slowly lost.
Another example of an carbon sink that deserves recognition is mangroves. Mangroves are a habitat for many organisms and can take up as an ecosystem on average 956 t C per hectare, which is almost four times more than the 241 t C per hectare uptake of rain forests. Mangrove ecosystems also emit CO2, for example, through respiration. Mangroves are a net carbon sink and worldwide take up 90 Tg C per year, which is as much carbon as some small countries emit. With increasing temperatures, mangroves could spread to temperate areas, which could increase their carbon uptake. However, some researchers expect that in colder climates, the ecosystem’s uptake could be lower. While mangroves are valuable as they are a carbon sink, protect coastlines and prevent erosion, they are, unfortunately, often cut down for their wood or to make room for agriculture and aquaculture. It is estimated that 30-50% of mangroves have been lost over the last 50 years. Policymakers are thus losing a valuable solution for the climate crisis.
These natural carbon sinks are not only being forgotten by policymakers, but they are also being destroyed. While policymakers praise new technological fixes, the solutions that are already out there are shifted aside. Ecomodernist take this to the next level. They do not only see technology as the holy grail, but they think humanity should be based on it. Their solution to the climate crisis is for humans to live in densely populated cities where food is produced with highly efficient agricultural practices that barely need any land. Humans will only use a bit of the earth surface, and nature can take over the rest. For them, the dependence on ecosystem services and resources is the core cause of the need for nature conservation. Ecomodernist even go as far as to say:
“People may choose to have some services — like water purification and flood protection — provided for by natural systems, such as forested watersheds, reefs, marshes, and wetlands, even if those natural systems are more expensive than simply building water treatment plants, seawalls, and levees.” (p.27)
For me, this quote shows how Prometheans and ecomodernist are blinded by their faith in technology. Why would we need to develop technologies if what we are creating is already provided to us by nature? Besides, technology also has some downsides that they seem to overlook. It might not be able to solve all problems and often comes at a cost. Additionally, the more advanced the technology becomes, the fewer people can understand it and decide on its use. The Prometheans will find themselves in a vicious circle by erasing the negative side-effects of existing technology with new and more advanced technology.
While we might find ourselves unable to solve the climate crisis with natural solutions alone, policymakers should be aware of the natural solutions present and strive to protect them before it is too late.