Agricultural Fix for Climate Change?

One of the sadder aspects of our problem with climate change is that the politicians simply do not appreciate the magnitude of the problem, which is illustrated by a briefing in the journal Nature (554, 404). It is all very well to say that emissions must be curbed, and fast, but there is a further problem. What is there is still there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has argued that carbon emissions must peak in the next couple of decades, and then fall steeply if we want to avoid a 2 Centigrade degree rise in average temperatures. So how do we get a steep decline?

The 2015 Paris agreement settled on negative emissions. That sounds good, until you start putting numbers on what has to be done. Consider the simple approach of putting silicates onto the land, where they will be weathered to produce silica and calcium/magnesium/iron bicarbonate or carbonate.

In an experiment (Beerling et al. 2018. Nature Plants: 4: 138 – 147) applied 3.5 t/ha of wollastonite powder (calcium silicate) to some New Hampshire land, which led to a 50% increase in the delivery of weathered calcium and silica to a stream. This was accompanied by a decrease in soil acidity and a decreased release of soil aluminium. So, carbon dioxide was taken from the atmosphere while improving the soil quality. Global cropland totals 12 million square km and additionally 1 – 10 million square km of marginal land is available.

Wollastonite is not the most readily available rock, but there is unlimited basalt. There are massive amounts of olivine, and this is potentially able to capture 0.8 – 0.9 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock, but olivines also tend to have higher levels of nickel and chromium. The authors suggest continental flood basalts, which have lower amounts of nickel and chromium and higher amounts of phosphorus, but now the carbon capture potential is about 0.3 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock. This suggests that applying 10 – 50 t /ha/y of rock to an area of farmland about the size of Texas could sequester 0.2 – 1.1 billion tonne (Gt) of CO2. That is a significant reduction, but of course about 1/3 of that would currently be emitted in the grinding/transportation. Suppose we wanted to put it on all agricultural land? There is a hundred hectares to a square kilometre, so in the worst case we would need to grind and apply 60 Gt of basalt per year.

The problem could be lessened if the 7 – 17 Gt of silicate waste were used. For example, it is estimated that quarrying for construction generates an estimated 3 Gt of “fines” that are too small to be used. There is about 1.4 – 5.9 Gt of construction/demolition waste dumped each year. Cement in particular is particularly suitable. Up to half a Gt of steel slag is produced each year, and this contains weatherable elements plus some fertiliser, such as phosphate. Besides these wastes, in some places there are historically accumulated dumps of material, although these materials are probably already sequestering CO2, so perhaps they should not be counted

A further benefit from this is that the silica will replenish eroded soil and aid replacement of further soil organic carbon, as the world’s cropland soil is eroding far faster than it can be replaced (about 5 t/ha/y). Such weathered material provides silicic acid for plants, which strengthens stems, and it is suggested that this might reduce the effect of pests.

To summarise, here is a method that could in theory take CO2 from the air, but think of the problems. Let us assume the most encouraging figures. Humanity currently burns about 9 Gt of carbon a year. To absorb all of that, we would have to apply 109 Gt of powdered basalt a year, and burn no carbon while we are doing it. That is 109 billion tonne of basalt, which is not a soft rock, and do that while running the risk of some serious adverse environmental issues, and try to avoid having a lot of silicosis amongst the workers. All of this is not going to be easy. Worse, as far as CO2 levels are concerned, that is merely standing still.

There is one other related option. The rock peridotite is a mantle rock, but occasionally there are large surface deposits. It is a relatively soft rock on the surface, and it is one of the faster rocks for sequestering carbon dioxide. For that reason, it tends to be rather rare because when it does get to the surface, it weathers and erodes relatively quickly under the effect of water and carbon dioxide. However, one proposal is to drill into a deposit and fracture hydraulically, and force CO2 in, where it will form dolomite. The problem here tends to be with location. One of the bigger masses of peridotite is in the Oman desert, which is not rich in water, nor in local CO2.

Thinking about this shows some of the problems of modifying a planet. People seem to think changing Mars into somewhere pleasant to live in would be easy. In my novel Red Gold I offered the suggestion that to do that you would need a dead minimum of at least a petatonne (a million billion tonne) of nitrogen to have enough pressure to have a tolerable outside air pressure that would last through the winter. Where do you find that?

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