Carbon is not the enemy and can be used as a resource and in circular economy systems “safely, productively and profitably,” according to architect William McDonough, founder of William McDonough + Partners and co-founder of the sustainable design Cradle to Cradle methodology.
McDonough has proposed a new language of carbon, published today in the scientific journal Nature, and he will present it tomorrow in Marrakech at a COP22 affiliated event.
“Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure,” McDonough said in a statement. “Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin — like lead in our drinking water. In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool.”
McDonough says “negative” phrases such as low carbon,” “zero carbon,” “negative carbon,” and “war on carbon” need to go.
Instead, McDonough suggests “positive” language that identifies three categories of carbon:
- Living carbon: organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something to cultivate and grow
- Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused
- Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, waste-to energy-plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development
Working carbon is a subset of all three categories and defined as a material being put to human use. For example, working living carbon is cultivated in agricultural systems. Working durable carbon is recycled, reused and reprocessed in circular technical systems; and working fugitive carbon includes fossil fuels used for power.
The new language also identifies three strategies for carbon management and climate change:
- Carbon positive: actions converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates; also recycling of carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers and sewers
- Carbon neutral: actions that transform or maintain carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower that do not release carbon
- Carbon negative: actions that pollute the land, water and atmosphere with various forms of carbon, for example, CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics in the ocean
In fact, several manufacturers and other companies are already using captured carbon in their products and processes.
Ford is developing new foam and plastic car components made from captured CO2, and expects these will be in Ford production vehicles within the next five years.
And in May, CO2 Solutions and carbonation services and equipment supplier Mojonnier Limited announced a partnership that will capture carbon from the beverage bottling processes — thus preventing CO2 emissions — and then supply this CO2 back to the beverage industry for its carbonation needs.
Global Thermostat, which captures CO2 from the air, says there’s a $1 trillion annual market for CO2. One new study puts the global carbon fiber reinforced plastic market alone at nearly $28 billion by 2024, growing at an annual rate of 12.5 percent.
“When you take CO2 out of the air and sell it for any of these materials — synthetic fuel, turn it into carbon fiber, sell it to food and beverage companies — we can take it out of the air for less than it costs to sell it,” said Global Thermostat’s Ben Bronfman in an earlier interview.
Indeed, if the world is to meet its carbon targets under the Paris climate deal, carbon capture, storage and utilization will have to play a role. And this presents a cost-saving opportunity for companies that can use their own carbon emissions to produce their products or power their systems — and a business opportunity for companies that can help other corporations profit from their carbon emissions.