Buening: Carbon Sequestration Isn’t a Climate Cure-all


Claire Peterson

(Graphic by Claire Peterson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Sarah Buening, Assistant Opinion Editor


Rep. Keven Stratton and Sen. David Hinkins, members of the Majority in the Utah House, have sponsored a new concurrent resolution regarding climate change management. H.C.R. 1 — the “Concurrent Resolution to Work Together to Address the Climate, Public Lands and Carbon Sequestration” — aims to encourage the “best management practices to reduce carbon emissions while also preserving and expanding forest and other lands to improve climate outcomes.”

H.C.R. 1 is an important effort on Utah’s part to back Biden’s COP26 commitment to “conserve global forests, halt forest loss, restore critical carbon sinks and improve land management,” but I’m warily optimistic. Potentially, H.C.R. 1 will serve to push carbon sinks as the only solution to climate change and limit the effectiveness of other essential strategies. Because carbon sinks have restricted potential as a climate solution, our main priority should be limiting emissions on the front end.

Why Carbon Sinks Are Important

It is critical to protect and expand natural carbon sinks wherever possible, as the resolution recognizes. And yes, we should include the potential for carbon sequestration in our efforts to mitigate climate change. Within the global carbon cycle, carbon fluxes in and out of carbon reservoirs. The majority of the earth’s carbon is stored in glacial deposits and minerals, fossil fuels and the deep oceans. Atmospheric carbon represents another major reservoir and has many implications with human behavior. As we burn more of carbon’s natural deposits and further exploit the earth, we worsen today’s climate crisis.

We have too much carbon in our atmosphere, effectively polluting the earth. This conceives climate consequences like rising ocean levels, ecosystem upheaval, disease vulnerability and global warming. Social consequences like environmental racism and climate refugees also persist. The situation is severe. But carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide — can help remove some of that carbon from the atmospheric reservoir.

We should pursue and encourage efforts to spur climate sequestration. Utah can utilize carbon sequestration in unique ways to benefit the environment. For example, our deserts may contain unexplored, “missing” carbon sinks. Landmasses like this, among other things, absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere. Arid regions across the world make up the world’s third-largest carbon sink on land. Utah has explored geo-sequestration — long-term carbon storage in underground geologic formations — as one opportunity for carbon reduction. Such methods, however, have their limits. Geo-sequestration has limited feasibility because only certain areas are geologically suitable. Storage sites are also deep underground and prone to fractural leakage.

Why Carbon Sinks Aren’t Enough

We can’t rely on carbon sequestration to cure the climate crisis alone. Although Utah’s endorheic desert basins pose an opportunity for carbon store-housing, their ability to act as carbon sinks diminishes as the globe warms. We know that the earth will continue to warm significantly into the future, regardless of today’s actions. Even if we stopped all emissions right now, we’d still have to adapt to an altered climate. As we continue to warm, we reduce our land’s capacity to absorb further carbon, leaving more to accumulate in the atmosphere. Our natural carbon sinks are degrading.

As this happens, carbon sinks decrease in their utility as a climate change combatant. Other strategies will become more effective and worthy of our focus, so it’s important to invest in those strategies ahead of time. Renewable energy and infrastructure investments are particularly important, but not favorable to fossil fuel corporations.

There’s a potential that fossil fuel corporations will corrupt carbon sink motivations. We can’t afford to invest all of our resources into expanding carbon sinks only for that progress to become an excuse to emit more. If policy and emission cap improvements don’t accompany carbon sequestration efforts, increases in the industry will offset any progress we achieve. Endorsing climate sequestration has even become an effective manipulation technique for politicians and corporations that want to avoid real, aggressive climate action. For instance, The Daily Utah Chronicle’s Will Shadley reported on the greenwashing illusion of “net-zero carbon.” Companies like Google can claim carbon neutrality by purchasing captured natural gas offsets from “pig farms and landfills,” without ever actually reducing their carbon emissions.

We Need Smart Legislation

I agree with H.C.R. 1 in saying that “prudent stewardship dictates putting primary emphasis on protecting [carbon sinks] from degradation to the maximum possible extent,” but I wish it would go further. If we want any hope of mitigating climate impacts, we need to stop degradation at its root. We need to extend prudent stewardship to every area of our environment — perhaps by recognizing the legal personhood of ecologically important areas, or at the very least, ensuring that our legislation is specific and mission oriented. Otherwise, we’ll continue to see no results.

I don’t want to have to approach climate endeavors with such skepticism, but our policymakers haven’t given us much to have faith in. And H.C.R. 1 could be a valuable piece of legislation, but only if it’s backed by real climate action. Its resolutions are meaningless if we continue to let corporations get away with mass-scale environmental degradation in the first place.

When it comes to addressing the climate, public lands and carbon sequestration, language only goes so far. The climate crisis requires action on the front and back ends of emissions. So, while carbon sequestration is an important part of climate adaptation, it isn’t the answer to solving climate change. Ideally, we should “work together” to combat environmental degradation on every front, using multiple strategies. This requires we reach a consensus, as a society, to make environmental conservation a priority.

I’m all for legislators’ efforts to strengthen this priority. But, if the past is any indication, these provocations may be surface level. I guess I’ll believe it when I see it.


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