An Underappreciated Climate-Change Solution

When it comes to global warming, it has become an entrenched article of faith that we must keep ramping up renewable energies, and in particular wind and solar, while rapidly reducing the use of CO2-emitting fossil fuels so as to avert ever more devastating effects of climate change.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an intergovernmental U.N.-affiliated body tasked with advising governments on climate policy, is fully on board with this approach. The basic premise is that manmade CO2 emissions have pushed atmospheric CO2 levels close to a catastrophic tipping point, a self-sustaining vicious cycle in which high temperatures will lead to higher temperatures still. Therefore, it’s argued that curb fossil fuel use must be curbed, pronto.

In other words, according to this thinking, we’re in an either/or crisis. Either sharply cut production and usage of fossil fuels – which still provide around 80% of global energy, making life livable for billions of people around the globe – or face planet-destroying climate catastrophe. But is this binary choice all there is? Hardly. And in fact, far from a path to salvation, it risks a future in which we could reap the worst of all worlds: Not only would we fail to meet climate goals, but we would start running out of energy altogether.

The Danger of Decarbonizing Too Quickly

Readers who are familiar with my work know that I think it’s urgent that we transition to a sustainable world run largely by renewable energies. But I differ sharply from the above analysis and approach, for several reasons.

First, creating a renewable world won’t happen overnight, regardless of which renewables you’re talking about. Infrastructure must be created on a grand scale, and that requires huge amounts of energy along with other natural resources that themselves require energy.

During this transition, fossil fuels are indispensable energy sources. If we limit fossil fuels prematurely, we likely will forfeit the means to ever get to a sustainable world. Over both the short and long term, world growth will falter, and billions of people will suffer as a result.

What’s so tragic and frustrating about the prevailing either/or view is that it downplays an approach that could be far more effective and actually achieve the goals of climate activists. It could simultaneously mitigate damage from climate change while getting us to a sustainable world – while ensuring that in the meantime, there’s energy available to keep the world humming.

An Underappreciated Carbon Sink

That approach is to focus on expanding the role of carbon sinks – the trees, plants, and grasses that absorb atmospheric CO2. In particular, I think one underappreciated solution is to focus on taking advantage of the remarkable qualities and potential of bamboo.

Bamboo, which is classified as a grass, has breathtaking characteristics that make it a potential planet savior. In overlooking it, the world has truly been barking up the wrong tree.

With more than 1,500 species in the world, Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world. It achieves its full height within a single growing season, and when a stalk is cut down, it regenerates quickly. This contrasts with trees, which after being chopped down can take many decades to reach maturity. While it’s often assumed that bamboo is a tropical plant, it actually can flourish in virtually any climate, including in temperatures below zero. It also is extremely drought-resistant.

Bamboo’s potential benefits in terms of climate change and sustainability fall into three main categories: 1) as a carbon sink 2) as a renewable biomass energy source 3) as a superior energy-saving building material. The special qualities of bamboo make it potentially first in class in all these areas.

Bamboo’s Very Useful Qualities

As a carbon sink, bamboo stands out both for its absorptive capacity – it can absorb as much as 10 times more CO2 than can a comparable area of trees – and for its ability to grow quickly and spread in areas throughout the world. Given the potential to expand the global growing area of bamboo into almost every nook and corner, its potential value as a land-based carbon sink is probably unmatched.

Bamboo’s potential as a renewable biomass energy source also should be tapped. Biomass encompasses a wide range of materials with an organic origin, including wood pellets and sawdust, paper and food waste, and agricultural products like corn, soybeans, and sugar cane. Currently biomass is the biggest contributor to renewable energy, accounting for around 55% of renewable energy on a global basis and around 7% of total energy usage. Bamboo, thanks to its resilience, adaptability and rapid growth, has the potential to become a leading biofuel.

Bamboo also appears to be a remarkable building material, in ways that could further advance climate goals. Buildings, constructed of materials like steel and concrete, account for about 40% of the world’s energy budget and a comparable percentage of CO2 emissions. Bamboo, whose tensile strength is about 20% greater than that of steel, can be made into a material that when combined with film is translucent while blocking heat from the sun – a nearly ideal insulator.

As if all this weren’t enough, bamboo also has the potential to increase the world’s food supply, since its roots tend to add nutrients to depleted soil, making it suitable for other plants to grow. Bamboo is currently being used in the Amazon to reinvigorate dry and fire-ravaged land. And it also can serve as a shield against floods.

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