Ecological Sequestration: two words to remember

Until the global financial crisis diverted attention there was the strongest international focus by the world’s political leaders, public and media on global warming. There were the strongest calls for sacrifices to be made for future generations, although more often than not people preferred those sacrifices to be made by others. Euro zone crises, a continuing recession in the United States and turbulent stock markets, have not diminished the climate perils facing our planet.

Let me recap. If the current rate of increasing emissions is maintained the world is on track for a 4c increase in average temperatures by the end of the century. An increase of more than 2c is considered by the United Nations to be intolerably dangerous.

Along with 'cap and trade’ programs (and I'm proud that Australia has now set a price on carbon) and a big drive on renewables and energy efficiency projects, there has been some attention given by governments, mining and energy sectors to 'geological sequestration'. This involves capturing CO² from coal and gas fired power stations and other industrial sources, pumping it to suitable sites and then injecting the CO² deep underground where it would be stored permanently. Suitable repositories would include the vast geological cavities left over from oil and gas exploitation.

A substantial impediment to a much larger deployment of 'carbon capture and storage' is the often massive infrastructure costs of pumping and piping compressed CO² from cities to remote areas.

Here at Rio+20 conferences and events, there is real interest in the technologies and rewards involved in ecological sequestration. With this different approach, CO² emissions are seen as a rich resource rather than a costly waste to keep a lid on. Ecological sequestration involves capturing the CO² from industrial processes, including power plants, but then transforming it into fertiliser to help make local farm lands more fertile.

Ecological sequestration is not some theoretical model. Indeed, the 'farming of CO²' is occurring right now in Australia with huge opportunities for millions of hectares of farmlands to sequester countless millions of tonnes of CO² as soil carbon each year. Soil carbon sequestration at Clover Estate in the south east of South Australia has demonstrated that this approach can be a win-win for the Australian economy, for farmers and for the environment, as well as producing more and healthier foods by reducing the use of chemical fertilisers while at the same time improving soil fertility.

The global champion of ecological sequestration is Peter Head, an award winning engineer and leader of the sustainable cities movement. Until recently he was a senior executive with Arup in London and directed work in China's ambitious Dongtan Eco City planning project. In 2008 he was named by Time magazine as one of the world's eco-heroes and by Britain's Guardian as one of the 50 people who could save the planet.

What is exciting for so many industrialists and policy makers about ecological sequestration is that it doesn't involve shutting down power stations. Instead CO² is harvested and transformed through technologies such as algal bioreactors into fertiliser and bio-fuels. This concept also embraces urban agriculture linked to water capture, compost and nutrients from waste digestion, including hydroponic greenhouse growing. The aim is to produce better quality local food and create jobs in a struggling community.

Through UK based NGO, the Ecological Sequestration Trust, Peter Head's team is actively pursuing a series of large scale demonstration projects in India, Africa, China and elsewhere to prove that resilient urbanisation can progress using coal and gas for base load power but with very low net carbon emissions. The Trust wants to accelerate the deployment of integrated new technologies to sequester carbon and advanced anaerobic digestors to produce valuable new revenue streams.

Through a series of 'demonstrator cities' the Trust wants to establish low carbon exemplars for sustainability and resilience. Already project sites have been selected at Chongming Island, Shanghai, China; Surat in Gujarat, India and Kigali, Rwanda in Africa. Each demonstrator location will involve a new Eco-City development, a new industrial zone as well as an area of rapid urban development close to an existing mega city. There is already high level political backing for these projects and I was pleased to join the Trust in discussions over Surat with Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, in Ahmedebad in February.

The Trust is ambitious. It has to be. In the past 120 years the world's population has increased five fold but our resource consumption has grown twenty fold. By 2050, 75% of humanity will live in cities compared with just over 50% now. Cities still only occupy 2% of the world's surface but require vast 'footprints' to sustain them. Sprawling London, my birthplace, is said to require 125 times its own area to keep it functioning.

I believe the health and design of cities-trying to make them work better for people- will be a central policy challenge of this century for every level of government. Integrated design will be the engine of innovation for cities.

Through its regional projects the Ecological Sequestration Trust wants to demonstrate how to build cities with:

• Energy demand reduced by 50% over today's business as usual

• 30% of power station energy obtained from local biomass

• 40% of power station emissions harnessed productively

• Local food production increased by 30%

• Greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 80% over business as usual

• Improved health and well being indices.

I am not an engineer but smart policy makers embrace, and test, innovation. They measure results. They also see opportunities in challenges, even crises. I am convinced we will be hearing a lot more about ecological sequestration and its mission to turn CO² into a resource for good rather than our planet's poison.

This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website. 

Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.