On Friday 9th February 2007, Richard Branson signalled his intent to take on global warming by issuing a challenge that, he hoped, would defeat it. He offered a purse of $25 million to any one, or any organisation, who could invent a mechanism for removing atmospheric CO2 and return it to the ground “from where it first came”. Branson explains:
“It was almost 3 years ago when my wife, Joan asked me why no one had invented a machine to remove carbon from the air. The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize for whoever can demonstrate a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate. The reason I created the Virgin Earth Challenge was because I believe that sequestration, or as some people call it ‘atmosphere remediation’, might end up being a key part in our battle against greenhouse gases. I wanted to raise the profile of sequestration and put some money up to inspire research and help one or more winning ideas become a reality.”
The date for entries has now expired. So far, over 1000 ideas have been submitted to the judging panel that includes the likes of Al Gore and James Lovelock.
FOPAP would now like to publically claim this prize. A diagram of our solution is shown, right >>>
The process works as follows:
- Carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere by a biological machine called a ‘tree’.
- This tree is felled and chopped into smaller pieces we are calling, ‘wood’.
- The carbon stored in the wood is placed into a stable container for it. We are going to call this container ‘paper’.
- This paper can be used for entertainment and communication purposes. This is just a bonus.
- The paper is placed into long-term, controlled underground storage. We are not sure what to call this yet, but possibly ‘landfill’.
- The paper remains in this safe storage area indefinitely and becomes part of the Earths natural composition over thousands of years.
- There you have it!
The process is easily started (by planting a sapling) and can be repeated ad infinitum to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as desired. To assign some numbers to it, let’s say a tree contains 1 tonne of carbon (dry weight). This represents 3.6 tonnes of atmospheric CO2 (as 1 atom of carbon combines with 2 atoms of oxygen). So, if we planted a million trees and cut them down, we would sequester the equivalent of 3.6 million tonnes of atmospheric CO2. The CO2 emissions from turning the wood into paper, printing on it, delivering to a consumer and then burying it in landfill is about 3.2 million tonnes. Therefore, this process will lock up the equivalent of 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per million trees grown, felled and used for paper.
This process can be repeated every 20 to 25 years, depending on the species of tree in question. You might wonder what happens to the paper in long term underground storage. The answer is nothing.
So how long would it take to remove all of the surplus atmospheric CO2 in the world?
Presently, there is about 3 trillion tonnes of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is 37% higher than pre-industrial levels. So, one could argue that this amounts to a surplus of CO2 of some 1.1 trillion tonnes. Now, given that we have just shown that 1 million trees processed as above can sequester and lock up permanently the equivalent of 400,000 tonnes of CO2, then to remove all of the surplus CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere over a period of, say, 100 years, with a species of tree that grows to maturity in 25 years, we would need to plant, harvest and replant c. 700 billion trees each quarter of a century.
Surely we would not find a use for all the paper and packaging manufactured from these billions of trees?
You'd think so, wouldn't you, but the truth is quite different. The world consumes 300 million tonnes of paper each year, which represents the felling of nearly 4 billion trees. This equates to 100 billion trees every 25 years. However, in Europe 72% of paper is recycled. This reduces the need for felling trees by 60%. If we stopped recycling paper, the demand for trees would increase to 250 billion every quarter of a century. This is equivalent to 35% of the desired target of 700 million!
Therefore, if we stop recycling paper and treble the demand for printed products from virgin pulp, WE CAN COMPLETELY REMOVE ALL SUPLUS CO2 IN THE ATMOSPHERE WITHIN 100 YEARS.
Is this feasible?
Yes! But how much space would planting 700 billion trees require? Well, a forest can contain 100,000 trees per square kilometre. Therefore, a plot of land c. 7 million kilometres square would be required to accommodate all the trees necessary – an area about 1/3rd the size of Russia. The trees don't have to all be in one place, of course! The total land surface area of the Earth is a staggering 149 million kilometres square, which means the forestation required to transform the Earth's atmosphere back to pre-industrial levels would occupy just 4.7% of it.
$25 million dollars please Mr. Branson!!!