Interpreted literally, „Decarbonization“ means ridding economies of carbon compounds. Some might say that’s right, because many objects made from fossil deposits end up quite quickly as CO2. But carbon is a phenomenally useful element, making things that no other element can. Instead of decarbonizing, we need to get recycling working well, and obtain our carbon from non-fossil sources.

The astounding chemical flexibility of carbon…

The element carbon has chemistry of a type and extent that no other element has. This is, in fact, why it may be considered the „element of life“. Indeed, the diversity of life that we see on Earth is only possible because of the diversity of molecules that carbon can make. Carbon can also make an enormous diversity of chemical substances for human use: we simply can’t do without most of them. Furthermore, carbon’s chemical flexibility lends it to ease of conversion into different compounds, and to recycling. A key feature of carbon-based life is that it creates perfect recycling economies leaving no troublesome toxic residue. Life has run this system now for 3.5 billion years on Earth: that’s sustainability!

Countless materials and high-density fuels suited to circular economies…

From polymers, through special coatings, to carbon fiber that is light, but stronger than steel, carbon and its compounds are crucially important. Carbon-based fuels have high energy densities that suit them very well for a wide variety of applications, including transport. Clearly, rapidly using fossil reserves is not sustainable: it completely overloads the Earth’s recycling capacity for CO2. Instead we must leave fossil carbon where it is, and create net-zero cycles: the uptake of CO2 – to be used to re-make fuel or materials – balances the emissions of CO2. This is exactly what life on Earth does, from plant cells, through whole organisms, ecosystems and up to the whole biosphere. Basically, plants absorb CO2, and use sunlight energy to produce hydrogen. They then combine hydrogen with carbon, making energy-carrying compounds. These they store, distribute and burn to make biological energy, releasing the CO2 again. Most creatures on Earth, whether plants, animals or fungi, do this burning, but plants are the „decarbonizers“, making sure that CO2 goes back into the cycle.

In contrast to mineral-based solutions involving massive mining…

In massively ramping up battery manufacture as the main method of decarbonization humans are 1. creating large environmental impacts, which further weaken ecosystems under pressure from global warming; 2. creating an industry with very little forethought to its suitability for recycling. This is not merely a technical „catch-up game“ where we just need to speed up: reports of the difficulty, energy-intensiveness (and water-intensiveness) and cost of battery recycling continue to cast doubt on its feasibility – both physically and economically. Even if battery recycling were to work 100% tomorrow, we would still need to mine minerals for many decades to come in order to satisfy the demand from the growing battery industry. Is this a good idea, given that we already know of serious environmental degradation resulting from this sector?

Click here for more details about our exploitation of carbon’s useful properties…

The Decarbonization Delusion…

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Decarbonization_delusion_regarding_everyday_products-1024x529.jpg

We know that fossil fuels are bad… but that doesn’t mean that carbon is bad…

Clearly, burning them at the current rate massively overloads Earth’s natural recycling capacity for CO2, the major contributor to the current greenhouse effect.

But most fuels in wide-spread use are based on carbon and hydrogen (even coal contains some hydrogen). So, can we simply ditch the carbon, make hydrogen via natural energy and switch everything over to a hydrogen economy? Sounds tempting, given that simple water is the major emission product when hydrogen burns in air. So, is hydrogen the „perfect“ fuel? Explore that question more here for the chemistry, and here for the storage and distribution infrastructure.

Countless things in every-day life are made from carbon compounds…

Carbon compounds are so ubiquitous that we hardly register the fact anymore. However, it is witness to the enormous flexibility of carbon to make substances with countless useful qualities. We cannot do this with any other element.

Carbon compounds as fuel have enormous advantages as long as they’re not fossil…

From energy density — which is very high compared with batteries — to convenience of very long-term storage in simple infrastructures… Carbon has very important features as an energy carrier — specifically a hydrogen carrier. Yes, energy efficiencies are still not great, but the recyclability is extremely high. We would be deluded to think that we can reach such a good compromise on the whole with other energy carriers.

Click here for more details about cyclical carbon economies that we can establish…

Cycles with minimal toxic collateral…

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Economies_of_energy_and_material_comparisons_indust_biol-1024x454.jpg

Biology only works with substances of types, and in quantities that can form cycles with no toxic „residue“. It does not extract large quantities of minerals from the Earth’s crust and seabed…

Biology-inspired alternatives for energy storage and portability…

Things could change, but current battery technology, and the associated electronics, require an enormous amount of material (rock containing ore) to be taken out of the Earth’s crust. This creates toxic collateral and ecological changes typical of the mining industry. It is to be hoped that this doesn’t spread to deep-sea mining. But unfortunately the chances that it will are high: we need too much material for batteries. What of the unresearched ecosystems and biodiversity in the oceans‘ depths? Could human economies mimic biology’s circular economies with carbon compounds? Here’s the principle in a nutshell:

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Biology_human_economies_1_to_1_comparison-1024x503.jpg

Focusing just on global warming and CO2 neglects equally important environmental factors…

We simply must be concerned about the environment as a whole and not just the climate. Biodiversity collapse could be the most serious crisis looming: as biodiversity dwindles, so does the resilience and the ability of ecosystems to adapt. Humans rely on well-functioning ecosystems in countless ways.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Tsunamis_of_crisis-1.jpg
Inspired by an editorial cartoon by Graeme Mackay. Biodiversity collapse is the largest crisis looming on the horizon, and the one with the most serious consequences for the natural world and humanity.

Losing biodiversity is a bit like having to win a football match without reserve players; then, into the bargain, you discover that the goalkeeper has also dropped out because of sickness.

Even the recycling of batteries (which must increase greatly in amount, and decrease greatly in price) produces toxic collateral. None of this, even the recycling, is „clean“. It’s beset by the same environmental challenges as most types of mineral mining/recycling.

Biology is based on cyclical economies using carbon compounds…

Biology instead cycles materials and energy in a thin layer at the boundary between crust and atmosphere (the biosphere). It uses mainly carbon compounds as energy carriers and the basis for materials. This produces minimal toxic collateral, and no rapid crises to which it can’t react.

Biology is very sensitive to materials with which it doesn’t routinely come into contact in appreciable amounts; that is the reason for ecosystem damage via mining. Much of this is already evident at steady state; but disasters — e.g. as the result of a tailings dam breaking — can cause sudden massive pollution. The Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in 2019 released metal compounds that, via river- and ground-water, impacted communities up to 120 km distant from the dam. The Mariana (Bento Rodrigues) tailings dam disaster in 2015 contaminated watercourses over a total length of roughly 670 km, including coastal Atlantic waters.

Water use, and water contamination by mining and metal refinement are major ecological burdens. Lithium is sourced ever more from rock ore (largely spodumene), which is at low concentration compared with lithium in brines. Extracting lithium from ores requires around 2.5 times as much energy, and several times as much fresh water as extracting it from brines.

Further reading:

> List of substances and materials made of carbon compounds
> Challenges of economically recycling „black mass“ from end-of-life batteries
> Identification of challenges, prospects and opportunities in lithium ion battery recycling
> The Decarbonization Delusion – What 3.5 Billion Years of Biological Sustainability Can Teach Us
> Brumadinho tailings dam disaster 2019
> Mariana tailings dam disaster 2015
> Considerations for lithium mining from an environmental and industrial perspective from the German Federal Institute for Raw Materials and Geoscience
> Energy, water and environmental balance of lithium production (including figures allowing comparison between rock-ore extraction and brine extraction)

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024