How about this for a design principle: Always choose the simplest, cheapest, low-tech solution over a more complicated, more expensive, high-tech solution.
That might sound obvious, but youd be surprised at some of the Rube Goldberg-esque proposals Ive come across while researching solutions to the relatively straightforward problem of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to fight global warming.
Artificial trees the designs for which come with pedigrees from MIT and Englands prestigious Institution for Mechanical Engineers are one of my favorite overdesigned boondoggles. These trees tall metal towers topped with large, specialized air filters would be planted along Britains and Americas highways and byways where they would suck up auto emissions and store the offending greenhouse gases in the filters.
Maintenance crews would stop by periodically and replace the filters, then sequester the used, CO²-saturated filters in abandoned coal mines. Naturally, a great deal of energy will be needed to manufacture, install and operate the trees and handle and transport the filters, negating some of the positive effects of the atmospheric scrubbing.
But at least this should provide quite a few jobs because we have to sequester about 7 billion tons of CO² annually just to keep the atmosphere at its current saturation level. Why, in just a few years well need to employ thousands of miners to dig new coal mines so we can abandon them to provide more storage for the filters!
To be fair, the designers of these artificial trees claim that each tree can capture up to 10 tons of CO² per day thousands of times more than the capacity of a real tree. With an investment of around $5 billion (ignoring operating costs), Britain could build a forest of 100,000 trees that could remove 60 percent of its CO² emissions. Ostensibly, investing in 5 million to 10 million trees could absorb all the worlds CO² from sources other than power plants.
But what if those same billions of dollars were spent on programs to preserve and expand existing forests and peat bogs that perform multiple ecosystem services the sequestering of CO² among them? Rather than investing in unproven high-tech systems (What are the artificial tree filters made from? Will that material become scarce? What happens when they break down? Who will pay for the ongoing expense of maintaining the forest?), why not invest in the proven technology of highly evolved living systems?
Largely self-regulating and self-maintaining, and running on free solar energy, established forests and peat bogs sequester vast quantities of CO², nourish biodiversity, retain and condition soil, help regulate the water cycle and, if sustainably harvested, can yield quality building materials and other valuable products for generations to come.
But rapid worldwide deforestation and the draining and mining of peat bogs, mostly in developing nations, is responsible for 20 to 25 percent of all greenhouse-gas releases (mostly CO² and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas). So, globally, humanity is making the problem worse while desperately trying to build machinery to fix it. Its like pouring water into a bucket while drilling bigger and bigger holes in the bottom.
Granted, the politics of developed nations investing in forest and bog conservation in developing nations is tricky and demanding. But no more so than the politics of trying to get, say, massive polluters like India and China to install artificial trees in their cities. Why not begin by preserving and expanding existing forests, rather than reinventing natures wheel and building fake forests from scratch?
Technology transfer is generally thought of as a one-way process in which developed countries assist developing countries in building their infrastructures and industries. But technology must be transferred thoughtfully, as the least-developed countries can use only simple technology culturally appropriate technology that nonetheless should enhance their economic and environmental conditions.
But as our resources diminish and environmental sinks overflow, it will be useful to think of technology transfer as a two-way process, wherein the developed countries can learn from the less developed. For example, simple appliances such as solar cookers that are tree savers and lifesavers in largely deforested regions also can be used here.
In my next column, well look at transferring appropriate technology to your ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.