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There's a carbon cycle?

11 Sep 2019 | Science Notes

One of Ronald Reagan’s most infamous “gaffes” was that trees produce more pollution than cars. But at least some environmentalists now seem to think the Gipper was on to something. See it turns out trees are complex living organisms that absorb CO2 when they’re growing big and tall. But then they go and die and rot and give it all back. According to the Executive Director of the Climate Action Network Canada, “Canadians and Canadian governments tend to think of our forests as carbon sinks rather than sources of emissions, but we know that has been false now for a couple of years”. Trees as sources of emissions? Boo! Down with trees! Leaving what exactly as the plan, if even nature is against nature?

This issue actually arose indirectly two weeks ago with the claim that as the “lungs of the Earth” the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen. It rather suggested the image of trees as sort of giant solar-powered converters sucking in CO2 and blowing out O2. But nature is not a machine. It’s organic. Things come and go; they rise and fall; they live and die; they breathe in… and out.

Indeed the original “Gaia hypothesis” had the entire Earth being a sort of vast living organism with the same sorts of complex internal rhythms. (The more recent one seems to involve an angry feminist goddess about to stomp us flat for our sinful ways.) Hence Prince Charles’ lyric tribute to the way that nothing is wasted in nature including CO2 which is plant food. Except the bad-tasting human kind that just piles up and sets the place on fire.

The immediate and one is tempted to say obvious problem is that if nature really is complex, dynamic and cyclical, if more CO2 is produced nature will find ways to make use of it like, say, growing more plants. The more complex and one is tempted to say cyclical problem is that if nature absorbs carbon it will one day release it. Trees aren’t just carbon sinks that grow tall and then shed their leaves or needles and remain as standing planks. Did anyone really think they did?

Sometimes it seems they did, especially governments engaged in carbon-emission-statistic jiggery-pokery to seem to meet their Paris targets without taking actions that annoy voters. But it’s still weird to find an environmentalist suddenly discovering the circle of life. Didn’t they watch the Lion King?

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