Source: Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunas based on pathways of decarbonization from the World Bank and images courtesy of Unsplash

Carbon Sequestration (For Dummies)

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A number of organizations have charted a path to a decarbonized world by 2050 and broken down required action into four areas or “pathways.” In recent posts, we discussed the first three pathways — decarbonizing electricity, electrifying everything, and using energy efficiently. We also discussed how individuals can take part in, and move the needle on, these global and local strategies. Today’s post covers the final pathway, which can be controversial — carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration, in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by natural or artificial means, is an important part of any climate stabilization plan. Most of the pathways the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has outlined to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius call for substantial amounts of carbon sequestration in the coming decades.

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Pathway 4: Sequestration

There are many types of sequestration, including: 1) artificial carbon capture and storage and direct air capture (where machines pull carbon dioxide from the air); 2) natural climate solutions like reforesting, regenerative agriculture; 3) enhanced weathering (where crushed up rocks are spread on fields to capture CO2 more quickly); and 4) even sequestration in the oceans.

Sequestering carbon can be controversial because there’s a risk that spending our energy trying to remove carbon will keep us stuck in a fossil fueled world and delay action on reducing emissions. Defenders of sequestration counter that it is one pillar of the plan and the other pillars call for steep emissions reductions. No one should advocate for sequestration alone to solve the climate crisis, but at the same time, virtually all plans call for some level of sequestration given that we are already beyond safe levels of CO2 in our atmosphere and have legacy emissions (those already in our atmosphere) to address.

Mangroves have massive sequestration potential. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash.

Many think of sequestration as something that occurs on large scales and is driven by governments or corporations. This is true to a large extent, but we find it empowering that sequestration can also happen at the individual level. Individual sequestration could simply involve planting trees at home or in the community or buying cheap land and planting a mini forest. It could include regenerative agriculture in our gardens, or supporting nascent, crowdfunded direct air capture sequestration programs. Sequestration at all scales can also benefit us and our communities in ways beyond emissions reduction, like restoring habitats, providing more space for wildlife, cooling urban heat islands, and mitigating and filtering stormwater.

Carbon sequestration also offers a way to offset emissions from currently hard-to-decarbonize areas of our lives (like food production or long-distance travel). By funding forestation or artificial CO2 capture to counteract those emissions, we take responsibility and make up for some of our impact.

Sequestration for Our Family

Our daughter planting a ponderosa pine sapling on our land in rural Washington. Image courtesy of Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunas 

While most of the discussion about sequestration centers around large-scale solutions, our family has used sequestration to reduce our family’s carbon emissions and offset those that we can’t easily or reasonably tackle, and improve our quality of life. We’ll go in depth on each of our strategies, and their estimated impact, in upcoming posts, but here’s the short story:

1) We started our own family sequestration project a few years ago when we bought cheap land to reforest and planted 800 ponderosa pines with help from the US Department of Agriculture EQIP program and Mount Adams Resource Stewards.

2) We’ve planted over a dozen native and fruit trees at our urban home and are experimenting with the right balance between cover crops and no-till gardening.

3) We subscribe to crowdfunded direct air capture carbon sequestration plans like Climeworks.

4) We buy into a few local and verified carbon offset programs (Electrify Everyone, Renewable Juneau, and Seeds for the Sol, if you’re curious) that have the benefit of both reducing emissions and helping low-income people save money and electrify.

In addition to the climate benefits, all of these things improve our lives. We get shade and natural beauty at home and delicious food. We can claim a piece of rural land with beautiful mountain views that also doubles as a pretty good investment. And we have now planted hundreds of trees that will sequester carbon over the next crucial decades, and far off in the future may provide sustainable timber harvesting revenue for our grandkids once the trees are at the end of their most productive sequestration period.

We’ve planted over a dozen trees on our property, including this native Oregon white oak (center) and two fig trees (left). Image courtesy of Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunas.

What’s Next

Phew! We’ve finished introducing the four pathways of global decarbonization and how they translate to individual action. Next we’ll dig into why individual actions matter. After that we’ll get to the focus of Decarbonize Your Life with detailed posts on each individual-scale solution that both lower carbon emissions and improve life quality. Stick with us as we continue to decarbonize!

This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.


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Naomi Cole & Joe Wachunas

Joe Wachunas and Naomi Cole are passionate about decarbonizing their lives. They both work professionally to address climate change — Naomi in urban sustainability and energy efficiency and Joe in the electrification of buildings and transportation. This passion, and their commitment to walk the walk, has led them to ductless heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, induction cooking, solar in multiple forms, hang-drying laundry (including cloth diapers), no cars to electric cars and charging without a garage or driveway, a reforestation grant from the US Department of Agriculture, and more. They live in Portland, Oregon, with their two young kids and write about their decarbonizing adventures at decarbonizeyourlife.com.

Naomi Cole & Joe Wachunas has 22 posts and counting. See all posts by Naomi Cole & Joe Wachunas