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January 09, 2020

The Ideal Green Solution

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies has a simple solution for reducing atmospheric levels of  CO2 without undoing civilization as we know it or denying people in developing countries the right to live as we do. Although Salk believes that climate change is an unprecedented threat, their solution is worth pursuing even if turns out that CO2 emissions are no threat at all. Here’s how they describe it:

“At the Salk Institute, we have developed an innovative and scalable approach to tackle climate change using an answer that has been hiding in plain sight: the plants that surround us.

“Plants have evolved over time to be the perfect vehicle for carbon capture and storage. Through photosynthesis, they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and biomass.

“The Harnessing Plants Initiative will optimize a plant’s natural ability to capture and store carbon and adapt to diverse climate conditions.

“Plants take in CO2 and store carbon in their roots.

“Suberin—also known as cork—is a naturally occurring carbon-rich substance found in plant roots. It absorbs carbon yet resists decomposition (which releases carbon back into the atmosphere), enriches soil and helps plants resist stress.

“By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk's plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin.

“The Salk team will use cutting-edge genetic and genomic techniques to develop these Ideal Plants.®…”

“Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola. [nb. these crops are planted from new seed every year so Salk’s plan to license the plant genes to seed distributors is a fast and self-funding way to get the Ideal Plants out into the world quickly.]

“In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.   [nb. emphasis mine. Better yields will incent farmers to buy and plant these seeds and reduce the land, fertilizer, and water needed to grow a given amount of food.]

“Plant ecosystems in the earth’s oceans, rivers and wetlands have the capacity to store far more carbon than their land-based relatives.

“Restoring aquatic systems will allow seagrasses and coastal plants to thrive and store more carbon while also reinvigorating fisheries; rejuvenating coral reefs; and aiding in coastal restoration efforts.”

There are, of course, many others besides Salk claiming to have a solution to global warming (and using the threat of warming to raise funds). Salk has not yet proven that their approach is practical; it does sound too good to be true.. There will be objections both because this solution relies on genetically modified plants (GMOs) and because, if it all works as advertised, we can make a thoughtful and less hysterical transition from fossil fuels without massive government intervention or huge economic dislocation.

The Salk Institute has earned the right to be taken seriously. It was founded by Dr. Jonas Salk using the money he earned from inventing the first practical polio vaccine. Over its history its faculty have been awarded six Nobel prizes, three Albert Lasker Awards, and numerous other accolades. It has made groundbreaking discoveries, particularly in genetics.

Last week I blogged that I am receiving over $6000 in useless rebates because I bought a partially-electric hybrid car. My car does very little to reduce CO2 emissions and I was going to buy it even before I knew about the rebates so they didn’t influence my behavior. Since I felt guilty, I said I’d donate the rebates to charity.  They will go to the Salk Institute where I think these rebates really may do some good.

Vermont, which wants to do something about the threat of climate change, should consider how our agricultural college (UVM) and our going-out-of-business farms can be used for experiments in Ideal Plants which benefit from increased atmospheric CO2 (reuse is better even than recycle). Better use of our money IMO than feel-good incentives which mainly go the affluent and is more likely to have world-wide effect if successful than any tiny reductions we can make on our own. Imagine if we could pioneer Ideal Marijuana!

[Note: this Friday, the 10th, at 11am ET I will be talking about plant-based CO2 reduction with Bill Sayre on his radio show on WDEV 96.1 FM, 550 AM. The show is streamed on the web at https://wdevradio.com/stream/.]

See also:

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

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