Alaska should plug its carbon leak before salvaging the ship

For Tvetene Carlson

Updated: 3 minutes ago Published: 3 minutes ago

Cloudy mountains

Carbon sequestration puts the cart before the horse in tackling climate change. Governor Mike Dunleavy is proposing a big push to make Alaska a kidnapping capital of the world. It’s in demand – I heard it myself at the global meeting on climate change, COP 27, where carbon sequestration was a major talking point with many new and excited players in the space. However, sequestration does not matter if we are still burning gas, coal and oil and emitting much more carbon than we can hope to capture with existing methods and technology. When you have a leak on your boat, you plug the leak before bailing out the water. Government action that promotes renewable energy is what we must do to plug the leak that is carbon emissions, and this must be prioritized over sequestration.

Direct Air Capture (DAC), the best hope for massive reduction of carbon that will remain in the ground, is still in its infancy and is likely to be decades away from storing even a sizable fraction of the 33,000 million metric tons of carbon emitted globally per year. Importantly, DAC requires a large amount of energy to capture and store carbon in the air. That power in Alaska right now comes mostly from natural gas, coal, and hydroelectric power. We would be burning and emitting carbon to store carbon, moving dirt into a hole without coming out.

Natural sequestration (growing trees, seaweed, and other plants that naturally respire and build from carbon dioxide in the air) is another method of storing carbon. It’s just not the solution. Measuring the amount of carbon stored, which is important if we plan to put a price on it, is hard to do for a single tree, let alone an entire forest. A forest fire and years of carbon storage are literally blown through the air. Also, forest fires and cutting down trees for firewood are parts of healthy ecosystems for our forests. Poor political incentives could encourage or even require forest management for natural sequestration that leaves our forests completely untouched for decades in a way that scientists and any Alaskan who has been to the forest show is unhealthy.

Transitioning our state to renewable energy must come first. Kidnapping will be incredibly important in the future, and I encourage Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature to set ground rules for future Alaskans to benefit from it. However, it should not distract from the real goal of the transition to renewable energy. Alaska has some of the largest sources of renewable energy in the country, which can serve as the foundation for a renewable energy economy. Building that economy will require the same collaboration between state government, private players, and the federal government that was needed to build the pipeline that made oil possible. This collaboration to develop renewable energy is where the state government needs to put its energy and budget to make this future possible.

Tvetene Carlson was born and raised in Cantwell. A UAA alumnus, Carlson has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. student at the University of California Berkeley studying tidal renewable energy.

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