The Value of Carbon Capture and Sequestration as an Ecosystem Service

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Mossy Chaos copy
Evidence of chloroplasts doing their job of carbon capture and sequestration in service of the exquisite plants in the Olympic Range of Washington. (Photo courtesy of S. Mulkey)

“Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s lifecycle.”
Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) speaking in the House on Earth Day 2009

 “Essentially these communities of organisms are our life support system.” Hal Mooney, Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology, Stanford University, 2011


Over thirty years of industry-sponsored disinformation has compounded the public’s lack of scientific understanding of how our planet works. I recall the time in 2007 when I visited Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s office in Washington to speak on behalf of a doomed energy bill. A few minutes into my pitch, I realized that the young staffers dutifully taking notes did not understand that plants can affect the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere because they remove CO2 from the air. I was happy to explain photosynthesis and point out that every molecule of carbon in our bodies had been taken from the atmosphere by a plant before it entered the food web.

Public understanding of the profound disruption of the carbon balance of Earth should be as commonplace as our knowledge of influenza or how to drive a car. But, it is hardly fair to blame the public for scientific illiteracy when scientists use opaque jargon and doublespeak.

Negative Emissions

Keeping the warming of Earth below the 1.5˚C limit adopted last December at the COP 21 in Paris will require negative emissions. Yes, “negative emissions.” Although there are technical distinctions about rates of emissions and uptake, this absurd term refers to actively removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. In virtually all considerations by policymakers, this means CO2 capture and sequestration (CCS) through technological means. One might marvel that it has come to this, and my mind recoils at the scale and complexity of such a global effort.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has now surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time in about 4 million years. Although the potent greenhouse effects of the industrial revolution will persist for more than a thousand years, CO2 qualifies as a trace gas and comprises only about 0.04 percent of the atmosphere. Each part per million is equivalent to 2.13 billion metric tons (gigatons). Thus, CO2 is a widely dispersed rare gas whose total volume and weight in the atmosphere are unimaginably huge. It has amplified or been a primary driver of every excursion of the Earth’s temperature over the previous 40 million years or more.

Various CCS technologies have been proposed to achieve negative emissions. Of these, the most commonly cited is technology to compress CO2 for geological storage. Presently there are fewer than five such experimental operations in the world. A recent example is the Hellisheiði Power Station in Iceland, where CO2 is combined with a substrate and turned into rock. The journal Science referred to this as a breakthrough that might be rapidly brought to scale for global application. Various approaches employ three steps: (1) absorption of CO2 by a chemical sorbent exposed to the air, (2) stripping of the CO2 from the sorbent, and (3) compression of pure CO2 to high pressure for sequestration in benthic ocean layers or deep in the geological substrate. One version uses biomass as fuel in a conventional power plant and employs technology-based carbon capture and sequestration.

I am contemptuous of this technology-driven approach. Such attempts at fixing the climate are like replacing mothers milk with powdered formula and then treating the resulting nutritional deficiencies and developmental problems with vitamins and medical intervention. Everybody makes money except the families and kids who suffer. Big-technology CCS projects will benefit financiers, shareholders, and project developers, but are unlikely to be of value for truly global mitigation of climate change. Investor-owned public utilities, private energy contractors, and fossil fuel corporations love this stuff. Bringing such big projects to a global scale would require an initial massive use of fossil fuels and continued depletion of scarce resources. As such twisted thinking plays out, we may run out of time to keep warming below a level consistent with the maintenance of civilization. It is likely that geoengineering the climate would become an irresistible temptation. The entire approach is characteristic of human hubris and our belief that we can dominant nature while wresting wellbeing from the Earth by controlling it.

Gee, how’s that been working for us?

The Earth is a massive CO2 engine with many trillions of CCS devices known as chloroplasts, which are packaged in a countless variation of organisms, from phytoplankton in the ocean to giant sequoias in California. These are amazing energy transfer devices that use sunlight to drive the capture of CO2 from the air. Organisms use this carbon in a multitude of ways for growth, maintenance, and reproduction, ultimately respiring some of it back to the atmosphere. The path of carbon through the biosphere is myriad and complex, with manifold opportunities for sequestration over various timescales, from minutes to millennia. I am baffled that policy considerations fail to focus on this obvious means of climate change mitigation. The bizarre fixation on a technological solution comes during an era of the profound disruption of the biosphere through human use of natural resources and the effects of accelerating climate change. In short, we are destroying the very means of our long-term salvation.

Valuation of Ecosystem Services

In 1997 Robert Costanza, an ecological economist, published a landmark paper in the journal Nature in which he championed the concept of natural capital and the economic value of ecosystem services. He envisioned an economy in which ecosystem services are monetized. The highly respected Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (United Nations agencies 2005) divides these services into the functions of supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural (figure below). Costanza recognized climate regulation as one of the most critical ecosystem services.


Various attempts have been made to calculate the combined value of these services. Costanza and colleagues estimated that in 1997 ecosystem services amounted to $33 trillion per year and an estimated $125 trillion per year in 2011. The value of lost ecosystem services due to land use change from 1997-2011 was estimated to range from $4.3 trillion to $20.2 trillion per year. Included in these estimates is the biosphere’s critical role in regulating climate, but many scholars now consider the original work to have underestimated the value of this function.

Although Costanza’s work is now legendary among ecologists, monetizing ecosystem services and natural capital has been problematic. Is it possible to treat a given ecosystem service as a market commodity? Much of the difficulty with this concept comes from determining how to calculate the exchange value of a particular service with respect to other forms of goods and services. If we are to pay for such services, we need to know how much to pay. This issue becomes even more problematic when attempting to determine the cost of a particular transaction—say the building of a shopping center— regarding the lost natural capital and who should pay for this loss. The exchange values of various ecosystem services vary from place to place and through time. Various schemes to incorporate the value of the biosphere into Adam Smith’s concept of an economy driven by enlightened self-interest have met with theoretical and practical challenges. The “invisible hand” acting through the collective action of numerous independent free-market players will not serve to preserve our common good. Scholars continue to debate whether Costanza’s ideas are ecology or economy.

Despite these difficulties, attempting to capture the value of presently ignored ecological processes represents progress. Because capitalism employs a cost vs. benefit approach, efforts to place a value on ecosystem services force their inclusion in decision making. Once acknowledged as valuable, ecosystem services such as climate regulation can no longer be externalized. Because climate change has been treated as an externality and not included in economic decision making, Sir Nicholas Stern, the former British Exchequer and lead author of a major review of the economic costs of climate change, referred to climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

In an apparent evolution of his thinking, Costanza recently noted that “valuation of ecosystems is not something we can choose to do or not to do” because every economic decision has ecological consequences and ultimately affects the sustainability of our civilization. Further, he suggests that ecosystem services are outside the market and must remain there because they cannot be privatized. Accordingly, they must be managed as shared assets and assigned property rights by a government on behalf its citizens according to the public trust doctrine.

Climate Regulation is the Most Valuable Ecosystem Service

For climate regulation to be included in the global economy, its value must be regulated by governments as a public trust. Because valuation is not the same as monetization, collectively we must agree to assign a monetary value to climate regulation in general, and to CCS by ecosystems specifically. To anyone following the debates about climate change policy, all evidence suggests that the first step to accomplishing this is to put a price on carbon. It is this logical connection between climate and the cost per ton of carbon that underpins the concepts of a carbon market, a carbon tax, and carbon fee and dividend schemes. All of these will depend on government regulation, international agreement about exchange rates, price per ton, and agreement on how to assess various forms of carbon. This process will not be simple, but other sectors of the global economy are highly complex yet routinely included in market transactions and regulated by governments. Applying carbon pricing to its various roles in ecosystems will require expert guidance and could form the foundation of a new knowledge-based global economy. The United Nations REDD programs (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) are just such an attempt to apply market forces to preserve mostly tropical forests. To the extent that REDD protects the carbon in forests, its financial incentive structure monetizes this resource.

Yes, my free-market friends, this means more government, and it demonstrates that the reach of government is not the issue. It is the quality and purpose of government that matters more than its size. As formalized by Garrett Hardin’s 1968 cornerstone paper in Science, The Tragedy of the Commons, unregulated capitalism will inevitably result in market failure. Put simply, in the era of massive ecological disruption, government management of the public trust is necessary to preserve a biosphere that will support civilization.

A well-regulated system of carbon valuation will provide at least three significant benefits. First, because the flux of carbon through ecosystems is linked tightly to ecosystem form and function, ecosystem services will be preserved and enhanced to varying degrees as we focus on management to maximize carbon uptake and minimize emissions from biological sources. Unmitigated climate change in some ecosystems can cause services to crash, and a recent review shows that impacts on ecosystem services will be broadly negative. Carbon is a form of natural capital, and investments in various forms of natural capital have been shown to enhance ecosystem services. For example, active management to improve soil carbon storage has demonstrated multiple positive impacts on the flow of energy and materials through a biological community.

Secondly, through its preservation of ecosystem form and function, valuation of carbon uptake and storage will act to protect biodiversity. Although natural communities will change in composition as changing climate drives species to new locations, ecosystem management could facilitate the establishment of novel combinations of species in a given area. As I noted in a previous contribution, carbon management includes remediation of habitats to ensure the survival of species, but not necessarily at their present location or perhaps even within their historical biological community. The maintenance of novel but diverse ecosystems will provide the best defense against climate change through their ability to uptake and sequester carbon.

A third, and possibly greatest, benefit of valuation of biosphere carbon will be our capacity to exert some control over the pace of global warming. Although most attention is directed at reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, we now have the added challenge of accelerating emissions from the biosphere. While the scientific community struggles to quantify the extent of this positive feedback from various parts of the biosphere, there is no doubt that it is occurring. The tundra is thawing, methane is emerging from once frozen lands and from warming coastal waters, forests and savannas are burning, extreme weather is damaging ecosystems, extended drought is resulting in impaired growth of forest, there is worldwide forest dieback, massive peat fires are now frequent, and warming soils and organisms respire more CO2 to the atmosphere. If we include managed systems such as forestry and agriculture, emissions from biological sources are one of the top three contributors to global warming. Thus, management of biosphere carbon will be necessary for long-term stabilization of climate change. To this end, carbon farming is gaining respect in the scientific community as a powerful tool for managing global carbon.

Governance is Key

The tragedy of the global commons cannot be avoided without government regulation. This function is an example of the ideal role of government. Protection of the public trust in a world that is now full is necessary if our descendants are to have a livable planet. Once this reality is accepted, it is evident that the dogmatic practice of free market ideology will be disastrous for our future. In my view as an ecologist, the single greatest contribution of economic theory to humanity has been the concept of the economic value of ecosystem services. Because of the pervasive and timeless threat of climate change, failure to incorporate this value into our system of exchanging goods and services begs the collapse of civilization.

Effective regulation of a global commons will require binding international agreements. The major economic powers must accept responsibility for managing economic activity affecting ecosystem services on a global scale. The voluntary commitments to emissions reductions agreed to by nation states at the Paris COP 21 are an encouraging sign, but effectively confronting accelerating climate change will require international agreements with real consequences for violators. Measurement, monitoring, and assessment will be essential functions of international regulators.

Climate change has brought us to a crossroads. We must collectively agree that our human economy is a part of, rather than apart from, the Earth’s flux of energy and materials. Rather than extractive use of resources, management of planetary carbon must now become the foundation of our economy. Such an economy will depend on knowledge more than on labor and materials, creating the need for a diversified workforce to manage the world’s ecosystems. If we act decisively within the next couple decades or so, we can build a new knowledge-based economy out of wholesale global ecological disruption.