TechnologyCarbon Sequestration: How Hemp Can Help Save the World

Carbon Sequestration: How Hemp Can Help Save the World

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Although hemp was once a staple crop for global populations, it has been heavily stigmatized for decades in recent history. Now that the fight against climate change grows more urgent, scientists have put their reservations aside and are beginning to realize how Cannabis plants can save the world.

What is carbon sequestration and why does it matter?

Many people have made global warming seem like a recent development. Yet, bits and pieces of the concept as we know it emerged almost 200 years ago. In 1824, Jean Baptist Joseph Fourier, a mathemetician associated with Napoleon, discovered what we now call the “greenhouse effect.” 

Fourier pointed out that the Earth’s atmosphere keeps heat on the planet, maintaining livable temperatures. Years later, Eunice Foote learned that certain gases cause air to warm up when exposed to sunlight. In the decades since, we’ve learned more about how these gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO₂), have been heating up our planet. 

The problem worsened after the Industrial Revolution. Since 1760, more and more fossil fuels, mainly including CO₂, were being pumped into the atmosphere continuously. In increasingly urgent efforts to reverse this and turn the earth back on course to normal atmospheric conditions, scientists’ attention turned to carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration is a natural process through which the environment absorbs and stores CO₂ from the atmosphere. It is one of the most reliable methods available to combat the effects of global warming. 

The recent excitement over new ways to sequester harmful gases from the atmosphere and further, cutting-edge approaches to carbon storage, has reinvigorated climate activists. The public has new hope for slowing the many effects of a warming planet, now that a new plant has joined the ranks for extracting carbon dioxide and other GHGs from the air: hemp. 

Types of carbon sequestration

There are three primary variations of carbon sequestration, described below.

Geologic

Geologic carbon sequestration is a form of carbon sequestration involving geological formations. 

Manual methods entail collecting CO₂ from stationary sources, converting the element to a liquid state, and injecting it deep below ground. The soil must be permeable enough to absorb the liquid CO₂ and is sealed with an impermeable rock layer to prevent release.

Biologic

This is the most well-known type of carbon sequestration. As the name implies, biologic carbon sequestration involves living things. 

From towering trees to the shortest of grasses, plant species of all kinds can capture CO₂ and store it in their leaves, root systems, etc. The ocean’s carbon-capturing abilities also fall under this category.

Using industrial hemp to capture and store CO₂ would fall under this category of carbon sequestration. 

Technological

Technological carbon sequestration has many forms, with even more in development. Researchers are not only looking to trap carbon but find ways to use it, too. 

Present variations of technological carbon sequestration include:

  • Graphene: This material is one way that carbon emissions can be used for good. It repurposes CO₂ to be used to make mobile devices’ screens. 
  • Direct air capture (DAC): DAC involves extracting CO₂ directly from the air with advanced tech. For the moment, this is far too expensive for widespread use.
  • Engineered molecules: Researchers are creating brand-new molecules that can essentially home in on CO₂ and capture it. 

How industrial hemp flower can help capture carbon

Cannabis plants are often stigmatized or dismissed in Western society due to gross misunderstandings of the herb. Yet, it has more environmental value than you might think. Here’s how industrial hemp farming could make a huge difference in saving the world from climate change. 

The bad: Cultivation choices can emit lots of carbon

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Growing hemp indoors can produce lots of CO₂. This forms the foundation of one perspective on hemp’s carbon footprint

Research on indoor marijuana cultivation revealed that the estimated emission range is 2-5 tons of CO₂ per kilogram of dried product. This is mainly because of all the electricity and natural gases required to cultivate hemp crops. 

So, you see, the emissions don’t necessarily come from the hemp plants themselves. Instead, the carbon footprint is based on the growth technique. Hemp on its own has many natural benefits for the environment. 

The good: Hemp absorbs tons of carbon (literally)

Now, the good side – the side of industrial hemp farming that could positively change the course of the planet’s future in its fight against climate change. 

Recent research has demonstrated that hemp plants have an impressive capacity for carbon sequestration. Scientists have learned that hemp can absorb more carbon per hectare “than any forest or commercial crop.” 

A single hectare of hemp can absorb 22 tonnes (~24 tons) of CO₂. Due to its rapid growth rate, hemp is one of the fastest CO₂-to-biomass conversion resources in the world. (CO₂-to-biomass refers to the plant’s ability to absorb the carbon and use it for energy production.) 

It’s substantially more efficient than agroforestry, one of the oldest environmentally-friendly practices in the world, covering over 1 billion hectares of land worldwide. 

Every ton of industrial hemp stems can hold 0.445 tonnes (~0.49 tons) of carbon taken directly from the Earth’s atmosphere. The captured carbon can account for up to 44.46% of the stem’s dry weight. Converting carbon to CO₂ shows that a single ton of hemp can absorb 1.63 tonnes (~1.8 tons) of CO₂. 

Further, hemp requires very little fertilizer and can grow relatively well without pesticides or herbicides. Because of this, hemp’s carbon emissions are below average. Therefore, it can essentially offset its own emissions because of the sheer amount of carbon it can take in.

Scientists have high hopes for hemp carbon sequestration when it comes to mitigating climate change’s impacts. Some hope that expanding and supporting the hemp industry could not only reduce the amount of  CO₂ in the atmosphere but replace “tree-derived products,” too. This can lower the intense use of trees, thus maintaining forests sequestering capacity. 

How does carbon sequestration work?

Carbon sequestration happens differently depending on what’s absorbing the emissions. For instance, grasslands are some of the most reliable  “carbon sinks” (where carbon is absorbed and trapped) because they don’t face the same impacts as forests and other habitats in terms of fires and droughts. 

This is because grass stores sequestered carbon in its root system, not the blades. So, if it’s damaged, the carbon stays trapped underground.

On the other hand, forests’ trees store their carbon in the leaves and branches. When these fall off, the sequestered carbon releases back into the atmosphere or can break down and return to the soil. 

Since hemp is more closely related to grass than trees, it is likely to behave in a similar manner. This means that hemp holds remarkable potential for mitigating the effects of a warming planet. 

The growing need for atmospheric carbon dioxide removal

The need for carbon sequestration grows more urgent with every passing day. Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere held roughly 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon. Now, there is well over 400 ppm, a longstanding threshold that spelled doom for climate scientists and environmentalists. 

As it stands, the earth only has the capacity to capture slightly more than half of all CO₂ in the atmosphere. A whopping 45% of the harmful gas remains in the atmosphere. About one-quarter is taken in by forests, farms, and grasslands, while the ocean accounts for one-third of it. 

If we have any hope of saving the world as we know it, we must ramp up mitigation efforts by discovering more natural ways to rein in the threat.

Conclusion

Scientists have discovered that hemp could play a vital role in the fight against climate change. Remarkably, one ton of hemp can store 0.445 tons of carbon (or 1.63 tons of CO₂). 

This means that planting hemp is potentially one of the best ways to sequester carbon dioxide and clean up our atmosphere. Using it as the primary alternative for many tree-derived materials like paper and building material can also reduce tree harvesting and give forests more bandwidth for carbon storage. 

Hemp can not only change the world, but your individual life, too. From food to clothing, its applications are seemingly endless. Learn more about this extraordinary herb by keeping up with all things hemp and cannabis with Hemp.inc. 

Troy Kelleher
Troy is a marketing expert with a background in investigative journalism, where he's written for Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times Media Group. He's passionate about storytelling around cannabis, particularly around it's utility as a resource in the modern world.

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