Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin—like lead in our drinking water. In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool.
The world’s current carbon strategy aims to promote a goal of zero. Predominant language currently includes words such as “low carbon,” “zero carbon,” “negative carbon,” and even a “war on carbon.”
The design world needs values-based language that reflects a safe, healthy and just world. In this new paradigm, by building urban food systems and cultivating closed-loop flows of carbon nutrients, carbon can be recognized as an asset rather than a toxin, and the life-giving carbon cycle can become a model for human designs.
The new language signals positive intentions, leading us to do more good rather than simply less bad. It identifies three categories of carbon:
- Living carbon: organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow
- Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused
- Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, ‘waste to energy’ plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development
Working carbon is a subset of all three categories and defined as a material being put to human use. For example, working living carbon is cultivated in agricultural systems. Working durable carbon is recycled, reused and reprocessed in circular technical systems; and working fugitive carbon includes fossil fuels used for power.
The new language also identifies three strategies for carbon management and climate change:
- Carbon positive: actions converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates; also recycling of carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers and sewers
- Carbon neutral: actions that transform or maintain carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydropower that do not release carbon
- Carbon negative: actions that pollute the land, water and atmosphere with various forms of carbon, for example, CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics in the ocean
Offering an inspiring model for climate action begins with changing the way we talk about carbon. Our goal is for all to embrace this new language and work toward a Carbon Positive design framework; and in doing so we may together support a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world—with clean air, soil, water and energy—that is economical, equitable, ecological, and elegantly enjoyed.
McDonough’s analysis in Nature, “Carbon is Not the Enemy” add precision and accessibility to an important building block of understanding the human agency in phenomena such as sea levels rising. What’s more, the position paper contextualizes the science with a positive, helpfully motivating, purpose-driven call to action that almost any organization can apply to its business model planning.