OPINION: Alaska should plug its carbon leak before bailing out the boat

Carbon sequestration puts the cart before the horse in addressing climate change. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing a major push to make Alaska a sequestration capital of the world. There’s demand — I’ve 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 doesn’t matter if we are still burning gas, coal and oil while emitting far more carbon than we can hope to capture with existing methods and technology. When you have a leak on the boat, you plug the leak before bailing out the water. Government action promoting renewable energy is what we need to do to plug the leak that is carbon emissions, and this should be prioritized over sequestration.

Direct Air Capture (DAC), the best hope at massive reduction in carbon that will stay in the ground, is still in its infancy and likely decades away from storing even a sizable fraction of the 33 billion metric tons of carbon globally emitted per year. Importantly, DAC takes a massive amount of energy to capture and store carbon in the air. That energy in Alaska right now comes primarily from natural gas, coal and hydropower. We’d be burning and emitting carbon to store carbon, moving dirt within a hole without actually climbing out.

Natural sequestration — growing trees, kelp and other plants that naturally breath in and build themselves out of the carbon dioxide in the air — is another method of storing carbon. It is simply not the solution. Measuring the amount of carbon stored, important to do if we plan to put a price tag on it, is difficult to do for a single tree, never mind an entire forest. One forest fire and years of carbon storage literally goes up in the air. In addition, forest fires and cutting down trees for firewood are both parts of healthy ecosystems for our forests. Poor policy incentives could encourage or even require forest management for natural sequestration that leaves our forests completely untouched for decades in a way that is shown to be unhealthy by scientists and any Alaskan who’s been in the woods.

Transitioning our state to renewable energy must come first. Sequestration 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 this. However, it should not distract from the real goal of transitioning to renewable energy. Alaska has some of the largest sources of renewable energy in the nation, which can serve as the foundation of a renewable energy economy. Building that economy will take the same collaboration between the state government, private actors and federal government it took 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 alum, Carlson is an environmental engineering Ph.D. student at the University of California Berkeley studying tidal renewable energy.

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