We live in a world of relentless technological advancement, and I’ve been writing and speaking for some time about the potential for technology to address many of the immediate environmental concerns that confront us. My own view is that these ‘solutions’ will really emerge in the Pacific Rim area as rising sea levels, especially, begin to threaten the economic dominance of the region. This scenario was recognised by the US defence staffs back in the early 1990s as being particularly likely if the US began to focus more on internal threats (eg domestic terrorism) and less on global interventions – a direction that appears to be unfolding as Barack Obama develops his new political agenda.
When we speak of ‘technology’, we usually do so with digital science in mind – communications, data processing and so on. When we think of ‘biotechnology’ it is often with genetic and nano-technologies in mind.
It’s important to remember though, that biological solutions to environmental concerns have been with us for many centuries and some may, with a lot more care than has been exercised in the past, offer the potential to tackle today’s crises.
Two groups of researchers, one at the University of New Hampshire and the other at the University of Bologna, have independently begun to concentrate on the interplay between natural Carbon and Nitrogen cycles as a mechanism for regulating the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Essentially, trees with high levels of nitrogen in them absorb proportionally higher levels of carbon dioxide and reflect higher amounts of solar energy. The exact relationship between nitrogen and solar reflectivity remains a mystery. It seems as though nitrogen could act like a switch, changing the structure and cellular properties of leaves so that they become more mirror-like especially within forests in the cooler regions of the Earth.
The potential therefore exists, in these cooler climates, for us to increase the proportion of trees with naturally higher levels of nitrogen in them, and to fertilise trees with increased nitrogen thereby reducing the carbon dioxide levels and reducing greenhouse effects in the atmosphere.
The balance is complex though, as nitrate leaching into groundwater and emissions of nitrous oxide are as environmentally threatening. In dry climates too, such fertilisation may not work as plants with high nitrogen levels also tend to have high water needs.
However, we already know that trees in the vicinity of high industrial and vehicle nitrogen emissions are absorbing more carbon from the atmosphere and it may be that this approach is an important one in well targeted and carefully controlled environments.