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Carbon Nation at 10: The future’s not what it used to be

The filmmaker takes stock of a decade's worth of progress, or lack thereof, in curbing carbon.

Cliff Etheredge Carbon Nation

West Texas cotton farmer Cliff Etheredge shows off his wind turbines. Photo by Peter Byck.

We made "Carbon Nation"— "a climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change" — as an answer to Al Gore’s movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." We saw Gore as Paul Revere in his film; we were hunting for the George Washingtons to solve the problem.

About halfway through our documentary, we talked about electricity produced from a steel mill’s waste heat. Our narrator, Bill Kurtis, intoned: "This electricity made from wasted heat is one-third the cost of the steel mill’s regular electricity. And if we made use of all waste-to-energy opportunities, world CO2 emissions would be reduced by 12 percent, maybe more."

Do it because you’re a greedy bastard and you just want cheap power.

Then comes my favorite line from the movie, spoken by Sean Casten, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Illinois's 6th congressional district, who was running the company that produced that electricity: "I don’t know of any bigger opportunity to make more money reducing more CO2 than this one. So, if you don’t give a damn about the environment, do it because you’re a greedy bastard and you just want cheap power."

There is our movie in a nutshell: Energy efficiency, clean energy and smart land use are all simply good business. It just takes leadership.

How many steel mills are capturing their waste heat and producing electricity? It is still woefully low. How many could? All of them.

Beyond pipe dreams

When we began filming in 2007, Google came out with RE<C. That is, coal will go away when renewable energy is cheaper. It was a pipe dream then. It’s a reality now. In Tucson a few summers ago, the cheapest electron one could produce was via solar panels coupled with battery storage. As Green Hawk Dan Nolan, U.S. Army Colonel (retired), said in our film, "What we really don’t have right now is utility-level power storage; that for me is the Holy Grail." Batteries of that scale now exist. The new Holy Grail is long-duration, utility-scale battery storage — systems that efficiently hold onto the electrons for over 100 hours.

Much has changed in these past 10 years: Coal was 42 percent of our energy mix in the United States; it’s now 23 percent. Large-scale solar electricity was about 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011, it’s now less than 7 cents. Onshore wind was between 8.2 cents and 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, it is now between 2.6 cents and 5.7 cents.

In the film, we focused on a wind farm in West Texas, organized by a one-armed cotton farmer named Cliff Etheredge. Cliff got 400 neighbors to form a company so EON Energy could negotiate with a single entity. ("You might say I did it all single-handedly, see?" he quipped.) They built, at that time, the world’s largest wind farm. When the droughts of 2011 and 2012 hit, most of these cotton farmers had no crops, but with each turbine generating up to $15,000 in revenue per year, they were able to save their farms. An unintended benefit of renewable energy.

"Carbon Nation" was an 84-minute documentary about climate change that had 80 minutes of solutions, and four minutes of problems, broken into four segments: pine beetles in the Rockies; an anaerobic dead zone off the coast of Oregon; winter rains flooding the Cascades; and winter coastal erosion in Alaska.

It is hard to believe, but back in 2009, as we were wrapping up film production, scientists were loath to say specific events were caused by climate change. We found these stories because brave researchers were sticking their necks out and making the claim that climate change was not a future event, it was already happening. Of course, all of these problems are worse, and many more happen daily, such as sunny day flooding along the Atlantic Coast, forest fire seasons in the West that have no downtime and extreme rain events ruining crops throughout the Midwest.

We had hoped this film would be as useful in 2021 as a buggy whip was in 1921, when the Model T took over personal transportation from the horse and buggy. But solutions we covered then still are distressingly unrealized, such as retrofitting low-income housing with energy-efficient insulation and appliances.

John Rowe, then CEO of Exelon, said: "The whole thought of taking (energy) and simply blowing it out uncaulked windows is enough to make one cry. It’s bad economics, it’s bad carbon and its worse for poor people." Van Jones, the then soon-to-be Obama White House green jobs czar, added: "I see the United States having almost a full-employment economy based on retrofitting, rebooting a nation." I hear the Biden infrastructure plan includes addressing this massive opportunity; that will be money well-spent.

Green roofs are beautiful, but energy-efficiency pioneer Art Rosenfeld saw the power of the white roof to counter the loss of the polar ice caps’ albedo effect, in which the glaciers reflect sunlight back out into space; he saw that as a means to greatly lower the energy costs of cooling buildings. In the film, he said, "By the time you get all the roofs white, you would be cooling the earth equivalent to having grabbed 24 billion tons of CO2 out of the air, which is equivalent to capping global warming for the next seven years. It’s huge!" This is an incredibly cheap solution still awaiting leadership worldwide.

The parts per million of CO2 in the air in 2011, when the film was released, was 387; today it is 416. It feels discouraging, but the solutions are more encouraging than ever.

Graze expectations

So, how do we draw down more CO2 than we are emitting? In "Carbon Nation," we focused on forests, farms and pastures: Stop burning the forests (20 percent of worldwide emissions) and adopt regenerative agricultural techniques on farms.

Since the film’s release, I have focused my filmmaking on regenerative ag, specifically grazing. Here are 10 short films on adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing we made between 2013 and 2019.

At Arizona State University, where I am a professor in both the School of Sustainability and the Cronkite School of Journalism, I am helping to lead a new research project, seeking to answer whether AMP grazing can be a greenhouse gas sink that can draw down more GHG than the cattle and grazing system emits. Our science team is comparing AMP grazing with conventional grazing on five farm pairs in the Southeast U.S.

We began fieldwork in 2018, and our just-published first paper, on soil carbon and nitrogen, is showing that the soils on the AMP side of the fence sequester 13 percent more carbon and 9 percent more nitrogen than the soils in the baseline farms. Our team will be releasing papers over the next year, covering soil microbes, water infiltration, insect and bird biodiversity, forage production, animal and farmer well-being and GHG cycling.

And of course, there will be a new documentary about all the farmers and scientists involved.

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