Is Hemp a Secret Solution to Our Carbon Problem?
Hemp is a hardy and highly adaptive plant that has been grown for thousands of years. The plant was used to make fabric, rope, sails and paper (among other things). Hemp can be grown in such a variety of climates and soil conditions that mass production will be a breeze.
To our ancient ancestors, cannabis was a source of products, food, and medicine. Today, we face another challenge that could reshape our lives.
Reforestation is a good way to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, but it’s not the best solution for a few reasons.
Hemp seems to have an ever-growing list of potential uses and benefits, but could it really be a powerful tool against climate change?
The Current Climate Situation
According to NASA, atmosopheric CO2 concentrations are rising at an unprecedented rate. It took pre-industrial Earth 20,000 years to reach the same carbon dioxide levels as we’ve done in the last 171 years.
Research into recycling and green energy continues, but we’re still mostly dependent on fossil fuels – despite the slight slump we saw during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns.
But, much like the Great Recession, demand and consumption will spike again. According to The Guardian, economic stimulus money will help create a surge of fossil fuel use. Consequently, we’ll also see increased carbon emissions.
Non-renewable resources appear to be a cheap and efficient way to handle our energy needs. We’re used to these tools, so suddenly shifting gears is logistically impossible. But we’re at a turning point where gradual change may not be fast enough.
There are a lot of ways to reduce atmospheric carbon, including reforestation. These flaws make hemp a better option for mitigating CO2.
Hemp as a Solution to Climate Change
Industrial hemp – a chemovar of the Cannabis sativa L. plant species – may just be returning to the spotlight, but it’s one of our oldest crops. Estimates put its use as far back as the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
Hemp used to be an industrial staple in Europe and North America. It became so prominent that King James I announced a royal decree, ordering every citizen in the British colony of Jamestown to grow at least 100 plants.
Had that trend continued, could our climate situation have been at least marginally better? If so, it might be time to revive that practice.
What About Replanting?
Tree-planting is a well-meaning approach to CO2 reduction. Forests are powerful tools to help clear the air and reduce environmental impact. But although they’re handy to have if left alone, the lumber industry can quickly make short work of them.
There’s also the issue of environmental impact. Cutting down large portions of forest throws the entire ecosystem off balance. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations explains that forests house the majority of plant, animal, and insect species. Every tree cut directly impacts biodiversity.
While reforestation sounds good in practice, some flaws make hemp a preferable choice.
Hemp Grows Faster than Trees
It’s no secret that trees grow slowly compared to most vegetation. Smaller ones grow quickly, but others only grow a few inches a year.
As a result, it takes time for trees to have a meaningful impact on atmospheric carbon levels.
Hemp, on the other hand, can reach six to 13 feet within four months. Comparably, the world’s fastest-growing tree – the empress splendor – grows ten to 20 feet per year but takes 10 years to mature.
If you can produce 13-foot-tall hemp plants for times per year, that amount of production dwarfs any tree species.
All the Cleaning Without the Mess
Again, forests form the backbone of Earth’s biodiversity. We’ve been told since childhood how deforestation is a driving force behind extinction.
Not only does massive deforestation affect native species, it also hamstrings Earth’s ability to use forests as a carbon sink. But there’s no profit in simply planting trees. Hemp, however, is another story.
You won’t find many species who call hemp fields home. Even if some critters make their way into a massive cannabis farm, harvests won’t drive any animals or plants to extinction.
Hemp also doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides, which are substances most – if not all – hemp producers and vendors avoid.
Hemp Absorbs More CO2
We’ve seen lots of reasons to give hemp a chance to tackle climate change. But the most compelling argument is hemp’s efficiency. Hemp can simply do more with less time, effort, and energy.
But where does hemp stack up against trees for performance? Unsurprisingly, it’s way better at handling CO2.
The bottom line is hemp absorbs more carbon than trees.
Good Earth Resources calls hemp “the ideal carbon sink.” That’s because it outdoes trees by leaps and bounds.
Let’s make a quick comparison. Bloomberg explains that one acre of trees can recapture between one and 10 metric tons of CO2 per year. The only exception being the aforementioned empress tree, which consumes over 100 metric tons per acre. But again, the empress is an exception.
Hemp absorbs up to 22 tons of carbon per hectare, and can be harvested twice yearly, doubling the efficiency to 44 tons. When translated into acres for our above comparison, this translates to 18 tons per acre – twice the maximum average with less impact.
Multiple Other Uses
The fantastic thing about planting hemp is its versatility. Hemp farmers don’t grow hemp intending to let it sit and consume CO2. The plant’s importance to other industries just happens to position it as an effective carbon-stopper.
We all know some common tree uses, like lumber, paper, and other commodities. But did you know hemp can do all of that and more?
So not only is hemp a more effective carbon sink, but its industrial uses could theoretically replace trees entirely – and then some.
Many people and businesses have turned away from paper whenever possible, such as online billing or electronic record-keeping. But the product is still in high demand, as are the trees that make it.
But why deal with all the other complications when hemp may be just as good as tree-based paper?
Polish researchers examined the physical properties of conventional and hemp papers. They concluded that paper made from industrial hemp could be an equal substitute.
However, they advise that new technology is needed to maximize hemp’s potential for paper production. The authors also remind us that their work is preliminary. Still, the experts are optimistic based on their results.
Hemp as a Substitute for Plastics
Since childhood, we’ve been told how plastic recycling is a revolutionary way to reduce waste. Every plastic bottle, plate, or container gets melted down and reused, right?
Wrong. Big time.
Plastics offer no benefit other than convenience and have a terrible impact on the environment. Although some plastics can get reused in some way, most don’t.
To illustrate, only 2% of these materials are recycled into similar-grade products. Another 8% make their way into lower-quality plastic. As for the other 90%? It ends up in a landfill or incinerator, which also helps pump more CO2 into the atmosphere.
Plastics also heavily rely on fossil fuels for production. Consequently, their large carbon footprint will get even larger. At this rate, emissions are expected to climb from 5.9 million metric tons in 2015 to 91 million by 2050.
Furthermore, nearly half of plastics are for packaging and other single uses, so that only narrows the amount of plastic to be recycled.
Another exciting thing to consider is that hemp is self-sustaining. Although hemp farming still creates a carbon footprint, its almost supernatural air-cleaning ability consumes more CO2 than its cultivation creates.
Hemp is a viable alternative to plastics. Not only does it create the same quality material, but it’s also biodegradable. To be fair, plastic also biodegrades – it just takes a few centuries.
But if they aim to make a substantial change in atmospheric carbon, then our plastic should end up in a compost heap, not an incinerator.
Hemp and Biofuel
When we picture “green energy,” things like solar, wind, and hydroelectric typically come to mind. But biofuel is an essential tool we can’t overlook.
Biofuel already exists from sources like corn, but hemp can be an even better option. But this isn’t some novel idea put forth by hemp advocates. Henry Ford invented a car powered with hemp biofuel. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry ultimately won the rights to the internal combustion engine.
Why Should You Learn More About Hemp?
Hemp is a fantastic plant, and its modern uses are only beginning to be uncovered. It has the potential to help us protect our climate, so we should all support efforts to make hemp more accessible for farmers.
We invite you to learn more about hemp’s many benefits, including how to get started with hemp-derived CBD!
- Reforestation can help reduce CO2 emissions but has significant drawbacks.
- Hemp absorbs CO2 more effectively than most tree species.
- Deforestation takes time to reverse, and trees require years to grow, while hemp fully matures in months.
- Hemp can provide the same commodities as trees and substitute for other industries – such as paper, plastic, and fuel – all with a comparatively tiny carbon footprint.
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