Photos by Dan Skye
Conceptually, cannabis and global warming share a few things in common. Both have been the subject of controversy for decades, polarizing everyone from politicians of the same party to members of the same family. Also, both have been distorted by those with a political agenda, whether it’s the supposed dangers of pot or the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.
And that’s where another interesting commonality emerges, because the cannabis plant — specifically, the durable fiber called hemp that it produces — may well prove to be an essential resource for combating global warming.
Climate Change 101
To buy into the premise of this article, you have to accept the reality of anthropogenic or man-made climate change. Not everyone is willing to do this: A March 2014 Gallup Poll found that while 65 percent of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will either happen or are happening in their lifetime, only 36 percent think that this poses a serious threat.
And as noted by Think Progress, as many as 163 current members of Congress — who have collectively received nearly $60 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry — deny the realities of climate change.
But for scientists, the consensus is decidedly different. An analysis by ex-National Science Board member Jim Powell revealed that out of approximately 14,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on climate change from 1991 to 2012, only 24 rejected the reality of global warming.
According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, the fact of global warming is unequivocal, and many of the changes to the climate observed since the 1950s are literally unprecedented over the course of decades or even millennia.
Each of the last three decades has brought successively warmer temperatures at the planet’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, the years from 1983 to 2012 were likely the warmest 30-year period in at least the last 1,400 years. Since the early 20th century, Earth’s air and sea-surface temperatures have risen 1.4°F, with two-thirds of that increase taking place since 1980.
What — or who — is creating all this warming? Look no further than the nearest mirror, for in the last 200 years, the human race has increased carbon dioxide levels by 35 percent, according to scientists with the British Antarctic Survey. Fully 90 percent of the IPCC’s contributing scientists expressed certainty that global warming since 1951 is due to greenhouse gases like CO2 created by human activity. The top emission culprits are the usual suspects like fossil-fuel combustion and wide-scale deforestation — but also less publicized offenders like cement production and gas flaring (such as from petroleum refineries).
In the United States, new record-high temperatures generally outnumber new record lows by a ratio of two-to-one. Climate change is linked to the 25 “extreme weather events” in the country in 2011 and 2012 alone — including Hurricane Sandy — that killed over 1,100 people and wreaked more than $188 billion in damage.
In 2009, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences declared that climate change due to carbon emissions was “irreversible,” and that even if we stopped all emissions now, atmospheric temperatures would not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years due to the length of time it takes for the oceans to cool.
So does that mean we should just give up all hope and party till the bitter end? No — the human race has always proved resilient in the face of tremendous upheaval and adversity. But this time, it might just take a special plant to help us better cope with the coming catastrophe.
Hemp: The Banned-Aid
The current California drought
— the worst in recorded history — is generally attributed to global warming, even though media sources like the Weather Channel actually tried blaming unregulated marijuana cultivation
as a contributing factor (despite the fact that pot is extremely drought-resistant once it’s past the seedling stage — and also requires a lot less aqua than all those suburban Cali lawns).
Though it’s been outlawed in the United States since 1937, the multi-purpose — and, it should be stated, nonpsychoactive — hemp plant can not only thrive in the extreme weather conditions wrought by global warming, but legalized and professionally harvested, it can provide significant solutions to at least some of the major causes and complications of global warming.
If we’re going to seriously attempt to address manmade climate change, reducing fossil-fuel emissions is critical. Hemp-seed oil is extremely well suited for the conversion of biomass (i.e., mate- rial derived from living organisms) to biofuel. Biofuels include biodiesel and bioethanol — and though they serve primarily as additives to fossil fuels, both in their pure form can be viable substitutes for gasoline.
As spelled out by Hemphasis.net, biodiesel fuel energy is two-thirds less polluting than petroleum diesel. Biomass also has a heating value — the energy released when a given compound undergoes complete combustion with oxygen — that produces virtually no ash or sulfur emissions.
Biodiesel and other biofuels can conceivably be created at a fraction of the cost of oil, coal or nuclear power — especially given the environmental costs of these traditional forms of energy. Switching biofuels for fossil fuels would also drastically reduce acid rain and sulfur-based smog.
Using an ethanol-blended fuel such as E85 — 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline — could reduce net greenhouse-gas emissions by more than a third. And while ethanol-powered vehicles have slightly less performance, they also have engines that burn cleaner.
Another crucial fact: Hemp converts sun energy via photosynthesis into multi- beneficial cellulose faster than any other plant. Hemp is at least four times richer in cellulose potential than the already legal sources, such as cornstalk and sugarcane, traditionally used for biomass production. Further, hemp is so low-moisture and woody that little to no energy is required to dry the crop prior to biomass conversion, which is not the case for other sources like sugarcane and maize.
The various processes for converting hemp biomass into fuel are too numerous to be discussed in this article, but the most promising appears to be hydrolysis, because it can potentially yield 100 gallons per ton by converting cellulose into fermentable glucose. This means a single acre of hemp can theoretically produce ten tons — or 1,000 gallons of fuel — per growing season.
The National Renewable Energy
Lab in Colorado, the US Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are all on record declaring the production of biodiesel and bioethanol as essential for addressing the environmental crisis caused by fossil fuels.
This is especially true since, one way or another, the days of fossil fuels are numbered. There will come a point in time when all fossil fuels have been depleted, despite being technically “renewable” because plant and animal materials create such fuels. Since the process takes millions of years, we are depleting known fossil-fuel reserves at a much faster rate than new ones are able to form, which means that workable alternative sources of energy must eventually be harnessed if we are to maintain our present car culture.
Can’t See the Forest for the Hemp
According to the IPCC, while fossil-fuel combustion is the primary cause of greenhouse-gas emissions generated by humans (57 percent), deforestation comes in second, contributing almost one-fifth of climate-altering emissions in the form of increased CO2.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 32 million acres of tropical rainforest have been cut down every year from 2000 to 2009. The EDF notes that any realistic plan to reduce global warming has to preserve these rainforests, which absorb CO2 in the air and replace it with oxygen — just as cannabis does. If these rainforests are the lungs of the planet, then hemp can be seen as Earth’s oxygen tank.
Hemp is a suitable replacement for the wood derived from these forests because its fiber is more durable and can be recycled more frequently than wood fiber. Also, the plant’s roots penetrate
a foot into the soil during the first six weeks of growth — and can ultimately extend down to eight feet — allowing the plant to withstand flooding. Hemp can also survive intermittent frosts reaching as low as 12°F. Hemp doesn’t require fertilizer or herbicides, and it enriches rather than depletes the soil via aeration through its deep roots.
The hardy and versatile hemp plant would naturally assimilate in forests and tree plantations, although this process would result in initial start-up costs for making the transition. But like every other front in the fight against global warming, it comes down to prioritizing the long-term sustainability of the planet over a shortsighted bottom line.
A Concrete Possibility
Major American cities have become “urban heat islands” (UHIs), meaning they are significantly warmer than the surrounding rural regions, with corresponding decreases in air and water quality. The primary cause of UHIs is land-surface modification (e.g., buildings and streets) using materials that store short-wave radiation (e.g., heat from the sun), which includes concrete.
Additionally, concrete is composed of cement, the production of which yields excessive CO2 emissions. To create concrete, cement has to be heated up to 1,500°C, and this production accounts for five percent of global carbon emissions.
is the most prominent marketed brand name for construction and insulation materials made the inner woody core of hemp, which combines efficiently with a lime-based binder. Hempcrete and similar products are biocomposites: materials that replace petrochemical resins with vegetable resins (such as those made from hemp oil), and synthetic substances like fiber- glass with natural fibers (including — you guessed it — hemp).
According to AmericanLimeTechnology .com, Hempcrete weighs only an eighth as much as concrete, is far less brittle, and has been used in Europe to construct buildings as high as 10 stories. Moreover, Hempcrete is durable and can potentially last for centuries — in fact, a substantially similar biocomposite was discovered in a bridge abutment in France dating back to 600 CE.
The one big disadvantage that Hempcrete has in comparison to traditional concrete is considerably less density, which means that it must be joined to a frame of another material. But as with the other applications of hemp already discussed, we need to employ our human ingenuity and creativity in order to develop a new paradigm for manufacturing and industry that recognizes the importance of sustainability and reducing global climate change.
As Easy as A-B-CBEE
A report published by the Family Council on Drug Awareness, Europe (don’t let the name throw you –it’s a pro-pot organization) introduced the Cannabis Biomass Energy Equation (CBEE), a formula delineating the manner in which cannabis uniquely produces energy that is less polluting and less expensive than fossil fuels and uranium, and is therefore capable of economically replacing them.
One of the primary CBEE tenets is that hemp grows well in almost any cli- mate and reaches its maximum biomass yield in only four months, allowing at least two harvests per year producing 20 tons of cannabis biomass per acre, which in turn will generate 2,000 gallons of methanol to be used in biodiesel production.
The report also answers those skeptics who discount the extensive cultivation of hemp due to economic factors, calculating that only 6 percent of agricultural land in the United States would be necessary to produce sufficient cannabis biomass to supply all of the country’s current needs for oil, gas and diesel.
Even if that 6 percent turns out to be a lowball estimate and more land is required, given the fact that there are almost 600 million acres of unused land in the United States — with some 30 million of that total comprising agricultural land being kept idle by farmers who are paid nearly $2 billion a year by the US government not to harvest — there’s more than enough acreage for hemp cultivation to produce the required biomass.
Hemp for Victory: The Sequel
It’s been over 75 years since cannabis was outlawed by the federal government — but just a few years after deeming it illegal, the United States was forced to embrace the versatility of hemp with the onset of World War II (as immortalized in the 1942 US government film Hemp for Victory). Many would argue that global warming is the worst crisis we’ve faced since the Second World War, so it’s no doubt fitting that hemp could again be in demand — once legalized — as a crucial material to help combat the planetary threat of climate change.
While this needs to happen sooner rather than later, there are encouraging signs. Besides the ever-increasing awareness in the culture at large, there’s been action on the political front. The Huffington Post reported that more than 70 hemp-related bills have been introduced in various US states since January 2014—double the number in 2013.
The US Farm Bill, signed by President Obama this past February, permits any state to legalize the cultivation of hemp for research purposes, and the number of states who have done just that has now reached double digits.
If the human race has any intention of even beginning to respond in a meaningful way to the threat of global warming, a powerful first step would be exploring the potential of cannabis fiber in the spheres of energy, sustainable resources and build- ing materials. In short, it’s long past time for the Industrial Hemp Revolution.