William McDonough makes important points in this article from Jan. 2018: “There’s nothing wrong with carbon and the element is not the enemy, so let’s not demonise it. We are [made of] carbon and it’s a critical component of life itself,” the architect insists. “The problem of carbon in the atmosphere is not carbon’s fault. Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us. It is we who have made carbon toxic — like lead in our drinking water or nitrates in our rivers,” he says. “In the right place, carbon is a resource and a tool.”
McDonough distinguishes among three types of carbon: fugitive, durable, and living. Fugitive carbon is escaping atmospheric carbon like that released in vehicle emissions. Durable carbon is that locked in a wooden beam or a plastic bottle. But durable carbon going to some place where it has a negative effect, like plastic bottles in the ocean, becomes fugitive carbon. Living carbon is that which occurs naturally in plants and living organisms. This is carbon doing what it is meant to do, supporting soil organisms and all others, from the ground up.
McDonough would also like to define “carbon behavior” as negative, positive and neutral. Carbon negative behavior involves releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon neutral behavior includes renewable energy, solar collectors and recycling. And carbon positive behavior sequesters carbon into the soil and other living things.
We really like this intuitive characterization of carbon behavior: if you are doing good things like planting trees, you are engaging in a carbon-positive activity. If you live in Nature Towns, your overall carbon footprint might be positive – a good thing, as you become responsible for sequestering more carbon than you emit.
Regrettably, in the 18 months since this article appeared, McDonough’s positive-negative terminology seems to have not caught on. The overwhelming majority of the press refers to “carbon negative” activities as those that remove carbon from the atmosphere, i.e., a good thing. The reasoning for this usage is understandable, but it has the unfortunate result of being like medical tests in which “negative” is a positive thing, as in, “The cancer test came back negative (whew!).”
Too bad: a difficult topic remains more confusing than it needs to be.