Carbon Cycle 2.0
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Carbon Cycle 2.0 is a Berkeley Lab initiative to stimulate innovative, cross-disciplinary research that will accelerate the development of a carbon-neutral global energy system.

The name ‘Carbon Cycle 2.0’ refers to an entirely new interaction between humanity and Earth’s carbon cycle. Each year, human activities add around 9 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere from sites like petroleum deposits. This carbon is changing conditions within Earth’s atmosphere and oceans in ways that disrupt the climate, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Reinventing the global energy system to avoid carbon emissions won’t be easy. It will require scientific and technical breakthroughs and collaboration across diverse disciplines. By connecting our researchers in basic energy sciences with our experts in energy analysis, climate modeling, and the developing world, we aim to connect bench-top science with global needs and realities, to speed and scale new energy technologies into widespread use.

What is the carbon cycle?

Earth’s carbon cycle is a biogeochemical process in which carbon is exchanged between the ocean, biosphere, atmosphere, and crust. Prior to the industrial age, the flux of carbon among these natural storage sites was relatively balanced. The primary source of carbon to the atmosphere was volcanoes, and the small amount of carbon they release (about 0.2 gigatons/year) was offset by a nearly equivalent uptake by the oceans. Think of the natural carbon cycle as the original: Carbon Cycle 1.0.

The paleoclimate record tells us that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, remained within a narrow range for several hundred thousand years before present, gradually fluctuating, but remaining between about 170 and 280 parts per million (ppm).

In the past 100 years, the atmospheric concentration has steadily increased from 280 ppm to nearly 400 ppm. The Earth has previously experienced atmospheric carbon concentrations in excess of 400 ppm, but not in the last 40 million years. Earth has never experienced such a rapid rate of atmospheric carbon increase. The rapid increase makes the present unique in Earth history and challenges scientists to understand and predict the impacts.

Carbon Cycle 1.x: An increasingly perturbed system

Beginning even before the Industrial Revolution, mankind has changed Earth's natural carbon cycle, first by burning wood, then, since the Industrial Revolution, by burning coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Today the rate of addition of carbon to the atmosphere, roughly 9 gigatons/yr, is about 50 times larger than the pre-human (Carbon Cycle 1.0) rate of addition. Mankind has not just changed Earth’s carbon cycle, but now orchestrates a massive one-way transfer of carbon from geologic reservoirs to the atmosphere.

What is Carbon Cycle 2.0?

See Berkeley Lab scientist Margaret Torn define the carbon cycle

Carbon Cycle 2.0 is the hypothetical future carbon cycle—one that allows humankind to produce enough energy to provide a comfortable existence to all of the several billion people on our planet—without the transfer of vast quantities of carbon from terrestrial reserves to the atmosphere.

Getting to this hypothetical future isn’t simple. Entirely new energy production, delivery, and storage technologies are needed. At Berkeley Lab, we’re approaching the energy and climate system from several angles.

Our scientific focus areas target ways that energy production impacts the carbon cycle now, and new energy technologies that have the potential to reduce our influence on the carbon cycle of the future.

Our crosscutting research areas bring together ideas and advances from different fields of science. The ability to combine and synthesize our collective expertise in different technologies and to compare different carbon-emission reduction scenarios is essential to our vision for Carbon Cycle 2.0 at Berkeley Lab. Energy analysis and climate modeling are powerful tools that give us a better sense of the future, as well as a better sense of how individual technology solutions might play out in a variety of future scenarios. Transferring what we learn and what we invent to the developing world is part of our strategy for ensuring the future of the global carbon cycle.

How does it all come together?

Removing carbon from our existing energy system

Creating and storing energy in tomorrow’s energy system

Providing big-picture perspective on global needs and realities

Carbon Cycle 2.0 Diagram Carbon Cycle 2.0 Diagram


In October 2009, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory then-Interim Director Paul Alivisatos gathered a group of scientists representing a broad set of research interests around the lab for a workshop he dubbed “Carbon Cycle 2.0.” The researchers knew they had an idea they could rally around, and, together with Director Alivisatos in early 2010, they announced the creation of the Carbon Cycle 2.0 Initiative. On February 1, 2010, Director Alivisatos delivered a presentation entitled "A Call to Action – Berkeley Lab Addressing Global Needs."

"We’re faced with a situation in which carbon emissions from human activity are large enough to influence the natural carbon cycle, and as a consequence we have to find a way where our own carbon cycle is as balanced as nature's," said Alivisatos. "Right now we are emitting more carbon in the atmosphere than can be removed through natural processes. This is a huge problem facing the nation and the world."

Starting with its founding by Ernest O. Lawrence, Berkeley Lab has a tradition of helping our nation solve big problems through science. The scope and scale of innovation that will be needed to meet this challenge is “breathtaking,” said Alivisatos, but “I am confident that, if Berkeley Lab's talented scientists and operations staff organize around Carbon Cycle 2.0, our positive impact in the world will increase dramatically.”

The entire lab quickly became engaged around this common rallying point. Management and scientific leadership began interrogating the toughest issues, asking whether our science and technology directions were relevant and ultimately productive, and whether we could do better to direct our research towards the most pressing energy and environment needs of the nation and world.

Today, the momentum continues. Berkeley Lab researchers working on Laboratory Directed Research and Development projects are applying knowledge and expertise gained from interacting with experts in other research fields to tackle the big challenges in climate and energy.