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.
- Learn the physics of how carbon dioxide and other gases absorb heat in the atmosphere »
- See Berkeley Lab Director Alivisatos talk about the science of climate change »
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?
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.