Since the industrial revolution in the early 20th century, the earth has been getting significantly warmer. Globally, the planet’s average temperature has risen nearly two degrees in the last hundred years, and it’s only getting hotter. This may not sound like such a big deal, but even a single-degree shift in the climate can have pronounced effects on a myriad of ecosystems. Already we’ve seen water levels rise, droughts become more frequent, and coastal storms increase in intensity.
Humans are the primary reason for this rapid change. When we burn fossil fuels, heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) enter the atmosphere, raising the earth’s surface temperature. If we don’t do something soon to decrease our carbon footprint, we could be facing an irreversible climate catastrophe.
Luckily, we can take steps to reduce our environmental impact, and surprisingly, hemp may play a key role in slowing down global warming.
Hemp CO2 Absorption
Once carbon dioxide makes its way into our atmosphere, it doesn’t have to stay there forever. Plants capture the carbon in the air and transform it into food and biomass through photosynthesis. When this biomass decomposes, the carbon returns to the earth. The whole process is known as the carbon cycle.
Large forests are particularly good at sequestering carbon, which is part of why deforestation is so devastating. However, hemp is actually better at capturing carbon than even the biggest rainforests.
How much CO2 does hemp absorb compared to trees? Just one acre of Industrial hemp absorbs around 40,000 lbs. of CO2 in only three to four months of growing. Compare this to an acre of new forest, which on average, will only capture approximately 5,000 lbs. of carbon annually. It’s numbers like these that solidify hemp’s rank as one of the most effective crops at sequestering carbon.
Hemp Could Help Save the Rainforests
Rainforests play a vital role in our global ecosystem. A large portion of the planet’s biodiversity exists in these forests, and as we mentioned earlier, they help remove carbon from the atmosphere. Alarmingly, around 17% of the Amazonian Rainforest has been destroyed in the last fifty years alone.
The logging and paper industries are massive contributors to this deforestation, but they don’t need to be. A planet friendly alternative is hemp fibers that can be used to make paper and don’t require the sacrifice of the rainforests. This isn’t the only industry where hemp could be used as a more sustainable raw material, either.
Is Hemp More Sustainable Than Cotton?
Not only could hemp fibers make papermaking more sustainable, but they could also help make the textile industry more eco-friendly as well.
Cotton requires twice the amount of land and around 50% more water to be successfully cultivated than hemp. That’s just the growing process. When it comes to processing, cotton needs even more water before it can be woven into cloth—around four times as much water as hemp. The land and water requirements required for cotton make it a significantly less sustainable textile crop than hemp.
Though cheap to produce, synthetic fabrics like polyester are derived from fossil fuels and spread microplastics into the air and water supply, ultimately resulting in a negative environmental impact. So hemp fabric still is the more sustainable option when compared with poly-cotton blends.
Disposable plastics, like the drinking straws we get with our takeout food, are filling up our oceans and landfills. A single plastic straw can take over 200 years to decompose, and when you’re finished with your soda, it has to go somewhere.
This has led many cities to flat-out ban plastic straws. Luckily, we don’t have to sacrifice the convenience of a straw to help the environment. Drinking straws made from hemp are more durable than paper straw alternatives, which can start to fall apart before you’ve even finished your ice coffee. Unlike plastics, hemp straws will biodegrade in only 6-12 months.
Huge swaths of the greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels we burn are used in fuel, especially the fuel burned from automotive vehicles. Hemp biodiesel is made from sustainable hemp seed oil and doesn’t even require a special engine to run. A traditional diesel engine can run plant based hemp biofuel without any modification.
The rest of the hemp plant can be used to make other types of fuel as well. Hemp biomass can be turned into a form of ethanol through a process called cellulolysis, and the stalks can be shredded and distilled into methanol.