Guillermo Nieto
National Association of the Cannabis Industry (ANICANN)
Expert Contributor

Cannabis Can Save the World

By Guillermo Nieto | Mon, 06/14/2021 - 12:52

Elon Musk is a name associated with technology and development, from Space-X and going to Mars to Tesla electric cars, everything he does feels like a step toward the future. Now, he’s asking for help to fight humanity’s biggest threat, climate change. Earlier this year, Musk offered US$100 million to anyone with a working solution to remove CO2 from the environment. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have reached never-before seen figures. Just last year, we reached a milestone in carbon dioxide emissions: 417 parts per million, the highest in history. This could be the opportunity to show the world just how much cannabis can benefit the world.

To organize this competition, called Carbon Removal, the Musk Foundation is working with XPRIZE, a nonprofit organization that designs and hosts public competitions aimed at encouraging technological development to benefit humanity. The US$100 million-dollar prize, the largest incentive in history, will be for the team who can develop a project to capture a carbon dioxide on the scale of thousands of tons per year. It must be sustainable, both economically and environmentally.

The contest will last four years. In the first phase, teams must demonstrate the key component of their carbon removal solution at a scalable operational minimum. XPRIZE will award up to US$5 million to student teams in the fall of 2021 to fund participation in the XPRIZE Carbon Removal contest or the development of key supportive technologies. The goal is to fulfill the estimates of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in terms of carbon dioxide removal. The IPCC says we need approximately 10 gigatons (equivalent to 10 thousand million tons) of net CO2 removal per year by the year 2050 to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

Industrial cannabis, better known as hemp, could be a great contender for the title. This plant has excellent carbon sequestration from seed to final product, it can absorb and fix CO2 in its tissues, and massive amounts of this gas can be transformed into plants. Each hectare of cannabis can absorb up to 30 tons of CO2 per cycle and can have three cycles per year. Also, each ton of cannabis produced will fix in its tissues 325kg of carbon dioxide. If the production is 10 tons of plant material per hectare, this means each hectare of cannabis could potentially consume 33 tons of CO2 three times a year – more than 90 tons per hectare/year.  

There are more than 25,000 industrial uses for hemp, from its fibers to its roots, but let’s focus on two examples that will set the bar for environmental benefit; hemp clothing and hemp paper. If we use cannabis as a substitute for wood to make paper and instead of cotton in fabrics, we could help stop climate change.

Let’s start with cotton, one of the most contaminating agricultural products in the world. It only uses 2.5 percent of the world’s agricultural land but needs up to 25 percent of the pesticides, while cannabis uses minimal quantities to none at all. Also, hemp fabrics are more durable and have greater endurance than cotton. Hemp also uses 20 times less water than cotton to grow a kilo of raw material. The global cotton harvested area in 2020/21 is projected at approximately 33.5 million hectares; if we use the same arable land for cannabis, we could absorb 3 gigatons of CO2 (one-third of the 10 gigatons challenge) every year, save water and reduce the use of agrochemicals worldwide.

The case for wood-paper is similar. There’s a shortage of paper worldwide because of the unsustainable way we produce it. Forty-two percent of the forests cut every year go the production of paper. While it can take up to 20 years to get a tree ready for paper production, hemp only takes 120 days. Only one hectare of hemp can produce 20 times as much pulp for paper as the same area of trees, and hemp pulp will have less lignin, the substance that turns paper yellow and fragile. Also, hemp paper can be recycled up to eight times, compared to just three times for paper made from wood pulp. Since forests store up to 50 percent of all terrestrial carbon, using cannabis as a substitute for wood will not only help CO2 sequestration through cultivation, but also keep forests safe.

Other materials like hemp-crete and hemp-plastics are being developed and improved every day and will be other options for reducing the carbon footprint of humanity. There are already thousands of teams registered for the Grand Prize of the Carbon Removal challenge. Industrial cannabis needs to participate and win this contest as the new fabric, food source, construction material and CO2 solution for the world.

Photo by:   Guillermo Nieto