Tag Archives: CO2 emissions

Earth’s carbon dioxide levels hasn’t been this high in mankind’s entire history

Carbon dioxide levels have hit an all-time high — again. In May (the month scientists use to compare year-to-year CO2 shifts), carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged 419 parts per million, according to data from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Unfortunately, that in itself would hardly even classify as news anymore. But what really is striking is that CO2 levels haven’t been this high since before humans emerged as a species. We’d have to go to the Pliocene Epoch, between 4.1 to 4.5 million years ago, to see similar levels — a period when sea levels were nearly 80 feet higher and temperatures were about 7°F above the preindustrial era.

Not even a pandemic that kept many of us inside could stop the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The long-lived greenhouse gas driving climate change has fluctuated naturally throughout our planet’s history, but scientists are virtually certain that the current accumulation is driven by human activities — especially the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a clear sign that the world is not doing nearly enough to curb emissions.

“The ultimate control knob on atmospheric CO2 is fossil-fuel emissions,” Scripps Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling said in a NOAA statement. “We ultimately need cuts that are much larger and sustained longer than the COVID-related shutdowns of 2020.”

It’s not just that CO2 levels are increasing, but the pace at which they are rising is alarming. In 2013, the world first passed a historic mark: 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. Since then, it took just eight years to climb to 420 ppm, and now, we’re already at 429 ppm.

Initially, there were hopes that the pandemic would at least slow down greenhouse gas emissions — and for the first part of the year, that was true. But by the end of 2020, it was almost as if nothing had changed. Emissions in the last months of the year were already higher than the ones in previous years.

The past year also marked the five-year anniversary of the adoption of the historic Paris climate agreement. Within the plan, countries agreed to take action to reduce their emissions and keep the planet in line with a warming of no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels (and the ambitious goal of 1.5 Celsius). With temperatures already over 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial level, the ambitious goal is all but gone now — and even the “normal” goal seems questionable, as few countries have backed up their declared ambitions with action.

CO2 emissions can last for 1,000 years in the atmosphere, and as long as we keep emitting the gas, it will continue to accumulate. Global emissions have likely not peaked, and will continue to drive climate change to uncharted and dangerous territory. Climate change is already costing the world in the trillions, and the cost is only expected to rise as emissions ramp up.

This Canadian startup is turning CO2 emissions into soap

Solving our current climate emergency requires immediate action in order to reduce the amount of carbon already dumped into the atmosphere by human activities. This is a huge challenge for a number of reasons and it won’t certainly happen overnight — which is why mitigating strategies such as capturing and sequestering carbon have gained so much attention.

But what if you could capture carbon and find a way to turn a profit as well? For instance, by turning some of that carbon into a useful product that people value and would be willing to buy it. That would be fantastic since it would provide a genuine economic incentive (in contrast to a discouraging incentive like as a carbon tax) to take action.

This is what a Canadian startup CleanO2 was founded for. The company sells a device, called CARBiNX, which captures CO2 emissions from industrial furnaces and boilers and turns it into potash — a potassium-rich salt.

The potash is then used to make soaps, detergents, and other products in the pharmaceutical industry and agriculture sector. The famous Lush Cosmetics chain is one of the clients that use potash from CleanO2 in some of its products.

CARBiNX, which is about the size of two refrigerators, captures carbon emissions by using a hydroxide chemical to absorb it. The chemical reaction produces potash, which can be sold. The profit is then shared between the startup and the owner of the unit. According to CleanO2, their products pay for themselves within four to five years.

The heat from the chemical reaction can also be exploited to drive down a facility’s energy cost. For instance, it could be used to pre-warm water for a boiler.

The CARBiNX unit. Credit: CleanO2.

At the moment, there are 14 CARBiNX units installed in Alberta and British Columbia. These unit are expected to sequester 5 to 6 tonnes of CO2 annually. The company wants to install 40 units by the end of the year and more than 1,000 by 2020.

Elsewhere, other companies and research groups are also working on technologies that capture CO2 and convert it into commercial products, such as construction materials and synthetic fuels. And, in an ironic turn of events, one group comprised of scientists from Australia, Germany, China, and the US has developed a method that turns CO2 back into coal to be buried in the ground.

This won’t solve our carbon problem — not even close. It’s a minuscule step in a marathon race, but at the end of the day, may minuscule steps can add up and make a big difference.

Europe wants to go carbon neutral by 2050. These four countries opposed it

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Estonia blocked the European Union from adopting a 2050 carbon neutrality target. The four countries complained that the date was too specific for them.

Preventing dangerous climate change is a key priority for the European Union — at least that’s what the Union claims. The declared goal is to cut emissions by 80-95% by 2050, although some countries appear to be taking it more seriously than others. Ultimately, EU officials say they hope the continent can go completely carbon neutral — which is why, at the recent Brussels summit, officials wrote a draft that would have countries go carbon neutral by 2050.

The draft was regarded by many as too vague and not substantial enough, but it was, at the very least, a statement of intention. However, even that couldn’t take place.

The main opposition of this pact came from Poland. Poland is one of the biggest energy producers in the area and a net exporter of energy — but the vast majority of it is coming from fossil fuels. In 2015, just 5% of the country’s energy came from renewable sources, and the biggest source of energy is coal. Poland has also clashed with the EU on a number of issues, including environmental issues such as stopping logging in the primeval Białowieża Forest.

Poland gathered the help of another contrarian European country — Hungary — and neighboring Czech Republic, another coal-rich country. According to one source, Estonia was also not convinced to support the carbon neutrality plan. This quartet produced enough opposition to block the text from the draft, since consensus must be reached to take any legal action.

The final text now says the EU aspires to climate neutrality “in line with the Paris agreement”, which is vague and open to interpretation. The Paris Agreement mentions that the world should go carbon-neutral “in the second half of this century”, but it also says that climate change needs to be limited at 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees.

The mention of the year 2050 was moved to a footnote which reads “For a large majority of member states, climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050.”

The news will come as a disappointment to many who are hoping for a swift transition towards sustainable energy sources. Greenpeace said that Europe’s governments “had a chance to lead from the front and put Europe on a rapid path to full decarbonisation,” but “they blew it.”

“The reference to being in line with the Paris agreement in such a flimsy text makes a mockery of that agreement, and should not be allowed to stand,” said WWF.

Not everything is lost, however. Individual countries can still take more action and the rest of the EU states are expected to pursue the objective in the future, particularly after the 1st of July, when Finland’s Presidency of the EU Council begins. Finland has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2035.

radiocarbon dating

Growing CO2 levels are messing up radiocarbon dating

Scientists rely on a method called radiocarbon dating to determine the age of fossils or artifacts. With little or no other information available, the widely used method can accurately determine how old a sample is. This makes it one of the most powerful tools archaeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists have at their disposal. Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are, however, artificially aging the atmosphere and this might drastically interfere with the accuracy of radiocarbon dating. According to a new paper published by a team at the Imperial College London, “by 2050 a new T-shirt would have the same radiocarbon date as a robe worn by William the Conqueror a thousand years earlier.”

radiocarbon dating

Image: cez-archaeometrie.de

Radiocarbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon, where an isotope is an element with the same number of protons, but different number of neutrons. So, essentially isotopes of the same element are chemically identical, but of different masses.  While the lighter isotopes 12C and 13C are stable, the heaviest isotope 14C (radiocarbon) is radioactive, which means its unstable and decays.  Over time 14C, which is naturally occurring and dispersed in the upper atmosphere, decays to nitrogen (14N). Over time 14C decays to nitrogen (14N).

carbon dating

Plants soak up the CO2 in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. In doing so, the plants ingest both 12C and 14C atoms. But eventually, animals who eat plants or animals who eat other animals who had eaten the plants also end up ingesting the 14C isotope, including you as a human. Thus, every plant and animal will have the same amount of 14C compared to 12C as the atmosphere (the 14C:12C ratio).

carbon dating

carbon datingBecause it’s not affected by physical (temperature, pressure) or chemical (water content etc.) phenomena, this radioactive decay can be used as a “clock”. We know for instance that in 5,730 half of the  14C in a sample will decay. By comparing the 14C:12C ratio at the time of death of an animal  and the ratio today, we can calculate how much time has passed. Artifacts can also be dated this way. Robes, scrolls, books, anything with carbon in it. Radiocarbon dating was the first method that allowed archaeologists to place what they found in chronological order without the need for written records or coins. Since it was first demonstrated by Professor Willard Libby in 1949, the scientific community has never looked back.

carbon dating comic

An accelerated dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, especially since the 1970s, is beginning to mess up the accuracy of this radiocarbon dating. Fossil fuels are so old that they do not contain any trace of 14C, but when they burn up they flood the atmosphere with more 12C. Heather Graven, the atmospheric scientist at the Imperial College London, says he was surprised to find how much the emissions could “age” the atmosphere.

“If you think of parts of the deep ocean that are quite old, that have been sequestered for thousands of years, in the business-as-usual scenario, then the atmosphere would have the same radiocarbon fraction as the oldest part of the ocean,” she said. “It really is kind of backward. It’s very, very low.”

“Fossil fuel emissions are going to impact some of these neat applications, no matter what,” she said. “Now it’s a question of when it will happen and how low it will go.”

Radiocarbon dating could become significantly affected by 2020, if current emission trends continue.

“If we reduce emissions rapidly we might stay around a carbon age of 100 years in the atmosphere but if we strongly increase emissions we could get to an age of 1,000 years by 2050 and around 2,000 years by 2100,” Graven said.

Of course, there might be a way to account for these changes. If radiocarbon dating is to remain effective, the technique needs to be adjusted. After all, it would be quite the setback.

 

For the first time, China surpasses the EU in per capita CO2 emissions

Factories in China. Image via Wiki Commons.

Despite significant steps towards a more sustainable future, China is still the world’s most polluting country – and it’s not only their sheer population that’s the cause. A new study conducted by two British researchers revealed that China emits more CO2 per capita than Europe. They also estimate that we have already released two thirds of the fossil-fuel emissions allowable under scenarios that avoid irreversible changes to the planet.

“We are nowhere near the commitments needed to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of climate change, a level that will be hard to reach for any country, including rich nations,” said Corinne Le Quere, co-author of the report and a director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, England. “CO2 growth now is much faster than it was in the 1990s, and we’re not delivering the improvements in carbon intensity we anticipated 10 years ago.”

China co2

Google puts a myriad of interesting stats and data available for free access (https://www.google.com/publicdata/explore). The data is from the World Bank.

In 1990, China emitted 2.2 tons of metric CO2 per capita per year, while the European Union was responsible for 4 times more – 8.8 metric tons. In 2000, the situation was not much different. China had slightly increased its emissions (2.7), while the EU had dropped its(8.2). However, in 2013, the situation was very different. The average for each person in China is 7.2 tons, while in Europe, that figure is 6.8. The US accounts for much more than that (16.4 tons), while India is responsible only for 1.9 tons per person.

The study was conducted by Tyndall Center and the University of Exeter’s College of Mathematics and Physical Sciences. China has surpassed the US in terms of net emissions (not per capita) seven years ago, and they never went back. China has argued time and time again that they should not be judged in terms of raw emissions, but in per capita terms. Well, there goes that.

“It is unfair to blame China just based on its carbon emissions,” said Dai Xingyi, a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Because China has a huge population that has been dependent on coal for a long time, it will not quit using coal in the foreseeable future.”

Indeed, China has reduced their coal consumption, and their economy has still grown – a sign that the economic growth is slowly detaching from coal consumption. Yet CO2 emissions are still on the rise.

This has major implications on a global level too. Temperatures have already increased by 0.85 of a degree since 1880, and the current trajectory puts us on course for a warming of at least 3.7 degrees Celsius by 2100 (about 8 Fahrenheit). Even in the most optimistic scenarios, we’re still going to have to deal with a warming of 1.9 degrees Celsius.

“The time for a quiet revolution in our attitudes toward climate change is now over,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a University of Exeter professor who was lead author of a paper on the issue in the journal Nature Geoscience.

In order to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius, the CO2 emissions would have to drop by 5 percent or more (on a global level) for several decades.

Journal Reference: P. Friedlingstein,R. M. Andrew,J. Rogelj,G. P. Peters,J. G. Canadell,R. Knutti,G. Luderer,M. R. Raupach,M. Schaeffer,D. P. van Vuuren& C. Le Quéré. Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets. Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2248

Just 90 companies are responsible for 60% of all man made global warming emissions – Exxon, Chevron and BP lead the way

The climate crisis we are facing right now (which for one reason or another many people choose to ignore) has largely been caused by only 90 companies – which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the industrial revolution, new research suggests. The study was found that almost all these companies worked in oil, gas or coal.

Climate change and private companies

Oil field owned by BP. Image via The Guardian.

This was the most ambitious effort to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.

“There are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world,” climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado said. “But the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”

To make the entire situation even more worrying, the study also concludes that half of all emissions were produced just in the last 25 years, well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that greenhouse emissions were directly correlated with global warming, and should have started doing something to prevent the situation we’re in today. So if anything, we’re emitting more and more in recent years.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that if things continue to move in this direction, the world stands within 30 years of exhausting its “carbon budget” – the amount of CO2 we can emit without warming the planet with 2 degrees Celsius. But what this study really does is show that the burden of fighting against this dramatic situation shouldn’t fall on governments alone – a big part of the blame is carried by privately held companies, so therefore, they should also start doing something, before it gets totally out of hand.

“This study is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the climate crisis. The public and private sectors alike must do what is necessary to stop global warming,” former vice-president explained. “Those who are historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere have a clear obligation to be part of the solution.”

90 companies to rule them all

bp chevron exxon

Image credits.

It’s quite surprising that out of the myriad of companies in the world that existed since the industrial revolution, 90 of them are responsible for 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide (914 gigatonne CO2) and methane between 1751 to 2010 – that’s an incredibly small number, that shows the huge scale that these companies are working at. Out of the 90, 83 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers – another industry that’s a major contributor to greenhouse emissions.

What’s interesting is that only 31 of the companies that made the list were state-owned companies such as Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil. Another 9 were government run industries – coal producing companies from China, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Poland.

Cement producing facility. Image via NY Times.

But 50 companies, more than half, are private, investor owned. Names that may strike you as familiar, such as Chevron, Exxon, BP , and Royal Dutch Shell, British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton unsurprisingly pop up on the list.

ChevronTexaco was the leading private held greenhouse emitter, causing 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions to date, with Exxon not far behind at 3.2% and BP at 2.5%. In between them, the 3 companies almost add up to 10% of all the greenhouse gases ever produced on Earth.

Furthermore, this research showed that we shouldn’t only blame it on the rich countries.

“It seemed like maybe this could break the logjam,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard. “There are all kinds of countries that have produced a tremendous amount of historical emissions that we do not normally talk about. We do not normally talk about Mexico or Poland or Venezuela. So then it’s not just rich v poor, it is also producers v consumers, and resource rich v resource poor.”

Accountability? What accountability?

As bad as the general situation is, there are still many things that can be done – but everything has to start with companies becoming accountable (in a serious way) for their greenhouse emissions.

“What I think could be a game changer here is the potential for clearly fingerprinting the sources of those future emissions,” said Michael Mann, a contributor to the study. “It increases the accountability for fossil fuel burning. You can’t burn fossil fuels without the rest of the world knowing about it.”

Here’s an awesome, interactive pie chart from the Guardian depicting the findings from the study.

The research was published in the journal Climatic Change.

Scientific Reference: Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Richard Heede

CO2 emissions growing beyond the point of no return

Data shows that CO2 emissions in 2012 hit 35.6 billion tonnes, showing a 2.6% increase since 2011, and 58% above 1990 levels. Putting this new data into context, it becomes increasingly clear that global warming will not be kept below an increase of 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels, researchers claim.

 

The research by the Global Carbon Project, an annual report card on mankind’s CO2 pollution, shows we are on a near certain course to a point where global warming will be impossible to curb, and dangerous effects such as heat waves, droughts and big storms will become more and more common. The findings have been published in Nature Climate Change.

“I am worried that the risks of dangerous climate change are too high on our current emissions trajectory. We need a radical plan,” said co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Britain and professor at the University of East Anglia.

The plan was to curb climate change at 2 degrees Celsius above natural levels – a dangerous, but acceptable level. However, recent research shows that we are well on the path of 4C – 6C; the growth is mainly attributed to China, United States and India, but other developing countries are also heavily contributing. The efforts to support green technologies and renewable energies are just starting to make their impact, which so far is quite small.

“Unless large and concerted global mitigation efforts are initiated soon, the goal of remaining below 2C will soon become unachievable,” say the authors.

Scientists find out way to map CO2 emissions – for individual buildings

Researchers have just given us a way to point an accusatory finger at our polluting neighbors, by calculating the emissions made by individual buildings.

 

The program, named Hestia, after the Greek Goddess of the Home, can map CO2 emissions in urban landscapes and narrow them down to certain streets or homes, using public databases, traffic simulation and building-by-building energy consumption modeling.

“Cities have had little information with which to guide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – and you can’t reduce what you can’t measure,” said Kevin Gurney, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and Hestia’s chief scientist. “With Hestia, we can provide cities with a complete, three-dimensional picture of where, when and how carbon dioxide emissions are occurring.”

Of course, this only works in cities where local air pollution reports, traffic counts and tax assessor information exist and can be pulled from databases. However, as good as the researchers’ intentions are, it will probably backfire, as City A will just say that City B emits more than it, so it doesn’t have to do anything at all – same for companies, manufacturers, etc. Still, hopefully, communities will use this fantastic opportunity wisely.

“As a community, we must take a leadership role in sustaining our relationship with the environment,” ASU President Michael Crow said hopefully. “This research, and its implications for global engagement regarding climate change, is an exciting step forward. Hestia gives us the next tool we need to help policy-makers create effective greenhouse gas legislation.”

 

The mapping project is part of an effort by Arizona State University researchers to eventually map all major cities in the US, in an attempt to help guide climate policymakers. So far, boffins managed to map Indianapolis in Indiana and are working on Los Angeles, California and Phoenix, Arizona at the moment. The precision they managed to achieve surpassed many expectations, and can go all the way down to an individual household – authors explained it is the first such detailed account of urban areas and their fossil fuel emissions.

While Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas, it is by far the most important, especially since it remains in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. If everything goes well, Hestia could bring some major changes, even worldwide.

“These results may also help overcome current barriers to the United States joining an international climate change treaty,” Gurney said. “Many countries are unwilling to sign a treaty when greenhouse gas emission reductions cannot be independently verified.”

Source: Arizona State University

CO2 levels reach record height – 45% larger than in 1990

Recent figures published in a report prepared by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency show that the world’s CO2 emissions have been steadily and significantly growing during the past two decades, reaching an all time peak  this past year. Carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming, rose 45 percent between 1990 and 2010, reaching an all-time high of 33 billion tonnes in 2010, says a report.

Though the global recession has helped dampen the increase of CO2 into the atmosphere, emissions are still in an upward trend, mainly because of the growth in developing countries and economic recovery in the industrialised world.

In the last twenty years, the commission reports, CO2 emissions in the European Union (EU) and Russia decreased by seven percent and 28 percent, respectively, while emissions in the US increased by five percent and Japan’s emissions remained more or less constant.  A record-breaking 5.8 percent increase in global CO2 emissions has been experienced between 2009 and 2010. China, the US and India were the worst offenders.

In 1990, a group of industrialized countries ratified a protocol in Kyoto in which they would strive to stabilize their CO2 emissions. Various measures have been employed since then, most notably in the energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors, and as a result CO2 emissions from these industrialized countries, which used to account for about two-thirds of global CO2 emissions, have now fallen to less than half the global total.

If you’re curious, power generation and road transportation are driving the increase, both in industrial and developing countries. Globally, they account for about 40 percent and 15 percent respectively of the current total.

Read the full report.