During the pandemic year of lockdown, most things simply stopped — especially conferences. Large gatherings of people that require traveling are the last thing you can want during a pandemic, so they pretty much stopped. Turns out, that decision had a pretty big impact — the carbon footprint of the global event and convention industry is comparable to the entire emissions of the US. A team of Cornell researchers now says we should learn from that and use video calls and remote conferences when possible, to reduce emissions.
Since the pandemic started, we’ve all had to cut down on some of the things we’d normally do. For millions of people around the world, this meant giving up on conferences or other events that they would have normally attended. Believe it or not, the number of regular, international events of over 50 participants doubles every 10 years, and this growth comes with a big price tag associated — not just financially, but also in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We all go to conferences. We fly, we drive, we check into a hotel, give a talk, meet people – and we’re done,” said senior author Fengqi You, a senior faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.
“But we looked at this problem comprehensively and behind the scenes, conventions generate a lot of carbon, consume a lot of energy, print a lot of paper, offer a lot of food – not to mention create municipal solid waste. Yet, video conferencing also requires energy and equipment use. Conference planning means a lot to consider.”
Researchers carried out a complete assessment on the emissions associated with the event industry, and found that the carbon footprint per average participant reaches 3 tons (6,600 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent. For comparison, production of a beef burger emits 60 kilograms of CO2, and a return flight from London to Rome is just under 240 kilograms of CO2. In light of this, researchers say we should try implementing a hybrid system of conferences, with both in-person and online meetings.
“There is a lot of interest and attention on climate change, so moving from in-person conferences to hybrid or remote events would be beneficial,” You said. “But we should also be cautious and optimize decisions in terms of selecting hubs and determining participant levels for hybrid meetings.”
Of course, for some events, doing this online versus in person is just not as efficient. With this in mind, researchers also suggest a few ways to reduce the impact of in-person events. For instance, you should focus on conferences closer to home, and avoid stopovers when booking flights, switching to more plant-based dietary options, and selecting conference hubs that are energy-efficient.
Transitioning from in-person to virtual conferencing can substantially reduce the carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%, while a hybrid system with 50% in-person participation can still slash emissions by around two-thirds, researchers say.
New technology aims to turn smoke from industry and power generation into useful, commercially-valuable products. The process hinges on a newly-developed metal organic framework (MOF) as a catalyst.
Smokestacks around the world release a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. What if, instead of letting it pile up in the atmosphere and heat up the climate, we captured this CO2 and put it to good use, instead? That’s exactly the aim of a scientific collaboration led by researchers at Oregon State University — and, according to a new study they published, one they accomplished.
The team describes a new metal organic framework, a compound material in which metals are used as a base, and interlaced with organic crystals. The compounds inside this MOF act as a catalyst, enabling the production of cyclic carbonates — a useful family of chemicals — from CO2 released in factory flue gases (smokestacks).
Up in smoke
“We’ve taken a big step toward solving a crucial challenge associated with the hoped-for circular carbon economy by developing an effective catalyst,” said chemistry researcher Kyriakos Stylianou of the Oregon State University College of Science, who led the study. “A key to that is understanding the molecular interactions between the active sites in MOFs with potentially reactive molecules.”
The novel MOF is loaded with propylene oxide, a common industrial chemical. This acts as a catalyst, allowing for the quick and easy conversion of CO2 gas into cyclic carbonates. These latter compounds have ring-shaped molecules and are quite useful for a variety of applications — ranging from pharmaceutical precursors to battery electrolytes.
The best part about this is that carbon is scrubbed out of flue gases in the process. Essentially, this MOF can be used to clean greenhouse gases from the smoke. It can also remove carbon from biogas (a mix of CO2, methane, and other gases produced by decaying organic matter).
The MOF is based on lanthanides, a somewhat special (and somewhat rare) family of metals — in fact, they’re often referred to as ‘rare earths’. They are soft, silvery-white, and have a variety of uses. Some examples of lanthanides include cerium, europium, and gadolinium.
Lanthanides were used for the MOF because they provide good chemical stability. This is especially important because the gases the MOF will be exposed to are hot, high in humidity, and quite acidic. The metal acts as a binder, holding the active organic materials in place so they can act as catalysts.
“We observed that within the pores, propylene oxide can directly bind to the cerium centers and activate interactions for the cycloaddition of carbon dioxide,” Stylianou said. “Using our MOFs, stable after multiple cycles of carbon dioxide capture and conversion, we describe the fixation of carbon dioxide into the propylene oxide’s epoxy ring for the production of cyclic carbonates.”
The team says that their findings are “very exciting”. They’re particularly thrilled about the MOF’s ability to use carbon dioxide gas even from impure sources, which saves time, energy, and costs associated with separating it before the process.
The paper “Lanthanide metal–organic frameworks for the fixation of CO2 under aqueous-rich and mixed-gas conditions” has been published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.
Just days away from hosting a massive climate change summit, the UK government presented a roadmap to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This means no longer adding to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, something the UK claims to achieve through nuclear energy, planting forests, electric vehicles, and sustainable aviation fuel.
The plan represents a test of the UK’s credibility, as the government will seek similar commitments from other countries at the United Nations climate conference COP26. From October 31st to November 14th, delegates will gather in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss ways to raise the bar and avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
The long-awaited plan will bring in $124 billion in private funding and create almost 500,000 new jobs by 2030, according to the UK government. Nevertheless, the government doesn’t actually want to put an end to the country’s use of fossil fuels, with environmental organizations questioning its actual scope and classing the some aspects of the plan as ‘weak’.
A roadmap for the future
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the plan will lead to well-paid jobs, green industries and billions in investment, powering a “green industrial revolution” across the country. The UK will build a “defining competitive edge” in sectors such as offshore wind, EVs and carbon capture, while still supporting people and businesses, he added.
The UK was the first big economy to commit by law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In fact, the country’s emissions dropped by 44% from 1990 to 2019, especially emissions from the power sector. But the government has been facing pressure for not introducing an actual road map that explains how net-zero would be accomplished. In other words, no credible roadmap has been laid down.
Still, the government insists that it will decarbonize the entire power sector by 2035. This will be largely thanks to renewable energy, with 40 gigawatts of offshore wind expected to be added to the grid, and to nuclear projects, with a $166 investment expected in new plants. Hydrogen will also be expanded as well as carbon capture and storage.
On transportation, another key sector in terms of emission in the UK, the government plans to invest in electrifying vehicles and their supply chain, as well as allocating money for buses, railways, and cycling lanes. There’s also a goal to produce up to 10% of the aviation fuels from household waste by 2030 and to capture flue gases from the industry.
“There is a global race to develop new green technology, kick-start new industries and attract private investment. The countries that capture the benefits of this global green industrial revolution will enjoy unrivalled growth and prosperity for decades to come – and it’s our job to ensure the UK is fighting fit,” UK Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said.
Still, climate experts and environmentalists weren’t that much convinced. Rebecca Newson, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, said the government’s plan is “more like a pick and mix than the substantial meal that we need to reach net zero,” while Katie White from WWF said the plan doesn’t close the gap “between climate promises and action.”
Whether or not the promises will be kept still remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the current UK government has a history of overselling or flat-out lying about its plans. We can only hope this isn’t the case here. The full strategy can be accessed here.
As the world rebounds from the pandemic, global carbon emissions from energy are forecast to jump this year by the second-biggest annual rise in history. Despite big words and political commitments, climate action seems to be left in the background.
In its Global Energy Review, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts energy-related CO2 emissions will grow by 4.8% due to a larger demand for coal, oil and gas. This would be the largest single increase since the economic recovery from the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, told The Guardian: “This is shocking and very disturbing. On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It is really disappointing.”
The closed factories and empty roads and airports we witnessed last year led to the biggest fall in demand for energy since World War Two. It was unsurprising: with the pandemic bringing parts of society to a halt, emissions were bound to drop. That lower demand triggered a drop on carbon emissions of drop around 7% in 2020, as carbon-intensive fuels such as oil and coal were the hardest hit by the restrictions.
Many hoped that we can use the changes in energy use seen last year and start a trend towards renewable energy sources and lower emissions – with campaigners around the world calling last year for a green recovery. This is why this latest report is so disappointing: it shows that despite promises, governments and companies keep betting on fossil fuels.
Global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050, if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, the UN has estimated — which would allow us to escape many of the severe effects of climate change. This means that we have a few years to change course or face the dangerous effects of climate heating.
Birol said the world is “on course to repeat the same mistakes” of the past and said to be “more disappointed” than before. He compared the current rise in emissions to what happened after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, when emissions rose 6% in 2010 as countries tried to stimulate their economies by using more fossil fuel energy.
Emerging markets and developing economies now account for more than two thirds of global CO2 emissions, while emissions in advanced economies are in a slow decline, despite an anticipated 4% rebound in 2021, the EIA said. Emissions from China and India are set to steeply increase this year due to a higher demand from all fossil fuels.
In its report, the IEA anticipated a rebound on global coal use this year mainly driven by Asia, leading to an increase in global CO2 emissions of around 640 Mt CO2. This would push emissions from coal to 14.8 Gt CO2, which is 0.4% above 2019 levels and only 350 Mt CO2 short of the global high in coal-related CO2 emissions of 2014.
CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion are also expected to increase by more than 215 Mt CO2 in 2021 to reach an all-time high of 7.35 Gt CO2, 22% of global CO2 emissions. Gas use in buildings and industry accounts for much of the trend. Demand from public and commercial building is expected to recover after a drop seen last year.
Still, it’s not all bad news. Renewable energy sources are still growing, the IEA said in its report. Wind, solar and other sustainable forms grew 3% during 2020, and they are expected to grow by another 8% this year. Overall green energy sources will provide 30% of electricity generation, the highest level since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is big news.
“What seems to be happening now is that we have a massive deployment of renewable energy, which is good for tackling climate change, but this is occurring alongside massive investments in coal and gas,” Corinne Le Quere, researcher at East Anglia University, told BBC. “Stimulus spending post-Covid-19 worldwide is still largely funding activities that lock us into high CO2 emissions for decades.”
Seemingly small changes in lifestyle can add up to have a huge impact at the societal level. According to a new study, choosing to bike rather than drive a car may reduce the average person’s transportation-related carbon emissions by 67%.
These findings apply for choosing to bike over driving a car only once over the course of a day, meaning you don’t have to substitute all car trips in order to make a huge dent in your carbon footprint. This also means you could reduce your transportation-related emissions by 95% if you choose to exclusively bike.
To put things into perspective, the researchers led by the University of Oxford’s Christian Brand found that if just 10% of the population were to replace one single car trip each day with a bike trip, overall transport emission would also decrease by about 10%.
The conclusions were made after the researchers analyzed the mobility patterns of thousands of people in Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Rome, Vienna, Zurich, and Orebro (Sweden). Over 34,200 trips were logged in total by the study participants.
Not all cities generate the same carbon footprint from urban transit, which can depend a lot on geography, climate, income, road network, and so on. Nevertheless, the data suggest that across all cities, emissions from cars were nearly double those from public transport.
What’s more, cycling was responsible for less than 5% of overall public transport emissions. Bikes do not require fuel in the same sense as cars and buses — if you don’t count the food you need to burn those calories while biking — so the ride does not release any carbon emissions. However, manufacturing a bike produces, on average, 5 grams of CO2 per kilometer ridden.
According to the study published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, entertainment activities make up more than half of the transportation-related emissions. The full breakdown of the urban transit carbon footprint looks as follows: 37% work-related, 34% social and recreational, 18% shopping, 11% business.
“Active travel has attributes of social distancing that are likely to be desirable for some time. It could help to cut back transportation energy use, CO2 emissions and air pollution while improving population health as confinement is eased. Therefore, locking in, investing in and promoting active travel should be a cornerstone of sustainability strategies, policies and planning to meet our very challenging sustainable development goals that are unlikely to be met without significant mode shift to sustainable transport,” the authors wrote in their study.
Currently, bikes and electric bikes make up only 6% of the miles traveled in the world’s cities, says The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). So, there is a lot of room to cut transportation emissions. In order to facilitate bike transit and increase its usage, the ITDP recommends several policies including:
Developing large-scale networks of bike infrastructure
Implementing bike-share, with an emphasis on connections to transit
Revising laws to protect cyclists and pedestrians
Investing in walking and transit
Coordinating regional land use planning with transportation investments
Between a quarter and a third of all the emissions mankind is producing comes from agriculture. Despite a range of estimates, the ultimate figure seems to always be around the 25%-35% figure, but a ten percent difference in global emissions is a huge deal. So where does this difference come from, and what can we do to reduce these emissions?
Why so much greenhouse gas?
Although people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact their food has, it can come as quite a shock to see just how much of our emissions are caused by our food. How is it that so much of the global emissions, with everything that’s involved, comes from agriculture? Meat alone is responsible for more emissions than all the cars and planes in the world put together, where does all that come from?
From planting a seed to having something served on a plate, our food undergoes quite the journey, and we don’t often think about everything it involves. Our food’s emissions can roughly be split into four categories:
Land use: even before a single calorie has been consumed, deforestation and land clearing can produce emissions. The drainage and burning of soils, and the degradation of peatlands and other carbon-rich soils also contribute.
Agricultural production: everything from fertilizer to fuel used for machines, methane from cows, burning of agricultural waste, etc.
Packaging and distribution: food processing, packaging, transport, and retail also produces a hefty chunk of emissions.
Cooking and waste: this part sometimes gets left out of studies, but cooking food and throwing it away can also produce substantial emissions.
Overall, this is what a breakdown of our food’s emissions would look like:
Why estimates differ
The chart above, compiled by the folks from Our World in Data, is based on a 2021 study by Crippa et al. Overall, the study found that a third of our total emissions comes from agriculture. It was a landmark study that clearly highlighted just how big of a role agriculture plays in the ongoing climate crisis, and how if we want to truly address the crisis, we need to look at more than just electric cars and renewable energy.
This was, at a basic level, not surprising at all. Previous studies have also warned that agriculture is a major contributor to emissions, and in general terms, the main takeaway message is the same. But beneath the takeaway message, why are the estimates different?
For instance, a 2018 study by Poore and Nemecek claimed that about a quarter of our emissions comes from agriculture, as opposed to a third, as per Crippa et al.
The difference between ‘a third of our emissions’ and ‘a quarter of our emissions’ may not seem like much, but it is a huge difference. That gap is four times largerthan the entire aviation industry, and about as much as India’s entire emissions. Going into the nuts and bolts of this difference may be unglamorous, but it’s what can help us better understand how to address this problem. So where do the differences come from?
For starters, Poore and Nemecek don’t always include cooking and post-consumer emissions. That alone is a big difference between the numbers, but not the only one. Poore and Nemecek only looked at food agriculture, whereas the other study also looked at non-edible agricultural products, like cotton and leather. Other differences also come from different estimates used, like for instance how much deforestation each study attributes to agriculture.
A comparison between the two studies would look like this:
So which is it? How much emissions actually come from agriculture? Well, if you include all agriculture, with not just food, it probably produces around a third of our emissions. If you don’t and only look at food, then the figure is probably somewhere over 25% — because the 26% figure of Poore and Nemecek doesn’t include post-retailer emissions. Hannah Ritchie, Head of Research at Our World In Data, sums it up thusly:
“The amount of uncertainty in these estimates means it’s helpful to understand where the differences come from, and that they all fall within a reasonably narrow range. If someone asks me, my response is usually “around 25% to 30% from food. Around one-third if we include all agricultural products.””
Meat is a problem, eating local doesn’t help much
Being aware of the problem is important, but it can only do so much. At the end of the day, we also need solutions. When it comes to reducing agriculture emissions, meat seems like the first place to strike.
An important finding of the Poore and Nemecek study is that meat’s emissions are more than just direct emissions. For instance, crops grown for animal feed amount for 6% of total food emissions, and land use for livestock amounts to 16% of total food emissions. In other words, that’s 22% of food emissions that were camouflaged under other categories. When you add it all up together, livestock and fisheries make up more than half our food’s emissions.
No matter how you look at this, this is a lot. A kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2-equivalents) while peas, for instance, emits just 1 kilogram of gas per kg. Sure, meat can be very calorie-rich and has a lot of proteins, but it’s still disproportionate. Some meat is worse than others but, alas, alternatives fare much better environmentally.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
The world has pledged to do its best and keep the planet from heating more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Virtually all the countries on the planet have pledged to this. The bad news is that we’re really not on course to do this. If current trends continue, we’re headed for a disastrous warming.
By now, hopefully, it’s become clear that agriculture is a big part of this problem. To put it this way: we have an emissions budget, and a third of that budget goes to food and such. If we’re trying to cut expenses, it would make a lot of sense to look for cheaper food (read: less carbon-intensive food).
This is the good news: we know what needs to be done, and it’s already starting to happen. According to one recent report, Europe and the US are on track to reach “peak meat” by 2025, thanks especially to plant-based alternatives. It seems that as people pass a threshold of income and awareness, they start to shift to more plant foods — that’s great.
The ugly problem is that only a small part of the world seems to have reached that threshold, and before they do reach it, meat consumption actually grows. Simply put, the highly developed countries are starting to eat less meat; the other countries are eating more and more as they become more developed, and meat consumption grows as they become richer.
Overall, meat consumption is growing worldwide, especially in Asia.
There are, of course, other things that can be done. Reducing deforestation is one way, using fertilizers more sustainably is another. Having on-farm renewable energy and electric tractors will also help, as will paying more attention to crop rotation and sustainable agricultural practices that keep the soil healthy and prevent erosion. As consumers though, we have little control over that, other than choosing from producers who implement sustainable practices.
As consumers, the only real power we’ve got is what we choose to eat. Sometimes, carbon-intensive food is cheaper, more accessible, or takes less time to cook. Understandably, it can be easier to simply not look at this side of things. But if we want to truly address the climate crisis, this is the type of thing we need to look at.
Cities across the United States are largely underestimating their carbon dioxide emissions, a new study claims. Researchers compared self-reported data from 48 cities against a new measurement system of fossil fuel emissions and found the urban centers under-reported their emissions by almost 20%.
Almost three-quarters of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions, the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, come from cities. Projections show cities could add over two billion people this century with global urban areas tripling by 2030, highlighting need for urgent action (and in truth, some cities are already working in that direction).
Just like countries, cities also track (or rather, estimate) of their own greenhouse gas emissions. But researchers have raised doubts over them due to a lack of systematic and peer-reviewed assessment of their quality or accuracy. With this in mind, a team at Northern Arizona University decided to take a closer look.
They compared the greenhouse gas inventories of 48 cities in the US with their automated measurement system known as Vulcan, which can estimate fossil-fuel emissions at specific geographic points and over large areas. The group of cities account for 13.7% of US urban emissions and 17.7% of US urban population.
The comparison showed large discrepancies between what cities said they emitted and what they actually do. Self-reported emissions were 18.3% below the emissions estimated by the Vulcan system. But that average doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, Cleveland, Ohio reported emissions 90.1% below the Vulcan estimate while Palo Alto, California, reported emissions 41.7% greater.
The researchers said the differences can be explained by cities omitting petroleum fuel use and point source emissions in the industrial/commercial sector. Sometimes they also use different accounting perspectives on marine shipping and airborne emissions and different methods in on-road emission estimation, they added.
“I don’t think there’s any attempt to systematically or intentionally underestimate emissions,” Kevin Gurney, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. Although some cities correctly estimated their emissions, he noted, though “whether that’s right for the right reasons or right for the wrong reasons, it’s difficult to know.”
Accuracy and precision are critical to estimating emissions, whether reported by a city, state, or country, the researchers wrote. If US cities are under-reporting their emissions by so much, this essentially means that the entire country is also under-reporting.
While the authors note that their results raise “serious concerns” about cities’ self-reported approach to quantify emissions, they also added that work is being done to build a better emissions quantification system. It would calibrate emissions information for all cities in collaboration with local authorities, leaving urban climate experts more time to focus on coming up with the best mitigation strategies.
Hundreds of cities across the US have pledged to greatly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but many are struggling to meet their targets. A study last year looked at the country’s 100 most populous cities and found only 45 set specific targets for cutting emissions during the past decade. Of those, two-thirds were falling behind on their targets.
Newly sworn-in US President Joe Biden has pledged to decarbonize the country’s economy by 2050, in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Former President Donald Trump decided to the US would leave the climate accord, but Biden reversed the move as soon as he took office last month.
It’s one of the most promising ways to reduce our emissions, and it’s very simple: cycling, e-biking, or just walking would significantly lower people’s individual carbon footprint and help tackle the world’s climate crisis, according to a new study.
The transport sector is usually at the center of any debate regarding climate change, mainly because of its overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels by its motorized forms. We all want to get from A to B quickly, and for the longest time, this could be done only using fossil fuels. Sure, electric cars are already here and they can be a game changer, but there’s something else you can do. Something simpler.
In urbanized areas especially, the distances we travel are often not that long, and you don’t always need the car — the pandemic has clearly shown that with a significant shift in travel. People started cycling or walking more as public transportation was discouraged by authorities. A further shift to active travel could reduce CO2 emissions from road transport faster than technological measures alone.
A group of researchers at Oxford University wanted to investigate to what extent changes in active travel can be associated with changes in mobility-related carbon emissions from daily travel activity. They focused on seven European cities with different travel activity patterns across a wide range of urban contexts.
Over 10,000 participants from Antwerp (Belgium), Barcelona (Spain), London (UK), Orebro (Sweden), Rome (Italy), Vienna (Austria), and Zurich (Switzerland), entered the study. Through a questionnaire, they provided detailed information on their weekly travel behavior, daily travel activity, vehicle ownership, and socio-demographic characteristics.
Trip distances averaged 33.3 kilometers a day. While cycling and public transport were the most frequent transport modes among the participants, people traveled furthest by public transport and car — which makes sense. Transport mode usage was similar between sexes. The sample traveled an average of 3.6 trips per day, ranging from 2.9 trips per day in Rome to 4 trips per day in Antwerp.
Mobility-related lifecycle CO2 emissions totaled 2.8 kilograms of CO2 per day per person, the study showed. Driving a car or van made up the majority of these emissions. Direct emissions from all travel activity made up 70% of mobility-related lifecycle emissions. While travel to work or school produced the largest share of emissions, there were also contributions from social and recreational trips.
It boils down to this: driving (especially a big car) produces a lot of emission. If you want to reduce your emissions, that’s a great place to start. The findings showed that those who switch one trip per day from car driving to cycling or walking would reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tons of CO2 over a year. if 10% of the population would do the same, then the emissions savings would be around 4% of lifecycle CO2 emissions from car travel.
The largest benefits from shifts from car to active travel would be for business, then social/recreational followed by commuting to work or place of education, the researchers argued. This may be partially explained by longer trip distances and lower occupancy rates for business travel. UN reports have shown top-income earners are largely to blame behind aviation emissions.
“A typical response to the climate crisis is to ‘do something’, such as planting more trees. While these are important and effective, they are neither sufficient nor fast enough to meet our ambitious climate targets,” lead researcher Christian Brand in a statement. “Doing more of a good thing combined with doing less of a bad thing—and doing it now is much more compliant with a ‘net zero’ pathway.”
A thorough inventory of the sector’s emissions underlined just how much agriculture contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions. If we want to avoid catastrophic damage, we’d be wise to address this, researchers say.
Land-use and agriculture emissions are on the rise in most countries and this could cause the world to fail its climate targets, which could cause devastating damage for the entire planet.
Historically, human land use has affected the environment in multiple ways: it transformed and fragmented ecosystems, degraded biodiversity, disrupted carbon and nitrogen cycles, and added emissions to the atmosphere. But in contrast to fossil-fuels, trends and drivers of emissions from land-use change haven’t been analyzed as thoroughly.
The first problem is complexity. Compared to fossil fuels, land-use emissions are more difficult to assess. They are spatially diffuse, temporally distributed (for example, emissions from a deforested area may occur over many years), and require substantially more data and disciplinary knowledge to estimate. They are also comparatively more difficult to avoid.
A group of researchers from the University of California carried out a country-level analysis of trends in global land-use emissions in 1961–2017 and their demographic, economic, and technical drivers. They used annual time-series data on population, crop and livestock production, land area harvested, and agricultural emissions.
“We estimated and attributed global land-use emissions among 229 countries and areas and 169 agricultural products,” lead author Chaopeng Hong, said in a statement. “We looked into the processes responsible for higher or lower emissions and paid particularly close attention to trends in net CO2 emitted from changes in land use.”
Despite steady increases in population and agricultural production per capita, as well as smaller increases in emissions per land area used, land-use emissions relatively constant at about 11 gigatons CO2-equivalent until 2001, the study showed. This is mainly due to decreases in land required per unit of agricultural production.
But it all changed after 2001. Driven by rising emissions per land area, emissions increased by 2.4 gigatons CO2-equivalent per decade to 14.6 gigatons CO2-equivalent in 2017, the researchers found. This represents about 25% of total anthropogenic emissions, making agriculture a large contributor to global emissions, contributing to about a quarter of our total emissions.
Latin America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa are the three highest-emitting regions, accounting for 53% of global land-use emissions and more than two-thirds of global emissions growth over the period from 1961 to 2017. This is linked to cropland expansion and concomitant spikes in the emissions intensity of land use.
In the case of Latin America, increases in emissions after the year 2000 reversed earlier long-term declines; emissions in this region reached roughly 75% of 1961 levels in the 1990s. By contrast, emissions in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have trended upwards throughout most of that period, driven by significant growth in production.
A meaty problem
The researchers also looked at different food groups and found some striking differences. Emissions per calorie of beef and other meat are 30 times greater than the average intensity of other products. Although these red meats supply just 1% of total calories produced worldwide, they account for 25% of total land-use emissions.
Between 1961 and 2017, beef production increased much less (+144%) than chicken and pork production (483%), reflecting a widespread shift in the type of meat consumed, which reduced per capita meat emissions in 2017 by 44%. This has caused a 14% decline in per capita land-use emissions in the period included in the study.
“While the situation in low-income countries is critical, mitigation opportunities in these places are large and clear,” senior author Steve Davis said in a statement. “Improving yields on already cultivated land can avoid clearing more carbon-dense forests for cultivation of soybeans, rice, maize and palm oil, thereby drastically reducing land-use emissions in these countries.”
The researchers argued countries can tackle the emissions of the agricultural sector by reducing food waste, improving the quality of the soil, better manage livestock waste and use more efficient tilling and harvesting methods. At the same time, dietary changes could also make a big difference, as highlighted in previous studies.
Recent research has also demonstrated some promising mitigation options, they added. For example, rice cultivars and non-continuous rice-paddy flooding practices may achieve substantial reductions in CH4 while also increasing yields, and dietary supplements for cattle have reduced methane emissions up to 95% in pilot studies.
United States greenhouse gas emissions dropped by a record 10.3% last year, the largest annual decline since World War II, according to a new report. But this was mostly owed to the coronavirus pandemic and not because of any significant climate action — which means the US still has a long way to go to get its emissions under control.
The report by the Rhodium Group said the emissions decline in the US last year outpaced the Great Recession of 2009 when emissions dipped 6.3%. They attributed this to behavioral changes associated with the pandemic and warned emissions would go back to their usual growing path this year unless policymakers act.
“We’re seeing things we haven’t seen before, but it’s not for the right reasons,” Hannah Pitt, a senior analyst on Rhodium’s climate and energy team, told Scientific American. “In order to be on track for sustained reductions, there have to be structural changes to the underlying drivers of emissions.”
Before the pandemic, US emissions had been on a very slow decline since 2005, mainly because energy companies have been shifting away from coal to natural gas and renewable energy. Hundreds of coal power plants have closed down over the past decade despite the efforts of President Donald Trump to revive the sector. However, although some of that is now covered by renewables, natural gas has become the king of US energy.
But then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, with several governors putting their states under lockdown and many Americans staying home as much as possible. This took down emissions across sectors of the economy that had rarely seen sustained drops before, such as transportation, the main source of emissions in the country.
The sector saw a 14.7% drop in emissions last year, according to the new report, as people stopped driving to work and airlines cancelled flights. This continued even when states relaxed their lockdowns in the second part of the year. Americans drove 15% fewer miles in 2020 compared to 2019, with demand for jet fuel one-third down.
Emissions from heavy industries such as cement also dropped 7%, with automakers and manufacturers producing fewer goods amid the economic drop. Buildings across the US, which produce carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heat, saw emissions fall 6.2% thanks to the state’s lockdowns and the warmer weather.
Meanwhile, in the electricity sector, emissions plunged 10.3% last year thanks to a significant drop in coal burning. Electricity demand was lower than usual and energy companies used their coal plants less often. Instead, they used more natural gas, which produces less carbon dioxide, as well as more solar and wind power.
It was a big year for renewable energy in the US, with many energy companies building a record number of wind farms and solar plants ahead of a deadline to claim a federal tax credit. Rhodium estimates that the US produced as much electricity from renewables last year as it did from coal, something never seen before.
The overall emissions drop puts the US close to achieving one of its major climate change goals under the Paris Agreement. Former President Barack Obama had pledged that the US emissions would drop 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. President Trump then decided to exit the pact amid an overall rollback on environmental regulations.
Still, the report has a few limitations. Rhodium’s numbers don’t incorporate any rise in emissions resulting for them the record wildfires in the West, which burned millions of hectares of forests and grassland. An estimate from BloombergNEF said wildfires could offset about 3% of the drop in emissions from energy and industry.
The other potential problem is that the US emissions could go back up once vaccines are massively distributed and the economy recovers. Rhoidum said that a similar rebound happened after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, which caused emissions to drop. Some sectors such as air travel and steel production are already rebounding in the US.
The Global Carbon Project had already estimated that emissions decreased by around 7% globally last year. While this might look like something significant, it actually doesn’t make much of a difference to climate change. Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries so climate action has to be maintained every year.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to limit global warming to below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5ºC. Still, for this to happen, emissions have to drop significantly. With the current climate pledges by countries, the world is heading to a temperature increase between 3º C and 4ºC, and the US has more than contributed its share.
Lockdowns imposed against the spread of the coronavirus fostered a noticeable decline in humanity’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while they were in effect. Despite this, GHG levels in the atmosphere hit “record highs” in 2019 and continued to increase all throughout 2020, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The results show that we’re still well on our way towards a much hotter climate in the future. Although the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has helped in this regard, it wasn’t able to bring atmospheric GHG levels down. Furthermore, this illustrates why stabilizing the climate requires a focus on long-term, sustained reductions of such gas in order to be successful.
Less, but not little
“The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “We need a sustained flattening of the curve.”
GHGs prevent heat from the surface of the Earth from radiating back out into space. In effect, this makes them act as a blanket that’s warming up the planet. This process is actually pretty beneficial for us, as it helps keep temperatures in a comfortable range and prevents massive fluctuations (like what takes place on Mars, for example). But too much greenhouse effect can make for scorching heat, higher sea levels (through the melting of the ice caps), and it can promote freak weather events.
According to preliminary estimates in the WMO’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, CO2 emissions may have dropped by 17% globally at the height of lockdowns and shutdowns. Averaged out over the whole year, however, this would mean a drop of between 4.2% and 7.5%, it added.
The bad news is that this decrease was “no bigger than the normal year to year fluctuations,” the WMO states, which means that this drop won’t have any meaningful effect on GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and thus on global warming. Atmospheric CO2 levels in the air will continue to rise, although at a slightly reduced pace — around 0.23 parts per million (ppm) slower than previously estimated. This is well below the 1.0 ppm threshold, which is the natural variability between different years. WMO’s Bulletin listed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 410 parts per million in 2019, from 407.8 ppm in 2018. The rising trend has continued into 2020, it adds.
“On the short-term, the impact of the COVID-19 confinements cannot be distinguished from natural variability,” the report explains.
Emissions are the main source of GHGs coming into the air. Atmospheric levels, or concentrations, are the part of these emissions left over after a series of interactions between the air and wider environment including plant activity, the lithosphere, cryosphere, and the oceans. In essence, they’re an excess of gas that can’t be scrubbed out.
Taalas underscores that we first crossed the 400 ppm global threshold in 2015, and “just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm. Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records.”
“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer,” Taalas adds. “The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago,” when global temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher than now. “But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants”.
CO2 is the main GHG emitted by humanity, and has the greatest overall effect on the climate (around 60%) due to its quantity. The second-most prevalent such gas is methane, which accounts for around 16% of total warming. Nitrous oxide is the third major greenhouse gas. The WMO adds that the Earth has registered a 45% increase in radiative forcing (the warming effect of GHGs) since 1990.
According to internal documents obtained by Bloomberg, America’s largest oil and gas corporation Exxon Mobil was planning to increase its 2021 greenhouse gas emissions by 17% — an increase equivalent to the entire nation of Greece.
That’s only Exxon Mobil’s own emissions, not the emissions produced by its customers burning oil. When that is also taken into consideration, the total impact would be about five times bigger.
Oil companies are in a strange place: on one hand, their main activity is producing and selling fossil fuels, the main contributor to climate change. But on the other hand, they’re trying to shed the ‘bad guy’ image and move (or at least claim to be moving) towards sustainability.
Some are taking real steps. Equinor, traditionally a petroleum refining company, is making a massive move into wind energy. Others are just posturing — and Exxon Mobil seems to be king of this hill.
Unlike some of its rivals, Exxon Mobil never made a commitment to cut emissions or become carbon neutral. The likes of Shell and BP have at least announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2050, but Exxon hasn’t made any promises of cutting emissions or becoming carbon neutral. Although Exxon’s website is scarce in clear committments, though it does mention that “we support the Paris Agreement” and makes mentions of “actions to address the risks of climate change” and “maximizing transparency”.
Turns out, it’s more than just the planet that’s heating up. Exxon’s statements are also full of hot air.
The internal documents analyzed by Bloomberg show that Exxon has carefully assessed how its emissions would develop over the seven-year investment adopted in 2018. For instance, a chart notes that Exxon’s direct emissions would grow from 122 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalent in 2017 to 143 million metric tons in 2025. Though the company’s actions also mention some efforts to reduce pollution, the net overall emissions would surge.
Also according to Exxon’s documents, these direct emissions are only a fraction of the total emissions the company generates indirectly. In other words, these are operations emissions from extracting, refining, and distributing oil — the emissions from burning oil would be five times larger. If Exxon were to carry out its plans, it’d be like a small developed nation just popped up on the globe and started emitting greenhouse gases.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Exxon said its internal projections are “a preliminary, internal assessment of estimated cumulative emission growth through 2025 and did not include the [additional] mitigation and abatement measures that would have been evaluated in the planning process,” and that the plans have since changed. However, Exxon declined to provide any details on its new plans or how this would fit with the climate objectives of staying within 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial times.
It’s not the first time Exxon leaks have caused a stir: other documents revealed that Exxon knew about climate change since the 70s and lied to hide it.
Not everyone holds the same responsibility for climate change, according to new research, which showed that the richest 1% of the world’s population produced twice as much carbon dioxide emissions as the poorest 50% between 1990 and 2015.
A report compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute showed that CO2 emissions rose by 60% over the 25-year period. The increase in emissions from the wealthiest 1% was three times greater than the increase from the poorest half of the world over the same timeframe. This means that the rich are quickly exhausting the world’s carbon budget, the limit of greenhouse gas emissions mankind can produce before damaging temperature increases become unavoidable.
The increase in emissions was mainly driven by overconsumption and carbon-intensive transportation.
“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity,” Tim Gore, head of policy at Oxfam, told the Guardian. “A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”
The study showed that the richest 10% of the global population, which group 630 million people, were responsible for about 52% of the global emissions over the 25-year period. The richest 10% are those who earned above $35,000 a year, while the richest 1% are those earning more than about $100,000.
Carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, driving climate change. If left unchecked, the emissions of the world’s richest 10% would be enough to generate a temperature increase of 1.5ºC even if the whole of the rest of the world cut their emissions to zero immediately, the report showed.
Allowing the rich to continue emitting greenhouse gases more than those in poverty is unfair, according to Oxfam. Instead, as the world moves towards renewable energy and phases out fossil fuels, the emissions that are still necessary during the transition should be used to improve poor people’s access to basic amenities.
Transport is currently one of the main drivers of emissions of the rich, as they have a tendency to drive high-emitting cars like SUVs and take more flights. Oxfam called for more taxes to be implemented on high-carbon luxuries like a frequent-flyer tax in order to channel investment into low-carbon alternatives and improving life for the poorest.
The Paris Agreement committed countries to limit global temperature rise to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. But emissions are still rising in most countries. The coronavirus pandemic caused a temporary drop in global emissions but the overall impact is limited. Emissions are shifting back to their usual (growing) trend as countries start lifting lockdowns.
Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive, said in a statement: “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis and putting the planet in peril. No one is immune from the impact but the world’s poorest are paying the heaviest price despite contributing least emissions as they battle floods, famines and cyclones.”
Global warming is perhaps the ultimate hurdle humanity will have to overcome in our lifetime. Researchers from Norway are helping us get a better idea of what that process would entail.
According to their work, it could take decades after we reduce greenhouse emissions for the planet to start cooling down. While the idea that it takes time to alter climate patterns — known as ‘climate inertia’ — isn’t new, the study does offer a more in-depth estimation of how such a process would unfold.
Cooling takes time
The study was published by three researchers at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway.
They worked with several climate models to determine how global climate would respond to different levels of reductions in greenhouse emissions, or to changes in the overall make-up of those emissions.
Slashes in carbon dioxide emissions were the only changes that had a noticeable effect on global warming, but even then, it would take a long time to see progress.
However, when emissions of other gases being emitted were reduced as well, this cooling trend would accelerate. If these other pollutants are not reduced, the planet will cool down very slowly.
According to the team’s best-case scenario (near-zero-emissions starting this year), we’ll see the planet starting to cool down somewhere in 2033. Under the RUCP2.6 scenario (an emission reduction scenario considered to be achievable by many researchers and politicians), the team saw no positive changes until 2047. Finally, if emissions are reduced by around 5% each year, we’ll start seeing an improvement by 2044.
The team’s effort isn’t a clear-cut image of the future, and they acknowledge this fact, but it is a very useful glimpse into where we’re headed, roughly, and what to expect.
One of the most important takeaways of this research is that time is extremely important in fixing our climate issues. The later we start, the later we’ll see results, or the more emissions we’ll have to slash (which translates to more severe economic effects). We have to balance those effects with the damage our emissions are causing to the planet’s ecosystems — economies don’t tend to fare well during periods of massive environmental upheaval.
But not all is lost. The quarantine showed that we can make a real, positive change in our emissions with surprising ease. Air quality improved dramatically over many of the world’s busiest cities during the lockdown. We can recreate that drop in emissions in the future — and it will be a very good place to start.
The paper “Delayed emergence of a global temperature response after emission mitigation” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.
Global temperatures last month set a new record high, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This makes it the hottest May ever recorded since 1880.
While NOAA says May 2020 and May 2016 were tied for the warmest month on record, NASA puts last month ahead by 0.06°C — the two agencies use different methods and algorithms to calculate temperature, so tiny discrepancies between their results are expected.
Furthermore, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information estimates that there’s a 49% chance for 2020 to be the hottest year ever seen.
Things are heating up
The average global temperature last month hit 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit (15.7 Celsius), NOAA reports, making it the hottest month of May in the last 141 years (tied with May 2016). It may not seem like a lot, but that’s 1.7°F (roughly 1°C) higher than the 20th-century average, according to Yale Climate Connections.
May is by no means an outlier; all five months of 2020 already rank in the top 20 hottest ever recorded.
Us land-lubbers felt the heat most intensely, as average temperatures over land set a new record, while ocean temperatures ranked only second (not that that’s much of a win).
“The remarkable warmth of 2020 has come in the absence of an El Niño event and during the minimum of one of the weakest 11-year solar cycles in the past century, underscoring the dominant role human-caused global warming has in heating our planet,” writes Jeff Masters for Yale Climate Connections.
“We continue to warm on the long term and in any given month we’re likely to be knocking on the door, close to a record in the era that we’re in,” NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt said.
Temperatures aren’t painting a pretty picture. The last seven Mays have been the warmest on record (2016 used to be the warmest). The spring of 2020 has been the second hottest after that of 2016, and, overall, the last five months have been the second-hottest five months of a year.
In the short term, such temperatures suggest that we’re in for a very hot year. In the longer term, they reinforce a worrying, warming trend that’s gripping the whole planet. Human greenhouse gas emissions are driving this warming trend, and it will not stop until we address the issue.
Although the world experienced a unique breather thanks to lack of activity due to the coronavirus epidemic and the global recession, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a new record in May and are back on their usual upward trend. The alarming measurements highlight the need for more ambitious climate action.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 417 parts per million on average during May at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This suggests that even though lockdowns around the world have caused emissions to drop temporarily, warming trends are set to continue.
The record represents the highest level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for millions of years, based on separate measurements by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“People may be surprised to hear that the response to the coronavirus outbreak has not done more to influence CO2 levels,” said Professor Ralph Keeling, head of the CO2 programme at the Scripps Institution. “The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa.”
The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere usually peak in May before the growing season starts in the northern hemisphere. They fluctuate during the rest of the year, as the gas gets absorbed by the ocean and by growing plants, and released by decaying organic matter.
Carbon emissions linked to human activities hit a record high last year but fell in the spring due to the effect of the coronavirus epidemic. Global daily emissions in April were 17% lower than normal levels. But now, as lockdowns are starting to be lifted, emissions are expected to fall only between 4% and 7% this year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates fossil fuel-related emissions will be 8% lower by the end of 2020 compared to the previous year.
Either way, this decline will make no major difference to the world’s ability to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and keep global heating below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius that scientists agree is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The world has already warmed over 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. But, at least there’s a silver lining.
The use of renewables rose during lockdowns, with Europe setting a new record by drawing 55% of its power from clean energy sources on May 24.
For environmental organizations, the fact that emissions are now growing again shows the urgent need to have a green recovery following the pandemic. John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian that the UK government should increase its ambition as it will host the next UN climate talks.
“Just a few months of lower emissions were never likely to make a dent in the hundreds of billions tons of carbon that have built up over a century and a half of burning fossil fuels,” he said, adding that the drop in emissions due to the pandemic will remain as a “blip” unless governments increase their ambition.
A new mathematical model developed at the University of Colorado at Boulder could allow us to accurately forecast ocean acidity levels up to five years in advance.
Ocean acidification is driven by CO2 gas in the atmosphere, levels of which are increasing sharply due to human activity. The acid in question is carbonic acid which, although a relatively weak acid, can impact the health and wellbeing of marine life by messing with their metabolism and calcification processes (i.e. with their ability to form and maintain shells).
The authors hope that their model can be used to insulate coastal communities from the economic and nutritional impacts of ocean acidification while helping researchers and policymakers develop adequate conservation methods for marine environments.
Not the acid we were looking for
“We’ve taken a climate model and run it like you would have a weather forecast, essentially — and the model included ocean chemistry, which is extremely novel,” said Riley Brady, lead author of the study, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.
The team says that their model is the first to allow for acidity predictions over such a long time period, as previous attempts could only reliably predict up to a few months of data.
For the study, the team focused on the California Current System (CCS), which is one of the four major coastal upwelling systems in the world, running from the tip of Baja California in Mexico all the way up into the Canadian coast. The CCS supports fishing grounds that yield around a billion dollars in fishing catches every year in the U.S. alone. It’s also particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification, the team explains, as it pushes deeper waters (which acidic and denser, so they settle near the bottom) to the surface. The extra acidification we’re causing could push its fragile ecosystems over the edge.
The team used a climate model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to generate ‘forecasts’ for past changes in acidity levels and compared those to real-world data — finding that they fit recorded changes very well. Another advantage this model has over localized ones that it can factor in events with global effects, such as El Niño.
However, while the results were quite exciting, our ability to deploy such models is still limited. These tools still require an immense amount of computational power, data, manpower, and time to implement and run, so they can’t really be used around the clock to generate acidification forecasts.
But we do know that they would be useful. It’s estimated that around 30% to 40% of the CO2 emissions from human activity are absorbed by the world’s waters and react to form carbonic acid, which makes them more acidic. The effect is only going to increase in the future, and researchers are expecting that large swaths of the ocean are going to become completely corrosive to the shells of certain organisms within decades.
“The ocean has been doing us a huge favor,” said study co-author Nicole Lovenduski, associate professor in atmospheric and oceanic sciences and head of the Ocean Biogeochemistry Research Group at INSTAAR.
But now, “ocean acidification is proceeding at a rate 10 times faster today than any time in the last 55 million years.”
Communities who rely on ocean resources for food or tourism will undoubtedly be affected by acidification, the team notes.
The paper “Skillful multiyear predictions of ocean acidification in the California Current System” has been published in the journal Nature.
From fossil fuel production to extensive agriculture, human activities are increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels unprecedented in history. The global average amount of carbon dioxide hit a new record high in 2019, with 414 parts per million (ppm).
This is causing a wide array of consequences, including alterations to our basic decision-making ability and complex strategic thinking, according to a new study, which warned people could be exposed to indoor CO2 levels up to 1400 parts per million by the end of the century.
“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces,” said in a statement Kris Karnauskas, lead-author. “It affects everybody — from little kids packed into classrooms to scientists, business people and decision makers to regular folks in their houses and apartments.”
When we breathe air with high CO2 levels, the CO2 levels in our blood rise, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches our brains. This can increase sleepiness, anxiety, and impair cognitive function, previous studies showed. Building ventilation can help but not always if there are too many people.
In general, CO2 concentrations are higher indoors than outdoors, the authors wrote. And outdoor CO2 in urban areas is higher than in pristine locations. The CO2 concentrations in buildings are a result of both the gas that is otherwise in equilibrium with outdoor conditions, as well as the CO2 generated by building occupants as they exhale.
In the ongoing scenario — in which people on Earth do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts outdoor CO2 levels could rise to 930 ppm by 2100. Urban areas typically have around 100 ppm higher CO2 levels than this background value.
The researchers created an approach that considers predicted future outdoor CO2 concentrations and the impact of localized urban emission. They found that if the outdoor CO2 concentrations do rise to 930 ppm, that would nudge the indoor concentrations to a harmful level of 1400 ppm.
“At this level, some studies have demonstrated compelling evidence for significant cognitive impairment,” said Anna Schapiro, coauthor. “Though the literature contains some conflicting findings, it appears that high level cognitive domains like decision-making and planning are especially susceptible to increasing CO2 concentrations.”
The study found that CO2 concentrations may cut our basic decision-making ability by 25% and complex strategic thinking by around 50% in a 1400 ppm scenario. The cognitive impacts of rising CO2 levels represent what scientists call a “direct” effect of the gas’ concentration, much like ocean acidification.
There may be ways to adapt to higher indoor CO2 levels, the researchers argued. Nevertheless, the best way to prevent levels from reaching harmful levels is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. This would require further climate action, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement.
A large part of the United States’ energy comes from oil and natural gas pumped out of the ocean floor. Nearly all extraction currently takes place in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, where thousands of platforms operate in waters up to 6,000 feet deep.
Researchers from the University of Michigan decided to sample the air over the offshore oil and gas platforms to look at their environmental impact, discovering that the platforms are actually emitting twice as much methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, than previously thought.
The study found that oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico emit approximately half a teragram of methane each year, comparable with large emitting oil and gas basins. The effective loss rate of the produced gas is roughly 2.9%, similar to large onshore basins primarily focused on oil.
Offshore harvesting accounts for roughly one-third of the oil and gas produced worldwide, and these facilities both vent and leak methane. Until now, only a handful of measurements of offshore platforms have been made, and no aircraft studies of methane emissions in normal operation had been conducted.
Each year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues its U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory, but its numbers for offshore emissions are not produced via direct sampling. The research from the University of Michigan identified a set of reasons behind the discrepancy between their findings and the ones by the EPA.
There are errors in the platform counts done by the EPA, the researches claimed, having found 1.300 offshore facilities not incorporated in the inventory. At the same time, emissions from shallow-water facilities, especially those focused on natural gas, are higher than inventoried. Eric Kort, a University of Michigan associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, said EPA officials are already making adjustments to correct their count of offshore platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico. But emissions estimates, particularly for shallow waters, still need adjustments.
“We have known onshore oil and gas production often emits more methane than inventoried. With this study we show that this is also the case for offshore production, and that these discrepancies are large,” Kort said. “By starting to identify and quantify the problem, with a particular focus on larger shallow water facilities, we can work towards finding optimal mitigation solutions.”
The researchers took their samples in 2018 using a small research plane with enough room for a pilot and passenger and scientific gear. Tubes along the wings of the plane drew in the air that was pumped to the equipment for analysis of the amount of methane included as well as wind speed.
In addition to 12 individual facilities, the flights also covered larger geographical areas. Flying downwind from clusters of 5 to 70 oil and gas facilities, and taking similar measurements, researchers could evaluate how well inventory estimates compare with large numbers of platforms.
As a pilot study, Kort said the research is promising but has gaps. Greater statistical sampling and identification of the cause of high emissions can guide mitigation and improve reported emissions. To further the work and fill in these gaps, new aerial sampling is in the works. The project, titled Flaring and Fossil Fuels: Uncovering Emissions & Losses (FUEL), will require more flights later over the next three years.
The global pandemic unleashed in China and now spreading around the world is paralyzing economies, as factories shut down, banks close, and people isolate to contain the outbreak.
The effects are clear. China’s GDP might have dropped 40% during the first three months of the year, while the US’ GDP could fall by 30% to 50% by summer. Similar trends are seen in all countries, with annual output expected to decline across the globe.
But countries’ GDP isn’t the only figure expected to drop this year. Reduced economic activity has a direct effect on the level of greenhouse gas emissions, now expected to decline up to 4% in 2020, according to an analysis by CarbonBrief – based on data that represents three-quarters of global emissions.
Such an annual drop would be larger than any previous economic recession or war managed to bring about, according to Simon Evans, the deputy editor at CarbonBrief. But it still underscores just how massive and challenging a job the world faces in cutting emissions fast and deep enough to combat climate change.
The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, seeks to limit global warming to 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels. To reach that goal, the world would have to cut emissions by 6% every year for the next decade, according to CarbonBrief. That means that shutting down the economy this year won’t be enough to solve the problem.
At the same time, emissions are also likely to rebound as soon as economies get back on track, which is what happened in the wake of previous downturns. Indeed, China’s are already about within the normal range, a few months after the outbreak crested in some provinces.
Data from countries and sectors not yet available is expected to increase the total drop of emissions, CarbonBrief explained, also noting that some estimates of oil consumption declines have grown since they completed their post. They also cautioned that efforts to gauge the virus’s effects are complicated by unknowns regarding the duration of the crisis and lockdowns, among other variables.
The report provides a sense of the staggering effects of the outbreak that’s freezing huge amounts of travel and economic activity. But it also gives an unfolding, real-time look at the immense challenge implementing policies to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
With the current country’s pledges, the global temperature increase is expected to reach 4ºC, instead of the 1.5ºC agreed on in Paris. New climate plans are expected by all countries this year — with Chile as the most recent example weeks ago — in order to increase ambition further.