Tag Archives: greenhouse gas emissions

Just 25 mega-cities generate half of the world’s urban CO2 emissions

Credit: Pixabay.

Although they cover only 2% of Earth’s surface, cities are major contributors to the climate crisis we’re currently facing. Some cities like Tokyo or Delhi, with populations numbering in the tens of millions, harbor more people than entire medium-sized countries, with greenhouse gas emissions to match. According to a recent analysis, just 25 such mega-cities are responsible for 52% of global urban greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

“Nowadays, more than 50% of the global population resides in cities. Cities are reported to be responsible for more than 70% of GHG emissions, and they share a big responsibility for the decarbonization of the global economy. Current inventory methods used by cities vary globally, making it hard to assess and compare the progress of emission mitigation over time and space,” said study co-author Dr. Shaoqing Chen of Sun Yat-sen University, China.

Chen and colleagues conducted a thorough assessment of GHGs on a sector-by-sector basis of 167 major cities in 53 countries, from Durban in South Africa to Milan in Italy. During the analysis, they also tallied progress in terms of emission reductions from 2012 to 2016 and how the cities fared in meeting their short-, mid-, and long-term carbon mitigation goals.

Across the board, both in developed and developing countries, cities are responsible for copious amounts of GHGs emissions. However, Asian mega-cities such as Shanghai and Tokyo were identified as particularly large emitters. On a per-capita basis, however, cities in Europe, the USA, and Australia were found to have higher emissions than the vast majority of cities in developing countries.

The most important source of emissions in most cities was the production of stationary energy (emissions from fuel combustion and electricity use), which was responsible for 60% to 80% of all emissions in North American and European cities. In about a third of all cities included in the assessment, more than 30% of GHGs were due to on-road transportation. Just 15% of total emissions came from railways, waterways, and aviation.

“Breaking down the emissions by sector can inform us what actions should be prioritized to reduce emissions from buildings, transportation, industrial processes and other sources,” said Chen.

The good news is that in at least 30 cities, there was a clear trend of decreasing emissions between 2012 and 2016. The top four cities with the largest per capita reduction were Oslo, Houston, Seattle, and Bogotá. On the opposite end, where emissions per capita increased, were Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Johannesburg, and Venice.

In light of the Paris Agreement, 113 of the 167 cities have set their own GHG emission reduction targets, 40 of which claim they want to become carbon neutral by 2050.

 “Cities should set more ambitious and easily-traceable mitigation goals. At a certain stage, carbon intensity is a useful indicator showing the decarbonization of the economy and provides better flexibility for cities of fast economic growth and increase in emission. But in the long run, switching from intensity mitigation targets to absolute mitigation targets is essential to achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050,” Chen said.

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Lockdowns are making emissions fall. But that’s far from solving the problem

Drastic changes at both economic and social levels — that’s what’s needed to truly tackle climate change and lower emissions levels before it’s too late. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes, with all major scientific reports pointing in the same direction.

Empty streets, a common image in time of lockdowns. Credit Wikipedia Commons

That’s why any reductions on the level of emissions due to the coronavirus epidemic doesn’t mean we can now forget about the problem. When the economy starts moving again, the scenario is likely to be an emission-intensive one again.

In early April, daily emissions of greenhouse gasses dropped 17% compared to the levels registered in 2019, according to a new study. That’s the largest drop in carbon output ever seen since records began, linked to shutdowns in the global economy.

The study, carried out by a group of UK researchers, said that when lockdowns were at full force, emissions dropped over a quarter on average in some countries. For example, in the UK, the decline reached 31%, while in Australia emissions dropped 28.3%.

Don’t pop that champagne yet

“This is a really big fall, but at the same time, 83% of global emissions are left, which shows how difficult it is to reduce emissions with changes in behaviour,” Corinne Le Quéré, lead author, told The Guardian. “And it is not desirable – this is not the way to tackle climate change.”

For the study, the researchers used a combination of energy, activity and policy data available up to the end of April 2020 to estimate the changes in daily emissions during the confinement and its implications for the growth in CO2 emissions in 2020. This was compared to daily emissions from 2019.

Changes in CO2 emissions were estimated for three levels of confinement and for six sectors of the economy, as the product of the CO2 emissions by sector before confinement and the fractional decrease in those emissions due to the severity of the confinement and its impact on each. The analysis was performed for 69 countries.

The impact on 2020 annual emissions will depend on the duration of the confinement, the researchers argued. If pre-pandemic conditions go back to normal by mid-June, emissions would drop this year about 4%, while if that happens at the end of the year the drop would reach 7%.

The fall represents the largest annual drop in emissions seen since the second world war and marks a difference from recent years, as emissions have been rising an average of 1% annually. Nevertheless, the fall is only temporary and won’t help much to deliver on the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Countries committed in the Paris Agreement to do everything they can to limit global warming to 2ºC, or ideally 1.5ºC, with emissions falling to net-zero by mid-century. This study acts as a reminder of how far the world is from reaching such goals and the necessary level of ambition that is needed.

“The social trauma of confinement and associated changes could alter the future trajectory in unpredictable ways, but social responses alone, as shown here, would not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions,” the authors wrote.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Pollution pods give feeling of smog in diverse cities at COP25

Despite being in Madrid, the more than 20,000 people attending the COP25 climate summit can get the feeling of how it’s like to breathe the air of some of the most polluted cities in the world thanks to an art installation set up at the sidelines of the summit.

Credit: Fermin Koop.

London artist Michael Pinsky installed a set of “pollution pods” to recreate the bad air quality of London, Beijing, Sao Paulo, and New Delhi. Instead of actual smog, he used perfume blends and fog machines, making sure there’s no actual risk to the visitors of the installation.

Nevertheless, that’s not the case for millions that live in polluted cities across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nine out of ten people on the planet are affected by polluted air, killing over seven million prematurely per year. Children are especially vulnerable, WHO said.

“The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

The pods actually start at Norway, with the cleanest air in the world, and then moves on to the cities with actual pollution, from good to worse. As visitors walk around, they can see and feel the contrast between different cities. Most leave the pods with an expression of shock.

The installation arrived in Madrid thanks to several agencies such as the WHO. The pods were commissioned to Pinsky as part of Climart, a research project that examines the psychological mechanisms that are involved in the production and reception of visual art, hoping to unite natural sciences and visual arts.

Teresa Ribera, Minister for the Ecological Transition of Spain, said: “Air pollution and climate change are the two sides of the same coin. The symbolic installation of the Pollution Pods at COP25 should remind everybody that we are negotiating for cleaner environments, cutting emissions and gaining better health for all.”

Back in July, the UN and WHO called governments to act on air quality through the “Clean Air Initiative”, which seeks the commitment of countries to have safe air quality and to align the agenda of climate change and air pollution by 2030.

Credit: Fermin Koop.

Air pollution costs the global economy US$5.11 trillion in welfare losses, according to the World Bank. In the 15 countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, impacts are estimated at more than 4% of GDP.

Meeting the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, could save one million lives a year by 2050 and generate benefits worth an estimated U$54.1 trillion just through reduced air pollution.

Civil society kicked out of COP25 climate talks after unexpected protest

What was initially just a speech by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres soon turned into chaos at the COP25 climate summit, as a group of 300 civil society representatives entered into the plenary of negotiations and started an unexpected protest.

Security officers don’t allow people to enter the plenary while the protest erupts. Credit: Fermin Koop.

Activists from non-governmental organizations, indigenous groups, and environmental NGOs organized a non-violent protest at the main hall where representatives from countries are trying to reach a deal over the rulebook of the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

“What’s happening at COP25 has nothing to do with addressing climate change. We all came together to ask for real solutions, not false ones. Industrialized countries have to step up. The planet is for grabs for CO2 colonialism,” Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said after the protest.

UN head Guterres was giving a speech when activists entered the plenary, holding banners and singing songs to ask for climate action. But soon the mood changed. Dozens of security officials arrived and pushed the activists out of the climate talks, also taking away their badges to return on the remaining days of the summit.

The protest attracted the attention of everybody at COP25, who tried to enter the plenary to see what was happening. But soon more security officials blocked the access to the area, not allowing anybody to enter – even country delegates who had to get to the plenary to continue the negotiations.

“We’re here to demand rich governments like the U.S., EU, Canada, Australia, and Japan reduce emissions and provide support for impacted communities. The ones that created the climate crisis, and bear the historical and current responsibility, must act,” said the Women & Gender Constituency on a press release.

The mood is low among civil society at the COP25 climate talks. Key issues are not making any progress such as carbon markets, gender, human rights and loss and damage, all part of the Paris Agreement but yet to be defined. This might force to drag on the discussion on these issues to the next COP26 in the UK.

At the same time, NGOs have questioned throughout COP the need to raise ambition, as with the current climate pledges from countries global warming is set to reach between 3.5 and 5 degrees Celsius. They have specifically targeted Brazil, the US, China, India, and Saudi Arabia.

The clash between the police and the climate activists happened a few hours before Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg addressed the plenary at COP25, accusing countries and business leaders of using the climate talks “to negotiate loopholes” instead of acting on climate.

“People brought their frustration into the negotiations and they have been shut outside and not let back in. Indigenous people were fighting for their homes, opposed to loopholes. They need to be let back in. Everyone from civil society have to be welcomed at climate negotiations,” Greenpeace head Jennifer Morgan said.

What are greenhouse gases and why we need to worry about them? A simple explainer

They’re blamed for causing an increase in global warming, but they also play a key role in the energy balance of the planet. They cause the greenhouse effect and among the most known ones are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They are the greenhouse gases.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Simply put, greenhouse gases are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They let solar energy pass through, but then they capture the heat inside the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases are found in low concentrations in the atmosphere (and have been around for millions of years), but the proportion has ramped up since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Man-made activity (primarily coming from industrial activity, but also from agriculture and transportation) has caused a sharp increase in greenhouse gases, which in turn are trapping more heat and causing temperatures to rise. This is why greenhouse gases are linked with man-made global warming.

But let’s take it one step at a time.

What’s the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect was identified by scientists in 1896. It’s the natural warming of the planet that happens as gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun, which would otherwise leave for space.

Up to 30% of the solar energy that arrives into the planet is reflected back to space, while the other 70% enters the surface through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the atmosphere, the land, and the oceans and heat the planets.

The heat is transformed into invisible infrared light. Some of it goes to space, while most of it is absorbed by greenhouse gases and cause more warming. The concentration of gases in the atmosphere was about 200 parts per million for a large part of the last 800.000 years.

While the exact model is very complex, and the numbers are sometimes hard to pinpoint accurately, the greenhouse effect is well-known for more than a century. It is supported by irrefutable scientific evidence and in principle, it is quite easy to grasp. Most kids learn it in school.

What are the main greenhouse gases?

There are a group of gases that are responsible for the greenhouse effect, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous dioxide, water vapor, and fluorinated gases. They have different chemical properties and can gradually increase or decrease from the atmosphere through different processes. The one process that is most pressing at the moment (and has been for the past century) is human activity.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for 76% of the global human-caused emissions. After being released into the atmosphere, about 40% stays for 100 years, while 20% remains after 1,000 years and 10% up to 10,000 years later.

Meanwhile, methane (CH4) stays for less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but it’s much stronger in terms of the greenhouse gas effect. Its global warming impact is 25 times larger than the one of the carbon dioxides in a period of 100 years. It accounts for 16% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is also a powerful gas, with a global warming potential of 300 times more than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time scale. It stays on the atmosphere for more than a century and it represents 6% of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Fluorinated gases are a group of gases caused by human activities from different industrial and manufacturing processes. They are grouped into nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

They only account for 2% of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans but they trap much more heat. Their global warming potential is considerably high, and they have a long atmospheric lifetime. HFCs replaced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) but are now tried to be phased out because of their global warming potential.

Finally, water vapor is considered the most abundant greenhouse gas. It’s not linked to human activities directly, but can also result from other greenhouse gases issued by man. In a constant feedback loop, more water absorbs more heat, leading to larger global warming.

Why are there changes in greenhouse gases now?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that there are a set of factors that can drive greenhouse gas emissions. In principle, they are influenced by economic activity, energy use, technology, and land-use patterns.

Burning coal, oil and natural gas to create electricity represent one-quarter of the global man-made emissions. It’s the most important single source. Such activities were responsible for 27.5% of the emissions in the US in 2017. The main greenhouse gas released because it is carbon dioxide, with smaller amounts of methane and nitrous oxide also being released in the process.

Another quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture and land-use activities like deforestation. Raising livestock and harvesting crops meant 8.4% of the emissions in the US in 2017. Most of the gases released were methane, produced mainly as cows belch and pass gas, and nitrous oxide, caused by fertilizers.

All trees, the plants, and the soil have the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. In the case of plants and trees, this is done through photosynthesis. Land-use changes such as deforestation, reforestation or afforestation can increase the level of carbon in the atmosphere or decrease it by removing or absorbing CO2.

One-fifth of the global man-made emissions are generated by the industrial sector, caused by activities such as manufacturing of goods and raw materials such as cement and steel, food processing and construction. In the US, 22.4% of the man-made emissions in 2017 came from the industrial sector. Most of it was CO2, followed by methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases.

Transportation also plays a key role, as burning fossil fuels to power transportation systems represent 14% of the global man-made emissions. In the US, the transportation sector is the main contributor of all greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is the main gas released in the sector, followed by methane and nitrous oxide. Cars and trucks explain 80% of the emissions of the transportation sector in the US.

Finally, managing buildings around the world lead to 6.4% of global emissions. Homes and businesses account for 11% of the emissions in the US, made up of carbon dioxide and methane cause of burning fossil fuels for heating and cooking. There are also other sources from waste management and leaking refrigerants.

Those are the main sources of man-made greenhouse gas emissions currently ongoing in the world.

What are the consequences of the release of more gases?

Greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities are higher than ever. Concentrations are growing every year and the planet is heating up. The planet’s average temperature has increased over one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times, with two-thirds of the warming that has occurred in just the last few decades.

All five of the years between 2014 and 2018 have been the hottest on record globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization. While countries have submitted plans to reduce their climate footprint, they are far from ambitious and would lead to the temperature keep rising.

But then again, that’s the big deal — why is global heating so bad?

Man-made global warming alters the Earth’s climate system in numerous ways. It causes more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves and hurricanes, it exacerbates precipitation extremes, making for example dry regions drier and it alters ecosystems and natural habitats, changing the geographical ranges and seasonal activities. Research has shown that hurricanes are bigger and stronger due to climate change, drought is also much more common, and wildfires are also heavily accentuated by climate change. These are all events taking place now, costing a lot of money and putting people’s health (and even lives) at risk.

Sea level rise is also a major consequence of climate change. Two phenomena are at play here: the first and most significant one is melting ice at the poles, which ends up in the global oceans and causes sea level rise. The second is thermal expansion caused by rising temperatures, and this can also contribute to sea level rise. These phenomena are not set to happen at some point in the distant future — they are taking place right now. Entire families on low-lying islands have been forced to relocate as their homes are slowly swallowed by rising seas.

All ecosystems are also affected by climate change. The bleaching of corals, the forcing of creatures out of their historical habitats and the warming of ocean temperatures are all taking place right now, with dangerous and long-lasting consequences.

A warmer world not only affects the natural world but also mankind. Insects that spread diseases such as Zika do better in higher temperatures, arriving in regions that weren’t previously affected. Doctors and researchers all around the world agree that climate change brings in new (and potentially devastating) health risks.

Food supply could also be reduced due to floods and droughts, as crop yields could see a reduction. These are just a handful of consequences, and just things that are happening now. If the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to grow, the consequences will certainly be dramatic.

All in all, this climate change can usher in some huge changes, and it comes with a price we can probably not afford to pay.

So, what’s the solution?

The planet has experienced warming and cooling periods many time in its geologic history. Driven by natural forces, these changes generally took place over millions of years, or at the very worst, thousands of years. Life had time to adapt, and even so, dramatic changes tended to bring dramatic loss of life and biodiversity. Life can presumably bounce back from even dramatic climate events, but whether or not humans can also survive is a different (and much more difficult question).

But unlike previous events, today’s warming is happening at a speed that can’t be linked just to natural causes. There is a mountain of evidence showing that human activities are to blame — but they can also bring a solution.

Scientists have documented the main sources of greenhouse gases, and they’ve also proposed ways to reduce our climate footprint — but the challenge is big. It would require aggressive and fast action, aiming at a carbon-neutral world as soon as 2050. For that to happen, fossil fuel production and consumption have to be stopped as well as deforestation. In addition to developing more renewable energy sources, we also have to keep as much oil and coal in the ground and not burn. We need to develop sustainable food systems, clean transportation, and greener construction materials. We need systemic changes at all levels of society, especially at the policy level.

The 2015 Paris Agreement is a good first step. The pact recommends action to ensure that we reduce emissions and keep warming within two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial (with an extra goal of 1.5 Celsius degrees). Doing so would significantly reduce the consequences of global warming. But we’re not even on course for that to happen. More effort and ambition is needed from all countries if we want to keep greenhouse gases under control. Otherwise, we have to be prepared to pay the price.

meatVSbeans

Replacing beef with beans on Americans’ plates might be the fastest way to cut CO2 emissions

meatVSbeans

The United States is the second biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, after China. At the same time, it’s the most powerful country in the world and much of this prosperity is owed to burning copious amounts of fossil fuels over the past 150 years. In other words, the United States has a social responsibility in front of all the citizens of the world to 1) reduce it’s greenhouse emissions fast and 2) help other nations — particularly the fast rising developing nations — achieve the same goal by transferring technology and funds.

While most Americans believe climate change is real and an immediate threat, when it comes to doing something about it opinions become mixed. And if you say the ‘T’ word, you better run for the hills. No, not Trump — I mean ‘taxes’. But the single, fastest way to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions might not be stripping a tax on the industry or the gas pump. According to researchers from Loma Linda University led Helen Harwatt, giving up on beef in favor of beans would have the most immediate impact on our emissions.

“Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make, and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy,” Harwatt said.

If Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. would realize 50 to 75% of its 2020 GHG-reduction targets

Right now, most of our protein comes from livestock meat, 70% of which is produced in factory farms. This is a highly energy-intensive industry that responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs); more than all the cars, planes, ships, tanks or any kind of transportation in the world. But not all meats are equal. Beef, for instance, is the most resource-intensive kind of meat to produce  Depending on where it’s grown, one pound of beef uses 1,800 to 2,500 gallons (56 tons to 70 tons) of water and releases 22.3 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions per kilogram. And that’s not counting land use and other resources.

A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Simply put, eating beef driving a lot of global warming and pollution — not only in this country but all around the world. At the same time, beef is an excellent source of protein for millions of people.

So are beans, though.

beans vs beef

Credit: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

A 2015 study carried out by a team from the University of Minnesota asked 14 men and 14 women to eat two test lunches which included a ‘meatloaf’ made of either beans or beef. Both meals were matched in calories and total fat. The beef meal provided 26 grams of protein and three grams of fiber while the bean meal provided 17 grams of protein and 12 gram of fiber. All participants didn’t report differences in appetite between the beef and bean meals over the course of 3 hours following their lunch. These findings support the idea that plant-based proteins with high fiber may offer similar appetite regulation as animal protein.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen performed a similar study and came up with even more interesting findings. Their study which involved 43 young men not only found beans fill the belly better than beef,  they do it on fewer calories. A typical fast food meat patty tallies up about 230 calories but bean burgers, by contrast, average just 115 calories.

The takeaway would be that beans offer a very similar intake pound-for-pound with beef, with the added benefit of being more satiating which helps you lose weight. Beans are also a lot cheaper and contain lots of fiber as opposed to beef. Foods naturally high in fiber lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, regulate bowel movements, help prevent type-2 diabetes, reduces the risk of heart diseases, and more.

“While more studies are needed for a definitive proof, it appears as if vegetable-based meals – particularly those based on beans and peas – can serve as a long term basis for weight loss and as a sustainable eating habit,” concluded th estudy’s lead author Anne Raben in a University of Copenhagen press release.

Let’s spill the beans

The most important thing at stake when switching beef with beans, however, is the wellbeing of our planet, though it’s good to know our waistline is also taken care of.

“The nation could achieve more than half of its GHG reduction goals without imposing any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing,” said  Joan Sabate, a co-author of the new Loma Linda University study which assessed the environmetal impact of switching beef in favor of beans.

Substituting beans for beef would also free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation. That’s a staggering 1.65 million square kilometers or 400 million square acres. This free space can then be used to grow more plant-based foods, including beans, of course, to support a rising population.

All of this sounds rational to most people, I take it, but when confronted with the choice in the real life who can we count on? Americans love beef, especially burgers, so it’s understandable why this might look like a lost cause. That’s not necessarily the case. In 2014, 400 million fewer animals were killed for food because people, mainly Millenials in the United States, chose to eat less meat. Moreover, according to Professor Harwatt, a third of American consumers are now buying meat analogs — plant-based products that resemble animal foods — and the trend is growing. So, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Besides, people don’t need to give up beef or meat, in general, entirely. That just sounds like too much of a sacrifice and such decisions need not sound like that. Instead, even replacing meat-based meals one day of the week with plant-based products can have a huge impact.

At least, beans are better than another alternative: insects. Previously, a group from the University of Edinburgh, UK, found replacing half of the meat we eat worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, consequently vastly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also promising progress being made in the field of artificial meats. The price of a lab-grown burger has dropped to $11.36 down from $325,000 in 2012. 

“Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductiotens needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?” Horwatt asks. “It looks like we’ll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn’t allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.”

Findings appeared in the journal Climatic Change.

Scientists are trapping more and more CO2 into volcanic basalt

As we previously reported, researchers have been testing a method of underground CO2 storage: injecting it into basaltic rock. Now, building on that work, undiluted CO2 was stored and in a much higher quantity: 1,000 tonnes of fluid carbon dioxide were safely stored in underground basalts in Washington.

That’s trapped CO2. Image credits: PNNL.

Even in the most optimistic scenarios, we can’t completely eliminate all our greenhouse gas emissions. So if we want to become carbon-neutral or as close to it as possible, we’re going to need some ways of developing more “negative emissions”. Negative emissions are, as the name puts it, a way of retracting emissions from the atmosphere. Forests and kelp beds are often regarded as ways to reduce emissions, but they are only carbon sinks – they take existing carbon from the atmosphere and move it in the biosphere, a process which can be reversed by cutting trees or wildfires for example. Not to say that reforestation isn’t going to play a key role – because it is – but it’s technically not a negative emission.

Instead, researchers were thinking about something else: injecting carbon dioxide into the underground. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a field of science where CO2 is extracted from the atmosphere and stored underground. Geologists have mostly focused on existing voids, such as former oil fields, but that’s tricky because the fields are susceptible to leakage. So instead, they’re now turning to mineralizations – turning CO2 into minerals. Until now, this process was thought of as unpractical because it takes too long to solidify the CO2, but researchers from Columbia University, University of Iceland, University of Toulouse and Reykjavik Energy have found a way to make it work in recent years.

But while they first dissolved CO2 in water and injected it into a basalt formation, this new effort stored undiluted CO2. A team from the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) had already shown that the chemical reactions could happen in lab conditions so they set out to test it in the field.

“Now we know that this mineral trapping process can occur very quickly, it makes it safe to store CO2 in these formations,” says researcher Pete McGrail. “We have been conducting laboratory tests on basalts from the region for several years that have conclusively demonstrated the unique geochemical nature of basalts to quickly react with CO2 and form carbonate minerals or solid rock, the safest and most permanent form for storage in the subsurface,” he added. “We know now that in a short period of time the CO2 will be permanently trapped.”

While previous efforts took place in Iceland, this time, they injected the fluid carbon dioxide into hardened lava flows some 900 meters (2,952 feet) underground, near the town of Wallula in Washington State. At that depth, basalt formations are rich in calcium, iron, and magnesium. When the CO2 is injected, these elements become unstable and then dissolve, forming ankerite, a carbonate material similar in some regards to limestone.

Their experiment was a definite success, and the carbon was bound to the basalt, never to escape again.

“[The CO2] can’t leak, there’s no place for it to go, it’s back to solid rock,” explains McGrail. “There isn’t a more safer or permanent storage mechanism.”

However, scaling this technique still remains problematic. Carbon storage is also expensive, and it’s unclear at this point how attempts to scale it up will affect its overall costs. The good thing is that basalt formations are plentiful around the world, but it’s also not clear just how big the absorptive capacity of the basalt really is. Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use alone were 9.795 gigatonnes in 2014 and we’ve yet to understand just how much of that the basalts can suck up. So let’s not get overly excited just yet. It’s a promising technique and one that can definitely make a difference for global emissions, but we’re still miles away from actually make it work on a large scale. Let’s all head to the ‘cautiously optimistic’ room for now.

The findings are published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters

Image: Tavis Ford

Unsatisfied by their government’s apathy, Canadian scientists propose their own climate policy

Image: Tavis Ford

Image: Tavis Ford

The conservative Canadian government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently moved the country away from sustainable practices and environmental accountability. In 2011, the government came under fire after it withdrew Canada from the Kyoto protocol, an international agreement which commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets. It also disbanded the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy in 2012, a panel tasked with reporting to the government Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the government has also taken some measures aimed at curbing emissions, these have been largely insufficient. Disappointed, 71 Canadian scientists have authored their own climate policy recommendations for the nation.

“We believe that putting options on the table is long overdue in Canada,” write the 71 authors of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report.

Recognizing that climate change has effects across multiple domains, the authors not only include climate scientists, but sociologists or political scientists. Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal, was the organizer of the report. She says the aim is to encourage Canadians, and ultimately the government, to support “ambitious and thoughtful commitments to emission reductions”. Thus, the report seeks to create awareness in the wake of the scheduled talks in Paris, December of this year, where the world government will negotiate a global reduction in emissions target.

The authors detailed a policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. They suggest cutting emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. This could be achieved by setting a price on carbon through tax or pollution permit trading system (like in the EU), adding more solar and wind power, and eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels. “There is no miracle cure that will fix the problem. It’s about taking small steps toward a longer goal,” Potvin said for Science.

Hopefully, the report will garner some attention and raise awareness on the issue. The idea that climate change is real and that there actual solutions to mitigating them needs to sink in for the laymen Canadian.

Graph illustrates how useless the Kyoto Protocol has been. Image: GC.CA

Graph illustrates how useless the Kyoto Protocol has been. Image: GC.CA

 

 

global warming chart

The top 7 countries responsible for global warming

A new study published in Environmental Research Letters  ranks the the top seven contributing countries to global warming. Together, these nations account for more than 60 percent of pre-2005 global warming. Before we go on to pointing fingers, it’s important to note that the study incorporates various metrics. This way you can see how each country dumps emissions based on surface size or population. Uniquely, the study  assigns a temperature-change value to each country that reflects its contribution to observed global warming.

Painting a clearer global warming picture

When it comes to global warming, there are seven big contributors: the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and the United Kingdom. Sure, at the moment China is the biggest global warming contributing factor in the world, year after year beating its own emissions record. Definitely not something to boast, but historically speaking however the United States trumps all rankings.

The Concordia University researchers, led by Damon Matthews, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, used a new methodology to compute the historical global warming trend for each country. Using data from 1750 onward, the team accounted for carbon dioxide contributions from fossil fuel burning and land-use change (deforestation was counted as provoking emissions), along with methane, nitrous oxide and sulphate aerosol emissions. Each type of emission was weighed according to the atmospheric lifetime of the temperature change it caused.

global warming chart

Thus, the U.S. is responsible for a global temperature increase of 0.15 C or close to 20% of all observed warming on the planet. China and Russia account for around eight per cent each; Brazil and India seven per cent; and Germany and the U.K. around five per cent each. Canada comes in tenth place, right after France and Indonesia. While Brazil and Indonesia can’t be considered industrialized countries, their rankings reflect carbon dioxide emissions related to deforestation.

The rich and the poor

When the emissions were scaled to each country’s respective surface areas, Western Europe, the U.S., Japan and India became hugely expanded,  reflecting emissions much greater than would be expected based on their geographic area. China and Russia remained steadfast on their position, suggesting that their historical emissions have been balanced and proportional with their surface size (both countries have immense strips of uninhabitable landmasses at their disposal though). Canada and Australia dropped considerably on this metric, since the countries’ surfaces are much larger than their share of the global warming pie.

Things become more interesting after dividing each country’s climate contribution by its population. Thus the first three global warming contributing countries by population capita are the United States, UK and Canada. In this ranking, China and India drop to the bottom of the list, that numbers 20 greenhouse gas emitting countries. This perspective gives a really nice view on what it really means to be a rich country and what it means to be a poor country. Nowadays, the US has steadily reduced it emissions to 1990s levels thanks to its shale gas boom, cutting coal use. Still, much more needs to be done, and as developing countries massively industrialize to catch up (can you blame them in this current context, considering developed countries are massively responsible for most global warming in the world? Let’s remember Ecuador).

Maybe a more interesting statistic to consider may be that just 90 companies are responsible for 60% of all man-made global warming. List includes: Exxon, Chevron, BP and many more (much oil and gas expected).

From left, Lena Ek, Ministry of the Environment of Sweden, Prof. Thomas Stocker, IPCC working group and Prof. Dahe Qin, IPCC Working group during the IPCC meeting in Stockholm Monday Sept. 23, 2013. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Stockholm until 27 September to prepare and present new conclusions on climate change and its scientific basis. (AP photo / Scanpix Sweden / Bertil Enevåg Ericson)

Almost unanimous: climate change 95% caused by man, according to U.N.

From left, Lena Ek, Ministry of the Environment of Sweden, Prof. Thomas Stocker, IPCC working group and Prof. Dahe Qin, IPCC Working group during the IPCC meeting in Stockholm Monday Sept. 23, 2013. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Stockholm until 27 September to prepare and present new conclusions on climate change and its scientific basis. (AP photo / Scanpix Sweden / Bertil Enevåg Ericson)

From left, Lena Ek, Ministry of the Environment of Sweden, Prof. Thomas Stocker, IPCC working group and Prof. Dahe Qin, IPCC Working group during the IPCC meeting in Stockholm Monday Sept. 23, 2013. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Stockholm until 27 September to prepare and present new conclusions on climate change and its scientific basis. (AP photo / Scanpix Sweden / Bertil Enevåg Ericson)

The state of climate change was recently released by the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change. Among important insights covering global warming, the U.N. panel of scientists have reached an unprecedented consensus stating there’s a 95% probability that all climate change is caused by human activities.

The IPCC was established by the United Nations in 1988 to comb through the most recent published and peer-reviewed research on global warming, and put together comprehensive reports on the risks and impacts of climate change. This level of certainty regarding anthropomorphic climate change has never been experienced before. In 2007, the IPCC said climate change is primarily caused by man with 90% certainty, while just six earlier in 2001 the same panel only gave a 66% probability.

“Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and that concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased,” said Qin Dahe, co-chair of IPCC working group one, who produced the report.

The IPCC calls for a dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as much of the global warming data scientists have gathered thus far attest to changes in the climate system that are “unprecedented over decades to millennia”. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface, and warmer than any period since 1850, and probably warmer than any time in the past 1,400 years.

Climate skeptics use the past 15 years of relatively stable warming as a wildcard to discredit any man-made climate change. The IPCC downplayed this idea, claiming the time frame is too short to reflect long-term trends, adding that it started in 1998 with a very hot El Nino.

In the 36-page document, which is only  the first part of a longer complete report slated to come out over the following 12 months, also presents various climate change scenarios for upcoming years including sea level rise, melting glaciers and rising global average temperatures. Sea levels,according to the new report, are project to rise at a faster rate than we have experienced over the past 40 years. An important adjustment well worth mentioning from the 2007 report is that of the  temperature range from 2.0C-4.5C , to a more conservative 1.5C-4.5C. For the future, the report says that projected warming for the end of this century is likely to exceed 1.5C, relative to to the period 1850-1900.

carbon capture tech

Carbon capture of the future might turn CO2 into construction materials

We all know that CO2 dumped in the atmosphere (consequences in the ocean, where the most carbon winds up actually are even dire  – i.e. ocean acidification) causes global warming through what’s commonly referred to as the greenhouse gas effect. Governments and various environmental panels have through out the years issued various policies meant on curbing emissions. Ironically, however, greenhouse gas emissions have only gone up, as year after year there seems to be a new record in how much CO2 gets released into the atmosphere, mainly due to developing countries catching up and becoming industrialized. Only recently, the world passed a frightening threshold after atmospheric CO2 levels reached 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time in 3 million years.

The reason I’m presenting these facts isn’t to inflict panic. Indeed, these are depressing data, however it’s important to build context especially when covering cutting edge research conducted by scientists working effortlessly to battle atmospheric CO2 dumping. One of the most creative solution is the development of carbon trapping technology, and exciting as the tech may be it still bears a grand challenge: what to do with the stored carbon. While more efficient plants and filters significantly cut down emissions, you still windup with excess carbon – sure it’s not in gaseous form as a CO2 compound, so it doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, but you still need to get rid of it.

carbon capture tech

(c) carboncapture.us

Some byproducts get pumped into the ground directly, where it seeps though cracks of rock layers deep below the surface, a process that we already know causes huge chemical changes in the rock. Other methods involve dumping the stored carbon by pumping it into the ocean, where pressures below a certain depth will cause it to form a thick slurry that falls to coat the ocean floor – in theory, right at the bottom, it’s harmless. The method is promising when you need to dump a few tons of carbon, but at the massive industrial scale you need a system capable of disposing millions of tones of carbon – hint: it needs to be cheap; dirt cheap!

Researchers at University of Newcastle have come up with a new solution that not only elegantly solves this problem, but offers a practical use. What if instead of dumping the captured carbon you turn it into something useful? This is exactly the reasoning behind the Newcastle researchers project, recently awarded a $9 million grant, inspired by nature, namely the sequestration of CO2 as rocks of neutral carbonate in the Earth itself.

Using CO2 to construct the buildings of the future

Reacting gaseous CO2 with low grade minerals such as magnesium and calcium silicate produces limestone. The scientists’ idea is to exploit the process by combining their captured carbon with cheap minerals and voila! You’ve got some limestone-like material right at your disposal that you can fashion into bricks for construction purposes. You could use it for anything from buildings to paving. Limestone’s pretty resilient and strong, too. Actually, it has been used in everything from the Egyptian Pyramids to the British Parliament buildings.

A multidisciplinary research team, including Professors Bodgan Dlugogorski and Eric Kennedy from the University’s Priority Research Centre for Energy and Orica Senior Research Associate Dr Geoff Brent, have demonstrated the technology in small scale laboratory settings and led the funding bids.

“The key difference between geosequestration and ocean storage and our mineral carbonation model is we permanently transform CO2 into a usable product, not simply store it underground,” Professor Dlugogorski said.

Brilliant, but how come anyone didn’t think of this before? They have, but the problem has always been that the process is highly energy intensive. This means its expensive since you need to produce a lot of energy to funnel the process, then producing this energy typically implies burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon. You can understand how unreasonable the idea becomes. The breakthrough though is that the Newcastle researchers have devised a way of dramatically lowering the energy threshold. This same year, Newcastle  made the production of calcium carbonates “a thousand times cheaper” through the use of nickel nanoparticles. A similar process is employed for the “carbon limestone”.

“The Earth’s natural mineral carbonation system is very slow,” Professor Kennedy said. “Our challenge is to speed up that process to prevent CO2 emissions accumulating in the air in a cost-effective way.”

It might take a while before this process might catch on, however. For now, Newcastle plans on using its grant to built a mineral carbonation research pilot plant, expected to open in 2017. There the researchers can extend the findings in the lab to an environment similar to that found in the industry. If they can manage to produce mineral carbonation at a price that’s under current construction materials then they’ve hit the jackpot!

[READ ON] Carbon negative: removing CO2 altogether from the atmosphere 

Venice, Italy flooded. (c) Photograph by Andrea Pattero/AFP/Getty Images

Some 1,700 US cities under threat of going under-water by 2100

According to a recently published in the journal PNAS, some 1,700 cities in the United States coastal areas are under threat of becoming swept by water as a results of rising sea levels due to climate change. The list of threatened communities spans Sacramento, California – which lies far from the sea but would be vulnerable to flooding in the San Joaquin delta – and Norfolk, Virginia. The most endangered municipalities are Miami, Virginia Beach and Jacksonville.

Hundreds of new cities of Atlantis

Previous studies have found that each 1 degree Celsius increment in global temperature would  lead eventually to 2.3m of sea-level rise. Factoring this and current rate of carbon emissions (an optimistic assumption since the trend has been upward for decades and hasn’t been down once), researchers at  Climate Central, a non-profit, non-advocacy research group based in Princeton, N.J., that’s funded by foundations, individuals and federal grants, found that 1,700 locations will be “locked in” by greenhouse gas emissions built up in the atmosphere by 2100.

“Locked-in” is the main keyword here. The whole study is based on the idea that even through some sort of miracle if tomorrow all anthropomorphic carbon emission would grind to a halt completely, the damage done up to that point is still irreparable. Carbon dioxide is trapped inside the atmosphere for centuries, so by virtue of climate inertia some locations have their faith already sealed – like 316 municipalities, but the timing when these will fall under sea-level is unclear and could take hundreds of years.

“Hundreds of American cities are already locked into watery futures and we are growing that group very rapidly,” said Benjamin Strauss, a researcher at Climate Central, and author of the paper. “We are locking in hundreds more as we continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere.”

Most coastal cities in the world under major threat for coming century

He says these sea levels are much higher than what’s predicted this century — typically 1 to 4 feet — because climate change multiplies their impact over hundreds of years. For the study, a location was deemed “under threat” if 25% of its current population lives below the locked-in future high-tide level. Some 1,700 places are at risk in this definition. Even if bar is set higher, at 50% of the current population, 1,400 places would be under threat by 2100.

Climate Center has an interactive map where you can see what US states and specific municipalities are under threat by rising sea levels.

“This is probably the most unique and novel way I’ve seen of talking about a longer time frame,” says Peter Ruggiero, a coastal engineering scientist at Oregon State University.

Florida is the most vulnerable state by far, Strauss says, adding that Louisiana, New Jersey and North Carolina also face enormous difficulties. Unless major change occurs, he says, more than 100 cities in each of these states could be threatened. Some of these locations are home to navy bases, like Norfolk, Virginia where America’s largest navy base is sited, whose miles of waterfront installations would be at risk of being locked in to future sea level rises by the 2040s.

 “The current trend in carbon emissions likely implies the eventual crippling or loss of most coastal cities in the world,” writes Strauss, who directs Climate Central’s program on rising sea levels.

The authors of the paper advise as solutions to drastically cut down on CO2 emissions in the coming decades and massively deploy carbon capture technology that would suck CO2 from the atmosphere.

“Pretty much everywhere it seems you are going to be under water unless you build a massive system of dykes and levees,” Strauss said