Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

Scientists potty-train cows to tackle climate change

calf in a latrine undergoing MooLoo training. Credit: FBN.

Cow farms produce a lot of waste that harms the environment by producing greenhouse gases and contaminating the local soil and waterways. Researchers in Germany want to minimize these impacts by proposing a seemingly wacky, but effective and novel way to manage cattle urine and feces: just potty-train the cows.

Just crazy enough to work

The beef and dairy industry is among the most environmentally damaging in the world for a myriad of reasons. Intensive livestock breeding requires a lot of feedstock, water, and land, and produces copious amounts of greenhouse gases that heat the planet’s atmosphere.

A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock accounts for nearly 15% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. You may have heard that a lot of methane is produced by cattle burps and farts, but they produce another potent greenhouse gas that is often overlooked.

When a cow’s feces and urine combine, they produce ammonia due to the enzymatic hydrolysis of urea in the urine by urease in the feces. Further down the stream, when ammonia is leached into the soil, microbes eat it up, generating nitrous oxide as a byproduct, the third-most important greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.

“About 95% of ammonia emissions come from agriculture, and a considerable proportion comes from cattle farming, either directly from barn air or indirectly from slurry. Ammonia is an indirect greenhouse gas. Ammonia is responsible for a large amount of atmospheric N deposition which in turn leads to eutrophication of the soil and water, soil acidification, and direct plant damage. In accordance with the National Emission Reduction Commitment (NERC) from 2016, Germany has committed itself to reduce its emissions of ammonia by 29% compared to 2005. Ammonia is released when urine and feces meet. It is formed by the enzymatic hydrolysis of urea in the urine by urease in the feces,”  Jan Langbein,  an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) and co-author of the new study, told ZME Science.

If you thought cows are dumb, I have moos for you. Cows are actually quite intelligent animals that are known to interact in socially complex ways. For instance, they can develop friendships over time and, conversely, will sometimes hold grudges against other cows that treat them badly.

Far from being mere burger and milk machines, cows are sentient and well emotionally developed. Cognitively speaking, they have a level of performance comparable to that of children, with research showing they possess complex spatial memory, can discriminate between individual cows or humans, and display a full range of personality traits, such as shyness, boldness, sociability, and gregariousness.

Bearing all of this in mind, the researchers in Germany believed that cows were clever enough to be potty-trained — and they were right.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, they describe their process, dubbed MooLoo training, by which 16 calves were trained to urinate in latrines fitted inside their barn with a combination of reward and mild punishment.

Researchers carefully watch calves undergoing MooLoo potty training. Credit: FBN.

After they became accustomed to the experimental environment and learned how to enter and exit the gates to the latrine, the cows were taught how to use them. Every time they urinated into the designated area, they received a food reward consisting of a mixture of molasses and glucose or crushed barley. When they urinated outside the toilet, the researchers conditioned them against this behavior by inflicting a mild punishment. Initially, the negative stimulus consisted of playing an annoying sound through headphones placed inside the cow’s ears, however, the animals couldn’t seem to care less. Ultimately, a spray of water worked as a gentle deterrent, and the researchers stuck with that for the rest of the training.

In time, 11 out of the 16 calves learned to enter the latrine only when they needed to urinate and how to use the toilets properly, thereby avoiding ammonia production.

The researchers are confident they can refine their training method to improve their training conversion and scale it even for farms with thousands of individuals.

“We are preparing a follow-up project, in which we want to realize our results, which were worked out under experimental conditions, under practical conditions. For this purpose, the entire training procedure must be automated. Appropriate sensors should detect urination and trigger a reward output in case of urination in the latrine. For now, we are focusing on dairy cows that are kept indoors. In the pasture, the distances for the cow are significantly longer,” Langbein said.

Building designated latrines, fitting them with sensors and automation machines, and training calves sounds prohibitively expensive — and it might very well be. However, seeing how the livestock sector generates copious amounts of emissions, farmers may be incentivized to go down this route through government subsidies. Alternatively, a carbon tax may level the playing field in the market by rewarding farmers who produce less ammonia with carbon credits.

In the not-so-distant future, don’t be surprised to see cows queuing for the toilet like in a busy pub.

Just 5% of the world’s power plants produce 73% of the global electricity emissions

Despite its bad name, China only has one plant on the “worst offenders” list.

Belchatow, the world’s most polluting power plant. Image via Wikipedia.

We’re not really doing a great job at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we’re doing a pretty lousy job. Achieving net-zero emissions in a couple of decades seems like a pipe dream at this point, so researchers are looking for ways to at least tackle the worst emitters.

University of Colorado Boulder researchers Don Grant, David Zelinka, and Stefania Mitova used data from 2018 to look at the power plants that produce the most carbon dioxide emissions. They started from the 2009 Carbon Monitoring for Action database (CARMA) and built a more recent update.

Unsurprisingly, coal plants are the worst of the worst. Sure, renewables aren’t perfect and every form of energy comes with its own set of challenges, but coal plants come at a massive environmental cost. Even while some are a bit more efficient than others, even new coal plants produce massive emissions. According to the findings, just 5% of the world’s power plants produce almost three-quarters of the planet’s electricity emissions.

Eight out of the ten worst offenders are in Asia. South Korea has three plants in the “worst” top ten, India has two, and China has one. The plant with the highest emissions is in Poland.

Rank Plant Name Country Tons of CO2 Primary Fuel Age Capacity (MW)
3DangjinSouth Korea33,500,000coal106115
4TaeanSouth Korea31,400,000coal126100
5TaichungTaiwan 29,900,000coal225834
8Sasan UmppIndia27,198,628coal33960
9YonghungdoSouth Korea27,000,000coal95080

What is perhaps even more encouraging is that by addressing these “worst of the worst”, we could reduce emissions significantly, without adding very much pressure on global energy markets.

5% of the electricity, 75% of the emissions

The authors looked at how much of a country’s electricity pollution was produced by the worst 5% of all its power sector.

“Contrary to the received wisdom that greater environmental harm is a function of greater economic activity, emerging scholarship suggests that polluting releases are disproportionally distributed across units of production,” the study reads.

China has plenty of coal plants, but rather surprisingly, not too many huge offenders. The worst 5% in China accounted for around 25% of the country’s emissions. But in countries like the US, South Korea, Australia, Germany, or Japan, 5% of their plants accounted for around 90% of the carbon emissions in the power sector. Globally, the worst 5% of power plants produce 73% of the emissions.

Of course, these worst 5% of plants tend to produce more than 5% of the electricity — but this is good news, because shutting down a relatively low amount of polluting plants could mitigate a larger part of our emissions. This won’t be easy, but it’s the type of action we need to take as quickly as possible to address man-driven climate heating.

“As the fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure continues to expand and the urgency of combating climate change grows, nations will likely need to consider more expedient strategies of this sort,” the authors conclude.

To keep rising temperatures (and all the other effects of climate change) in check, we need to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as possible — the year 2050 is a commonly mentioned target. But before we can even dream of that, we need to look at the low-hanging fruits and see what we can do about them.

The study has been published in Environmental Research Letters.


‘We won’t ever see a month below 400ppm,’ said NASA’s chief climate scientist

Though September is historically the ‘freshest’ month of the year after plants had a whole summer at their disposal in the Northern Hemisphere to grow and suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, scientists announced today that a dangerous threshold has been crossed. Virtually all weather stations around the world seem to have registered carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million (ppm). And it seems like we’ll be locked above 400 ppm permanently. There’s no way but up!

Anyone who has breathed air with less than 300 ppm CO2 is now over 100 years old!

The first weather station that registered 400ppm was the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii back in 2013. It would soon be joined by other stations along the northern hemisphere — an inevitable event that was only a matter of “when” not “if”.

Inevitable, because we humans have irreparably altered CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since we invented farming, but really went to work once the Industrial Revolution was cranked into gear in the mid-19th century. The graph below is most revealing, as it traces how CO2 concentrations follow a saw pattern due to yearly variability. This time, we seemed locked in 400ppm — a CO2 concentration that hasn’t been seen in millions of years, up from 280ppm before the mid-19th century.


“Brief excursions toward lower values are still possible, but it already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year – or ever again for the indefinite future,” wrote Ralph Keeling, the scientist who runs the Scripps Institute for Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, in a recent blog post.

In March of this year, CO2 levels topped 400 ppm worldwide for an entire month. Then, in May, Antarctica — the last place where 400 ppm hadn’t been recorded — joined the rest of the pack as well. The latest critical threshold announced by scientists is that we’ve crossed 400 ppm and we’ll never see anything lower, not during our lifetimes for sure.

That’s because even if by some stroke of miracle all man-made CO2 emissions would stop tomorrow, the greenhouse gases already spewed are still trapped in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas molecules emitted today can stay in the upper atmosphere for centuries before they break down. “In my opinion, we won’t ever see a month below 400 ppm,” said Gavin Schmidt, NASA’s chief climate scientist for Climate Central.


Credit: Climate Central

Today’s news was expected for some time, as we reported earlier that this year’s unusually strong El Niño event ought to push CO2 levels.

This figure, 400ppm, doesn’t pose a scientific significance, but it’s a very disheartening symbolic milestone. That’s because the last time the planet had 400ppm was 3 million years ago. Prior to the industrial revolution, natural climate variations caused atmospheric CO2 to vary between about 200 ppm during ice ages and 300 ppm during the warmer periods between ice ages.

alternative energies

For the first time in history, CO2 emissions decouple from economic growth

Historically, CO2 emissions follow the world’s economy, either dropping during recession or raising with growth. Today, we’re expelling more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever; not coincidentally, we’re also experiencing the greatest wealth ever. Not anymore, however. According to the International Energy Agency, for the first time in 40 years of monitoring, CO2 emissions flat lined relative to the previous year, while the economy grew. In effect, we’re experiencing the first carbon decoupling from the economy, a sign that the world is shifting away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

alternative energies

Image: Wikimedia

Previously, CO2 emissions had dropped relative to past years in only three instances: early 1980s (peak oil), 1992 and 2009. But all of these periods where associated with times of economic weakness, according to the IEA. Last year’s decoupling can be explained by China’s 2.9% drop in coal use (the first drop this century), as well as OECD countries’ energy efficiency and renewable energy measures. The economy grew by 7% in the OECD space, while emissions fell 4%.

This decoupling of emissions from economic growth is said to be due to the use of less fossil fuels, more renewable energy and increased energy savings. The main emitters, accounting for 55% of the global total, were China, the US and the European Union. In 2013, emissions from China increased by 3% but this was a significant slowdown compared to annual increases of around 10% over the past decade.

The news couldn’t have arrived at a better time considering the world’s governments will meet in Paris to discuss a CO2 cut at a global level. Hopefully, an agreement might be reached to curb emissions worldwide, in addition to the measures already announced independently: 40% less CO2 by 2030 in the EU,  26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 in the USA, and peak emissions for China by 2030 (China surpassed the EU in per capita emissions last year).

All this “provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December,” explained IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, who was just named the next IEA Executive Director. “For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

via Think Progress

Greenhouse gases impact

Northern latitudes become greener as a result of climate change

A group of international researchers assessed 17 state-of-the-art climate model simulations and based on these have found that temperature seasonality shifts and green plants could move further north by as much as a whooping 20 degrees latitude by the turn of the century. So far, in the past 30 years alone, southern vegetation has moved up north by seven degrees, turning once pale regions into lush green patches in a very short amount of time.

The researchers note that as a result of increased atmospheric greenhouse gases, surface temperatures have risen and the air has become warmer. A whole cycle of events unfolds from here on as snow and ice retreat from surfaces around the Arctic Ocean, causing even more solar energy to be absorbed, which in term further destabilizes the ecosystem.

“The amplified warming in the circumpolar area roughly above the Canada-USA border is reducing temperature seasonality over time because the colder seasons are warming more rapidly than the summer,” says Liang Xu, a Boston University doctoral student and lead co-author of the study.

Since more solar energy in the form of heat is available, plants can grow more rapidly and over more extended landmasses. During the past 30 years large patches of vigorously productive vegetation have been created, totaling more than a third of the northern landscape—over 9 million km2, which is roughly about the area of the USA— resembling the vegetation that occurs further to the south, says Dr. Compton Tucker, Senior Scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

For their study, the scientists first chose a reference point and period. Then the team examined 17 climate models that revealed increased temperatures in the northern latitudes would be the equivalent of a 20-degree latitude shift by the end of this century relative to a period of comparison from 1951-1980.

While more, greener plants might sound like an enchanting prospect, make no mistake – it’s not! This translates in a tremendous destabilization of the ecosystem, that puts the region at high risk of permafrost thawing, frequent forest fires, outbreak of pest infestations, and summertime droughts. Yes, forest fires in the north.

Moreover, plant growth and shift in temperature seasonality might not remain on its current projected trajectory. An amplified greenhouse gas effect is likely to cause a chain of events that can not be accurately predicted, like the release of even more carbon into the atmosphere from patches trapped in currently frozen ground.

“The way of life of many organisms on Earth is tightly linked to seasonal changes in temperature and availability of food, and all food on land comes first from plants,” says Dr. Scott Goetz, Deputy Director and Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, USA. “Think of migration of birds to the Arctic in the summer and hibernation of bears in the winter: Any significant alterations to temperature and vegetation seasonality are likely to impact life not only in the north but elsewhere in ways that we do not yet know.”

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Antarctica ice-sheet

Ice sheets in Antarctica formed by massive fall in CO2

Antarctica ice-sheetAntarctica is the most the arid place on Earth. Its climate is so rough, so hazardous that no permanent human populace can live there, however just a few million years ago the harsh plains of the south and north poles had a subtropical climate – a paradise for life. During a transition period of just 100,000 years, a blink of an eye in geological timeline, the temperature went down dramatically and thus the same ice sheets that are in place today were formed. Scientists have been debating for some time what lead to this event, and now a new research shows that a massive fall in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the true culprit.

The research shows CO2 level plunged by 40 percent before and during the formation of the ice sheet 34 million years ago, during the Eocene to Oligocene climate transition, when the first ice shards formed. Previously it was assumed that a change in ocean currents was the cause for the sudden drop in temperature, however this couldn’t be farther from the truth – quite the opposite. It is quite evident when the Southern Ocean currents and temperatures of that period – vastly different from today – are factored in, it becomes apparent that Antarctica’s big freeze followed a fall in CO2 levels.

“Our research recognised that the flows of deep ocean currents at the end of the Eocene were dramatically different from those of today because of the altered position and shape of continental masses,” says NSW Climate Change Research Centre researcher Dr Willem Sijp.

“Previous research relied on different temperature estimates and had also not taken these different currents into account. This decline was a critical condition for global cooling and the emergence of the Antarctic ice sheet. In short, the apparent increase of CO2 during Antarctic glaciation is refuted.”

The estimates in carbon dioxide levels millions of years ago were possible by analyzing  ancient algae remnants from deep-ocean sediments, in which they observed a change in their biochemical molecules that correspond with the sudden CO2 drop. The measurements where factored in with the ocean currents from that period.

The whole event signified a major tipping point in Earth’s climate. Imagine just that a few millions of years before the cooling, the southern and northern poles of the planet were warm and wet, inhabited by a luxuriant tropical vegetation and fauna. Today, the ice sheets of Antarctica are over one kilometers thick and exercise a fundamental influence across the whole globe, from impacting the circulation of cold and warm air masses to wind strength, precipitation patterns and variability in regional and global temperatures.

“The onset of Antarctic ice is the mother of all climate ‘tipping points,'” says Pagani. “Recognizing the primary role carbon dioxide change played in altering global climate is a fundamentally important observation.”

The research found that the tipping point in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for cooling that initiates ice sheet formation is about 600 parts per million. At present day, we’re currently nearing 400 million parts per million, which is more than enough to keep the ice sheets in place for a lot of time to come, the researchers claim.

“The system is not linear and there may be a different threshold for melting the ice sheet, but if we continue on our current path of warming we will eventually reach that tipping point,” says Huber. “Of course after we cross that threshold it will still take many thousands of years to melt an ice sheet.”

This highly remarkable event from Earth’s recent history shows just how important greenhouse gases are on the climate.

The new findings were reported in the journal Science


Vulnerable underdeveloped countries fear measures against global warming

Researchers lately pointed out that delaying measures against climate change will make them more expensive and less effective; however, countries most vulnerable to global warming are startled by recent proposal received from rich or major emerging economies to delay a global deal to curb greenhouse gases until at least 2020.

With the Herculean task of protecting the world’s environment, leaders from all around the planet gathered to propose and accept solutions which will at least delay and slow global warming, especially as recently a surge of information pointed out that its pace has quickened and its impact has deepened in recent years.

However, the talks taking place at UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) still seem pretty fragile and riven with conflict, especially in the aftermath of the near collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

The major issue at the moment is how can the US, China, India, the EU and a few other countries can slow down their CO2 emission, which amount for some 80 percent of the world total. However, at the moment, it seems there’s little chance for progress, as the 194 countries participating at the summit seem unable to find a way to cut the Gordian knot which ties these issues.

Recent studies have shown that the window of opportunity to cap global warming at two degrees is nearing its end – soon. Within five years, it could shut down completely; however, nobody except the European countries seem to care about this. The only pact binding treaty to curb CO2 emissions, the Kyoto Protocol is now respected only by countries from the EU, which account for only 11 percent of all emissions – a figure which is pretty constant in the last years.

Meanwhile, Washington is setting its own limits, while China doesn’t seem to be really concerned about these issues; the best they’ve done so far is announce they want to harvest energy more efficiently. This is why some of the so-called BASIC group of emerging economies didn’t want to sign any other binding document regarding CO2 pollution, and actually became alarmed about it.

“The push by the world’s biggest carbon polluters to delay flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence in support of immediate action and represents a betrayal of the people most vulnerable to climate change and the world,” said Grenada’s Dessima Williams, chairwoman of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS.)

“To fulfill our moral and ethical obligation to protect our people, AOSIS will here in Durban reject any outcome that cannot ultimately safeguard our livelihoods and guarantee the survival of our nations.”

“It is headed towards a real impasse in Durban, frankly, there is no way to gloss over it,” said one veteran observer participating in the talks. “There are very few options left open to wring much out of the meeting unless the position of these major countries softens considerably.”

However, there is some good news – though not anything major. Big economies, such as the US, Canada and Japan have convergent opinions with China and India, but actual measures aren’t showing up quite yet.

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