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Green Planet

The Existential Crisis of Global Warming and Carbon Capture

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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If we care about our earth (and the readers here are most likely to) the story is quite simple:  We emit 40 billion tons of carbon annually, and little is being done to reduce it.   There is also not much likelihood of any action from our leaders, given the Senate vote on the Green New Deal and President Trump’s well-known views on the subject.  So how do we get rid of the carbon about to turn earth into a living hell?  Deadlines have been clearly laid down by experts.  

The October 2018 IPCC report on limiting global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels notes human-caused CO2 emissions would have to achieve ‘net-zero’ by 2050.  According to the report, this would necessitate ‘far-reaching transitions’ not just in how energy is used and produced but also in the use of Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) such as carbon recapture from the air.  We have to stabilize earth or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth”  without any means of reducing earth temperatures.  

Scientists assessing NETs find that restricting global warming to 1.5C requires large-scale deployment of NETs; in fact, a major national effort.  Moreover, any single NET is unlikely to be sustainably adequate, rather multiple NETs each on a more modest scale is the most effective scenario.  A comprehensive analysis is therefore both illustrative and illuminating.   

Direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) is an enticing prospect until one examines the costs.  Scientific scenarios project DACCS capacity to remove 10-15 billion tons of CO2 per year by century’s end.  Optimists up it to 35-40 billion tons solving the CO2 problem in one fell swoop.  Not so, say those who have examined costs. 

A group from the Mercatur Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change and Humboldt University of Berlin and in particular Sabine Fuss have examined costs reporting on different NETs in Environmental Research Letters (ERL, June 2018).  They put the cost at $100-300 per ton for DACCS and estimate sustainable removal at 0.5 – 5.0 GtCO2 per year — a Gt is approximately a billion tons. The upper level would still cost $500 billion to $1.5 billion according to them. 

The other major problem with DACCS is the sheer energy required.  Removing a million tons a year would consume 300-500 MW according to Jennifer Wilcox of Worcester Polytechnic.  The power needs to be  clean energy for a coal-fired plant would generate more CO2 than would be extracted. 

Climeworks is a company based in Switzerland that has developed a DACCS process.  Its pilot plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland, is using geothermal energy to remove CO2 from the air and store it in basalt.  They have also announced a commercial scale venture in Zurich, Switzerland.

In addition to active air capture as described, there is a passive approach.  An Arizona State University professor has developed a resin that when dry absorbs CO2 from the air, relinquishing it when immersed in water.  The team envisions artificial trees made from the resin each capable of capturing a daily ton of CO2. 

Afforestation, namely adding to forests, and reforestation are intuitively attractive.  But there are limitations because of competition for land from food production.  The CO2 removal is estimated at 0.5-3.6 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) per year (ERL, June 2018).  Of course given demand for land its use is reversible, and over time cost is likely to increase.

As an addendum to afforestation one might note an investment by Apple on a project by Conservation International to restore and protect 27,000 acres of mangroves in Columbia.  This will capture a million tons of CO2 annually as ‘blue’ carbon stored in coastal marshlands and mangroves can be up to ten times more dense than in forests. 

Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is also being employed.  As an example, Archer Daniels Midland began to capture CO2 emitted at its Decatur, Illinois, ethanol plant in 2017.  It is now successfully storing a million tons of CO2 per year underground  Scientists estimate the potential of BECCS at 0.5-5.0 GtCO2 per year (ERL, June 2018).  The technology is stable with good future prospects when other manufacturers also try to (or are obliged to) achieve carbon neutrality.

Biochar is formed from the pyrolysis of agricultural and forestry waste in a controlled process with reduced oxygen.  Not only is the carbon prevented from escaping but the char can be used to improve soil quality.  It can prevent from 0.5-2.0 GtCO2 per year from polluting the atmosphere, and scaling will reduce costs enhancing its potential.

Enhanced weathering refers to the improved absorption of CO2 by rocks like basalt to levels higher than the natural slow process.  The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates the cost at $200 per ton of CO2 using basalt and $60 per ton for dunite i.e. about double the cost for afforestation.  A handicap perhaps but afforestation is limited by land availability, and absorption by basalt could remove up to 4.9 GtCO2 annually, according to Potsdam estimates.  For best results, the rock has to be mined, ground up and spread out since CO2 absorption levels are heavily dependent on grain size.  The process does appropriate land limiting use in arable areas. 

Soil carbon sequestration can absorb up to 5 GtCO2 per year (2018).  It requires providing a continuous cover instead of letting fields remain bare after harvest to reduce carbon loss.  Other methods include no-till or conservation tillage.  The accumulated benefits with cropland, however, can be temporary and easily eroded if the land is ever plowed, calling for education programs in addition.  There is also agroforestry i.e. combining farming with trees and livestock grazing, which can be an option in some, but not all, farms and climates.

A new attractive technology is the direct conversion of CO2 into fuel.  It is an approach being used by Carbon Engineering of Squamish, B.C. in Canada.  Air-captured CO2 and supplemental hydrogen split from water are combined to produce gasoline and diesel for less than $4 per gallon.  The hydrogen removal uses renewable energy. 

Of the 40 billion tons of CO2 emitted annually, half is absorbed naturally.  The 20 billion tons remaining at present require human input to be eliminated.  A strategy employing a variety of techniques makes particularly good sense given the unusual possibilities opening up and the limitations of any single method.  On the other end of the scale, radical transitions in energy usage, transport, buildings, even cities, coupled with low-emissions energy production will reduce annual emissions.   What is left has to be recaptured to attain net carbon neutrality.  It is a monumental task requiring international cooperation including, if necessary, monetary incentives for poor and middle income countries.  Of utmost importance is to get started.

It is an insidious ailment for planet earth, its presence felt by the extraordinary intensity of extreme weather events — Cyclone Eline and Idai devastating Mozambique in quick succession, for example, were an unexpected event for the southern hemisphere.  On the other hand, such vagaries of weather as a cold spell, can draw mockery from President Donald Trump who proposes to do nothing.  He has emboldened others like Jair Bolsonaro, the new President of Brazil.

The real question is whether the American people will exercise profound discernment when the next election comes around.  If the senate’s confidence is any judge, they will not.  The senate voted 57-0 against the Green New Deal, the number including two Democratic senators.  The remaining Democrats voted ‘present’.  Not one Democrat stood up to be counted for GND under the pretense the Republicans were trying to split them.

Carbon capture has potential but who is going to invest in the processes to realize it?  Certainly not current senators who just voted for the opposite.  At the very least if they passed a law requiring net-zero emissions by 2050, it would encourage private enterprise to self-clean or provide services for others to do so.  But what are the chances of any of this happening?  Almost none without pressure would not be a bad guess.  Perhaps Greta Thunberg and her young cohorts are showing the older generations the way. 

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Green Planet

Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060

Ma Tianjie

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Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.

On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.  

Decarbonising for the 1.5C target

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.

Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.

According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.

The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.

Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.

At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.

Implications for near-term policy

There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.

The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).

“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.

The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.

Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.

From our partner Chinadialogue

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COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity

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The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.

Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.

The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.

According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.

Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.

Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.

He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.

The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.

It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.

The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.

Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.

Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.

“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.

According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.

Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.

Why human absence prospers nature?

Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”

Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.

Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.

Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?

Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not.  It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm.  If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is. 

The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names.  The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted.  In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.

Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving. 

So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far.  The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August.  It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.  Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.  

In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies.  September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed.  September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet. 

If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier.  Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off.  Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.

Europe too is warmer.  Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent.  Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever. 

The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day.  It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years.  And then it happened again.  Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England.  Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses.  In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters.  Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain.  The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours. 

The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity.  In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future. 

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