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.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
Economic Recovery in East Asia and Pacific Faces Setback
The East Asia and Pacific region’s recovery has been undermined by the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, prolonging the...
Can democracy save the environment?
In 13 short films, each roughly 5 minutes long, Nicolas introduces us to the individuals behind environmental and community-based groups...
Vietnam President Visit to US for UNGA Meeting
Following his visit to Cuba, Vietnam president Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited New York to attend 76th meeting of the UN (United Nations) General Assembly and participated in the deliberations...
5 Valuable Reasons Why You Should Care About Your Instagram Audience Engagement to Succeed
Have you ever wondered about the connection between successful social networking and audience engagement? If you are trying to impact...
The Curious Case of Russian Cyberattacks in India
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the technological shifts have made working remotely a reality for millions of...
Cryptocurrency Lending vs. Bank Lending
Cryptocurrencies have entered the mainstream, and they are redefining financial transactions. Today, these coins are lent and borrowed. This industry...
The neoliberal project strikes back: Upcoming regime-change in post-pandemic Bulgaria?
In the last few years, Eastern European politics has hit the headlines around the world rather often. However, commentaries on...
South Asia3 days ago
Afghanistan may face famine because of anti-Taliban sanctions
Middle East4 days ago
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
Economy3 days ago
Turkish Economy as the Reset Button of Turkish Politics
Development4 days ago
Iraq and the World Bank to Boost Iraqi Women’s Economic Empowerment
South Asia3 days ago
What, in fact, is India’s stand on Kashmir?
Americas3 days ago
Early Elections in Canada: Will the Fourth Wave Get in the Way?
Reports4 days ago
Global economic recovery continues but remains uneven
Africa4 days ago
The Transitioning Democracy of Sudan