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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

Smart wastewater management can help reduce air pollution

MD Staff

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“Walk along the Bagmati river in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and you are hit by a pervasive stench, underlining the fact that poor wastewater management worsens air pollution,” says Birguy Lamizana, a UN Environment specialist on wastewater and pollution.

“The other thing you notice is that it’s the poorest of the poor living along the banks of the river in makeshift shacks: the world over it’s usually the poorest people who are worst affected by pollution,”  she adds.

Kathmandu is not an isolated example of poor wastewater management. All big cities, especially those in developing countries with rapidly expanding populations, face similar problems.

Heavily polluted urban waterways emit toxic gases such as methane and nitrous oxide which are also greenhouse gases, and a recent global study found that concentrations of antibiotics in some of the world’s rivers exceed safe levels by up to 300 times.

No one wants pollution and there is growing awareness about the danger it poses. In September 2017, Member States of the United Nations adopted the report Towards a pollution-free planet.

“While the world has achieved significant economic growth over the past few decades, it has been accompanied by large amounts of pollution, with significant impacts on human health and ecosystems and the ways in which some of the major earth system processes, such as the climate, are functioning,” it says.

For example, 3.5 billion people depend on oceans as a source of food, yet oceans are used as waste and wastewater dumps.

On land, water laden with toxic chemicals from industry pollutes waterways but also the air we breathe. Likewise, fertilizers used in agriculture cause nutrient pollution in the form of run-off into rivers, lakes and wetlands. These ecosystems become polluted in the process, and cause air pollution. One of the consequences of nutrient pollution is algal blooms which suffocate fish and emit noxious gases. Furthermore, intensive livestock production produces high levels of methane. Chemicals used in mining also pollute water sources and the air. As land and ocean are interconnected, these pollutants, in one way or another, will reach groundwater, as well as the coast and the ocean.

“Unsustainable human activities, from farming and mining to industry and infrastructure, are undermining the productivity of vast areas of farmland, forests and other ecosystems across all continents. This degradation threatens food security, water supplies and the biodiversity upon which human development depends. It drives and is exacerbated by climate change. And it will put the Sustainable Development Goals out of reach unless it is urgently addressed,” says the UN Environment Programme policy brief A new deal for Nature – Restore the Degraded Planet.

The fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2019 passed a resolution agreeing to “enhance the mainstreaming of the protection of coastal and marine ecosystems in policies, particularly those addressing environmental threats caused by increased nutrients, wastewater, marine litter and microplastics, in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…”

High dependence on a limited resource

Humans are critically dependent on clean freshwater for drinking, cooking and for use in agriculture and industry. Only about 2.5 per cent of all the water on Earth is freshwater. And of this freshwater only about 1.2 per cent is readily available as surface freshwater—the rest is groundwater or locked up in glaciers and ice caps. So, when surface freshwater gets polluted we’re in trouble.

Even when groundwater gets polluted, we are also in trouble, as many countries use groundwater for irrigation. And yet, over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released to the environment without treatment.

Wastewater treatment benefits the poor

“There are many measures that can be taken to address pollution,” says Lamizana. “The objective is to select the key measures that can bring most benefits across pollution dimensions (i.e. air, water, soil/land, marine and coastal) and across sectors (e.g. agriculture/food security, industry, transportation, residential, extractive), using a life-cycle approach.”

UN Environment and partners are helping countries identify a manageable number of cost-effective measures to reduce wastewater pollution and make a better case for their adoption and enforcement. But reliable, consistent and trustworthy data sources are needed.

“We need more and better-quality data to assess the status and impact of wastewater pollution, and capacity-building support needs to be provided to countries to improve their ability to develop national statistical systems and use pollution-related statistics to better manage and monitor their water, soil and air quality,” says Lamizana.

“Open source maps using geo-spatial data showing maps of pollution, dynamics of dispersion, combined with population density, protected areas or other bio-physical or socio-economic datasets are urgently needed,” she adds.

In this connection, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution encouraging Member States “to collect data on economic indicators and those linked to poverty and the environment to enable the tracking of progress towards the eradication of poverty and the management of natural resources and the environment.”

UN Environment

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Carbon market negotiations under the Paris Agreement

Luca Lo Re

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Climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, in recent weeks for talks aimed at making progress ahead of the COP25 meeting in Santiago, Chile, in December. (Photograph: UNFCCC)

The world’s climate negotiators recently concluded two weeks of discussions about the next steps for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, with carbon market rules high on the agenda.

The annual mid-year climate negotiations are generally held ahead of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), the top decision-making body for climate negotiations.

The recent COP24, in Katowice, Poland, was heralded by many as a success in multilateralism and diplomacy. It adopted an almost complete set of rules and guidelines supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, the parties did not ultimately reach a consensus on one specific area: the rules for using carbon markets.

These rules are known in the climate jargon as the “Article 6 rules”, after the Paris Agreement article that mandates them. After the inconclusive talks at COP24, negotiators were tasked to come up with a new proposal for the Article 6 rules that could be adopted at the next COP25, in Santiago, Chile, later this year.

At the recent meeting in Bonn, which concluded last week, countries made good progress on technical discussions and came up with a new negotiating text. But disagreements remain about the status of the text and how to take it forwards. This means that there is everything to play for as we move towards COP25.

Here are some key points for understanding why carbon markets matter so much under the Paris Agreement and what the bottlenecks are in the negotiations.

What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?

Carbon markets are aimed at lowering the cost of reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Expanding and linking those markets internationally can help further drive down the cost of achieving emission reduction targets, helping to stimulate the needed investments for clean energy transitions.

By agreeing to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries opened the way for a new form of international interaction on carbon markets. Article 6 builds on a long history of market approaches under the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement’s predecessor.

Article 6 is intended to support countries in enhancing the ambitions of their stated climate actions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which collectively contribute to the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement: keeping the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the nature of carbon markets means that robust rules are important to ensure that environmental and sustainable development gains are realised. Article 6 introduces two voluntary market-based paths for international co-operation.

Article 6.2 sets out the principles for voluntary co-operative approaches. One country can transfer so-called “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs) to another country, which can then use them towards its NDC target. These transfers must apply robust and transparent accounting rules to avoid double counting of ITMOs and to ensure environmental integrity. The transfers can take place using various approaches and mechanisms, such as bilateral cooperation programmes between countries, or national or regional emission trading schemes (ETS).

Article 6.4 establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, under the oversight of a central UN governance body. Public and private entities can participate in this mechanism if authorised by a country. While the main intention is that emissions reductions from the mechanism will count towards achievement of countries’ NDCs, the mechanism could also be used in other ways. For example, airlines could use credits from the mechanism to comply with the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Other companies could use them to count towards carbon neutrality. However, double counting of these emission reductions must be avoided.

Despite the lack of a formal outcome on Article 6 at the recent negotiations in Bonn, countries made substantial progress and had constructive discussions. Differences remain on several issues ahead of COP25, though. For instance, countries have not yet agreed on an accounting system to avoid double counting and other elements needed to prevent potential environmental integrity risks.

How is the IEA contributing?

The IEA is contributing to the discussions on Article 6 – as well as to the negotiations more broadly – through technical analysis by the joint OECD-IEA Climate Change Expert Group (CCXG). For more than 25 years, the CCXG has been developing and publishing technical papers in consultation with a wide range of countries to inform ongoing climate negotiations.

Through the CCXG, the IEA recently co-published a technical paper that analyses two specific unresolved issues in the negotiations of rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement: the accounting system of Article 6.2, and the implications of a potential transition of Kyoto Protocol mechanisms to the Article 6.4 mechanism. The outcomes of the paper were presented at a side event during the Bonn conference and directly informed the negotiations.

The CCXG also convenes two major events per year to promote dialogue among government delegates and experts from developed and developing economies, outside of the formal negotiations. Discussions stretch well beyond carbon markets, also covering the transparency framework of the Paris Agreement and climate finance issues, among others. The next edition of these invitation-only Global Forums on the Environment and Climate Change will be held at the IEA headquarters in Paris on 1-2 October. In addition, the IEA is ramping up its efforts to support countries in implementing and enhancing their NDCs.

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Green Planet

Does economic growth worth degrading the environment?

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Although environmental consequences of economic growth bring about numerous reactions of economists and environmentalists, there is still doubt that environment protection rules and regulations hinder economic growth, or future development has dire consequences on the environment which does not worth it.

Here the question arises that whether eliminating natural resources must continue to make up for the slow economic growth or come up with more practicable solutions to safeguard non-renewable resources.

Many cases in Iran and other countries demonstrate the direct relation between socio-economic development and environmental degradation, showing that human are using natural resources at a pace much faster than it can replenish.

For instance, deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses. An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Reza Bayani, an official with Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization said in April that approximately 12,000 hectares of forests across Iran is wiped out annually.

Bayani referring to illegal logging as the leading cause of forest degradation, noted that timber smuggling steadily proceeding in the forests poses a serious threat to the country’s ecology for a minor population benefits.

Yousefali Ebrahimpour, commander of the protection unit of natural resources and watershed management department of West Azarbaijan province said in February that over 450 tons of smuggled log has been seized in the forests in the province, which were being smuggled to the northern provinces of the country.

While the following year flash floods in 31 provinces of the country started on March 19, caused great losses and damages which was due to deforestation and vegetation depletion in addition to building encroaching river beds.

Seyed Mohammad Mojabi, head of environment committee of the Expediency Council, said in May that following recurrent droughts and low precipitation, related organizations believed that severe rainfalls seem far-fetched in a country with arid and semi-arid climate and decided to allow construction projects through river banks, which increased flood devastation.

Road construction also is another way of development which is at loggerheads with nature, mainly resulting in many irreparable damages including road surface erosion and sediment yield, slope failures and mass movement, direct loss of habitat (by the conversion of the original land cover into an artificial surface) and indirect loss of habitat (by the fragmentation of an ecosystem into smaller and more isolated patches).

The chief of Mazandaran provincial department of environment Ebrahim Fallahi said in September 2018 that long stretches of roads are under construction in Savadkuh forest.

Moreover, excessive groundwater withdrawal, dam construction, water transfer projects, land use changes and wildfires are also the fallouts of unplanned industrial expansion which bring environmental damages, and if thinking deeply it can be realized that they can also cause immeasurable financial losses in the long run.

Mohammad Reza Goldansaz, a researcher in the field of water resources stated in June that an annual amount of 50 billion cubic meters of groundwater resources are withdrawn to supply agricultural, industrial as well as drinking water in Iran.

How growth even affects air we breathe?

When it comes to air pollution the situation even gets more complex, as car manufacturing companies produce more cars without scrapping emitting clunker ones for generating profit and responsible devices not improving fuel quality, in addition to not preparing proper plan to curb the emissions.

Deputy interior minister for urban and rural development, Mehdi Jamalinejad, has said that some 22,000 busses are operating in the country’s public transport fleet, 16,000 of which are clunkers, accounting for 70 percent of the volume of bus transport system.

Ali Mohammadi, an official with traffic police, said in January that the scrappage of clunker vehicles has decreased by 65 percent in the past Iranian calendar year 1397 (ended in March 2019) compared to a year earlier.

While last year some 140,000 vehicles were scrapped, this year only 50,000 old vehicles were discarded, he added.

Environment should not be destroyed for sake of growth

MP Homayoun Yousefi has said that economic growth is not worth of environmental degradation.

He lamented that environmental protection has decreased in Western Asia, which is mostly due to decision making is based on personal tastes not environmental assessment.

“Iran’s climate being arid is fragile, so development should be done in light of the fragility and low capacity of the country’s environment,” he highlighted, regretting, nature seems to be less considered in some development plans.

“An important factor for showing power of countries is sustainable environment, and we also need to focus more on the environment in this regard,” he added.

Toward economic growth while safeguarding environment

Green production is likely to become the center of attention globally in the near future due to the proven importance of environment, however, economic and industrial expansion resulting in urbanization are a reality that is inevitable specially in developing countries, so, we must never lose sight of the need to safeguard the environment.

Every country regarding the resources each have, has an important opportunity to make policies or take steps in line with regulations which can guide it to developmental goals. By considering environmental issues and planning for appropriate confrontation measures wherever necessary, we can even set a role model for other countries to follow.

From our partner Tehran Times

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