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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

Thanksgiving Also Means Giving Thanks for Our Planet

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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It is Thanksgiving holiday in the US.  The Europeans do not celebrate Thanksgiving and the European Parliament has held an election.  It has chosen former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission.  Hailing from a political family of conservatives — her father narrowly lost a party leadership election to Franz Josef Strauss — she is the first woman to hold the EU’s top executive job.

Conservative or not, there is unanimity in the EU about climate change, and how the EU has to lead the transition to a healthier planet by planning the necessary upgrading of its social market economy.

If the Europeans are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges ahead, the UN Environment Programme has just issued its flagship Emissions Gap Report.  As one might surmise, the ‘gap’ refers to the difference between what the world is doing to tackle climate change and what it needs to do to limit temperature increase to 1.5C.  Our present ambitions of structural change from a fossil fuel economy is forecast in the report to lead to a catastrophic 3.2C rise.

Present California fires and coastal flooding of the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas down to Florida are just the top of the iceberg as are the European floods in Spain, Italy and France — and the temperature rise so far is a single degree Celsius.

The window to act is closing rapidly.  As the UN report clarifies in stark terms, emissions will have to peak by 2020 to limit global warming to 1.5C without affecting economic growth.  It turns out that of the 43 developed and emerging economies, all with the sole exception of Turkey will have peaked their emissions by 2020.  Be 2030, 57 countries will have peaked.  That is the good news.

By far the greatest emitters are China, the US, and then India and the EU.  Together they account for 56 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted over the last decade.  These therefore bear a heavy responsibility.

The bad news is that while these and other emitters have pledged to follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement — except for the US because Trump withdrew from it — it is not enough.  According to the UN report, their efforts will still result in a 3.2C rise by century’s end to devastating effect.

It is logical then that efforts have to be intensified, and countries need to be more ambitious in their goals.  A focus on innovation and domestic policies to encourage non-fossil fuel power generation would be clearly to their advantage.  For example, energy produced from solar panels has soared from 50 Gigawatts in 2010 to 400 GW in 2015 with an expectation of 450+ GW by 2020.

The strong message of the report is for all sectors and their principals — national, state and local governments, mayors, corporations, their executives, civil society and civic leaders — to come together and act in concert if they are to avert a problem affecting our common home before it is too late.  It is one way of giving thanks for what we have.  The last five years have already been the warmest on record, the future can be expected to be worse if we do not act.

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Venice Is Flooded: A Look at Our Coastal Future

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If humans have been lucky, basking in the comforting warmth of an inter-glacial period for the last 10,000 years, that luck may be about to turn.  Rest assured we are not entering a glacial period.  No, our quest for greater comfort has us pumping fossil fuel residues in the air—particularly CO2—warming the earth beyond its natural trajectory.  One consequence is melting Arctic (especially Greenland) ice and coastal flooding.

Problematic as that might be, new research holds worse in store… much worse, for the Antarctic has not been a passive bystander.  It melted when the north was taking a rest allowing no let up.

The previous glacial age lasted from 125,000 to 118,000 years ago.  A paper published November 6, 2019 in Nature Communications (Vol. 10, Article # 5040) has found the Greenland ice sheet melt insufficient to explain the highs of the rise then.  In fact, it was the Antarctic ice sheet, previously thought to be inconsequential, that was key.  It turns out the Southern Ocean warmed first at the start of the inter-glacial, leading to a change in the circulation pattern of the oceans and to a warming of the northern polar areas to start the ice melt in Greenland.

Temperatures then were up to 1°C higher than now but the same has been estimated for us in the future.  However, this time climate changes on earth have been accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions over the industrial period, resulting in more extreme climate changes than in the last inter-glacial. 

The research has also revealed that ice melt caused a 10 meter sea level rise above the present level at a rate of 3 meters (about 10 feet) per century, a rate that is 10 times higher than the rise observed in the last 150 years.  If 10 ft. per century has a remote feel, try a foot every 10 years!   

This is far greater than current projections of sea level rise that anticipate an increase at the most to about 3 feet above 2000 levels by 2100.  The predictions, however, do not account for an important natural outcome of ice sheet melt, that of ice cliff instability.  The ice cliffs form as the warm water melts their ice under the water, eating away until the cliff shears off and collapses into the sea. 

The collapse is a sudden and unpredictable addition to the gradual melt in the ocean.  It also means that polar ice sheet melt can affect sea levels far more intensely than has been projected so far, and it could account at least in part for the much higher rise found by the researchers in the prior inter-glacial. Are we in for a surprise! 

If incoming solar radiation was greater in the last inter-glacial because of the earth’s position relative to the sun, the CO2 levels were lower, at 280 parts per million as opposed to 410 plus today.  Worse, in the former inter-glacial the two polar areas did not warm up simultaneously.  Today’s intensive climate change is propelled by greenhouse gases, and the warming is bipolar with the ice melting in  both polar regions at the same time. 

Another paper also published in Nature Communications a week earlier (Vol. 10, Article # 4844 October 29, 2019) examines global vulnerability to coastal flooding from rising sea levels given new metrics for measuring land elevation.  The model currently in use for this measurement, developed by NASA, has a 2 meter vertical bias.  Using a new Coastal DEM (Digital Elevation Model) and a mean estimate of sea level rise this century, the authors estimate 190 million people live below projected high tide lines at present.  This rises to 630 million by century’s end in the extreme case of high emissions.  Increase the sea level rise to 3 meters (10 feet) projected in the other paper above and a billion people could be in jeopardy.

What can one expect?  Well, the first signs of trouble will be when coastal flooding that used to happen once a decade becomes an annual event, or when unprecedented events occur.  Venice is a current example.  In a rare historic flood its iconic St. Mark’s Square is hip-deep in water.  The church itself and its priceless frescoes could be in danger if the water rises further. 

The increased coastal flooding will be gradual of course.  Our children, their children, and so on down the line will be the real innocent victims of our legacy/profligacy.  

Note:  This article appeared originally on CommonDreams.org

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Thirty years on, what is the Montreal Protocol doing to protect the ozone?

MD Staff

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The Montreal Protocol to protect the Earth’s ozone layer is to date the only United Nations environmental agreement to be ratified by every country in the world. It is also one of the most successful. With the parties to the Protocol having phased out 98 per cent of their ozone-depleting substances, they saved an estimated two million people from skin cancer every year.

Following the thirty-first meeting of the parties in Rome during 4–8 November, Stephanie Haysmith, the communications officer for the Ozone Secretariat, explained why the Montreal Protocol has been so successful and what lies ahead for the treaty.

The 2019 ozone hole is the smallest on record since its discovery. How does the ozone repair and how long will it take?

The Montreal Protocol has been successful in reducing ozone-depleting substances and reactive chlorine and bromine in the stratosphere. As a result, the ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. It is expected that the ozone layer will return to pre-1980s levels by the middle of the century and the Antarctic ozone hole by around 2060s. This is because once released, ozone-depleting substances stay in the atmosphere for many years and continue to cause damage. The 2019 hole is indeed the smallest since recording of its size began in 1982 but the ozone is also influenced by temperature shifts and dynamics in the atmosphere through climate change. In 2019, the stratosphere was particularly warm during the Antarctic winter and spring.

The Kigali Amendment, which came into force January 2019, requires countries to limit hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air-conditioners by more than 80 percent.  Yet, there is a growing demand for cooling. How can the two needs be met?

While there is a growing global demand for cooling systems for personal well-being and in the commercial sector, improving energy efficiency with low or zero global-warming-potential will be needed to meet needs while minimizing adverse impacts on climate and environment. Research and development have kept pace: equipment design has changed and improved with the ozone-depleting substances phase-out.

At the Rome meeting, parties were made aware of an unexpected increase in global emissions of trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11. Why is that, and what is being planned to address it?

The issue of unexpected emissions of CFC-11 was brought to the attention of the parties in 2018. Global emissions of CFC-11 had increased in the period after 2012. This unexpected trend suggests that there is illegal production and consumption of CFC-11. The exact sources of these emissions have yet to be found. The parties take this very seriously and a decision was made at the MOP30 [30th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol] to cooperate in further scientific research. In addition, the parties will assess the mechanisms of monitoring for the Montreal Protocol and the Multilateral Fund. 

What is meant by “a sustainable cold chain” and how does it reduce food loss?

A cold chain is a connected set of temperature-controlled facilities (pack houses, cold stores, refrigerated transportation, etc.) that ensures perishable foods maintain their freshness and quality while in transit. Access to cold chain allows local producers to link with high-value markets locally, nationally and internationally. By enabling perishable food commodities to be stored and transported in a temperature-controlled environment not only ensures quality and safety, but reduces overall food loss, while improving economic gains and increasing sustainability.

From an environmental perspective, it is important that increasing demand for cold chain is sustainable with increased use of green fuels, energy efficiency and low or zero global warming potential technologies.

What do you hope the Montreal Protocol will inspire?

The Montreal Protocol is one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties and since its adoption, it has encouraged countries to commit to phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. The parties to the Protocol, on realizing that the alternatives, known as hydrofluorocarbons, are potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, agreed to address this. After protracted discussions, in 2016 the parties adopted the Kigali Amendment. The global partnership, stakeholder involvement and overall commitment of the countries lent to the success of the ozone protection regime. A successful hydrofluorocarbon phasedown is expected to avoid up to 0.4°C of global temperature rise by 2100, while continuing to protect the ozone layer.

UN Environment

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