Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

Turning Oceans into Muck

image from http://recon.sccf.org/events

Oxygen is critical to the health of the planet. It affects the cycles of carbon, nitrogen and other key elements, and is a fundamental requirement for marine life from the seashore to the greatest depths of the ocean. Nevertheless, deoxygenation is worsening in the coastal and open ocean. This is mainly the result of human activities that are increasing global temperatures (CO2-induced warming) and increasing loads of nutrients from agriculture, sewage, and industrial waste, including pollution from power generation from fossil fuels and biomass.

Facts: During the past 50 years the area of low oxygen water in the open ocean has increased by 4.5 million km2. The world’ oceans are now losing approximately  1 gigaton of oxygen each year.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released by the UN in 2005 reported that nitrogen containing compounds (e.g. sewage, fertilizers) release into the oceans grew 80 percent from 1860 to 1990.

Increasing temperatures will reduce the capacity of the ocean to hold oxygen in the future;
Oxygen deficiency is predicted to worsen in estuaries, coastal areas and oxygen minimum zones in the open ocean;
The ocean’s capacity to produce oxygen will be reduced in the future.
Habitat loss is expected to worsen, leading to vertical and horizontal migration of species;
Oxygen deficiency will alter biogeochemical cycles and food webs;
Lower oxygen concentrations are projected to result in a decrease in reproductive capacity and biodiversity loss;
There are important local decreases of commercially important species and aquaculture production;
Harmful Algal Blooms will be exacerbated from nutrients released in bottom waters due to hypoxia (e.g. in the Baltic Sea);
Reduced ocean oxygen concentrations will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby initiating feedbacks on climate change;

Excerpts from UNESCO, Jan. 2018

View Extensive Abstract

Background paper (pdf)

Global Ocean Oxygen Network: Through the participation of high level scientists from across the world, the IOC expert group, the Global Ocean Oxygen Network GO2NE, established in 2016, is committed to providing a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation, with a focus on understanding its multiple aspects and impacts.

Cut or Pay up: Net Negative Carbon Emissions

Carbon footprint. image from wikipedia

Sweden’s parliament passed a law in June which obliges the country to have “no net emissions” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2045. The clue is in the wording. This does not mean that three decades from now Swedes must emit no planet-heating substances; even if all their electricity came from renewables and they only drove Teslas, they would presumably still want to fly in aeroplanes, or use cement and fertiliser, the making of which releases plenty of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the law only requires gross emissions to drop by 85% compared with 1990 levels. But it demands that remaining carbon sources are offset with new carbon sinks. In other words greenhouse gases will need to be extracted from the air

[I]f the global temperature is to have a good chance of not rising more than 2ºC above its pre-industrial level, as stipulated in the Paris climate agreement of 2015, worldwide emissions must similarly hit “net zero” no later than 2090. After that, emissions must go “net negative”, with more carbon removed from the stock than is emitted…

To keep the temperature below a certain level means keeping within a certain “carbon budget”—allowing only so much to accumulate, and no more. Once you have spent that budget, you have to balance all new emissions with removals. If you overspend it…you have a brief opportunity to put things right by taking out more than you are putting in…

Climate scientists like Mr Henderson have been discussing negative-emissions technologies (NETs) with economists and policy wonks since the 1990s. [But] NETs were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda of the annual UN climate jamboree which ended in Bonn on November 17th 2017.

 Reforesting logged areas or “afforesting” previously treeless ones presents no great technical challenges. More controversially, they also tend to invoke “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). In BECCS, power stations fuelled by crops that can be burned to make energy have their carbon-dioxide emissions injected into deep geological strata, rather than released into the atmosphere….

The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  technologies that exist today, under development by companies such as Global Thermostat in America, Carbon Engineering in Canada or Climeworks of Switzerland, remain pricey. In 2011 a review by the American Physical Society to which Ms Wilcox contributed put extraction costs above $600 per tonne, compared with an average estimate of $60-250 for BECCS…

Much of the gas captured by Climeworks and other pure NETs firms (as opposed to fossil-fuel CCS) is sold to makers of fizzy drinks or greenhouses to help plants grow. It is hard to imagine that market growing far beyond today’s total of 10m tonnes. And in neither case is the gas stored indefinitely. It is either burped out by consumers of carbonated drinks or otherwise exuded by eaters of greenhouse-grown produce…..

One way to create a market for NETs would be for governments to put a price on carbon. Where they have done so, the technologies have been adopted. Take Norway, which in 1991 told oil firms drilling in the North Sea to capture carbon dioxide from their operations or pay up. This cost is now around $50 per tonne emitted; in one field, called Sleipner, the firms have found ways to pump it back underground for less than that. A broader carbon price—either a tax or tradable emissions permits—would promote negative emissions elsewhere, too…

Another concern is the impact on politicians and the dangers of moral hazard. NETs allow politicians to go easy on emission cuts now in the hope that a quick fix will appear in the future.

Excerpt from Sucking up Carbon, Combating Climate Change, Economist,  Nov. 18, 2017

Cooling Down: The Montreal Protocol at 2016

In 1974 scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in refrigeration and as propellants in products such as hairsprays, release chlorine into the stratosphere as they decompose. This depletes the ozone that protects Earth from ultraviolet radiation. CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which absorb solar radiation reflected back from the planet’s surface and so trap heat in the atmosphere.

Initially, the consequences for the ozone layer caused most concern. In 1985 a gaping hole in it was found above Antarctica. Two years later, leaders from around the world acted decisively. They signed a deal, the Montreal protocol, to phase out CFCs. Now ratified by 197 countries, it has prevented the equivalent of more than 135 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions, and averted complete collapse of the ozone layer by the middle of the century. Instead, by that point the ozone hole may even have closed up….

In order to manage without CFCs, firms replaced them in applications such as refrigeration, air-conditioning and insulation with man-made hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These substances do not deplete ozone and last in the atmosphere for just a short time. However, they still contribute hugely to global warming.  The average atmospheric lifetime for most commercially used HFCs is 15 years or less; carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for more than 500 years. But, like CFCs, HFCs cause a greenhouse effect between hundreds and thousands of times as powerful as carbon dioxide while they linger. Total emissions are still relatively low, but are rising by 7-15% a year. Controlling HFC emissions has been under discussion for the past decade; America and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, made a deal on the issue in 2013, which paved the way for co-operation on limiting carbon emissions ahead of UN-sponsored climate talks in Paris last year. There leaders agreed to keep warming “well below” levels expected to be catastrophic.

Average global temperatures are already 1°C higher than in pre-industrial times….America wants action on HFCs speedy enough that emissions will peak in 2021 and then start to fall; after recent talks in Hangzhou between Mr Obama and Mr Xi China may be ready to commit to reaching that point by 2023. Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia lean towards 2025, and India has lobbied for a later date, closer to 2030.

Some sectors firms are already preparing to move away from HFCs: in 2015 the Consumer Goods Forum, an international industry group whose members include Walmart and Tesco, began enacting a plan to phase out the substances.

A big question is what to use instead….Some HFCs commonly used in refrigeration could be replaced by others that would have an impact more than 1,000 times smaller. Honeywell, an electronics giant, already makes these less-damaging alternatives. But patents covering such substances have been a sticking point in past discussions, says Achim Steiner, until recently the head of the UN Environment Programme….Other possible replacements include isobutane, propane and propylene, all of which occur naturally. These hydrocarbons are cheap and non-toxic, and can be used as coolants without the same harm to the ozone layer….

Excerpts from The Montreal protocol: To coldly go, Economist, Sept. 24, 2016,at 58

Unburnable Carbon and the Panic Run

CarbonBubble

“You can argue that Big Oil is becoming Big Gas,” says Occo Roelofsen of McKinsey, a consulting firm. Others are going in for renewables. Total of France has a majority stake in SunPower, one of the world’s biggest solar-power firms. Eldar Saetre, the boss of Statoil, Norway’s state-run oil company, says that in 15 years there may be more opportunities outside oil and gas than within.,,,,

Plenty of oil firms (Exxon among them) are also calling for governments to enact a “carbon tax” on emitters of greenhouse gases. Their critics argue that this is less altruistic than it appears. For one thing, such a tax would hurt the coal industry especially, thereby boosting the oil firms’ gas businesses. And governments, especially in the developing world, where fossil-fuel demand is still surging, may find such a tax politically impossible anyway; the oilmen are calling for it, opponents say, in the knowledge that such countries will never introduce it….

On November 4th New York’s attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, subpoenaed documents from Exxon to investigate how much it has known since the 1970s about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate. Exxon is reportedly being investigated under the Martin Act, dating back to 1921, which gives prosecutors wide-ranging powers to investigate securities fraud. Exxon says it has long disclosed information about the risks to its business from climate change, and from action to prevent it, in reports to its shareholders. But the firm’s run-in with the New York justice department may be a portent of what is to come.

Another worry for oil executives is pressure from investors spooked by the financial risks of climate change. Policymakers, such as Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, talk about the possibility of many oilfields turning into “stranded assets”, or “unburnable carbon”, if governments get serious about climate-change action. Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker, a climate-advisory firm, says that if the Paris pledges are taken at all seriously, the oil and gas industry may become “ex-growth”. Oil executives dispute that. But shareholders, if motivated, could force the industry to shrink just by limiting the funds they provide for new oil discoveries.

Curiously, the present situation may provide a foretaste of this—though cyclically, because of falling oil prices, rather than structurally, because of rising temperatures. Faced with a world awash in crude, oil majors are abandoning high-cost reserves in the Arctic, Canada, North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. One oil executive ruefully calls it a “practice run” for the day in the distant future when fears of global warming, or the emergence of cheap, clean alternative technologies, mean that demand for fossil fuels starts to wane.

Excerpt from Oil Companies and Climate Change: Nodding Donkeys, Economist, Nov. 14, 2015, at 61

Tar Sands from Canada to Europe

dirty deals

Canada and the US have threatened to pull out of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] trade talks unless the EU ignores the massive emissions of oil from tar sands – and the EU is collapsing under the pressure…For five long years the federal government and the oil industry have lobbied against the European Union labeling oilsands (also called tar sands) bitumen as ‘dirty oil’ in its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).  A new report [authored by environmental groups] reveals the how recent involvement of the US in the lobby offensive to keep the EU market open for bitumen exports has tipped the scales in favour of oilsands proponents….

The report shows the EU Fuel Quality Directive, a piece of legislation designed to reduce global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU’s transportation sector, is unlikely to acknowledge fuels from different sources of oil – conventional oil, oilsands, oil shale – have different carbon footprints.  All oil is the same – no matter how great the disparity in emissions  Instead all oils will more than likely be treated as having the same GHG emissions intensity ‘value’ in the Directive. This is exactly what Canada, the oil industry and now the US have been pushing for…

The EU has not fallen for the federal government’s argument that bitumen produces only marginally more GHG emissions than conventional oil in extraction, processing, and use.  A European Commission study found bitumen’s carbon footprint is between 12% – 40% higher than conventional oil as so much of the bitumen produced from the tar sands is burnt to fuel the energy-intensive extraction process.  The report reveals trade, not science, is the cause of the EU backing off from implementing the Fuel Quality Directive as it was originally meant to be implemented.

The US in some ways has been more open [than Canada] about its lobbying against the Fuel Quality Directive.  US Trade Representative Michael Froman confirmed he “raised these issues [of the FQD implementation] with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIP).” The TTIP is the highly controversial trade agreement between the US and the EU currently under negotiation.  European Commission documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe reveal the US trade missions has “substantive concerns” with the Fuel Quality Directive singling out fuels produced from bitumen as having a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil.    Like Canada and the oil industry, the US wants all oil – regardless of GHG emissions – to be treated the same as conventional oil in the Directive…Recently eleven members of US Congress sent a letter to the US trade mission expressing their concerns “that official US trade negotiations could undercut the EU’s commendable efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”

Excerpts, Derek LeahyIgnore tar sands emissions! EU buckles under US, Canada pressure in TTIP talks, Ecologist, July 23, 2014

Un-addicted to Coal? United States

U.S._2013_Electricity_Generation_By_Type_crop

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [released on June 2, 2014}the Clean Power Plan proposal, which for the first time cuts carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States…

Power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While there are limits in place for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels.

[Goals to be achieved by 2030]

· Cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year;

· Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent as a co-benefit;

· Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days—providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits;

and
· Shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand in the electricity system.

The Clean Power Plan will be implemented through a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program. The proposal provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation. States can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.

Also included in today’s proposal is a flexible timeline for states to follow for submitting plans to the agency—with plans due in June 2016, with the option to use a two-step process for submitting final plans if more time is needed. States that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs during the compliance period to help make progress toward meeting their goal.

Excerpt, EPA Proposes First Guidelines to Cut Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants/Clean Power Plan is flexible proposal to ensure a healthier environment, spur innovation and strengthen the economy, US EPA Press Release, June 2, 2014

The Golden Age of Coal

Yangzhou industrial area, China

Coal-fired power stations provide two-fifths of the world’s electricity, and there are ever more of them. In the doubling of the world’s electricity production over the past decade, two-thirds of the increase came from coal. At these rates, coal will vie with oil as the world’s largest source of primary energy within five years. As recently as 2001, it was not much more than half as important as oil

The main factor has been the unslakable thirst for energy in China, which in 2011 overtook America as the world’s biggest electricity producer. In 2001, according to the International Energy Agency, a club of rich nations, Chinese coal demand was about 600m tonnes of oil equivalent (25 exajoules). By 2011 China’s coal demand had tripled—a rise from two-thirds of the energy America gets from oil to twice that amount. China’s domestic coal industry produces more primary energy than Middle Eastern oil does.

Other developing economies are just as keen on coal, if not yet on such a grand scale. In India, producing 650 terawatt hours of electricity in 2010 took 311m tonnes of oil equivalent, and the power sector’s coal demand is growing at around 6% a year. The IEA reckons India could surpass America as the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2017.

Meanwhile in Europe, which likes to see itself as a world leader on climate, they are using more and more of the stuff.

America’s coal business, like the rest of the country’s energy industry, has been upended by the advent of shale gas, now available in unforeseen quantities at unforeseen prices. In April 2012 the price fell below $2 per million British thermal units, or Btus ($7 per megawatt hour). This has made gas increasingly attractive to power companies, which have been switching away from coal in increasing numbers.

The decline of coal.. will be protracted. Coal-fired power stations are built to last—the oldest plant currently operating was built in the 1930s—so unless new rules force them to close, they will be retired gradually. By 2017 or so, reckons Brattle Group, a consultancy, coal use will stabilise again, as gas demand finally makes gas prices dearer than coal. Coal may be down in America. But it is not yet out

Coal in the rich world: The mixed fortunes of a fuel, Economist, Jan. 5, 2013, at 54