April 30 2022

April 30 2022

removing carbon from the atmosphere, Senator Manchin’s conflict of interest, tree planting as a climate solution, nuclear-fusion reactors, high-altitude wind power

The Atlantic notes that a key (but not new) finding from the recent IPCC report is that humanity will have to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to prevent global average temperature from rising to a very dangerous level. While natural ecosystems can carry some of this load, there is no doubt that we will need to develop and deploy technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Recently, an alliance of major tech companies — including Google, Meta, Shopify, and Stripe — announced that it is purchasing $925 million worth of carbon removal over the next eight years through a new venture called Frontier. Frontier will be paying carbon removal companies for drawing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it. Stripe has been engaged in this work for a couple of years, purchasing carbon removal from 14 different start-ups (you can hear Stripe’s project leader on the Volts podcast). By creating demand, they want to stimulate innovation and policy development that will bring about carbon removal at large scale (this approach, previously applied in vaccine development, is known as “advanced market commitment”). The new company’s leader states that “a billion dollars is roughly 30 times the carbon-removal market that existed in 2021. But it’s still 1,000 times short of the market we need by 2050.”

Even if large-scale carbon removal is successfully commercialized, this is not some type of “morning after” pill for excessive greenhouse-gas emissions. If we overshoot our temperature limits by failing to control emissions (which seems likely), many irreversible impacts will occur. Grist discusses these, including species extinctions and sea level rise driven by heat already captured in the ocean. It is also possible that a warming planet passes through tipping points where climate changes occur (over decades/centuries) even with extensive carbon removal in the second half of this century. Examples include insect outbreaks and wildfires that kill trees and release additional greenhouse gases, or heat and drought causing some parts of the Amazon rainforest to release more carbon than it sequesters (I explored tipping points in a previous post). If such processes take off, our carbon-removal efforts will be “like shoveling a walkway in a blizzard.” Steering clear of these tipping points is why it is so essential to cut emissions aggressively now.

A detailed exposé in the New York Times reveals an extraordinary conflict of interest on the part of Senator Joe Manchin. The article documents that Senator Manchin has made millions of dollars selling coal-mine waste as fuel to a specific power plant in West Virginia that he helped get permitted (the Daily podcast demonstrates that this conflict of interest is really as bad as it sounds). This fuel, known as”Gob,” is very polluting when burned, and must be phased out quickly as part of decarbonizing the economy. Of course, voting for climate legislation that would cause this to happen would directly impact Senator Manchin’s income. Despite how dire the climate crisis has become, Senator Manchin continues to use his legislative clout to block climate legislation, thereby protecting his personal financial interests.

Paul Krugman reminds us in the New York Times that those with a financial stake in existing practices are often guilty of overestimating the costs of transition and underestimating the benefits. He reviews the example of controlling the sulfur-dioxide emissions that cause acid rain, where the coal industry insisted electricity rates would double to control emissions, while in fact rates declined and emissions were controlled. Grist summarizes a recent study that documents how the industry-supported Global Climate Coalition spread misinformation about climate change and lobbied Congress to prevent climate action in the 1990s.

The New York Times reports on California’s aggressive plan to mandate a steady increase in the sale of electric and zero-emissions vehicles. The California Air Resources Board “will require 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2026 to be powered by batteries or hydrogen, the first step in enacting a first-in-the-nation goal of banning new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.” Reuters describes how EV manufacturers are focusing on reducing the environmental footprint of their vehicles, including how to include more sustainably-made components and reduce the carbon footprint of their supply chains. GM and Honda announced a collaboration to build affordable EVs (target price less than $30,000).

The Living Breakwaters project in New York is an effort to rebuild “natural infrastructure” to create resilience to climate change. An article in the New York Times describes this effort, born as a response to the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, in which scientists, restauranteurs and the City are collaborating to reconstruct the oyster reefs that existed in the 19th century. These reefs protected low-lying areas from storm surges and erosion. In another example of natural infrastructure, Thomson Reuters Foundation reports on a recent analysis of the “sponginess” of cities — their ability to absorb water during major rainstorms. Cities that are more absorbent are more resilient in the face of flooding, and also retain more water to mitigate the impacts of drought. The article cites an analysis that concludes, “Natural ways to absorb urban water are about 50% more affordable than man-made solutions, and are 28% more effective.”

Intense precipitation recently struck the area around Durban, South Africa. Democracy Now reports that it created one of South Africa’s worst natural disasters, with 443 reported dead as of April 18, tens of thousands homeless, and 500 schools and scores of hospitals destroyed. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle describes the results of a study that projects more major rainfall events in the Bay Area’s future. Grist notes the conclusions from Climate Central: that the intensification of rainfall is clear in U.S. precipitation data from the 1970s through 2021 — just as expected due to the warming atmosphere.

Planting trees has become a popular activity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, create jobs, provide shade and restore ecosystems (the New York Times interviews the “procurement forester” who buys trees for New York City’s tree planting program). Grist reports that with “plans underway to grow a forest across the whole width of Africa, cover a third of India in forests, and plant 1 trillion trees around the world by 2030 — that the world is approaching a seed shortage.” Unfortunately, for several reasons tree planting will not be the climate panacea that some suggest. Previous estimates of the amount of carbon sequestered by tree planting appear inflated. Turning savannas into forests, which was once estimated to capture 280 tons of carbon per hectare, now is estimated to capture only 23 tons per hectare. And the planted trees don’t always survive: of 11 million trees planted on one day in 2019 in Turkey, up to 90% died as a result of being planted at the wrong time and not getting enough water.

The New York Times notes that many tree-planting efforts, which often use commercial species not native to an area, can actually have counterproductive outcomes. Recent research concluded that 45 percent of reforestation projects involved “planting vast monocultures of trees as profitable enterprises,” with one researcher stating that existing programs are “planting the same species all over the world.” One reason for this is that popular commercial species often dominate the seed banks (this can be addressed by paying people to collect seeds from nearby forests). Experts note that reforestation projects require doing your “homework” ahead of time to understand how to achieve the goals of carbon sequestration and ecosystem restoration, and often the best solution is to let forests regenerate on their own. The Grist article notes that “the recent IPCC report found that reducing deforestation and forest degradation is ‘one of the most effective and robust options’ to mitigate climate change.”

Yale Climate Connections looks at the recent performance of nuclear-fusion reactors, which theoretically can produce electricity utilizing the same reaction that produces the sun’s energy. Unfortunately, “theoretically” is the operative word, as utilizing fusion is an enormous engineering challenge that has yet to produce more energy than it consumes. In addition, radioactive waste is produced (albeit having a much shorter half-life than the waste produced by fission reactors), and this must be managed. These technical challenges mean that we cannot count on fusion in the next few decades to produce the carbon-free electricity the world needs.

The Washington Post has an explainer about hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen can be used for high-heat applications, and compressed to power long-distance transport, making it a valuable substitute for fossil fuels in such applications where directly using electricity is difficult. However, virtually all hydrogen available now is made from natural gas, so it is essentially a fossil fuel. It also can be produced using electricity to split water (using devices known as electrolyzers). If that electricity is from renewable sources, the carbon footprint of the hydrogen is much less (“green hydrogen”), but it consumes a lot of renewable electricity that is needed elsewhere. Many analysts are skeptical that hydrogen will play anything but a specialized role in a low-carbon future, although others expect that a reduction in the cost of electrolyzers will make “green hydrogen” much more cost competitive soon. Indeed, an article in The Guardian describes a new breakthrough in increasing electrolyzer efficiency.

Yale e360 reviews the progress developing airborne devices, such as high-tech kites, that generate electricity from high-altitude winds. High-altitude winds can be faster than at ground level, and the doubling of wind speed produces eight times the power. Proponents envision wind farms hosting hundreds of kites, flying from barges in deep offshore waters. The Atlantic describes how political attitudes in red states are frequently slowing the expansion of renewable energy in favor of maintaining fossil-fuel production.

Civil Eats has an in-depth look at how regenerative grazing practices are expanding on farms in the mid-Atlantic. This excellent article explores the benefits and costs to individual operators, the potential climate benefits of these practices and the ecological benefits to the region. One upside would be improved water quality in Chesapeake Bay. Nutrient pollution and the subsequent algae blooms are a long-term problem for Chesapeake Bay, and regenerative agricultural practices can reduce nutrient runoff into waterways. It is encouraging to see how individual farmers are embracing this new practice as part of building a sustainable and resilient agricultural sector. Thomson Reuters Foundation describes how climate change and global hunger are driving an intense need for innovation toward “climate-smart” agriculture, where food production is linked to co-benefits of climate action.