Category: carbon dioxide

Scientists Warn That Fossil Fuel Emissions Will See Record Highs in 2017

Emissions are Increasing

Some sobering news was announced this week, preceding international climate negotiations in Germany. After three years of flat growth, global emissions are increasing again. This was discovered thanks to a series of reports from the Global Carbon Project, an organization, chaired by Stanford scientist Rob Jackson, that works to quantify emissions.

Despite this less-than-stellar news, Jackson stated in a press release, “This year’s result is discouraging, but I remain hopeful.” He continued, “In the U.S., cities, states, and companies have seized leadership on energy efficiency and low-carbon renewables that the federal government has abdicated.”

Jackson is correct. While U.S. national decisions on emissions and efforts to combat climate change are falling far short, with the country pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, states and cities are beginning to act independently. But, while many are hopeful that these grassroots efforts might keep the U.S. on track for now, this report details rising emissions on a global scale.

“Time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2º Celsius let alone 1.5º Celsius.”

This report is published in Nature Climate Change, Environmental Research Letters, and Earth System Science Data Discussions. The report shows that, in 2017, global emissions from all human activities will reach 41 trillion kg (41 billion metric tons), after a 2 percent (withing a range of 0.8 to 3 percent) rise in fossil fuel use.

“This is very disappointing,” said lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré, “time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2 ºC let alone 1.5 ºC.”

Curbing CO2

Many hoped that these three years of little-to-no growth in emissions represented a peak — a positive sign that a decline would follow as a result of the efforts being made. But this is unfortunately not the case, as the Global Carbon Project has shown.

This disturbing message has reached policymakers and delegates who are attending the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 23) in Bonn this week. So, while it is upsetting news, it is ideal that all of these great minds are together and can start formulating a plan-of-action immediately. The Global Carbon Project report broke 2017’s cumulative global emissions down by country, which will be essential to policymakers looking to enact change.

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
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In 2017, U.S. emissions are actually projected to decline 0.4 percent (-2.7 to +1.9 percent). However, this decrease is significantly smaller than the 1.2 percent per year decline that the country has averaged over the last decade. There are a variety of factors that could explain why emissions are increasing, including an unexpected jump in coal consumption. This may make sense in light of U.S. economic growth — in 2017 alone, the GDP was up about 2.2 percent.

It is clear that we are moving in the wrong direction as a planet. This wake-up call has shown that, while we’ve made some progress in curbing global emissions for three last years, the efforts we are making are simply not enough. Hopefully, policymakers, corporations, and individuals will all work to get on the same page and make a concerted effort to stop the increasing emissions.

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Carbon Dioxide Levels on Earth Haven’t Been This High in Three Million Years

New Highs

The United Nations has issued a warning that last year, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased at a rate that has never been observed before. Current levels have not been matched in over three million years.

The global concentration of carbon dioxide reached 403.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2016, up from 400 ppm in 2015. The rise can be attributed in part to the recent El Niño event, but the figures from the past several years reveal that this isn’t the only factor.

The increase of 3.3 ppm between 2015 and 2016 is greater than the 2.3 ppm rise between 2014 and 2015. Indeed, the annual increase over the past decade has been just 2.08 ppm. The last time there was a major El Niño event, in 1998, levels only rose by 2.7 ppm.

Environmental factors only tell a part of the story; human activity, too, is causing these levels to rise. The UN’s report states that population growth, intensive agriculture, deforestation, and industrialization are the biggest contributors to the changes taking place.

“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris climate change agreement,” said World Meteorological Organization chief Petteri Taalas, according to a report from The Guardian.

Agree to Disagree

The Paris Agreement was intended to provide an action plan to help governments around the world address their country’s impact on the environment. However, the extent to which individual nations are holding up their end of the bargain remains to be seen.

A report set to be published this week will outline how domestic commitments are not meeting the international goals that were originally laid out. As a result, it’s unlikely that we’ll meet the target of restricting global warming to a 2 degree C rise above pre-industrial levels; it could even reach 3 degrees C.

This isn’t to say that no action is being taken: France has put some major changes in place across the board. China has been very proactive as well, having recently closed down large swathes of factories to cut down on pollution.

Elsewhere in the world, efforts have been undermined. The United States government is actively downplaying the threat of climate change despite ample evidence of its impact. Beyond politics, the consequences of such short-sightedness could be dire for humanity.

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Carbon Dioxide Levels Spiked Sharply Between 2015 and 2016

Observations from Orbit

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) has reported that carbon dioxide levels spiked during its observation period of 2015 to 2016. It’s thought that this fluctuation comes as a result of the major El Niño event that took place in that time frame.

The data correlated the increase with the effect of heat and drought on tropical forests. As a result of these conditions, forests were less able to take up carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen.

“If future climate is more like this recent El Niño, the trouble is the Earth may actually lose some of the carbon removal services we get from these tropical forests, and then CO2 will increase even faster in the atmosphere,” said OCO science team member Scott Dennin, according to a report from the BBC.

In a normal year, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases by two parts per million by volume (ppmv) of molecules in the air. During this El Niño period, it rose by three ppmv, the equivalent of six gigatonnes of the gas.

Human Impact

The 2015-16 El Niño brought widespread weather changes that boosted carbon dioxide levels. In South America, it was widespread drought, which impeded plant life’s ability to consume the gas. In Africa, above-average temperatures meant that carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere as dead plant material decomposed. Meanwhile, conditions in Asia meant that wildfires ran rampant, burning peat carbon that had built up over thousands of years.

The El Niño/La Niña oscillation is a natural climate cycle on Earth, and these environmental contributors likely couldn’t have been prevented. However, this shouldn’t downplay the human component in rising carbon dioxide levels on earth; everything from the production of cement to the use of fossil fuels contributes to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Additionally, some research has suggested that climate change and rising greenhouse gas levels are making El Niño events more intense, contributing to a rather vicious cycle. 

Weather Satellites
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These findings demonstrate that we can’t rely on the ability of Earth’s vegetation to counteract our carbon dioxide production. And as climate change rolls forward, it will be important that we continue to monitor CO2 levels closely.

While the OCO is a valuable tool to scientists, its scope is rather narrow. It’s capable of taking very accurate readings, but can only look at a 10 kilometer tract of land as it floats above the planet. The European Space Agency plans to deploy a set of satellites known as Sentinel-7 to provide similarly precise measurements that can span a much wider area. These instruments could allow authorities to check in on the carbon emissions of individual countries.

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By 2100, Our Carbon Usage May Be Enough to Trigger a 10,000-Year-Long Ecological Disaster

“Thresholds of Catastrophe”

Daniel Rothman, a professor of geophysics in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, recently published a study in Science Advances that could change how we think about the future of our environment.

For his study, Rothman analyzed changes in the carbon cycle over the past 540 million years, including all five mass extinction events, and used mathematics to demarcate “thresholds of catastrophe” in the carbon cycle. Moving beyond those thresholds can catapult the Earth into an unstable environment, causing a mass extinction event.

Based on his research, Rothman asserts that, if we don’t change course, the world may enter what he calls “unknown territory” by 2100, causing an ecological disaster that would take 10,000 years to fully play out.

Those are scare quotes.

Rothman suggests that these mass extinction events are triggered after one of two critical thresholds are passed. The first takes place over a longer timeline. If changes in the carbon cycle, no matter how small, progress faster than global ecosystems can adapt, we have a mass extinction event. On a shorter timescale, the size and magnitude of the changes are important. If significant enough, the changes will increase the probability of a mass extinction event.

Five mass extinction events have occurred on the Earth in the last 540 million years. Each one caused massive disturbances in the normal cycling of carbon through the oceans and atmosphere. For thousands to millions of years, these events coincided with the extermination of marine species worldwide.

According to Rothman, the recent rapid spike in carbon dioxide emissions could lead to a sixth mass extinction. The deciding factor will be whether a critical quantity of carbon makes its way into our oceans. He calculates this amount to be about 310 gigatons — roughly the same amount of carbon that human civilization will have added to the oceans by the year 2100, based on Rothman’s estimates.

“This is not saying that disaster occurs the next day,” Rothman explained in a press release. “It’s saying that, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would no longer be stable and would behave in a way that would be difficult to predict. In the geologic past, this type of behavior is associated with mass extinction.”

Parameters of Doom

Today, many scientists speculate about how the climate change we’re currently experiencing will potentially affect the planet’s carbon cycle. Could it push the world into a sixth mass extinction?

The World’s Worst Mass Extinctions
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We’ve already seen a steady rise in carbon dioxide emissions since the 19th century, but interpolating the recent spike of carbon into a diagnosis of imminent mass extinction is no easy task. The difficulty lies in the dissimilar timespans — comparing changes that took place over thousands or millions of years to the century-long spike in which we’re currently living.

We like to think nobody wants to trigger mass extinctions on the Earth, above or below water. Sadly, preserving the ecosphere we need to survive is not a priority for many of those in power, on both sides of the American political spectrum. It’s up to us to spread the word that this “threshold of catastrophe” is a bullet we should most definitely be trying dodge.

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Researchers Have Found a Way to Convert CO2 Into a Usable Fuel

Reduction by Conversion

Most nations and institutions are attempting to fight climate change due to global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At present, this is mostly done by cutting down on the use of fossil fuels, replacing them with alternative sources of energy that are renewable and cleaner. However, totally shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will take significant time, as the necessary infrastructure will need to be built.

Renewable Energy Sources Of The Future [Infographic]
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Capturing and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) from existing coal-fire power plants to keep it from reaching the atmosphere is an interim solution to this problem, but now, researchers from Université Paris Diderot in France and Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina have proposed another potential solution. Instead of just storing CO2, why not convert it into something more useful?

In a study published in the journal Nature, this combined team of researchers discussed their discovery of a reaction that could turn CO2 into methane. The process is a photochemical approach to triggering electrochemical conversions. It involves exposing a CO2 solution to irradiation by sunlight at ambient temperature and pressure, which triggers a molecular electro-catalysis. The CO2, after being irradiated by sunlight for several hours, is converted into methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen.

Questions of Efficiency

The researchers acknowledged that the current process isn’t yet particularly efficient. For one, it yields an 82 percent carbon monoxide byproduct, and it produces methane at a very slow rate of 12 grams per hour.

Refining the process could result in it working more efficiently, however. One potential solution is revising the technique into a two-step process — after the initial ingredients are converted into mostly carbon monoxide with some of that becoming methane, a second step could be used to convert the CO into more methane.

Another challenge is actually figuring out what goes on during the photochemical process. The researchers know, for example, that iron — one of the initial components mixed with CO2 — ends up binding with carbon dioxide in the first part of the process. What they don’t yet understand is how hydrogenation of the CO2 occurs.

Additionally, the CO2 sample used in the study came from a canister and was, therefore, more pure than what’s in the air, so the team plans to work on finding ways to capture CO2 from the air and filter out impurities.

Still, being able to convert CO2 into the more useful methane is a feat. Methane, the primary component in natural gas, is a cleaner source of energy, so this method could do two things at the same time: reduce carbon emissions and supply cleaner energy.

However, methane is still a fossil fuel and it could even be more harmful than CO2 if it’s allowed to leak into the atmosphere. An extreme amount of care and caution will be needed to ensure that this newly produced methane is properly stored and transferred.

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We Can Officially Collect Solar Energy Without Solar Panels

A Synthetic Leaf

The discussion on climate has persisted for decades since we first discovered that there is a man-made influence on the environment. From then, many researchers have come together to finagle innovations that reduce our industrial carbon footprint. One such innovation is the molecular leaf.

We Can Officially Collect Solar Energy Without Solar Panels

Liang-shi Li at Indiana University and an international team of scientists discovered this novel way to recycle carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. With the use of light or electricity, the molecule built by the team can convert the notorious Greenhouse Gas into carbon monoxide. The molecular leaf is the most efficient method of carbon reduction to date.

The carbon monoxide generated by this molecule could be reused as fuel. Burning carbon monoxide releases an abundance of energy as well as carbon dioxide. Because converting carbon dioxide back into carbon monoxide requires as much energy as is released by burning carbon monoxide, this potential cycle has been largely one way, leading to a build-up of carbon dioxide. The team’s work could lead to reducing this carbon dioxide build-up by making the conversion cycle more efficient and by harnessing solar power.

A Push Against Greenhouse Gases

The molecule’s nanographene structure has a dark color that absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The energy from the sunlight is then utilized by the molecule’s rhenium “engine” to produce carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide.

The molecular leaf would help us tackle the greenhouse gas effects of carbon dioxide. Since the industrial revolution, we have raised the levels of carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years. Scientists agree that there is a 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases have increased the Earth’s temperature over the past 50 years.

While Li is glad that his innovation is efficient at tackling greenhouse gases, he hopes to improve the molecular leaf by producing one that can survive in a non-liquid form. The team is also looking for ways to replace the rhenium element with manganese, which is far more common and therefore much more affordable for reproduction. But even without these improvements, the molecular leaf could be powerful tool in the efforts to halt climate change.

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Technological Fixes for Climate Change


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