Climate Change – focused analysis, focused action

binoculars and turbines

Carbon dioxide is invisible, odorless and non-toxic. It is an essential component of the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas that keeps the surface of the planet much warmer than it would otherwise be. As such, it is in no way a threat to human well-being. Yet now, carbon dioxide is effectively a dangerous pollutant because the fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices (ECDs) that power the world economy burn fossilized hydrocarbons, and in the process discharge some 30 billion tonnes of this otherwise benign gas into to the atmosphere every year. This steady build-up of CO2 is altering the proportions of atmospheric gases, the result of which is now common knowledge. The prognosis is not good. If an effective response strategy is not implemented as soon as possible, as early as 2065 the world’s coastal cities may be under water and many settled parts of the world too hot to support human habitation.

Public awareness of the situation is increasing, but timely and effective action lags as the world struggles to bring two root problems into focus.

Firstly, humans populations are growing, and in the process relentlessly degrading the biosphere. We are burning forests and clearing land for agricultural and industrial development, systematically releasing very large amounts of natural carbon stored in vegetation and in soils. Cleared agricultural lands worldwide are fertilized with nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Emissions from this kind of environmental exploitation are thought to account for up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Among the remedies: checking population growth, planting millions of trees, and restricting the use of artificial fertilizers.

The second problem involves a technical miscalculation. Since the industrial revolution, various types of energy conversion devices have transformed the chemical energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) into mechanical and heat energy. The energy produced has been used to generate electricity, propel all manner of vehicles, make steel and concrete, prepare countless meals, and mow a lot of lawns. Fortunes were made bringing these energy conversion devices to market and constructing the complex domestic and industrial systems for which they provide power. More fortunes were made supplying the fossil fuel for those devices. While all of these economic benefits were occurring, only a few scientists – John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callender among them – had the presence of mind to calculate how the exhaust from fossil fuel combustion would impact the thermodynamics of the atmosphere.

Although the miscalculation multiplied by orders of magnitude and eventually became part of the wallpaper of modern life, it is important to recall the initial, fundamental, and rather simple error: that is, energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Period. That being the root problem, the solution is correspondingly simple: replace all energy conversion devices that add fossil-source carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with energy conversion devices that do not. Essentially this is a pollution response and cleanup operation, the core task, the hinge on which all manner of system changes take place – including removing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.

From an engineering perspective, the world already has the necessary hardware at hand. However, deployment of said hardware is not as speedy as some might hope. Deployment remains subject to the constraints of conventional economics. Its not like World War II, when government war policy saw automobile assembly lines become tank assembly lines in a matter of weeks. But that could change.

From a policy perspective, the miscalculation will be remedied when the global community classifies climate change as a symptom of carbon dioxide pollution, and focuses on rapid phase out of the mechanical devices – in the electricity, transportation, heavy industrial, and building sectors – which are the source of that pollution. The ensuing pollution response and cleanup operation will of course transform the energy space.

Climate change – call the fire brigade

dystopian fire brigade

a sort of reasonable rant


If your house catches fire, you call the fire department. The guys (mostly) at the fire station say they’ll be right on over. Sirens and clatter and ladders and hoses. Usually, they save the day.

Now, with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases polluting the earth’s atmosphere at a dangerous, accelerating pace, causing unprecedented extreme weather, record floods, and wildfires worldwide, who do you call? Politicians? Not the right skill set, apparently. Businessmen? Getting warm.

So your house is on fire. You call the fire department. There’s a crew there. Each has a different opinion about what’s happening. One guy says, “Cynthia’s house is on fire! Let’s go!  Another guy says, “What fire? There’s no fire. I don’t see no fire.” Over by the fire truck, another guy says, “Let’s go turn the fire down. Then we set targets and deadlines, and monitor the situation.”

OK, so who do you call? Really.

You talk to practical and pragmatic leaders of the world community, roughly categorized in two groups:

1) The biosphere brigade

This includes religious leaders who persuade their congregations to see the benefits of an emergency one-child policy. (Seriously. You do that. But don’t do it alone.) You talk to farmers, landowners, mining companies, forest industries.

This first group is responsible for seeing to it that humans stop overrunning the planet and having their way with it. Steadfastly polite, you talk to religious leaders and say your bit. You get farmers to be as friendly as possible to natural systems, and you get forestry companies to plant trees and conserve vegetation. The main point here is biosphere restoration. This takes care of about 25 – 35 % of greenhouse gas emissions.

2) The engineering brigade

You find these professionals managing the world’s energy sector. They are running electric grids, manufacturing automobiles and aeroplanes, making steel and cement, designing buildings, and building homes.

With their help, you mobilize all designers, trades people and laborers in those industries; then you do what it takes to swap out the energy conversion devises (ECDs) in those industries that run on fossil fuels. You replace them with ECDs that run on electricity, or biofuel. You ask them to drop what they’re doing and … PUT OUT THE FIRE.

It’s a real fire! And with fire, you deal with combustion. You stop combustion. Obviously, you don’t burn down trees, for example. So that’s what you do in the energy sector. And what that means is the machines we use to power the equipment of modern civilization stop burning fossil fuel.

But you can’t just switch them off. You have to replace them. That is the mission.

It is possible we humans will not get it together to put out the fire. In that case, we will have to live, at best, in a seriously compromised earthly environment. Parts of the globe will be uninhabitable. Major cities will be have to build dykes against the sea. Some won’t be able to. But the earth will be OK. It has been in a similar condition before. Things will be very different for us, for sure, but the earth will be OK.

Are we headed to Dystopia? Hope not. Ideas and plans welcome.

image: Mad Max -Fury Road

 

Sources of greenhouse gas pollution

greenhouse gas sources

The international community has identified seven anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are harmful to the Earth’s atmosphere and, as a consequence, harmful to the planet’s finely tuned climate system. The gases are:

  • carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • methane (CH4)
  • nitrous oxide (N2O)
  • hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
  • perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
  • sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and
  • nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)

Over 30 billion tonnes of these pollutants are discharged around the globe annually. The human activities responsible for these emissions include: the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy; the alteration and destruction of the Earth’s natural habitat for economic development; and the production and use of fluorinated gases for various industrial applications.

Burning fossil fuels

Carbon dioxide, released in the exhaust of internal combustion engines, gas turbines and industrial boilers, and when land is cleared, accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse gas pollution worldwide. Non-toxic, odorless and colourless, CO2 has thermodynamic properties which are key to maintaining atmospheric temperatures.

Fossil fuel combustion produces carbon dioxide (CO2) in exhaust gases. The heat of combustion oxidizes some nitrogen in the air to form nitrous oxide (N2O). The methods and processes involved in mining, refining, and transporting fossil fuels discharge methane (CH4). Additional CO2 is produced where fuel combustion is required for heat and mechanical energy in the fossil fuel supply chain.

Devices that burn fossil fuels are ubiquitous fixtures of the world economy. Over a billion internal combustion engines power automobiles, motor cycles, locomotives, airplanes, ships, electric generators, mowers, and hand-held tools. Tens of thousands of industrial boilers and gas turbines generate electricity for the grid and for use in factories.

An uncounted number of stoves, furnaces, kilns, refinery distillers and smelters provide heat for homes and industrial processes such as steel making, refining crude oil, and cement production. Cement production produces an extra measure of GHG because, in addition to burning fossil fuels to heat kilns, it emits CO2 when transforming limestone, a fossil mineral, into calcium oxide (clinker).

Fossil fuel production and combustion accounts for about 75 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution.

Altering and destroying natural habitat

Deforestation
Burning trees and other plants, or leaving them to rot, releases CO2 that had been removed from the atmosphere during the life of those plants. Normally, this is a net-zero emissions equation, but when more plants are destroyed than grow, there is a net increase in atmospheric CO2.

industrial cattleMost deforestation now occurs in tropical regions where industrial-scale agriculture, such as cattle farming and palm oil production, is eliminating jungle habitat.

Agriculture
Cultivation of soil through tillage releases CO2 stored by organic matter in the soil, and fertilizer enhances emissions of N2O from normal bacterial activity.

Industrial-scale farming of cattle, goats, sheep, poultry, pigs, and other animals produces CH4, both from manure and from the digestive tracts of domesticated ruminants.

Rice paddies produce CH4 and CO2 in a way similar to reservoirs (see below).

Development
Natural lakes and river systems produce CH4 and CO2. Man-made reservoirs, including those created by hydro electric dams, behave in a similar manner, but CH4 emissions can spike or increase overall when trees and other vegetation are left to rot in flooded areas.

Use of fluorinated gases

Industrial chemicals containing fluorine (HFCs, PFCs, SF6 and NF3) are used as refrigerants, as fire extinguishing materials, as solvents, and in the manufacture of plastic foams. Aluminum production is the largest source of PFC emissions. Pollution from these chemicals is small in terms of volume, but as greenhouse gases, they are up to 23 thousand times more powerful than carbon dioxide and persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Pollution response and clean up

wind turbinesThe simplest way to understand and deal with GHG pollution is to treat it in the same manner as the discharge of any harmful substance: that is, stop it at source and remove it from the environment. In practice, stopping GHG pollution means replacing energy technologies that burn fossil fuels, and restoring natural habitat. Removal from the environment means developing technologies to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

The global scale of GHG pollution, and its already devastating impacts, calls for focused, cooperative and rapid action from government, industry and private individuals worldwide.

Corroboration and elaboration:
unfccc/factsheet
www.epa.gov