Will anyone follow this route to low emission, low cost farming?

Ammonia fertiliser plays a crucial role in producing the food we need. Image credit: Allen (roadsidepictures) used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Ammonia fertiliser plays a crucial role in producing the food we need. Image credit: Allen (roadsidepictures) used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Can we make sure we make the most of the promising ideas people come up with to restrain and adapt to the changes we’re making to the climate? I’ve been considering this question thanks to a recent invention seeking to help cut increasing greenhouse gas emissions that arise from feeding the world’s growing population. Stuart Licht’s team at George Washington University in Washington, DC, has worked out how to make a key component of fertiliser – ammonia – that could eliminate emissions and minimise cost. In fact it’s an extension of a method that Stuart told me can also produce zero carbon cement, iron, bleach, magnesium, and capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere. So when will we see this amazing approach in use? I can’t tell you that – because Stuart has no plans to commercialise it.

I became aware of the new ammonia production system when Chemistry World asked me to cover it for them. Ammonia is a simple molecule, comprising only two elements, hydrogen and nitrogen. Humans have been using it in fertiliser since at least the early 19th century, when it was mined, both in mineral form and as bird guano, for delivery to farmers. That was necessary because although nitrogen is hugely abundant – it makes up four-fifths of Earth’s atmosphere – it’s equally as unreactive. Chemists often replace the air above the reactions in their flasks with pure nitrogen when they’re worried that oxygen will affect their results. That stability meant synthetic ammonia was at first elusive.

But in the early 20th century Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch found a way to overcome nitrogen’s reluctance to react. They could take nitrogen from the air, and bring it together with hydrogen gas in the presence of an osmium catalyst at very high pressures and temperatures. During the First World War ammonia’s other main application – as a basis for explosives – saw that ramped up to industrial scale. The Haber-Bosch process has provided fertilisers that have been crucial in feeding Earth’s growing population since then. But it comes with a downside: it requires huge amounts of energy – 2% of the entire world’s consumption – whose generation usually releases the greenhouse gas CO2. Read the rest of this entry »

Stark conclusions seek to empower young to sue for climate justice

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: James Hansen

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: JimHansen

Even limiting human-made global climate warming to 2°C above preindustrial temperatures would subject young people, future generations and nature to irreparable harm, leading scientists said on Tuesday. The team led by pioneering climate researcher Jim Hansen, now at Columbia University in New York, calls aiming for this internationally-recognised threshold ‘foolhardy’. In a paper published in PLOS ONE, they outline a case for aiming for 1°C that supports efforts to sue the US government for not doing enough.

“Governments are blatantly failing to do their job,” Jim told me. “They know that human-caused climate change is beginning and poses a huge risk to young people and future generations, and they understand that we must phase out fossil fuel emissions. Yet they go right ahead encouraging companies to go after every fossil fuel that can be found!”

As one of the first climate modellers, Jim has long warned about the greenhouse effect caused by the CO2 we emit from burning fossil fuels. On a sweltering June 23, 1988, he famously testified to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the US Senate on the dangers of global warming. “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” he told reporters at the time.

Yet Jim remains frustrated at the slow pace of action, and regularly voices it. In 2006 Mary Wood from the University of Oregon Law School saw one of his articles in the New York Review of Books and contacted him. Her work inspired the formation of a team of lawyers who are suing the US federal government, highlighting the principle that US citizens, young and old, have ‘equal protection of the laws’. “I agreed specifically to write a paper that would provide the scientific basis for legal actions against governments for not doing their job of protecting the rights of young people,” Jim recalled. Read the rest of this entry »

Speeding poor countries’ progress could halve farming emission growth

Improving agricultural productivity - particularly without increasing fertiliser use - could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

Improving agricultural productivity – particularly without increasing fertiliser use – could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

If the world’s poorer countries progress faster towards farming like richer ones the improved food availability could help fight climate change. That’s according to Austrian and Australian scientists who say that they have looked at climate change’s links to both animal and crop farming in the most depth yet.

Hugo Valin from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, and his colleagues studied cutting the gaps between farming output in rich and poor countries. They say halving this ‘yield gap’ for crops, and reducing it by a quarter for animals, could halve the increase in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from farming between 2000 and 2050. But they have also found that improved farming methods could raise how much food people eat, meaning that emission reductions aren’t as much as they would be otherwise.

“The widespread idea is that intensifying crop farming is beneficial to the environment because it spares land,” Hugo told me. “We show that it is more complex than this. Intensification also stimulates consumption because it allows farmers to supply more food at affordable prices.”

Farming produces about a third of all ‘man-made’ greenhouse gas emissions, though a lot of them are actually from farm animals’ belches and farts and manure. The rest come from chemical reactions of fertiliser used on crops in soil, and also gases released from soil, plants and trees when forests are converted into farmland. Four-fifths of these emissions happen in developing countries. The world’s population is set to grow from around 7 billion people today to between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050. We need more food for those extra people, which will add to the greenhouse gases farming puts into the air each year. Read the rest of this entry »

N2O cuts are no laughing matter

Eric Davidson, executive director at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Woods Hole Research Center

Eric Davidson, executive director at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Woods Hole Research Center

Also known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide (N2O) is a powerful greenhouse gas, and bringing its release under control will need the world to make very serious changes. That’s what Eric Davidson, executive director at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, has found by looking at likely future N2O emissions.

Improvements in farming, industry and transportation could help reduce levels of the gas from what they might become. So too could the hard-to-swallow suggestion for many that people in the world’s richest countries halve the amount of meat they eat. But to meet the hardest target scenario to be used in an important climate report scientists are working on, we need to do all of these, Eric says. “Mitigating N2O emissions will be a huge challenge, and I’ve outlined the scope of the magnitude of change necessary,” he told Simple Climate. “They are not outside the realm of possibility, although they will be very challenging.”

In 2008, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agreed it would produce its fifth assessment report looking at global warming in detail by October 2014. To try and predict what will happen in the future, the scientists involved have drawn up four “representative concentration pathway” (RCP) scenarios that humanity could follow. These are based on a range of values for how much the atmosphere would be heating up in 2100. But there has been little work so far to see what will need to happen to reach the greenhouse gas levels these scenarios imply. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate controls must cover gases other than CO2

Agriculture is one of the main sources for the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) which results from the use of fertilisers. Credit: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Agriculture is one of the main sources for the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) which results from the use of fertilisers. Credit: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Cutting emissions of other greenhouse gases would slam the brakes on short-term climate change faster than controlling CO2 alone. But rather than offering an easy way out, warns Jim Butler, director of the Global Monitoring Division at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they present both an opportunity and a challenge. “Addressing them can help us see earlier results than we would see with CO2, which poses a problem today but a much bigger one in the future,” he told Simple Climate. “CO2 must be addressed, but ignoring these other gases too could take us to places where we don’t want to go.”

Butler’s division has tracked the levels of different gases in the atmosphere for decades. Among them he says, CO2 rightfully gains most attention. That’s because it traps so much of the sun’s energy, it currently accounts for almost two-thirds of the warming power known as “climate forcing”. “It is responsible for well over 80 per cent of the increase in climate forcing from long-lived gases each year,” Butler said. “It is also very long lived, with around one-fifth of what is emitted hanging around for at least 1,000 years.” Yet as burning oil, natural gas and coal, which produces CO2, propels modern life, cutting the amount we use enough will take some time. “In the meantime there are other gases that could and probably should receive attention,” Butler underlined.

Stephen Montzka of NOAA, along with colleagues Butler and Ed Dlugokencky, looked at exactly how these gases have been affecting climate in top scientific journal Nature this week. Monitoring and evaluating these gases helps show how humans are affecting their levels in the atmosphere. It also serves as a check on the results of claimed emissions. Unfortunately, the amount countries say they produce and levels recorded at observatories across the world disagree. However, Butler noted that no approach is perfect, and that at least comparing the two gave them some idea how far out they were. “The beauty of comparing the two is that each relies on completely different measurements, procedures and assumptions,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »

Effluent entering streams also soils the atmosphere

The Corralles drainage ditch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one of 72 sites used to study nitrous oxide emissions from rivers and streams. Credit: Chelsea Crenshaw

The Corralles drainage ditch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one of 72 sites used to study nitrous oxide emissions from rivers and streams. Credit: Chelsea Crenshaw

Across the world, humans are causing rivers and streams to release the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide at levels three times higher than used in climate change predictions. Known as laughing gas when used as an anaesthetic, nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas over 300 times more powerful than CO2 on a per-molecule basis. How much of this gas comes from streams and rivers wasn’t previously well known, and scenarios predicting future climate change were based on estimates. Now, writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on Monday, a large team of US scientists has filled this knowledge gap.

Humans cause chemicals with high nitrogen contents from sources like fertilizers and sewage to enter water bodies as dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN). Microbes help break the DIN down, first by converting it into nitrates, and then converting these nitrate chemicals into nitrous oxide and nitrogen gas in a process called denitrification. Only a tiny amount of nitrous oxide is produced during denitrification in comparison to nitrogen gas. Previously, climate change models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assumed that just 1 part of nitrous oxide is produced from 400 parts of DIN on average worldwide. Read the rest of this entry »

CO2 dominates Earth’s climate, NASA reveals

A new atmosphere-ocean climate modeling study shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature of Earth. Credit: NASA GISS/ Lilly Del Valle

A new atmosphere-ocean climate modeling study shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature of Earth. Credit: NASA GISS/ Lilly Del Valle

Almost 200 years after the greenhouse effect was discovered, and 150 years after its experimental proof, NASA scientists have finally demonstrated that CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas. That’s despite the fact that it only accounts for around one-fifth of the Earth’s greenhouse effect, whereas water vapour accounts for about half, and clouds – water in its solid or liquid forms – contribute a quarter.

“It often is stated that water vapour is the chief greenhouse gas (GHG) in the atmosphere,” write NASA’s Andrew Lacis, Gavin Schmidt, David Rind and Reto Ruedy in top journal Science on Thursday. “This would imply that changes in atmospheric CO2 are not important influences on the natural greenhouse capacity of Earth, and that the continuing increase in CO2 due to human activity is therefore not relevant to climate change. This misunderstanding is resolved through simple examination of the terrestrial greenhouse.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Cutting emissions, teacup by teacup

Heavily CO2 emitting coal-fired power stations like these are likely to supply the electricity to use to boil your kettle. And like your kettle, those power stations produce steam, which are the clouds shown here, not CO2 or smoke. Credit: Imperial College.

Heavily CO2 emitting coal-fired power stations like these are likely to supply the electricity to boil your kettle. And like your kettle, those power stations produce steam, which are the clouds shown here, not CO2 or smoke. Credit: Imperial College.

Your kettle and the milk you put in your hot drink are actually both powerful weapons with which to slash greenhouse gas emissions, research has underlined this week. For example, the energy the kettle uses could produce up to 60% more greenhouse gas emissions than governments have been assuming, claims Imperial College’s Adam Hawkes. “This means any reduction we make in our electricity use could have a bigger impact on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power stations than previously thought,” Hawkes explained. “However, this also acts in reverse: a small increase in the amount of electricity we use could mean a larger increase in emissions than we previously thought, so we need to make sure we do everything we can to reduce our electricity use.”

Hawkes studied emissions in the UK from 2002 to 2009, where the government estimates that CO2 emissions are 0.43 kilograms per kilowatt hour. That figure comes from averaging the amount of emissions produced by each different type of power source, a method commonly adopted across the world. However this ignores the fact that in the UK sudden changes in electricity demand are mainly met by coal-fired power stations, which produce lots of CO2. “A change in demand does not act upon all elements of the electricity system proportionally,” Hawkes wrote in a paper published in the journal Energy Policy last Tuesday. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Bloomin’ Early

Recent trends in flowering dates in the UK. Credit: The UK Phenology Network

Recent trends in flowering dates in the UK. Credit: The UK Phenology Network

UK flowers have bloomed earlier over the past 25 years than any other period since 1760, threatening pollinating insects and other creatures depending on them for food. An international team including researchers from Cambridge University and the UK’s Woodland Trust found that overall they flowered 2.2 days earlier than in 1910-1934, the previous earliest-blooming 25-year period. The team, led by Tatsuya Amano of Cambridge and Japan’s National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, also found that the current period’s flowering is 12.7 days earlier than the latest-blooming period, 1835–1859.

“There is a clear advance in the time of first flowering in recent decades,” Amano and colleagues write in a paper published online in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B on Wednesday. The timing changes could cause insects to miss out on their usual pollen supplies, in turn affecting birds for which insects and flowers are food sources. “This situation is critical,” Amano and colleagues write, “possibly leading to an increase in extinction risks.”

Their results show that flowering advances 5 days per 1ºC rise in temperature, matching results published elsewhere. They note that this kind of long-term perspective on the effects of global warming is unusual, which can be a problem. “Conclusions about the impact of climate change based on short-term observations can be misleading,” they write. “The 250-year index developed in this study should provide an important context for investigating ongoing responses to climate change.” Read the rest of this entry »

For the love of science, not money

More walrus cubs being separated from their mothers are one effect mentioned by Louis Cotispodi as showing the effect that climate change is having in the Arctic (Photo by Phil Alatalo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Louis Codispoti mentions walrus cubs being separated from their mothers as one effect that climate change is having in the Arctic (Photo by Phil Alatalo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“I have had three colleagues killed while conducting research, so I take umbrage when hard-working, relatively under-paid, scientists are accused by the robber-barons and political hacks of hyping climate change for money.” So says Louis Codispoti, a scientist researching chemical processes happening in the ocean at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory. At nearly 70, Codispoti is retiring to ease budget pressures at his university, but retains the title of professor and is beginning to pay for his own research.

Yet even without extensive funds, on March 12 Codispoti’s insights into how gas emissions from the ocean can add to global warming were published in the prestigious journal Science. Codispoti’s understanding of how the sea’s emissions of one particular gas – nitrous oxide, an especially dangerous greenhouse gas – might increase in relation to human activity has developed over 25 years. In that time, he’s seen researchers build the case for people causing climate change, and believes that the conclusions are backed up by way the world has changed in recent decades. Read the rest of this entry »