Becoming more than an old gasbag: Climate chemistry on YouTube, cryogenic energy storage, and community renewable energy

All gas and bulls**t. That’s me – or so some of my critics think. And this time they’re right, although not in the way they think they are.

Over recent months I’ve been delighted to work with the enormously talented Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, on a couple of videos. They deal with just why greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere, a subject that has come up when I’m discussing climate with friends. It’s hard to understand how gases that are present in the atmosphere in such tiny amounts compared to oxygen and nitrogen can be so powerful. But it’s all to do with molecules absorbing light energy in a way that makes their atoms vibrate, which is also how substances get their colours.

I know this because it came up in my first year undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Southampton. My amazing lecturer, Martin Grossel, demonstrated the principles by standing on a stool with balloons in each hand, representing atoms. He then wiggled his arms to represent the vibrations in question. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t come across in writing. So when I bumped into Adam at the Association of British Science Writers’ annual award ceremony last year, I suggested he put something like this into some of his videos. He then used the opportunity to apply for some science communication funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having secured that cash, through the course of 2018 we’ve been working together on the script, and here are the final products:

These videos also show why carbon emissions are not the same as carbon dioxide emissions – the difference is two oxygen atoms – a common confusion that jangles my chemical sensibility. Apologies in advance if I ever annoyingly pull you up on this.

That’s the gas, but it’s definitely not the bulls**t. That comes in an article I recently had published on Physics World that talks about the exciting prospects for gases in energy storage. Cryogenically cooling and condensing gases – such as the air around us – when renewable energy is abundant is a potential means for storage. What’s more, you can use the cooling for refrigeration, and the liquid gases are portable.

But the bulls**t is what excites me the most. As our second video above shows, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and its emissions from farming – including from cows belching and pooing – are hard to reduce. So one of the companies I wrote about is looking to store the manure, collect the methane and cryogenically store it. Then,  farmers can burn it when energy is needed and feed electricity into the grid, displacing natural gas, for example. But like the other gases, the liquid methane is portable and could be used to run trucks that currently use diesel, and eliminate the horrible pollution that brings. Or it could be used to supply the many people in rural areas that – surprisingly to many urbanites – have no access to the gas grid.

It’s been months and months since I last posted here, but I hope that some of you have been following my climate writings elsewhere. I’ve used the time I used to put into blogging for lots of other things, including becoming a director of Exeter Community Energy this year, supporting renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate issue is more pressing than ever. I’ve valued how Simple Climate enabled me to see how true that is. But having learned more about science writing, I appreciate that those reading this are mostly going to be those who likewise care about the climate. You guys know this stuff is important already – and so I’ve mainly decided it’s time to stop faffing around with blog posts and go do something practical. If you feel the same way, seeking out your local community renewable energy group is one excellent way to make a difference.

Shrinking dairy’s carbon hoofprint

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Whenever I come across cows here in the southwest of the UK, usually placidly munching on a mouthful of grass, they always seem too lovable to be villains. But as we face growing twin challenges of feeding the world and fighting climate change, they’re increasingly getting a bad reputation.

Some scientists highlight reducing how much beef we eat, in particular, as an important step towards future sustainability. They say only about three or four parts in 100 of the energy in livestock feed becomes our food, while the rest is lost as manure, heat, digestive gases and slaughter by-products. Switching to more intensively farmed chicken or pork and plant-based food would be more efficient, the argument goes. It also gives a greater chance to trap carbon from waste material, which might otherwise become planet-warming greenhouse gases, as biochar that can help improve soil fertility.

A couple of years back I put this to Peter and Henri Greig who run my favourite local butchers, Pipers Farm. As they showed us round their farm Peter explained how their Red Ruby cattle can graze Devon moorland that can’t be used for crops, before moving on to pasture. While I still don’t eat a lot of beef for both environmental and health reasons, that seems a good reason for not demonising cows entirely. In fact, a paper in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science highlights previous research that found more grazing land exists, unusable for human food, than cropping land.

We can’t ignore what that promises for feeding the world in the future, but we can’t ignore cows’ greenhouse gas emissions either. However, rather than beef cattle, the new paper’s authors focussed on reducing levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming out of the digestive systems of dairy cattle. Joanne Knapp, a consultant who has researched nutrition in ruminant animals like cattle, told me her team’s interest comes in part thanks to its backers: Innovation Center for US Dairy.

Read the rest of this entry »

The climate challenges that my morning toast poses

Britain's wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms - but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Britain’s wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms – but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

It may seem that nothing could be simpler than toast, but next time I see a slice pop up I’ll also see an emblem of the world’s future. That’s thanks to a UK study exploring the problems surrounding growing enough wheat for flour and other foods as the world warms and has ever more people in it. The issue is especially tangled, Mirjam Röder and her University of Manchester teammates show, as adapting farming for the future will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, driving further warming. “Climate change and food security are two issues which can’t be decoupled,” Mirjam told me. “The same applies for mitigation and adaptation.”

Mirjam is part of the “Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system” project, led by Alice Bows-Larkin and backed by Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. One concern the project reflects is that without adaptation farming will probably be the industry worst hit by climate change, with worldwide productivity falling as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, farming also releases about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases we humans emit overall. “These are largely emissions other than CO2, such as nitrous oxide and methane, mainly occurring from natural processes,” Mirjam said. “They are much harder to reduce and control. Then of course global society is challenged by increasing global food demand. So we face a triad of challenges in the food system: we need to reduce emissions, while food demand is increasing and the sector is impacted by climate change.”

Alice and Mirjam’s team looked at wheat because it makes up almost a third of all cereals grown in the world. “Global wheat demand is projected to increase by about 30% by 2050,” Mirjam. “If we don’t find methods to reduce them, total emissions from producing more wheat will rise.” As well as gases released directly by bacteria and other soil microorganisms, emissions from wheat farming arise from the energy needed to produce nitrogen fertiliser. Whether growing more wheat or dealing with rising temperatures, farmers will need more fertiliser, driving more emissions and therefore further warming. 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 »

Scientists spotlight rock’s role in carbon capture success

Equipment for monitoring seismic activity being deployed in a borehole at the Weyburn CO2 storage site in Saskatchewan, Canada. Credit: University of Bristol

Equipment for monitoring seismic activity being deployed in a borehole at the Weyburn CO2 storage site in Saskatchewan, Canada. Credit: University of Bristol

Climate change is a problem that many would like to bury – and indeed ‘burying’ CO2 deep underground might be needed to get it under control. And injecting the greenhouse gas among the rocks below us on a large scale is a serious option, if the storage sites are chosen carefully. That’s according to a study of three sites where ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) has been done, published by University of Bristol’s James Verdon and his teammates this week. “Too often CCS is seen as a binary thing – it’ll either be brilliant or hopeless, depending on whether you are for or against,” James told me. “This study shows that every CCS site will be different – there won’t be a one size fits all solution.”

Scientists think it will be dangerous if global temperatures go more than 2°C above the pre-industrial average from 1850-1899. That’s recognised by governments in a non-binding climate change target in the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, where many also pledged actions to cut their CO2 emissions. But we continue to pump out ever more CO2, making the chances of sticking to the target through emission cuts alone ever slimmer.

CCS, which captures CO2 where lots would otherwise be released and then stores it where it can’t reach the air, is an alternative approach. Though the cost of the technology needed to do this has meant projects have been delayed and even abandoned, eight large-scale CCS projects are operational today. James has worked at two: Weyburn in Canada, and In Salah in Algeria. At a meeting of British CCS scientists he mentioned this to Andy Chadwick from the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, who had worked at the Sleipner CCS project in Norway. They realised that comparing the sites could help answer one of the biggest potential issues around CCS beyond cost: how rocks respond to CO2 injection. Read the rest of this entry »

Focus on uncertain climate cliff-edge invites disaster

Scott Barrett from the Earth Institute at Columbia University says existing climate negotiation strategies have failed. Credit: Earth Institute

Scott Barrett from the Earth Institute at Columbia University says existing climate negotiation strategies have failed. Credit: Earth Institute

Countries trying to agree climate deals based on avoiding dangerous ‘cliff-edge’ limits will not work. That’s according to Scott Barrett and Astrid Dannenberg from the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, who’ve modelled the negotiations in a simple game. They found that uncertainty about the threshold at which their actions hurt everyone made players ignore the deals they made almost every time.  “We found that if the threshold for catastrophic climate change were certain, Mother Nature would essentially enforce an agreement to avoid the threshold,” Scott told me. “The fear of falling off of a cliff disciplined everyone to do what was needed, collectively, to avoid falling off. When the threshold was uncertain, this effect collapsed. Uncertainty about the impact made no difference at all.” And with science unable to be completely certain where the limit is, Scott and Astrid think that how climate deals are put together must change.

Scott got the idea that knowing where the cliff-edge is important because of the two different ways climate can affect the world. The first is ‘gradual’, where small emissions add a little to greenhouse gas levels in the air and raise global temperatures slightly. The second is ‘abrupt and catastrophic’, where small emissions push part of the world’s climate over a limit into a new state. “The second kinds of change are more important to welfare,” he said. “The effects tend to be uniformly negative – think of 5 meters of sea level rise, or the possibility of warm temperatures releasing methane stored in tundra, causing a rapid rise in temperature. The effects also occur quickly, meaning that adaptation will be harder. For both reasons it seemed to me that countries would have a stronger reason to prevent this kind of climate change than the gradual kind.” Read the rest of this entry »

Thick ice decline could advance watery Arctic summers

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is vanishing the fastest, data studied by NASA scientist Joey Comiso and published last month have shown. “This is alarming since it is usually the thick component that would survive the long summer melt period,” Joey told Simple Climate. “Since the thick component is declining more rapidly, the Arctic summer ice cover is more vulnerable to further decline. Assuming that the surface temperature continues to warm up as it has in the last several decades, this makes it more likely that we will have very little or no sea ice cover in the summer sooner than we previously expected.” And when the Arctic is ice-free in summer, dramatic environmental changes could follow that would speed warming further and limit the supply of fish for food.

Having long studied Arctic sea ice cover, Joey previously showed that 2007’s record smallest summer area was around one quarter smaller than the previous minimum in 2005. That “has been regarded as the event that could trigger an irreversible change in the Arctic sea ice cover”, Joey wrote in this latest research paper in the Journal of Climate. But after that low the area of thickest ice that can survive the summer melts, known as perennial ice, recovered slightly before dipping again this winter.

Intrigued by that recovery, Joey wanted to understand it. He therefore turned to data collected by tools called microwave radiometers that have been flying over the Arctic on satellites since 1979. These can collect information on the ability of different objects to emit microwave energy, or their microwave emissivity. Salt content, or salinity, influences this emissivity. As sea ice is initially around one-third as saline as sea water, microwave emissivity can be used to tell one from the other. It can also separate multiyear ice, which has survived at least two summer melt seasons, from thinner second year ice that has only survived one summer. 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 »

Soot and methane cuts promise threefold benefits

Vehicles are a significant source of black carbon and other pollutants in many countries. Credit: Caramel/flickr

Vehicles are a significant source of black carbon and other pollutants in many countries. Credit: Caramel/flickr

Limiting methane and soot emissions would save lives and keep farming output high, as well as playing an important role in fighting global warming. That’s according to some 70 scientists who have reviewed the available research on these substances for the United Nations Environment Partnership (UNEP). Such cuts were also surprisingly feasible, with just 16 ways of limiting emissions providing about 90 percent of the possible climate benefit from a list of 2000 control measures.

“We estimate that adoption of the 16 control measures we considered would save about 2 million lives a year and save 50 million tons of crops a year,” said NASA’s Drew Shindell, who led the project. “For climate, putting control measures in place could eliminate about half the warming we’ll otherwise face over the next 40 years.” Read the rest of this entry »

Air-stilling temperatures create heat, wind power threats

Average observed sea surface temperature (black) and convection threshold (blue) rose together in the last 30 years. Credit: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Average observed sea surface temperature (black) and convection threshold (blue) rose together in the last 30 years. Credit: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

How air circulates around our planet is being affected by climate change in ways that will pose real challenges for humanity. That’s according to two studies highlighted this week, one looking at convection – the movement of air vertically through the atmosphere – and one at Earth’s surface winds. The first brings good news on how often hurricanes will happen, but more worrying news on the combination of temperature and humidity humans must endure. The second underlines that in order to get the most out of wind power, turbines must be installed before temperatures rise too greatly.

Hurricanes and tropical ocean thunderstorms are aspects of the atmospheric convection that tends to happen when the sea surface passes a certain temperature limit. Writing in Nature Geoscience on Sunday, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Nat Johnson and Shang-Ping Xie found that this threshold has been rising in parallel with the world’s average sea surface temperature. “The correspondence between the two time series is rather remarkable,” said UH Mānoa researcher Johnson. “The convective threshold and average sea surface temperatures are so closely linked because of their relation with temperatures in the atmosphere extending several miles above the surface.” Read the rest of this entry »