Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

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Rendering Greenhouse Gases Visible

Natural gas has no odor, but you can smell a leak thanks to the addition of an odorific mercaptam compound. Do carbon dioxide and other similarly odorless greenhouse gases (GHGs) require some analogous device to make their presence known and thus prompt evasive action? Yes, and for these ubiquitous gases, it will be a visual cue indicating the source and quantity of GHGs Continue reading

Applying ‘Trust, but verify’ to Climate Change Policy

Last year Swiss researchers demonstrated that European countries release more of the potent greenhouse gas trifluoromethane than they report. It was just the latest in a growing number of case studies showing that polluters and governments might be under-estimating their climate change impact, but it served to highlight the science and technology that can reveal such cheating Continue reading

Should Carbon Capture Capture Carbon Credits?

Click image to see IEA's Nobuo Tanaka zeroing in on CCS at Poznan

Click image to see IEA's Tanaka on CCS at Poznan

International climate change negotiators gathered in Poznan, Poland to draft a follow-on to the Kyoto protocol appear to have rejected the talks’ most controversial proposal: giving a big boost to carbon capture and storage (CCS), whereby carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants is trapped deep underground. The proposal was to award carbon credits to developing countries that installed CCS equipment — credits that they could then sell to industrialized nations or companies — but this morning opponents successfully tabled the proposal until next June, according to climate policy blog Climatico.

Countries pushing the credits-for-CCS proposal included Japan, Norway, Australia and Canada. All are major coal consumers eyeing CCS to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and/or oil and gas producers that could dual-purpose captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. Japan and Canada also figure among the nations furthest behind in meeting emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto protocol, and could be big buyers of CCS-generated carbon credits.

International Energy Agency executive director Nobuo Tanaka had also added his support (see video). Tanaka calls credits a means of accelerating development of capture and sequestration technologies, which the IEA sees as crucial to control emissions in countries such as China that will remain heavily dependent on coal for decades to come. “These technologies need all the financial help they can get,” says Tanaka.

But the idea remained red-hot among the climate activists swarming Poznan this week as it unites a controversial technology with an already controversial program. They see carbon sequestration as a potentially risky technology that could delay the transition from coal to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Meanwhile the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which manages the awarding of carbon credits to developing nations, attracts scorn from those who see carbon trading as a numbers game by which countries will avoid making real emissions cuts.

Many question whether emissions cuts certified for millions of dollars worth of credits under the CDM wouldn’t have occurred anyway — whether they offer ‘additionality’ in the UN lingo flowing in Poland this week.

The UN acknowledged possible problems after spot-checking a leading CDM certification firm and identifying a series of “non-conformities” in its auditing practices. The firm, DNV Certification AS, was suspended but insists it is addressing the concerns identified to regain its accreditation.

Poznan’s ministerial-level talks start tomorrow and should wrap up Friday. Unless they pop CCS back onto the agenda the credits proposal will be stalled until next June’s followup meeting in Bonn. That meeting is a prelude to the big game that will define global energy policy: final negotiations and, if all goes as planned, the signing of a ‘Kyoto II’ treaty in Copenhagen next December.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Editors Blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

CO2′s Bottom Line Just Keeps On Rising

Climate change skeptics obsess about the immense uncertainties that plague climate modeling. It’s not, however, all a matter of mysterious physics and chemistry. Human behavior — in this case our boundless capacity to ignore grave danger — poses the greatest challenge. No order of scientific progress nailing down the links that regulate Earth’s climate will enable certain projections of climate change over the next century because it is human behavior that controls the most powerful element: emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane.

Today scientists with the international Global Carbon Project are releasing an updated accounting of CO2 emissions, and they far exceed the best guesses of human behavior by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Emissions in 2007 were at the high end of’ those used for climate projections in the last [IPCC] report,” says Global Carbon Project participant Corinne Le Quéré, an environmental chemist at the University of East Anglia.

Emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement manufacturing — the largest sources of anthropogenic CO2 — continue to increase rapidly (see graph above); in 2007 they were now 38% higher than in 1990. In total, emissions drove up the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 2.2 parts per million last year, compared with 1.8 ppm in 2006. At the end of 2007 CO2 was at 383 ppm — the highest concentration during the last 650,000 years and probably during the last 20 million years according to the Global Carbon Project. 

At the same time the oceans, which in past acted as a buffer to absorb excess CO2, are saturating. Le Quéré, who coauthored a report last year in Science that the Antarctic Ocean had already saturated, calls it a dangerous combination: “If this trend continues and the natural sinks weaken, we are on track towards the highest projections of climate change.”

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IPCC Affirms the Economists: Action Needn’t Terminate Growth

We’ve all read plenty about the IPCC this year as the U.N.-organized scientific body rolled out the tomes that constitute its fourth assessment of climate change research. This weekend the IPCC delivered its summation, and the results are both disturbing and heartening.

Disturbing because it reaffirms that the climate is changing and we are the unwitting drivers. Heartening because its synthesis affirms economic research showing that action against climate change is affordable. The IPCC estimates that aggressive action to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases would, at worst, slim annual global GDP growth by 0.12%.

For a sharp précis of the report, Carbon-Nation recommends you to Joseph Romm on Climate Progress: “Absolute must-read report: IPCC says debate over, further delay fatal, action not costly”