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

Biodiversity Hangs in the Energy Balance

Jo Mulongoy CBDThe newly elected president of the Maldives wants to build a contingency fund to buy land elsewhere so that the island country can literally move to higher ground to escape rising sea levels. But what of the rest of the island’s biodiversity? According to Jo Mulongoy, chief scientist for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s secretariat in Montreal, the island ecosystems will never be reconstructed if they’re swamped – powerful motivation for capping greenhouse gas emissions and blunting climate change.

Overall, however, Mulongoy is more hopeful. Partly because governments are moving to act on biodiversity (says the scientific diplomat). But also because the power of information technology is informing smarter decision making and thus making it easier to do the right thing and preserve biodiversity (at least on higher ground).

The Congolese microbiologist needs to look no further than his homeland, where satellite imagery is helping the government protect its equatorial forests from over-harvesting by refugees displaced by years of civil war.

For more, in his own words, see my Q&A with Mulongoy that posted to Earthzine on Friday.

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Straight Talk on Earth-Watching from IPCC Pioneer Jerry Mahlman

As an energy writer I am often frustrated that the low hanging fruit of energy innovations — such as carbon capture and storage — are not being seized, or at least not at the pace that the science suggests is needed to avert major climate impacts in my lifetime. Despite the seeming flood of climate science being reported by the media these days, climate scientists feel a similar frustration that they are not being given the tools they need to really flesh out the climate picture and nail down the myriad uncertainties in climate models. I ran smack into this frustration interviewing Jerry Mahlman, a senior climatologist who created one of the first global climate models and helped to bring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to life.

In my Q&A with Mahlman, which ran today on Earthzine, he decried the sorry state of the Earth observing systems needed to track climate change. As Mahlman, a climate modeler, puts it, “The world must think that we climate modelers are essentially infallible simply because nobody seems to be interested in checking us out by looking at an appropriate and proper dataset. We don’t think of ourselves as infallible but what we’re getting is NASA and NOAA providing pretty seriously inept observational systems.”

The National Academy of Sciences agrees with Mahlman. The scientific body, usually circumspect in its advice to Congress, issued a report last year warning that the U.S. Earth observation satellite programs are “in disarray.”

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Carbon Capture Deserves Our Support

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the idea that CO2 can be collected from smokestacks and stowed away underground — is one of the hottest flashpoints in the politics of climate change. Many environmentalists fought unsuccessfully to strip out CCS incentives from the energy bill signed into law by President Bush this month, arguing that CCS is at best a distraction from a more fundamental shift toward renewable energy sources — if it works at all to keep any CO2 out of the atmosphere. (This may have escaped your notice because the battle over the bill ranged from a historic boost to U.S. fuel efficiency standards –which passed– to a renewable energy mandate stripped out at the last minute.)

I wade into the CCS debate this month in an op-ed for the Earth-observation portal Earthzine arguing that CCS deserves our support. My essay, a response to an Earthzine editorial that knocked CCS, looks back forty years to show that CCS is closer to proven than its critics allow. As for the economics of CCS, I argue that the dirt-cheap cost of coal-fired power provides plenty of room for the extra costs associated with capturing and sequestering CO2.

What is needed for CCS to take off is a way of monetizing the value of carbon capture. The latest energy legislation begins that process, extending tax credits for renewable energy to that produced from coal power plants practising CCS. What’s ultimately needed for both CCS and renewables to become the new normal are energy taxes or carbon trading to put a price on every CO2 molecule released into Earth’s atmosphere.

For another look at how real CCS is today and how nascent carbon markets are suffering out the wait for carbon pricing see “Carbon Capture Moves Ahead”, my story for Technology Review on the efforts of leading U.S. carbon offsets marketer Blue Source to generate and sell carbon credits from CCS projects. The bottom line: It’s a lot harder to innovate when emitting carbon costs $2/ton in the U.S., compared to roughly $30 in Europe.

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Earthzine: Widening the scope

Time to introduce to another web portal launched this month, this one called Earthzine. It’s a webzine created by dedicated volunteers involved in Earth observation offering fresh perspective on the state of the planet. Fostering Earth observation & global awareness

My contribution to the launch is an interview with Rob Adam, who emerged from political incarceration during Apartheid to help lead South Africa’s scientific and technological renaissance. I spoke to Adam primarily about his role in GEO, an international collaboration to foster global sharing of oceanic, terrestrial and satellite-based Earth observations. Among other things, GEO could be a critical step towards better modeling of climate change.

Adam made two noteworthy observations on the energy challenge. One was the fact that coal has lost some of its shine even in South Africa, which needs energy to meet its development goals. Some of the many new coal-fired power projects in the offing there are being converted to nuclear projects (which he oversees as CEO of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation). Adam explains that South Africa wants to pull its weight in the fight against climate change, but also that its leadership recognized that at some point in the future even this developing nation would have to pay the full price of coal — including its environmental costs. The net result, says Adam, is “a profound effect on the thinking on energy production and energy generation in South Africa.”

More profound to me was another comment by Adam, this time on the value of better modeling of weather and climate for renewable energy. Why? Because most renewable energy, as he points out, depends on the weather. How do you project where to put a wind farm or how much energy a solar park will produce if historic patterns of wind flow and cloud cover no longer hold? “The biggest challenge for renewables,” says Adam, “is climate change.”

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