Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

Another Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis


Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have constructed an artificial leaf that captures sunlight and uses it to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to usable hydrocarbon fuel. Senior author on the study, Amin Salehi-Khojin assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, notes that “the new solar cell is not photovoltaic — it’s photosynthetic.” Using a combination of intricately engineered nano-membranes and unique combinations of catalytic molecules the artificial leaf takes in sunlight and CO2 and produces syngas or synthetic gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas) from the cathode, and free oxygen and hydrogen ions at the anode.

This is a remarkable breakthrough that holds real promise — not only producing energy in a sustainable way from renewable sources but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Read more about this pioneering work here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Two-Thirds From a Mere Ninety

Two-thirds is the overall proportion of man-made carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, since the dawn of the industrial age. Ninety is the number of companies responsible for the two-thirds.

The leader in global fossil fuel emissions is Chevron Texaco, which accounts for a staggering 3.5 percent (since 1750). Other leading emitters include Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Saudi Aramco, and Gazprom. See an interactive graphic of the top polluters — companies and nations — here.

From the Guardian:

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

The companies range from investor-owned firms – household names such as Chevron, Exxon and BP – to state-owned and government-run firms.

The analysis, which was welcomed by the former vice-president Al Gore as a “crucial step forward” found that the vast majority of the firms were in the business of producing oil, gas or coal, found the analysis, which has been published in the journal Climatic Change.

“There are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world,” climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado said. “But the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”

Half of the estimated emissions were produced just in the past 25 years – well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal and oil were causing dangerous climate change.

Many of the same companies are also sitting on substantial reserves of fossil fuel which – if they are burned – puts the world at even greater risk of dangerous climate change.

Climate change experts said the data set was the most ambitious effort so far to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.

The United Nations climate change panel, the IPCC, warned in September that at current rates the world stood within 30 years of exhausting its “carbon budget” – the amount of carbon dioxide it could emit without going into the danger zone above 2C warming. The former US vice-president and environmental champion, Al Gore, said the new carbon accounting could re-set the debate about allocating blame for the climate crisis.

Leaders meeting in Warsaw for the UN climate talks this week clashed repeatedly over which countries bore the burden for solving the climate crisis – historic emitters such as America or Europe or the rising economies of India and China.

Gore in his comments said the analysis underlined that it should not fall to governments alone to act on climate change.

“This study is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the climate crisis. The public and private sectors alike must do what is necessary to stop global warming,” Gore told the Guardian. “Those who are historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere have a clear obligation to be part of the solution.”

Between them, the 90 companies on the list of top emitters produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 to 2010, amounting to about 914 gigatonne CO2 emissions, according to the research. All but seven of the 90 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers.

The list of 90 companies included 50 investor-owned firms – mainly oil companies with widely recognised names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP , and Royal Dutch Shell and coal producers such as British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton.

Some 31 of the companies that made the list were state-owned companies such as Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil.

Nine were government run industries, producing mainly coal in countries such as China, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Poland, the host of this week’s talks.

Experts familiar with Heede’s research and the politics of climate change said they hoped the analysis could help break the deadlock in international climate talks.

“It seemed like maybe this could break the logjam,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard. “There are all kinds of countries that have produced a tremendous amount of historical emissions that we do not normally talk about. We do not normally talk about Mexico or Poland or Venezuela. So then it’s not just rich v poor, it is also producers v consumers, and resource rich v resource poor.”

Michael Mann, the climate scientist, said he hoped the list would bring greater scrutiny to oil and coal companies’ deployment of their remaining reserves. “What I think could be a game changer here is the potential for clearly fingerprinting the sources of those future emissions,” he said. “It increases the accountability for fossil fuel burning. You can’t burn fossil fuels without the rest of the world knowing about it.”

Others were less optimistic that a more comprehensive accounting of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions would make it easier to achieve the emissions reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

John Ashton, who served as UK’s chief climate change negotiator for six years, suggested that the findings reaffirmed the central role of fossil fuel producing entities in the economy.

“The challenge we face is to move in the space of not much more than a generation from a carbon-intensive energy system to a carbonneutral energy system. If we don’t do that we stand no chance of keeping climate change within the 2C threshold,” Ashton said.

“By highlighting the way in which a relatively small number of large companies are at the heart of the current carbon-intensive growth model, this report highlights that fundamental challenge.”

Meanwhile, Oreskes, who has written extensively about corporate-funded climate denial, noted that several of the top companies on the list had funded the climate denial movement.

“For me one of the most interesting things to think about was the overlap of large scale producers and the funding of disinformation campaigns, and how that has delayed action,” she said.

The data represents eight years of exhaustive research into carbon emissions over time, as well as the ownership history of the major emitters.

The companies’ operations spanned the globe, with company headquarters in 43 different countries. “These entities extract resources from every oil, natural gas and coal province in the world, and process the fuels into marketable products that are sold to consumers on every nation on Earth,” Heede writes in the paper.

The largest of the investor-owned companies were responsible for an outsized share of emissions. Nearly 30% of emissions were produced just by the top 20 companies, the research found.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Strip coal mine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

More CO2 is Good, Right?

Yesterday, May 10, 2013, scientists published new measures of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). For the first time in human history CO2 levels reached an average of 400 parts per million (ppm). This is particularly troubling since CO2 has long been known as the most potent heat trapping component of the atmosphere. The sobering milestone was recorded from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii — monitoring has been underway at the site since the mid-1950s.

This has many climate scientists re-doubling their efforts to warn of the consequences of climate change, which is believed to be driven by human activity and specifically the generation of atmospheric CO2 in ever increasing quantities. But not to be outdone, the venerable Wall Street Journal — seldom known for its well-reasoned scientific journalism — chimed in with an op-ed on the subject. According to the WSJ we have nothing to worry about because increased levels of CO2 are good for certain crops and the Earth had historically much higher levels of CO2 (though pre-humanity).

Ashutosh Jogalekar over at The Curious Wavefunction dissects the WSJ article line by line:

Since we were discussing the differences between climate change “skeptics” and “deniers” (or “denialists”, whatever you want to call them) the other day this piece is timely. The Wall Street Journal is not exactly known for reasoned discussion of climate change, but this Op-Ed piece may set a new standard even for its own naysayers and skeptics. It’s a piece by William Happer and Harrison Schmitt that’s so one-sided, sparse on detail, misleading and ultimately pointless that I am wondering if it’s a spoof.

Happer and Schmitt’s thesis can be summed up in one line: More CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing because it’s good for one particular type of crop plant. That’s basically it. No discussion of the downsides, not even a pretense of a balanced perspective. Unfortunately it’s not hard to classify their piece as a denialist article because it conforms to some of the classic features of denial; it’s entirely one sided, it’s very short on detail, it does a poor job even with the little details that it does present and it simply ignores the massive amount of research done on the topic. In short it’s grossly misleading.

First of all Happer and Schmitt simply dismiss any connection that might exist between CO2 levels and rising temperatures, in the process consigning a fair amount of basic physics and chemistry to the dustbin. There are no references and no actual discussion of why they don’t believe there’s a connection. That’s a shoddy start to put it mildly; you would expect a legitimate skeptic to start with some actual evidence and references. Most of the article after that consists of a discussion of the differences between so-called C3 plants (like rice) and C4 plants (like corn and sugarcane). This is standard stuff found in college biochemistry textbooks, nothing revealing here. But Happer and Schmitt leverage a fundamental difference between the two – the fact that C4 plants can utilize CO2 more efficiently than C3 plants under certain conditions – into an argument for increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

This of course completely ignores all the other potentially catastrophic effects that CO2 could have on agriculture, climate, biodiversity etc. You don’t even have to be a big believer in climate change to realize that focusing on only a single effect of a parameter on a complicated system is just bad science. Happer and Schmitt’s argument is akin to the argument that everyone should get themselves addicted to meth because one of meth’s effects is euphoria. So ramping up meth consumption will make everyone feel happier, right?

But even if you consider that extremely narrowly defined effect of CO2 on C3 and C4 plants, there’s still a problem. What’s interesting is that the argument has been countered by Matt Ridley in the pages of this very publication:

But it is not quite that simple. Surprisingly, the C4 strategy first became common in the repeated ice ages that began about four million years ago. This was because the ice ages were a very dry time in the tropics and carbon-dioxide levels were very low—about half today’s levels. C4 plants are better at scavenging carbon dioxide (the source of carbon for sugars) from the air and waste much less water doing so. In each glacial cold spell, forests gave way to seasonal grasslands on a huge scale. Only about 4% of plant species use C4, but nearly half of all grasses do, and grasses are among the newest kids on the ecological block.

So whereas rising temperatures benefit C4, rising carbon-dioxide levels do not. In fact, C3 plants get a greater boost from high carbon dioxide levels than C4. Nearly 500 separate experiments confirm that if carbon-dioxide levels roughly double from preindustrial levels, rice and wheat yields will be on average 36% and 33% higher, while corn yields will increase by only 24%.

So no, the situation is more subtle than the authors think. In fact I am surprised that, given that C4 plants actually do grow better at higher temperatures, Happer and Schmitt missed an opportunity for making the case for a warmer planet. In any case, there’s a big difference between improving yields of C4 plants under controlled greenhouse conditions and expecting these yields to improve without affecting other components of the ecosystem by doing a giant planetary experiment.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Sierra Club.