Can Carbon Farming Save Our Planet?

October 12th, 2018 - by admin

The Daily Beast, et al. – 2018-10-12 14:52:04

The PCC Report Says
We Have 12 Years To Stop Climate Change.
Can Bioenergy With Carbon Capture Save Us?

Tarpley Hitt / Daily Beast

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
has been hailed as our ‘savior.’
The only problem is that it doesn’t exist — yet

(October 10. 2018) — In an apocalyptic report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a United Nations agency focused on climate change — warned the world the planet has 12 years, or until 2030, to reverse global warming.

Without drastic change, the Earth is on track to see average temperatures rise by almost 5 degrees C by 2100. That’s far beyond the 2 degrees scientists consider the plausible goal to contain global warming.

Reaching that target requires significant carbon emission reductions to reach a net output of zero by 2030. And it’s not just that: We need a method to remove future greenhouse gases from the air, operating as a kind of air filter for the atmosphere.

Removing gas, however, requires “negative emissions,” a carbon removal strategy which doesn’t exist yet.

“There isn’t really a negative emissions technology that’s been shown to work at the scale we would need,” said climate scientist Drew Shindell, a professor at Duke University and one of the lead authors of the IPCC report.

The most straightforward way to get to net zero is to plant trees, or what scientists call “afforestation” (converting unused land into forests) and “reforestation” (returning land that was once deforested for farming or other purposes, back into forests).

But Shindell says this model can only take us so far.

“For something like afforestation there’s only a finite amount of land we can convert back to forest,” Shindell told The Daily Beast. “We still need a lot of that for agriculture, and the population is only going to increase. That’s why stuff like changing diet — eating less red meat — would affect land use.” Plus, when trees die, they release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they degrade, negating any positive effects.

Another proposal is to season the oceans with iron dust, creating algae blooms that soak up huge quantities of carbon dioxide and sink to the ocean floor when they die. Yet another idea is to spread rocks like basalt or a condensed wood called “biochar” into soil in order to increase storage of carbon.

And three startups globally, bankrolled by billionaires, are attempting “direct recapture,” where machines suck carbon from the air, much like plants do, and store it underground. Although direct capture has been shown to work on a small scale, it requires a lot of money to operate, and some of the research has stalled due to under-funding.

Can Carbon Farming Save our Planet?
Trump’s Wrong. We Can Still
Stop Apocalyptic Global Warming

Victoria Albert / The Daily Beast

“Their interpretation of their results
is totally backwards,” one scientist said. . . .
“We’re not doomed. But currently, we’re being really stupid.”

(October 5, 2018) — This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a 500-page environmental impact statement. Buried within the pages, it snuck in a well-known but horrifying climate prediction: At their current pace, global temperatures will rise seven degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

That prediction wasn’t used to advocate for more stringent climate policy. Instead, NHTSA used the figures to justify President Trump’s decision to freeze Obama-era efficiency standards at the model year 2020 levels through model year 2026.

But the projected seven-degree rise is not inevitable, experts say.

“What [the NHTSA draft’s] saying is ‘the best that’s going to happen is that no one’s ever going to do anything to fight global warming ever again,'” David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Daily Beast.

To Pettit, that’s “very unusual, and it’s crazy. I would say — if I were wearing my lawyer hat — it’s counterfactual. It’s not going to happen. A lot of countries, including China, and the big industrial companies, are taking steps to fight global warming.”

Obama era standards finalized in 2012 required automakers to almost double the fuel economy average of new vehicles, with the minimum standard rising from 35.5 miles per gallon in model year 2016 to at least 54.5 miles per gallon in model year 2025.

Under the Trump administration, minimum fuel efficiency will be frozen at around 37 miles per gallon in model year 2021, barely higher than Obama’s model year 2016 standard. By 2030, Trump’s proposed freeze would lead the United States to consume up to 644,000 barrels of oil each day, costing drivers anywhere between $193 to $236 billion through 2035.

NHTSA’s statement implies the seven degree projection means our climate is doomed no matter what we do, so there’s no use debating small fluctuations in fuel efficiency policy that wouldn’t make a difference.

Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, called that reasoning “totally inaccurate,” and “a really bizarre statement based on their own analysis.”

“[NHTSA’s] interpretation of their results is totally backwards,” she said, pointing out that NHTSA’s model could just as easily be used to show an alternate reality — if the world worked to cut global emissions of CO2 and methane in half in the next decade and maintained that reduction through the end of the century, global temperatures would rise only three degrees.

Ocko added that NHTSA’s model uses statistics to make an argument that’s extreme and deceptive.

“You have to start somewhere. You can’t all of a sudden slash emissions by 50 percent by changing something small for no cost. That’s not how it works,” she said.

She also expressed skepticism about NHTSA’s claim that avoiding severe global warming above even 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit would “require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

“To say that we don’t have the technology or it’s not economically feasible doesn’t make any sense to me,” Ocko said. “It actually can be very affordable and cost-effective to pursue these cleaner energy sources. And the technology exists, and we’ve been scaling [it] up.”

“It’s just false,” Pettit added. “There are economically sound ways of switching away from fossil fuels. In my view, it’s not even a question of engineering anymore, it’s a question of political will. Everybody knows how to do this, we just need to do it.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment. NHTSA stated that they “welcome comments on all aspects of the environmental analysis,” but did not immediately respond to further requests.

John Reilly, a co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change emphasized that the Trump administration is right about one thing: The US can’t do it alone.

“Any country acting by itself is not going to have that big of an impact. It really does take most of the world acting together,” Reilly told The Daily Beast.

“If we don’t do our part, and want to free ride on the rest of the world, I guess in principle we could do that. But if we start getting free riders, then other people decide to free ride and the whole thing falls apart.”

By NHTSA’s own admission, freezing fuel efficiency standards alone could lead to more than 16,000 missed work days and nearly 300 additional premature deaths each year by the middle of the century. That’s on top of the 1,400 additional premature deaths each year that the EPA predicted to occur as a result of Trump’s relaxed standards for coal power plants.

“We’re not doomed,” Pettit said. “But currently, we’re being really stupid.”

What if We Captured Carbon From the Air and Made Energy?
It’s cheap, it’s efficient, and it works

Erin Biba / Daily Beast

(July 2, 2018) — As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, scientists have been working to figure out a technology that can pull carbon out of the air and convert it into useful products.

But it’s not an easy task: Though CO2 levels are rapidly rising (and, as a result, heating the planet) carbon only makes up about .04 percent of the atmosphere. It’s thinly dispersed and hard to catch.

The good news: In the last several years, researchers have cracked the code of catching carbon, and a few companies have popped up to commercialize technology to literally pull carbon out of thin air.

One company, Carbon Engineering, has built a proof-of-concept plant just north of Vancouver in Squamish, British Columbia. Backed in part by Bill Gates, operations at the plant have shown that not only is direct air capture physically possible but it’s also cheap enough to make a successful business while helping to save the planet.

“There’s a lot of discussion of reducing emissions,” says Steve Oldham, the company’s CEO. “But imagine you’re in a parked car on a parking lot on a sunny day and you have the heat on full blast. The first thing you do is turn the heat off. That’s emission control. We absolutely should do that. But it’s still hot in the car and it’s still going to get hotter. You have to open the sunroof and wind down the windows.”

Similarly, Oldham reasons, “We have to reduce the existing impact of CO2 already in the atmosphere.”

Part of the way this might be done is by direct-air capture, or physically removing the CO2 from the air. But how do you do thi? Carbon Engineering had to invent their own technology. The task the company set themselves nine years ago when they launched was to create a system that would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They didn’t want it to use any consumables and they wanted to put it together with equipment that already existed.

So they borrowed technologies from other industries. From the cooling tower industry they took an air contactor, which is a plastic membrane coated with a proprietary liquid chemical they developed that absorbs about 75 percent of the CO2 that comes into contact with it. Large fans blow air at the membrane and, as the chemical flows down it, carbon is instantly absorbed on contact.

The liquid/carbon combination is then moved to a pellet reactor, a technology borrowed from the iron ore industry. The reactor creates another chemical reaction that solidifies the carbon into small pellets and the leftover liquid is recycled back into the air contactor. The pellets, which are one millimeter long, then go into a device which heats them up and turns them into a gas.

From here two things can happen. The first option is that gas can be pumped into a carbon sink — effectively buried back into the ground and removed from circulation in the atmosphere.

The second option is that gas can be combined with hydrogen to make a carbon-neutral gasoline. “We collect the CO2 from the air, we make fuel, you put it back in the atmosphere and we make more fuel. We create a circular usage,” says Oldham. Cars, he noted, are very difficult to make carbon neutral.

And transportation was responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions in 2016. “For everybody to get an electric car, that’s going to cost a lot of money. There’s going to be a period of turnover. But imagine if you make the fuel carbon neutral, you make any vehicle that uses it carbon neutral. And that will help with emission reduction.”

Oldham says that even though the technology works, the company can’t exist in isolation and make a difference. Their current business plan is to license the technology to anyone who wants to build a plant. That could be governments looking to sink carbon or gas companies looking to create carbon-neutral fuel. Admittedly, he says, the company has only seen interest on the fuel side — a lot of interest.

“There are carbon content regulations in multiple jurisdictions that incentivize lower carbon in the fuel. If you sell our fuel, to work with your existing engine it has to have the same properties as traditional fossil fuel. And our fuel does — but our CO2 is not new CO2. It’s yesterday’s CO2. When you emit it again we’ll collect it again,” he says.

And though governments have not shown interest yet, Oldham points out that virtually all climate models include direct air capture of carbon as a method to solve the problem of global warming. Even if governments didn’t buy the plants directly, instituting a carbon tax could provide incentive for carbon-releasing businesses to get into the direct air capture game.

“The coal industry is looking at how to reduce its carbon footprint. If they’re taxed on the carbon they produce, they’ll come and buy our plants because we’d be cheaper then paying those taxes,” he says. It’s just a numbers game. “The laws of economics will kick in. As long as we’re a lower price than the tax, people will buy our service. Carbon pricing regimes are starting in multiple countries worldwide.”

At the moment, however, the technology is in very fledgling stages. Other than Carbon Engineering’s single plant in Canada, there is at least one other company in Zurich, Switzerland, which has created their own technology. Their plant, the world’s first, opened in May of last year. It remains to be seen if anyone has the desire to scale the technology to a size that’s large enough to make a dent in climate change.

And it’s also important to note that even if this does scale up, it won’t be a enough to save the planet on its own. “We’re not a panacea,” Oldham says. When it comes to reaching the end goal of stopping global warming there are many options that are going to be necessary. Direct air capture, he says, is another tool in the toolkit. And we’re going to need as many as we can get.

Here’s One Way to Combat Climate Change: Suck Out Carbon Dioxide
Carbon capture was supposed to get rid
of CO2 from the atmosphere.
But a new method might be safer and better

Rosalie Chan / Dail Beast

(April 22, 2018) — Every minute, our atmosphere gets clogged with more particles of carbon dioxide being spewed from factories and cars and more; the concentration of CO2 is currently at 408 parts per million, and it’s projected to continue growing. It’s a problem that has vexed scientists, who know the more carbon dioxide that gets into the atmosphere, the more global warming.

And just preventing fossil fuel emissions — driving less and using less energy at home — may not be enough. Engineers are instead looking into being proactive and directly taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere using conventional carbon capture and storage (CCS), and the newer method of direct air capture (DAC).

“Let’s imagine we have a chemical processing facility, and over time chemicals spill in the ground,” said Christopher Jones, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Tech. “We remove the chemicals before we repurpose that site to build something else there. That’s exactly what direct air capture is. We can capture a large fraction of CO2 that we’ve emitted over hundreds of years.”

CCS is currently feasible and can remove emissions from fossil fuel powered plants — in other words, keeping more CO2 from going into the atmosphere. On the other hand, DAC can actually remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere.

In CCS, CO2 is captured from a nearby power plant’s emissions, where the concentration of CO2 is much higher. CCS facilities must be built next to fossil fuel powered plants to capture the plants’ CO2 emissions, and it just prevents fossil fuel emissions from growing.

Unlike CCS, which removes CO2 from a nearby power plant’s emissions, DAC directly takes CO2 from the air, even removing CO2 that was in the air hundreds of years ago. However, the technology for DAC is still in development.

In CCS, the CO2 is more concentrated, so it’s easier to remove it, similar to removing all the green M&M’s from a holiday bag. But in DAC, CO2 is being removed from the atmospheric air. The concentration of CO2 is much more dilute, similar to how there is a lower concentration of green M&M’s in a regular bag.

The technology for CCS is feasible today, but much of DAC technology is still in development. This is because removing CO2 from the atmosphere is more difficult, as the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is much lower than the concentration of CO2 from power plant emissions.

For example, the Petra Nova plant near Houston is already capturing CO2 using CCS methods. The technology for DAC will be very different due to CO2 concentration. Jones, who works with DAC company Global Thermostat, compares this to removing green M&M’s from a regular bag, vs. a holiday bag with red and green M&M’s.

“Even though the challenge is similar, you need a new approach and a new technology,” Jones said. “You can’t use technology for natural gas fired power plant and apply it to the air. The difference is big enough that the technology can’t be mapped to each other.”

Carbon Engineering, based in Canada, has been developing DAC technology since 2009, and it’s ready to hit the market now. The firm uses chemical processing techniques, capturing CO2 through a scrubber. The scrubber is similar to a cooling tower, and as atmospheric air passes through it, a regeneration process separates CO2 from the air.

In carbon capture methods, once CO2 is caught and purified, it can be used for commercial purposes. For example, Carbon Engineering is looking into using CO2 for fuel synthesis — combining CO2 and hydrogen to make molecules to power cars. This has a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels and can be used as a substitute. Other alternatives include feeding CO2 into a greenhouse, using it to make plastics and using it for carbonated drinks.

However, the most environmentally friendly way is to inject and store it underground. If a unit of carbon dioxide is stored underground, then that’s negative emission, since CO2 originally came from fossil fuels from beneath the Earth.

In the past, there have been accidental deaths caused by natural CO2 seeps, but the risk of this is lower, said Jennifer Wilcox, chemical and biological engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and more research needs to be conducted on this.

“In order for CO2 separation from air to be considered a negative emissions strategy, it needs to be put back underground, where it came from in the first place,” Wilcox said. “People get nervous about this. We need improved education and communication to the general public in addition to more demonstration-scale efforts, for instance, more monitoring, and more analysis so that people can feel good about this approach.”

However, carbon capture isn’t completely clean: It may release harmful chemicals from chemical processing, said Wilcox. Another is that separating CO2 from the air can take massive amounts of energy and water, so DAC companies must look into how to use heat efficiently.

At Carbon Engineering, CO2 is captured directly from the air, as well as the CO2 needed to generate the energy to do this, preventing more CO2 from being released. Another DAC company, Climeworks, uses geothermal energy to power their DAC systems.

Right now Carbon Engineering is in the final validation phase, which will take three to four years, before they can enter the mainstream market.

“We imagine individual facilities going to megaton scales — million tons of CO2 captured per year at individual facilities,” Geoff Holmes, who works in business development at Carbon Engineering, told The Daily Beast. “That’s capturing and purifying the quantity of emissions released by 250,000 cars […] If you ask yourself, which is more difficult, reducing 250,000 cars or building a facility? It’s probably harder to reduce 250,000 cars.”

Jones predicts that in the next five years, more companies will be launching large scale testing programs for DAC that will better help them evaluate what the economic and energy costs for operating direct air capture would be. Still, Jones says, right now there’s little focus on DAC methods from the government, and it needs more investment to continue developing.

DAC could potentially reverse the effects of climate change, but it’s not a band-aid, Rather, Wilcox says, it should be seen as a part of a whole portfolio of options (such as renewable energy sources, CCS and reducing waste) to solve the emissions problem.

“We have to be careful with this approach because it can tempt people to keep burning fossil fuels,” Wilcox said. “It can’t be seen as a silver bullet. It has to be one part of multiple options.”

Can Carbon Farming Reverse Climate Change?
Capturing the very gas that leads to
global warming could not only lead to tasty veggies
— it could potentially help cool a hotter world

Neel V. Patel / Daily Beast

(July 17, 2018) — What if the carbon dioxide that leads to global warming could be captured, stored, and used for farming?

It’s a radical idea that some scientists think could help mitigate the warming of the planet and limit the disturbances these gases could create on our global climate and natural systems.

To understand carbon farming, it’s important to understand carbon sequestration, where the goal is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or prevent its emission into the atmosphere after industrial production, and storing it away in such a matter than it can’t be used as a greenhouse gas.

There’s a lot of ways this could be accomplished, but the big takeaway is that carbon sequestration is a pretty audacious sort of strategy for combating climate change — and like most of audacious technologies, requires a lot of money and planning to really implement.

Few companies and governments around the world have been willing to pony up such resources.

Carbon farming is a more natural spin on carbon sequestration. “Carbon farming is a funny title,” says David Burton, a soil scientist and professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. “It’s really about implementing a series of conservation practices in our traditional agriculture system that enhances storing organic matter — i.e. storing carbon in the soil itself.”

Over one-third of Earth’s land is considered agricultural, which means there’s a giant potential for putting a dent into carbon dioxide emissions. Coincidentally, one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.

“We have to have carbon removal as part of our climate pathway,” says Torri Estrada, the executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI), a California nonprofit that advocates for carbon farming, with partners in 30 counties. “And agriculture and working lands have to be part of that solution.”

Those carbon farming practices are myriad — 36 different practices exist so far, according to Estrada — but they still allow us to produce food and fiber from our agriculture productions.

Still, carbon farming isn’t going to pop up overnight.

The first kind of carbon farming is soil management, to reduce soil disturbance. “One of the things that we do when we till or plow the soil is by distributing the soil, we make the carbon that’s already there more accessible to microorganisms,” Burton told The Daily Beast.

“That causes them to eat the carbon, and release carbon dioxide. Avoiding soil disturbance would prevent that organic matter from being decomposed to that same degree and cause it to get dumped out into the atmosphere.” Farming practices that are no-till, or at least reduced-tillage, could go a long way to disturb the soil less.

The other major category of carbon farming encompasses practices that increase the time in which plants are actively growing in the soil. This could include reforesting and revegetating lands that are no longer in use, which Estrada says probably possesses the biggest potential for carbon sequestration. This might also mean coming up with innovative strategies the turn agricultural lands into year-round spaces for crops.

“Carbon farming is a funny title.”
— David Burton, soil scientist and professor, Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada

“Oftentimes we use annual cropping systems like corn and soybeans where we plant the crop in the spring, grow it for a brief period of time, harvest it in the fall, and otherwise the soil is left there,” Burton said. Research suggests, however, using cover crops that can be planted after harvest, “so we have a longer period of active crop growth.”

Another approach is to turn away from annual cropping systems and move to perennial crop systems, where the plants grow from year to year, with harvests occurring every year. “By not having a period where the soil is just left there, the plants are still growing, the roots are still growing and exuding soil organic matter, and that just stores more carbon into the soil,” Burton said.

Initially, it might seem like carbon farming is really just a rewiring of older techniques and agricultural fundamentals, but there are emerging technologies and tools that are making carbon farming easier to implement.

Scientists are looking into ways into identifying and breeding crops — perhaps through genetic engineering — such that they have root systems that are more capable of creating organic soil matter, or can spend more longer times in the soil between seeding and harvest. No-till agriculture has become more popular in the ensuing decades, but newer technologies are making it easier to implement, such as direct-seed tools.

Estrada emphasizes that the great thing about carbon farming is that it’s malleable and adjustable to the farmer’s needs and preferences. “We’re not telling farmers there’s only this one thing you can do,” he says. “There are multiple lines of opportunity. Anybody can start from anywhere, and there’s a portfolio of practices that can make sense for them.”

Additionally, soil organic matter can basically help to future-proof agricultural lands and make farming even more sustainable and environmentally healthy in many other ways. More carbon in the soil can bolster the soil and make it more resistant to erosion. It fosters a more diverse microbial population in the soil and increases fertility in the soil, which in turn leads to better crops.

Burton is encouraged by what carbon farming can do in terms of climate change, but he’s particularly bullish about its effects on soil health, and providing environmental goods and services.

“I talk to farmers all the time and they get why this is a good thing. Their questions are more of, ‘How do I do it?'”
— Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI)

Even so, there’s quite a bit skepticism as to whether carbon farming can actually create a significant, worthwhile impact on greenhouse gas remediation if we can’t scale upward. “But it’s not because of farmers,” Estrada said. “I talk to farmers all the time and they get why this is a good thing. Their questions are more of, ‘How do I do it?'”

Unsurprisingly, the biggest obstacle to scaling upward is cost. “Ultimately, there’s no incentive for these farmers to implement these practices if the costs are still too high,” Estrada pointed out. “A lot of this is economic. The technologies and strategies have been around for a while, but the agricultural industry just has not incentivized any of these methods.”

The federal government, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), can cover up to 50 percent of the costs, with some state governments also contributing funding as well. Estrada and his team are pushing to find ways to push that reimbursement number closer to 75 percent.

Another solution that the CCI wants to see come to fruition is in seeing the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other parties actually providing farmers with personnel that can help farmers implement these practices and provide direct education on what works best.

That would be particularly useful in allowing agencies to track how much carbon is actually being built up in the soil and making a verifiable dent in climate change. “You actually need boots on the ground that can help support making these things a reality,” Estrada said.

But progress is being made, even if its slower than we might hope. Farmers have access to more tools and resources to help them take carbon farming from paper to soil, and increased alarms about climate change are causing producers — even conservative ones — to be more and more excited about making a difference.

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