How Do We Keep Track of Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

You guessed it: This week’s climate story leads us all the way to outer space. But let me back up…

Under the Paris Agreement most countries announced to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. Norway, for example, wants to reduce emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. Each country set their own specific target. But is each country on track? How do we know how much greenhouse gas emissions a country is emitting?

To calculate yearly emissions each country completes a complex inventory. It follows a bottom up approach of counting emissions for different sectors such as transportation, farming, industrial sites etc. for each region. The regions and sectors are then added up to understand national emissions. Unfortunately, there are many uncertainties and unknowns with this bottom up approach.

In recent years satellites have been developed to measure emissions from space. This top down approach has also many uncertainties. For example, one big challenge is to separate human made emissions from natural occurring emissions. So how do we best calculate a county’s yearly emissions? Both bottom up and top down approaches have pros and cons, and it looks like a combination is the way to get to the most accurate numbers.

OK, so let’s get back to outer space. Imagine a group of satellites circling the earth and measuring accurate real time emissions. This is what the European Space Agency is planning to do with its new Sentinel satellites. They are planning to launch the satellites in 2025 to map global carbon dioxide emissions. This is how it works:

Different spectrometers measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. The data is then processed to better understand emissions caused by human activities. The goal is to understand small scale regional emissions as well as overall emissions of big cities. This is how ESA puts it:

  • Detect emitting hot spots, such as megacities & power plants
  • Monitor hot spot emissions to assess emission changes
  • Assess emission changes against local reduction targets
  • Assess the national emissions and changes in 5-year time steps

Decarbonizing our economies is an enormous undertaking. To get there in time we need to get all the help we can get. Let’s hope the Sentinel sensors can help us reach and exceed our emission targets and motivate us to substantially reduce emissions.

How to Accelerate 100 x – Lessons Learned from China’s Coronavirus Response

This week’s climate story brings us to China. To be more specific, to the construction site for a new hospital in the city of Wuhan. Wuhan is the center of the coronavirus outbreak and the new hospital is being built to isolate and treat people with the virus. Imagine construction noise day and night. Cranes are moving and workers are assembling pieces. The remarkable thing: They are building the hospital in 10 days. Yes, you read correctly, 10 days.

How can that be? In the US it takes years to build a hospital. Building a hospital in 10 days is less then 1% of time compared to a three-year timeline. How can China build a hospital 100 times faster in this emergency situation? What lessons can we learn? And what can we apply to the climate change emergency?

Lesson 1: Scale what works. The plans for the hospital were copied from a similar hospital, built in 2003 during the SARS virus outbreak. The modular design has prefab rooms that have been constructed in factories and just need to be assembled onsite.

There are many climate solutions that work and exist today. According to project drawdown some of the most important solutions are installing wind turbines, restoring tropical forests, and building solar farms. These solutions are there today, we need to copy, apply, and scale them.

Lesson 2: Rethink what doesn’t work. Basically, we are building hospitals the same way we have been for hundreds of years. The new hospital is not a full-service facility, its designed for a single purpose: Isolating and treating people with the coronavirus. They looked at what is needed and removed everything not needed. The planners rethought how this hospital is being used and how it’s being built. With razor sharp focus, they delivered exactly what’s needed, 100 times faster.

Electric cars are a powerful climate solution. If charged by renewables, carbon dioxide emissions fall by 95 percent. Tesla is an example of a climate solution that re-examined, focused, and modernized a product. Their goal was to make an electric car that’s better than a gasoline powered car. By rethinking the dashboard and replacing screens, buttons and the entire conventional dashboard of a car with only one screen, they saved time and money during production while modernizing the way we interact with cars.

Lesson 3: Share a vision. One of the reasons the hospital is being built so quickly is that everybody is working together with the shared vision to contain the virus. Policy, regulations, and funding work towards the same goal. And thousands of workers are building the hospital around the clock in only 10 days.

For climate solutions, funding, policy and people need to be aligned. Right now, a lot of funding and policy works against climate solutions. Seaweed, for example, is a promising climate solution. It captures greenhouse gases and can be used to produce sustainable food, feed, fertilizer and packaging. Yet, it’s incredibly hard to get permissions to start a seaweed farm. Carlos Duarte, a leading seaweed scientist said in an interview with National Geographic it might be easier to obtain a license for an oil rig than it is for seaweed farming. We need to mobilize funding, policy and regulations, and the people working on it towards the same goal.

The new hospital in Wuhan is an incredible accomplishment. There are questions about the sustainability of the prefab rooms as well as its usage after the outbreak. But what we can learn from China is how to respond to an emergency and then apply these principles to the climate emergency.

What do I like most about these lessons in acceleration? They give me hope. Imagine we could respond to the climate emergency 100 times faster than we thought was possible. We need to look at what works and scale it. We need to look at what doesn’t work, and modernize it. And most importantly, we need to all work together. I hope we can respond to the climate emergency faster and better than we ever imagined!

How Do We Get to Zero Emission Ports?

I promised more updates about the inspiring talks at Blue Tech Week and Green Connections, so here is another one. Ingvar Mathisen, the CEO of the Port of Oslo, talked about his plans to become a carbon neutral port.

So, this week’s story brings us to a place far, far north. This time of the year it’s quite cold and dark with under 6 hours of daylight. Imagine snowy streets and a bustling port, with ferries, cruise and container ships, and terminals, beautifully decorated with Christmas lights.

What does the Port have to do with Climate Change? According to project drawdown, transportation produces 14% of all emissions. 80% of global trade is done by ship and while ships have far less emissions than planes or cars, they still emit a lot. Shipping produces 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions as well as other harmful air pollutants.

Ingvar told us about the city of Oslo’s ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2030. The Port of Oslo is following by planning to reduce emissions by 85% by 2030. His goal is to become emissions free in the long term. How does he plan to do this? Here is a breakdown of current emissions:

The left side shows that the Port of Oslo contributes 4% to city wide emissions. In the port, foreign and local ferries and container ships are the biggest emitters. On the right side are the Port of Oslo’s emissions by segment. The biggest chunks comes from in-port activity, for example electricity and heating for cruise ships while docked. Transitioning people and goods makes up for another big chunk of emissions, followed by land activities such as port facilities. In his talk, Ingvar highlighted how they plan to cut these emissions:

  • Shore power to meet the need for clean electricity when docked
  • Use of district heating to meet the need for steam when docked
  • Emissions free handling of goods and freights in the port
  • Electrification and battery hybrid solutions on entry to and exit from the port
  • Ships running on alternative fuels such as liquid biogas and biodiesel
  • Long term goal: Ships running on Hydrogen

I wrote about hydrogen powered cars before. Powering ships is interesting, too. While hydrogen would allow ships to produce their own zero emissions solutions on board, the technology is not ready for commercialization.

What I like most about Ingvar’s talk is how inspiring it is. If one port plans to decarbonize, ships might shy away and choose other ports instead. The good news is that ports like Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and Valencia have zero emission plans, too. Let’s hope this movement catches momentum so the entire transportation and shipping industry can cut emissions drastically.

Can Renewable Energy Be More Reliable Than Conventional Power Grids?

Imagine you are sitting in the dark and while you are reading your battery is running low. As I’m writing this, millions of Californians are affected by a power outage. The overland power lines used to transport power are prone to storm damage and can spark wildfires. Stormy weather has been forecasted and utility companies shut off power as a preventive measure to avoid wildfires.

Why do we still use overland power lines? What happened to the energy transformation? What happened to the idea of flexible microgrids?

Microgrids are a set of different renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, combined with energy storage and load management tools. They generate, store and distribute energy. Microgrids can run independently from the traditional power grid and are much more flexible in emergency situations.

Transitioning our electricity from fossil fuels to renewables is an important way to address climate change. According to project drawdown 40 percent of annual greenhouse gas emission come from the power sector. Shifting to renewable power sources will have a big impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions. So, where are we in the transition to renewable and flexible electricity and what’s this week’s good news?

This week’s story brings us to a warm and sunny place. Picture white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. This story is about the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas. Battered from recent hurricane Dorian, most of the power grid has been destroyed. In collaboration with the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute, the challenge is turned into an opportunity. They plan to install solar powered microgrids to transition the islands to renewable energy sources.

High electricity costs in the Caribbean, volatile global oil prices, and a reliance on imported diesel create a clear business case for clean energy.

Another benefit is the flexibility of microgrids. They are able to bounce back quickly after natural disasters.

What I like most about the planned project is that the Bahamas are becoming a worldwide showcase for solar micro grids. What can California learn from the Bahamas? By replacing fossil fuels with renewables, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Let’s hope they inspire many other countries to follow!

Can Our Streets Absorb Greenhouse Gases?

I wrote about driving to work before, wondering if we could cut emissions with sustainable fuels. Now I’m wondering – what about the roads we drive on?

From streets to buildings, concrete is the most widely used material in the world. Concrete is made from sand, crushed rocks, and water and is glued together with cement. Unfortunately, cement factories are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The emissions come from decarbonizing limestone and the very high temperatures needed to manufacture cement.

Manufacturing a single ton of cement requires the equivalent energy of burning four hundred pounds of coal

Paul Hawken

So, how can we design a more sustainable version of concrete? Imagine a high-tech skyline with remarkable towers and shopping centers. And heat, a lot of heat. This week we are covering an invention from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Kemal Celik, an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, researches how to make sustainable cement. He explores using by-products from other industries. Basically, making cement from recycled materials.

There are a lot of desalination plants in the United Arab Emirates to produce drinking water from seawater. A by-product of the desalination process is residual brine. Kemal figured out a way to make cement with the leftover brine. This is how it works:

His invention, reactive magnesium oxide cement, is produced at much lower temperatures than traditional cement. And the best thing? It actually absorbs carbon dioxide during the hardening process and long after it has been mixed into the concrete, making it carbon negative.

Roads and buildings made with it could actually absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the years and help combat climate change

Kemal Celik,

Another inspiring innovation. Let’s hope we can all drive on roads made from sustainable concrete sometime soon.

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