The Road to Net Zero: Detecting and Measuring Emissions

Grab your hat and mittens, it’s going to be cold outside. Imagine going for a walk on a sunny winter day while your lungs fill with cold and crispy air. This week’s climate story brings us up north, to Canada.

We have been introducing many amazing organizations from around the world that develop solutions towards a low carbon future. Today we are highlighting the Montreal based startup GHGSat.

Countries, cities and organizations have been setting targets for a low carbon future. In order to meet these targets, we need to understand where and what type of emissions occur. Today we measure emissions through reporting, earth based sensors, and satellite based sensors. Back to our story of GHGSat in Montreal. While other satellites measure carbon dioxide emissions GHGSat develops satellites to detect methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas:

Over the course of a century, methane has 34 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.

https://drawdown.org/solutions/landfill-methane-capture

Some of the biggest sources of methane emissions are coal mining, gas and oil extraction, landfills, and livestock. To get to a low carbon future we need to avoid methane emissions. Where we can’t avoid them we need to capture them. To better understand operational emissions and accidental leaks GHGSat has developed high resolution mapping of methane emissions. This is how it works:

GHGSat detects and measures emissions from industrial sites across the globe. While the satellite orbits the earth spectrometers measure gas concentrations and provide high resolution heat maps of human caused emissions.

Their progress since launching their first satellite in 2016 has been amazing. The high resolution images are getting more and more detailed. Where they detected methane emissions from a coal mine before, they can now map emissions to individual vents.

What I like most is GHGSat’s bold vision to become the global reference for remote sensing of greenhouse gas emissions from any source in the world.

It is inspiring to see how startups all over the world tackle climate change. From drone startups to cultivating seaweed. GHGSat is another example of an amazingly dedicated group of people addressing climate change.

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 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.

What Do Solar Panels and TVs Have in Common?

Remember the scene in “Back to the Future” about TVs? Marty, traveling back in time from the 1980is to the 1950is, tells Stella they have two TVs at home. Stella answers: “Oh honey, he is teasing you. Nobody in the world has two television sets”.

This is how I felt after seeing a slide about solar adoption at the California Germany Bilateral Energy Conference. David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, gave an optimistic and inspiring keynote on clean energy in California.

He covered a range of clean energy highlights: Tesla’s Gigafactory developing the world’s largest factory for energy storage. Apple’s new solar roof, which is one of the biggest in the world and helps Apple being powered entirely by renewable energy. Another highlight is the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field with 22 geothermal power plants. It’s encouraging to hear about all these clean energy projects in California. What inspired me most from David’s talk was this slide:

Source: EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2004-2017, EIA Electric Power Monthly July 25, 2017

The plot shows a prediction for solar adoption from the US Energy Information Administration. The dotted line shows their estimation for US Solar photovoltaics generation and the solid line shows what actually happened.

What does solar adoption have to do with climate change? The power sector accounts for 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. By using energy from renewable sources such as solar we can cut emissions drastically.

Isn’t that amazing? Prediction of solar adoption is incredibly low in comparison to what actually happened over the last decade. What I like most about this graph is that it gives me hope we might be underrating other climate solutions as well. As we are getting cheaper and more efficient clean energy options every month, what’s next?

How Hydrogen Cars Help with Climate Change

Imagine a zero emissions car that only takes a few minutes to fuel up. That’s what fueling hydrogen cars is like. What are hydrogen cars? They are electric cars, and they generate the electricity they need to drive by mixing hydrogen fuel with oxygen. This is how it works:

Why are no emission cars important to fight climate change? Transportation produces 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions. According to project drawdown, if electric vehicle ownership rises to 16% by 2050, over 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be avoided.

Can you picture beautiful white and pink cherry tree blossoms? Today’s story brings us to Japan and its automotive manufacturer Toyota. They pioneered hybrid cars with the Prius model. Now the company is betting on hydrogen cars. Toyota’s 2015 Mirai model was one of the first ones sold commercially. Now they are releasing a new version:

The latest Mirai has a revamped fuel cell stack that can store more hydrogen.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/11/business/toyota-mirai-hydrogen-fuel-cell-car/index.html

That will bring up the car’s range from 312 miles (405 km) to over 400 miles (650km). Fueling hydrogen cars works like fueling conventional cars and takes about 3-5 minutes. Hydrogen fuel stations are still rare but they are expanding. Greentech Media writes how countries all over the world move towards a green hydrogen future.

How green is hydrogen fuel? The big plus is that it can be generated locally, without pipelines and transportation emissions. It can be made from natural gas and coal, but more importantly it can be made from renewable energy, industrial waste and even sewage. As with electric cars, we need to make sure the electricity or hydrogen fuels are coming from renewable sources.

Finally, a question you probably have in mind: Is it safe? Fuel cell makers and car makers are designing safe fueling stations and cars that are as safe as gasoline.

What I like most about hydrogen fuel cell technology is that it’s another innovative technology for low emission energy. Rather than competing, we need to bring all innovations and technologies together to address climate change. Toyota’s new Mirai will launch late 2020 in Japan, North America and Europe. Let’s hope it takes off!