A Surprise Hero Taking on Global Warming

This week’s climate story brings us to Central Africa. Imagine walking through a dense rainforest. Suddenly you hear a cracking noise and between the tree trunks you detect movement. And then, from the protection of the trees, a majestic forest elephant emerges.

One of the natural ways to capture greenhouse gases and avoid more global warming are trees. Trees capture and store carbon in their trunks, branches and leaves, but also in their vast network of roots. Not all trees are equal when it comes to carbon capture. Big, mature trees in primary forests are able to capture the most amount.

Central Africa has the second biggest rainforest in the world. How can we protect it? And how can we regrow forests we have lost? Turns out, we have a superhero who specializes on this job: The African forest elephant. This amazing animal thins out forests, optimizing light and water supply for trees to grow bigger and stronger.

This week’s climate story features an IMF article by Ralph Chami, Connel Fullenkamp, Thomas Cosimano and Fabio Berzaghi. They describe how elephant activities increase carbon storage, what benefits they bring, and what value African forest elephants have. This is how it works:

While foraging for food they thin out the forest, creating a healthy forest environment. One forest elephant can stimulate a net increase in carbon capture of 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per square kilometer. That’s an equivalent of nearly 2000 passenger cars driven for a year.

What I like most about this article is that it connects environmental systems with a monetary value. The authors calculate the carbon value of a single forest elephant as $1.75 million.

Unfortunately, these elephants are fighting an existential threat, with poaching and deforestation pushing them to extinction.

So how does a monetary value help with protecting and increasing the forest elephant population? One example is a UN program that swaps debt for nature. Lenders agree to reduce a developing economy’s debt and in exchange the developing country protects specific natural resources. This sounds amazing! Let’s hope these programs gain traction soon and help protect and restore these vital ecosystems.

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.

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.

More Than Just a Snack – How Seaweed Tackles Climate Change

Imagine you are swimming in the ocean and something soft touches your leg. Startled you take a look and realize it was just some seaweed… You guessed it, this week’s climate story is about seaweed.

Did you know last Thursday was Seaweed Day? Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the United Nations Global Compact launched a seaweed manifesto. During the launch, short, inspiring talks from companies, non-profits, research institutions and UN agencies highlighted how important seaweed is.

Besides being a sustainable option for food and feed, packaging and even biofuels, seaweed could also play an important role in capturing greenhouse gases. One of the speakers at Seaweed Day was Jorunn Skjermo, a scientist at SINTEF Ocean in Norway. During her talk she covered three ways in which seaweed is beneficial to the climate.

The first way is replacing fossil-based products like fuel or plastics with seaweed-based fuels and plastic. By replacing fossil-based products with sustainable alternatives, a lot of greenhouse gas emissions can be avoided.

Her second point is about food. We need protein in our diet and meat production has a big carbon footprint. Vegetarian options such a soy protein have a much lower carbon footprint. Seaweed has by far the lowest carbon footprint. It grows in the ocean without the need of deforestation, watering, or fertilizing. Besides being an extremely sustainable food option, this superfood is packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

The third way seaweed is beneficial to the climate is by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is how it works:

On the left side you see how carbon dioxide gets absorbed by the ocean surface. In the water, seaweed transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen, just like land plants. On top of that, seaweed stores carbon dioxide in its biomass. Pictured on the right side is what happens when seaweed dies off. It sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it stays for hundreds of years, storing the carbon dioxide.

During her talk Jorunn showed a map of Norway with a small rectangle off the coast. The size of that rectangle was a 20.000 square kilometer area. A seaweed farm that size could offset Norway’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions.

A restored ocean and seaweed farming forests should be considered carbon sinks to mitigate climate change

How would that work in practice? I envision offshore seaweed farms that produce seaweed for food, feed, packaging or other uses. Seaweed forests clean the ocean and make the water less acidic. If a percentage of the seaweed is cut so it can sink, big amounts of carbon dioxide could be stored.

Seaweed day was packed with insightful talks, from selling seaweed snacks in Japan to blue bonds in Portugal. What I liked most about the seaweed manifesto is how teams from all over the world worked together. It lists milestones and success criteria for a successful seaweed industry. Let’s hope we can accelerate pilot projects and build more seaweed farms soon so we can restore ocean health and mitigate climate change.

How Drones Help Tackle Climate Change

A while ago I wrote about an amazing project that uses drones to re-grow mangrove trees in Myanmar. The world urgently needs a range of solutions to offset carbon emissions, and trees play a major role. How do trees tackle climate change? Trees capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it in biomass, roots and soil. According to the Trillion Tree Campaign, global reforestation binds at least a quarter of the annual man-made carbon dioxide emissions.

I love the mangrove project in Myanmar! At the same time I have been reading about our yearly tree losses in North America and Europe. That made me wonder: What are we doing to replant trees closer to home? That’s where the Canadian startup Flash Forest comes into play.

Imagine you are walking through a big, green, majestic forest, breathing in the cool, fresh air. Can you hear the sounds of birds and other forest animals? This week’s climate story brings us to a forest in Canada. Actually, for now, it’s land that recently burnt down in a wildfire. With Flash Forest’s help, hopefully, it will be a forest soon. Flash Forest is a reforestation company that uses drones to reforest areas. This is how it works:

First, the land is mapped to identify where and how to grow a mix of native trees. Then drones drop seed pods in the soil. After planting, the drones monitor the progress and replant spots if necessary.

The seed pods are also designed to store moisture, so the seedlings can survive even with months of drought

What I like most about Flash Forest is their focus on offsetting carbon emissions. Their motto is if we automate deforestation, we should automate re-forestation as well.

All over the world, small startups such as Flash Forest are addressing different solutions to tackle climate change. I hope that adding up all these small projects will make a big difference!