How a Small Grain Can Make a Big Impact

This week’s climate story brings us to the green rice fields of Thailand. As in many other countries, rice is a staple food here. But did you know growing rice causes a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions?

Traditionally, rice is grown on flooded fields called rice paddies. These paddies create ideal conditions for bacteria that emit methane. Why is methane bad? Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

Today’s story shows how rice farmers in Thailand and all over the world tackle global warming. Reducing and interrupting the period of flooding reduces emissions. This method is called “alternate wetting and drying” and this is how it works:

Traditionally, rice fields are continuously flooded as you can see in the left picture. When irrigation is stopped, the water level slowly decreases, as shown in the center. On the right, the water level is about 15 cm below soil level, where the roots still get water. Once the water level gets lower, the fields gets flooded again and the process of alternate wetting and drying starts all over. This actually increases yields while farmers safe water and electricity to pump the water.

Let’s get back to Thailand. A project funded by the climate finance program NAMA Facility will outreach to 100,000 rice farming households to shift from conventional to low-emission farming. They are implementing best practices from the sustainable rice platform :

  • Alternate wetting and drying: Mid-season drainage alone reduces methane emissions by 35 to 70 percent.
  • Laser land leveling: Fields are leveled with the help of lasers to reduce water usage and increase grain yield and quality.
  • Site specific nutrient management: Farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer and apply it based on local conditions and only when needed.
  • Straw and stubble management: Instead of conventional burning, rice straw and stubble get removed from the field and used for other purposes or incorporated back into the soil.

In Thailand, rice farming has long traditions. The NAMA rice project works with the government and directly with rice farmers to change to new, sustainable farming methods. Here is a quote from Rampha Khamhaeng, a rice farmer from central Thailand:

To be honest, at first I didn’t buy it….Now I tried it and it works — it’s the best way

https://www.ft.com/content/8ff2b454-9390-11ea-899a-f62a20d54625

What I like most about this project is that it reduces emissions and the same time safes farmers money by using less water, fertilizer, and energy. This is another climate solution that is not only more sustainable, but also safes money. Let’s hope many more farmers all over the world are switching to sustainable rice growing practices soon!

How Whales Could Offset Global Warming

To stop global warming we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I have been writing about different ways to do this, from planting trees, restoring wetlands, to capturing carbon. Although I have been writing about the importance of seaweed, I haven’t looked at marine animals before. So here we go…

Imagine you are on a boat off the San Diego coast. The sun is shining, and you are looking over the calm water. Suddenly there is a splash and a huge whale comes out of the water and dives back in. What an incredible experience.

Turns out, besides being amazing animals, whales help to offset global warming. An article from the International Monetary Fund explains how they do this and what monetary value whales have.

Whales store carbon in their bodies and help phytoplankton growth. Wherever whales are, phytoplankton increases. What do these tiny microorganisms have to do with climate change? Let’s find out…

Basically, whales are natural fertilizers. They move from cold, nutrient rich water where they feed to nutrient poor water, such are surface waters, stimulating phytoplankton growth. They also migrate from cold, nutrient rich waters to warm waters for breeding and stimulate phytoplankton in the process.

Phytoplankton not only contribute at least 50 percent of all oxygen to our atmosphere, they do so by capturing about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, an estimated 40 percent of all COproduced

https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/12/natures-solution-to-climate-change-chami.htm

Before whaling there we 4-5 million whales, now there are only 1.3 million left. This is how whales could help tackle climate change:

Even a 1 percent increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees

https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/12/natures-solution-to-climate-change-chami.htm

Beside stimulating phytoplankton growth, whales themselves store massive amounts of carbon dioxide. When whales die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean where this carbon is stored for hundreds of years.

What I like most about the article is that they show the economic benefits of restoring whale populations. They value an average great whale at $2 million. Subsidizing whale’s greenhouse gas sequestration would be worth $13 per person a year.

Whales are helping to restore ocean health and capture massive amounts of greenhouse gases. What’s stopping us from helping whale populations to grow right now?

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.

Healthy, Delicious, and Climate-Positive

A few weeks ago I went to Blue Tech Week. The talks about sustainable ocean and water technologies were amazing. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming weeks. But today I’ll write about the lunch I had there.

While I was grabbing food at the buffet, I noticed that every dish had seaweed as an ingredient. The rice, the chicken, the salad, even the dessert. And it was delicious!

While eating, I chatted with Wenhao, who was sitting next to me. I asked him how he was connected to the conference and he answered: “Through the food”.  I was intrigued so he told me more: He has a farm in Hawaii and the sea asparagus in the salad was from his farm.

You guessed it: This week’s story brings us to Hawaii. Imagine lush forests with amazing waterfalls, beautiful beaches and crystal-clear water. This is where Wenhao’s company Olakai grows sea asparagus or sea beans. It has a crunchy, salty flavor and is a superfood packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In our case the sea asparagus was fresh in the salad, but it can also be blanched or pickled.

Wenhao told me about how his sustainable farm uses saltwater from the sea to grow seaweed and sea asparagus as well as fish. This is how it works:

Aquaponics provides the fish with feed and oxygen while the carbon dioxide and nutrients (fish poop and leftover feed) naturally fertilize the the seaweed and sea vegetables. It creates the perfect environment for organic farming. And the best thing: No water, fertilizer or pesticides are needed.

What does sustainable farming have to do with climate change? According to project drawdown, crop and livestock production is the source of about 1/8 of greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable farming practices reduce emissions from farming and ranching while also sequestering significant amounts of carbon.

What a fantastic way to grow sustainable food! Let’s hope sustainable aquaponic systems expand to other areas of the world. After that inspiring conversation I had to go back to the buffet and try some more…

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?