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.

Can Cactus Reduce Global Warming?

Recent posts from the BBC, Futurism and Fronteras about bioplastic made from cactus caught my eye. So let’s explore this!

How does bioplastic help to fight global warming? Plastic is made out of oil. From extracting the oil to manufacturing plastic, greenhouse gases are emitted. After we use plastic, it ends up in the environment or in landfills, where it degrades over hundreds of years, emitting greenhouse gases. Alternatively, plastic trash is burnt which also releases greenhouse gases. Besides that, it releases toxins, harms our oceans and enters our food chain. Project Drawdown estimates that by replacing half our plastic with bioplastic by 2050, 4.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions can be avoided.

So, how do we switch to bioplastic? Previously I wrote about amazing bioplastic solutions from teams all over the world. I covered Notpla’s seaweed pouches from London, and Cove’s PHA bottles from California. This week’s innovation comes from the hot deserts of Mexico.

Imagine a very, very bright green – that’s what cactus juice looks like. Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor from Guadalajara, developed a way to turn this green cactus juice into bioplastic. This is how it works:

She starts by harvesting and peeling cactus leaves. Then she juices and chills the cactus concentrate. After that, the concentrate is mixed with glycerin and wax and finally it is laminated. Sandra has produced bioplastic with different colors, shapes, and flexibility.

What I like most about her approach is that it’s made entirely from renewable resources. She has been researching cactus plastic for over 6 years and says more research needed. Let’s hope we can use her bioplastic one day soon!

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Can we Replace Plastic with Seaweed?

Let’s talk plastic again. Plastic is everywhere. Most of it is made from fossil fuels. Project drawdown estimates that 5-6 percent of our global oil production goes into plastic manufacturing. After we use it, only 9% gets recycled! The rest ends up in landfills or in the environment where it emits greenhouse gases. Some of our plastic trash gets shipped to other countries which emits even more greenhouse gases.

So, what if we could replace plastic with a natural material? Something that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of producing it? Something that doesn’t need water or fertilizer to grow? And something that, while it’s growing, cleans our oceans? You guessed it, I’m talking about seaweed.

The British company Skipping Rocks Lab is working on just that: Replacing plastic with seaweed. This Forbes article covers how these seaweed pouches reduced plastic waste during the London marathon a few weeks ago. Organizers replaced 200.000 water bottles with seaweed pouches.

Skipping Rocks Lab calls these pouches Ooho. They use brown seaweed and remove it’s color, odor, and taste to produce a thin, edible membrane. To produce Ooho they are just using seaweed, calcium and water. The seaweed and calcium react to form a membrane. Here is how it works.

Seaweed pouches mad out of seaweed, calcium and water
Seaweed pouches made out of seaweed, water and calcium

Skipping Rocks Lab has been experimenting with these pouches for a few years now. They are making pouches for drinks and little sachets for sauces and dressings. So instead of a little plastic bag, your ketchup could come in a seaweed package.

Brown seaweed is a sustainable and renewable material. While plastic takes 700 years to decompose, seaweed turns into soil in just 6 weeks.

 “Growing up to 1m per day, it doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans.”

What I love most about this is that Skipping Rocks Lab are working on improving the properties and making the packaging better and better. With the marathon they showed they can produce on a scale. Now they are working on nets and plastic wraps made out of seaweed. Imagine how a plastic free future might look like!

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Can I Drive to Work on Recycled Fuel?

How cool would it be if cars and airplanes could run on gas that has been made from carbon dioxide?

Part 1 of my story about Carbon Engineering covered how they capture carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into calcium carbonate pellets. This is part two, it covers how they turn the carbon dioxide that they extract into fuel that could be used by cars or airplanes.

Turning air to fuel
Turning Air to Fuel

So, here is how it works. Carbon dioxide from the air is turned into calcium carbonate pellets. These are heated up to reach a much more concentrated form of carbon dioxide. This reacts with hydrogen and energy and is turned into hydro carbon fuels, such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

This technology enables the production of synthetic transportation fuels using only atmospheric CO₂ and hydrogen split from water, and powered by clean electricity

Carbon Engineering designed a closed cycle of turning carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into concentrated carbon dioxide and then into fuel. By utilizing as little water as possible and renewable energy for the process, they are creating a green fuel.

This technology forms an important complement to electric vehicles in the quest to deliver carbon-neutral 21st century transportation.

The BBC has an interesting article about Carbon Engineering’s technology. It also covers concerns from environmentalists that carbon capture could be used as an excuse to prolong the fossil fuel era or prevent us from reducing emissions in the first place.

I think we need to work on reduction emissions as well as capturing carbon. I would love to rely on natural ways such as restoring forests and wetlands only, but it looks like that might not be enough. Carbon Engineering’s technology certainly looks promising.

What I like most about it is the idea of tuning the extracted carbon dioxide into a valuable product. If there is monetary incentive for carbon capture this technology might get adopted more broadly.

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Can Artificial Shells Reduce Carbon Dioxide?

The Canadian company Carbon Engineering takes carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it to calcium carbonate – that’s what shells are made of! They developed a scalable process for capturing carbon dioxide from the air, a technology called Direct Air Capture (DAC).

Imagine an industrial plant with big fans to suck in air. This air is then mixed with chemicals and turned into calcium carbonate pellets.

Turning air into calcium pellets
Turning air into calcium pellets

What stage are they at? That’s the interesting part. Carbon Engineering have been capturing air from a pilot plant since 2015. Now in their commercial validation phase, they received major backing from industry to scale this technology.

Our proven Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology can scale up to capture one million tons of CO₂ per year with each commercial facility. That quantity of CO₂ is equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average cars.

What I like most about Carbon Engineering is that they have been capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for several years now and are ready to scale. We need to use all the options we have reduce emissions and to remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and this definitely sounds like a good one.

While I personally like shells, they are turning it into something of more monetary value: Fuel. Stay tuned for part two of this post to read all about how Carbon Engineering creates clean fuels.