The End of King Coal, Fuels From Plants and Carbon Capture

The Earth911 Reader collects and comments on useful news about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time and keep you informed about the trends in environmental issues.


EU Introduces Digital Earth Model to Support Climate Decisionmaking

Destination Earth and GreenData4All are two sides of a newly minted climate decision-support infrastructure introduced by the European Union. By tying its digital infrastructure and a digital model of the Earth’s environment to continuing efforts to support green alternatives to traditional industry and policy, the continent is enabling policymakers, businesses, and citizens to collaborate to create new solutions to living prosperously.

The EU aims to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Destination Earth is a computer-modeled “digital twin” of the Earth in which sustainability ideas can be tested. “The timing couldn’t be better,” write three European climate scientists in Nature. “Advances in high-performance computing have reached a point that now make it possible to model the Earth system with much greater physical and spatial fidelity.” In short, the digital twins become a proving ground for ideas. The GreenData4All project will make climate data available to scientists and others to help encourage the rapid development of new green technologies, industrial innovations, and realize the EU’s Green Deal legislation’s goals.

Scientists Crack the Problem Of Making Fuel From Plant Oils

Petroleum is the leftover elements of trees, plants, and animals. Science has not been able to find a way to make the fatty acids in growing plants into the raw material for fuels, plastics, and pharmaceuticals, until now. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., have discovered the mechanism to control fat production in plants. They have an internal thermostat that prevents them from producing useful oils. By manipulating four DNA segments, they made plants capable of making “specialty oils” that can replace petroleum in various products.

“This is a good example where a fundamental mechanistic understanding of biochemical regulation can be deployed to enable progress towards a viable, sustainable bioeconomy,” John Shanklin, the chair of Brookhaven Lab’s biology department, told Phys.org.

A 30-Year Transition to Renewable Energy and Net-Zero Economy Will Create Economic Growth

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) published an analysis of the potential cost and benefits of the transition to a green economy. They suggest a green investment is a key to reinventing the nation as a competitive, diverse and innovative world leader. The team looks carefully at the first 10 years of a 30-year project to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Besides making the U.S. economy more competitive, the renewables transition can eliminate pollution-related health issues while preventing runaway climate change. Download the 197-page report for free. It can serve as a handbook for thinking about your lifestyle, job prospects, and the public policy issues that will dominate the next decade.

EcoWatch summarizes the core reforms called for, including introducing a $40/ton carbon tax and generating 75% of U.S. energy from renewables by 2030. Anyone interested in economic growth should read the report, which clarifies that several million jobs will be created by the transition, far outweighing the cost of lost jobs.

The U.S. desperately needs an infrastructure upgrade. Most of the world has rebuilt its local infrastructure since the last major update to U.S. roads and bridges, the electric distribution grid, and all the underlying bureaucracies. We have an aging infrastructure and education system that support business-as-usual. It is critical to competing against a rising China.

A significant investment now, when interest rates are at a historic low, would drive invention by U.S. citizens, as well as the evolution of a 21st Century educational system. The NASEM study calls for a 300% increase in Department of Energy funding (from 2020’s $23.7 billion to about $70 billion to fund research and development). Similarly, aggressive investment to reach the Moon and win the Cold War drove our last major economic evolution. It’s time to make that investment in future generations instead of simply cashing in on the 19th and 20th Century technologies at the heart of our current economy.


Ocean Carbon Capture Strategies Are Taking Off

GreenBiz reports on a wide range of companies and projects to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere using ocean-centric strategies. The Earth’s oceans can capture and store CO2 naturally. Startup companies Running Tide and Planetary Hydrogen are investigating ways to transfer carbon into deep-sea regions. The water pressure can hold and store CO2 for a thousand years or more. One of the keystones is the conversion of CO2 into hydrogen, which can be used as fuel. But current green hydrogen technology costs up to three times as much as conventional hydrogen production, which also creates CO2 emissions.

Planetary Hydrogen’s system is carbon-negative; it captures 40 times the CO2 used to make its green hydrogen fuels. Writer Jim Giles also recounts how energy-hungry companies, particularly in the online commerce world, are investing in these startups to shift their carbon footprint towards net-zero. The oceans can store more carbon than forests. However, reforestation projects still get the most public attention and money (forest carbon storage projects attracted $160 million in funding during 2019). Kelp and plankton can serve as storage alternatives that outperform land-based carbon sequestration. In the long run, we need both land- and sea-based carbon storage.

Much Ado About ExxonMobil’s Low-Carbon Business Initiative

A long-time laggard in environmental progress, ExxonMobil announced it would invest approximately $3 billion by 2025 to launch a carbon capture and storage business. It will eventually provide the raw materials for low-emissions fuels. After spending more than $10 billion on carbon capture technology since the beginning of the century, ExxonMobil took a surprisingly long time to make this decision. But BP and Shell’s recent pivot to green technology has forced the oil giant’s hand.

OilChange International, an advocate of renewable energy, calls the plan “grossly insufficient.” They point out that it is not based on an announced carbon reduction goal for 2030 (the plan calls for about a 30% reduction in CO2 by 2025). The ExxonMobil plan also lacks goals that address any of OilChange’s 10 essential steps to oil firms must take to eliminate emissions in time to prevent 1.5ºC warming.

Environmental and Social Transparency Is Table Stakes for Fashion Companies

Digital tags and full-lifecycle tracking technology will give consumers insight into their clothing purchases’ carbon and social impact, Sustainable Brands reports. Clothing shoppers are more aware of the terrible conditions in which fashion’s production workers toil, along with the environmental consequences of traditional cotton growing and textiles manufacturing. They are asking more questions about where and how their couture is made.

“We have the technology to deliver end-to-end transparency and to support the reinvention of the fashion industry,” writes Tyler Chaffo, manager of global sustainability at Avery Dennison Intelligent Labels, a tracking technology maker. Now that it is possible to attach a tag and track an item and the materials from which it is made, it will be possible to interrogate a shirt or dress to learn how it impacted the people who made it and the planet. The technology will also arm governments to regulate the sources of clothing sold within its borders, making forced labor and lax pollution practices unprofitable.


Tucson Grinds Out a New Glass Recycling Strategy

Following the collapse of international markets for recyclable glass, many cities have discontinued curbside glass recycling. Tucson, Arizona, stopped accepting glass on February 1. Its $1.5 million-a-year glass recycling revenue became a $5 million annual loss after its waste management partner, Republic Services, could no longer sell glass overseas. Instead, Tucson ramped up its business glass collection and now accepts glass dropped off at its transfer stations. Glass accounted for about a quarter of the city’s recyclables by weight, but it is among the least profitable materials to process and reuse.

Resource Recycling reports that the city installed a glass crusher to use the ground, sand-like product in sandbags and construction projects. The project cut Tucson’s glass recycling costs by about 50%. It hopes the price of recycled glass will recover so it becomes economically feasible to reintroduce curbside glass collection. Ironically, there is a global glass shortage that, among other issues, is making COVID-19 vaccine distribution challenging. “There’s not enough [specialized glass] vials in the world,” AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told a medical industry conference recently.

COVID Set Composting Progress Back by Two Years

WasteDive reports that the U.S. Composting Council’s annual conference focused on the challenges and opportunities created by the pandemic. It is more difficult during the pandemic to compost food waste, yard waste, and other post-consumer waste safely. State and local governments recognize the urgency of delivering commercial composting services to consumers who value sustainable living. People are buying more compost than ever, using it in gardens as they focus more on their life at home. That enthusiasm has opened up new markets for the product of large-scale industrial composting.

But the pandemic also made composting more difficult. Industry consultant Matt Cotton told the conference that permitting processes have slowed. It could take two years to catch up to new composting facility demand. As in recycling, one of the great challenges for composting is preventing contamination — the presence of unrecyclable materials in food, yard, and other waste. Technology can help reduce contamination, but it is primarily a problem of educating people to send the right stuff to be composted. The benefits of making composting more successful are economical and environmental. With gardeners and farmers seeking more compost, all the pieces of the puzzle are in place for a robust recovery after COVID-19 is under control.

Nine States Debate Plastic Extended Producer Responsibility Laws

The idea that companies that make plastic and other unrecycled materials should be held accountable for their waste is taking off. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is the idea that a manufacturer should be responsible for their products’ full lifecycle, even when the material goes to the landfill. Nine states are considering EPR regulations for plastic packaging makers in a concerted push by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. “Pollution doesn’t know state boundaries,” caucus member Henry Stern, a California Democratic state representative said in a statement. “Maryland’s problem is also New Hampshire’s problem. Washington state is not separate from Oregon.”

The new rules would require the plastic packaging industry to allocate part of their revenue to recovery and recycling programs. These programs might involve a deposit program, which would create incentives for consumers to recycle. The revenue can be distributed within a state to support municipal and regional recycling infrastructure. It will lead to easier recycling for everyone, not to mention the creation of tens of thousands of good-paying, albeit dirty, jobs in each state.


The End of Coal Is In Sight But Needs a Policy Push

Coal-fired power and industrial facilities are making the switch to alternative fuels, S&P Global Market Intelligence reports. Yet, it may take more than a decade without concerted policies to discourage greenwashing by utilities. Although power plants are expected to abandon coal entirely by the early 2030s, the steel industry and some utilities plan to stay with the climate-damaging fuel. Even as the U.S. blend of power generation shifts to 55% renewables, with 0% coal-generation by 2035, coal will lurk in our economy if it is not actively discouraged. Workers must be retrained, coal communities supported as they transition to other industries, and a national clean energy standard should be established to complete the transition. With a common standard, consumers will better understand their renewable energy choices.

“America’s coal fleet is on the road to extinction,” Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told S&P. “The plants are old, expensive to maintain, and increasingly unable to compete with natural gas and renewables.”

The coal transition will likely get a jolt from Congress. A climate emergency bill that would call on President Biden to declare a national policy that speeds the transition to renewables is under debate, Grist reports. An emergency would activate a suite of presidential wartime powers supporting state-level investments in a green transition. Given the House and Senate’s narrow majorities, the bill will not likely reach the president’s desk. However, the debate can help raise national awareness of the urgency of responding to climate change.

Poor Greenhouse Gas Reporting Plagues U.S. Municipal Climate Planning

Without reliable data, cities cannot plan successfully to reduce their contribution to annual greenhouse gas emissions, The New York Times reports. Cities contribute as much as 75% of emissions each year. The measures used by municipalities typically underreport emissions by 18.3%, a study in Nature concluded. That error, “if extrapolated to all U.S. cities, exceeds California’s total emissions by 23.5%,” Kevin Gurney of Northern Arizona University and his co-authors write. They examined 48 cities’ self-reported CO2 emissions data. They found a wide range of errors, from Cleveland’s 90% under-statement of its greenhouse gas contribution to a 43% over-statement by Palo Alto, Calif. Even if the errors average out to only about 20%, that means the U.S. cannot collectively hit its Paris climate agreement goals.

2021 is a pivotal year for climate policy. The United Nations’ COVID-delayed COP21 conference, which will revise the Paris Accord goals to address shortfalls in CO2 reduction programs, will take place in November. Cities have become critical players in the debate. Nations have focused on power generation policies while transportation, heating and cooling of buildings, food production and distribution, and waste management are primarily municipal issues. Bloomberg NEF found that G20 nations are, on average, only meeting 47% of their policy goals. Much of the policy gap lies in poorly executed municipal emissions rules guided by insufficient data.

“Cities are struggling to pick up the garbage and fill potholes, much less keep detailed reports about their emissions,” Gurney told The New York Times. A national or global standard for assessing CO2 emissions can provide a common point of reference around which policy might be organized and measured. If cities get the tools, they will accelerate their transition to carbon-neutral alternatives to fossil fuels.

Uber and Lyft Are Not Helping, Reducing Public Transport Use and Increasing Gridlock

Research published in Nature Sustainability reports that Uber and Lyft have not reduced personal car ownership and contribute to more traffic gridlock. Following their appearance, public transportation use fell by 8.9%. “Despite the ideal of providing a sustainable mobility solution by promoting large-scale car sharing, our analysis suggests that TNCs [transportation network companies] have intensified urban transport challenges since their debut in the United States,” the multinational research team writes.

The “theoretical benefits” — or, more accurately, the spin provided by Uber and Lyft about their potential to relieve urban congestion — are unproven by real-world experience. Urban road congestion became 0.9% more intense and now persists 4.5% longer on average than before the introduction of on-demand ride-sharing.

Carbon Capture Technology Gains Ground and Presents Massive Challenges

GreenBiz‘s Heather Clancy explores the growing investment in direct air carbon capture technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon capture is a generational moonshot investment that could result in a rapid return — decades instead of centuries — to pre-industrial CO2 levels. Think of it as a global climate thermostat that can turn down global warming. The recent extension of tax credits for carbon removal projects, which allows companies to write off up to $50 per ton of CO2 sequestered, provides an attractive incentive to invest in carbon capture innovations. The industry could create as many as 300,000 jobs when it reaches large-scale, according to a 2020 Rhodium Group analysis.

Clancy warns that the direct-air-capture project is not a silver bullet that solves climate change. We agree that it must be a component of a net-zero economy that focuses on removing the excess CO2 emitted since the Industrial Revolution began. Conservative estimates are that carbon capture will begin to reverse global warming in 2070. Advocates for the technology say it can make significant reductions in CO2 levels by 2050.


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