The Weekly Carboholic: OCO satellite lost, GOSAT gets "first light"

Posted on February 25, 2009

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On February 23, NASA’s newest satellite failed to reach orbit, crashing instead into the southern Pacific Ocean. This satellite, the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO), was supposed to monitor the emission and absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) for at least the next two years. This is a terrible loss for the scientists involved, and for climate science in general, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Luckily, all is not necessarily lost.

First, OCO is not the only new satellite that has a mission to monitor CO2. The GOSAT “Ibuki” satellite was launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA in January with instruments designed to monitor more than just CO2. In fact, the spectrometer on GOSAT is capable of monitoring the portions of the spectrum where CO2, Methane, water vapor, etc. absorb the strongest. It’s the absorption of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that is most directly responsible for increasing global temperatures. And GOSAT acquired “first light” (when the instruments are first turned on and operation is verified) on February 9.

Second, there’s a chance that the manufacturer of OCO, Orbital Sciences Corporation, has spare parts lying around for a second satellite. If so, then the construction of a second OCO satellite will take a couple of years and cost an additional $50-100 million or so (of the original satellite’s $280 million). This is a dramatic savings off the original price tag, and given the Obama administration’s stated focus on energy and climate disruption, a replacement satellite is probably within the realm of possibility.

ibuki-flThe GOSAT data is going to be publicly available, and so it will help to fill a huge hole in present climate science – detecting where all the excess CO2 is coming from and where it’s being absorbed. But the two satellites were designed to monitor different things and in different ways. Having data from two different satellites would have enabled scientists to compare notes and, theoretically, to better fill some of the holes in understanding where GHGs are coming from and how they’re cycling around the Earth. There was even a chance that GOSAT and OCO could, in combination, finally put to rest some of the many CO2-based arguments made by climate disruption skeptics and deniers or overturned climate disruption as a theory. GOSAT may still make these discoveries, but with half as many instruments, there’s a lower chance of long-term success. How much lower, however, is anyone’s guess.

Still, this could have been worse – both satellites could have failed to make orbit….

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Scientists suggest burying carbon with crop residues in the deep ocean

Earlier this month, the Christian Science Monitor ran a story about sequestering CO2 by dumping crop residues into the deep ocean. The idea caught my attention since the paper claimed (via the CSM) that the technique would be more efficient at sequestering carbon than soil sequestration or the conversion of those residues into ethanol. I’ve since had a chance to review the paper, and it’s very interesting – although not necessarily for the reasons that the authors might hope.

The authors compared the following different methods of sequestering CO2: sequestration of crop residue carbon in agricultural soils, sequestration in growing forests, fertilization of the ocean to promote algal growth, alkaline absorption and deep aquifer injection of liquid CO2, and burial of crop residues in the deep ocean. Strand and co-author Gregory Benford of the University of California-Irvine found that soil sequestration via standard agricultural practices would sequester only about 10% of residual carbon, that forest sequestration wasn’t permanent enough due to forest fires and the lower absorption of mature forests, that oceanic fertilization was expected to be very dangerous to the marine environment, and that direct removal and injection of CO2 into aquifers would take too long and cost too much. This left only the author’s “burial at sea” method.

However, the devil is in the details.

For example, there’s no indication in the paper that the author’s investigated a biochar method of sequestering carbon in soils. This method chars crop residues instead of burning them or simply tilling them back into the ground, and a number of soil scientists expect that this method could sequester huge amounts of CO2 and also significantly improve the quality of soils worldwide. Similarly, their investigation didn’t include the sequestration of CO2 in construction products such as concrete, a method that should not only eliminate CO2 from the manufacturing of cement, but also may permit the significant sequestration of electricity-related CO2 emissions. It’s unclear whether these exclusions were oversights or were found by the authors to be unfeasible for some other reason.

The larger problem, however, is that the authors didn’t detail the effects of their method on the level of vital nutrients left in the soil. They focused almost exclusively on the carbon, while traditional agricultural techniques turn crop residues back into the earth partly to improve nutrients in the soil. The authors mention this problem only twice. First, they say “mineral nutrient loss associated with crop residue removal (primarily N, P, and K) can be replaced by chemical or organic amendments,” aka natural or artificial fertilizers. Second, they attempt to estimate the CO2 emissions involved in adding fertilizer to fields to make up for missing nutrients in Table 2, but the estimate doesn’t appear to include the carbon emissions costs of creating artificial fertilizers (which are largely manufactured from natural gas) or the cost of production and transportation of organic fertilizers.

I commend Strand and Benford for being very upfront about the unknowns involved in their CO2 sequestration idea. They admit that the effect of bales of crop residue falling to the bottom of the deep ocean will have some unknown effect. They don’t expect it to be as environmentally destructive as algae fertilization would be, but without a great deal more study, they can’t know for certain. But if a recent study out of MIT is accurate, we need to research as many new ideas about how to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere as we can.

Thanks to Dr. Stuart Strand of the University of Washington for a copy of this paper. It’s also available online at Environmental Science and Technology.

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Reversing urban flight required to cut transportation carbon emissions

Boosting vehicle fuel efficiency is necessary in order to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions resulting from transportation. But it won’t be enough. There are two reasons for this. First, people are migrating from urban areas to the suburban and rural fringes around cities, and this migration results in people living farther from where they work and play and thus having to drive longer distances. Second, better fuel efficiency is partly offset by the “rebound effect,” where long-term studies have found that a 10% increase in fuel efficiency is offset by a 2% increase in vehicles miles driven. Because of the effects of urban flight and the rebound effect, simply increasing fuel efficiency will only reduce the rate at which CO2 emissions grow. Instead, some other approach will be required to actually cut CO2 emissions from transportation. A new study in Environmental Science and Technology shows that changing where people live by reversing urban flight will be necessary to achieve actual cuts in CO2 emissions.

sg1-hevThe figure at right shows how the “business as usual” (BAU) emissions in 2050 compare to five other studied scenarios – two with increased urbanization (SG1, SG2), one with a dramatic increase in hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV), and two with both HEV and the “smart growth” scenarios included. As you can see, the BAU emissions not only don’t fall, but increase 22%. The two smart growth scenarios both grow much less, but it’s not until the HEV and SG scenarios are combined that transportation-related CO2 emissions actually fall below the 2000 levels. In other words, this study says that something needs to convince people to replace their gas guzzlers with hybrid-electric vehicles and to move closer to mass transit, their jobs, and to the urban cores.

This is important for two reasons. The first is that the HEV scenario involves replacing all personal vehicles with hybrid-electric vehicles by 2025. That’s hundreds of millions of cars, trucks, SUVs, etc, and the resulting massive expense, both in resources and wealth. The second is that the smart growth scenarios both involve reversing decades of urban flight well before the end of the study period, 2050. That’s a dramatic cultural change in a relatively short period of time. So the question becomes how to get all those gas guzzlers off the road and how to convince/force people to move closer to their employers and to transit (as well as how to pay for implementing wide-scale mass transit in most cities nationwide in a short period of time).

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Track your region’s CO2 emissions on Google Earth

The Carboholic first reported on the Vulcan CO2 tracking project back in April ’08. Since then they’ve released a few upgrades and incorporated new data. But on February 15, the Vulcan team released a new tool to help people visualize their data in the United States: Google Earth.

Previously someone could view the YouTube videos or download maps from the Vulcan site, and they were very interesting, if somewhat difficult for non-scientists to understand. Now, however, you can download the Google Earth plugin for your browser and then go to the Vulcan site (linked above) and see where the CO2 is coming from on a state or county, absolute or per-capita basis. The sources you can look at are on- and off-road transportation, industrial, electricity generation, residential, and commercial, as well as airports and power plants.

I spent some time experimenting on my computer, focusing on my own state of Colorado. I discovered that Moffat County, in the far northwest corner of Colorado, had high enough electricity-related emissions to show up at the national level, that Mineral County has high per capita on-road emissions but very low absolute emissions, and just how easily you can detect where the high population centers of Colorado are by looking at the residential emissions at the county level. Of course, I don’t know the tool well enough to use it as well as the following movie, but that’s OK.

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Economists generally agree on climate disruption effects

According to Eric Pooley, writing in Slate’s The Big Money, most economists agree on the economic effects of climate disruption, but most journalists aren’t reporting on it. The reasons? False attempts at “balance,” too few journalists with training and experience in economics, and the argumentative nature of economists themselves – Pooley suggests that putting four economists who agree with each other in the same room, they’re still going to have at least five distinct opinions on every matter of import.

The fact that there are two areas of large agreement among economists is good news. Not only does this push the skeptical economists somewhat out of the mainstream (economists like Nordhaus and Lomborg come immediately to mind), but it also means that economically-focused politicians have some cover for addressing climate disruption.

The two areas of general agreement are these: doing nothing to address climate disruption will cost appreciably more than addressing climate disruption will cost, and the costs to address climate disruption are less than 10% of global GDP.

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Coal ash affects hundreds of communities nationwide

cpi-coalashIn late December and early January, S&R reported on a release of hazardous coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee (here, here, here, and here). Over a billion gallons of semi-solid ash mixed with water poured out from behind a waterlogged containment dike, destroyed several homes, and contaminated part of the water supply for the town of Kingston with heavy metals.

Last week, the Center for Public Integrity published the results of a detailed investigation into how the EPA and states have failed to regulate coal ash and how coal ash from existing coal plants is being disposed of at present.

According to the CPI article, the EPA has been involved in a long-running debate over whether to classify coal ash as a federal hazardous waste, with all the accompanying regulations that disposal would entail. Disposing of 130 million tons of coal ash every year wouldn’t be an easy thing to do if it all had to be treated as hazardous due to the concentrations of mercury, cadmium, boron, arsenic, lead, and more. Many existing ash ponds would have to be drained at huge expense, and the utilities who burn coal naturally have a problem with that. But there are cases, such as Colstrip, Montana (featured in the CPI article), where supposedly safe storage methods and lax state regulation combined to create massive plumes of contaminants in the groundwater large enough to poison an entire community. So who’s interests should take priority – the utility’s or the community’s? I’d personally say the community’s, but that’s not how the system tends to work in the U.S. these days.

One of the most useful results of the CPI investigation is the map, pictured above and linked here, which enables anyone to enter their zip code and determine whether their community has a coal ash problem or not. I live in Colorado, and there are no coal plants on the EPA watch list in my state, but knowing that the plants just off of I-25 in Denver dispose of their combined 319 thousand tons of coal ash in “multiple ways” doesn’t exactly give me a warm fuzzy. But it could be worse – Cincinnati has three coal plants immediately around the city on the EPA watch list as having a demonstrated threat to the health of their communities.

I recommend that everyone look at the map to see if you’re likely safe from coal ash, or not.

Image credits:
NASA/JPL
JAXA
Environmental Science and Technology
Vulcan
Center for Public Integrity

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