Our Burning Planet – Beyond Net Zero, Will We Adapt Or Die?

As World leaders meet for COP26 in Glasgow, the Earth has already reached 1.2 °C warming above pre-1880s industrial levels.

Making pledges to stem climate change is easy.  But without urgent mitigating intervention, humanity’s future on this planet is seriously compromised.  Solving this global issue has become an emergency.  And time is running out.

35 billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted every year.

 

By now, the science is clear.

Long term, climate change is an even greater problem than a global pandemic.  It is more complex too with a broad range of effects that include:

  • affecting lives and livelihoods
  • displacing populations
  • exposing and re-enforcing worldwide social inequalities.

Net zero is the internationally agreed upon goal for mitigating global warming in the second half of the century, and the IPCC concluded the need for net zero CO2 by 2050 to remain consistent with 1.5 °C.

Canada’s Hot Spot

A 2-metre air temperature anomaly map of the heatwave over Lytton, Canada on 29 June 2021. A day after setting the record for the highest temperatures ever recorded in Canada, wildfires forced the residents to evacuate the village of Lytton.
Air Temperature Anomaly over Lytton, Canada (Source: Earth Observatory NASA)

On 29 June 2021, as the temperature reached an all-time high of 49.6 °C, tragedy struck in Lytton, British Colombia, Canada.  Wildfires engulfed the small town, destroying 90% of it and killing two.

Since record-keeping began, Canada had never been this hot.  We are talking “Death Valley” hot!

This was the result of a heatwave in western North America that followed a pattern well-known to weather scientists – a Rossby wave.

Rossby Waves

An area of high pressure above the Pacific Ocean was driven eastwards through the jet stream by a Rossby wave, a global atmospheric fluctuation arising from the Coriolis force.

As it broke down, the wave dumped all its energy leaving an area of high pressure over western United States and Canada.

As the air sunk through the atmosphere, it got squeezed and further heated.

An international research team concluded that the daily maximum temperatures in the heatwave region were so extreme that they would normally occur only once every 1,000 years.

Without human-induced climate change, that kind of heat would be 150 times rarer.

 

This map shows locations that experienced extreme heat and humidity levels briefly (hottest 0.1% of daily maximum wet bulb temperatures) from 1979-2017. Darker colours show more severe combinations of heat and humidity. Source: NOAA Climate.gov

Extreme heat has real implications for human life, especially in conjunction with high levels of humidity.

Areas of the globe have already experienced conditions at or near the edge of humans’ survivability.

Study results indicate that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C would prevent most of the Tropics from reaching the wet-bulb temperature of the human physiological limit of 35 °C.

If the body cannot cool down, it is at risk of neurological failure, organ failure and death, particularly in the very young and the elderly.

It is therefore important to identify where dangerous heat and vulnerable population coincide.

The Heat Island Effect

City dwellers face a particular danger because of what is called the Urban Heat Island effect.

A diagram showing urban structure, cover, fabric and metabolism contribute to the UHI effect in highly developed areas.
Urban structure, cover, fabric and metabolism contribute to the UHI effect in highly developed areas. Source: Sharifi & Lehmann, 2014

 

Heat is reflected and absorbed by buildings, roads and other urban structures, creating zones within cities that can be several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.

The phenomenon affects disadvantaged communities disproportionally.

Carbon Footprint of Cement and Steel

Architects are listening to environmental concerns.

Building development and the construction industry are major CO2 emitters due to the widespread use of concrete and steel.  Image: NaturPhilosophie

Sustainability is now a key theme in building design.  Unfortunately, pledges are doomed to fail if they are not backed up with regulation.

If politicians cannot agree on a global carbon price, and make big business corporations pay for or trade carbon emissions, there will be little incentive for the construction sector to account for their actions.

The Devil is in the details.  Using 3D-mapping drones and smart sensors should provide a more accurate picture of carbon embedded within urban infrastructures.

Concrete is a great building material because it is cheap and tough.  It resists fire, rust and biological pests.  However, its main constituent is cement made by converting limestone (calcium carbonate CaCO3) into lime (calcium oxide CaO).

The reversible reaction that decarbonates limestone to create lime and carbon dioxide.

A process that spews out roughly a tonne of carbon dioxide CO2 for each tonne of cement produced.

Annual global cement production has been 4 x 109 tonnes for the last decade.

Cement production accounts for 3% of global carbon emissions.
A diagram of a blast furnace for the manufacture of steel.
The production of steel releases carbon dioxide in the reaction: 2Fe2O3 + 3C ==> 4Fe + 3CO2.  Source: International Iron Metallics Association

Concrete is usually reinforced  with steel.  This compounds the problem, as the manufacture of steel also releases CO2.

Devising cleaner ways of producing cement and steel, as well as developing alternative building materials, will be vital to achieving a net zero future.

Cloud Control

As vexing as they are mesmerizing, clouds play an important role in Earth’s planetary greenhouse.

Clouds are complex and ever changing.  Even a seemingly featureless low altitude stratus is a dynamic system with a dizzying array of temperatures, air pressures, humidity factors, wind directions and wind speeds.

The complex role of clouds in Earth’s energy balance.
Source: NASA/Langley

Clouds have a dual nature in terms of climate science.

Not only do they reflect the Sun’s radiation and provide a cooling effect, clouds also trap infrared radiation emitted by the planet’s surface, which in turn has a warming effect.

Stratospheric clouds warm us, whereas low-lying clouds tend to cool us because their greenhouse effect is smaller.  Overall, clouds have a net cooling effect on the atmosphere.

For how long, is unclear.

As the average global temperature increases, the greenhouse effect from clouds will increasingly outweigh their reflective powers.

By how much, is unknown.

However, numerical simulations of cloud formation can be used to test assumptions built into climate models.

Modelling the Climate

Climate models must be tested against real-world data.

Satellites constellations have been tracking clouds for the past four decades.  For 20 years, LiDAR has captured high resolution 3D measurements about cloud dimensions and water content.

The CLOUD experiment at CERN helps sharpen climate predictions. Image: CERN

The CLOUD project has been using cloud chambers to analyse the role of cosmic rays in creating atmospheric aerosols.

Climate models predict that warming will be more pronounced at higher latitudes, though not by as much as in past climates.  With a rise of 2 °C over pre-industrial levels, countries at high latitudes are expected to get cloudier, wetter, and they are likely to suffer more extreme weather events and devastating floods, like in Europe or the U.S.

At the other extreme, most subtropical regions will become drier, with an increasing risk of drought and wildfires in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Australia.

As for the Tropics, the exact consequences of global warming are as yet uncertain.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Capturing CO2 from the air is difficult, because its concentration is so low, which is why many efforts focus on extracting it directly from exhaust gases at power plants.

Usually, the gas is compressed into a supercritical fluid state, then pumped into porous rocks covered with impermeable caprocks that form a natural seal.

CCS is an energy intensive process, that uses chemical solvents and heat, separating the CO2 from flue gases, and uses energy to liquefy it, transport it and pump it into rocks.

Again, it is a process that must become more energy efficient if it is to become widespread and economically viable.

A photograph showing St Fergus gas terminal. Peterhead, Scotland.
St Fergus gas terminal. Peterhead, Scotland

The Acorn project  will be the first commercial CCS facility in the United Kingdom when it opens mid 2020s.  It will be based at St Fergus gas terminal, near Peterhead, in Scotland.

The CO2 will be pumped into a layer of sandstone, lying underneath shale.

Supporters of CCS insist there are fewer risks of leaking happening over time.  CO2 gradually dissolves, sinks and gets trapped into rock pores, before precipitating as carbonate minerals.

More than 95% of injected CO2 mineralized within two years.

When researchers modelled leakage rates under different scenarios, they concluded that well-regulated storage should keep any potential leakage below 0.0008% per year.

Over 98% of injected CO2 could be stored for over 10,000 years.

The CarbFix project collects gases from Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, Iceland and stores them in basalt 400 metres underground.  Source: ThinkGeoEnergy

In Iceland, a novel approach by Reykjavik Energy involves injecting CO2 into basalt rocks.  These rocks can transform the gas into stone much faster than sedimentary rocks can manage it.  Although the process uses a lot of water, basalt can be found at the bottom of the World’s oceans.

The company has plans to apply the technology to cement, iron and steel production.

Today, climate change is no longer a slogan; it is an emergency.