Black Carbon an Easy Target for Climate Change


John Lash | Policy Innovations

Could the silver bullet for climate change be black? The particulate matter called black carbon—a type of soot from burning fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass—is now estimated to be the second most potent greenhouse warming agent after carbon dioxide. As a result, reduction of black carbon has gained momentum as one of the fastest means to significantly impact global warming.

This creates a unique opportunity to capitalize on the intersection between climate change and clean air initiatives. For years, reducing emissions from diesel engines has been one of the most important air quality challenges. Diesel emissions aggravate asthma, cause cancer and premature death, and are especially harmful to people who are vulnerable to respiratory illness, such as children and the elderly. The EPA estimates that its diesel emission programs will provide more than $150 billion in health benefits and prevent 20,000 premature deaths annually when fully implemented.

Diesel particulate matter emissions account for 30 percent of black carbon globally and 50 percent in the United States. Thus air quality programs that reduce diesel particulate matter should also be recognized as reducing climate change. Mining this intersection would double the bang for our buck, combining the health and financial benefits of clean air programs with the financial benefits of carbon abatement in a single cost.

New Awareness of Black Carbon’s Role

Previous estimates of black carbon’s warming potential have been deemed too low for a number of reasons. First, the warming effect of black carbon (which absorbs light) was assumed to be essentially offset by the cooling effect of organic and sulfate aerosols (which reflect light). But it turns out that the warming effect of black carbon multiplies by a factor of two when mixed with these other particles.

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Obama Bets Big on Biofuels


Ben Mack | Wired

Plug-in hybrids and electric cars get all the love in Detroit these days, but Washington isn’t giving up on biofuel. Uncle Sam is spending millions of dollars to find ways of turning everything from algae to lawn trimmings into fuel as President Obama promises to invest heavily in alternative fuels.

The departments of energy and agriculture will award $25 million to advance development of “technologies and processes” to produce so-called “next generation” biofuels that aren’t refined from food crops like corn. The announcement follows an agriculture department  promise to loan $80 million to Range Fuels, a Colorado company that produces ethanol from wood chips, so it can build a refinery in Georgia.

“A robust biofuels industry – focused on the next-generation of biofuels – is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing our addiction to foreign oil and putting Americans back to work,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

The $25 million will finance projects focused on feedstock development, biofuel and biobased product development and biofuel development analysis. The goal is to create a wide range of “economically and environmentally sustainable” sources of renewable biomass that can be turned into fuel and cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent compared to fossil fuels, officials said.

“These grants will help support the development of a sustainable domestic biofuels industry by broadening the nation’s energy sources as well as improving the efficiency of renewable fuels,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The production of ethanol derived from corn, soybeans and other crops has been blamed for everything from spiraling food prices to clear-cutting in the Amazon. But there is great hope for cellulosic ethanol and other fuels refined from non-food biomass because they nullify the food vs. fuel debate and other criticisms. Several airlines are developing algal fuels, each of the Big Three automakers offers “flex-fuel” cars that can run on ethanol and even super-luxury automaker Bentley is promising a biofuel-burning car.

Washington is funding more than R&D, however. During the last days of the Bush Administration, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced an $80 million loan to help Range Fuels build a new refinery. It is the first time the agency has guaranteed a loan to a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol refinery.

Range Fuels, which Obama visited in October, uses a thermo-chemical process called gasification to convert cellulose to ethanol. Production is slated to begin next year and will be ramped up in three stages, company CEO David Aldous told Ethanol Producer magazine. During the first stage, the refinery will convert 125 tons of woody biomass into fuel each day. That will climb to 625 tons daily and then 2,625 tons – at which point the refinery will produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually. All of the biomass will come from the surrounding timber industry.

“It’s located in the Milion Pines area of Georgia,” Aldous said of the refinery. “There is a very significant supply of wood waste in that area, hundreds of years supply for our plant.”

U.S. Takes Global Lead in Wind Power, Passes Germany

Todd White and Rachel Graham | Bloomberg

The U.S. increased its wind-generation capacity by 50 percent last year, overtaking Germany as the world’s largest producer, the Global Wind Energy Council said.

U.S. generation capacity rose to more than 25 gigawatts, the Brussels-based industry association said today in an e-mailed report. That’s about 21 percent of total global capacity of 121 gigawatts.

Some governments are trying to generate more power from renewable sources to cut dependence on energy imports and to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the main gas blamed for global warming and a byproduct of traditional generation from fossil fuels. The European Union is seeking to increase the share of energy from renewables to 20 percent by 2020.

Germany’s capacity was almost 24 gigawatts at the end of 2008 and China more than doubled its capacity last year to more than 12 gigawatts, the report said. The global wind turbine market was worth about $47.5 billion last year, according to the GWEC.

As CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a century or longer, annual output worldwide “must be dramatically reduced” to stabilize levels of the greenhouse gas to avoid the most harmful effects of global warming, the U.S. government’s Climate Change Science Program said in a report last month.

That will require a decline of about 70 percent to 90 percent from today’s levels, according to the study published under the administration of President George W. Bush on Jan. 16, its last working day in office.

Balancing the Economy and the Environment

Anthony Cefali | Gas 2.0

January is a good month. It’s a month that is the human symbol of starting over. Out with the old, in with the new. This January was particularly exciting for us here in the US, as we ushered in a new era of progressive politics with almost a little too much pomp and circumstance. But underneath the excitement lies a particularly disconcerting truth. We still have a nation to fix.

I like getting big things out of the way, so here it is. According to Susan Solomon, scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, once global warming sets in, it isn’t going away. The voice on NPR told me with such solemnity that I assumed that we had already lost the war with Global Warming. No matter how evenly I accelerated my car, it would no longer matter because the damage was done. Once I stopped hyperventilating I realized that there was more to the story, and the thoughtful voice informed me that the effects haven’t reached the point of no return yet. The oceans are currently padding the effects of global warming, holding it in check indefinitely. According to Solomon, the oceans will be able to hold off the siege of carbon dioxide for some time, but there are more immediate problems at hand.

According to Solomon’s study published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, not immediately curtailing our carbon emissions could create permanent dust-bowl conditions in the U.S. Southwest as well as the Mediterranean. I immediately thought of all the wonderful French wines I wouldn’t be able to try if that happened and subsequently panicked until I was informed that even this could take decades. I let out a nervous sigh of relief, knowing that this news just adds to the urgency of our battle for the atmosphere.

“We’re used to thinking about pollution problems as things that we can fix. Smog, we just cut back and everything will be better later. Or haze, you know, it’ll go away pretty quickly,” Solomon said of cleaning up our current mess. “People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would go back to normal in 100 years.  What we’re showing here is that’s not right. It’s essentially an irreversible change.”

It’s still rather unsettling that we can’t get a better picture of what kind of time frame we’re working on here. Global warming isn’t exactly priority number one on everyone’s list, which is understandable considering our current economic meltdown. A Rasmussen Report as well as a Pew Research Center Pole taken around inauguration time showed a general cooling in global warming concern. Again, the current economic crisis calls for immediate attention, but how much longer will it be until global warming gets immediate attention?

Fortunately, we’re already beginning to see a drastic reversal of climate change policies as President Obama opened the door for states to regulate their own emissions (something California has been chomping at the bit to do). Of course I’m worried that global warming apathy will continue and lead to irreparable repercussions, but at the same time I’m optimistic. The Pew pole showed that in general, environmental issues are important to the American public, and that right now we’re just experiencing a lull. On the other hand the Rasmussen Report showed again that the American public is becoming increasingly divided along party lines, especially when dealing with the environment (21% of questioned Republicans believe that global warming is being induced by human activity).

President Obama has made it a priority of his to curtail global warming, and he hired an energy secretary who knows his science to prove it, but we can’t forget that our planet is our responsibility. No matter how many laws are enacted or how much reach the EPA is granted, it will still ultimately be up to us how far we allow global warming to go before it’s stomped out.

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Can the Old World Lead on Global Warming?


Spiegel Online | Business Week

Wednesday was a busy day for the global climate. On one side of the Atlantic Ocean, the European Union unveiled its vision for what the next global climate deal should look like—a deal that is set to be hammered out in much anticipated talks in Copenhagen at the end of December.

On the other, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on climate change which could mark the first small step toward steering the US away from the head-in-the-sand policies pursued by the just-ended administration of George W. Bush. Al Gore, America’s global warming Cassandra, was the hearing’s star guest. And in his eagerness to urge the Senate to take action, Gore said that he didn’t think the EU could play a leadership role when it comes to tackling the problem of climate change.

“I do think it’s objectively true that our country is the only country in the world that can really lead the global community,” Gore said, refering to global warming. “Some have speculated that some time in the future if the European Union actually unifies to a much higher degree … they might somehow emerge with potential for global leadership. I’m not going to hold my breath.”

It is a message that isn’t likely to play well in the European Union. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas on Wednesday announced the EU’s negotiating position for the upcoming talks on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The EU would like to see a reduction in global emissions of CO2, one of the primary greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, by 30 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2020. The goal is to limit the average global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius.

As part of its plan, the EU proposes the introduction of a carbon cap and trade system of the kind currently in operation in the European Union. All 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would be required to join the emissions certificate market by 2015 and would be required to cut their emissions. Developing countries would join later and would have to “limit the growth of their emissions to 15 to 30 percent below business as usual.”

Furthermore, the EU—which has already undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 27-nation bloc by 20 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2020—held out the carrot that, “in the context of a sufficiently ambitious and comprehensive international agreement,” the EU would be willing to cut emissions by 30 percent.

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U.K. urges Texas to address global warming


They came not with crumpets but with PowerPoints, and they served not bangers and mash, but breakfast tacos. Yet on Thursday an auditorium at the Capitol rang with the unmistakable accents of Brits and at one point was graced with an appearance — albeit videotaped – by His Royal Highness Prince Charles.

The occasion was a conference on business risks and opportunities in a carbon-constrained world hosted by the United Kingdom’s Houston consulate and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The conference, attended by legislative aides, corporate officers, and green energy entrepreneurs, was designed to urge Texas lawmakers to address global warming and brief businesses on how they can exploit caps on carbon dioxide.

“If you do nothing, there’s a very real danger in a few years your companies will be uncompetitive and out of date,” Prince Charles said in a video address, taped Jan. 22 at St. Jame’s Palace in London.

Earnest as the event was, it had the risk of appearing presumptuous in a statehouse whose lawmakers tend to look askance at stepping in line with any other state or nation.

The danger was one the organizers clearly recognized: “We’re not in any sense here to present solutions to Texas or tell you what to do,” Paul Lynch, the consul-general, told an audience of about 200.

Jim Marston, the head of the Austin office for Environmental Defense Fund, explained the hosting partnership this way:

“We both have funny accents that people in other states can’t understand. The Brits have royalty, and the people in Texas think they are royalty.”

More seriously, he said, both places have a large oil production industry and have to grapple with external carbon regulations — in the U.K.’s case, from the European Union, in Texas’ case, the prospect of federal rules. British businesses have had to figure out ways to prosper under a carbon-counting regime.

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Other US crises shouldn’t derail action on global warming, Gore tells Congress



Former vice president Al Gore presented lawmakers yesterday with a new inconvenient truth: Action on global warming cannot wait until the economy recovers.

In three hours of testimony that at times looked like a sequel to the Oscar-winning documentary based on his book “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore pressed Congress to pass President Obama’s economic stimulus plan as a first step to bringing greenhouse gases under control.

He also pushed for decisive action on a bill this year to limit emissions of heat-trapping gases, saying the legislation is needed for the United States to take a leading role in negotiations on a new international climate treaty.

To underscore his point, Gore flipped through more than four dozen slides showing melting ice caps, Western wildfires, deforestation, and oxygen-depleted seas.

Six months ago, Gore called for the country to produce all of its electricity from carbon-free sources within the next 10 years. Since then, the recession has deepened and the government – which is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save financial institutions and keep automakers from bankruptcy.

Gore told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recession and wars should not delay climate change legislation.