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Passive Carbon Capture Can Clean Up Our Air, But the Technology Lacks Popular Support

Other significant challenges include cost and figuring out where to store the captured carbon

Trees are great filters. Wind, sunlight and photosynthesis enable trees to “scrub” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while replenishing it with oxygen, which almost every life form needs to survive. But there simply aren’t enough trees around to scrub out the surplus carbon we have in our atmosphere right now which is steadily changing the delicate balance of life on Earth.

passive carbon capture in a labPhoto courtesy Columbia UniversityKlaus Lackner (right), a geophysics professor at Columbia University, conducts a passive carbon capture experiment at an university lab.

Human beings have put an estimated 450 – 500 gigatons of carbon into the air, primarily by burning fossil fuels, according to James L. Buizer, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. Each year we pump another 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The United Nations projects human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, so energy use will only increase.

Researchers across the world have been working to develop technologies that can remove this excess carbon from the air. One such technology — passive carbon capture — holds much promise, but skepticism about the process and lack of support from policymakers have slowed the development of what could be a cost-effective approach.

‘It’s not magic’

To people proposing sustainable energy alternatives and lifestyle changes, removing CO2 seems pointless. Removing a substantial amount of carbon from the air requires a great deal of it to be filtered. Heating, cooling, or pushing air through a filtration process requires the use of energy, thereby creating more carbon emissions.

But some scientists have demonstrated that carbon can be passively removed from the air without creating further emissions. Klaus Lackner, a geophysics professor at Columbia University and his team have developed a “fake tree” carbon collector.

An early effort used plastic “leaves” coated in resin that traps carbon particles in the air. The newer passive carbon-capture devices look more like furnace filters with straw-like tubes dotted with holes, packed closely together inside a metal frame. The devices necessary to collect one ton of carbon per day would fit into a standard shipping container that, once opened, would require approximately 60 square meters of area. Set up in a location facing into a slow wind, the devices would come into contact with carbon in the …more

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Employing Humor to Make Climate Science Digestible

In Review: The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change

Just six years ago, Gallup estimated that 61 percent of Americans grasped the reality that human activities cause global warming. Today, that number has slipped to 57 percent. In this climate of decreasing public acceptance, we need persuasive, knowledgeable advocates explaining the human book cover thumbnailcauses of global warming in elegant, digestible, and, most importantly, acceptable ways to counter the relentless disinformation war being waged by the fossil fuel industry.

One creative tool to help increase awareness and understanding of how human activities cause climate change is The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, a new graphic book illustrated by Grady Klein, and written by Yoram Bauman, who describes himself as “The World’s First and Only Stand-Up Economist.” Together, these two bring a modicum of levity to the task of conveying the basics of climate change, an otherwise dour topic. With a comedic touch, and a small cast of characters cracking jokes in the background, they elucidate the basics of climate science, predictions of future warming, and possible solutions. Drawing heavily from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Klein illustrates numerous infographics to help readers visualize complicated processes and associated statistics.

page from a graphic bookKlein & BaumanWith a comedic touch, and a small cast of characters cracking jokes in the
background, Bauman and Klein elucidate the basics of climate science,
predictions of future warming, and possible solutions. Click to enlarge.

Bauman’s background as an economist comes through clearly in his analysis, exemplified by his seven Chinas theory. The seven billion humans who occupy the planet at this time can be split into five groups of 1.4 billion, roughly the size of China’s population, he explains. The Rich Countries make up just one of those Chinas but are responsible for half of all resource consumption and half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Global economic development is rapidly transforming poor people in the other four Chinas into middle class consumers who look to the Rich Countries as role models. If they follow in the footsteps of the Rich Countries, global resource consumption and greenhouse gas production will multiply two-and-a-half times without any population growth. But, population growth will likely take us up to 10 billion people before the end of the century, which adds …more

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Is China Turning the Corner on Environmental Protection?

Growing health concerns have spurred significant changes to the Middle Kingdom’s environmental law and policy.

Most of the news we hear about China’s environment is depressing, filled with references to the country’s dirty air, water, and soil. Some of it is downright apocalyptic, accompanied by images of environmental destruction that remind me of Dr. Seus’ illustrations in The Lorax. These scenes are the result of lax environmental protection, combined with rapid economic development and fast-paced population growth. Lately, however, a few positive changes in policy and rhetoric have caught my eye, leading me to wonder if China is changing its tune when it comes to the environment.

Commuters wearing face masks in NanjingPhoto by Markus SpringCommuters in Nanjing, as in other polluted Chinese cities, often wear facemasks to protect themselves from the smog. Concerns about public health are motivating Chinese officials to crackdown on air pollution.

Back in March of this year, for example, Premier Li Keqiang declared that China would “resolutely declare war on pollution as we declared war against poverty.” Shortly thereafter, in April, the country announced significant reforms to the national Environmental Protection Law (EPL). When first enacted 25 years ago, the law was more aspirational than it was substantive. The new amendments, however, incorporate several significant changes that give the law teeth.

One such change is the system for fining polluters. Previously, pollution fines were a one-shot deal, regardless of how long the pollution continued. Under the EPL amendments, fines will accumulate so long as the pollution continues. Fines may now be large enough so as to actually dissuade would-be polluters. “One of the major changes is that [the EPL amendments] increase the sanctions for pollution in ways that might conceivably make a difference if properly enforced,” says Rachel Stern, an assistant professor of law and political science at Berkeley Law, who specializes in environmental regulation and activism in China.  

The law also expands the range of public interest organizations that can bring a suit against polluters by providing certain organizations with standing (the right to sue). “The big change from my perspective… is that the law allows standing for NGOs to bring public interest lawsuits, ” Stern says. “And that is a really, really interesting change.” However, only nonprofits that are registered with the city-level governments or higher in China, and that have specialized in environmental protection for five years, will be permitted to bring suits. …more

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Major Companies Using Palm Oil Commit to Addressing Worst Industry Abuses. But is It Enough?

Only continued consumer pressure will ensure that food and cosmetics industries deliver on their promises

In late July, agribusiness giant Cargill announced a sweeping set of changes to the company’s palm oil policies, promising a commitment to “build a traceable and transparent palm oil supply chain” to “end egregious practices such as deforestation, expansion onto peatlands, and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, workers, and local communities.”

Cargill�s Problems With Palm OilDavid Gilbert/RANCompanies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production.

Taken together with recent moves from other industry giants like Wilmar and Golden-Agri Resources, it means that companies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production. Traders are joined by well-known consumer brands like Nestlé, Unilever, General Mills, Mondelēz, Kellogg, Safeway, Hershey, Mars, L’Oreal, and Proctor & Gamble.

The need for reform cannot be overstated.

Its high yield compared to other oils makes palm oil a cheap alternative for companies looking to manage costs. As a result, production of palm oil has doubled since 2000, making it the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. Though many consumers are unaware of its presence, palm oil is found in over half the products on grocery store shelves in the United States, in everything from Snickers bars to shampoos.

This popular oil carries a nasty price, though: widespread use of forced and child labor, land grabs, destruction of habitat for endangered species like orangutans and elephants, not to mention the long term impact on climate change. When old growth rainforests are cut down to plant palm, sequestered carbon is released. Tropical deforestation accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Palm oil is a main driver of tropical deforestation. In short: palm oil production is bad for the planet, people, and animals.  (Generally speaking, if you’re eating it in a candy bar or potato chips, it’s bad for you, too).   

The announcement to make good from one of the largest players in the business is positive news, to be sure. It’s a sign that years of pressure from consumers and activists are finally yielding fruit. But don’t break out the celebratory candy bar …more

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Climate Change-Fueled Forest Loss in Colorado Shows Need for More Wilderness Protections

Connected preserves especially important as pine beetle continues to wreak havoc

As conservationists prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, there’s also a measure of hand-wringing occurring as some people question whether wilderness protections even make sense given the new challenge of climate change.

For land preservationists here in Colorado, the answer to that question is an unambiguous YES. As the planet warms the need for wilderness designation is more important than ever, especially as ecosystems confront unprecedented threats.

pine bettle infested lodgepole forestAll photos by Steven DeWittMany forests in Colorado are being impacted by epidemic insect infestations.

In the Central Mountains of Colorado, citizens have come together in an effort to add and expand areas they feel need wilderness designation. The proposed wilderness areas were chosen after a comprehensive evaluation of their ecological values including wildlife habitat, free-flowing streams, clean lakes, and old growth forests. Congressman Jared Polis is reintroducing his Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act this year and Senator Mark Udall is introducing his Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act in 2015. Udall's wilderness proposal incorporates 235,773 acres, 12 new stand alone areas and 17 additions to existing wilderness areas in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties including the Holy Cross, the Eagles Nest and the Maroon Bells.

Historic logging roads in Colorado mountainsOld logging roads are once again being used to harvest timber in lodgepole pine stands killed by mountain pine beetles.

Many of the forests included in the proposed wilderness areas have been or are currently being impacted by historic epidemics of insect infestations and disease as a result of human-generated climate change. The loss of these forests is having cascading impacts on the biodiversity of the ecosystems.

This spring and early summer, I visited a number of the areas included in the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act, both on the ground and in the air. Having previously photographed many of these forests for The Lodgepole Project, I wasn’t surprised to see the widespread devastation Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests have suffered from the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

What did surprise me was the ease of accessibility into the impacted forests via historic logging roads. Take, for example, Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek, two proposed expansions to the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area north of Vail. Both areas were selected for wilderness expansion …more

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Global Warming Denial Rears Its Ugly Head Around the World, in English

In Australia, USA, UK, and Canada, politicians are rejecting evidence and expert opinion about climate change

As people’s understanding of climate science grows, among both experts and non-experts alike, we become more accepting of the fact that humans are the driving force behind global warming. That’s because the evidence supporting human-caused global warming is overwhelming; hence rejection of that reality is usually based on an incomplete understanding of the scientific evidence.

global warming denial billboardPhoto by Caelie FramptonA climate change denial billboard in Ontario, Canada.Global warming denial remains a tenable position for politicians in English-speaking countries because voters in those regions don’t yet view the issue as urgent or a high priority.

In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief business adviser Maurice Newman offered a prime example of global warming denial last week. Writing in The Australian, Newman suggested that we’re headed for a period of global cooling due to declining solar activity and related influences from galactic cosmic rays, calling mainstream climate science “a religion.”

As Graham Readfearn showed in his fact check of The Australian opinion piece, Newman got the science badly wrong in almost every way imaginable. Scientific research has consistently shown that a grand solar minimum would barely make a dent in human-caused global warming, and that galactic cosmic rays do not exert a significant influence on the Earth’s climate. To argue otherwise, Newman relied on selective cherry picking of some research, and a misinterpretation of other studies.

Due to his lack of a scientific background, combined with his likely ideological biases, it’s understandable that Newman would get the science wrong on this issue. The problem is that Newman has the ear of Australia’s Prime Minister. Worse yet, the country’s biggest-selling national newspaper printed his error-riddled editorial, misinforming its readership in the process. As a result of this sort of thinking, the Australian government recently revoked its carbon tax without a replacement plan to meet its carbon pollution reduction targets.

The United States has been moving in the opposite direction, with the EPA drafting rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants as the centerpiece of a larger climate action plan. Some candidates are even beginning to make climate change a central focus of their campaigns. Many in the Republican Party have criticized the Obama Administration for enforcing the law (specifically the Clean Air Act) with these regulations, but all they need do is …more

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Black Oak Down

The demise of an ancient oak tree brings loss, but also new life, to a Sebastopol farm

A loud, crashing sound startles my young farmhand Emily Danler awake in the dark of the night. She camps outdoors in order to start picking berries at sun-up. My dog barks in excitement. But after a physically demanding day farming, I sleep through it all.

Looking down the boysenberry field to the bottom of Kokopelli Farm the next morning, tears come to my eyes. The tall, black oak that had always anchored my farm had split right down the middle of its deep, wide trunk. It now lay broken, crashing across the fence from where it grew on my neighbor’s land. I would never again see its crimson leaves announcing the beginning of spring.

photo of a treePhoto by Scott HessThe fallen oak reminded me again that life can sprout out of death.

The loss of the oak evoked fear of my own death. Being old myself, 70 this year, I lamented the loss of yet another old creature. I am now of the age that I go to more memorial services than marriages. This has been a year of half a dozen deaths of friends, including two suicides. It took a week after the oak fell for me to realize that its demise evoked the loss of my human friends.

I had never imagined that I could outlive this grandfather oak, which had survived hundreds of years on my neighbor’s land to become a vital member of my community. It felt like the loss of a family member.

I was also reminded of my former wife and her connection to the giant tree. Years ago, when developers wanted to topple the huge oak to make way for a major subdivision, she pleaded compassionately with government officials to save the majestic tree. She even threatened to chain herself to the oak if they proceeded with the plan. Her efforts were a success. Now, several decades later, there are still no houses where the subdivision was once planned.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” the poet Mary Oliver asks us in her poem “Summer’s Day.” She concludes by asking, “Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As my loss exploded into anger, my first response to the fallen oak was to remove it. Its large, dead trunk now blocked the path to …more

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