CO2 or Methane: Who do you Love?

by John Brian Shannon

Greenhouse gas is a catch-all term used to describe a class of gases — either naturally-occurring or man-made (anthropogenic) which have a detrimental effect on the Earth’s atmosphere. It is no longer in academic dispute that any upset to the natural atmospheric equilibrium can wreak havoc on the climate of the entire planet.

As more of these gases are added to the planet’s atmosphere they allow more of the Sun’s rays to penetrate into the air mass which surrounds our planet, instead of bouncing harmlessly back into space. Scientists refer to this process as ‘solar forcing’ whereby more heat is added to the Earth each year than can be removed by natural systems. When more heat is allowed in, more of the polar ice caps melt each summer. It’s a simple equation.

It is likely that later this century there will be no northern ice cap. The other ice cap covers the continent Antarctica which is nearly the size of the United States, and is permanently covered in ice. The ice cap in Antarctica is dissipating at an increasing rate and that is no longer in academic dispute either. Both effectively function as the air-conditioning system for planet Earth and trillions of dollars are at stake for the world farming community.

Heat and drought are the deadly enemies of food crops and both excessive heat and drought are on the increase as more solar forcing is added to Earth’s climate equation. Scientists say that in the best-case scenario — with modern technology and farming practices, that up to a 2 degree worldwide average temperature increase can be accommodated with the only disruptions being in the number of food-producer bankruptcies and higher food costs for consumers. According to scientists, it is beyond our present-day ability to compensate for any worldwide temperature increase of more than 2 degrees.

Here is a staggering number to keep in mind, it costs farmers, ag corporations, consumers and governments one-trillion-dollars per year, for each one degree of worldwide temperature increase – costs which are already starting to be passed on to consumers and taxpayers.

So, who do you love: CO2 or methane? There is no doubt all greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, but some are worse than others — which is why a significant and growing movement is afoot these days to enhance and enlarge the Montreal Protocol an international agreement which limits ozone-depleting gases — to include selected greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Which makes some amount of sense, as methane causes 72 times more global warming per tonne than CO2. Nitrous oxide causes 289 times more global warming per tonne than CO2. Others are exponentially worse, such as sulfur hexafluoride which contributes 16,300 times it’s weight to our atmospheric problems. Get used to hearing the term CO2-equivalent we will be hearing a lot about that in the coming months.

The worldwide tonnage of these pollutants are much lower than the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year, but at those ratios even a few million tons can do a lot of lasting damage. Also, some of these emissions can stay in the atmosphere for up to 50,000 years eating ozone the entire time.

Atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO2 at different time horizon for various greenhouse gases.

Gas name

Chemical
formula

  Lifetime
(years)

Global warming potential (GWP) for given time horizon

20-yr

100-yr

500-yr

Carbon dioxide

CO2

See above

1

1

1

Methane

CH4

12

72

25

7.6

Nitrous oxide

N2O

114

289

298

153

CFC-12

CCl2F2

100

11,000

10,900

5,200

HCFC-22

CHClF2

12

5,160

1,810

549

Tetrafluoromethane

CF4

50,000

5,210

7,390

11,200

Hexafluoroethane

C2F6

10,000

8,630

12,200

18,200

Sulfur hexafluoride

SF6

3,200

16,300

22,800

32,600

Nitrogen trifluoride

NF3

740

12,300

17,200

20,700

This chart is courtesy of Wikipedia, to view it full size, click here.

More CO2 is produced by our civilization than any other gas and it is prudent to limit CO2 emissions wherever possible — and to use carbon capture and storage to mitigate anthropogenic CO2 production. But it is beginning to look like all of the other greenhouse gases are the real story — and the ones most easily reduced.

At one-trillion-dollars per one-degree-of-global-warming, it is already costing consumers and taxpayers a huge amount of money. If our civilization spent just ten percent of that mitigating all of the other greenhouse gases besides CO2, we might be starting to show our planet and each other some respect.

And then, we would then know the answer to the question; Who do you Love?

JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

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The Economics of Green Energy

by John Brian Shannon

Back in the old days of sustainable energy, circa 2000, the cost of switching to solar or wind was so expensive that only the well-intentioned considered it — and only the wealthy could afford it.

How times have changed!

Nowadays, utility-scale solar power and wind power are cost-competitive with utility-scale coal-fired and nuclear electrical power generation.

And obviously, solar and wind are much better for the environment.

solar-coal-power_thumb[3]

That’s not to knock coal, which has provided reliable power for decades and still has a great future in Coal to Liquid fuels — that is, coal processed into extremely pure transportation fuels. Gasoline for your car, diesel for cars, trucks and ships and jet fuel are all created from coal using CTL technology.

South Africa’s SASOL have been using CTL technology successfully since 1955 and 30% of all the transportation fuels in that country are made from domestically-sourced coal. No alterations to vehicle engines or aircraft turbine engines are required to use fuels which are made from coal — as the CTL technology produces almost laboratory-quality fuels when using the Fisher-Tropsch catalytic process.

However, electrical power generation which burns raw coal releases billions of tons of CO2 and carbon monoxide, along with huge amounts of hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, lead, cyanide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other toxins into the atmosphere every year — all of which easily cross state lines, national boundaries and even the oceans before settling in both populated areas and farmland.

One brand new coal-fired plant per week is completed and goes into service in China these days and this has been the case since late 2008.

In 2010 for example, China operated 620 coal-fired power plants which burned over 3 billion tons of coal per year. Just the CO2 emissions alone from coal-fired electrical generation in China surpassed 7.2 billion tons in 2010.

Which leads to higher health care costs in both the developing world and the developed world. According to CLPmag.org

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.”

In addition to being cost-competitive with coal, solar and wind are also cost-competitive with nuclear. In the case of solar and wind power there is no need for very costly nuclear spent-fuel storage — as some types of nuclear fuel rods must be stored in terrorist-proof bunkers and be constantly-cooled 24 hours per day/365 days per year for up to 20,000 years — without any interruption lasting longer than 36 hours. The cost of just one failure here would be catastrophic.

solar-less-expensive-nuclear_thumb[3]

Nuclear power has been statistically safe – with only one serious incident about every ten years on average. However, we have seen deaths caused by exposure to radioactive emissions from nuclear power plant accidents and indirect adverse health effects on population centres near nuclear disaster sites. Some particles remain radioactive at toxic levels for many decades.

Which leads to higher health care costs in many nations as the wind can carry radioactive particulate thousands of miles — just as it can carry toxic gasses and soot from coal-fired power generation for thousands of miles.

For the most recent example of the cost to clean up nuclear accidents, the Fukushima disaster had been estimated at between $15 – 45 billion dollars, but more recently a $50 – 100 billion dollar price-tag has appeared and full decommissioning may take until 2030 to complete. The Japanese government is covering all the costs of decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear site — which means Japanese citizens will end up paying the full cost through taxation.

From the perspective of taxpayers everywhere who bear the brunt of health care costs and disaster mitigation, the full cost of a given kind of fuel must include the costs of all adverse health effects, deaths, damages and lost productivity caused by each kind of fuel.

Which is why solar, wind and biomass are still the better deal by far – even at the same per-gigawatt price.

John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, the Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Check out his green energy blog at: http://johnbrianshannon.com

Check out his economics blog at: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com

Follow John on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/#!/JBSCanada