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Vol. 30 No. 1
January-February 2008

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
See also www.iupac.org/symposia

Greenhouse Gases: Mitigation and Utilization

by John M. Malin

While there are citizens who still deny it, the scientific community has largely accepted the premise that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG’s) are raising GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and the resulting “greenhouse effect” is driving global warming. Governments, industry, scientists, and private citizens are grappling with the problems posed. The phenomenon has profound economic implications as industry seeks to reduce emissions, but lacks appropriate technologies and clear direction from government. Policymakers and politicians struggle to balance environmental responsibility against immediate economic goals and the needs of the developing world, while the scientific community is engaged with understanding the nature, causes, and solutions of the GHG problem.

To explore these important issues, CHEMRAWN, together with the International Conferences on Carbon Dioxide Utilization (ICCDU), co-sponsored the CHEMRAWN XVII and ICCDU IX conference on Greenhouse Gases: Mitigation and Utilization. The meeting, attended by 200 people from 30 countries, took place 8–12 July 2007 at Queens University, Ontario, Canada. It was organized around three main themes: (1) policy issues and strategies, (2) sequestration of GHGs, and (3) their mitigation and utilization. Many of the presentations are posted on the conference website <www.chem.queensu.ca/Conferences/
abstract.asp
>.

Because of the worldwide economic significance of greenhouse gas sequestration and mitigation, international policy issues are of key importance. In his keynote lecture, Dimitri Zhengelis from Her Majesty’s Treasury (UK), who is also a member of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, discussed how the Stern Review employs a combination of economics and ethics to assess in broad terms the costs of anthropogenic climate change and of stabilizing emissions. Increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, they say, will produce severe economic consequences. Environmental degradation due to climate change and the accompanying rises in sea levels will, they forecast, disrupt food supplies, limit access to potable and irrigation water, pose serious medical risks to human health, and ultimately create a refugee problem that will threaten the world’s stable societies. If emissions are not limited, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, some 425 ppm, is projected to rise to 550 ppm by 2050 and to 650 ppm by 2100. These changes correlate with at least a 50 percent probability of increases in average global temperature of 3 and 5 degrees Celsius, respectively. Zhengelis pointed out that the average temperature rise since the most recent ice age has been 5 degrees.

The Stern Review urges that steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions should begin immediately. The costs of inactivity, Zhengelis noted, are far greater than those of action and they are likely to increase. If nothing is done, the poorest countries will suffer disproportionately—even though they have made the smallest contributions to GHG emissions.

Economic models for a “business as usual” scenario predict the overall risks and losses due to climate change amount to at least a 5 percent decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) per year. On the other hand, said Zhengelis, meeting the challenge by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases may cost no more than 1 percent of GDP annually. Global emissions of CO2 in the year 2000 were near 42 Gigatons per year, with power generation accounting for 24 percent of the CO2 produced, transport and industry each producing 14 percent, buildings at 8 percent, and miscellaneous sources at 5 percent. Non energy-related sources included 18 percent from nonagricultural land use and 14 percent from agriculture.

Important components to an international strategy to combat global temperature rise include (1) Emissions trading, through which funds from larger countries could help pay for the transition to low-carbon development trajectories in economically disadvantaged countries; (2) Technology cooperation, through product standards and shared R&D targeted at raising energy efficiency; (3) Action to reduce deforestation, which both contributes carbon to the ecosphere and eliminates a “CO2 sink”; and (4) Adaptation, by sharing regional information on effects of climate change and developing crop varieties that are resistant to both flood and drought.

In his plenary lecture, Henry Hengeveld of Environment Canada further explored the question of how human activities are causing climate change. Quoting the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in February 2007, Hengeveld pointed out that 25 percent of the greenhouse effect is caused by CO2, 65 percent by water vapor (whose atmospheric concentration increases when the temperature rises), and 10 percent from other gases, including methane. Greenhouse gas concentrations, he said, are now at levels unprecedented in the past 650 000 years and recent paleoclimatic studies indicate that the past 50-year period has been unusually warm. Global temperatures, he said, have risen by 0.74 °C in the last century while snow cover is decreasing and many glaciers are shrinking. Sea levels will rise due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of land ice.

Extreme precipitation events, said Hengeveld, are likely to become more frequent in some areas while droughts will occur more often in others. Yet, temperate regions such as North America may derive benefits from a warmer environment. These would include lower snow removal costs, less ice cover on the Great Lakes and along Canada’s east coast, longer, warmer growing seasons, and lower costs for space heating. These advantages would be offset in tropical regions by loss of habitable land due to floods and sea level rise, crop loss due to droughts, and threats to health caused by poor air quality and extreme weather. Hengeveld described the scientific community’s best estimates on the level of effort that will be needed to stabilize the level of CO2 at 550 ppm, which may bring risks to an acceptable level. In particular, emissions must be reduced by at least 50 percent.

Pieter P. Tans of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory noted that the pre-industrial levels of CO2 were close to 280 ppm. Tans cited a striking correlation over the past 650 000 years between the levels of atmospheric CO2 and changes in the global temperature. The pre-industrial atmosphere contained 600 Gtons of carbon as CO2. Since then, humans have contributed 330 Gtons of carbon as CO2, of which 210 Gtons have persisted in the atmosphere with the remainder being absorbed by the ocean. The potential for future anthropogenic increases is very real since current coal resources are assessed at 4000–8000 Gtons of carbon, while oil and gas resources are some 500–1000 Gtons.

Like Hengeveld, Tans emphasized that the least expensive option is to begin immediately in applying a portfolio of techniques. “If we want to avoid massive, and accelerating climate change,” said Tans, “we have to greatly reduce CO2 emissions, eventually to zero.” “Science cannot,” he continued, “provide at this time with confidence a ‘safe’ atmospheric CO2 level that we should try not to exceed. The risks of dramatic climate change will increase with increasing emissions.”

John Grefford of CRO Engineering, Ltd., provided an overview of carbon-neutral energy sources and options for the future. Grefford emphasized both mitigation and adaptation to environmental warming scenarios. Hermann Ott of the Wuppertal Institute, Berlin, described the mission of the developed countries. He outlined the challenges in building political support, emissions trading, choosing effective policy instruments, and fostering technological innovation. Ott noted that the choices made by policy makers will be crucial.

Truman Semans, director of the Business Environment Leadership Council of the Pew Center for Climate Change, described international efforts to strengthen global cooperation. Following positive discussions at the recent G-8 summit at Heiligendamm, the Pew Center convened a meeting of 25 governmental leaders from 15 countries to develop a framework for global climate policy. Semans urged that the USA and other developed countries must implement CO2 mitigation measures, and he discussed how these measures should include the issues of international competitiveness and participation by developing countries.

John Drexhage, director of Climate Change and Energy for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, discussed the history of federal climate change policy in Canada. He noted that Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 but, like many countries, has encountered bumps in the road toward compliance. Canadian projections of CO2 emissions total some 809 Mtons for 2010, while the Kyoto target for Canada is 571 MTons, 6 percent below the 1990 level. The USA has not signed the Kyoto Protocol.

James Meadowcroft of Carleton University contrasted Canada’s climate change strategy with that of the European Union. Between 1990 and 2005, said Meadowcroft, Europe’s CO2 emissions did not increase while Canada’s emissions rose by some 25 percent. The EU, he noted, evolved a suite of policies, including a burden sharing agreement and an emissions trading system. The UK, for example, initiated the Stern Report, established a carbon change levy and a carbon budget, provided incentives for renewable energy programs, and encouraged conservation through “zero carbon” homes. Germany has implemented conservation measures and an extensive wind power program and Sweden employs nuclear energy extensively. The EU, he said, is “delivering on Kyoto,” even though national attainment is uneven across the Union. Canada, in contrast, has yet to develop and deliver an effective strategy. Meadocroft noted that political leadership is needed in this field. Canadian policymakers, he urged, must realize that emissions control, rather than being ruinous, is highly possible.

Of course, for any mitigation efforts to take effect, the public must “buy in” to the proposed measures. “If we want to facilitate effective communication between policy experts and the public, it would be useful to understand how the public understands climate policy while designing the communication programs,” said Stephen Hill of Trent University. Employing interviews and focus groups, Hill carried out a revealing study of the public understanding of economic instruments for climate change policy. “The public has been led to believe that climate policies will require little or no inconvenience to their lifestyles,” he said. “People do not grasp the deep cuts in carbon emissions (e.g., 60 percent to eliminate a 2–3 °C temperature rise) required within a few decades.” Hill added that the policy debate has been clouded by “unhelpful controversies” at the expense of discussion about what we actually can do to reduce GHG’s and to prepare for climate change.

Hill’s study found that the public does not understand the “cap and trade” system by which emissions permits are auctioned. Most people view emissions trading as “copping out” (i.e., selling a problem that we should be solving ourselves). The idea of a carbon tax, which on the other hand was well-understood, tended to be disfavored because people thought it would “just add to the cost of doing business.” However, some believed the idea would be supportable if the tax revenues were used for purposes of reducing GHG emissions, such as improving home insulation. It seems clear that these policy instruments will need to be explained more effectively to the public. Eric Lachapelle of the University of Toronto noted that, while only six OECD countries have a carbon tax, all OECD countries tax motor fuels, with the lowest rates being those in the USA and the highest in Sweden.

John M. Malin <jmalin023@comcast.net> was the chair of the CHEMRAWN Committee in 2007; he has been involved with the committee since 1998.

Part II of this report will cover sequestration and mitigation strategies—see March-April 2008 CI.


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