Greenhouse Gases

Climate change: Soot's role 'underestimated' says study  "Scientists say that particles from diesel engines and wood burning could be having twice as much warming effect as assessed in past estimates.  They say it ranks second only to carbon dioxide as the most important climate warming agent .... This new study concludes the dark particles are having a warming effect approximately two thirds that of carbon dioxide, and greater than methane."    "Reducing emissions from diesel engines and domestic wood and coal fires is a no-brainer as there are tandem health and climate benefits," said Professor Piers Forster from the University of Leeds.  "If we did everything we could to reduce these emissions we could buy ourselves up to half a degree less warming, or a couple of decades of respite," he added.  Prof Piers Forster is Coordinating lead author of the IPCC report chapter Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing (which sets out the scientific evidence on the changes in the atmosphere that are causing global warming).

    A United Nations report calls for fast action to reduce emissions of black carbon, ground level ozone and methane to help reduce current global warming and prevent the Earth from overheating. 
    Recommended procedures include mandatory diesel filters on vehicles, phasing out wood-burning stoves in wealthy countries, use of clean-burning biomass stoves for cooking and heating in developing nations, and a ban on the open burning of agricultural waste.
    Methane, ground-level ozone and black carbon cause about half of current global warming.  The report calls for immediate action to reduce these emissions to help limit global temperature rises over the next 20 years that could lead to catastrophic climate change from melting of glaciers and polar icecaps (that reflect radiation back into space) as well as methane permafrost and frozen sub-sea methane, which have been described as a "ticking time bombs" for our climate.  Prof Carlos Duarte, director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia, warned that the Arctic summer sea ice was melting at a rate faster than predicted by conventional climate models, and could be ice free as early as 2015.  Prof Duarte's article in 'The Conversation' explains why methane hydrates are a volatile time bomb in the Arctic  "The major risk is that the relatively modest human perturbation will unleash much greater forces."  The amount of greenhouse gas stored in the methane hydrates is several times the total CO₂ release since the industrial revolution.  NASA is investigating if a Sleeping Climate Giant is Stirring in the Arctic? the Similar sentimes are echoed by Climate Spectator:We’ve known for a while that ‘permafrost’ was a misnomer (see Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s). The defrosting permamelt will likely add up to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit to total global warming by 2100."
    The immediate increase in global warming from the methane, carbon monoxide and black carbon emissions of wood heaters contribute disproportionately to current warming - in the first 20 years as much as heating 20 similar houses with gas or an electric heat pump, adding to the relatively modest perturbations that could unleash much greater forces if a tipping point is reached. 

 The graph from the latest UNEP report (November 2011) shows the effect of the measures to reduce methane (CH4) and black carbon (BC) on global temperatures.  Compared  the purple Reference line (business as usual) the dark blue line shows a rapid reduction in global temperatures of about 0.4 degrees by 2040, complementing the measures to reduce CO2 emissions.  Measures to reduce CO2 result in benefits from about 2040.  By about 2070, half the reduction is due to the reductions in methane and black carbon emissions and about half due to the reduction in CO2 emissions.      

  
   Over 100 years, methane causes at least 25 times as much warming as the same amount of CO2, but 72 to 100 times as much over the first 20 years. Fast action could help prevent frozen methane from melting and adding to the temperature increases, so that even more methane melts, leading to even greater temperature increases and so on.  This scenario of runaway climate change has been described as a point of no return, or tipping point, which cannot be reversed.   Reduce methane, black carbon and ozone will reduce losses of mountain glaciers and reduce projected warming in the Arctic over the coming decades by as much as two thirds, helping to avoid a tipping point if methane undersea and in permafrost starts to melt.
   Cutting out these pollutants now could also boost global food output and save millions of human lives lost to heart and lung disease, according to the report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Parallel action now on black carbon particles and ground-level ozone would buy precious time in limiting projected global temperature increases of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming decades, the report said.

   A peer-reviewed paper in Atmospheric Pollution Research shows that, based on the latest estimates of Global Warming Potentials, over a 20 year horizon the average Australian wood heater causes more warming than heating 12 similar homes with gas (see Table 1).

  Ross Garnaut recommends credits for growing trees, taxes for chopping them down

On April 14, 2011: Professor Ross Garnaut, distinguished Australian economist and author of a review on Climate Change and Policy Response to Climate Change for the Federal, State and Territory governments of Australia, gave a lecture on Climate Change in Armidale, NSW.  When asked about how to account for biomass climate change policy, he argued that people who grow trees, should get credits for the carbon sequestered every year. But people who chop them down (and burn them) should pay tax on the carbon released into the atmosphere.

   This sensible accounting system (which relates directly to the impact on the atmosphere - sequester carbon and get credit; pay the tax when it is burned)  Methane should still be counted, as it is now, but the release of the CO2 dominates.   Under this accounting system,  a comprehensive peer-reviewed paper, published in Atmospheric Pollution Research shows that the average Australian wood heater causes more global warming than heating up to 5 similar homes with gas or a reverse cycle airconditioner. 

    The Kyoto protol used a different accounting system, in which, rather than being counted directly, CO2 emissions from wood burning were accounted for by the change in biomass in the forests and other stored carbon.  This works well for an entire country.  However, if used by individuals, it leads to wasteful and inefficient use of a valuable resource

Example: If the owner of a forest gets a credit for the amount of carbon sequestered every year, but pays a tax when the wood it burned, it may become economic to use thinnings to make wood pellets for power stations, instead of burning coal.  Without this incentive, forest owners are likely to simply burn waste wood on site, leading to much higher total greenhouse gas emissions than by using the wood as a replacement for burning coal. The same applies to domestic wood heaters.  The average Australian wood heater burns 2.7 tonnes of wood, emitting about 6.7 tonnes of CO2-equivalent, compared to 1.3 tonnes of CO2 for centrally heating an entire house with floor area of 160 square metres. 

     Australia’s annual contribution to global warming would be reduced by at least 8.7 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (the same as removing about 21% of Australian passenger cars from the roads, or generating electricity from 5.8 million household 1 kW rooftop photovoltaic systems) if the 4.5 to 5 million tonnes of firewood currently burned in domestic wood heaters were instead used to replace coal in power stations and domestic wood heaters replaced by gas or reverse cycle air-conditioning.

Global warming from methane
(CH4) emissions from domestic wood heaters
       Even if CO2 emissions from are not counted, incomplete burning in enclosed heaters creates methane (CH4), carbon monoxide (CO, about 15% of carbon emissions) and black carbon smoke.  According to the IPPC Fourth Assessment report (AR4), one kilogram of CH4 causes as much global warming as 25 kg CO2. CO (not covered by the Kyoto protocol) causes 1.9 times as much. 

    A Swedish study of enclosed wood burners used to heat water found that methane emissions can cause up to twice as much global warming as generating the same heat from an oil-fired burner. 

Lab tests: new Australian heaters on low burn as bad as the Swedish model causing twice as much global warming as an oil heater
        On low burn tests under a new test protocol in which the air control was turned down 2 minutes after adding more wood, two of the 4 new Australian models tested had similar emissions to the worst model in the Swedish study. This implies that, even if the wood is from a sustainabe source, under real-life operation,  the methane emissions from a new Australian wood heater used mainly on low burn will often cause much more global warming than heating the same house with gas. 

Lab results confirmed by real-life measurements 
        In Launceston, emissions from AS4013 heaters in the households of volunteers, who appeared to take condsiderable time and trouble to operate their heaters correctely, averaged 9.4 g/kg.  This is the is the best we can expect.  Most people will take a lot less time and trouble, implying that we can expect emissions of 10 to 15 g/kg.  Based on the graph (right) showing the relationship between methane and particle emissions, average amounts of wood burned, and average fuel used by households with non-polluting heating, we can conclude that, even if the wood is from a sustainable source, the average Australian woodheater will cause more global warming than gas or reverse cycle electic heating.

Even worse for global warming if climate reaches a tipping point in less than 100 years   Methane causes substantial, intense warming for some years after emission.  Over 20 years, it causes 72 as much global warming as the same amount of CO2, over 100 years this reduces to 25 times as much.  The Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development explains: With abrupt climate change approaching faster than predicted according to scientists, fast-action mitigation strategies (reducing black carbon, methane, and tropospheric ozone) are essential in order to avoid passing the tipping points.  See also a research paper with detailed info on Australian woodheating and global warming. 

Article in the Prince George Citizen providing a scientific explanation why burning wood produces a lot more CO2 than natural gas per unit of useful energy.  "The basic premise that wood based fuels operate under is that any carbon dioxide produced will be recycled into trees. But there is a word missing from that sentence and it is “eventually”. It takes some 80 years or so for the carbon dioxide released today to be fully capturedAnd with twice as much carbon dioxide being produced for the same amount of energy, that is a lot of additional greenhouse gases being introduced into the atmosphere in the short run."

Pellet heaters cause much less global warming
       
This problem can be avoided by switching to pellet heaters which emit 95% less health-hazardous PM2.5 pollution and methane per year than the average AS4013 heater.  Average emissions from pellet heaters are  less than1 g/kg, compared to 10 g/kg for the average wood heater, but because the heat is controllable, two or 3 houses can be heated for the same amount of wood burned in a single log heater.  


Environment Progress: Australian wood heaters currently increase global warming and health costs

Greenpeace - Fuelling a Biomess 
• "Burning natural forest biomass – whether for electricity, heat or biofuels – is not carbon-neutral as governments and companies claim. 
 
"Burning trees contributes to climate change for decades, as shown by the most up-to-date science, until replacement trees fully grow back
• "Compared to current coal-fired electricity plants in North America, current woody biomass power plants can emit at the smokestack up to 150% more climate disrupting CO2, 400%more lung irritating carbon monoxide, and 200% more asthma causing particulate matter to produce the same amount of energy. The CO2 emited will harm climate for decades before being captured by regrowing trees.
• "Burning boreal biomass contributes to climate change through a long carbon payback 
time due to the slow regrowth of forests and the fragility of existing carbon stocks."

Environment Progress - Australian wood heaters currently increase global warming and health costs 

Relationship between methane and particle emissions in domestic wood heaters

John Gras's study (mainly of correctly-operated heaters) measured particle emissions from of emissions from Australian woodheaters burning both eucalype hardwoods and softwoods. 
    The results for eucyalypt hardwoods (see graph) were used by consultant Prof John Todd to derive an equation (CH4 = 1.495 x praticle emissions) which is used by the Australian Greenhouse Office to estimate methane from particle emissions.
        For pine, the graph shows a combination of Australian and overseas results. In John Gras's Australian study  the AS4103 heater burning pine had average particle emissions of 15.8 g/kg and methane emissions of 30 g/kg, equivalent to the global warming of 0.75 kg of carbon dioxide.   Even a correctly-operated heater burning Amidale's average of 4 tonnes of pine per year would be expected to emit 3 tonnes of CO2-equivalent anc cause more global warming from its methane emissions than heating a similar house with gas or a reverse cycle electric heat pump.

Black Carbon
    NASA scientists report that black carbon aerosols also cause global warming.  Sulphate aerosols scatter incoming solar radiation and cool the planet.  However, aerosols containing black carbon absorb incoming solar radiation and have a strong warming influence on the atmosphere.  Modelling suggest that black carbon aerosols account for 45% or more of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last three decades.  Newspaper headlines announced: Al Gore calls on world to burn less wood and fuel to curb 'black carbon'


90 Scientists urge US Congress to improve carbon accounting for biofuels and bioenergy
"Clearing or cutting forests for energy, either to burn trees directly in power plants or to replace forests with bioenergy crops, has the net effect of releasing otherwise sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, just like the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.  Letter to Congress

Letter to the Washington State Legislature arguing that burning harvested trees that would otherwise remain standing instead of natural gas could lead to an increase in total carbon emissions.

Alternative clean, renewable energy

Photovoltaic systems for new houses.   New houses must be insulated and can be designed on passive solar principles so they need very little heating.  Armidale residents can currently install a 1.5 kW of solar cells for $3680.  This system is expected to generate 2.43 megwatt hours of electricity, more than enough to power a reverse cycle heat pump to meet the heating and lighting requirements of a well-designed passive solar house, so that, whatever the rise in electricity prices, the owners would never need to pay another electricity bill!
    Owners of new houses that aren't as well designed can still enjoy similar benefits by purchasing a larger system. 

Solar air heaters.   New houses can have roof-integrated solar air heaters.
Other houses can be retro-fitted with rooftop models, e.g. the commercially available models from T3E energy.  A US company produces a do-it yourself model.  Plans for self-build models are also available on the web, e.g. in mother earth newsMark Bower's design, or one made from recycled aluminium cans.  It is possible that some of these ideas might be improved for Australian conditions by using dark colorbond instead of 2 layers of black aluminium window screen.

Install rooftop PV solar cells - cheaper and cleaner than woodheating

        Other environmentally friendly options include offsetting electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions by installing a photovoltaic system on the roof.  Local suppliers include "Farming the sun, New England", who can supply a  1.5 kW system for $3680, comparable to the cost of a new woodheater (see right panel) and New England Solar Power.  As well as paying for itself in 2.5 years,  as long as ceiling insulation and draftproofing have been installed, the system should almost totally offset the greenhouse gas emissions and costs of reverse cycle electric or gas heating.
        Householders should also consider taking advantage of Armidale's lovely sunny winter climate by installing solar air heating so that no heating is needed on most days during daylight hours and for a couple of hours into the early evening.

Interesting/useful links

IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
L.A. Times cuts off climate-change deniers

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