Monday, August 14, 2017

Greenhouse Gas Inventory results in Rochester, NY and beyond

Greenhouse Gas Inventory Results | The inventoried emissions within the City of Rochester jurisdictional boundaries for all activities and sources listed above totaled 2.8 million MTCO2e in 2014. For purposes of the CAP, large emitters, other fuels, and airline travel emissions were removed from the inventory due to the limited opportunity to be easily impacted or directly influenced through traditional community climate action strategies. (Large emitters are facilities that emit more than 25,000 MTCO2e per year; these facilities report to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program3.) After this adjustment, the City of Rochester total GHG emissions were 1.8 million MTCO2e in 2014, which is the factor used throughout the CAP for goal setting and development of strategies. This is equivalent to 380,000 passenger vehicles being driven in any given year or the energy used by 190,000 homes for one year4. (Page 20, Rochester Climate Action Plan)

Figuring out how much greenhouse gasses (GHGs) a community like Rochester emits into our atmosphere is no easy task. Everyone in the community, including governmental operations (vehicles, buildings, etc.), businesses, schools, individuals, and even Nature itself is spewing what is now too much of a good thing.

How do you tally all that up? How do you distinguish natural GHG emissions from manmade ones (read on)? How does the government itself monitor and control their GHGs? How do you get businesses to record all their GHGs, not just the ones they will agree to publicize? How do you get the public to send their data to a place where their GHG emissions can be recorded? (Spoiler alert, except through some voluntary apps, this scenario is very unlikely to happen.)  And how, for goodness sake, do you get the Trump administration to even acknowledge the emissions from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are “about 1,000 to 12,000 times as potent as carbon dioxide, depending on the specific chemicals used to make HFCs.” (Court Scuttles Rule Cutting Potent Greenhouse Gas, August 9, 2017 Climate Central)

Much of how data was compiled for Rochester’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) is explained in the plan and much of that is ‘based on available data’. This is normal, especially for a city like Rochester that is just starting its CAP. For places like Portland, Oregon, who’ve been working on their CAP for over twenty years, they have lots of historical data.

On a world scale, accumulating comprehensive and accurate GHG data is complicated indeed:

'Dodgy' greenhouse gas data threatens Paris accord Potent, climate-warming gases are being emitted into the atmosphere but are not being recorded in official inventories, a BBC investigation has found. (August 8, 2017, BBC News)

There are more sources for GHGs and even more kinds of them than we ever thought. For example, these new HFC refrigerants (mentioned above) are thousands of times more potent than good ole carbon dioxide.

As noted, some experts are concerned that data collection itself is so haphazard that it might undermine the Paris Accord—even more than Trump has undermined it. (That would be a nice excuse for Trump pulling out of the accord wouldn’t it?)

So, what to do? The world really does need a way to verify what has been promised in the Paris Accord (not to mention actually lowering all GHG emissions); therefore, we need a way to do the collecting. In developing nations, they often do not have the equipment or know-how to access all their GHG emissions. In developed nations (like the US) there may not be a desire to share all that information.

But science offers a way around many of the political and ideological hindrances for a more complete and accurate monitoring of global GHGs. 

Inside the Quest to Monitor Countries’ CO2 Emissions The world needs a way to verify that nations have made their promised carbon cuts in order to make the Paris agreement effective (February 28, 2017, Scientific American)

Imagine a thought experiment where scientists have developed a satellite system that would monitor GHG emissions from every source on earth—and distinguish between natural and manmade emissions. (See below.)

“As a graduate student in 1978, [we] helped develop a breakthrough that could allow verification to happen. It involves a tracer, a carbon isotope called C-14, that is present in natural emissions of CO2 from plants and animals. It is not present in emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil products and natural gas, that have been stored underground for millions of years. Tests of air samples collected regularly from sensors on commercial aircraft would provide accurate measures of any depletion of C-14 caused by recent emissions from fossil fuels.” (February 28, 2017, Scientific American)

Such an eye-in-the-sky monitoring system could provide humanity with critical feedback on how our efforts at curbing GHGs are going. You couldn’t cheat, or lie, or hide, or fudge the data because a system of worldwide data would measure exactly what was entering our atmosphere from every single location. Probably even locations and sources we haven’t discovered yet.

Humanity has been focusing on the large GHGs emitters but our rising temperatures may also be caused by the accumulated emissions from myriad small sources who don’t have to report their emissions, from secret, illegal operations our authorities cannot catch, and even from something so ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous as our backyard barbeques.  

Of course, even if my thought experiment were possible, it would not be simple to gather all GHG emissions. Nations, businesses, and individuals would create such a hue and cry over this invasive technology that it would probably never get off the ground. Much of the problem with addressing Climate Change is that we know what to do but we don’t want to do it. A large part of push against addressing Climate Change has been orchestrated by those who know the scale and urgency at which we need to change business as usual and don’t want that to happen. Bad players protecting their own immediate self-interests in the face of an existential crisis has presented the rest of us our most difficult challenge for a sustainable future.

This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t eventually happen, though. Humanity isn’t very good at suppressing the use of knowledge or technology once we’ve acquired it. (The nuclear genie is not going back in the box. Drones, however obnoxious and dangerous, aren’t going away either.)

Because we will be seeing more efforts to curb our GHGs and at the same time noticing that our concentrations are still continuing to climb, it is more likely as time goes on that we’ll eventually adopt some version of this satellite program. When things get really hot, we’ll not be so squeamish about exposing each other’s GHG emissions. When things get really hot, we are going to abandon many of our cherished ideas about the good life because we’ll be scrambling just to survive. But, given our inertia on Climate Change, it is also likely that by the time we get to this point, it may be too late to stop many of the worst consequences of Climate Change.

Time passes. 

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