Science·What on Earth?

How effective is carbon capture technology?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we examine the state of carbon capture technology and introduce you to some invasive insect species you might see on your travels this year.

Also: Electric buses are driving change

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Carbon capture: Where it's at
  • China's electric buses are driving change at a huge scale
  • Pesky critters! Get to know some common invasive insect species

How effective is carbon capture technology?

(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Many readers have written to us about carbon capture, wondering if it's still a realistic piece in the puzzle when it comes to reducing emissions and hitting climate targets.

According to researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, as recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, is higher now than at any time in the past 800,000 years. High levels of CO2 cause global temperatures to rise.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) works by catching CO2 produced by large industry (think steel factories or oil refineries) before it goes into the atmosphere, transporting it and then using high pressure to funnel it deep into the ground.

About 10 years ago, CCS sort of fell out of favour, as some scientists raised concerns over potential for leaking or just called it "sheer folly." But for a few key reasons, CCS is back.

Julio Friedmann, senior researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, said it's become more affordable. The true costs have dropped about 50 per cent over the past decade, including those for retrofitting industrial or fossil fuel plants with CCS technology.

"Right now, retrofit plants with CCS are cheaper than almost everything," Friedmann said, including offshore wind and rooftop solar power generation.

Another reason: the Paris Accord. "Countries signed on the dotted line and agreed to a 40 per cent CO2 reduction by 2030," said Friedman. "[Then] they went back and said, 'Holy crap, how are we going to do that?'"

The 2015 agreement sets a limit of a two-degree rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels, but actually aims to keep it below 1.5 degrees.

According to the Pembina Institute, Canada is a leader in CCS technology. Of the 181 active CO2-utilization projects at either the pilot or commercial stage around the world, 10 are in Canada.

One of them is Shell Quest, the first carbon capture project in the Alberta oilsands. In 2016, after just one year of operation, it had stored one million tonnes of carbon dioxide deep underground. Boundary Dam 3 in Estevan, Sask., also has CCS technology, and SaskPower is eyeing the possibility of retrofitting the nearby Shand Power Station, a coal-fired plant, with CCS.

But Friedmann said CCS will not solve the problem alone. All "pathways" to mitigating climate change also require the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

"We have to pull between 100 billion and a trillion tonnes of CO2 out of our air and oceans by the end of the century," he said.

We'll explore an old-school and highly effective carbon-sucking technology — trees — in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.

Stephanie Hogan

Your environmental goals

While the weather is getting nicer in most parts of the country, some regions have been hit with flooding, wildfires and other climate risks. With that in mind, we wanted to ask: What are you doing this spring and summer to be more environmentally responsible?

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Looking for old issues of What on Earth? They're right here.

The Big Picture: Electric buses

One of the main prescriptions for lowering carbon emissions worldwide is reducing the number of gasoline-burning vehicles. The transition to electric cars and trucks has been poky, to say the least, but China has identified one area where it can drive huge change: buses. In the last decade, this country of one-billion-plus inhabitants has invested heavily in public transit, and according to the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance, at the end of 2018, it had more than 420,000 electric buses. On this score, the U.S. and Europe are well — well — behind.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Pesky critters! Get to know three invasive insect species

(Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

It's spring — the deck furniture is back out, people are in their gardens again and thinking about larger forays into nature. It's also a good time to learn about some of the unwelcome critters you may encounter out there.

David Nisbet, partnership and science manager for the Invasive Species Centre in Sault Ste Marie, Ont., identified three invasive insect species you should watch out for while gardening, camping or enjoying the cottage this year.

Emerald ash borer

What it looks like: A bright green beetle (see above) from Asia.

Where it is: The emerald ash borer has been spotted all over Ontario, as far north as Thunder Bay, as well as in parts of the Maritimes. In recent years, it's also been sighted as far west as Winnipeg.

The signs: Look for ash trees that are losing leaves with damaged, cracked bark. Also look for trees with lots of woodpeckers — they love eating EAB larvae. The larvae live under the bark and can be identified by the distinctive snaking tracks in the wood. In late spring, the adults emerge, leaving V-shaped exit holes.

The damage: Once EABs establish themselves in a tree, the tree has a 99 per cent mortality rate.

How they spread: They mainly move from place to place while hiding in firewood. To help prevent the spread, buy firewood locally (don't transport it) and leave any leftover firewood at the campsite.

Hemlock woolly adelgid

What it looks like: It's a tiny (less than a millimetre long) aphid-like insect native to Asia. (See image here.)

Where it is: There have been large infestations in southern Nova Scotia and sightings in Toronto and the Niagara Gorge region in Ontario.

The signs: Their only host plant is the eastern hemlock, which is found in old-growth forests and is also common as hedges and ornamental trees. Adult HWAs are too small to see, but infestations are recognizable by their egg sacs, which are small, woolly masses resembling the end of a Q-Tip. Later in the season, look for needle loss, as the adult insects will eat the tree at the base of the needles.

The damage: Trees infested with HWAs will lose their leaves and may die within a few years.

How they spread: Like the emerald ash borer, HWAs can spread through the transport of firewood. Adults and larvae can also be carried by birds or travel short distances by wind.

Gypsy moth

What it looks like: It's a beige moth with furry antennae, and was first documented in Canada in the 1800s. (See image here.)

Where it is: Gypsy moths have been sighted in B.C., Ontario and the Maritimes.

The signs: Keep an eye out for their yellowish, fuzzy egg masses, which are around four centimetres in diameter. The eggs can be found on hard surfaces such as trees, deck furniture and children's toys, and should be scraped off to kill the moths. The gypsy moth's caterpillars can be identified by the distinctive pattern of six pairs of red dots and five pairs of blue dots on their backs.

The damage: They'll eat a huge range of host trees, including oak, maple and birch. After they hatch, caterpillars can quickly strip a tree of its leaves, though it doesn't always kill the tree.

How they spread: They often arrive through international shipping to port cities like Vancouver, laying their egg masses on the outside of ships and containers. Gypsy moths also like to lay eggs in piles of firewood.

Nisbet said that if you "see any major changes in the health of a tree, contact a local arborist to come look at it. It may not be an invasive species, but it's good to have it checked out."

Brendan Pietrobon

If you spot invasive species in new areas, it's important to let the Canadian Food Inspection Agency know. Go here to find out where to report suspected invasive species sightings in your province.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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