Krzysztof Strug
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Blockchain solves none of the problems with carbon offsets

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There’s a brewing storm around carbon offsets. They’re being used to protect trees that nobody wanted to cut down, fund wind turbines running for the last 10 years, and build new solar panels that were going to be built anyway. Some companies are deliberately increasing emissions in order to be paid for decreasing them again.

What solves absolute none of these problems? Blockchain!

In theory (though perhaps not in practice), blockchain provides a distributed ledger which is difficult to muck around with. Transactions are hard to fake, and so you can trust that whoever the blockchain says owns an offset really owns an offset. There are a bunch of companies purporting to bring the bright cleansing sunlight of blockchain to the rotten world of carbon offsets.

Unfortunately, blockchain provides a solution to a completely different problem. None of the issues with offsets relate to people falsifying transactions, or malevolent actors manipulating database records. The big sellers of offsets are not struggling to keep track of their tiddlywinks. Just like the rest of the financial system, they use fairly reliable, cheap, well understood database technologies to store data. It’s not very interesting. It’s also not a cause for concern.

All of the problems with carbon offsetting relate to verifying something has happened, or not happened in the real world because you spent some money [1].

Bogus offsets arise when people misrepresent the state of the real world. Whether they then write that dodgy data into an SQL database, blockchain, or onto a stone tablet doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. As we’re fond of saying in data science, it’s garbage in, garbage out.

The actual problems plaguing carbon offsets can be clustered into two overarching challenges:

You can find this out if you have an incentive to do so (spoiler: most buyers of cheap offsets do not). These are questions like:

  • is there more carbon in this soil than there used to be?
  • have these villages really switched to clean cookstoves?
  • are the trees I paid for still standing?

Sometimes it can be tricky to figure these things out, but there are tangible answers to those questions. Startups like RegrowAg, Pachama, and Yardstick are trying to bring down the cost of observing of the world and checking it lines up with what it says on your offset certificate [2].

Many dud offsets correspond to projects that would have happened regardless of whether the offset was sold. The opposite is also a problem: offsets “preventing” events that were actually never going to occur. To tell whether your offset made a difference, you need to know things like:

  • would this forest have been chopped down if it weren’t for my offset?
  • would this hydroelectric dam have been built if it weren’t for my offset?
  • would this gas have been leaked into the atmosphere if it weren’t for my offset?

Unfortunately, there’s no conclusive answers to these questions. They’re statements about worlds that do not exist; futures that never came to pass. To my knowledge, nobody has a clever startup working on answering these questions, probably because they’re very hard and any viable solution would be too complex for anybody to trust.

Last week saw large amounts of money committed to Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) projects by the Frontier Fund ($1bn of guaranteed purchases led by Stripe with participants including Alphabet, Meta and Shopify) and Lowercarbon Capital ($350m of funding for removal startups).

<a href="https://d37ugbyn3rpeym.cloudfront.net/videos/climate/frontier-explainer.mp4" rel="nofollow">https://d37ugbyn3rpeym.cloudfront.net/videos/climate/frontier-explainer.mp4</a> (A good primer on CDR and why advanced purchase commitments are necessary. Source: Frontier Fund.)

CDR involves paying somebody large amounts of money to actively remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it somewhere permanently. Advocates of CDR point to IPCC modelling which shows that under even the most optimistic scenarios, we’re going to have to remove large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s totally true, but another reason climate-conscious big corporates are excited about CDR is that it solves all of the informational problems associated with offsets [3].

Popular companies in the space include Charm Industrial (”making oil and putting it back underground”), Climeworks (”sucking carbon out of the air”) and Heirloom (”using baked limestone to soak up carbon”).

What all of these wacky sounding projects have in common is that it’s relatively easy to ascertain how they’ve impacted the world. It’s much easier to track how much oil you’ve made than monitor a rainforest’s carbon content. Even more importantly, you can be damn well sure that these barmy projects weren’t going to happen if you weren’t paying for it. They’re reassuringly expensive – about $300 per tonne of CO2 according to this analysis.

They therefore solve the hard problem of offsets: in the alternative world where you didn’t pay for that tonne of CO2 to be sequestered, it didn’t happen.

Erm, none.

Update 3rd May 2022: Carbonplan wrote a fantastic deepdive – Zombies on the Blockchain – about blockchain schemes resurrecting garbage offsets which were previously unsellable. Thanks to Michael Skaug for the link.

Please reach out if you feel like I’ve got this wrong and can explain why. I have tried to be open minded when engaging with these climate-blockchain projects but every explanation I’ve received doesn’t make sense to me and leaves me with the icky sensation that somebody is trying to profit from my confusion.

This article is also published on Archy De Berker's website Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Footnotes

  1. These problems are often categorized as ones of leakage (did the carbon get emitted elsewhere instead?), additionality (did the offset change the amount of carbon that would have been emitted), and permanence (did the carbon stay emitted?)
  2. CarbonPlan also do fabulous work assessing the quality of offsets: check out this gorgeous report on overcrediting in Californian forests
  3. More skeptical environmentalists might also observe that the reason VC’s are so excited about CDR is that it seems likely that there will be a few big players which become very dominant in the space. These oligopolies will end up earning outsized returns compared to less technologically uncertain ways of cutting carbon like wind and solar. I think this is accurate and also fine, if it means we remove huge quantities of carbon.
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Why ‘De-Extinction’ Is Impossible (But Could Work Anyway)

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Gilbert’s work speaks to the difficulties of de-extinction through genetic engineering, a popular approach favored by researchers such as George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard University who is leading a project aimed at bringing back the woolly mammoth of prehistory. With a large recent funding boost from the startup Colossal, Church is hopeful that they’ll make headway in the next decade or so by genetically editing mammoth genes into Asian elephants, a closely related living pachyderm.

But the de-extinction field encompasses more than genetic engineering. Using an approach called selective back-breeding, some groups are restoring ancient traits from extinct species by selectively breeding individuals that still carry the genes for them. For instance, the Tauros Program aims to back-breed modern cattle to make them more like their pre-domesticated ancestors, the aurochs, and the Quagga Project in South Africa is selecting for zebras that still have genes from the quagga, a subspecies hunted to extinction in the 19th century.

Still, even if these genetic engineering and selective breeding efforts succeed, they can only create a kind of hybrid rather than a purely resurrected species.

The closest you can get to an exact genetic replica of an extinct species is a clone created from a living or preserved cell from that species. Scientists don’t have useable cells from woolly mammoths, dodos, the Tasmanian tiger or most other species that are hyped up in the realm of de-extinction, but they do from some more recently extinct species. In 2003, researchers used cloning to bring back the bucardo, a species of wild goat, using a modern goat as a surrogate parent and egg donor. The baby bucardo, the only extinct species to ever be cloned, died after only seven minutes because of a lung malformation.

But even if cloning is someday more successful, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it could also lead to proxies “that differ in unknown and unpredictable ways from the extinct form.” For example, researchers may not know everything about potential epigenomic differences affecting DNA activity or the microbiome needed to support the species’ health. They also may not be able to recreate the exact learning environment in which the original species was reared, which could cause the behavior of the de-extinct species to deviate from that of the original.

Despite these differences, Novak said, “from an evolutionary standpoint, a clone is an authentic, or ‘true’, de-extinct organism.” In fact, although cloning is officially included in the IUCN guidelines and some other researchers would disagree, Novak doesn’t think cloning should even be considered de-extinction but rather a “true recovery.”

The problems that riddle the field don’t dissuade de-extinction researchers. For them, a good proxy or functional equivalent of a lost species may be good enough. “I don’t actually know anyone who said we have to get a perfect copy of anything,” said Church. The practical goal of the woolly mammoth project he’s leading is to help endangered Asian elephants adapt to the frigid environments of the Arctic tundra.

“Make sure people don’t think they’re going to get a mammoth, because they’re not,” said Gilbert, who is not involved in that research. They will instead get a “hairy elephant” that can live in the cold.

Mammoth-elephant hybrids could be relocated to places such as Pleistocene Park, a large area of tundra in Russia where scientists are trying to restore the much more biodiverse and climate-friendly grasslands ecosystem it once was, when large grazers including mammoths populated the area. By trampling the soil and allowing cold air to seep in, the mammoth hybrids could in theory slow the melting of permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases that are warming the globe. The team also hopes that in the process, they can rescue the endangered elephant species by placing them in a large open area free from human conflict.

Similarly, Novak is working to resurrect the extinct passenger pigeon and the heath hen as genetically engineered hybrids of modern species, in the hope that they might help to restore their respective ailing ecosystems and motivate restoration efforts. The San Diego Zoo is trying to save the northern white rhino, a species that is functionally extinct because two females are the only ones left in the world. The zoo’s scientists are developing stem cells that could differentiate into northern white rhino sperm and eggs, and any resulting embryos might be carried to term by surrogate southern white rhinos.

“I’m excited about [de-extinction] and keep talking about it and keep doing interviews about it, not because I think we really are going to get a mammoth — I don’t think we will,” Shapiro said. “But because the path to getting us there is so important for conservation of living species.”

And if resurrected species are introduced into the wild, some of de-extinction’s successes may go even further in the long run. “If we get our proxies close enough,” Novak said, “evolution itself is probably going to converge them even closer to the original form than we can actually succeed in doing.” That is, if the forces that felled the original species don’t render their replacements extinct too.

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Meteorites could have brought 5 genetic 'letters' of DNA to Earth

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Key building blocks of DNA that previous research mysteriously failed to discover in meteorites have now been discovered in space rocks, suggesting that cosmic impacts might once have helped deliver these vital ingredients of life to ancient Earth.

DNA is made of four main building blocks — nucleobases called adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). DNA's sister molecule, RNA, also uses A, C and G, but swaps out thymine for uracil (U). Scientists wondering whether meteorites might have helped deliver these compounds to Earth have previously looked for nucleobases in space rocks, but until now, scientists had only detected A and G in space rocks, and not T, C or U.

Nucleobases come in two flavors, known as purines and pyramidines. The nucleobases previously seen in meteorites are both purines, which are each made of a hexagonal molecule fused with a pentagonal molecule. The ones missing in space rocks until now are pyramidines, which are smaller structures each made of just a hexagonal molecule.

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It was long a mystery why only purines, not pyramidines, were seen in meteorites. Prior lab experiments simulating conditions in outer space suggested that both purines and pyramidines could have formed during light-triggered chemical reactions within interstellar molecular clouds, and that the compounds could then have been incorporated into asteroids and meteorites during the formation of the solar system. Such chemical reactions may have also happened directly within the space rocks.

Now, scientists have finally detected all the pyramidines and purines found in DNA and RNA in meteorites that made it to Earth. 

"The presence of the five primary nucleobases in meteorites may have a contribution to the emergence of genetic functions before the onset of life on the early Earth," study lead author Yasuhiro Oba, an astrochemist at Hokkaido University in Japan, told <a href="http://Space.com" rel="nofollow">Space.com</a>.

The researchers employed state-of-the-art analytical techniques originally designed for use in genetic and pharmaceutical research to detect tiny amounts of nucleobases, down to range of parts of per trillion. This is at least 10 to 100 times more sensitive than prior methods that attempted to detect pyramidines in meteorites, Oba said.

The scientists analyzed samples from three carbon-rich, or carbonaceous, meteorites that prior work suggested could have hosted the kinds of chemical reactions that created nucleobases — the Murchison, Murray and Tagish Lake meteorites.

The scientists detected T, C and U at levels of up to a few parts per billion within the meteorites. These compounds were present at concentrations similar to those predicted by experiments replicating the conditions that existed prior to the formation of the solar system. In addition to the crucial T, C and U compounds, the scientists also detected other pyramidines not used in DNA or RNA that further show meteorites' ability to carry these compounds.

"Due to our findings, we can say nucleobases also show wide varieties in carbonaceous meteorites," Oba said.

It remains uncertain why pyramidines were so much less abundant in these meteorites than purines. Oba suggested a clue might lie in the fact that purines include a pentagonal ring known as imidazole, whereas pyramidines do not. 

Imidazole and similar molecules proved far more abundant than pyramidines in these meteorites, suggesting they might prove easier for naturally occurring chemical reactions to synthesize. In addition, imidazole can act like a primitive catalyst to set off chemical reactions, such as forming purines instead of pyramidines.

The scientists detailed their findings online April 26 in the journal Nature Communications.

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Chart: Where tropical forests disappeared in 2021

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Last fall, more than 140 world leaders made a pact to stop deforestation within the decade, not long after dozens of countries vowed to conserve nearly a third of their land. But while policymakers deliberated, trees continued to get chopped down.

In the tropics, where nearly all deforestation takes place, farming, logging, and wildfires destroyed more than 11.1 million hectares (27 million acres) of trees last year, an area roughly the size of Virginia, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI). More than a third of that loss was in tropical “primary” rainforests — old and unharmed groves of trees that store huge quantities of carbon, which is now likely to reenter the atmosphere where it will fuel climate change.

These losses extended to areas outside the tropics as well. In Russia, home to the largest forested area on Earth, wildfires wiped out more than 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) of boreal, or snow, forest in 2021, roughly equivalent to the area of West Virginia, WRI’s analysis shows. (The organization typically doesn’t consider these losses “deforestation” because forests may grow back after a wildfire.)

Losing two states’ worth of forests in a single year is alarming but not unusual. Compared to 2021, the tropics lost slightly more primary forest in 2020. What’s surprising is that rampant deforestation continues, seemingly unbridled, even as companies and countries promise to save these ecosystems, which people and animals depend on. What’s more, just a few places — and a few products — are behind the bulk of this destruction.

Just one country is responsible for more than a third of all deforestation in the tropics

More than 40 percent of the primary forests that humans wiped from the tropics last year were in Brazil, according to WRI’s analysis. Most of that loss was in the Amazon, the largest rainforest on Earth.

Deforestation like this often appears in satellite imagery as large shapes cut from dark green expanses, typically near roads. The images below, taken last spring, show deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Continuing to cut down the Amazon comes at a staggering cost. It’s weakening the forest and pushing it closer to a dangerous tipping point, some scientists fear, beyond which much of it could turn into a grassy savanna — that is, an entirely different ecosystem.

“Such losses are a disaster for the climate, they’re a disaster for biodiversity, they’re a disaster for Indigenous people,” Frances Seymour, a researcher at WRI, said on a call with reporters, speaking about deforestation in Brazil. (Hundreds of Indigenous tribes live in the Amazon.)

WRI’s analysis also showed steep losses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to the world’s second-largest rainforest. The Congo Basin is not as famous as the Amazon but is no less important, providing habitat for countless endangered animals like chimpanzees and African forest elephants and a home to more than 100 distinct ethnic groups.

But there are some glimmers of good news in the report. Once rampant, deforestation in Indonesia continues to decline thanks to strong corporate pledges and policies, according to WRI. In 2021, it dropped for the fifth straight year, the group said, falling by 25 percent compared to 2020. (However, the price of oil palm, a crop linked to deforestation in Indonesia, is currently at a 40-year high, WRI said. That could put pressure on the industry to chop down more forest for plantations.)

The greatest threat to our forests

It’s not toilet paper or hardwood floors or even palm oil. It’s beef.

Clearing trees for cattle is the leading driver of deforestation, by a long shot. It causes more than double the deforestation that’s linked to soy, oil palm, and wood products combined, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

And worldwide beef consumption is increasing. In 1990, the world ate roughly 48 billion kilograms of beef (and veal); in 2019, consumption surpassed 70 billion kilograms (154 billion pounds), according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Much of the beef-fueled deforestation is in Brazil, followed by Paraguay. Companies that raise cattle are responsible for an astonishing 80 percent of the forest loss in the Amazon, scientists estimate.

Oil palm production is a problem, too, but many of the companies that sell it have committed to preventing forest loss; those pledges are less common among corporations that buy and sell cattle and beef, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Forest Trends.

“The disparity is alarming,” wrote the authors of the report, who mention that cattle farming causes an estimated 10 times more deforestation than oil palm.

Can the world actually stop deforestation by 2030?

Advocates have tried to before.

At a UN climate summit in 2014, dozens of governments signed a pact called the New York Declaration on Forests, which aimed to end deforestation by 2030. So far, it hasn’t done much.

Last year, a much larger group of global leaders made a similar pledge at the big climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Will this time be different?

“We have had many declarations before and nothing has changed,” Kimaren ole Riamit, an Indigenous leader in Kenya, told Vox last year. “There’s very little to inspire us.”

But some forest scientists and advocates are still hopeful. Last year’s pledge involves a large number of economic powerhouses, including China, and a lot of money. Countries and private institutions backed the commitment with more than $19 billion, which will help poorer nations restore damaged forests and prevent wildfires.

There are other positive signals, too, such as what’s happening in Indonesia. And more than ever, major agencies that shape environmental policies are beginning to incorporate the rights and contributions of Indigenous people and local communities. (It remains to be seen whether support for Indigenous groups extends beyond acknowledging them on paper, advocates caution.)

Getting beef consumption to decrease is a bit trickier, but there’s been some progress. Fast food joints including Burger King and TGI Fridays are now serving plant-based burgers, for example, and the alternative meat sector is beginning to receive government funding.

Ultimately, companies and politicians are responsible for ending deforestation, but that doesn’t mean individuals can’t help. Eating less beef (and other meats) is perhaps the best way to limit your impact on the planet.


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This startup's energy storage tech is 'essentially a…

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Locational Marginal Emissions

Purchasing renewable energy is a means to an end: decarbonization. Yet, renewable energy projects are not all equal when it comes to cutting carbon.

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These Solar Cells Produce Electricity at Night

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By taking advantage of the temperature difference between a solar panel and ambient air, engineers have made solar cells that can produce electricity at night.

Compared to the 100 to 200 watts per square meter that solar cells produce when the sun is shining, the nighttime production is a trickle at 50 mW/m2. “But it is already financially interesting for low-power-density applications like LED lights, charging a cellphone, or trying to power small sensors,” says Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who published the work along with coauthors in Applied Physics Letters.

Fan and his colleagues harnessed the concept of radiative cooling, the phenomenon by which materials radiate heat into the sky at night after absorbing solar energy all day and that others have tapped before to make cooling paint and energy-efficient air-conditioning. Because of this effect, the temperature of a standard solar cell pointing at the sky at night falls below ambient air temperature. This generates a heat flow from the ambient air to the solar cell. “That heat flow can be harvested to generate power,” Fan says.

To do that, the researchers integrated a photovoltaic cell with a commercial thermoelectric generator (TEG) module, which converts temperature difference into electrical power. The TEG sits underneath the solar cell, and an aluminum sheet between the two conducts heat from the solar cell to the TEG. The other side of the TEG connects via a heat sink to ambient air.

While existing solar panels could be retrofitted with a TEG to produce power at night, Fan says, the crucial thing for the devices to work well together is to have very close thermal contact between solar cells and the TEG, a challenge that retrofit solutions will have to overcome.

The team tested their prototype TEG-integrated solar cell for three days in October 2021 on a rooftop in Stanford, Calif. The demonstration showed a nighttime power production of 50 mW/m2. The team estimates that in a hotter, drier climate, the same setup could generate up to 100 mW/m2.

Fan says there’s substantial room for improvement, because the conventional solar cell they used is not designed for radiative cooling. It emits heat waves in the mid-infrared range of wavelengths around 10 micrometers. By tweaking that emission wavelength, the solar cell could be made even cooler at night, which would increase the temperature difference, and ultimately the power that the TEG produces.

“In principle, it could be possible to engineer the thermal-emission property of the solar cell to optimize its radiative cooling performance without affecting solar performance,” Fan says. “Our theoretical calculations point to the possibility of a few hundred milliwatts or maybe even 1 watt.”

The Stanford team plans to engineer new solar cells to improve the nighttime power generation and also plan to scale up their prototype. Cost could be one barrier to scaling up the idea, since TEGs are typically made of expensive materials. The team has not done a detailed cost analysis, but Fan says that for an apples-to-apples comparison, you would have to compare their 24-hour solar cell with a nighttime setup in which you produce solar power during the day and then use a battery to get power at night.

Given the significantly longer lifetimes of TEG modules over a battery’s typical five years, Fan says that “our preliminary calculations indicate that there are application scenarios where thermoelectric may have the potential to outperform a battery approach.”

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