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Phase Down? Or Phase Out?

December 10, 2023

Will Countries Agree That It’s Finally Time to End the Fossil Fuel Age?

Phase down? Or phase out? That was the question at COP28, the climate summit in Dubai. As of Sunday, December 10, at least 80 countries, including the U.S., the EU, and small island nations were urging members to agree on an eventual end to burning fossil fuels—phasing them out to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

But the main oil-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia and others in OPEC, strongly opposed language that phases out coal, oil, and natural gas, favoring instead a less hardline commitment to phase them down. China and Russia, among others, were reportedly urging the members to focus only on reducing climate pollution without any mention of fossil fuels.

Since the COP talks began 30 years ago, there has never been a call to stop using fossil fuels even though they cause “a large chunk” of global warming.

There were nearly 500 lobbyists at COP28, who along with gas and coal producing countries, pushed for carbon capture and storage technologies, none of which have been proven to curtail global warming, according to the Guardian. The strategy to support carbon capture is seen as a distraction and a ploy to continue the status quo. Currently, carbon capture projects remove 0.1 percent—a tiny fraction of the warming gas.

The Dutch led an initiative to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel production and was joined by Canada, France, and Ireland among others.  The U.S. did not sign on, according to Reuters.

The failure to reach an agreement on the elimination of coal, oil, and gas at COP28, which ends on Tuesday, December 12, would send the world beyond the critical limit of 1.5C and into “climate breakdown,” according to the UK’s former climate chief, Alok Sharma.

Meat Alternatives Offer Much to Chew On

In addition to fossil fuel lobbyists, representatives of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies were at COP28—in record numbers—three times as many as last year and including some from fertilizer and pesticide firms. The increased attendance of those enterprises comes as more focus is placed on the food industry to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond Burger in the fresh meat section of a supermarket  |  Credit: UBC Media Relations

The UN issued a new report last week based on data showing animal agriculture, including feed production, contributes up to 20 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to causing soil degradation and water and air pollution.

The report shows that alternatives to conventional meat and dairy products can significantly reduce environmental impacts, including plant-based meats, meats cultivated from animal cells, and products derived through rapid fermentation by microorganisms. The report notes that all of them have the appearance, taste, and feel of traditional foods.

According to the Good Food Institute, instead of relying on animals to convert plants into meat, it is more efficient to skip the animal step and derive proteins, fats, vitamins, and water from plants themselves—skipping the middleman or, in this case the middle animal.

Cultivated meat uses biological processes to build muscle and fat from a few animal cells and does not require their slaughter. The third category of alternatives includes protein rich foods from the fermentation of yeasts, algae, and fungi.

With a population of eight billion and growing, the world demand for meat is expected to increase by 50 percent in about 25 years. Meat alternatives should give those concerned about the planet’s future much to chew on.

The Dirt on How China’s Great Wall Stays Great

Many photos of the Great Wall of China show a mountaintop path made of stone and brick, but much of the 20,000-kilometer-long structure, which began construction in the 3rd century BCE, was built using only compacted soil, gravel, and clay.  It would be expected that those so-called rammed earth portions would erode quickly and not be a good defense against invading hordes; however, according to a new study, earthen sections of the wall are defending themselves against time.

Sections of the Great Wall of China get extra support and protection from a living layer of bacteria and moss.  |  Credit: Bo Xiao/China Agricultural University

Only around one-sixth of the impressive rampart still stands, but research by Northern Arizona University and the China Agricultural University has shown that rammed earth portions are enduring thanks to “biocrusts”—thin layers of bacteria, moss, lichen, and other organisms growing on the surface.

The researchers found that biocrusts, which have been called “living skins,” are protecting the wall from wind, rain, and other corrosive forces compared to bare earthen sections of the structure. The team says biocrusts prevent water and salt from seeping in, acting as “ecosystem engineers” that increase the structure’s overall stability and reduce its erodibility, in part because they don’t have roots that would break the wall apart.

According to the study, “compared with bare rammed earth, the biocrust-covered sections exhibited reduced porosity, water-holding capacity, erodibility, and salinity by 2 to 48%, while increasing compressive strength, penetration resistance, shear strength, and aggregate stability by 37 to 321%.”

Biocrusts provide a nature-based method to conserve historic sites, the authors say, but they are under threat from land development and climate change.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

What Do Coffee Beans Have in Common with Volcanoes?

It turns out you can make a better cup of coffee if you think of it as you would a volcano. That was the splash of insight that came out of a collaboration between chemists and volcanologists at Oregon State University who saw parallels between the way coffee beans behave in a grinder and how plumes of volcanic ash, magma, and water interact in an eruption.

A spray bottle used to wet whole beans before grinding  |  Credit: University of Oregon

When a volcano erupts, magma breaks apart into lots of particles that bounce off each other to generate electricity, which results in lightning. Water vapor in the ash can dictate how long it stays in the air and how far it travels. Likewise, when coffee beans are fractured during grinding, the process generates static electricity that causes clumps to form that prevent water from passing through the coffee evenly and results in waste not to mention cup-to-cup variability. That static electricity is also what causes coffee to fly all over your kitchen.

By repurposing a tool used by volcanologists to measure electric charges on wildfire and volcanic ash, the chemists determined that adding a spritz of moisture to the beans before grinding reduced the static electricity. The water eliminated the clumps, which led to a more consistent and stronger brew as well as a ten percent higher yield.

Baristas already know about this hack. It’s called the Ross droplet technique, but the new research explains the science and was able to measure the electric charge. It also examined how the effect varied with different types of coffee. The team found that clumping was more of an issue with dark roasts, which tend to have less moisture because they’re usually roasted longer.

The coffee experiment can also help volcanologists in their work. They can explore the particle-scale physics of volcanic plumes without exposing themselves to searing hot ash or rivers of white-hot lava.

The study was published in the journal Matter.