Peak salt: is the desalination dream over for the Gulf states?

The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants, but the more water they process, the less economically viable they become

By Stephen Leahy and Katherine Purvis (First published in the Guardian)

Gulf states are among the most water-scarce in the world. With few freshwater resources and low rainfall, many countries have turned to desalination (where salt is removed from seawater) for their clean water needs.

But Gulf states are heading for “peak salt”: the more they desalinate, the more concentrated wastewater, brine, is pumped back into the sea; and as the Gulf becomes saltier, desalination becomes more expensive.

“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense,” says Gökçe Günel, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.”

The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants – mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Tens of billions of dollars, $24.3bn (£18.8bn) in Saudi Arabia alone, are being invested over the next few years to expand desalination capacity.

The process is cost and energy intensive; it pumps seawater through special filters or boils it to remove the salts. The resulting brine can be nearly twice as salty as normal Gulf waters, according to John Burt, a biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi.

But the 250,000 sq km Gulf is more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It’s shallow, just 35 metres deep on average, and is almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the region’s hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. Add in a daily dose of around 70m cubic metres of super-salty wastewater from dozens of desalination plants, and it’s not surprising that the water in the Gulf is 25% saltier than normal seawater, says Burt, or that parts are becoming too salty to use.

Peak salt, says Günel, mirrors the concept of peak oil, a popular concept in the 1970s used to describe the point in time when the maximum rate of oil extraction had been reached. “Peak salt describes the point at which desalination becomes unfeasible,” she says.

And studies have shown that the Gulf will only get saltier in the future. Raed Bashitialshaaer, a water resources engineer at Sweden’s Lund University, says that the growth of desalination plants in the region is happening far faster than his own 2011 study estimated.

With groundwater sources either exhausted or non-existent and climate change bringing higher temperatures and less rainfall, Gulf states plan to nearly double the amount of desalination by 2030 (doc). This is bad news for marine life and for the cost of producing drinking water – unless something can be done about the brine.

Farid Benyahia, a chemical engineer at Qatar University, believes he has a solution. He recently patented a process that could eliminate the need for brine disposal by nearly 100%. The process uses pure carbon dioxide (emitted during the desalination process by burning fossil fuels for power) and ammonia to turn brine into baking soda and calcium chloride. Whether the process is cost-effective remains to be seen but Benyahia believes it could be, especially if markets are found for large volumes of the end products.

Other efforts are also under way to reduce desalination’s country-sized carbon footprint which globally accounts for 76m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – nearly equivalent to Romania’s emissions in 2014.

The Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance was formed in 2015 to tackle this problem by increasing efficiencies and shifting to renewable energy sources, such as solar-powered desalination. Saudi Arabia expects to have a commercial-scale plant operational by 2017 and in California, a proposed solar-powered desalination plant combines innovation, efficiency and design.

Water pricing, says Günel, is also becoming critical to improving water efficiency in the Gulf.

“Climate change policymakers in the region are pushing for water pricing and awareness campaigns around consumption to explain to governments and citizens that they can’t continue to use water in the same way.”

“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty.”

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May 4, 2016 – NASA

The northern forest a “carbon bomb” –  Global Fire Monitoring Center

By Stephen Leahy  [First published Feb 27 2012 (IPS)]

Rising temperatures are drying out northern forests and peatlands, producing bigger and more intense fires. And this will only get much worse as the planet heats up from the use of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, scientists warned last week at the end of a major science meeting in Vancouver.

“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty,” said Mike Flannigan, a forest researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.

“I’d say a doubling or even tripling of fire events is a conservative estimate,” Flannigan told IPS.

While Flannigan’s research reveals forest fire risk may triple in future, a similar increase in peat fires will be far more dangerous. There are millions of square kilometres of tundra and peatlands in the northern hemisphere and they hold more than enough carbon to ramp up global temperatures high enough to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.

A forest fire in Indonesia that ignited peatlands in 1997 smouldered for months, releasing the equivalent of 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide fossil fuel emissions for the entire year, he said.

“There is the potential for significant releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases (from future peat fires),” Flannigan said.

If peat fires release large amounts of carbon, then temperatures will rise faster and higher, leading to further drying of forests and peat, and increasing the likelihood of fires in what is called a positive feedback, he said.

When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany’s Freiburg University called the northern forest a “carbon bomb”.

“It’s sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on,” Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.

Flannigan’s research is based on climate projections for 2070 to 2090. Forests will be drier and there will be more lightning with rising temperatures. Around the world, most fires are caused by humans, except in remote regions like boreal forest and treeless tundra, he said.

Lightning sparked the 1,000-square-kilometre tundra fire fuelled by peat in Alaska’s Anaktuvuk River region in 2007. Lightning, once nearly unknown in the far north, is becoming more common as the region is now two to three degrees C warmer. Until the past decade, fire had largely been absent from the tundra over the past 12,000 years.

The Anaktuvuk River peat fire burned for nearly three months, releasing about two million tonnes of CO2 before it was extinguished by snow. That’s about half of the annual emissions of a country like Nepal or Uganda. Surprisingly, the severely burned tundra continued to release CO2 in the following years.

Peat can grow several metres deep beneath the ground. In fact, some peat fires burn right through winter, beneath the snow, then pick up again in the spring, said Flannigan.

About half the world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada’s University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.

Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.

Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada’s vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany’s largest research organisation.

This “drastic change” in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.

Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That’s an area larger than the size of India.

The first-ever assessment of forest and bush fires’ impact on human health estimated that 339,000 people die per year from respiratory and other fire-related illness.

“I was surprised the number was this high,” said Fay Johnston, co-author and researcher at University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.

Half of the deaths were in Africa and 100,000 in Southeast Asia. Deforestation fires in the tropics are the worst when it comes to human health impacts, she said. Heavy smoke contains high volumes of tiny particles that are very damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system and can produce heart attacks.

“It takes humans to burn a rainforest. This would be the easiest to stop compared to other fires,” Johnston told IPS.

Forest and bush fires result in many billions of dollars in material losses every year. Last year, fires in drought-stricken Texas resulted in at least five billion dollars in losses, while the Slave Lake, Alberta fire was Canada’s second worst disaster at 750 million dollars.

Future fires will be bigger and more intense and largely beyond our abilities to control or suppress, said Flannigan.

“Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S.” will be impacted, he said

Climate Change Explained in 165 Words

The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.

The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

[For story behind this explanation – a Russian journalist and a bar are involved – click here. (only 320 words!)]

terrifying co2 graph
Graphic by Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus/Chief Scientist Pacific Institute

 

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These climate experts publish studies in peer-reviewed journals like Nature or Science. There is a something called the ‘Oregon Petition’ that claims otherwise. However some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

Paris Climate Agreement – Historic Plan for 3.0C of Warming

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World hopes to improve the Master Plan to keep warming to 1.5C

The best the Paris Agreement can do to control climate change is to keep the warming to 2.7C according to the international Climate Action Tracker. That is assuming every country meets their individual CO2 emission reduction target does and no natural feedbacks will speed the heating of the planet.

Other analysis find the Agreement will result in global temperatures rising to 3.0C or more. Even 2.7C is far too dangerous for humanity and most natural ecosystems we all depend on. Coral reefs will not survive scientists have warned.

Keeping warming below 2.0 will be more challenging – 1.5 even more so. This something humanity has yet to fully understand.

Here’s some things that will have to change:

* No more exploration for more oil, gas, coal

* The current $650 billion to $1 trillion/a year in fossil fuel subsides shift to alternative energy

* No new oil or gas wells, no new coal mines

* Sharply reduce the manufacture of anything that requires fossil fuel or convert them to run on renewable energy including cars and trucks, buildings, power plants and so on. See Study: Stop Building Carbon Infrastructure by 2018

That’s just for starters.

Climate science uses hard numbers. Those numbers say Fossil fuel use has to go to net zero sometime between 2060 and 2070. There is no negotiation.

Paris Climate Talks – Canada’s “Thrilled”

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference, in Paris, France, on Nov. 29, 2015. The Climate Action Network International awarded Canada a second place "fossil of the day" award today at the COP21 climate summit, citing the reluctance of Canadian negotiators to have compensation for weather destruction in poor countries included in the final Paris agreement.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

 

I’m really thrilled Canada was able to play an active part of it.

— Catherine McKenna,  Minister of environment and climate change

Years from now, today may very well be the day our children look back to as the beginning of an ambitious global effort to finally fight climate change. I am proud of the role Canada is playing in reaching this historic and balanced agreement, and I am confident that the world will rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.

— Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Canada: What a difference an election can make

cop21 logo smlThe historic Paris Agreement is front page news in most of Canadian media in part because Canada’s new minister of environment and climate change Catherine McKenna was a key player in the final outcome. Moreover McKenna endorsed the 1.5C target, and lobbied to ensure human and indigenous rights were part of the agreement.

In Paris Canada might have won the “most helpful” or “biggest turn around” award if such things existed — 180 degree change from previous COPs.

For eight years under the previous Stephen Harper government, ‘won’ consecutive “Fossil of the Day” awards for being the most unhelpful country. An award Canada’s previous Minister’s of the Environment took pride in. It was a government so intent on supporting the county’s fossil fuel industry it denied the reality that climate change was already impacting the country.

“We see in Canada the impacts of climate change. We have wildfires in B.C.; we have flooding in Alberta; Prince Edward Island is shrinking; and we see in our Arctic the permafrost is melting and hunters have shorter seasons. Canadians know that we need to act, and that’s what we’re going to do,” McKenna told the Toronto Star.

“Now it’s time to do the hard work,” McKenna added. “We’re going to go home and figure out the plan. . . Every Canadian has to do their part.”

Most Canadian media focused on the details of the agreement nearly all considered it a historic shift to a low-carbon economy. Some focused on the huge challenge of doing so calling it daunting.

So far there is little analysis of the implications of the deal for Canada, the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer and the biggest supplier of oil to the US. It is also the third largest producer of natural gas and one of the top ten miners of coal.

For context here is my four part series revealing how Canada became a very wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah.

First published on the Climate News Mosaic Paris Climate Talks Live Blog available here:

Why the Paris Agreement is Historic – In 60 Words

cop21 logo sml

Every country in the world just agreed to:

1. Phase out fossil fuels well before the end of the century

2. Try to keep global warming to less than 1.5C (very difficult since it’s already 1.0C)

3. Rich countries will help poor countries to green their economies, help pay for the damages from climate impacts and help them adapt to future impacts.

[The Paris Agreement is like buying life insurance. It’s for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.]