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.”

Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

Independent environmental journalism now depends on public support, learn more about how this works and how you can help, click here.

Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading

Global Warming Explained… in 320 words

carbon-neutral-pub
Briton’s 1st carbon-neutral pub (Aston-Hayes)

One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.

“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.

“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).

“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.

Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:

“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.

That’s it.

After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.

I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.

One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.

First published Aug 2015

terrifying co2 graph

Costs You $50-75 To Drive 100 Km (62 miles) – Don’t Blame Gas Prices

cost_of_vehicle_ownership

Smartest Thing You Can Do Is Dump Your Car

By Stephen Leahy

Uxbridge Cosmos, Feb 2013

Cars and trucks are extraordinarily expensive. The full cost of driving 100 km is between between $50 and $75 when fuel, wear and tear, insurance, depreciation, and repairs are included. The cost of owning and operating a car, van, SUV or truck ranges between $9,000 to $15,000 a year depending on the purchase price of the vehicle according to automobile clubs like the CAA . That’s a big chunk of aftertax income spent each and every year. Double this for two-car families.

If you pay $50 at the pump about $33 will go directly to oil companies. The gas station gets around a dollar and the rest is for provincial and federal taxes.

Finally ask yourself how many hours a day your vehicle isn’t being used? Most are parked 22 hours a day.

Why not give your car a day off once a week? A ‘No Car Day’ is easy to do, saves money and reduces emissions of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2). The average passenger vehicle emits around 4.8 tonnes of CO2 a year.

The biggest savings by far is to get rid of one vehicle. When you consider the full costs of ownership, the $9 000 to $15,000 saved will let you rent vehicles or taking taxi as needed with plenty of cash left over. For maximum savings use the bus or train. A bus from Uxbridge is only $10 to downtown Toronto — 75 km one way. Using your car that 75 km trip really costs $45 not including parking.

New study – drive less lose weight guaranteed: If drivers nationwide traveled 1 mile less by car each day, not only would fuel consumption fall, but annual health care costs could drop by billions of dollars as fewer people would be classified as obese or overweight, Jacobson estimates.

My related articles:

EcoMobility Gaining Ground As Cars/Roads Become Too Expensive

Cars Kill More Children Than Malaria — Leading Cause of Death Ages 5 to 14

Lend Your Car, Save, and Save the World

Bike vs Car on a Hot Planet

‘We Have Nothing Without Water’ – Treehugger Interviews Author of Your Water Footprint

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 11.06.18 AM

Why care about your water footprint?

"Your water footprint" by Stephen Leahy

© “Your water footprint” by Stephen Leahy. Groundwater comes from aquifers that take thousands of years to fill. Globally, aquifers are being drained faster than then can refill.

Margaret Badore (@mbadore) Science / Clean Water

November 18, 2014

We learn in elementary school that water is in a constant cycle of evaporation and precipitation, making our crops grow and flowing from rivers into oceans. While the amount of water on Earth remains fairly stable, its distribution around the globe is changing, and this change is being accelerated by human activities.

A new book, “Your Water Footprint,” by environmental reporter Stephen Leahy, takes a close look at the “virtual water” that surrounds us in everyday life. This isn’t just the water we use to boil pasta or take a shower, it’s the water that’s used to grow our coffee beans and power the local energy plant. As the demand for this kind of water increases, the more threatened our access to fresh water becomes. At the same time, pollution makes vast amounts of water unusable.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Leahy over Skype.

TreeHugger: What were your goals for writing this book?

Stephen Leahy: To help people understand this other aspect of water that we use, that we don’t see. This virtual water concept: the water it takes to make things, the water it takes to grow our food, to make our products, to make our clothing. This is that unseen water that we don’t think about, and because we don’t see it, we’re not really aware of it.

It’s an enormous amount of water that we end up consuming every day without realizing it.

TreeHugger: The book is very number heavy, which makes it easy to compare how much water is used in different things. How did you go about finding all the data?

Leahy: It was a nightmare actually, the numbers. Especially for a person who’s a writer, not a numbers guy.

What I did, and this was based on covering science for many years, was figure out a baseline. Who is the best researcher? Who has the best data collection of water footprints? It turned out to be the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and they actually pioneered the concept of water footprints. They’ve developed a whole methodology about how you calculate it, and they’ve done piles of studies of the various water footprints of various products. Sometimes not in the way we think of products. So, they would do a water footprint for wheat, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a burger bun or bread, so I did that. I figured out how much wheat goes into a loaf of bread and did that part of the calculation myself.

So, University of Twente was a godsend, because there are lots of different ways of calculating water footprints, and there’s different numbers out there.

TreeHugger: In the introduction, you discuss this concept of the “water-food-energy nexus.” I’m hoping to can tell us a little more about that.

Leahy: Most people realize that we need water for food, but what most people don’t understand is that we also need water for energy. There’s no form of energy that doesn’t need water. We have a growing population, and a growing shift in diets from vegetable-based to meat-based, which uses a lot more water. At the same time, there’s a billion people who don’t have access to electricity and they of course want to get electricity. As we look to produce more energy and more food, we’re going to need more water. This is the point of the nexus: we don’t have enough water to do all that in the future.

TreeHugger: So, looking forward, we need to reduce our water footprint. I think a lot of our readers are going to be familiar with the concept of reducing a carbon footprint, and in a lot of ways these concepts overlap. So, from your perspective, what are the ways the two footprints don’t overlap?

Leahy: Certainly on the energy side they overlap a lot. But on the food side, that’s probably the best example. If you switch from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet, you could reduce your daily water footprint by 1,300 liters. So, that’s an enormous amount of water when you put it over a year, nearly half a million liters in savings.

The other thing you can do is swapping beef for chicken. Swapping beef for chicken for a family of four would save 900 liters of water.

Food waste is another example, 38 to 40 percent of food in North America is wasted, and that’s a huge amount of water embedded in that food. The “best before” dates are actually problematic in that regard, because it doesn’t really mean the food is bad, it just means the company’s not guaranteeing the flavor.

TreeHugger: I also wanted to ask you about how you think about the trade-offs between the water impact of a product and some of the other impacts of a product. I was thinking about tee-shirts, because I write about clothes a lot. So, on one hand, we could say cotton is natural, it can be low in toxins if we use natural dyes and it’s biodegradable. On the other hand, cotton has a high water footprint. Then if we look at polyester, it has a lower water footprint, but there are concerns about it releasing toxins as it breaks down and contributing to micro plastic pollution. So, how do you look at these kinds of trade-offs? Do you have advice for weighing them?

Leahy: This gets a little bit complicated, because a big number for a water footprint is not necessarily indicative of something that’s bad. If you’re in a water-rich area and need a lot of water, and you’re not polluting this water, that’s going to be okay.

It’s kind of site-specific and product-specific, so this does make it quite a bit more complicated. On the clothing side of things, if you’re growing cotton in a country that has reasonable amounts of rainfall and preferably it’s grown organically, that is it’s grown without pesticides and chemicals, you’re greatly reducing the contamination of water. And if you’re using rain-fed cotton and not depleting an underground source, those are some conditions under which we could talk about products being truly sustainable, because you could continue this for quite a while.

TreeHugger: So, as we look to the future, there are many areas that will soon be facing the collapse of “water bubbles.” Do you think we need to see a shift in water policies or do we need to reduce our personal water consumption? Or is it both?

Leahy: It’s both. From a government policy point of view, water needs to be respected a lot more in terms of managing it long-term. There are places like California that don’t have any rules about how much ground water you can take. Anyone can take as much groundwater as they like—and that’s not uncommon.

The other side of course is consumers. I think consumers need to raise the issue more with both their elected leaders but also the industry. Some industries have responded, Levi’s has greatly reduced their water use for the production side, although it’s not exactly waterless since it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. So, that’s a role for consumers: asking, ‘Where is this product made? Where did it come from?’

Because there are certain things that don’t make any sense. For instance, Egypt is the number two exporter of oranges in the world. Egypt, well it’s is basically a desert, so why are they exporting all these oranges? There are actually all these economic reasons that don’t make any sense from a sustainability point of view. So consumers can make a decision and say, I’m not going to buy a product that requires a lot of water from the desert, because that’s just dumb.

The point about the virtual water is that we have very little without water. So, we’re extraordinarily dependent on water in ways we just don’t realize. And yet, we under-price water, water is very cheap, and water doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

This interview has been shortened and condensed.

Original post

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

October 2014 Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order today

In US:  AmazonPowell’s Books; Barnes&NobleIndiebound

Canada:  Chapters-Indigo Signed copies avail at Blue Heron Books – Stephen’s home town bookstore

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape

Global Experts Call for Moratorium New Tarsands Development Until Climate, Environmental Impacts Assessed

Canada's tar sands projects visible from space
Canada’s tar sands projects visible from space

By STEPHEN LEAHY  Stephen Leahy's picture

A moratorium on any new oilsands expansion is imperative given Canada’s failure to properly assess the total environmental and climate impacts Canadian and U.S. experts say in the prestigious science journal Nature.

Even with a moratorium it will be very difficult for Canada to meet its international promise to reduce CO2 emissions that are overheating the planet according to government documents as previously reported by DeSmog.

Continuing to approve pipelines and new projects guarantees Canada will not meet the Harper government’s Copenhagen emissions reduction target,” said Wendy Palen, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University.

These are the plain facts Canadians need to be aware of,” Palen, a co-author of the Naturecommentary, told DeSmog.

Canadians also have no idea of the overall ‘big picture’ of the impacts of oilsands production and transport because each project is assessed in isolation.

In total more than 280 square kilometres of boreal forest and peatlands have already been eliminated to make way for oilsands development. That amounts to an area more than twice the size of the City of Vancouver.

According to a 2012 study the destruction of this region of the boreal forest – a natural carbon sink –released about 100,000 tonnes of CO2 that had been safely stored underground. And it also meant the end of the region’s ability to absorb some 58,000 tonnes of CO2 every year. Over a 20-year time span that’s 1,161,000 tonnes of CO2 that stays in the atmosphere – close to half the annual emissions of the City of Vancouver.

This does not include CO2 emissions from developing oilsands projects themselves nor the emissions from burning millions of barrels of oil produced there each year.

This piecemeal approach is like determining the risk of cigarette smoking by only looking at the potential harm from smoking one cigarette, environmental economist Mark Jaccard said.

As critics have pointed out during recent pipeline review processes, regulators like the National Energy Board do not consider the climate impacts of pipelines and oilsands projects. It’s considered ‘out of bounds’ Jaccard, another coauthor of the report, said.  Each project is presented as an ultimatum: approve the project or lose an economic opportunity, he said.

This approach artificially restricts discussion to only a fraction of the consequences of oil development,” Jaccard and 7 co-authors argued in the report. The authors represent an interdisciplinary group of experts in environmental science, economics, policy development and decision science.

What Canada and the U.S. need is a “more coherent approach” to evaluate all oilsands projects and pipelines in the “context of broader, integrated energy and climate strategies.”

But first Canada and the U.S. need to impose an immediate halt to new oilsands developments and related pipeline construction, the authors write. (The U.S. is considering developing its own oilsands in Utah and elsewhere). Then the two countries can jointly develop a strategy that allows energy developments to proceed only if they are within environmental limits and respect other national commitments to human health, social justice and biodiversity protection.

However this strategy would need a formal, legislated acknowledgement of the reality that oilsands development impacts the climate. It also should create either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade mechanism to ensure the oil industry absorbs “the full social costs of carbon combustion.”

Finally this strategy should assess the full range of potential impacts compared to alternatives. And it should include the options of saying ‘no’ to a project.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Canada and the U.S. need to co-ordinate their climate policies in an interview on the CBC’s The National last week. She acknowledged we need to get beyond project-by-project approvals.

With new regulations on power plants, the U.S. may be on its way to meeting its Copenhagen emission reduction target, which is identical to Canada’s.

While Prime Minister Harper “clearly doesn’t care about climate change,“ Jaccard told DeSmog,  President Obama does and could make approval of the Keystone XL pipeline contingent on Canada meeting its 2020 target.

Economists around the world now agree the costs of carbon pollution far outweigh the benefits,” Jaccard said.

First published by DeSmog Blog Canada Thu, 2014-06-26 12:19

 

 

For an Ailing Planet, the Cure Already Exists

Measure of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by year
Measure of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by year

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 1, 2012 (IPS)

The planet’s climate recently reached a new milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the Arctic.

The last time Earth saw similar levels of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, where Arctic temperatures were 10 to 14 degrees C higher and global temperatures four degrees C hotter.

Research stations in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia all broke the 400 ppm barrier for the first time this spring, scientists reported in a release Thursday. A global average of 400 ppm up from the present 392 ppm is still some years off.

If today’s CO2 levels don’t decline – or worse, increase – the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won’t take a thousand years. Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree C superheated world by their late middle age, IPS previously reported. Such temperatures will make much of the planet unliveable.

In a four-degree warmer world, climate adaptation means “put your feet up and die” for many people in the world, said Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme in 2009.

This week the International Energy Agency reported that the nations of the world’s CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. This is precisely the wrong direction: emissions need to decline three percent per year to have any hope of a stable climate.

By 2050, in a world with more people, carbon emissions must be half of today’s levels.

Impossible? No. A number of different energy analyses show how it can be done. Continue reading