Science Corner Edition 2

Ever had a burning science question that felt too silly to say out loud, or that lead you down a Wikipedia hole? CERES Energy Education Coordinator Tom Lang wants to answer it! Send your “how does that work?” question to sciencecorner@ceres.org.au and Tom will put his brains to work to find out.

Here’s Tom:

My job as Energy Education Coordinator is to find the best way to teach school kids about fiddly concepts like electricity, climate change, and renewable energy.  A side effect of this turns out to be teaching their teachers the same thing! Which is maybe even more important, because while children are our future, adults can vote and drive. And most of us voters and drivers live in a world full of concepts we don’t really understand. I don’t understand bitcoin, for example. Don’t explain it to me. I don’t want to know.

But when it comes to the earth, energy, the climate, I think we should know. So this is going to be an ongoing column that will try to make some of these mysterious concepts a little bit clearer. It turns out, they’re mostly not that complicated, and are actually pretty cool.

I can’t tell you which power company to go for, or which solar panel is better, but I CAN tell you fascinating stuff about our world!

Kelsey Orr asks:

Why is methane causing climate change if it’s created naturally by animals?

Well, methane is kind of a funny one.

It’s the smallest hydrocarbon, and is the main ingredient of “natural gas”, so you probably burn it for cooking or heating at home.

It’s a greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide and water vapour and a few others. A small amount of methane is fine as part of a healthy greenhouse layer, just like a small amount of CO2 and a whole bunch of water.

(I generally ignore water, because I don’t think humans have any meaningful way to add more water to the water cycle short of finding a giant ice asteroid. Though any change in climate will change the proportion of water that is solid/liquid/gas.)

Methane is about 100 time more effective at trapping heat than CO2, but it only lasts for around a decade in the air before breaking down into other chemicals ( CO2 hangs around until it is removed). So depending on the time scale, people generally say methane is between 30 and 80 times worse than CO2.

And we’re adding a LOT of methane to the air. It’s responsible for around a third of Australia’s greenhouse emissions, and comes from three main sources:

Fugitive Emissions: gas that’s escaped from fossil fuel extraction or gas lines, on the run from the law, hunted for a crime it didn’t commit.

Landfill: When organic waste is digested without oxygen, it makes methane.

Farts: When last night’s dinner is digested without oxygen, it makes methane.

Let’s look at farts.

Science has yet to find a cure for the human fart. The bigger problem is cow farts (and, primarily, burps). Cows have an industrial-grade multi-stage digestive system, designed to slowly break down some of the most difficult food in nature, with the help of a lot of bacteria. This makes a lot of methane.

The modern cow creates as much greenhouse gas every year as a car driving 12,000 km.

There are about 1.5 billion domestic cows in the world.

Now, while this methane will eventually break down into CO2, and then become carbon neutral (because that carbon was sourced from plants, not fossil fuels), while it exists as methane it has a huge greenhouse impact.

The good news? If we reduce our methane emissions, their impact will disappear in just a few decades. And the easiest way to do that is to eat less beef and dairy, and make sure your organic waste is dealt with responsibly.

That doesn’t mean you need to be fully vegetarian or vegan! Even just replacing beef with other non-ruminant critters can have a big impact.  Kangaroo, for example, is a very low-impact meat.

Kangaroo milk on the other hand, is a lot more trouble than it’s worth…

By | 2019-11-11T15:44:39+00:00 September 7th, 2018|CERES Education, Energy|0 Comments

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