April 30 2024

April 30 2024

the challenges of geo-engineering, “zombie fires” portend another bad Canadian fire season, coastal land subsidence increases sea level rise impacts, new nuclear-power plants operational in Georgia, peak use of fossil fuels in electricity sector

As it becomes clear that we are making little headway in reducing fossil-fuel burning, more attention is being paid to climate- or geo-engineering to reduce the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions. These efforts fall into two groups: reducing incoming solar radiation and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Inside Climate News describes the serious technical, political and moral challenges associated with “solar radiation management,” where particles are injected in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight (major volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo in 1991 act on the Earth’s climate in this manner). An op-ed in The New York Times argues for the need for transparent experimentation as this technology is investigated. The Times also reports on marine cloud brightening, a technology that attempts to reflect sunlight on a more local scale (rather than injecting particles into the stratosphere). By purposely altering the energy balance of the earth, these technologies will undoubtedly lead to unanticipated changes in the weather in different places. Critics argue that we should be focusing all of our efforts on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, not further manipulating the planet’s climate.

The New York Times examines the largest projects that are attempting direct air capture, where renewable energy (geothermal or solar) is used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These efforts are highly criticized as too expensive to be meaningful, and imply that it is possible to keep burning fossil fuels. The large plants under construction, when complete, will still only capture 1% of global emissions.

Inside Climate News reviews another way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, creating biochar from plants and other organic materials and returning it to the soil. Biochar, created by burning materials in the absence of oxygen, not only ties up carbon in a very stable chemical structure, but also is a valuable soil amendment for farmers (although right now it is much more expensive than fertilizer). “The process of making biochar has other byproducts, like oil that can easily be made into asphalt, sugar and liquid fuel that can be used for shipping and aviation.”

Critics of geo-engineering point out that (1) unintended consequences are likely, (2) none of the techniques have been demonstrated at scale and (3) we already know what we need to do to address the problem. Last year in The Guardian, IPCC lead author Friederike Otto calls pursuing carbon removal technologies a “dangerous distraction” that “has already been used as an excuse to dither and delay.” She states: “It’s very important to highlight that we still can keep to 1.5C — we have the knowledge and the tools to do it. But what we do not have is a sense of urgency and political will.”

The New York Times describes the desperate conditions that have been created by drought in northwestern Afghanistan. While this region is the hardest hit, three-quarters of the country’s 34 provinces are experiencing severe or catastrophic drought (note: the images and descriptions in this article are heart-breaking and painful). Drought is also devastating Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia in southern Africa. As crops and livestock are destroyed, these nations have been forced to declare national emergencies. “Scientists are uncertain as to whether climate change played a role in this particular drought. However, there is little uncertainty about the long-term effects of climate change in this part of the world.” Aridity is increasing in southern Africa, just as in the southwestern United States.

The New York Times reports that the coming fire season in Canada will be worse than last year’s record-setting season. The dangerous forecast for this year is due in part to “zombie” fires, which continue to smolder through the winter in the moss and peat soils of western Canada. Inside Climate News reports that a dry winter in the Midwest has states battling hundreds of fires earlier than usual. The wildfire threat is growing in the Midwest because of climate change, and the governor of Nebraska has already declared a state disaster this year. Reuters describes the extreme rainfall that hit the United Arab Emirates, resulting in flooding in Dubai. Intense downpours and consequent flooding also occurred in Kazakhstan and Russia.

The New York Times reports on a new study that has carefully mapped land subsidence along the U.S. coast. When considering flood risk along the coast, relative sea level rise is the important statistic, which combines both rising water levels and changes in land elevation. The new study analyzes land-elevation changes on a much smaller scale than in the past, which allows particular localized impacts, such as groundwater depletion, to be more accurately represented. This type of analysis will allow local planners to develop more accurate projections of future flooding.

Inside Climate News notes that for some areas the new research means that “rising sea levels can lead to the flooding of coastal areas sooner than previously anticipated by research that had focused primarily on sea level rise scenarios.” The study determined that 24 of the 32 coastal cities examined are sinking more than 2 millimeters per year, and half of these cities have specific areas that are sinking faster than the global sea levels are rising. Potentially, one in every 35 private properties in these areas are facing future flood damage.

The Guardian reports that natural-gas use, and consequent greenhouse-gas emissions, increased in New York when the Indian Point nuclear-power station was closed. The reactors at the station, constructed in the 1960s relatively close to New York City, were considered by many to be a significant risk to people living in the region. When the reactors closed, however, meeting electricity demand required burning more natural gas. Some argue this is proof that nuclear power must be part of transitioning away from fossil fuels, although at present the cost of new nuclear-power plants makes this unlikely. I explained why I do not see nuclear power as a climate solution in The Nuclear Mirage, and an op-ed in The New York Times concludes it is a “fantasy that nuclear energy will make a difference in a meaningful time frame to slow global warming.” As the first two new nuclear-power plants to be built in the U.S. begin operation in Georgia (long delayed and massively over budget), Grist examines whether this is a new model for utilities or a cautionary tale.

The nuclear industry is having success lobbying Congress, as Politico notes there are multiple programs included in the Biden Administration’s new budget to support nuclear power. Power Magazine reports that TerraPower, the nuclear-power company founded by Bill Gates, is going to begin construction of a demonstration plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. This plant, which is of a new design and received $1 billion in private funding, is still receiving as much as $2 billion from the U.S. government.

The Atlantic describes how communities in the Great Lakes are beginning to plan for a future in which climate change drives migration to the region. “The northern part of the U.S. is more shielded from the primary threats of sea-level rise, hurricanes, drought, and extreme heat.” Academics have predicted that “incredible growth could await those places soon to enter their climate prime. Canada, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Russia could see their per capita gross domestic products double or even quadruple.” While commercial crop yields are projected to fall across the Great Plains, Texas and the South, lands closer to the Canadian border will see yields steadily increase. “Over the past several years, land values have skyrocketed across the upper Midwest, as buyers including Bill Gates have snatched up thousands of acres of farmland.”

Reuters notes that the Department of the Interior has approved Sunrise Wind, a 924-megawatt offshore-wind project planned for waters east of Montauk, New York. The approval is a positive step for the project, but the companies sponsoring the project have expressed concerns about rising costs and have not yet made a final investment decision on whether or when to begin construction. This is the seventh large offshore-wind project to be approved by the Biden Administration, and could be a major source of renewable energy for population centers on the East Coast. Reuters reports that the wind industry installed a record 117 gigawatts of new capacity globally last year, 50% more than the year before.

The Rocky Mountain Institute describes a recent analysis concluding that the world has reached a peak for the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. The enormous growth of solar and wind, driven by the decline in the price of these electrical generation sources, has stopped the growth in fossil-fuel use in this sector. The authors (whose work I highlighted in Viva la Revolution) say that “it’s all over except the shouting,” and they predict that the use of fossil fuels in the electric sector will start declining by 4% annually in the second half of this decade.