December 15 2023

December 15 2023

major agreement on methane emissions, COP Chair doubts need for fossil-fuel phaseout, Acapulco still reeling from Hurricane Otis, another famous physicist fails Climate Change 101, Portugal runs for days on renewable electricity

The Washington Post reports on a global agreement, the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter (OGDC), announced at COP28 in Dubai to limit methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that does not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, so cutting methane emissions can reduce warming in the next few decades. “Halving human methane emissions by 2030 could slow the rate of global warming by more than 25 percent and start a path to prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, according to 2021 research by a team of scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and several U.S. universities.” This first-time agreement includes commitments from some of the world’s largest oil companies (such as Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil) to virtually eliminate methane emissions from their drilling and production work, and new regulations from the U.S. government along with international monitoring efforts.

Inside Climate News notes that the agreement was buttressed by a $40 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies to provide independent monitoring and verification of OGDC members’ emissions reductions. In addition, the number of countries that have signed the global methane pledge — a voluntary agreement to curb methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 — continues to grow and now includes more than 150 nations. “If those promises are met, it’s got the potential to cut temperatures we would otherwise see within the next decade… more than anything agreed to at prior COPs, more than anything I’ve seen in my entire career over 30 years,” said Fred Krupp, president of the EDF.

Others are a bit more skeptical of the agreement. Distilled notes: “These companies also have a terrible track record when it comes to making good on their climate pledges. Over the last 5 years, fossil fuel companies like BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil all announced voluntary pledges to go net-zero and invest in low-carbon technologies. Then one by one they all walked back these pledges. Even if fossil fuel companies could be trusted to make good on their promises, the methane agreement would still have its problems.” In addition, as 40% of methane emissions come from animal agriculture, the agreement leaves a major part of the problem unaddressed.

Meanwhile, the Guardian notes that the Chair of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) state oil company, proclaimed that “there is no science indicating that a phaseout of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global heating to 1.5C.” This is contrary to all scientific analysis and economic reality. Al Jaber then claimed that those promoting a phaseout (which currently include over 100 countries represented at the meeting), “want to take the world back into caves,” and belligerently asked for a “roadmap” to 1.5°C without fossil fuels (meanwhile, BBC notes leaked briefing documents revealing UAE plans to discuss fossil-fuel deals with 15 nations).

Bill Hare, the chief executive of Climate Analytics, noted that Al Jaber’s statement is an old industry trope that is “verging on climate denial.” He said, “Al Jaber is asking for a 1.5C roadmap — anyone who cares can find that in the International Energy Agency’s latest net zero emissions scenario, which says there cannot be any new fossil fuel development. The science is absolutely clear [and] that absolutely means a phaseout by mid-century, which will enhance the lives of all of humanity.” The Union of Concerned Scientists recently concluded: “A transformative clean energy transition is both feasible and hugely beneficial to the economy, climate, and public health — but will require concerted action.” (I suggest watching their animated graphic.) Al Jaber has come under extraordinary criticisms for his remarks, and he retreated from his previous statements. The New York Times reports that, in a hastily called news conference, he stated, “I have said over and over that the phase-down and the phaseout of fossil fuels is inevitable.” (More on the late-breaking agreement from Dubai in the next In Brief.)

The New York Times visits the remnants of the Aral Sea. At one time, this was the 4th largest land-locked body of water on Earth, but diversions of rivers by the Soviet Union destroyed the sea and the human communities that depended upon it. Just like the Aral Sea, other bodies of water around the world are shrinking as well, including major reservoirs in western North America. The author concludes: “The Aral Sea stands as a grim parable, a warning of what can come from humanity’s environmental hubris. If we continue this way, waiting for somebody else to do something or letting short-term economic interests stand in the way, we may find ourselves… telling visitors about how beautiful our home once was.”

In The New Yorker, Bill McKibben examines the enormous climate impact of the expanding market for liquified natural gas (LNG). The impact derives from the leakage of methane (the main component of natural gas) into the atmosphere from gas facilities, including the tankers that transport LNG around the world. A new study concludes that, due to the leakage of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, LNG has a climate impact worse than coal. A major new LNG facility has been proposed in Louisiana, and the Biden Administration faces a critical decision about whether construction of this facility is in the national interest.

The Washington Post visits Kemmerer, Wyoming, where a coal mine and associated power plant have long been the backbone of the local economy. But the power plant is switching to natural gas before a planned closing in 10 years, and the community has to transition. It is hoping that the plan to construct a nuclear power plant (by Bill Gates’ TerraPower) will provide a new economic engine, but many residents are skeptical that the project will pan out as advertised.

Kemmerer is one of hundreds of communities around the country that face this type of challenge as we transition from fossil fuels. The New York Times describes how the U.S. Department of Energy is using funds from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act for a program to bring manufacturing jobs to fossil-fuel-dependent communities, especially those previously dependent upon coal. The DOE has identified seven projects to which it will distribute $275 million, and “it expects its funding to be matched by about $600 million more in private investment.” The article notes that the 50,000 coal miners remaining in the United States in 2022 represent half the number of 10 years ago, and that these workers have struggled to find clean-energy jobs.

The New York Times pays a visit to Acapulco, which was devastated by Hurricane Otis in late October. A key problem facing the city now is hundreds of millions of tons of trash that is causing a public health emergency. “Many locals, public health officials and emergency responders say they believe that the uncollected garbage is linked to stomach infections, diarrhea and skin rashes and other ailments that people have complained about since the storm.” The city first prioritized clearing streets to allow emergency vehicle access, and restoring water and electricity, but these efforts are going slowly and the trash continues to pile up.

The Times also notes that the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific had a combined 37 storms in 2023, 13 of which rapidly intensified, sometimes jumping multiple hurricane categories in less than a day. “The warm waters across the Atlantic helped storms to overcome a weather phenomenon called wind shear, which was exacerbated by El Niño.” (The article includes an excellent graphical presentation of the intensification of Hurricane Idalia in the Atlantic and Hurricanes Hilary and Otis in the Pacific.)

The Washington Post reports that the recent Nobel laureate for physics, John Clauser, has begun a new career as a denier of climate science. The RealClimate blog details why Clauser’s analysis of climate science lacks any credibility. Unfortunately, with a Nobel prize, he can get media coverage. RealClimate also debunks another recent “scientific” contribution from a denialist, noting that it makes “blind use” of statistics by ignoring “first-term physics.” I recommend this article for those who want to get a “first-term physics” lesson about the reality of climate change. Meanwhile, Inside Climate News reports that, in Ohio, a bill that would require the state universities and colleges to regulate the teaching of “controversial topics, including climate policies, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion” was defeated in the State House after passing the State Senate.

The Guardian describes the work of a woman in Ojai, California, who is training people to be shepherds for goats and sheep to reduce wildfire risk and restore native ecosystems. Canary Media reports that Portugal ran entirely on renewable electricity for six consecutive days in early November. This demonstrates the feasibility of existing electric grids handling the variability of renewable-electricity sources.