February 28 2023

February 28 2023

cracks under the Thwaites Glacier, “a mass exodus on a biblical scale”, climate change drives real-estate bubble, a growing demand for lithium and other minerals, new solar cheaper than operating existing coal plants

Last year, a scientific expedition reached the ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, one of the most remote locations in the world. In a masterpiece of logistics, the members of the expedition drilled a hole 2,000 feet into the ice, through which a remote probe was lowered to study the water under the ice and the underside of the ice shelf. The results of this work was recently published, and The Washington Post reports that scientists found that the warming ocean is cutting into the underside of the ice. This will leave the ice shelf more prone to fracturing, heightening the risk for major sea level rise. The Thwaites Glacier is about 80 miles across, with an area larger than Florida, and it’s nicknamed “the doomsday glacier” because of its singular capacity to contribute to sea level rise. Since 1979, the glacier has lost a little less than 20 billion tons of ice per year, but that has increased to more than 40 billion tons since 2010.

The Guardian reports on a recent call by the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres to address sea level rise. He said, “low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever. We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale. And we would see ever fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.” He added: “People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do… this means international refugee law.” Inside Climate News reviewed the speech as well, noting that “Guterres said the danger is most acute for about 900 million living in low-lying coastal zones. That’s one out of 10 people on earth.” The key reality Guterres focuses on is that, even if the world somehow meets the goal of limiting the rise of global average temperature to 1.5°C, there still will be a lot of sea level rise over the coming centuries. And we’re currently nowhere near meeting that goal.

The Washington Post reports on a recent study that describes a growing real-estate bubble in the U.S. as properties eventually lose value due to climate change. Driving the current over-valuation is federal flood maps that don’t reflect the true scope of risk, government insurance policies that subsidize development in flood-prone areas and buyers who haven’t accepted the dangers posed by climate change. The study estimates that properties in vulnerable areas of the U.S. are overvalued by $121-$237 billion. If those risks are brought into the market by changed policies or increased understanding, low-income homeowners in particular stand to lose significant amounts of equity. In addition, many municipal governments that rely heavily on property taxes could face huge budget shortfalls as assessed values drop. The researchers concluded that properties in Florida are overvalued by $50 billion based on their actual flood exposure (as I noted in Observations from Another Planet, the physics are going to crash the party in Florida eventually). Grist examines the vulnerability of Stockton, California, to a major flood event on the San Joaquin River. The article describes the challenges a poorer city like Stockton has in obtaining funding for flood protection.

The largest proposed lithium mine in the U.S. is the subject of litigation in Nevada, according to the Associated Press. On one side is the mining company, Lithium Nevada, which is opposed by tribes, environmental advocates and some ranchers. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved the proposal, saying the company has met all regulatory standards. The company cites a tripling of demand for lithium by 2030, and that its project is vital for meeting this demand.

The concept of an enormous demand for minerals such as lithium as part of the transition to a renewable energy economy is reviewed by the Washington Post. The article notes that demand for minerals is driven by the fact that the average electric car presently requires six-times the mineral inputs of a conventional gas-powered car, while an offshore-wind turbine requires nine-times the mineral inputs of a typical gas-fired power plant. As the demand for minerals increases, so does exploration, and resources that were previously uneconomical to mine become available. The world’s lithium reserves were 13 million tons in 2012, but now they’re around 22 million tons. Analysts conclude that “the amount of minerals required for the shift to renewable energy is significant — but falls well within the amount of reserves available.” However, whether they are available in the right places, and quickly enough, is another matter.

Gizmodo reports on a new study that concludes, “The U.S. may need up to 90% less of these materials if it simply prioritizes things like public transit, urban walkability, and smaller cars.” The article notes that simply limiting the size of EV batteries could cut demand by up to 42% (but make GM’s electric Hummer impossible). Recycling of used batteries will also play a part in determining final demand for lithium, cobalt and other key elements. AP notes that the Department of Energy just approved a major loan to a battery recycling firm in Nevada so that it can expand its operations. The company claims it can recover more than 95% of the elements in a spent battery, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper. ABC News reports that the same company is now partnered with Audi to collect used cell phones and other devices at Audi dealerships for battery recycling.

The New York Times reports on how climate change is raising the prices for a variety of products by impacting the production of cotton. Loss of production by cotton growers in Texas due to drought has increased “the price of tampons in the United States 13 percent over the past year. The price of cloth diapers spiked 21 percent. Cotton balls climbed 9 percent and gauze bandages increased by 8 percent.” Scientists studying this issue consider it inevitable that the current problems in Texas will be widespread globally in the coming decades, as declining water resources impact cotton production around the world.

An op-ed in The Guardian describes three socio-economic “tipping points,” where a zero-carbon alternative becomes more competitive than an existing high-carbon option. These tipping points could greatly accelerate the transition from fossil fuels, as more sales lead to cheaper products, creating feedback loops that drive exponential growth and a rapid takeover. The tipping points discussed are reductions in the cost of plant-based meat, “green” fertilizer and the adoption of EVs. The latter tipping point is quite close as EV sales and investment are soaring.

The World Inequality Lab has calculated that the top 10% of the world’s emitters produce half of all global-warming emissions. “The marginal effort required to achieve the same emission reductions might be significantly lower for high-emitting groups, thereby creating a strong incentive for policies targeted at this group.” The Washington Post notes that this “means the biggest emissions gap is no longer between rich and poor nations, but between the rich and poor within countries.”

Anthropocene Magazine notes that hydropower could play a major role in helping Asian and African nations decarbonize. A recent study concluded that over 100,000 sites could be developed while meeting strict environmental standards (for example, “no dam development in heritage areas, biodiversity hotspots, forests, peatlands, earthquake-prone zones, densely populated areas, and locations with existing dams and reservoirs”). In addition, new hydropower stations could not block the environmental flow needed to support river ecosystem health and water availability downstream, especially in dry seasons. Most of this hydropower potential is distributed across the Himalayas, but the environmentally sound hydropower resource in Africa is estimated to be four-times larger than what has been already developed on the continent.

Inside Climate News reports on a recent study’s conclusion that, as of 2022, it is cheaper to build new solar and wind power than it is to operate 99% of the coal plants in the United States (this continues a trend first noticed by these analysts several years ago). About 80% of the coal plants studied have operational costs that are at least one-third more than the costs of getting that electricity from new wind and solar. This economic trend has been accelerated by provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, which are making the deployment of wind and solar even cheaper in order to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels.

Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s new book, No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air, argues that we should solve the climate and air-pollution problems by deploying existing technologies rather than investing in costly “moonshot” concepts that will never be available in time. An op-ed by Jacobson in The Guardian summarizes his argument, which focuses on wind, water and solar (WWS). “WWS includes energy from the wind (onshore and offshore wind electricity), the water (hydroelectricity, tidal and ocean current electricity, wave electricity, geothermal electricity and geothermal heat) and the sun (solar photovoltaic electricity, concentrated solar power electricity and heat, and direct solar heat).” He says the main reason a WWS system is low-cost is that it uses 56% less energy than does a combustion-based energy system to meet demand for services. He notes that there are five reasons for the reduction in energy use, mainly the efficiency of electric vehicles, electric heat pumps and electric industrial processes over their combustion-based alternatives. An article in the Guardian reviews his concepts and interviews supporters and critics.

The Los Angeles Times has some great before and after pictures of Lake Oroville, showing how much the reservoir has filled in response to California’s January storms.