February 28 2022

February 28 2022

seas continue rising and the megadrought persists, world’s glaciers smaller than previously thought, bitcoin mining keeps coal plants operating, eliminating meat consumption a major climate solution, solar canopies for canals could reduce emissions and conserve water

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has concluded in a recent assessment that sea level along the U.S. Coastline is projected to rise an average of 10-12 inches in the next 30 years (2020-2050). This is as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years (1920-2020), reports the Washington Post, and it “will create a profound increase in the frequency of coastal flooding, even in the absence of storms or heavy rainfall.” NOAA’s lead scientist for sea level rise notes that “there will be water in the streets unless action is taken in more and more communities.” Inside Climate News examines NOAA’s findings in more detail, including sea level rise impacts in Mexico and other nations. An article in The Conversation provides a short primer on sea level rise. In the Guardian, UC Berkeley Professor Kristina Hill provides some thoughts on how the world’s coastal communities might respond to rising seas.

The megadrought in the American Southwest, which began in 2000 and continues today, is now the driest two decades in the region in at least 1,200 years, according to a new study summarized by the New York Times. The study was conducted by analyzing tree rings, and also showed that human-caused warming played a major role in making the current drought so extreme. Several previous megadroughts in the 1,200-year record lasted as long as 30 years, which currently appears likely for this one as well.

Storing electricity for use when needed is going to be essential to power our country with renewables. Canary Media reports on an old technology, pumped-hydro storage, that is getting a new look. At present, pumped hydro — where electricity is used to pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher one for later release through turbine-generators — represents 95% of energy storage in the U.S. Existing plants have significant impacts on the river systems in which they operate. The article reports on a new closed-loop system where water is moved between two reservoirs that are not connected to a river. Pumped storage can provide electricity over a longer period than the 2-4 hours that is the current performance period for batteries. However, these plants are more expensive to build than battery systems, and technological innovation and falling prices might allow batteries to compete with pumped-hydro storage in the future. An article in Grist describes iron-flow batteries, an inexpensive and scalable battery technology that its promoters hope will find widespread application for large-scale storage (Utility Dive notes that Georgia Power announced a partnership to test a type of iron-flow battery).

A study summarized by the New York Times concludes that the volume of the world’s glaciers is less than previously thought, which has serious implications for water supplies globally (1.5 billion people benefit from the water and other resources provided by the glaciers of the Himalayas). The study used over 800,000 satellite images to estimate the volume of the world’s 215,000 glaciers. An op-ed in the Fresno Bee argues that California is not in a drought, as that implies a temporary state. The author suggests that our current situation, with dry times punctuated by intense storms, is just how it’s going to be and we need to adjust.

The Guardian describes how bitcoin mining is allowing coal plants that were scheduled to close to keep operating. Seeking dedicated sources of electricity, bitcoin mining operations are setting up data centers next to old coal plants. The article notes that, every 60 seconds, bitcoin mining uses enough electricity to power the average American household for 17 years, and that bitcoin mining globally now uses as much electricity as Norway’s 5.3 million residents.

The Washington Post reports on a new study concluding that there are “super-emitting events” that account for 8 to 12% of global methane emissions from oil and gas operations. These events, detected by satellites, represent emissions that are not included in most national greenhouse-gas inventories, and are in principle sources that could be prevented cost-effectively. While these major sources are the “low hanging fruit” for methane-emissions control, the authors point out that the majority of methane emissions come from a large variety of smaller sources that must also be controlled to prevent the global warming impact from these emissions.

In The Guardian, Bill McKibben argues that the only way to truly defeat Vladimir Putin is to eliminate our dependence on the oil and gas that fund his war machine. An op-ed in the Washington Post notes that the new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, is moving away from supporting renewable energy at a time when major businesses are moving in the opposite direction. This makes a mockery of the governor’s branding as a “prudent business leader.”

An article in The Atlantic describes how climate change is contributing to inflation by reducing the supply of key commodities. Extreme weather and insect infestations have led to major damage to trees and crops as well as the infrastructure (such as rail lines) that bring commodities to manufacturers. One example: drought in Taiwan has reduced the water available for the manufacture of semiconductors. This type of inflation will be less amenable to control by the standard monetary mechanism of raising interest rates.

The offshore-wind industry is growing quickly (both in the United States and around the world), as summarized in a recent podcast from the Union of Concerned Scientists. An article in the Verge points out that one of the challenges facing this growing industry is the need for specialized ships to move the large devices and support construction. This problem is being made more acute by the fact that offshore-wind turbines are growing larger, rendering obsolete even ships built relatively recently.

A new study summarized by Anthropocene Magazine concludes that, if we phased out the consumption of meat over the next 15 years, more than half the net-emissions reductions needed to keep global warming to below 2°C by 2100 would be achieved. This major impact is derived mainly by reducing the emissions of nitrous oxide and methane from livestock operations. The transition to meat-free diets will require significant investment to be fair and inclusive, as in some parts of the world protein-rich plant-based diets are more expensive than diets based on animal protein. The study points out the importance of dietary changes, and concludes that “reducing or eliminating animal agriculture should be at the top of the list of potential climate solutions.” (Note: the authors work for Impossible Foods, a company seeking to replace animal agriculture.)

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that became law last fall was touted for its investment in electric-car charging, public transit and technologies that will support the transition away from fossil fuels. The New York Times reports that the bill also gives states $273 billion for highways over five years, with few strings attached. This could lead to new roads that drive transportation emissions higher in coming decades due to “induced traffic demand”: new roads (or lanes added to reduce congestion) just cause more cars to show up, increasing vehicle miles traveled. A transit expert notes, “It’s not always intuitive to people, but the economic logic is pretty simple: If you make driving easier, people will do more of it.” The article describes how the state of Colorado is attempting to address this difficult problem.

Grist reports that the U.S. Army has released a plan to reduce its climate pollution to 50% of 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This demonstrates that the Army has recognized the threat posed by climate change, and the plan notes the present and future impacts of climate change on the Army’s infrastructure. However, many are criticizing the plan as vague and insufficient (e.g., it does not address aircraft emissions).

An op-ed in the New York Times describes the foreign-policy and national-security implications of the present distribution of materials, mining and manufacturing capacity for batteries. While the fracking boom in the U.S. Has (for the moment) eliminated our country’s need to depend upon foreign sources of oil and gas, our renewable-energy revolution is presently dependent upon China’s supply of raw materials and manufacturing power. The authors note that “As of last year, 211 major battery factories were planned or under construction around the world; 12 were in the United States, 156 were in China.”

In an In Brief last year, I noted research from the University of California suggesting that covering California’s irrigation canals with solar cells could provide half of California’s need for carbon-free electricity while also enhancing water supplies by reducing evaporative losses. Now the Modesto Bee reports that the Turlock Irrigation District has received a $20 million grant from the California Department of Water Resources to test this concept. (An article from Inside Climate News describes the project’s sponsor and history in some detail). Called Project Nexus by the District, the pilot study will examine issues such as how to integrate electricity generation and energy storage with grid access while not disrupting operation and maintenance of the canals.