March 31 2024

March 31 2024

carbon emissions continue to climb, U.S. world’s largest oil and gas producer, EPA moves to reduce emissions from transportation, heat fuels record Texas wildfire, the challenge of fossil-fuel subsidies

Reuters reports that, according to the International Energy Agency, global carbon-dioxide emissions increased 1.1% in 2023, to 37.4 billion metric tons. So, instead of slowing future global warming by reducing emissions, we are continuing to emit even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Analysts projected that there would have been a small decrease last year, but drought in many places reduced the ability to generate hydropower, and fossil-fuel burning was substituted. Emissions were lower in the U.S. (4.1%) and Europe (9%), but rose 5.2% in China. Part of the decline in U.S. emissions is due to reduced burning of coal, as reviewed by Inside Climate News, and The Guardian notes that U.S. emissions are down 17.2% from 2005. Meanwhile, Salon cites measurements showing that the winter of 2023-24 was the warmest ever recorded.

Despite the reality that we need to stop developing fossil-fuel projects if we are going to keep global temperatures from rising quickly, The Guardian reports that oil and gas development is continuing unabated around the world. In particular, the United States “has produced more crude oil than any country has ever done in history for the past six years in a row, and led the way in new oil and gas projects in 2022 and 2023.”

U.S. demand for electricity is soaring due primarily to demand from data centers (to power AI among other applications) and new manufacturing facilities (plans to build or expand more than 155 U.S. factories were announced from 2021-23). The Washington Post notes that, “In Georgia, demand for industrial power is surging to record highs, with the projection of electricity use for the next decade now 17 times what it was only recently,” while Northern Virginia and Texas both need the equivalent of several large nuclear-power plants to serve all the new data centers planned and under construction. The demand for power is driving up land prices, as companies are bidding for land in places where there is ample electricity supply. Data-center developers are also looking to create the power themselves by using fuel cells (Oregon) or geothermal energy (Texas).

The New York Times notes that the growth in peak demand projected for the summer in the U.S five years from now is like adding another California to the grid. Utilities are proposing to build natural-gas plants to meet the demand (despite the growth of renewables) and, if this happens, the U.S. will be unable to meet its goals for reducing carbon emissions. While energy-efficiency measures and non-fossil-fuel alternatives exist to address surging demand, laws often provide incentives for utilities to propose traditional fossil-fuel power plants. Electric vehicles and heat pumps are also increasing demand (one-fifth of new cars sold in California are electric) and “officials estimate that E.V.s could account for 10 percent of power use during peak hours by 2035.”

The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft regulation “designed to ensure that the majority of new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States are all-electric or hybrids by 2032.” The rule ratchets-down tailpipes over time, likely resulting in zero-emissions vehicles constituting half of new cars sold in the United States by 2032 in order for carmakers to meet the standards. “The regulation would provide nearly $100 billion in annual net benefits to society, according to the agency, including $13 billion of annual public health benefits thanks to improved air quality. The standards would also save the average American driver about $6,000 in reduced fuel and maintenance over the life of a vehicle.”

The Washington Post describes the politics of this decision, noting in particular that the EPA delayed the regulatory goal by two years in deference to concerns from unions and other democratic constituencies. The Atlantic notes that the new emissions standard “is not a ban on gas cars, nor does it mandate electric-vehicle sales. It requires automakers to cut the average carbon emission of their fleets by nearly 50 percent by 2032.” The regulation is still likely to be challenged in court by Republican Attorneys General, as Donald Trump routinely vilifies electric vehicles with a variety of false claims.

The Biden Administration has also released a draft regulation to control emissions from trucks, which will drive manufacturers toward EVs. The New York Times reports that the regulation would “apply to more than 100 types of vehicles including tractor-trailers, ambulances, R.V.s, garbage trucks and moving vans.” In a concession to the industry, the regulation starts with modest goals and becomes more stringent in the next decade. The infrastructure to charge large, long-haul trucks is going to be slow to roll out, given the need to bring high-capacity electrical supply to specific locations. However, the article notes that “at least two-thirds of heavy-truck journeys are less than 250 miles, well within the range of electric trucks available today,” and these vehicles can return to existing facilities to charge.

The New York Times reports that “San Jose and San Francisco had the highest E.V. adoption rate among major U.S. metropolitan areas last year. They topped the list in 2021 and 2019, too. Electric cars, pickup trucks and S.U.V.s accounted for nearly 40 percent of new auto registrations in the San Jose area last year and about 34 percent in San Francisco. For comparison, E.V.s made up less than 10 percent of registrations in the New York area, and 3 percent in Detroit.”

The Washington Post reports on a vast outbreak of dengue fever in South America, particularly in Brazil. While this disease has always been present in the tropical countries, “scientists say rising temperatures due to climate change have both extended the territorial range of the mosquito that carries dengue and increased its proliferation.” Local transmission is now being reported as well in America’s warmer, wetter states, where the disease’s vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, already roams. Florida last year reported a record 178 cases of local transmission. California, Arizona and Texas are also detecting disease cases.

In California, the wide swings between drought and flood have created an excellent environment for the spread of the fungus that causes Valley fever. Grist reports that the California Department of Health recorded “9,280 new cases of Valley fever with onset dates in 2023 — the highest number the department has ever documented.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that Valley fever cases in the U.S. rose 780% from 1998 to 2019. “In Arizona, where two-thirds of Valley fever diagnoses typically occur, cases rose 600 percent.”

The New York Times reports that Texas has joined the list of states where fire risk enhanced by climate change is raising insurance rates and limiting the number of companies offering insurance. “Texas homeowners saw their insurance rates increase 53.6 percent between 2019 and 2023.” High temperatures, low humidity and high winds combined recently to turn the Smokehouse Creek fire into the state’s largest ever. An op-ed in The New York Times puts this fire in context: “Winter fires on this scale signal a much larger disruption to climate stability that will distort not only our concept of seasons, but everything we do and care about.”

The Guardian reports that Texan officials estimate “there may be more than 10,000 livestock deaths linked to this disaster. Recovery will take years.” The article describes the difficult conditions facing cattle ranchers, who not only have lost many livestock, but face a depleted landscape upon which to raise their remaining herds. Meanwhile, many express frustration that politicians are talking about who to blame, rather than building coalitions to seek and implement sustainable solutions.

In a visit to South Carolina, Inside Climate News takes an in-depth look at the challenge of protecting low-lying communities as sea level rises. Wealthier communities are seeking to keep sand on beaches by building groins, walls that run perpendicular to the beach into the sea. But, like other types of shoreline modifications, the groins will have other impacts on nearby areas, particularly those down-current. The state’s response is described as chaotic, in part because the South Carolina legislature modified a law that previously called for retreat from vulnerable shorelines. In addition to this political issue, poorer areas are struggling to outline a vision for the future, while wealthier communities hire experts who help design plans and attract funding. One advocate noted that poorer communities can’t do this “because they’re fighting everyday just for basic essentials like rent, medicine and food. It’s hard when people are just trying to live to have conversations with them about climate change.”

Of all the challenges we face in the transition from fossil fuels, one of the most difficult is changing the U.S. tax code to eliminate the subsidies that exist for coal, oil and natural gas. The New York Times reports that these subsidies totaled $14 billion in 2022. The article describes how the original rationales for the tax breaks, such as the need to attract private investors to help capitalize the industry, are no longer valid (two of the biggest tax breaks have been in place for about 100 years). President Biden’s new budget represents his fourth attempt to eliminate these unnecessary subsidies, but he has been rebuffed each time by Congress. But not by every member: Bernie Sanders says Congress has a “fiscal and moral responsibility to stop taxpayer dollars from padding the profits of an industry that is destroying our planet.”

Anthropocene Magazine describes a new study in which cheese whey, a dairy industry by-product, was used to extract gold and copper from e-waste. Protein fibers from the whey was formed into a sponge that was able to absorb gold and copper from crushed e-waste in an acid bath. This process is much more cost- and energy-efficient than existing recycling methods, and the researchers are actively working on scaling it up to a commercial process.