September 15 2022

September 15 2022

California and General Motors plan for emission-free cars by 2035, the need for charging stations and lithium for batteries, fake local news used to spread climate misinformation, devastating flooding in Pakistan, the benefits of beavers

The Guardian reports that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has adopted a plan to eliminate the sale of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. California is the largest car market in the United States, so this decision will have a major effect on national vehicle sales and manufacturing. The rule requires that 35% of new cars be emission-free by 2026, 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035 (last year 12% of new cars sold in California were zero-emission). The decision faced little pushback from an auto industry that is committed to producing EVs. Indeed, General Motors has said it plans to sell only electric vehicles by 2035 (Time Magazine notes that Chrysler-Fiat [now Stellantis] has not moved aggressively to develop electric models, and the company appears to be behind the market transition). In the New York Times, transportation expert Margo Oge, who served as Director of the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, states that “California will now be the only government in the world that mandates zero-emission vehicles.” (Morning Edition has an excellent interview with Oge, who serves with me on the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

An op-ed in the Washington Post criticizes California’s decision, based on weak assumptions such as car-battery technology not improving between today and 2035, and ignoring the industry’s commitment. Another op-ed comes to a very different conclusion, noting that the next generation of drivers will probably view the tailpipe the same way the current generation views the rotary phone. In Salon, Carl Pope provides a historical perspective on California’s commitment to clean cars, noting that in 1969 “the California legislature came within one vote of phasing out the internal combustion engine.” The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that California’s commitment to EVs also requires a plan to phase out the state’s petroleum industry. “A petroleum phaseout plan will help regulators appropriately target climate policies, but it is also essential to help communities and workers plan for the future.”

The New York Times reviews the many challenges facing California to achieve its goal of no-emission vehicles by 2035. Consumers must embrace electric cars, automakers will have to ramp up production, there is widespread expectation of legal challenges and the state could need 1.9 million new car-charging stations. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the state currently has about 80,000 public chargers, and the California Energy Commission predicted that needs to jump to 1.2 million by 2030. Once 30% to 40% of cars are electric, the state will have to add more overnight electrical-generating capacity to meet demand.

As this legislation is a clean-air law (requiring low-emission vehicles) and is stricter than federal requirements, California must receive a waiver from the EPA to implement it, and legal challenges to the waiver are expected. The New York Times reports that attorneys general from Republican states have already filed a separate, broader lawsuit opposing California’s decades-long ability to set its own pollution rules. This ability is granted in the Clean Air Act based on the argument that California faces unique environmental consequences from smog and other traditional pollutants, a rationale that may not apply to climate change.

Grist notes that California’s EV requirement will also generate enormous health benefits due to the significant reduction in emissions of pollutants that cause photochemical smog and respiratory disorders. The state estimates that “the decrease in pollution will lead to almost 1,300 fewer cardiopulmonary deaths and about 650 fewer emergency room visits for asthma.”

The Washington Post examines the challenges of getting consumers to adopt EVs, which is key to the success of California’s new policy. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “two Tesla models are the top-selling new cars in California so far this year, a marker of continued growth for electric vehicles in the state.” The Model Y (a small SUV) is California’s No. 1 seller in 2022, with the Tesla Model 3 sedan in second place. The two Teslas beat competitors in all classes, “even the most popular pickup trucks.” EV sales accounted for 15.1% of the market share, a significant increase over last year’s 9.5%. By comparison, tax policies that provide financial incentives in Norway have resulted in 80% of new cars sold being EVs.

An article at Yale Climate Connections explains the important physical reality that EVs are much more energy efficient than internal-combustion vehicles. In the latter, after all the energy losses (mainly as heat), only about 20% of the energy in the fuel ends up moving the vehicle. For EVs, this number is about 90%. Even if an EV is being charged with electricity from a coal-fired power plant, it still uses less energy per mile than an internal-combustion vehicle. So once our vehicles are all EVs, we’ll be not only saving money, but also a lot of energy.

The move toward EVs is going to greatly increase the world’s demand for lithium, which is derived mainly from hard-rock mining. An article in Grist describes the potential impacts in North Carolina where, at one point in the 1950s, most of the world’s lithium was produced. While only 1% of the world’s lithium comes from U.S. mines presently, a recent 700% price increase is heightening the interest in mining. Local residents in North Carolina, who are already affected by previous mining operations, are very concerned about the additional impacts to their community from more projects to mine and refine ore into lithium hydroxide (although the concern is not shared equally across all affected counties). The article notes that local opposition to expanded lithium mining is occurring in countries around the world. This opposition underscores the importance of accelerating our ability to recycle lithium and other elements that are a key part of an electrified economy.

The New York Times reports on recently passed California legislation that will commit the state to $54 billion in climate spending. The measure includes funding to prevent the state’s last nuclear-power plant from closing, and new restrictions on oil and gas drilling (particularly a requirement to set back oil and gas facilities from residential areas or require strict emissions controls on those closer than 3,200 feet). The bill includes a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045. The legislature also approved a $1,000 refundable tax credit to Californians who don’t own vehicles, as a reflection of the public benefit of their decision.

An article in the Guardian visits Christian ministers in West Virginia who are preaching more about the moral imperative to address climate change. The Heated newsletter describes how utilities and fossil-fuel companies are using the same techniques used by the Russian government to spread disinformation and half-truths. A particularly popular technique is using websites that appear to be local news outlets, taking advantage of Americans’ distrust of major media companies. The Guardian describes how Chevron is using this strategy in Texas.

The New York Times reports that few members of the House of Representatives or the Senate deny the reality of climate change, but that refrain has now been replaced by the claim that transitioning away from fossil fuels will hurt the national economy (“delay is the new denial”). The article notes that, in a recent hearing, Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) claimed the price of an EV was $55,000. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg replied that a new Chevrolet Bolt lists for $26,595, and electric pickup trucks like the Chevy Silverado or Ford F150 Lightning start at around $39,000.

A recent study described in Nature concludes that replacing 20% of global meat consumption with a meat substitute like mycoprotein could reduce deforestation by 50%. This reduction is due mainly to the fact that a reduction in meat consumption would eliminate the need for new pastureland. Global methane emissions would decline by 11% as well. The AP reports on another study concluding that 58% of human infectious diseases are likely made worse by one of 10 types of extreme weather connected to climate change.

Vox notes that the “summer of 2022 has seen significant, sustained drought across the globe, from Europe to China to the US and Africa.” This includes many places, unlike California, where drought is not a regular part of life. Impacted sectors include agriculture, energy, water supply, recreation and transportation. The Guardian reports that four government agencies in China have issued an urgent warning that, because of drought conditions, the fall harvest is “under threat.” In addition, hydropower production has declined, producing rolling blackouts and power rationing. The longest river in China, the Yangtze, is dry in many places. The Washington Post describes the heat wave that is accompanying the drought and Gizmodo has a series of remarkable photos.

Inside Climate News reviews the impact of excessive heat on agriculture, especially the interactions between food crops and their insect pollinators. High heat can reduce the nutritional value of flowers, which impairs the survival, development and reproductive success of pollinators that feed on them, including bees. The Guardian describes the unprecedented heat wave that struck California in early September, with record temperatures being recorded throughout the state including Sacramento (116°F), Napa (114°F) and San Jose (109°F).

The AP reports on a drought impact in California that is often below the radar: salt-water intrusion into the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. While San Francisco Bay is predominantly a salt-water environment, at its upstream end the delta is predominantly a freshwater environment. It stays this way as long as there is freshwater flow from the rivers upstream, but the drought has diminished these flows. High tides are thus intruding further upstream, resulting in parts of the delta becoming more saline. This is adversely impacting agricultural productivity in the region, and requiring some cities (such as Antioch) to build desalination facilities to treat the water they draw from the delta. In another below-the-radar drought impact, the New York Times notes that low river levels in Europe are exposing WWII shipwrecks, some with unexploded ordinance.

The drought has renewed calls to build huge pipelines to move water hundreds of miles across the country (such as from the Mississippi basin to Arizona). Grist examines these proposals, which have physical, political and economic problems that make them infeasible. Opponents to these projects note that they do not address the reality that the West has over-allocated the water that is available. Conservation and water-recycling measures, while less flashy, are essential and more realistic. Inside Climate News describes the complex economic and political challenges drought is forcing upon Laredo, Texas.

The Chan Zuckerberg initiative has a short and thoughtful primer on carbon-dioxide removal from the atmosphere, including why it’s necessary and what our options are. The scientists at RealClimate have updated their classic post, The CO2 Problem in Six Easy Steps, which is a readable scientific primer on the drivers of climate change.

While devastating flooding is becoming more common around the world, recent flooding in Pakistan has been particularly serious. The New York Times reports that over 1,100 people have died so far, and more than one million homes have been damaged or destroyed (video). Additional video shows the power of some of the flooding, and the Chairman of the Pakistan Red Crescent said that the “worst is yet to come” because conditions were perfect for the spread of waterborne diseases. The Pakistani Meteorological Department explained (in an article in Grist) that “the southern province of Sindh received 784 percent more rainfall this month than the August average and southwestern Baluchistan received 500 percent more.” The Guardian notes that this disaster comes as the country is experiencing economic challenges from high inflation and a depreciating currency (the International Monetary Fund approved $1.17 billion in bailout funds so that the country can avoid default). The country’s Prime Minister has warned that, by the time the monsoon season ends, one-third of Pakistan could be underwater. The New York Times visits Kentucky three weeks after the floods there, documenting the impacts on schools in hard-hit counties.

An op-ed in the New York Times notes that, while the Inflation Reduction Act is the beginning of climate action by the federal government, the transition away from fossil fuels is still the responsibility of all of us. “The public must make the transition from green consumers to green citizens and devote greater political energy to pushing America forward in its transition to a clean economy.” This is because powerful political forces are still resisting change, using disinformation to sow confusion when clean energy is discussed.

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, recently retired Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has an excellent blog post about the importance of science-based policy. He provides a thoughtful perspective on how science has informed important recent federal-policy decisions.

Our transition to an economy free of carbon emissions will require us to think differently about our relationship to the planet. Such change in attitudes can be seen in how American ranchers and others in the western states are thinking about beavers. The New York Times visits a ranch in northeastern Nevada where, instead of dynamiting beaver dams, the rancher is learning to coexist with the beavers and their works. The partnership is particularly valuable as beavers store water in the landscape, help to reduce soil erosion and even sequester carbon.

The Guardian describes in detail one of the most sophisticated attempts yet to sustainably transport cargo across the ocean. Large container ships are a major source of greenhouse gases worldwide, and a variety of entrepreneurs are attempting to use wind-powered vessels to transport cargo. It is a challenge, particularly economically.