April 15 2022

April 15 2022

another sobering warning from the IPCC, Arizona faces water-supply challenge, heat waves in the Arctic and Antarctica, transition from fossil fuels to reduce Putin’s power, fungi turn food waste into leather

The third in the latest series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this one on the mitigation of climate change, was just released. The sobering analysis notes that the world will likely warm 3°C by 2100 on our current trajectory, well above the more protective (although still significant) 1.5°C aspiration in the Paris Agreement. If nations meet the commitments they made under the landmark Paris Agreement, the temperature rise would be 2.8°C. The New York Times notes that “holding warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius would require nations to collectively reduce their planet-warming emissions roughly 43 percent by 2030 and to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s.” This means that global emissions must peak before 2025, then decline rapidly.

That is an enormous undertaking that the world so far appears unwilling to make. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the report “a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world,” and asked for citizens around the world to demand an end to coal burning and an accelerated transition to renewable power. Scientists stress that, even if the 1.5°C target is unattainable, all reductions are valuable at preventing even more devastating future impacts.

While there is a cost to the transition, it is less than the cost of impacts. The report notes, “the interaction between politics, economics and power relationships is central to explaining why broad commitments do not always translate to urgent action.” There is evidence that action is quite feasible. Over the past ten years, 18 countries have continued to reduce their emissions year over year, and the rate of growth of emissions was less in the 2010s than in the 2000s. As I will discuss in my next My Take, the extraordinary drop in the cost of solar, wind and batteries has greatly expanded their use around the world and suggests that transitioning to clean energy sources will be cheaper than staying on fossil fuels.

To point out the urgency of the situation, scientists around the world participated in civil disobedience actions in early April (as reported in Salon). “We’re not joking, we’re not lying, we’re not exaggerating,” said climate scientist Peter Kalmus of NASA. “This is so bad that we’re willing to take this risk and more and more scientists and more and more people are gonna start joining us.”

Inside Climate News looks at the battery-recycling industry, which is projected to grow exponentially. There is expected to be a five-fold increase in the amount of lithium-ion batteries available for recycling globally by 2030 (Mercedes Benz announced a battery-recycling plant as well). Researchers and entrepreneurs hope that recycling will reduce the amount of mining and waste. Scientific American reports that researchers have developed a new process to recycle lithium batteries that produces high-quality materials with which to manufacture new batteries. The goal now is to expand this process to commercial scale. This is important because mining may not be able to provide the raw materials to support electrification of the economy.

Gizmodo reports on the declining water levels of Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell just hit a new low, and it may fall below the level required to operate the hydroelectric generating station that provides electricity for over 5 million homes. Similar declines are occurring at other reservoirs, as well as the Great Salt Lake. “We’re kind of in some uncharted territory, socially and economically,” said Justin Mankin, who helps lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force. Grist notes that electricity production from the Glen Canyon Dam has already been curtailed and that, in the future, electricity production and water provision will likely be in conflict.

Due to the drought in the Colorado river basin, Arizona faces an 18% reduction in water supplies from the Colorado River. This is going to have an impact in the region, as residential growth has occurred with the assumption that water would be available. Grist reports on one neighborhood outside of Phoenix, where water availability is being eliminated as companies that transported water via truck to the neighborhood are losing access to their supplies. If a new supply cannot be identified, hundreds of residents will find their brand-new ranch homes both unlivable and virtually impossible to sell. The Governor of Arizona recently proposed an investment of $1.16 billion over three years, including the creation of a new statewide water authority tasked with boosting water supplies by developing and supporting innovative water-augmentation efforts. Inside Climate News reports: “Among the potential projects that the agency could develop are desalination plants in Mexico.” In exchange for providing Mexico with desalination capacity, Arizona would take some of Mexico’s shares of the Colorado River’s water.

Yale e360 notes that many western states are increasing their cloud-seeding activities. While it’s clear that cloud seeding can increase snowfall, it’s still uncertain how much precipitation can actually be created using this technology. An op ed in the New York Times describes some of the complexities of droughts that must be considered to effectively manage water resources as climate changes. Altered physical properties of the soil, wind speeds changed by the impacts of forest fires and shifting characteristics of snow melt are among the many model variables needed to accurately predict water availability. The author notes that most public agencies are still using old models to make predictions, and argues that we must invest in updating these tools to prepare for the new climate.

AP News reports that proposed legislation in the state of Colorado would establish a program to pay people to replace lawns with native vegetation. There are several such programs in Colorado cities already, where lawn irrigation represents about 50% of water use. The article describes the very successful lawn-replacement program in Las Vegas, where property owners have removed more than 200 million square feet of turf in 72,000 separate projects, saving 11.2 billion gallons of water last year alone.

Cedar City, Utah, is facing a shortage of water as the community has over-drafted its groundwater aquifer, as described in an article in the Guardian. Their answer to this dilemma is to begin pumping the groundwater from nearby lands and pipe that water 70 miles to the community. Originally proposed in 2006, this plan has been in litigation for years, but a recent settlement has brought it closer to fruition. In theory, Cedar City will stop pumping if adverse effects appear, but opponents say that is unlikely given their existing track record. Most vulnerable are springs used by cattle ranchers, wildlife and native Americans in the region.

In another sign of “uncharted” climate territory, Yale Climate Connections describes the extraordinary heat waves that struck both the Arctic and Antarctica during late March. These were both caused by atmospheric-river events bringing warm, moist air to the regions. One scientist noted: “This Antarctic heat wave definitely changes what we thought was possible for Antarctic weather.” At Concordia station, situated 700 miles inland at 10,000 feet elevation, the temperature was 67°F above average. Gizmodo reports on new modeling suggesting that emissions from wildfires are contributing to warming the Arctic.

In New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells examines the relatively muted response to the IPCC’s findings. He notes that, despite the fact that some of the worst projected futures from 10 years ago no longer seem likely, the reality of current impacts and likely future ones have become more serious. While this may be a reflection of other challenges (like war, pandemic and inflation) that face us today, it also appears to be a function of the normalization and acceptance of a disrupted future. It is vital that this natural human tendency be vigorously resisted, or we are assured of extraordinarily serious impacts in the coming decades.

It also doesn’t help that politicians like Trump treat climate change as a punch line rather than a serious problem, encouraging their supporters to ignore science and to embrace ridiculous ideas — including that the entire issue is a plot to take over the world. In the Washington Post, Philip Bump describes Trump’s recent statements on the topic (I can’t bring myself to repeat them here), the different attitudes among Republicans and Democrats and how the noise being generated is enabling politicians like Senator Manchin to frame delaying significant action as a prudent response. This, of course, only ensures more serious disruption in the future. The Securities and Exchange Commission issued the draft of a long-awaited rule that requires companies to explain in their mandated public filings how climate risks may affect their revenues and profitability, as described by Grist. The rationale is to inform and protect investors — just like other types of disclosures. Included in the draft rule is a requirement to declare direct and indirect carbon emissions from their operations.

Many articles are arguing for accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels as a way to reduce the geopolitical power of Vladimir Putin. One in Salon notes that more oil production in the short term is needed, but more clean energy is needed in both the short and long term. The author argues for a four-point plan in which the President invokes the Defense Production Act to force oil production from already leased federal lands, where wells have been drilled but are idle. The Biden Administration has committed to expanding liquified-natural-gas production to help Europe replace gas imports from Russia. Many climate activists are expressing concern that building new natural-gas facilities will work against our need to transition from fossil fuels, exacerbating future climate disruption. The New York Times notes that the word, “transition”, can mean different things to different people.

Yale e360 reports that the European Union (EU) announced a new energy strategy with the goal of cutting EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and completely end reliance on Russian gas supplies “well before 2030.” Steps include accelerating deployment of solar energy and renewable hydrogen, the quick implementation of far-reaching energy-efficiency measures, and the production of 35 billion cubic meters of biogas per year by 2030. European citizens are being asked to turn down thermostats by 1°C, which is estimated to reduce gas consumption by 7%. An op-ed in the New York Times notes that the Ukraine war is in essence a war driven by the need for fossil fuels. Another article describes the challenges facing Germany given its dependence upon Russian gas, including preparing for the contingency that Russia stops selling its gas to Europe.

While we must be skeptical about the narrative that “technology will save us,” it is important to recognize that technological innovation will be a part of addressing the climate crisis. Anthropocene Magazine reports on a new bio-technology advance, in which fungi turn food waste into fiber that can be used to make leather, cotton and paper substitutes. These substitutes can be created using less energy and water than the original products. Anthropocene Magazine also reports on another bio-technology advance, this being algae that can produce an alternative to palm oil, which is derived from large monoculture plantations that are causing biodiversity loss. And NPR describes a new solar panel that can also generate some electricity at night using the temperature difference between the panel and the nighttime air.

An article in Utility Dive notes that the U.S. Installed a record 3 GW of grid-scale electricity storage in 2021, nearly three times the previous record set in 2020. Annual installations of battery storage may double again by the end of 2022, suggesting that batteries are following solar panels into a period of exponential growth. This is great news for the expansion of renewable energy. Inside Climate News reports that the record-setting battery deployment included three enormous projects, two in California and one in Florida. The California projects were instrumental in preventing rolling blackouts when wildfires limited electricity imports into the state from the besieged Pacific Northwest.