April 30 2021

April 30 2021

methane concentration in the atmosphere reaches record high, Biden holds climate summit, threat of coal-fired power in China, solar becoming “insanely cheap” energy

An article in Gizmodo notes NOAA’s announcement that methane concentrations in the atmosphere reached an all-time high last year, with the rise from 2019 to 2020 being the largest year-over-year increase since record keeping began (carbon-dioxide concentrations are also demonstrating a major rebound with increased economic activity as the pandemic recedes). Initial chemical analysis suggests that a significant amount of this methane is from natural sources, such as bogs or thawing permafrost. This is not good news. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and, while its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, it absorbs much more heat while present. Natural increases in methane emissions may be a response to the change in earth’s average temperature, and this would be evidence that a feedback loop has been activated that may not be controllable.

An important strategy for slowing climate change is to eliminate the emissions of powerful, short-lived greenhouse gases as fast as possible. Energy Monitor examines the various sources of methane emissions, and highlights an initiative by the European Union to launch a global effort to reduce these emissions. Inside Climate News reports on efforts to convince President Biden to commit the U.S. to immediate reductions in methane emissions, particularly by focusing on emissions from fossil-fuel facilities.

A special report in Grist documents the growing problem of “orphaned” oil and gas wells. These are wells that have been abandoned by those who drilled them, and left to the public to clean up. Texas and New Mexico have already identified about 7,000 abandoned wells that were once operated by over 1,000 companies. State officials estimate these will cost $335 million to plug. Many of these are leaking methane to the atmosphere. The authors conducted their own analysis and concluded there are soon going to be another 13,000 orphaned wells left to the public to deal with, with clean-up costs reaching as high as $117 billion. While states collect money from operators in the form of bonds to foot this bill, these bonds only covered one-sixth of Texas’ clean-up costs in 2015. In New Mexico, these bonds would cover just 18% of plugging costs for all of the state’s orphaned wells, and the GAO estimates the cost of cleaning up abandoned wells across the country could be $300 billion.

Near the end of the Trump Administration, the EPA rolled back rules designed to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities. Congress is about to vote on whether to reverse that change. In addition, Reuters reports that a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) authorizing $8 billion to plug and clean up abandoned oil wells nationwide. The measure is aimed at creating jobs for oil and gas workers while reducing climate-warming emissions, a political approach that likely has great value. It would also raise bond requirements and fees on those who drill and operate wells on federal land. The New York Times reports on the imminent release of a major U.N. report about methane. The report concludes that a concerted effort to reduce methane releases from the fossil-fuel, waste and agricultural sectors could reduce methane emissions up to 45% by 2030, helping to avoid nearly 0.3°C of warming by the 2040s.

An article at Yale e360 examines recently announced plans to expand coal-fired power in China. The country presently gets 58% of its energy from coal, and the expansion plans will make it difficult to also meet its announced goal of declining carbon emissions after 2030. The article notes that “China’s coal dependence threatens both its long-term decarbonization plans and global efforts to limit temperatures,” but also states that a variety of internal and external political issues could inhibit this planned expansion of coal capacity. Vox reports: “The backstory is that China’s provinces were given the authority to approve new power plants in 2014, leading to a huge surge in projects. For poorer, coal-rich provinces, building a new power plant is a way to boost GDP,” but the central government has sent signals that it is cracking down on provinces pursuing new coal plants.” Coal plant retirements have been outpacing the commissioning of new plants since 2018.

President Biden held a virtual climate summit at which he committed the U.S. to reduce 2030 carbon emissions to half of 2005 levels. This is a significant change from the Trump Administration, notes the New York Times, and President Xi of China reiterated his nation’s goal to stop emissions growth by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Mr. Xi said coal would be on its way out after 2025, and stated that China can reduce emissions “in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries.” An analysis in the New York Times notes the scale of transition inherent in Biden’s new goal: “more than half of the new cars and SUVs sold at dealerships would need to be powered by electricity, not gasoline. Nearly all coal-fired power plants would need to be shut down. Forests would need to expand. The number of wind turbines and solar panels dotting the nation’s landscape could quadruple.” This will require an array of new federal policies, such as a clean electricity standard for utilities. Market forces alone will not drive this transition, and many new policies will be fiercely resisted by the fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress. President Biden will also have to rebuild global trust — undermined by the Trump Administration — for America’s climate-change mitigation goals.

The Guardian examines the challenges facing indigenous communities in coastal locations as more powerful storms and higher sea levels cause coastal erosion and flooding. Focusing on the Quileute Tribe of Washington, the article describes the many interacting factors threatening such native communities as they seek to be resilient to a new climate (the tribe has produced a video that describes its challenges that include preparing for a tsunami). Coastal erosion in Chatham, MA, on Cape Cod, has forced the National Weather Service to abandon a meteorological station that gathered regular atmospheric measurements for decades.

The San Diego Union-Tribune examines the most far-reaching proposal yet in California to prepare for the impacts of sea level rise. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) has proposed the California Sea Level Rise Mitigation and Adaptation Act (SB 1), which would create a new state agency collaborative. The agency would encourage advance planning, and award grants if an associated $5.5 billion bond measure (SB 45) is passed by the legislature and approved by voters. An article in Grist points out that managed retreat from rising seas is still an issue that politicians do not want to talk about, and that people are still being incentivized to live in flood zones. Of course, one of the key issues facing advocates of managed retreat is “retreat to where”, a question that often has no specific answer.

An example of the power of protest is highlighted by the Guardian in an article about 18-year-old Jerome Foster. Two years ago, Foster became a participant in the School Strike for Climate, inspired by Greta Thunberg, and protested in front of the White House once a week. Foster has since been named by President Biden to the Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which will be providing advice to the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

An article in New Scientist describes a recent conclusion about the stability of ice shelves in the Antarctic under different warming scenarios. The study found that, if the average global temperature climbs 4°C from the preindustrial average, 34% of the continent’s ice shelves could collapse, but this drops to 18% if warming is kept to 2°C. As these ice shelves slow the flow of land ice into the ocean, retaining them would be another important benefit of transitioning quickly from fossil fuels.

Grist summarizes a recent research article that examines the regrowth of forests burned in Alaska. There is great concern that forest fires represent a major net source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In a bit of good news, the study concludes that the new forest is removing more carbon from the atmosphere than was released in the fires. This is because, after the slow-growing black spruce trees burned, faster-growing aspen and birch trees largely replaced them. These deciduous trees suck carbon out of the air and transform it into wood much more quickly than the previous evergreen forest. Yale e360 describes why tree planting on a large scale is probably not “the solution” to atmospheric carbon build-up that many tout it to be.

Painting flat roofs white is one way to reduce heat gain and thus air-conditioning load. Grist reports that a research group has developed the whitest paint yet, which reflects 98% of incoming sunlight. An article in the Straits Times describes one of the largest floating solar arrays in the world, located in Singapore. In the Washington Post, an op-ed describes the critical importance of restoring ecosystems around the planet in order to sustain human civilization.

The Guardian provides a history of the solar industry, demonstrating how Australian researchers and early solar industrialists in China played key roles. The article notes that solar is vastly less expensive than projected, and this has led to a much greater expansion than previously thought possible (the International Energy Agency projected in 2000 that by 2020 there would be 18 gigawatts of solar capacity in the world — it turns out that 18 gigawatts of solar capacity was installed in 2020 alone). The article quotes solar experts noting that, while solar is cheap now, new technological enhancements on the horizon will bring the world into an era of “insanely cheap energy.”