May 15 2022

heat wave in Asia, deforestation in South America and Africa, drought and fire in the southwestern U.S., methane leaks in New Mexico, innovations in battery technology

The Guardian describes a powerful heat wave that is gripping India and Pakistan. For weeks, daily high temperatures in Pakistan’s Balochistan region have exceeded 120°F, and it’s only April. When the humidity of monsoon season arrives, many experts are worried that conditions will become ever more dangerous. The heat is impacting agriculture, with yields of wheat in the hottest areas dropping 50%. An article in The Atlantic describes the challenge India faces to meet its renewable-energy goals as electrical demand climbs (in large part due to the growing amount of air conditioning). Last month, more than 600 passenger and postal trains were canceled so that the railroad could deliver more coal to power plants to prevent blackouts, as India faced its worst electricity shortage in six decades. Yet even with these steps, many communities faced outages. This also underscores the need for developed nations to help countries like India accelerate their renewable-energy deployment so that rising demand for electricity does not result in rising greenhouse-gas emissions. (Grist notes that per-capita emissions in the U.S. are over seven times higher than in India).

Coal-burning is also on the rise in China, where many municipalities suffered power outages last year, as described by the New York Times. At the same time, China is building huge amounts of renewable power as well (it will add more wind and solar power capacity this year than the entire rest of the world did last year). China is still committed to having greenhouse-gas emissions peak in 2030 but, with more coal-fired plants built in the next few years, any decline in emissions will likely be gradual. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Reuters reports delays in deployment of solar (due in part to a Department of Commerce investigation into Chinese tariff violations), resulting in a utility in Indiana delaying closure of a coal-fired power plant by two years…

April 30 2022

removing carbon from the atmosphere, Senator Manchin’s conflict of interest, tree planting as a climate solution, nuclear-fusion reactors, high-altitude wind power

The Atlantic notes that a key (but not new) finding from the recent IPCC report is that humanity will have to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to prevent global average temperature from rising to a very dangerous level. While natural ecosystems can carry some of this load, there is no doubt that we will need to develop and deploy technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Recently, an alliance of major tech companies — including Google, Meta, Shopify, and Stripe — announced that it is purchasing $925 million worth of carbon removal over the next eight years through a new venture called Frontier. Frontier will be paying carbon removal companies for drawing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it. Stripe has been engaged in this work for a couple of years, purchasing carbon removal from 14 different start-ups (you can hear Stripe’s project leader on the Volts podcast). By creating demand, they want to stimulate innovation and policy development that will bring about carbon removal at large scale (this approach, previously applied in vaccine development, is known as “advanced market commitment”). The new company’s leader states that “a billion dollars is roughly 30 times the carbon-removal market that existed in 2021. But it’s still 1,000 times short of the market we need by 2050.”

Even if large-scale carbon removal is successfully commercialized, this is not some type of “morning after” pill for excessive greenhouse-gas emissions. If we overshoot our temperature limits by failing to control emissions (which seems likely), many irreversible impacts will occur. Grist discusses these, including species extinctions and sea level rise driven by heat already captured in the ocean. It is also possible that a warming planet passes through tipping points where climate changes occur (over decades/centuries) even with extensive carbon removal in the second half of this century. Examples include insect outbreaks and wildfires that kill trees and release additional greenhouse gases, or heat and drought causing some parts of the Amazon rainforest to release more carbon than it sequesters (I explored tipping points in a previous post). If such processes take off, our carbon-removal efforts will be “like shoveling a walkway in a blizzard.” Steering clear of these tipping points is why it is so essential to cut emissions aggressively now…

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…

March 31 2022

megadrought and megafloods challenge farmers and sewers, West Virginia Governor doubts climate science, California regains authority to regulate vehicle emissions, wildfire risk set to climb, trucking water could replace hydroelectric dams

The drought in the west continues. In California, the federal water project announced no deliveries of water this year, and the state water project will only deliver 5% of contracted amounts. This leaves many farmers to depend upon depleted groundwater reservoirs, and the Washington Post describes the impact on communities and agriculture in the state. Nearly 400,000 acres of agricultural land was left unplanted last year due to a lack of water, costing farmers $1.1 billion in lost productivity and costing the region nearly 9,000 agricultural jobs.

The droughts and extreme weather across America are driving up the cost of insuring the country’s farmers. Inside Climate News reports that, from 1995 to 2020, “insurance payments to farmers have risen more than 400 percent for drought-related losses and nearly 300 percent for losses from rains and flooding.” Accelerating climate change will bring more of these challenging growing conditions, making the cost of crop insurance rise even higher. NPR notes that U.S. Taxpayers cover about 60% of the cost of policy premiums and may also be responsible for insurance payouts to farmers in the event of widespread crop damage. A small farmer states that crop insurance discourages adaptation to environmental change, and only insures a small number of commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

“It actually hurts farmers from trying to be proactive and change their farms,” he said. “They can do the same thing that they’ve done for years and they’re going to get paid for it if they have a failure…”