December 15 2019

December 15 2019

the challenge of cement, bleak news on carbon emissions, climate change worries the Federal Reserve, farms hit hard in midwest, floating solar power

While many people recognize the challenge that aviation presents to our goals for decarbonization (something the airline industry is aware of and working on), less appreciated are major industries such as steel, cement and glass production. These industrial processes require very high heat, and use large quantities of fossil fuels to achieve this goal. In the case of cement, the process also produces carbon dioxide directly when limestone breaks down into calcium oxide (also known as lime). Cement manufacture has been estimated to be 8% of humanity’s carbon footprint, three times larger than that from aviation. Grist reports on a variety of process changes and new technologies designed reduce the cement industry’s footprint. One company has developed a high temperature solar-thermal process to substitute for part of the fossil fuel inputs for producing cement. While the technical know-how to slash the cement industry”s carbon emissions is becoming available, an industry representative notes that the harder task is how “to organize our policy and our markets so that doing it will be rewarded.”

The word “bleak” and “brutal” has appeared in headlines describing the recent report from the United Nations that concluded greenhouse-gas emissions rose 1.8% in 2018, continuing humanity’s rush towards a future that has an average temperature over 3°C hotter than preindustrial times. The Guardian reports that global emissions must now fall every year by over 7% to keep warming within the 1.5°C target that will avoid the worst climate-change impacts. The only times when emissions dropped by a comparable amount in any country were during the Great Recession and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Washington Post’s editors note that Trump continues to deny the problem (or perhaps he doesn’t even understand it), a bad sign for our children. Speaker Pelosi and a group of Democratic members of Congress traveled to Madrid to represent the U.S. at the Conference of the Parties to the Paris Climate Accord. At the meeting, the World Meteorological Organization reported that this past decade was the warmest since the industrial revolution, bringing the world ever closer to abrupt and irreversible changes or “tipping points” (New York Times summary here). An op-ed in Forbes argues that, while climate change is a serious problem, there is also a problem with exaggerations and apocalyptic language by activists, journalists and some scientists.

Projections for 2019 are that carbon emissions growth is slowing, but not yet even stable, to say nothing of declining. The Washington Post reports that emissions of greenhouse gases are projected to increase 0.6% in 2019, despite reductions in the U.S. (1.7%) and Europe. One bright spot is that U.S. coal emissions fell 11% in 2019, although much of this is due to switching to natural gas for electricity production.

Bill McKibben reviews the painful and frightening math of the carbon emissions problem in Yale e360. It is particularly bleak as China has restarted construction of many coal plants previously mothballed due to concerns about air pollution. The capacity of these plants, as reported by InsideClimate News, is equal to the current coal-fired electrical generating capacity of the European Union (the world’s capacity outside of China dropped by 2.8% last year). The increased deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon only makes matters worse.

The decline of the American coal industry continues as utilities find coal-fired power cannot compete with natural gas and renewables. High Country News reports on the impacts of the decline in coal production on the economy of Gillette, Wyoming, the town in the heart of the Power River Basin coal mines. An op-ed in the IndyStar describes the decline of the coal sector of Indiana’s economy.

The Federal Reserve is beginning to openly discuss how climate change might influence our financial system. The New York Times notes that a recent conference by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reviewed how financial stability could be impacted by climate change through power outages, droughts or floods, creating great regional stress. In considering this matter, the Federal Reserve is well behind other central banks such as the Bank of England and the European Central Bank. The American Bankers Association Banking Journal reports that individual banks are beginning to think about this risk, particularly those with coastal real-estate assets.

The Washington Post reports on preparing for future floods in Charlotte, which is often considered to have one of the most well-considered flood-protection programs in the country. A fee on impervious surfaces helps the community purchase flood-prone properties and return flood plains to natural conditions that reduce damages. This focus is none too soon, as six out of North Carolina”s seven wettest storms have occurred in the past 20 years. An 11-inch rainstorm hit the city this year and the Catawba River overflowed into the community, showing that extreme storms are going to challenge even the most progressive of flood-protection programs.

The Washington Post has a detailed look at the impacts of climate change in Santa Barbara, which has warmed as fast as anyplace in the U.S. The region is grappling with fire, drought, coastal erosion and sea level rise, and yet is unable to reduce its own greenhouse-gas emissions. Farmers are beginning to experiment with substituting drought-resistant crops like agave for avocados (“How can I make money using less water?” asks one farmer).

The New York Times reports on the realities of planning for sea level rise in the Florida Keys, one of the most vulnerable regions in the United States (a previous article described how difficult this year’s king tides were in the Keys). Monroe County, which includes the Keys, recently obtained estimates for elevating roadways ($25 million per mile to be keep roads dry year round in 2025). This led officials to conclude they cannot do this everywhere. Some residents are willing to read the writing on the wall, but others are angry that the County is abandoning its responsibility to maintain public infrastructure. This may lead to a legal battle about the meaning of maintenance versus upgrading.

A new scientific study with 89 co-authors has concluded that the rate of ice loss in Greenland is accelerating quickly. The Washington Post describes the study’s conclusions, which imply that the “worst case” scenario for sea level rise in 2100 will have to be revised upward. The Los Angeles Times reports on the challenges facing coastal infrastructure in southern California, as the State Legislature’s Select Committee on Sea Level Rise held its first hearing in five years in the wake of a report from the Office of the Legislative Analyst that concludes coastal communities are not doing enough to prepare.

This was a very difficult year for farming in the midwest. Not only did levee breaks flood farms (and some towns), but continued rainfall in the spring meant that fields were too wet for planting. In 2019, 13% of the total corn acreage in the United States went unplanted, and nearly 6% of total soybean acreage. The rising number of bankruptcies indicate that farmers are struggling with more volatile weather, a predicted and challenging aspect of climate change. InsideClimate News has a multi-story special report on climate change in the midwest (Unfamiliar Ground: Bracing for Climate Impacts in the American Midwest), and the Associated Press reports from the small town of Mosby, Missouri, where many residents who have been flooded repeatedly have accepted buyouts and moved away.

Large solar arrays require a lot of space, and in many places the availability of land limits solar deployment. Grist reports on the development and implementation of floating solar arrays, where the panels are deployed on floats in ponds. Sayreville, New Jersey, is now operating a 4.4 megawatt floating solar array on its wastewater treatment pond. The array is projected to save the city $1million in electricity costs over the next 15 years. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes how photovoltaic (PV) modules keep getting more efficient, PV system costs keep coming down and batteries are becoming a more important component of solar power installations. John Kerry and Ro Khanna make an “America First” argument for the U.S. to lead the renewable energy revolution rather than ceding that leadership to China as we are currently doing.