December 31 2023

December 31 2023

global agreements at COP28 in Dubai, major U.S. decision looms on natural-gas exports, one farming family uses as much Colorado River water as Las Vegas, how sustainable can aviation fuel be?, EV mythbuster

The Washington Post reports that “nearly 200 countries struck a breakthrough climate agreement… calling for a transition away from fossil fuels in an unprecedented deal that targets the greatest contributors to the planet’s warming.” The agreement, reached at COP28 in Dubai, is the first international agreement that aims explicitly to reduce fossil-fuel use due to its impact on the climate. It calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” CNBC notes that the UAE says the agreement represents “a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”

While it is not a surprise that the UAE (and other major oil-producing countries) are touting the agreement as a major achievement, and it is the first time the COP has actually addressed fossil-fuel use formally, many are quite skeptical of the document (Elizabeth Kolbert states in The New Yorker that “after twenty-eight COPs, and twenty-eight years of rising emissions, skepticism is clearly justified”). The Guardian notes that, because the agreement does not call for the phaseout of fossil fuels, it allows the continued growth of fossil-fuel production and use. A Washington Post editorial notes that “the effort’s credibility suffers when goals and pledges often require unprecedented efforts and offer little clue about how they will be financed. It doesn’t help either that, so far, the world is failing to hit targets set before.” A review in The Atlantic calls the agreement “a new floor for climate ambition.”

Inside Climate News interviews Alden Meyer, who has been part of the COP process for 30 years (most of the time as a staff member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I got to know him). Alden provides a thoughtful perspective on the agreement, including its weakness in ambition and its place in the history of global climate policy. Alden also notes that the initial $700M contribution obtained at Dubai for the Loss and Damage Fund, which will help developing nations build resilience to the new climate, is dwarfed by the $3.5B a day spent on fossil-fuel subsidies. Alden finds hope in the fact that the agreement includes the historic recognition that we have to come to grips with our addiction to fossil fuels, and that the COP meetings now mobilize all sectors of society, not just scientists and environmentalists, in a call to action.

The Guardian notes that there are many steps that can be taken to phase out fossil fuels even without direct action by the COP. “International regulations, like the EU’s carbon border tax, can penalise dirty producers. Methane limits can block the import of gas produced with excessive methane leaks. Climate clubs of nations can accelerate green action together, and exclude or penalise free-riding polluters. Taxation on fossil fuels, and international aviation and shipping, is being seriously discussed after the establishment of a new taskforce at COP28. Ending the insanity of the $7tn (£5.5tn) a year in subsidies that benefit fossil fuels would cut global emissions by 34% by 2030 — a large chunk of the 43% cut needed — and is starting to happen, from Nigeria to Canada. People can confront the fossil fuel industry too. Protests can stop projects and help destroy the industry’s social license to operate. Voting for climate-positive politicians narrows the space in which it can operate. There are many other possibilities, most especially for the global middle class, which produces 50% of all emissions. Putting pensions in green pots and choosing electric cars, heat pumps, and trains over planes all help keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

New York Magazine states that the fundamental obstacle to rapid decarbonization is that fossil fuels are still presently the easiest way to increase near-term global living standards. Surveys still indicate that people are more tolerant of rising carbon emissions than they are of falling or stagnant incomes.

A key step in the transition: not approving more oil and gas infrastructure. An op-ed in the Guardian frames the major decision in this regard facing the Biden Administration, whether to approve permits for more liquid natural gas (LNG) export facilities. The authors note that recent research has concluded that LNG exports produce more greenhouse gases (mainly due to methane leakage) than coal exports. As reviewed by The New York Times, there is a growing focus on the Calcasieu Pass 2 LNG export facility in Louisiana, which is being described as just the type of fossil-fuel development that must cease. Opposition is growing to the project (including from a large group of scientists), which Bill McKibben calls “the single biggest remaining fossil fuel expansion on planet Earth.” (His post frames the high stakes in this debate very well.)

The New York Times examines the global rush to find “white” hydrogen, naturally occurring deposits of pure hydrogen gas deep underground. Historically something that was ignored when encountered by drillers looking for oil and methane, recent evidence suggests that large deposits of hydrogen exist and, if they could be tapped economically, this would be a valuable part of decarbonizing our economy. The key question is how large the deposits are and what the actual production costs will be, and there are many companies and governments working hard to answer these questions.

The Desert Sun reports that “Agriculture has always been the largest use of the Colorado River, and California’s Imperial Irrigation District, established in 1911, has among the earliest claims and by far the largest claim to the river.” Indeed, a recent analysis concludes that the farms of just 20 extended families consume the majority of the water in the valley. “Farmers in one family, the Abattis, used an estimated 260,000 acre-feet, more water than the entire Las Vegas metropolitan area uses.” Most of that water is used to grow hay to feed livestock.

In The New York Times, Bill Gates calls for the wealthy to aggressively support the commercialization of climate solutions. The Times reports that the enormous subsidies for renewable energy and other climate-friendly policies in the Inflation Reduction Act are causing other nations to respond with subsidies and industrial policies of their own. This is creating some political tensions, but also increasing the global investment in the clean-energy sector.

Meanwhile, from the It’s Even Worse Than it Seems Department, The New York Times reports that truck-engine manufacturer, Cummins, has agreed to pay a $1.6 billion penalty to settle claims that the company installed devices to defeat emissions controls on hundreds of thousands of engines. This would be the largest penalty ever under the Clean Air Act. Another EPA investigation has determined that individual owners of more than half a million diesel pickup trucks have illegally disabled their vehicle’s emissions-control technology.

In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the debate about what constitutes “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF). Regulations soon to be promulgated by the Department of Treasury will define SAF, which will qualify for a major tax credit offered through the Inflation Reduction Act. A coalition of environmental and climate groups are concerned that too broad a definition will repeat the past mistake made when ethanol from corn was defined as a sustainable fuel. “Today, nearly forty per cent of the country’s corn crop is converted into ethanol, up from around ten per cent in the mid-two-thousands. This had many unfortunate side effects, one of which was to raise the price of food. Another was to encourage farmers to clear more and more land to plant more corn, which, in turn, produced more greenhouse-gas emissions.” She concludes that “in the near term, at least, there’s no way to markedly reduce aviation emissions without reducing aviation. “

The Guardian is producing an EV Mythbuster Series, reviewing claims about EVs. Its most recent piece examines whether EVs are actually better for the climate because it takes more energy to produce them than gasoline-powered cars. While they find this is true, over the vehicles’ lifetimes, the tailpipe emissions from the standard vehicles result in a much larger carbon footprint, beginning after about two years of operation. The title of an op-ed in The New York Times says it all: “Relax, Electric Vehicles Really Are the Best Choice for the Climate.”

I hope we all enjoy a healthy and happy 2024.