January 31 2021

January 31 2021

2020 ties for hottest year ever, continued fossil-fuel subsidies, Biden’s remarkable executive orders, Trump’s last legal defeat, the end of climate-change denial

Even without the boost of an El Niño oceanographic condition, 2020 tied 2016 for the hottest year on record according to Inside Climate News (a more technical discussion is available at RealClimate). This is the first time a new global temperature record was set without an El Niño. The last six years were the hottest six years ever, and 2020 ended the hottest decade on record as well. It’s called “global warming” for good reason.

Grist reports that global carbon emissions dropped around 7% in 2020 when compared to 2019, due mainly to the pandemic and its associated impact on economic activity. This is the largest drop in emissions ever. Some scientists and modelers are suggesting that — even after we get the pandemic under control — emissions will never return to 2019 levels, pointing to how cheap renewable electricity is forcing coal-fired power out of the market. Others remain concerned, citing that China’s emissions have already rebounded to 2019 levels. The New York Times notes that most of the reductions resulted from lower transportation emissions, but these reductions were partially offset by emissions from the huge wildfires in 2020.

An article in Scientific American by the authors of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency notes that, despite reduced emissions in 2020, the world is not doing enough to prevent global warming. We remain on track to exceed a 2°C temperature increase by 2100, to say nothing of the 1.5°C level that provides more meaningful limits to future damage. The authors reiterate their six-point plan — eliminate fossil-fuel-based energy, reduce emissions of short-lived pollutants, restore ecosystems, shift human diets, move to an ecologically sustainable economy and stabilize the human population.

The U.S. (and other nations) still provide substantial subsidies for fossil fuels. The International Monetary Fund estimated U.S. subsidies alone totaled $649 billion in 2017. A detailed fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute reviews the direct and indirect subsidies provided to the fossil-fuel industry in the U.S. These include special tax benefits like the percentage depletion allowance and the deduction of intangible drilling costs, and the indirect benefits of being allowed to pollute the atmosphere and cause respiratory health problems free of charge.

Greentech Media reports on the projection of the U.S. Energy Information Administration that over 70% of new power plants built in 2021 will be carbon-free (wind, solar and one of the units of the Vogtle nuclear station in Georgia). This projection includes only utility-scale projects, so small-scale solar installations on homes and businesses will mean even more carbon-free capacity.

As if we need a reminder that 2020 was not our favorite year, the Guardian summarizes a report from NOAA noting that there were 22 major disasters in 2020 (defined as damages above $1 billion). Wildfires and major storms caused over $95 billion in damage and killed 262 people.

One of the last acts of the Trump Administration was to attempt to auction oil leases in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The auction was a failure, with no major oil companies participating. The only major bidder was the State of Alaska’s economic development agency that hopes to sublease lands in the future. But as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle explains, it is unlikely there will be the demand or the interest in drilling at ANWR. This is good news, as we need to keep that oil in the ground to minimize climate disruption. These leases, and subsequent production activities, were supposed to produce billions of dollars to offset the revenue losses from Trump’s tax cuts. But, as we have seen, large deficits are only a problem for Republicans when the money is being spent by Democrats.

President Biden noted in December, when introducing his agricultural team, that “we see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process.” Inside Climate News takes a look at what this might mean in practice, and the many complications and competing incentives that exist in American farm policy.

The Los Angeles Times reports on recent work by the Nature Conservancy highlighting the importance of farms, ranches, forests and wetlands in delivering a climate solution. Present practices in California are projected to result in a loss of carbon from our lands to the atmosphere. But adoption of different practices could result in our “natural and working lands” absorbing over 500 million tonnes of emissions, about a full year’s worth of emissions from the State. An article in the Washington Post reviews the challenges of getting these techniques adopted by farmers, and also some of the potential limitations of pursuing these strategies as climate solutions. These efforts will get a boost by the recent Executive Order from California Governor Gavin Newsom that aims to conserve 30% of the State’s lands by 2030.

And speaking of Executive Orders, on the afternoon of the Inauguration, President Biden signed the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis (along with 14 others!). This order requires agencies to review regulatory actions taken during the Trump Administration that were not supported by science, including regulations relating to vehicle mileage standards, energy efficiency of appliances and buildings, methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, hazardous air pollution from coal-fired power plants and others. It also requires the review of changes that were made to the boundaries of the Bears Ears, Escalante-Grand Staircase, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments, halts oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, restores the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area and revokes the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline (Bill McKibben gives context to the pipeline decision in the New Yorker). The order establishes an interagency working group to promulgate revised interim social costs for carbon, nitrous oxide and methane by February 21 (to be finalized no later than January 2022). These costs are fundamental to assessing the benefits of climate and other environmental regulations, and the Trump Administration had dropped them to absurdly low levels that had no basis in fact. Overall, this is an extraordinary demonstration of the competence of the Biden team and its commitment to public health and climate action.

In a final display of the incompetence of the Trump Administration, described in an article in the New York Times, a federal appeals court soundly rejected Trump’s efforts to relax restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. After repealing Obama’s Clean Power Plan, Trump’s E.P.A. adopted a rule that the court said represented a “fundamental misconstruction” of the nation’s environmental laws, devised through a “tortured series of misreadings” of the Clean Air Act. This court loss capped four years of legal defeats that represent one of the worst legal records in modern American history (are we “tired of winning” yet?).

One of the great challenges of the climate problem is that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, and so today’s emissions result in warming for many years into the future. But, as the Guardian reports, there’s now reason to hope that once we get to net-zero emissions — global warming may be more swiftly curtailed. In a new analysis, improved modeling of the Earth’s natural systems suggests that the huge carbon-absorption capacity of oceans, wetlands and forests had previously been underestimated. As we get to net-zero emissions, the absorption of carbon by natural systems could moderate future temperatures more significantly than previously thought.

In another piece of good news, climate scientist Michael Mann notes that he is cautiously optimistic that the war of disinformation against climate science is now essentially over. In an interview in Scientific American, he cites the undeniable evidence of climate change and the activism of many different people to bring about the end of climate-change denialism. However, he notes that the “denial machine” is now changing its strategy to promote “inactivism.” This includes framing the issue as one of personal responsibility (“are you vegan?” or “do you fly?”) to drive wedges among the coalition of people who are demanding the major policy changes required to transition our society away from fossil fuels. In New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells also notes three important reasons for hope: the end of denial, the plummeting costs of renewable power and the rising ambition of national pledges to reduce emissions. But make no mistake that, due to our past inaction, we’ve already assured the need to live in a disrupted climate in this century and beyond.

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