January 31 2022

January 31 2022

temperatures and carbon emissions at high levels, the rich are the world’s major emitters, automakers make major push with EVs, solar projects keep growing in size, American concern about climate change at all-time high

Recent studies summarized by the Washington Post conclude that the past seven years have been the hottest in recorded history, with 25 countries that are home to about 1.8 billion people setting new annual records in 2021. July was the hottest month humanity has ever recorded, and the heat dome that seared the Pacific Northwest this past summer was “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth." Although 2021 was a bit cooler than 2020, it shows that natural variation, like the cooling influence of La Niña in 2021, can barely put a dent in the relentless man-made warming trend. For seven years in a row, global average temperature was more than 1°C above the preindustrial average. It’s unlikely that anyone alive today will see the world’s temperature drop below that one-degree benchmark again. “There is no going back,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Most of the heat from global warming is going into the ocean, and the Washington Post notes that the evidence for record warmth is clear in the most recent analysis of heat energy in the ocean. An article by John Abraham, one of the study’s authors, concludes "we took the Earth’s temperature — and the Earth’s fever is getting worse." He notes that the heat going into the ocean in 2021 was equivalent "to seven Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating each second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." In my 2018 post, The Unseen Atomic Bombs, I explain how the the average increase in ocean heat over the last 50 years is equivalent to about 4.5 bombs per second. As expected, ocean heating has accelerated in recent years. In The Conversation, climate scientist Kevin Trenberth reviews the impact of ocean warming on the climate system.

The New York Times reports that, after a 10% decline in emissions in 2020 due to the pandemic, emissions in 2021 rose 6%, due mainly to increases in coal-fired power and truck traffic. President Biden’s goal is to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 (compared to 2005). After last year’s rebound, U.S. emissions are now just 17.4% below 2005 levels. An article in Vox examines the emissions rise, and how the Build Back Better bill could establish an "offramp" from our current system where economic growth and fossil-fuel use are linked.

Coal-fired electricity generation was up 17% in 2021 — the first annual increase in reliance on America’s dirtiest fuel source in almost a decade. Many utilities switched back to using coal plants due to an increase in natural-gas prices. Despite a global agreement to strengthen near-term climate commitments at the COP26 talks in November, overall emissions are on track to keep rising for several more years. Many climate activists are growing skeptical that the Biden Administration can meet its ambitious climate goals.

Wildfires produced a record amount of carbon emissions in parts of Siberia, the United States and Turkey this year. Reuters reports that these fires released the equivalent of twice Germany’s annual emissions. The New York Times notes that "while the forests that went up in flames may eventually grow back, absorbing carbon dioxide as they do, that process will take years. And scientists have warned that wildfires will become larger and more frequent as the planet warms."

An op-ed in the Guardian notes that "10% of the world’s population are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half of the world contributes just 12% of all emissions. This is not simply a rich versus poor countries divide: there are huge emitters in poor countries, and low emitters in rich countries." In the U.S., the richest 10% of the population produces seven times the emissions of the poorest 50%. Not only are the rich the major emitters, poorer people have less capacity to decarbonize their activities. It follows that the rich should contribute the most to curbing emissions, and that the poor be given the capacity to cope with the transition, but this is not happening.

Inside Climate News reports that there is evidence of great consumer interest in the all-electric Ford F-150 pickup, which will go on sale this year. In Texas, thousands of customers have put down deposits (OK… they are refundable), especially in urban areas. Ford clearly thinks they have a winner, as they have already announced a doubling of production from 80,000 vehicles per year to 150,000 vehicles per year by 2023 (an announcement that caused a 12% rise in the price of Ford’s stock). An article in Axios describes a new Mercedes electric sedan with a 620-mile range. This car is still a prototype, rather than production-ready, but is another demonstration of how major car makers are entering the EV space in a big way (Mercedes plans to spend $45 billion on EV technology through 2030). Car and Driver describes the Chevrolet Silverado pickup EV, which is scheduled to go on sale next year. This vehicle has a powerful engine (664 hp) and an option for a battery pack with a 400-mile range.

Utility Dive notes that these announcements are all evidence that traditional automakers are attempting to close the EV gap opened up by Tesla. In addition, marketing materials make it clear that the companies are expanding beyond the "green first adopter" to a much broader market (e.g., these are not just electric vehicles, they are better vehicles). An op-ed in the New York Times notes the importance of electrifying medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Heavy-duty trucks are responsible for nearly a quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions from the nation’s transportation sector.

The process of making EVs, and particularly the mining of the metals used in the batteries, produces carbon emissions. These indirect emissions have led skeptics to argue that EVs are not really as green as touted, as I noted in the last In Brief. However, a new comprehensive study from Yale University should put those arguments to rest. Anthropocene Magazine’s report on the study concludes that the total indirect emissions from EVs are much smaller than the indirect emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. This is caused mainly by much higher emissions in the supply chain for standard vehicles.

Grist reports on the largest solar-power project in the United States. Known as Mammoth Solar, the 1.65 GW facility will cover 13,000 acres, spread across two counties in Indiana, with 60 landowners involved. This is particularly notable as, in 2020, Indiana used the third most coal in the United States, behind Texas and Missouri. But as aging coal plants in the state reach the end of their useful life, utilities are moving to less-costly solar power. The article notes that "over the next two years, at least 15 solar projects stretching 1,000 acres or more each are slated to go online in the state, in addition to several other smaller solar farms." Property taxes from Mammoth Solar will account for nearly one-fifth of the annual budgets of Starke and Pulaski counties, and for many landowners the payments they will receive are more than they are able to make farming the land or leasing it themselves. In Texas, Tesla has unveiled its largest utility-scale battery project, and CNN reports on a major new investment in renewable energy by India’s richest man.

A heatwave of historic proportions struck Argentina the week of January 11, with temperatures up around 45°C (113°F) in parts of the country, according to Reuters. The previous week, a town in Australia recorded the hottest temperature ever in the Southern Hemisphere (123°F).

The Washington Post reports on the political challenges facing renewable energy in North Dakota where, in several counties, zoning regulations have been adopted to block wind and solar developments. Powerful local political forces are aligned to prevent the closure of the Coal Creek coal-fired power plant, despite the fact that it is losing money. Many local jobs are tied to the plant and its associated coal mine.

The latest survey of American opinions on climate change by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication shows that Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue and more supportive of climate solutions. About 59% of Americans are categorized as either "alarmed" or "concerned," which is twice as many as just five years ago. Meanwhile, the number who are "doubtful" or "dismissive" (19%) continues to shrink.

If you’re a bit down in the dumps about climate change, it is worth reading an article in the MIT Technology Review that documents the progress we have made in addressing the problem. This includes reducing emissions growth, lowering the cost of carbon-free energy and advancing electric vehicles and other innovative technologies. And while dangerous, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common or severe, we are getting a lot better at keeping people safer from them. We certainly still face great challenges, but it’s also a certainty that we are making progress. We now just need to do it faster.