January 31 2023

January 31 2023

greenhouse-gas emissions and global temperatures continue to rise, EV sales and battery manufacturing booming, California still facing drought despite record rainfall, Oregon faces “firmageddon” as trees die

The Washington Post reports that the last eight years have been the hottest in human history. Unfortunately, despite this news underscoring the urgency to halt the emission of greenhouse gases, the New York Times reports that U.S. carbon emissions increased 1.3% in 2022 as compared to 2021. The increase in emissions was driven by the transportation and industrial sectors, while emissions from the electric-power sector declined as electricity production from renewables surpassed coal for the first time. The Post notes: “Researchers found that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at the highest levels in more than 2 million years. Levels of methane, a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas, have also continued to increase and are at the highest levels in 800,000 years.”

Over 90% of the energy captured by greenhouse gases goes into the ocean. The Guardian notes that ocean temperatures in 2022 were the hottest ever recorded. Salon observes that 2022 ocean temperatures broke the previous record… set in 2021. The warming ocean will bring more heat and moisture to the atmosphere, driving up air temperatures and flood risks, and also accelerating sea level rise. It is hard to grasp how much energy this represents: the article notes that in 2022 the ocean absorbed about 14 zettajoules of heat, or 14,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules (a zettajoule is 1021 joules). This is equivalent to releasing 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs of energy into the ocean every day (for those interested in this calculation please see my previous post The Unseen Atom Bombs).

An interesting article in the Washington Post describes how a tagged elephant seal that swam to Antarctica helped scientists understand that warming ocean water is reaching the massive Denman Glacier. Due to the physical configuration of this glacier, it is likely prone to rapid melting if warm ocean water reaches it for an extended period of time. Such melting would result in a noticeable increase in global sea level this century. Another article in the Post reports on a recent study of ice cores concluding that the average temperature from 2001-2011 in northern Greenland was higher than at any time in the last thousand years. This is consistent with observations of surface melt and glacial retreat.

None of this is good news, and while I don’t like to dwell on it we must acknowledge how far we still have to go. Bill McKibben notes in the New Yorker that 2022 was a year of intense weather, including record heat waves in Asia and Europe, and record flooding in Pakistan and other locations around the globe. He goes on to state, however, that 2022 was also a year in which institutions began to respond more vigorously to the climate crisis, with the U.S. Congress’ passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) leading the way. This major investment in renewable energy, which was also enhanced by the Europeans moving more quickly to renewables because of the war in Ukraine, should accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. In the New York Times, Leah Stokes agrees with McKibben, suggesting that we are “beginning to turn the oil tanker” toward a non-fossil-fuel economy.

In a subsequent article, McKibben makes clear that what is critical now is the implementation of the IRA. This must be done well not only to advance the fossil-fuel transition, but also to gain and maintain the support of politicians. As a representation of the scale of the job before us, he notes that Rewiring America estimates that the U.S. will need one million new electricians to support the electrification of the country, which will require switching out about one billion machines in our homes.

In the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells examines the remarkable growth of the EV market. The nearly 30 million electric vehicles on the road today, up from just 10 million at the end of 2020, is vastly more than projected 10 years ago. EVs now represent four out of every five new cars sold in Norway; the figure was just one in five as recently as 2016. More than 55% of new cars registered in Germany in December were electric or hybrid. The growth in China, where the article notes that more electric vehicles are sold than everywhere else in the world combined, was also impressive. EVs rose from 3.5% of the market in early 2020 to 20.3% in early 2022. Yet despite these changes, EVs presently still make up only 2-3% of the global vehicle fleet, showing how challenging the transition will be. The article reviews many of the economic and political challenges that will inevitably slow the transition despite high EV demand.

Yale e360 examines the rush to develop an alternative EV battery, which is being driven in part by the terms of the Inflation Reduction Act. Starting in 2023, the $7,500 tax credit for buyers of most new EVs is tied to certain requirements for the sourcing of critical minerals and the manufacturing of batteries. “By 2029, only EVs with 80 percent of their minerals sourced within the U.S. or its allied nations and 100 percent North American-manufactured or -assembled components will qualify for the full credit.” What is frequently under-appreciated is the scale of the private investment in EVs that is underway, as automakers and battery companies are working to reduce costs, increase driving range and wean the industry off what the U.S. government calls “foreign entities of concern.” Batteries that replace so-called conflict minerals with domestic minerals have advanced beyond research and development to their testing phases; a battery that reduces cobalt in favor of nickel, manganese and aluminum is already in commercial production.

The flow of private capital to EVs is described by Inside Climate News, which reports that U.S. battery manufacturing is expanding “on a scale so large that it’s almost difficult to comprehend.” Over two dozen plants will be constructed between now and 2030, increasing the current manufacturing capacity of 109.7 gigawatt-hours per year of lithium-ion batteries by a factor of seven to 813.6 gigawatt-hours per year. And these factories, most of which are in the midwest (turning the “rust belt” into the “battery belt”), were announced before the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Grist describes a foundation-sponsored program that is helping state transportation departments to locate solar panels on underutilized land near roads. In conjunction with mapping-software giant ESRI, a software tool has been developed that allows transportation agencies to screen land parcels to determine which might be suitable for solar power.

As California recovers from the storms of early January, an op-ed in the New York Times reminds us that the state could still be facing drought this summer without continued rainfall. Recent studies suggest that California will see more of this “weather whiplash” in the future, where drought is periodically punctuated by major floods that overwhelm the infrastructure designed for a different climate. Another article in the Times notes that more rain will need to fall for this rainy season to match or exceed wet years such as 2017, 1997 or 1983. While snow is piling up in the Colorado River basin, Inside Climate News quotes scientist Brian Udall: “We would need five or six years at 150 percent snowpack to refill these reservoirs. And that is extremely unlikely.”

An op-ed in the New York Times describes the opportunity to use large winter-water flows to recharge groundwater basins in California, providing more resilience during drought. A key step is identifying the buried canyons, called “paleo valleys,” that were formed during the last ice age. These are areas of very high permeability where flood flows could be directed for faster recharge, but to use them we first must identify their locations and deal with the complex land uses at the surface.

The Guardian reports that “scientists have discovered a record number of dead fir trees in Oregon, in a foreboding sign of how drought and the climate crisis are ravaging the American west.” While their study is still being finalized, “dead trees were spotted in areas across 1.1m acres of Oregon forest. The scientists have taken to dubbing it ‘firmageddon’.”

Salon notes that climate change has a role in making winter storms more severe, particularly the amount of snowfall. The Washington Post reports on recent research refining the impacts of clouds on global warming. Clouds can have both warming and cooling impacts depending mainly upon their altitude. The impact of clouds has been an important source of uncertainty in model projections of future temperatures. Unfortunately, researchers are reaching a consensus that the warming impact of clouds will grow more important, making the lowest projections of future temperatures less likely.

The Guardian describes the energy revolution that is underway. As many authors (including me in Viva la Revolution) have noted, the expansion of renewable energy in the past five years is evidence of the accelerating transformation away from fossil fuels. For two days in mid-January in the UK, wind energy provided over half the electricity on the grid. This exciting news doesn’t make it into the headlines, in part because the overall cost of energy in the UK is not dropping. Higher gas prices are keeping all energy costs inflated (due in part to regulations in the UK), prompting the author of the Guardian article to suggest that pricing for renewable and fossil-fuel electricity be separated to spread the good news to UK electricity consumers.