June 15 2022

June 15 2022

carbon dioxide at all-time high, it’s cheaper to transition off fossil fuels, consumer demand for EVs grows, Americans reduce beef consumption, flows decline in Colorado and Rio Grande rivers

NOAA announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached nearly 421 parts per million in May. This means that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any time in at least 4 million years. It comes as no surprise. As reported by the New York Times, emissions totaled 36.3 billion tons in 2021, the highest level in history. As three past Secretaries of the UNFCCC note in an op-ed, this makes the failure to pursue aggressive decarbonization by the leadership of the major industrialized nations all that more sad and painful.

This increase in carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) continues to heat the planet. The Washington Post describes a recent atmospheric river that caused it to rain at the summit of Greenland. This led to an enormous melt event on the ice sheet. “In the past decade, Greenland experienced three major melt years, 2012, 2019 and 2021, which were all tied to atmospheric rivers. Before 2012, the last major melt event connected to an atmospheric river was more than 100 years ago.”

A recent study examined the net warming effect of carbon dioxide and non-carbon-dioxide pollutants from both fossil-fuel and non-fossil-fuel sources. Anthropocene Magazine reports that the short-lived greenhouse pollutants methane, black carbon soot, ground level ozone and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants cause just as much warming as carbon dioxide. This shows that, while decarbonization is crucial to meeting our long-term climate goals, it is essential that we also reduce short-lived climate pollutants this decade to keep global temperatures lower by mid-century.

A heat wave on the East coast pushed temperatures toward record levels. While this stresses the human population, Salon notes how the stress placed on infrastructure also reverberates through the community. Heat waves shut down public transportation systems and schools, and damaged roads. The article describes several factors, such as heat emitted from air conditioners and automobiles, that result in cities being warmer than surrounding areas. These conditions are going to become more common in the coming decades, even with aggressive emissions reductions, because of the heat being trapped by greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

The Washington Post reports that a recent study concludes: “eliminating air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and provide more than $600 billion in health benefits in the United States every year.” One of the scientists noted that “people look at this as such a huge challenge, but when you look at the health repercussions of switching to clean energy, the benefits are enormous.” As I recently argued, the classic narrative about transitioning from fossil fuels (“it’s too expensive”) is no longer true. Costs are lower in the renewable future due to a drop in renewable-energy prices, but the difference is even more stark when the benefits of better health and less-severe climate impacts are also considered. As Dave Roberts notes in Vox, “it would be worth freeing ourselves from fossil fuels even if global warming didn’t exist.”

Grist reports that a similar conclusion was reached in a major economic study released by Deloitte during the World Economic Forum in Davos. The study concludes that “economics is on the side of a low-emissions future… a coordinated, worldwide investment in climate action would pay handsome dividends for the global economy.” This is another in a long line of assessments that point out “the most expensive thing we can do is nothing.” Deloitte concludes that business-as-usual fossil-fuel use will cost $178 trillion over the next 50 years, while a swift transition away from fossil fuels by 2050 could add $43 trillion to the global economy while setting the stage for a “green industrial revolution.”

An Inside Climate News article discusses the reality that the transition away from fossil fuels is going to require an enormous increase in lithium production for batteries. Researchers have developed a process for extracting lithium from industrial-process water, which could greatly increase available supplies and avoid the environmental challenges of mining. Of course, the industrial processes producing this water (like fracking) have their own impacts to consider. As I’ve noted before, research into alternative battery chemistries is very active. PV Magazine reports on one promising alternative, sodium-ion batteries. “Sodium is a thousand times more abundant than lithium and there is practically an infinite supply of it, with the overall cost of extraction and purification far lower.” As with other alternatives, the challenge is identifying promising markets and bringing manufacturing to commercial scale. Flow batteries are receiving attention for grid-scale applications as they can operate for a longer time before being re-charged.

CNN reports on a recent analysis concluding that sales of cars powered by internal-combustion engines peaked in 2017, and that EVs are going to continue to take over the vehicle market. While initially driven by policy, more and more EV sales growth (including in China) is being driven by consumer demand. “China and Europe will account for 80% of all EV sales globally in 2025, the report predicts, with the US representing just 15% of the world’s EV sales.” An op-ed in the Washington Post highlights the successful debut of the electric version of the Ford F150 pick-up truck, which is the most popular vehicle in the U.S.

Yale e360 notes that “the world added a record 295 gigawatts of renewable power in 2021 and is on pace to surpass that amount in 2022, despite supply chain challenges due to the pandemic. China led the world in the renewable buildout, with almost half of new capacity globally, followed by the European Union and the United States. This year, the world is expected to add another 320 gigawatts of renewables, enough to meet the power demands of Germany.” The New York Times reports that philanthropist Michael Bloomberg has committed $242 million to promote clean energy in ten developing countries. Inside Climate News notes: “From January to March, renewable energy power plants generated 242,956 gigawatt-hours, which was 23.5 percent of U.S. electricity generation, both records.” The growth was thanks in part to more than 80 new wind and solar plants that went online, and to increased production of hydropower in the American northwest.

The New York Times reports that “nearly a third of Hawaii’s single-family houses have rooftop solar panels — more than twice the percentage in California — and officials expect many more homes to add panels and batteries in the coming years.” This is due to a concerted effort by the state, in collaboration with private utilities, to incentivize homeowners to invest in solar panels and batteries. Unlike other states, Hawaii generates a lot of electricity using oil, and recent oil price spikes have driven up the cost of electricity in the islands.

Anthropocene Magazine reports on a recent study concluding that Americans reduced their beef consumption by 40% per person over the period 2003-2018, and shifted in general away from animal-based foods, reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions of the U.S. diet by 35%. “The researchers found that the emissions of the current average US diet still exceeds, by two-fold, the limits imposed by the EAT-Lancet Planetary Diet, which is globally recommended for a more sustainable food system.” The Guardian notes: “If everyone met basic nutritional recommendations, which for most people in developed countries means more fruit and veg and less red meat, emissions could fall 29% by 2050, according to one study.” This article also describes how the marketing of plant-based protein products, and their placement in grocery stores, can increase consumer’s selection of these items.

Gizmodo reports that laboratory-cultured meat is nearing commercial introduction in the U.S. Given the confidential nature of the manufacturing process, it is not clear if the carbon footprint of these products will be significantly smaller than conventional livestock production. Key factors are the type and amount of energy needed and the required use of animal-based products (such as fetal bovine serum).

In The Guardian, George Monbiot characterizes some recent “optimistic” descriptions of humanity’s future in the face of the climate crisis as the product of “political denial.” He notes that these authors tend to make vague claims of a “relentless march of humanity” towards an “even more bountiful future.” Monbiot asserts that, while there is a case for optimism given available technology and the capacity of ecosystems to absorb carbon, one must face squarely that we are not taking the action required to apply these solutions on the timescale needed. The latter will only happen with a groundswell of pressure that results in political change.

Hurricane Agatha struck Mexico in late May, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit that country this early in the year. The Washington Post reports that the storm passed over particularly warm ocean waters, which increased its power. Gizmodo notes that warm ocean temperatures, a product of climate change, are also present this year in the Gulf of Mexico, which could lead to quickly intensifying storms in this region as well. The official NOAA forecast calls for an active hurricane season, and a Washington Post editorial notes this is yet another reason for aggressive climate action. The active hurricane season, along with the western drought and other meteorological patterns, are partially a product of the third straight La Niña year, as described by AP. Northeast Brazil is a recent location to be hit by extreme precipitation. AP reports that more than 90 people are dead and over 5,000 have been displaced from their homes.

CNN notes that Californians (especially southern Californians) are using more water than last year despite Governor Newsom’s request for a 15% reduction. This is leading to the need for mandatory water restrictions, although many are pointing out that the focus of such efforts should be on industry and agriculture and not residential users. Grist describes how complexities in California’s water laws, and of contracts between farmers and the federal government, lead to some farmers having to bear the brunt of cutbacks during drought conditions.

An in-depth article in New York Magazine examines the current state of water negotiations among the seven states that share the Colorado River. As the flow of the river continues to decline during this two-decade drought, water scarcity is looming despite remarkable conservation efforts. Difficult negotiations are underway, with all interested parties trying to reach an agreement, as protracted court battles would be bad for everybody. The Daily Kos reports on the historic low flows in the Po River in Italy, where the agricultural economy represents 40% of Italy’s GDP. Lack of rain for three months, combined with reduced snow in the river’s headwaters in the Alps, is resulting in such low flows that saltwater moving up-river from the Adriatic Sea is damaging crops and soils.

Meanwhile, experts predict that the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico will dry up completely all the way to Albuquerque this summer for the first time since the 1980s. Yale e360 describes how agricultural and municipal water use has caused the river’s flow to become more intermittent. The mega-drought in the West has reduced the snow pack that feeds the Rio Grande, and global warming is increasing aridity that drives evaporation, sublimation (the transformation of snow to vapor) and demands for water by the vegetation and soil. All these factors reduce flow in the river, and the lower Rio Grande, along the border between Texas and Mexico, is now dry for hundreds of miles. Unprecedented drought in Chile has resulted in half of the country’s population suffering from “severe water scarcity” according to The Guardian. Chile’s problem is in part due to a legal system that privatizes water rights. Most water is dedicated to forestry and agriculture, with only 2% of Chile’s water set aside for human consumption. A new government is in the process of changing this system. Grist reports on a water conflict brewing between Nebraska and Colorado, which appears to be as much partisan bickering as it is a physical reality.

One less-appreciated climate solution is urban planning, in which redesigned cities have expanded mass transit and housing that allows people to live closer to where they work. An interesting idea is to convert abandoned strip malls into residential spaces, as this will both reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and address the need for more housing in urban areas. Yale e360 interviews urban planner Peter Calthorpe about this concept. Thomson Reuters Foundation describes how cities are selling downed trees to be used for lumber, generating revenue for replanting.

Anthropocene Magazine reports that researchers have made jet fuel in the laboratory from lignin, a very abundant component of plants that is presently a waste product of the paper industry. This is just the type of sustainable source of aviation fuel that is needed to reduce net carbon emissions from this sector. Several bio-fuels are being developed for aviation, and major airlines have committed to purchasing these fuels as a way of supporting commercialization.

Can you really pay a few dollars for offsets and continue traveling by air without “climate guilt?” The New York Times says that “if it sounds too good to be true, that’s because, at least for now, it is.” Experts note that there are many problems with current offset programs that make them much less effective than advertised.