June 15 2023

June 15 2023

carbon-emissions rules for existing power plants, Canadian fires deliver smoke to NYC, a temporary fix for the Colorado River, important new regulatory policy from the White House, large solar arrays (including floating facilities) coming online

The New York Times reports that the EPA has issued the first-ever rules designed to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rules would eliminate about 90% of the greenhouse-gas emissions from these plants by 2040. Inside Climate News describes the new rules, which have an extended timeline for compliance and many exceptions for smaller facilities. This means that these rules alone will not allow the country to meet our goal under the Paris Agreement of halving emissions from the power sector by 2030. However, a University of Maryland analysis suggests that the rules will produce an 82% reduction in greenhouse-gas levels from the power sector by 2040 from their 2005 peak. The Biden Administration notes that other incentive policies will further decrease electrical-sector emissions.

Indeed, with these new rules in place, replacing aging fossil-fuel plants with renewable power — something the Obama-era EPA tried to force but the Supreme Court rejected — becomes a more attractive option. This is because, to meet the new rules, the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) would be required, which is presently expensive and uncertain. Time Magazine notes that, while the fossil-fuel industry has been touting CCS as way to have “carbon-free” power from coal, oil and natural gas, it now has to prove this is possible. Shifting to ever-cheaper renewable sources of power may be much easier, despite a myriad of tax benefits included for CCS in recent legislation. The Guardian describes the new power-plant rules as one of a series of efforts by the EPA to address major environmental problems as the agency emerges from the demoralizing and disempowering years when Trump was President.

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs, gets more than half its water supply from groundwater, and it is running out. The New York Times reports that Arizona has determined that groundwater resources are inadequate to meet the demand created by housing construction that has already been approved in the Phoenix area. The state will therefore stop developers from building some new subdivisions, a sign of looming trouble for current urban growth patterns in the West. To provide water for even already-approved developments, Arizona will have to count on new water conservation measures and alternative sources. One proposal is to desalinate water in Mexico and pipe it to Phoenix. Israel gets 60% of its water by desalinating the Mediterranean Sea, and an Israeli company is behind this pipeline proposal. Opponents of the project label it "a big dumb idea," and call for more aggressive water conservation. The Washington Post summarizes how Arizona’s problems are just an example of the major challenges facing western cities as the region’s climate becomes ever-more arid.

Meanwhile, a new study concludes that if a “multi-day blackout in Phoenix coincided with a heat wave, nearly half the population would require emergency department care for heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses,” reports The New York Times. The key danger is the loss of air conditioning. The study suggests strategies, including tree planting and “cool roofs,” that could “protect residents during overlapping blackouts and heat waves.” It also recommends making changes to create a more resilient electrical grid. Unsafe conditions caused by high temperatures caused authorities to shut down schools in Grand Rapids, MI, and Pittsburgh, PA, earlier this month.

The Extreme Weather Department’s runner-up event this week is Typhoon Mawar, which The New York Times describes as the strongest storm to strike Guam in decades. A week after the storm, thousands of people across the island still were without power, water and cellphone service. Meanwhile, sofas are flying in Turkey.

The top award for an extreme weather event is Canada’s worst wildfire season ever, with fires burning in places Canadians have never seen burn and overwhelming firefighting capacity (400 fires were burning in early June, over half out of control). The fires are sending smoke into cities across the country, and into many areas of the eastern U.S. The New York Times reports that city residents are struggling with the impacts of smoke. Outdoor events are being curtailed or canceled (including professional sports), and the New York Governor ordered the distribution of one million N-95 masks from the state’s stockpile. Cities from as far west as Detroit suffered from unhealthful air, and flights were grounded at airports. Interviews with members of the public harken back to the dread felt by Californians in 2018 and 2020 when waking up to orange skies and unhealthy air, and David Wallace-Wells reflects that New Yorkers can no longer rely on thinking that “it can’t happen here.” He notes that “sixty percent of the pollution from American wildfires is experienced by people living outside the state in which the trees are actually burning.”

The climate columnist for The Washington Post notes that our visceral response to an orange sky and choking air makes climate change real in ways that written analyses cannot. Another states that there is nothing like direct experience to get people’s attention, but whether this translates into a sustained commitment to climate action is not clear.

The Guardian explains that the increase over the last two decades in the scale and frequency of wildfires is a product of our changing climate. A recent attribution study concludes that 88 of the world’s top greenhouse gas-emitting companies are responsible for about half of the dryness (measured as “vapor pressure deficit”) that has made wildfires more frequent and intense. Fire historian, Stephen Pyne, notes that we’ve entered The Pyrocene Epoch, which will be characterized by massive wildfires. We happen to be alive as the Epoch has begun, but it will not end anytime soon. Many of the extensive forest ecosystems that are burning will eventually evolve into grasslands (trees will burn too frequently to restore the forest canopy), but this will happen over a long period characterized by repeated fires because of our new climate. California’s fire season is delayed this year by moisture remaining from our wet winter, and this is a great time to make sure you have face masks and air purifiers on hand for later in the year.

An organized campaign of misinformation is being directed towards offshore-wind turbines, claiming that these facilities are the cause of whale deaths in the Atlantic. Of course, there is no evidence to support these claims, and Salon notes that researchers found extensive evidence that vessel strikes are the main cause of whale mortality. The AP describes how New Bedford, Massachusetts, which used to be a key industrial center for the whaling, is transforming itself into a center for the offshore-wind industry. The Guardian examines a real environmental impact from renewable energy; damage done to desert ecosystems by large-scale solar energy developments. While a regional-scale environmental impact assessment can be completed before solar construction begins, critics note that individual amendments for specific projects can result in cumulative impacts to human health and ecosystems that should have been avoided.

The Washington Post reports that the federal government and the states that withdraw water from the Colorado River reached an agreement to address the receding flows in the river. The states agreed to unprecedented water-conservation measures in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal funding, most of which will go to compensate farmers who have to fallow land. This agreement will be in force through 2026, by which time the states and federal government are planning to have a new long-term water-sharing agreement in place (we’ll see how that goes). The Guardian notes that farmers in Arizona have already been facing shortages of irrigation water, as “about half the irrigated farmland will be left unplanted in Pinal county this year, and hundreds of rural jobs have already been lost.” Another article explains that many experts think the long-term problem (too much demand, not enough water) remains very difficult to address.

At Scientists for Global Responsibility, climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, argues that “getting real” about climate action means acknowledging that the technological advancements we are seeing in renewable energy are not enough to meet our climate goals. “We also need profound changes in the socio-economic structure of modern society.” He urges us to mobilize society’s productive capacity to deliver a public good for all — a stable climate with minimum detrimental impacts — and acknowledges the scale of this challenge. He states what meeting this challenge would look like: an immediate moratorium on airport expansion with a plan to deliver an 80% cut in all air travel by 2030; no more new internal combustion engine cars built after 2025; a huge shift away from private cars in cities and urban environments; and a street-by-street retrofit of existing homes along with a maximum size threshold for new construction.

The New York Times highlights the work of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House, which under the leadership of Ricky Revesz has revamped some vital procedures for how the costs and benefits of federal regulations are determined. In particular, certain methods that have been in place for 30 years have been updated to highlight the long-term benefits of environmental regulations. This is very nerdy and in-the-weeds stuff, but it has huge implications. The Times introduces President Biden’s nominee to head the World Bank, Ajay Banga, who may be able to direct trillions to help developing countries cope with climate change.

In The New York Times, Brian Deese, former Director of the National Economic Council for President Biden, notes that the Inflation Reduction Act will stimulate significantly more private investment in clean energy than was at first thought possible. He states that there are now “at least 31 new battery manufacturing projects in the United States. That is more than in the prior four years combined.” He points out that companies have announced 96 gigawatts of new clean power over the past eight months, which is more than the total investment in clean power plants from 2017 to 2021. He acknowledges that these impressive achievements are not enough to meet clean energy goals and, among other recommendations, he calls for making it easier to build clean-energy infrastructure and developing more low-carbon incentives for energy-intensive industries like cement manufacturing.

The New Yorker visits the Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park in India, one of the largest solar installations in the world. The article provides a detailed look at how this development has impacted the local community, for good and for bad. “Green technologies will need to share space with humans and ecosystems; when climate activists talk about a just transition, they are imagining people, power, and nature working in harmony.” It requires careful planning to make that happen.

North America’s largest "floatovoltaic,” an array of floating solar panels, has come online in New Jersey. Providing over 8 MW of peak power output, it shows that this type of solar installation can generate electricity and reduce evaporation without using additional land. There are many such facilities in the world, including plants in Asia that are as large as 320 MW.