March 31 2021

March 31 2021

solving the climate crisis pays for itself, the growth of offshore wind, reality of sea level rise strikes North Carolina, the enormous carbon footprint of food waste, University of Michigan divests from fossil fuels

The Guardian reports on a study that documents the pervasive and deadly impact of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Globally, the death toll from fossil-fuel burning exceeds the combined total of people who die each year from malaria and smoking tobacco. These effects derive mainly from the impact of PM2.5 — the particles produced by combustion that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These particles, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems. An article in Grist argues that the Centers for Disease Control should add a code to its official list of causes of death that can be used to identify air-pollution fatalities, as one does not currently exist. In another article, the Guardian documents how the fossil-fuel industry understood the impacts of particulates and fossil-fuel combustion products. However, just like in the case of tobacco and climate change, the industry hid its knowledge and attempted to sow doubt in the public sphere about the health impacts. The costs to health from fossil fuels are so large that eliminating them by transitioning to renewable energy will more than pay for the costs associated with the transition (in other words, saving ourselves from the climate crisis pays for itself).

Yale e360 examines the growth of the offshore-wind industry in the U.S. Several large wind farms are under construction off the Atlantic coast from Rhode Island to Virginia, and these will begin generating large amounts of electricity in the next few years (a blog post from the Union of Concerned Scientists provides an update on the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts, one of the first major offshore projects that is set to be approved by the Biden Administration). As the industry has matured (particularly from experience in Northern Europe), costs have come down, and state policies for purchasing renewable electricity have contributed to solid projections of future demand. Thousands of jobs are being created, and this corps of workers will expand as the industry spreads south along the Atlantic coast, where strong winds and relatively shallow offshore waters combine to create excellent conditions for wind power.

An article in Energy News looks at small-scale wind power (turbines as tall as big trees, not skyscrapers), where turbines are sited in communities that benefit directly from the power generated. The Guardian reports on a new type of bladeless wind turbine (nicknamed the "skybrator" by Reddit—you will just have to go look for yourself). On the 10th anniversary of the meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactors, Inside Climate News examines why nuclear power continues to struggle to expand (safety concerns and cost). As I noted in my post, The Nuclear Mirage, I do not expect nuclear power to play a prominent role in decarbonizing our economy. Reuters notes that NextEra Energy plans to build a 690-megawatt solar project at the site of its closed Duane Arnold nuclear plant in Iowa.

California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is scheduled to be shut down in 2025 (a decision made by PG&E for economic reasons). In a blog post based on a recent analysis, the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that, without a more accelerated effort to deploy an array of renewable technologies, the plant shutdown will increase the emission of greenhouse gases in California. Greentech Media reports on the debate about Duke Energy’s plans to build more natural-gas generation facilities. Opponents are arguing that Duke’s future estimates of winter peak power are overstated, and that the existing process encourages the utility to build unnecessary fossil-fuel infrastructure rather than turning to renewables and battery storage.

Inside Climate News reports that in 2020 renewable sources (hydro, solar and wind) generated more electricity than coal for the first time ever in the U.S. As recently as 2015, coal was the leading source of electric power in the country, but generation fell almost in half over the next five years (Dominion Energy of South Carolina is the latest utility to announce its intention to close its coal-fired power plants during this decade). Natural gas is the leading source of electrical power in the country.

In the New York Times, Frank Bruni considers the rise of alternatives to meat: plant-based products, cultivated meats (lab products derived from animal meat cells) and fermentation-derived proteins produced by microorganisms. As a burger lover concerned about the environment and climate change, he concludes that meat substitutes are well on the way to making a difference in the carbon footprint of the American diet. New Scientist reports on a recent study concluding that legal marijuana has a surprisingly high carbon footprint, mainly due to the power usage for climate control and lighting of indoor growing facilities.

An op-ed in the Washington Post describes the basic challenge for electrifying vehicles in the U.S. Right now, 99% of our vehicles have internal combustion engines and, given the existing turnover rate of our fleet, 10% of our vehicles would still not be electric in 2040 even if every car purchased starting today was an EV. Moreover, we remain on track to have fossil-fuel based electricity in 2040, so EV charging would still be generating greenhouse gases. This means electrifying our transportation sector will need a major boost from federal policy if we are to reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. An article at Yale e360 describes the growing momentum for EVs globally, particularly in China and Europe, and how proposals put forward by the Biden Administration could greatly accelerate EV adoption in the U.S.

The New York Times has a great article examining the tough choices facing the residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks as sea level rises. Erosion of the shore (particularly along the famous beaches that drive the tourist industry) is now obvious to everybody, but the question of what to do and how to pay for it is not. Some residents want the state or the federal government to help pay the cost of adaptation measures. While the state is providing funding for some road improvements, the mayor of the town of Avon is telling his constituents that there’s nobody coming to the rescue. FEMA is proposing to change flood-insurance rates to more accurately reflect flood risk, which will raise rates for some Americans while reducing them for others. The New York Times reports that among those who would pay more are Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s constituents on Long Island. Senator Schumer, a strong supporter of climate action in general, has asked FEMA to rethink their new rates, demonstrating the political difficulty inherent in many climate policies.

An article in Grist demonstrates that Florida politicians are starting to address the impacts of sea level rise. It wasn’t so long ago that Governor Scott of Florida famously would not allow the term “climate change” to be used by government officials, but now the state legislature appears ready to adopt a program that will direct $100 million per year over the next two years toward protections against sea level rise and flooding. This seems to be more of a band-aid than a solution to the extraordinary vulnerability of the Sunshine State. For many places in Florida, retreat from the shore will be necessary, but that is not yet being discussed. In my post, Observations from Another Planet, I summarized my thoughts about sea level rise in Florida after a visit several years ago.

An article in the Washington Post notes that more than a third of all food grown for human consumption in the United States is wasted. The carbon footprint of this wasted food is larger than that of the aviation industry. Globally, food waste accounts for 8% of all carbon emissions. About 37% of food waste happens in the home, and the article contains many suggestions for limiting household food waste.

The New York Times reports on the major floods hitting New South Wales, Australia. In the type of rainfall event projected to become more common in our new climate, three feet of rain fell in the region in five days (in some cases five times the average March rainfall in just four days), causing rivers to quickly overflow their banks. In the town of Windsor, a new bridge — built 10 feet higher than the one it replaced in order to be more resilient to flooding — was underwater. This region has had a painful lesson in the intensification of climate. Last year, after an intense drought, historic wildfires burned.

An article in the Toronto Star describes the recent Supreme Court decision in Canada upholding the legality of a federal carbon price. This is an important decision, as a carbon price is an essential tool for decarbonizing market economies. In the Guardian, Bill McKibben notes the significance of the recent decision by the University of Michigan to divest from fossil fuels, as just five years ago the same university rejected the call of its students to take such action.