May 15 2022

May 15 2022

heat wave in Asia, deforestation in South America and Africa, drought and fire in the southwestern U.S., methane leaks in New Mexico, innovations in battery technology

The Guardian describes a powerful heat wave that is gripping India and Pakistan. For weeks, daily high temperatures in Pakistan’s Balochistan region have exceeded 120°F, and it’s only April. When the humidity of monsoon season arrives, many experts are worried that conditions will become ever more dangerous. The heat is impacting agriculture, with yields of wheat in the hottest areas dropping 50%. An article in The Atlantic describes the challenge India faces to meet its renewable-energy goals as electrical demand climbs (in large part due to the growing amount of air conditioning). Last month, more than 600 passenger and postal trains were canceled so that the railroad could deliver more coal to power plants to prevent blackouts, as India faced its worst electricity shortage in six decades. Yet even with these steps, many communities faced outages. This also underscores the need for developed nations to help countries like India accelerate their renewable-energy deployment so that rising demand for electricity does not result in rising greenhouse-gas emissions. (Grist notes that per-capita emissions in the U.S. are over seven times higher than in India).

Coal-burning is also on the rise in China, where many municipalities suffered power outages last year, as described by the New York Times. At the same time, China is building huge amounts of renewable power as well (it will add more wind and solar power capacity this year than the entire rest of the world did last year). China is still committed to having greenhouse-gas emissions peak in 2030 but, with more coal-fired plants built in the next few years, any decline in emissions will likely be gradual. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Reuters reports delays in deployment of solar (due in part to a Department of Commerce investigation into Chinese tariff violations), resulting in a utility in Indiana delaying closure of a coal-fired power plant by two years.

Fires continue to burn in the American southwest, as the ongoing La Niña ocean state creates very dry conditions in the region. The Guardian reports that in 2022 over a million acres have already burned in the U.S., twice the amount burned by this time last year. Particularly hard hit is New Mexico, where five large fires have already burned more than 150,000 acres, which is larger than the area burned in six of the last seven years (remarkable satellite imagery shows four of these fires along with a dust storm in Colorado). Yale e360 describes the growing interest in using controlled burns to clear vegetation and help prevent wildfires from exploding into catastrophes. An article in the New York Times notes that the changing climate is making intentional burns much more complicated to carry out.

Mega-fires produce large amounts of greenhouse gases that are presently not counted as part of a given country’s emissions (fires in Canada in 2017 released emissions almost equivalent to the entire country’s emissions from energy use). The Washington Post examines the challenge of accounting for the massive greenhouse-gas pollution from mega-fires, thawing permafrost and other land-related emissions around the world.

The drought in the west continues, with 95% of California experiencing severe drought. The Guardian notes that outdoor watering is now restricted in southern California. The state’s snowpack is just 35% of normal for this time of year, and it is melting quickly, but reservoirs remain near all-time lows (Lake Shasta is only 40% full). The drought, which started in the year 2000, is now the driest time in the last 1,200 years for the Colorado river basin. The New York Times reports that the federal government has made an unprecedented decision to keep water in Lake Powell to preserve the capacity to generate electricity, which will drive down the water level in Lake Mead even further. The lack of water in Lake Mead has already precipitated cutbacks in water deliveries to Arizona.

Yale e360 looks at how major cities in the west, including San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas, have slowly and methodically adapted to having less water. Despite growth, these cities have greatly reduced per-capita water use by replacing lawns with native vegetation, moving to low-flow plumbing fixtures, advancing water recycling and desalination and shifting water to cities from agriculture. Nine cities surveyed in the Colorado River Basin lowered their water demand in the range of 19 – 48% between 2000 and 2015. The New York Times reports on how Las Vegas has outlawed “nonfunctional” grass. As these patches of grass are replaced by native vegetation, the city expects to save 9.5 billion gallons of water a year, about 10% of what it receives from the Colorado River. The San Francisco Chronicle describes how water recycled from the Petaluma wastewater-treatment plant is being used to irrigate vineyards in the region.

Deforestation continued across the world in 2021, according to a report from the World Resources Institute summarized by the New York Times. The forest loss, which occurred mainly in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia, produced 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is over twice the amount emitted each year by passenger cars and light trucks in the U.S. This was an 11% decline from 2020, but similar to the losses in 2018 and 2019. In some better news, the report notes that in Indonesia and Malaysia deforestation rates declined for the fifth year in a row.

The Washington Post has published a special report on the Amazon, which notes that parts of the rainforest are nearing a tipping point where it will not be able to regenerate. Once this occurs, the region will become a source of carbon to the atmosphere instead of a sink. A primary driver of deforestation in Brazil is cattle-grazing for beef production — the U.S. is now the second-largest buyer of Brazilian beef. As the Post notes, we are Devouring the Rainforest. An op-ed describes how online disinformation is hampering efforts to reduce deforestation rates.

The Guardian reports that, over the last decade, the water level of the lakes across Kenya has risen, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. This is being driven by more rain in the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands, causing lake levels to rise. Since 2010, Kenya has received more rainfall than usual, with the third-highest amount ever recorded occurring in 2019.

Inside Climate News reports on the recent findings from the IPCC about major tropical storms. The major takeaways are no surprise: these storms are getting stronger, wetter and intensifying more quickly once they form. AP describes a study that documents the rising intensity of storms in East Africa. The New York Times describes how the Biden Administration is restoring a requirement to consider climate change as part of environmental impact statements, which the Trump Administration had eliminated. For Earth Day, a “Fight for Our Future” rally was held in Washington D.C. by young activists worried about their future, and disappointed with the Biden Administration’s inability to deliver a bold climate agenda.

BuzzFeed News describes the importance of “solutions journalism,” where reporting always “includes responses to social problems, centering the steps taken as well as the insights, evidence, and limitations gleaned from the work.” Research has documented that reporting on solutions in action generates more engagement and less despair than focusing on impacts. The New York Times reports that, with a major gift from Silicon Valley financier John Doerr, Stanford University will establish the School of Sustainability. While such an intellectual center will undoubtedly provide ideas and momentum for climate action in the long term, some are questioning whether John and Ann Doerr’s $1.1 billion dollars could’ve been used more effectively to accelerate our transition in the short term.

The New York Times looks at a new study concluding that methane leaks from oil and gas operations are larger than previously estimated. The study examined over 27,000 wells in New Mexico using aerial survey methods, and its estimate that leakage is 9.4% of total gas production dwarfs the U.S. EPA estimate of 1.4%. The study also concluded that the vast majority of leakage came from a relatively few number of sites, suggesting that the serious emissions problem could be controlled. Inside Climate News describes a study indicating that coal mines may produce more methane than oil and gas operations. This new estimate is 50% higher than a previous one from the U.S. EPA. The Washington Post reports that methane emissions increased by a record amount worldwide in 2021.

A U.S. electrical grid that runs mostly on renewable energy will require two or three times the transmission capacity currently available, yet building new transmission lines is often controversial with local communities and landowners. Inside Climate News looks at how a major conflict around the construction of a transmission line in Minnesota in the late 1970s influenced how utilities approach the issue today. The New York Times reviews the ongoing conflict in Maine to build transmission lines that will bring hydropower from Quebec into Massachusetts to help the state meet its clean-energy goals. Utility Dive reports that Duke Energy will be soliciting proposals to construct 1.3 GW of solar power in the Carolinas this year, doubling its original plan.

A new study summarized by Inside Climate News concludes that climate change will increase the spread of valley fever, a disease caused by inhalation of spores from a fungus that grows in the soil. Wet periods followed by intense dryness produce the conditions that cause the greatest chance for spread of the spores. The disease currently kills around 200 people every year and leaves thousands of others struggling with fatigue, pneumonia, night sweats and headaches that can drag on for years.

The Financial Post has an excellent article that summarizes some of the remarkable technical innovations occurring in battery technology. These include lithium-ion batteries that can last over 1,000 times longer than current ones, other battery chemistries that may greatly reduce electricity-storage costs and vehicle-to-grid technologies that allow cars to act as electricity storage for the grid when they are parked. An article in Vox also looks at work underway to power EVs with improved lithium-ion batteries or alternative technologies that are better suited to vehicles.

On Saturday, April 30, electricity in California was provided almost 100% by renewable energy, reports the Desert Sun. “Two thirds of the 18,000 megawatts needed was provided by solar power loaded into the energy grid — or 12,391 megawatts. The rest came from wind, geothermal and other renewable sources.” An article in Canary Media explains that, while this milestone is exciting, we still have a long way to go to get to 100% renewable power.