October 15 2018

October 15 2018

a big step by California, Trump administration accepts climate science, Georgians pay for nuclear power, intensifying hurricanes, the Kigali amendment

The Los Angeles Times reports that Governor Brown signed into law Senate Bill 100, which sets three major goals for electricity in California’s future: 50 percent renewables by 2026, 60 percent renewables by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045 (carbon free includes hydro, geothermal, nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage). This major accomplishment is thoughtfully reviewed by Dave Roberts at Vox. Adrienne Alvord of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that this law and an accompanying Executive Order deliver the clear message that “we need to reduce global warming pollution much further and faster than we previously thought to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” California also just advanced its 2030 goals for low-carbon transportation fuels.

Demonstrating the importance of California’s commitment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report documenting the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases quickly and significantly (the report assessed more than 6,000 scientific papers, with input from 91 authors and editors from 40 countries). The New York Times reports the IPCC conclusion that without rapid emissions reductions the world could reach 1.5°C warmer than preindustrial times as soon as 2040, and that this rise could have much more significant impacts than previously thought. To prevent this warming, emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. The report concludes that it is technically possible to keep warming below 1.5°C, although the political feasibility of this goal is highly questionable (an early draft of the report summary stated there is “a very high risk” of exceeding the 1.5°C rise, but this language was removed in the final document).

As the Washington Post notes, according to the IPCC the impacts of a 2°C rise, the often cited goal for global emissions control, will actually be more severe than previously thought. The report calls for an immediate price on carbon, at levels well above the $50/ton used by the Obama administration (a number the Trump administration has reduced to $7/ton). The Guardian notes that the report suggests geoengineering techniques, such as injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, might become more attractive given the apparent lack of will to drastically reduce fossil fuel combustion. Such techniques will have serious side effects, such as alteration of rainfall patterns or increased ultraviolet radiation, that will cause significant public health, ecological and political problems.

The Washington Post reports that the Trump Administration assumes the planet will warm by a disastrous 7°F by the end of this century in an environmental impact statement released last month. The analysis, released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to support the decision to freeze automobile fuel efficiency standards, assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed due to a phenomenon the President has called a hoax. Essentially, NHTSA argues that climate action is useless because climate change exists and is caused by burning fossil fuels. This sickening lack of leadership should enrage everybody. A Guardian op-ed by Bill McKibben and an article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone provide some excellent perspectives.

The Washington Post has an article and great photographs from the field summarizing the work of Professor Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who has been studying the release of methane from arctic lakes. As noted in my August 31 post, as the northern latitudes warm, decomposition speeds up, releasing more methane and carbon dioxide. An article in Esquire provides a perspective on this research, noting that half of the elected representatives in the U.S. government think these scientists are scuba-diving into ice cold lakes full of methane (after fending off grizzly bears) to study a problem that does not exist.

A blog post from the World Resources Institute reviews the six major ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These include both technological methods (chemical removal from air) and natural methods (forest and soil restoration), each which has its promises and challenges. The article notes that in most modeling scenarios we need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases drastically and remove carbon from the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This makes it vital to understand how to implement carbon removal strategies effectively.

An article in Anthropocene highlights a recent conclusion that global warming will greatly increase the impact of insects on agricultural production, especially in temperate growing regions like the U.S. Rising temperatures make insects hungrier for plants and aids their population growth, and the study projects major impacts on wheat, rice and maize production with an increase of 2°C by 2050. In European countries including the United Kingdom, Sweden and France, insect-induced yield losses for wheat would increase by up to 75%. Losses can be mitigated somewhat through agricultural innovations such as new crop rotations and breeding crops that are resistant to pests.

When I speak I am often asked about the future role of nuclear power given that it produces electricity that is essentially carbon-free. My response is that if we cannot use nuclear power in the future, our job of decarbonizing our economy is going to be much harder, but I don’t see the current technology being influential because it is so expensive. The only plant under construction in the U.S. (expansion of the Vogtle power station in Georgia) is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule (at $28 billion it is now going to cost twice of what was originally estimated).

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the plant has recently announced new cost overruns, generating arguments among its sponsors about who should bear these costs and whether the project should just be abandoned. An op-ed in Bloomberg notes that with no additional overruns the plant will cost $11,000 per kilowatt of capacity, vastly above similar costs for solar and gas. ClimateNexus notes that with $28 billion the utility could have purchased 15GW of solar, which could have generated twice as much electricity as the nuclear plant even after accounting for the different capacity factors (solar operates about 25% of the time while nuclear facilities operate 90% of the time). ClimateNexus has a good background piece on nuclear power for those who want more information.

The Washington Post reports on the plans to make room for the river in Ellicott City, Maryland. Ellicott City was hit by record floods in 2016, and just after much of downtown was rebuilt the City was hit with record floods again in 2018. A new plan calls for the demolition of many historic buildings, which has drawn opposition from a local preservation group. This is another in a long list of communities trying to figure out how to adapt to a different climate. That list includes Santa Cruz, which the Guardian reports is struggling with the impacts of coastal erosion along iconic West Cliff Drive.

The Washington Post reports that Hurricane Florence was a 1/1000 year event, and that such events are clearly becoming more common due to climate change (e.g., Hurricanes Harvey and Lane). So characterizing hurricane strength using data from the past is an inaccurate practice. An article at Vox explains the links between climate change and hurricane impacts, and the Post describes how rapid-intensification is a key feature of our new climate system (with Hurricane Michael as its poster child).

An op-ed in The Hill reviews how unprecedented storm events are generating climate refugees in the United States, and this problem will get worse in the future. Reuters reports on adaptation planning underway at airports around world, noting that the breach of a seawall during Typhoon Jebi last month at Japan’s Kansai International Airport disrupted airport operations for 17 days. For many airports, integrating climate change into planning is resulting in relatively low-cost project changes that significantly enhance resilience to expected impacts.

InsideClimate News reports on wind-solar hybrid power plants, focusing on a facility under construction in Ohio. In these plants the two renewable technologies together provide more reliable power output, and they share equipment, power lines and workers, resulting in reduced costs.

The Guardian describes the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, set to go into effect in January, which will drastically reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are very powerful greenhouse gases, but they have a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. This means their impact occurs in the near-term rather than over a century or more like carbon dioxide, and their control is one of the most effective ways to limit global warming. Experts estimate that cutting down on HFCs (and other short-lived climate pollutants like methane) could reduce global warming by as much as 0.5°C. That would not be enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change if we continue to burn fossil fuels, but it could buy humanity some much-needed time while we work to decarbonize our economy (and remove carbon dioxide from the air).

In the Netherlands an appeals court recently decided that the Dutch government must adopt more ambitious carbon reduction goals, the Guardian reports. Appeal court judges ruled that the severity and scope of the climate crisis demanded greater greenhouse gas reductions. An attorney for the plaintiffs noted that other governments setting inadequate goals should recognize that they “are not acting in the interests of their own people. By delaying [climate] actions and not increasing them to the highest possible level – they are violating the rights of their people.”