October 15 2023

October 15 2023

El Niño is here, the cumulative cost of carbon emissions, impacts of EVs v. fossil-fuel cars, the American Climate Corps, toxicity and waste from solar overstated

The Washington Post reports that NOAA’s climate forecasters, and those at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, have stated that the coming winter could bring a strong or even a “super” El Niño, the latter with strength rivaling the historic El Niño of 1997-1998. During that El Niño, there was extreme rainfall in California and intense drought in Indonesia. The Post also describes weather trends for different regions of the U.S. in an El Niño winter, although there is much variability.

The Washington Post reports that September 2023 is going to be the hottest September ever, and by a very large margin, displaying July-like temperatures. The average temperature in September was about 1.7°C (3.2°F) above the normal from pre-industrial times. The extreme warmth is attributed to both human-caused climate change and the growing El Niño.

While it is clear that climate change is already resulting in significant monetary damages to the world’s economy, actually calculating those damages is not straightforward. In The New York Times, David Wallace-Wells takes a look at a recent study that tries to account for the cumulative damages caused by carbon emissions over their lifetime in the atmosphere, which can be a century or more (e.g., carbon emitted in 1990 will still be affecting our climate into the late 21st century). This leads to some astonishing conclusions, not only about the cost of future emissions, but also the cumulative cost of emissions from past decades.

There is no doubt that we will need to remove carbon from the atmosphere if we are going to keep global warming in check, and a vital technique in this regard is to accelerate the natural sequestration processes that are part of the carbon cycle. While tree planting is one such technique, another with great promise is enhanced rock weathering, which takes advantage of how carbon dioxide dissolves in rainwater and then forms solid carbonate minerals when the rain interacts with certain types of rock. Anthropocene Magazine reports that grinding up appropriate rocks (to maximize surface area), and spreading the rock on agricultural fields, can both sequester carbon and enhance soil quality. While there are challenges associated with collecting the rock and getting it where it needs to go, the potential for sequestration is enormous. Energy Monitor describes how one by-product of mining, basalt dust, can be used for enhanced rock weathering.

The New York Times reports that the federal government is helping fund two commercial-scale facilities that will remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. The technology is still in its infancy, is quite expensive and critics say that it will just allow oil companies to continue to sell fossil fuels. Supporters of these projects, however, note that keeping global average temperature increases to less than 2°C will require the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in addition to the cessation of fossil-fuel burning. The Times also reports about a new Biden Administration plan to incorporate the social cost of carbon into the purchasing decisions of federal agencies. The U.S. government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world, and requiring a consideration of the costs of carbon emissions will change the cost-benefit analysis driving these decisions.

In The New Yorker, Bill McKibben describes how the U.S. is on track to become the largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) in the world. While our national carbon emissions are calculated by the amount of fossil fuel used in the country, our exports are being burned in other places. This is turning our country into the largest source of carbon emissions in the world, and there is a proposal to greatly expand LNG exports from Louisiana. The Biden Administration will have to decide on whether to approve the new LNG facility, which will be a huge test of our ability to begin the process of reducing fossil-fuel combustion.

The transition from fossil fuels is a great challenge for communities that have depended on this industry. Grist visits Marissa, Illinois, among other midwest communities. Like many small towns, “coal was the primary form of economic opportunity for multiple generations, paving the way for its residents to buy homes, raise their families, and live comfortably in rural areas.” Yet those who live near coal-fired power plants experience health complications. Meanwhile, profit motives often push companies to continue to operate old coal-fired power plants rather than invest in new facilities, and so there is great political complexity associated with transitioning away from coal and other fossil fuels. In Becker, MN, an old coal-fired power plant is being converted to a solar-energy facility.

Foreign Affairs examines the challenges of adapting to a changing climate, which often receive less attention than mitigation efforts. The author notes that measuring progress from adaptation initiatives is also more difficult: “it is easier to calculate the amount of carbon not emitted into the atmosphere, for instance, than the amount of flood damage that has been averted.” Adaptation recommendations include early warning systems, cross-border assistance agreements, enhancing global food security and addressing the gap between insurance coverage and expected costs of damage. “In the United States, for instance, for every dollar spent on stronger building codes, $11 is saved in disaster recovery costs.”

An op-ed in The Hill describes the growth of the EV and battery industry in the U.S. thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and other policies, and debunks misinformation being distributed by various sources. The author makes the key point that the U.S. lags behind China in EV and battery manufacturing because of inconsistent federal support to grow this vital industry. Grist reports on a little-known but important provision in the IRA — that tax credits can be transferred (sold) from one party to another. This allows start-up companies generating credits (but having no taxable income) to sell the credits to another company that can use them, generating cash for investment in their growing businesses.

The Washington Post compares the environmental impacts of EVs and fossil-fuel-powered cars. While transitioning to EVs will definitely require an increase in the mining of a variety of minerals, this extraction is tiny compared to the extraction of fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency estimates that 7 million tons of minerals were used in 2020 for clean-energy products and infrastructure (predominately for batteries and EVs), while in 2019 the fossil-fuel industry extracted the equivalent of 15 billion metric tons. And fossil-fuel extraction must continue year after year, while clean-energy technology can use extracted materials for decades. EV battery manufacturing will also become more efficient, use fewer minerals (recent Tesla batteries use no nickel or cobalt) and batteries will be recycled (lead-acid car batteries provide a model: an estimated 99% are recycled). In addition, the cost of fossil-fuel-powered cars must include the health impacts of tailpipe emissions, which are significant.

Grist examines the role that current and future EV manufacturing is playing in the UAW strike. There is concern that EV plants employ fewer workers as the cars are less complicated, and that new manufacturing facilities for EVs and batteries are being built in states that have resisted union organizing. Others point out that the transition of the U.S. auto industry to EVs is going to happen, the only question is who builds the cars.

Inside Climate News reports that the Biden Administration has launched the American Climate Corps, which aims to hire 20,000 young people in its first year for jobs in clean energy, climate resilience and land restoration. The article notes that there has been extensive engagement with labor unions to generate opportunities for apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, providing Corps members with hands-on training and credentials for future employment.

In coastal areas, the ocean often extends inland under the land and, as the ocean rises, it can push groundwater to the surface. The Mercury News describes the results of a new study that examines how this can result in exposure to toxic chemicals that have been below-ground for years. At some contaminated sites, remediation has been to bury toxic soils under an impermeable clay layer, like an umbrella to prevent surface water from seeping in and mobilizing the chemicals. We will need new strategies to deal with water rising from below.

The Washington Post reports that a new survey of Americans concludes that many people are supportive of renewable-energy projects such as wind and solar in their communities. While there is sometimes a very vocal opposition, these individuals tend to be in the minority. Inside Climate News reports on a recent article in Nature that refutes claims about excessive toxicity and waste from solar installations. The concern about toxicity is not realistic — the waste stream from solar (even with massive growth) is dwarfed by that from a fossil-fuel future, and solar developers are posting bonds to cover the cost of decommissioning and restoring land in case the solar installation is abandoned in the future. In addition, the industry is actively pursuing recycling to reduce the amount of solid waste. The Nature authors conclude that “by transitioning away from fossil fuels, a substantial reduction in waste mass and toxicity is possible and the remaining waste is well within our capabilities to manage responsibly.”