Climate Change – Blog 4
The essential point I’ve been making is that great progress is being made in the collective global effort to slow Climate Change (CC), but we are fast running out of time. We need a greater sense of urgency. We absolutely must work toward a future of zero carbon emissions. It is entirely possible to move to renewable energy. We just need the collective will to push for it and push hard.
My co-chair of the NYSBA EELS Global Climate Change Committee, Kevin Healy, recently moderated a panel on Climate Change. A representative from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals displayed a graph showing the company’s GHG emissions steadily decreasing from millions of somethings (his graph didn’t specify) down to just one million by 2050. That’s the right trend but the wrong stopping point and indeed it misses the point. The graph needs to extend to 2100 and it needs to descend to zero. That’s the essential idea that needs to be promoted within the company and at large.
Immediate changes are necessary across the board in electricity generation, heating and cooling buildings, including our own homes, powering industry and in transportation. To have a chance of limiting global temperature increases to below 2 degrees C, the International Energy Agency and International Renewable Energy Agency suggest that global energy-related carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and fall by more than 70% in the next 35 years. This requires that we triple the annual rate of energy efficiency improvement, retrofit the entire building stock, generate 95% of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2050 and shift almost entirely towards electric cars. We can do this.
As noted (Blog 3), NYC has a plan (plaNYC) to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to force thousands of aging buildings to become more energy efficient, a first-of-its-kind initiative intended to make the City a national leader in reducing GHG emissions.
The initiative would mandate that owners of existing buildings larger than 25,000 square feet invest in more efficient heating and cooling systems, insulation and hot-water heaters.
If approved by the City Council, the requirements would apply to about 14,500 private and municipal buildings, which account for nearly a quarter of the City’s emissions. Most buildings would need to comply with new efficiency targets by 2030, or their owners would face penalties.
In 2016, de Blasio signed an executive order reaffirming the City’s commitment to the Paris climate accord just days after Trump announced his intention to withdraw from it. De Blasio directed City agencies to report by Sept. 30 on their efforts to achieve reductions in carbon emissions.
In August, 2017, the Urban Green Council, the Real Estate Board of New York and other groups made joint recommendations to improve energy efficiency of local buildings. This initiative could result in lower energy costs over time and create perhaps 17,000 “green jobs” as older structures are improved. But many owners likely will face big upfront costs to meet the new requirements. City officials said they intend to help owners afford energy upgrades through low-interest financing.
After Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris accord, numerous governors, mayors and businesses pledged to proceed with emissions reductions. A group called Climate Mayors, with 377 members, including de Blasio, committed to honoring the US pledge.
To that end, de Blasio has overseen the conversion of nearly 72% of the City’s 250,000 street lamps from old, sodium vapor bulbs to LED bulbs. The City is on target to upgrade the rest of its lights, which do not include those on highways operated by the State, by the end of 2018. The bulbs last longer than the old lights and use half the energy, allowing for millions of dollars in savings. Los Angeles, Oahu and Phoenix are planning similar upgrades. (Perhaps you could get your city/town to do the same.)
NJ will require much steeper reductions in GHG emissions to reach its goal of lower carbon pollution (1990 levels by 2050). A decade after New Jersey enacted the Global Warming Response Act, the state lacks a detailed and comprehensive strategy to achieve its goal and is unlikely to it.
Major steps are needed, and are entirely possible, to curb GHG emissions by 80 percent in NJ, which will require a 76 percent reduction from its current pollution levels. What is needed is public pressure to drive political will.
NJ can and should develop offshore wind capacity along its coast; mandate targeted reductions in energy use; and rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to curb global warming pollution from power plants.
Offshore wind could provide up to 40 percent of the State’s electricity, but the next administration must rectify Christie’s failure to develop a fiscal mechanism to pay for the power generated by wind turbines.
The State can and should enact an energy-efficiency portfolio standard requiring utilities to achieve mandated reductions in gas and electricity delivered to customers. While two gas utilities have voluntarily initiated such programs, the state Board of Public Utilities (PUB) has balked at a statewide program.
Some states, like California and Minnesota, are trying to put a price on carbon pollution as a way of encouraging less harmful ways of creating electricity or transporting people.
In New Jersey, the transportation sector is the largest source of GHG emissions (44.2%), much larger than the power sector (20%). Policy options exist that would increase the efficiency of vehicles or promote zero-emission vehicles, like electric cars, through rebates and incentives to install charging stations. Both the Legislature and the BPU are looking into it but are hesitant to make significant changes absent clear public demand. Other options in this sector include reducing vehicle miles traveled due to mass transit, smart growth, and other policies.
New Jersey’s reliance on renewable energy has yet to win final approval in the Legislature. One proposed bill would require 80 percent of the State’s electricity be produced from renewable technologies, like solar and wind.
New Jersey’s emission profile differs from other states in that there is less pollution from the power sector because of its reliance on nuclear energy (43% of generated electricity) (I’ll explain why nuclear power is unaffordable and dangerous in another blog). Mobile emissions and fossil fuels used primarily to heat homes and businesses, account for the greatest share of emissions in NJ.
For those keeping score at home, globally speaking, both August and the season (June, July and August) each were the third warmest on record. August 2017 was 1.49 degrees F above the 20th-century average of 60.1 degrees F. This was the third highest in the 1880-2017 record, behind 2016 (highest) and 2015 (second highest). This marks the 41st consecutive August and 392nd consecutive month with global temperatures at least nominally above average.
The impacts of this warming are being felt in the US. The recent hurricanes that devastated Houston, Florida and Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico, likely were the predicted result of warmer water than usual in the Atlantic. Similarly, the wildfires out west are the predicted result of dried out forests and vegetation.
During the summer of 2017, tens of thousands of wildfires burned in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Fire suppression costs for the fiscal year topped $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. Fires have burned about 8 million acres, or about 2.5 million more acres than in an average year.
At this point it is not hard to predict the future, because it’s here. We’re going to have more of what we’ve been having. Only worse, because we keep pouring gas on the proverbial and literal fire in the form of C02.
Over the past 10,000 years, during the rise of human civilization, the climate has been relatively stable. Human civilization depends on this stability. Our future will be determined by the laws of chemistry and physics: we know that temperature increases lag behind C02 emissions, a crucial fraction of which can persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Similarly, sea level rise (SLR) lags well behind temperature increases. The result is that the world’s oceans will continue rising for thousands of years even after temperatures stabilize.
The current SLR is about 1.2 inches per decade, considerably faster than 50 years ago, and may well increase to several inches per decade in a century. This acceleration may be under way as we may be seeing the early stages of irreversible glacial collapse in Greenland and Antarctica. If you want to see dramatic footage of how life as we know it is currently being threatened, see An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s new film. We may think of glacial melt as being a slow drip of fresh water into the sea, but the fact is that enormous torrential flows of glacial melt are pouring into the sea, and not only that, such flows reach bedrock and lubricate the slide of giant ice sheets into the sea which will dramatically add to SLR. This is happening. Go see for yourself.
The geological record reveals that historic SLR may have occurred at rates of one foot per decade for centuries. Nothing remotely like that has occurred in recorded human history. Yet having happened before, and given current GHG emissions trends, we may well see such rapid rates, or higher, again. Further, such steadily accelerating SLR is possible and can become unstoppable for millennia because inertia in the climate system is enormous; SLR could reach, far in the future, 80 to 170 feet. But the realization that such rise is inevitable could come much sooner, within our life-times certainly.
To understand the earth’s temperature sensitivity, note that a temperature increase of 7 to 12.6 degrees F (4 to 7 degrees C) is what separates today’s “ideal climate” from the dramatic conditions of the last Ice Age, which peaked about 26,000 years ago. At the height of the last Ice Age, ice sheets covered much of the northern hemisphere and covered parts of North America, including NYC, to a depth of a mile or more. We are on a course leading to such catastrophic change.
Before the industrial revolution, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been steady at around 260 to 280 parts per million for thousands of years. By the Spring of 2017 we passed 410 parts per million and despite gains in renewable energy generation, CO2 concentrations continue to steadily increase. As carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, 20% or more of the CO2 in the air today is expected to remain in the atmosphere until 3000, we will continue to see more of what we are currently experiencing: warmer temperatures, more frequent and more destructive and deadly storms, more glacial melt and SLR, more drought, disease and wildfires, reduced crop yields, more environmental refugees and climatic and political instability and conflict.
The important point here is the existence of massive inertia in the climate system, such that changes in temperature and SLR will continue long past the year 2100 based on emissions already in the atmosphere. To keep things from deteriorating past the point of no redemption, swift and significant changes are essential.
California is a leader in combating CC. The single biggest step the US has taken to combat the effects of CC is the adoption of standards under the Obama administration that mandate deep cuts in emissions from the 190 million passenger cars on America’s roads. Together, those vehicles regularly emit more earth-warming gases than the country’s power plants.
But the major automakers have recently requested EPA to open a review of those standards. This may well be a prelude to a loosening of those targets.
California, however, has the unique authority to write its own air pollution rules. Twelve other states follow California’s standards which gives CA great influence. Whether or not CA can stick to the stricter standards will determine whether as much as six billion metric tons of GHG emissions and a savings to consumers of more than $1 trillion at the pump over the lifetime of the cars, can be preserved.
When Congress established EPA in 1970 and passed the Clean Air Act later that year, California was granted a waiver to adhere to air pollution rules it had already promulgated. Automakers had supported Obama’s initiative to harmonize a mishmash of GHG emissions and fuel economy standards set by EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Having taken almost $80 billion in bailout money, General Motors and Chrysler, especially, were in no position to resist.
But now the automakers see an opportunity to roll back their commitments. They are currently required to progressively raise the fuel economy of their cars to an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025, nearly double the average in 2012. That is about 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving and would require that automakers to speed the development of hybrid and electric cars, and to improve the fuel efficiency of their conventional fleets. Automakers argued that meeting that target would be prohibitively costly, forcing them to raise car prices or to make more battery-powered vehicles than Americans want to buy.
In a compromise, the automakers agreed to the program provided that the standards for the later years, 2022-25 would be subject to a midterm review. That review was under way when Trump won the presidency in late 2016. The day after his electoral victory, the Auto Alliance urged Trump to rework the standards.
The Obama administration then cut short the review and finalized the rules, calling them “feasible, practical and appropriate,” just before leaving office. The automakers responded by writing to EPA requesting that it overturn Obama’s 11th-hour decision. Pruitt’s EPA reversed Obama’s decision and called for comments on standards for model years 2021-25, thereby widening the review’s scope. The NHTSA, which focuses mostly on auto safety, not emissions, is expected to lead the review.
“We’re going to work on the CAFE standards so you can make cars in America again,” Trump said in a speech in Detroit this year, referring to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which were first put in place in 1975.
But automakers need CARB on board. If CARB does not sign onto the reopened review, the automakers face the prospect of separate rules for California and its follower states, a coalition that covers more than 130 million residents and more than a third of the vehicle market in the United States.
CARB engineers helped expose Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheating, a scandal that affected about 600,000 cars in the United States and emitted huge amounts of pollutants, including C02, into the air.
Just as market forces are trumping Trump’s promise to bring back coal, so too may market forces eventually render the CAFE fight moot. GM recently announced that at some unspecified time it will cease producing gas and diesel vehicles producing instead all-electric, zero-emission vehicles. It will start with two fully electric models in 2018, then at least 18 more by 2023. The new all-electric models will be a mix of battery electric cars and fuel cell-powered vehicles.
In recent months, Volvo, Aston Martin, and Jaguar Land Rover have announced similar moves. GM’s declaration, though, is particularly noteworthy because it is among the largest automakers on the planet. It sold 10 million cars last year, ranging from pickups to SUVs to urban runabouts.
Trump may be moving to roll back fuel efficiency requirements in the US, but the rest of the world is moving toward a new, electric, age. The Netherlands and Norway said they plan to ban the sale of gas and diesel cars in the coming decades and Britain and France proposed to end the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. Volvo recently said that the models it introduces starting in 2019 will be either hybrids or powered solely by batteries. China is the world’s largest car market, and India, a potentially huge market, both plan to leave behind fossil fuel cars as well. These are essential, positive, steps. Now we have to get rid of our ‘old’ cars, and especially SUVs, and buy EVs.
The developing world represents enormous opportunities and challenges. GM intends to grab as large a slice of the Chinese market as possible. It has already planned to launch 10 electric or hybrid electric cars there by 2020. This summer, it started selling a two-seat EV there ($5,300). In 2016, GM sold more cars in China (3.6 million) than it did in the US (3 million).
It is imperative that the developed world enable the growth of developing countries based on renewable fuels and not carbon-based fuels. Selling EVs in the developing world will only take us so far. Under the Paris accord the developed nations agreed to assist in the transfer of technology and cash to developing countries. The developed countries have been woefully inadequate in this area.
If you remember the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” you will recall that it was GM. GM experimented with battery power in the EV-1, only to recall the two-seater from its owners, crush them all, and pile the carcasses in a junkyard. Early in the 21st century, while Toyota was making hybrids popular with the Prius, GM was pushing Hummers.
Over the past decade, the Detroit giant seems to have changed course. First came the hybrid electric Chevy Volt. Then came GMs coup, the Chevy Bolt, the 200-mile, $30,000 electric car that preceded Tesla’s Model 3. Now GM is seriously pursuing semi-autonomous and fully driverless cars and is hoping to eliminate vehicle pollution, congestion, and traffic deaths.
Much has been said about the inherent tension between environmental protection and economic growth. As the growth in the solar and wind energy sectors demonstrates, it is possible to achieve both. But choices must be made and there will be winners and losers. The market will dictate to a point and that is happening with regard to coal (losing) and renewables (winning). Still, growth at all costs is ultimately detrimental to us all and the election of Trump proves that “it’s [still] the economy, stupid” especially jobs. We live in the short term while we must plan for the long-term, and that is proving to be very tricky. More education as to the peril we face from altering our climate is essential to increasing the pace of change. (More on the politics of Climate Change policy in later blogs.) Politicians will only push for change if we push them. We need to push and we need to know what we’re talking about. Please see the books, references and links I’ve including in my Blogs. That is our ammunition.