Climate Change Blog 11 - The Budget, Facts on the Ground, Good news, Not Such Good News, and Washington

By Carl Howard posted 03-29-2018 02:23 PM


The Budget

Environmentalists are mostly pleased and relieved at the budget Trump reluctantly signed. Trump proposed a 31% cut to EPA’s budget but Congress maintained the Agency’s former level of funding.  Trump proposed 70% cuts to energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programs but funding for these programs increased. Trump proposed a mere $64 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which protects threatened open space, but it was funded at $425 million.

Republicans proposed numerous environmentally destructive riders but they were deleted from the final budget. These riders included attempts to delay enforcement of clean-air regulations, kill two Obama-era rules intended to reduce greenhouse gases from oil and gas wells, weaken protections for endangered species and insulate the Trump administration from legal challenges to its efforts to repeal clean-water rules.

Democratic Senators Charles Schumer (NY), Patrick Leahy (VT), Tom Udall (NM) and Thomas Carper (DE), were instrumental in defeating these riders. Also defeated were attempts by Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to kill protection of old growth forests in Alaska, and Thad Cochran (R-MS), who favored a flood-control project known as the Yazoo Pumps which would have drained 200,000 acres of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta in favor of soybean farmers.

Trump failed to defund the federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Created a decade ago, ARPA-E now spends $300 million a year nurturing untested technologies that have the potential — however remote — of solving some of the world’s biggest energy problems, including climate change.

Current projects include farming vast quantities of seaweed in the open ocean for a new type of carbon-neutral biofuel that might one day power trucks and airplanes. Unlike the corn- and soy-based biofuels used today, kelp-based fuels would not require valuable cropland. Other projects being funded include a system to recycle waste heat in Navy ships, small fusion reactors, and wind power (building huge turbines the length of a football field to be placed offshore to try to catch the steadier winds there; a prototype will be tested this summer at DOE’s wind-testing center in Colorado).  ARPA-E has connected the team with private companies such as Siemens and the turbine manufacturer Vestas that can critique their work.

Facts on the ground

The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice cover this winter was the second-lowest since satellite record-keeping began. The loss of sea ice is a bellwether of global warming, suggesting that climate change is not just something to worry about far off in the future: It is here.

“We’ve probably known for 100 years that as the climate warms up in response to loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, we would see the changes first in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which issued the new data. “This is what we expected and this is exactly what has happened. It’s a case where we hate to say we told you so, but we told you so.”

With each passing decade, the ice grows a bit less in winter, and melts a bit more in summer. The record for the least amount of sea ice gained in the winter was set last year. This winter’s maximum extent was slightly greater. Despite the small increase this year, the downward trend in winter ice coverage is unmistakable, and the past four years have been the four lowest on record.

The disappearing sea ice is a key indicator of a warming Arctic. And the consequences of a warming Arctic can be felt further south. A growing number of researchers are linking the changes up north to unusual winter weather in North America and Europe. This past winter the northeastern US faced four nor'easters in as many weeks, and Western Europe encountered subzero temperatures that were far lower than at the North Pole.

These weather patterns are influenced by the jet stream, the river of wind that encircles the Northern Hemisphere. Temperature differences between the Arctic and the lower latitudes help create the jet stream. Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the Earth, that temperature difference is getting smaller. As a result, the jet stream is getting weaker and shifting its behavior, sending cold air south from the Arctic and pumping warm air north.

The weakening jet stream also helps keep weather patterns locked in place. Climate change is also producing changes in ocean currents which also play a role in weather systems but the influence of the Arctic ice is profound. And deeply disturbing. As one scientist put it, “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

Around the globe the impacts of climate change are being felt more quickly and with more impact than predicted. Warmer temperatures have produced more evaporation and either more rain and violent storms or the opposite extreme, draught and wildfire.

Lake Poopo, was once Bolivia’s second largest lake, it is gone. Vanished into the thin air. Boats used by fisherman are stranded on the dry lakebed. Local inhabitants, the Urus, believe they are descendants of people who first settled on the Altiplano 3,700 years ago. Very few remain. The fish, waterfowl, gone. The residents who depended on the lake must move as the area is in drought. Village after village is abandoned.  Just three decades ago this lake covered 3,000 square kilometers. That is the current speed of devastating change. In 2014 and 2015 the ever shallower lake suffered fish die-offs as water temperatures soared beyond the usual 60s and 70s Fahrenheit. Millions of carcasses floated belly-up at the surface. The recorded temperature of the lake reached 100.4°F!

Globally, climate change is warming many lakes faster than it’s warming the oceans and the air. This heat accelerates evaporation and together with human mismanagement (dams in warm climate speeds evaporation, as does open irrigation), the result is water shortages, pollution, and loss of habitat for birds, fish and wildlife.

Warm water encourages bacterial growth. In eastern China’s Lake Tai, farm runoff and sewage stimulate cyanobacterial blooms. The organisms threaten drinking-water supplies for two million people. The warming of East Africa’s Lake Tanganyika threatens the supply of fish that feed millions of poor people in four surrounding countries. The water behind Venezuela’s massive Guri hydroelectric dam has evaporated and been otherwise reduced to critically low levels in recent years that the government has canceled classes for schoolchildren while rationing electricity. Even the Panama Canal, with its locks recently widened and deepened to accommodate supersize cargo vessels, is troubled by El Niño–related rainfall shortages affecting man-made Gatun Lake, which supplies not only water to run the locks but also fresh drinking water for much of the country. Low water levels have also forced limits on the draft of ships so the ships don’t run aground in the lake.

Of all the challenges lakes face in a warming world, the starkest examples are in closed drainage basins where waters flow into lakes but don’t exit into rivers or a sea. These terminal, or endorheic, lakes tend to be shallow, salty, and hypersensitive to disturbance. The Aral Sea has vanished from Central Asia and is a prime example of what is happening to such inland waters. In its case, in addition to climate change the main culprits were ambitious Soviet irrigation projects that diverted its nourishing rivers.

Terminal lakes on nearly every continent are following this pattern. Lake Chad in Africa is all but gone heightening shortages of fish and irrigation water. Displaced people and refugees who now depend on the lake further strain this resource. Shortages as well as tensions in the hot, dry Sahel are driving conflict and mass migration. Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Salton Sea and Mono Lake have undergone periods of recession too, diminishing critical breeding and nesting areas for birds as well as income from recreational boaters.

After the Caspian Sea, Iran’s Lake Urmia was once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East. It has shrunk 80% over the past 30 years. The flamingos that feasted on brine shrimp are mostly gone as are the pelicans, egrets, and ducks. Winds blow across the lake bed covering farm fields with salt dust rendering the soil infertile. Noxious, salt-tinged dust storms inflame the eyes, skin, and lungs of people 60 miles away in Tabriz, a city of more than 1.5 million. And in recent years Urmia’s alluring turquoise waters have turned blood-red from bacteria and algae that flourish when salinity increases and sunlight penetrates the shallows. Few of the tourists who once flocked here for therapeutic baths can be found.


The horrifying plight of desperate people fleeing their homes and countries continues. As I’ve written, climate change is a driving force exacerbating social and political tensions in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Those lucky enough to survive the journey to a new country find they are not welcome. In fact, their presence has invigorated the rise of intolerance and right-wing politicians appealing to nativist, nationalist policy. And this is only the beginning. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the numbers of refugees will do anything but increase, by orders of magnitude, over the coming years and decades.

Those who are forced to relocate join a procession of people around the world who have been uprooted from their homes by climate-related environmental disruptions. The United Nations warned a decade ago that indigenous people would be among the first to be ravaged by climate change because so many rely on nature’s bounty as subsistence hunters and fishermen. An estimated 23.5 million people fled their homes in 2016 because of food and water shortages, storms, floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and other weather-related disasters, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. That exceeded the 6.9 million displaced by conflict and violence that year.

In sheer numbers those fleeing “natural” calamities have outnumbered those fleeing war and conflict for decades. Still, these figures do not include people forced to abandon their homelands because of drought or gradual environmental degradation; almost two and a half billion people live in areas where human demand for water exceeds the supply. Rising atmospheric temperatures in the Andes over the past 40 years also have triggered the rapid retreat of its glaciers, melting half the ice that rings the Titicaca-Poopó basin threatening drinking water and agricultural water supplies. When glaciers first begin to melt, they provide an extra flush of water, but we’ve reached peak water in most glacial watersheds meaning that meltwater from glaciers will now diminish in the region until it is gone. This pattern is repeated in most places around the planet.

Globally the likelihood of being uprooted from one’s home has increased 60% compared with 40 years ago because of the combination of rapid climate change and growing populations moving into more vulnerable areas.

Most of these displaced people stay within their home countries. If they cross a border, they do not qualify for UN protections as refugees because they cannot claim they are fleeing violence or persecution. “We live in an era of the most forced migration since the Second World War,” says William Lacy Swing, director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. “This time, though, in addition to war, climate is looming as a major driver. We are going to need to support those who are ravaged by climate change so they can migrate with dignity.”

Despite Gains in Renewables, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rose Last Year.

Roughly two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asian countries that rely heavily on fossil fuels for economic development. Carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas increased 1.4% globally in 2017 after holding steady for the previous three years. That’s the equivalent of adding 170 million new cars to the road worldwide.

Emissions are rising fastest in Asia. Roughly two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asia, where fast-growing countries like China, India and Indonesia continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels as they lift themselves out of poverty.

China, which is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s industrial greenhouse gases, increased its emissions 1.7% in 2017, due to rapid economic growth and an increase in oil and natural gas use. The rest of developing Asia, including India and Indonesia, increased their overall emissions 3%.

That jump in Asian emissions overshadowed cuts made elsewhere in the world: The US reduced its emissions 0.5% last year due to the growing deployment of renewable energy. Britain, Mexico and Japan also cut their emissions. But the European Union over all increased emissions 1.5%.

Renewable energy is growing fast, but not fast enough. Renewable energy — including wind, solar and hydropower — was the fastest-growing energy source worldwide in 2017. China alone installed as many solar panels last year as the entire solar capacity of France and Germany combined. And the prices for renewable technologies keep falling.

Last year’s unprecedented growth in renewables satisfied only about one-quarter of the increase in global energy demand as the world’s economy boomed. Fossil fuels supplied the rest. The overall share of fossil fuels in global energy demand in 2017 remained at 81%, a level that has remained stable for more than three decades despite strong growth in renewables.

If the world wants to cut emissions quickly and meet the climate goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, clean energy will need to grow about five times as fast each year between now and 2040 as it did last year.

Coal made a small comeback

Over the past few years, coal demand has plummeted around the world as countries like the US and China shift away from the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels. China has been pushing to phase out coal use in residential heating in order to clean up the severe air pollution that is choking its cities.

But coal use rebounded slightly in 2017, rising by 1%, driven in part by an increase in coal-fired power in Southeast Asia. A particularly hot summer in China also led the country to run its existing coal plants more often to power air conditioning. Another predicted, and ominous sign of things to come on a warming planet.

Yet despite last year’s uptick, there is hope that coal consumption may decline. India’s coal demand is growing at a slower pace than it did over the previous decade, as the country turns to solar power and other clean energy sources. Both China’s and the world’s coal consumption remains below the 2014 peak.

S.U.V. sales keep booming

Demand for oil rose 1.6% last year, much faster than the average annual pace over the previous decade. As oil prices have declined, more people in the US and Europe are buying larger S.U.V.s, pushing up transportation emissions further.

Electric cars, which do not use oil, are quickly making inroads in countries like China, as a result of aggressive government mandates and falling battery prices. For now, however, the strong growth in electric-car sales remains too small to make a dent in oil demand growth. But, as noted in earlier Blogs (4, 5, 6, 7, and 10), significant increases in the sale and use of EVs is expected world-wide.

Energy efficiency efforts are slowing

In addition to switching to cleaner sources of energy, countries can also curb their emissions by improving the energy efficiency of their factories and homes and vehicles, through policies like building codes and fuel-economy standards.

However, the bad news is that in 2017, the energy intensity of the global economy — a measure of efficiency — improved by just 1.7 %, a slower pace than in each of the previous three years. Many countries appear to be easing up on government policies to improve energy efficiency.

Some Good News on Renewables

Over 100 cities produce more than 70% of their electricity from renewables. The transition to clean, renewable energy is a critical component of meeting Paris Climate Change Agreement goals, and cities around the world are increasingly taking up the challenge.

More cities than ever are reporting that they are powered by renewable electricity, sources such as hydro, geothermal, solar and wind.

The list includes large cities such as Auckland (New Zealand); Nairobi (Kenya); Oslo (Norway); Seattle (USA) and Vancouver (Canada), and is more than double the 40 cities who reported that they were powered by at least 70% clean energy in 2015.

The UK100 network of local government leaders announce that over 80 UK towns and cities have committed to 100% clean energy by 2050, including Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and 16 London boroughs.

Unsubsidized renewables were the cheapest source of electricity in 30 countries in 2017, with renewables predicted to be consistently more cost effective than fossil fuels globally by 2020.

Cities already powered by 100% renewable electricity include: Burlington, Vermont’s largest city. The city has its own utility and citywide grid. In September 2014 the local community approved the city's purchase of its ‘Winooski One’ Hydroelectric Facility. Mayor Miro Weinberger said, “Burlington, Vermont is proud to have been the first city in the United States to source 100 percent of our power from renewable generation. Through our diverse mix of biomass, hydro, wind, and solar, we have seen first-hand that renewable energy boosts our local economy and creates a healthier place to work, live, and raise a family. We encourage other cities around the globe to follow our innovative path as we all work toward a more sustainable energy future.”

Reykjavik, Iceland sources all electricity from hydropower and geothermal, and is now working to make all cars and public transit fossil-free by 2040. Iceland has almost entirely transitioned to clean energy for power and household heating.

Basel, Switzerland is 100% renewable powered by its own energy supply company. Most electricity comes from hydropower and 10% from wind. In May 2017 Switzerland voted to phase out nuclear power in favor of renewable energy.

In the United States, 58 cities and towns have now committed to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy, including big cities like Atlanta (Georgia) and San Diego (California). Municipalities Denton (Texas) and St. Louis Park (Minnesota), became the latest communities to establish 100% renewable energy targets. In addition to these recent pledges, 23 other global cities have targeted 100% renewable energy.

NYC has targeted both the transportation sector and its buildings, two primary generators of GHGs. It set a goal of 20% of all vehicle registrations by 2025 should be EVs. And it has established energy efficiency standards for certain buildings. (See OneNYC,, and The NYC Carbon Challenge for Commercial Owners and Tenants.) And, NYC will be an important part of NYS reaching its goals of 40% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, and 80% reduction by 2050, accomplished in part by getting 50% of our electricity from renewables by 2030. Which is to be reached, in part, by getting 2,400 MW of electricity from off-shore wind by 2030. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to create new energy efficiency targets and appliance standards and directed the state’s Department of Public Service and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to propose new 2025 energy efficiency targets by Earth Day, April 22, 2018.

Much of the drive behind city climate action and reporting comes from the 7,000+ mayors signed up to The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy who have pledged to act on climate change. Cities are responsible for 70% of energy-related CO2 emissions so these developments are significant.

Showing a diverse mix of energy sources, 275 cities are now reporting the use of hydropower, with 189 generating electricity from wind and 184 using solar photovoltaics. An additional 164 use biomass and 65 geothermal.

Cities are currently instigating renewable energy developments valued at US$2.3 billion, across nearly 150 projects. This forms part of a wider shift by cities to develop 1,000 clean infrastructure projects, such as electric transport and energy efficiency, worth over US $52 billion.

Egypt builds world’s largest solar park

Egypt has the natural potential to become one of the world’s strongest energy players as it contains the three main natural elements to develop an abundance of energy: sunlight, wind and hydro-energy.

Despite that, Egypt has been failing to provide a stable source of electricity to its ever-growing population. The country imports oil despite having the largest oil refinery in Africa.

However, a recently announced project promises to provide the needed amount of clean, renewable solar energy to transform Egypt into a clean energy producer. The Benben SolarPark near the southern city of Aswan promises to transform Egypt into a major solar energy player in the world.

The ambitious project, set to be the largest solar park in the world, aspires to provide somewhere between 1.6-2GW of solar power by mid-2019. Egyptian officials believe the project will produce 20% of Egypt’s power through renewable energy by 2020, which will serve 350,000 Egyptians and provide eco-friendly and cost-efficient power.

The Benben complex aims to include 32 solar plants on a 37.2 square kilometer area and will churn out 1650 megawatts of electricity, according to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

As Egypt’s population increases, so do does the demand for electricity. And that requires large investments in infrastructure. The government cannot afford such investment on its own so it has turned to the private sector for investors and financiers in the country for the first time. This should create jobs for many Egyptians and provide clean and reliable energy for people across the country.

The total cost of the project may range between US$3.5 billion and US$4 billion. The area will host 41 separate but contiguous spots in which each investor will create their individual project. These spots will be connected through a high-voltage network through four new substantiations. These substations will, in turn, be connected to an existing 220 kW line, which passes nearby the Benban site at a distance of approximately 12 km.

Before construction begins, all projects will sign a long-term, 25-years, usufruct agreement with the NREA. As for financing, the Multilateral Investment and Guarantee Agency (MIGA), an organization within the World Bank Group, is pitching US$210 million as political risk insurance for private investors to encourage them to put their money in the project, especially with Egypt’s potential political instability.

The IFC and a consortium of nine international banks will finance thirteen out of a total of nineteen solar plants. The nine banks are Africa Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Arab Bank of Bahrain, CDC of the United Kingdom, Europe Arab Bank, Finance in Motion, FinnFund, ICBC and OeEB of Austria, according to Forbes Middle East.

Morocco, home to the largest existing solar energy plant in the world.

Morocco already has a giant $9 billion solar facility, “Noor.” It is owned by the state of Morocco and was built by a Spanish company SENER. The project is based in Ouarzazate, a tiny tourist town at the edge of the desert. Morocco lacks petrol and gas. To be independent it needs to create energy, and they have chosen to use clean energy, because of the climate change challenge.

Morocco has sunlight, about 3,000 hours of sun every year. And harnessing that light is an evolutionary leap for the country.

Noor uses CSP, or concentrated solar power. Concave mirrors direct the sun to a middle tube to heat an oil solution. The mirrors rotate as the sun moves, like sunflowers. The heated fluid, which reaches 750 degrees Fahrenheit, produces steam to power a turbine.

The king of Morocco is making a huge bet on clean energy. The goal is for renewables to power half of this country by 2040. Noor is the flagship project.

The North African nation says it wants to be the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, tapping its vast solar reserve. Morocco’s king inaugurated Noor, and flipped the plant’s on switch in February of 2016.

Back in 2003, the think tank Club of Rome came up with an ambitious project called Desertec. The idea was to harness solar energy across the Sahara to power all of Europe. Now other organizations are implementing the Desertec concept.

The plan originally had ambitions to open solar energy farms across the Sahara, but the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and terrorist attacks on gas facilities in Algeria forced them to scale back. Geopolitical instability has always been the main obstacle for the implementation of these kind of projects.

CSP’s critics say it isn’t cost-effective. Noor’s price tag was $9 billion. Long-term, it could recover the investment if the technology doesn’t become outdated too quickly. But, it requires vast amounts of water. To supply the water engineers created a manmade lake. The solar complex uses about six million cubic feet of water each year, and that is about 1% of the storage capacity of the lake.

When Noor is finished later this year, it should provide electricity to over two million people. It has generated high expectations for Morocco and the future of solar power.

In Washington:

Rex W. Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, despite his decades-long career in the oil industry — a major contributor to planet-warming greenhouse gases — believed that rising global temperatures from human activity pose significant risks. His replacement, Mike Pompeo, the former C.I.A. director, has questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is changing the climate, and he has strongly opposed the Paris Agreement, a pact among nearly 200 nations to address climate change. He told Congress last year during his Senate confirmation hearing for the C.I.A. post that the notion of climate change as a top national security threat was “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable.”

As noted in Blog 10, the CIA participated in a Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community that states that climate change contributes to national security threats.

The replacement of Tillerson with Pompeo furthers Trump’s increasingly hard-line opposition to the idea of climate change at the highest levels of the United States government. Tillerson’s departure follows the resignation of Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, and the departure of George David Banks, a senior adviser to the president on international energy issues. All three had urged Trump to honor the Paris agreement.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke to Trump about staging public debates challenging climate change science. Trump was receptive of the idea but John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, killed it saying it was ill-conceived and politically risky.  Mr. Kelly is a retired four-star Marine Corps general who shares the pragmatic view held by military leaders including Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, that climate change is happening and poses a serious national security challenge.

The announcement of the debates would have coincided with the release of an exhaustive scientific report from 13 United States government agencies that definitively found human activity to be responsible for almost all of the warming that has occurred in the past half-century

On Dec. 13, the White House convened senior officials to discuss the matter. The meeting included a presentation of the red team, blue team plan by two E.P.A. officials — Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff and the head of the agency’s air office. Other attendees included senior officials from the Department of Energy, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Economic Council. Every office within the White House was opposed to the idea and it was pronounced “dead” and was not to be mentioned again. Pruitt continues to say the idea is not dead.