Climate Change Blog 37
Facts on the Ground:
Publication of this Blog was temporarily delayed by a major snow-storm in NYC forcing me to go to Central Park and ski in over 16” of fresh snow. But, alas, it was too warm (34F) and the snow was thick and slow (but still great). I’ll have more to say about this huge storm in Blog 38.
Earlier in 2021, two unusually severe and deadly storms of note: one, a tornado, tore through Fultondale, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., late on Jan 25, killing at least one person, collapsing buildings, downing trees and power lines and trapping people in their homes. It was part of a band of severe weather systems that extended across much of the Southeast.
The other was a snowstorm (Filomena) in Madrid, Spain, which was the heaviest snowfall in 50 years (leaving about 20”). It was part of a massive storm in southern and central Spain which caused at least three deaths and prompting the authorities to activate the highest level of weather warning in the capital.
The storm also battered the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, and other regions in the south of Spain with strong winds and heavy rains. The town of Estepona, on the Costa del Sol, and surrounding areas saw more than 60% of their average annual rainfall arrive in three days.
Blizzards halted nearly all transport Jan 9-10, including forcing the closure of Madrid-Barajas Airport. Rail services in the areas worst affected were suspended, and 12,500 miles of roads were closed or suffered serious disruption.
Madrid was placed on red alert on Friday, along with the surrounding provinces of Guadalajara, Cuenca, Albacete and Toledo, the first time that the highest level of weather warning has been used in these central Spanish areas since the system was introduced in 2007.
The snowstorm has presented the Spanish government, still struggling with a rising coronavirus caseload, with another battlefront. Spain’s Covid-19 death toll, more than 51,000, is one of the highest in Europe. The storm stopped distribution of the vaccine for two days.
The data is in and 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record. The global average temperature in 2020 was about 2.25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average from 1850 to 1900, data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service indicates.
The record warmth, which fueled deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires and other global environmental disasters in 2020, occurred despite the development in the second half of the year of La Niña, a global climate phenomenon marked by surface cooling across much of the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
And while 2020 may tie the record, all of the last six years are among the hottest ever, said Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist with the Copernicus. “It’s a reminder that temperatures are changing and will continue to change if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
According to Copernicus, the global average temperature in 2020 was 1.25C (about 2.25F) warmer than the average from 1850 to 1900, before the rise of emissions from industrialization. The 2020 average was slightly lower than the average in 2016, too small a difference to be significant.
Some regions experienced exceptional warming. For the second year in a row, Europe had its warmest year ever and suffered from deadly heat waves. But the temperature difference between 2020 and 2019 was striking: 2020 was 0.4C, or nearly three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit, warmer.
Temperatures across North America were above average as well. The warming played a critical role in widespread drought that affected most of the western half of the US and intense wildfires that ravaged California and Colorado.
The Arctic is warming much faster than elsewhere, a characteristic that was reflected in the 2020 numbers. Average temperatures in some parts of the Arctic were more than 6C higher last year than a baseline average from 1981 to 2010. Europe, by contrast, was 1.6C higher last year than the same baseline.
In the Arctic, and especially in parts of Siberia, abnormally warm conditions persisted through most of the year. The heat led to drying of vegetation that in Siberia helped fuel one of the most intensive wildfire seasons in history.
Advances in Electric Vehicles:
The transportation sector in the US accounts for about 30% of US GHG emissions. Converting rapidly to all EVs is essential and there is much positive news to report. Tesla has enjoyed most of the press in this area, and its sedans are increasingly popular, but trucks and SUVs constitute 75% of the passenger vehicle market in the US and until now that has been a real gap in cutting GHG from this sector. Investors now are putting money ($2.65 billion recently, $8 billion since its beginning in 2019) in Rivian (valued at more than $27 billion) which plans to manufacture electric pickup trucks and SUVs.
Founded in 2009 and based in Plymouth, 30 miles west of Detroit, Rivian is preparing to produce these vehicles by the summer 2021 in a former Mitsubishi plant in Illinois. Rivian is also developing electric delivery trucks for Amazon.
Rivian’s investors include Amazon (Climate Pledge Fund), BlackRock, Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Ford Motor, which plans to introduce a large SUV based on Rivian’s technology.
“The process of creating something like this is anything but simple,” R.J. Scaringe, Rivian’s founder and chief executive, said. “It’s a complex orchestra, several thousand parts coming from several hundred suppliers. It’s definitely far more complex than people think and far more complex than I thought it would be.”
To most auto executives, there is now little doubt that the future of automobiles is electrification. In the last five years, Tesla has gone from making 50,000 cars per year to 10 times that many in 2020. General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and others are investing billions to develop EV cars and trucks that eventually will begin supplanting fossil fuel models.
Rivian’s truck and SUV start at $67,500 up to $75,000 and have a conventional look. They are intended for off-road use — an ability that Tesla hasn’t focused on, although the company aims to begin producing a pickup truck later in the year. Before the pandemic, Rivian planned to make 20,000 pickup trucks and SUVs in 2021 and 40,000 in 2022. It has not yet offered updated figures. It had hoped to produce 250,000 vehicles a year at its plant in Normal, Ill., by the middle of the decade.
“We want to launch, demonstrate our capability and let our performance speak for itself before we can look into being public,” Mr. Scaringe, 38, said.
In the second half of this year, Rivian hopes to start producing its Amazon delivery van in large numbers. Amazon is already testing prototypes on the road. The retail giant has made the trucks a central part of its strategy to reduce emissions, placing an order for 10,000 to be delivered by the end of 2022.
Rivian still has a lot of work to do. Engineers in Plymouth are working on a half-dozen R1T pickups in various stages of development. A few were hand-built models with screws visible in door wells — telltale signs of early prototypes. One was a more refined version that seemed close to production.
Similarly, about 300 miles down the road at Rivian’s plant in Normal, a 3.4 million-square-foot factory that the company bought for $16 million in 2017, the company had put more than $1 billion into over-hauling it. An assembly line for R1T and R1S SUVs is taking place. Currently, only a few are built each day.
Tesla is the leading seller in the US of EVs. Volkswagen and others intend to sell EVs in competition with Tesla, and Ford now is selling its highly anticipated EV, the (hot!) Mach-E.
“Just overwhelming, the level of excitement and enthusiasm,” a Mach-E dealer, Tim Hovik, said. “When you drive this thing, the performance is, like, wow.”
Ford’s best-selling vehicles are gas-powered pickups but it recognizes those days are numbered. Ford is valued at around $38 billion, about half as much as GM and a far cry from Tesla’s $800 billion market capitalization. Ford’s future may well depend on the success of the Mach-E and subsequent EV models.
While the Mach-E is called a Mustang, it is actually a high-riding SUV given the popularity of these vehicles in the US. Most of Tesla’s sales are its Model 3 compact sedan. Other automakers, including Volkswagen, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Hyundai, are all planning to introduce electric SUVs in the coming months.
Several of the new entries are also priced lower than Tesla models to attract buyers who are interested in EVs but have balked at paying premiums prices.
The Mustang Mach-E and the Volkswagen ID.4, which is due out in March, go about 250 miles on a full charge — about the same as the cheapest version of Tesla’s Model Y — and start at about $43,000 and $40,000, respectively. The base Model Y starts at about $42,000, but the Ford and Volkswagen models are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit that will lower the final cost to well under $40,000, or close to the average price of new cars sold in the US. The tax credit no longer applies to purchases of Teslas.
EVs make up only about 3% of global auto sales but are expected to rise rapidly over the next decade. EVs could outsell gasoline-powered vehicles globally by 2040, some analysts think. As a result, many automakers are spending billions of dollars to introduce dozens of electric models over the next several years.
“You have to be in this race,” said Mark Wakefield, a managing director at AlixPartners, a consulting firm with a large automotive practice. “You can’t take the risk of missing it.”
Tesla now faces stiffer competition in China and Europe, but it still dominates the US market. The company does not break out its sales by country, but analysts believe it sold 200,000 or more EVs in the US last year — more than all other manufacturers combined.
The 2020 Chevrolet Bolt loaded with options and incentives from the automaker costs under $33,000. GM recently increased the battery range to 259 miles. Thus, there is a less expensive option than a Tesla.
Ford, which is producing the Mach-E in Mexico, vowed to begin delivering the car by the end of 2020 and delivered three to customers in December. It has taken orders for all 50,000 of the Mach-Es it plans to produce this year. Most will be sold in the US and some in Europe. Sales in China will start later this year.
If the company delivers 50,000 cars the Mach-E could become one of the top-selling EVs in the US, after the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y, and could top the Chevrolet Bolt, which had about 20,000 sales last year.
Recent studies give consumers good reason to buy an EV: they cost less over time to operate and maintain than gas-powered vehicles. In addition to being better for the planet, EVs have fewer moving parts under the hood and their maintenance costs are therefore much less (EVs never require oil changes). And the cost of charging an EV is either zero or much less than filling a car with gas. EVs use regenerative braking, which reduces wear and tear while charging the batteries.
The federal government offers a tax credit for some new EVs, but that does nothing to reduce the initial purchase price and does not apply to used cars. That means it disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. Some states, like California, offer additional incentives. Biden has pledged to offer rebates that help consumers swap inefficient, old cars for cleaner new ones, and to create 500,000 more electric vehicle charging stations.
Chris Gearhart, director of the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said EVs will become more price competitive in coming years as battery prices drop. At the same time, new technologies to reduce exhaust emissions are making traditional cars more expensive. “With that trajectory, you can imagine that even immediately at the purchase price level, certain smaller sedans could reach purchase price parity in the next couple of years,” Dr. Gearhart said.
GM announced in late January that it will phase out gas-powered cars and trucks and sell only EVs by 2035. This is a remarkable development by one of the world’s largest automakers that makes billions of dollars from gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs.
It is no coincidence that GM’s announcement followed the election of Biden. Several other automakers, most of them European, had earlier pledged more modest steps toward EVs. Daimler, which makes Mercedes-Benz cars, has promised an electric or hybrid version of each of its models by 2022, and Volkswagen has promised an electric version for each of its models by 2030.
Electric cars represent the fastest-growing segment of the auto industry. EV sales increased last year in Europe and China but they remain niche products in the US.
GM’s switch to EVs was part of its plan to become carbon neutral by 2040. GM plans to spend $27 billion over the next five years to introduce 30 EVs, including an electric Hummer pickup truck that it expects to start delivering to customers later this year. Its stock jumped after its announcement and was up more than 4%, reflecting a growing consensus among investors that EVs represent the future and that Tesla and other EV carmakers will eventually dominate the auto industry, while businesses that do not transition to electrics will do poorly.
Even before Day 1, Jan 20, Biden had made clear that climate change would be central to his governing priorities. He had already announced John Kerry as the new American envoy for climate change and a member of his National Security Council, and Gina McCarthy as the top adviser on domestic climate policy. On Day 1 he signed a letter which will lead to the US re-joining the Paris Accord on climate change in 30 days. He also issued executive orders establishing his environmental priorities to include climate change and directing EPA to review all regulations and guidance issued in the past four years and to halt any work on regulations not yet finalized. He has promised to reinstate more than 100 environmental rules and regulations that Trump intended to roll back. Some are easily reversed, some may have to go through the multi-year regulatory process, but it all is underway.
Biden used his executive authority to rescind the construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline which would have carried oil from Canadian oil sands across the American Midwest. And he re-established a working group on the social costs of GHGs.
He later issued additional executive orders on CC emphasizing his intention to create green jobs, and that CC considerations would be essential across every level of the federal government. He said he would “Put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security and foreign policy.” He paused new federal oil leases on federal lands and water (including in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and called for increasing renewable energy production on those lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind energy by 2030. He ordered the electrification of the government’s vast fleet of vehicles and he noted his intention to reserve 30% of federal land and water for conservation purposes.
Biden directed the nation’s intelligence agencies to assess the risks posed by CC around the world, and he ordered all federal agencies to figure out how “climate considerations” fit into their international priorities.
In 2016, an Obama-era presidential memorandum elevated CC to a national security priority and required intelligence agencies to incorporate CC into their analyses of national security threats. It was revoked by Trump. Biden is reviving and strengthening it.
Biden also said his agenda would create “prevailing wage” employment and union jobs for workers to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes and to manufacture and install a half-million new EV charging stations. He addressed charges that his policies would cost jobs in the fossil fuel industry, he said his policies would in fact “protect jobs and grow jobs” by putting people to work capping leaky oil and gas wells emitting methane and other pollutants. He will also create several new commissions and positions within the government focused on environmental justice and environmentally friendly job creation, including one to help displaced coal communities.
David Popp, an economist at Syracuse University and co-author of a 2020 paper on the employment effects of the Obama-era spending on green job creation, noted that several studies on the employment effects of environmental regulations show that jobs lost in polluting sectors often equal jobs created in clean energy and environmental mitigation.
Mr. Popp praised Biden for acknowledging that the government should play a larger role in helping displaced fossil fuel workers find jobs in the clean energy sector. “The skills on these clean energy jobs — installing and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines — are actually a decent match” with workers coming from fields like mining or offshore drilling, he said. “What’s really important is how well you can match the job losses to gains.”
Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and critic of the former Trump administration’s policy of eliminating CC regulations, noted that in 2019 about 40% of the US work force was in clean energy. “This is the way the world is going,” she said.
Biden may utilize the Congressional Review Act which provides that any regulation finalized within 60 legislative days of the end of a presidential term can be overturned with a simple congressional vote. The catch here is that once Congress has used it to wipe out a regulation, the administration is legally barred from enacting a substantially similar rule. Thus, the Biden administration would be barred from replacing a weak Trump rule with a similar but more stringent one.
Biden could use the CRA for a January rule that reduced protections for migratory birds by ending penalties for energy and construction companies that harm the birds and their habitats in construction projects and oil spills.
Longer-term efforts of two or more years may be needed to restore Obama-era climate change regulations, rolled back by Trump, that were designed to cut emissions of planet-warming pollution across major sectors of the economy. It could also take that long to restore rules on industrial emissions of toxic pollutants such as mercury, as well as a major rule, Waters of the United States, designed to protect wetlands and waterways.
The work of reinstating the federal government’s more comprehensive regulations on air, water and climate pollution will take even longer. That is because when the Trump administration rolled back those rules, they almost never eliminated them entirely. Rather, they replaced strict federal pollution regulations with new, weaker pollution regulations.
The Biden administration will soon follow the same regulatory process and legally undo those weak regulations and replace them with tougher ones. This will apply to the regulations Trump’s EPA weakened regarding Obama’s single largest effort to curb climate change by forcing automakers to rapidly increase the fuel economy of passenger vehicles, which drastically lowered their emissions of heat-trapping CO2 pollution. Now, Biden has directed EPA to follow the long legal path, updating Obama era economic and scientific justifications for the rule, performing complex technical analyses of the impacts of the new rule on highway safety, air quality and consumer behavior, then formally publishing the proposal to change the rule, opening it to public comments, and responding to all comments.
Regarding the Waters of the United States rule, Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School said, “Replacing that water rule will take a very long time.” “And they won’t want to rescind the Trump rule while they are working on the new rule, because then the waterways would be left with no protection.” That rule had protected streams, wetlands and smaller water systems that flowed into larger waterbodies such as lakes and rivers. Trump replaced that rule last year with a rule that stripped away protections allowing development of those wetlands and smaller water bodies.
Biden’s international climate envoy, John Kerry, announced that the US would host an international climate change summit on Earth Day, April 22. “The convening of this summit is essential to ensuring that 2021 is going to be the year that really makes up for the lost time of the last four years.” He pledged that by that date he would announce new targets detailing how the US would lower its CO2 emissions under the terms of the Paris Agreement.
Federal agencies also will be ordered to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies “and identify new opportunities to spur innovation.” While campaigning, Biden had called for overhauling billions of dollars in tax breaks to the oil, coal and gas industries, to help pay for his $2 trillion climate change plan, which likely will face strong opposition in Congress.
Jennifer M. Granholm, Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Energy, is positioned to play a central role in the administration’s efforts to confront CC. One crucial role the agency could play is the development of clean-energy technologies. It has a network of 17 national laboratories that conduct cutting-edge research.
But only about one-fifth of the Energy Department’s $35 billion annual budget is devoted to energy programs. The rest goes toward maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal and cleaning up environmental messes from the Cold War.
Technological advances are needed to produce better batteries to store energy from solar and wind power, and carbon capture techniques to trap CO2 before it reaches the atmosphere.
DOE has had many important successes including shale-gas technology in the 1970s which led to the fracking boom and the Obama administration’s SunShot Initiative which drove down the price of utility-scale solar power more than 70% from 2010 to 2016.
Such energy innovation has enjoyed bipartisan support from lawmakers. In December, Congress rejected Trump’s request to slash the agency’s energy spending and instead authorized an additional $35 billion over 10 years to research and demonstrate new technologies for energy storage, advanced nuclear power and removing CO2 from the air.
Congress controls spending, but Ms. Granholm has authority to direct the agency’s priorities. Under Obama, DOE’s national labs focused on EV batteries and recycling. Under Trump, DOE focused on improving coal technology.
DOE currently has more than $40 billion in low-interest loans that could be used to develop new renewable, nuclear, carbon capture and storage technologies. These funds have sat unused for years. Ms. Granholm could revive the loan programs.
DOE oversees energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment such as light bulbs, refrigerators, water heaters and industrial motors. Under Obama, DOE set standards to phase out incandescent light bulbs in favor of energy efficient models. Trump loosened these standards. Biden has already ordered DOE to revisit and consider tightening its efficiency rules.
DOE can play an important role in building, siting and permitting the transmission lines that will be needed to bring energy from new solar and wind projects to where it is needed. Biden has set a goal of eliminating emissions from America’s power plants by 2035. As Mike Gerrard has written (see Blog 36), new laws give DOE more authority to designate transmission corridors in the national interest and override state regulators in certain cases if the permitting process has stalled.
DOE currently spends about $8 billion per year on energy. Biden has pledged to invest $40 billion per year in clean energy innovation over the next decade in pursuit of goals such as developing energy storage that’s one-tenth the cost of today’s batteries or slashing emissions from heavy industry. He may be able to fund his initiatives via the budget reconciliation process.
Biden will be able to enact new and stronger restrictions on power plants as the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Jan 19 struck down the Trump administration’s plan to relax restrictions on GHG emissions from such plants. The court called the administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule a “fundamental misconstruction” of the nation’s environmental laws, devised through a “tortured series of mis-readings.”
The ruling occurred on the last full day of the Trump presidency, and it ended the EPA’s efforts to weaken climate change policies. It capped a long string of failures in which courts threw out one deregulation after another. Experts have described EPA’s losing streak as its worst in modern history.
Trump had sought to prevent future administrations from addressing CC by arguing that the only way to interpret the Clean Air Act of 1970 is that the federal government does not have the authority to set national restrictions on emissions or force states to move away from fossil fuel power. That could only be done via an explicit new law from Congress.
To the contrary, the court found that the Trump administration “may not shirk its responsibility by imagining new limitations that the plain language of the statute does not clearly require.”
Trump’s EPA finalized the Transparency in Science Rule that it says will improve the credibility of science. Scientists say it will stop new public health protections by limiting what research the agency can consider.
About 25 years ago, tobacco industry consultants outlined a similar plan to create “explicit procedural hurdles” for EPA to clear before it could use science to address the health impacts of smoking.
According to public health experts and medical organizations, the rule blocks the use of population studies in which subjects offer medical histories, lifestyle information and other personal data on the condition of privacy. Such studies have served as the scientific underpinnings of some of the most important clean air and water regulations of the past half century.
Critics say the agency’s leaders disregarded the EPA’s scientific review system to impede or block access to the best available science, weakening the government’s ability to create new protections against pollution, pesticides, and the coronavirus.
“Right now we’re in the grips of a serious public health crisis due to a deadly respiratory virus, and there’s evidence showing that air pollution exposure increases the risk of worse outcomes,” said Dr. Mary Rice, chairwoman of the environmental health policy committee at the American Thoracic Society. “We would want EPA going forward to make decisions about air quality using all available evidence, not just putting arbitrary limits on what it will consider.”
Biden is expected to quickly suspend and then repeal the rule. Trump had used it to reject EPA’s finding that chlorpyrifos, a pesticide, causes serious health problems.
“We’re going to put at risk the health of a whole lot of people and maybe even lead to their deaths,” Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said about the rule.
Correction: In Blog 36 I mentioned that Mike Gerrard had an article in Daedalus, which he did, but the information about his discussion of what Biden can do without Congress is from his article in Yale Environment 360. Those responsible have been sacked.