Climate Change Blog 46
Facts on the Ground:
Extreme weather is now a fact of life on a scale humanity has never experienced with such ferocity and frequency. The new year continued where 2021 left off. There were three tornado reports in northern Georgia on New Year's Eve, near Worthville, Magnet and Villa Rica and a tornado struck Newton County, Ga too. Half-dollar-sized hail fell in Kentucky while heavy winds in Alabama blew the roofs off chicken coops and brought down trees and power lines. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued a state of emergency due to the damage done by two prior long-track tornadoes.
A tornado hit west of Elkton, TN, and others may have touched down near Hopkinsville and Olmstead, KY, damaging a grain silo and several buildings in downtown areas. The National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-1 tornado (Enhanced Fujita Scale, 3-second gusts of winds 86-110mph) hit Madison County, KY with 90 mph winds. An EF-0 Tornado (65-85mph) hit Bowling Green with maximum wind speed of 85 mph.
Rainfall shattered records particularly in Lexington, KY (2.27”) breaking the old Jan. 1 record of 1.44” set in 1966. Bowling Green also set a record with 2.59” on New Year’s Day, also breaking a 1966 record of 2.45.” Record rainfall was recorded in Zanesville, OH, and Cape Girardeau, MO, on New Year's Day.
Two record-breaking snow storms slammed the East coast in the first week of Jan with blinding snow, high winds and below-zero temperatures. AccuWeather senior meteorologist Joe Lundberg called it the first bomb cyclone of 2022 (which is defined as a storm whose central pressure plummets 24 millibars in 24 hours, it’s basically a winter hurricane).
In late Dec a storm shut down 81 miles of interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California while temperatures plunged to record lows in Seattle. On State Route 89, an avalanche closed the road from Tahoe City, Calif., to near Palisades Tahoe. The storm shattered records for snowfall and low temperatures across the West. At a research station operated by the Central Sierra Snow Lab of the University of California, Berkeley, the snowfall for December surpassed 193” besting the previous record of 179”set in 1970. In California, over 115,000 people lost power.
Seattle had record lows two consecutive days. At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it was 17F on Dec 27. That broke the record of 20 for the day in 1968. Dec 26 it was 20F at Sea-Tac, breaking the record of 22 in 1948.
In mid-December two spectacularly powerful storms decimated large portions of the mid-US. Six states had a string of deadly tornadoes during record high temperatures (74F in Des Moines). The winds destroyed homes, knocked out power and spread wildfires. “In the middle of December, it’s obviously extraordinary, unprecedented,” said Mike Fowle, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Dating back to 1950, there had been only five confirmed tornadoes in the month of December in Iowa, but on Dec 15 alone, there were at least five tornadoes across the state. Tornadoes also damaged parts of Kentucky and five other states, killing at least 88 people.
Days later, another ferocious storm system swept across the Midwest leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, with countless houses, barns and buildings damaged and five people dead in Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota.
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado had hit north of Neillsville, WI, near Stanley and that there had been over 55 wind gusts of at least 75mph across the country.
In the West and Plains regions, dust storms whipped through Colorado and Kansas, and a tornado hit Lincoln, NE. Damage extended to hangars and small planes at the Santa Fe Regional Airport in New Mexico. The storm system also spawned wildfires and winds of up to 100mph in Kansas. As storms moved through South Dakota, the Weather Service office in Sioux Falls issued its first tornado warning on record for the month of December. In Iowa, where schools closed early and some areas saw wind gusts of up to 90mph, high temperatures reached the lower 70s. On average, high temperatures in December throughout much of the state are in the 30s.
In Arkansas, a supercell, a strong thunderstorm with a rotating updraft, produced a ferocious storm with astonishing, unprecedented, staying power. The path of destruction from this single tornado covered 260 miles and included Tennessee and Kentucky (164 of those miles were in KY making it the largest in state history), leaving many communities almost entirely leveled. At least 1,000 families were left homeless or struggling to repair severely damaged properties; thousands more had no electricity.
“This tornado event was certainly an oddity in many ways,” said Jason Naylor, a professor at the University of Louisville who studies tornado formation, duration and intensity. For one thing, he said, “It’s freakishly long.” And there was the timing: “The fact it occurred in December is pretty odd.”
Alaska was whip-sawed by record high (67F) temperature in late December and then a brutally fierce wind storm in early Jan. Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy in Fairbanks, said “In late December, I would not have thought such a thing possible.”
Record heat in Alaska is especially notable because the state is known for its bitter cold and its proximity to the Arctic. Alaska is generally warming faster than the rest of the US and already suffers from flooding, erosion and other signs of a changing climate.
The recent heat wave in some parts of Alaska was driven by a mass of high-pressure air, known as a heat dome, that hovered over the northeastern Pacific Ocean.
Some parts of Alaska, including Fairbanks, have also experienced record amounts of rain in December. That is a problem in part because it will leave water on roads that could stay frozen until March.
By early January, tens of thousands of people lost electricity due to fierce windstorms as the wind chill dipped to 35F below zero. Winds reached 88 mph, knocking out power to 22,000 buildings. Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared the storm a state disaster allowing families to apply for disaster-recovery grants. Repair crews were unable to work in such conditions as people tried to stay warm in their darkened homes. The American Red Cross of Alaska opened shelters in Wasilla and Palmer for residents without power.
Steve Carrington, the mayor of Palmer, Alaska, said “You could definitely feel the house shaking” due to hurricane strength winds. His home had no electricity for three days, he said, adding that the wind ripped a chunk of his roof off and stripped an outer door from its hinges. “This could cause dangerous life-threatening conditions for those without power, as frostbite can develop in as little as 15 minutes in these conditions,” the National Weather Service said.
Buffalo had over 14” of snow on Jan 17. "Heavy snow at the Buffalo airport this morning has already established a record for the date," the National Weather Service tweeted.
In the South, Nashville received 1-2” per hour making Jan 6 the snowiest day in Nashville since Jan. 22, 2016, when 8” inches of snow fell in one day, according to AccuWeather. Police reported dozens of wrecks on the roads, including a fatality.
In the Upper Midwest, parts of Michigan got over a foot of snow. Minnesota and Wisconsin had wind chills of minus 25F to minus 35. Dangerously cold temperatures enveloped North Dakota with wind chill readings of minus 59 in Bowbells in Burke County.
Also in early Jan, in and around Washington, D.C., more than a foot of snow fell in some places. Crews in Virginia worked to unclog a 50-mile traffic jam on I-95 that trapped dozens of drivers in their cars for more than 24 hours. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and summoned the Virginia National Guard. The storm hit several Mid-Atlantic states and caused at least five deaths (including a 5-year old boy and a 7-year old girl who died in their homes when trees fell on them). Parts of Virginia received more than 15” of snow, and more than 270,000 residents lost power. Tens of thousands of outages were reported in Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee. Huntingtown, MD, got 15.5” of snow, Glendie, VA, 14.6”, Ellendale, DE, 14.5.”
In mid-Jan, fierce storms brought cold and snow to the Southeast. Central Mississippi got over 6” while Tennessee and Alabama received a mixture of snow and freezing rain. In Georgia, nearly 90,000 customers lost power, 95,000 in South Carolina and 35,000 in North Carolina. The governors of VA, GA, and NC all declared states of emergency.
On Jan 29-30, at least 4 people were killed and more than 120 000 customers lost power after a powerful Nor'easter hit the East Coast. More than 16 million people were placed under winter weather alerts. The storm reached bomb cyclone status with heavy snowfall and hurricane-force winds. Stoughton, MA, about 20 miles SW of Boston got 30.9.”
Snowfall rates in Boston reached 2 – 4” per hour, with higher rates registered in Norfolk County. Many locations broke daily snowfall records on January 29, including Boston which tied the record with 23.6.” Its previous daily snowfall record for January 29 was 3.7” in 1928.
Atlantic City, New Jersey crushed its all-time January snowfall record with 33.2” for the month. The previous record of 20.3” was set in 1987. Final snowfall reports from the January 28-29, 2022, blizzard listed by highest totals by state: NY-Islip 24.7", RI-Warren 24.6", CT-Norwick 22", ME-Veazie 22", NJ-Bayville 21", DE- Lewes 14.2", NH-Rye 13.5", and VA-Wallops Island 9.5."
At least 4 people died and more than 120 000 customers lost power in these East coast storms. The entire Northeast was covered in snow before the event was over. Three of the dead were found in the snow next to their shovels on Long Island, New York, while a snowplow driver found an elderly woman dead inside her vehicle overnight in Uniondale, NY. The total number of flight cancellations within, into, or out of the US exceeded 5 000.
In early Feb. another major storm blocked highways, closed schools and canceled flights across much of the central US with nearly a foot of snow piling up in parts of the Midwest. The system left drifts in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. Michael Dossett, the director of Kentucky Emergency Management warned, “The approaching storm front is forecast to be one of the most dangerous events in our recent history of record-breaking disasters…”
The storm disrupted life across three time zones, closing courtrooms in New Mexico, blocking highways in Missouri and causing crashes in Indiana. Temperatures dropped below freezing in Arkansas (falling 10-15F in a 30-minute span in some places), where the National Guard was deployed.
Amtrak paused train service across the Midwest and the South. Around Dallas and Oklahoma City, some schools canceled classes. Judge Clay Jenkins of Dallas County filed a disaster declaration, which expedites additional supplies and personnel to emergency workers. In Texas, snow fell in the Panhandle and sleet and freezing rain fell southeast of Lubbock.
Looking back at 2021, many temperature records were set including record cold in Bottineau, ND, -50.98F breaking the previous low set in 1893, Superior, NE (-32.98, 1905), Wallace, KA (-25.06, 1905), and Decatur, TX (-7.06, 1905) and the heat-wave in the NW reached 111.02 in Vernonia, OR breaking its prior high set in 1899, and numerous other records. Other records were shattered by the largest margins, including Franklin, NE, -27.94 which was 11.88 lower than the prior record set in 2016, Mineola, TX (-7.96, 10.98 lower than in 2018), and Taylor, NE (-31.00, 10.08 lower than in 2016). And record increases in high temps: Salem, OR (116.96, 9.00 higher than in 1981), and Forks, WA (109.94, 7.92 higher than in 1981), and many others.
In fact, temperatures in the US in 2021 set more all-time heat and cold records than any other year since 1994. By NASA’s records, which go back to 1880, Earth’s seven warmest years were the past seven. Nineteen of the world’s 20 warmest years have occurred this century; last year effectively tied 2016 as the hottest on record. Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14F (0.08C) per decade since 1880, and the rate of warming over the past 40 years is more than twice that: 0.32F (0.18C) per decade since 1981. There is no reason to think this trend will change anytime soon.
“We do not live in a stable climate now,” said Robert Rohde, the lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, an independent organization focused on environmental data science. “We will expect to see more extremes and more all-time records being set.”
Climate change has exacerbated the historic drought in the US SW. The past two decades were the driest in the region in at least 1,200 years, scientists said. The drought began in 2000 and has reduced water supplies, devastated farmers and ranchers and fueled wildfires across the region.
Julie Cole, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan cited the role of temperature, more than precipitation, in driving exceptional droughts. Precipitation amounts vary, but as human activities continue to pump GHGs into the atmosphere, temperatures are generally rising. As they do “the air is basically more capable of pulling the water out of the soil, out of vegetation, out of crops, out of forests,” Dr. Cole said. “And it makes for drought conditions to be much more extreme.”
In Pakistan, a heavy snowstorm killed 21 people at a popular tourist site just outside Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Motorists were stranded in their cars froze to death and others died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Soldiers rescued people from at least 24,000 vehicles, while other snowbound drivers and their passengers were given blankets and food.
Record floods killed at least 20 people and drove over 50,000 from their homes in Northeast Brazil in late Dec. “We’ve had other floods, other disasters with deaths, but nothing, absolutely nothing, with this territorial extension, with this number of cities hit at the same time and with the number of people impacted by this storm,” said Rui Costa, the governor of Bahia State. The sudden flooding followed 5 years of drought.
The floods destroyed homes as well as two dams. “There are more than 116 municipalities in a state of emergency,” said a Brazilian congressman from Bahia, Valmir Assunção. “The rains destroyed bridges, roads and houses in our state.”
Natalie Unterstell, president of the Institute Talanoa, a climate policy think tank in Brazil, pointed out that the latest United Nation report offered “robust evidence” that such weather extremes are the result of climate change.
“The warming of the ocean is particularly relevant to this,” she said. “In 2020, data showed that 80 percent of the seas suffered maritime heat waves, and this boosted disasters such as the one in Bahia.”
Ms. Unterstell urged governments like that of Brazil to take climate change into account when rebuilding. “Brazil is built to a climate that no longer exists,” she said.
The flooding may also set back Brazil’s fight against the pandemic. Mr. Costa, the Bahia governor, said a few cities in his state had lost all their supplies of drugs and vaccines against Covid-19.
A huge storm (named Eunice) with life-threatening winds slammed northern Europe in early Feb. Winds reaching 122mph were recorded on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, which was the country’s highest ever according to Britain’s national weather service, the Meteorological Office. It issued rare red weather warnings, indicating a threat to life, for southern England and parts of Wales. Belgium and the Netherlands also issued severe weather warnings. Flights and train service were canceled and disrupted and more than 140,000 customers in Britain lost electricity, according to PowerOutage.com.
Scientists urge the world community to do 3 things: 1) reduce carbon emissions; 2) remove carbon from the atmosphere; and 3) convert from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy production. Immediately.
While nearly 200 nations have pledged to reduce carbon emissions, atmospheric levels continue to rise. US GHG emissions fell a record 10% in 2020 due to the pandemic but emissions rose 6.2% in 2021 as the economy began recovering.
Biden’s goal is to reduce US GHG emissions 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is roughly the amount that scientists say humanity must achieve to prevent global warming of 1.5C (2.7F) above preindustrial levels and minimize the risk of catastrophic effects. The planet has already warmed 1.1C over the past century.
US emissions are now just 17.4% below 2005 levels. Studies show that the US likely will not achieve Biden’s goal absent major new policies to speed up the transition to wind, solar and other clean energy.
The Build Back Better Act which contains $555 billion in spending and tax incentives for renewable power, EVs and other climate programs appears dead. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a crucial Democratic swing vote, has refused to support it. But Democrats will try other means while Republicans uniformly oppose the bill.
Researchers at Princeton University found that the bill, if passed in its current form or component parts, could mostly achieve Biden’s goal, by tripling or quadrupling the pace of wind and solar power installations, accelerating EV sales and spurring utilities to retire more coal plants over the next decade.
Transportation, the nation’s largest source of GHG emissions increased 10% in 2021 after a 15% decline in 2020. Much of the increase was due to a rise in diesel-fueled trucks carrying goods to consumers as e-commerce surged, with freight traffic climbing above pre-pandemic levels last year.
Coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, also made a big comeback last year, with emissions from coal-fired power plants rising 17% in 2021 after declining 19% in 2020. While America is burning less coal than it was a decade ago, the fuel is still in use.
Prior to the pandemic, US electric utilities had retired hundreds of coal plants, replacing them with cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power. But, in 2020, electricity demand decreased so utilities reduced use of expensive coal. In 2021, natural gas prices nearly doubled due in part to a cold winter and rising exports, and utilities resumed burning coal. Burning coal for electricity produces twice as much CO2 as burning natural gas, though producing and burning natural gas also releases GHGs, mostly methane.
A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that coal emissions would likely dip again next year if natural gas prices stabilize. Electric utilities have already announced plans to retire at least 28% of their remaining coal plants by 2035, the agency said. And power companies installed new wind turbines and solar panels at a record pace over the past two years.
Little progress has been made in the US in reducing emissions from two major sectors: industry and buildings. Emissions from industries such as cement and steel rose 3.6% in 2021 after declining 6.2% in 2020. These factories account for about 20% of US emissions and are dependent on a technological breakthrough to significantly cut back.
Homes and buildings are significant emitters by burning fossil fuels such as natural gas in furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, ovens and clothes dryers. Emissions from buildings rose 1.9% in 2021 after declining 7.6% in 2020.
Huge GHG emissions were produced by last year’s wildfires in California, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, which burned millions of acres of forests and grasslands, sending the CO2 that had been stored in vegetation into the atmosphere.
Using satellite data, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service estimated in December that last year’s North American wildfires emitted 83 million tons of CO2. While the forests that burned may grow back, absorbing CO2 as they do, that process will take years. And scientists have warned that wildfires will become larger and more frequent as the planet warms.
I am focused here primarily on human GHG emissions and mostly US. Other countries like China, Brazil and India contribute greatly as well. Nor am I addressing other significant sources of GHG emissions such as ‘naturally’ occurring from the ocean and melting permafrost in dangerous positive feedback loops described in earlier Blogs. Alarming reports of the effects of global warming on the vital circulatory systems at the poles reveals dramatic increases is CO2 emissions from the ocean, as well as potential decrease in the absorption of CO2 by the ocean which has kept the planet from over-heating but may now be lessening. Similarly, in the previously frozen north, immense areas of previously frozen soil which had kept CO2 locked safely away for millenia is now thawing and releasing vast amounts of CO2.
I will note, again, that the crucially important forests of Brazil continue to be cut which both releases carbon and reduces the absorption of carbon and profoundly impacts global weather systems. The destruction of the Brazilian Amazon in 2021 reached a 15-Year High. President Bolsonaro skipped the meeting in Glasgow where most of the world’s leaders gathered to address climate change. An official report by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, showed that the world’s largest rainforest had lost an astounding 5,100 square miles of forest between August 2020 and July 2021. Satellite data revealed that deforestation increased by about 22% from the previous year. It was also the first time that Brazil has reported four consecutive years of rising deforestation rates. Since Bolsonaro became president in 2019, the country has lost a forest area bigger than Belgium.
Similarly, deforestation continues in Columbia, due to lawlessness. Armed gangs are threatening and murdering community leaders and environmental activists trying to protect Colombia’s forests from mining, lumber and oil companies. Colombia is now the world’s deadliest place for environmentalists and others defending land rights. Global Witness documented at least 65 killings in 2020.
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, President Iván Duque of Colombia posed as an environmental champion. He promised Colombia would be carbon neutral by 2050 and that, by next year, 30% of the country’s land and waters would be protected areas.
In the Putumayo region, members of the Border Command, an illegal armed group dedicated to controlling drug production along the border with Ecuador, told residents that they have negotiated with Nueva Amerisur, owned by the multinational oil company GeoPark, to ensure that the company’s work would not be impeded and warned the residents not to interfere. The criminal enterprise targeted environmental defender Jani Silva. Facing the threat of assassination for her work to protect the water sources and forest from oil exploration, she has been forced to continually move to escape assassination.
Such attacks and threats are rising as deforestation in the Colombian Amazon has surged, surpassing 250,000 acres in three of the last four years. Rainforest sheltering a spectacular biodiversity is being razed for cattle ranching and corporate farms, palm oil production, fossil fuel extraction, illegal gold mining and logging. Leaders of local communities, whose water is being poisoned and whose land has been devastated, have provided the last line of defense against this destruction by organizing and bringing attention to the problem through legal action and publicity campaigns.
Mr. Duque signed a regional environmental convention called the Escazú Agreement which obliges the government to protect environmental defenders. But he has not pushed Congress to ratify the pact, as cattle, mining and infrastructure industries have mounted a disinformation campaign against it.
Biden administration officials have recognized the importance of environmental defenders, and at the climate conference in Glasgow they unveiled a Plan to Conserve Global Forests. But the plan would not be nearly aggressive enough to fight the epidemic of violence facing forest defenders.
An effort to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy was made in mid-Jan by BP and Shell which proposed to spend billions at a North Sea Auction to develop wind farms off Scotland.
In awarding the leases, the Scottish government is trying to persuade the oil companies, which have been laying off workers as investment in oil and gas plummets, to retain a substantial presence in Scotland. “For a number of key companies this will underline their commitment to the area,” said Barney Crockett, the lord provost, or mayor, of Aberdeen, the oil hub.
Companies were bidding on the chance to develop offshore parcels covering 2,700 square miles. The auction will bring in nearly 700 million pounds, or about $955 million, in option fees to the Scottish government.
“We secured the blocks that we wanted,” said Louise Kingham, head of country for Britain at BP, which gained the option to develop a large wind farm near Aberdeen with capacity comparable to a nuclear power station, in partnership with EnBW, a German utility.
Ms. Kingham said BP would invest £10 billion in the wind farm, including the acquisition of four service vessels and initiatives to modernize Leith, Edinburgh’s port. It is expected to become a manufacturing center for offshore equipment. BP also plans for Aberdeen to transform from a center for undersea technology for the oil industry, to an operations and maintenance hub for the company’s wind business.
Ms. Kingham said there was now “a real opportunity” for Scotland to become a center for renewable energy, including hydrogen, EV charging and other solutions to climate change.
The Scottish government insisted that winning bidders spend substantial sums with local businesses. Overall, the 17 offshore wind projects awarded are likely to bring in tens of billions of pounds in investment, bolstering the British and Scottish economies.
The Scottish projects are also likely to be test sites for floating wind turbines, which are anchored to the seabed rather than attached. Floating turbines can be placed in deep water, such as the area covered by the Scottish leases, as well as the California coast.
Presently, floating turbines are too costly for wide commercial deployment. Shell’s two wind farms, which amount to about 20% of the capacity awarded, would need to be on floating structures, which are still in the experimental stage.
A key issue is where the power will go. Overall, the potential capacity that has been awarded is likely to exceed what the Scottish system can handle. Southbound cables will be needed to take power to major population and industrial centers in England. Eventually, the Scottish power may also be used to generate hydrogen, a clean-burning gas, and the electricity could be sent across the North Sea to Norway or Germany, executives say. Germany recently halted the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, which was intended to double the flow of Russian gas to Germany, after Russia formally recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
As humanity continues to make little if any progress in removing CO2 from the atmosphere, a technological breakthrough is desperately needed. Climeworks, a Swiss company, developed a device in Iceland that is doing just that, on a small scale.
The devise, called Orca, is the world’s biggest commercial direct air capture (DAC). It resembles four massive air-conditioners, each the size of a shipping container sitting on top of another. It is powered by geothermal energy as it sucks air into steel catchment boxes where CO2 chemically bonds with a filtering substance. With the addition of heat, CO2 is released and mixed with water by the Icelandic company Carbfix to create a drinkable fizzy water which is then injected several hundred meters down into basalt bedrock. The CO2 mix reacts with basalt and turns to rock in two or three years. This is claimed to be a permanent solution, unlike the planting of forests which can release carbon by rotting, being cut down or burning. Even the CO2 that other firms are planning to inject into empty oil and gas fields could eventually leak out.
Orca is billed as the world’s first commercial DAC unit because the 4,000 metric tons of CO2 it can extract each year have been paid for by 8,000 people (and the band Coldplay) who have subscribed online to remove some carbon, and by firms including Stripe, Swiss Re, Audi and Microsoft.
The task is daunting as Orca’s removal capacity handles three seconds of humanity’s annual CO2 emissions, which is closer to 40 billion metric tons, but, once again, it’s a start.
Christoph Gebald, Climeworks’ co-founder, insists that the technology can grow into a trillion-dollar industry in the next three or four decades, a goal that was aided by the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow where several nations, cities and businesses committed to net zero emissions by 2050: “… any approach that leads to net zero must include carbon removal as well as emission reduction,” he said.
Dr. Gebald, points to the release of the U.N.-led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018 which established the need to reach net zero emissions by 2050 if global warming is to be limited to 1.5C. Crucially, it also produced the first scientific consensus that some emissions would be impossible to eradicate so reaching “net zero” would entail removing prior emissions.
Getting from 4,000 metric tons a year to 5 billion metric tons quickly enough to help limit climate change is challenging, but such a rapid scaling up has been done before. The world’s first commercial wind farm opened in 1980 on Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire. It consisted of 20 turbines and produced 600,000 watts. Forty years later, in 2020, world wind capacity was 1.23 million times larger, at 740 gigawatts. At such a rate, Orca could remove 5 billion metric tons of CO2 by around 2060. “That is exactly what climate science asks us to do to achieve climate targets,” Dr. Gebald said.
To succeed, Dr. Gebald says he must reduce costs, which currently are $600 to $800 a metric ton. Increased output could reduce costs to $200 - $300 a metric ton by 2030, and $100 to $150 around 2035, he said. He is also likely to benefit from the kind of subsidies that helped EVs and solar panels deploy and flourish.
Dr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former president of Iceland, says reducing GHG emissions is important, but “we also have to destroy some of the carbon that is already in the air. If we don’t start doing that very, very quickly we are never going to succeed on climate change.”
Currently only trees and oceans (and their vegetation) remove CO2 from the atmosphere at scale. It is essential that humanity protect and grow its existing forests, but we are failing. The 197 signatories of the 2015 Paris climate agreement committed to preserve forests and other ecosystems that store carbon. But forests continue to be cut and burned and fragmented into ever smaller patches. This failure challenges all of our other climate efforts because intact forests are essential to contain global warming.
In Glasgow at the recent COP26, delegates again pledged to end deforestation, committing $12 billion to the effort, with an additional $7 billion from the private sector. But the necessary steps are not being taken. Territorial rights of Indigenous peoples are not being recognized, protected forest areas are not being expanded and roads and industry are not being curtailed in forests.
In 2021, the loss of primary old-growth tropical forest rose by 12% over 2019. That loss added about twice as much CO2 to the atmosphere as the annual emissions by cars in the US.
The northern boreal forests protect soil that contains carbon equal to 190 times the global carbon emissions of last year, but this forest is being burned and cut which is accelerating the thawing of permafrost as the planet warms, releasing GHGs in a potentially catastrophic positive feedback loop.
Globally, intact forests absorbed around 28% of all CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2016, a huge reduction in the accumulation of the planet-warming gas in the atmosphere. In the tropics, intact forests store an average of twice the carbon held in forests bisected by roads or otherwise disturbed by development.
The nations richest in intact forest landscapes (defined as unbroken woodlands of slightly more than 190 square miles) are Canada, Russia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru and the US. Two of those countries, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, led the world in primary forest loss in 2020, and Peru ranked fifth on that list.
Globally, 10% of intact forest landscapes were fragmented or cleared in the first 16 years of this century, and half of the remainder are designated by governments for logging, mining and oil and gas extraction.
Protecting tropical forests can secure seven to 10 times as much carbon through 2050 as replanting forests. Saving the trees can also ease the crisis of species extinction. And protecting these forests is crucial to maintaining the homes and ways of life of thousands of forest cultures — people who speak as many as a quarter of Earth’s languages.
Still, the majority of intact forests around the world lie outside Indigenous lands and require greater protection. The good news is that parks and reserves quadrupled in area, to 17% of Earth’s land, between 1990 and 2020, an astounding success. As part of the world’s Convention on Biological Diversity, most nations have agreed to increase protection to 30% of their land by 2030.
The first suit has been filed in NY pursuant to Green Amendment. The voters of the state agreed last November to amend NY’s constitution guaranteeing the right to “Clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” The suit was filed by Fresh Air for the East Side against Waste Management and the state DEC over a 300-acre landfill near Rochester. NYC waste is shipped there and NYC was named a defendant as well. Rochester attorney (and EELS Chair) Linda Shaw, of Knauf Shaw, represents Fresh Air and filed the case in State Supreme Court in Monroe County.
President Biden in early December added to his plan to make the federal government carbon neutral, ordering federal agencies to buy EVs, to stop buying gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, to power federal facilities with wind, solar and nuclear energy, and to use sustainable building materials.
In a series of executive orders, Biden directed the government to transform its 300,000 buildings, 600,000 cars and trucks, and use its annual purchases of $650 billion in goods and services to meet his goal of a federal government that stops adding CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050.
By 2030, Biden wants the federal government to purchase electricity produced only from sources that do not emit CO2 and other GHGs that are warming the planet. And by 2032, the Biden administration wants to see the emissions produced by buildings cut in half.
“The federal government in so many areas is one of, if not the largest, purchaser,” said Joshua Freed, senior vice president for climate and energy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic research group, noting that the government spends about $5 billion annually buying concrete. Setting standards for more environmentally sustainable products as well as clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles, he said, would have a “huge influence” on the private sector.
Biden has pledged to cut US emissions 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. As the Build Back Better bill is stalled, Democrats are looking for ways to advance pieces of it to devote hundreds of billions of dollars in tax incentives that analysts said could get the US about halfway to that goal but the rest will require significant executive action.
Transportation is the largest single source of GHGs generated by the US and so EPA announced plans to strengthen limits on automobile tailpipe emissions. The more stringent rule would be the most significant climate action taken to date by the Biden administration and highest level ever set for fuel economy. It would require passenger vehicles to travel an average of 55 mpg by 2026, from under 38 mpg today.
That would prevent the release of 3.1 billion tons of climate-warming CO2 through 2050, according to the EPA. It would save about 360 billion gallons of gasoline from being burned, leading to a 15% annual reduction in the nation’s gasoline consumption by 2050. And motorists would save about $1,080 in fuel costs over the lifetime of more efficient vehicles, the agency estimated.
The tailpipe rule will take effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and apply to model years 2023 to 2026. The new Biden rule “is basically just recapturing the emissions cuts that we lost during the Trump rollback,” said Jeff Alson, a former EPA senior engineer and policy adviser who worked on the Obama auto emissions standards. “That’s good, but it’s not going to get us anywhere near the level we’ve got to get to reduce vehicle emissions enough to protect the planet.”
A recent report by the International Energy Agency found that nations would have to end the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 to keep average global temperatures from increasing 1.5C compared with pre-industrial levels.
About $26 billion in tax incentives to speed up the adoption of EVs has been stuck in limbo on Capitol Hill, part of a larger $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act that Manchin opposes. Among the bill’s provisions are a tax credit of $7,500 for purchasers of EVs, plus an additional incentive of $4,500 if the vehicles are assembled by union workers.
Biden has set a goal for EVs to make up 50% of all new car sales by 2030 in order to slash planet-heating emissions and slow climate change. But EVs are likely to total just 4% of American sales in 2021, a hint of the scale of the challenge.
Progress is being made. In Nov. 2021, Congress passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that included $7.5 billion to build 500,000 electric charging stations in the US, plus another $7.5 billion to bolster supply chains needed to produce EVs.
EPA is also working on regulations for model year 2027 vehicles and beyond to advance sales of EVs. A draft may be published in 2022 to be completed before the end of Biden’s term.
Increasing numbers of major automakers have publicly pledged to invest in EVs including GM which said it will only sell EVs by 2035. Ford announced $30 billion in investments in electrification and said that it intends to sell only EVs in leading markets like the U.S., China and Europe no later than 2035, and globally by 2040. Ford built an electric version of the F-150 pickup and dealers are taking orders.
GM issued a statement saying it “supports the goal of the final rule and its intention to significantly reduce emissions,” but is still reviewing the details. Ford said, “we applaud EPA’s efforts to strengthen greenhouse gas emissions standards and create a consistent national plan.” And Stellantis, the company formed after the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, said the new rule underscored the need for the government to support a transition to ZEVs.
Most Republicans oppose new tailpipe regulations. “Biden’s inflation and energy crisis is hurting families and creating record-high costs,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote on Twitter. “Instead of helping families, he’s putting radical environmentalists first with strict regulations that dictate the cars we buy and drive.”
Autoworkers have expressed concerns over the electric transition because the production of an EV requires about one-third less human labor than a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. Biden has sought to win them over with policies like the proposed tax credits that would reward buyers for purchasing union-made EVs.
Ray Curry, the president of the United Auto Workers, hailed the standards as “well thought out,” adding, “history has demonstrated that strong standards based on input from stakeholders that include American workers at the table can be an opportunity for both job retention, job creation and environmental protections.”
In late December, the Biden administration approved two major solar projects on federal land in the California desert. These projects, and a third for which approval is near, would generate about 1,000 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 132,000 homes, the Interior Department said. All three projects are in Riverside County, Calif.
Biden recognizes the environmental and political need to act and has used his executive authority to advance his goal of cutting US GHG emissions roughly in half by 2030. But even that is under threat. In February the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case brought by coal companies and Republican-led states to limit the authority of the EPA to regulate GHG emissions.
“All bets are off with this Supreme Court,” said John Podesta, a former top aide to President Obama, speaking at a recent panel discussion on climate change. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
The solar farms are known as the Arica and Victory Pass projects. They will be photovoltaic solar projects and will generate a total of up to 465 mws of electricity with up to 400 mws of battery storage. The combined projects would cost about $689 million to build.
The Bureau of Land Management also is expected to approve a separate 500 mw photovoltaic plan known as the Oberon solar project. It is located on 2,700 acres of public land and is expected to generate enough renewable energy to power nearly 142,000 homes.
The BLM also said it was soliciting interest for utility-scale solar energy development on nearly 90,000 acres of public land within what it called solar energy zones in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Biden’s goal includes eliminating emissions from fossil fuels in the electricity sector by 2035.
The above views are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl