Climate Change News Digest August 2021

The month’s Climate Change News Digest prepared for busy followers of the PLM Green Global Alliance summarizes the latest news from the end of summer while many of us were out on vacation. It was not a good month for the planet due to the record heat, droughts, and wildfires along with other new research findings. Yet, there was hopeful progress as more nations, communities, NGOs, and industries around the world agree that climate change is happening now and must be dealt with a greater sense of urgency. Our good news question of the month: what country reported that in 2020 it produced more energy from all types of renewable sources than from coal? Bonus question: what is the difference between green hydrogen and blue hydrogen? Read on to find out.

During the month NOAA issued its 31st State of the Climate Report for the year 2020 that draws on the work of over 500 scientists from over 50 countries. In 2020 temperature records were broken from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many places in between. Sea levels rose to a record level for the 9th year in a row due to melting glaciers and ice sheets. In some good news, scientists reported that the estimated 6-7% dip in emissions due to the pandemic economy resulted in about 2 gigatons of CO2 not emitted, yet that was a small amount compared to the more than 1,500 gigatons that humans have been responsible for emitting since the industrial revolution.

The report also confirmed previous findings that CO2 in the atmosphere reached an all-time high of over 412 ppm, an increase of 2.5 since the previous year. Equally troubling was that methane, which is 80 times more heat-trapping than CO2, also had a record increase to 14.8 ppb. Scientists are surprised and worried about the methane rise, especially if it is due to the warming of once-frozen permafrost, peatlands, and marshes in addition to livestock and gas drilling.

The Danish government has reported that Greenland experienced a massive amount of ice melting so far this summer as parts of the island experienced all-time record highs of nearly 20 degrees C. The melt was enough water to cover the entire state of Florida. Greenland’s ice pack is said to be melting faster than any time in over 10,000 years. If all of the ice melted it would raise sea levels by some 20 feet.

Also in Greenland, at a research station 2 miles high and 500 miles above the Artic Circle, it rained for the first time ever reported when temperatures went above freezing. Disruptions in the jet stream were blamed, all which have become more frequent with climate change.

In the other polar region, Antarctica, low levels of ice are threatening Emperor penguins. The journal Global Change Biology reported that by 2100 nearly all of the Emperor colonies may become extinct with 70% of them threatened by 2050. It was previously reported that 10,000 baby birds perished in 2016 when low ice resulted in a massive breeding failure of just one colony. The US is currently considering declaring these penguins an endangered species, even though none are found in the US.

At the start of the month President Biden unveiled his plan to require electric vehicles to become 40-50% of all new car sales by 2030. That is less than 9 years to go from the current 2% to over 40% of all new car sales, plus build the infrastructure and supply chain, especially batteries and charging stations, to support it all. The proposed rules start with executive orders to tighten mileage efficiency standards and pollution controls that will make unfeasible the manufacture and sales of gas-powered automobiles. Gas-powered vehicles currently account for just over 25% of all carbon emissions in the US.

As a result, new and old automakers alike are feeling the heat to move quickly to remain competitive on the global market. Europe is much further along with over 15% of new cars sold so far this year are electric or hybrid. Other countries in Europe, as well as China, are rushing ahead to help finance new infrastructure and supply chains like battery manufacturing facilities that will be required on a massive scale to make owning EV’s practical.

Germany is experimenting with a different approach to long-haul trucking where electric motors and batteries are not a practical solution over long-distances. The German government in cooperation with industry is testing electric highways, called eHighways, where trucks are powered by high-voltage electricity running in overhead lines, similar to streetcars of yesteryear in the US. Whether this will work better or be more cost effective than trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells is not known.

The Democrats in the US Congress are busy proposing new measures to reduce carbon emissions and finance the research and transformation required to a low-carbon economy.  A fee or carbon tax on the biggest carbon polluters is predicted to reap some $500B, if implemented  About 20 of the largest emitters are reported to be responsible for nearly one-third of all emissions. Across the world less than 100 companies are the source for nearly two-thirds of all GHG emissions. Most of these companies are oil and gas giants including Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco. Admittedly, this will have the effect of raising consumer gas prices, but these are artificially low due to the true costs and damages from fossil fuels not being accounted for in the pricing. And because gas prices are artificially low, the move to EV’s will be slower than it should be. As a result, it is reported that it is both the best and worst of times for energy companies who are reporting strong profits and rising stock prices despite a climate emergency.

In another sign of political progress, both Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress have together acknowledged the climate crisis in the spending proposed within a massive $1T infrastructure bill. The legislation contains billions to make communities more resilient in the face of increasing extreme-weather disasters, water shortages, flooding, droughts and wildfires.

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change reports that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is being weakened with a loss of stability caused by climate change. The AMOC transports salty warm water from the tropics into northern latitudes where it sinks and returns southward as if a conveyor belt. A collapse of this circulation could cause wild temperature swings if not extreme cold weather to the US and European Atlantic coastal regions, just like the collapse of the jet stream has caused extreme cold across the southern US this past winter .

In better news, the final numbers are in for electricity generation in the US during 2020. For the first time ever more electricity came from renewable energy sources than coal. Of course, that is a bit misleading as energy produced by another GHG, natural gas, also surpassed that of coal. An ironic sign of progress is that oil-loving Texas stands out as the US’s leading producer of renewable energy with over 100 GW hours, nearly twice that of its nearest rival, green-loving California.

However, global power usage and associated CO2 emissions have returned to levels before the pandemic. The rebound is a reminder that a green recovery to the pandemic economy was a nice idea, if not fantasy, that is just not going to happen.

The state of California is proposing some of the most stringent green energy new building codes ever in the US. New homes and many types of new businesses will be required to have solar panels and batteries. It will add an estimated $20,000 additional cost onto that of a home which is no small amount even in a state with the average price of a home greater than $500K.

The impact of climate change on rich economies of the world has become more obvious as extreme weather events are effecting both the wealthy and poor nations of the Earth this summer. Out-of-control wildfires are burning all across the planet this summer in the US, Canada, Turkey, and Greece where temps exceeded 110 degrees F. The whole town of Greenville, California was burned to the ground by the Dixie fire which became the largest single wildfire in the state’s history. Tens of thousands of late summer tourists and residents were forced to evacuate the resort community of South Lake Tahoe, California. Record rainfalls have created deadly flooding across Germany and China. Record heat waves are being experienced all across the northern hemisphere including a European record 119 degrees F in Sicily and another all-time record for Spain of 117 degrees. The cattle herds of Canadian farmers are being reduced by hot barren dry pastures. Wells and lakes continue to dry up across the US west leaving homes and farms without water. A severe drought worsens in Brazil threatening reservoirs which provide much of the country’s hydroelectricity and is expected to lead to a devastating fire season.

With all the broken high temperature records it is no surprise that NOAA reported July 2021 was the Earth’s hottest month ever recorded by humans. Overall, temperatures were some 1.67 degrees F above their 20th century average while those in the Northern Hemisphere were some 2.77 degrees warmer than average. Extreme heat waves set records across Ireland, Japan, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, US, and Canada.

A review of mortality data across the Pacific Northwest suggests that heat-related deaths during last month’s extreme temperatures were substantially underreported by officials. During some days temperatures were a staggering 30 degrees warmer than average, sending thousands into cooling shelters and emergency rooms. It is believed that over 500 excess deaths may have resulted.

Heat-related deaths are rising all across the world. In the last 20 years thousands have died from Europe to Asia. Not only have higher temperatures been experienced, but higher humidity, warmer nights, and longer summers are to blame. Currently about 12,000 Americans are said to die each year from heat-related conditions. If global warming continues to rise as it has, the death count could reach close to 100,000 annually by 2100, within the lifespan of many children born this decade.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a report “Too Hot to Work” profiling the risk and plight of outdoor workers as temperatures and humidity rise, especially across the western and southern US.  They estimate that between now and the middle of the century over 18 million workers, including those in construction and agriculture, will face increasingly hazardous and more deadly heat conditions. The US has no national safety standards protecting outdoor workers which comprise some 20% of the workforce.

Young climate activists like Greta Thunberg celebrated UNICEF’s announcement of a new Children’s Climate Risk Index. The UNICEF study behind the new project reports that nearly 1 billion children, nearly half of all those in the world, currently live in high-risk countries vulnerable to climate change.

The most significant and alarming news of the month was from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which issued its sixth assessment report that serves as a code red for humanity on the accelerating climate crisis. The 3,000-page report includes the analysis and projections from over 200 scientists representing 195 government bodies referencing some 14,000 studies. There were many important takeaways including:

The world’s leadings scientists have done their jobs. It is now up to the rest of us to heed their warnings and recommendations without further delay as we have already lost three decades of precious time.

The US Government declared the first ever water shortage on the Colorado River that flows into the Lake Mead reservoir that is only at 34% capacity. The river and lakes serve nearly 40 million people in the west. It has been getting continually lower for nearly 20 years due to lower rainfall, droughts and reduced mountain snow packs, resulting in all-time low levels. Mandatory water restrictions will now be felt all across the west, including those metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas where life under climate change may eventually become unbearable. Water levels have been falling faster than predicted all across the west.

Despite increased droughts, wildfires, extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise, and hurricanes the latest census from the US shows that more Americans are moving into regions of the country at higher risk from climate change disasters. Areas of the nation that are expected to fare better, like the upper Midwest, are losing population. The reason this is happening is rarely discussed; the true long-term risks and costs of living in vulnerable regions is being subsidized and externalized on the lives of future generations.

Given the difficulty with reducing carbon emissions, there is growing support for technologies which can remove and sequester carbon that is being put into the atmosphere. While carbon capture and storage (CCS) has supporters among environmentalists, many are concerned that spending on this will take money away from migrating to renewable energy technologies that don’t emit carbon to begin with. Major oil and gas companies, like ExxonMobil, are reported to be proposing massive projects that could cost $100B to store carbon under the Gulf of Mexico. The irony all the while they drill and pump carbon out of the gulf. .

Great Britain has launched plans to produce 5 GW of energy produced by low-carbon hydrogen. The country says that a hydrogen economy could produce up to 100,000 jobs in a few decades when hydrogen could produce 20-25% of the UK’s energy needs. The problem is that hydrogen requires substantial energy to produce by electrolysis of water to separate hydrogen from oxygen, even if that can be powered by a number of sources. Green hydrogen is made from renewable energy with little to no carbon emissions. Blue hydrogen is made from natural gas but the CO2 emitted would be captured and stored. While the natural gas industry is promoting blue hydrogen, some scientists are questioning the value of that strategy after examining the total lifecycle emissions of hydrogen including both carbon and methane emissions. They concluded it would have been better to just burn natural gas from the start as the footprint of blue hydrogen was 20 percent greater.

Nearly a foot and half of rain fell in a rural middle Tennessee county, causing flash floods that killed over 20 individuals including twin babies. The deluge set a record of the largest single day rainfall for the state where such extreme flash flooding is unusual. Scientists say that climate change has intensified downpours by 19% due to the Clausius-Clapeyron Effect which predicts  that for every 1.8 degrees F of warming the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture.  As a result, there are few inland communities in the US or the world which do not need to reset their expectations for climate-related flooding. It is clear that disasters from climate change fueled extreme weather events will impact the wealthiest countries of the world, not just the poorest, just like the Coronavirus Pandemic. No one will be safe.

The month ends with Hurricane Ida striking the Louisiana coast of the US.  Like other recent gulf storms, it intensified quickly from a category level 1 to level 4 hurricane in only a day’s time. This rapid intensification was due to extremely warm gulf waters in the upper 80 degrees F at the surface as well as 150 feet deep.  In addition to flooding and deaths, electrical power was lost to over a million people in sweltering heat for several days.


Featured image is from NOAA at https://www.noaa.gov/news/its-official-july-2021-was-earths-hottest-month-on-record.

 

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