Climate and Energy News Roundup 9/30/2016

Oral arguments on the legality of the Clean Power Plan were heard on Tuesday, September 27, before the Court of Appeals of the D.C. Circuit.  When a decision will be rendered is yet unknown.  Bloomberg Government provided some information about the proceedings and Martha Roberts of the Environmental Defense Fund reflected on what she observed.  The Editorial Board of The Washington Post sided with EPAAuthor Elizabeth Kolbert reflected at The New Yorker on the plan and the potential impacts of the presidential election.

According to an analysis published Monday in Nature Climate Change, even if the U.S. implements all current and proposed policies, it would miss its 2025 emission target by as much as 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year—roughly 20% of the nation’s total emissions.  Although various think tanks have previously concluded that current policies are inadequate, this study is the first by federal scientists.  It is also one of the most comprehensive analyses of the gap between the United States’ Paris promises and real policies.  In addition, a report by seven distinguished climate scientists concludes that the chance of holding warming to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels “has almost certainly already been missed,” and that keeping below 2°C will require nations to up their pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Climate

Some good news: On Friday the environment ministers of the European Union unanimously approved the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement.  The European Parliament is expected to approve it next week, while full ratification by the EU is expected to take about a month to complete.  Since the EU contributes about 12% of global emissions, this will take the Paris Agreement past the 55% threshold required for it to go into effect.  In addition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday announced that India, which contributes 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, would ratify the Paris Climate Agreement on October 2, the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi.  Also under the Good News category is a new series of videos called Global Weirding by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.  I say this is good news because Hayhoe is an excellent communicator and is always upbeat.  This will likely be a series you will want to share with those who are skeptical about human-caused climate change.

A new paper in Nature has caused a bit of a stir in the climate science community.  The study used nearly 60 ocean sediment cores to build the most complete reconstruction to date of global sea surface temperatures stretching back 2 million years.  They show, among other things, that Earth is the warmest it has been in around 120,000 years, something that is not all that surprising.  Rather, the controversy arose over projections of what will occur in the future.  Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies was moved to write a critique for RealClimate, a climate science blog.  While not mentioning the Nature paper, Andy Skuce reviewed efforts to estimate climate sensitivity.

In a paper to be published next week in BioScience, a team of researchers from a variety of institutions reports a significant source of methane emissions that has been underestimated: manmade reservoirs.  It turns out that reservoirs worldwide emit sufficient methane from decomposition of organic matter to be equivalent to around 1% of total CO2 emissions.  They also directly emit around 0.2% of global CO2.  Naturally occurring reservoirs, on the other hand, have very low emissions.  All of this means that hydroelectric power is not entirely free of greenhouse gas emissions and that these emissions must be considered in global accountings.  It also raises a bit of concern for the large number of hydroelectric dams in the works; as many as 847 worldwide.  It is also interesting that another study, published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, has concluded that the increase in global methane levels is being driven more by natural sources than by emissions from the oil and gas industry, as has been indicated by others.

Both of the planet’s poles were in the news this week.  With respect to the Arctic, the World Meteorological Organization said that things were changing so rapidly there that researchers are struggling to keep up.  One reason this is a concern is that the Arctic is a major driver of the global climate system, which is one reason the Obama administration convened a first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial to coordinate study of what the consequences will be as the Arctic heats up.  Meanwhile, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, natural variability in the Antarctic has such a large impact and the data record is so short that, with the exception of a shift in the prevailing westerly winds, it is difficult to discern the impacts of human-induced climate change.  Some of the authors of that paper have discussed their major findings at The Conversation.  Also, writing at Audubon, Hannah Waters reports on how four Arctic birds are coping with the changes there.

Last week I provided links to two articles about the response of plants to climate change.  There was an additional article this week, in the journal Biology Letters.  The authors investigated the rates at which the climatic niche (temperature and precipitation) can change in 236 grass species (including wheat, rice, corn, and sorghum) and compared those rates with rates of projected climate change by 2070.  They found that projected climate change is consistently faster than rates of niche change, typically by more than 5000-fold for temperature-related variables.  The authors stated that their results “have troubling implications for a major biome and for human food resources.”

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Austria’s Vienna University of Technology analyzed records from 345 stream gauges covering 70% of the conterminous United States from 1940 to 2013, with the first 30 years serving as the base period.  They documented flood frequency, peak magnitude, duration, and volume.  They found that flooding patterns have shown some regional changes, but no countrywide shift, despite heavier rains caused by global warming.  On the other hand, a new study in the journal Atmospheres has concluded that the recent weather trend of warm winters in the western U.S. and cold winters in the eastern U.S. (called the “North American winter temperature dipole”) can be attributed to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Energy

Efforts to limit CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels have typically focused on decreasing demand for them.  However, as it becomes necessary to stop burning fossil fuels entirely, restrictions on their supply may be required.  Exactly how this would be achieved in free, democratic, and capitalistic societies is far from clear.  Consequently, the Stockholm Environment Institute convened a conference in Oxford, England, to begin discussions on this issue.  Sophie Yeo of Carbon Brief attended and has compiled comments from a number of attendees.

According to a new study from Amazon Watch, U.S. imports of crude oil from the Amazon are driving the destruction of some of the rainforest’s most pristine areas and releasing copious amounts of greenhouse gases.

A new study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, has found that when operating costs are considered, hybrid and electric cars are the least expensive to operate, and also have the smallest CO2 emissions.  The study team has produced an app that lets buyers check out cars’ records while shopping.  Also on the subject of electric cars, Renault has announced that they have upped the range of the Zoe to over 200 miles, all for a price (in Europe) starting at $26,500.  If you are a fan of auto racing and feel conflicted because of the reliance on internal combustion engines, then you’ll be glad to learn of Formula-E, which will come to New York City in July 2017.

A Department of Energy study has concluded that the cost of five clean energy technologies — from wind and solar power to LED lighting — has declined between 40% and 94%, depending on the technology, since 2008.  Joe Romm provides a couple of interesting graphs from the study.

Last week I put in information about the need to stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure because we can’t burn all known reserves without exceeding the CO2 budget for staying below 2°C.  Given that restraint, Gavin Bade asks, “why are utilities going all-in on gas?”

For years the oil and gas industry has employed floating drilling platforms in order to operate in deep water.  Because there are many advantages associated with locating wind turbines further off-shore, several organizations are exploring the use of floating wind turbines.  Diane Cardwell of The New York Times has reported on the efforts underway at the University of Maine in Orono.  Wind energy is an important component of Massachusetts’ plans for future clean energy development.  As Daniel Cusick has stated at E&E News “In an unprecedented string of policy developments this summer, Massachusetts has embraced core elements of what experts describe as a transformational blueprint for how carbon-free electricity flows from power producers and utilities to consumers.”

A few weeks ago I linked to an article about a hydrogen fuel cell powered electric truck.  This week there was an article about a hydrogen fuel cell powered electric train that is being put into service in Germany.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.

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