Climate and Energy News Roundup 3/10/2017

Each week, while putting the Roundup together, I try to include as much positive news as I can, even though there always seems to be far more negative news.  Please don’t let that get you down.  On Friday evening as I was reading The Book of Joy, which is Douglas Abrams’ account of an extended conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I came across this passage, and I offer it as a kind of antidote to the negative.  The Dalai Lama said “When bad things happen they become news… Then we can feel that there is not much hope for our future… All these things happen, but they are unusual, which is why they become news.”  He then talks about good things that happen and continues “But this is so common that none of it becomes news… When we look at the news, we must keep this more holistic view… We must have a sense of proportion and a wider perspective.  Then we will not feel despair when we see these sad things.”  You are also invited to the monthly meeting of the CAAV-sponsored Apocaloptimists on the last Tuesday of each month at the Harrisonburg Mennonite Church at 7:00 pm.

On Thursday morning, speaking on CNBC, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made one of his strongest statements yet rejecting the science of human-caused climate change, a statement that is in direct opposition to information on EPA’s own website.  The Editorial Board of The Washington Post responded to Pruitt’s comments in a strong editorial and his office was deluged with phone calls.  He also questioned whether EPA has the authority to regulate CO2.  Speaking of Pruitt, last week I mentioned that he had named Ryan Jackson, a former staff member of Senator James Inhofe, as his chief of staff.  He has also named other Inhofe staff members to his staff.  Byron Brown, will serve as Jackson’s deputy.  Andrew Wheeler, is a finalist to be Pruitt’s deputy, but requires Senate confirmation.  You can go here for a list of proposed cuts to the EPA budget and to Inside Climate News for an analysis of their impacts.  Also, The Washington Post had an analysis of the impact of the proposed cuts to NOAA’s budget on coastal communities.  Since the election, activists have been archiving climate and other scientific data from government websites, but this has turned out to be a more difficult task than originally thought.  On the international scene, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that the finance ministers of the G20 nations may scale back the funding pledges of their nations made under the Paris Climate Accord.

It has been said that the public only begins to understand a problem after the arts become involved.  Well, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has been doing his part to move that along.  First it was with his Science in the Capital trilogy, which brings the impacts of climate change to Washington, DC.  Now it is New York 2140, which takes place in New York City after sea level has risen 50 ft.  It will be out March 14.

Climate

The young people’s lawsuit against the federal government about climate change was back in the news this week.  The Trump Administration filed a motion to overturn a ruling by a federal judge in November that cleared the lawsuit for trial and filed a separate motion to delay trial preparation until that appeal is considered.  Meanwhile, in South Africa the government lost its first climate change lawsuit when the country’s highest court ruled against its plans to build a coal-fired power plant.

NOAA announced on Wednesday that February was the second warmest on record in the U.S., trailing only February 1954 by 0.2°F.  The average temperature was 41.5°F, over 7°F above normal.  East of the Rocky Mountains, it was the warmest February ever recorded.  A study by World Weather Attribution found that thanks to climate change, the warm February was at least three times more likely now than it was 120 years ago.  Furthermore, around 1900, this type of persistent heat was a 1-in-160 year event, whereas today it is a 1-in-12 year event.  The New York Times has some very interesting graphics.

An important new study was published in Science Advances on Friday documenting the heat uptake by the oceans using the extensive data from the Argo float program.  The results showed that the world’s oceans have taken up around 13% more heat than had been estimated previously.  They also showed that heat uptake was not uniform, with 59% being stored in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans, even though they make up less than 50% of the ocean area.

For some time now, a favorite meme among those not concerned about climate change is that it will be beneficial to humankind by increasing agricultural productivity.  Well, a 26-year study by the Australian national science organization CSIRO has challenged that claim.  Rather, the researchers found that while wheat growers made significant productivity gains over the study, they were off-set by the negative effects of climate change, so that yields stayed constant.  On a similar note, many have claimed that higher atmospheric CO2 levels will lead to more carbon storage due to greening of the planet.  That may well be true, if all other nutrients are supplied in excess, but a new study published in Nature Climate Change has found that in phosphorus-limited soils (which are common in the tropics and subtropics) forests will store around 10% less carbon than expected.

A new paper in the journal Nature Communications reports that by 2030, if CO2 emissions continue unabated, over half of the world’s ocean will be exposed to more than one source of stress, affecting everything from plants to whales.  By 2050, that figure rises to around 86% of the ocean.  This does not bode well for the large percent of Earth’s population that depends on the oceans for its protein.

In a news release on Tuesday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks sea ice trends, warned that further losses of satellite capabilities may cause sea ice observations to be compromised until 2023.  A study in Nature Climate Change has found that a 2°C rise in global mean temperature would lead to a 39% risk that ice will disappear from the Arctic Ocean in summers, although it is almost certain to survive with just 1.5°C of warming.

Energy

This one is very intriguing, but as an environmental engineer who worked with microorganisms in a variety of municipal and industrial applications, I’d like to see a complete energy and carbon balance before I fully buy in.  Nevertheless, the idea of using bacteria, instead of cement with its high carbon footprint, to bind aggregate together into “concrete” bricks is a really interesting one.  Meanwhile, Swiss researchers have shown that ceramic materials can be made without heating by starting with nanoscale calcium carbonate powder and applying pressure.  Let’s hope they both pan out because their potential benefits are great.

In an article on Yale Climate Connections, Bruce Lieberman argues that no matter what President Trump does, the long-term outlook for employment in the coal industry looks bleak.  Market forces are just too strong in other directions.  Coal use in the UK dropped 52% in 2016 due to both market forces and a carbon tax, while CO2 emissions declined by 6%, according to a report published last Friday by Carbon Brief.

Tesla Inc. has completed a solar project on the island of Kauai in Hawaii that incorporates batteries so that the utility can sell solar power in the evening, as well as during the day.  This will displace 1.6 million gallons of diesel fuel per year that is currently used to power generators to provide power at night.  On the subject of solar, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association announced that the U.S. solar market is expected to nearly triple in size over the next five years.  In addition, worldwide, 76 GW of solar power was installed in 2016, up from 50 GW in 2015.  Globally there is now 305GW of solar power capacity.

The costs of off-shore wind continue to drop in Europe, making it much more competitive in the energy market place.  According to Bloomberg, the price of building an offshore wind farm has fallen 46% in the last five years, and 22% last year alone.  That, plus the entry of Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil ASA, and other oil and gas giants, with their experience building structures at sea, into the business suggests that even the U.S. will see expanded off-shore wind development.

Alaskan villages are employing on-shore wind turbines connected to microgrids to supply their electricity at lower costs than the diesel generators they used to use.  The lessons learned could be helpful to remote villages everywhere.  Also, surprisingly, Georgetown, TX, in the heart of oil and gas country, is one of the first U.S. cities to be powered entirely by renewable energy.

All but 10% of Royal Dutch Shell’s oil-sands interests will be sold to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.  Shell will continue to operate the Scotford upgrader, which converts heavy oil to lighter liquids for easier transport, and the Quest carbon capture and storage project.  Shell also announced that progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from its refineries and chemical plants will determine 10% of executives’ bonuses.  Meanwhile, Shell’s CEO has said that the oil and gas industry risks losing public support if progress is not made in the transition to cleaner energy.

In earlier Weekly Roundups I had linked to articles about auto executives asking the Trump Administration to roll back the 2025 fuel efficiency standards.  Now, 12 Senate Democrats have said that it is “critical” that the rules be left in place.  In addition, Jody Freeman, a professor at Harvard Law School and counselor to Former President Obama on energy and climate change in 2009-10, has provided background about the standards and laid out arguments for their retention.

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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