Climate and Energy News Roundup 3/1/2019

Politics and Policy

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee announced his candidacy for U.S. President, with climate change as his first priority.  Switzerland wants the world to talk about if and how to use geoengineering to slow climate change – and will ask the UN’s environment arm to take the lead.  Costa Rica’s president has launched an economy-wide plan to decarbonize the country by 2050, saying he wants to show other nations what is possible to address climate change.  Writing about putting a price on carbon emissions, Frank Ackerman said: “…under either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, the price level matters more than the mechanism used to reach that price. …[U]nder either approach, a reasonably high price is necessary but not sufficient for climate policy; other measures are needed to complement price incentives.”  In an opinion piece to accompany “Concrete Week” at The Guardian, John Vidal lays out the case for imposing a carbon tax on cement.

In her New Yorker essay about climate-related business failures, Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote “If the coming climate-related business crises will have one positive side effect, it’s that acute financial losses are likely to force policy changes in a way that environmental damage on its own has not.”  A report by the UK-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that 100 global financial institutions have introduced policies restricting coal funding.  The German think tank Adelphi analyzed the manifestos, public statements, and voting behavior of 21 right-wing populist parties represented in the European Parliament, and found that only three of them accept the scientific consensus that humans are creating significant climate change.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) submitted the names of Republican members of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), who is the chair of the panel.  The Senate on Thursday approved former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA by a vote of 52 to 47.  One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Wheeler’s confirmation.  Tim Gallaudet, the acting administrator of NOAA, was suddenly replaced on Monday by the No. 3 official at the agency, former weather industry scientist Neil A. Jacobs.  Pennsylvania state legislators are debating whether to subsidize existing nuclear power plants to keep them operating.

The editorial board of The Washington Post proposed their alternative to the Green New Deal (GND).  Responding to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “cynical Green New Deal vote,” Democrats are looking “to get Republicans on record on climate change,” by introducing their own climate resolution.  More than 100 youth climate protesters, part of The Sunrise Movement, entered McConnell’s office Monday to advocate for the GND.  Ultimately, 42 people, all over 18, were arrested.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also had an encounter with young people, which was kind of tense.  This caused Bill McKibben to write “… youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.”  Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic had a different take on it.  Perhaps the GND critics should consider why David Roberts at Vox thinks so many of them “…have missed the mark.”  Last week I included an article about a plan to reassess whether climate change poses a national security threat.  Well, the plan has morphed into an ad-hoc group that will conduct an adversarial review of climate science out of the public eye.  These new efforts to question or undermine the established science of climate change have created a widening rift between the White House and some leading figures in the president’s own party.  As Amy Harder at Axios said, “some congressional Republicans are beginning to publicly acknowledge it, and a few are even considering policies addressing it.”

Potpourri

The New York Times has an informative article entitled “Teach About Climate Change with These 24 New York Times Graphs.”  Be sure to pass it on to anyone you know who is a teacher.  There are two new books out about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and its aftermath.  Sonja Schmid reviewed them for Nature.  Michael Svoboda compiled a list of books dealing with environmental justice for Yale Climate Connections.  Amy Brady interviewed photographer Virginia Hanusik about her project “A Receding Coast.”  In another dispatch from Antarctica, Jeff Goodell talked with expedition chief scientist Rob Larter about Thwaites Glacier.

Climate

A paper published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change celebrated the 40th anniversary of three key events in climate change science.  One finding of the paper was that climate scientists are now 99.9999% certain that current climate change is being caused by human emissions of CO2.  (That is the level of certainty associated with the “five-sigma” threshold mentioned in the article.)  Something much less certain about CO2 buildup in the atmosphere is what it will do to clouds.  A new paper in the journal Nature Geoscience used simulation to examine the impacts of very high CO2 concentrations on the formation and stability of stratocumulus clouds, the kind that hover low in the sky and create vast decks of cloud cover, cooling Earth.  The authors found that when the CO2 level reached 1300 ppm, those clouds disappear, causing temperatures to increase rapidly.

An iceberg roughly twice the size of New York City is set to break away from the Brunt ice shelf in Antarctica as a result of a rapidly spreading rift.

According to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it took just two to eight years for Americans in a given location to stop recognizing that extreme temperatures were, in fact, extreme.  Temperatures in the UK and Europe were unseasonably warm this week, setting many wintertime high temperature records.  And in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia posted its hottest summer ever and the first season in which temperatures exceeded 2°C above the long-term average.

A new analysis, published Wednesday by First Street Foundation, estimates that property value losses from coastal flooding in 17 Atlantic and Gulf Coast states were nearly $16 billion from 2005 to 2017.  Florida, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina each saw more than $1 billion in losses.

Marine fish around the world are already feeling the effects of climate change.  Rising sea temperatures have reduced the productivity of some fisheries by 15% to 35% over 8 decades, although in other places fish are thriving because warming waters are becoming more suitable.  Also, in the past decade ocean oxygen levels have taken a dive—an alarming trend that is linked to climate change.  Writing in Scientific American, Laura Poppick reviewed the causes and consequences of such changes.

Energy

The cover article in this week’s issue of Chemical and Engineering News is about carbon capture and the various technologies available.  Although it must undergo a lot of development before it can be applied, an article in the journal Nature Communications described a new process that can convert CO2 into solid particles of carbon, which would be much easier to store than liquid CO2.

New research, published Monday in the journal Nature Energy, found that hydrogen produced using renewable energy is already cost competitive in niche applications and is likely to be competitive in industrial-scale applications within a decade.  (The linked article is from the UK.  If, like me, you don’t know what a “hob” is in this context, it is a cooktop.)  Meanwhile, Australia’s government is setting up a coalition to explore a hydrogen economy.

An analysis of newly released official energy data from China by Unearthed revealed several interesting items.  Among them, China’s CO2 emissions grew by approximately 3% last year, the largest rise since at least 2013.  On the other hand, power generation from non-fossil sources grew by 29%, with wind power generation increasing 20% and solar PV 50%.  Wind and solar generated 8% of China’s power needs, up from 3% five years ago.  Efforts to cut emissions of CO2 and tackle climate change in developed economies are beginning to pay off according to research led by the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in the UK and published Monday in Nature Climate Change.  New government figures from Australia revealed that its greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, reaching their highest on a quarterly level since mid-2011, as soaring pollution from the liquefied natural gas export sector overwhelmed ongoing decreases from power plants.

Flow batteries are typically used in large installations, such as for storing energy at solar or wind farms.  Now, researchers are working to decrease their size so that they can be employed in electric vehicles, thereby reducing the time it takes to recharge the vehicles.  A new “conventional” battery using a zinc-bromine combination has been unveiled at Sydney University in Australia.  The appeal of zinc-bromine includes the materials’ relative abundance, particularly compared with lithium, and the nonflammability of the electrolyte gel.  Battery prices have fallen so low that the technology is now the least expensive way to provide customers in the Southwest with electricity, according to Arizona Public Service Co. (APS).  To take advantage of this shift, APS will add large, building-size batteries to the power grid across Arizona.

On February 1, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced it was making available $28 million in funding for research projects to develop new technologies for floating offshore wind turbines.  Wind turbines are typically designed to shut down at temperatures below −20°F, so when temperatures plunged during the January polar vortex, turbines in the Upper Midwest shut down, renewing the debate about the role of onshore wind in meeting baseload power needs.  As more renewable energy is installed in the best places for wind and solar, the challenge will be to get the electricity to the places that need it, particularly when states and localities display a NIMBY mentality.  E&E News asks if this will be the next GND battlefront.

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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