Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/7/2020

Politics and Policy

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Trump never mentioned climate change, whereas in the Iowa caucus the topic seemed to be foremost in voters’ minds.  The Interior Department finalized plans on Thursday to permit drilling, mining, and grazing in areas of southern Utah that had once been protected as parts of Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.  According to Democrats on the House Science Committee, the Trump administration is withholding nearly a billion dollars appropriated for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which it has unsuccessfully tried to cut.

A key provision in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is that every five years all countries will set stricter goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  Although February 9 is the deadline for submitting new goals ahead of this fall’s COP26 meeting, only two countries have done so.  The remaining carbon budget to limit warming to 1.5°C is extremely small, equivalent to around eight years of current emissions.  Consequently, according to Carbon Brief, overall CO2 emissions must fall to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030, to stay below 1.5°C, which will require emissions from coal-fired power plants to drop by around 80%.  A strongly worded open letter signed by almost 300 climate experts was sent to Australian prime minister Scott Morrison urging him to take action against climate change.

Like most environmental economists, Gernot Wagner is in favor of carbon taxes as a way to lower the use of fossil fuels.  However, he argues that carbon taxes alone are insufficient; they need to be coupled with appropriate policies, such as subsidizing alternative energy.  A report by Future Earth has found that five emergencies facing humans – climate change, extreme weather, species loss, water scarcity, and food production – are all interlinked, whereas governments are trying to solve them individually.  To be successful, they must be addressed in concert.  At Vox, David Roberts had an interesting and thought-provoking essay about the role of climate scientists in the policy debate for addressing those issues.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants federally owned utilities to build massive amounts of wind and solar to compete with private generators, but critics say that would complicate an already tricky transition to clean energy.  Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Andy Levin (D-MI) on Thursday outlined a bill that seeks to establish a nationwide electric vehicle charging network within five years.  Virginia Democratic lawmakers on Thursday night unveiled the details of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 75-page plan to get Virginia to zero carbon by 2050. 

Climate and Climate Science

A recent paper in the journal Nature Climate Change added another factor to be considered when trying to explain Arctic amplification – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  Even though they were phased out in 1989, some still persist in the atmosphere where they act as strong greenhouse gases.  Modeling studies suggest that they may be responsible for a large part of the rapid warming in the Arctic.  South American glaciers are rapidly melting, which poses a severe threat to those dependent on them for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric power.  Another study has documented the flow of warm ocean water beneath the ice tongue of a large glacier, accelerating its melting.

According to a new report from Climate Central, snowfall totals are dwindling during the shoulder seasons across much of the South, the Plains and the interior Mid-Atlantic regions.  A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change has found that biodiversity hotspots, which have given species a safe haven from changing climates in the past, will come under threat from continued climate change.  Bumblebee populations in North America and Europe have plummeted as a result of extreme temperatures, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.  A citizens’ science project in the UK has found that all but one of the 50 spring events tracked last year were early, amid warmer winter temperatures.

A new study in Science Advances found that ocean circulation, driven by increased wind speed, has increased since the 1990s.  Such an increase was anticipated, but was not expected to happen to this degree until the end of the century.  Numerous impacts are associated with the change.  The rate of sea-level rise along a large part of the U.S. coastline is continuing to accelerate, according to a new report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.  Warming waters and loss of sea ice north of Japan are having adverse effects on seals, phytoplankton, fish, and other sea life.

Europe just concluded its warmest January on record, edging out previous record holder January 2007 by 0.36°F.  It was also Earth’s warmest January on record, essentially tying with January 2016.  Antarctica logged its hottest temperature on record, with an Argentinian research station thermometer reading 18.3°C (64.9°F), beating the previous record by 0.8°C (1.4°F).  Hurricane Petra swept across Switzerland on Monday night and Tuesday morning, with winds around 100 mph, the highest recorded since records were started in 1981.

A study published in Nature Geoscience has concluded that climate models considering only gradual permafrost thaw, and not also abrupt thaw, are substantially underestimating carbon emissions from thawing permafrost.  At Wired, Matt Simon described the landscapes susceptible to abrupt thaw.  I recently put in a link about the current generation of climate models giving higher values of climate sensitivity.  Fred Pearce has a good (but long) analysis of why that is happening.


Greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union’s electricity sector fell 12% last year, the sharpest drop since at least 1990, due to reduced coal-fired generation.  In contrast, Japan plans to build as many as 22 new coal-fired power plants at 17 different sites in the next five years.  Last week I put in links to a commentary in Nature by Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters about the RCP8.5 scenario for possible future emissions and Michael Mann’s reaction.  On Saturday, Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News gave some of the background about this issue.

A Canadian startup is about to begin testing an idea that could provide an abundant source of carbon-free hydrogen from underground oil fields, providing the clean energy source at lower prices than available today.  At Yale Climate Connections, Will McCarthy addressed the pros and cons of enhanced geothermal energy systems.

Zeke Hausfather at Carbon Brief updated a fact-check article he wrote on May 13, 2019 about lifecycle carbon emissions from electric vehicles.  One conclusion is that emissions from a Nissan Leaf EV in the UK in 2019 were about one-third of the average conventional car.  On Tuesday, startup Rivian provided an update on the all-electric delivery van that it is building for Amazon, with delivery to begin in 2021.  A new lithium battery recycling facility is operable at the Eastman Business Park in Rochester, NY.

Because of the UK’s progress in adding renewable energy to its electrical grid they have moved their target date for closing all coal-fired power plants from 2025 to 2024.  Furthermore, they are moving the ban on selling new gasoline, diesel, or hybrid cars in the UK from 2040 to 2035 at the latest.  Consumers will only be able to buy electric or hydrogen cars, once the ban comes into effect.

The movement to all-electric buildings is moving much faster than anyone anticipated, although there has been some pushback.  Solar system prices dropped 90% over the last nine years, but the decline was tempered by American trade tariffs, leaving U.S. prices 45% above those in Europe and Australia, according to new research from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. 


In The Guardian, Bill McKibben called out Canada’s government over their plans to expand tar sands mining.  Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman sat down with billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham, who is devoting almost his entire fortune to the fight against climate change, to discuss how the climate race is rapidly altering the world’s economic and investing future.  Harvard University faculty voted 179 to 20 to call on the school’s endowment managers to divest from fossil fuel companies, while Georgetown University’s president announced that the school will make no new investments in fossil fuels and will start withdrawing funds already invested in them.  Extinction Rebellion and Amazon Watch are making 12 short films to draw attention to the catastrophic damage being caused by human-induced global warming.  National Geographic presented the beautiful, but disturbing, photographs of methane gas bubbles from under Alaskan ice by a Japanese-born photographer living in Fairbanks.  At Yale Climate Connections, Samantha Harrington addressed the issue of how climate change affects mental health.  In a must-read article for anyone with children or grandchildren, author Jason Plautz wrote “…parents are left to walk a tightrope between being honest and being comforting, between empowering their kids and weighing them down with the responsibility of saving the world.”

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.