Climate and Energy News Roundup 5/1/2020

Politics and Policy

The Trump administration has expanded the Main Street Lending Program to help oil and gas companies struggling from a collapse in prices brought on by Covid-19 and overproduction.  On the other hand, the administration is sitting on about $43 billion in low-interest loans for clean energy projects.  U.S. fossil fuel companies have taken at least $50 million in taxpayer money they probably won’t have to pay back, according to a review by the investigative research group “Documented” and The Guardian.  At Nature, Jeff Tollefson presented five ways the Trump administration is undermining environmental protections under the cover of the coronavirus.  According to The New York Times, President Trump’s COVID-19 response has extended the administration’s longstanding practice of undermining scientific expertise for political purposes.

A probe conducted by the House Oversight and Reform Committee found that in 99.4% of more than a thousand cases over the past 20 years, FERC gave natural gas pipeline companies eminent domain.  The Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University announced that former FERC Commissioner and Chairman Cheryl LaFleur will join the Center as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow.  More than 70 Democratic lawmakers from both chambers joined a suit challenging the Trump administration for rolling back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

Rocky Mountain Institute CEO Jules Kortenhorst argued that the coronavirus pandemic is giving us a preview of the kind of disruptions that climate change will bring to the energy transition.  Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said while the company will not totally protect its low-carbon division from spending cuts to weather the coronavirus crisis, those businesses would be shielded from the worst of the reductions.  Germany has shown how renewable energy can replace fossil fuels in a way that draws wide public buy-in.  The steps it took on this journey, and the missteps it made along the way, provide critical lessons for other countries seeking to transform their energy sectors.  At the 30-nation Petersberg Climate Dialogue on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged governments not to reduce their international contributions to help vulnerable countries tackle climate change.  The Dutch government has announced measures including huge cuts to coal use, garden greening, and limits on livestock herds as part of its plan to lower emissions to comply with a supreme court ruling.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden is honing his campaign message on the environment in the age of the coronavirus.  He also has started his own podcast, called Here’s the Deal.  Larry Summers is purportedly serving as an advisor to Biden’s campaign.  According to Kate Aronoff at The New Republic, this should give cause for concern among those in favor of a strong clean energy policy.  The American Conservation Coalition, a conservative environmental group, has released its answer to the Green New Deal with a plan called the American Climate Contract.  The U.S. could save more than $1 trillion over the long term by removing roughly 1 million homes from flood-prone areas and relocating residents to higher ground.  So why do people live in disaster-prone areas?  According to one Louisiana resident, “That’s home.  That’s where it’s natural to be.”  In Australia, the chief executive of the Consumer Action Law Center said there was a risk home insurance could become unaffordable in the wake of last bushfire season, leaving many uninsured or under-insured.

Climate and Climate Science

Last week I linked to an article about NOAA determining that there was a 75% chance that 2020 will set the record for the warmest year.  This week Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gave 2020 a 60% chance, while the UK’s Met Office estimated a 50% likelihood.

NASA’s new ICESat-2 satellite, launched in 2018, is providing much better data for determining the extent of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica, which will lead to better estimates of sea level rise.  However, they contributed less than half of the melting that occurred globally from 2003 to 2019.  A study, published in the journal Geology, revealed that melting of mountain glaciers can result in the unanticipated instantaneous release of huge quantities of ice and meltwater, with catastrophic effects.

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that over the past 30 years, as atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased, the biomass of native prairie grasses doubled, but their nutrient content declined, with possible negative impacts on plant-consuming insects.  Minnesota is one of the fastest warming states in the U.S., with many counties having warmed more than 2°C since the late 19th century.  Brady Dennis and colleagues from The Washington Post examined the changes that have occurred and what they portend for the future.

Carbon cycle feedbacks, such as the uptake and release of CO2 by forests, are very important in determining the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  In the past, such feedbacks resulted in a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, but recent research indicates that many ecosystems are shifting to being net producers of CO2, with dire ramifications for the climate.  On the subject of forests, a study recently published in Science found that forests are in big trouble if global warming continues at the present pace because most trees alive today will be unable to survive in the future climate.  In addition, there is growing awareness that large-scale tropical deforestation, as in the Amazon, not only brings disastrous consequences for the climate, but releases new diseases like COVID-19 by enabling infections to pass from wild animals to human beings.  This conclusion was also reached by experts associated with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

As human pressure and the impacts of climate change increase, most of the tropical reef sites around the world will be unable to simultaneously sustain coral reef ecosystems and the livelihoods of the people who depend on them, according to a new study published in the journal Science.  A report, published last week in Nature Communications, found that as the world warms, farmed fish are at increasing risk of disease, prompting fish farmers to use increasing amounts of antimicrobial drugs, raising the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria impacting human health.


According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s CO2 emissions are expected to fall by 8% this year as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down much of the global economy, a drop that is six times greater than that during the 2008 financial crisis.  Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, predicted that “the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before,” thereby raising important questions.  Looking to a more environmentally-friendly future after the coronavirus, Portugal is preparing to build a solar-powered hydrogen plant near the port of Sines.

Duke Energy said Tuesday that it plans to achieve the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by phasing out its use of coal while increasing its use of renewable energy.  Britain went without coal-fired power generation for its longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution, breaking the existing record of 18 consecutive days and still climbing at 20 days and 21 hours when the article was written.

Solar and onshore wind power are the cheapest new sources of electricity for at least two-thirds of the world’s population, according to a new report produced by BloombergNEF.  Abu Dhabi has set a global record-low solar price with a winning bid in a 2 GW tender of 1.35 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour.  A study by the Australian Energy Market Operator, published Thursday, revealed that the country already has the technical capacity to safely run a power grid in which 75% of the electricity comes from wind and solar.  Energy Storage News deputy editor Molly Lempriere looked at some of the microgrids around the world that are transforming the way neighborhoods produce and consume electricity.

Denmark’s Ørsted, the world’s top offshore wind developer, has said that its U.S. offshore wind projects totaling nearly 3 GW may face delays due to the coronavirus crisis and slowed permitting.  The New York Public Service Commission has approved plans for an offshore wind solicitation of at least 1 GW, and possibly 2.5 GW, but the state agency in charge of the solicitation says it won’t press ahead with it this summer.  On the other hand, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project remains on schedule.

The Environmental Defense Fund surveyed more than 300 sites in the Permian Basin and found that roughly 1 in 10 methane flares was unlit or malfunctioning, allowing the strong greenhouse gas to escape directly to the atmosphere.  Conspicuously absent from the broader European Green Deal agenda are provisions to tackle the leakage of methane, a potent climate pollutant with rising emissions.


An unforeseen pairing of catastrophes, climate change and COVID-19, will inform how Generation Z navigates the world as adults, and what sort of future they create.  Over the past few years, Kim Cobb, a Georgia Tech professor of paleoclimate, has shifted her focus from climate science to solutions and adaptation.  At Yale Climate Connections, Sara Peach addressed the question of what individuals can realistically do about climate change.  Dan Gearino has debunked Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans,” which has provoked a furious reaction from scientists and climate activists.  Allegheny College in northwestern Pennsylvania and Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania are now carbon-neutral — joining only a handful of other schools with the same achievement nationwide.  Got a little time on your hands?  Listen to “Survivor Generations 2165: An Original Radio Drama by the Climate Stew Players.”  Greta Thunberg donated $100,000 in prize money she received from the Danish foundation Human Act to UNICEF to help it fight coronavirus, the UN children’s fund said on Thursday.

Closing Thought

A survey from George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that Millennial or younger adults (aged 18-38) were more likely than Gen. X (aged 39-54) or Baby Boomer and older (aged 55+) adults to support and/or identify with climate activists who urge elected officials to take action to reduce global warming, among other things.

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.