Climate and Energy News Roundup 12/18/2020

This is the last Roundup of 2020.  The next one will cover the news during the week ending January 8, 2021 (or maybe the 15th if I decide to take another week off).

Politics and Policy

President-elect Joe Biden picked his leadership team to begin the U.S.’s transition to a low carbon economy.  He selected Gina McCarthy, who ran the EPA under President Barack Obama and now leads the Natural Resources Defense Council, to head the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.  The task facing McCarthy and her foreign affairs counterpart, John Kerry, will be immense.  He also will be nominating former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has been a strong voice for zero-emissions vehicles, as secretary of energy, and Brenda Mallory to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Pete Buttigieg will be secretary of transportation, a position important to reducing transportation’s large carbon footprint, and Michael S. Regan, head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, will be the next EPA administrator.  Biden will nominate Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) to serve as his Interior Secretary, becoming the first Native American Cabinet secretary.  Eliminating CO2 emissions by 2050 will require a massive effort, as outlined in major reports from Princeton University and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The U.S. Federal Reserve joined an international group of central banks focused on climate change risk, a signal the Fed could move to incorporate the impacts of global warming into its regulatory actions.  A bipartisan package of programs to boost funding for renewable energy, energy storage, electric vehicles, carbon capture, and other low-carbon and electric technologies is being considered for inclusion in the omnibus spending bill Congress is set to vote on by Friday.  Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) captured a prized seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, beating out fellow New Yorker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), 46-13.

Progressive organizations outlined 25 executive actions the president-elect “must take” to tackle fossil fuels.  The Center for American Progress put out a blueprint for protecting climate researchers and restoring scientific integrity in the federal government.  Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a new climate-change package that includes a renewed push for a clean fuels standard and capping some greenhouse-gas emissions.  Virginia utility regulators are about to release their final version of a program allowing Dominion Energy customers to buy solar power via subscription from a community solar facility owned by a third-party.  The Southeast’s biggest utilities have filed plans for a Southeast Energy Exchange Market, which could better integrate the region’s growing share of clean power in years to come.  Avangrid Renewables submitted a plan to BOEM for the first 800 MW phase of its Kitty Hawk offshore wind project, the first move in a plan to build 2.5 GW of wind power off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts.  An MIT study found that expanding transmission lines and implementing a national process for coordinating regional grids, could cut the cost of obtaining carbon-free power by 46% compared with a state-by-state decarbonization process.

In a speech at last weekend’s Climate Ambition Summit, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced a new set of updated national climate targets for 2030.  In a white paper on energy policy, the British government said it will establish a domestic emissions trading scheme beginning Jan. 1 to replace the current EU regime, which it is leaving.  Canadian P.M. Justin Trudeau released the government’s strategy to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030; its centerpiece is a gradual hike in the federal carbon tax on fuels to $170 a metric ton, increasing the cost of gasoline by $1.11 per gallon.  The European Commission has proposed new rules that batteries placed on the EU market should be “sustainable, high-performing and safe all along their entire life cycle.”

Climate and Climate Science

Scientists affiliated with the UK Met Office presented an updated version of the Hadley Centre global temperature data set, bringing it in line with data sets from NASA and NOAA.  At Carbon Brief, Zeke Hausfather explained the major changes.  As of the end of November, 2020 is the second-warmest year on the books, a mere 0.02°F behind 2016 at the same point, according to new data released by NOAA.

The Atlantic hurricane season may be over with, but things are still happening in the Pacific where Tonga and Fiji were bracing for potentially catastrophic damage as tropical cyclones Zazu and Yasa intensified off their respective coastlines on Wednesday.  Yasa made landfall Thursday evening.  The frequency of natural disasters in Bangladesh is making life in rural areas increasingly difficult, pushing inhabitants into city slums.

Two articles this week pointed out unexpected consequences of sea level rise.  One reported on the fragmentation of salt marshes because of the expanded burrowing of purple marsh crabs.  The other concerned rising groundwater levels in coastal areas, which can come into contact with subsurface contaminants from long ago, mobilizing them and moving them upward where humans and other life can come into contact with them.  Another discussed saltwater intrusion, which is impacting farmland along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where salt is arriving from underground.

A new report prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund by RTI International says global warming, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change will bring billions of dollars in short-term costs to North Carolina’s economy and public health in the years ahead.  A new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health measured states’ vulnerability to public health impacts from climate change and their levels of readiness for such impacts; six of the ten most vulnerable states were in the southeast.

A record-breaking wildfire season in the western U.S. cost insurers a staggering $7 billion to $13 billion in 2020, an illustration of the growing price tag on natural disasters linked to climate change.  On a global scale, natural disasters caused $76 billion in insured losses during 2020.


Global demand for coal is set to jump 2.6% next year after a record pandemic-led drop this year, as recovering economic activity will increase use for electricity and industrial output.  The new conservative provincial government of Alberta, Canada, has pulled out all stops to increase coal production for export, which could industrialize as much as 400 sq miles of forests, waterways, and grasslands.  Lloyd’s, the world’s biggest insurance market, has set a market-wide policy to stop new insurance coverage for coal, oil sands, and Arctic energy projects by January 2022, and to pull out altogether by 2030.

Ten years ago, a lithium-ion battery pack used in an electric vehicle (EV) cost around $1,110 per kW·hr.  By this year the cost had fallen 89%, to $137 per kW·hr, and by 2023, it is likely to have fallen far enough that car companies can make and sell mass-market EVs at the same cost as conventional cars.  The number of EV models is expected to more than triple in the next three years, from roughly 40 to 127 in the U.S., as battery prices fall, charging infrastructure spreads, and adoption rises.  Mercedes-Benz will begin production of six all-electric models by the end of 2022; two will be assembled at its plant in Tuscaloosa, AL.  Toyota has said that it will have a prototype with a solid-state battery ready by next year.

Utility interest in hydrogen is “beyond staggering” and may soon begin showing up in long-term integrated resource plans, according to GE Gas Power Emergent Technologies Director Jeffrey Goldmeer.  Canada unveiled its hydrogen strategy on Wednesday, calling on investors to spur growth in a clean fuel sector that could help the country achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.  Clean Technica had an article entitled “Is Hydrogen the Best Option to Replace Natural Gas in the Home? Looking at the Numbers.”  A team at the Clean Energy Group cautioned that combustion of hydrogen (rather than its use in fuel cells) can lead to significant production of nitrogen oxides, which are air pollutants.  Southern California Gas Company will test a technology that allows hydrogen to be transported with natural gas via the natural gas pipeline system, then extracted and compressed at fueling stations to provide hydrogen for fuel cell EVs.

ExxonMobil announced a new “emission reduction plan” on Monday and The Hill examined it relative to other oil and gas companies and the expectations of their critics.  A report released by non-profit thinktank Carbon Tracker found that 27 of the 30 largest listed oil and gas companies still financially reward executives for producing more fossil fuels, despite the companies’ climate goals.

Driven by technological advances, renewable energy facilities are being built with storage systems that can hold enough energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes, thereby addressing a key challenge for green energy — the intermittency of wind and solar.  Since the vanadium flow-battery firms RedT Energy (UK) and Avalon (U.S.) merged in March 2020 to form Invinity, the cost of their batteries has dropped 30% and sales have increased.


New York Times (NYT) reporter John Branch reflected on what it was like reporting on the fires in California that burned a million Joshua trees and charred countless giant sequoias and redwoods.  David Roberts, has left Vox on a full-time basis and started a blog.  If you want to follow him you can read his first entry and subscribe.  In case you haven’t yet had enough of 2020, the NYT brought together some of the best reporting from its Climate Desk and the Washington Post presented the top five climate stories of the year.  Brianna Baker of Grist presented her favorite climate podcasts.

Closing Thought

Climate scientist Tim Lenton explained the shifts in behavior and technology that could soon spur large-scale climate action, suggesting that not all tipping points are bad — and some good ones may be just on the horizon.

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.