Politics and Policy
President Joe Biden’s next legislative package is expected to center on major infrastructure investments, while also tackling things such as clean energy. The Economist said “what is about to unfold in Washington will set the course in America for the next decade – and quite possibly beyond.” Biden has set the stage for a flourishing US offshore wind industry by ordering the federal government to find ways to speed up environmental and other reviews. Since the EPA will not reactivate the Obama Clean Power Plan, what are the Biden administration’s options? The administration said it would scrap a Trump-era proposal to weaken environmental protections for millions of acres of California desert. It also rescinded draft guidance from the Trump administration that would limit the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in infrastructure decisions. Biden announced the formation of a climate innovation working group “to advance his commitment to launching an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate.” The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on electric grid reliability and resilience after millions were left without power in Texas and elsewhere amid a winter storm.
Line 3, another tar-sands pipeline from Canada to the US, is being built as a replacement for an existing pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy. How the Biden administration deals with it will be an early test of its environmental justice policies. Putting a price on carbon emissions is a policy that has received support outside of government by advocates on both sides of the aisle, but if and when it will be brought forward as legislation are very much in question. In an opinion piece and a new report, Nicholas Stern and Joseph E. Stiglitz argued that “The Biden administration must put a high enough price on carbon pollution to encourage the scale and urgency of action needed to meet the commitments it has made to Americans and the rest of the world.” Yahoo!news provided some background. At the Niskanen Center, Joseph Majkut et al. wrote about “A Carbon Tax in the Context of Budget Reconciliation.”
All companies in which BlackRock invests will be expected to disclose direct emissions from operations and from energy they buy, while fossil fuel extractors should base targets for emissions cuts on the carbon released when their products are burned. IBM is pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of the decade. Climate activist and author Bill McKibben presented arguments against starting experimentation on solar geoengineering. A recent study explored the health opportunities of ambitious climate policies and found that the co-benefits of reducing air pollution, improving diets, and encouraging more active lifestyles would save millions of lives across the world every year. Environmental and community groups have come together on an action plan for the Biden administration on plastics, which are seen as the nexus of climate change, fracking, air and water pollution, toxic landfills, and the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color.
The US has officially returned to the Paris Climate Agreement, raising expectations for a new national commitment setting an emissions target for 2030. A group of states, cities, and companies launched a new coalition to push the Biden administration toward a more aggressive cut to greenhouse gas emissions. During a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers and central bankers, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed strong support for G7 efforts to tackle climate change, stating that her colleagues should expect the Treasury Department’s engagement on this issue to change dramatically relative to the last four years. The outgoing head of the OECD said in an interview that the environment, climate change, and the protection of nature must be the defining tasks of rich and major developing countries now and in the years to come. In a break with precedent, the UN issued a report Thursday that is prescriptive, using the word “must” 56 times and “should” 37 times to tell world leaders what is needed to solve the interconnected problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Climate and Climate Science
The extreme cold weather in Texas and the central US was covered extensively in the press this week. The main cause was the wavy jet stream, which allowed cold Arctic air to penetrate deeply into the mid-latitudes. Although still an area of active study, many climate scientists think such waviness is due to the warming Arctic resulting from climate change. (In January 2019 Carbon Brief had a Q&A on this topic.) At the New York Times, climate reporter John Schwartz answered questions about this week’s weather.
US greenhouse gas emissions fell by 9.2% last year amid the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, a related drop in tiny aerosol particles from industrial sources boosted regional temperatures. Greenhouse gas emissions from material production, such as steel and cement, more than doubled from 1995 to 2015. Some supermarkets have been found to be leaking climate-damaging HFC refrigerants at an even higher rate than regulators have assumed.
Scientists say that improving water quality by reducing sediments, fertilizers, and chemicals running into the Great Barrier Reef’s waters will give it a greater chance of recovering from future bleaching events. Climate change is shaping the lives of children of color before they take their first breath, and once born, there is a good chance they will live in a neighborhood that is more polluted and will get hotter than nearby, whiter neighborhoods.
The salient issues concerning drilling in Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are what happens to caribou summer movements throughout the area and to the near-surface soil carbon that risks becoming released to the atmosphere as CO2 and methane due to terrestrial permafrost thawing. On a related subject, the amount of carbon locked in Arctic submarine permafrost is more than humans have released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, yet little is known about such permafrost and how it will react as oceans warm, sea levels rise, and meltwater alters Arctic Ocean circulation patterns.
As a result of the winter storm, the Texas power grid failed, leaving millions of people in the dark and cold. (For an explanation of the Texas power grid, go here. For insights from a historian of energy, technology, and the environment, read this.) In fact, the grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months. While fossil fuel proponents were quick to blame the large amount of renewable energy in Texas for the failure, in reality fossil fuel generation was largely to blame. In the future, such wild and unpredictable weather linked to global warming will very likely push grids beyond their limits. Using the Texas grid failure as a spring board, Bob Henson addressed the broader problems of the US power grid, closing with a quote from Urooj Raja of the University of Colorado, Boulder: “No infrastructural relic may be as vulnerable as the US electric grid.”
Amid a historic economic contraction, renewable resources grew to account for one-fifth of all electricity produced in the US in 2020. This was achieved because solar power and wind power accounted for 77.1% of new utility-scale power capacity in the US in 2020. Hawaiian Electric achieved 34.5% renewable energy production in 2020. The US Department of Energy announced last week that it will invest $100 million into transformative clean energy research and development, with more to come.
While the production of cement, steel, paper, aluminum, chemicals, and other heavy-duty industrial materials is responsible for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest firms in these sectors remain underprepared for the net zero transition, having largely failed to roll out credible corporate climate strategies.
Most of the world’s planned hydrogen projects and related investments this decade are expected to be in Europe, as the EU races to scale up the low-carbon fuel to meet its climate goals. Model homes in which boilers, stoves, and ovens are fueled exclusively by hydrogen are due to be opened by April in the UK, providing the public with “a glimpse into the potential home of the future.” As hydrogen gains more emphasis, ammonia is seen by some as the safest and easiest way to capture and transport the energy in hydrogen.
Ford Motor Co. said that its European division would soon begin to phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels so that by 2026 it will offer only electric and plug-in hybrid models, and by 2030 all passenger cars will run solely on batteries. Jaguar Land Rover said its luxury brand Jaguar will be fully electric by 2025 and it will release its first all-electric Land Rover in 2024 with five other electric vehicles (EVs) expected by 2025. GM unveiled a Chevrolet Bolt Electric Utility Vehicle on Sunday. You can learn more about it here. At the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo had a very thought-provoking column about the one big problem with EVs.
Demand for batteries for EVs already outstrips supply, causing a global rush to develop the technology and build the factories needed to power millions of electric cars, prompting Jakub Reiter, head of science at InoBat, to say “Twenty years ago, nobody cared much about batteries,” but now, there is intense competition, and “it’s a big fight.”
“Meltdown”, an intimate exploration of art and science, beauty and tragedy, the personal and the global, set amidst the massive and spectacularly beautiful icebergs breaking off of Greenland at an accelerating rate, is available for streaming on several platforms. Bill McKibben reviewed Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, as did former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who tied it to the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow. Emma Brocks had a far-ranging interview with Gates at The Guardian while Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic focused on “the Gates rule.” Smithsonian Magazine had a feature article about polar bears and the scientists who track them to better understand how the environment is shaping their chances of survival. Grist writer Adrienne Day decided to try out some of the alt seafood available today for its taste and texture appeal. Walmart, Costco, and Kroger are selling Brazilian beef products imported from JBS, the world’s largest meat company, which has been linked to Amazonian deforestation.
Nonprofit American Forests is partnering with Tazo Tea to form the “Tazo Tree Corps,” which will train and hire people to plant and care for trees in targeted neighborhoods in Detroit, Minneapolis, the Bronx, the Bay Area, and Richmond, VA.
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.