Politics and Policy
During his first moments in the Oval Office on Wednesday, President Joe Biden returned the US to the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) and ordered federal agencies to review scores of climate and environmental policies enacted during the Trump years and, if possible, quickly reverse them. (An article without a paywall is here.) He also revoked the construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, prompting indigenous leaders to call for him to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline. The new administration also reestablished an interagency working group and ordered it to update the social cost of carbon within 30 days. Inside Climate News presented a compilation of the major actions on Day One, but legal experts warned that it could take two to three years to put many of the old rules back in place. In addition, Biden is expected to announce a second round of executive orders focused on combating climate change next Wednesday and to convene an international climate summit in April to help accelerate emissions cuts. The Washington Post has started tracking the Biden administration’s unwinding of Trump’s climate change “legacy.” For example, Biden elevated Richard Glick, a Democrat, to chair of FERC.
On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, paving the way for the enactment of new and stronger restrictions on power plants. In a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen said she planned to start a new Treasury “hub” that would examine financial system risks arising from climate change. The new administration will likely use the Congressional Review Act to reverse some of the Trump administrations rules, but they must jump through several hoops to do so. President Biden wants to use an infrastructure bill to simultaneously boost the economy and act on climate, but there will be obstacles to such an effort. The Interior Department took swift action to block oil and gas drilling on public lands, freezing such leases for the next 60 days.
By interviewing more than 20 officials and advocates around the globe, Politico sought to determine what the world wants from John Kerry on climate. Meanwhile, Kerry vowed during an appearance at an Italian climate conference that the Biden administration would make up for the past four years of climate inaction. Environmental advocates want the Biden administration to use US trade agreements to fight climate change by conditioning future agreements on partners’ ability to meet their targets under the PCA. Coal mining will continue to generate wealth for Australians for decades to come, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared in a statement fending off calls to phase out fossil fuels and toughen action on climate change. However, pressure from the US and Australian states could cause him to change his tune. China’s coal output rose last year to its highest since 2015, despite Beijing’s climate change pledge to reduce coal’s consumption. The president of the European Investment Bank announced that the bank intends to end all funding for fossil fuels before the end of the year. Along with promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under the PCA world leaders also agreed to prepare for the unavoidable and mounting impacts of climate change, but adaptation efforts are lagging.
On its final full day in office, among other things, the Trump administration finalized lease sales to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The US Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday on whether a lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore against oil and gas companies belongs in state courts, where the plaintiffs want it, or the federal courts, where the oil companies want it. Amy Coney Barrett was among the justices who heard the arguments, despite her father’s longstanding ties to Shell Oil Company, one of the defendants in the case. In a change of position, the US Chamber of Commerce said Congress should pass laws pushing companies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, declaring “We believe that durable climate policy must be made by Congress.” They also endorsed a market-based approach. The clean energy sector in the US lost 429,000 jobs last year due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and 70% have yet to be recovered.
Climate and Climate Science
A paper in Communications Earth and Environment presented an integrated approach to accounting for uncertainties in estimating the remaining carbon budget associated with a given temperature rise. For a 1.5°C rise above preindustrial temperatures they estimated the remaining budget to be 230 Gt CO2 for a 66% chance of staying below a 1.5°C rise and 440 Gt CO2 for a 33% chance. An attribution study published in Nature Climate Change found that greenhouse gas emissions released by humans accounted for the vast majority of global temperature rise observed from pre-industrial times to today, while natural factors had a “negligible” effect. Methane leaking out of the more than 4 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the US and Canada is a far greater contributor to climate change than government estimates suggest, according to a new paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The World Economic Forum published a surprisingly frank essay by Peter Giger, Group Chief Risk Officer of the Zurich Insurance Group, in which he said humans were playing a game of Jenga with Earth’s climate system. Because of the importance of modeling in charting a course through the climate crisis, a team of climatologists, oceanographers, and computer scientists on the East and West US coasts has launched a bold effort to develop a new generation of climate models. For those who like to keep up with how well current models are doing in projecting Earth’s temperature in response to increased greenhouse gas concentrations, RealClimate has updated its model-observation comparison page with an additional annual observational point for 2020.
Heat-related illnesses are soaring in Arizona and Florida as the planet warms and poor communities are bearing the brunt of the impact. A paper in Nature Climate Change found that climate change will dramatically shift the globe’s tropical rain belt, threatening the food security of billions of people.
Research, published in Nature, found that lake heatwaves could become between three and 12 times longer by the end of this century – and between 0.3°C and 1.7°C hotter. Of the 14 species of salmon and steelhead trout in Washington State that are endangered, ten are lagging recovery goals and five of those are considered “in crisis.”
A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that beneath the surface layer of waters circling Antarctica, the seas are warming much more rapidly than previously known, and this relatively warm water is rising toward the surface at a rate three to 10 times previous estimates, endangering the stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.
In a 9% increase over 2019, the world spent a record $501.3 billion in 2020 on renewable power, electric vehicles (EVs), and other technologies to cut the global energy system’s dependence on fossil fuels. Global sales of EVs accelerated in 2020, rising by 43% to more than 3 million. Unfortunately, the reduction in CO2 emissions associated with those EVs was more than cancelled out by the increased sales of SUVs. A team at MIT calculated both the CO2 emissions and full lifetime cost for nearly every new car model on the market. They found that EVs were easily more climate friendly than gas-burning ones and were often cheaper, too. Batteries capable of fully charging in five minutes have been manufactured on a production line in a factory for the first time, marking a significant step toward EVs becoming as fast to charge as filling up gasoline or diesel vehicles.
A venture part-owned by Toyota Motor Corp. and Air Liquide SA, plans to persuade 10,000 Paris taxi drivers to switch to hydrogen fuel cell powered cars by the time the Olympic Games come to town in 2024. The MIT Startup Exchange showcased five startups developing emerging hydrogen production technologies. According to a new report by Deloitte, hydrogen will be the key energy source for heavy-duty and long-route medium-duty freight vehicles in Europe, but battery electrification will be the most economic and environmental solution for smaller delivery vehicles. South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group has announced its intentions to build its first overseas fuel cell factory in China. The green hydrogen production division of Thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers will install an 88 MW water electrolysis plant for Hydro-Québec.
A growing number of corporations are pouring money into direct air capture of CO2 to offset emissions they can’t otherwise cut. Elon Musk has promised a $100 million prize for development of the “best” technology to capture CO2 emissions.
China added 71.67 GW of wind power capacity in 2020, along with 48.2 GW of solar power. Unfortunately, it also added 56.37 GW of new thermal power capacity. Meanwhile, Germany increased its offshore wind capacity in the North Sea. Data from the US Energy Information Agency revealed that natural gas will supply just 16% of new power capacity this year in the US as cheap wind and solar power take over the market.
Energy company Total and solar-plus-storage developer 174 Power Global have formed a joint venture to develop utility-scale solar and storage projects in Texas, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, and Virginia with a total capacity of 1.6 GW. Hawaiian Electric won regulatory approval for a $25 million plan to harness solar and batteries at 6,000 homes across the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu to form a virtual power plant. The lion’s share of new funding announced this week by the DOE’s ARPA-E program to help scale-up potentially disruptive technologies will go to battery and smart grid technologies.
Michael Svoboda provided descriptions of twelve new books that explore scientific, economic, and political avenues for climate action. The Biden administration has the largest team of climate change experts ever assembled in the White House, but there will be pressure from multiple directions by members of the coalition that got Biden elected. In his regular weekly newsletter at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer laid out a primer for watching the Biden administration’s first 100 days, while in his weekly New Yorker column, Bill McKibben argued that humans need to stop burning things. The Washington Post had a feature article on Friday about regenerative agriculture and the controversy around its ability to sequester carbon in the long term. Grist examined the latest research on how to lessen public opposition to the placement of wind farms. Ivy Main summarized all the climate- and energy-related bills that have been filed in the Virginia General Assembly. At FERC’s meeting on Tuesday, a request from the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to bore under streams in West Virginia failed to get a majority vote, causing the matter to die.
In response to Biden’s inauguration, Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute wrote: “…our nation can now return to the international community where major countries are shifting into high gear on the clean energy transition.”
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.