Bearing Witness to Climate Change December 2020

In a meeting of world leaders on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate accord, and one month after the US officially left it, President-elect Joe Biden restated his pledge for the US to rejoin. Heads of state and government officials from over 70 countries, with the exception of the Trump administration, participated in the virtual event. Biden also called for a climate summit within his first 100 days in office. He then reaffirmed a campaign pledge of setting a target to cut US emissions to net zero no later than 2050. More than 200 countries have pledged to achieve net zero by 2050.

At the virtual event, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres once again asked world leaders to declare world-wide climate emergency claiming that if we don’t change course the planet is headed to a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees Celsius. The good news is that carbon emissions are expected to drop by 7% this year so predicts the Global Carbon project. It reported that emissions dropped a impressive 12% in the US and 11% in Europe, but less than 2% in China. Of course it was for all the wrong reasons, a global pandemic, that we hope is not repeated for that reason.

At the meeting China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by over 65% in the next 10 years as part of a plan to produce a more sustainable, greener economy. China would do so, he said, by tripling wind and solar power capacity. This follows China’s previous announcement of intentions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2060. China is the largest producer of GHG emissions and has recently taken the lead from the US left open by Trump in multinational leadership to address climate change.

Former Vice President Al Gore marked the 5th anniversary of the Paris Accord with an editorial testifying to where he finds hope during the middle of a pandemic crisis and worsening climate crisis. He cited that the cost of solar energy has fallen by nearly 90% in the past decade and the cost of wind turbines by almost 60%. And that 90% of all new electricity worldwide this year will come from clean energy. These reduced costs are driving the retirement of fossil fuel carbon emitting plants faster than had even been hoped. And country after country around the world is announcing their intent to be carbon net zero by mid-century. 

Earlier in the month UN Secretary said bluntly “the state of the planet is broken” and “humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.”  His comments were made as part of the release of the annual U.N. State of Climate report. It summarized all the climate changes and disasters of the past year as have also been chronicled in Bearing Witness to Climate Change. The UN stands by its “planetary emergency” declaration that we must reduce emissions by 6% annually through 2030 to have any chance at keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degree Celsius. The EU responded by upping its goal of reducing total emissions by 55% in the next ten years.

The UN’s recently published annual Emissions Gap Report said that GHG emissions grew by an average of 1.4% from 2010 thru 2019. The report called for nations to use their COVID economic recovery wisely as part to combat climate change and meet their own goals. It also said that the wealthy among us need to reduce their carbon footprint by a factor of 30. The richest 1% of the world’s population are said to be responsible for more than double the emissions from the poorest 50%.  The carbon footprint of the average American was said to be nearly 18 tons of CO2 a year, nearly twice that of a European, and nearly 10 times of an average Indian. In 2019 total global emissions from all man-made sources were said to be 59 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

After formally winning the electoral college on Dec. 14, President-elect Biden declared later there was “literally no time to waste” on climate change. He then announced remaining members of his administration’s top environmental posts. John Kerry was previously announced as his international emissary on climate change and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy in a new White House Office of Climate Policy. They will be joined by Michael Regan, a Black American, to lead the EPA who unlike Trump’s EPA appointees, including coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, actually has relevant experience in protecting the environment and working on environmental  justice issues. Also nominated to head the Dept. of Interior will be Deb Haaland, a Native American, who is a critic of oil and gas leases on public lands and selling them into private hands. Former candidate Pete Buttigieg is to be nominated to head Transportation, making him the first openly gay American to become a cabinet member as well as one of the youngest. He had previously spoken of his support of restoring higher mileage standards, producing electric vehicles, and investing in more mass transit. What a refreshing change this is compared to the last four years as we will have an environmental climate team that actually cares about the environment and climate.

European scientists from the Copernicus Climate Change Service said that November was the warmest November of record. They also reported that the extent of early winter Artic sea ice is the second lowest ever since satellites started measuring it. The year of 2020 overall is comparable to the hottest year so far which was  2016.

The European Commission launched a new program this month called the European Climate Pact to motivate climate action that will build a greener Europe.  A primary goal is to involve all Europeans in making more educated decisions about their everyday life choices. This follows as part of the action plan from the launching of the European Green Deal a year ago.

Young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was quoted in a recent New York Times interview saying “The majority of the world’s population won’t be able to adapt. This is being ignored to a degree that is pathetic.” And “We tend to overthink things. Sometimes the simple answer is, it is not sustainable to live like this.” How did a 17 year old get to be this wise?

A new report in The Lancet by global health experts warns that climate change is a not a future public health risk, but one that is occurring now.  As example, the increasing frequency of heat waves has contributed to a 50% increase in heat-related deaths among people older than 65 over the past two decades. Additional dangers include the harm of smoke from wildfires and the increasing habitats of tropical infectious diseases.

Climate change is reported to be a contributing factor to more drownings from people falling through ice on bodies of water that in previous years were frozen solid. Thin ice has become more of a threat to the indigenous populations of Canada and Alaska where temperatures are rising much faster than the rest of the planet; as much as 6 degrees F warmer than 73 years ago.

The annual Arctic Report Card by scientists from NOAA and 15 other countries said the region was warming at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the world.  The average temperature of the last year was said to be 3.4 degrees F above its average of the previous three decades. A record-high 100.4 degrees F was set in a Russian artic village this year. The report on the state of health of the Arctic documents alarming changes in the not-so-frozen north that are clearly transforming it in our life time. Record heat is being experienced, permafrost continues to thaw releasing methane into the atmosphere, sea ice is diminishing, ocean and land wildlife are being impacted, wildfires are burning from dried-out vegetation, glaciers are melting, there is more open water and rain, less sunlight is being reflected back into space because of shrinking ice and snow covers, and the coastline villages of indigenous people are eroding. It is clear when looking at the Arctic that climate change is real and happening now, and not some distant time in the future.

Denmark has become the first large oil-producing country, and the largest of the EU, to declare an end of state-supported oil exploration in the North Sea. They hope to phase out of all extraction by 2050. The decision is that much more notable because Denmark’s government, economy, and social benefits have been dependent on oil revenue for decades.

Auto manufacturer General Motors has reversed it support of Trump-era efforts to fight California’s tougher fuel efficiency standards.  It has now shown support for the climate policies of the incoming Biden administration that promote electric cars. CEO Mary Barra urged other car companies to do the same.

Hundreds of fisheries, marine societies, and aquatic scientists have said that urgent action is needed to save the world’s oceans and their ecosystems. They cited thousands of studies that confirmed severe effects on aquatic systems are already being experienced and will become irreversible on the current trajectory. This included floods, storms, marine heatwaves, droughts, melting glaciers, thawing wetlands, clean water availability, snowmelts, destabilization of ice sheets, shifting ocean currents, rising sea levels, acidification, deoxygenation, coral bleaching, loss of biodiversity, changing seasonal migration patterns, declining marine life, and rapidly changing sustainable species habitats.

In another act of environmental terrorism by the outgoing Trump administration, a new rule issued from the EPA will weaken the use of environmental cost-benefit calculations that can be used by the federal agencies to limit activities that harm clean air or emit carbon pollution. Trump has now rolled back more than 125 environmental protections.

One of the largest pension funds in the US, the state of New York, joins the growing list of over 1,000 institutional investors that are reducing or divesting themselves of fossil-fuel stocks. This follows oil giant Exxon Mobile writing down its assets by almost $20 billion last month after losing $2.4 billion last year. This month the company, which was recently removed from the Dow Jones, finally announced a plan to reduce its carbon footprint, although many call it too little to late from a company that cannot be trusted, citing their role in financing climate deniers.

The Federal Reserve central bank of the US formally joined the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System. The Fed was only one of two major central banks that had not yet done so. Last month the bank had begun including the risks of climate change into its analysis.

All-time snowfall records were set in Japan this month when portions of the country experienced extreme snowfalls of over 5-7 feet. It was due to an ocean-effect winter storm that carried huge amounts of moisture in it. As the climate and oceans warm scientists warn of more extreme precipitation weather events. Another example is climate change affecting patterns of the the northern hemisphere’s winter jet stream, such as a polar vortex bring colder weather further south into northern latitudes.

Despite commitments from countries around the world to go carbon-neutral by 2050, some scientists believe that may not be enough. They argue that global-size geoengineering initiatives will be required to head off a planetary calamity. Blocking or reflecting sunlight back into space, creating more clouds, sucking carbon out of the air, and helping oceans uptake carbon are only a few of the worrisome ideas. What could possibly go wrong as we experiment on our little lifeboat in the solar system?

Others like the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance are advocating that we work with nature’s own processes, and not manipulate them in ways that are likely to have unknown or unintended consequences. These solutions include harnessing the capacity of forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands, and soil to uptake and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Hydrogen as a more efficient and cleaner fuel is finally getting more publicity in America as it has in Europe for the past few years. The Bloomberg Green Report claims it is the hottest thing going in alternative energy and that investments worldwide will soon be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And like the early days of solar energy, hydrogen power is attracting a lot of DIY hobbyists and entrepreneurs across the USA. However, there are big obstacles such as avoiding the production of “gray” hydrogen, which requires a lot of electricity, from energy sources that themselves are not green.

In the closing days of a US Congress that got very little done during the last year of the Trump term, both Democrats and Republicans came together to fund $35B on new green energy initiatives as well as limit the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants which are said to have 1,000 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon. New legislation passed by both houses will now require the US to follow the 2016 Kigali Agreement to phase out use of HFC. The Trump administration had previously refused to ratify the agreement, despite197 other countries that were signatories.

Good riddance to 2020. And here’s to a more green and sustainable next decade that is our last chance to reverse the trajectory we are on before irreversible tipping points are crossed.