Bearing Witness to Climate Change January 2021

European climate researchers were quick to conclude at the start of the month that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record. Average temperatures were said to be about 2.25 degrees F above their average before the rise of industrial emissions starting in 1900. Some areas of the planet reported their hottest year ever, such as Europe, while other regions like North America were above average but not record setting. The Arctic and Siberia experienced heat waves that put average temperatures in some parts up 6 degrees C higher than their average. Other hot spots continued to emerge this past year as they did in 2019.

In the US, NASA and NOAA have said that preliminary results show 2020 to be virtually tied with 2016 as the hottest for the world. The seven warmest years on record have now been all the last seven years. The hottest 10 years  have all been since 2005. The planet on average is now over 2 degrees F warmer than it was in the 1800s before the industrial age.

The latest estimate in the reduction of GHG emissions in the US in 2020 is a substantial 10% due to the Covid economy. It was the largest decline since WWII.  Americans drove 15% fewer miles last year and jet fuel consumption fell by 33%. Emissions from electricity were down 10% due to reduced demand but also more power generation from natural gas instead of coal. It’s certainly good news but for all the wrong reasons; lockdowns followed by a deep economic recession from the Coronavirus pandemic which has claimed 400,000 American lives. But it illustrated that it is possible to make the substantial reductions that will be required to keep the globe from racing past irreversible tipping points.

Worldwide it has been reported by the Global Carbon Project that carbon emissions shrank by 7% during 2020. However, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is still expected to grow to 412 ppm, nearly 50% higher than before the industrial revolution.

At the One Planet Summit this month 50 countries committed to protecting 30% of the planet land and seas to reverse the damage humans are doing.

More than 1,600 companies and organizations from 80 countries have now signed on to support guidelines on financial reporting championed by the International Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). They hope to create a set of global standards for how organizations report risks, opportunities, investments, and expenses associated with climate change.

Lest we forget how many weather-related disasters we experienced during 2020, the article This Year Was A Disaster For The Planet sums up the big ones including the most active Atlantic storm season on record. This article provides a global look at the past  year in climate where the impact of changing climate and extreme weather events is no longer hidden or debatable.

The cost of natural disasters in the US, including those weather and climate related, were reported to be nearly $100B last year, nearly double that of 2019. The losses were due to extreme rainfall, flooding, wildfires, droughts, derechos, thunderstorms, hailstorms,  tornados, and tropical storms. State governments and insurance firms both claim the current trends are not economically sustainable. Scientists say type of weather-related disaster is being made more severe by climate change.

Midwest states like Missouri are reporting warmer and wetter winters and springs. Four of the five warmest winters have occurred since the 1990s. Water vapor content in the air has made days more humid and nights warmer, unable to lose heat. There has been an increase of 35% in extreme precipitation events of 3 inches or more. Spring weather starts earlier and fall weather later by about a week each. The only good news is that there are fewer extreme heat days with temperatures over 90 or even 100 degrees.

In the last month of the Trump administration the EPA finalized a rule to restrict the scientific research for protecting public health, including those related to the harm of climate change. Critics say it is just another attempt by special interests to hijack the conclusions and recommendations of EPA scientists.

The multi-agency National Climate Assessment report was also a target of the Trump administration. Thankfully the attempts to derail it, such as removing its leadership at NOAA and replacing them with climate-deniers who then sought to delay its release, were thwarted when scientists refused to be intimidated or silenced.

A group of researchers at Oxford University reported a new method for converting the greenhouse gas CO2 into jet fuel. Scientists say that air travel is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. The scheme is said to involve extracting carbon out of the air while on the ground as part of a process to make a biofuel it would then burn while in the air.

A study in the journal Nature Climate Change says that the amount of global warming already baked into the atmosphere due to past GHG emissions will exceed previously agreed international goals. Scientists said that existing carbon already in the atmosphere will push temperatures over 4 degrees F above pre-industrial levels. This is what they call “committed warming.”

Other scientists say this is not as bad as it seems as once carbon emissions hit net zero, hopefully mid-century, that it will be only a decade before the rise in temperatures levels off or even starts to fall. This analysis from an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at Imperial College claims that there may be less baked-in warming than previously projected. Let’s hope they are right, but there is still a lot of disruption and damage between now and the second half of the century.

An article in Science Daily warns that the ability for the Earth’s plants to absorb carbon emissions could be reduced by half.  The study concludes that once temperatures reach a tipping point the capacity of plants to uptake carbon goes down as temps rise past this point. This could mean that once valued carbon sinks, like the Amazon forest, end up becoming carbon sources as the health of regional ecosystems and biomes worsens.

Later in the month on inauguration day, President Biden kept his promise to reenter the Paris Climate accord. On day one just hours after being sworn into office President Biden signed an executive order reversing the Trump Administrations departure from the agreement announced a year ago which did not go into effect until last November. Biden, saying that we can’t wait any longer because climate change is an existential threat, suspended new leases on federal lands for oil and gas exploration as well as revoked the Keystone XL pipeline. Biden clearly understands that one of the best policies to slow climate change is to keep fossil fuels in the ground instead of being burned into the air. A few days later Biden issued additional executive orders to reinstate EPA rules on automobile emissions that were suspended by the Trump administration. The newly elected President has set a goal of eliminating fossil fuel carbon pollution from electrical power generation by 2035 and from the economy overall by 2050. That is an audacious goal as 60% of the nation’s electricity still comes from coal  and natural gas.

However, compensating for all the damage the anti-science and anti-environmental Trump Administration has done will not be easy. We lost 4 years at a critical time last decade when we had only an estimated 15 years left to reverse current trends before the year 2030 when scientists say non-reversible tipping points would be tripped. Trump’s first and last year in office were tied as the warmest on record. It is an irony that the President who said climate change was a hoax, and who ignored the warnings from scientists on so many issues like COVID, precipitated an economic catastrophe in the US that was so severe it was responsible for our carbon emissions dropping by an astonishing 10%. But what a price we had to pay in 400,000 dead, millions ill, and tens of millions unemployed.

The concept of engineered-carbon removal is getting more attention as time runs out to reverse climate change. The UN says that we would need to remove between 100 billion and 1 trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere to head off the worst effects. These are huge numbers, especially when the cost to remove 1 ton is quoted to be around $600. And that is much higher than the current price we hear being discussed in a tax for emitting carbon.

A paper in the journal Science Advances reports that the planet is losing each year over a trillion tons of ice in seas and glaciers. The rate of loss is accelerating and it is already at the worst-case scenario described by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. This is causing other scientists to raise their projections of sea level rise by a factor of two.

World leaders met in a virtual meeting of the Climate Adaption Summit this month. Yes, we are now having to talk about adaptation and mitigation strategies due to irreversible climate change that is already locked in from existing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. By 2050 some have projected that the cumulative cost of climate change related damages and disruptions will approach $8 trillion.

The month ends with good news for the planet. General Motors announced that by 2035 it will sell only zero-emission vehicles by phasing out cars and trucks that burn petroleum fuels.  It was reported the company will spend over $25 billion in the next five years on 30 new electric vehicles. Automakers from around the world are expected to follow GM’s lead.  The company and its manufacturing plants have also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040, also an audacious goal.


Featured image is Average Global Temperature from US NOAA at https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature