Bearing Witness to Climate Change March 2021

For the first time, last year the EU generated more electricity from renewables than from fossil fuels. The numbers from the US were not as good, although improving, where we rely on oil, gas, and coal for over 80% of our power with renewables accounting for just over 10%.

Following announcements last month that oil production has peaked, the CEO of another major petroleum company, Exxon Mobil, said the company was positioned to capitalize on the growing demand for decarbonization of the global economy. While he made no promises for becoming net carbon zero, he did say the company was supportive of zero emissions goals. This is a big step for a company that was reported to have supported climate change deniers and spread disinformation similar to what the tobacco industry once did.

The United States NOAA as well as the World Meteorological Organization are reported to be considering moving up the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season by two weeks to May 15. Last year was the most active hurricane season on record with over 30 named storms.  It was also the 6th year where storms occurred before June 1.

Last month’s record cold Artic weather experienced over much of the US, including deep south states like Texas, is more likely to occur in the future according to a paper in the Nature Climate Journal. It seems that when the Arctic is the warmest, the temperature gradient between the far north and mid-latitudes is not as great. This has the effect of destabilizing the rotating polar vortex, allowing it to wobble and fall southward.

Another international auto manufacturer, Volvo, has announced they will move to producing all electric vehicles by 2030, phasing out internal combustion engines completely. This follows news from GM in January that pledged to do the same thing by 2035. The sales of EVs in Europe is reported to have doubled last year to some 730,000.

With a rush to all electric vehicles, some industry watchers are asking if our economies will be ready for them. Will we have ample electricity sources and distribution networks that are based on renewables? Who is planning the  infrastructure to provide recharging stations? Will the mining for the rare earth metals required for batteries be environmental friendly and sustainable? Will policies and regulations emerge to require plans for recycling of vehicles and batteries? What will happen to all the shuttered oil wells, refineries, and pipelines that could become abandoned toxic waste dumps?

Nearly 10,000 wildfires across California last year that burned over 4 million acres and destroyed entire communities are having immense economic consequences. The cost of rebuilding, insurance, temporary housing, code changes, and future fireproofing has become so burdensome that some are giving up and moving. As example, new building codes require sprinklers in single family homes which can add many thousands of dollars in the cost to rebuild. Could this exodus out of paradise be the first large-scale climate migration within North America?

The climate modeling firm FourTwentySeven has produced data and the NYTimes created a interactive map based upon it that illustrates the top climate risks by country across the globe by 2040. Increased threats due to climate change include: droughts, floods, extreme heat stress, water scarcity, hurricanes, infectious diseases, and sea level rise. There is no place on Earth that will not be impacted.

John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, is visiting Europe this month to restart dialogue with American allies after four years of neglect. The former Secretary of State acknowledged that the US under the Trump administration had largely “dissed” other countries in its denial of climate change. During the trip Kerry said it would help a great deal if we put a price on carbon and created a global carbon market.  He also repeated that the world needs to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.

The Biden administration is pressuring the financial sector to include the exposure, risk and cost of climate change into their financial models, projections, and policies. The hope is that private markets will begin investing in the green economy at levels that rival or exceed that of the public sector. As example, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission announced it is creating a Climate Risk Unit to help price climate-related hazards.

The EPA under new leadership has relaunched content on its website dedicated to climate change that was removed by the Trump administration. The new administrator, Michael Regan, declared that combating climate change is not optional but an essential part of the EPA.

More major corporations are announcing their goals to become carbon-neutral. This month it included FedEx which declared its aim of carbon neutrality by 2040. The commitment includes a $2B investment  to electrify its fleet of delivery vehicles. FedEx joins Microsoft, IBM, Uber, Johnson Controls among many others. Of course this will not be enough if they don’t also lobby local, state and federal officials to invest in the green energy infrastructure and power grid changes that will also be required.

A multi-billion dollar project to capture carbon from the atmosphere continues in the Teesside industrial region of England. The plan is to remove carbon from the air in the industrial zone then transport it out to be buried in porous rocks of the North Sea seabed. Opponents of the project say it would be far more efficient and less expensive to just stop producing the industrial carbon emissions in the first place.

A new study in the journal Nature Geosciences says that as the climate warms and air becomes more humid the impact on human health will be substantial.  The combination of heat and humidity will make huge swaths of the planet uninhabitable for people. Most affected will be some 3 billion residents of Asia, Central America, and Africa.

However, some countries like Russia are projecting benefits from a warming planet. Millions of acres across Eastern Russia and  Siberia will become farmable. By 2080 more than half of former permafrost land mass may become habitable and farmable. The lack of Arctic ice will open up new shipping lanes for transporting farm goods around the world. And as a result, America’s top export of agricultural products may be lost due to climate change.  China is reported to be investing heavily in Russian farm land leases  and large scale farming.

As the second year of living under a global pandemic begins, analysts are warning that we are living through a dress rehearsal for life in a planetary climate crisis. Global GHG emissions are reported to have fallen 6% in 2020 with much of the world’s economy slowed if not shutdown. However, to avert an irreversible climate catastrophe, experts say we will will need to halve emissions by 2030 and become net zero by 2050.

The NOAA has warned that this next year will see worsening droughts across much of the US due to drier than normal Spring weather. Nearly all of the US is expecting a warmer than normal season. Almost two-thirds of the country is already in an abnormally dry condition and just less than half in a drought. As a result, crop production levels will be lower, wildfires more prevalent, and water shortages more common.

Record rainfalls have beset some parts of Australia that experienced record heat and droughts last year.  More than 3 feet of rain fell in 5 days. With climate change Australia is experiencing more extreme weather events.

Chinese climate researchers have issued a study that predicts if current trends continue, the summer season could last 6 months in some parts of the globe. Their study found that winter has already shrank by 3 days, spring by 9 days, and fall by 5 days.

A bill has been introduced into the US House to set a national target of reducing GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Utilities would be required to produce 80% of electricity from zero emission sources by 2030 and 100% by 2035. The legislation also includes funding for carbon capture technology to take carbon already emitted out of the air, which looks like will be necessary due to our slowness in curbing emissions.

New research published in the journal Nature says that protecting the health and biodiversity of the world’s oceans will also help combat climate change. Oceans are by far the largest carbon sink on the planet and have absorbed much of the heat trapped by GHG, thus causing air temperatures to be lower than they might have been.

The US now has some 120 gigawatts of wind energy capacity which is 8% of the country’s total electricity. Up to now, wind farms have been located in sparsely populated rural areas in the west. For wind power to become a much larger source of power in the US, new turbine construction will have to take place closer to populated areas and farming communities. As a result, a number of states, counties, and towns are debating restrictions on new wind farms.

Europeans are moving quickly ahead with hydrogen where there are plans to generate more than 40 GW of green hydrogen; that is hydrogen made from renewable energy sources. The International Energy Agency along with German industries and utilities are saying that hydrogen may be the only realistic path to decarbonize energy-intensive sectors such as aviation, marine, and heavy transportation where electric vehicles and batteries are not viable options.

The US and China appear to be moving forward to establish a working group to enhance communication and cooperation on Climate Change. The two countries are the two largest CO2 emitters, responsible for over 15 GT each year. A few days later President Biden extends invitations to both Russia and China for a US-hosted climate summit.

In more progress from the oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute has endorsed putting a price on carbon, a big step forward for market-based solutions. The API also supports development of carbon capture technologies, use of hydrogen, and regulation of methane emissions. Wouldn’t it be great if a global agreement on the price for carbon emissions could come from the recently announced summit.

Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Canadian federal government has the authority to impose taxes on carbon across the country. The court acknowledged that climate change was real, caused by human-generated GHG emissions, and poses a threat to the future of humanity.  Canada began placing a price on carbon in 2019 starting at $40 a ton which will rise to $170 by 2030.

The National Academy of Sciences said that the US should begin investing in an emergency plan using global geoengineering technologies capable of cooling the Earth. The three approaches they looked at are putting heat-reflecting particles into the upper atmosphere, changing the brightness of ocean clouds, and thinning high clouds.  Experts say that this would provide a safety net should efforts to reduce GHG emissions fail to deliver fast enough.

As another sign of climate change, Cherry Blossom trees in Kyoto, Japan are blooming and peaking the earliest they have ever on records. They have been flowering progressively earlier since the 1800s.

The Biden administration is fast tracking investments, research,  loans, and permits for offshore wind farms and supporting infrastructure along the US East Coast. The plan would allow for up to 30 GW of wind power by 2030, the equivalent of powering 10 million homes and cutting 78 million tons of CO2 emissions. In comparison, Europe currently has 24 GW and Britain is planning for 40 GW by the end of the decade.

Some Midwest states like Missouri received no snowfall during the month of March for the second consecutive year in a row.

Each new year scientists discover that more animal species are in danger from a changing climate. Warmer weather impacts the hibernation and migration of butterflies, bats die off due to extreme shifts in temperatures, seals are losing sea ice, the sex ratio of sea turtles is altered by warmer weathers, the breeding of penguins is altered by thin ice, the food of reindeer is disappearing, and young sharks are malnourished. Hundreds of bird species alone are now on an accelerating escalator to extinction due to climate change.

President Biden’s new EPA administrator Michael Regan is removing more than 40 Trump appointees from key advisory panels such as the Clean Air Advisory Committee. Many of those purged were insiders from the industries the EPA was to regulate while others had dismissed science in favor of politics.

Biden also announced a massive new green-flavored investment plan in America’s infrastructure. It includes  hundreds of billions of dollars for modernizing the electric grid, supporting electric vehicles, charging stations, public transportation, funding for zero-carbon power generation, and a new clean energy standard.

It is 2021; time is running out. We should be in a rush if not panic to support and pass programs like this from President Biden.  The critical year is not 2030 or 2050. It is now, right now, 2021. We have nine years left. The longer we wait the more difficult the basic math gets.


Featured image is a chart of cumulative global CO2 measurements from Our World in Data at https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.