Bearing Witness to Climate Change April 2021

At the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, CO2 levels have for the first time exceeded 420 parts per million. When carbon was first measured in the atmosphere in the 1950s it was 100 ppm lower, at 315. It is now higher than any time in the last 800,000 years based on glacial ice core samples. The world is now more than halfway to a doubling of carbon by the year 2060. Climate scientists warn at this rate the resulting temperature changes would be 4-8 degrees Fahrenheit higher, perhaps double that agreed to in the Paris Climate Accords.

A government-owned space agency of Sweden has cancelled a test flight of an experiment associated with solar geoengineering out of concern there has not yet been ample public engagement. The project was part of a research program to test technologies for injecting sunlight-blocking substances into the upper atmosphere. The motivation was out of fear that efforts to reduce carbon emissions will fall short, and since carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries after emitted, drastic massive global geoengineering strategies like this may be necessary as the last resort.

The medical profession is giving more attention to helping humans retain their mental health and become more resilient as the worry about and harm of climate change sets in. Connecting with others and former mutual support communities is one recommended tool, as is starting small against a problem that seems overwhelming.

Small impoverished low-lying countries along oceans in the equatorial regions of the globe – such as Belize, Fiji, and Mozambique –  are expected to bear the brunt of damage from climate change. The World Bank and IMF warn that the combination of environmental degradation, disease, storms, rising sea levels, famine, migration, debt, and economic distress triggered by climate change will create a systemic risk to the entire global economy which will spill over to the richer nations.

The US may already be experiencing its first major climate change fueled migration as thousands of Central Americans seek refuge at the southern border.  Two back-to-back hurricanes during 2020 in Honduras last year helped to create a humanitarian crisis that convinced families to make the journey through Mexico to enter the US legally, seeking asylum, or crossing the border illegally.

Weather forecasters in North America are forecasting another above average hurricane season in the Atlantic during 2021. Last year saw a record 30 named storms with 13 of them hurricanes. This year they predict the number will be less but still above the previous average of 12 storms and 10 hurricanes.

In the US NOAA will start using “new normal” weather data. This data is used by meteorologists and weather forecasters when reporting how daily weather diverges from the historical average. NOAA will stop using data from the three decades of 1981-2010 in favor of that from the last 30 years of 1991-2020. The new temperature average is overall a half a degree higher.. One result is that some reports of extreme temperatures will not appear to be as abnormal when compared to new climate normals.

A major source of carbon into the world’s oceans has been found to be the practice of bottom trawling for fish across the seafloor. Aquatic ecologists claim that up to 1 gigaton of CO2 may be released into oceans each year by this practice. If this is true, it is more than the emissions into the air of the entire aviation industry. Although this carbon stays in the water, wreaking havoc on sea life with more acidic waters, it reduces the capacity of the world’s oceans to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere from man-made sources. It is thought the oceans already suck up about 25% of all global CO2 emissions.

President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $174 billion for electric vehicles. Money is being provided for consumer tax credits to purchase more electric vehicles and grants for charging stations, and battery production. Currently in the US less than 2% of new vehicles are electric. With the new incentives it is hoped that EV sales will rise to 1 million vehicles by 2023 and 4 million by 2030. That is a start, but still a very small number compared to the existing 279 million vehicles on the road in the US that will eventually need to be retired.

In more signs of international progress, US climate envoy John Kerry met his counterpart in China, Xie Zhenhua, to find areas of cooperation. China is the world’s largest emitter of global CO2 emissions, some 28%, and the US half of that at 14%. But with much of the exports of China’s manufacturing coming to the US, our real carbon footprint is much higher. China has pledged that emissions will peak before 2030 then start to fall.

In another positive change, President Biden’s trade representative Katherine Tai has said that trade policies should be used as a legitimate tool to help fight climate change. Her pronouncement came the week before Biden’s virtual climate summit where he hopes to restore US participation, leadership, and respect that was eroded during the Trump presidency.

The “We Mean Business” coalition of more than 300 business leaders are asking President Biden to set a goal of reducing US GHG by 50% by 2030. This would double the US’s previous commitment. Biden’s previously announced goal was to become zero net carbon emissions by 2050. But bold progress by 2030 may be the most important step to make such an ambitious goal by mid-century.

One of those businesses, Google, announced that its Google Earth App will add a new feature to show the effects of climate change on the planet. Satellite images will show how glaciers, artic regions, forests, coast lines, oceans, and beaches are changing with a warming planet, using before versus now images.

As cryptocurrencies and non fungible tokens (NFTs) become mainstream with wider-spread acceptance and use, there is more concern about the impact on the environment from the energy used by their “digital miners.” Some researchers have estimated that mining for Bitcoins alone consumes more electricity to power the computers required than an entire country like Argentina does.

Researchers estimate that the world’s forests and forest soils capture nearly a quarter of total global carbon emissions each year. More impressive is that they are said to store anywhere from 400 – 1,200 gigatons of carbon, which is thought to be greater than that in the atmosphere. Humans produce about 50 gigatons a year. Forests in the US are said to absorb and sequester about 16% of our emissions. Clearing and burning forests for agriculture not only releases much of that carbon back into the atmosphere but reduces the uptake of future carbon emissions.

As Biden’s international summit on climate change nears, the pressure builds on the US from inside and out to announce goals of at least a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. The day before the summit the EU restated a goal to become climate neutral by 2050 starting with a reduction by 2030 of 55% from 1990 levels.

Coinciding with Earth Day more than 40 world leaders convened in a virtual two-day climate summit organized by President Biden. It was one of the most encouraging acts I have ever witnessed that so many world leaders agreed on something together; that climate change was real, it is created by human activity burning fossil fuels, and that drastic action must be taken to reverse trends which threaten the planet.  China reiterated its plans to slow emissions this decade and become carbon neutral by 2060. The UK announced it would reduce emissions by nearly 80% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. Japan 46%. Canada 40%.

The US as expected did indeed announce plans to cut emissions by half by 2030 relative to 2005 emissions, nearly double the original target set by the Obama administration before Trump trashed it. In leading the conference, President Biden said the world faced a moment or peril but also one of opportunity and it was a moral and economic imperative. John Kerry emphasized that this decade is the most important one to act as time is running out.

Yet, the world is running far off track of keeping temperature limits agreed to by the Paris accords to less than 3.6 degrees F. The IEA predicted that CO2 emissions would rise by 1.5 billion tons this year to be the largest rise in history, although that is due to so much of the global economy being shuttered last year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The goals are far from easy or certain to be achieved. As example, in the US nearly all vehicles will need to be electric, with that electricity generated by renewables, by 2030. Last year fewer than 2% of new vehicles were fully electric. It would take every new vehicle sold from now to the next 10 years to be electric to achieve a 50% reduction from the transportation sector that accounts for nearly 30% of CO2 emissions. And the existing fleet of nearly 280 million vehicles on the road will have to be retired early. These things are not going to happen, so other sectors of the economy will have to reduce their emissions by even a greater amount.

In yet another sign that science and reason is prevailing, the United Mine Workers Union of coal miners has even signaled its approval of President Biden’s plan to move the country away from fossil fuel generated power sources. That is as long as the energy transition provides funding, training, and ultimately jobs for these workers. Some 7,000 coal workers were said to have lost their jobs last year, although most of that was due to the use of natural gas being far more economical than coal.

Elon Musk’s XPRIZE Foundation is offering $100 million in funding to researchers and entrepreneurs who can develop ways to extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it  permanently. It will be the largest incentive prize ever offered. Other foundations and funds in the US are awarding $20 million to make concrete that traps CO2 instead of emitting it in the process.

New Zealand has become the first country to introduce a law expected to pass that will require financial institutions to report the impact of climate change on their business risks. Economists with global insurance firms are warning that hazards associated with climate change could reduce global economic output and wealth by  double digits. The economies of some Asian, Pacific, and Equatorial countries could fall by up to half.

Because we lost three decades debating climate change, goals to decarbonize the global economy will require extreme urgent actions. But humanity cannot do it alone despite technology and innovation. The Earth’s natural ecosystems will also be needed and must be protected, then restored and expanded. This includes forests, soils, marshlands, mangroves, swamps, oceans, and frozen tundra. Scientists say that these natural systems could be capable of removing and storing about 24 gigatons of CO2 each year, or almost half of mankind’s emissions. It is thought that improved soil management could reduce GHGE by over 5 gigatons each year which is more than 10% of total emissions. Oceans and lands currently absorb about 20 giga tons of CO2 each year.

A gap of nearly 5.5 gigatons has been found between what countries collectively acknowledge as their GHGE and total estimated worldwide emissions.  This discrepancy is nearly 10% of total global emissions.  The current system of accounting allows nations to subtract from their total emissions that amount said to be absorbed. As example, the US reduces its 6.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions by nearly 800 million tons taken up by land surfaces and other sinks.

An excellent primer on Climate Change was printed in the New York Times this month in The Science of Climate Change Explained: Facts, Evidence and Proof. It confronted many of the questions that climate skeptics raise such as how do we know it’s really happening or that it’s not part of the planet’s natural warming cycles?

A new study in the journal Nature reports that glaciers are melting faster and are losing over 30% more ice and snow that 15 years ago. More than 300 billion tons of ice and snow are said to be melting each year. The study was the first to use 3D imagery from satellites.

Denmark is building the world’s first artificial energy island to support ocean wind farms that will supply up to 10 gigawatts of power. This is enough to power the entire country. Denmark was also the location of the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1991.

The United Nations is urging countries to reduce methane emissions as one of the most effective and fastest ways to arrest climate change due to total GHG emissions. Methane is said to be 80 times more potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere than C02. The good news is that it is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, around a decade, compared to CO2 which can last for hundreds of years. Most industrial sources of methane emissions come from the oil and gas industry. NOAA reported that 2020, despite the pandemic, saw the largest annual increase in methane since it began record keeping.

The US has responded with the Senate voting to restore Obama-era rules on monitoring, reporting, and fixing methane gas emissions from industrial sources. The Democrat-led house is expected to follow. The measure will require polluting companies to check on their facilities and equipment for leaks every six months. However, most methane in the US comes from agricultural sources like farming and livestock which still needs to be addressed by a change in consumer habits.  Reversing Trump’s repeal of the environmental rule is reported to be one of about 100 Trump policies that the new administration is looking at rolling back.

Then end of big coal is coming in Japan where the last new project to construct a coal power plant has been cancelled. The country is in the process of shuttering 100 coal-fired units by 2030 At the recent climate summit Japan said it would reduce GHGE by 46%, yet it was using 2013 as the baseline for reductions, and also become carbon neutral by 2050.

The highest court of Germany has ordered the government to expand its plans to bring carbon emissions down to nearly zero by 2050. The existing law only addressed emissions through 2030. Young climate activists who brought the case before the court celebrated the ruling as a watershed moment that many other world governments will likely follow.


Feature image is from NOAA of atmospheric CO2 reported at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/.