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Weekly Roundup 11-4-2016

Your Roundup of Climate and Energy News for the week ending November 4, 2016 follows.  Please forward it to anyone you think might be interested

Since the election is Tuesday, I thought I should include Chris Mooney’s recent analysis of “What the election outcome will really mean for climate and energy” as well as Adam Wernick’s analysis of Clinton’s climate plan.

Climate

The Paris Climate Agreement goes into force on Friday.  The UN COP22 climate summit will be held in Marrakech, Morocco on November 7-18.  According to Sara Stefanini at Politico the major tasks at Marrakech are “to decide on the details of how to make sure each country is actually reducing its emissions (and not just saying it is); how to compensate poorer countries for the damage done by hurricanes, floods, droughts and other effects of climate change; and how to shore up financial aid from the developed to the developing world.”  She also presents five things you should know about the summit.

In August I provided a link to an article in The New Republic by Bill McKibbon in which he invoked the war metaphor to characterize our struggle against climate change.  Now, writing in The New York Times, social scientist Eric Godoy and philosopher Aaron Jaffe argue that is the wrong metaphor to use.  Rather, they conclude that climate change demands “a revolution to democratize all forms of power,” including economic and political power.  In their essay, Godoy and Jaffe make justice a central issue.  Hence it is interesting that another article this week focused on the disproportionate displacement of the poor in the U.S. following climate-related disasters and a new report concluded that building coal-fired power plants does little to help the poor, and often actually makes them poorer.

Fall “leaf peeping” is a major pleasure for folk in many parts of the world, including the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It is also a major economic activity.  Hence, the impacts of climate change on the timing and intensity of fall color changes are of interest to many people.  Writing in The New York Times, Craig Smith examines the multiple ways in which climate change is shaping fall colors.

According to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the record low snowpack in the western mountains of the U.S. during the winter of 2014-2015 was primarily due to high temperatures caused by both greenhouse gases and, in some areas, an enormous patch of warm water in the northern Pacific Ocean, dubbed “The Blob.”

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) issued its Emissions Gap Report for 2016, which compares the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement to the pledges of its signatories.  The main take-home message is that unless nations ramp up their carbon-reduction pledges before 2020, it will be nearly impossible to keep warming to 2°C.  Chris Mooney of the Washington Post has a good explanation of “emissions gap.”

A paper published in the journal Science this week finds that there is an essentially linear relationship between CO2 emissions and the loss of Arctic sea ice.  For every metric ton of CO2 emitted, a square meter of ice is lost.  Since the average person in the U.S. emits around 16 metric tons of CO2 per year, each of us is responsible for the loss of around 48 square meters (517 square feet) of ice each year from the ice cover left at the end of the summer.  The results also mean that exhaustion of the carbon budget for 2°C warming will be sufficient to make the Arctic Ocean ice free by the end of summer.  In addition, researchers at NASA have noted a new trend in sea ice melt.  Not only is seasonal ice melting, but older ice that has remained frozen for long periods is also showing signs of significant thinning.  Be sure and watch the video associated with this article.  Finally, a new paper in Nature Climate Change finds that a decrease in Arctic sea ice is associated with colder temperatures in eastern North America during March, so what happens in the Arctic may well influence the weather down here.

A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience examines how clouds may have influenced Earth’s warming over the past several decades.  Satellite data have identified an increase in low-level clouds in the tropics over the eastern Pacific Ocean since the 1980s. The authors of the new study say this has likely reduced the pace of recent warming, although the effect is expected to be short-lived.  The findings have implications for the estimation of climate sensitivity.

A new study, published in the journal Science, has found that, unless global warming is limited to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, Mediterranean ecosystems will change more than they have at any time during the past 10,000 years.  If warming were to reach 2°C, deserts would expand substantially in Spain, North Africa and the Near East.  Vegetation would also be affected, with deciduous trees beginning to disappear from the Mediterranean basin and be replaced with other vegetation.

Energy

You may recall that I have linked to articles in the past about pumped storage, which typically pumps water uphill to a reservoir when excess power is available, and then lets it flow down again through generators (the pumps running backwards) when power is needed.  Its limitation is that you need a hill suitable for putting a reservoir on.  Now two different companies have come up with schemes whereby one can have pumped storage without a hill (although an ocean or lake is needed).

The chief executives of ten oil and gas companies, including BP, Saudi Aramco, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, and Total, announced on Friday that the companies are joining forces to create an investment fund to develop technologies to decrease methane leaks, increase fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, and reduce costs of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.  In an extended feature in The New York Times, Clifford Krauss examined how “Big Oil Slowly Adapts to a Warming World.”

There was both good news and bad news this week concerning energy consumption in the transportation sector.  First the bad news.  U.S. gasoline consumption set a record high of 9.7 million barrels a day in June of this year, surpassing the old record of 9.6 million barrels a day set in July 2007.  The good news is that the average fuel economy of cars in the U.S. in 2015 was 24.8 mpg, 0.5 mpg higher than the 2014 average.  Finally, on the subject of cars, in October total sales of the Nissan Leaf reached 100,000.  The Chevy Volt reached that total in July.

The cost of electricity from offshore wind dropped 28% globally in the second half of 2016 compared to the same period last year, according to a new analysis. The price decline is driven by the use of larger turbines and competitive auctions for new wind projects in Europe.  Meanwhile, renewables may well be the way to an electrified future for Africa, allowing countries there to leapfrog over the fossil-fuel-based energy systems found in much of the rest of the world, just as they have leapfrogged over landline telephones.  Nevertheless, Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, predicted that renewable energy investment probably has reached a peak of $349 billion that won’t be surpassed for at least five years, primarily because the falling price of wind and solar will allow the installation of more capacity at less cost.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) annual Low Carbon Economy Index report for 2016 has found that the global carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) fell by 2.8% in 2015.  This was more than double the average fall of 1.3% between 2000 and 2014, but far below the 6.5% required to stay within the 2°C warming limit set by last year’s Paris agreement.  The biggest driver was a decline in China’s coal consumption, which resulted in a 6.4% drop in its carbon intensity.

Because there is currently no price on CO2 emissions, coal- or gas-fired power plants are cheaper to build and operate than nuclear power plants, even though the latter provide CO2-free electricity.  Thus, when the goal is simply to minimize the “cost” of electricity, the decision is to shut down nuclear power plants before the end of their useful life and replace them with coal- or gas-fired plants, thereby increasing CO2 emissions.  Unfortunately, when nuclear power plants close prematurely, their waste is left stranded at the site.

Les Grady
R. A. Bowen Professor Emeritus