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Weekly Roundup 9-15-2017

The Weekly Roundup of Climate and Energy News for the week ending Sept. 15, 2017 follows.  Please forward the URL to anyone you think might be interested. 

On Saturday, ministers and representatives of up to 30 major economies will convene in Montreal for the first climate talks since the U.S. announced its plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.  In what some described as a changing of the climate guard, the meeting was co-convened by the EU, China, and Canada.  After the U.S. withdrew its financial support for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Canada and other nations increased their contributions to ensure funding.  Working Group 1 of the IPCC has revealed the chapter outline for the 6th Assessment Report, due in 2021-22.  In advance of the annual UN General Assembly meeting in NYC, President Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, is planning to meet with top energy and climate officials from major foreign countries.  Another indicator of change is a new report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which found that more than 1,200 global businesses are moving to embrace a carbon price as a way to analyze current business practices and prepare for the future when global carbon pricing is the norm.  Finally, Environmental Defense Fund attorney Ben Levitan discussed four facts about climate law and science that help counter the distortions from EPA administrator Pruitt.

Early this week, the news was again dominated by a hurricane, this time Irma.  I am providing a link to Carbon Brief’s summary of media reaction, rather than trying to cover the articles.  Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) came under criticism for not doing more to prepare his state for the consequences of climate change.  Alexander Burns of The New York Times wrote that some in Congress think the conversation on climate change is shifting in the wake of Harvey and Irma, in spite of Scott Pruitt’s comments that talking about climate change now would be “very, very insensitive.”  In Bloomberg Politics Jennifer Dlouhy wrote “Research shows monster storms may only harden people’s position, underscoring already entrenched beliefs about the role humans play in warming the planet,” and in The Washington Post, researchers Llewelyn Hughes and David Konisky said “Our research shows that people who experience severe weather are only modestly more likely to support the types of efforts we need to build resilience to climate change.”  Perhaps this is due in part by the way the press has handled climate change and its impacts.  Indeed, Peter Dykstra commented on the total lack of the “C-word” during the otherwise excellent TV coverage of Harvey and Irma.  Meanwhile, in an interesting article at Nieman Reports, Michael Blanding wrote about how some “news outlets are bringing innovation, urgency and new audiences to stories on climate change.”

Climate

Last week I provided links to articles about how climate change is impacting hurricanes.  This week, Chris Mooney of The Washington Post considered some less-discussed hurricane attributes that could plausibly change in a warming world: season length, regions of formation and intensification, intensification rate, and storm size.  Also, Chelsea Harvey considered the impacts of declining coral reefs on the damage caused by wave action against the shore line.

A new paper, published in Nature, reported that two-thirds of the glacial ice in Asia’s high mountains could vanish by 2100 if we continue to emit CO2 at current rates.  Those glaciers provide water to at least 800 million people living in Asia.  On the other hand, if steps are taken to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial times, only one-third of the glacial ice will be lost.  Another paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), asserts that the loss of mountain ice creates a host of problems for the people who live downstream.  Meanwhile, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, the largest concentration of glaciers in the American Rocky Mountains is melting.  Unfortunately, the Wind River glaciers remain some of the least understood ice sheets in North America.

Writing in Eos, the magazine of the American Geophysical Union, a group of scientists argued that ocean heat content and sea level rise are much better indicators of global warming than average surface air temperature, primarily because they are much less subject to natural variability.  And speaking of “natural”, climate scientists Katherine Hayhoe explained in a new video why natural cycles can’t explain current warming.

There have been many studies on the impact of rising CO2 levels on plant yields, i.e., the amount of grain produced per acre, but there have been few on how rising CO2 impacts the nutritional quality of the plants.  Politico senior food and agriculture reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich wrote an interesting article about this question and the quest of a mathematician to study it.  Although the answer to the question is uncertain, it is now beginning to receive more attention.  Meanwhile, a new paper in PNAS, by authors associated with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, reports that some plants appear to become more efficient at using water as atmospheric levels of CO2 increase.

Another new paper in PNAS by authors associated with Scripps Institution of Oceanography has asserted that there is a 5% chance that the impacts of climate change within the 30 years will be catastrophic, meaning that most people would have trouble adapting.  In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, the senior author stated that few people would get on an airplane if they thought there was a 5% chance it would crash.

The costs of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017, taking wildfire suppression from 15% to 55% of the Forest Service budget.

After running for a decade beyond its planned life, the satellite-based Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which has helped scientists track the melting of ice around Earth, is nearly out of fuel and will soon make its final science run, NASA announced late Thursday.  In a rather long article in The New York Times Magazine, Jon Gertner explored the various satellites employed by NASA and NOAA to keep track of what is happening with our weather and climate, while also examining the potential impacts of federal budget cuts on the programs dependent on those satellites.

Energy

Carbon Tracker Initiative has issued a new report that found that energy consumers in the US could be paying an extra $10bn a year by 2021 to prop up ageing coal-fired power plants.  Interestingly, Dominion Energy is listed as facing the highest percent of potentially stranded assets of any U.S. electric utility.  Meanwhile, in the UK, off-shore wind won contracts at record-lows of $76 per MWh, making them among the cheapest new sources of electricity generation there, joining onshore wind and solar, with all three cheaper than new gas-fired power plants.  Note, that’s a 50% decline since a similar auction two years ago.

In a new report released Thursday, the U.S. Energy Information Agency projected that worldwide emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels would grow 16% by the year 2040 from the levels of 2015.  The report shows coal on a 20-year-long plateau, natural gas plentiful and growing, wind and solar growing rapidly in percentage terms but not fast enough to bring emissions down in absolute terms, and petroleum holding its own as the main source of energy for transportation, despite the arrival of electric vehicles.

Two lawsuits, one filed in Virginia and the other in the District of Columbia, are challenging FERC's eminent domain authority under the Natural Gas Act.  They, along with other potential lawsuits in other jurisdictions, address the question of what constitutes a public necessity.  The outcomes may have impacts far beyond the natural gas pipelines involved.  North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has delayed until mid-December its decision on whether to permit the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has rescinded its water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  And on the subject of pipelines, the Minnesota Department of Commerce recommended this week that a major tar sands oil pipeline should not be expanded and that the old, existing line should be shut down because the state's refineries don't need additional crude oil.  Minnesota was just one of several states closely examining new pipelines.

In its 2011 SunShot Initiative, the Obama administration set the goal of reducing the cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems by 75% by 2020.  The Trump administration recently announced that the goal has been met.  While the rest of the solar industry is doing well, GTM Research has forecast that residential solar PV will experience its first down year ever in 2017, shrinking by 3% compared to 2016.  There are several reasons for this, as explained by Julia Pyper.

GE Renewable Energy unveiled its largest onshore wind turbine this week, a 4.8 MW turbine that can generate enough electricity at low to medium wind speeds for the equivalent of 5,000 homes.

In New York City, Daimler AG unveiled its new Fuso eCanter, an electric light-duty truck produced under the Mitsubishi Fuso brand.  Daimler is supplying a fleet to several New York City non-profits and United Parcel Service Inc. has signed on as the first commercial customer in the U.S.  At the Frankfurt auto show, Volkswagen AG announced that it plans to build electric versions of all 300 models in the 12-brand group’s lineup by 2030.  Also at the show, Mercedes Benz announced that it would begin selling the GLC F-Cell in the U.S. by late 2019.  The car is a plug-in hybrid, except that instead of an internal combustion engine it has a hydrogen-powered fuel cell for hybrid operation.

Les Grady
R. A. Bowen Professor Emeritus