May 19, 2021: The world must immediately stop exploiting fossil fuels in order to reach net-zero targets globally by 2050, said the International Energy Agency.
The health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, and accounts for about twelve per cent of childhood asthma. “It’s odourless, it’s invisible, it’s a bit of silent enemy,” the C.E.O. of Asthma Australia said. “People might feel differently if they understood that their gas appliances were emitting a range of toxic substances.” That is why the gas industry has lobbied so hard to prevent that perception. In at least fourteen U.S. states, the industry lobby is pushing bills that would prevent local governments from restricting the use of gas; a particular threat comes from the new appliances—chiefly air-source heat pumps and water heaters, and induction cooktops—that are now widely available and increasingly cheap. (Even the Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages unfailingly defend the oil-and-gas industry, admitted in a review that induction cooking is “safer and faster than gas.”) Indeed, leaked documents obtained last week by E&E News show that fifteen big gas utilities have mounted a Consortium to Combat Electrification. “None of these companies want to write their own obituary,” Deborah Gordon, a former petroleum engineer now at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, said. “If you’re going to bend this curve, and we bend it quickly, there are going to be casualties. Some will transform, some will consolidate, some will go away.”
Home-based medical care emergencies are becoming more common as climate change makes extreme weather-induced blackouts more frequent. A growing number of researchers, doctors and environmentalists are drawing attention to the threat. They highlight the need to modernize the nation’s power infrastructure and adopt battery storage more widely with a focus on vulnerable communities. Other recommendations include more data collection on how many Americans risk outages interfering with equipment such as oxygen, documenting the complications and deaths that result, and more funding and incentives for backup power. One mechanism would be for Medicare to classify in-home batteries as medical equipment that can be prescribed. (NPR)
Nations must quickly stop using new fossil fuels if global temperatures are to be kept within safe limits and 2050 net-zero targets met, said the International Energy Agency in a new report. This is the first time the leading energy agency has called for such dramatic action and laid out a roadmap for how to make it happen. The recommendations include halting approval for new coal plants after this year, governments worldwide shifting to electric heat pumps by 2025, electric vehicles making up 60 percent of new car sales globally by 2030, and wind and solar installations quadrupling by 2030. The agency said that it is technically and economically feasible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but that the pathway is narrow. (New York Times $)
Demand for entry-level workers to build renewable energy projects in Texas is booming. More wind and solar capacity is expected to be added to the grid in the Lonestar State over the coming months and years than anywhere else in the country. The company Workrise launched a wind and solar program in 2019 and quickly grew from training 400 workers to 2,250 the following year. The renewables job salaries are comparable to oil field workers — wind turbine service technicians earn a median salary of $56,230 a year and solar installers about $46,500 a year, according to the Labor Department, while a derrick operator has a median salary of $47,920. Many of the skills solar workers are learning through state-funded training programs are also transferable to other industries, such as electrical wiring. (Houston Chronicle)
President Biden visited Michigan and drove Ford’s new all-electric F150 while touting his $174 billion electric vehicle proposal. This week his administration announced a major cross-agency plan to upgrade efficiency standards and cut carbon emissions from buildings. Hyundai Motor Group will invest $7.4 billion to build electric vehicles in the U.S. Demand is booming for workers to build out renewable energy projects in Texas.
Ro Khanna mulls subpoena of fossil fuel executives, Nick Sobczyk, E&E News, May 19, 2021
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna said he plans to invite fossil fuel and social media executives to testify on climate disinformation in the coming months, a potentially significant step for efforts to shed light on climate change denial campaigns.
Khanna, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, told E&E News that executives could face subpoenas if they don’t show, a step Democrats have resisted since they took back the House in 2019, despite calls from activists to put the fossil fuel industry on trial.
“We have made it very clear that we reserve the right to subpoena if those executives aren’t showing up,” Khanna told E&E News yesterday.
“We’re going to be asking the CEO of Exxon, the CEO of Chevron, a number of these fossil fuel companies to come and a number the social media companies to come.”
Khanna said the hearing, to be held in June or July, would focus on “climate disinformation and the role the fossil fuel companies, and frankly the social media companies, have played in the dissemination of disinformation.”
Ultimately, he added, subpoenas would be up to full committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). “But we’ve been working with the chair, and the chair has said that she’s open to it if they’re not cooperative,” Khanna said.
If Khanna is able to bring executives in to testify, it could be an explosive hearing. The fossil fuel industry played a major role in popularizing climate change denial, despite decades of research from its own scientists showing that its products were warming the planet.
Climate activists have for years said that lawmakers should force fossil fuel executives to talk about climate-skeptical public relations and lobbying, much like the tobacco hearings led by former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) during the 1990s, which highlighted campaigns to cast doubt on research linking smoking with cancer.
But efforts to pin down Big Oil have largely failed to materialize on Capitol Hill.
The Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the issue featuring former Exxon Mobil Corp. scientists in 2019, with Chairman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) pledging to seek testimony from companies down the road (E&E Daily, Oct. 24, 2019).
More recently, Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Katie Porter (D-Calif.) have invited fossil fuel executives to testify to no avail (E&E Daily, May 17).
Democrats have also been broadly reluctant to investigate the Trump administration and its potential ties to polluting industries.
Finally our schools can have big built-in batteries on the yellow school buses to provide robust resiliency:
“Levo’s initial focus on school buses comes at a time when the Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized electrification of the 480,000 school buses in the U.S. through its Infrastructure Plan. Building on this, Lawmakers recently announced a $25 billion bill to electrify school buses and, increasingly, school districts are seeking to convert to zero emission vehicles to provide cleaner rides for students.”
“Upon signing of definitive documents and closing, Levo will utilize Nuvve’s proprietary V2G technology and Stonepeak’s capital to help accelerate the deployment of electric fleets, including thousands of zero-emission electric school buses for school districts nationwide through “V2G hubs” and Transportation as a Service (“Taas”).
Stonepeak, along with its portfolio company Evolve Transition Infrastructure LP (“Evolve”), plans to deploy up to an aggregate $750 million capital commitment to Levo. Levo expects to initially focus on electrifying school buses and associated charging infrastructure plus V2G services to provide safer and healthier transportation for children while supporting CO2 emission reduction, renewable energy integration, and improved grid resiliency. Levo also plans to work with commercial fleets such as last-mile delivery, ride hailing and ride sharing, and municipal services.”
It’s Time to Kick Gas
And do it as quickly as possible.
By Bill McKibben, New Yorker, May 12, 2021
We’re used to the idea that CO2—one carbon atom, two oxygen atoms—is a dangerous molecule. Indeed, driving down carbon-dioxide emissions has become the way that many leaders and journalists describe our task. But CH4—one carbon atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, otherwise known as methane—is carbon dioxide’s evil twin. It traps heat roughly eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide does, which explains why the fact that it’s spiking in the atmosphere scares scientists so much. Despite the pandemic lockdown, 2020 saw the largest single increase in methane in the atmosphere since we started taking measurements, in the nineteen-eighties. It’s a jump that, last month, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “fairly surprising and disturbing.”
If there’s any good news, it’s that the spike in methane doesn’t—yet—seem to be coming in large percentages from the runaway melt of methane-ice formations beneath the polar oceans or those in tundra soils. That would be a nightmare scenario because there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it—it’s global heating on automatic. For the moment, most of the increase seems to be from sources we can control: rice paddies, livestock, and, especially, the rapid rise in drilling and fracking for gas. Two decades ago, people thought that natural gas, though a fossil fuel, might help slow climate change because, when you burn it in a power station, it produces less carbon than burning coal does. Now we understand that natural gas—which is primarily made of methane—leaks unburned at every stage from fracking to combustion, whether in a power plant or on top of your stove, in sufficient quantities to make it an enormous climate danger.
The Trump Administration abandoned any effort even to reduce that leakage, an absurd gift to the fossil-fuel industry that the Biden Administration is preparing to take away. But plugging leaks isn’t enough: we’ve got to stop producing natural gas as quickly as possible, and replace it with renewables that generate neither carbon nor methane. As I wrote last month, that’s now entirely possible; sun and wind power have become so cheap so fast that they’re more economical than gas, and batteries are coming down the same kind of cost curve, so nightfall is no longer the problem it once was.
But there are other reasons to kick gas. A report from Australia’s Climate Council, released last week, finds that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, and accounts for about twelve per cent of childhood asthma. “It’s odourless, it’s invisible, it’s a bit of silent enemy,” the C.E.O. of Asthma Australia said. “People might feel differently if they understood that their gas appliances were emitting a range of toxic substances.” That is why the gas industry has lobbied so hard to prevent that perception. In at least fourteen U.S. states, the industry lobby is pushing bills that would prevent local governments from restricting the use of gas; a particular threat comes from the new appliances—chiefly air-source heat pumps and water heaters, and induction cooktops—that are now widely available and increasingly cheap. (Even the Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages unfailingly defend the oil-and-gas industry, admitted in a review that induction cooking is “safer and faster than gas.”) Indeed, leaked documents obtained last week by E&E News show that fifteen big gas utilities have mounted a Consortium to Combat Electrification. “None of these companies want to write their own obituary,” Deborah Gordon, a former petroleum engineer now at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, said. “If you’re going to bend this curve, and we bend it quickly, there are going to be casualties. Some will transform, some will consolidate, some will go away.”
At the moment, however, they’re still very much here, and they might as well call the effort a Consortium to Promote Asthma and Melt the Poles. But, if we can kick gas quickly, there’s some hope that lies in the structure of that CH4 molecule: it only lasts about ten years in the atmosphere, as opposed to a century for carbon dioxide. This means that, if we can somehow reduce emissions dramatically, it will fade fast, buying us a little time to take on carbon. “If we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public-health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” Drew Shindell, an earth scientist at Duke University who has worked extensively on methane, told the Times. But it had better happen fast. Here’s Euan Nisbet, a climate scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, reacting to last month’s news of spiking methane levels: “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was this bad. This breaks my heart.”
Christina Conklin, an artist, writer, and researcher, and Marina Psaros, a sustainability expert, will publish “The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis” in July. With maps and text, it explores port cities and coastlines that may be obliterated by rising seas—Shanghai, Houston, New York, the Cook Islands, and Bến Tre, in Vietnam. I spoke with Conklin, who lives next to the Pacific, in Half Moon Bay, California. (Our conversation has been edited.)
Humans built many of their most important settlements along the ocean for obvious reasons, but how should we be thinking about that now?
The hard truth is that seas are going to rise for centuries to come—it could be at least three feet this century and much more after that. This is difficult to absorb, but we need to have realistic, civic conversations about moving to higher ground in the coming decades. Water always finds its level, so we will need to rebuild over time, finding ways to fairly relocate vulnerable communities away from flood zones.
Strengthening storms and rising seas may be the easier climate challenges to address: all we need to do is move out of the way. Actually, changing ocean chemistry and warming waters are far more critical in my view, because they are altering the living system of the ocean itself, which is the foundation and source of life on earth. The fact is, our current addiction to fossil fuels is causing ocean acidification, deoxygenation, and warming that is throwing many marine ecosystems into crisis. Half the stories in “The Atlas of Disappearing Places” cover these impacts on food webs, feedback loops, and basic biological processes. I illustrated it with ink-on-seaweed maps to convey the scope and scale of the issues.
What’s a place that really illustrates our troubles?
The Cook Islands is a good example. It is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific that voted in 2017 to designate its territorial waters as the world’s largest marine protected area. The commitment reflected Cook Islanders’ values and heritage as an indigenous, seagoing people, and also allowed for sustainable development. Around the same time, a few powerful people invited seabed-mining companies to “explore” the possibility of scraping manganese nodules off the seafloor in these waters, potentially destroying the ecosystem—and the Prime Minister gave in to pressure for quick profit. [Last year, the government said that it would allow mining to offset the loss of tourism business during the pandemic.] This sort of conflict between local communities and extractive industries is often out of sight, but every choice we make has an environmental impact somewhere.
We each have the responsibility—the response-ability—to imagine and build healthy societies. Each of the book’s twenty chapters envisions a “future history” from the year 2050, showing things that we can do to change the story from one of heedless consumption to one of resilient, regenerative culture.
And what’s a place that gives you some sense of how humans are, well, rising to the rising sea level, and figuring out some possibilities?
I think often of Leo Manston, a six-year-old boy who spoke at a county-council meeting in Kent, England, in 2019, and asked them to consider including children on their climate-change committee. His mom, Laura, was new to climate activism, having recently learned how dire the climate crisis is, at an Extinction Rebellion march, in London. I so admire the determination, joy, courage, and creativity of Extinction Rebellion’s nonviolent-resistance methods. We can learn a lot from them about how to work for change, individually and collectively.
That said, the British government is making poor planning decisions regarding sea-level rise and is kicking the can on carbon emissions, so my story about rising seas in the Thames estuary is largely a cautionary tale. But perhaps it will help people wake up to the disastrous floods that will eventually happen if more is not done to face the planetary emergency of intersecting crises we now face. As you know, we have only a few years to change our path.
The Texas Observer carries a fine profile of the environmental-justice pioneer Robert Bullard, describing a 1979 study of his that found landfills and waste dumps mostly situated in Houston’s communities of color. “To this day, low-income communities of color are significantly more likely than white residents to live near hazardous waste and air pollution,” the magazine reports.
António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, called on all international lending agencies to stop funding big fossil-fuel infrastructure projects. “We can no longer afford big fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere,” he said. “Such investments simply deepen our predicament.”
If someone tells you that a small ball of fungi will help your lawn sequester a ton of carbon dioxide every year, it’s possible that their claims should be investigated closely, at least according to reporting from Zahra Hirji for BuzzFeed News.
As noted above, gas causes lots of asthma and premature deaths. New studies show that biomass burning does the same. In fact, setting fire to biomass, gas, and wood now cause more premature deaths in the U.S. than burning coal.
News broke Saturday of a cyberattack shutting down the Colonial Pipeline system, which carries gasoline and jet fuel from Texas up the East Coast. The independent journalist Robbie Jaeger has been following up on the story of last year’s gasoline spill from the pipeline in North Carolina— which the company originally pegged at sixty-three thousand gallons, but turned out to be at least 1.2 million gallons. Reviewing documents, Jaeger found that the company only inspected less than half the length of the pipeline the year before the accident, even though much of the pipe is forty years old.
Naomi Klein offers up a remarkable piece of reporting and thinking from the Sierra-foothills town of Chico, California, where residents displaced by forest fires in recent years are now being evicted from encampments in which they’re trying to keep their lives going. Her article provides a sharp warning of what it will mean to live on a planet with ever more climate refugees.
The veteran energy analyst (and Seattle resident) Dave Roberts argues that Washington State now has the most progressive climate policy in America. “Spoiler: the one weird trick is electing Democrats,” he writes. Meanwhile, Kate Aronoff points out that BP may have figured out a way to play both sides of the carbon-pricing policy that Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected to sign into law.
Legislation has been introduced in the New York State Assembly that would place a moratorium on cryptocurrency mining in the state while its effects on energy use are investigated. Grist has a detailed account of a once defunct power plant on Seneca Lake that’s now burning gas to mine bitcoin and was featured in a New Yorker story by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Amsterdam has become the first city to start banning fossil-fuel advertisements, beginning in its subway system. “Advertisements that portray fossil fuels as normal and aggravate climate disruption have no place in a city or country that has complied to Paris,” the campaign coördinator Femke Sleegers said.
Writing in CleanTechnica, the energy analyst Michael Barnard makes the case that small, modular nuclear reactors may not be the lifesaver that advocates have been hoping for. He writes that they “won’t achieve economies of manufacturing scale, won’t be faster to construct, forego efficiency of vertical scaling, won’t be cheaper, aren’t suitable for remote or brownfield coal sites, still face very large security costs, will still be costly and slow to decommission, and still require liability insurance caps.”
Research from Oxford Brookes University, in England, indicates that vertical-axis wind turbines—look at the picture!—may be more efficient than the giant sweeping blades that we’ve grown accustomed to, primarily because they don’t rob one another of wind and can be spaced more closely together.
The Green Party seems likely to share power in Germany—or even control the country outright—after elections this fall, new polling suggests. “The timing would make this a continental game-changer,” the Guardian notes in an editorial. “Germany’s Greens have the potential to become the leading force in a rehabilitation of progressive politics in Europe.”
Last week, I mentioned the frightening news that the Amazon forest has flipped from a carbon sink to a carbon source. New data indicate that the same thing has happened to Canada’s vast boreal forest. Barry Saxifrage outlines the numbers in a revealing report for the National Observer, adding, “It’s bad news for Canada’s plans to use forest ‘offsets’ to green-light extra fossil fuel burning.”
Seth Bernard is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Also a ripping guitarist, he’s helped build a community of musician-activists across his native Michigan, who work on issues environmental and social. Now he’s offered up “The Time Has Come,” a climate anthem that he’s releasing to aid local climate campaigners. Here’s the chorus:
We never give up,
keep showing up.
In love we trust;
the Earth loves us.