Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Despite Major Melt, Arctic Sea Ice Will Miss Record Low

A visualization of Arctic sea ice extent on Aug. 13, 2016. (Credit: NASA) Click image to enlarge.
As the sun begins its seasonal descent in the Arctic sky and temperatures drop, the summer melt of sea ice is slowing down.  In the next few weeks, the span of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice will reach its annual low.

But despite beginning the summer at unprecedentedly low levels, this year’s minimum won’t break the stunning record of 2012, experts say, thanks to cloudy weather that slowed the rate of melt.

Depending on how the weather plays out over the next few weeks, that minimum is likely to fall somewhere between second and fifth place, they estimate — still a remarkably low level that shows how precipitously sea ice has declined in recent decades.

“There hasn’t been any recovery in any ice at all,” Julienne Stroeve, a senior scientist at the National Snow & Ice Data Center, said.

Read more at Despite Major Melt, Arctic Sea Ice Will Miss Record Low

Data Show Increasing Political Polarization on Climate Change

Chart of Senate partisanship (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
A new article discusses increasing partisan polarization of American attitudes towards climate change.  The article details the escalation of partisan polarization, particularly towards environmental protection and climate change, over the past few decades in America.

Read more at Data Show Increasing Political Polarization on Climate Change

The $8 Trillion Fight over How to Rid America of Fossil Fuel

Economists agree it can be done, but differ on how much it will cost.

Transmission power line (Credit: By Yummifruitbat) Click to enlarge.
Geoffrey Heal, an economist at Columbia Business School, recently published a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper that asks what would it take—over the next three-and-a-half decades—to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below their 2005 level?  That’s not a made-up target:  It’s the goal the Obama administration submitted (PDF) to the UN.  It’s also the long-term goal the U.S. will bring to G20 negotiations next week.  And it shows up in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform (PDF) upon which Hillary Clinton is running for president.  (Republican candidate Donald Trump has rejected the science of global warming.  Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson recognizes climate change and is open to a carbon tax.)

Among scientists, however, there is agreement.  Two Harvard economists, after trawling through voluminous, authoritative research, said last year that the odds of an utterly catastrophic finale to humanity’s atmospheric experiment is about 10 percent.  That’s a conclusion that can focus minds pretty quickly—and perhaps turn the expenditure of trillions of dollars over three decades into only a tough, but manageable, problem.

Doing the math
Heal’s main goal is to figure out, in a policy-agnostic, nonpolitical way, the economics of replacing 66 percent of U.S. energy output—the coal and gas used for electricity generation—with renewable energy or a combination of renewables and nuclear power.  “I wanted a way of doing it that was transparent,” Heal said, “in which anybody who was interested in it can understand, and—if they disagreed—they can go back and do it their own way.”

His thinking goes like this:
  • Split the 66 percent into half-solar and half-wind generation, and then price out the panels and turbines.
  • Assume that the U.S. will need to boost its transmission grid by 25 percent, which won't come cheap since high-voltage lines run as much as $3 million a mile, plus substations and interconnections.
  • Subtract the cost savings from never having to buy fuel because sunshine and wind come gratis.
  • Also deduct what we're expected to invest to upgrade the old energy infrastructure.

Read more at The $8 Trillion Fight over How to Rid America of Fossil Fuel

Natural Gas Emissions to Surpass Those of Coal in 2016

These graphs show overall U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioixde emissions by fuel through 2015 and projections for 2016. (Credit: EIA) Click to Enlarge.
The U.S. is expected to reach a major carbon emissions milestone this year:  For the first time, carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas for electricity in the U.S. are set to surpass those from burning coal — the globe’s chief climate polluter.

Emissions from burning natural gas are expected to be 10 percent greater than those from coal in 2016, as electric companies rely more on power plants that run on natural gas than those that run on coal, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.  In 2015, the U.S. used about 81 percent more natural gas than coal for electricity, but because coal contains more carbon than natural gas does, emissions from burning both were about the same.

The milestone comes as an ample supply of low-cost natural gas encourages electric power companies to use more gas than coal.  That trend is leading to to a continued decline in coal production.

U.S. climate policies, such as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, are also encouraging utilities to shift away from coal as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  Countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement are trying to limit emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.

Natural gas emits about half as much climate change-driving carbon dioxide as coal.  Perry Lindstrom, a greenhouse gas emissions analyst at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said the rise of natural gas is reducing the carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of energy — of the energy Americans consume every day.

“You get more energy per metric ton of CO2 emitted from natural gas than from coal,” Lindstrom said.

Burning coal for electricity is about 82 percent more carbon intensive than burning natural gas.

There is a downside to the emissions milestone, however.  Though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, producing natural gas and piping it to power plants leaks methane into the atmosphere.

Read more at Natural Gas Emissions to Surpass Those of Coal in 2016

Dakota Pipeline Was Approved by Army Corps over Objections of Three Federal Agencies

Sioux tribe's concerns were echoed in official reports by the EPA and two other agencies, but Army Corps of Engineers brushed them aside.

The Sioux tribe objecting to the Dakota Access pipeline had their concerns echoed by several federal agencies, but those concerns were dismissed in the pipeline's approval. (Credit Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Senior officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two other federal agencies raised serious environmental and safety objections to the North Dakota section of the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline, the same objections being voiced in a large protest by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that has so far succeeded in halting construction.

Read more at Dakota Pipeline Was Approved by Army Corps Over Objections of Three Federal Agencies

Insurers Call on G20 to Phase Out Fossil Fuel Subsidies by 2020

World leaders at the G20 summit in St Petersburg in 2013 (Photo Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Insurers with $1.2 trillion under management called on Tuesday for the Group of 20 to set a timetable to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels by 2020 when they meet at a summit in China this weekend.

Aviva, Aegon NV and MS Amlin said fossil fuel subsidies were at odds with commitments by G20 nations to combat global warming agreed by almost 200 countries last year at a Paris summit.

"Climate change in particular represents the mother of all risks," Aviva CEO Mark Wilson said in a statement.

The companies called on the G20 leaders, who meet in the Chinese city of Hangzhou on Sept. 4-5, to set "a clear timeline for the full and equitable phase-out by all G20 members of all fossil fuel subsidies by 2020".

A phase-out should start with the elimination of all subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and coal production, they said.  Their statement was also signed by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and UK-based energy firm Open Energi.

G20 leaders have repeatedly promised to phase out fossil fuels, the main man-made source of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, since a meeting in 2009 in Pittsburgh.

The British-based Overseas Development Institute think-tank estimated that average annual subsidies for fossil fuel production were $444 billion in 2013 and 2014, roughly four times the subsidies for renewable energy in 2013.

Read more at Insurers Call on G20 to Phase Out Fossil Fuel Subsidies by 2020

New Solar Cell Is More Efficient, Costs Less than Its Counterparts

Exposed in step-like formation, layers of new photovoltaic cell harvest more of sun’s energy.

A silicon solar cell with silicon-germanium filter using a step-cell design (large) and a gallium arsenide phosphide layer on silicon step-cell proof-of-concept solar cell (small). (Photo Credit: Tahra Al Hammadi/Masdar Institute News) Click to Enlarge.
The cost of solar power is beginning to reach price parity with cheaper fossil fuel-based electricity in many parts of the world, yet the clean energy source still accounts for just slightly more than 1 percent of the world’s electricity mix.

Solar, or photovoltaic (PV), cells, which convert sunlight into electrical energy, have a large role to play in boosting solar power generation globally, but researchers still face limitations to scaling up this technology.  For example, developing very high-efficiency solar cells that can convert a significant amount of sunlight into usable electrical energy at very low costs remains a significant challenge.

A team of researchers from MIT and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology may have found a way around this seemingly intractable trade off between efficiency and cost.  The team has developed a new solar cell that combines two different layers of sunlight-absorbing material to harvest a broader range of the sun’s energy.  The researchers call the device a “step cell,” because the two layers are arranged in a step wise fashion, with the lower layer jutting out beneath the upper layer, in order to expose both layers to incoming sunlight.  Such layered, or “multijunction,” solar cells are typically expensive to manufacture, but the researchers also used a novel, low-cost manufacturing process for their step cell.

The team’s step-cell concept can reach theoretical efficiencies above 40 percent and estimated practical efficiencies of 35 percent, prompting the team’s principal investigators — Masdar Institute’s Ammar Nayfeh, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and MIT’s Eugene Fitzgerald, the Merton C. Flemings-SMA Professor of Materials Science and Engineering — to plan a startup company to commercialize the promising solar cell.
Beyond silicon
Traditional silicon crystalline solar cells, which have been touted as the industry’s gold standard in terms of efficiency for over a decade, are relatively cheap to manufacture, but they are not very efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.  On average, solar panels made from silicon-based solar cells convert between 15 and 20 percent of the sun’s energy into usable electricity.

Silicon’s low sunlight-to-electrical energy efficiency is partially due to a property known as its bandgap, which prevents the semiconductor from efficiently converting higher-energy photons, such as those emitted by blue, green, and yellow light waves, into electrical energy.  Instead, only the lower-energy photons, such as those emitted by the longer red light waves, are efficiently converted into electricity.

To harness more of the sun’s higher-energy photons, scientists have explored different semiconductor materials, such as gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide.  While these semiconductors have reached higher efficiencies than silicon, the highest-efficiency solar cells have been made by layering different semiconductor materials on top of each other and fine-tuning them so that each can absorb a different slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These layered solar cells can reach theoretical efficiencies upward of 50 percent, but their very high manufacturing costs have relegated their use to niche applications, such as on satellites, where high costs are less important than low weight and high efficiency.

The Masdar Institute-MIT step cell, in contrast, can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost because a key component is fabricated on a substrate that can be reused.  The device may thus help boost commercial applications of high-efficiency, multijunction solar cells at the industrial level.

Read more at New Solar Cell Is More Efficient, Costs Less than Its Counterparts

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

  Tuesday, Aug 30

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

MIT, Québec Research Institutions Launch Initiative to Analyze Low-Carbon Energy Policy Options

Focusing on New England/Québec Region, Québec premier and MIT vice president for research speak at Boston signing ceremony; Hydro-Québec CEO pledges funding.

Québec Premier Philippe Couillard delivers remarks after Professor Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair in energy sector management at HEC Montréal; MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber; and Ouranos Executive Director Alain Bourque sign an agreement to launch a new research collaboration to analyze cross-border, low-carbon energy policy options. (Photo Credit:  Patrick Lachance/Government of Québec) Click to Enlarge.
By 2020, the state of Massachusetts is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions at least 25 percent compared with 1990 levels, all while up to 25 percent of its electricity generation facilities are expected to go offline.  Angling to shore up its energy resources without driving up emissions levels, the state recently passed a bill requiring Massachusetts to procure long-term contracts that tap 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power and 1,200 megawatts of hydropower or other renewables by 2025.  (One megawatt can power up to 1,000 homes.)  Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who signed the bill into law, argues that a significant infusion of Canadian hydropower will be needed to enable the state to meet its impending energy and climate deadlines.

Aiming to equip decision-makers in the New England/Québec region with the knowledge they’ll need to evaluate this and other cross-border, low-carbon energy and climate policy options, the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and two Montréal-based research institutions — the business school Hautes Études en Commerce (HEC), and Ouranos, a climate-change think tank — launched a new collaboration on energy, economy, and climate policy analysis at a signing ceremony on Aug. 28 in Boston.

Read more at MIT, Québec Research Institutions Launch Initiative to Analyze Low-Carbon Energy Policy Options

California Has Urged President Obama and Congress to Tax Carbon PollutionCalifornia Has Urged President Obama and Congress to Tax Carbon Pollution

The lawn in front of the California State Capitol is seen dead on June 18, 2014 in Sacramento, California. Due to the California drought - intensified by global warming - the grounds at the California State Capitol are under a reduced watering program and groundskeepers have let sections of the lawn die off in an effort to use less water. (Photograph Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Last week, the California state senate passed Assembly Joint Resolution 43, urging the federal government to pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax:
WHEREAS, A national carbon tax would make the United States a leader in mitigating climate change and the advancing clean energy technologies of the 21st Century, and would incentivize other countries to enact similar carbon taxes, thereby reducing global carbon dioxide emissions without the need for complex international agreements; now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Assembly and the Senate of the State of California, jointly, That the Legislature hereby urges the United States Congress to enact, without delay, a tax on carbon-based fossil fuels; and be it further Resolved ... That all tax revenue should be returned to middle- and low-income Americans to protect them from the impact of rising prices due to the tax
Copies of the Resolution were sent to President Obama, Vice President Biden, House Speaker Ryan, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and to all members of Congress representing California.  The document specifically calls for the type of revenue-neutral carbon tax advocated by the grassroots organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Studies have shown that a rising carbon tax with all revenue returned to taxpayers would have a modestly beneficial impact on the economy, while cutting carbon pollution at faster rates than current policies.

Read more at California Has Urged President Obama and Congress to Tax Carbon Pollution

Climate Change Looms Large in Obama's Final Trip to Asia

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, California, U.S., June 18, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts/File Photo) Click to Enlarge.
When President Barack Obama sets out this week to meet world leaders in China and Laos during his final presidential trip to Asia, he will make an unusual stop along the way.

With time running out for more action on climate change during his time in office, Obama will drop in to Midway Atoll, a far-flung and largely uninhabited coral reef that is a refuge for sharks, albatrosses and endangered turtles and seals.

The photo-rich stop is aimed at both raising awareness about the threat posed by climate change, and showcasing Obama's decision to protect a larger part of the ocean around Hawaii.

But the trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean will also highlight the high stakes of climate change just before Obama meets world leaders in China.
The rare trip is both a signal of the importance Obama gives to climate change - and a sign of his focus in bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The two leaders have clashed on economic and security issues, but forged common ground on climate, which helped secure a global deal to cut carbon emissions at a Paris conference last year.

"We have to recognize that climate change and clean energy cooperation has really helped to create better overall stability in the U.S.-China relationship, writ large," said Andrew Light, a former senior climate official in Obama's State Department.

Light, now with the World Resources Institute think tank, said he expects Xi and Obama will try to push other G20 leaders to agree to timelines for implementing the Paris agreement and work on cutting other greenhouse gases like methane and hydrofluorocarbons.

Read more at Climate Change Looms Large in Obama's Final Trip to Asia

Monday, August 29, 2016

Toon of the Week - Climate Science Is a Hoax!

Toon of the Week - Climate Science Is a Hoax!

Read original at 2016 SkS Weekly Digest #35

Quote of the Week - Can progress on climate change keep up with its quickening pace? - by Tom Steyer

Quote of the Week - Can progress on climate change keep up with its quickening pace?
Quote of the Week - July was the hottest month in recorded history, by a lot, and August isn’t looking any better.  So how do we interpret that?  What does it mean?

I’m no scientist. In my 30 years as a businessperson, though, I’ve learned that the best decisions require looking at all of the available data and trends.  You seldom have the complete analysis that a scientist would require — events unfold quickly.

Instead, business people often must make decisions on the basis of imperfect information.  A responsible chief executive knows two things:  that a decision not to act is a decision, and that no competent leader risks the health of the entire enterprise by failing to take necessary steps, even ones that are painful.

- Tom Steyer, founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate.

Can progress on climate change keep up with its quickening pace?, Op-ed by Tom Styer, Washington Post, Aug 26, 2016 

Read original at 2016 SkS Weekly Digest #35

Poster of the Week - 27,000 Trees a Day Are Desrtroyed Due to Toilet Paper Comsumption

Read original at 2016 SkS Weekly Digest #35

  Monday, Aug 29

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

Electric Cars “to Reverberate Through Other Sectors,” BNEF’s Liebreich & McCrone Explain

The electric vehicle is expected to “reverberate through other sectors,” such as oil, electricity, retailing, and even tax collection, according to a new commentary published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

VW Golf GTE charging (Credit: Click to Enlarge.Authored by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) advisory board chairman Michael Liebreich and chief editor Angus McCrone, the new commentary, entitled Electric vehicles – it’s not just about the car, points to the falling costs of batteries as driving rapid growth in the electric vehicle market between now and 2040.  As a result of this growth, Liebreich and McCrone contend that the impact of the electric vehicle will be felt through a number of industries — oil, electricity, retailing, tax collection, construction, dealer networks, city infrastructure, and freight transport.

BNEF has been relatively bullish on the idea that electric vehicle adoption will only increase, thanks in part to the decreasing costs of batteries, as well as the firm’s belief that “electric vehicles out-compete internal combustion cars in lots of important dimensions:  they drive more smoothly yet accelerate better, they can be charged at home or at the office, they require much less maintenance, they help solve air quality problems, they improve the energy autonomy of oil-importing countries.”

In addition, BNEF points to the electric vehicle’s “vastly superior platform for autonomous driving, infotainment, connected vehicle, and transport-as-a-service technologies.”

“The coming shift to electric, digitally-connected vehicles will have dramatic implications for the car industry,” Liebreich and McCrone point out, before moving on to what they believe will be the natural extension of this shift.

For all the seismic shifts electric vehicles will bring to the car industry, as with mobile phones and cheap renewable energy, as with all transformations in major economic sectors, some of the biggest impacts may be felt in other parts of the economy.

Read more at Electric Cars “to Reverberate Through Other Sectors,” BNEF’s Liebreich & McCrone Explain

Seals Reveal Mysteries of Antarctic Sea Ice

In Antarctic winter conditions too harsh for research scientists, elephant seals fitted with sensors have collected ocean system data that raises climate change concerns.

Male elephant seals carrying satellite-linked sensors in Prydz Bay, Antarctica. (Image Credit: Clive R McMahon/Sydney Institute of Marine Science) Click to Enlarge.
Scientists have recruited the elephant seal – the bruiser of the pinniped world – to explore and report back on the dynamics of ocean currents in the Antarctic winter.

And the mammals have delivered a potentially ominous message:  because fresh water is melting from the sea ice, the density of southern ocean surface waters is significantly reduced.

If there is too dramatic a reduction, the all-important dense waters that descend to the depths and power the ocean conveyor system that drives circulation − and climate − could falter.
Antarctic bottom water
And the researchers report in Nature Communications journal that their study “highlights the susceptibility of Antarctic bottom water to increased freshwater input from the enhanced melting of the ice shelves, and ultimately the potential collapse of Antarctic bottom water formation in a warming climate”.

Read more at Seals Reveal Mysteries of Antarctic Sea Ice

Sunday, August 28, 2016

  Sunday, Aug 28

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

US Faces Rising Hurricane Bill

Scientists forecast that hurricane damage could increase dramatically in the US as high-income countries are also threatened by extreme weather events.

Hurricane Katrina left a trail of devastation when it hit US cities such as New Orleans in 2005. (Image Credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans / Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
German scientists have just issued a financial weather forecast that in a world of unmitigated climate change, the financial losses for the US per hurricane could triple, and annual losses due to hurricanes could rise eightfold.

And, they calculate that however vigorous the US economy, its growth cannot outpace the projected rising costs of hurricane damage in the decades ahead.

More than half of all weather-related economic losses around the globe are caused by damage due to tropical cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons, and the lessons of new research in Environmental Research Letters journal is that high-income countries may be no better protected than the poorest in this respect.

“So far, historical losses due to tropical cyclones have been found to increase less than linearly with a nation’s affected gross domestic product (GDP),” says Tobias Geiger, climate impacts and vulnerabilities researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), who led the study.

Hurricane losses
“However, if you analyze losses with respect to per capita income and population growth separately, this reveals a different picture.  Our analysis for the United States shows that high income does not protect against hurricane losses.

“As the number and intensity of tropical cyclones is projected to increase under unchecked global warming by the end of the century, average hurricane losses with respect to GDP could triple.”

The bill for hurricanes in the US between 1980 and 2014 is estimated at $400 billion − and that represents half of all meteorologically-induced damage.

Hurricane hazard is a function of sea temperatures: once surface temperatures exceed 26°C, the probabilities grow, and potential intensity grows too.  Global warming, of course, increases ocean temperatures, and therefore the hazard.
“Some people hope that a growing economy will be able to compensate for the damages caused by climate change – that we can outgrow climate change economically instead of mitigating it,” says another of the study’s authors, Anders Levermann, PIK professor of dynamics of the climate system.

“But what if damages grow faster than our economy, what if climate impacts hit faster than we are able to adapt?  We find this is the case with hurricane damage in the United States.  The hope in economic growth as an answer to climate change is ill-founded.”

Read more at US Faces Rising Hurricane Bill

Why Aren’t We More Freaked Out About Louisiana?

Climate change is conditioning us to accept natural disasters as “the new normal.”

Richard Rossi and his four-year-old great-grandson, Justice, wade through water in search of higher ground after their home flooded in St. Amant, Louisiana. (Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
Louisiana has been utterly wrecked once again, and all anybody can talk about is how nobody is talking about it.

In the aftermath of flooding in and around Baton Rouge that began two weeks ago, 13 people have lost their lives.  The deluge has destroyed or seriously damaged more than 60,000 homes, and so far more than 100,000 residents have registered for federal assistance.  That last statistic certainly factored into one recent estimate that put flood-related losses at upwards of $20 billion.  Nearly one-third of Louisiana has been declared a disaster area.  (President Obama visited the state on Tuesday.)

It’s being called the worst natural disaster the country has seen since Hurricane Sandy.  And yet—as many have already noted—one of the most remarkable aspects of the calamity is how scant the coverage has been relative to other “major” stories dominating the news cycle over the past two weeks.  While flood victims need much, much more than publicity at the moment, their indignation isn’t misplaced.  If you were forced to wallow through waist-deep water, all the while trying to avoid snakes and alligators and floating coffins, you, too, might wonder why reports of Donald Trump’s campaign staff shakeups or Ryan Lochte’s drunken exploits were knocking your story off the front page or the evening news.

I suppose the culprit here could be classism, or disaster fatigue, or even the peculiar provincialism of so-called coastal media elites.  All have been cited as possible explanations for the difference between how the media have covered other natural disasters and how they’re covering Louisiana.  But I worry that it’s none of these—and that the real explanation for this discrepancy, while less offensive on its face, says something deeply troubling about the way that we’re collectively processing the horrors of climate change.

What if this sort of disaster just doesn’t feel like news anymore?

Psychologists have a word for this:  desensitization.  Put simply, the more we’re exposed to a negative stimulus, the weaker our emotional response to that stimulus becomes over time.  Desensitization is what allows a professional window washer to do his job on the 43rd floor of an office building without panicking, or a surgeon to deal with blood and internal organs all day without feeling queasy.

We want and need certain individuals to achieve a level of desensitization for the work they do, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that desensitization therapy is highly effective in treating phobias and other anxiety-based disorders.  But when an entire culture becomes inured to a negative stimulus, it’s usually cause for alarm.  One measure of a society’s health is its capacity to be shocked by violence, injustice, or depictions of human misery.

Read more at Why Aren’t We More Freaked Out About Louisiana?

Is Natural Gas a Bridge Fuel?

The U.S. is rapidly switching from coal to natural gas for its electricity generation.  Is that good news for the climate?

The distant moon looking down on a Marcellus Shale natural gas drill (Credit: copyright by Andrewmits | Click to Enlarge.
Just under a third of existing coal-based power generation in the United States has been shut down, and the Obama administration has aggressively embraced the replacement of coal with gas as a key part of meeting its 2030 climate targets.  We are quickly traveling down a gas bridge away from coal.  But will this shift actually be a good thing for the climate?

Slashing emissions at the plant
At first glance, replacing coal with natural gas seems like a good (though not great) step in combating climate change.

Overall, carbon dioxide emissions from new gas power plants are as much as 66 percent lower than those of existing coal power plants.  About half of this reduction is due to differing carbon intensities of the fuels (natural gas emits 40 percent less carbon than coal per unit of heat).  The other half is due to the higher generation efficiency of natural gas (new natural gas plants convert heat to power at upwards of 50 percent efficiency, while typical coal plants only operate at about 33 percent efficiency).

A way to reduce emissions by as much as two thirds while also saving money seems like a no-brainer for climate policy.  But natural gas has an Achilles’ heel that makes the question much harder to answer.

Leaking Gas
How much methane leaks from the natural gas system is very much an open question.  For a long time official Environmental Protection Agency numbers suggested the emissions were small and falling fast, only amounting to around 1.5 percent of total production.

But dozens of independent academics doing research using aircraft, satellite data, and other instruments have consistently found higher emissions than officially reported.
How much do leaks matter?
What do these leakage rates mean for the viability of natural gas as a bridge fuel?  Again, it comes down to a question of time frame.

Coal vs gas warming graph (Credit: Adapted from Figure 3 of Hausfather 2015) Click to Enlarge.
The figure at left shows the climate impacts over time (measured in units called radiative forcing) of existing coal (the dashed black line), new high-efficient coal plants (the solid black line), and new gas plants (the green line). The potential range of natural gas leakage is expressed by the gray envelope around the green line, with 1 percent leakage at the bottom and 6 percent leakage at the top (the green line itself shows a 3 percent leakage case).

If leakage is higher than 3 percent, there are some periods in the next 30 years when gas will result in more climate impact than new coal plants.  If leakage is higher than 4 percent, there are some periods when gas will be worse for the climate than existing coal plants.

But no matter what the leakage rate is, gas will still cut the climate impact by 50 percent in 2100 compared to new coal and 66 percent compared to existing coal.  So whether switching from coal to gas is beneficial in this simple example depends on how you value near-term or longer-term warming.

Read more at Is Natural Gas a Bridge Fuel?

California Utility Wants to Install Huge Number of Electric Car Chargers

But it wants rate payers to foot the $160 million bill

Car charging (Credit: Hakan Dahlstrom Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
The biggest utility in California will soon learn whether it can install as many as 7,600 electric vehicle charging stations, a controversial plan that would be the single largest deployment of plug-in spots in the country.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s proposal would have ratepayers foot the $160 million cost.  The utility would partner with charging companies but largely would build and maintain the infrastructure.  PG&E would prioritize placements at workplaces and multifamily housing, including apartment buildings.  A portion would go in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The utility’s region stretches 70,000 square miles from Humboldt County in Northern California to Bakersfield in the Central Valley.  There are 5,000 public chargers right now in PG&E’s territory.  Supporters argue a shift is needed in the marketplace to get needed charging stations and attract more EV buyers, as the Golden States aims to cut the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.

Utilities need to get involved in charging to make EVs mainstream, said Max Baumhefner, an attorney for clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There’s a growing charging infrastructure gap, and a widening recognition that we won’t be able to fill it unless we have utility-scale investment,” Baumhefner said.  “It would help move the electric vehicle market beyond the suburbs,” he added.  Right now, “if you can’t plug in at home, you’re not going to buy a plug-in car.”

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) must sign off on the plan.  It could issue a proposed decision in the matter by Monday in order to vote on it at a Sept. 29 meeting.  The agency could accept a settlement offer backed by PG&E and several supporters, pick a different option from a group of dissenters, or produce an entirely new blueprint.

PG&E’s proposal has won support from environmental organizations, automakers, labor unions and some in the charging business.  A few charging companies remain opposed, saying it blocks competition and is too large.  Two consumer groups also have concerns about the size and cost, as well as whether it actually would motivate purchases of plug-in cars.

Read more at California Utility Wants to Install Huge Number of Electric Car Chargers

Saturday, August 27, 2016

  Saturday, Aug 27

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

The Slow Death of Diesel

If diesel's demise is rapid and electric vehicles arrive quickly, over half of these engine production plants could be at risk (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Tesla, the electric bogeyman to Germany's wheezing carmakers, has its own problems ...  But Elon Musk won't have to write down a bunch of legacy diesel plants.  It's no wonder [European] carmakers trade on such lowly earnings multiples.

The balance sheet hit will depend on how quickly electric vehicles take off. They account for less than 2 percent of Europe's car sales and the industry thought they'd be a minority pursuit for years, giving it time to depreciate investments at a manageable pace.

Yet with battery costs plummeting, Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects the cost of owning an electric vehicle to fall below conventional fuel vehicles as soon as 2022. Having dragged its heels, even Volkswagen says as many as one quarter of its sales will be electric cars by 2025.

Ideally, carmakers would halt diesel spending. Unfortunately, they'll have to keep investing to hit Europe's tough 2021 emission targets. Electric cars won't have picked up the slack by then. So they're stuck.

Read more at The Slow Death of Diesel

Global Warming Is Melting the Greenland Ice Sheet, Fast

Greenland Ice Sheet. (Photograph Credit: Briggs/CPOM) Click to Enlarge.
Measuring ice sheet melting is important, not only as a signal of global warming but also because of the sea level impacts.  But how is this melting measured?  The ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are huge and scientists need enough measurements in space and time to really understand what’s going on.  That is, we need high-resolution and long duration measurements to fully understand trends.

In a very recent publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, an international team reported on a new high-resolution measurement of Greenland.  The lead author, Malcolm McMillan from the Center for Polar Observation and Modeling, and his colleagues mapped Greenland with incredibly high resolution (5 km distances).

They accomplished this mapping by obtaining data from the Cryosat 2 satellite.  This satellite uses a technique called laser altimetry to measure the height of surfaces.  It is able to track the elevation of the ice sheets on Greenland with high precision.  If the height of the ice sheet is growing, it means the ice is getting thicker. If the heights are decreasing, it means the ice layers are getting thinner.
The authors of this study ... discovered that not only is Greenland losing a lot of ice, but the loss varies a lot depending on location and year.  For example, 2012 was a year of incredible ice loss compared to other years.  Also, the western side of the ice sheet is losing much more ice than the eastern side.  They also found that a small part of the ice sheet (less than 1% of the sheet) is responsible for more than 10% of the mass loss.

In total, they estimate approximately 270 gigatons of ice loss per year for 2011–2014.  This result is almost a perfect match to independent measurements made by other researchers and builds our confidence in their conclusions.  To put this in perspective, the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing approximately 110 million Olympic size swimming pools worth of water each year.

Read more at Global Warming Is Melting the Greenland Ice Sheet, Fast

Enviros Pick Climate Fight with Feds, Seek to Rein In Leasing

A pumpjack bobs on public lands in Utah. (Photo Credit: WildEarth Guardians) Click to Enlarge.
Backers of the "keep it in the ground" movement have taken their efforts up a notch, asking a federal court to force the Obama administration to consider the climate impacts of oil and gas leasing on public lands.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility argued that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management failed to weigh the climate impacts for at least 397 leases issued since early 2015.  The leases represent a combined 380,000 acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The lawsuit is one of the broadest challenges to federal oil and gas leasing to date, asking the court to freeze action on the contested leases until BLM performs an in-depth analysis of climate impacts from development on public lands.  Without closer attention to climate impacts, the groups say, leasing undermines President Obama's efforts to mitigate climate change.

"In spite of the President's commitment to U.S. leadership in moving towards a clean energy future," the complaint says.  "Federal Defendants continue to authorize the sale and issuance of hundreds of federal oil and gas leases on public lands across the Interior West without meaningfully acknowledging or evaluating the climate change implications of their actions."

The lawsuit comes as the "keep it in the ground" movement gains traction across the West — with several environmental groups and grass-roots activists protesting lease sales and pressuring government officials to prioritize government action.

Read more at Enviros Pick Climate Fight with Feds, Seek to Rein In Leasing

Trade Liberalization Could Buffer Economic Losses in Agriculture

Climate change affects agricultural productivity and could force up food prices. (Photo Credit: Thinkstock) Click to Enlarge.
Global warming could create substantial economic damage in agriculture, a new study finds.  Around the globe, climate change threatens agricultural productivity, forcing up food prices.  As the additional expenditure for consumers outweighs producers' gains, increasing net economic losses will occur in the agriculture and food sector towards the end of the century.  However, economic losses could be limited to 0.3 percent of global GDP -- depending on agricultural trade policies.

Read more at Trade Liberalization Could Buffer Economic Losses in Agriculture

Climate Change Could Put Tiny Krill at Big Risk

Antarctic krill, centimeter-long shrimp-like crustaceans that feed primarily on phytoplankton, are a key part of the Antarctic marine food chain. (Credit: NOAA NMFS SWFSC Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) Program) Click to Enlarge.
They may be small, but krill — tiny, shrimp-like creatures — play a big role in the Antarctic food chain.  As climate change warms the Southern Ocean and alters sea ice patterns, though, the area of Antarctic water suitable for krill to hatch and grow could drop precipitously, a new study finds.

Most Antarctic krill are found in an area from the Weddell Sea to the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that juts up toward South America.  They serve as an important source of food for various species of whales, seals and penguins.  While those animals find other food sources during lean years, it is unclear if those alternate sources are sustainable long-term.

Antarctic krill, centimeter-long shrimp-like crustaceans that feed primarily on phytoplankton, are a key part of the Antarctic marine food chain.

Over the past 40 years, populations of adult Antarctic krill have declined by 70 to 80 percent in those areas, though researchers debate whether that drop is due to the effects of climate change, a rebound in whale populations after the end of commercial whaling or some combination of those pressures.

Because of its key role in the regional food chain, scientists are concerned about the impacts that future climate change may have on the krill population and the larger Antarctic ecosystem.

In the new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Andrea Piñones and Alexey Fedorov examined how expected changes in ocean temperatures and sea ice coverage might affect krill during their earliest life stages when they are most vulnerable to environmental conditions.

Read more at Climate Change Could Put Tiny Krill at Big Risk

  Friday, Aug 26

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

Friday, August 26, 2016

California’s New Climate Rules Explained

The San Francisco Bay Area. (Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Following more than a year of legislative toing and froing, California’s leaders agreed this week on how ambitious the state will be in the fight against climate change after 2020.

Short answer: very.

A progressive culture and Silicon Valley-style innovation a decade ago thrust California toward the head of the worldwide pack when it comes to shifting away from polluting fossil fuels in favor of cleaner alternatives.

This week, the state Assembly and Senate ensured the state’s leadership will be strengthened when lawmakers approved two key bills.

The legislation will require Californian agencies take steps needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40 percent in 2030, compared with 1990 levels.  Gov. Jerry Brown plans to sign it.

How do California’s Goals Stack Up?
The state’s new climate goals are far more ambitious than those of the U.S. overall, and they’re in line with ambitions in Europe, which is a world leader on climate action.

Both the European Union and California are shooting for 40 percent pollution reductions in 2030 compared with 1990 levels.  The Europeans got off to an earlier start, setting a more ambitious target for 2020 than California.  That means California will have to work harder to reach its goals for 2030.
Are any countries or states more ambitious than California?
Just as California is the star of climate action in the U.S., the European Union has its own big shot — Germany.  Germany aims to reduce its climate impacts by 40 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, which is something California and the EU aim to achieve a decade later.

Still, per person, Californians and Germans continue to be heavier polluters than most Europeans, releasing the equivalent of about 12 tons each of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in 2013.  That’s a third more than the European Union average.

Read more at California’s New Climate Rules Explained

Asian Carbon Finds Its Way Home

India and China have good reason to cut their greenhouse emissions, scientists say: soot they are producing is damaging their own water resources.

Yak dung contributes to the soot found to be polluting the Tibetan Plateau. (Image Credit: travelwayoflife / Wikimedia Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Black carbon – soot particles that absorb sunlight, spread by fossil fuel combustion  – are thought to accelerate the thinning of the glaciers of Himalaya and Tibet.  Scientists have just identified the source of this Asian carbon.

The smears that warm the ice in the Himalayas come from India, they say.  And two thirds of the black cloud that settles on the frozen rivers of Tibet is from China.

Since billions of people in the region depend on the steady flow of glacial melt water down the Indus, the Ganges, the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and many other rivers through the summer growing season, the implications are ominous.

But since India and China are two of the three countries that burn fossil fuels to emit the highest levels of climate-warming carbon dioxide, the research also delivers another goad to action.

Pristine snow and ice reflect solar radiation back into space: mountain snows with a high albedo provide their own insulation, and release melt water slowly throughout the season.

Faster melting
Soot and cinders from forest fires or factory chimneys lower the albedo, because black carbon absorbs solar radiation and accelerates melting.

Shichang Kang of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based in Lanzhou, reports in the journal Nature Communications that he and colleagues from China and Sweden focused on identifying the source of carbon particles collected from eight snowpits.

These were on glaciers at what the scientists call the Third Pole – the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountains and the Tibetan Plateau represent the greatest mass of ice on Earth beyond the Arctic and Antarctic – during May and June over the years 2012 to 2014.
Source pinpointed
Two-thirds of the soot from the Tibetan plateau, they report, came from fossil fuel combustion in China, and much of the remainder from cinders of yak dung, a traditional fuel in Tibet.

The particles sampled from the Himalayas were, they write, equally composed of fragments of burning biomass and fossil fuels from the Indo-Gangetic Plain in North India.  So Asian carbon could be storing up problems for a thirsty (and therefore hungry) future.

Read more at Asian Carbon Finds Its Way Home

How Predictable Is the First Ice-Free Arctic Summer?

Average September Arctic sea ice extent, from 1979 to 2015. (Credit:  NSIDC) Click to Enlarge.
Around this time each year, many people turn their attention to the Arctic in anticipation of the annual minimum for sea ice cover.

After reaching its annual peak extent at the end of winter, Arctic sea ice melts as temperatures rise through spring and into summer.  Sea ice then hits its smallest extent sometime in September.

Since the satellite record began in 1979, the Arctic sea ice cover in September has declined by around 13% per decade.  The current record low was recorded on 16 September 2012, when sea ice dwindled to 3.41m square kilometers.

Such a stark drop off in sea ice has prompted the question of when the Arctic will first see an ice-free summer.  In our new study, published last week in Geophysical Research Letters, we consider whether it’s possible to pin this down to a specific year.

When does ice-free mean ice-free?

First, we need to clarify what exactly an “ice-free” Arctic summer is.

By “ice-free”, scientists usually mean a sea ice extent of less than one million square kilometers, rather than zero sea ice cover.

Arctic sea ice extent for 14 August 2016 (5.61m square kilometres). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. (Credit: NSIDC) Click to Enlarge.
There’s a good reason for this.  Arctic sea ice isn’t just found in the central Arctic Ocean, but also along the northern coastlines of the US, Greenland, Russia and Canada, and in the narrow channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  And it is thicker in these regions than in the central Arctic Ocean.

Scientists expect, therefore, that sea ice will be present there a little longer than it will out in the central Arctic Ocean.  This means as sea ice continues to decline, we will reach a point where the central Arctic Ocean will be largely ice-free, but remnants of ice will still remain along the northern coastlines of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.  Scientists therefore chose the one million square kilometer threshold to represent a practically ice-free Arctic Ocean.

Uncertainty in predictions

The emissions pathways have a big impact on when we might see consecutive ice-free summers.  For example, under the high emissions pathway, the Arctic is consistently ice-free during September from the late 2060s in our simulations.  In contrast, under the moderate pathway, consistently ice-free summers only occur in a few model simulations by 2080.

In conclusion, our findings suggest that we cannot predict the timing of an ice-free Arctic summer with an uncertainty of less than about 25 years.

But while natural fluctuations of weather and climate will affect exactly when an Arctic summer will first be ice free, we can be fairly certain that it will happen well before the end of this century without significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more at How Predictable Is the First Ice-Free Arctic Summer?

Scientists Solve Puzzle of Converting Gaseous Carbon Dioxide to Fuel [Using Sand]

Every year, humans advance climate change and global warming by injecting about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Converting greenhouse gas emissions into energy-rich fuel using nano silicon (Si) in a carbon-neutral carbon-cycle (Credit: Chenxi Qian) Click to Enlarge.
A team of scientists from the University of Toronto (U of T) believes they've found a way to convert all these emissions into energy-rich fuel in a carbon-neutral cycle that uses a very abundant natural resource:  silicon.  Silicon, readily available in sand, is the seventh most-abundant element in the universe and the second most-abundant element in the earth's crust.

The idea of converting carbon dioxide emissions to energy isn't new:  there's been a global race to discover a material that can efficiently convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water or hydrogen to fuel for decades.  However, the chemical stability of carbon dioxide has made it difficult to find a practical solution.

"A chemistry solution to climate change requires a material that is a highly active and selective catalyst to enable the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuel.  It also needs to be made of elements that are low cost, non-toxic and readily available," said Geoffrey Ozin, a chemistry professor in U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science, the Canada Research Chair in Materials Chemistry and lead of U of T's Solar Fuels Research Cluster.

In an article in Nature Communications published August 23, Ozin and colleagues report silicon nanocrystals that meet all the criteria.  The hydride-terminated silicon nanocrystals -- nanostructured hydrides for short -- have an average diameter of 3.5 nanometres and feature a surface area and optical absorption strength sufficient to efficiently harvest the near-infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths of light from the sun together with a powerful chemical-reducing agent on the surface that efficiently and selectively converts gaseous carbon dioxide to gaseous carbon monoxide.

The potential result:  energy without harmful emissions.
The U of T Solar Fuels Research Cluster is working to find ways and means to increase the activity, enhance the scale, and boost the rate of production.  Their goal is a laboratory demonstration unit and, if successful, a pilot solar refinery.

Read more at Scientists Solve Puzzle of Converting Gaseous Carbon Dioxide to Fue

  Thursday, Aug 25

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

Corn is the main crop used in the U.S. to produce biofuel. (Credit: Jim Deane/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some ethanol, and the findings, published in Climatic Change, were controversial.  They rejected years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.

Following the hottest month on record globally, and with temperatures nearly 2°F warmer and tides more half a foot higher than they were in the 1800s, the implications of biofuels causing more harm to the climate than good would be sweeping.

The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work.  “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat.

“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said.  “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

The findings were criticized by scientists whose work is directly challenged by them.

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, who has led lifecycle analyses that found climate benefits from different biofuels, called the research “highly questionable” for a range of technical reasons, including its focus on growth by American crops instead of the global network of farms.

Driven by federal and Californian policies that promote biofuels to slow global warming, the use of ethanol, biodiesel and similar products more than trebled nationwide during the years studied, providing 6 percent of Americans’ fuel by 2013.  Federal data shows gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained about 10 percent corn ethanol.
The University of Michigan scientists dispensed with the timescale-based approach altogether, eliminating the need for policy decisions about which timeframes should be used. Instead, their research provided an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel sector.
Although European officials have warned of the limitations of the use of lifecycle analyses in assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy, the EPA has been steadfast for more than five years in its attempts to create a new regulatory framework that would continue to embrace the approach.

Read more at Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline