Weekly Climate Review


From MacArthur Foundation’s review of Oct. 26, 2018:

Before Trump’s presidency, the 369-page report released Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine might have generated major news coverage for its significant break with previous recommendations from mainstream scientists. The report basically says that humanity can only avert climatic upheaval if, by 2050, it annually removes carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere equal to about twice the amount the U.S. emits each year. “The fact that we need large-scale negative emissions essentially tells us that we have left it [until] too late to solve the problem,” said Glen Peters, research director at Norway’s CICERO Center for International Climate Research.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned Monday that the amount of raw materials needed to sustain Earth’s growing human population and its improving living standards will nearly double by 2060. “Without concrete actions to address these challenges, the projected increase in the extraction and processing of raw materials… is likely to worsen pollution of air, water and soils, and contribute significantly to climate change,” the Paris-based intergovernmental think tank concluded.

By around 2070, climate change could move part of America’s breadbasket as far north as Alaska, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Earth Interactions. “Climate warming is expected to disproportionately affect crop yields in the southern United States due to excessive heat stress, while presenting new farming opportunities through a longer growing season farther north,” said the authors from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

In the here and now, Super Typhoon Yuta slammed into the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the South Pacific on Wednesday as a Category 5 storm. With sustained winds of 180 miles per hour, Yuta was the world’s strongest storm of 2018, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Surprises

This week brought some surprisingly tough talk—and action—on decarbonization.

An International Energy Agency (IEA) report released Thursday examines what decarbonization could mean for the oil-and-gas exporting nations of Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. “Now, more than at any other point in recent history, fundamental changes to the development model look unavoidable,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told Bloomberg News. “Countries cannot afford to base their economies on oil and gas revenue only. It’s high time to diversify their economies.”

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) intends to get out of the business of “dirty energy,” its energy chief declared Tuesday in the English-language Vietnam News. “Clean energy will power Asia’s future,” wrote Zhai Yongping. “To promote this, the ADB has integrated a shadow carbon price into its economic analysis of projects to reflect the negative externalities caused by greenhouse gas emissions. … We will ensure that, as we meet our own climate finance targets, ADB’s lending portfolio has no place for ‘dirty energy.'”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that his government would follow through with its threat to impose a carbon tax on provinces and territories that refused to enact their own—with all proceeds going to Canadian citizens to help offset any resulting increase in expenses. “The science is unequivocal: putting a price on pollution is one of the best ways to move forward,” Trudeau said in Toronto. “The problem exists because your political leaders have done far too little about this. Will we kick this can down the road yet again? Or will we show some courage to do what needs to be done? Starting next year, it will no longer be free to pollute anywhere in Canada. And we’re also going to help Canadians adjust to this new reality. … Every nickel will be invested in Canadians in the province or territory where it was raised.”

United States

Some of the most notable climate-related news in the past seven days came in the form of legal action.

At the Trump administration’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday stayed the 2015 case filed in Oregon by 21 youth suing the federal government for its lack of climate action, which was scheduled for trial on Monday. “The latest attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the trial does not appear to be based on any new evidence or arguments. The only new element is an additional Supreme Court justice,” said Melissa Scanlan, director of the New Economy Law Center at Vermont Law School, referring to newly confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“This lawsuit is an unconstitutional attempt to use a single Oregon court to control the entire nation’s energy and climate policy,” Jeffrey Wood, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney overseeing the government’s defense, said in a statement. Attorneys for the plaintiffs on Monday submitted a response to the Supreme Court arguing that the DOJ had not met the legal requirements for a stay. “This case clearly poses profoundly important constitutional questions, including questions about individual liberty and standing, the answers to which depend upon the full evaluation of evidence at trial,” they wrote. “These young plaintiffs, mere children and youth, are already suffering irreparable harm which worsens as each day passes with more carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and oceans.”

In another potentially landmark case, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil alleging that the oil giant defrauded shareholders by misleading them on the business risks from climate change. “Exxon provided false and misleading assurances that it is effectively managing the economic risks posed to its business by the increasingly stringent policies and regulations that it expects governments to adopt to address climate change,” the complaint states, citing evidence including internal company emails. “Exxon built a facade to deceive investors into believing that the company was managing the risks of climate change regulation to its business when, in fact, it was intentionally and systematically underestimating or ignoring them, contrary to its public representations,” Underwood said in a statement.

ExxonMobil spokesperson Scott Silvestri fired back with a statement saying that the lawsuit as built on “baseless allegations” that “are a product of closed-door lobbying by special interests, political opportunism and the attorney general’s inability to admit that a three-year investigation has uncovered no wrongdoing.”

Nonetheless, some expert observers say this case is different that those trying to call fossil fuel companies to account for climate change. “Contrary to Exxon’s attempts to spin this as a political witch hunt, this is a very serious enforcement action alleging illegal conduct that reaches to the highest levels of the corporate structure,” said Patrick Parenteau, senior counsel in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School. “The lawsuit filed [Wednesday] by New York’s attorney general against ExxonMobil is a stark indication of just how risky investing in oil and gas companies has become,” finance specialists Tom Sanzillo and Kathy Hipple of the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis wrote on Thursday. “Sophisticated investors today are treating oil and gas companies as speculative investments and are rightly skeptical of high levels of capital expenditures for exploration and drilling.”

In other petroleum industry news, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) announced Wednesday that it had issued a conditional permit for a Houston-based company’s proposal to drill for oil and gas off Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. “If developed, the facility would be the first oil-and-gas production facility in federal waters off Alaska,” Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release. “Responsibly developing our resources, in Alaska especially, will allow us to use our energy diplomatically to aid our allies and check our adversaries.” The move alarmed environmental groups. “Opening the Arctic to offshore oil drilling is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “This project sets us down a dangerous path of destroying the Arctic.”

At the same time, the DOI is looking to hire directors for five regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers under the U.S. Geological Survey to oversee research and advise the Trump administration on related policy needs. “I think any academic taking on one of these positions would need to think very carefully about whether they could do the work they want to do under this administration,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is the kind of Faustian bargain that a lot of scientists have to figure out right now.”

The board that oversees the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted unanimously on Thursday that the powerful entity would do its part to implement the Paris Agreement via reducing carbon emissions 35 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050. The Port Authority oversees much of the transportation infrastructure, including bridges, tunnels, airports and seaports, within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. “We have set ourselves a very ambitious target, and we are prepared to hold ourselves accountable,” said Executive Director Rick Cotton.

Bruce Nilles, who led the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign from 2002 to 2018, is shifting his emphasis from climate change to the economic case for phasing out coal. “By 2020, coal will be gone from most of the country and concentrated in a handful of states,” Nilles, who has joined the Rocky Mountain Institute as a senior fellow, told Utility Dive. “The way to make progress in the remaining states is to make the cold, hard economic case to regulators and customers that the high cost of coal-generated electricity is not good for business.”

In fact, closures of coal-fired power plants in the United States are on track to set a record this year, according to a report released Thursday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). Announced closures in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin look likely to total an unprecedented 15.4 gigawatts. “The competitive environment for coal-fired power in the generation marketplace is becoming ever more challenging as the price of renewables continues to fall and as natural gas prices are expected to remain low for the foreseeable future,” said author Seth Feaster, an IEEFA data analyst. At least 36.7 gigawatts of coal power are slated for retirement between 2018 through 2024, with additional capacity currently under scrutiny.

China

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) closed out last week criticizing authorities in the coal-producing Ningxia autonomous region for lacking “will” to fight air pollution, then opened this week by dinging four other regions for lax efforts in the nation’s war on pollution. The agency called out the provinces of Henan and Yunnan and the Guangxi autonomous region for “superficial,” “fake” and “perfunctory” efforts, and also censured Guangdong province adjacent to Hong Kong.

Ironically, the naming and shaming came after the MEE announced last week that it aimed for only a 3-percent reduction in lung-damaging PM2.5 particulates during this year’s smog season—October through March—as opposed to the 30-percent target announced earlier.

“The Chinese government has quietly withdrawn from a high-profile environmental commitment in the backdrop of [the] trade war [with the United States], [the recent economic] slowdown and rising labor unrest in the heavily polluted areas,” said Leng Ning, a post-doctoral fellow in China’s public policy at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “The fact that the government feels forced to choose between economic goals and clean air highlights the need to speed up the energy transition away from coal and resume economic reforms that would reduce dependence on highly polluting smokestack industries,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst in the Global Air Pollution Unit at Greenpeace.

“China embarked on an energy transformation in terms of cutting coal and developing renewables, but we are now facing difficulties on both fronts,” Li Shuo, Greenpeace China’s senior climate and energy policy officer, told  Reuters. The country’s coal production for the first nine months of 2018 increased 5.1 percent over the same period last year, government data show. And while the percentage of coal-fired power in the energy mix continues to fall, overall coal consumption is on the rise.

“With renewables ramping up so quickly, it has given the illusion of decarbonization, but China is falling into the same trap that Germany has fallen into—deploying lots of renewables that have to be backed up with lots of coal-fired power plants,” said Li Ning, dean of the College of Energy at Xiamen University. Although the country has several nuclear plants under construction, their commissioning remains a ways off. “If nuclear can’t keep up, then it is coal,” Li said.

In other fallout from tensions between China and the United States, the U.S. representative on the board of the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) blocked a $100-million GCF loan for a $1.5-billion project to develop clean power and transport in Shandong province, which consumes more energy than any other region of the country. “If you want to have an impact and a transformational role, you cannot do better [than the Shandong proposal], but it was nonetheless blocked by the U.S.,” Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the Democratic Republic of Congo official who represents Africa on the board, told Climate Home News. “It can create a little bit of distrust of the good faith of some of the parties around the table.”

India

Renewable energy made up a record 13.4 percent of India’s total energy generation during August, but soupy smog is once again blanketing the nation’s capital this month.

As part of its new anti-pollution program, New Delhi’s Transport Department reported fining as many as 10,787 drivers for visible air pollution or lack of vehicle inspection certificates, along with more than 1,000 overloaded trucks, over the past three weeks. “As many as 148 vehicles older than 15 years have also been seized during the ongoing [enforcement] drive,” a government source said.

But still there is coal—often India’s own highly-polluting coal—powering most of the economy and adding significantly to India’s deadly smog. Mining Weekly reported Wednesday that India’s Ministry of Power had directed companies with coal-fired power plants to vigorously work to secure coal supplies because the country’s demand for power is currently increasing 6 percent a year and projected to accelerate to 9 percent annually as industrialization increases. “They should be [buying] more mines and, at the same time, increas[ing] generation from renewables,” said Power Minister R.K. Singh. “But renewables themselves will not be enough. …[P]ower companies will have to strike a balance between renewables and coal, as clean energy will not be able to generate power round the clock.”

Meanwhile, NTPC Limited, India’s largest energy producer, has begun “co-firing” a mix of biomass, such as lumber scraps and crop residue, with coal to make its electricity more cost competitive with solar and wind power.

In a report published Tuesday, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) encouraged THDC India Limited, a company jointly owned by the Government of India and the state of Uttar Pradesh, to cancel the proposed $1.8-billion, 1.32-gigawatt Khurja coal power plant because of its proximity to already-choking New Delhi and the high risk of the facility becoming a white elephant.

“The Khurja power plant was feasible when first proposed eight years ago in response to power supply shortages and outages across northern India, but technology and relative costs [have] moved on,” Tim Buckley, IEEFA’s director of energy finance studies for Australasia, said in a press release. “Before any final decision to proceed with Khurja is made, the parties must carefully evaluate the project’s long-term financial viability and reassess India’s needs. We recommend the long delayed, excessively expensive and redundant Khurja project be canceled before it becomes another expensive stranded asset in India.”

Looking forward

The 10-day countdown to the U.S. midterm elections begins this Sunday. By Wednesday, November 7, the world should know whether Democrats have won enough seats in Congress to challenge President Trump’s nonstop unraveling of U.S. climate protections.

Climate change is still a polarizing, no-go area in most races for state and national office, but not everywhere. “This is not just a political issue anymore in some places,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. “Voters are seeing the consequences [of warming] right here, right now.”

“In Nevada, the Democratic candidate for governor, Steve Sisolak, pledged in an ad to uphold the Paris Agreement,” The New York Times reported on Thursday. “In Illinois, a Democratic candidate for the House, Sean Casten, assailed President Trump for calling climate change a ‘hoax.’ And more than two dozen other candidates in tight races have released ads highlighting their views on climate change.” The News & Observer reported this week that some Republican candidates in North Carolina have tempered their outright denial of climate change after two record-setting hurricanes ripped across the state in September and October.

Even in the many places where climate change is, as Leiserowitz says, a hotter potato than abortion, renewable energy is proving to be a Trojan horse for the cause. Arizona’s ballot initiative requiring the state to generate half of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030 is one such case to watch.

In Washington state, which leans Democratic, a referendum on a carbon tax is anything but a slam dunk. “This is new ground for everybody,” said John Larsen of the global research firm Rhodium Group. “If Washington gets this in place, it’s going to provide a different picture of what’s possible.”

Looking beyond the midterms, a preparatory meeting this week in Krakow, Poland, for December’s global climate summit saw U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa trying to rally the troops for bold action in nearby Katowice five weeks from now. “We no longer have the luxury of time, nor do we have the luxury of endless negotiations,” she told participants representing 35 countries. She warned that a lack of paradigm-shifting action would “destabilize the global economy” and could “displace between 50 million and 200 million [people] by 2050.”

Espinosa was undoubtedly heartened today when the body that represents Catholic leaders on five continents issued a statement calling the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial times a “moral duty.” While summit host Poland loves coal, that affection pales in comparison to Poles’ fealty to the Catholic church.