Can redesigning aeroplanes save the planet?

26 MAY 2021|DESIGN

Can we make air travel more sustainable and environmentally friendly? It’s a race against time to decarbonise aviation – engineers, scientists and aerospace companies are all working on solutions to bring down emissions generated by aircraft.

We explore some of the radical solutions being developed in the UK to address these urgent issues.

Written and Presented by Marc Cieslak
Camera & Edit: Ben ListerBBC Click

Carbon dioxide in the air at highest level since measurements began

Story by Reuters

Updated 11:09 PM ET, Mon June 7, 2021A 2019 photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii.A 2019 photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii.

Despite a massive reduction in commuting and in many commercial activities during the early months of the pandemic, the amount of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere in May reached its highest level in modern history, a global indicator released on Monday showed.Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, said the findings, based on the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at NOAA’s weather station on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, was the highest since measurements began 63 years ago.The measurement, called the Keeling Curve after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who began tracking carbon dioxide there in 1958, is a global benchmark for atmospheric carbon levels.

Instruments perched on NOAA’s mountaintop observatory recorded carbon dioxide at about 419 parts per million last month, more than the 417 parts per million in May 2020.

The amount of carbon in the air now is as much as it was about 4 million years ago, a time when sea level was 78 feet (24 meters) higher than it is today and the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution, said a report on the emissions.

There is more CO2 in the atmosphere today than any point since the evolution of humansCarbon dioxide is a key driver of climate change, and the findings show that reducing the use of fossil fuels, deforestation and other practices that lead to carbon emissions must be a top priority to avoid catastrophic consequences, said Pieter Tans, a scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory.Enter your email to sign up for the Wonder Theory newsletter.“close dialog”

Want to stay updated on the latest space and science news?We’ve got you.Sign Me UpBy subscribing you agree to ourprivacy policy.“We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year,” Tans wrote in the report. “That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn, and release into the atmosphere as CO2 — year after year.”

Despite the pandemic lockdown, scientists were not able to see a drop in the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere partly because of wildfires, which also release carbon, as well as the natural behavior of carbon in the atmosphere, the report said.The carbon dioxide levels measured were not affected by the eruption of Hawaiian volcanoes, Tans said, adding the station is situated far enough from active volcanoes that measurements are not distorted, and occasional plumes of carbon dioxide are removed from the data.

The scientists urged the global community to transition to solar and wind energy instead of fossil fuels, warning that the world has been unable to slow, let alone reverse, annual carbon dioxide levels thus far.”The solution is right before our eyes,” said Tans. “If we take real action soon, we might still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

Earth’s History Sends Climate Warning – Urgent Action Needed

TOPICS:Atmospheric ScienceCarbon DioxideClimate ChangeClimate Science


Chemical fingerprints of past CO2 levels are preserved in microscopic fossil shells such as this foraminifera. Credit: University of St Andrews

A new study of historical carbon dioxide levels stresses urgent action is needed to avoid prehistoric levels of climate change.

The international team of scientists, led by the University of St Andrews, collected data spanning the last 66 million years to provide new insights into the kinds of climates we can ultimately expect if CO2 levels continue to rise at the current rate. The projected rise would result in prehistoric levels of warmth that have never been experienced by humans.

The study, published in the scientific journal Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences on May 31, 2021, provides the most complete history to date of how CO2 has changed over the last 66 million years, the time since dinosaurs last roamed the planet. The data collected shows more clearly than ever before the link between CO2 and climate.

Working with colleagues from Texas A&M University, the University of Southampton and the Swiss University ETH Zürich, the international team pulled together data collected over the last 15 years using high-tech laboratory techniques.

Samples were taken from cores of mud from the deep-sea floor, where microscopic fossils and ancient molecules accumulate, preserving a story of what CO2 and the climate looked like at the time. By firing these ancient atoms through super sensitive instruments, scientists can detect the chemical fingerprints of past changes in CO2, which can be compared with present day changes. For example, the study explains, through fossil fuel burning and deforestation, how humans have now driven CO2 back to levels not seen since around three million years ago.
The history of atmospheric CO2 levels and global average temperature over the last 60 million years: the CO2 scale shows CO2 in terms of doublings, as this is the key control on climate.

Dr. James Rae, from the University of St Andrews School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who led the international team explained: “For instance, the last time CO2 was as high as it is today enough ice melted to raise sea level by 20 metres and it was warm enough for beech trees to grow on Antarctica.

“If we allow fossil fuel burning to continue to grow, our grandchildren may experience CO2 levels that haven’t been seen on Earth for around 50 million years, a time when crocodiles roamed the Arctic.”

Dr. Rae added: “CO2 has transformed the face of our planet before, and unless we cut emissions as quickly as possible, it will do it again.”

At COP26 in Glasgow this November, politicians will work on international agreements to lower CO2 emissions to net-zero levels, and prevent CO2 rising further.

Reference: “Atmospheric CO2 over the Past 66 Million Years from Marine Archives” by James W.B. Rae, Yi Ge Zhang, Xiaoqing Liu, Gavin L. Foster, Heather M. Stoll and Ross D.M. Whiteford, 31 May 2021, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
DOI: 10.1146/annurev-earth-082420-063026

The math isn’t adding up on forests and CO2 reductions

Big polluters can hide behind forest offsetsBy Justine Calma@justcalma  Apr 29, 2021, 5:12pm EDT

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Upward view of giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park,...
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES – 2018/09/01: Upward view of giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, California, USA.

More evidence surfaced this week that shows that forests are struggling to do humans’ dirty work when it comes to climate change. Although companies and countries are increasingly relying on forests to draw down their planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions, the math isn’t adding up to show big benefits.

California might have oversold the success of carbon offsets used in its cap-and-trade system, which is often billed as one of the world’s most successful market-based mechanisms to tackle climate change. The system appears to be failing because California is actually overcounting how much carbon dioxide forests keep out of the atmosphere, according to a new study by nonprofit CarbonPlan, that’s still under peer review, and reporting by ProPublica and MIT Technology Review. (One of the authors, James Temple, was previously a senior director at The Verge.)

That finding follows research published earlier this week in the journal Nature Climate Change that found a giant discrepancy between how much climate pollution countries officially reported and how much pollution independent models calculated for them. In this case, forests mucked up the numbers because countries are attributing more carbon reductions to their forests than independent models do.THAT LETS THOSE POLLUTERS OFF THE HOOK

Trees do provide a crucial service for people and the planet by “breathing in” and storing carbon dioxide. So protecting forests is important for their health and ours. But schemes devised to sell forests’ carbon storage to polluters as a way to cancel out their emissions haven’t always resulted in the CO2 reductions they’re supposed to achieve. Ultimately, that lets those polluters off the hook instead of pushing them to do more in the race to prevent a deeper climate crisis.

In the US, forest owners can sell their land’s ability to store carbon as “credits” to polluters. Since California sets a cap for how much CO2 pollution industries generate, companies can purchase those credits to cancel out some of their emissions and stay below the cap (with each credit representing one metric ton of CO2). But up to 39 million credits, nearly a third in the state’s program, didn’t actually provide the climate benefits they were supposed to, according to the new analysis by CarbonPlan.

That’s because the state was using averages to estimate how much CO2 each parcel of forest could hold. In reality, some pieces of forest can store more than others based on what kinds of trees are there and how dense the forest is. Forest managers also “gamed the system” by selling credits from parcels that inflated how much carbon they stored, ProPublica and MIT Technology Review reported.FOREST MANAGERS ALSO “GAMED THE SYSTEM”

The California Air Resources Board disputes the study’s findings, which are still undergoing peer review. “We were not given sufficient time to fully analyze an unpublished study and are not commenting further on the authors’ alternative methodology,” a spokesperson for the Air Resources Board wrote to ProPublica and MIT Technology Review. (This isn’t the first time California’s cap-and-trade system has come under scrutiny. Previous research found that some “economically disadvantaged neighborhoods” near regulated facilities experienced higher rates of pollution after the carbon trading system began.)

Discrepancies in carbon accounting due to forests show up globally, too, according to the Nature Climate Change study. There was a 5.5 billion ton difference between the amount of carbon dioxide emissions nations report each year and what independent models calculated. That’s a big gap, nearly as much as the US’s net emissions in 2019. It boils down to the way the US and other countries count up carbon caught by their forests, which doesn’t match up with the methods other researchers use. The lack of standardized reporting across the board for countries and scientists could throw a wrench in global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It’s hard to make progress if everyone’s taking different measurements.

What’s more, countries that are big polluters and that have a lot of forests, like the US, can lean on that asset more than countries without as much forest cover, The Washington Post writes. Countries like the US use forests to subtract emissions, and they end up reporting a smaller “net” footprint as a result. That can make it look like they’ve made bigger environmental gains even if they’re still polluting a lot.“A FREEBIE FROM NATURE”

If the US didn’t count on forests and other land ecosystems to offset some 12 percent of its emissions, its carbon footprint would actually be much higher. “We are lucky to have those natural carbon sinks,” Christopher Williams, a professor at Clark University, told The Washington Post. “However, that carbon uptake is a freebie from nature for which we do not really get to take credit in our battle against climate change.”

Despite the risks that come with relying on those freebies, it’s getting trendier than ever to invest in forest-based climate solutions. YouTubers and the World Economic Forum have launched feel-good tree-planting initiatives. Tech companies like Microsoft that have made commitments to become carbon “neutral” or carbon “negative” say that they’ll draw down at least as many emissions as they release — and are relying heavily on trees to do that. But trees can only do so much — and, if the results of these studies hold up, perhaps much less than people previously thought they could.

Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels greater than 23 million-year record

June 1, 2020
Geological Society of America
A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: ‘Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!’ This new study used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.

A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: “Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!” This new study by Brian Schubert (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and coauthors Ying Cui and A. Hope Jahren used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.

The team used the fossilized remains of ancient plant tissues to produce a new record of atmospheric CO2 that spans 23 million years of uninterrupted Earth history. They have shown elsewhere that as plants grow, the relative amount of the two stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-12 and carbon-13 changes in response to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This research, published this week in Geology, is a next-level study measuring the relative amount of these carbon isotopes in fossil plant materials and calculating the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere under which the ancient plants grew.

Furthermore, Schubert and colleagues’ new CO2 “timeline” revealed no evidence for any fluctuations in CO2 that might be comparable to the dramatic CO2 increase of the present day, which suggests today’s abrupt greenhouse disruption is unique across recent geologic history.

Another point, important to geological readers, is that because major evolutionary changes over the past 23 million years were not accompanied by large changes in CO2, perhaps ecosystems and temperature might be more sensitive to smaller changes in CO2 than previously thought. As an example: The substantial global warmth of the middle Pliocene (5 to 3 million years ago) and middle Miocene (17 to 15 million years ago), which are sometimes studied as a comparison for current global warming, were associated with only modest increases in CO2.

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Materials provided by Geological Society of AmericaNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change

Reforestation is seen as a way to help cool the climate, sucking excess warming carbon out of the atmosphere. But it’s not always that simple.

Suddenly we are all being told to plant trees. The hope is that they will save us from the worst effects of climate change.

The idea is everywhere. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made a film arguing for extra protections for the world’s forests, and for the replanting of those that have been cut down. George Monbiot, a columnist in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, has founded a campaign called Natural Climate Solutions, which advocates restoring forests and other ecosystems.

This is not just talk. The UK government has planted millions of trees over the last decade, and has pledged another million between 2020 and 2024. Others have attempted far more dramatic feats: in 2016 one Indian state planted 50 million trees in one day, while in July last year Ethiopia claimed to have planted 350 million in a day. Even the UK’s Daily Mail, a right-wing newspaper not known for its climate activism, has just launched a campaign encouraging all its readers to plant a tree.

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Protecting existing forests and planting new ones are surely good things to do. However, scientists say we must not place too much faith in trees to save us. In particular, last year one research group claimed we can plant a trillion extra trees and remove a quarter of the carbon dioxide currently in the air. These figures have been widely criticised as overhyped and unreliable. Trees will definitely help us slow climate change, but they won’t reverse it on their own.

The underlying problem is that our society is releasing greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), that are warming the Earth’s climate to levels we have never experienced before. As a result the great ice sheets are melting, contributing to rising seas, and extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts are becoming more severe.

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The solution is to stop emitting all greenhouse gases, for instance by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like solar power. Deforestation is actually one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide, because when trees are cut down much of the carbon stored within them escapes into the air – especially if the wood is burned. For instance, in 2017 land use changes – mostly deforestation – contributed four billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the global total of 41 billion tonnes of CO2. In other words, if we stopped cutting down trees we would cut our annual emissions by about 10%.

However, simply stopping all our emissions is no longer enough. At this point we have emitted so much CO2, and left emissions cuts so late, that we are almost certain to miss our targets of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C. That means we must also find ways to actively remove CO2 from the air.

So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries

All sorts of technological approaches have been proposed, but trees are an obvious contributor. New trees can either be planted in regions that have been deforested (reforestation) or in places that have never had them before (afforestation). As the trees grow they pull in CO2 through their leaves and convert it into carbohydrates, which they use to grow. So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries. Trees are a natural “carbon sink”. It follows that we should both stop chopping down forests – especially tropical ones like the Amazon, which store huge amounts of carbon – and start planting more.

By some estimates, trees can be an enormous carbon sink. A study published in July 2019, led by Thomas Crowther of ETH-Zurich in Switzerland, estimated the world has room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of forestOnce those trees had matured, they could store 752 billion tonnes of CO2. Planting trees, the team wrote, is “one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date”.

This finding has had immediate, fierce pushback from other climate scientists. In October 2019, the journal Science published four highly critical comments. These argued that the researchers had overestimated the carbon trees could store – by a factor of five. They also highlighted multiple mistakes. For instance, much of the land Crowther described as “available” for tree planting already has plants growing on it, all of them storing carbon, many of which would have to be removed, according to Sonia Seneviratne of ETH-Zurich and her colleagues.

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

There are also deeper problems, because trees have more than one way to affect the climate.

The first issue is that trees are dark, at least compared to other things that might blanket the land, such as grass or snow. As a result, planting more trees typically makes the land darker. Since dark surfaces absorb more heat, a dark tree-covered surface will trap more of the Sun’s heat – and warm the local climate.

As a result, there is a delicate balance between trees’ ability to take in CO2, reducing warming, and their tendency to trap additional heat and thus create warming. This means planting trees only helps stop climate change in certain places.

Specifically, according to a 2007 study that has been repeatedly confirmed, the best place to plant new trees is the tropics, where trees grow fastest and thus trap the most CO2. In contrast, planting trees in snowy regions near the poles is likely to cause a net warming, while planting them in temperate climates – like that of the UK, much of Europe and parts of the US – may have no net effect on climate.

Trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone

“You have to be careful where you do reforestation,” says David Beerling of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

Others say this problem is overblown. “They’re assuming that snow cover’s going to stay there with warming,” says Beverly Law of Oregon State University in Corvallis. She points out that the polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, so much of the snow may melt in the coming decades – in which case planting trees will not make the ground that much darker. “That’s been kind of a red herring that’s held out there a lot,” says Law.

The other thing trees do is emit volatile chemicals into the air. “That’s the pine-y smell you get when you walk through a forest,” says Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds in the UK. These chemicals stick together to form tiny floating particles called aerosols, which have complicated effects.

For example, the aerosols create a faint haze. This scatters sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. “Probably the more important effect is those particles act as seeds for cloud droplets,” says Spracklen. This creates more low cloud, or thicker low cloud, which also bounces sunlight back to space.

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

However, the trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone, which is a greenhouse gas at low altitudes. For Nadine Unger of the University of Exeter in the UK, this is a major problem. “The mutual relationships between forests and climate are actually really rather more complex and not fully understood,” Unger told the James Lovelock Centenary conference at the University of Exeter in July 2019.

In 2014 Unger calculated that, by chopping down forests from 1850 to the 2000s and thus preventing them emitting volatiles, we have created a cooling effect that slightly offset the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly afterwards she wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times headlined “To save the planet, don’t plant trees”.

However, other reforestation experts are critical of Unger’s findings. “The overall effect is quite small,” says Spracklen, who has studied the effects of aerosols. “Then the carbon storage blows all the rest out of the water.” Law agrees, saying the effects of aerosols are also “a red herring”.

Natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year

So how much can trees really help us solve our climate problem?

In a 2017 study, researchers led by Bronsom Griscomnow at Conservation International, estimated the full potential of “natural climate solutions”. This includes restoring wetlands and other ecosystems, and minimising emissions from farmland, but the biggest contributors by far were preserving existing forests and reforesting degraded areas.

The team estimated that the natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. That is a little over half our annual emissions, but they emphasise that many of the strategies they studied would not be cost-effective: a more plausible figure would be 11-15 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. This implies natural climate solutions could mop up about 30% of the CO2 we need to deal with every year.

For Law, it is one of the best estimates published to date. The researchers “really did a pretty good job”, she says.

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The UK’s Royal Society came to similar conclusions in a 2018 report on greenhouse gas removal technologies. They estimated that reforestation could remove three billion to 18 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. These are significant numbers.

Uncertainties do remain, however. For instance, the climate will keep changing for many decades, and this will affect trees’ behaviour and growth – but we don’t really know how yet. “There’s still a question mark,” says Beerling. “Will they be limited by nutrient availability or increased fire or increased drought?” Similarly, planting trees in dry areas can cause water scarcity because they suck up so much – as China has discovered.

However, there are also surprise benefits of planting trees. For instance, a 2018 study suggested that large-scale tree planting in dry tropical regions would cause a shift in weather patterns, leading to more rainfall on land – enabling more plant growth and therefore more carbon storage.

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political

Also, planting trees is not just about stopping climate change. “As well as the climate emergency, we’re facing a biodiversity crisis,” says Spracklen. Planting trees can help with both, he says, “but only if we do it right”.

At the moment a lot of the trees being planted are monocultures of fast-growing commercial species like acacia or eucalyptus. These have “virtually no biodiversity benefits and may even replace something that was better”. It would be better to restore species-rich forests, he says. In line with this, Law has highlighted that planting rich new forests can boost local biodiversity, as well as improving water availability.

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest  (Credit: Getty Images)

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest (Credit: Getty Images)

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political. Put simply, where will people and nations allow the large-scale planting of trees? “As soon as you get down onto the land, there’s people living there and they have aspirations for how they want to live their lives that maybe don’t involve tree-planting,” says Spracklen. “There’s virtually nowhere where land’s just lying idle and you can just come along and do that.”

He points to the Welsh hills, which are severely deforested and consequently lacking in wildlife – but which are politically difficult to reforest because they are dominated by the sheep-farming industry. Similar conflicts over land use exist in all countries.

The message, then, is that trees can play a significant role in stopping dangerous climate change – provided we plant them in the right places. The challenge will be finding ways to fit huge new forests into our societies in such a way that people accept them.

Why Are We Subsidizing Fossil Fuels? Seriously

May 24th, 2020 by 

Originally published on the website of The Climate Reality Project.

Supporting renewables can cut emissions and boost the economy, all while providing cost-competitive energy. Yet the Trump Administration continues propping up the fossil fuel industry — despite the sector facing real financial problems that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disney World solar installation, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica

Just over a decade ago the Obama Administration and Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: a stimulus package response to the Great Recession. Notably, it included unprecedented support for renewable energy and other green initiatives.

Since then, installed solar capacity in the US has grown from about 2 gigawatts to 78 gigawatts: enough to power 14.5 million homes. Similarly, wind capacity around the country grew from 35 gigawatts in 2009 to over 107 gigawatts in 2020. These clean energy sources haven’t just prevented millions of tons of planet-warming, air-polluting emissions — they’ve created millions of high-quality jobs, helping boost the economy when it mattered most. The stimulus push wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.

Now, 10 years later, you might say the opposite is happening.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration is largely shunning clean energy, a sector that has demonstrated outstanding economic promise, while propping up the oil, gas, and coal industries, which faced real financial challenges long before this pandemic started.

So, why are we prioritizing fossil fuels over clean energy? It didn’t make sense 10 years ago and it certainly doesn’t make sense now.

Integrated gas station with EVgo fast chargers in South Carolina, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica

Fossil Fuels: An Industry In Decline

First things first, how exactly has the Trump Administration been propping up fossil fuels? To name a few highlights, since the pandemic started, the administration has:

The threat of our changing climate aside, these actions just don’t make economic sense. Why? Because these industries were in decline before this pandemic even started. Let’s take a look at each one.

First off, coal.

In 2019 alone, US coal-fired electricity output dropped by 18 percent, reaching its lowest level since 1975. This consistent, years-long decline is largely the result of increasingly cost-competitive solar and wind energy.

So cost competitive, in fact, that it’s now more expensive to operate 74 percent of US coal plants than to build and use renewables. Those facts, combined with rising public concern over coal’s health-damaging, planet-warming pollution, make it clear that a US coal phase-out should be only a matter of time.

Next up, oil and gas.

Despite a boom over the past decade thanks to shale fracking, oil and gas face an increasingly pressing problem — they’re largely unprofitable for US drillers. Many companies in the space today continue to operate exclusively thanks to billions of dollars of investment that might never be paid back.

As news site reported in 2019 (note, before the pandemic):

“Despite the hype of lower breakeven prices, and despite the hype around longer laterals, energy digitalization, and other technological breakthroughs, most shale companies are still not profitable. In fact, roughly 9 out of every 10 U.S. shale companies are burning cash, according to Rystad Energy. The Oslo-based consultancy studied 40 U.S. shale companies and found that only 4 of them had positive cash flow in the first quarter of 2019.”

Similarly, a 2020 report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) describes how oil, gas, and petrochemical companies showed “clear signs of systemic weakness” long before the COVID-19 economic crisis as a result of:

  • Long-term underperformance on stock markets
  • Massive accumulations of corporate debt
  • Legal opposition in countries critical to the industry’s future
  • The increasing cost-competitiveness of renewable energy
  • Growing investor skepticism about the long-term prospects for fossil fuels during an escalating climate crisis.

Clearly, just like coal the oil and gas industries were already in trouble. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis is just amplifying their preexisting woes.

Renewables: Good For The Planet And For The Economy

Now, like just about any other sector, renewable energy currently faces significant losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 600,000 clean energy workers around the country have lost their jobs and projects are being put on hold. However, this crisis is also demonstrating this industry’s remarkable durability.

Recent headlines highlight how, even in the midst of this crisis, the US clean energy transition is still going strong:

  • The Department of Interior just approved plans for a 690-megawatt solar project in Nevada— the largest ever in the US.
  • For the first time ever America’s renewable energy sources have produced more electricity than coal every day for 40 days straight.
  • The city of Houston, Texas, the self-proclaimed “energy capital of the world”, has announced its plan to move to 100 percent renewable energy sources starting in July. This change is expected to save the city $65 million over the next seven years.
  • In California, an electric utility just announced that it will build 770-megawatts worth of battery storage for renewable energy. This single project tops all 2019 US installations by more than 200 megawatts.

Those are a just a few US-focused headlines, but long-term projections tell the same story all around the world: renewables are here to stay. 

According to the International Energy Agency, although growth in renewable electricity generation is smaller than anticipated before the COVID‑19 crisis, it’s still expected to rise by nearly 5 percent in 2020.

Similarly, the Financial Times recently described how, “Renewable energy is one of the few sectors that has managed to weather the devastating effects of coronavirus, with new deals and new records being struck, even while the rest of the world has been grappling with the pandemic”.

Economics are increasingly on the side of renewables, making them the right choice both financially and environmentally. So, why won’t the Trump administration embrace the transition away from fossil fuels that we need? Just like a decade ago, supporting clean energy today could supercharge our economy while tackling the climate crisis.

Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change

Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change
As well as fossil fuels—not instead of. Credit: science photo / shutterstock

The global COVID-19 quarantine has meant less air pollution in cities and clearer skies. Animals are strolling through public spaces, and sound pollution has diminished, allowing us to hear the birds sing.

But these relatively small and temporary changes should not be mistaken for the COVID-19 pandemic actually helping to fix climate change. Quite the contrary: the pandemic that made the world stop offers a glimpse of the deep changes in lifestyles and economic structures that we need to implement if we are to effectively mitigate the worst of climate change.

The  are not in doubt. A new study in Nature Climate Change led by scientists from the University of East Anglia and Stanford has found that daily global CO₂ emissions in early April 2020 were down 17% compared to the mean level of emissions in 2019.

This finding backs up an earlier report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which found that CO₂ emissions from —globally, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions—in the first three months of 2020 were 5% lower compared to the same period last year.

But the short-term and long-term effects of pollution are different things, and a few months without driving or flying will do little in the long run. Climate change is caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Quarantine measures have affected emissions of these gases in the short term, and many places have seen a drop in air pollution. But these measures were not enough to curb the overall concentration in the atmosphere, which is still increasing. Why? Because molecules of these gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time: methane for around 12 years, for instance, and carbon dioxide for up to 200 years.

Emissions declined, but it won’t last

The new Nature climate change study predicts that if some restrictions are kept throughout the whole of 2020 annual emissions reductions would reach 7.5%.

This would, in theory, be great news for the environment, especially if we could maintain it for years to come. After all, in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030.

But this level of emissions reduction will not last unless  remains depressed. And as lockdowns end and people return to work, emissions will inevitably rise once again—this happens as activity resumes after every economic downturn, including the financial crisis of 2008.

Keeping economic activity depressed to April 2020 levels is not a feasible long-term strategy. But we could use this opportunity productively to steer our societies towards a new paradigm that truly addresses the core issue of the climate conundrum.

We need to restructure our economies

Fossil fuels are the basis of our economies. Our  are built around them and surprisingly little has changed since the first oil shocks in 1973. Back then, coal, oil and gas accounted for 87% of the world’s total primary energy supply, while in 2017 these  still accounted for 81%. Over that same period, the total amount of energy supplied more than doubled.

Yes, there is lots of new renewable energy, but this has been deployed alongside fossil fuels, rather than replacing them. All over the globe, there are still plans to build new coal-fired power plants and oil & gas infrastructure. Even countries like Norway, where fossil fuels count for only about 30% of the total energy supply and almost all electricity comes from hydropower, still often rely heavily on fossil fuel profits to fund welfare systems and pension schemes.

If we are to truly progress towards a low carbon economy, we must address the roots of the problem. For instance, how can we encourage further divestment from fossil fuels if the sector is still among the most secure and profitable investments? Or how can we build clean energy systems if we keep subsidizing fossil fuels? Despite promises to phase out these tax breaks and other incentives, the richer G20 countries still provided US$127 billion in subsidies to coal, oil and gas in 2017 (remarkably, that figure excludes Saudi Arabia).

And how can we resume activity without “going back to normal”? We need long-term recovery strategies that value nature as the overarching framework within which we all exist, not a mere economic resource. To date, several post-pandemic recovery plans include generous help to the fossil  sector with no strings attached.

The pandemic is no  panacea. We now know that we can act collectively and adopt measures that significantly curb emissions—in the short term at least. But long-term change does not come about directly as a result of a crisis, but from consistent action changing what caused the crisis in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call: we still have a lot of work to do.

Study: Climate impact of butter 3.5 times greater than plant-based spreads

The climate impact of butter is higher in large part due cow's methane-heavy farts
The climate impact of butter is higher in large part due cow’s methane-heavy farts

Cow’s methane-heavy burps and farts blamed for CO2 associated with butter in study commissioned by margarine maker Upfield

The climate impact of consumer diets has yet again fallen under the spotlight, after research this week concluded butter is 3.5 times more harmful to the environment on average than margarine and plant-based spreads, due in large part to cows’ methane emissions.

The study was commissioned by global margarine maker Upfield – responsible for plant-based brands including Flora, Rama and Blue Band – in another sign of how firms are seeking to promote the climate credentials of their products to increasingly eco-conscious consumers.

It asked scientists to carry out a large-scale life cycle assessment looking at the production, transport, sale, and use of 212 plant-based spreads and margarines sold across 21 European and North American markets, and then compare their greenhouse gas emissions to the impact of 21 dairy butters.

The results found the average CO2 impact for every kilogram of plant-based spread and margarine produced was around 3.3kg, compared to 12.1kg of CO2 equivalent for dairy-based products, making emissions from butter around 3.5 times higher.

The bulk of emissions associated with butter occur during milk production, according to the study, which found enteric emissions from cows – aka methane from burping and farting – made up 39 per cent of greenhouse gases from dairy-based spreads.

It means that just one 250g of butter results in the equivalent of 1kg of cow emissions, the study estimated, with methane a particularly potent greenhouse gas which is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat, and responsible for around a quarter of global warming.

Every one of the 212 plant-based spreads analysed fared much better in the study in terms of carbon impact, with associated emissions ranging from less than 1kg to almost 7kg, whereas butter products generated between over 8kg to nearly 17kg of CO2 for every kilogram produced.

Beyond emissions too, the life cycle assessment – the largest of its type to date, according to Upfield – concluded that margarines and plant-based spreads consistently had lower impacts than butter in terms of climate, water and land.

Cattle feed production including cow burps, farts, and manure management “contributed significantly to climate change impacts, with a higher impact than most other factors”, the study found. Some farming groups have argued that new diet supplements and other technologies can serve to curb methane emissions from cattle, but the industry is still regarded as a large and growing source of emissions.

Sally Smith, head of sustainability at Upfield, said the study highlighted the need for a “fundamental transformation of our food system” in order to tackle climate change, arguing that people in western countries needed to cut down on their meat and dairy intake.

She also argued it was important for firms to help consumers to understand the impact of their food choices on the planet. “It is our responsibility as a forward-thinking company to understand and act to address the impact of our plant-based products on the environment,” said Smith. “A shift to regenerative agricultural practices will be key for both arable and dairy farmers. Robust lifecycle assessments help ensure that our approach is data driven and grounded on the latest scientific evidence.”

Editorial: No, a trillion more trees and baby-step oil company reforms won’t fix global warming


A major ice sheet in western Antarctica is melting, and its collapse is predicted to raise the global sea level significantly.
(AFP photo / NASA / Handout)

Scientists at an Antarctic research station recently recorded a one-day air temperature of just under 70 degrees, a balmy afternoon in a region of the world unaccustomed to them. In fact, as far as researchers can tell, it has never been that warm in Antarctica before. The record was set against an increasingly scary global backdrop of rising temperatures and seas; more powerful storms, droughts and floods; a reduced Arctic ice cap, and accelerated melting and movement of glaciers around the globe — including Antarctica.

The culprit behind this crisis is the nearly 200 years that humans have spent burning fossil fuels — primarily coal and oil — for energy. So it was mildly heartening to see that BP, the London-based oil and gas giant, has promised to achieve “net-zero emissions” for its operations by 2050. That doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil-and-gas business. Rather, the corporation pledged to eliminate some emissions from its drilling, processing and business operations, and to compensate for others through investments in green technologies, reforestation projects and similar offset strategies. The announcement followed earlier pledges by such European-based oil companies as Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Equino to reduce emissions from their operations, though the BP pledge goes further.

None, of course, goes far enough. And new BP CEO Bernard Looney acknowledged the corporation had not settled on a strategy to achieve its net-zero emissions goal. Those details will come in September.

But at least the goal was set, which is far more than has been done by American-based oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, which have acknowledged the role of greenhouse gas emissions in propelling climate change but have done little to address their contribution. Both are part of the corporate-driven Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose stated purpose is to reduce “our collective methane emissions by more than one-third” by essentially stopping leaks and moving the captured methane to where it could be burned.

Of course, baby steps by a handful of oil and gas companies aren’t going to do much to combat overall emissions. Similarly, the Trillion Trees Initiative, which President Trump touted in his State of the Union address, won’t do an awful lot, either. In fact, it’s one of those fig-leaf solutions that offers a pretense of significant action against global warming while ignoring the most pressing problem — the burning of fossil fuels in the first place.

Which is not to suggest that reforestation is a bad idea; in fact, continued forest clearing in the Amazon is exacerbating global warming and must stop. Because forests store carbon, restoring them could help capture and slow the accretion of carbon in the atmosphere, where it traps heat. One study found that the Earth’s ecosystems could handle an additional 25% of forests above what it holds now (though increased droughts and desertification related to climate change could whittle away at that), compensating for about 20 years of human-produced carbon. So large-scale reforestation falls in the category of “couldn’t hurt.”

Nevertheless, far, far more needs to be done, beginning with converting our global reliance on energy from fossil fuels to renewables as fast as is humanly possible. The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to not put it there in the first place.

So in that regard, the danger of the Trillion Trees Initiative is that pro-oil business conservatives will wave it around as a solution to global warming. But that’s like someone hoping to lose a lot of weight by taking daily walks while still eating the same calorie-rich foods.

The nation, and the world, need sober and aggressive policy changes if we are to stand any chance of mitigating the worst effects of global warming. Despite heightened awareness and national pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, global carbon emissions continue to rise. It will be expensive to adapt to the new climate reality and to fundamentally change the way humankind produces and uses energy, but it must be done before the supposedly most intelligent of the animal species manages through greed and willful ignorance to propel the collapse of global ecosystems.