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Climate and Energy News Roundup: December 2022 news and notes

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As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So it is with solving climate change. While transitioning to an equitable, sustainable economy powered by clean energy will be a massive undertaking, the process is made up of small steps. —Andreas Karelas

Our Climate Crisis

As more than 180 heads of state were converging in Egypt for the COP27 climate summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres opened the proceedings with this dire warning, “The clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Like the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba is suffering from longer droughts, more intense storms, and higher sea levels because of climate change. This is reducing agricultural yields and putting farmers under intense financial pressure. It is also driving people to leave the island in the highest numbers in decades. Nearly 221,000 Cuban migrants have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this year.

The Interior Department is giving three Native American tribal communities $25 million each to move their key buildings onto higher ground and away from rising waters, with the expectation that homes will follow. Eight more tribes will receive $5 million each to plan for relocation. This is most likely a precursor to forced relocation in response to climate change.

A century ago the residents of the town of Oyster on Hog Island off the coast of Virginia were forced to relocate their town to the mainland due to rising sea levels. Historically, the ocean has risen about a foot in a human lifetime, but estimates are that it will now increase to two or three feet because of climate change. These more rapidly rising sea levels are now challenging the relocated town to again relocate to higher ground.

Extreme weather events have caused an estimated $115 billion in insured financial losses around the world this year, which is 42% higher than the 10-year average of $81 billion. About $50 billion to $65 billion of the total losses are a result of Hurricane Ian, which pummeled Florida’s west coast in late September.

Politics and Policy

The COP27 U.N. Climate Summit in Egypt ended with a hard-fought deal to create a fund to help poor countries being battered by climate disasters. This includes proposed reforms at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that could attract trillions of dollars in private capital available to developing nations to mitigate the effects of climate change. The summit, however, did little to cut the use of fossil fuels and advance efforts to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees C.

The transition to clean energy does not always follow the partisan political divide in our country. South Dakota, a solidly “red” state, has now amassed enough renewable energy to fulfill its own electricity needs and then some. The state has a built in advantage with ample hydropower but wind energy has now surpassed it in-state electricity generation.

Climate leadership and promoting policies to transition to clean energy was a political win for three Midwest governors. Democratic governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Tim Walz of Minnesota, and Tony Evers of Wisconsin won reelection, beating three Trump-backed candidates who campaigned on turning back clean energy initiatives.

Some of the biggest oil and gas producers and consumers have committed to cut their emissions of methane at the COP27 climate summit. Methane molecules do not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide but heat the planet more than 80 times more, over their 20 years lifespan. Cutting methane pollution by 45% this decade would avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the 2040s and can be done with existing, inexpensive technologies.

In response to a surprise environmental order from the Youngkin administration, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing proposed stormwater regulations that would treat ground-mounted solar arrays the same as parking lots. This would likely require solar developers to acquire more land, driving up the cost of solar energy.

Energy

Green hydrogen fuel has always been the holy grail of clean energy but it has remained just beyond our reach. That may now change with the billions of dollars allotted to hydrogen research and development in the Inflation Reduction Act. This is especially important in intensive energy uses such as heavy manufacturing, long-haul trucking, international shipping, and aviation, which cannot easily be converted to electric battery power.

The US Energy Information Administration reports that nearly a quarter of the coal-fired electric plants currently operating in the US have plans to be retired by the end of 2029. Further data released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission indicated that the use of natural gas for electric generation may have peaked.

The world’s largest floating wind farm is now producing power off the coast of Norway. When completed, the wind farm will have 11 turbines and create 88 megawatts of combined capacity—more than half of all the floating wind capacity in place today. The development of offshore wind is surging globally as costs decline and countries adopt ambitious climate change policies.

The European Union burns more than half the wood it harvests for energy and also imports massive amounts of wood pellets from the U.S. Phasing out forest biomass as ‘renewable energy’ would yield massive benefits in terms of air pollution and climate protection. The forest products industry is opposing such reforms and has the ear of key European policymakers.

Prospect Power LLC, of Austin, Texas, applied for a special-use permit for Rockingham County’s first battery energy storage facility on a 24-acre tract of land. The proposed facility will be charged with energy from, and discharged back to Virginia’s electric grid, enabling grid operators to deal with supply and demand in a revolutionary way.

Canadian Pacific’s experimental hydrogen-powered locomotive made its maiden run in Calgary, Alberta in October. This is the first step in seeing if these locomotives utilizing clean energy can replace diesel locomotives. Canadian Pacific is producing green hydrogen with solar power.

Recent Virginia legislation allows certain customers of Dominion Energy to buy solar energy from independent providers of shared solar, also known as community solar. Dominion has however used the rulemaking process and its control over project interconnection to create hurdles including high minimum bills to drive away all but the most tenacious developers. Lawmakers have, however, included a provision exempting low- to moderate-income participants from the minimum bill requirement.

Climate Justice

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry unveiled a proposal at the COP27 climate summit for companies to buy carbon credits that fund the greening of power grids in developing countries. The proposal comes as part of the promise from rich countries to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance for poorer nations. Developing countries spokespersons countered that it appears to be an attempt by rich countries to avoid paying their fair share.

A recent study shows that more lower-income US households are adopting rooftop solar. Last year 22% of households installing solar systems in the U.S. could be considered low-income and an additional 21% could be considered moderate-income. This makes a total of 43% of households installing solar that, broadly speaking, fall into the lower-income category.

The Indonesia Just Energy Transition Partnership will mobilize $20 billion of public and private finance to help Indonesia transition to clean power and shut coal power plants, bringing the country’s peak emissions date forward by seven years to 2030. The international partnership “is probably the single largest climate finance transaction or partnership ever” according to a U.S. Treasury official.

Transportation pollution is the largest source of carbon emissions, which mostly affects poor communities—making it a matter of climate justice. That makes North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order to press forward with a plan to cut pollution from medium and heavy-duty trucks across the state a big deal. While trucks are only 6.5% of the vehicles on the road in North Carolina, they contribute about 71.2% of pollution and 34.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.

Climate Action

The United States Postal Service is using a hard-won $3 billion infusion from Congress to jump-start its transition to 34,000 zero-emission mail trucks beginning next year. A substantial part of the money will be used toward the build-out of EV infrastructure to support the trucks. This goes a long way toward meeting President Biden’s directive to ensure all new government-owned vehicles are EVs by 2035.

Researchers in China are working to create perennial, climate friendly rice that requires much less labor, dramatically reducing a farmer’s costs while producing about the same amount of grain. Another advantage is that its long-lived roots may deliver big environmental benefits by preserving vulnerable soil and enriching natural ecosystems. Thousands of Chinese farmers have now started to grow this remarkable new version of rice with good results.

The Covid pandemic led to a bike riding boom. The spike in people using bikes has now faltered in places that didn’t build bike-friendly infrastructure but it survives in cities that have stepped up. The city of Tucson, for example, established a “Slow Streets” walk- and bike-friendly program that restricts car traffic in some places and prioritizes walking and biking over other modes of transport.

A Pew Research poll shows that highly religious Americans are far less likely to be concerned about global warming. The main driver of public opinion about the climate, however, is political party rather than religion and highly religious Americans are more inclined to identify with the Republican Party. What the poll does not show, according to the executive director of GreenFaith, a global multi-faith environmental organization, “is the role that religion, when utilized effectively, can play in moving people who are concerned but inactive into public action on the climate’s behalf.”

Do you know that about 90% of the energy your washing machine uses goes towards heating the water? Washing in cold water saves money (as much as 64¢ a load), saves your clothes, reduces your energy consumption, and contributes toward saving our planet. Newer detergents clean clothes just as well in cold water.

Compiled by Earl Zimmerman, a member of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley steering committee.

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