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Perspectives

Climate and Energy News Roundup: What’s making environmental news

climate change
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By Earl Zimmerman

No matter your field of work, no matter where you live or what role you play in your home, workplace, or community, you and the people around you are interacting with nature and society and have insights into how to solve the problems associated with climate change. So that’s where we start. Climate change solutions are not waiting for us at a fancy delegation of diplomats in a foreign country. They are at our kitchen table. –Andreas Karelas

Our Climate Crisis

Wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate around the world, in the oceans and on land. The main cause on land is because humans are taking over too much of the planet, erasing what was there before. There has been at least 33% habitat loss for wildlife since 2001. Climate change and other pressures make survival even harder. “The biodiversity crisis presents a longer-term threat to the viability of the human species,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate change researcher who also focuses on biodiversity.

A bit of encouraging news is research showing that polar bears are surviving in Greenland despite decreasing sea ice. They have clung on thanks to freshwater discharge from glaciers, offering hope for the species.

Our current Holocene geologic epoch began 11,700 years ago with the end of the last big ice age. Now a working panel of geologists appears to be close to recommending that we have spent the past few decades in a brand-new time unit identified as the Anthropocene, the age of humans. This new epoch is characterized by human-induced, planetary-scale changes that are unfinished but very much underway.

A recent aerial survey in Oregon found that more than a million acres of forest contain fir trees that have succumbed to stressors exacerbated by a multi-year drought and global warming. The die-off is way beyond anything seen before and scientists are dubbing it “fir-mageddon”.

Politics and Policy

American cities have way too many cars and too little affordable housing. A prime culprit is zoning laws that mandate minimum parking requirements for commercial and residential development. Climate campaigners and public transport advocates are beginning to push back and this is finally, slowly beginning to change in some cities. Reducing minimum parking requirements preserves green space, allows for denser housing, makes cities more walkable, reduces traffic, and fosters downtown renewal.

Gov. Youngkin got one step closer to his goal of withdrawing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) when the Air Pollution Control Board voted to advance the process of pulling the state from the program. Environmental advocates for RGGI argue that this is an illegal end run around the Virginia General Assembly which passed the 2020 law requiring Virginia to participate in RGGI.

The Senate blocked Sen. Joe Manchin’s permitting reform amendment for energy infrastructure from getting onto a defense funding bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act. Environmentalist Democrats supported the reforms for clean energy infrastructure but voted against the amendment because it also streamlines the permitting process for fossil fuel projects, especially the Mountain Valley Pipeline which Manchin has been trying to get approved. Most Republicans opposed the amendment for political reasons.

Wall Street’s biggest banks and mutual funds are backing off the climate commitments they made before the COP26 climate conference last year. Bank of America and JP Morgan say they’re concerned about being held liable for accidentally running afoul of United Nations climate rules. Blackrock and Vanguard, the world’s largest asset managers, then confirmed that their net zero commitments would not preclude them from investing in fossil fuels. Vanguard later announced that it is resigning from the global net-zero initiative.

Energy

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm hailed a major breakthrough in creating fusion nuclear energy. Scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were able to create a fusion reaction that generated more energy than it took to produce. This holds potential to provide constant energy without the pollution of fossil fuels or the radioactive risks of traditional nuclear power plants. It will, however, most likely be decades, if ever, before fusion energy can be technically and affordably used to generate electricity.

Natural gas is getting in the way of slashing carbon emissions from power plants in the U.S. Over the next few years, electric utilities are expected to build around 17 gigawatts of natural gas plants (enough to power close to 12.8 million homes). Unless those plants are closed early, they will operate for decades on an electric grid that still gets almost 60% of its power from fossil fuels.

Installing battery storage on the electrical grid increased rapidly in 2022. The federal government had estimated that 5.1 gigawatts of batteries would be added over the course of the year and it now appears that more like 5.4 gigawatts were added—about 11% of new power plant capacity. Battery manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand.

Dominion Energy demands have stalled a planned 1.2-megawatt community solar project in Augusta County. Their insistence on a high-speed fiber optic line between the solar array and the nearest substation would increase the cost by 50% and make it unaffordable. This demand,  which is inconsistent with industry standards, appears to be an effort by Dominion to restrict solar energy to its own utility solar.

Federal regulators published a draft environmental review approving Dominion Energy’s planned 176-turbine wind farm off the coast of Virginia. This approval will take the largest proposed ocean renewable energy project in the U.S. one step closer to construction, scheduled to begin in 2024.

The Department of Energy is providing funding to projects that accelerate the deployment of small- and medium-sized wind turbines across the United States. The wind turbines, designed to be used by homeowners, farmers, and small businesses, can reduce costs, increase energy production, and enhance grid reliability.

Climate Justice

The mammoth bipartisan budget bill of roughly $1.7 trillion to fund the U.S. government includes roughly only $1 billion to help poor countries transition to clean energy. This is more than 10 time less than the $11.4 billion annually that President Biden had pledged at the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt.

Many African countries are struggling with how to reconcile their desire to strengthen energy independence, the growing awareness of the climate and ecological crisis, and their desire to be part of a just energy transition. They insist that developing countries need clean energy technology transfers from developed countries, which they say has been slow to materialize.

Wealthy countries and banks will provide $15.5 billion to help Vietnam develop clean energy and transition away from coal. The funds, which will be disbursed over the next three to five years, will help Vietnam to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 rather than 2035, as had previously been projected.

Historic flooding last year in Pakistan displaced nearly 8 million people. Such displacement is generally temporary but is increasingly becoming permanent as climate induced drought and flooding makes their homes uninhabitable. The UN estimates that there will be 2 million climate refugees in Pakistan by 2050. It takes a heavy toll both economically and socially when people are forced to migrate from the places where their families have lived for generations.

Climate Action

The Inflation Reduction Act climate bill allocates billions of dollars that people can use to go green. This includes 30% tax credit of up to $2,000 for the cost to switch to an energy efficient heat pump heating system. It also includes a tax credit of up to $7,500 to buy an electric vehicle, depending on where it is manufactured. Even more significantly, it allocates a 30% tax credit with no monetary limit for installing rooftop solar.

Protecting big wild herbivores roaming natural areas helps reduce global warming in various ways. According to a 2022 scientific paper in Current Biology, these animals “help prevent fires, decrease the amount of solar heat absorbed by the Earth’s surface, and contribute a lot to the long-term storage of carbon in soil.” Elephants, wildebeests and other big plant eaters may actually be helping, not hindering, our carbon storage efforts.

Nations at the COP15 biodiversity summit in Canada made a major conservation commitment to try to halt the loss of hundreds of thousands of plants and animals. Their “30 by 30” pledge seeks to stem the loss of nature worldwide by protecting nearly a third of Earth’s land and oceans as a refuge for the planet’s remaining wild plants and animals by the end of the decade. It remains to be seen if they will follow through by funding and implementing this commitment.

About a quarter of the cars bought in China last year have been battery-powered or plug-in hybrids. No other country comes close. Chinese automakers are poised to lead the EV industry in producing affordable EVs, not just in China but globally as their offerings become available overseas. This is a win for efforts to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

After facing fierce backlash for plans to add thousands of gas guzzlers to its fleet, the US Postal Service has shifted course with a game-changing pledge to go electric. In the effort to change out their aging fleet, they are now committed to purchasing 66,000 EVs, making up 60% of their new truck purchases. This is way more than their original stingy commitment of 10%. The new plan will be almost like shutting down a gas powered power plant each year.

The overproduction of light is another human-made problem we urgently need to take responsibility for. Light pollution upsets the natural rhythms of insects and nocturnal animals. We humans need darkness too. Natural cycles of light and dark control our hormonal systems and only at night do we find true rest. Turning down lights in our house and putting bright outside lights on motion sensors not only saves electricity—it’s good for us and our environment.

Earl Zimmerman is a member of the steering committee of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley.

Perspectives

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