Icesheets, Electric Trucks and Geothermal Energy
Forge the Future #4
|Oli Hall||Jun 19, 2019|
Hello, and welcome to the 4th edition of Forge the Future. I’ve got a fair bit to run through this week, so it’s going to be another long one! As always, if there’s a section you’d like to see more (or less) of, do let me know, via email or Twitter.
State of the Climate
We’re currently at a level of 413.69ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s down slightly on last week, as we move past the annual peak in CO2 levels and start to decrease towards October.
This week, for CO2 charts I’ve gone even further back, showing the last 800000 years. It’s clear even with the regular rises and falls in CO2 levels that our modern rises are beyond anything the Earth has known in recent history.
In a worrying development, Scientists studying Canadian permafrost were amazed to find that it has begun to thaw, some 70 years earlier than predicted. I fear this sort of story will become commonplace, as the signs of climate change start to become more visible.
The Greenland ice sheet is melting at a much faster pace than is normal for June. The cause is a high pressure ridge that is sitting over the middle of the country, drawing up warm, humid air from the Atlantic, warming the atmosphere over the ice. The high pressure also means the skies are clear, leading to more melting. This has happened before, in 2012, 2010 and 2007, so isn’t unprecedented, but this type of weather event was never recorded before the late 1990s.
Visualisation of the Week
This week’s visualisation is by Ed Hawkins, the University of Reading Climate scientist who was also responsible for the Climate Stripes seen in the first edition of Forge the Future. It uses UK Met Office climate data from 1910-2016 on a 5x5km grid resolution, averaged per decade. For more on this visualisation, see the post on Climate Lab Book.
Let's take a quick look at what's been going on around the world this week. As an aside, it was reported this week that reporters investigating environmental issues face risks second only to war journalists, with journalists threatened, sued, and even murdered. Think of the stories that we don’t hear about because those trying to report them cannot for fear for their own safety.
Canada has declared a national climate emergency this week, joining Scotland, the UK and Ireland, amongst others. Whilst a symbolic step forward in recognition, it needs to be followed by legally-binding legislation to move the country towards a carbon-free future before we can celebrate.
The country also has announced a ban on many single-use plastics by 2021, following similar laws enacted by the EU and the UK. Hopefully this starts a worldwide movement towards the end of single-use plastics wherever possible. Whilst there are other ways to tackle the issue, government legislation is one of the most effective ways of forcing companies to actually make changes.
In the midst of the political turmoil of the Conservative leadership election, the outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May has committed the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, the commitment still allows the use of carbon credits to offset emissions, something advised against by the official Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The date should be moved forward, but even as is will be a hard target for the country to hit.
Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has unveiled a plan to tackle the country’s emissions and hit net zero by 2050. Ireland is currently one of the worst emitters in the EU, and is on track to receive €250m in fines for missing emissions targets in 2020, so this plan is not before its time. However, as yet the plan is non-binding, and is likely to be received poorly by those in line to be hit by steeper carbon taxes - something that triggered the Gilets Jaunes movement in France late last year.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, is divesting from fossil fuels, dropping some $13bn of investments in the industry. It does, however, retain some investments in companies like BP and Shell that are investing in clean energy. It also now has a legal mandate to invest up to $20bn directly in renewable energy projects, rather than just in listed energy companies.
The first study to compile data on the Pentagon’s environmental impact show that it emits more GHG emissions than Portugal. Some 70% of this was moving troops and weapons around (the Pentagon oversees the US military).
The big news this week was the release of BP’s annual global energy report. It showed that carbon emissions have risen at the fastest rate in a decade, driven by swings in temperature and extreme weather, which has driven increased heating and air-conditioning usage. This highlights the complexities of de-carbonising energy as the climate changes around us - we have to reduce carbon emissions whilst dealing with increased energy usage not just from developing countries such as China and India, but with increased demand for heating and cooling just to keep things livable.
The Guardian has a troubling piece on the inner workings of plastic recycling, revealing that most is shipped to developing countries in Asia and Africa, where workers are paid tiny amounts to sort the plastic by hand, all whilst breathing in toxic plastic fumes. Whilst the piece focuses on American recycling, it’s a similar story for many developed countries - most plastic is merely sorted at home before being shipped elsewhere for actual recycling.
In slightly more positive news, Volvo has announced that their stylish electric autonomous truck, Vera, will be trialed on a route in Sweden. Unlike many autonomous trials, this will not have someone at the wheel, as the truck doesn’t have one (it doesn’t even have a seat!). Autonomous trucks, particularly electric ones, would go a long way towards reducing emissions from road transport, so it’s great to see this initiative move forward.
More and more scientists are now starting to think geoengineering may be essential to our future. However, very little research has been done on the possible consequences, so we don’t know exactly what the outcome would be.
A study has found that 571 species of plant have been wiped out since 1750, and the rate of extinction was at least 500 times higher than before the Industrial Revolution. Whilst animal extinctions have been studied more thoroughly, less work has been done on plant extinctions, but the more they are studied, the more extinctions we are likely to see.
A report by ATKearney has estimated that by 2040, as much as 60% of meat will either be cultured (i.e. lab-grown) or vegan (such as the Impossible Burger). This is excellent news, as both forms of alternative meat are way more efficient in turning plant energy into the final product (whilst also avoiding animal suffering and all the other side effects of the meat industry). I recommend the full report if you have the time, it gives an excellent break-down of meat production and how the industry may evolve in the coming years.
A new study has shown that those affected by air pollution in the US are disproportionately black and hispanic. In particular, black and hispanic people experience 50-60% more exposure than is caused by their consumption, whereas white people and those of other races are exposed to around 15% less exposure than is caused by their consumption habits.
In a follow-up to a previous edition that looked at deforestation in the Amazon, this week Gizmodo looked at the FACE study, which is trying to track the impact of increased CO2 release in the Amazon since 2011. Pilots in other areas have shown promising results, but the new Brazilian government has cut funding drastically, meaning the study has had to scale back most aspects of its work, and could struggle to reach completion. The study aims to find out if increased CO2 levels would prompt higher growth levels in a rainforest environment, as studies elsewhere have found that after around 6 years, the soil runs out of nutrients, meaning any growth is short lived.
A paper published in Nature this week suggests that rising temperatures will substantially increase the risks of armed conflict, with a 13% chance of substantial increase in conflict at 2°C rise in temperatures, and a 26% chance at 4°C.
Bitcoin mining is thought to be responsible for around 0.2% of global emissions, according to a new study by Joule. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire of Kansas City.
As Google unveils its foray into cloud-based game streaming, New Scientist looked into the energy impact of gaming. Whilst cloud gaming will likely be more efficient than individual consoles, with optimised servers running on clean energy, the number of overall gamers will likely increase. In addition, the increased network loads caused by this activity also consumes significant energy, and most of this infrastructure is controlled by ISPs, who are less likely to have moved to clean energy.
I wanted to highlight a couple of interesting sources and news stories relating to power and energy, the biggest single sector in terms of carbon emissions. I may not talk about it every week, but it’s a complex area and one that touches on many areas - the economy, technology, and politics - to name but a few.
The UK is shutting down another coal-fired power station next year, taking it down to 5. Coal use is down in the UK this year, due to a mild winter and stronger-than-usual winds, but overall coal is proving less and less economically viable than alternatives such as gas power. Whilst not ideal, gas is definitely preferable to coal power.
The USA’s renewable capacity has finally outstripped the country’s coal power capacity for the first time, with coal again not able to keep up on a cost basis. This is great news, as an economic incentive will keep coal power decreasing even without political policy pushing for renewable solutions.
The US Department of Energy released its ‘GeoVision’ report this week, looking at the potential for geothermal energy in the country by 2050. By utilising different geothermal technologies, it could scale to 23% of national demand (some 60-120GW of new production), whilst being more stable and reliable than solar or wind. However, the current process for setting up geothermal projects could benefit from significant streamlining before this can really take off.
As a final note, I wanted to touch again on nuclear power. This article from CarbonBrief maps the world’s nuclear power plants, highlighting what is where, as well as cost trends in the industry. Whilst nuclear is often condemned as overly expensive, the data shows that this isn’t always the case, and indeed given the right conditions, nuclear can be cheaper over time. Stable regulatory conditions, as well as standardised designs look to be major factors in producing sensible pricing patterns. For more detail, I recommend this meta-study of prices of nuclear power across the world.
Forge the Future
I’ve got nothing new to report on the Forge the Future site this week, as I’ve been focusing on research into other new climate related projects, so have put site work on the backburner for now.
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Until next week,
Notes from the community
If there's anything going on that you'd like to tell the community about, let me know. This could be a new project, a blog post, an event - anything goes!