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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Does the fact that we’ve had such a cold and snowy winter mean that global warming might not be such a big problem after all? -- Lacey L., Lynchburg, VA

It’s tempting to think that the cold air and snow outside augur the end of global warming, but don’t rejoice yet. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), weather and climate are two very different beasts: “Weather is what’s happening outside the door right now; today a snowstorm or a thunderstorm is approaching. Climate, on the other hand, is the pattern of weather measured over decades.”

Isolated weather events and even seasonal trends are not an indication of global warming’s existence one way or another, and most climatologists agree that the carbon pollution we have been spewing into the atmosphere for the past century is leading to more frequent and intense storms of every kind and causing greater temperature swings all around the planet. In short, the harsh winter we are having shouldn’t be viewed as a refutation of global warming, but rather as further evidence of a growing problem.

“There is a clear long-term global warming trend, while each individual year does not always show a temperature increase relative to the previous year, and some years show greater changes than others,” reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency chalks up these year-to-year fluctuations to natural processes such as El Niño or volcanic eruptions, but points out that, regardless, the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1981, while the 10 warmest were in the past 12 years. And global average temperatures have risen by 1.4°F overall since the early 20th century.

According to Becky Oskin of LiveScience.com, shrinking polar ice caps as a result of global warming in recent decades are one factor that may be contributing to the cold weather in North America this winter. “One way the shrinking ice changes weather is by pushing winter air south,” she reports. “When the stored ocean heat gradually escapes in autumn, it changes the pattern of an atmospheric wind called the polar vortex, streaming frigid Arctic air into North America and Europe.” Meanwhile, a 2012 study by researchers Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus concluded that intense warming in the Arctic has caused changes to the jet stream that regulates air circulation around the planet, potentially leading to stronger winter storms hitting the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

And what about all that snow? “Hotter air around the globe causes more moisture to be held in the air than in prior seasons,” reports UCS. “When storms occur, this added moisture can fuel heavier precipitation in the form of more intense rain or snow.” The U.S. is already enduring more intense rain and snowstorms, says the group: “The amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent, averaged nationally—almost three times the rate of increase in total precipitation between 1958 and 2007.” And some regions of the country “have seen as much as a 67 percent increase in the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest storms.”

And Oskin points out that while we may be bundling up and shoveling out in the U.S., it’s turned into another scorcher of a summer in the Southern Hemisphere: 2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record, and 2014 has started off even hotter, with temperatures soaring to 125°F and severe fire warnings issued in at least two states there. Apparently global warming is still on.

CONTACTS: UCS, www.ucsusa.org; NOAA, www.noaa.gov; LiveScience.com, www.livescience.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I thought Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown would have sealed nuclear power’s fate, but I keep hearing otherwise. Can you enlighten? -- Jacob Allen, New York, NY

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster did cause many nations to reconsider their nuclear committments, though many European countries—Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden—had already begun phasing out nuclear power decades earlier. After Fukushima, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland all moved to decommission their nuclear facilities altogether by 2022, 2025 and 2034 respectively.

Japan’s nuclear program, which provided 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs before the March 2011 disaster, is now essentially non-operational due to public safety concerns. Furthermore, Japan announced in November 2013 that, due to the shuttering of Fukushima and other nuclear facilities, it was backpedaling its on prior commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels.

Here in the U.S., Fukushima has not had any major effect on our nuclear industry. No nuclear plants have been closed, license extensions for existing facilities continue to proceed, and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has even greenlighted construction of two new reactors at a nuclear power plant in Georgia. But public concerns over the safety of nuclear power and what to do with spent fuel indicate that nukes will likely become a smaller and smaller slice of the U.S. energy pie moving forward.

Elsewhere, however, many countries are looking to nuclear power as a way to increase energy production without adding to greenhouse gas emissions. Casey Research reports that developing countries are increasingly relying on it to supplement coal and other fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency predicts global electricity demand will grow 70 percent by 2035, with the majority of the increase coming from developing countries—China and India combined will account for half of the projected growth.

Serious pollution problems mean that those developing countries cannot produce all that electricity by burning coal,” says Amir Adnani, CEO of Uranium Energy Corporation, a uranium mining company. “The plans to develop nuclear power in China and other countries are very much driven by a set of realities that is very different and very acute. People are dying every year in China, literally choking to death, because of all the toxins that are being put into the environment by burning coal.”

China now has 17 nuclear plants in operation and another 29 underway. India has 20 plants running and seven more being built. And the Russian Federation operates 33 and has another 11 in the works. So while it might be premature to call it a “nuclear renaissance,” much of the world doesn’t seem too worried about what happened at Fukushima. Indeed, nuclear power looks like it could be around for a long time.

According to MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, the real impact of Fukushima has been to remind us all to take safety much more seriously: “While the international nuclear industry appears so far to have dodged being hit square in the head by a bullet from Fukushima, it should not expect that it will get another chance if there is another serious nuclear accident anywhere in the world.”

CONTACTS: Casey Research, www.caseyresearch.com; MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, http://web.mit.edu/ceepr/www.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the latest prognosis for wind energy to command a larger piece of the renewable energy pie? -- Peter M., Akron, OH

Hydroelectric sources of power dwarf other forms of renewable energy, but wind power has been a dominant second for years, and continues to show “hockey stick” growth moving forward. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), global cumulative installed wind capacity—the total amount of wind power available—has grown fifty-fold in less than two decades, from just 6,100 megawatts (MW) in 1996 to 318,137 MW in 2013.

And the future looks brighter still. Analysts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predict that wind will account for the largest share—30 percent—of new renewables added to the global power grid by 2030. That new renewables are expected to account for as much as 70 percent of all new power sources over the next 20 years means that wind is poised to become a major player on the global energy scene.

Here in the U.S., energy generated by domestic wind farms has nearly tripled in just the past four years, despite a brief hiccup due to a lapse in the Production Tax Credit, a renewable energy production incentive that effectively subsidizes the creation of more wind farms. But even despite this, wind represented about a third of all new power added to the U.S. grid over the past five years. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit and wind power advocate, forecasts that the U.S. will derive some 20 percent of its total electricity production from wind by 2030.

“The U.S. industry has many reasons for favorable long-term prospects,” reports the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a non-profit trade group representing the wind industry. “In addition to the record activity at the end of 2013, wind energy helped keep the lights on and insulate against temporary price spikes during the recent ‘polar vortex’ cold weather snap, demonstrating the value of wind power in a balanced energy portfolio.”

AWEA also points out recent reports showing how incorporation of wind energy lowers costs for electric consumers. “And critical to some parts of the country facing continuing drought, wind energy uses no water in its production, as well as releasing no emissions,” adds the group.

The fact that wind energy in the U.S. avoids some 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually is also good news. AWEA adds that that number will grow as wind energy scales up to 20 percent of the grid and beyond “making the addition of more wind power one of the fastest, cheapest, and largest-scale ways for states to meet the Administration’s new goals for reducing carbon pollution from power plants.”

While wind continues to grow fast, solar may finally be catching up. According to BNEF, some 36.7 gigawatts (GW) of new solar photovoltaic capacity were added worldwide in 2013 compared with 35.5 GW worth of new wind power installations. BNEF adds that global demand for wind turbines may actually shrink in 2014 (by five percent), representing the first such decline since 2004. But Justin Wu, head of wind analysis for BNEF, says it’s just a temporary blip: “Falling technology costs, new markets and the growth of the offshore industry will ensure wind remains a leading renewable energy technology.”

CONTACTS: BNEF, about.bnef.com; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; AWEA, www.awea.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are “dirty fuels” and why are they so called? -- Bill Green, Seattle, WA

The term “dirty fuels” refers to fuels derived from tar sands, oil shale or liquid coal. Just like their more conventional fossil fuel counterparts such as petroleum and coal, they can be turned into gasoline, diesel and other energy sources that can generate extreme amounts of particulate pollution, carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction during their lifecycles from production to consumption.

“Because tar sands [have] more sulfur, nitrogen, and metals in [them] than conventional oil, upgrading and refining [them] causes a lot more air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit. “On a lifecycle basis—that is, extraction all the way through combustion—tar sands cause about 20 percent more global warming pollution than conventional oil,” adds NRDC. “Oil shale and liquid coal are even worse, causing nearly 50 percent more global warming pollution and over double the lifecycle emissions of conventional oil…”

In North America, the majority of such fuels come from Canada’s vast boreal forest, to where tens of millions of birds flock each spring to nest. “Tar sands oil development creates open pit mines, habitat fragmentation, toxic waste holding ponds, air and water pollution, upgraders and refineries, and pipelines spreading far beyond the Boreal forest,” reports NRDC. “This development is destroying habitat for waterfowl and songbirds that come from all over the Americas to nest in the Boreal.”

Beyond impacts at the extraction sites, dirty fuels cause pollution problems all down the line. For this reason, environmental leaders are opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which, if approved and built, would transport tar sands fuels through the Midwestern U.S. to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Refinery communities like Port Arthur, Texas...are already unable to comply with their air pollution regulations, so dirtier fuel is the last thing they need in their refineries,” adds NRDC.

And while dirty fuels may reduce our reliance on foreign oil, they won’t help reduce gas prices as they are so expensive to produce that gas prices would have to be higher than they already are in order for them to be profitable. “They also can't help with stabilizing gas prices in the case of a disruption to oil shipments because each new tar sands project requires huge infrastructure and capital investments, so it takes years for new tar sands projects to come on-line—it’s not as though there is loads of spare tar sands oil just waiting to be put through the pipelines,” says NRDC’s Elizabeth Shope.

“The fact is, we don't need these fuels,” she adds. “We can reduce oil consumption by increasing fuel efficiency standards, and greater use of hybrid cars, renewable energy and environmentally sustainable biofuels. What's called ‘smart growth’—how we design our communities—is also a very important element in meeting our transportation needs.

“North America stands at an energy crossroads [and] we now face a choice: to set a course for a more sustainable energy future of clean, renewable fuels, or to develop ever-dirtier sources of transportation fuel derived from fossil fuels—at an even greater cost to our health and environment.”

CONTACT: NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


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