‘We are in the warmest five-year period ever’

According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2015-19 has recorded a 0.2°C increase over 2011-15

Photo: Getty ImagesPhoto: Getty Images

As the world descends on Madrid, Spain, for the 25th Conference of Parties (CoP 25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they have a climate emergency to deal with. But the planet is yet to get a proportionate reaction from countries.

By 2019, countries should have been on track to meet the first round of their emission reduction targets declared under the 2015 Paris Agreement. But only six of the world’s top 20 polluting nations have succeeded so far.

There is mounting evidence to show that global warming is at its highest level ever. According to Global Climate in 2015–2019, a report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the five-year period of 2015-19 has been the worst in terms of global warming and resultant climate change impacts.

“The five-year period 2015–2019 is likely to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record globally, with a 1.1°C global temperature increase since the pre-industrial period and a 0.2°C increase compared to the previous five-year period” 

The report already forecasts that 2019 would be one of the warmest years on record. The last four years (2015 to 2018) were the four warmest years on record, according to WMO.

“Although only six months of data are currently available, (2019) will likely join them as one of the five warmest years — most likely second or third warmest — if temperature anomalies continue at the current high levels to the end of the year,” the WMO assessment said.

Last week, WMO, in another report, said that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere had breached all records in 2018. It is the highest-ever in the last three million years.

The rise in temperature coincides with the proportionate increase in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The five-year assessment shows that the emission of GHGs like CO2 and methane has increased faster in 2015-19 than in the preceding 2011-2015 period. The growth rate is close to 20 per cent higher, according to this report.

The current year, already on path to be declared one of the warmest years on record, witnessed severe heat wave and wildfires from the United States, Australia and the Arctic. The new WMO assessment shows that the 2015-2019 period saw heatwaves impacting all the continents.

“Heatwaves were the deadliest meteorological hazard in the 2015–2019 period,” the WMO report said. Wildfires were reported in unusual geographies like the Arctic, including Greenland, Alaska and Siberia. The fires in the Arctic alone this year emitted 50 Mt of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is more than such fires did in 11 years ending 2018. SOURCE

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Forged in Fire: California’s Lessons for a Green New Deal

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2018 file photo, flames climb trees as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif. A federal hazard tree-removal program will remove destroyed trees from last year's deadly Camp Fire that remain on private property and could fall on public roads and facilities. But the Chico Enterprise-Record reports that the Federal Emergency Management Agency program will not take down trees that could fall on homes. Some arborists have estimated there are half a million to a million burned trees remaining from the fire that wiped out 14,000 homes and killed 85 last November. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Flames climb trees as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018. Photo: Noah Berger/AP

WE WERE JUST TAKING PICTURES. Of the ash, stray bricks, and weeds. Of twisted metal and charred patio furniture. Of the pine trees still standing on the edge of the lots, their towering trunks now charcoal black. Of the lonely white brick fireplace in the middle of it all, the only surviving structure, metal pokers hanging expectantly by the grate.

“Get the hell off my property!”

The words came bellowing from a burly man who had just pulled up to the pile of ash that once was his home in Paradise, California. As he shouted a litany of complaints, it became clear that his rage wasn’t only reserved for us trespassers — and there have been plenty who have gone to Paradise to gaze at the eerie emptiness where a thriving community once stood, before it was decimated by California’s deadliest fire one year ago.

The target was myriad forces that had conspired to twist the knife, again and again, on his already wrenching property loss — from the insurance company that wouldn’t pay up, to the county that wouldn’t let him clean up, to the state that wanted his (now contaminated) well to be sealed up. His rage was also directed at the absence of decent temporary housing for fire victims like him, not to mention the electric utility that had started the blaze and was still evading responsibility.

When the complaints petered out, I approached the man to introduce myself and apologize for our intrusion. But as I got closer, I felt his volatility: I have been in many disaster-struck communities and know how quickly the gale-force of emotion these events churn up can direct itself at the closest available target. We wished him luck and left.

The encounter was a reminder of the kind of stress that is in the air in the parts of California recently scorched by fire, as well as in the communities that have welcomed thousands of newly homeless neighbors to towns now bursting at the seams. The intersecting hardships experienced by so many in the region also explain why, days before the one-year anniversary of the deadly Camp Fire that burned down Paradise and killed 86 people, local politicians in neighboring Chico unveiled a plan calling for the small city to adopt its own Green New Deal.

Like its national inspiration, the Chico Green New Deal framework marries rapid decarbonization targets with calls for more affordable housing; a safe and sustainable food system; investments in “clean, 21st century” public transit; green jobs creation, including projects earmarked for the poorest residents; and much more.

Chico shows that there is no way to cope with climate breakdown without a simultaneous shift to a very different kind of economy.

“Your city council has heard the call of its community that has resounded locally and across the nation,” said Chico Vice Mayor Alex Brown when the plan was announced. “We are choosing to walk the walk of this movement and to take the leadership being demanded of us.” In an interview, Brown told me that the Camp Fire’s impact on both Paradise and Chico was a glimpse of the future unless action is taken to both radically lower emissions and build “communities that are more resilient to these shifts.” Brown is well aware that a small city like hers isn’t going to make much of a dent in global emissions. But, she said, “We can demonstrate what a Green New Deal looks like at the local level.

The Chico plan is one of many similar local initiatives that have sprung up in the year since the Sunrise Movement occupied the office of then-prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with young demonstrators demanding that the Democratic Party embrace a sweeping Green New Deal to meet the twin crises of climate disruption and deepening inequality. Since then, as the Green New Deal proposal has picked up momentum in the Democratic primaries, several states and big cities have unveiled their own frameworks, including Maine and Seattle, where city council recently passed a resolution that included the city’s most ambitious climate justice targets to date. It also pledged to create an oversight board to hold the city to its commitments, a body that will be made up of representatives from communities directly impacted by racial, economic, and environmental injustice, as well as climate experts and representatives from trade unions and green groups.

And yet the contribution now coming from humble Chico — a scrappy northern California college town with a population of approximately 100,000 — may be the most politically significant. Because the Chico Green New Deal is based directly on this region’s hard-won experience of living through the 2018 inferno; it was forged, quite literally, in fire.

Ever since the Green New Deal landed on the political map, liberals have attacked it for its supposedly impractical scope and ambition. Fighting poverty, racism, and homelessness are worthy goals, we have been told — but what do they have to do with lowering greenhouse gas emissions? Surely a carbon-centric approach — like a simple tax or cap-and-trade and some narrow regulations on polluters — would be more likely to succeed. And besides, connecting greenhouse-gas reductions with building a fairer society just confirms Republican beliefs that climate change is a vast left-wing plot: Better to focus exclusively on pollution and worry about the rest down the road. Conservative Chico city council members have gone on the offensive against the Green New Deal with precisely this kind of attack.

PARADISE, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 21: An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire October 21, 2019 in Paradise, California. It has been one year since the the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise, California charring over 150,000 acres, killed 85 people and destroyed over 18,000 homes and businesses. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An aerial view of a destroyed neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., on Oct. 21, 2019, one year after the Camp Fire. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yet Chico’s lived experience over the past year is a devastating rebuke to this line of criticism. As the community that housed the vast majority of people displaced by the Camp Fire, Chico shows that there is no way to cope with climate breakdown without a simultaneous shift to a very different kind of economy, one that is willing to make major nonmarket investments in housing, transit, health (including mental health), water, electricity, and more. MORE

California is on track to miss its climate targets—by a century

And it’s likely to get harder, not easier, for the state to achieve ever deeper cuts in emissions

Photograph of smoke from the Maria Fire billows above Santa Paula, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.
AP / NOAH BERGER

California has established itself as a global model on climate issues, with Teslas filling its roads and solar farms stretching across its sun-baked Central Valley.

The state set up the nation’s first economy-wide cap-and-trade program, put in place aggressive vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and passed a series of ever stricter climate pollution rules. That includes the landmark 2018 law requiring all of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by the end of 2045.

But for all its regulatory achievements, California also offers a case study in just how hard it is to make progress on the only thing that really matters: reducing emissions.

The state’s climate pollution declined by just 1.15% in 2017, according to the latest California Green Innovation Index. At that rate, California won’t reach its 2030 decarbonization goals (cutting emissions to 40% below 1990 levels) until 2061—and wouldn’t hit its 2050 targets (80% below 1990 levels) until 2157.

If a state that’s actively trying to slash emissions is on pace to miss its targets by a century, that bodes poorly for progress in the many other parts of the world that are barely bothering. Crucially, the UN’s climate panel says the world as a whole needs to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050 to halt warming at 1.5 ˚C, or by 2070 to stay below 2˚ C.

What went wrong?

Transportation emissions, the state’s largest source, have steadily risen since 2013, as the improving economy put more cars on the road and planes in the sky. Emissions from waste dumped into landfills have also been ticking up since the recovery took hold. Meanwhile, highly potent greenhouse gases from the aerosols, foams, and solvents used in refrigeration and air conditioning are rising sharply.

These increases have offset the highly touted declines in emissions from the electricity sector as a growing share of the state’s power comes from renewable sources like wind and solar. Emissions from in-state generation are down 35% since 2000.

The new math means California will now need to boost its annual emissions cuts to 4.51% per year to pull off its 2030 targets—or 5.34% annually to achieve its 2050 goals, the report found. And of course, every year the state comes in below those rates will only push those numbers even higher.

The problem is it’s likely to get harder, not easier, for California to achieve ever deeper cuts in emissions. To understand why, consider three areas:

Slowing progress for renewables

Electricity is actually the easy part of decarbonization, because we have relatively cheap and reliable wind, solar, geothermal, and other carbon-free sources. But new renewables projects commissioned by the state’s investor-owned utilities, like PG&E and SDG&E, have been nearly flat for the last three years.

The report says that’s mainly because utilities had already achieved the state’s 2020 renewables targets years early—indeed, they’re way ahead.

But energy observers stress that deeper, systemic problems are building: the state’s utilities are losing loads of customers to community choice aggregators. These programs allow local communities, like Marin and Berkeley, to buy electricity from in-state or out-of-state sources on behalf of their residents and businesses, but still lean on the utility’s transmission and distribution infrastructure.

That’s left utilities with more power plants than they need, and thus no reason to enter into additional deals with developers to build renewables facilities. In fact, they could go deep into the next decade without adding contracts for new solar or wind farms and remain in compliance with the state’s tightening renewables standards, says Matthew Freedman, staff attorney with the Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group, and a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Bottom line: It could take years before the state starts to see a real uptick in new renewables projects again. Recognizing the growing challenges presented by this fragmentation of the state’s energy system, some California legislators have proposed tasking a state agency with ensuring the necessary levels of clean electricity development.

Hard-to-solve sectors

Achieving deeper cuts in other areas is even harder.

The glimmer of good news for transportation is that electric vehicles do represent a growing share of new vehicle sales, at just under 8% in the state last year. But they still make up only 1.5% of registered vehicles in the state, with hybrids accounting for 3.4%, the report notes.

At the same time, overall car ownership rates are rising, public-transit use is falling, and consumers are still shifting toward gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. And the 92% of vehicles sold last year that weren’t EVs will, on average, still be on the roads more than a decade from now.

Accelerating the shift to cleaner vehicles is likely to require far stricter policies, far more generous subsidies, cheaper EVs, and a massive build-out of charging infrastructure. And even California’s efforts to boost the average fuel efficiency of cars sold in the state have been complicated by the Trump administration’s legal challenges.

California has created some novel programs to help cut emissions in other areas, including agriculture. But there simply aren’t available technologies yet to fully decarbonize some of the state’s emission sources, including aviation.

Wildfires

Finally, California’s worsening wildfires are also complicating its efforts to cut emissions. Burning forests pump out massive amounts of greenhouse gases stored in plants and trees. And rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns have already extended the fire season by 75 days across the state’s sprawling Sierra Nevada range.

The raging wildfires in 2018 produced about 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s nine times more than the amount by which the state cut emissions the previous year. SOURCE

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A gel that makes trees fire-resistant could help prevent wildfires

A wildfire burns near Murrieta, California

The news: A gel developed by Stanford researchers could be sprayed on forests and vegetation to make them fire-resistant, helping to stop wildfires from spreading. It’s made from cellulose polymers (extracted from plants) and particles of silica, which are chemically identical to sand, mixed with a flame-retardant fluid.

How to use it: Fire-fighting sprays are currently used on wildfires only in emergencies: this new approach would deploy them protectively before any fires can break out. In a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say the gel is nontoxic and biodegradable.

Rain-resistant: The team tested the gel on plants in the laboratory and then on patches of grass by a road in California, supervised by local firefighters. They found it can withstand wind and up to half an inch of rain, so it only needs to be applied once per fire season (if it rains more than that, the risk of wildfires plummets anyway).

The bigger picture: Wildfires caused by humans are a huge and growing problem, destroying millions of acres of forest every year. It’s an issue that will only worsen as the Earth gets hotter. Many wildfires start in the same areas, like roadsides, campgrounds, and near remote electrical lines, which means local agencies could take a targeted approach, spraying the most “at risk” zones with the gel. SOURCE

Climate change is making wildfire behaviour stranger than fiction


This infographic depicts the harmful feedback loop between worsening climate change and wildfires. Graphic by Greenpeace

Fact or fiction: earlier this month, scientists from a respected university told us that recent record-breaking wildfires in British Columbia have been used to model the effects of nuclear war on our planet’s climate?

It might be tough to guess, given the rising popularity of speculative “cli-fi” (climate fiction), but it’s a true story.

The 2017 B.C. wildfires emitted the largest-ever observed pyrocumulonimbus cloud (PyroCb) — wildfire-induced thunderstorms characterized by plumes that form when the heat from wildfires sends smoke and soot high up into the atmosphere.

That data is helping to validate the climate models of scientists at Rutgers University who are trying to forecast how smoke from burning cities and industrial zones would act in the event of a nuclear war. (Spoiler alert: the cooling effect of soot that lingers in the stratosphere for months wouldn’t be good for our food security or well-being.)

Think this stranger-than-fiction tale needs more adrenaline? Well, buckle up.

Beating the roughly less than 50-50 odds of getting a chance to actually sample one of these “fire clouds,” NASA just made a rare flight right through one. The reconnaissance mission made meteorologist David Peterson one of the only people on the planet to do so. In the process, he made observations and collected samples to help researchers better understand how PyroCbs affect our climate.

OPINION: “The heebie-jeebies of climate-fueled wildfires being used to model nuclear winter aside, extreme wildfires are also part of a harmful feedback loop impacting climate change.”

Meanwhile, the “Doomsday Clock” measuring humanity’s proximity to destruction has been set at two minutes to midnight (where midnight is game over) for the second year in a row. The time, set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, draws attention to “the devolving state of nuclear and climate security.”

As climate change fuels worsening wildfires, it’s no wonder that scientists are working to unravel some of the mysteries about how PyroCbs behave and how they impact us. The wildfires burning in the Arctic have been named the worst on record. Greenpeace Russia has found that more than five million hectares of Siberian forest remain aflame (imagine a blaze bigger than Vancouver Island). Experts have named climate change as a factor. Canada has so far been spared the worst of it, though smoke from the Siberian fires did reach us. Yet scientists at the University of Victoria have determined that climate change likely made the area burned in B.C.’s 2017 wildfires seven to 11 times larger than expected.

The heebie-jeebies of climate-fuelled wildfires being used to model nuclear winter aside, extreme wildfires are also part of a harmful feedback loop impacting climate change.

Since forests absorb carbon dioxide over time, wildfires can release a large amount of climate pollution in a short amount of time. But carbon dioxide isn’t the only pollutant putting pressure on the Arctic.

Greenpeace experts monitoring via satellite have been studying the effects of black carbon, the heat-absorbing soot produced by wildfires, as have scientists involved in the Rutgers study and the NASA flight. Only a relatively small amount of black carbon is produced, but it has a strong effect on global heating and is a contributor to climate change.

Greenpeace Canada@GreenpeaceCA

Satellite imaging last month captures black carbon emissions from the Siberian wildfires.

Learn more about black carbon >> https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/12/06/black-carbon-how-forest-fires-melt-ice-sheets/ 

Embedded video

Black carbon can drift thousands of kilometres over days and weeks and settle in the Arctic. Normally, the bright Arctic ice keeps cool by reflecting up to90 per cent of the sun’s energy back into space. But when black carbon settles, the dark colouring causes more of the sun’s energy to be absorbed. This can drive the ice, a critical part of our planet’s natural defences against global heating and climate change, to literally melt away. That’s where we see the feedback loop come full circle, as more intense heating contributes to extreme fire weather. MORE

Jason Kenney fiddles (with climate policy) while Alberta burns

 

“Think of climate obstructionism in Alberta today as a three-legged stool. Postmedia and commentators like Smith are one leg, the Kenney government is another, and fossil fuel industry lobby groups are the third.”

A wildfire at Loon Lake on the Ashcroft First Nation Reserves in British Columbia in 2017. Photo: Shawn Cahill/Creative Commons
Photo: Shawn Cahill/Creative Commons ​

It is an irony, though not a particularly satisfying one to observe, that while Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government moves swiftly to repeal Alberta’s carbon tax, the province is aflame, with more than 5,000 Albertans required to leave homes and communities in imminent danger of destruction.

It is only May. The leaves on most of the elm trees on my street in St. Albert have not even appeared yet. In other words, it’s barely spring. God only knows what things will be like around here by midsummer. Smoky, I imagine.

Well, get used to it. It gets harder by the day to deny the reality of global climate change. One of the effects of this inconvenient fact on Alberta’s part of our planet is that there are going to be more frequent and more severe forest fires — the kind that destroyed large swaths of the town of Slave Lake in 2011, Fort McMurray in 2016, and which are now threatening High Level.

“Fire driven weather is ‘new reality’ for Canada and elsewhere, expert cautions,” said the headline on the news summary of an episode yesterday of The Current, CBC Radio’s daily news analysis program hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti.

Tremonti’s interview with Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future and a fellow of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, was playing on the car radio as I drove to work. Fire-caused weather that results in dynamic, fast moving fires is “the new reality,” Struzik was saying. “We saw it in B.C. in the last two years, and Alberta the year before, Waterton National Park. Ontario got hit hard last year. I think this is what we’re going to be seeing more of every summer.”

Bill 1, An Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax, was introduced in the provincial legislature on Wednesday and will take effect on May 30. A federal carbon tax will likely replace it, although Kenney has vowed to fight that in the courts. The position of this bill atop of the government’s radical agenda is intentionally symbolic and tells you everything you need to know about where Kenney really stands on climate change. MORE

An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth Why Carbon Credits For Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing

When released into the atmosphere CO2 remains active for 100 years. Forests on which the carbon offsets are based, rarely remain intact for that long.

Photography by Fernando Martinho, for ProPublic

RIO BRANCO, BRAZIL — The state of Acre, on the western edge of Brazil, is so remote, there’s a national joke that it doesn’t exist. But for geochemist Foster Brown, it’s the center of the universe, a place that could help save the world.

“This is an example of hope,” he said, as we stood behind his office at the Federal University of Acre, a tropical campus carved into the Amazon rainforest. Brown placed his hand on a spindly trunk, ordering me to follow his lead. “There is a flow of water going up that stem, and there is a flow of sap coming down, and when it comes down it has carbon compounds,” he said. “Do you feel that?”

I couldn’t feel a thing. But that invisible process holds the key to a massive flow of cash into Brazil and an equally pivotal opportunity for countries trying to head off climate change without throwing their economies into turmoil. If the carbon in these trees could be quantified, then Acre could sell credits to polluters emitting clouds of CO₂. Whatever they release theoretically would be offset, or canceled out, by the rainforest.

Five thousand miles away in California, politicians, scientists, oil tycoons and tree huggers are bursting with excitement over the idea. The state is the second-largest carbon polluter in America, and its oil and gas industry emits about 50 million metric tons of CO₂ a year. What if Chevron or Shell or Phillips 66 could offset some of their damage by paying Brazil not to cut down trees?

The appetite is global. For the airline industry and industrialized nations in the Paris climate accord, offsets could be a cheap alternative to actually reducing fossil fuel use.

But the desperate hunger for these carbon credit plans appears to have blinded many of their advocates to the mounting pile of evidence that they haven’t — and won’t — deliver the climate benefit they promise.  MORE