Air Pollution Cost Approaches $1 trillion in the West

by John Brian Shannon
(Originally published at JBSnews.com)

Air pollution has a very real cost to our civilization via increased healthcare costs, premature deaths, lowered productivity, environmental degradation with resultant lowered crop yields, increased water consumption and higher taxation.

However, air pollution is only one cost associated with fossil fuel use.

There are three main costs associated with energy

  1. The retail price that you pay at the gas pump or on your utility bill for example
    (which is paid by consumers)
  2. The subsidy cost that governments pay energy producers and utility companies
    (which is ultimately paid by taxpayers)
  3. The externality cost of each type of energy
    (which is paid by taxpayers, by increased prices for consumers, and the impact on, or the ‘cost to’ the environment)

Externality cost in Europe and the U.S.A.

A recent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) states that high air pollution levels (one type of externality) in the EU cost society €189 billion every year and it’s a number that increases every year. (That’s $235 billion when converted to U.S. dollars)

To put that number in some kind of context, the cost of the air pollution externality in the EU annually, is equal to the GDP of Finland.

Let’s state that even more clearly. The amount of taxation paid by EU taxpayers every year to pay for airborne fossil fuel damage is equal to Finland’s entire annual economic output!

It’s getting worse, not better, notwithstanding recent renewable energy programs and incentives. Even the admirable German Energiewende program is barely making an impact when we look at the overall EU air quality index.

“Of the 30 biggest facilities it identified as causing the most damage, 26 were power plants, mainly fueled by coal in Germany and eastern Europe.” — Barbara Lewis (Reuters)

That’s just Europe. It’s even worse in the U.S., according to a landmark Harvard University report which says coal-fired power generation (externality cost alone) costs the U.S. taxpayer over $500 billion/yr.

“Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as “externalities.”

We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative.

Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive.

We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.” — Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal by Dr. Paul Epstein, the Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, and eleven other co-authors

The report also notes that electricity costs would need to rise by another .09 to .27 cents per kilowatt hour in the U.S. to cover the externality cost of American coal-fired electricity production.

The externality cost for solar or wind power plants is zero, just for the record

Dr. Epstein and his team notes: “Coal burning produces one and a half times the CO2 emissions of oil combustion and twice that from burning natural gas (for an equal amount of energy produced).”

There’s the argument to switch from coal to natural gas right there

Also in the Harvard report in regards to the intrinsic inefficiency of coal: “Energy specialist Amory Lovins estimates that after mining, processing, transporting and burning coal, and transmitting the electricity, only about 3% of the energy in the coal is used in incandescent light bulbs.”

“…In the United States in 2005, coal produced 50% of the nation’s electricity but 81% of the CO2 emissions.

For 2030, coal is projected to produce 53% of U.S. power and 85% of the U.S. CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

None of these figures includes the additional life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal, including methane from coal mines, emissions from coal transport, other GHG emissions (e.g., particulates or black carbon), and carbon and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from land transformation in the case of MTR coal mining.” — Harvard University’s Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal report

It’s not like this information is secret. All European, American, and Asian policymakers now know about the externality costs of coal vs. renewable energy. It’s just that until recently everyone thought that the cost of switching to renewable energy, was higher than the cost of fossil externalities.

It’s not only an economic problem, it’s also a health problem

“Air pollution impacts human health, resulting in extra healthcare costs, lost productivity, and fewer work days. Other impacts are reduced crop yields and building damage.

Particulate matter and ground-level ozone are two of the main pollutants that come from coal.

90% or more of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful air pollution. Bulgaria and Poland have some of the worst pollution of the European countries.

An estimated 400,000 premature deaths in European cities were linked to air pollution in 2011.” — CleanTechnica

Externality cost in China

Remember the Beijing Olympics where the city’s industry and commercial business were shut down to allow visitors and athletes to breathe clean air during their stay (and Wow!) look at their clear blue sky for the first time in decades. Great for tourists! Bad for Beijing business and industry, with the exception of the tourism industry (for one month) of course.

The Common Language Project reported in 2008 that premature deaths in China resulting from fossil fuel air pollution were surpassing 400,000 per year.

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.” clpmag.org

The die is cast since it is becoming common knowledge that renewable energy merely requires a small subsidy to assist with power plant construction and grid harmonization — while fossil fuels continue to require truly massive and ongoing subsidies to continue operations.

Subsidy cost of fossil fuels

Already there is talk of ending fossil fuel producer subsidies, which in 2014 will top $600 billion worldwide

Want to add up the total costs (direct economic subsidy and externality cost subsidy) of fossil fuels?

Add the $600 billion global fossil fuel subsidy to the to the $2 trillion dollars of global externality cost and you arrive at (approx) $2.5 trillion dollars per year. Then there is the more than 1 million premature deaths globally caused by air pollution. All of that is subsidized by the world’s taxpayers.

Compare that to the total costs of renewable energy. Well, for starters, the economic subsidy dollar amount for renewable energy is much less (about $100 billion per year globally) and there are no externality costs.

No deaths. No illness. No direct or related productivity loss due to a host of fossil fuel related issues (oil spills, coal car derailment, river contamination, explosions in pipelines or factories) for just a very few examples.

The fossil fuel industry is a very mature industry, it has found ways to do more with ever-fewer employees, and it gets more subsidy dollars than any other economic segment on the planet.

By comparison, the renewable energy industry is a new segment, one that requires many thousands of workers and it gets only relative handfuls of subsidy dollars. And, no externalities.

It becomes clearer every day that high carbon fossil electricity power production must be displaced by renewable energy

No longer is it some arcane moral argument that we should switch to renewables for the good of the Earth; Fossil fuel is proving to be a major factor in human illness/premature deaths, it sends our money abroad to purchase energy instead of keeping our money in our own countries, and the wholly-taxpayer-funded subsidy cost of fossil is out of control and getting worse with each passing year.

The time for dithering is past. It’s time to make the switch to renewable energy, and to start, we need to remove the worst polluting power plants from the grid (and at the very least, replace them with natural gas powered plants) or even better, replace them with hybrid wind and solar power plants.

To accomplish this, governments need to begin diverting some of the tens of billions of dollars annually paid to the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy industry.

Germany’s Energiewende program was (and still is) an admirable first step. Once Germany has completed it’s energy transition away from oil, coal and nuclear — having replaced all of that generation capacity with renewable energy and natural gas, only then can it be hailed a complete success — and German leaders should go down in history as being instrumental in changing the world’s 21st century energy paradigm.

Dank an unsere deutschen Freunde! (With thanks to our German friends!)

If only every nation would sign-on to matching or exceeding the ongoing German example, we wouldn’t have 1 million premature deaths globally due to fossil fuel burning, we wouldn’t have almost 2 trillion dollars of externality cost, we wouldn’t need $600 billion dollars of direct subsidies for fossil fuel producers — and we would all live in a healthier environment, and our plant, animal, and aquatic life would return to their normally thriving state.

Taxes would reflect the global $2.5 trillion drop in combined fossil fuel subsidy and fossil fuel externality costs, employment stats would improve, productivity would increase, the tourism industry would receive a boost, and enjoyment of life for individuals would rebound.

It’s a truism in the energy industry that all energy is subsidized, of that there is no doubt. Even renewable energy receives tiny amounts of subsidy, relative to fossil.

But it is now apparent that over the past 100 years, getting ‘the best (energy) bang for the buck’ has been our nemesis. The energy world that we once knew, is about to change.

The world didn’t come to an end when air travel began to replace rail travel in the 1950’s. Now almost everyone travels by air, and only few travel by train.

And what about the railway investors didn’t they lose their money when the age of rail tapered-off? No, they simply moved their money to the new transportation mode and made as much or more money in the airline business.

Likewise, the world will not come to an end now that renewable energy is beginning to displace coal and oil. Investors will simply reallocate their money and make as much or more money in renewable energy.

Why Germany should leave coal behind

by John Brian Shannon

Germany, a thriving economic powerhouse under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, is also a renewable energy superstar and a country that is loaded with potential.

Lately, the Germans have taken a break from aggressively adding renewable energy to their grid by ending a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FiT) subsidy program that ramped-up the adoption of solar, wind and biomass installations across the country.

Not that these so-called ‘lucrative’ subsidies approached anywhere near what fossil fuel and nuclear power plant operators receive and have received since the postwar period began, as all energy in Germany (like most countries) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers but only the (much smaller) renewable energy subsidies get the headlines. Go figure.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the courageous decision to accelerate the shutdown Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 after stress tests of German nuclear power plants showed safety concerns existed within the their nuclear fleet. She ushered in meaningful FiT subsidies to speed the German Energiewende program towards its goal of transition to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency — which had received only sporadic subsidies prior to Merkel.

Snapshot of the German Energiewende program

  • A popular Germany-only program to move towards a highly industrialized, sustainable green economy
  • Full phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022
  • 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
  • Minimum of 80% renewables in the power sector
  • 50% increase in energy efficiency by 2050

Germany’s utility companies haven’t seen change like this since WWII. After a century of serving conventionally-generated electrical power to a captive electricity market — approximately 1/3 of all German electricity is now generated via renewable energy if you also include biomass and hydro-power. That’s historic change by any standard.

Germany-renewable-energy-power-capacity at October 29, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute image

Although solar panel outputs are lower during the winter months, over the summer of 2014 renewable energy generated more than 75% of total demand on many of those days. Not bad, for 5 years of relatively minor renewable energy subsidy euros provided by a (now ended) Feed-in-Tariff!

Germany renewable energy generation for the first 10 months of 2014 courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Another benefit of the switch to renewable energy was the added billions of euros of economic activity generated annually by European solar panel and wind manufacturing companies like Vestas, SolarWorld, Siemens, ABB, and the jobs created for hundreds of SME renewable energy installation companies in the country.

Exports of German solar panels and wind turbines went through the stratosphere once Germany proved to the world that solar and wind could replace lost nuclear power generation capacity at a much lower cost than building new, multi-billion euro, nuclear or coal-fired power plants with their massive footprint on the land and their obscene water usage levels.

Germany renewable energy power generation change (in absolute terms) for the first 10 months of 2014 compared to the first 10 months of 2013. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

For Germany, installing their own solar, wind and biomass power plants proved to the world that large-scale renewable energy could add huge capacity to a nation’s electrical grid and that different types of renewable energy could work together to balance the over-hyped ‘intermittency problem’ of renewable energy.

It turns out that in Germany, during the long, hot days of summer when solar panels are putting out their maximum power the wind actually tapers off — but at night the wind blows at a very reliable rate. Karmic bonus! That about covers the summer months.

During the winter months in Germany, the wind blows day and night and adds significant amounts of reliable power to the national grid.

Germany solar and wind energy are complementary, helping to stabilize the German electricity grid without adding pollution to the air. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

And now, all of that renewable energy capacity is operating without FiT subsidy — quite unlike the coal, nuclear, and oil and gas power generation in the country which require huge and ongoing subsidies every day of the year to continue operations. That’s every day since 1946, meine Freunde!

Also a factor with nuclear and coal-fired power plants are the healthcare spending to combat the adverse health effects of fossil fuel burning/air pollution on humans and animals, on the agriculture sector, and the huge security infrastructure that is necessary to counter the potential theft of nuclear materials, to defeat possible nuclear terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation.

While the rest of Europe (with the exception of notables like Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg) wallowed in recession or near-recession since 2008, the German economic powerhouse not only set global export records year-on-year, it bailed-out numerous other EU economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others, and began an unprecedented domestic renewable energy program. And now, Germany is an electricity net exporter.

That’s heady stuff, even for this industrious nation of 82 million.

Germany imports and exports of electricity 2001-2014. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Where to next?

Not only has Germany added many TeraWatt hours (TWh) of clean, renewable energy to its electrical grid to replace lost nuclear power generation, it is now an electricity net exporter — raking in multi-millions of euros per year at present — and make that an electricity exporting superpower if they ever decide to revive their now defunct Feed-in-Tariff subsidy for renewable energy.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany:

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 5 more years, *all lignite-fired (brown coal) electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 10 more years, *all coal-fired electrical power generation* (not just lignite coal) could be eliminated within 10 years.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would save millions of Germans (and Polish, Swiss, Austrians, and others living downwind of German smokestacks) from breathing toxic lignite-fired air pollution. Think of the health care savings and the taxes that must support it, especially as their demographic ages. Some people believe that the health care savings alone could far exceed the cost of any FiT subsidy.

Not only that, but as a result of leaving coal behind, historic buildings, concrete bridges and roadways would require less maintenance to repair the spalling caused by the acid rain from coal burning. Additionally, Germany would save the millions of litres of water consumed annually by the coal industry.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would create thousands more jobs for solar, wind, and biomass manufacturing and construction. And the agriculture sector would begin to show ever-improving crop outputs. And, clean air for all visitors, expats and German citizens to breathe!

A note about (renewable energy) Hybrid power plants

So-called Hybrid power plants offer the best of both worlds in the renewable energy space by providing plenty of electricity day and night. This Hybrid power plant uses solar panels and wind turbines, while others can incorporate biomass or hydro-electricity dams, along with wind or solar, or both.
Hybrid power plants provide electricity day and night.

An energy policy stroke of genius for Germany could come in the form of a new subsidy (a FiT or other type of subsidy) that could be offered to promote the installation of Hybrid power plants — whereby 30% of electricity generated at a given power plant site would come from solar and the balance could come from any combination of wind, biomass, or hydro-electric generation. (30% solar + 70% various renewable = 100% of total per site output)

As long as all of the electrical power generation at a site is renewable energy and it works to balance the intermittency of solar power — it should qualify for the (hereby proposed) Energiewende Hybrid Power Plant subsidy.

When all the different types of renewable energy work in complementary fashion on the same site, energy synergy (the holy grail of the renewable energy industry) will be attained.

More jobs, billions of euros worth of electricity exports to the European countries bordering Germany, better agricultural outputs, lower health care spending and less environmental damage — all at a lower subsidy level than coal and nuclear have enjoyed for decades — are precisely why Germans should renew their commitment to renewable energy.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

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G20 Brisbane 2014 Hints at Eliminating Fossil Fuel Subsidies

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As the G20 Brisbane 2014 wraps up, leaders discussed the eventual elimination of the massive global subsidies paid to the fossil fuel industry which topped some $600 billion dollars last year, slightly more than last year’s $550 billion and 2012′s $500 billion.

Meanwhile, non-polluting renewable energy continues to receive peanuts — well under $100 billion dollars worldwide in 2014.

At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.
At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.

Clean energy does have it’s detractors, similar to the criticisms by the detractors of aircraft travel 100 years ago when people traveled by ship or by train. But, “The times, they are a changin’,” rings true in this century too!

“We do it this way, because we’ve always done it this way,” is no longer good enough. The fossil fuel industry provides the fuel for the world’s transportation industry and it is the most heavily subsidized industry on the planet and has been given carte blanche to operate in any way it sees fit.

Fine. We needed the oil. Whatever has taken place was done with our tacit approval. But with the very real effects of climate change now becoming clearer to us with each passing year, not to mention the more poignant effects on human health by breathing polluted air and drinking fracked water, fossil now requires a relook.

It’s not just climate and individual health concerns that are driving the discussion, health care systems around the world are now realizing that a good portion of disease and mortality are directly relatable to the environment. In major industrialized nations, billions of dollars in health care dollars are spent to repair the damage to people’s health from fossil fuel emissions. It’s not a few billion ‘here and there’ it may be as high as 1/3rd of all health care spending in the world’s most industrialized nations.

The cost of fossil is becoming a very large number for even the richest countries

  • Climate: For each 1 degree of climate increase the world will spend 1 trillion dollars to counter drought, sea level rise, abnormal storm activity and land remediation.
  • Health: Our sophisticated health care systems can now argue with statistical proof that fossil fuel burning contributes to human mortality and disease in a much more precise manner than in decades past.
  • Costs: $600 billion dollars in subsides is a lot for the world’s nations to bear. And that number continues to grow each year as all of the ‘easy oil’ and ‘easy gas’ is already tapped and locations with special extraction methods must be employed.

From the G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014, Co-chair’s Report

Inefficient fossil fuel subsidies

G20 members reported to G20 finance ministers in September on their progress towards meeting the G20 commitment, initially made at the 2009 Pittsburgh summit and reaffirmed at subsequent summits, to “ rationalize and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption over the medium term ”. The ESWG benefitted from updates on the preparations for the first round of voluntary peer reviews involving the United States and China. A second round of voluntary peer reviews involving other G20 countries is expected to commence in mid – 2015. Germany has announced it will participate in the second round.

In response to a request from leaders at the 2013 Saint Petersburg summit, the ESWG tasked the World Bank Group, in consultation with other relevant international organisations, to prepare a report on transitional policies to assist the poor while phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. The World Bank Group provided regular updates to the ESWG through the year and the final report was delivered to finance ministers in September. — Read the full report here.

It looks like ‘business as usual’ is headed for change in the energy industry

Only fossil fuel superpowers Australia (coal), Canada (coal, oil, tar-sands petroleum, fracked gas and conventional gas, deepsea oil extraction), and Saudi Arabia (oil), alone out of the G20 did not see fit to endorse the Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014 report.

No surprise there. However, the day is coming when the costs of not switching to clean energy will far exceed the costs of switching. If all energy subsidies were magically and instantly removed — that day would be today.

What is Climate Change? [Video]

What Is Climate Change? [Video] | September 16th, 2014
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Remember the difference between weather and climate? We know what happens when the weather changes—it’s obvious. Climate is another story. Read on.

What is climate change? from WHAT IS CLIMATE? (S. Dechert via vocesverdes.org)
What is climate change? from WHAT IS CLIMATE? (S. Dechert via vocesverdes.org)

When it rains, you put on a raincoat or take your umbrella when you go out. It snows: time for high boots, a heavier coat, scarf, and warm gloves. And sunny days, well, they’re the best for being outdoors, unless it’s noon in the tropics. What’s more difficult for us to perceive, from the relatively short perspective of one human lifetime, is that like weather, climate changes too.

youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYwqHc3Ib7M?feature=oembed

What is climate change? On historic maps, we see climate change in the advance and retreat of glaciers, the transitory nature of coastlines, and the periodic appearance and drowning of islands. Species change in response to it. Scientists have learned to measure these climate fluctuations using treetrunk rings, snow lines, fossil records, and cores of ancient ice or seabed. In the past 50 years, we have even devised sophisticated satellite instruments to reveal changes in earth’s land, air, water, and ice, or in the sun and the energy it puts out.

All these measurements have taught us that Earth’s climate changes naturally. Over the past million years there have been a number of cold stages, or “ice ages”— cooler times when much of earth’s water has frozen into ice caps covering the poles and glaciers extending from them toward the tropics.

Earth's geological timeline (imgarcade.com, economist.com)
Earth’s geological timeline (imgarcade.com, economist.com)

During the interglacial periods, which are shorter than the icy ones, earth’s temperature rises and the snow and ice melt, increasing sea levels.

Around the end of the last ice age (the Weichsel, above), the earth transitioned into the benign interglacial climate of the Holocene epoch. At this time, a land bridge called Beringia existed between Siberia and Alaska. It enabled east Asian migrants to become “native Americans.” Through Dutch fishing boats and recent North Sea oil drilling, we have discovered that around the same time, humans could walk from the current nation of Holland all the way to the Irish Sea. Before the English Channel formed, Great Britain was a peninsula linked to the rest of Europe by a low, ecologically rich plain called Doggerland. Over only ten thousand years or so, a temperature rise of 4 degrees C. and accompanying sea level rise of only a few hundred feet eliminated both of these bridges between continents.

  • Scientists have various theories about what makes climate so fickle over the long run. They’ve found any or all of these factors important to some degree to the question of what is climate change.

    Milankovitch cycles, from What Is Climate? (source: dandebat.dk)
    Milankovitch cycles, from What Is Climate? (source: dandebat.dk)
  • Small changes in earth’s orbit (Milankovitch cycles) caused by the variable tilt of the planet, its slightly eccentric orbit, and its axial (gyroscopic) precession.
  • Variations in the sun’s energy output, measured as changes in the amount of radiation it emits.
  • Orbital dynamics of earth and moon.
  • Motion of earth’s tectonic plates with seismic activity (drifting continents), which changes the relative locations of landforms and affects wind and ocean currents.

    Earth's tectonic plates (public domain)
    Earth’s tectonic plates (public domain)
  • Impact of meteorites—not small phenomena like the recent ones in Russian, but relatively huge masses like the six-mile (10-km) Chicxulub asteroid that smacked into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago. Its impact sent millions of tons of material high into the atmosphere, blacking out the sun for months. It caused the earth’s last great extinction, abruptly and forcefully wiping out all dinosaurs without wings, ending the Cretaceous period of life on the planet, and paving the way for the Cenozoic and the emergence of mammals.
  • Volcanic mega-eruptions, especially from the prehistoric caldera-forming colossi in the American West near Yellowstone, the North Island of New Zealand, subtropical and temperate South America, and potentially from the massive igneous province forming in Iceland. Supervolcanoes like these help determine what is climate change. They send huge amounts of ejecta (ash, gas, and aerosol droplets) into earth’s stratosphere. (Even historic, relatively small eruptions at places like Mauna Loa in Hawaii [33 eruptions in the past 170 years], Indonesia’s Krakatoa [1883], Mount St. Helens, Washington [1980], Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines [1991], and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull [March 2010] figure into what is climate change because they have disturbed the atmosphere and temporarily cooled the earth.)
  • With meteorites and volcanoes, we can watch earth’s atmosphere in flux, as visible particles crowd the skies. But along with them comes an invisible, and possibly invincible, alteration in the atmosphere—in the gases that comprise it, including its concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. We can see these influences in the deep Vostok ice core samples from Antarctica that record atmospheric composition over the past 800,000 years.
97% global agreement on anthropogenic climate change (gawker.com)
97% global agreement on anthropogenic climate change (gawker.com)
Humans have survived climate changes, from What Is Climate? (source: skepticalscience.com)
Humans have survived climate changes, from What Is Climate? (source: skepticalscience.com)

On this final accompaniment of climate change—atmospheric variation—today’s research is nearly unanimous (97%). What is climate change? A lot of the phenomenon has to do with the effects of increasing certain atmospheric gases. The temperatures on earth’s surface (land and oceans) are directly related to the chemical composition of our planet’s thin atmospheric shell.

Global warming since 1880 (NOAA)
Global warming since 1880 (NOAA)

Climate shapes and alters natural ecosystems. By doing so, it affects the rise and fall of human civilizations. It governs where and how people, plants, and animals live. It juggles the water, food, and health of its inhabitants. Within the brief time of recorded history (last green bar above), our climate has been relatively stable. It has been generous to human life, allowing exploration, trade, development, labor-saving invention, and even space flight and greater awareness of our universe.

But over the past 200 years, as humans industrialized and populations grew rapidly, the formerly placid natural phenomenon of climate change has been occurring at a much faster rate. We know from meteorological records kept since 1880 that the planet’s temperature has risen about one degree Fahrenheit in the last century. The results of this apparently small change have been impressive. We’ve seen more snow and ice melt, a rise in ocean levels, intensifying storms, and changes in crop seasons and animal reproductive and migration schedules.

Rise in energy consumption since industrial revolution, from What Is Climate Change? (source: arctic-news.blogspot.com)
Rise in energy consumption since industrial revolution, from What Is Climate Change? (source: arctic-news.blogspot.com)

In fact, over the past couple of decades, scientists have started saying we have switched over from the Holocene to the Anthropocene (human-centered) epoch, and the polar bear on a shrinking ice floe has become a visual cliche. None of the natural causes discussed earlier can fully explain the climate changes we are seeing today. The accelerating temperature results from a massive new influence shaping world climate—the human factor. Our expanding quest for and use of energy has given people the ability to alter the climate. Our own Promethean activities now alter the balance of gases that trap the sun’s heat within the atmosphere, which until now has been earth’s protective greenhouse. Amounts of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, are rising sharply to a level unmatched in the past 650,000 years, and other potentially harmful gases like methane are increasing, too. What we commonly call “nature” still makes up much of the force behind climate, but almost all the world’s scientists now say that humans can change climate also. Expanding populations produce and cook food. We drive cars. We heat and cool our houses mechanically. We construct and use factories. All our activities consume energy.

Michael Mann's hockey stick world temperature graph, from What Is Climate? (source: desmogblog.com)
Michael Mann’s hockey stick world temperature graph, from What Is Climate? (source: desmogblog.com)

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have obtained energy through the quick fix of mining and burning our limited reserves of coal, oil, and gas. It’s a bit like raiding the kitchen in the middle of the night. Where there’s fire, there’s smoke, though. Look at the “hockey stick” plot of global temperature (right). It shows that instead of continuing the downward trend toward another ice age—which the historical record indicates we should expect—temperatures are rising, and rising very fast.

Burning for energy changes the atmosphere by raising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. And changing the atmosphere changes everything.

The bottom line is that we no longer know what to expect from our climate. Extinction of many species (including our own) is a possibility. We cannot calculate the amounts of greenhouse gases that will enter the atmosphere, how much and how quickly warmer temperatures will lead to other changes, or even what will be going on in our own backyards by 2050.

Climate changes graphic (epa.gov)
Climate changes graphic (epa.gov)

It’s not just nature that’s running the show any more. The rules have changed. The compositions of our air, land, and seas are in metamorphosis. We find ourselves conducting an unplanned and potentially vast experiment as we segue from the Holocene into the Anthropocene. We can no longer use our wisdom from earth’s past to discern what the future will bring.

This is the first time humans have been capable of causing major climate change on our planet. However: this is also the first time we have had the opportunity to alter its course.

 

About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She’s worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm, writes two top-level blogs on Examiner.com, ranked #2 on ONPP’s 2011 Top 50 blogs on Women’s Health, and attributes her modest success to an “indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity.”

Wind Power breaks records across Europe

Wind Power smashes records across Europe

Britain’s fleet of onshore and offshore wind turbines met 22% of electricity demand on Sunday, setting a new record and outperforming coal, which met just 13% of demand.

Wind Turbines UK Image courtesy of ReNews
Wind Turbines UK Image courtesy of ReNews

Across the Channel, Spain has reported high levels of summer clean energy output with over 55% of electricity generation coming from zero emission sources during July. And Germany has announced that it generated more than a third of its energy from renewable sources in the first half of this year, while energy from fossil fuel plants – gas and coal – declined.

“Wind has become an absolutely fundamental component in this country’s energy mix,” RenewableUK Director of External Affairs Jennifer Webber said today in an e-mailed statement. “Wind is a dependable and reliable source of power in every month of year including high summer.” — Bloomberg

These figures are the latest clear signals that renewables are increasingly stealing the limelight from outdated fossil fuels. Earlier this year, onshore wind was revealed as the cheapest form of new electricity generation in Denmark and wind met over half of the country’s power demand last December. Renewable energy is also becoming cost competitive elsewhere with solar power reaching grid parity in Italy, Spain and Germany. This trend clearly indicates to European getting ready to agree a climate and energy framework to 2030 that the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is happening and here to stay. For more on this story click here.

Wind to power 50% of Denmark’s demand by 2020

While other countries debate whether to install wind turbines offshore or in remote areas, Denmark is building them right in its capital. Three windmills were recently inaugurated in a Copenhagen neighbourhood, and the city plans to add another 97.

“We’ve made a very ambitious commitment to make Copenhagen CO2-neutral by 2025,” Frank Jensen, the mayor, says. “But going green isn’t only a good thing. It’s a must.”

The city’s carbon-neutral plan, passed two years ago, will make Copenhagen the world’s first zero-carbon capital. With wind power making up 33% of ­Denmark’s energy supply, the country already features plenty of wind turbines.

Indeed, among the first sights greeting airborne visitors during the descent to Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport is a string of sea-based wind towers. By 2020, the windswept country plans to get 50% of its energy from wind power. — For more on this story visit Newsweek

Siemens receives Norwegian order for 67 wind turbines

Siemens has announced that it has received an order from Norwegian energy utilities Statoil and Statkraft for 67 wind turbines for the Dudgeon Offshore Wind Farm in the UK. The news comes just days after the UK installed their first 6 MW wind turbine at the burgeoning Westermost Rough offshore wind farm in the North Sea. Siemens will manufacture, deliver, install, and commission 67 of its direct-drive 6 MW wind turbines, each of which has a mammoth 154 meter rotor.

“We are proud to convince more and more customers about the advantages of our 6-megawatts-offshore machine”, said Dr. Markus Tacke, CEO of the Wind Power Division of Siemens Energy. “With Dudgeon we extend our project pipeline for this new turbine. This gives us the opportunity to further ramp up production capacity, which is a precondition to bring down the costs for offshore wind.”

The Dudgeon Offshore Wind Farm will begin construction in early 2017, and upon completion is expected to provide electricity to more than 410,000 UK households. For more on this story, head over to CleanTechnica

Vestas reports healthy profits and order for 32 – 8MW Wind Turbines

One of the world’s largest wind energy manufacturers, Vestas Wind, reported healthy second quarter earnings for 2014, and is now waiting on DONG Energy’s final investment in a UK offshore wind project which would require the Vestas 8 MW turbines. Vestas reported a strong turnaround from their second quarter earnings a year previously with a 13% increase to €1.34 billion. The company reported a net profit in the second quarter of €94 million ($125 million), compared to a €62 loss a year earlier

The news came just a day before Vestas confirmed that they had entered into a conditional agreement with DONG Energy for the upcoming Burbo Bank Extension in Liverpool Bay off northwest England. Vestas would provide 32 8 MW V164 turbines for the extension project, and are awaiting DONG Energy’s commitment to the project before the deal is sealed.

“Larger and more cost-efficient wind turbines are key elements in the realization of Dong Energy’s strategy towards reducing the cost of electricity from offshore wind,” said Samuel Leupold, an executive vice president at Dong. “Competition among the offshore wind turbine manufacturers will increase.”

Offshore construction of the Extension is expected to begin in 2016, and upon completion it is expected the project will be able to provide electricity for more than 230,000 UK homes. — Bloomberg