CLIMATE ROUNDUP: Airline carbon cuts may light Biden’s path to Glasgow

Colin Sullivan

Aug. 11, 2021

Hello! Happy to be here, and happy to begin this post by not discussing scalding summer weather or the oak mites that have invaded my neighborhood in the wake of cicada mania in Washington, D.C. First, some good news from a surprising quarter: White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy.

McCarthy was on the road this week to talk energy research at two national labs but paused her trip long enough to conduct an interview with Axios, which pressed her on a recent Reuters story that revealed the White House is working with airlines on a plan to halve the sector’s carbon emissions.

McCarthy confirmed talks are ongoing in a bid to curtail the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. She would not disclose more details, indicating to Axios reporter Andrew Freedman that the deal might be part of the Biden administration’s plan to make a splash at U.N. climate talks in Scotland later this year.

"If we can do something with the airline sector to look at fuels that are less carbon-intensive, if we can look at those opportunities, moving forward, it will be a big benefit when we get to Glasgow," McCarthy told Axios.

She added that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been a key figure in reaching out to the airlines. The news comes as the White House eyes this fall’s budget reconciliation measure for a host of climate measures that did not survive into the bipartisan infrastructure package making its way through Congress.

Emissions from jet fuel account for about 2.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, with the U.S. sector responsible for 9% of the U.S. transportation sector’s contribution, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, whose data was compiled before the global pandemic.

Progressives vow to press climate measures

Regarding the budget bill, House progressives sent a strong signal this week that the left wing of the Democratic Party does not intend to back infrastructure unless budget legislation moves in tandem.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obtained by the New York Times, the progressives warned that a majority of its 96 members would withhold support for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes a second package containing their climate priorities.

House leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said a poll of their 96 members had confirmed a majority would withhold support for the infrastructure legislation until the Senate passes the $3.5 trillion budget with funding for climate programs, health care, education and child care, the New York Times reported.

The letter was signed by the chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and two of her deputies, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Representative Katie Porter of California.

IPCC report turns heads

In more dire news, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed its sixth assessment of how climate is altering the planet. The report is scary reading.

IPCC scientists, who had not renewed their periodic reports since 2014, warned in stark language that “widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” the report said, adding that many of the changes “due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.”

Here are the key takeaways:

In 2019, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were higher than at any time in at least two million years.

The earth’s average surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years.

Between 2011 and 2020, the annual average area of sea ice coverage in the Arctic reached its lowest level since at least 1850.

And the global average sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years, the body said.

As the world’s leading scientific body on global warming and its impacts, the IPCC has become the authoritative source on the subject. The reaction was mostly a state of mild panic; Los Angeles Times “Boiling Point” reporter Sammy Roth, for instance, wrote that the findings “on the roasting of the planet” got so much attention his 7-year-old nephew drew the following sketch about the implications …

Carbon emissions and marijuana

In more homegrown news, Politico this week explored the carbon effects of the U.S. pot industry.

The publication said climate activists working for wide-ranging measures in the budget reconciliation bill have been slow to recognize a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the cannabis industry.

That’s because more than 80% of weed grown in the United States grows indoors, which means complex light structures and lots of water. It’s a setup that can consume up to 2,000 watts of electricity per square meter, or 40x what it takes for leafy greens like lettuce when grown indoors, Politico reported.

Some estimate marijuana production already accounts for over 1% of total U.S. power consumption, according to Politico. The article pointed out how difficult those numbers are to track, at the same time, given the varying states of legality in the United States.

More importantly perhaps, the pot industry is not eligible for the kinds of energy-saving incentives that could pass under the budget reconciliation package’s measures on reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and/or establishing a Clean Energy Standard.

Politico noted that a study in Massachusetts’ found its cannabis producers used 10% of the state’s industrial electricity in 2020. Another study found that smoking one gram of pot consumes as much energy as it takes to power a fuel-efficient car for a 20-mile drive.

The Massachusetts study cited by Politico was completed by the Northeast Sustainable Cannabis Project. The estimate was based on current indoor cultivation lighting standards and the assumption that half of the growing canopy square footage authorized for use by the state is currently in use.

The Politico article warns that the problem is likely to get worse without a federal law that legalizes the psychoactive plant to give the industry some degree of regulatory consistency.

In case you missed it …

Last year, former Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos announced the first details of how he intends to dole out his $10 billion climate change fund. The quick summary being that while he gave plenty to the big groups on the block — like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund — he has also spent heavily on environmental justice organizations.

Then, this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates will commit $1.5 billion for joint climate projects with the U.S. government if Congress enacts a program aimed at developing technologies that lower carbon emissions.

A roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the Senate this week would give the Energy Department $25 billion for demonstration projects funded through public-private partnerships. The House hasn’t yet approved the legislation.

Gates, in an interview with the Journal, said a fund run by his Breakthrough Energy group could include emissions-free fuel for planes and technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

On Bezos, an Inside Philanthropy article we kicked around this week at 128 Collective noted similar concerns we have about “Bezos’s enormous wealth and influence,” but the magazine also suggested that the magnate has “put substantial and unrestricted resources toward bottom-up efforts” to advance more localized environmental justice programs.

The Bezos Earth Fund has granted $43 million each to: the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund; the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice; and the Solutions Project. Inside Philanthropy noted that the trio “are part of a growing number of climate intermediaries that specialize in regranting funds to grassroots organizations across the country, many focused … on working with frontline, typically non-white communities already impacted by climate change.”

Bezos will also deliver $12 million to NDN Collective and $10 million to Green for All, a group started by former Obama administration official Van Jones that works on tech-sector equity, criminal justice reform and advancing the Green New Deal.

Itchy, scratchy mite bites

And finally, in the region around Washington, D.C., oak mites have emerged from the post-cicada die-off to remind us what getting chomped feels like.

Not that the infestation has anything to do with climate change (it likely does not), but it’s a reminder that cyclical wildlife shifts come with consequences.

Gene Kritsky, the dean of behavioral and natural sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, told the Washington Post that the microscopic mites are feeding on the billions of cicada eggs produced across the D.C. region. If you happen to be under or near the city’s many oak trees, those mites may land on you from above and bite.

This reporter can confirm their presence above the many paths in Rock Creek Park where he walks his dog every day. The bites itch like hell and cause little breakouts that remain for days.

Complaining, is he? Not really. I just wanted to say “itchy, scratchy mite bites”. This seemed worth noting, moreover, because maybe bug invasions are a happy diversion from the reality that nearly 200 million Americans are currently experiencing heat threats …

Weird times, indeed. Thanks for reading.

— Colin Sullivan