Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
The United States leads the world in the number of electric vehicles on the road, but the count is still tiny: about 350,000. That's less than 1 percent of all passenger cars and trucks in the country. Recent market research suggests that number will climb steadily over the next several decades. But will it climb fast enough? When it comes to fighting climate change, that could turn out to be one of the most important questions of the next few years.
On April 22, world leaders gathered in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, in which they vowed to keep global temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a limit the world is already more than halfway toward exceeding. Meanwhile, energy experts have begun to map out the fine-grain details of what meeting that goal would actually require. And it's becoming increasingly clear that electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play.
It turns out that one of the most immediate societal changes for average Americans in a climate-savvy future would likely be the electrification of just about everything. In other words, the hope of the planet could lie in a force—electricity—we've known about for hundreds of years.
How much do you really know about what's under your hood? Would you really notice if your basement held an electric heat pump instead of a gas furnace?
That might sound strange, given that electricity production is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Coal- and gas-burning power plants are still our main sources of electricity, and in some parts of the country the power grid is so dirty that electric vehicles might actually cause more pollution than traditional gas-guzzlers.
But thanks to the explosive growth of solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies, electricity is getting cleaner all the time. Over the last decade, the share of total US electricity production from renewables (including hydroelectric dams) rose from about 9.5 percent to more than 14 percent, with year-to-year growth getting faster all the time. So there's a good case tobe made for phasing out the other types of fossil fuel use in our daily lives—particularly gasoline for cars and oil and gas for heating buildings. We should be using electricity instead—even if that means using more electricity overall.
That's a key finding of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international consortium of energy researchers that produced a detailed technical study of how to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2050—the change necessary if Americans hope to do their part to stay within the two-degree limit. The report found that it's technically possible for the United States to meet that target, at an annual cost of about 1 percent of GDP, without sacrificing any "energy services." That is, the report assumes we'll still drive and have houses and operate factories the same as we do today. But to do so will require a major boost in electrification—which will in turn require that the US produce about twice as much electricity as it currently does—while reducing the carbon emissions per unit of energy down to just 3 to 10 percentof their current levels. In other words, at the same time we're electrifying everything, we need to continue to clean up the electric grid and double down on energy efficiency, especially in buildings.
"You can't get to a level of emissions that's compatible with 2C or less unless you do all three of those things," said Jim Williams, one of the report's lead authors and chief scientist at the private research firm Energy and Environmental Economics.
We get energy from fossil fuels in two basic ways: either by burning it in a power plant to create electricity that gets used elsewhere, or by burning it directly where it's needed—i.e., your car's internal combustion engine or a gas-fueled stove. Williams' basic idea—which has also been advanced by other leading energy economists, particularly Stanford's Mark Jacobson—is to ax that second category as much as possible, while simultaneously "decarbonizing" the electric grid by replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and other renewables.
"We have the technology, we have what it takes to quit emitting so much CO2 to the atmosphere."
Williams' model doesn't assume that all fossil fuel consumption goes completely to zero. A small portion of electricity could still come from natural gas plants; some oil and gas could still be used for manufacturing and industrial purposes; and airplanes, freight trains, and ocean liners may still rely mainly on petroleum. But by the middle of the century, the total "budget" for fossil fuels will become so small that they need to be limited only to uses that are absolutely unavoidable. Everything that can run on electricity needs to do so. Cars and buildings are low-hanging fruit. And despite gradual fuel efficiency improvements in cars over the last few decades, Williams said, there's ultimately no way to make an oil-burning internal combustion car engine efficient enough to fit in the tiny fossil fuel "budget."
"At some point you can't continue to do direct combustion of fossil fuels, even if it's efficient," he said. "There is a point where you have to get out of direct fossil fuel combustion to the maximum extent."
Ending direct combustion of fossil fuels would take a massive bite out of greenhouse gas emissions: Put together, buildings, transportation, and industrial uses account for more than half of the country's carbon footprint.
In practical terms, the most important element of that transition would be bringing electric vehicles off the sidelines and into the mainstream. The charts below, from the report, illustrate what that transformation would look like. It's important to note that these charts are not a projection of what the authors think will happen, but rather a prescription for what they think should happen. In the left chart, you can see that starting in the mid-2020s, sales of gas-powered cars (blue) fall off dramatically in favor of hybrids (red) and fully electric vehicles (gold). On the right, you see that by the mid-2030s, there are more electric cars and hybrids on the road than gas-powered cars:
At the same time as this transformation is happening on the road, your gas stove will be swapped for an electric one; ditto the gas furnace in your basement. Gas stations will close and be replaced by charging stations. Machinery in factories that uses oil and gas will be largely replaced with electric equipment. Your propane or charcoal grill could be replaced by a George Foreman…you get the idea.
These are big shifts, but Williams said they probably won't actually be very noticeable to most people. How much do you really know about what's under your hood? Would you really notice if your basement held an electric heat pump instead of a gas furnace?
"The carbon aspect is in the guts of it that people don't really look at," he said. "The good news is that even if we continue to live like we're living, we have the technology, we have what it takes to quit emitting so much CO2 to the atmosphere."
Still, we're not yet on pace to meet the goals laid out in the DDPP report. In a recent market forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance of global electric vehicle sales—a realistic picture of what the future actually holds, given current policies—global sales of electric and hybrid vehicles in 2040 are still only 35 percent of total car sales, instead of close to 100 percent in Williams' model.
How do we get on track? Williams argues that policymakers need to start spending less energy worrying about fuel efficiency for oil-powered cars and focus instead on speeding up the transition to electric vehicles. That's something the Obama administration has only scratched the surface of, so it could be an area of focus for the next president. Power grid operators, too, need to start planning for a future in which there could be major demand for electricity in sectors (i.e., electric cars, home heating, etc.) that are small now.
"We're not used to having a whole lot of our electricity being used by sectors that currently don't exist," Williams said. "We need to already be thinking about that. If we don't start planning now, we'll run into dead ends."
World leaders are in New York City to sign the first global agreement on climate change.
Tim McDonnellApr. 22, 2016 6:00 AM
This image from the 1968 Apollo 8 mission helped inspire the first Earth Day.
A lot of champagne was popped on the night of Saturday, December 12, when diplomats from almost every country on Earth finalized the text of the historic global agreement to combat climate change. In the Paris Agreement, countries committed to hold global temperature increases to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, an ambitious target considering that the world is already more than halfway to that limit. The deal also laid out a system for wealthier nations to help poorer ones pay for adapting to unavoidable climate impacts.
But finalizing the agreement was only one step on the long road to actually achieving its aims. The next step is happening today, on Earth Day, as heads of state and other top officials from more than 150 countries will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to put their signatures on the deal. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a driving force in Paris, will sign the document on behalf of the United States.
Earth Day had generally declined into little more than a "news" hook for PR flacks to harass reporters about eco-friendly guns and cheeseburgers.
Signing the document is mostly a symbolic step, indicating a country's intent to formally "join" the agreement at some later stage. In order to "join" the agreement, national governments have to show the United Nations the piece of domestic paperwork—a law, executive order, or some other legal document—in which the government consents to be bound by the terms of the agreement. Some small countries, including some island states that are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts, are expected to offer up those documents at the same time they sign. Other countries will take longer. The agreement doesn't take legal effect until it is formally joined by both 55 individual countries and by enough countries to cover 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (a threshold that essentially mandates the participation of the United States and China).
The World Resources Institute made a pretty cool widget for experimenting with various ways to reach those thresholds. You can play around with different options to see what it would take. Once countries start signing the agreement, the widget will automatically update accordingly:
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have promised to join the agreement this year. Obama is expected to join using an executive agreement, which will allow him to avoid sending the deal to Congress. (Executive agreements account for the vast majority of US foreign commitments.) He's able to do this because the United States says it can fulfill its Paris promises without any changes to domestic laws; instead, the Obama administration is holding up its end of the bargain by imposing new EPA regulations on emissions from power plants.
"Walking away from the agreement would instantly turn the US from a leader to a defector and would almost certainly trigger a diplomatic backlash that would hamper our other priorities."
Unlike a treaty, an executive agreement does not require ratification by the Senate. It's not bulletproof; a future president could unilaterally abandon the deal. But for Obama, there's a clear incentive for pushing to reach those 55 countries and the 55 percent thresholds as quickly as possible: Once the agreement goes into force, it requires a four-year waiting period before a country can withdraw. In other words, in the event that either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump—both vociferous climate change deniers—succeeds Obama in the White House, they wouldn't be able to back out of the agreement until their (*shudder*) second term.
The odds are against the agreement taking force before Obama leaves office because adoption by the European Union—which in the Paris Agreement acts as a singular unit—requires domestic actions by all of its 28 member states, which could take some extra time. Still, if the next president bails, he or she will have to pay a heavy diplomatic price for it, cautioned Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
"Walking away from the agreement would instantly turn the US from a leader to a defector," he said, "and would almost certainly trigger a diplomatic backlash that would hamper our other priorities."
The upshot is that the United States will likely join soon after today's signing ceremony. A slew of other nations will follow, and the Paris Agreement will become binding international law sometime before 2018, when it calls for a global check-in on emission reductions.
Of course, none of this puts the world any closer to averting devastating climate change than we were back in December. As they stand today, the country-level plans (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, in UN jargon) enshrined in the agreement fall woefully short of the "well below" 2 degrees C target. The chart below, from a recent analysis by MIT and Climate Interactive, shows a variety of possible future scenarios. The blue line is what would happen without the Paris Agreement—a world where the impacts of climate change would be truly horrific and many major cities would become uninhabitable. The red lineshows what will happen if countries stick to their current commitments. The green line is what a successful outcome of the Paris Agreement would look like (and, to be clear, even that level of warming will come with severe consequences):
Climate Interactive/MIT Sloan
As you can see, by 2025 or so countries need to be doing far more than they have committed to thus far. The Paris Agreement states that in 2020, at the next major international climate conference, countries mustroll out new plans that go well beyond their current ones. So we're very much not out of the woods yet. But we're moving in the right direction, at least.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the holiday has generally declined into little more than a "news" hook for corporate communications people to harass reporters about eco-friendly guns and cheeseburgers and other dumb stuff. So it's kind of nice to see the day being used for something of actual historical significance.
These are truly dark days for coal. The year started off badly for the industry when Arch Coal, the second-biggest coal producer in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. That announcement was swiftly followed by more: China said it plans to close 1,000 coal mines, US coal production dipped to its lowest level in three decades, and the Obama administration laid out plans to raise the cost coal mining on federal land.
On Wednesday, the slow and steady die-off of coal claimed its biggest victim. Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US. The company won't close, but will have to reorganize and borrow new funds to pay off its existing debts. According to Reuters, the bankruptcy is the end result of crushing debt brought on by Peabody's multi-billion dollar acquisition in 2011 of a major Australian coal producer. That move was meant to offer Peabody greater access to Asian markets but, because of plummeting prices and demand, turned out to be a devastating financial burden.
Conditions at home in the US certainly didn't help. In addition to new climate change regulations from Obama that are designed to severely curtail the nation's coal consumption, coal has been getting hammered by competition from natural gas made cheap by the fracking boom. The Peabody announcement means that companies accounting for nearly half of the country's coal production have filed for bankruptcy in the current downturn, Reuters reported.
Of course, the coal industry isn't going away anytime soon:
While coal use has also stalled globally, largely because of China's economic slowdown and its efforts to protect domestic miners and rein in rampant pollution, most analysts expect consumption of the fuel to remain stable or rise in the future.
Some 500 coal-fired power stations are currently under construction, 80 percent of which are in the Asia-Pacific region, where emerging markets as well as developed economies such as Japan and South Korea are still seeing consumption grow.
In any case, the Peabody bankruptcy was quickly celebrated by environmentalists as a big win for the climate. Peabody came under fire late last year, when an investigation by the New York State Attorney General found the company had misled its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.
"Perhaps if [Peabody] had spent more time and money diversifying their business rather than on lobbying against climate action and sowing the seeds of doubt about the science, they might not have joined the long (and ever growing) list of bankrupt global coal companies," 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said in a statement.
Update, 4/14/16: In case you needed any more proof of the intelligence of octopuses, Sy Montgomery noted just last week on Inquiring Minds that there are a number of stories of octopuses at public aquariums "sneaking out of their tank at night, going into another tank…then sneaking back into their own tank." Well it turns out that Inky, an octopus in New Zealand, seems to have pulled off an even more incredible escape recently. As the New York Times explains:
The breakout at the National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, which has captured the imagination of New Zealanders and made headlines around the world, apparently began when Inky slipped through a small gap at the top of his tank.
Octopus tracks suggest he then scampered eight feet across the floor and slid down a 164-foot-long drainpipe that dropped him into Hawke's Bay, on the east coast of North Island, according to reports in New Zealand's news media.
Check out this amazing video from our partners at the Guardian, and then listen to our full interview with Montgomery below:
Let's clear up one thing right off the bat: "Octopuses" is a perfectly acceptable plural of "octopus"—and it makes a heck of a lot more sense than "octopi." That's because the word derives from Greek (oktopous, meaning "eight feet"), not Latin.
This week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast is all about octopuses, specifically how these amazing cephalopods—the group of marine invertebrates that also includes squid and cuttlefish—are vastly more intelligent than they get credit for. That's right: Octopuses lead a life of the mind. Not that they have a brain like you're probably picturing, exactly.
"Their brain is so unlike ours, it's almost difficult to describe it as a brain," explains Sy Montgomery, a naturalist and author whose most recent book, The Soul of an Octopus, is a fascinating dive into cephalopod psychology. "Ours is like a walnut in a shell; their brain wraps around the throat." Montgomery was interviewed by Inquiring Minds co-host Indre Viskontas; you can listen to the entire conversation below:
In fact, most of an octopus's neurons aren't even in the brain, but instead reside in the tentacles. As a result, each tentacle can not only continue to function if it gets disconnected from the body, but it actually has something akin to a personality: Some limbs are daring, others more shy. Montgomery goes on to detail other amazing aspects of the octopus psyche, including recognizing human faces, forming positive or negative judgments of individual humans, navigating complex mazes, and opening child-proof bottle caps. It's all the more impressive when you consider that unlike social, long-lived humans who can pick up cognitive skills from parents and peers, octopuses live asocial, short lives.
"Probably the thing that drove them to be intelligent is that they lost the ancestral shell," Montgomery says. "Without a shell, everyone wants to eat them. They are programmed by nature to learn very quickly."
Here's an incredible video of a mimic octopus—a species that Montgomery calls the "masters of deception":
Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.
The only way to stop climate change is to drastically reduce, and ultimately eliminate, greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to know how well we're doing on that goal, a good place to start is the Environmental Protection Agency's official GHG database. And frankly, the picture isn't very pretty.
The total level of US emissions in 2014 wasn't very different than it was 30 years ago:
However, total emissions is a fairly misleading way to look at progress on climate change. Most of these emissions come from fossil fuels burned to make energy—either electricity from power plants or gas for cars and trucks. So emissions are heavily influenced by economic activity; a downturn in the economy would mean people drive less, factories use less electricity, etc., and the outcome would be lower emissions. At least, that's the way things used to be.
Over the last few years, the United States and many other countries around the world have seen an unprecedented disconnect between gross domestic product and emissions. Thanks to an increasingly large share of energy coming from renewables and vast improvements to energy efficiency, emissions can now be increasingly "decoupled" from economic activity. In other words, it's now possible to grow the economy without growing emissions.
A new analysis from the World Resources Institute illustrates how this trend is already playing out around the world. It's a bit of good news, and a solid rebuttal to anyone who says saving the climate means killing the economy—looking at you, Donald Trump: