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.
Update (6/10/15): The Environmental Protection Agency today announced its finding that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes endanger human health. On the basis of that finding, the EPA is expected to propose new rules later this summer to limit those emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to declare soon that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are a danger to human health because they contribute significantly to climate change. Right now, air travel is the largest unregulated source of carbon pollution in the United States. But once the EPA releases its endangerment finding, the agency will be required under the Clean Air Act to issue new rules to restrict those emissions.
President Barack Obama has already used his executive authority to tackle emissions from vehicles and power plants, so airplanes seem like a logical next step.
Just how bad is flying for the climate? Per mile, per passenger, it's by far the most greenhouse-gas-intensive mode of transportation. But because Americans drive so much more often than they fly, it's still a relatively small slice of the overall pie. Here's how it breaks down.
Overall, domestic aviation is the eighth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide:
Commercial airplanes (not counting military and private planes) are the fourth-largest source of travel-related greenhouse gas emissions:
According to an analysis by University of California-Berkeley researcher Chris Jones, air travel makes up a little more than 3 percent of the average American household's greenhouse gas footprint, assuming a household total of roughly one medium-length and four short round-trip flights per year. You can explore his awesome carbon footprint calculator here to find out how your personal carbon footprint compares. If you're like our friend Eric Holthaus (who now writes for Climate Desk partner Slate), planes could be a much bigger slice of the pie. (After Holthaus realized how much of an impact his flying habit was having, he vowed to give up air travel altogether.)
Calculating the carbon footprint of any particular flight is bit challenging compared to ground transportation. With cars, buses, and trains, carbon dioxide accounts for the vast majority of the greenhouse gas emitted. But because planes also leave behind a ton of water vapor (itself a potent greenhouse gas) high in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide "is only half the story with air travel," Jones explained. So the total greenhouse gas footprint of a single long flight, say from New York to San Francisco, is actually pretty huge, equal to more than 10 percent of the average American's annual carbon footprint.
So how does all this add up if you're trying to decide how to commute? Here's the breakdown for a trip I often take, from Washington, DC, to New York. Between the four main transit options (bus, car, train, plane), the bus clearly wins out in terms of the smallest footprint per mile, per passenger, according to data from the EPA and Jones. If you're traveling alone, Amtrak is the next best option; if you have a second person in your car, it's about the same for each of you as taking the train. By yourself, the car pollutes about twice as much as the train. Again, the plane is by far the worst.
Jones has found that air travel is more competitive, carbon-wise, over longer distances. That's because emissions peak during take-off and landing, so on short flights you get fewer miles per ton of emissions.
Icons, from Noun Project unless noted otherwise: Factory: Ricardo Moreira; House: Maurizio Pedrazzoli; heavy truck: Yorlmar Campos; light truck: Simon Child; boat: Gabriele Malaspina; fighter jet: Juan Garces; motorcycle: Olivier Guin; outlet: Juan Pablo Bravo; office: Alex Tai; shopping: Juan Pablo Bravo; food: Matt Brooks; US map: AlexanderZam/Shutterstock.
The Environmental Protection Agency today released a long-awaited draft report on the impact of fracking on drinking water supplies. The analysis, which drew on peer-reviewed studies as well as state and federal databases, found that activities associated with fracking do "have the potential to impact drinking water resources." But it concluded that in the United States, these impacts have been few and far between.
The report identifies several possible areas of concern, including: "water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of water."
However, the report says, "We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."
The report considered not only the hydraulic fracturing action itself, but all of the water-related steps necessary to drill, from acquiring water to disposing of it. Here's an illustration from the report:
The report, which the Obama administration had hoped would provide a definitive answer to a core question about the controversial drilling technique, has been five years in the making. During that time, the EPA has faced numerous battles with the oil and gas industry to procure necessary data. Even before the report was released, some scientists voiced skepticism about its findings because of gaps in the data regarding what types of chemicals were present in water supplies prior to fracking activities.
For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.
Prospective studies were included in the EPA project's final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. But the EPA couldn't legally force cooperation by oil and gas companies, almost all of which refused when the agency tried to persuade them.
Shell's Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle last month. The company now supports carbon pricing but hasn't changed plans to drill for oil.
Oil companies are pretty much the last ally you'd think of when it comes to advancing big-picture solutions to climate change. These are the companies, after all, whose product is responsible for causing a significant amount of climate change in the first place—and pretty much every proposed fix for global warming necessarily involves burning less oil.
So it came as a bit of a surprise Monday when six of the leading European oil companies, including BP and Shell, unveiled a letter addressed to the United Nations climate chief calling for a price on carbon emissions (read the full letter below).
"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of ongoing UN-led international climate negotiations, the letter said. This week representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for a summit in Paris this winter where they hope to produce a powerful global accord on fighting climate change. The letter called on the world's governments to create new national carbon markets where they don't currently exist (like most of the United States, for example), and to eventually link those markets internationally.
"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of global climate talks, a letter from several European oil companies said.
As Bloomberg Business pointed out, the letter is "unprecedented," in that it's the first time a group of major oil companies have banded together to advocate for a serious climate change policy. It was welcomed by the UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, who said that the "oil and gas industry must be a major part of the solution to climate change."
Most environmental economists and policy wonks agree that making companies pay for their carbon pollution—whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade system—is a fundamental step for any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that making carbon pollution expensive will drive big polluters to clean up. Policies like this are already gathering steam across the globe, from Canada to China. (California and a few Northeast states have regional carbon markets, but a national carbon price is still a non-starter in the US Congress.) Recently, Australia demonstrated just how effective carbon pricing can be, in a counterintuitive way: Carbon emissions dropped immediately after the country implemented a carbon tax, then jumped right back up when the tax was repealed.
If Monday's letter is any clue, oil companies are reading the writing on the wall, and they know that one way or another, it's time to start planning for a future when carbon pollution is more expensive and tightly regulated. Well, some oil companies: Conspicuously absent from the letter are any US oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all the signatories are European. In fact, just last week Exxon chief Rex Tillerson implicitly blasted his European peers for cozying up to the UN on climate issues, saying his company wouldn't "fake it" on climate change and that investing in renewable energy is tantamount to "losing money on purpose."
The head of French oil giant Total addressed the cross-Atlantic schism in comments to Reuters, saying that the European companies were set on throwing their weight behind carbon pricing "without necessarily waiting for an American to come on board."
Although carbon pricing "obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," the letter says, the companies would prefer consistency and predictability over the patchwork of policies that exists now. In other words, it's easier to justify and plan investments in lower-carbon projects, such as replacing coal with natural gas, when carbon prices are stable and "even-handed," the letter said. At the same time, these companies have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to address how they'll stay profitable in the future, as restrictions on carbon emissions are tightened.
To that end, a few of the signatories already have their own internal "shadow" carbon price, where investment options are calculated with a hypothetical carbon price added in, as a way of anticipating future policies.
Still, progressive-sounding statements notwithstanding, oil companies are oil companies, and the letter gives no indication that any of them have plans to replace fossil fuels as their primary product. Shell, for one, is just weeks away from a new foray into offshore drilling in the Arctic. And according to Bloomberg, the European companies are no better than their American counterparts in terms of their actual carbon footprint. So it remains to be seen how committed the companies will be to supporting sweeping changes to the global energy system, or if letters like this are just a clever way to stay relevant as the international climate talks forge ahead. Either way, the paradox of a corporation calling for a carbon price while still pursuing fossil fuel extraction is just more evidence that the free market won't fix climate change voluntarily—governments have to create new policies, like an international carbon price, that energy companies can't evade.
It was dark in Gaza City when the teenage boy came home from work, in February 2013. His squat apartment building was missing a wall, destroyed some time before in the war between Israel and the Palestinians. But where else could he go?
In the dark, he tripped on rubble and fell out of the building, three stories down. His family rushed him to the nearby al-Shifa hospital as he struggled to breathe; his fractured ribs had caused internal bleeding, and his lungs were beginning to collapse. In the trauma unit, he was handed over to Dr. Ben Thomson, a visiting physician from Ontario, Canada. The necessary procedure—to insert a chest tube—was routine and straightforward. But the hospital, like the boy's home, was without electricity; the operation would have to be carried out in darkness.
"We were not really able to see him," Thomson recalls. "We were unable to assess where he was bleeding from, unable to see the ultrasound screen, everything you would normally do with simplicity, we were unable to do that. And this boy ended up dying."
In retrospect, Thomson says, solar power probably would have saved the boy's life. Gaza's hospitals struggle with regular electricity shortages, and Thomson and some of his colleagues are now leading a push to use rooftop solar panels to help address the problem.
"A lot of patients die unnecessarily" because of electricity shortages, Dr. Thompson said.
Gaza, the strip of land that, along with the West Bank, constitutes the Palestinian territories, has been hit hard in the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israel. Years of shelling, air strikes, and heavy restrictions on the flow of goods and people across its borders have left Gaza with devastated infrastructure and a shell of an economy. Unemployment among its 1.8 million residents, according to a recent World Bank report, is roughly 43 percent—the highest in the world. A major factor in the region's economic collapse, that report concluded, is a supply of electricity that meets less than half the demand.
Electricity shortages are one of the region's most persistent and pernicious problems. Gaza's only power station was damaged by Israeli shelling last summer and is chronically short of fuel. Even in the best times, it provides only a small portion of the power needed. Electric utilities in Israel and Egypt provide some additional energy. For many homes and small businesses, there are few other options: Gas and firewood are scarce, while fuel for diesel generators is limited and extremely expensive thanks to a strict blockade on imports enforced by Israel since 2007. As a result, blackouts have for years been a routine part of daily life. A "good day" means getting eight hours of power, said Husam Zomlot, an economist in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"The consequences are absolutely severe," he said. "Any economy will depend primarily on the energy sector. It's the starting point for any transaction."
Hospitals are acutely affected by the outages. As Thomson found repeatedly during his work in Gaza, simply turning on the lights is often the difference between life and death.
"A lot of patients die unnecessarily" because of electricity shortages, he said.
Especially for the highest-risk patients, a steady flow of electricity is vital. Ventilators and dialysis machines are only useful for patients if they remain turned on at all times. Dr. Tarek Loubani, a colleague of Thomson who often works in Gaza, said he instructs family members of patients on ventilators on how to blow air into the chest tube themselves, in case the power for the ventilator pump cuts out. Surgeons often head into the operating room unsure if they'll have power for three hours or three minutes.
"You're worried all the time, you're rushing all the time," Loubani said.
When blackouts hit and hospitals have to rely on diesel generators, the cost can be crippling. Dr. Medhat Abbas, the executive director of al-Shifa, where Thomson's teenage patient died, recently told Loubani and filmmaker Amy Miller that fuel for generators can run him up to $400,000 per month. As a result, he can only afford to run them for a few hours each day.
Money saved on fuel can go to vital equipment and medication.
So last month, Thomson and Loubani kicked off a campaign to fix the problem. Their solution: Equip Gaza's hospitals with solar panels. Their campaign, EmpowerGAZA, is being supported on the ground by the United Nations Development Programme and has raised just over half of the $200,000 they expect to need to install solar arrays on one major hospital. (More hospitals could follow if more money comes through.) The panels won't produce enough energy for all of the hospital's needs, but they can fill gaps for the most vital sections of the hospital.
Their inspiration was al-Shifa itself, which installed a solar system last fall with the support of a Japanese development agency. In the months since, Loubani said, that hospital's intensive care unit—which handles life-or-death emergencies—hasn't experienced a single moment of blackout. Power from the panels makes doctors' jobs easier and safer, while fuel savings free up cash that can be spent instead on equipment and medicine. And with Gaza's 320 days per year of sunshine, solar is far more reliable than liquid fuel.
Hospitals could be just the beginning, Zomlot said. Solar power on homes, businesses, and schools could also be an efficient and effective way to make immediate improvements to the standard of living in Gaza.
"People have really been creative in trying to bypass the blockade and trying to find a solution," he said. "Luckily Palestine is one of the richest countries worldwide in terms of solar."
Volunteers fill buckets with oil near Refugio State Beach. Michael A. Mariant/AP
On Tuesday, an oil pipeline burst near Refugio State Beach west of Santa Barbara, California, sending an estimated 105,000 gallons of oil onto the beach. Up to a fifth of that oil is believed to have reached the ocean, Reuters reports.
Now, volunteers and private contractors are racing to clean up the oil. About 6,000 gallons have been collected so far, according to the AP. But damage has already been done. At least two pelicans have been found dead, and five more pelicans and one sea lion were sent for rehabilitation. Biologists have also found many dead fish and lobsters. Local officials have closed the beach at least through Memorial Day, and possibly for "many weeks" after that, one scientist at the scene said.
A young female sea lion affected by the Santa Barbara oil spill receives treatment from the SeaWorld California animal rescue team. Rex Features/AP
The company that owned the pipeline, Plains All American, has one of the country's worst environmental safety records. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that the company's rate of incidents per mile of pipeline is more than three times the national average. A spokesperson said the company deeply "regrets this release," but it remains unclear what penalties it could face for this latest accident.
It could be years before the full impact is truly understood, since damage to the ecosystem can sometimes take a while to manifest. Five years after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, biologists are still tallying the damage.
Here are some of the latest images coming in from the scene:
Refugio State Beach Santa Barbara News-Press/ZUMA
A small crab covered in oil Troy Harvey/ZUMA
Two whales surfaced near an oil slick off Refugio State Beach. Michael A. Mariant/AP
A dead lobster covered in oil on the shoreline Troy Harvey/ZUMA
Clean-up workers remove a dead octopus from the beach. Mike Eliason/ZUMA
Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand. Michael A. Mariant/AP
A helicopter coordinates ships below pulling booms to collect oil from the spill. Michael A. Mariant/AP
Clean-up workers monitor the site of the underground oil pipeline break. Michael A. Mariant/AP