How Has Climate Science Changed In 30 Years?

E&E news [paywalled] recently tackled the subject of evolving climate science. Reporter Chelsea Harvey examined the five assessment reports from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established in 1988 by the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.

The UN tasked the IPCC with assessing the risks from climate change by using the most up-to-date scientific and technical information. The five IPCC reports since 1988 have grown increasingly complex, with the latest published in 2014 (the sixth is due in 2022).

The bottom line over 30 years? The big picture forecast of climate warming, covering a broad range of potential temperature rise, remains the same:

[M]ajor uncertainties about climate sensitivity remain, even though estimates of its value are largely the same as they were in the 1990s. The First and Fifth assessment reports both suggest that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase global temperatures by between 1.5 and 4.5 C.

But the IPCC has been too conservative on some specific topics, like sea level rise:

The First Assessment Report suggested that sea levels would likely rise by about 65 centimeters by the end of the century, under a business-as-usual trajectory, “mainly due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of some land ice.” By the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, scientists were projecting up to a meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century under a business-as-usual scenario.

Even in the few years since, multiple studies have suggested that the IPCC’s estimates may be too low, taking into account improvements in scientists’ understanding of the physical processes affecting the world’s ice sheets. Some scientists expect the projections reported in the Sixth Assessment Report will be even higher.

And the IPCC underestimated how much warming has already occurred since 1880:

[W]hile the First Assessment Report estimated that global temperatures have warmed by between 0.3 and 0.6 degree Celsius in the past century, the Fifth Assessment Report honed this estimate to about 0.85 C since 1880.

The science has also improved in terms of modeling capability and ability to forecast impacts in specific parts of the globe, as well as attribute particular weather events to climate change with more precision.

Clearly the science over the past 30 years has been too conservative in some respects, which should give us even more motivation to take action on climate. We’ll need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as we can through clean technology deployment, while preparing for the now-unavoidable impacts to come.

SB 827 & California’s Housing Debate — KQED Forum Today At 10am

I’ll be on KQED radio’s Forum this morning at 10am discussing SB 827 (Wiener) to relax local restrictions on transit-oriented housing. We’ll discuss what the bill might mean for California’s cities, environment and economy.

Please tune in at 88.5 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area and weigh in with your questions.  Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can stream it live.

SB 827 Upzoning Impacts Around BART – 3 Case Studies (Orinda, Rockridge & MacArthur)

Joe DiStefano at the Urban Footprint blog ran a useful experiment to see how the transit-oriented upzoning proposed in SB 827 would affect three station neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system. All three stations are in the East Bay but are somewhat distinct:

  • Orinda is a low-density suburban commercial and residential stop
  • Rockridge is a medium-density, largely suburban stop
  • MacArthur is a more urbanized commercial stop

The analysis included an assessment of what housing units are currently built in the 1/2 mile radius of the stop, how much capacity would be legal to build under current zoning, what would happen if only commercial areas were rezoned and not single-family homes and townhomes, and what would happen if the full upzoning allowed under SB 827 took place.

Here are the results (apologies for the blurry screengrab — check out the site for a better image):

The bottom line is that under SB 827, potentially 48,000 additional new units could be built, just within 1/2 mile of these 3 station areas. It demonstrates the power of upzoning near transit to build enough housing to accommodate future population growth and stabilize prices for existing residents.

And even if single-family homes and townhomes didn’t redevelop (either because the owners didn’t sell or the bill eventually gets amended to prevent development there), the state could still see over 10,000 new units in the “modified upzone” scenario — again, just at 3 station neighborhoods.

Caveats are of course necessary: not all of these units would be built, even under the full scenario. Property owners wouldn’t sell in some cases, developers wouldn’t maximize density and height on all lots, other local restrictions may prevent some of the units from getting built, and the final bill may contain additional restrictions that would limit a full build-out.

But this analysis indicates the power of upzoning near transit to help solve California’s dire housing shortage. Given the importance of this issue to California’s environmental and economic health, solutions like SB 827 are well in order, as this analysis shows.

Oil Industry Leaders Underestimate Electric Vehicles At Their Peril

I’m bullish on electric vehicles, for two big reasons:

  1. EVs offer a superior driving experience to gas-fueled cars
  2. EV costs are dropping rapidly, while the technology is greatly improving, with larger-capacity, more energy-dense batteries and faster charging times.

But oil industry leaders are apparently unafraid of this lurking threat. At a recent industry conference in Houston, Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told the crowd:

“I’m not losing any sleep over peak oil demand or stranded resources,” he said. “Oil and gas will continue to play a major role.”

Electric vehicles will not deliver rapid and economical reductions in carbon emissions until the electric fuel mix is sufficiently clean, Nasser said. He also sees coal remaining a big part of the energy mix for years to come, especially in places such as China and India.

“Right now, with electric vehicles, we are simply moving emissions from tailpipe to smokestack,” Nasser said.

Nasser is only partially correct. Around the world, and especially in the United States, we’re seeing significant improvements in deploying a cleaner electricity grid. With steep price decreases for solar PV and wind, this dynamic will continue to play out across the world, lowering emissions from EVs in the process. And in the meantime, driving an electric vehicle is only comparably dirty to a relatively high-mileage vehicle on a grid that is essentially entirely coal-powered, which will be much less common going forward.

But Nasser wasn’t done underestimating EVs:

As for vehicles, he said multiple technologies are in a race for the future, with options such as an advanced internal combustion engine, hybrids, plug-in vehicles, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Most vehicles on the road today have an internal combustion engine. There may be potential as well as challenges such as cost, durability and public acceptance, he said.

Technically, Nasser is correct that multiple low- and zero-emission vehicle options exist. But battery electrics are pulling away as the clear winner. Even companies like Toyota that have been pushing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are now realizing that they need to catch up with battery electrics, at least on the passenger vehicle side. Costs, durability and public acceptance are all coming along, too, as automakers introduce new, more affordable long-range models.

Nasser wasn’t alone in his anti-EV sentiment at the conference:

Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total SA, told the CERAWeek gathering on Monday that he got an electric car to test. He called it silent and expensive, saying that renting a battery doesn’t save money compared with gasoline. He’s convinced big cities will see plenty of electric cars in 10 or 15 years because of air quality. But he still described a “longer story for oil in front of us,” noting uses such as airplanes and shipping.

It sounds like Pouyanné had an odd EV experience. For most EV drivers, it’s much cheaper than driving a gasoline-powered vehicle. And models like the Chevy Bolt and new Nissan LEAF have much longer range at affordable prices. Still, I agree with him that oil will still be needed in the medium-term for long-haul shipping and possibly aviation, if hydrogen and biofuels don’t catch up.

But there was one truly cautionary note for EV enthusiasts. Spencer Dale, a BP economist based at Rice University, modeled one “extreme” scenario where all new passenger vehicles had to be fully electric from 2040 onward (meaning a global ban on the internal combustion engine by that year). But even in that case, Dale calculated that global oil demand will still be higher 20 years from now than it is today, based on the increased number of vehicles on the road.

If anything, Dale’s modeling speaks to the need for more aggressive action on EVs around the world. From a climate perspective, we need to focus on transitioning our vehicles off of gasoline as soon as possible. While the oil industry may not see the urgency, those who care about the future of the planet sure do. But regardless of potential future policy actions, EVs are here to stay and grow, and it’s a threat that leaders in the oil industry appear to be underestimating.

Struggling High Speed Rail Authority Needs Political Change To Save The System

The California High Speed Rail Authority released its 2018 draft business plan on Friday, and the news is not good. Not only have costs gone up with no new revenue in site, the authority now admits it’s unlikely to build any actual high speed rail service for at least a decade.

How did we get to this unfortunate place? Since voters originally approved a $10 billion bond issue to launch the system in 2008, two important events happened:

1) Central Valley representatives insisted the system start in the Valley, with no benefit to the coastal cities. While the system was originally billed as a quick way to serve Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Joaquin Valley representatives saw it as an opportunity to diversify and grow the Central Valley economies, by linking this largely impoverished part of the state to the thriving coastal cities. As a result, they insisted on starting the system in the Valley, where it would provide no benefit to the major population centers on the coasts. It’s the equivalent of starting LA Metro Rail in the suburban San Fernando Valley, or BART in the East Bay suburbs. Most train systems need to go back to voters for multiple rounds of funding. But in this case, voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco have no stake in the system. Had the system instead been started between San Francisco and San Jose and also between Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim (and up to northern Los Angeles County), there would have been something to show for the initial investment and more political support to complete it (and less litigation and opposition from the Central Valley residents).

2) Republicans took over Congress in 2010 and have since refused to return Californians’ tax dollars to the project. With that Tea Party election that year, Republicans withdrew the federal purse strings for the project. While the federal government is happy to pay 90 to 100 percent of the costs of new highways, and 50 percent of the costs for new rail transit, so far California residents have been on the hook for $17 billion of the roughly $20 billion in costs to date.

Nothing can be done about the first event, which is a mistake that the authority has since tried to rectify by dedicating some funds to improve Caltrain and Metrolink in the coastal cities.

The second event could potentially be remedied this November, if a “blue wave” removes Republican control of Congress. While President Trump could veto any subsequent infrastructure plans that funds high speed rail, he will have lost leverage at that point. And revenue to fund non-automobile infrastructure like high speed rail could come from sources like a new carbon tax, passed via reconciliation in the Senate.

Still, hoping for a political shift is not exactly a great business plan. In the meantime, the authority appears set to finish the 119 mile first segment in the Valley. Then, absent new revenue, they’ll probably hand it over to Amtrak to run regular diesel trains on it, biding time until political and economic fortunes change in the state and the country at large.

Bad News On Tesla Model 3 Quality

Tesla has done amazing work pioneering electric vehicles and forcing positive change toward EVs within the broader industry. But the company will risk its progress and investor enthusiasm if it’s first “mass market” vehicle — the new Model 3 — is unreliable.

And so far, the news is not good. Green Car Reports just reviewed the Model 3 and had this to report:

During the test itself, two things became clear: The Model 3 works largely as intended, and the build quality was the worst we have seen on any new car from any maker over the last 10 years.

The company was reviewing a car that had just been delivered in January, as production was ramped up at Tesla’s Fremont factory. The owner was not pleased with the vehicle:

We took delivery of our Model 3 today. It looked like everything was working OK until we got within about 10 miles of the house. That was when the touchscreen started to malfunction.

It is getting random touches along the right side of the screen. The worst part is that the stereo will go to full volume without notice. It also makes the map and navigation mostly useless. I called Tesla and they had me try rebooting the screen several times.

Unfortunately it didn’t resolve the issue. They said they would call me back [within 24 hours] to attempt a software update or to schedule a service call. Nothing like paying $50,000 to be a beta tester. Again.

I hope this is just a stroke of really bad luck for Tesla. But the higher-end Models S and X have also had these quality problems, although with an upper-income clientele that is more forgiving and able to weather having to bring their car to the shop. But the Model 3 is supposed to be an every day car for middle class buyers. So a reputation for unreliability could undermine that claim.

Tesla is relying on its brand as an innovative 21st century high-tech company with a luxury good. And certainly any new model car can have its growing pains, as we’ve seen for example with the otherwise high-quality Chevy Bolt EV. But if more stories about the cars falling apart surface, Tesla’s very survival could eventually be at stake.

How Suburbanization Causes Greenhouse Gas Emissions — Salt Lake City Case Study

We know that city dwellers have a smaller carbon footprint that suburbanites. But now we have a real case study with carbon measurements to document the phenomenon.

14 scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Utah and several other universities set up a network of carbon dioxide sensors across Salt Lake City and its suburbs. The Washington Post reported on the results:

As suburbs have expanded southwest of Salt Lake City over the last 10 years, carbon dioxide emissions have spiked…

It’s the latest indication that suburban expansion takes an environmental toll, with people driving greater distances and building larger homes that use more energy for heating and cooling.

Similar population growth in the center of Salt Lake City didn’t take the same toll, according to the research. Carbon dioxide emissions in the city center were already higher than in nonurban places. But as the population there grew by 10,000 people, the emissions didn’t increase further.

It’s yet more evidence that encouraging urban growth is one of the most important steps we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s also a reason why supposedly “environmental” organizations like Sierra Club California that oppose pro-infill measures like SB 827 are actually damaging the environment by doing so.

Could The Mushroom Burger Make “Alt-Meat” Obsolete?

Eating beef is an environment killer. I’ve got nothing against cows, but between their methane emissions and the huge amount of corn we grow to feed them, high consumption of red meat is simply not sustainable.

Some Bay Area companies have gotten notoriety recently for pioneering lab-grown “alt-meat” that tastes like the real thing. But maybe a simpler solution is what fast-food chain Sonic came up with: adding ground mushrooms to the burger to reduce the meat content. As NPR reported:

The idea is that mixing chopped mushrooms into our burgers boosts the umami taste, adds more moisture and reduces the amount of beef required for a burger. And reducing the need for beef has a big impact on the environment. According to the World Resources Institute, if 30 percent of the beef in every burger in America were replaced by mushrooms, it would reduce greenhouse emissions by the same amount as taking 2.3 million vehicles off of our roads.

Meanwhile, a related approach is being tried with the old staple of Mac-n-Cheese. Fast Company documented how Annie’s brand mac-n-cheese is now buying pasta flour from farms that use less damaging agricultural practices:

On the Montana farm, Powell-Palm rotates his wheat crop with golden peas, which are also used to make the flour for the pasta, boosting the protein content. A diversity of crops makes the soil healthier than just growing wheat; wheat takes nitrogen from the soil, and peas help replenish it. Livestock also graze in the field on rotation, adding more nutrients to the soil with manure. The farm also uses cover crops rather than letting the soil sit bare after harvest, so the roots of the plants help hold carbon in the soil.

These are promising solutions to a difficult problem. It’s nice to see innovation, but it starts with consumer awareness about the impact of the foods we eat. Given the scale of the emissions challenge, we should all be hungry for more solutions like these.

Free Friday Lunch Panel At SPUR: What’s New for Housing in California in 2018?

2017 was the beginning of a state effort in California to finally address the severe housing shortage here. 2018 promises to be even bigger, with more bills proposed that are finally starting to tackle some of the core causes of the shortage.

Friday at 12:30pm the San Francisco nonprofit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) will host a free hour-long panel discussion on what to expect this year in statewide housing policy. We’ll cover SB 827, CEQA, affordable housing, tenant protection, and more.

Joining me on the panel will be:

  • Brian Hanlon / California YIMBY
  • Catherine Bracy / TechEquity Collaborative

The location is:

SPUR Urban Center
654 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-4015

Unlike SPUR gatherings later in every month, there’s no charge for this first-of-the-month event. Hope to see you there!

Would Google Help Fund High Speed Rail?

Google made headlines recently for buying a huge property adjacent to the future downtown San Jose high speed rail station, per the San Francisco Chronicle:

Google has been in negotiations with San Jose since June for a planned “village” that would feature up to 6 million square feet of office, research and development, retail and amenity space near San Jose’s Diridon Station. The development could bring 15,000 to 20,000 jobs, Nanci Klein, San Jose’s assistant director of economic development, previously told The Chronicle.

To be sure, this property would be valuable for Google even without high speed rail, as it’s at the heart of San Jose’s light rail network. But high speed rail will only increase the value, as it would give Google employees high-speed train access to businesses to the south and through the San Joaquin Valley — and eventually Los Angeles.

So the question is: would a property owner like Google be willing to help finance high speed rail, which is badly in need of cash? It’s the old school way of funding trains: leverage the future increases in property values around the stations to finance the transportation.

Given the slow trickle of state dollars and nonexistent federal funds, high speed rail leaders will need to get creative about how to find money to keep construction going. A large company like Google could greatly help with the search.

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