The United Nations is putting forward a plan aimed at streamlining how countries monitor harmful air pollutants, the group’s weather agency announced Wednesday.
This initiative would establish a network of ground-based measurement stations that can verify air quality data, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The network, which would confirm alarming findings flagged by satellites or airplanes, could be available within the next five years, the WMO revealed.
The propagation of such monitoring stations would help fill a critical information gap, according to the WMO.
“At present, there is no comprehensive, timely international exchange of surface and space-based greenhouse gas observations,” the agency said in a statement.
In addition to monitoring human-generated emissions, the stations would also track what forests and oceans are contributing to the atmosphere, according to Oksana Tarasova, a senior scientific officer at WMO.
“We need this information to support our mitigations, because we have no time to lose,” Tarasova said.
While many countries already monitor pollutants and maintain datasets on a local level, the planet lacks an “overall steering mechanism” to coordinate such information, the weather agency said.
Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are fueling climate change today, while a variety of trace gases and particles are also jeopardizing air quality for humans, agriculture and ecosystems, the WMO warned.
“With more precise and more long-term data, we will gain a better understanding of our changing atmosphere,” the agency stated. “We will be able to make more informed decisions and we will understand if the actions we have taken are having the desired effect.”
Welcome to The Hill’s Sustainability newsletter. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin.
Today we’ll look at thousands without power in Texas amid a severe ice storm and then jump to California, which has released its own proposal for Colorado River cuts. Plus: How “clean heating” policies helped reduce air pollution in northern China.
📧 But first, a programming note: This newsletter will transition to a weekly schedule starting next week, coming out Wednesdays packed with our regular enterprise reporting and all the latest sustainability news from The Hill. Subscribe here or in the box below.
Austin households without power amid ice storm
Nearly a quarter of Austin, Texas households were without power Wednesday afternoon as a winter storm brought down power lines.
Iced out: Freezing rain from a winter storm spanning the southern U.S. knocked out power to 166,000 households in Travis County, where Austin is located, according to grid tracking site PowerOutage.us.
- With up to half an inch of ice accumulating on state roads and power lines, about 23 percent of county residents lacked power as of 3 p.m.
- Those numbers were declining through Wednesday afternoon.
Point of failure: The point of failure in Wednesday’s outages was the power transmission system, rather than the generation of sufficient electricity.
Hanging ice pulled down power lines and tree limbs, cutting off power supplies as frozen-over roads impaired the line crews struggling to get the power back on, Austin Energy said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
- The outages weren’t connected to the kind of wholesale grid-wide failures that characterized the notorious Winter Storm Uri, which killed hundreds in February 2021.
- Those outages occurred because insufficiently winterized natural gas generators and pipelines froze.
- Those failures constricted state power supplies to Texas’s isolated grid amid soaring demand.
NBA delay: Icy weather in nearby Dallas also stranded the Detroit Pistons in Texas — forcing the postponement of their contest against the Washington Wizards, our colleague Olafimihan Oshin reported.
A cold wait: Austin Energy, the utility which provides power to most Austin households, said it could take up to 24 hours for power to be fully restored.
But while the grid’s problems didn’t cause Wednesday’s outage, the power losses came against a broader backdrop of controversy and debate over the grid.
For more on that debate, please click here.
California unveils its own Colorado River proposal
California has released an alternate proposal for allocating Colorado River usage, after nearby states issued a plan of their own, our colleague Zack Budryk reports.
The proposal, announced late Tuesday night, is rooted in part on 2022 agency commitments that pledged the Golden State to preserving 400,000 more acre-feet of water per year.
Competing ways to cut: The Golden State’s plans came a day after the six other states in the basin offered a competing proposal, according to The Associated Press.
- California outlined how states could conserve between 1 million and nearly 2 million acre-feet of water by making cuts in water usage.
- An acre foot is enough water to supply 2-3 U.S. households for a year.
- These reductions would occur based on the level of the Lake Mead reservoir.
Drought jeopardizing power, agriculture: The 1,450-mile Colorado River provides water to 40 million people across seven U.S. states and in Mexico.
- The river also generates hydroelectric power for regional markets and helps irrigate almost 6 million acres of farmland.
- But an ongoing Western mega-drought, exacerbated by climate change, has sent reservoir water levels plunging to record lows.
Collaborate or face unilateral cuts: Earlier this week, the other six states in the Colorado River basin — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — submitted their own proposed alternative.
Representatives of the six states have been negotiating for months about the river, which is over-allocated due to a century-old compact.
- The states had agreed to an approximate deadline of Jan. 31.
- The Bureau of Reclamation had indicated that it could impose unilateral cuts if no new deal materialized on time.
How are the proposals different? California’s plan did not account for water lost to evaporation or during transportation, the AP reported.
- These elements were sought by the other Colorado River basin states, but they would result in significant cuts for California.
- The Golden State has the biggest Colorado River allocation, but is also among the last to face cuts due to its senior water rights.
China’s ‘clean heating’ likely saved thousands of lives
The implementation of “clean heating” policies has dramatically improved air quality in northern China — likely preventing about 23,000 premature deaths last year, a new study has found.
Dramatic decreases: Concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) from heating activities dropped by 41.3 percent from 2015 to 2021 in Beijing and 27 other nearby cities, according to the study, published in Environmental Science & Technology.
- This pollution plunge in these cities was nearly four times bigger than that of other northern Chinese cities.
- The “2+26” cohort of cities includes Beijing and Tianjin along with 26 cities in the Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces.
- Northern municipalities outside the 2+26 group only reduced their pollution levels by 12.9 percent during the same 2015-2021 window.
What exactly is ‘clean heating?’ This type of heating runs on certain lower-emission fuels as defined by the Chinese government, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
Some such fuels include natural gas, electricity, geothermal, biomass, solar energy, industrial waste heat, nuclear energy and so-called “clean coal” — coal whose carbon emissions are captured during the burning process.
Power of policy change: “We showed that heating in northern China was a major source of air pollution,” corresponding author Zongbo Shi, a professor of atmospheric biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.
Acting on air pollution: Rural areas of China have long burned biomass — with both these resources and coal creating winter haze, according to the study.
But in the past decade, the Chinese central government began introducing a variety of air pollution intervention programs.
- The 2017 Clean Winter Heating Plan for northern China aimed to increase the region’s share of clean heating to 50 percent by 2019 and 70 percent by 2021, compared to a 2016 baseline scenario.
- Within the urban areas of the 2+26 cities, the share of clean heating was supposed to surpass 90 percent by 2019 and reach 100 percent by 2021.
Preventing premature death: The researchers estimated that clean heating policies helped avoid 23,556 premature deaths in 2021.
In total, they found that winter heating from 2015 to 2021 accounted for about 2.8 percent and 1.6 percent of premature deaths in northern and mainland China, respectively.
To see the authors’ recommendations for future action, click here for the full story.
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Social change too slow to fight climate change: report
Significant social change is needed to halt catastrophic climate change — and society isn’t changing fast enough, a new report has found.
Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — a goal established in the Paris Agreement — is implausible for social reasons, not technical ones, according to the Hamburg Climate Outlook.
The annual publication from Germany’s University of Hamburg, which was published on Wednesday, includes data from over 140 countries.
Practically impossible: It is time for scientists to focus on “the question of what is not just theoretically possible, but also plausible, that is, can realistically be expected,” Anita Engels, a professor of sociology at University of Hamburg, said in a statement.
- “When it comes to climate protection, some things have now been set in motion,” Engels continued.
- But while progress has been made, it has been insufficient to meet the United Nations’s climate goals set in 2015, she added.
Social factors: The researchers looked at 10 drivers of social change that could cut emissions and hold down global temperatures.
- These included U.N. climate policy, legislation and climate protests.
- Instead, Marotzke and Engels’s study found that consumption patterns and corporate action had slowed decarbonization of the energy system.
- The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine also hindered emission reduction goals.
Tipping points: These social factors were also significantly more important to near-term climate change than are “tipping points” like the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
- Avoiding these fearsome tipping points is essential to the sustainability of human civilization in the late 21st century, the researchers concluded.
- But they would have limited influence on global temperatures before 2050.
Tipping points “could drastically change the conditions for life on Earth — but they’re largely irrelevant for reaching the Paris Agreement temperature goals,” co-author Jochem Marotzke, of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, said in a statement.
To read why some scientists argue that 1.5 degrees is still a possible — and necessary — goal, please click here.
Scientists try to stop a human disease from wiping out endangered monkeys, more people are reporting attacks by big predatory mammals and more than three-fourths of insects are not adequately protected.
A vaccine drive for Brazil’s endangered tamarins
- Brazilian scientists are racing to vaccinate the country’s golden lion tamarins — small, highly social and endangered wild monkeys — against yellow fever, the Associated Press reported. After the human-carried disease killed a third of Brazil’s tamarins in 2016, conservationists adopted what they called an “extreme” policy: immunizing a wild animal population for its own sake, rather than to protect humans, according to the AP.
Carnivore attacks on humans appear to be rising
- Reports of attacks on humans by large carnivores — bears, wolves or coyotes and big cats — have risen since 1970, according to a study in PLOS Biology by researchers from Italy and Spain. About a third of the attacks were fatal, with most deadly attacks happening in poorer countries, where residents have to worry about lions and tigers as they go about their daily chores, the researchers found.
Protected areas fail to help more than 75 percent of global insects
- Protected areas around the world are failing to safeguard about 76 percent of insect species, a new study in One Earth has found. Meanwhile, the global distributions of 1,876 species from 225 families of insects do not overlap with protected regions at all, according to the authors, from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research.
Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and check out other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.
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