Fossil fuel emissions are still growing in much of the world. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

When this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in late November 2023, it will be a moment for course correction. Seven years ago, nearly every country worldwide signed onto the Paris climate agreement. They agreed to goals of limiting global warming – including key targets to be met by 2030, seven years from now.

A primary aim of this year’s conference, known as COP28, is to evaluate countries’ progress halfway to the 2030 deadlines.

Reports show that the world isn’t on track. At the same time, energy security concerns and disputes over how to compensate countries for loss and damage from climate change are making agreements on cutting emissions tougher to reach.

But as energy and environmental policy researchers, we also see signs of progress.

Global stocktake raises alarms

A cornerstone of COP28 is the conclusion of the global stocktake, a review underway of the world’s efforts to address climate change. It is designed to pinpoint deficiencies and help countries recalibrate their climate strategies.

A report on the stocktake so far stressed that while the Paris Agreement has spurred action on climate change around the globe, current policies and promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions still leave the world on a trajectory that falls far short of the agreement’s aim to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial temperatures.

Governments worldwide plan to produce twice as much fossil fuel in 2030 than would be allowed under a 1.5 C warming pathway, another U.N.-led report released in early November found.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 C rather than 2 C (3.6 F), may appear to be a minor improvement, but the accumulated global benefits of doing so could exceed US$20 trillion.

Escalating greenhouse gas emissions are the primary factor driving the rise in global temperatures. And fossil fuels account for over three-quarters of those emissions.

To avoid overshooting 1.5 C of warming, global greenhouse gas emissions will have to fall by about 45% by 2030, compared with 2010 levels, and reach net zero around 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But emissions aren’t falling. They rose in 2022, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. The global average temperature briefly breached the 1.5 C warming limit in March and June 2023.

A line chart of daily temperatures since 1940, by month. 2023 veers sharply upward around May, reaching above the line showing a 1.5 C increase.
A line chart of daily temperatures since 1940, by month, shows how extreme 2023’s temperatures have been. Years before 2014 are in gray. European Union Earth Observation Program

The global stocktake unambiguously states that, to meet the Paris targets, countries must collectively be more ambitious in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That includes rapidly reducing carbon emissions from all economic sectors. It means accelerating adoption of renewable energy such as solar and wind power, implementing more stringent measures to stop and reverse deforestation, and deploying clean technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles on a wide scale.

The significance of phasing out fossil fuels

The report underscores one point repeatedly: the pressing need to “phase out all unabated fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuels currently make up 80% of the world’s total energy consumption. Their use in 2022 resulted in an all-time high of 36.8 gigatons of CO2 from both energy combustion and industrial activities.

Despite the risks of climate change, countries still provide huge subsidies to the oil, coal and gas industries. In all, they provided about US$1.3 trillion in explicit subsidies for fossil fuels in 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund’s calculations. China, the U.S., Russia, the European Union and India are the largest subsidizers, and these subsidies sharply increased after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 disrupted energy markets.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels, criticizing the extensive profits made by “entrenched interests” in the fossil fuel sector.

African countries also made their view of subsidies clear in the “Nairobi Declaration” at the first Africa Climate Summit in 2023, where leaders called for the elimination of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and endorsed the idea of a global carbon tax on fossil fuel trade.

The global stocktake highlights the significance of eradicating fossil fuel subsidies to eliminate economic roadblocks that hinder the shift to greener energy sources. However, it’s important to note that the report uses the phrase “unabated fossil fuels.” The word “unabated” has been contentious. It allows room for continued use of fossil fuels, as long as technologies such as carbon capture and storage prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere. But those technologies aren’t yet operating on a wide scale.

Solutions for an equitable transition

Several initiatives have been launched recently to expedite the move away from fossil fuels.

In July 2023, Canada unveiled a strategy to terminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, becoming the first G20 nation to pledge a halt to government support for oil and natural gas, with some exceptions.

The European Union is broadening its carbon market to include emissions from buildings and transport, targeting decarbonization across more sectors. Concurrently, the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act commits US$10 billion to clean energy projects and offers $4 billion in tax credits to communities economically affected by the coal industry’s decline.

To help low-income countries build sustainable energy infrastructure, a relatively new financing mechanism called Just Energy Transition Partnerships is gaining interest. It aims to facilitate cooperation, with a group of developed countries helping phase out coal in developing economies that are still reliant on fossil fuels.

South Africa, Indonesia, Senegal and Vietnam have benefited from these partnerships since the first was launched in 2021. The European Union, for instance, has pledged to support Senegal’s shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This includes managing the economic fallout, such as potential job losses, from shutting down fossil fuel power plants, while ensuring electricity remains affordable and more widely available.

Three men with miners' hats with lights on them and reflective jackets sit in a bus headed for a mine.
A just transition takes into account a future for coal miners, like these men headed for a South African coal mine. Luca Sola/AFP via Getty Images

By COP28, a comprehensive plan to help Senegal aim for a sustainable, low-emissions future should be in place. France, Germany, Canada and various multilateral development banks have promised to provide 2.5 billion Euros (about US$2.68 billion) to increase Senegal’s renewable energy output. The goal is for renewables to account for 40% of Senegal’s energy use by 2030.

To align with the Paris Agreement objectives, we believe global initiatives to reduce fossil fuel dependency and invest in developing nations’ sustainable energy transition are essential. Such endeavors not only champion reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also ensure economic growth in an environmentally conscious manner.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …UN's 'global stocktake' on climate is offering a sober emissions reckoning − but there are also...

Frustration with electric utilities is universal today. Whether it’s concerns over high rates, poor service or a combination of both, people are constantly looking for a better answer to the systems that serve them.

In the Nov. 7, 2023, election, voters in Maine had a chance to consider a new model for electricity service that would replace the state’s two widely unpopular private utilities, but they balked in the face of multibillion-dollar cost projections.

This decision took the form of two ballot questions. Question 3 asked whether voters wanted to create a new publicly owned power company, dubbed Pine Tree Power, to take over the existing assets of Maine’s two privately owned utilities. The related Question 1 asked whether consumer-owned electric utilities should have to get public approval before taking on more than US$1 billion in debt. Voters adopted Question 1 and soundly defeated Question 3.

Municipal ownership of utilities is not new: Across the U.S., about 2,000 communities have public power utilities. In Nebraska, all electricity providers are publicly owned.

But private utilities often fight against public takeover attempts – and Maine was no exception. The parent companies of Central Maine Power and Versant Power spent nearly $40 million campaigning against the ballot measures, compared with $1.2 million on the pro-public power side.

At the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, I work with utilities and regulators around the world to assess different ways of structuring power companies. Questions about what kinds of utilities best serve the public have intensified in recent years. As the Maine vote shows, people want different and sometimes competing things from their utility systems.

Maine utilities have struggled to modernize their networks and cope with increasing outages caused by climate-driven storms.

Three basic structures

There are three basic ownership models for electric utilities. Investor-owned utilities, or IOUs, are owned by private shareholders, who might live next door or halfway around the world. Their stock is publicly traded, and their CEOs have a fiscal responsibility to shareholders as well as to serve their customers.

Municipally owned utilities, often known as munis, are owned locally, generally by the government of the city they serve. Some municipal utilities also serve customers in surrounding areas.

Cooperative utilities are owned entirely by their customers, much like housing or food co-ops. Initially, cooperatives tended to be located in more rural zones. Some of these areas, such as southwest Florida, have grown so rapidly that the term “rural cooperative” no longer applies.

Both munis and cooperatives operate as nonprofits. There is no consistent nationwide link between rates and ownership structure, but it is notable that five of the nine municipal and cooperative utilities in Maine charge less then 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential customers, compared with 27 to 30 cents for Central Maine Power and Versant. This may have influenced voters’ perception that a municipal utility could provide power at lower prices.

Municipal utilities do return a portion of their revenues to their investors, but a muni’s investor is the city it serves. According to the American Public Power Association, in 2020, public power utilities returned a median of 6.1% of their revenues to the communities they served. This return allows local governments to keep taxes lower than would otherwise be necessary to provide government services.

These utilities are also regulated in different ways. Investor-owned utilities are regulated by state public utility commissions, which oversee everything from what kinds of facilities to build and where to build them to how to reflect those costs in electricity rates.

Municipally owned and cooperative utilities are typically regulated on a limited basis by state public utility commissions – usually on matters of safety, reliability or the utilities’ impacts on the rest of the grid. Responsibility for municipal utility rates lies with either the city council or an independent local utility board. Cooperative utilities typically set their rates through a board elected by their customers.

Maine’s approach

The structure proposed in Maine was a fascinating hybrid case. Pine Tree Power’s ownership would have closely mirrored that of a municipal utility, governed by a board, but its rates would have been regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It is unclear what the board’s responsibilities would have been.

Further, since the public utility commission would have been required to set rates according to the actual costs of providing service, it is unclear whether Pine Tree Power would have been allowed to charge rates sufficient to return revenue to the state, similar to what most municipal utilities do.

There was intense debate about Pine Tree Power’s potential benefits. One study showed that shifting from private to public power would produce significant benefits, while another showed significant costs. A third study forecast long-term benefits but short-term costs, primarily from buying out the state’s two private utilities.

A 1942 sign in east central Oklahoma announces that local power is provided at cost by a cooperative utility.
Rural electrification was a central element of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act authorized low-interest federal loans to local cooperatives that would build and maintain power plants and lines and charge reasonable fees for membership. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, CC BY-ND

In a municipalization, the cost to buy out the private utility strongly influences how much net benefit will result – and it’s not as simple as writing a check for the book value of the assets. Typically, price determination is a quasi-judicial process overseen by an arbitrator.

For example, when Winter Park, Florida, took control of the local assets of its power provider in 2005, the city estimated the value of the physical assets at $15.8 million. The eventual purchase price determined by an arbitrator was just over $42 million. The city also incurred legal and technical support costs. Winter Park issued almost $49 million in bonds to cover all of the costs of the acquisition.

Maine’s cost safeguard

One curious element of the Maine vote that could have future impacts is the voter approval process under Question 1, which was adopted. Typically, when a community municipalizes its electric power, voters would consider an initial referendum authorizing the government to explore the possibility of purchasing the private utility’s assets, and then a second referendum when the costs of the purchase were known.

The second vote would be more specific – something like, “Should the City issue bonds in the amount of $200 million to finalize the purchase of the assets of XYZ Corp. for the express purpose of establishing a municipal utility?”

This approach is expensive to administer, since it requires two votes, and a defeat at either stage can stop the acquisition process. But it also safeguards voters, since it ensures that they have information about how much municipalizing their utility will cost before they vote to approve it.

Cost estimates for buying out Maine’s utilities and creating Pine Tree Power ranged from $5 billion to $13.5 billion, and buyout opponents – including Maine Gov. Janet Mills – strongly emphasized the potential price tag. However, the fact that voters approved Question 1 might actually make a future municipalization vote more likely to pass, since voters now know they will have a safeguard of knowing the purchase price prior to their final approval.

Ultimately, in my view, there is no best model for utility ownership and operation. One strength of private utilities is that they are subject to clear, consistent oversight by professional utility regulators. For their part, municipal and cooperative utilities offer local control and greater flexibility to address local concerns. However, all types of power companies face daunting challenges, including grid cybersecurity, the clean energy transition and hiring and retaining skilled workers.

As I see it, a community’s best strategy is to choose a model that has strengths residents value, and whose weaknesses are less important or can be mitigated in other ways. While Maine voters may not love the system they have, their fear of the unknown was apparently stronger.

The Conversation

Theodore Kury is the Director of Energy Studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, which is sponsored in part by the Florida electric and gas utilities and the Florida Public Service Commission. In 2018, he was principal investigator on a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to study the value of municipal utilities in a changing marketplace. That work informs portions of this piece. However, the Center maintains sole editorial control of this and any other work.

Read more …Maine voters don't like their electric utilities, but they balked at paying billions to buy them out

Cranberries grow on vines in sandy bogs and marshes. Lance Cheung, USDA/Flickr

Cranberries are a staple in U.S. households at Thanksgiving – but how did this bog dweller end up on holiday tables?

Compared to many valuable plant species that were domesticated over thousands of years, cultivated cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a young agricultural crop, just as the U.S. is a young country and Thanksgiving is a relatively new holiday. But as a plant scientist, I’ve learned much about cranberries’ ancestry from their botany and genomics.

New on the plant breeding scene

Humans have cultivated sorghum for some 5,500 years, corn for around 8,700 years and cotton for about 5,000 years. In contrast, cranberries were domesticated around 200 years ago – but people were eating the berries before that.

Wild cranberries are native to North America. They were an important food source for Native Americans, who used them in puddings, sauces, breads and a high-protein portable food called pemmican – a carnivore’s version of an energy bar, made from a mixture of dried meat and rendered animal fat and sometimes studded with dried fruits. Some tribes still make pemmican today, and even market a commercial version.

Cranberry cultivation began in 1816 in Massachusetts, where Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall found that covering cranberry bogs with sand fertilized the vines and retained water around their roots. From there, the fruit spread throughout the U.S. Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Today, Wisconsin produces roughly 60% of the U.S. cranberry harvest, followed by Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey. Cranberries also are grown in Canada, where they are a major fruit crop.

Four men in waders, holding long rakes, thigh-deep in a flooded bog, its surface covered with floating cranberries.
Farmers often flood cranberry bogs to harvest the fruit, which they rake loose from the vines. Michael Galvin, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/Flickr, CC BY-ND

A flexible and adaptable plant

Cranberries have many interesting botanical features. Like roses, lilies and daffodils, cranberry flowers are hermaphroditic, which means they contain both male and female parts. This allows them to self-pollinate instead of relying on birds, insects or other pollinators.

A cranberry blossom has four petals that peel back when the flower blooms. This exposes the anthers, which contain the plant’s pollen. The flower’s resemblance to the beak of a bird earned the cranberry its original name, the “craneberry.”

A flower with four curved white petals tinged with pink.
A blossom on a cranberry bush in Wisconsin. Aaron Carlson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

When cranberries don’t self-pollinate, they rely on bumblebees and honeybees to transport their pollen from flower to flower. They can also be propagated sexually, by planting seeds, or asexually, through rooting vine cuttings. This is important for growers because seed-based propagation allows for higher genetic diversity, which can translate to things like increased disease resistance or more pest tolerance.

Asexual reproduction is equally important, however. This method allows growers to create clones of varieties that perform very well in their bogs and grow even more of those high-performing types.

Every cranberry contains four air pockets, which is why they float when farmers flood bogs to harvest them. The air pockets also make raw cranberries bounce when they are dropped on a hard surface – a good indicator of whether they are fresh.

These pockets serve a biological role: They enable the berries to float down rivers and streams to disperse their seeds. Many other plants disperse their seeds via animals and birds that eat their fruits and excrete the seeds as they move around. But as anyone who has tasted them raw knows, cranberries are ultra-tart, so they have limited appeal for wildlife.

Reading cranberry DNA

For cranberries being such a young crop, scientists already know a lot about their genetics. The cranberry is a diploid, which means that each cell contains one set of chromosomes from the maternal parent and one set from the paternal parent. It has 24 chromosomes, and its genome size is less than one-tenth that of the human genome.

Insights like these help scientists better understand where potentially valuable genes might be located in the cranberry genome. And diploid crops tend to have fewer genes associated with a single trait, which makes breeding them to emphasize that trait much simpler.

Researchers have also described the genetics of the cultivated cranberry’s wild relative, which is known as the “small cranberry” (Vaccinium oxycoccos). Comparing the two can help scientists determine where the cultivated cranberry’s agronomically valuable traits reside in its genome, and where some of the small cranberry’s cold hardiness might come from.

Researchers are developing molecular markers – tools to determine where certain genes or sequences of interest reside within a genome – to help determine the best combinations of genes from different varieties of cranberry that can enhance desired traits. For example, a breeder might want to make the fruits larger, more firm or redder in color.

While cranberries have only been grown by humans for a short period of time, they have been evolving for much longer. They entered agriculture with a long genetic history, including things like whole genome duplication events and genetic bottlenecks, which collectively change which genes are gained or lost over time in a population.

Whole genome duplication events occur when two species’ genomes collide to form a new, larger genome, encompassing all the traits of the two parental species. Genetic bottlenecks occur when a population is greatly reduced in size, which limits the amount of genetic diversity in that species. These events are extremely common in the plant world and can lead to both gains and losses of different genes.

Analyzing the cranberry’s genome can indicate when it diverged evolutionarily from some of its relatives, such as the blueberry, lingonberry and huckleberry. Understanding how modern species evolved can teach plant scientists about how different traits are inherited, and how to effectively breed for them in the future.

Ripe at the right time

Cranberries’ close association with Thanksgiving was simply a practical matter at first. Fresh cranberries are ready to harvest from mid-September through mid-November, so Thanksgiving falls within that perfect window for eating them.

Cranberry sauce was first loosely described in accounts from the American colonies in the 1600s, and appeared in a cookbook for the first time in 1796. The berries’ tart flavor, which comes from high levels of several types of acids, makes them more than twice as acidic as most other edible fruits, so they add a welcome zing to a meal full of blander foods like turkey and potatoes.

In recent decades, the cranberry industry has branched out into juices, snacks and other products in pursuit of year-round markets. But for many people, Thanksgiving is still the time when they’re most likely to see cranberries in some form on the menu.

The Conversation

Serina DeSalvio ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de parts, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer profit de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son organisme de recherche.

Read more …Cranberries can bounce, float and pollinate themselves: The saucy science of a Thanksgiving classic

Autumn is the season to gaze at gorgeous leaves of gold, yellow and orange as they flutter from the trees and fall on our yards – but then, of course, comes the tedious task of raking them up and trying to decide what to do with them. SciLine interviewed Susan Barton, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, who says taking a lazy approach is actually a win for your garden and the critters that live there.

Dr. Susan Barton discusses fall lawn care.

Below are some highlights from the interview. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can leaves on a landscaped property ever be left as they are, or should they always be mulched?

Susan Barton: A layer of leaves on the lawn will exclude light, which would be detrimental to the lawn. So when the leaves fall, either rake them up or chop them up with a lawn mower so they are finer and can sift down in through the grass blades. But if they fall in a landscape bed, or under trees, shrubs and larger plants, it’s fine to just leave the leaves without mulching them.

What are the benefits of mulching leaves rather than removing them?

Susan Barton: The leaves contain nutrients, and they also are a source of organic matter. So if you allow the leaves to go back into the landscape, you are providing nutrients for the plants to take up, and you are providing organic matter that will improve the soil structure.

If you think about forest, where leaves just naturally return to the soil and decompose every year, it’s some of the richest soil we have. By allowing that to happen in your landscape beds, you’re getting the same benefits.

What can keep leaves from blowing from one property to another?

Susan Barton: Chopping them up will dramatically reduce the blowing of the leaves. Make them smaller by either mowing over the leaves where they fall in the lawn, or raking them into piles and then mowing them.

There are also leaf vacuums that vacuum, chop up and put the leaves in a bag. Then you spread the leaves on your landscape beds.

What are the environmental benefits of not removing the leaves?

Susan Barton: If you rake up your leaves, put them in a black plastic bag and have them taken off to a landfill, then they never get to decompose and return those nutrients and organic matter back to the soil. Instead, you’re taking what could be a resource and making it a problem.

Also, many insects spend the winter in leaf litter. And a lot of people might not want insects in their landscape, but only about 2% of all the insects in the world are considered pests. Most of them are either beneficial or of no consequence to humans, and they are very important food sources for birds and other animals. Birds feed the insects, especially caterpillars, to their hatchlings.

So by allowing the insects to overwinter in the leaf litter, you’re supporting bird populations and, of course, pollinators, which help plants produce seeds that can develop into new plants.

When should people fertilize lawns?

Susan Barton: In the fall, because that is when turf grass is primarily growing roots and you’re promoting the kind of grass growth that makes a healthy, dense lawn. When you fertilize in the spring, your grass is growing leaves at that point, so you’re really just causing the grass to grow more and grow faster, and you will need to mow more often. So it really doesn’t make sense to fertilize in the spring.

Also, when you chop up the leaves in the fall, you are actually also fertilizing in the fall because you’re putting those chopped up leaves back into the soil. But it’s a good idea to add some additional fertilizer besides just the leaf litter.

How can people get the most out of their lawns and make their landscaping more environmentally friendly?

Susan Barton: The suburban norm is to have a lawn with some decorative plants around the house, or at the end of the driveway. But I think it’s a good idea to sort of flip that paradigm and design areas of the lawn that provide for play and gathering spaces, and then figure out what everything else can be.

It’s just a different way of thinking about the landscape, and much more environmentally sensitive. It will provide all kinds of ecosystem services, whether it’s better water infiltration or better air quality. If we think about pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, we’re doing it a lot more if we’ve got a ground cover, a shrub layer, a small tree layer and a large tree layer than we are if we have just a lawn.

Watch the full interview to hear more.

SciLine is a free service based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science that helps journalists include scientific evidence and experts in their news stories.

The Conversation

Susan Barton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …Want a healthier lawn? Instead of bagging fall leaves, take the lazy way out and get a more...

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