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Earth Matters: Global ice loss rises 60%; cicadas prepare to emerge; climate and the federal budget

Sales of electric vehicles, some experts believe, soon will reach the tipping point.

Earth Matters is a weekly compendium of wonderful, disturbing, and hideous news briefs about the environment.

TRILLIONS OF CICADAS SET TO EMERGE IN 15 STATES COME SPRING

A Brood 10 cicada in 2004.

Brood 10, or the Great Eastern Brood, as they are known, which is the largest and most widespread colony of cicadas in the United States, will be awakening from their 17-year hibernation in May or June and sending out mating calls that can reach 100 decibels, about the level of a typical motorcycle. Emeritus professor of entomology Michael J. Raupp told Newsweek, "Densities can be as great as 1.5 million per acre. So, between Georgia and New York there will surely be trillions emerging," Besides those two states, the cicadas, commonly but inaccurately called locusts, will also be tuning up in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. for the first time since 2004 as soon as the ground reaches at least 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, for the next six weeks or so, they will mate and lay eggs and make a lot of noise. The nymphs will dig a hole and suck on tree roots for the next 17 years. Scientists believe they emerge in such huge numbers as a survival strategy that Raupp calls “predatory satiation.” Essentially, that means too many cicadas show up for predators to wipe them all out. Brood 10 isn’t the only cicada brood in the nation. Others are also on a different 13- or 17-year cycle. Although they make a huge racket, they don’t bite, eat crops, or spread disease like some other bugs and they won’t poison pets. But they are tough on newly planted trees, so it’s best to wait on planting any until they’re gone—until the next cycle.

EU MINISTERS CALL FOR PHASE OUT OF FOSSIL FUEL SUBSIDIES AND FINANCE

European Union ministers adopted new priorities on climate and energy diplomacy on Monday. In a resolution the EU pledged to “[D]iscourage all further investments into fossil fuel based energy infrastructure projects in third countries, unless they are fully consistent with an ambitious, clearly defined pathway towards climate neutrality in line with the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement and best available science.” The EU also called for a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies with a firm deadline, committed to mobilize more extensive international climate finance, and vowed to develop a just transition away from coal. Collin Rees, a Washington, D.C.-based senior campaigner at Oil Change International said: “Today’s commitment by the European Union to end overseas investment in oil, gas, and coal projects is yet another indication that the fossil fuel era is over. As a new administration takes power in Washington, this is a powerful signal that clean energy is ascendant and that the EU stands willing to work with President Biden and others to end all finance for dirty energy. Biden should act boldly on his campaign commitments to end finance for dirty energy projects. By building on past commitments to end coal finance and extending this to oil and gas, Biden can join the EU and UK in transforming international finance to address the challenges of the next century, not prop up the remnants of the last century’s infrastructure.”

BEARS EARS JUST THE START. TRIBES SEEK INVOLVEMENT IN PUBLIC LANDS MANAGEMENT

Jessica Douglas and Graham Lee Brewer at High Country News write:

In the first weeks, if not days, of his administration, President Joe Biden is expected to restore the boundaries of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. But tribal leaders say that returning millions of acres should be only the beginning of Biden’s commitment to protect more public lands — and that tribal nations should be leading the charge. It’s more than just the threat of degradation, they say; Indigenous voices are long overdue in public-land management.

While Biden’s nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior has given Indian Country reasons for hope, tribal leaders and advocates say she should be only one of many Indigenous people working with or inside the new administration. Biden has pledged to work toward protecting 30% of the country’s land and oceans by 2030. Tribal nations and communities have always asserted that their ties to and knowledge of the land should be consulted when land-management decisions are made. That’s a notion likely familiar to Biden.

STUDY: RATE OF GLOBAL ICE LOSS HAS RISEN 60% IN PAST 30 YEARS

The study, published Monday in The Cryosphere, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the European Geosciences Union, isn’t the first to have used satellites to assess ice loss from specific sources such as the polar ice caps. But this one at the University of Leeds in the U.K. is the first to look at all sources of ice loss. The authors show that Earth has lost 28 trillion metric tons (Tt) of ice since 1994 from Arctic sea ice (7.6 Tt), ice shelves (6.5 Tt), mountain glaciers (6.1 Tt), the Greenland (3.8 Tt) and Antarctic ice sheets (2.5 Tt), and Antarctic sea ice (0.9 Tt). In a press release, the university notes the scientists found that it has taken just 3.2% of the excess energy Earth has absorbed from global warming to cause this ice loss. That’s a good deal faster than in the past. In the 1990s, the loss averaged 0.8 trillion tons a year. By 2017, that had risen to 1.3 trillion ton a year. The big losses came from Antarctica and Greenland. Thomas Slater of the Leeds’ Center for Polar Observation and Modeling said, “The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea-level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.” 

Apple’s HQ in Cupertino, Calif., is powered in part by a 17-megawatt onsite rooftop solar installation. BIG ENERGY BUYERS SAY WHAT THEY WANT BIDEN-HARRIS TO DO WITH FEDERAL POLICY

Thirty-six companies have signed onto a statement (which you can download here) from the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance laying out what they think the federal government’s top energy priorities should be. The companies include Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Cargill, Clorox, General Motors, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Target, and Walmart. Some of these companies have already pledged to reduce their carbon footprints to zero within one or two decades. Amazon and Google are investing in gigawatts of renewable power. But there are obstacles to getting the electricity to net zero carbon emissions by 2035, which is the goal of the Biden-Harris administration. One of these is the nation’s wholesale energy market. John Parnell at Green Tech Media notes that the Republican majority at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) made decisions that are expected to weaken the competitiveness of state-subsidized wind, solar, and nuclear power in many markets. “We agree that’s got to be fixed before you can talk about expanding markets,” REBA Policy Director Bryn Baker said, noting that it’s likely that FERC, now led by Democrat Richard Glick, will focus on that “right out of the gate.” In addition, REBA calls for adding more money to the federal budget for clean energy research, development, and demonstration. It also wants to see a decarbonizing the grid for all: “To green the grid for all customers faster, affordably, and equitably, REBA urges the federal government to take swift action to harmonize and update the current patchwork of clean energy policies.” 

Cute but a serial killer. NEW ZEALAND’S UNIQUE PREDATOR-FREE 2050 PROJECT MAKES PROGRESS

In the 19th century, New Zealand, along with Australia, imported European rabbits so they could be hunted. Soon, without natural predators and breeding like ... rabbits, they overran both countries, gobbling up native plants and crops and crowding out other animal species. In New Zealand, among the solutions to this in the late 1800s was importing the stoat, a weasel that is pretty much a killing machine, eating anything it can kill. That has had a detrimental effect on New Zealand’s native species, birds in particular, like the kakapo, a flightless parrot found only in New Zealand and viewed as one of its “unique treasures.” Four years along, Predator-Free 2050, funded by the government’s Department of Conservation, has spurred more than 5,000 groups and tribes—the Maori iwi—to clear 117 of New Zealand’s small islands of non-native pests, not just stoats but mice, rats, and possums. Methods include poisoning and trapping. But clearing the islands is one thing; achieving the same on the New Zealand mainland will be a very different matter. “It’s fair to say that most people would regard the project as incredibly ambitious, to try and remove that many species at that scale,” said Euan Ritchie, an associate professor in wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University in Australia. “But I think if anyone can achieve it, it’s probably the New Zealanders.” While the project’s leaders know it’s a longshot, they hope at least that their efforts will generate new technologies and provide data on managing invasive species better than in the past.

FEMA COULD FREE UP AS MUCH AS $10 BILLION FOR CLIMATE ADAPTATION

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released its four-year strategic plan for dealing with disasters in 2018, mention of “climate change” was nowhere to seen, having been scrubbed by the Trump regime. That’s not how it’s going to be in the Biden-Harris administration. Federal officials are proposing to provide as much as $10 billion in grants for climate adaptation or, as reporter Christopher Flavelle puts it, “to protect against climate disasters before they strike.” If the White House budget office gives the go-ahead, the money freed up from other FEMA tasks could, among other things, be used to build seawalls and raise or relocate homes in flood-prone areas. “It would dwarf all previous grant programs of its kind,” said Daniel Kaniewski, a former deputy administrator at FEMA and now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies, a consulting firm. At the moment, FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities has just $500 million to award in adaptation grants. President Biden has already made clear that he favors spurring adaptation. On his first day in office, for instance, he issued an executive order reimposing stricter construction standards on buildings and other infrastructure in flood zones built with federal money, an Obama-era order that Donald Trump had rescinded. 

ENTIRE FEDERAL BUDGET WILL SCRUTINIZED TO ADDRESS CLIMATE, SAY TOP ADVISERS 

John Kerry, the Biden-Harris administration’s international climate envoy, and Gina McCarthy, its domestic climate czar, said at a virtual event Saturday of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Winter Meeting that dealing with the climate crisis is going to be a whole government affair. "We want every single piece of the federal budget to be looked at," said McCarthy, as reported by Neil Sobczyk at GreenWire (paywalled). "We are going to sit down and work with local communities every step of the way to understand what their needs are, so that we can help to use the federal budget to advance those needs, and how we can leverage opportunities in the private sector and lower costs through our procurement power." After three decades of climate science denial from large percentages of elected Republicans, especially the Trump regime, which was aggressive at undermining any action to address the climate, Kerry said the new administration will actively promote its climate actions to the public. For example, this could include projects in economically and environmentally battered West Virginia and Kentucky, once the heart of the American coal industry. "We're going to have to persuade Americans that this is not what some of the deniers and obstructionists have wanted people to believe," Kerry said. "It is not a diminishment of lifestyle … We are working already to bring the private sector to the table to get the major banks, major asset managers, investment houses to guarantee they're going to be putting very significant amounts of money into not just [environmental, social and corporate governance] and sustainable development goals, but putting it directly into climate-related emissions reduction," Kerry said. 

ELECTRIC VEHICLES NEAR TIPPING POINT FOR MASS ADOPTION

Batteries are the single most expensive element in an electric vehicle (EV), and falling battery prices in the past 15 years are bringing down the price of the cars they power as well. Many close observers are now saying that the tipping point for far more EV sales is close at hand. Global sales rose 43% in 2020, but that growth likely will be soon eclipsed as batteries get even cheaper (and better engineered). Recent analyses point to an EV price below that of equivalent gasoline and diesel vehicles sometime between 2023 and 2025, even without taking subsidies into account. Norway has already passed the tipping point, though subsidies still play a big part there. Sales of battery-powered cars in Norway rose to 54% of the nation’s total car sales last year. In most European nations, EV growth in 2020 was less than 5%. Electric vehicles are already much cheaper to operate than internal combustion cars, but the upfront cost, even with subsidies, make them not affordable for lower-income households. And then there’s “range anxiety,” the fear that the EV will run out of juice and no recharging machines will be close by even as the installation of charging machines is on a steep upward curve. Another issue for many buyers is that recharging can be time-consuming. However, that is changing as well. For instance, the Israeli company StoreDot has just begun producing batteries in China that can be charged up to a 200-mile charge in five minutes. Battery tech, in general, is undergoing a revolution with various manufacturers coming up with innovations that reduce or eliminate problems some critics have said will never be conquered. Norway is, of course, small and rich, which is not typical of most of the world’s nations. But charts similar to that one are going to spread widely over the next decade. 

OTHER STORIES TO READ

  • Consequential Biden Actions Nobody Is Talking About, by Andrew Rosenberg
  • Reusing, recycling, rethinking, by Jessica Wolfrom. Disturbed by the impact of trash—especially plastic—on the planet, a couple opens one of the Washington region’s first “zero waste” stores.
  • Even for Bargain Hunters, Green Cars Make Sense, by Margaret Renkl. Electric cars are an even better value than I understood when I first bought one.
  • 10 tips for appreciating nature in your neighborhood, by Environment America
  • World Wildlife Federation (WWF) lays out its priorities for Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress

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