Equilibrium/Sustainability — A rainy future for the desert Southwest

Prehistoric patterns of climate change suggest the desert Southwest faces a future of more powerful monsoons, a new study has found.

“Summer rainfall and flooding will likely increase in the future in southwestern North America,” Tripti Bhattacharya, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Syracuse, said in a statement.

That’s a mixed blessing for desert regions like Arizona and Southern California, according to the study published on Thursday in AGU Advances.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the rain that falls in monsoon storms falls very quickly, runs off the landscape, and can cause catastrophic flooding, posing a hazard to communities,” added Jessica Tierney, who is a co-author of the study.

This past summer saw historic flooding in the famously dry Death Valley — a potential harbinger of a wetter and stormier future that may resemble the distant past, the researchers suggested.

In the mid-Pliocene era some 3 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels similar to today seemed to have helped fuel more powerful storms from over the eastern Pacific — which blew across the southwest as monsoons.

This pattern helped fill the now-arid prehistoric Southwest with lakes and wetland plants and animals, the study found.

Why it matters: While this may bring more water to the area in the long term, in the near-term monsoon rains — which churn up sediment, wash out roads and silt up reservoirs — pose a serious threat to the region’s water supply, as we’ve reported.

That risk is far greater when it comes in tandem with more powerful wildfires, which strip water-trapping plants and soils from landscapes.

And that dangerous combination is becoming all the more common as human-caused climate change ravages the Southwest. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you?

Today we’ll look at a proposed revision of California’s net metering plan, followed by the unseasonal Florida hurricane deepening divides between two GOP leaders against each other. Then, Europe’s plan to get its automobiles off gasoline, and a serious climate setback.

Programming note: Sustainability will not publish tomorrow, Nov. 11. See you on Monday!

Commission proposes cutting rooftop solar paybacks

California’s future rooftop solar producers could receive less payback for the electricity they sell to the grid, if a proposed decision from the state’s utilities commission goes on to win final approval.

Cutting back: The proposal, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Thursday, would revamp the state’s “net energy metering” (NEM) solar tariff.

The net metering tariff has enabled households to get credit on their electricity bills at retail rates and offset monthly energy expenses.

Scrapping retail rates: Existing solar customers would be able to maintain this arrangement for 20 years.

  • But future customers would face more variable terms: rates that are tied to how much electricity is worth at a given time of day.  

  • They’d also be subject to a fixed monthly fee.

A complicated evolution: “Since implementing net energy metering over 20 years ago, California has witnessed the evolution of the customer-sited rooftop solar industry,” Administrative Law Judge Kelly Hymes, who issued the proposal, wrote in its introduction.

Crediting this shift for the installation of more than 12 gigawatts of clean energy, Hymes stressed that “the needs of the electric grid in California require additional evolution.”

Aligning electricity with value: The proposed decision, which will come up for a vote on Dec. 15, seeks to credit customers for the electricity they export based on its value to the grid, a statement from the commission said.

  • The proposal would also harness an additional $900 million of state legislature-approved funding in incentives for solar adopters who also install battery storage.  

  • Of that total, 70 percent — $630 million — would be set aside for low-income customers.

Longstanding controversy: Dubbed “NEM 3.0,” Thursday’s proposed decision has been the subject of much contention for the past several years.

  • Environmental groups have largely protested changes to the net billing structure, arguing that doing so would slow California’s transition to a clean energy-based grid.  

  • Proponents of the changes — which include the state’s major utilities — argue that lower-income households are currently paying higher rates to offset the solar subsidy.

To find out what the newly proposed decision means in practice, and to read reactions from both sides, please click here for the full story.

Florida suffers rare November hurricane

Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s Atlantic Coast on Thursday morning, prompting evacuation orders as it battered the state’s southeastern corner, our colleague Julie Mueller reported.

The storm declined in power shortly after landfall to tropical storm status.

Nicole was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. in November in nearly 40 years, according to CNN.

Dueling declarations: The storm — which came six weeks after Hurricane Ian killed 114 and caused at least $40 billion in damage — prompted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to issue a disaster declaration and evacuation order for the Palm Beach area.

  • Famous local resident and former President Donald Trump appeared to be riding out the hurricane at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Mueller reported. 

  • Trump has teased a “very big announcement,” for Tuesday, which is widely thought to be an announcement of a forthcoming 2024 presidential run.

Political storm is brewing: DeSantis’s strong showing in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election has deepened divides between the two Republican standard bearers.

Possibly related: Trump-supporting residents of Texas and Florida were about10 percent less likely to evacuate before hurricanes, according to a 2020 paper in Science Advances.

  • That is a phenomenon not present in previous hurricanes.

  • The researchers suggested that this pattern was related to the dismissal of hurricane dangers by climate-denying conservative media pundits like Rush Limbaugh.

World to blow past key climate red-line, study finds

World governments have failed to cut emissions sufficiently to avert serious climate disruptions, a study from the Department of Energy has found.

  • Commitments from national governments have made it “inevitable” that average global temperatures will cross the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. 

  • That finding comes from a landmark paper by the DOE, published on Thursday in Nature Climate Change.

Changing target: These findings now shift the focus to trying to limit emissions with the goal of keeping warming as close to 1.5 degrees as possible‚ the Energy Department and its research partners stated.

In addition to stabilizing emissions, the researchers emphasized the importance of finding ways to reverse warming once it has already occurred.

  • “Let’s face it. We are going to breach the 1.5 degrees limit in the next couple of decades,” coauthor scientist Haewon McJeon, of the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said in a statement. 

  • “That means we’ll go up to 1.6 or 1.7 degrees or above, and we’ll need to bring it back down to 1.5. But how fast we can bring it down is key,” McJeon added.

Auspicious timing: The study comes on the eve of President Biden’s visit Friday to the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, where he plans to tout U.S. progress on clean energy and climate goals, according to the White House.

But the study found that government actions in the U.S. and other countries have not kept pace with the changing climate.

Degrees of damage: To keep warming below 2 degrees, world governments — particularly major emitters like the U.S., China, India and Russia — would have to cut emissions by 30 percent, our colleague Rachel Frazin.

Are they doing that? No. Current emission-reduction targets put the world at an expected average warming of 2.6 degrees Celsus, according to the U.N.

This amount of additional heat far exceeds the level at which scientists expect dramatic decline in crop harvests, increases in deadly storms and heat waves and the virtual extinction of coral reefs, Yale Climate Connection reported.

Goodbye to net-zero: If countries simply upheld their existing climate commitments, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will continue to increase throughout the end of the century, the researchers found.

That scenario leads to “irreversible and adverse consequences for human and natural systems,” lead author Gokul Iyer, of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, said in a statement.

Doubling down: Rather than cutting emissions, President Biden bragged in late October about record U.S. fossil production, Politico reported.

For more on what’s needed to bring the U.S. in line with its climate goals — and the role of the fossil fuel industry in delaying them — please click here for the full story.

EU proposes new emissions rules for gas cars

The European Commission on Thursday proposed stricter emissions standards for gas-powered vehicles that remain on roads after the EU bans their sale in 2035, The Associated Press reported.

Revamping old standards: The so-called “Euro 7” standards would apply to all cars, vans, trucks and buses sold in the EU, according to the AP.

  • EU officials said that by 2035, the restrictions were expected to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from cars and vans by 35 percent and for buses and trucks by 56 percent compared to existing regulations.  

  • Tailpipe emissions were projected to drop by 13 percent for cars and vans and by 39 percent for buses and trucks, according to the European Commission.

  • Particle emissions from the brakes of a car would likely fall by 27 percent.

Setting precedent on brakes and tires: The Euro 7would be the first such standards to reach beyond tailpipe emissions and set rules for particle emissions from brakes and microplastic waste from tires, the Commission stated.

This summer, California was the first state to announce a ban on the sale of gas-powered cars in 2035, as our colleague Rachel Frazin reported.

But the state’s new Advanced Clean Cars II rule only applies to tailpipe emissions.

Staying clean for longer: The Euro 7 rules also mandate that cars and vans be checked until they reach 200,000 kilometers (124,000 miles) and 10 years of age, per the Commission.

  • These changes double previous such durability requirements. 

  • Similar increases will apply to buses and trucks.

Thursday Threats

Shark extinction rates aren’t improving, the U.S. looks to rebuild a vital sustainability partnership and a political prisoner continues his hunger and water strike.

Shark extinction on the rise

  • While conservation efforts have helped some tunas and billfishes recover from decades of overfishing, the same cannot be said for sharks, according to a new study in Science. The authors conclude that although target species have been sustainably managed to maximize catch, other functionally important species like sharks have been left behind.

Biden hopes Asia trip will thaw U.S.-China tensions

  • President Biden said he hoped an upcoming meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping would help avert the threat of conflict between the two countries, The Wall Street Journal reported. The fraying relationship between the two countries — which are also the largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters — puts global climate progress at serious risk, according to CNBC.

Egyptian dissident on hunger, water strike receiving aide

  • Relatives of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a British-national political prisoner in Egypt, said he has received “a medical intervention” for his ongoing hunger and water strike, The Washington Post reported. The escalation comes a day before President Biden is set to attend COP27, where activists have been protesting the country’s treatment of Abdel Fattah.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you Monday.

Updated: 7:34 p.m.

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