Climate 411

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How ports can use the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to protect public health and act on climate

Aerial view of business port with Shore crane loading containers in freight ship.

Most Americans hadn’t thought about the importance of ports until pandemic-driven disruptions in the global supply chain created delays and uncertainty about the delivery of the goods we count on in our homes, schools, businesses and beyond. But people who live in the communities near ports, where last century’s fossil fuel-powered equipment belches out harmful air pollution, know better. They’ve been burdened with the very real costs of infrastructure that’s stuck in the past.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law represents an unprecedented investment in the future. The deal advances something for everyone, promising to deliver clean, reliable energy, create good manufacturing jobs, expand public transit, and provide a national network of chargers for electric vehicles. And of course it specifically sets aside $17 billion to improve ports, with $450 million dedicated to replacing the outdated equipment that often creates the largest emissions harming our climate and our health. The Biden administration, including Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeg and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, has consistently committed to taking the necessary action on climate change and environmental injustice, prioritizing equity for those communities denied the full protections of our clean air and water laws.

Ports are poised to reimagine vital parts of our infrastructure and position themselves as solutions-oriented leaders. Here’s how they can do it.

Ports can do their part to meet our shared climate goals

The latest report from expert scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that many of the harms caused by the pollution warming our atmosphere are already here. Worse, more warming makes it more likely that we will suffer more frequently from severe weather events. Recovery will cost more, and it will be more unequal. Our health, safety, and livelihoods stand to be threatened by more floods, droughts, wildfires, diseases, crop failures, and the collapse of ecosystems. We must not only do all we can to eliminate climate pollution, but adapt our systems to a new reality.

That includes how we move goods around the globe. Diesel-fueled cargo ships are responsible for a billion tons of climate pollution every year. When these ships arrive at ports, their containers are transported between terminals, warehouses, and railyards with other diesel-fueled equipment that creates even more carbon dioxide, as well as PM 2.5, NOx, and other harmful pollutants. Our transportation system is the largest source of the pollution changing our climate; 90 percent of ships, trucks, trains, and other vehicles are powered by fossil fuels.

Ports have influence here, with the ability to accelerate the retirement of these less-efficient ships, drayage trucks, switcher trains, dredges, and other diesel-powered cargo-handling equipment in favor of zero-emissions ones on their way to full electrification. The shorter distances and fixed routes that trucks and trains travel make them ideal to electrify, for one. Such older equipment represents the largest sources of the emissions at Port Houston, for another, underscoring just how significant the benefit that replacing it would have. Port Houston and the country’s 19 other largest ports should commit to moving 100 percent of container traffic along zero-emissions supply routes by 2035.

Ports can rebuild their relationships with nearby communities

It’s not only about eliminating climate pollution. Ports’ emissions and environmental impacts have been hard to track. Ports must now commit to being good neighbors — and that starts with protecting public health.

Investing in zero-emissions supply routes would create near- and long-term benefits for the health and safety of people who live, work, and go to school in portside communities, many of which are overburdened with disproportionate amounts of pollution. Children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, for example, are 56 percent more likely to develop a kind of leukemia than children living 10 miles away. Cancer rates in Manchester, a portside community in the city’s East End, are 22 percent higher than the city overall.

Infrastructure doesn’t have to divide us. Repairing it must mean more than expanding freeways or dredging waterways; it means improving outcomes for people in communities with equity disparities. With ports, this could mean making funding contingent on increased local enforcement of anti-idling regulations, for example. Listening to the specific aspirations of nearby communities, port leadership should work to redraw truck routes, redesign intersections for safety, and relocate their parking lots away from people’s homes.

Ports can change how they make decisions and commit to a solutions-oriented public engagement process that brings many stakeholders — both industry and community — to the table. Together, with state and federal departments of transportation, ports can retool their decision-making process to ensure that 40 percent of the new infrastructure funds, promised in the Biden administration’s Justice 40 initiative, create benefits for the communities that have been overlooked historically.

Ports must see themselves as parts of our cities

For too long, ports have been thought of as the delivery entrances to our cities, but they are the front doors in a global economy. I saw this firsthand. In late February 2022, I gathered with shipping and logistics experts at the Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference in Long Beach, California. It was an invigorated, spirited atmosphere. The nearby Port of Long Beach had approved a Clean Air Plan with a pledge to get to the zero-emissions movement of goods by 2035. The neighboring Port of Los Angeles has the same goal. The Port of San Diego intends to approve a plan this summer to guide their transition to a fleet of zero-emissions trucks by 2030. I’ve since returned home to Texas, where the Port of Corpus Christi and Port Houston on the 50-mile-long Ship Channel talk publicly and proudly about their ambitions to expand. With the Biden administration’s investment, they have the opportunity to join forward-looking peers and steer themselves – and all of us, too – toward a cleaner, healthier future.

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Geoengineering: Ignore Economics and Governance at Your Peril

How serious is global warming? Here’s one indication: the first rogue entrepreneurs have begun testing the waters on geoengineering, as Naomi Klein laments in her must-read New York Times op-ed.

Sadly, Klein misses two important points.

First, it’s not a question of if but when humanity will be compelled to use geoengineering, unless we change course on our climate policies (or lack thereof). Second, all of this calls for more research and a clear, comprehensive governance effort on the part of governments and serious scientists – not a ban of geoengineering that we cannot and will not adhere to. (See point number one.)

Saying that we ought not to tinker with the planet on a grand scale – by attempting to create an artificial sun shield, for example – won’t make it so. Humanity got into this mess thanks to what economists call the “free rider” effect. All seven billion of us are free riders on the planet, contributing to global warming in various ways but paying nothing toward the damage it causes. No wonder it’s so hard to pass a sensible cap or tax on carbon pollution. Who wants to pay for something that they’re used to doing for free – never mind that it comes at great cost to those around them?

It gets worse: Turns out the same economic forces pushing us to do too little on the pollution front are pushing us toward a quick, cheap fix – a plan B.

Enter the Strangelovian world of geoengineering – tinkering with the whole planet. It comes in two distinct flavors:

  • Sucking carbon out of the atmosphere;
  • Creating an artificial sun shield for the planet.

The first involves reversing some of the same processes that cause global warming in the first place. Instead of taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them, we would now take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it under ground. That sounds expensive, and it is. Estimates range from $40 to $200 and more per ton of carbon dioxide – trillions of dollars to solve the problem.

That brings us to the second scary flavor — which David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls “chemotherapy” for the planet. The direct price tag to create an artificial sun shield: pennies per ton of carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of intervention an island nation, or a billionaire greenfinger, could pay for.

You can see where economics enters the picture. The first form of geoengineering won’t happen unless we place a serious price on carbon pollution. The second may be too cheap to resist.

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, Harvard’s Martin Weitzman and I called the forces pushing us toward quick and dirty climate modification “free driving.” Crude attempts to, say, inject sulfur particles into the atmosphere to counter the carbon dioxide that’s already there would be so cheap it might as well be free. We are talking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than tackling the root cause of the problem.

Given the climate path we are on, it’s only a matter of time before this “free driver” effect takes hold. Imagine a country badly hit by adverse climate changes: India’s crops are wilting; China’s rivers are drying up. Millions of people are suffering. What government, under such circumstances, would not feel justified in taking drastic action, even in defiance of world opinion?

Once we reach that tipping point, there won’t be time to reverse warming by pursuing collective strategies to move the world onto a more sustainable growth path. Instead, speed will be of the essence, which will mean trying untested and largely hypothetical techniques like mimicking volcanoes and putting sulfur particles in the stratosphere to create an artificial shield from the sun.

That artificial sunscreen may well cool the earth. But what else might it do? Floods somewhere, droughts in other places, and a host of unknown and largely unknowable effects in between. That’s the scary prospect. And we’d be experimenting on a planetary scale, in warp speed.

That all leads to the second key point: we ought to do research in geoengineering, and do so guided by sensible governance principles adhered to be all. We cannot let research get ahead of public opinion and government oversight. The geoengineering governance initiative convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund is a necessary first step in the right direction.

Is there any hope in this doomsday scenario? Absolutely. Country after country is following the trend set by the European Union to institute a cap or price on carbon pollution. Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and also California are already – or will soon be – limiting their carbon pollution. India has a dollar-a-ton coal tax. China is experimenting with seven regional cap-and-trade systems.

None of these is sufficient by itself. But let’s hope this trend expands –fast – to include the really big emitters like the whole of China and the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, and others. Remember, the question is not if the “free driver” effect will kick in as the world warms. It’s when.

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Economists save the planet

Why are we so “gung-ho” about cap and trade? The term might be banned from Washington and much of our vocabulary at the moment, but it’s still far from a trick question.

Call them what you want, environmental markets are fundamentally the most scientifically sound, economically efficient, and often the only way forward.

No wonder countries the world over are adopting or planning to adopt them.

We are starting a new blog specifically focused on market forces and why re-guiding them is the only solution to many of our environmental problems.

Individual volunteerism won’t do. Blocking market forces won’t do. Subscribing to the new blog won’t make the world a better place all by itself either, but it probably doesn’t hurt.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Economics / Tagged | Comments are closed

Climate Change Hitting Home: Galveston and Houston Residents On Notice

This post is by Amy Hardberger, an attorney with EDF’s Texas Office’s Climate/Air and Water programs.

Hurricane Ike storm surge, by Flickr user eh3kHurricane Ike storm surge hits Jetty East, by Flickr user eh3k.

For some, it’s hard to care about global warming because its impacts on everyday life aren’t obvious. It’s too abstract. It’s not tangible. It’s too wonky. It’s just not real enough.

Well, what if you learned that global warming could literally push you out of your home? Is that real enough for you?

Texas cities Houston and Galveston just got a wake-up call – conservative estimates of sea level rise due to climate change will displace 78 percent of households over the next 100 years in Galveston County alone, according to a new study that EDF and the British Consulate-General commissioned from the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

And that’s the conservative estimate. In a business-as-usual scenario, Galveston-area sea levels could rise as much as 1.5 meters in the next 100 years, which could displace more than 100,000 households and create more than $12 billion in infrastructure losses for Houston and Galveston.  Rising sea levels will also damage at least 23 public facilities, industrial sites and water treatments plants, begging many questions about where to move or how to protect these sites. (See a related post on sea level rise.)

For cities like Galveston, which is still rebuilding from Hurricane Ike, these findings reinforce the notion that planning for how to adapt to climate changes or mitigate their effects is critical. Current discussions have centered around building a large, expensive and likely ineffective “Ike Dike” to protect the city from future storm surges, though there are likely more realistic adaptation measures that will make people safer quicker. Passing federal climate legislation and ramping up local municipal energy efficiency are surely the most effective ways to begin reducing the rate of sea level rise.

So, for all of you out there who don’t think global warming could happen to you, take a hard look at the harsh reality that these coastal communities face.

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