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As Climate Disasters Increase, So Do Government Subsidies for Fossil Fuels

August 27, 2023

Die Off of Emperor Penguin Chicks Shows Bleak Future for Iconic Birds

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) are the largest of the 18 penguin species that exist today. They have adapted to survive in Antarctic temperatures that can drop to -50 Celsius (-58 F) and winds over 120 miles per hour, but they need ice for their young to survive. Unfortunately, a new study shows that up to ten thousand chicks died last year because the ice beneath them melted before they were able to develop their water-proof feathers. It is likely they either drowned or froze.

Because seals stay close to holes, it is common for penguins to propel out of the water on their stomachs and "toboggan" away from the edge quickly.  |  Credit: Christopher Michel/Creative Commons

The British Antarctic Survey concluded that no chicks survived in four of the five colonies. Their findings support the prediction that, based upon global warming trends, 90 percent of the emperor penguin colonies will be quasi-extinct—meaning there are not enough to support a population—by the end of the century.

After their eggs hatch in the harsh Antarctic winter, the chicks remain on the ice until waterproof feathers replace their fluffy down. However, the BBC reports that if the ice is not extensive or breaks up fast, the birds do not have a stable platform for their young to develop. Last year, the sea ice was at a record low, and some areas of the Bellingshausen Sea had a 100 percent loss of ice. One of the researchers told the BBC that there is hope for the penguins—if we can cut our carbon emissions that cause warming.  
The study was published in Communications Earth & Environment.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies Increase Despite Wildfires, Heatwaves, and Floods

The need to curb greenhouse gases is urgent, as weather disasters like wildfires, heatwaves, and flooding are now becoming normal. Rather than retreating from their support for fossil fuels, governments around the world are adding fuel to the fire by increasing subsidies for them which rose last year by a record $7 trillion.

According to the International Monetary Fund, support for oil, coal, and natural gas rose to over seven percent of the world’s gross domestic product—almost twice the amount spent on education. The subsidies surged as governments reacted to the spike in energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. A significant portion of the subsidies reduced prices that consumers have to pay for fuels. The largest subsidies were from China, the U.S., Russia, the EU, and India. Among fossil fuels, coal was the most heavily subsidized—80 percent was sold at less than half its true cost.

The IMF report warns that not only are governments explicitly supporting greenhouse gas emissions by price reductions for consumers, they are also implicitly subsidizing them by failing to account for the costs of damage from global warming and air pollution. The organization said that to keep the world on track to restrict global warming to below 2C, subsidies must end. Doing so would also prevent 1.6 million deaths each year while increasing government revenues by trillions of dollars. The IMF noted that it is difficult politically to get rid of subsidies, but if done carefully and with support for poorer households, it could be accomplished.

A separate study out last week, published in the journal Science, shows that if the world’s public companies had to pay for damages from climate change pollution, it would take away about 44 percent of their profits. The research looked at 15,000 corporations, and according to one of the study’s authors, “corporate carbon damages” are likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars for U.S. firms and trillions globally, although the Associated Press notes those figures were not in the study.

Panama Canal’s Future Uncertain as Drought Threatens Shipping

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it was considered a feat of human engineering. A series of locks along a 50-mile-wide isthmus allowed ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Now, as the planet heats up, the canal's future is uncertain. The locks rely on fresh water from lakes—about 50 million gallons per ship—to raise or lower the vessels as they move through the system.

Centennial Bridge, the second bridge over the Panama Canal  |  Credit: Panama Canal Authority

Unfortunately, this year’s rainy season has failed to deliver, and drought conditions have caused lake levels to drop. That’s forced authorities to restrict how many ships can pass through the locks and to require vessels to lighten their loads to sit less deeply in the water. Making matters worse, the El Niño phenomenon has arrived and could exacerbate the dry, hot conditions into next year. Currently, there are around 200 ships waiting on either end of the canal to enter, according to Business Insider, and given the passageway typically handles 40 percent of all U.S. container traffic, there are growing concerns about supply chain disruptions.

Adding to transport woes, dry conditions are lowering water levels along the Mississippi River region, which could slow barge traffic just as harvest season gets under way.

Ironically, cargo ships run on heavy bunker fuels that contribute to the climate crisis—and the extreme conditions plaguing vessels. The industry has promised to achieve net zero targets around 2050, but CO2 emissions from global shipping rose last year, following a dip in 2020.

Coffee Grounds Add a Jolt to Concrete

Next time you’re at a coffee shop, no matter what you order, your cup of joe could be a “double shot”—both helping to combat the climate crisis and to protect the environment.

Samples of unroasted coffee beans, roasted coffee beans, spent ground coffee, and the team’s coffee biochar.  |  Credit: Carelle Mulawa-Richards, RMIT University

That’s because researchers have found a way to take used grounds to make concrete, reducing the amount of coffee waste that would otherwise go to landfills and release methane, a climate warming gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Better still—by substituting coffee for the sand typically used to make concrete—less of that finite resource will be harvested from rivers, thereby preventing the environmental degradation mining causes to those ecosystems.

Scientists from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia developed their technique by roasting spent coffee grounds into a charcoal-like substance called biochar, using a low-energy process without oxygen at 350 degrees Celsius. They say the end product worked as well as sand and made concrete 30 percent stronger. Given that 60 million tons worldwide of Spent Coffee Ground (SGC) are generated annually and 50 billion tons of natural sand are used in construction projects globally every year, your morning jolt could soon also give a boost to making concrete more sustainable.

The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.