The world should reduce its appetite for electricity to stop a climate disaster

The world needs more electricity. That will mean severe climate damage unless something changes soon, CNN reports.

A report published Friday by the International Energy Agency found that global demand for electricity surged 6% in 2021, fueled by a colder winter and the dramatic economic rebound from the pandemic. That drove both prices and carbon emissions to new records.

The growth in demand was particularly intense in China, where it jumped by about 10%.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the report contained a stark warning for the future. 

Electricity has a crucial role to play in the fight against climate change as countries ditch fossil fuels and more battery-powered cars hit the road. But so far, renewable sources of electricity — as opposed to power stations that burn coal or natural gas — haven’t kept up.

Electricity generated by renewables grew by 6% globally last year, while coal-fired generation leaped 9% due to high demand and skyrocketing natural gas prices, which made it look like a more attractive option.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power generation rose 7% as a result, reaching an all-time high after declining the previous two years.

“Not only does this highlight how far off track we currently are from a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050, but it also underscores the massive changes needed for the electricity sector to fulfill its critical role in decarbonizing the broader energy system,” Birol said in a statement.

In the United States, coal-fired electricity generation spiked by 19% in 2021. The increase is likely to be temporary, though, with output from coal expected to decline by about 6% a year between 2022 and 2024, according to the IEA.

There’s some good news: Rapid expansion of renewable energy capacity should be enough to cover the vast majority of the growth in global electricity demand through 2024. 

Still, emissions will remain high. The IEA found that emissions from the power sector will “remain around the same level from 2021 to 2024,” even though they need to decline “sharply” for the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change.

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Nuclear energy scares people. The climate crisis is giving it another chance

Growing up in Finland, Iida Ruishalme had a deep affinity for nature — particularly the forest, where she loved to go trekking with her dogs. Now, she’s worried that her daughters won’t experience such idyllic days as the climate crisis accelerates. So last month, she boarded a night train from Switzerland to join protests in the German capital Berlin.

Ruishalme agrees the world needs more wind farms and solar panels. But what she and her fellow demonstrators really want is a commitment to something else: nuclear energy, CNN reports.

“We have to give this technology a chance,” the Mothers for Nuclear member said, joining dozens of others who stood with signs outside the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate.

Nuclear power is one of the most reliable low-carbon sources of energy available, but memories of accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island still loom large, fueling skepticism and fear and deterring investors from funding new projects. 

Nuclear plants are also notoriously expensive to build. Construction tends to run over budget and time, and wind and solar energy has typically come out cheaper. How to safely store the radioactive waste it produces is another headache.

Germany began winding down its nuclear industry following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown of three reactors in one of the worst nuclear incidents of all time. All six reactors still operating in Germany should be shut by the end of next year.

Demonstrators in support of nuclear power outside Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on Saturday, November 13.
Demonstrators in support of nuclear power outside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Saturday, November 13.

Yet the scale of the climate crisis is encouraging other governments and investors to give the nuclear industry another look.

Whether the world invests heavily into nuclear will depend on what people have the stomach for. Ruishalme, for one, hopes they’ll put their anxieties aside.

“Our gut feelings don’t produce ready-made solutions,” she said, adding that she too once considered it “too risky,” but changed her mind after researching the pros and cons.

Europe’s big decision

Nuclear energy currently accounts for about 10% of the world’s electricity production. In some countries, the share is even larger. The United States and the United Kingdom generate roughly 20% of their electricity from nuclear energy. In France, it’s 70%, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The world is now at a nuclear crossroads: It could scale up nuclear as a sturdy energy source to keep emissions down, or throw all its money behind renewables, which are quicker to build and more profitable — but sometimes patchy.

Advocates emphasize that nuclear power flows even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. 

“We need renewables to be complemented by a reliable, 24/7 energy source,” said James Hansen, a climate scientist at Columbia University who also took part in the Berlin demonstration.

The UK government agrees. It supports the construction of the country’s first nuclear power station in more than two decades in southwestern England. US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, meanwhile, includes $6 billion in grants to keep older plants running. And President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that France would begin building new plants for the first time in nearly 20 years.

That puts France and Germany at odds with each other ahead of a crucial decision by the European Union on whether to classify nuclear as “green” or “transitional” on a controversial list of sustainable energy sources set to be unveiled Wednesday. The outcome could unleash a wave of fresh funding, or leave nuclear on the outside.

The Grohnde nuclear power station in Lower Saxony, Germany. It will be decommissioned later this month.
The Grohnde nuclear power station in Lower Saxony, Germany. It will be decommissioned later this month.

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans recently indicated that both nuclear and natural gas — which is made up mostly of the greenhouse gas methane — could qualify for green financing.

“I think we need to find a way of recognizing that these two energy sources play a role in the energy transition,” he said at an event hosted by Politico. “That does not make them green, but it does acknowledge the fact that nuclear being zero emissions are very important to reduce emissions, and that natural gas will be very important in transiting away from coal into renewable energy.”

While nuclear power produces zero emissions when generated, the uranium required to make it needs to be mined, and that process emits greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, an analysis by the European Commission concluded that emissions from nuclear are around the same as wind energy and less than solar when the full cycle of production is taken into account.

Hansen, a longtime advocate for nuclear power, said it’s crucial in global efforts to decarbonize, and that Germany shouldn’t use its political clout to stand in the way of fresh investment.

“The consequence of treating it as not sustainable is we’re not going to have a pathway to limit climate change to the level that young people are now demanding,” he said. “It’s really important that Germany not be able to impose this policy on the rest of Europe and on the world.” 

But German politicians and experts argue that high costs and the time it takes to build new plants — no fewer than five years, and often much longer — mean money would be better spent elsewhere. 

The latest UN-backed climate science shows the world should nearly halve emissions over this decade to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a vital cap to avoid worsening climate impacts. The world must also shoot for net-zero by mid-century. That means emissions must be reduced as much as possible, and the rest captured or offset. 

Current pledges, including those made at the recent COP26 climate summit in Scotland, only get the world around one-quarter of the way there, according to Climate Action Tracker.

The International Energy Agency says that nuclear power generation should more than double between 2020 and 2050 in the pursuit of net-zero. Its share in the electricity mix will drop, but that’s because demand for power will soar as the world electrifies as many machines as possible, including cars and other vehicles.

Yet Ben Wealer, who researches nuclear power economics at the Technical University of Berlin, argues that the world can’t wait for new nuclear plants, especially since the next eight years are so crucial to decarbonizing. 

“Looking at the time frames, it cannot be a huge help in combating climate change,” he said. “It blocks the cash we need for renewables.

“Even if the world did have more time, delays are a problem. The Hinkley Point C plant in the United Kingdom, for example, is now to be completed in mid-2026, six months later than planned, and its costs are rising. The latest price tag was as much as £23 billion ($30 billion), about £5 billion ($6.6 billion) more than when the project was launched in 2016. 

German officials also argue that the lack of a global plan for storing toxic waste should disqualify nuclear as a “sustainable” energy source.

Christoph Hamann, an official at Germany’s federal office for nuclear waste management, emphasized that government efforts to construct sites below ground where waste can be stored indefinitely remain a work-in-progress.

“We’re talking about a very toxic, high radioactive waste, which is producing problems for the next tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years. And we’re directing this problem, when using nuclear power, to future generations,” Hamann said.

Wave of funding

It’s not just Europe that’s mulling more nuclear. The most energetic push is in China, where there are 18 reactors under construction as the world’s biggest emitter tries to pivot away from coal. That’s more than 30% of the reactors being built globally, according to the World Nuclear Association.

And the debate is becoming more complex as new nuclear technologies are developed and show signs they could generate better financial returns.

The US government has backed TerraPower, the startup chaired by Bill Gates. The company, which wants to stand up a next-generation nuclear project at a former coal hub in Wyoming, utilizes molten salt to transfer heat from the reactor and use it to generate electricity, which it claims will simplify construction and allow it to adjust output to meet changing demand.

Meanwhile, Britain is supporting a push by engineering firm Rolls-Royce to build smaller nuclear reactors, which have lower upfront costs. That pitch could help draw in private investors.

Iida Ruishalme, the European director of Mothers for Nuclear, traveled to Berlin to show her support of nuclear power.
Iida Ruishalme, the European director of Mothers for Nuclear, traveled to Berlin to show her support of nuclear power.

“It’s very, very difficult for any country to achieve net-zero ambitions without nuclear,” said Tom Samson, the CEO of the new Rolls-Royce venture.

The parts of a Rolls-Royce reactor are designed so almost all of it can be built and assembled in a factory. That limits the amount of time that’s required to piece its components together on an expensive construction site. Initially, production is estimated at £2.2 billion ($2.9 billion) per unit.

“If you look back in history, you can find lots of examples of big nuclear projects that have struggled,” Samson said. “We’ve designed ours to be different.”

About £210 million ($278 million) in funding from the UK government will allow the company to begin applying for regulatory approvals. It hopes to set up three factories in Britain and start churning out about two units per year, which would power 2 million homes. The first unit is expected to go into service in the United Kingdom in 2031. 

For comparison, the Hinkley power station is expected to provide electricity for 6 million homes.

Samson also emphasizes that smaller reactors produce little waste. The spent fuel from a small modular reactor operating for 60 years would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, he said.

Fission or fusion?

According to data from PitchBook, nuclear energy startups raised $676 million in venture capital funding globally in the first nine months of 2021. That’s more than the total amount raised over the past five years combined. 

That figure includes funding for startups that explore nuclear fusion, which has been attracting more attention. The nuclear power generators currently operating use fission technology, which involves splitting the nucleus of an atom. Fusion is the process of combining two nuclei to create energy — often referred to as the energy of the sun or the stars.

Scientists are still working out how to successfully manage a fusion reaction and turn it into a commercially viable project. But investors are increasingly excited about its potential since it doesn’t produce lingering radioactive waste and comes with no risk of a Fukushima-style meltdown, nor does it rely on uranium.

Helion, a US-based fusion startup, announced last month that it had raised $500 million in a round led by Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator.

As the world weighs which way to turn on nuclear, it could be years until it’s clear which was the right road to take. A look at Germany and France in 10 or 20 years from now may provide the answer.

Ultimately, arguments around emissions, reliability and economics may be cast aside. The real future of nuclear could come down to public opinion.

“If there is a nuclear accident, a new major one, that could kill the entire industry,” said Henning Gloystein, director of energy, climate and resources at Eurasia Group.

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Christmas typhoon at Philipines left thousands of families homeless and hungry

Usually, Jay Lacia wakes at midnight on Christmas Day to start the festivities – but this year, all he wished for was enough food to eat. “We always celebrated Christmas, but for now, it’s too hard,” the 27-year-old father of one said, as he sat among rubble in the typhoon-hit city of Surigao, at the northeastern tip of Mindanao in the Philippines, CNN reports.

Broken wood, scraps of metal, and plastic waste line the shore, where an exhausted stray dog sleeps. The stench of waste and dead fish engulf the air.

More than a week after Super Typhoon Rai – known locally as Odette – slammed into the Philippines, Lacia has given up trying to salvage whatever is left of his home. Not a single house stands anymore in his village on nearby Dinagat Island. 

“Everything was gone, including my house,” Lacia said. “The roof, and any wood that we built with, was gone.” 

Jay Lacia sits among crumbled homes, fallen trees and broken power cables. He lost everything when Super Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines on December 16.
Jay Lacia sits among crumbled homes, fallen trees and broken power cables. He lost everything when Super Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines on December 16. 

Nobody expected the wrath Rai would unleash when it struck the archipelago on December 16. It was the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, killing nearly 400 people, while displacing hundreds of thousands more. 

The Philippines experiences several typhoons a year, but the climate crisis has caused storms to become more unpredictable and extreme – while leaving the nation’s poorest most vulnerable.

Families like Lacia’s lost everything. And now, they face the nearly impossible task of rebuilding their homes without enough food to eat or water to drink. 

“We thought we were safe because we tied up our house. We thought that was enough to keep it from collapsing,” he said. “We put a weight on our roof to keep it from being blown away. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.” 

Homeless at Christmas 

Nearly 4 million people across more than 400 cities were affected by Typhoon Rai, according to the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

More than half a million remained displaced during Christmas – one of the most important holidays in the Catholic-majority nation. 

“Families have nothing,” Jerome Balinton, humanitarian manager for Save the Children said. “Bright lights and Christmas music is replaced with dirty, humid evacuation centers. Their only wish this Christmas is to survive.” 

Jovelyn Paloma Sayson, 35, from Surigao City evacuated to her community’s parish church before Rai struck. Her fragile hut made from wood, plastic and metal, did not withstand the storm’s powerful gusts of wind. 

“The roofs of every house were flying everywhere,” the mother of seven said as she sat amid the ruins of her home. “Our house was the first one to collapse. First, the roof flew off. Then the foundation crumbled. After my house was destroyed, my mother’s house collapsed.” 

All of the family’s food was destroyed by floods. Their stock of rice — a staple for the Southeast Asian country — was floating in muddy water next to broken pieces of wood. Sayson’s children’s clothes are ruined from the rain, and her furniture reduced to fragments. 

Sayson’s kitchen appliances were stolen in the aftermath. She cannot afford to rebuild from scratch, she said.

“We need money to rebuild our house,” she said. “We are not dreaming of having a mansion. All we want is to have our own house to live in so that our children are safe.” 

Despite the trauma, her family still gathered to celebrate the holiday. 

“We had nothing to eat,” Sayson said. “Someone gave us sliced bread and canned goods. Even though we are poor, we have a party every Christmas.” 

Residents salvage what's left of their damaged homes following Typhoon Rai in Cebu, central Philippines on December 17, 2021.
Residents salvage what’s left of their damaged homes following Typhoon Rai in Cebu, central Philippines on December 17, 2021.

Prolonged displacement and suffering

More than 1,000 temporary shelters have been set up to house those whose homes have crumbled, according to the NDRRMC. 

For many of the displaced families, the trauma and suffering are unbearable. 

Alvin Dumduma, Philippines project manager for aid group Humanity and Inclusion, said it’s “exhausting” for families to try and rebuild their homes “while starving and thirsty.” 

Cramped inside unsanitary evacuation centers with no running water, he is concerned about the potential spread of diseases, including Covid-19. 

“The conditions in the evacuation centers are far from ideal. It’s unhygienic. Thousands are sleeping under one roof with no clean water,” he added. “Children aren’t going to school. There is no electricity either. They will be stuck like this for a long time.” 

Dumduma said the disaster has also devastated these families’ livelihoods.

Toppled electrical posts line a street in Cebu, central Philippines, after Typhoon Rai on December 17, 2021.
Toppled electrical posts line a street in Cebu, central Philippines, after Typhoon Rai on December 17, 2021.

“Many are from fishing or farming communities whose boats and land have been destroyed,” he said. “They will struggle a lot to build back their business.” 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the government will raise money for the rehabilitation and recovery of typhoon-ravaged areas. The United Nations has also promised more than $100 million in aid. 

But Dumduma said much more needs to change at the government level to avoid such devastation from future storms. 

“Chaos unfolded because the government was not prepared. They must strengthen their disaster and response program,” he said. “We need more training, more preparation and early action.” 

CNN has reached out to the NDRRMC for comment but did not hear back before publication.

Motorists speed past fallen coconut trees at the height of Super Typhoon Rai along a highway in Del Carmen town, Siargao island on December 20, 2021.
Motorists speed past fallen coconut trees at the height of Super Typhoon Rai along a highway in Del Carmen town, Siargao island on December 20, 2021.

Effects of the climate crisis

Located along the typhoon belt in the western Pacific Ocean, the Philippines regularly experiences big storms — but the climate crisis has caused these events to become more extreme and unpredictable.

As the climate crisis worsens, cyclones are becoming more intense and destructive. Rai evolved rapidly from the equivalent of a Category 1 to a Category 5 storm in just 24 hours, packing winds of up to 260 kilometers (160 miles) per hour. 

And the country was not prepared for a disaster of this scale. 

Kairos Dela Cruz, deputy head of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said developing countries are reaching their limit of being able to handle natural disasters on their own and those that live in low-lying, coastal areas will soon lose their homes to rising sea levels. 

A study published in November by researchers at the Shenzhen Institute of Meteorological Innovation and the Chinese University of Hong Kong found typhoons in Asia could have double their destructive power by the end of the century. They already last between two and nine hours longer and travel an average of 100 kilometers (62 miles) further inland than they did four decades ago.

Rescuers help residents over floodwaters caused by Typhoon Rai as they are evacuated to higher ground in Cagayan de Oro City, southern Philippines on December 16, 2021.
Rescuers help residents over floodwaters caused by Typhoon Rai as they are evacuated to higher ground in Cagayan de Oro City, southern Philippines on December 16, 2021. 

The climate crisis also exposes systemic problems in the Philippines, Dela Cruz said.

“We need more resources to help us and (we should) play a stronger role internationally to push for more climate finance,” he said. 

According to Dela Cruz, a storm of Rai’s scale in December is unusual for the Philippines, which usually experiences typhoons from June to September. 

For Alita Sapid, 64, the effects of the climate crisis are clearly visible. 

“We have had typhoons before, but this was extremely strong,” she said of Rai. Sapid stayed at home in Surigao with her husband, daughter, and four grandchildren when the typhoon hit, but as the water seeped in, they decided it was time to evacuate.

Alita Sapid's roof blew off her family's home during Typhoon Rai.
Alita Sapid’s roof blew off her family’s home during Typhoon Rai. 

“I told my husband to get out of here because we might die here,” she said. “My grandchildren had to crawl on the roads because the wind was so strong.”

The roof of Sapid’s home is completely destroyed. With nowhere to go and no money for now, the family has no choice but to sleep in their exposed home – whatever is left of it. 

“Aside from thinking about what we were going to prioritize in the repair, we are also thinking about how we can get our food,” she said. 

“We have not received any help yet. We are just waiting for someone to help us.” 

A long road to recovery

Lacia, from Dinagat Island, will relocate with his wife and child to Surigao. It is safer there, he said.

“My neighbors are no longer (in Dinagat). Most of them have left because there is nothing left in our neighborhood,” he said. 

All he has left to his name are some matchsticks, a box of rice, dried fish, and canned goods. 

“In my family, we really need help so we can rise again and return to our livelihood,” Lacia said. 

“Odette really was a Super Typhoon,” he said. “We lost our home, damaged by the force of the wind brought by the storm. We did everything, but it still was not enough.” 

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The flood barriers that might save Venice

The first thing it resembles – this private, manmade island, straddling the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon – is a Bond villain’s lair. The second – as you dock at the private pontoon, walk past the Brutalist concrete façade, and into a “control room” where staff watch monitors tracking the waters around the island 24/7 – is something out of “Squid Game”, CNN reports.

In fact, as sinister as it sounds, this 144,000 square meter (35.6 acres) island which keeps a silent tab on Venice around the clock isn’t a malign force – it’s there to protect one of the world’s most fragile cities. 

The nameless island – situated between the peninsula of Cavallino-Treporti (which curls out from the Italian mainland, putting a protective arm around the Venetian lagoon) and the Lido island, a giant sandbar that blocks off most of the historical center of Venice from the Adriatic Sea – is the beating heart of the MOSE: the system of flood barriers that have, after 1,200 years, allowed the floating city to stand up to rising sea levels. 

It has taken its time. The MOSE – Italian for Moses, and short for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or Experimental Electromechanical Model – has been in the works since 1984. But it took nearly four decades to build, being beset by delays and corruption to such an extent – a former mayor went on trial for embezzling money from the project – that many Venetians believed it would never work.

Their fears were proved groundless on October 3, 2020, however, when, as regularly happens in winter, Venice was hit by an exceptionally high tide.

A tide that was 135 centimeters (53 inches) above normal levels hit Venice. Usually, that would have put around half the city underwater, but this time, the city remained dry. It was the first time the MOSE had been raised in adverse weather conditions. It was, as one Venetian told at the time, “historic… like the first step of Armstrong on the moon.” 

Fourteen months later, the MOSE has been raised 33 times: 13 in 2020, and 20 so far in 2021. (The flooding period typically runs from October to March.) The naysayers appear to have been proven wrong – not once has it failed to protect the city when raised.

The yellowfins poking ever so slightly out of the sea tend to look fragile against the raging Adriatic, in footage taken when they’re raised – normally during storms whipped up by rough sirocco winds, which blast the city from the south. 

But get up close, and you realize appearances can be deceptive. Each of these enormous barriers is 20-30 meters (66-98 feet) long, and 20 meters wide. They are embedded in the seabed in concrete chests, 40 meters wide, 60 meters long, and 10 meters high. 

Oh, and there are 78 of them, spread in four lines, at the three entry points to the Venetian lagoon.

As a piece of infrastructure, the MOSE is a behemoth.

And yet, when the barriers are not in use, you don’t see a thing. Unlike flood barriers in northern Europe – and at a much greater expense – the MOSE was designed to be invisible when the barriers are not needed. 

A Bond-style island in no man’s land

The barriers at the Treporti inlet are split in two by an artificial island HQ.

The hub of the project is the specially constructed island floating in the middle of the northernmost entry point to the lagoon.

Overlooking the bucolic island of Sant’Erasmo, with the snow-tufted Dolomites on the horizon, it’s a “no man’s land between the sea and lagoon” where the lagoon and Adriatic waters converge, according to engineer and site director Alessandro Soru.

The “bocca di Treporti,” or Treporti inlet (“bocca” is Italian for mouth) is an almost mile-wide channel between Punta Sabbioni (the tip of Cavallino-Treporti) and the northernmost point of the Lido island. 

There are two more entry points to the lagoon: at Malamocco, on the southern tip of the Lido, and another one at Chioggia, a fishing town at the southernmost point of the lagoon.

Treporti is by far the widest channel, though, and the level of the seabed varies from between 20 to 40 feet here. So, rather than create a massive barrier of varying height, the island has been created to divide the inlet into two. It also provides a space for the headquarters of the MOSE, which might otherwise disturb tourists in the campsites and beaches of Punta Sabbioni. 

‘Proper James Bond’

The control room monitors the lagoon from the safety of the artificial island.

Inside, a wall of monitors in the control room streams live CCTV footage of boats passing through the three channels. It also feeds in information on weather and tide levels and monitors the barriers when they are raised.

One screen monitors the level of the lagoon and the sea levels: blue for the former, red for the latter. 

On normal days, both blue and red lines rise and fall together like a heartbeat monitor – spiking at high tide, then hitting a trough at low.

On a recent date, however – December 8, 2021 – the lines spectacularly diverged.

The red line, denoting the Adriatic tide level, spiked high at 130 centimeters (51 inches) above the average, while the blue lagoon line followed it for a while, then plunged, then leveled out far below the red line, before eventually descending together. 

On that date, at 8.58 p.m., the MOSE was raised as the tide hit 80 centimeters. That quick plunge? Physics – more specifically, the fluid dynamics of Bernoulli’s principle, meaning the lagoon level took a quick dip to 50 centimeters, before stabilizing at 80 centimeters for the next 12 hours. The MOSE was lowered at 8.44 a.m. the following day, when the two lines converged again. 

In good weather, there are a couple of people here on day shift, as well as a team of four in the tunnel, 62 feet below, where half-mile tunnels in the concrete cases below the fins connect the island to the Lido and Punta Sabbioni, and the underwater humidity can be felt in your bones. 

The underwater tunnel follows the barrier from Punta Sabbioni to the Lido.

Warrens of pipes carrying the air to fill the barriers run underfoot in the tunnel, while chambers leading off from the side house the valves connecting the fins to the concrete bunkers. Each can be sealed off from the main corridor with the flick of a button, and it can operate even if, in a disaster, water gets in. Soru points to a porthole in the corner of the room: “That’s so you can get in via a sub, if it’s flooded – proper James Bond,” he says. 

But when tides are high, this is the 24/7 hub of the whole operation, with a 100-strong team operating in the control room, in the underwater tunnels, and in the lagoon, as boats zip around to bring workers to the island – since there’s no public transport. There’s even accommodation so workers can sleep here between shifts. 

How the MOSE works

In normal weather, the yellow fin sits flush in its concrete case on the seabed.
In normal weather, the yellowfin sits flush in its concrete case on the seabed.

After decades of initial controversy, the building of the MOSE began in 2009, with the last “fin” installed in June 2019, on the Lido side of the Treporti island.

The Venice lagoon is notoriously shallow – the average depth is just 1 meter (3.3 feet). But the inlets from the Adriatic are much deeper – Malamocco, the entrance to the industrial port is 14 meters (46 feet) deep, for example. Although they didn’t alter the depth of the inlets, engineers excavated the seabed along all three to make room for the concrete “cases,” which fit flush along the seabed.

The 14,000-ton cases were cast in concrete on the mainland, then floated into position and sunk beneath the water, while the debris removed from the seabed was used to build the island at Treporti – the “works citadel,” as Soru calls it. 

Inside the concrete chests sit the metal floodgates, treated every three months with an anti-corrosive – non-toxic, because of the lagoon ecosystem. Each of the 78 barriers is a uniform 20 meters (65 feet) wide, and varies from 20-30 meters in length, depending on the depth of the water. 

They can resist waves of up to 3 meters above normal tide levels – significantly more even than the record 194 centimeters (76 inches) tide that devastated the city in 1966.

venice flood barrier 20
Air is pumped into the fin, which raises it above the water. To lower it, the air is replaced with water.

How they work is down to a surprisingly simple hydraulics method. Lying dormant on the seabed, the hollow barriers are filled with water to weigh them down. 

To raise them, air is pumped into the fins, as the water drains out. They float upwards until they emerge above the water – at which point they form a barrier with the Adriatic surging against them one side, the lagoon relatively calm – and low – on the other.

When the tide subsides, water is pumped back into the fins and air expelled, causing them to sink down again and settle in their cases. It takes just 32 minutes to raise them, and about half that to lower them – that’s down from 91 minutes last year, according to Elisabetta Spitz, the “extraordinary commissioner” responsible for the project, who reports to the Italian government.

An underwater tunnel to maintain the fins sits 140 steps below the water.
An underwater tunnel to maintain the fins sits 140 steps below the water.

The process sounds simple, but has been honed to a precise degree. Between each barrier is an almost 3-inch gap, to release some of the intense pressure on the fins as they withstand the Adriatic. For the same reason, they’re raised four or five at a time, instead of all at once. They can work independently, too – so engineers can choose to raise just some of the barriers, to slow down the flow of water into the lagoon, or lower them temporarily at Malamocco to let an industrial ship go through to Venice’s port – Italy’s second busiest, and the fifth in the Mediterranean.

That also means, says Soru, that if, as people fear, one barrier ever fails to raise, it won’t stop the MOSE working as a whole. Not that that’s happened in the year that it’s been protecting the city. 

Finger on the button

The floods of November 2019 caused over $1 billion damage.
The floods of November 2019 caused over $1 billion damage.

Deciding to raise the barriers is a complicated process. Two establishments study the weather predictions: the Centro Maree di Venezia, which monitors tide levels for the city, and the Sala Operativa Consorzio Venezia Nuova, which is responsible for the MOSE. Both use different modeling and compare their forecasts. 

Spitz calls the process a “series of warnings, from 48 hours before the tide until three hours before.” 

It’s not just the MOSE operatives who receive it. “It informs everyone who operates in the lagoon to get going, because everyone has to do something – from the guy driving the trash-collecting boat who needs to change course, to ships needing to go in and out,” she explains.

Fifteen minutes before that three-hour warning, Spitz and a government representative get an email, “summarizing everything that’s happened in the preceding hours and asking for confirmation to proceed.

“For example, if there’s a ship running late because it’s been caught in bad weather, we can decide to leave a part of the barrier open to let it in. 

“We intervene only if there are exceptional events that mean we need to deviate from the procedure. If not the procedure goes ahead without intervention.”

It’s not just sea level and wind speed that they need to take into account — rainfall raises the water level around the city, as do swollen rivers disgorging into the lagoon. “Even if a tide of 95cm is predicted, we don’t know if the barriers will go up,” says Soru. 

Last year, on December 8, Venice was hit by a 138cm flood, causing extensive damage to the city, just weeks after the MOSE had shown it never need to happen again. The reason? Only 125cm had been predicted, but wind, rain and river water rocketed the sea level up. 

The 2019 floods devastated local businesses including hotels.
The 2019 floods devastated local businesses including hotels.

“I take responsibility for it,” says Spitz. “It was one of the first raisings, we had a procedure that was a bit more complicated and as acqua alta [flooding] wasn’t predicted, we took the decision to not mobilize it.

“But it was one of the first tries, and we understood the process needed to be made more automatic, so we updated the procedure. It was our fault. But today it wouldn’t happen.”

“It was disastrous, but we learn from experience – now we raise the barriers a few centimeters earlier,” says Soru.

When the MOSE is fully operational in 2023, the barriers will be raised when the water level hits 110cm (43in) above the regular level. That won’t help the lowest areas of the city, such as St. Mark’s Square which floods at around 90cm; but it will protect around 86% of Venice, including most residential areas. 

In fact, says Soru, the barriers will be raised when it looks like the tide will hit 100cm, to account for wind and rain raising the water levels. 

For now, though, with the barriers in a final stage of tests, they’re raised when the tide is predicted to hit 130cm. 

The criticism

The barriers raised for the first time in bad weather on October 3, 2020.
The barriers were raised for the first time in bad weather on October 3, 2020.

Of course, projects of this size are rarely without their detractors. One of the main criticisms leveled at the MOSE is that the barriers interfere with the lagoon ecosystem, turning it into a pond rather than a living lagoon.

But, says Spitz, when the barriers were up for 48 hours last year, that was as a trial, to test their resistance. In the future, even in periods when the barriers are up daily, it will only be for a few hours at a time. They have also installed locks at Chioggia and Malamocco to enable some fishing vessels and industrial ships to pass while the barriers are up. 

“When it goes up, it’s three, four hours maximum,” she says. “And then it’s not a given that you have to raise all the barriers. There are many possibilities and much flexibility. We’re trialing all of them to target choices better to the needs that will gradually show up. Every time we do a raise, we prepare dozens of tests to get the answers we need, understand the function and make it better.”

And while St. Mark’s Square floods at a level well below that at which the MOSE kicks in, another project – though delayed – is due to construct a glass barrier around the famous Byzantine basilica. Protection for the businesses in the square, however – like historic café Quadri – is a long way off. Its manager, Roberto Pepe, previously told that the MOSE’s cut-off point of 110 centimeters “changes nothing and leaves a sour taste” for those whose livelihoods rely on the piazza.

Spitz insists that she didn’t choose the cut-off points – a committee of local and national governance did. Access to the port was also taken into consideration.

When raised, the barriers cut off the three main entry points to the lagoon.
When raised, the barriers cut off the three main entry points to the lagoon.

“We need to save Venice, Chioggia, the islands – Murano, Burano, and lots of small islands are even worse off in front of high tides,” she says.

“But above all we need to find a point of mediation between economic needs – of those who operate in the lagoon – and the need to protect. That’s the big question we’ll need to take forward down the line.”

Another criticism of MOSE? The exorbitant overheads. The MOSE cost around $8 billion to build, and accounts from its first year suggest that it costs $328,000 to raise it every time – nearly double the original estimates.

The fins must be treated with anti-corrosive every three months, and their containers must be dredged twice per season, after a buildup of sand inside them meant that six fins could not be lowered during 2020 trials. The containers will need a thorough clean every five years.

Coping with climate change

Tourists typically navigate Venice flooding on raised walkways.
Tourists typically navigate Venice flooding on raised walkways.

The big question, of course, is how the MOSE can hold up to climate change. 

After the flood of December 2020, Claudio Vernier, president of the Associazione Piazza San Marco, which represents business owners in St. Mark’s Square, told that when the MOSE was initially planned, it was estimated that it would hit 110 centimeters only a couple of times a year.

“Now with the worsening climate crisis, the water level is always higher, and we see that kind of tide level 20 times a year – what will happen in 30 years?”, he asked.

Spitz and Soru, however, insist that the barriers will last longer than that.

“A study on corrosion we did a few months ago said that it can last for 100 years, but must be maintained every three months,” says Soru.

“If in 100 years the barriers aren’t enough, and we can’t hold off 3-meter tides, I can tell you the problem won’t be Venice,” adds Spitz.

“The lagoon is closed now. The protection is more than sufficient, the barriers are what they are. But you would need to think about protecting other areas – the problem would be much more in the Po delta [which covers much of northern Italy]. 

“If climate change is dramatic, there will be serious problems elsewhere. You’d need to look elsewhere, not at Venice.”

In the meantime, plans have been mooted to partially power the MOSE through solar panels. Installing them at Malamocco could provide 20% of power – but Spitz hopes to make the project carbon neutral within three years, to stand it in good stead for the future. 

Spitz arrived in 2019, well after the corruption trials of the MOSE. “I know there were scandals, I’ve read about them, and it’s right that they’re stigmatized and the people who did it were punished,” she says.

“But despite everything that happened with the MOSE, I say, long live the MOSE. Because it protects Venice.”

If she’s right, the devastating flood of November 2019 – which killed two and caused $1 billion damage to local businesses which have yet to recover, might be a thing of the past. And La Serenissima can rest a little more, well, serene. 

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A rush to mine lithium in Nevada is pitting climate advocates and environmental groups against each other

In an ancient and now extinct supervolcano sitting in northern Nevada lies a treasure that its seekers call “white gold”, CNN reports.

This metal isn’t to trade or to make jewelry out of – it’s lithium, and its value lies in its role in potentially slashing the world’s carbon emissions.

President Joe Biden’s plan to transform the US to clean, low-carbon economy energy depends on switching to electric vehicles, and that means replacing gas with batteries, which are made from critical minerals like lithium. 

But in the US, doing so is not without controversy. 

Lithium is a key ingredient for the big, rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and store energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines — keeping that energy in use even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. 

Obtaining these minerals, which some call the new “white gold,” is part of the latest worldwide rush to produce clean energy. Earlier this year, the Biden administration released a strategic plan from several federal agencies detailing how it planned to improve the entire supply chain for critical minerals like lithium — from extracting it from US mines to putting it in batteries, to recycling and reusing these batteries. 

“America has a clear opportunity to build back our domestic supply chain and manufacturing sectors, so we can capture the full benefits of an emerging $23 trillion global clean energy economy,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in June. 

In the US, the major lithium prospect is a large deposit in Thacker Pass, Nevada, and another lithium deposit sits in North Carolina. The Thacker Pass lithium deposit is one of the world’s largest, sitting in an ancient, and now-extinct, supervolcano. 

A proposal to start mining lithium by Lithium Nevada Corporation – a subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp. – was approved by the US Bureau of Land Management in January. 

“It’s the largest-known lithium deposit in North America, so given where we’re going globally and as a country, it’s a unique opportunity,” Jonathan Evans, president and CEO at Lithium Americas Corp. 

Evans told that currently, the bulk of lithium chemicals used in the US are imported from other countries. Lithium-rich countries including Chile and Bolivia are heavy exporters. Evans said that with lithium deposits in the US and Canada, “it’s not lost on state governments and the federal that everyone wants to play in that and we have the resources to do it.” 

Lithium and cobalt mining for electric cars has been controversial globally for years, in part because of its environmental destruction, the short lifespan of batteries and in some countries, because child labor has been used in the process.

And as a “white gold” rush comes to the US, not everyone is thrilled about the rush to mine it. 

Not everyone is on board 

Lithium Americas hopes to break ground on its mining project in early 2022. CNN traveled to Nevada and found the rush to procure critical minerals in the United States has pitted environmental advocates against each other. 

Some climate advocates say the rush to mine lithium is critical for a larger transition away from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Other local environmental groups and tribal nations oppose the project, concerned about disturbing sacred tribal burial grounds as well as potential environmental impacts. Three tribal groups tried to stop it through lawsuits — which were dismissed by a judge in September. 

“A lot of us understand blowing up a mountain for coal mining is wrong; I think blowing up a mountain for lithium mining is just as wrong,” said Max Wilbert, an environmental organizer who is camping out at Thacker Pass to protest the mine’s development. 

Wilbert cited several reasons he is against the lithium mine: environmental impacts to sage grouse and antelope, potential water pollution for surrounding communities and cultural issues for the local indigenous community, which considers the land on and around Thacker Pass sacred burial grounds. 

Wilbert is currently camping out in frigid Nevada desert winter conditions in a tribal ceremonial camp, and he and other advocates say they’re willing to stand in front of mining machinery to try to stop the project from going forward. 

“Our laws haven’t caught up to the reality of what’s happening to our planet, and so people might have to break the law in order to change what’s happening,” he said. “Electric cars won’t actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions that much; they will reduce emissions but not by a sizable amount.” 

Driving gas-powered vehicles in the US comes at a cost to the climate. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for nearly 30% of total US emissions; more than any other sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Glenn Miller, a retired professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada Reno, disagreed – tellin the Thacker Pass project is a “relatively benign mine for its size.” 

Miller said he thinks the clean energy benefits of mining lithium in Nevada outweigh environmental concerns – especially when it comes to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions worsening global climate change. 

“Those who say it isn’t going to make any difference, they’re simply wrong,” Miller said. “Radical environmentalists are going to argue that the only way to solve the climate change problem is to drive a whole lot less and to not burn gasoline or coal. Well, that’s not going to happen – the demands of society are set so we’re going to have to have an active transportation industry.” 

Miller told that lithium is the key ingredient that will power the transition to electric vehicles. 

“There’s no other metal that can work as well as lithium,” Miller said. “We’re going to need a lot of batteries to run the cars that we’re going to have on the road. It’s going to be a very positive contribution to mitigating climate change.” 

Evans told that his company is engaging community stakeholders, and local and state governments about the mine’s plans.

“It’s very important that this transition is done as sustainable as possible,” Evans said, stressing his company is committed to mitigating the environmental impacts of the mining as much as it can, by conserving water use and trying to lessen carbon emissions as it extracts the mineral. 

“It’s not the cheapest, but it’s essential as we move to this phase to ensure we do things as responsibly as possible.”

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Critical ice shelf in Antarctica could be destroyed in the next five years

As the rapidly heating planet alters the landscape of the Arctic region up north, scientists have discovered disturbing and alarming signs at the southern end of the planet, particularly in one of the ice shelves safeguarding the Antarctic’s so-called “Doomsday glacier”, CNN reports.

Satellite images taken as recently as last month, which researchers presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union Monday, suggest the critical ice shelf keeping together the Thwaites glacier in western Antarctica — an important defense against global sea level rise — could shatter within the next three to five years. 

Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier is known as the “Doomsday glacier,” due to the serious risk it poses during its melting process. It has dumped billions of tons of ice into the sea, and its demise could lead to irreversible changes throughout the planet. 

The glacier, which equals the size of Florida or Great Britain, already accounts for about 4% of annual global sea level rise, loses roughly 50 billion tons of ice each year, and is becoming highly vulnerable to the climate crisis. The fall of the ice shelf could bring the impending collapse of Antarctica’s critical glacier.

If the Thwaites collapsed, the event could raise sea levels by several feet, researchers say, putting coastal communities as well as low-lying island nations further at risk. 

But Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a leader of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, said it will still be decades before the world will see real acceleration and an additional uptick in sea level rise.

“What is attention-getting about Thwaites is that the change will proceed with fairly dramatic, measurable results within the next few decades,” Scambos told CNN. 

For now, the glacier is being held back by a critical floating ice shelf.

“What’s most concerning about the recent results is that it’s pointing to a collapse of this ice shelf, this kind of safety band that holds the ice on the land,” Peter Davis, an oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey, told CNN. “If we lose this ice shelf, then the glacier will flow into the ocean more quickly, contributing towards sea level rise.”

Warming ocean waters play a key role in driving the rapid deterioration. A 2020 study by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which is currently leading ongoing research in the Antarctic, found the ocean floor is deeper than scientists previously thought, with deep passages allowing warm ocean water to melt the underside of the ice. 

The observations show the critical ice shelf keeping the Thwaites together is loosening its grip on the underwater mountain, or the seamount, which acts as a reinforcement against the ice river from flowing into the warm ocean. Researchers also found the so-called “ice tongue” of the Thwaites Glacier is simply now a “loose cluster of icebergs,” which no longer influences the stable part of the eastern ice shelf.

Peter Washam, a research associate at Cornell University, who is also involved with the research, said the physical features of the grounding zone shows signs of chaos, such as warm water, rugged ice, and a steep, sloping bottom that allows the water to rapidly melt the ice sheet from below. 

Sea ice floats as seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region, on November 4, 2017, above Antarctica.

“In the coming years, we expect the Thwaites grounding line in the region to slowly retreat up the seabed slope that it currently rests on as the warm ocean eats away at its underside,” Washam told CNN. His team used an underwater vehicle called Icefin that makes it easier to study ice and water around and beneath ice shelves.

The bottom line, according to Davis, is Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is rapidly deteriorating. The warm ocean water is slowly erasing the ice underneath, causing water to flow faster, fracturing more of the ice, and bringing the looming threat of a collapse even closer. 

“From the satellite data, we’re seeing these big fractures spreading across the ice shelf surface, essentially weakening the fabric of the ice; kind of a bit like a windscreen crack,” he said. “It’s slowly spreading across the ice shelf and eventually it’s going to fracture into lots of different pieces.”

Scambos said while the process is extremely slow-moving and real impacts won’t be felt until several decades later, it is nearly impossible to stop it. 

“This is a geologic process, but happening at almost a human-lifetime scale,” he said. “As a disaster for people alive today, it is extremely slow-moving. The best path is to try to slow the forces that are pushing the ice in this direction.”

“We can’t really do anything to stop this from happening,” besides slowing it down, Davis said. “The way that we’ve gone with our carbon emissions so far has caused these changes to occur — and essentially, we’re taking the consequences of what we’ve been emitting over the last couple of decades, if not longer.”

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What role climate change has played in the weekend tornadoes in US

The series of weekend tornadoes that ripped through the parts of the US this weekend adds to another stretch of deadly and potentially unprecedented weather disasters that plagued the planet this year. Meteorologists and climate scientists say the latest outbreak is historic, CNN reports.

And as these extreme weather events intensify, occur more often and exacerbate the country’s growing economic toll, science is running to keep up to answer emerging questions of whether climate change is intensifying every single disaster. With this weekend’s tornadoes, climate researchers say it’s too early to determine the link, but the uncertainty doesn’t mean it is unlikely. 

In Kentucky, the series of tornadoes uprooted trees, tore down homes and infrastructure, and killed at least 74 people. Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference that the tornado event reached a “level of devastation unlike anything I have ever seen,” he said. 

Global scientists made clear that weather events, no matter how severe, are occurring against the backdrop of human-caused climate change; nevertheless, it all comes down to discerning how a warming planet is altering weather patterns, including geographical location and frequency, as well as severity.

Scientists say the short-lived scale of tornadoes, coupled with an extremely inconsistent and unreliable historical record, makes connecting outbreaks to long-term, human-caused climate change extremely challenging. 

Unlike large-scale and slow-trending weather events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, scientific research about the link between climate change and tornadoes has not been as robust. 

Victor Gensini, a professor at Northern Illinois University and one of the top tornado experts, said the weekend’s outbreak is one of the most remarkable tornado events in US history — and while climate change may have played a part in its violent behavior, it’s not yet clear what that role was.

Think of a pair of dice, he said. On one of the die, you altered the value of five to six, which means it now has two sixes — raising the chances of you rolling the pair of dice and getting the value 12. Although you can’t immediately attribute that value of 12 to the change you made, you just altered the probability of that event occurring.

Gensini said that’s similar to how the climate system now works — the more humans pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and change the system, the chances of extreme weather events occurring will amplify. 

He points to different ingredients that primed the landscape for the outbreak to happen, such as late spring, early summer air mass and strong wind shear.

“When you start putting a lot of these events together, and you start looking at them in the aggregate sense, the statistics are pretty clear that not only has there sort of been a change — a shift, if you will — of where the greatest tornado frequency is happening,” Gensini told CNN. “But these events are becoming perhaps stronger, more frequent and also more variable.”

Research by Gensini found that over the past four decades, tornado frequency has increased in vast swaths of the Midwest and Southeast while decreasing in parts of the central and southern Great Plains, a region traditionally known as Tornado Alley.

Some studies also indicate climate change could be contributing to an eastward shift in tornado alley, for instance, resulting in more tornadoes occurring in the more heavily populated states east of the Mississippi River, such as this tornado outbreak.

“It’s also very common when you have La Niña in place to see this eastward shift in highest tornado frequency,” Gensini said. “But if you look at the past 40 years, the research I’ve done … has shown that places like Nashville, Tennessee, for example — or Mayfield, Kentucky, that we saw got hit — their frequency of tornadoes, their risk of having a tornado has increased over the last 40 years.”

Tornadoes take shape under particularly specific atmospheric conditions but are primarily fueled by warm, moist air from strong winds that shift direction with altitude.

Scientists have warned that the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is drastically changing the climate system, even causing the jet stream — fast-flowing air currents in the upper atmosphere that influence day-to-day weather that could trigger a tornado event — to behave oddly. 

Jennifer Marlon, a climate scientist at the Yale School of Environment, told CNN it’s too early to say what caused the outbreak — whether natural variability or climate change — but there are “some really important signatures that suggest that this very well may be linked to climate change,” and that scientists are “observing changes in the outbreaks, not just the severity of individual outbreaks and tornadoes, but also quiet periods.”

For example, if any of the tornadoes are rated EF-5 (estimated winds of 260 mph or greater), it would end a streak of 3,126 days since the last EF-5, which is the longest stretch without since records began in 1950. The last EF-5 tornado was the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado on May 20, 2013.

It’s likely that it was simply natural forces at play, against the background of climate change. 

The World Weather Attribution, a group of the world’s leading scientists that establishes the link between climate and weather, for instance, has recently unveiled findings that the warming climate neither intensified the flooding in Vietnam that killed 138 people this summer nor the Madagascar drought that led to the country’s food scarcity. 

Still, a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization found that an extreme weather event or climate disaster has occurred every day, on average, somewhere in the world over the last 50 years, marking a five-fold increase over that period and exacting an economic toll that has climbed seven-fold since the 1970s.

As such climate disasters worsen and expand in scope, Marlon points to significant factors that increase disaster risks across society during these times including worsening weather disasters, increasing exposure due to growing populations, and more vulnerable infrastructure assets. 

That’s already taking shape in Mayfield, Kentucky, where officials say the city’s main fire station and some of its police assets have become inoperable as a result of the devastating tornado system. Now, authorities are looking for alternative ways to address emergency calls. 

“All these things are feeding into increase disaster risk, with many more consequences, including the fatalities, of course, but also enormous economic damages,” she said. 

As the climate crisis accelerates, more people will be vulnerable to the most severe consequences of extreme weather events. Experts say cities shouldn’t put off adaptation plans any longer, and instead treat them as a larger emergency response system.

But Gensini said one thing is certain: regardless of climate change, these types of tornado disasters will continue to worsen as humans alter the landscape and build larger, more sprawling cities.

“We have more assets and more targets for the severe storms to hit,” he said. “So even if you take climate change out of the equation, which is very likely to make the problem worse, we still have this issue of human and societal vulnerability.”

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What impact is golf providing on climate change?

The 30 or so golf courses in the Salt Lake County of Utah drink up around nine million gallons of water a day to stay pristine green – that’s more than 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools, CNN reports.

Managing the turf on golf courses also means using carbon-intensive fertilizers, plenty of mowing and, in many cases, clearing forests or trees that were soaking up carbon-dioxide to make way for long tracts of the fairway. In other words, golf is a dirty sport that’s wrecking the planet. But it doesn’t have to be.

The impact of golf on the climate and environment has led to growing calls to make the sport more sustainable – even to play on bone-dry courses, as golfing legend Tiger Woods has enjoyed. And it’s not just to save the planet, but to save the sport itself, as the climate crisis threatens to transform many courses into muddy swamps. 

The president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), Jason Straka, told how the climate crisis has been affecting golf in flood-threatened Florida, and in Ohio and Utah, which have been hit by warmer-than-usual weather and even drought. 

“Clubs never used to have to close after two-inch rain, now they do. They also experience sunny day flooding,” said Straka. In Miami, authorities are raising public drains to a minimum of 3.4 feet, but more than 50% of courses in the city are under this minimum, which rings alarm bells for Straka. 

“If they don’t go out and literally lift their footprint up in the air, they’re going to be in a perpetually deeper and deeper bathtub,” he said. “If they think they have problems now, in 10 years, they’re going to be a swamp.”

But change will equate to cost, which is where golf’s critics find their voice once more: courses are just not sustainable anymore. 

While courses in the eastern US are being threatened by changing rainfall patterns, deadly wildfires that ripped through the west, including in California, have led to poor air quality and course closures in recent years. Less stark, but by no means less worrying, are rising temperatures in Ohio, which are being infested with Bermuda grass, a warmer-season grass that can be difficult to control. 

Rain, fire, floods and ice

The situation in Australia is similar: Lynwood Country Club, northwest of Sydney, was flooded in 2020 and again earlier this year. At one stage, parts of the course were over 26 feet under water, while up the New South Wales coastline, Nambucca Heads received 42.5 inches of rainfall in just eight days.

On the same eastern coast, some 350 miles south of Sydney in the state of Victoria, Mallacoota Golf Club very nearly perished during the bushfires of 2019 and 2020, the fairways providing a sanctuary for townsfolk. Club Catalina, further up the NSW coast, broke the firewall that threatened to wipe out the town.

But in a country accustomed to regular wildfires, courses are adapting by trying to capture water when rain is heavy for use in course irrigation, or even to put out fires. 

“Golf courses in Australia, by and large, all have some sort of irrigation storage which are very useful for fighting fires,” Society of Australian Golf Course Architects (SAGCA) President Harley Kruse told CNN Sport, echoing Straka’s comments on future forecasts.

“Last year in Sydney, there was a 1-in-100-years flood event. We’re going to get an increase of various storm events which could be wind, rain, cyclone or we get a greater increase in drought events. Golf courses need to be flexible and more understanding.”

Fellow Australian Tim Lobb, President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), is promoting naturalization and grass reduction in Turkey to decrease water usage – 15-20% of the area that was fine turf will use a lower-maintenance grass species. 

In cooler regions, coastal courses around the British Isles face a very uncertain future – none more so than the world’s fifth-oldest layout in Montrose, a few miles up the coast from major championship venue Carnoustie, where in the last 30 years, the sea has encroached by almost 230 feet (70 meters) in places, according to research released in 2016.

With sea levels projected to rise by one meter in the next 50 years, the home of golf at St. Andrews in Scotland could be a swamp like Miami as early as 2050.

Over in Iceland, Edwin Roald, renowned Icelandic architect and founder of Eureka Golf – a company “committed to mitigating climate change through golf” – told CNN how greater frequency of water freezing and thawing cycles in colder Northern Hemisphere climates is becoming a real danger to courses.

“We have a lot of issues with frozen water […] and a lot of flash flooding, repeatedly throughout the winter. It’s allowing that to happen without the water eroding the land.

“Winter kill, through the turf’s suffocation under ice cover, is a greater threat and increasing. This causes financial damage to courses that are opening in spring with dead turf.”

Solar panels and robotic mowers

At the COP26 summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the North Berwick-based environmentalist GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf showed a virtual audience how golf is learning to be a champion among sporting bodies for a greener planet.

Woburn, the host course for the 2019 Women’s British Open, constructed its own reservoir in 2013 to capture rainwater to irrigate its turf and more recently drilled a borehole to tap water from underground. The company managing the course says the new infrastructure should make Woburn fully self-sufficient, so it isn’t using water that could be otherwise used for drinking and in homes.

While at Remuera Golf Club in Auckland, carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions were reduced by nearly 25 tons from 2018-19, through the cutting of all electricity use at the club. 

Finland’s Hirsala Golf aims to have 40 robotic mowers running on electricity that can be sourced from renewable sources by 2022, cutting the usage of 1,000 liters of diesel fuel, while solar panels at Golf de Payerne in Switzerland have saved 1,080 tons of CO2.

Back in Iceland, the country is measuring the carbon status of all of its 65 golf courses through the Carbon Par project – the first golfing nation to produce such an account. 

“The method that is being used to produce this estimate, hopefully, others can use that going forward. To improve, you first have to know where you stand,” said Roald.

“Golf courses are sequestering a considerable amount of carbon, which I think few people actually associate with golf. On the flipside, golf is a large land user and is bound to be using wetlands in places. Emissions, when you drain wetlands, are so great.”

Forests, peatlands, deserts and tundra can all absorb and hold stocks of CO2. Of all the carbon held in land-based ecosystems, around 34% can be found in grasslands, data from the World Resources Institute shows. That’s not much less than the 39% held in forests. So whether a golf course might actually soak up a good amount of carbon-dioxide depends on how it’s managed and whether it destroys more valuable land to begin with. 

Roald added: “It’s only a matter of time before the golf industry will be asked questions about what we can do with those wetlands – that’s where we can have the most impact.”

Climate change clamor has caught the eye of one of golf’s most recognizable voices in Rory McIlroy, just one of many high-profile athletes who travel enormous distances by plane.

“I wouldn’t self-profess to be an eco-warrior, but I’m someone that doesn’t want to damage the environment,” the Florida-based Northern Irishman told the media at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. 

“I live in a part of the world where hurricanes are very prevalent and becoming more and more prevalent as the years go on. I think we can all play our part in some way or another.

“We play on big pieces of land that take up a lot of water and a lot of other things that could maybe be put to better use.”

‘The way golf should be played’

Ahead of a trip to the world-renowned Royal Melbourne in Australia, Kruse referenced comments in 2019 by Tiger Woods and Ernie Els at the Presidents Cup.

Cutting to the chase, both players spoke highly of the course’s natural setup — in essence, much like many past Open Championships, the course was dry and vast areas of the rough and even fairways had gone without water, “letting Mother Nature dish up the elements to play the game,” said Kruse.

Well-watered and manicured golf courses can often provide softer conditions that produce better scoring and prettier TV images, but Els and Woods took the chance to laud another approach that will become the norm as courses seek sustainable practices.

Els and Woods both talked up the advantages of playing on a dried-out course, like in Australia.

Kruse said he could barely believe his eyes when he saw a team of maintenance staff on TV earlier this year using petrol-driven leaf blowers to dry the rough, adding American courses probably have more sprinkler heads per golf course and water more area of turf compared to courses in, for example, Australia or the British Isles.

“Taking the drought in California a few years ago, I would hope that they haven’t gone back to their old ways and they’re having a rethink,” Kruse said.

“You don’t need 2,000 irrigation heads right from fence line to fence line to keep the course alive. You can let things dry out.” 

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How to control climate change?

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has been billed as a last chance to limit global warming to 1.5C. But beyond the deals and photo opportunities, what are the key things countries need to do in order to tackle climate change? BBC reports.

1. Keep fossil fuels in the ground

Burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and especially coal, releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, trapping heat and raising global temperatures. 

It’s an issue that has to be tackled at the government level if temperature rises are to be limited to 1.5C – the level considered the gateway to dangerous climate change. 

However, many major coal-dependent countries – such as Australia, the US, China and India – have declined to sign a deal at the summit aimed at phasing out the energy source in the coming decades. 

2. Curb methane emissions

A recent UN report has suggested that reducing emissions of methane could make an important contribution to tackling the planetary emergency.

A substantial amount of methane is released from “flaring” – the burning of natural gas during oil extraction – and could be stopped with technical fixes. Finding better ways of disposing of rubbish is also important because landfill sites are another big methane source.

At COP26, nearly 100 countries agreed to cut methane emissions, in a deal spearheaded by the US and the EU. The Global Methane Pledge aims to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels.

3. Switch to renewable energy

Many wind turbines and a large solar panel array in a desert valley, mountains in the distance and blue sky above. Palm Springs, California, USA

Electricity and heat generation make a greater contribution to global emissions than any economic sector. 

Transforming the global energy system from one reliant on fossil fuels to one dominated by clean technology – known as decarbonization – is critical for meeting current climate goals.

Wind and solar power will need to dominate the energy mix by 2050 if countries are to deliver on their net zero targets.

There are challenges, however.

Less wind means less electricity generated, but better battery technology could help us store surplus energy from renewables, ready to be released when needed.

4. Abandon petrol and diesel

We’ll also need to change the way we power the vehicles we use to get around on land, sea and in the air. 

Ditching petrol and diesel cars and switching to electric vehicles will be critical. 

Lorries and buses could be powered by hydrogen fuel, ideally produced using renewable energy. 

And scientists are working on new, cleaner fuels for aircraft, although campaigners are also urging people to reduce the number of flights they take.

5. Plant more trees

A UN report in 2018 said that, to have a realistic chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 1.5C, we’ll have to remove CO2 from the air. 

Forests are excellent at soaking it up from the atmosphere – one reason why campaigners and scientists emphasize the need to protect the natural world by reducing deforestation. 

Programs of mass tree planting are seen as a way of offsetting CO2 emissions. 

Trees are likely to be important as countries wrestle with their net-zero targets because once emissions have been reduced as much as possible, remaining emissions could be “canceled out” by carbon sinks such as forests. 

6. Remove greenhouse gases from the air

Emerging technologies that artificially remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or stop it being released in the first place, could play a role. 

A number of direct-air capture facilities are being developed, including plants built by Carbon Engineering in Texas and Climeworks in Switzerland. They work by using huge fans to push air through a chemical filter that absorbs CO2. 

Another method is carbon capture and storage, which captures emissions at “point sources” where they are produced, such as at coal-fired power plants. The CO2 is then buried deep underground. 

However, the technology is expensive – and controversial, because it is seen by critics as helping perpetuate a reliance on fossil fuels.

7. Give financial aid to help poorer countries

New Delhi, India – July 25, 2018: A poor boy collecting garbage waste from a landfill site in the outskirts of Delhi. Hundreds of children work at these sites to earn their livelihood.

At the Copenhagen COP summit in 2009, rich countries pledged to provide $100bn (£74.6bn) in financing by 2020, designed to help developing countries fight and adapt to climate change. 

That target date has not been met, although the UK government, as holders of the COP presidency, recently outlined a plan for putting the funding in place by 2023.

Many coal-dependent countries are facing severe energy shortages that jeopardize their recovery from Covid and disproportionately affect the poor. These factors stop them from moving away from polluting industries. 

Some experts believe poorer nations will need continuing financial support to help them move towards greener energy. For instance, the US, EU and UK recently provided $8.5bn to help South Africa phase out coal use.

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The world should adopt faster to the climate crisis – UN report

The gap is widening between the impacts of the climate crisis and the world’s effort to adapt to them, according to a new report by the UN Environment Programme, CNN reports.

The annual “adaptation gap” report — which published Thursday amid the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow — found that the estimated costs to adapt to the worst effects of warming temperatures such as droughts, floods and rising seas in low-income countries are five to 10 times higher than how much money is currently flowing into those regions. 

In addition to promising to limit warming, governments from wealthy nations in the 2015 Paris Accord reaffirmed their commitment to contribute $100 billion a year to poorer nations to move away from fossil fuel and adapt to climate change-fueled disasters. This is because developing nations, particularly those in the Global South, are most likely to endure the worst effects of the climate crisis, despite the small amount they contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, said this is why climate finance — funding for low-income countries to fight the climate crisis — is vital.

“The Paris Accord says adaptation and mitigation funding needs to be in a degree of balance,” Andersen told CNN. “Those in poorer countries are going to suffer the very most, so ensuring that there’s a degree of equity and a degree of global solidarity for adaptation finance is critical.”

But the report found that $100 billion a year — a pledge which wealthy nations have so far been unable to achieve — isn’t even enough to match the demand. Adaptation costs for low-income countries will hit $140 to 300 billion each year by 2030 and $280 to 500 billion per year by 2050, UNEP reports. 

In 2019, only $79 billion of climate financing flowed into developing nations, according to the latest analysis.

As the climate crisis intensifies, adaptation measures are becoming more critical. Global scientists have said the world should try to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a critical threshold to avoid the worst impacts. But Thursday’s report suggests this threshold will be breached sooner than previously imagined, and some climate impacts are already irreversible. Wildfires, droughts, record heat waves and deadly floods terrorized parts of the Northern Hemisphere this summer.

“While strong mitigation is the way to minimize impacts and long-term costs, increased ambition in terms of adaptation, particularly for finance and implementation, is critical to prevent existing gaps widening,” the report’s authors wrote. 

Roughly 79% of all countries have adopted at least one adaptation plan, policy or strategy to stem the impact, a 7% increase since 2020. Meanwhile, 9% of countries that don’t currently have a plan or policy in place are in the process of developing one. 

But the report says implementation of these adaptation measures is stalling. A separate UNEP report found that 15 major economies will continue to produce roughly 110% more coal, oil, and gas in 2030 than what’s necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, which will worsen climate change-fueled extreme weather events and make adaptation all the more critical. 

At a forum on vulnerable countries at COP26 this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on wealthy nations, banks and shareholders to “allocate half their climate finance to adaptation” and “offer debt relief” for low-income nations.

“Vulnerable countries must have faster and easier access to finance,” Guterres said. “I urge the developed world to accelerate delivery on the $100 billion dollars to rebuild trust. Vulnerable countries need it for adaptation and for mitigation. [They] are not the cause of climate disruption.”

One way to tackle this, according to the report’s authors, is to use Covid-19 recovery stimulus packages as an opportunity to deliver green and resilient adaptation measures to developing countries. The twin crises of climate change and the pandemic have stretched economic and disaster response thin, but authors say it proves the world can adapt to the worst impacts of warming temperatures.

The adaptation gap report comes at a critical time as world leaders gather at COP26 to discuss the probability of keeping the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius alive, as well as also ensuring that wealthy, fossil fuel-generating nations hold on to their promise of transferring $100 billion a year to low-income countries, particularly in the Global South.

Andersen said one thing is clear: “The more we delay climate action, the more adaptation will become important, especially for the most poor, who are going to be hit the hardest.”

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