Failure in Madrid; European Green New Deal Adopted
If you missed the story in December on the United Nations COP25 climate talks in Madrid, don’t be too hard on yourself. With the exception of our major newspapers, the American media have a terrible record for covering the climate emergency. And with their focus on the House vote on impeachment, even the NY Times and Washington Post gave little attention to the story. The LA Times put it on page three.
In the event, there was very little encouraging news coming out of the 25th “Conference of the Parties,” even though 27,000 delegates worked over two weeks. The conference leaders had set two major tasks for the gathering, the first being to finalize a “rule book” on the implementation of the Paris 2015 accord. Despite the best efforts of many, agreement on implementation was blocked by the usual obstructionists--the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Australia--joined this year by Brazil.
The second task was to send a signal to the world that the UN process remained relevant and that the gap between what needs to be done and what has been agreed to could be reduced. Here too, Madrid was a bitter disappointment. While the major emitters were not expected to announce increases in their pledged reductions, it was hoped that they would announce promises to do so next year at COP26 in Glasgow, when all countries are obligated to report on their progress. That did not happen.
According to the World Resources Institute, at this point only eighty countries – mostly small and developing nations – have promised to increase their pledges by 2020, and they represent just 10% of world emissions. Not a single major emitter has made a commitment to do so. On the conference's final day, a clearly disappointed UN Secretary General António Guterres said "the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition” in tackling the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, new UN reports show that holding warming at 1.5C is “slipping out of reach.” Global emissions are still increasing, if slightly, and even if all existing pledges are met, emissions will be almost 40% too high in 2030 to meet that target. To reach it, emission reduction pledges need to be quintupled.
One bright note were continuing youth protests across Europe before and during the conference. Some thirty thousand were in the streets of central Madrid during the first week, led by Greta Thunberg and other activists. Though not comparable to the huge protests in September, they were another example of the rising international youth movement demanding action on the climate emergency. Still, the divergence between the street protests and the conference hall was marked. As Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace executive director, put it, “I have been at every COP, and I have never seen the gap bigger between the inside and the outside.”
There was, however, good news elsewhere in December:
IIn an effort to prod countries to do more, 177 companies promised to cut their own emissions in line with the 1.5C target. The total emissions of the companies is equivalent to that of France, so it’s a meaningful step. In addition, a group of 477 investors, controlling $34 trillion assets, called on world leaders to “step up their ambition” on climate change and to increase their Paris pledges. “As institutional investors with millions of beneficiaries around the world, we reiterate our full support for the Paris Agreement and strongly urge all governments to implement the actions that are needed to achieve the goals of the Agreement, with the utmost urgency,”
Also in December, European heads of state agreed to make the EU bloc “climate neutral” by 2050. They revealed a “European Green Deal” which will commit at least 25% of the EU budget to climate action. The deal also proposes a shorter timeline for boosting the EU’s promised emission reductions, cutting emissions by 2030 to at least 50% below 1990 levels. However, it remains to be seen how substantial this new plan will be in practice, as some have accused the EU of just rearranging existing commitments.
Finally, the latest UN report notes that clean energy technologies have dropped dramatically in cost “as they are being deployed at an increasing scale.”
CCC Board of Governors Endorse Climate Change and Sustainability Goals
Last May, the California Community College Board of Governors passed a climate change and sustainability resolution, with recommended goals for the entire community college system. It was intended to bring the system in line with existing state mandates (specifically, the California Global Warming Solutions Act from 2006 and the California Climate Change Scoping Plan).
The BOG resolution addresses seven areas and sets goals in each for 2025 and 2030. They cover a wide range of climate change drivers, including greenhouse gas emissions, transportation, renewable energy, zero net energy buildings, and sustainable procurement. It calls for emissions to be reduced 30% below 1990 levels by 2025 and 40% by 2030 and for renewable energy consumption to increase to 25% of the total by 2025 and then to 50% by 2030. In general, the goals are relatively modest, given the scale of the climate emergency.
With the passing of the resolution, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) has established a statewide sustainability steering committee, primarily comprised of facilities, sustainability, and energy professionals from districts around the state. Its kickoff summit this month in Sacramento will focus on determining a pathway to meet the resolution’s goals. The committee may also consider including additional stakeholders, such as faculty and student representatives, as their work becomes more defined. LACCD will be represented at the steering committee by Aris Hovasapian, its Utility Program Manager.
While the BOG goals are intended to be systemwide, individual districts can choose to pass resolutions that have more aggressive goals or address additional areas of concern. To that end, LACCD staff have already begun the process of drafting a sustainability related resolution for consideration by the Board of Trustees. Given the district’s long history of support for renewable energy and sustainable practices, dating back to the early days of its bond construction project, it’s hoped that it will come up with a more ambitious plan than the Board of Governors.
SEI Proposes Network of Weather/Air Quality Stations
The district’s first combination weather/air quality station is being installed at East LA College. John Grimmer (Environmental Science) and Eddie Villanueva (Engineering) and colleagues began the work last May. While Pierce College has had a very sophisticated weather station since 1949 (long used by the National Weather Service), East’s will be a much more modest operation. What makes it distinctive are the air quality sensors. Once fully operational, the station will record not only changes in temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and rainfall, but also the formation and persistence of photochemical smog and other forms of air pollution. To do that, it will measure the amount of volatile organic compounds, course and fine particulates, and nitrogen oxide in the air. It will also record noise level and light intensity variations.
Grimmer and the SEI have larger plans, however. Given that weather and air quality can vary dramatically from place to place, especially in a city as far-flung as Los Angeles, a network of stations would provide far more information than a single station, allowing students to chart the differences between West LA and Monterey Park, for example, over the course of a day (or season). As a result, we’re proposing that the district establish a weather/air quality network. This would be an array of ten to eleven stations positioned around the Los Angeles basin, using our nine campuses and the Southern California Marine Institute Center as locations. If colleges further to the east, such as Chaffey or Mt. SAC, were involved, that would deepen the data available.
The plan is for all information collected by the network to be made accessible to students and to the general public via the Internet and cell phone connections. Careful study of the information collected would improve students’ analytical capabilities and broaden their understanding of our urban environment. While the information would be especially relevant in Geography, Environmental Science, Biology, and Chemistry, several other disciplines would also find it useful.
The next step will be to present SEI’s idea to the leadership at the colleges to see if there is sufficient interest in moving forward.
The project at East illustrates the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. Since the actual assembly and construction of the station was beyond his training and skill sets, Grimmer turned to Eddie Villanueva, who was able to integrate the various components of the instruments. Geography Department technician Nate Gallagher assisted, and Robert Wimmer of the Southern California Air Quality Management District, an East alumnus, gave generously of his time and expertise. Dean Armando Rivera (now at City College) supplied encouragement and the necessary financial backing.
Air Pollution Worsening in Los Angeles Region
Ask anyone who was here in the sixties and seventies, and they’ll be quick to tell you just how much better the air quality is today. It’s true. The federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and the work of the California Air Resources Board, which requires even stricter emission controls than the EPA, have led to a dramatic improvement in the air we breathe. The air is far cleaner than forty or fifty years ago. That said, we still have worse smog than anywhere else in the nation, and in recent years we’ve regressed, along with the rest of the country. Experts predict that Trump administration policies will lead to a continuing decline in the immediate future.
Several factors combine to make the Los Angeles region the smog capital of the country. A peculiar topography of large mountains surrounding a basin and predominant on-shore breezes create an inversion layer, trapping emissions. Add three hundred days of sunlight a year and some eight million vehicles and you have lots of smog generation. Unfortunately, climate change will make matters worse, as more heat speeds up the chemical process that forms ozone, one of the worst pollutants, and increases air stagnation.
The recent increase in bad ozone days has been a particular worry. A gas formed by a series of chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxide gases, volatile organic compounds, and sunlight, it can have a corrosive effect on the lungs. Children, teens, and the elderly are especially vulnerable, along with those suffering from lung or cardiovascular diseases. In Southern California, there was a 10% increase in the number of deaths due to ozone from 2010 to 2017.
Ozone is not evenly distributed, however. While areas from the coast to downtown have seen a considerable improvement over the last twenty-five years, the valleys have not done nearly as well. Downtown saw only four bad ozone days in 2018, compared to an average of 30 in 1995. The Westside had only two. The San Fernando Valley, on the other hand, averaged 49 days, no better than its average of 50 in the mid-nineties. But with onshore breezes blowing smog eastward, San Bernardino County was considerably worse than that, with over 100 bad days, the same number it averaged in 1995.
According to the American Lung Society’s latest “State of the Air” report, “If you live in San Bernardino County, the air you breathe may put your health at risk.” It gave the county failing grades in smog/ozone levels and said its poor overall air quality is a health threat to over two million residents who are already dealing with asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, et al.
In future issues, we will look at what’s being done (or not done) at the state and local level to address the recent deterioration.