Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 the Warmest Year for U.S., but not for the Earth

NOAA 2012 Temperature Map

On Tuesday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climate Data Center announced that 2012 had been the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States  with average temperatures 3.2°F above the 20th century average. While global temperatures are unlikely to reach a record for 2012 (only data through November 2012 is available) still, according to the latest data from the National Climatic Data Center, the high average global temperatures for November 2012 combined with record to near-record warmth over land from April to September and warmer-than-average global ocean temperatures contributed to the first 11 months of 2012 ranking as the eighth warmest 11 month period on record with 1998 remaining the warmest year on record for the earth.

According to the weather scientists at NOAA the average temperature for the contiguous United States for 2012 was 55.3°F, which was 3.2°F above the 20th century average and 1.0°F above the previous record from 1998. Every state in the contiguous United States had an above-average annual temperature for 2012. On the national scale, 2012 started off much warmer than average, with the fourth-warmest winter (December 2011–February 2012) on record, but the real and immediate problem is water.  The winter snow cover for the contiguous United States last winter was the third smallest on record, and snowpack totals across the Central and Southern Rockies were less than half of normal. The warm spring resulted in an early start to the 2012 growing season in many places, which increased water demand on the soil earlier than what is typical. In combination with the lack of winter snow and lingering dryness from 2011, the record-warm spring laid the foundation for the great drought of 2012. The average precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. for 2012 was 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below average, and the 15th driest year on record for the nation.  

Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency remain focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but if CO2 is the main driver of climate change and these new temperature highs in the United States are evidence of climate change and not just extreme weather, then it is too late and the United States at about 16% of global carbon emissions and falling cannot stop the growth in CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, 2011 estimates of world CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, World CO2 emissions rose by 1 billion metric tons in 2011, a 3.2 % increase  to reach 31.6 billion metric tons. In 2011 the top four world generators of CO2 emission from fossil fuels were in descending order China, the United States, the European Union and India who edged out Russia to take the number four slot. China, the largest emitter of CO2 increased their emissions the most. China contributed almost three quarters of the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million metric tons, or 9.3% to 8.46 billion metric tons of CO2, and are now driving global CO2 emissions. It is estimate that China will emit around 10 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2013. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 million metric tons of CO2 or 1.7% to an estimated 5.32 billion metric tons.  U.S. emissions have now fallen by 430 million metric tons or 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions and no real growth is forecast. There is no interest in reducing CO2 emissions or even stopping emissions growth in China. They are not yet a rich nation and are currently experiencing the coldest winter in 28 years. China remains focused on food and growth. 

In the U.S. the EPA has used regulation to ensure that total CO2 emissions are reduced over time. In 2012 EPA proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide. Under the new rule, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard effectively changes the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies).  In addition the EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) new millage and emission standards for automobiles and light trucks for model year 2012 through 2025 requiring continued improvement of about a 5% per year in average fuel economy from 2016 when they are required to have at least a 35.5 mpg fleet average for vehicles sold in the U.S. and will have to boost car and light truck fuel economy to an average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 significantly reducing the use of fuel.   The major users of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%). Passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles represent 17% of the national greenhouse gas emissions. With the CO2 standard and fuel economy standards the U.S is on track to reduce their CO2 emission in the coming decades.

The climate of the earth is constantly changing on a geological time scale, but the geological record hints that sudden shifts can happen. The controversy over both the science and policy relating to climate change is far from over, but policy mandates to have the United States adopt constraints on fossil fuel energy consumption will have little impact on the global level of CO2. The earth’s atmosphere is interconnected and worldwide CO2 emissions will continue to grow powered by China and India in the short run. We need now to appropriately respond to the continuing drought.
Drought conditions November 2012 NOAA

The Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS, creates a regulatory mandated demand for corn in the United States. In 2012 the RFS mandated ethanol consumed 5.05 billion bushels of corn almost 50% of the corn crop. The USDA has forecast total corn production for 2012 at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13% from 2011. The lowest U.S. production of corn since 1995. Much of the Midwest remains in drought conditions, and according to the most recent USDA and NOAA reports drought could impact the corn crop next year, too. To fulfill the RFS mandate we are using up our water resources (using the Ogallala Aquifer) and we might be forced to buy corn, taking food from the mouths of poorer nations. Yes, we can buy more corn if need be. The United States is still a rich enough country and we will eat meat and the long list of food made from corn products and make lots of ethanol to dilute gasoline, but the cost is the United States is exporting hunger to fulfill the RFS.

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