Amid extreme heat and drought, EU votes for power plan

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This week:

  • As Europe experiences extreme heat and drought, EU votes for power plan critics call ‘greenwashing’
  • Storing energy in sand
  • Spotted in B.C.: A cedar tree as wide as the cabin of a 747

As Europe experiences extreme heat and drought, EU votes for power plan critics call ‘greenwashing’

A bridge over a dry river.
(Piero Cruciatti/Getty Images)

In a week when Italy is experiencing the worst drought in 70 years and at least seven people died when a melting glacier in the Dolomites cracked and slid down a mountain face, the European Parliament voted to move forward with a plan that many warn is counterproductive to reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming.

The parliament elected to back EU rules that label investment in gas and nuclear power plants as “climate-friendly,” a decision that could shape energy and climate policy for years and comes as the effects of climate change are being urgently felt across southern Europe.

The new rules will allow investors to label and market some gas and nuclear power plants as green, a decision that lays bare deep divisions within the European Union over how to combat climate change at a time when energy costs are skyrocketing because of Russia limiting gas exports to the EU.

Those in favour of the green classification, championed by the gas and nuclear energy industries, argue it provides a less painful transition to renewables and reduces coal-burning when gas prices are high.

But critics — from environmental activists and scientists to many investors — accuse the EU of backsliding on its energy promises, and call the new labelling, which will come into effect in 2023, “greenwashing.”

Austria and Luxembourg immediately announced plans to launch legal complaints against the EU over the decision. The main concern is new investment in energy will be diverted away from renewables.

“Accelerating decarbonization is the right way to face both the energy crisis and the climate crisis,” said Michele Governatori, energy expert with the Milan-based independent think-tank Ecco Climate, which provides advice on decarbonization.

“Any other solution than efficiency and renewables would take more time to be implemented to find new sources of energy than those solutions themselves.”

While nuclear power is emissions-free, experts say developing plants can take years, a timescale that is longer and more costly than developing renewable systems. Meanwhile, natural gas may emit less carbon than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel.

Governatori expressed concern that fear about energy insecurity will lead to investments that make decarbonization costlier without providing the desired stability.

“What we are seeing on an EU and governmental level is a rush towards infrastructure, especially for fossil fuel, like new gas lines and new gas harbours,” he said. “[These] would be … too late for next winter, which is the critical winter if we can’t rely on Russian gas, and would carry on being costly for decades.”

As the majority of European parliamentarians voted in favour of calling nuclear and gas “green” energy, much of Europe is in the midst of extreme heat scientists say is caused by climate change.

Temperatures throughout Italy recently have topped 40 C. The Po River, which runs across northern Italy like a watery lifeline, providing clean hydro power and irrigation for a third of Italy’s agricultural production, has run dry in stretches, its bed naked and exposed to the blazing sun.

Salty seawater is flowing back into the river at its Adriatic delta, putting vast fields of tomatoes, fruit and wheat at risk.

A dry winter reduced the already shrinking glaciers in the Alps that feed the Po and other rivers, leading one massive glacier on the Marmolada peak of the Dolomites to rupture on Sunday.

Rescue operations continue for five hikers still missing after rock, ice and snow catapulted down the mountain face, killing at least seven hikers and injuring eight others.

“This [is] happening all around the world. Not only glacier parts are breaking off, but mountain parts, because of the melting of the permafrost,” said Philipp Rastner, a University of Zurich glaciologist who grew up in the area and knows Marmolada well.

He’s part of a team of scientists creating a global inventory of glaciers, with the long-term goal of high-resolution, real-time monitoring of them.

Rastner says you can measure the velocity of the ice moving, but it’s hard to understand what is happening inside the ice with increased temperatures, which makes predicting ruptures difficult.

Ultimately, he says, the only way to slow the melting of glaciers and the danger they cause is to reduce carbon emissions — a goal that, observers say, the EU vote has deferred.

Megan Williams

Reader feedback

After reading our recent story on the corporate response to Canada’s single-use plastics ban, Charu Mittal wrote in with this suggestion:

“I wanted to suggest a story idea, thinking it may interest other people, too. As someone concerned about the accumulated impact of small, everyday things on our environment, I unsuccessfully tried to find information on what to do with the numerous plastic cards we end up collecting with each passing year: credit/debit cards, membership cards, loyalty cards, points cards, gift cards for all kinds of products and services, the list goes on….

“For me, these cards are another face of the omniscient plastic menace in our daily lives. Often, and especially in the case of sensitive cards such as the ones related to banking or tied to personal information, one just doesn’t know how to ‘recycle’ them. Are there any secure government facilities that do this? Shouldn’t banks (and in fact, all the stores) have systems in place to accept back expired/used cards and find a way to securely dispose of them in a way that is also environmentally sensitive? Does the government plan to regulate the use of such plastic cards in any way?”

Thanks for this, Charu. It’s a fine idea for a story. We will take a closer look at it, but in the meantime, you might find this 2019 piece by Emily Chung of interest.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News recently launched a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. A recent U.S Supreme Court decision means it just got a lot harder for federal agencies there to bring in the kind of sweeping, transformational policies that are needed to slash greenhouse emissions. But as What On Earth host Laura Lynch learns, many climate advocates still see a path forward. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Storing energy in sand

As we increase our use of renewable but intermittent energy sources like wind and solar, battery storage becomes more vital. Science provides a wide array of possibilities — including pumped hydro and gravity storage — and to that list you can now add sand.

How does sand store power, you say? Well, if you pour it into an insulated steel tank, it actually becomes a quite effective thermal energy storage system. This is precisely what Finnish company Vatajankowski has done northwest of Helsinki. The tank in question is about four metres wide and seven metres tall, and contains a heat exchanger, which takes energy from outside sources and heats up the sand to 500 to 600 C. When the energy is needed, it is drawn back through the heat exchanger. The company says this system can store eight megawatt hours of energy (or enough to power the average U.S. home for about 10 months).

Vatajankowski is deploying this stored heat (along with excess heat from its data servers) to a local district heating system, a centralized method that delivers heat to buildings and industrial processes through pipes (typically) containing hot or cold water. The company has said it plans to create installations with about 20 gigawatt hours of energy storage and sand heated to as much as 1,000 C – possibly by using decommissioned mine shafts.

Close-up of sand.
(Pasta Design/Shutterstock)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Spotted in B.C.: A cedar tree as wide as the cabin of a 747

A man sits beside a tree in B.C. that has the width of a jet cabin.
(Submitted by Colin Spratt)

A biologist has found what is one of the widest-ever trees recorded in B.C.

Ian Thomas measured a western red cedar in North Vancouver to be somewhere between 4.8 and 5.8 metres in diameter.

If Thomas’s preliminary measurements are correct, the behemoth he found in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park would barely fit inside the cabin of a Boeing 747.

The tree’s diameter at breast height (DBH) still needs to be officially verified and could end up being up to a metre less than his 5.8-metre calculation, he said, depending on how it’s measured on a rugged, steep slope.

Regardless of its exact size, there is no doubt the massive tree is very, very old.

“It came at the end of about a 10-hour bushwhack,” Thomas told Gloria Macarenko, host of CBC’s On the Coast, on Monday. “I spend a lot of my time studying satellite maps and government data sets and just slogging through these incredible, threatened ancient forests that we’re so lucky to have, some of them, here in B.C.”

Thomas and his self-described “tree hunter” colleague Colin Spratt nicknamed the tree they found in a grove of “primordial” red cedars the North Shore Giant.

The tree is on Tsleil-Waututh Nation territories. Gabriel George, its director of treaty, lands and resources, said western red cedars have been used by his people for everything from dugout canoes, clothing and buildings to ceremonial and medicinal applications.

“Everything from the roots to the branches to the trunks,” George said in a phone interview. “For our people, they’re medicine…. The cedar tree is sacred to us.”

George said hearing about the find made his “heart happy,” and he hoped it reminds others of the importance of B.C.’s few remaining ancient old-growth forests. “When I saw that picture and I heard that story, it just was so uplifting,” he said. 

Even though this particular cedar is within an already protected area, Thomas said it’s a reminder of how blessed the province is to still have such natural wonders.

“You are encountering one of the largest and oldest living things on this planet,” he said. “It’s almost like seeing a blue whale or a northern white rhino — this piece of this rich, wild world.”

According to Robert Guy, a University of British Columbia forestry professor, large western red cedars host “ecosystems in most of their branches.”

“A tree of this size has to be very old,” he said. “They can get to 1,000 or 2,000 years old. We have trees on the North Shore that approach 2,000 years of age.”

Because red cedars hollow as they age, it’s often impossible to count their inner rings like other trees.

According to UBC’s Big Tree Registry, a tree 5.8 metres in diameter would be the fourth widest on record. The previous top seven in the registry are all on Vancouver Island, the widest being a six-metre western red cedar in Pacific Rim National Park.

In Lynn Headwaters, the largest diameter recorded for a tree was 5.1 metres, also a red cedar. Any tree over 4.8 metres wide would be in the province’s top 13 ranking.

The registry could not be reached for comment on Thomas’s preliminary measurements. He said a member of its committee is in the process of verifying the tree’s size.

Based on photographs, said Guy, the tree appears unhealthy, a phenomenon he said is increasingly common in B.C.

“Red cedar has been showing more signs of distress in recent years than other … species in times of drought,” he said. “Which is probably climate change-related.

“So I guess another thing about these trees is they remind us they’ve been through a lot — but they might not get through the next 100 years or so.”

David P. Ball

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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