A remarkable thing is happening in the United States and in other places around the world. Partly due to the coronavirus pandemic and partly due to changes in natural gas and renewable energy prices, renewable electricity is now a larger fraction of the US electricity grid than coal. As of early May 2020, the fraction of coal generation of US electricity is about 18% while renewables (hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal) account for nearly 20%.
For the entire year of 2019, coal accounted for about 24.2% of US electricity generation, while renewables accounted for 17%.4. And in 2018, coal was 28.4% and renewables were 16.8%. When you include nuclear (not technically a renewable resource, but zero emissions of greenhouse gases), about 42% of US electricity generation in 2020 comes from zero carbon sources, while fossil fuels make up the remaining 68%.
This is good news because renewables produce little to no pollution that contributes to urban air quality, health issues and climate change. Coal is by far the worst electricity generation source when it comes to air pollution that impacts human health and climate change. So this shift away from coal and towards renewables is very good news.
Here’s the same graph but showing instead the fraction of electricity from each source (you can hover over the graph to get daily values).
Source and Tools
CO2 emissions are the primary contributor to our current ‘climate crisis’. Because of buildup of heat-trapping nature of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, temperatures are rising and weather and precipitation patterns are changing. Changes in climate will have profound impacts on both natural systems and our human landscapes.
Significant emissions of CO2 really started in the industrial revolution. This is when humans really started using significant quantities of non-renewable energy sources, mainly fossil fuels such as coal and later natural gas and oil. The increase in the burning of hydrocarbon energy sources for powering factories and transportation lead to growing CO2 emissions. The following graph shows the annual emissions of CO2 since 1750, before the start of the industrial revolution. In this period of 269 years, humans have emitted 1600 billion tonnes of CO2 (1600 gigatonnes). One incredible fact is that due to rapid growth in population and energy use per capita over time, we are emitting more and more CO2 each year and that humans have emitted as much in the last 28 years than in the 240 years prior to that.
The global median age is around 30 years old (i.e. half the people on earth were born after 1989). This means that more than half of the earth’s population has seen the global cumulative CO2 emissions double in their lifetime. Also very striking is that in my children’s lifetimes (around a decade), humanity has added nearly 1/5 of all human produced CO2 ever to the atmosphere.
Notes: Emissions are in units of gigatonnes of CO2. To convert to gigatons of carbon, another common unit of measuring carbon emissions, divide by 3.666.
Data source and Tools
Flying in an airplane is likely the most greenhouse gas intensive activity you can do. In a few short hours, you can can travel thousands of miles across the country or ocean. It takes a large amount of fossil-fuel energy (oil) to lift an 80+ ton airplane off the ground and propel it at 600 miles per hour through the air. Every hour of travel (in a Boeing 737) consumes around 750 gallons of jet fuel.
Even when dividing the fuel usage across all of the passengers (and cargo) of an aircraft, airplane travel consumes a significant amount of fuel per passenger. The fuel economy is estimated to be about the same as a fairly efficient hybrid car driven by one person (60-70 passenger miles per gallon). However, because you can go 10 times faster and much further more easily than you would in a car, airline travel can, on an absolute basis, emit larger amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, an individual passenger’s share of emissions from a single airplane flight can exceed the annual average greenhouse gas emissions per capita from a number of countries (and the global average).
The following flight calculator and data visualization shows the miles and emissions produced per passenger by a airplane trip that you can specify. Choose two airports that you are interested in and click the “Calculate Flight Emissions” button to see the emissions associated with a round-trip flight between these two cities. The map will show you the flight route and also shows you the countries in the world where this one single round-trip flight produces more emissions per passenger than the average resident does in one year from all sources (annual per capita emissions).
In addition to individual countries, the tool also compares the flight’s per passenger emissions to the global average emissions per capita in 2017 (4.91 tonnes) and the emissions required to achieve a 22℃ climate stabilization in 2030 (3.08 tonnes) and in 2050 (1.37 tonnes). These 2030 and 2050 numbers are based on an International Energy Agency scenario.
The emissions calculated by this calculator are based on calculations from myclimate.org, a non-profit environmental organization.
The fuel consumption of a jet depends on the size of the aircraft and distance traveled, but takeoff and climbing to cruising altitude are particularly fuel-intensive. On shorter flights, the takeoff and initial climb will constitute a greater proportion of the total flight time so fuel consumption per mile will be higher than on longer (e.g. international) flights.
The detailed methodology is described in more detail in this document.
In addition to emissions of CO2 from the burning of jet fuel, jets also emit other gases (including methane, NOx, and water vapor) which can also contribute to warming (also known as “radiative forcing”). Because the emissions are occurring at high altitude, these gases can have different impacts than those at lower altitude. A number of studies have estimated the impact of these other gases can significantly contribute to the overall radiative forcing and have somewhere between 1.5 and 3 times the impact that the CO2 alone would. A number of studies, including the myclimate calculator use a factor of 2 to account for these non-CO2 gases and their warming impact, and that is what is used in this calculator as well.
Unlike cars, trucks and trains, it is much harder to power airplanes with batteries and electricity and producing low-carbon jet fuels from biomass is proving very challenging.
In order to achieve climate stabilization at 2 degrees C, global emissions need to basically go to zero over the next 40 years. With a growing global population, this means that the allowable emissions per person will shrink rapidly over these coming decades.
Ultimately, while aviation is a small part of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is a larger part of emissions in richer countries (i.e. if you are reading/viewing this post). And there are many in these richer countries who fly a disproportionate amount and therefore contribute a disproportionate amount of emissions. Hopefully, putting airplane travel in this context can help us better understand the impact of our actions and choices and maybe even change behavior for some.
Tools and Data Sources
The current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million (ppm). This has grown about 46% since pre-industrial levels (~280 ppm) in the early 1800s. The growing concentration of CO2 is a big concern because it is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, which is increasing the temperature of the planet and leading to substantial changes in the Earth’s climate patterns.
This graph visualizes the growth in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (mainly from CO2 emissions due to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy production, deforestation and other industrial processes). The graph starts at 1980 when CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was around 340ppm. It has grown significantly since then.
One of the interesting aspects of CO2 concentration is that it is not identical all around the globe, as it takes awhile for the atmosphere to mix. The graph shows geographic differences in CO2 concentration as well as seasonal ups and downs, that underly an overall growing trend in annual average (mean) concentration.
Seasonal trends in CO2 concentration occur due to differences in the amount of plant growth across different months. Spring and summer plant growth in the northern hemisphere causes a significant amount of photosynthesis, and CO2 absorption, relative to the fall and winter. This plant growth causes a very large amount of CO2 to be absorbed by plants and a noticeable reduction in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The southern hemisphere spring and summer (northern hemisphere fall and winter) aren’t as obvious because there is much less land in the southern hemisphere and the land that is there is close to the tropics and green all year round.
CO2 concentration can change by about 4-5 ppm due to the “breathing” of plants, which is pretty significant. The total weight of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 3 trillion tonnes of CO2, so 4-5 ppm is about 1% of this or 30 billion tons of CO2 removed by plant life each spring/summer.
Data and Tools:
It’s the winter rainy season in California again, so time to check on the status of the water in the California reservoirs. I previously made a “bar graph” showing the overall level of water in the major California reservoirs. This dashboard provides a bit more detail on the state of each of the reservoirs while also showing an aggregate total. It updates hourly using data from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) website, giving an up-to-date picture of California reservoir levels.
This is a marimekko (or mekko) graph which may take some time to understand if you aren’t used to seeing them. Each “row” represents one reservoir, with bars showing how much of the reservoir is filled (blue) and unfilled (brown). The height of the “row” indicates how much water the reservoir could hold. Shasta is the reservoir with the largest capacity and so it is the tallest row. The proportion of blue to brown will show how full it is, while the red line shows the historical level that reservoir is typically at for this date of the water year. There are many very small reservoirs (relative to Shasta) so the bars will be very thin to the point where they are barely a sliver or may not even show up.
If you are on a computer, you can hover your cursor over a reservoir and the dashboard at the top will provide information about that individual reservoir. If you are on a mobile device you can tap the reservoir to get that same info. It’s not possible to see or really interact with the tiniest slivers. The main goal of this visualization is to provide a quick overview of the status of the main reservoirs in the state and how they compare to historical levels.
You can sort the mekko graph by size – largest at the top to smallest at the bottom – or by reservoir location, from north to south.
Units are in kaf, thousands of acre feet. 1 kaf is the amount of water that would cover 1 acre in one thousand feet of water (or 1000 acres in water in 1 foot of water). It is also the amount of water in a cube that is 352 feet per side (about the length of a football field). Shasta is very large and could hold about 3.5 cubic kilometers of water at full (but not flood) capacity.
Data and Tools
Fires are once again raging in California and air quality in one of the most populated metropolitan areas in the country (the San Francisco Bay Area) is quite poor. This map show current air quality in the Bay Area. For more information see the EPA’s Air Quality website.
EPA has assigned a specific color to each AQI category to make it easier for people to understand quickly whether air pollution is reaching unhealthy levels in their communities. For example, the color orange means that conditions are "unhealthy for sensitive groups," while red means that conditions may be "unhealthy for everyone," and so on.
|Air Quality Index
Levels of Health Concern
|Good||0 to 50||Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.|
|Moderate||51 to 100||Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.|
|Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups||101 to 150||Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.|
|Unhealthy||151 to 200||Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.|
|Very Unhealthy||201 to 300||Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects.|
|Hazardous||301 to 500||Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.|
For more information and additional maps see the EPA’s Air Quality website.