The Weekly Anthropocene, October 12 2022
Dispatches from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
Once, American chestnut trees were the “redwoods of the East,” beloved food-providing1 titans of Appalachian forests. Then, the chestnut blight fungus struck: accidentally introduced to North America from Asia around 1904, it had killed almost all mature American chestnut trees by 1940. However, for the last few decades the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) has been using hybridization, careful backcrossing, and genetic engineering to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts, and in the last few years new orchards of successful blight-resistant seedlings have been planted across the eastern US (including in Cape Elizabeth, Maine!).
Now, a nonprofit called Green Forests Work is planting thousands of ACF blight-resistant chestnut trees on land formerly ravaged by coal mines in Ohio and West Virginia, working to restore damaged ecosystems and reintroduce a part of America’s ecological heritage at the same time. (Pictured: a new American chestnut burr in Ohio). This is a quintessential story of a good Anthropocene: it’s hard to get more symbolic than planting trees that human ingenuity saved from extinction on the graves of fossil fuel industry. Great news!
Since the election of the Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese as Australian Prime Minister in May 2022, ending nine years of rule by an increasingly anti-environmental conservative coalition, Australia has made impressive progress on a wide range of climate and biodiversity issues. An array of national and state-level projects are taking smart, bold action to build a better Anthropocene.
On the national level, the Albanese Administration has released a 10-year plan to reduce Australia’s high extinction rate to zero. The Threatened Species Action Plan (available in full here) focuses on 110 priority species and 20 priority habitats that will receive intensive conservation efforts, and sets a target to protect at least 30% of the continent-country’s land.
As previously discussed in this newsletter, the state of South Australia will likely reach 100% renewable electricity by 2026, and Queensland has a “SuperGrid” plan to reach 80% renewable electricity by 2035.
In summer 2022, the state of Western Australia created three new marine state parks in the remote Buccaneer Archipelago: the Bardi Jawi Gaarra, Mayala and Maiyalam Marine Parks. (Pictured: an island in Maiyalam Marine Park). Together, they protect 2,317 square miles, about the size of Delaware, and are home to snubfin dolphins, sea turtles, humpback whales, dugongs, and manta rays. Notably, all three were co-created with the local Australian Aborigine indigenous peoples, and will be co-managed by the state and local Aboriginal groups, with traditional ecological knowledge like controlled-burn fire prevention integrated into park management by indigenous rangers.
“The creation of these marine parks is a significant milestone for Australia as it shows true co-design between government and traditional owners can be achieved,” -Tyronne Gartsone (of the Bardi people), CEO of Kimberley Land Council.
The state of Victoria in September 2022 set one of the world’s biggest energy storage targets, planning for 6.3 gigawatts (6,300 MW) of renewable energy storage by 2035, with an interim target of 2.6 GW by 2030. Mere days later, Victoria saw an announcement that the Loy Yang A coal plant, which currently provides 30% of the state’s electricity, will be shut down by 2035, a decade ahead of schedule. The plan is to replace it with renewables.
Bloomberg reports that wind and solar power combined met more than 10.5% of the world’s electricity demand in 2021, breaking the 10% mark for the first time. That’s an increase from substantially less than than 1% of world electricity demand in 2012. That’s wind and solar alone: not even all renewables, which also includes hydro and geothermal, let alone all zero-carbon emissions energy, which also includes nuclear. Zero carbon emissions energy accounted for 39% of global electricity in 2021. Also, note the chart above showing new power generating capacity installed in 2021: solar and wind predominate, in another massive increase from 2012!
That renewables boom is set to keep going and going, particularly in the United States. Already, investment bankers Guggenheim Securities have reported in a note to clients that as of right now in the USA, building new utility-scale solar is 33% cheaper than natural-gas fired power plants, and onshore wind is 44% cheaper. And the immense benefits of the truly epic and game-changing Inflation Reduction Act (thanks, Biden!) may be even greater than thought, as discussed in a great new article in the Atlantic: the IRA will spend $374 billion of direct federal money in tax credits for renewables and other climate actions, but a new Credit Suisse report calculates that that may unlock a total of $1.7 trillion in new spending when you count all the extra private investment that will be enticed to clean energy with this new steady government support. This is going to become the most important story of the American economy this decade. Spectacular news!
Electric vehicles are taking over China, the world’s largest auto market, much faster than expected. According to a new report from S&P Global, China’s EV sales grew 121.5% year on year in early 2022, and reached 24.6% of total new automobile market share for the first seven months of 2022.
“EVs in China crossed the 20% market share threshold way ahead of schedule, maybe even five years ahead of schedule,”-Mark Mozur, Research Lead of Future Energy Outlook at S&P Global.
China’s gasoline demand is set to peak as soon as 2023 (!), and all signs point to the EV boom advancing further and further. Great news!
And a new study has found that Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the consequent disruptions to the global energy market have reduced fossil fuel use and increased clean energy investments. In the first half of 2022, global power demand increased by 2.5%, but emissions decreased by 1%, as coal consumption dropped by 1.2% while wind and solar output jumped by 17%. In other words, as another report detailed, renewables met all of the global insecurity-induced demand growth in the first half of 2022, preventing a rise in fossil fuel use. See the chart above to compare actual change in fossil fuel electricity generation compared to the expected change if wind and solar hadn’t risen to the challenge. Great news!
This writer recently tasted forest-gathered, oven-roasted European chestnuts, and can testify that they’re delicious: there’s a reason the classic Christmas song eulogizes “chestnuts roasting over an open fire.” In the next few decades, Americans will be able to reclaim this part of their culinary heritage as well!