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This Week In Climate: Bad Bunny and the return of the hunger stones

Sunday, August 28th, 2022: In our climate news column, we look at a new tax on private planes in France, California's ban of gasoline-powered cars, and Puerto Rico's new virtual power plant.
Julian Moore
Aug 28, 2022 11 min read
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Waterways across Europe are running dry, and on the River Elbe that means the return of the hunger stones.

Dating as far back as 1115, hunger stones are river-bed rock carvings found in German-speaking areas of Europe where victims of past droughts commemorated the starvation that followed from times when the rocks were visible.

Some of the etchings are still legible, and they’re mostly ominous.

One simply offers: “if you see me, weep.”

It’s a warning for anyone tempted to dismiss the suffering brought by droughts all too similar to those currently wracking parts of Europe, China, Africa, South America and North America, to say nothing of the mega-droughts promised by climate models.

The stones are also a ready-made metaphor for the times of climate change: the consequences of our actions won’t stay submerged and out of sight forever.

Dark stuff, indeed— but it ain’t all bad. China’s dry rivers are forcing steam-powered coal plants offline, while human ingenuity is improving yields in a number of different crops despite the heat.

Weeping won’t get us to a carbon-negative economy any time soon. But this week, legislators and grassroots movements across the world took a handful of actions that just might.

French Flights

France’s transport minister announced this week that he is preparing a plan to tax private jet flights for their carbon emissions.

The French Green Party has sought to ban all private flights, but transport minister Claude Beaune tempered that with a proposal for a “carbon quota”. The idea is to apply the principles of a cap-and-trade regime to individuals by establishing an emissions maximum to all citizens, and taxing those who surpass their cap.

The private aviation industry is, predictably, pushing back, pointing out that private aviation only accounts for 4% of total flight emissions, which themselves are only 2.4% of global emissions.

Seen in terms of per capita carbon footprint, however, private flights strike a wildly outsized pollution profile. A European Union study found that private jets emit more than 14 times per mile as much as commercial flights, and 50 times more than trains.

The French government has taken aim at carbon pollution from aviation before. Last year, it passed a law to ban short-haul flights if an alternative bus or train route exists and would take less than 2.5 hours. That law is still under review at the European level and hasn’t gone into force yet.

France has seen a kaleidoscope of early-onset climate impacts this summer in what Le Monde speculates could be “the summer that indifference ended”. Dizzying heatwaves have parched multiple regions of the country, unleashing wildfires, accelerated glacial melts, diminished crop yields and stretches of the Loire River running almost completely dry. Thunderstorms are forecast for next week, all but guaranteeing floods over the impenetrable drought-stricken soil.

California Electric Cars

California regulators voted this week to ban the sale of all gasoline-powered cars in the state by 2035, shifting the United States’ largest car market away from fossil fuel transport long before the rest of the country.

Washington, Oregon and New York are among 13 states that have historically taken policy cues from California when it comes to tailpipe regulations, and Washington governor Jay Inslee announced his state would soon follow suit.

California is the cradle of American car culture, and the size of its automotive market often gives it the power to sway industry decision-making. Even if the state acts on its own, most car manufacturers don’t want to complicate their production chains by selling different cars in different states

That history got a little complicated with the infamous Dieselgate scandal. Federal regulators introduced tighter emissions standards for diesel cars from 2004-2009, with the state of California adding its own limits shortly. Volkswagen appeared to produce compliant vehicles until a 2014 investigation by California regulators showed they were just rigging the emissions reporting software in their cars.

That type of juking will be harder to pull off with fake EVS, but the car industry is still expressing some skepticism about the 2035 plan. EVs still only make up less than 6% of new sales, giving the industry just over a decade to fill in the remaining 94%.

Inflation, scarcity of metals, labor shortages and charging station infrastructure each promise to present obstacles to the law’s implementation. But last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill included millions in funds for building out charging stations across the country, putting necessary changes in motion that have also begun this month.

Puerto Rico Power

Bad Bunny made his debut in the energy debate earlier this month when he called out Puerto Rico’s electricity grid as the “worst energy system”. He was echoing the frustration of thousands of protestors who swarmed the governor’s mansion this week, pushing the government to adopt measures that will provide a jolt to clean energy on the island.

The Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA) signaled it will approve the island’s first virtual power plant (VPP) in the coming weeks.

VPPs are distributed networks of battery-paired solar systems connected and managed by software that optimize energy supply throughout the day.

Puerto Ricans have been subjected to persistent rolling blackouts in the five years since Hurricane Maria wracked the U.S. territory (or colony?) as the public utility there has struggled to rebuild its centralized grid.

Many Puerto Ricans have taken the crisis as an opportunity to gain energy independence from the troubled central system. A year prior to Maria, only 5,000 rooftops in Puerto Rico had solar panels. That number has leapt to 50,000 today, putting the island in a more resilient position against both tropical and political storms.

In 2019, Puerto Rico’s government passed an energy law known as Act 17, requiring 40% of the island’s supply come from renewables by 2025, and 100% by 2050. Even if their efforts to stabilize the grid while privatizing it fail, grassroots movement toward clean energy might come through to save them.

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The Author

Julian Moore