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Biden administration puts a price on carbon

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On Friday, the Biden administration announced it had fulfilled the requirements of one of the executive orders issued on the very first day of his presidency: determining what’s called the “social cost of carbon.” This figure tries to capture the cumulative economic value achieved by investing in limiting carbon emissions now. As such, carbon’s social cost plays a key role in informing the cost/benefit analysis of any government policy or regulation that influences carbon emissions.

The government is required to attach a value to the social cost of carbon, which typically requires the consideration of extensive economic and climate research. But the Trump administration had ended the process of updating the value after having chosen an artificially low one. Given a 30-day deadline to come up with a new one, the Biden administration has chosen to adjust the last pre-Trump value for inflation and use that until it can do a more detailed analysis of how the research landscape has changed over the last four years.

The net result is a dramatically higher price on carbon that will enable far more aggressive regulatory action for at least the next four years.

Counting costs

The social cost of carbon is difficult to calculate. According to the document that details the new figures, the social cost of carbon should include “the value of all climate change impacts, including (but not limited to) changes in net agricultural productivity, human health effects, property damage from increased flood risk natural disasters, disruption of energy systems, risk of conflict, environmental migration, and the value of ecosystem services.” Obviously, understanding all of these factors requires a lot of research on climate change, human health, the ecosystem’s response, agriculture, and economics, among other considerations.

The US government only got into the process of calculating carbon’s social cost because it had to. In 2008, a court blocked the adoption of fuel-economy rules because they assigned no value to lower carbon emissions. (The new document cites the court as ruling, “While the record shows that there is a range of values, the value of carbon emissions reduction is certainly not zero.”) Since that decision, the government developed and updated this price several times, the most recent being at the end of the Obama administration in 2016.

Two things happened in 2017 that changed the landscape. The first is that the US National Academies of Science issued an expert report that described a process by which the government could ensure that it kept its social cost of carbon updated in line with developing research. The second is that the Trump administration disbanded the group that was tasked with keeping the value up to date and settled on a new, extremely low social cost of carbon.

The administration did so in part by limiting the costs to considering only impacts within the US as opposed to the entire planet—even though the rest of that planet trades with us, receives foreign aid, sends us refugees, and so on.

Costs at a discount

The people who put together the new document clearly want to follow the advice in the National Academies report, and they plan on doing so. But it’s also clear that there’s no way that can be done within the Biden Executive Order’s 30-day time limit. And the administration chose 30 days because so many of the regulations it intends to revise—some already thrown out by courts while others are the subject of lawsuits—will need a value for a social cost of carbon.

So, what the new document does is go back to the last reasonable value derived in 2016, updates it for inflation, and use that. The estimates include the social cost not only of carbon dioxide emissions, but for two other greenhouse gasses as well: methane and nitrous oxide.

To understand the values, there, you have to understand something called the discount rate. This rate is meant to adjust for the fact that the cost of something in the present comes in the form of a currency value that will be worth less in the future. Plus, people have a tendency to value money they have in the present more than money saved in the future. While it’s clear that a lower discount rate means present emissions cost more, there’s significant controversy over exactly what the discount rate should be. This document from the London School of Economics explains it all in more detail, and it indicates that, five years ago, the average economist felt that a discount rate of about 2 percent was appropriate for climate.

The new document calculates the social cost of carbon at three different discount rates, for 5 percent, 3 percent, and 2.5 percent—all of them higher (and thus cheaper) than the 2 percent rate suggested by the survey of economists. But even the 5 percent value produces a social cost of carbon of $14 per metric ton of emissions, which is roughly triple the value that the Trump administration had used. At the high end, the 2.5 percent figure is $76, or over 10 times what the Trump administration.

Real-world impacts

To get a sense of what this means, we can take burning enough coal to produce a megawatt-hour of power, which the Energy Information Agency indicates will produce about a metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. For domestic energy users, the typical price of that electricity would be about $128.00. Under the middle-of-the-road 3 percent discount figure, the social cost of carbon from those emissions would add $51.00 to that price, an increase of 40 percent.

Even given that moderate value, the social cost of carbon means that most reasonable steps to limit coal use will pass any economic tests you can throw at them. Notably, this doesn’t include all the health costs from the other emissions associated with burning coal, and so it is an underestimate of the full societal burden. The use of coal is simply exporting far too many future costs on society; its current use is only economical because we pretend those costs don’t exist.

The costs also go up over time, as calculated at 5-year intervals. This is because the intervening time will see further emissions locked in, meaning each further metric ton of emissions in the future will take us further away from a desirable climate. So, the 3 percent discount rate sees the social cost of carbon hit $85.00 by 2050.

Methane and nitrous oxide are far more potent greenhouse gasses, and their current social costs are astronomical in comparison. At the same 3 percent discount rate, a metric ton of methane emissions has a social cost of $1,500.00p; nitrous oxide hits $18,000.00.

Limit methane!

Again, this means that nearly any regulation meant to limit methane leaks—like the one issued by Obama and then rescinded by Trump—would easily pass an economic test. This may also have a heavy influence on the Biden administration’s plan to re-evaluate the price paid for drilling for gas on federal lands, which is expected to include the environmental costs of the fuel extracted.

None of this means that society will suddenly start to pay the social costs of fossil fuels in their electric bills, as emissions regulations do just that: limit emissions. Instead, regulations generally leave it to private industry to find economic ways of ensuring those limits are met. In many cases, however, the regulations themselves have to be justified via a cost-benefit analysis, and those often end up the subject of court action. These values for the social cost of carbon, in addition to being more realistic, will likely make it harder to challenge Biden’s impending regulatory moves on economic grounds.

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More J&J troubles: Vaccine manufacturing halted and more possible clot cases

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Enlarge / The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021.

The US Food and Drug Administration last week asked Emergent BioSolutions to stop making Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine at its troubled facility in Baltimore, according to a regulatory filing Emergent released Monday.

The FDA had begun an inspection of the contract manufacturer’s facility on April 12 but requested on April 16 that production be halted “pending completion of the inspection and remediation of any resulting findings,” the filing reads. Any vaccine materials already made at the plant will be held in quarantine.

The production halt follows news last month that a mishap at the plant led to the ruin of 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine. The ruined doses had reportedly been contaminated with ingredients from AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was also being manufactured at the plant at the time.

The accident was a major stumbling block for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine production—but not a consumer safety issue. All of the doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine that has been used in the US so far have been produced in the Netherlands. The Emergent facility in Baltimore had not yet been authorized by the FDA for vaccine production when the doses were ruined, and none of the spoiled doses completed the production process.

Early this month, the Biden administration put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the facility and ordered AstraZeneca’s vaccine production out to prevent further cross-contamination problems. At the time, the company said that, despite the setback, it still expected to meet its commitment to deliver nearly 100 million doses of its vaccine to the US government by the end of May. But the current production pause again raises questions of whether the company will still be able to meet that goal.

“At this time, it is premature to speculate on any potential impact this could have on the timing of our vaccine deliveries” the company told Reuters.

In a statement to Politico, Emergent said:

While we await the FDA’s full feedback, we are working with J&J and the FDA on strengthening the supply chain for this vitally important vaccine… We acknowledge that there are improvements we must make to meet the high standards we have set for ourselves and to restore confidence in our quality systems and manufacturing processes.

Pause beyond pause

For now, Biden officials say they have enough vaccine supply from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to continue the current pace of vaccinations, which has exceeded 3 million doses a day recently.

Regardless of the production pause, use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was already on pause as federal health experts and advisors review data linking the vaccine to an extremely rare but dangerous blood-clotting condition.

Last week, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, out of more than 6.8 million vaccine doses administered, they had identified six cases of the unusual condition, which leads to dangerous life-threatening blood clots in combination with low levels of platelets. One person died of the condition, and another was said to be in critical condition.

A vaccine advisory committee for the CDC, called ACIP, held an emergency meeting last week but punted on making any recommendations for use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine going forward. Instead, the committee scheduled another public meeting for this Friday, April 23 from 11 am to 5 pm EDT where it will review further data and analyses.

In a White House press briefing Monday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said that the agency had received additional reports of blood-clotting cases possibly linked to the vaccine.

There have been “a handful of cases, not an overwhelming number of cases,” Walensky said in the briefing. “We are working through and adjudicating them and verifying whether they do in fact reflect a true case.” The CDC and the FDA will then present their findings to ACIP on Friday, she said.

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Missing Arctic ice fueled the “Beast of the East” winter storm

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Enlarge / Picking up moisture from the ice-free sea, a storm builds and heads towards Europe.

Extreme weather has become the new normal—whether it’s precipitation, drought, wind, heat, or cold. The question of how the ever-shrinking layer of Arctic sea ice has contributed to any of these changes has prompted some lively discussion over the past few years. Researchers have proposed that a weakened jet stream driven by vanishing Arctic sea ice might play a large role in extreme winter events like the descending polar vortex that struck North America earlier this year. But the idea hasn’t held up well in light of more recent evidence.

But now, researchers have identified a direct link between extreme winter weather and sea ice loss. The 2018 “Beast of the East” winter storm hit Europe with record-breaking snowfall and low temperatures. And potentially as much as 88 percent of that snowfall originated from increased evaporation of the Barents Sea.

The working hypothesis is that Arctic sea ice acts as a cap for Arctic waters, limiting evaporation. Less sea ice and warmer Arctic temperatures mean more evaporation, potentially explaining the increased severity of winter storms like the Beast of the East. Until now, it’s been tough to measure direct evidence linking sea ice loss to extreme European winters, but recent advances in technology are making this a little less challenging.

Secrets of the north

With sub-freezing temperatures, 24-hour darkness in winter, and, well, not very much land, the Arctic is among the world’s most hostile research environments. To date, much of the direct data from the region has been collected by hands-on research boats, but these expeditions are expensive and limited in where and when they can be used.

Instead, this latest research used a recent technology—an isotope and gas-concentration analyzer—that automatically collects real-time data at the impressive frequency of nearly one measurement per second. Although the researchers haven’t installed the instrument in the furthest reaches of the Arctic, they have added one at a weather station in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, northern Finland, just a few hundred kilometers from the Norwegian Sea.

They installed the instrument in late 2017, and it’s been allowing them to detect the naturally occurring stable isotopes in water vapor—i.e., hydrogen and oxygen—since then. Two of these isotopes, 18O and 2H, have been widely used for tracking hydrological processes over the last 70 years. Because these isotopes are a little heavier, they are less likely to evaporate, creating unique isotope “fingerprints” for phase transitions such as evaporation, cloud formation, rain, and snow. This has made it possible to trace the origins of storm systems—and the research team put this instrument in place just in time for a whopper of a storm.

The Beast

Within months of installing the instrument, the team noticed a huge isotope spike in March of 2018, just as the Beast of the East arrived in Europe. The researchers could trace this spike in vapor back to unusually high amounts of evaporation from the Barents Sea, which was warmer and more ice-free than historical norms.

“The data from our study represent the first ‘real measurements’ that prove that sea ice loss through enhanced evaporation is contributing to extreme mid-latitude snowfall events,” says first author Hannah Bailey. “Up until now scientists have explored the link between Arctic sea ice loss and extreme snowfalls using climate models and, without this technology we’re using, it simply wouldn’t be possible to capture these types of natural events and processes in real-time.”

The team also combined satellite data and modeling to calculate that up to 88 percent of the snow from the Beast storm—140 billion tons—may have come from the Barents Sea.

Less ice, more snowfall

The team focused on the Barents Sea because it is a literal “hotspot” of decreasing sea ice in the Arctic. Maximum March sea ice levels there have dropped 54 percent since 1979. Using historical satellite observations and atmospheric models, the team confirmed that smaller amounts of Barents Sea ice have regularly correlated with higher evaporation and heavier March snowfall across northern Europe over the last 30 years.

This evidence also suggests that this trend may intensify with further sea ice loss in the Barents Sea, which some researchers have predicted may be ice-free by 2061-2088. The team hopes to establish a network of these isotope monitoring instruments throughout the Arctic—both on ships and on land—in order to better measure these changes moving forward.

“There is scientific consensus that the decline of Arctic sea ice impacts mid-latitude weather, but there is a lack of consensus among the models used to investigate these processes,” says Bailey. “There’s huge potential for atmospheric vapor isotope data to improve weather forecasting, as well as aid in the prediction of extreme weather events that impact society.”

Nature Geoscience, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-021-00719-y  (About DOIs).

K.E.D. Coan is a freelance journalist covering climate and environment stories at Ars Technica. She has a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

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Denisovans may have met us in the Pacific

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Enlarge / The highlands of Papua New Guinea.

David Kirkland | Getty Images

The inhabitants of the Pacific came in waves. Aboriginal Australians were the first to cross the area, and they were followed by separate populations that inhabited New Guinea and nearby island chains. Later still, the Polynesians, descendants of early East Asians, spread through the distant islands of the Pacific.

While modern genetics has made these rough outlines clear, it has also made it clear that these different populations sometimes interacted, sharing DNA along with technology and trade goods. Paleontology finds have made it clear that at least three distinct hominin species had occupied some of these islands before modern humans arrived, including the enigmatic Hobbits of Indonesia and a similarly diminutive species in the Philippines.

A recent study of the genomes of Pacific island populations provides a map of some of the major interactions that took place in the Pacific. And it suggests at least one of these involved the introduction of additional Denisovan DNA.

New genomes

The work started with the sequencing of over 300 genomes volunteered by individuals from 20 different populations throughout the Pacific. The research team grouped these populations according to whether they came from Near Oceania (Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Philippines) or more distant islands of the Pacific (collectively Far Oceania). The latter is largely populated by the Polynesians, who arrived relatively late and had a distinct genetic history. But there were clearly interactions between the two groups, and the border between the areas each occupies is fuzzy in locations.

By comparing the genome sequences with each other and ancestral populations, it’s possible to make estimates of which groups are related to which others, as well as the time at which the different populations branched off. In addition, it’s possible to detect interbreeding among the populations, based on the appearance of stretches of DNA that are found in one population but are more similar to those from another.

The people who live in the highlands of Papua New Guinea have the earliest split, separating from the populations of other islands about 40,000 years ago. The branches of that lineage who inhabit the Bismarck and Solomon Islands separated from each other about 20,000 years ago.

But things get much less neat in Vanuatu, a group of islands out past the eastern end of the Solomons. About a third of their genome comes from Bismarck islanders, and that was a recent arrival, the result of interactions that took place only about 3,000 years ago. The rest comes from a group that started out in Papua but interbred with the Solomon Islands population en route. All of that means that Vanuatu is like a melting pot of near oceanic populations.

Then there are the Polynesians. They seem to have interbred with both the Bismarck and Solomon islanders. The best fit to the data involves one interaction right as the Polynesians arrived in the area about 3,500 years ago and a second interaction that occurred a thousand years later.

Premodern humans

All of the populations sampled seem to have roughly similar amounts of Neanderthal DNA, present in similar locations in the genome, suggesting there was nothing unusual about their genetic history compared to other groups in the region. But that was not the case with the Denisovans. The amount of Denisovan DNA varied considerably among the populations, with the highest percentage found in those from the New Guinea highlanders.

Analysis of the Denisovan DNA segments was used to determine two things. The length of the DNA provided a measure of how long ago the interbreeding took place, as the Denisovan DNA segments would get shorter over time thanks to recombination. The sequence itself could be compared to the genome of a Denisovan bone in Siberia, which tells us a bit about how diverse the Denisovan population was.

East Asian populations and the Polynesians appear to have had two different periods of interbreeding with Denisovans, both of which were reasonably closely related to the Siberian population.

The people of Papua New Guinea also showed signs of two periods of interbreeding. But, rather critically, they weren’t the same ones seen in East Asians. The first involved interbreeding around 45,000 years ago with a population that had separated from the Siberian Denisovans by roughly 200,000 years—a genetic contribution shared with the East Asians and Polynesians. But the second interbreeding event took place about 25,000 years ago—after the point where the population was out in the Pacific.

And that’s a bit strange. In terms of fossil evidence, we know that Homo erectus was in the area before modern humans arrived, but its DNA would be substantially different from that of Denisovans. There are two other species—the Hobbits of Flores and an equally odd hominin from the island of Luzon. While these look very different from modern humans (having some traits shared with the earlier Australopiths), we can’t rule out that they are closely related to the Denisovans, which would explain the origin of this DNA.

The researchers checked, and the only signs of distantly related DNA can be accounted for by Neanderthals and Denisovans. So if these island species aren’t Denisovans, then it appears we didn’t interbreed with them in a way that left its mark on modern genomes.

What this tells us

Modern humans reached places that required travel across the open ocean very early during their expansion out of Africa. That would seem to suggest that ocean-going voyages were well within our abilities. But these data indicate that most populations remained relatively isolated from each other once they were established. That suggests that, even though the technology was available to manage this travel, it wasn’t widely used—certainly, there’s no indication of longstanding trade until the Polynesians arrive.

Once the Polynesians did arrive, however, there are indications that they interacted at least twice with the inhabitants of the islands near New Guinea. And Vanuatu, at the border between Near Oceania and Polynesia, seems to have an exceedingly complicated history.

To an extent, it seems that, outside of Vanuatu, these people groups interacted with each other about as often as their ancestors interacted with the Denisovans. The genomic data provides evidence of several distinct periods of interbreeding, including one that for now appears specific to a group that is native to the Philippines. This indicates that some of the interbreeding likely went on after modern humans had migrated out into the Pacific islands.

Since we don’t know of any Denisovan remains in the region, it suggests two possibilities. One is that the Denisovans were in the area undetected—not a huge surprise, given how long their presence in Asia went undetected. But the more intriguing prospect is that one of the species we’re aware of from skeletal remains—Homo luzonensis or Homo floresiensis—represents a branch of the Denisovan lineage. So far, all attempts to extract DNA from these skeletons have failed, so it’s not clear if or how we’d be able to figure this out.

Nature, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03236-5  (About DOIs).

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