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Visualizing the State of Climate Change

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road to net zero part 1 of 2
road to net zero part 2 of 2

The following content is sponsored by the National Public Utilities Council

state of climate change

Visualizing the State of Climate Change

The recent influx of wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes serves as a warning sign of the impact of climate change.

In order to identify ways to mitigate the crisis, it’s important to understand the historical drivers and current state of climate change.

This infographic sponsored by the National Public Utilities Council (NPUC) explores how human activities have influenced the climate crisis and how decarbonizing the power sector can help.

The Human Drivers of Climate Change

Global warming, the phenomenon driving climate change, is a result of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

GHGs in the atmosphere increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect. This refers to the natural warming of the Earth that occurs when GHGs trap the sun’s heat.

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities like energy generation and consumption from fossil fuels have accelerated GHG emissions and the greenhouse effect. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now nearly 415 parts per million (ppm), up from around 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the Earth is warming faster.

For a better understanding of how humans have contributed to the crisis, here’s a look at historical CO2 emissions by sector:

SectorCumulative CO2 Emissions (1990-2019, tonnes)% of Total
Electricity and heat365,985,719,72742%
Transport190,149,431,15222%
Manufacturing and construction147,502,429,93217%
Buildings79,021,039,5519%
Land-use change and forestry38,930,010,1624%
Industry29,901,350,0373%
Other26,993,370,1173%
Total878,483,350,677100%

Electricity and heat by far accounts for the largest share of emissions since 1990. This is because of the dominance of fossil fuels in our energy mix over the last few decades.

The transport sector is the second-largest contributor largely due to the reliance on internal combustion engines, oil-fired ships, and other fossil fuel products like jet fuel.

Limiting the temperature rise and ultimately the impacts of climate change will require emissions reductions across all sectors, starting with electricity generation.

How Decarbonizing the Power Sector Can Help

A decarbonized energy system with clean electricity generation is an essential building block for the road to net-zero emissions.

There are two factors that emphasize the importance of a clean power sector. First, all sectors of the modern economy rely on electricity for daily functions. If this electricity comes from clean sources, it can help reduce the consumer’s carbon footprint. Second, global power demand is charging up with the electrification of sectors like transport and industry. As a result, supplying clean electricity will be more important than ever.

In Part 2 of the Road to Net Zero series, we will explore pathways to decarbonize the U.S. economy, beginning with the power sector.

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Climate

The Rise in America’s Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

From tropical cyclones to severe storms, the number of extreme weather disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion has climbed over time.

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A bar chart showing rising U.S.extreme weather disasters for each decade since the 1980s, with the view cut off part way through the 2010s.

The Rise in U.S. Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Disasters

Since 1980, there have been 383 extreme weather or climate disasters where the damages reached at least $1 billion. In total, these disasters have cost more than $2.7 trillion.

Created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, this chart shows how these disasters have been increasing with each passing decade.

A Growing Concern

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks each disaster and estimates the cost based on factors like physical damages and time losses such as business interruption. They adjust all costs by the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation.

DecadeTotal No. of EventsTotal Inflation-Adjusted Cost
1980s33$216B
1990s57$330B
2000s67$611B
2010s131$978B
2020s*95$568B

* Data is as of May 8, 2024.

Both the number and cost of extreme weather disasters has grown over time. In fact, not even halfway through the 2020s the number of disasters is over 70% of those seen during the entire 2010s. 

Severe storms have been the most common, accounting for half of all billion-dollar disasters since 1980. In terms of costs, tropical cyclones have caused the lion’s share—more than 50% of the total. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005, remains the most expensive single event with $199 billion in inflation-adjusted costs.

Electricity and Extreme Weather Disasters

With severe storms and other disasters rising, the electricity people rely on is significantly impacted. For instance, droughts have been associated with a decline in hydropower, which is an important source of U.S. renewable electricity generation. 

Disasters can also lead to significant costs for utility companies. Hawaii Electric faces $5 billion in potential damages claims for the 2023 wildfire, which is nearly eight times its insurance coverage. Lawsuits accuse the company of negligence in maintaining its infrastructure, such as failing to strengthen power poles to withstand high winds. 

Given that the utilities industry is facing the highest risk from extreme weather and climate disasters, some companies have begun to prepare for such events. This means taking steps like burying power lines, increasing insurance coverage, and upgrading infrastructure. 

Learn how the National Public Utilities Council is working toward the future of sustainable electricity.

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Mapped: Global Temperature Rise by Country (2022-2100P)

In this set of three maps, we show the global temperature rise on a national level for 2022, 2050, and 2100 based on an analysis by Berkeley Earth.

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global temperature rise by country 2022, 2050, 2100

Mapped: Global Temperature Rise by Country (2022-2100P)

Many scientific authorities, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), often discuss the need to limit planetary warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

But did you know that this warming will not be evenly distributed throughout the globe due to factors such as geography, weather patterns, ocean currents, and the influence of human activities?

To discover the current and projected nuances of this uneven warming, these three maps created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council visualize the global temperature rise by country, using new and updated data from Berkeley Earth.

Current State of Warming

The three maps above visualize warming relative to each country’s average 1850-1900 temperatures.

Looking at warming in 2022, we see that average national warming (i.e. warming excluding oceans) is already 1.81°C above those numbers, with Mongolia warming the most (2.54°C) and Bangladesh warming the least (1.1°C).

As the map depicts, warming is generally more accelerated in the Global North. One of the reasons for this is Arctic amplification.

Arctic amplification refers to the disproportionate heating experienced in the Arctic compared to the rest of the planet. This amplification is fueled by multiple feedback loops, including decreased albedo as ice cover diminishes, leading to further absorption of heat and exacerbating the warming effect.

Arctic amplification. Source: NASA

Aside from modern-day observations, the effects of Arctic amplification are also clearly seen in climate models, where accelerated warming in countries such as Russia and Canada is seen through 2100.

Projected Warming in 2050 and 2100

Moving over to the second and third maps in the slides above, we discover country-level 2050 and 2100 warming projections.

These projections are based on the IPCC’s “middle-of-the-road” scenario, titled Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) 2-4.5. Out of the various established pathways, this one is the closest to expected emissions under current policies.

2050 Projections

Under the SSP2-4.5 scenario, average national warming is projected to be 2.75°C above average 1850-1900 temperatures in 2050. This includes Mongolia, with the most substantial warming of 3.76°C, and New Zealand, with the mildest warming of 2.02°C.

To put those temperatures into context, here are the risks that would likely accompany them, according to the IPCC’s latest assessment report.

  • Extreme weather events will be more frequent and intense, including heavy precipitation and related flooding and cyclones.
  • Nearly all ecosystems will face high risks of biodiversity loss, including terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • Accelerated sea level rise will threaten coastal cities, leading to mass displacement.

Let’s now take a look at 2100 projections, which would have significantly higher levels of risk unless fast and extreme mitigation and adaptation measures are implemented in the upcoming decades.

2100 Projections

2100 projections under the SSP2-4.5 scenario depict an average national warming of 3.80°C.

More than 55 countries across the globe are projected to have warming above 4°C in comparison to their 1850-1900 averages, and nearly 100 above 3.5​​°C.

Here is what those levels of warming would likely mean, according to the IPCC.

  • 3-39% of terrestrial species will face very high risks of extinction.
  • Water scarcity will considerably affect cities, farms, and hydro plants, and about 10% of the world’s land area will experience rises in both exceptionally high and exceptionally low river flows.
  • Droughts, floods, and heatwaves will pose substantial threats to global food production and accessibility, eroding food security and impacting nutritional stability on a significant scale.

Generally, warming at this level is expected to pose substantial catastrophic risks to humanity, necessitating swift and bold climate action.

Learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization here.

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