A sky full of clouds painted pink at sunset.
Photo: Andrea Ferrario/Unsplash

The climate and clouds conundrum

Protocol Climate

Good day, Protocol Climate friends. Today we’re talking all about clouds. We’ll be exploring the best way to cut down on contrails and their sneaky bad climate impact as well as the most and least carbon-intensive places to site data centers. Float along with us!

One weird trick to fix aviation’s climate problem

Contrails. They look so innocuous up there, their puffy little tendrils stretching across the sky. But they have a dark climate secret, albeit one with an easy solution that could have immediate benefits for our overheating world.

Contrails have a surprisingly large impact on the climate. The clouds of ice crystals that form in the wake of a plane are responsible for more than 50% of flights’ climate impact and up to 2% of total global warming.

  • Contrails’ impact on the climate depends on a number of factors, including the time of day, temperature, a plane’s altitude and other factors.
  • During the day, they generally reflect more solar radiation, essentially acting as a shield for the planet. That has a net cooling effect.
  • Those same contrails, however, could lead to warming a few hours later at night, when that solar radiation is absent. Ken Caldeira, senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, likens it to throwing a blanket over the planet.

Airlines have focused on cutting carbon dioxide, but addressing contrails could be a quick fix. Despite contrails’ outsized impact on the climate, they have largely flown under the radar (aviation joke) outside academic circles.

  • Being able to accurately and consistently measure how contrails affect the climate would be huge simply because their impact is significant.
  • A 2020 study found that changing flight altitude by only a few thousand feet on fewer than 2% of all scheduled flights could reduce the climate damage of the entire aviation industry by as much as 59%.
  • “We could solve the contrail problem within a few years, whereas getting carbon emissions-free aviation fuel is a long way off,” Caldeira said.

Some airlines and tech companies are starting to explore options to kill contrails. Step one comes with measuring how and when they form. “There's no good way to account for them yet, but it is progressing,” said Sola Zheng, an aviation researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

  • Efforts are underway at Google to account for the climate impact of contrails in the flight emissions estimates it provides to users, according to people familiar with the research.
  • Airbus UpNext recently announced a flight test program to study contrails produced by hydrogen combustion engines as part of the company’s zero emissions road map.
  • Etihad Airways and Boeing have also made commitments to combat contrails.

Ultimately, reducing warming contrails could buy us a little climate breathing room while the world works to cut carbon emissions. That’s because contrails can dissipate in a few hours while carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. So there’s no reason not to get to it.

Read more about aviation’s dirty secret here.

— Michelle Ma

Carbon cleanup on cloud 9

Data centers have long been energy hogs, but just how much carbon pollution is tied to their energy use is often an open question. A new report makes it clear, though, which data center hubs are the most — and least — carbon intensive. The findings point to the challenges holding the sector back from reducing carbon emissions, as well as ways tech companies can mitigate the climate toll of their cloud computing demands.

Renewables are good, but they don’t guarantee a clean cloud. The report, released Thursday by cloud management platform Cirrus Nexus, looked at carbon intensity in regions that host clusters of data centers. Carbon intensity is a measure of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity generated.

  • While regions that rely the most on solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power tend to have the lowest carbon intensity, that measure fluctuates dramatically due to renewables’ intermittency when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
  • In the U.S., Midwestern data centers were consistently among the most carbon intensive due to the grid’s heavy reliance on coal and methane gas.
  • Texas, in comparison, relies on both wind and gas. That leaves it a cut above the Midwest but worse off than the Northwest, where hydropower plays a major role in electricity generation.
  • The report emphasized the importance of increasing energy storage to smooth out carbon intensity and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Managing carbon will be key to keeping the cloud cool. Chris Noble, CEO and co-founder of Cirrus Nexus, said that while there’s “not a simple answer” for companies wondering where to locate their workloads in order to minimize their climate toll, there are some best practices.

  • “Companies should also focus on optimizing their operations in order to reduce total emissions, not just use carbon credits to offset,” he said.
  • That includes factoring in the carbon intensity of the power grid cloud providers are hooked up to.
  • Noble said that companies that buy cloud computing services, though, historically have had a blind spot for the emissions tied to data center operations. And ultimately, he said the carbon intensity of cloud operations is a function of what customers demand.

Still, if cloud customers do start to ask for more climate-friendly computing, it could have a major influence on the industry and even have a surprising impact on the grid.

Click here to find out about that impact and read more about the report.

— Lisa Martine Jenkins

Sponsored content from Upwork

Why on-demand talent could be exactly what companies need right now: If you thought the rise of remote work, independent contractors and contingent workers rose sharply during the pandemic, just wait until the next few months when you see a higher uptick in the on-demand talent economy.

Read more from Upwork

Make it rain

Geothermal is getting a boost: the startup Fervo Energyraised $138 million in its latest funding round, led by DCVC, bringing its total investment up to $177 million in five years. Fervo plans to use the funds to make its plan for lower-cost geothermal power plants a reality.

Atom Power, an eight-year-old startup joining the growing number of companies aiming to improve EV charging in the U.S., got a $100 million investment from Korea’s SK.

The carbon management platform Carbon Direct raked in $60 million in an equity investment co-led by Decarbonization Partners and Quantum Energy Partners. The former is a joint venture between BlackRock and Singapore’s state-owned holding company Temasek.

The software startup Zitara promises to make batteries “safer and more profitable” via both physics and machine learning, and this week closed a $12 million series A funding round led by Energy Impact Partners.

Worldfavor, a sustainability reporting platform, amassed nearly $10.2 million in its series A funding round, led by the Nordic SEB Private Equity.

French company Koolbooks aims to bring solar-powered refrigerators and freezers to Africa, where erratic power can make traditional refrigeration a challenge. The startup raised $2.5 million in seed funding, led by the Nigeria-based Aruwa Capital Management.

Mantel, a carbon capture startup, received a $2 million investment led by the MIT spin-off The Engine. The company uses molten salts that absorb carbon dioxide in hot environments like boilers and kilns, used in the notoriously hard-to-decarbonize industrial sector.

In funding news beyond the venture capital world, Volkswagen’s leaders have said the auto giant plans to take a stake in Canadian mining companies in order to guarantee it has sufficient raw materials for batteries for its growing EV business.

Hot links

California put another nail in the internal combustion engine coffin. The state is set to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. More than a dozen states could follow its lead, further jumpstarting the EV revolution.

Google Maps could make our lives easier and help the climate. The service already offers lower-emissions driving routes. But it could go even further by giving users the ability to link biking and public transit in one trip.

You can get paid to turn your truck into a battery. That’s what a new smart-charging program from utility Duke Energy and Ford is offering lucky F-150 Lightning drivers who sign up to bolster the grid.

No one line should have all that power. Or maybe it should. Phil Anschutz, the billionaire owner of Coachella music festival and the Los Angeles Kings, wants to build a power line from Wyoming to California to transport clean energy.

The new Cold War could heat up the planet asChina and the U.S. suspend climate talks. Here are five things to know about what’s next for the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

Sponsored content from Upwork

Why on-demand talent could be exactly what companies need right now: The biggest benefit of leveraging on-demand talent is often tapping into the talent and skills that businesses can’t find elsewhere. Upwork’s recent report highlights that 53% of on-demand talent provide skills that are in short supply for many companies, including IT, marketing, computer programming and business consulting.

Read more from Upwork

Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you next week!

Recent Issues