U.S.-India Climate Agreement Less Substantive Than U.S.-China Climate Deal

January 29, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.

Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.

“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”

The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.

President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling

While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.

Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.

In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”

In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”

Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change

A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”

The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Obama Tackles Climate Change in State of the Union Address

January 22, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.

“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate,” he said, “and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

To combat climate change, the president said the government had taken actions ranging from the way we produce energy to the way we use it. Although he did not mention his use of executive power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, he did highlight the landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gases. “In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Early in the speech, the president referenced the twin goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil and protecting the planet. “Today, America is number one in oil and gas,” he said. “America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

The president obliquely alluded to the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the United States, by noting the need to take a comprehensive look at infrastructure development.

In the GOP response to the SOTU, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst admonished the president for stalling a decision on Keystone.

“President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” she said. “The president’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”

Less than 24 hours after Ernst’s remarks, the House of Representatives approved a bill to fast-track federal approval of natural gas pipelines despite a veto threat from the White House.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirm that 2014 was the hottest year on record and the 18th consecutive year that annual average temperatures have exceeded the previous century’s average.

A few of the 21 scientists interviewed by the Washington Post about 2014’s average global surface temperature of 58.24 F (14.58 C) noted that warming has not kept pace with climate model projections, but most thought the record matches what we should expect as heat-trapping greenhouse gases increasingly accrue in the atmosphere.

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The University of Illinois’ Don Wuebbles, a contributor to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, told a Forbes reporter, “We can safely say it’s probably the warmest year in 1,700 and 2,000 years.”

The most remarkable thing about the 2014 record, say climate experts, was that it occurred in a year without a strong El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern in which the Pacific Ocean pumps heat into the atmosphere.

States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets

States are getting a $48 million boost to their efforts to meet emissions reductions targets for existing power plants under the Clean Power Plan. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the California Heising-Simons family announced the grants to “accelerate” a transition to cleaner energy.

“With the price of clean power falling, and the potential costs of inaction on climate change steadily rising, the work of modernizing America’s power grid is both more feasible and urgent than ever,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But smart investments can reduce it while also strengthening local economies.”

Rather than going directly to states, the grants provided by the Clean Energy Initiative will support organizations that can help states with their energy planning, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. But the bulk of the money for technical assistance, including economic forecasting and legal analysis, will go to groups with a state or regional focus.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


House and Senate Votes, Court Decision Shorten Road to Keystone Decision

January 15, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday the Senate passed a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline in a procedural vote just shy of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, setting up what could be an extensive debate on energy policy and climate in next year’s presidential election. The move followed a bipartisan vote in which the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, Jan. 9.

The House vote came just hours after Nebraska’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the controversial project by upholding a 2012 law giving the governor permitting authority for major oil pipelines. The court overruled a lower court finding that allowing the governor and pipeline owner TransCanada to use eminent domain to lay the pipeline on private land was unconstitutional. However, an attorney for the landowners in the case suggested that the litigation was not over, stating that the outcome amounted to a “nondecision open to further review” because most judges agreed with the landowners on the standing issue and three declined to weigh in on the law’s constitutionality.

The ruling shifted the debate over Keystone to Washington, where Republicans are pushing for its final approval after more than six years of review by the U.S. State Department.

“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Lisa Murkowski said.

“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests.”

In fact, it could take months for the administration to reach a final verdict because the State Department must take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.

Environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline have highlighted the potential for extraction and transport of crude from Canada’s tar sands to contaminate water, pollute air, and harm wildlife. But the GOP, the oil industry, and other pipeline backers argue that Keystone will lead to jobs and increase oil independence as well as strengthen bonds with Canada.

“Boosting American-made energy results in more American jobs and improved international relations,” said Rep. Leonard Lance. “This is a winning combination for our Nation’s economy, our national security and a centerpiece in our relationship with our ally, Canada.”

Rep. Adam Smith had a different take: “Rather than focusing on Keystone XL, we should be working on bigger picture investments in clean energy and energy efficient technologies that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that hurt our environment.”

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

The Obama administration has announced the first-ever national standards to cut methane emissions from new sources in the oil and natural gas industry. Methane accounts for some 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 20 times carbon dioxide’s planet-warming potency.

“This strategy will benefit the economy, the climate and public health,” said Dan Utech, President Obama’s advisor on energy climate change, though activists say the cuts fall short of those needed to reach the administration’s international climate change pledges.

Unclear is whether the proposed 45 percent reduction by 2025 would eventually apply to existing oil and gas installations as well as to future sources of carbon pollution.

Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology are projected to increase methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines are 50 percent higher than previously thought according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.

Estimates of Social Cost of Carbon Vary Widely, with Policy Consequences

The social cost of carbon (SCC) or the economic damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which the United States uses to guide energy regulations and, potentially, future mitigation policies—is $37 per ton according to a recent U.S. government study or, according to a new study by Stanford researchers published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, six times that value.

The Stanford scientists say the current pricing models fail to reflect all the economic damage each ton of CO2 causes and that a higher value on that damage could change policy.

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said study co-author Delavane Diaz. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

“For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy,” said study coauthor Frances Moore. “But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true. If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”

But William Pizer, a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions who has worked on and recommended regular updating of the SCC estimate, questioned the methodology of the Stanford analysis, pointing out that it relied on the impact on national economies of short-term temperature spikes rather than on long-term trends that might reveal permanent economic reductions.

“To me, it just seems like it has to be an overestimate,” Pizer said of the Stanford result of $220 (subscription required). “I think it’s great they’re doing this,” he added. “I just think this is another data point that someone needs to weigh as they’re trying to figure out what the right social cost of carbon is. But this isn’t like a definitive new answer.”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


EPA Delays Release of Carbon Emissions Rules for Power Plants

January 8, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying the release of carbon emissions rules for all power plants and will publish them for new as well as existing plants at the same time mid-summer.

“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality.

McCabe also announced that the EPA will begin drafting a “model rule” for states that do not submit individual plans to meet emissions reduction targets in the existing power plant regulations.

Under the proposed regulations for new sources, the EPA has functionally required new coal power plants to include carbon-capture technology, which critics of the emissions rules say lack proof of efficacy on a large scale and have a high cost to implement. In 2011, the American Electric Power Company reported that including carbon-storing processes at a West Virginia plant would cost an estimated $668 million.

California Cap-and-Trade System Includes Oil and Gas Sector

California’s cap-and-trade program—the country’s first multi-sector carbon emissions trading program—now requires gasoline and diesel producers to supply lower-carbon fuels or to buy carbon allowances—pollution permits—for the greenhouse gases emitted when those fuels are burned.

Key program stakeholders, industry leaders, public officials and environmental advocates agree that consumers will see a rise in gas prices, but the amount remains uncertain.

“There’s a very large universe of variables which could affect gas prices on a daily basis, and we don’t set fuel prices,” said California Air Resources Board spokesperson Dave Clegern. He added, “We don’t see them going up more than a dime, at the most, based on any current cap-and-trade compliance costs.”

It is estimated that 25 percent of secured funds from the emissions trading program will be allotted to the state’s high-speed rail project.

California’s program includes an allowance reserve initially proposed by Nicholas Institute and Duke University researchers that prevents carbon allowance prices from reaching levels beyond the scope of purchasers.

Congress Prepare to Vote on Keystone XL Pipeline

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has cleared legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver some 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest, citing the Obama administration’s “well-established” review process, said, “If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it.”

The pipeline has become a flash point in the debate over climate change and economic growth.

In a December 19 press conference, the president said, “I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless.”

Critics of Keystone have pointed to the carbon intensive production of the crude it will carry. In an op-ed in The Hill, the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rheh Suh, called production of oil from Canadian tar sands an “environmental disaster.”

Supporters argue that Keystone will be a source of economic stimulus. In a statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said, “After six years of foot-dragging, it’s time to finally say yes to jobs and yes to energy. It’s time to build [this pipeline].”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


UN Climate Negotiators Ink Deal in Lima

December 18, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the holidays, The Climate Post will not circulate on December 25th and January 1st. We will return on January 8, 2015.

Negotiators have reached a deal at United Nations (UN) talks in Peru, setting the stage for a global climate pact in Paris in December 2015. The agreement, dubbed the Lima Call for Climate Action, for the first time in history commits every nation to reducing its rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

“As a text, it’s not perfect but it includes the positions of the parties,” said Peru environment minister and conference chair Manuel Pulgar-Vidal.

In addition to an “ambitious agreement” in 2015 that reflects each nation’s “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” the Lima document calls for submission of national pledges by the first quarter of 2015 by those states “ready to do so” and for setting of national targets that go beyond countries’ “current undertaking.”

Countries already imperiled by climate change, such as small island states, were promised a “loss and damage” program of financial aid.

Through Belgium’s pledge of $62 million, the UN Green Climate Fund met its initial target of $10 billion to aid developing countries in curbing carbon emissions.

“There is still considerable work to be done,” said Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico and chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, at the conclusion of the talks. “But I am encouraged that countries, all around the world, are beginning to see that it is in their economic interest to take action now.”

“We are happy that the final negotiated statement at COP20 in Lima has addressed the concerns of developing countries,” said India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar. “It gives enough space for the developing world to grow and take appropriate nationally determined steps,” he said.

But the negotiations, at which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had made an impassioned plea for agreement, were considered a failure by those hoping for ambitious emissions reductions commitments.

“Against the backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year ever recorded, governments at the U.N. climate talks in Lima opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions,” said Samantha Smith, leader of World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy initiative.

The remaining North-South divide over which countries should carry the majority of emissions-cutting costs—plus other thorny matters, such as how to finance poorer countries’ reductions and preparations for extreme climatic events—has increased the diplomatic heavy-lifting required to reach a final agreement in 2015.

“They [countries] got through Lima by largely skirting the issue for now,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s hard to see that flying in Paris.”

Solar Net Metering Terms Set in South Carolin​a

An agreement filed in South Carolina outlines new terms for solar net metering in the state. The terms ensure homes, businesses, schools, and any nonprofit organizations using rooftop solar panels will be provided “one-to-one” retail credit (or full retail value) from the state’s utilities for each kilowatt hour generated back to the electric grid—making South Carolina the 44th state (subscription) to allow for full rate credit.

Referred to as net metering, this process was a key component of Act 236, a law passed in June, which made solar power more accessible in the state.

Upon gaining approval from the South Carolina Public Service Commission, the agreement—supported by utilities such as Duke Energy and environmental groups—will provide homeowners the opportunity to lease solar systems while allowing utility companies to recoup costs of offering service.

According to Dukes Scott, executive director of the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan on reducing carbon emissions will help determine the value or contribution of solar power.

Last Big Warmup May Offer Sneak Peek into Today’s Climate Change

Despite climate warming by five to eight degrees Celsius during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, nearly 55.5 million years ago, most of the species around that time survived. However, it took nearly 200,000 years for Earth to recover from that rise.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Negotiations Heat Up in Closing Stages of UN Climate Change Conference

December 11, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Optimism at the outset of the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, has given way to the hard work of reaching high-level resolution prior to the December 2015 UN meeting in Paris.

Among the challenges is disagreement about regular auditing of carbon emission pledges. The European Union insists on a formal review of all country pledges, whereas the United States recommends a voluntary approach to emissions cuts with the disclaimer of no backtracking in targets. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it,” said Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change. “This is a way to get everyone in.”

Another challenge is differentiating the responsibilities of developed countries and those of developing countries. China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have coordinated their positions at the Lima talks, want to make sure the potential new agreement will allow poorer nations to meet their prevalent needs such as poverty eradication. “Poor people have aspirations,” said India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. “We must give them energy access.”

Host country Peru, along with other Latin American nations (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama), is pushing for aggressive emission cuts by major economies as well as emerging economies such as China and Brazil. However, critics are quick to point out the country’s poor record in protecting rainforests, which play a critical role as carbon sinks.

Struggling through hammering rainfall from Typhoon Hagupit, the Philippines are asking for all nations, developing and developed, to cut use of fossil fuels.

“The thinking of the pivot is—we’re going to take on commitments and do our part,” said Tony La Viña, a Philippine climate change delegate. “The call has always been for developed countries to act. But the thinking is simple. If we’re going to get hit every year again and again, how can we call on developed countries to reduce their emissions, but not reduce our own?”

A new UN report showing climate adaptation costs for developing countries could be two to three times higher than current global estimates makes the 2050 zero-carbon goal another contentious issue. Meeting this goal would significantly affect oil and gas production as well as coal extraction methods. “With a concept like zero emissions and ‘let’s knock fossil fuels out of the picture’, without clear technology diffusion and international cooperation program, you are really not helping the process,” said chief Saudi Arabian negotiator Khalid AbuLeif.

Emissions Reduction Pledges Underscore Importance of Social Cost of Carbon Estimates

The Climate Action Tracker report released by a group of independent scientists notes that recent pledges by the United States, China and the European Union to limit greenhouse gas emissions will, in fact, slow the rate of global warming this century, though not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Draft text of the 2015 global climate change agreement being negotiated in Lima includes a May 3, 2015, deadline for nationally determined contributions—promises from individual countries for internal action on climate change. Figuring into these commitments are estimates of the social cost of carbon, or the per-metric-ton dollar value of reducing climate change damages—a metric that the United States uses in regulatory analysis and that it and other developed countries could use to leverage greater emissions reductions commitments from developing countries.

Several economy and environmental policy experts are recommending that the government change the way (subscription) it establishes this cost. In an article in Science, former U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy and Nicholas Institute faculty fellow William Pizer and his coauthors recommend that the United States adopt a standardized process to regularly evaluate the cost and that the process undergo a public comment period and a review by the National Academy of Sciences.

Commenting on the need for a consistently used and rigorously maintained estimate of climate damages, Pizer said, “It’s important that we draw on the expertise of all government agencies, as well as independent experts in the field. This level of high-quality collaboration and peer review would decrease the likelihood of political factors interfering with the process, and ensure we have the most robust Social Cost of Carbon.”

2014—Hottest Year on Record?

A report issued by The United Nation’s World Meteorological Association says that 2014 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961–1990 average.

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate,” said Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General. “Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives.”

A report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that finds that the historic California drought is due to natural weather patterns, as opposed to hot temperatures across the state, raised the ire of some climate scientists, who said the report did not take into account how record warmth worsened the drought.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Optimism at UN Climate Change Conference

December 4, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

At the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties, known as COP20, in Lima, Peru, delegates from more than 190 nations are hashing out details of an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb permanent damage caused by global warming. Those details will set the stage for next December’s UN meeting in Paris, where negotiators are aiming to finalize a global climate change deal.

Diplomats and longtime observers of the talks say there is rising optimism that negotiators will secure a deal committing all countries to take action against climate change. “I have never felt as optimistic as I have now,” said Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, which are sinking as sea levels rise in the Pacific. “There is an upbeat feeling on the part of everyone that first of all there is an opportunity here and that secondly, we cannot miss it.”

What’s driving the momentum?

Last month, the United States and China, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, announced an agreement to slash their emissions. In October, the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. And, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries address climate change, is on track to meet its ten-billion-dollar initial target.

However, researchers note that drastic cuts are needed to achieve the overall goal of the international community: limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Meeting that goal means emissions must be slashed 40 to 70 percent by 2050.

“We’re in far better shape a year ahead of Paris than at any stage leading up to Copenhagen,” where world leaders tried but failed to reach a climate deal in 2009, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

EPA Closes Public Comment Period on Proposed Clean Power Plan

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially closed the public comment period on its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), having collected more than 1.6 million comments from legislators, industry, environmental advocates and the general public.

The EPA had extended the comment period by 45 days, to December 1, to give the public additional time to understand and analyze the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants across the country by approximately 30 percent by 2030.

“We’ve heard that the carbon reductions targets we proposed are too tough and we’ve heard that they’re not tough enough,” said EPA Air and Radiation Administrator Janet McCabe in an official EPA blog. “What we know for sure is that people care about this issue and we know we have a lot to consider as we work toward a final rule.”

Particularly contentious are the CPP’s state-specific emissions goals. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing all U.S. investor-owned utilities, and other industry leadership, the goals could cause power companies to install costly upgrades that would diminish electricity affordability. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say that falling solar and wind power prices and advancements in efficiency standards could allow the EPA to require steeper emissions cuts sooner—by 2020.

The EPA is scheduled to finalize the proposed rule by June 2015.

Mapping Low-Carbon Investments in the United States 

A recent report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) says the United States can use existing or soon-to-be-available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050—the trajectory on which the recent U.S. agreement with China would put the country, according to Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.

According to the DDPP report, decarbonization in the United States requires three key strategies:

  • Boosting energy efficiency in buildings, cars and industrial facilities
  • Cutting the carbon from electricity and other fuels
  • Swapping high-carbon fuels with low-carbon alternatives

“If you bet on America’s ability to develop and commercialize new technologies, then the net cost of transforming the energy system could be very low, even negative, when you take fuel savings into account,” said Jim Williams, chief scientist at San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. and the report’s lead author.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


IEA Unveils World Energy Outlook 2014: Looking Ahead to 2040

November 20, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return on December 4.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2014 report, which for the first time provides energy trend projections through the year 2040. Among the key challenges in the next two and a half decades is, a 37 percent rise in global energy demand, driven mainly by emerging markets in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Asia will account for 60 percent of global growth in demand, and by early 2030s, China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest oil consumer.

“The short-term picture of a well-supplied oil market should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead as reliance grows on a relatively small number of producers,” according to the WEO report.

The IEA projects that global oil consumption will rise from 90 million barrels a day in 2013 to 104 million barrels a day in 2040, requiring a $900 billion investment in oil and gas development by the 2030s.

Overall use of coal is projected to decrease slowly in demand, while use of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower will grow. The IEA anticipates renewables will saturate one-third of global energy demand by 2040.

CO2 emissions are expected to grow by one-fifth by 2040, which puts the world’s temperature well on track to rise to 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, increasing the risk of droughts, rising sea levels, damaging storms and mudslides.

According to IEA projections, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius deemed by U.N. as the level necessary to avoid dangerous changes would require the world to ramp up low-carbon energy investments by four times their current levels—bringing annual global investment up to approximately $1 trillion.

On the domestic front, a majority of Americans support stricter regulations on carbon emissions, according to a new poll by Yale’s Project on Climate Communication. Further, two thirds of those polled (1,275 adults) support limits on carbon dioxide emissions even after being told such measures would raise power prices.

U.S. Pledges $3 Billion to UN’s Green Climate Fund

On the heels of its climate deal with China, the U.S. announced its intent to contribute $3 billion to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund, which was established in 2013 to provide support to developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The “game-changing pledge,” made by President Obama on the eve of the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, last week, makes the U.S. the fund’s largest contributor. The Obama administration has not specified whether its pledge will come from existing sources of funding or new appropriations from Congress—a strategy that could face stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers.

“The contribution by the U.S. will have a direct impact on mobilizing contributions from the other large economies,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund. “The other large economies—Japan, the U.K.—have been watching to see what the U.S. will do.”

It did not take long for Japan to follow suit with a $1.5 billion pledge to the fund. To date, the U.N. has received pledges from 13 countries totaling $7.5 billion—three-quarters of its $10 billion goal. Rich countries meet in Berlin to further discuss the 2014 goal where pledges reached $9.3 billion.

Panel Approves Rules for Unconventional Oil and Gas

After several years of heated debate, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission approved a detailed list of regulations to guide companies interested in securing unconventional oil and gas permits in the state. The rules were unanimously approved by commission members after review of approximately 217,000 public comments by 30,000 groups and individuals.

One of the rules revised by the commission in light of those comments calls for inclusion of leak detection systems and continuous monitoring of liners for open pits where fluids such as drilling waste are stored.

The approved regulations will be reviewed in December by the NC Rules Review Commission and in January by the state legislature. The commission has identified a number of areas for continued work, including authority to stop a company’s work.

“Just because we don’t have that stop-work authority doesn’t mean we can’t stop the work on site,” said Amy Pickle, vice chair of the commission and director of the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “If something is going wrong, there’s injunctive authority, there is the ability to go to court to require them to stop working, there’s an ability through inspections and monitoring to revoke that permit.”

Across the country, unconventional oil and gas issues continue to be highly polarizing, as measures passed during mid-term elections revealed. A development ban was passed by the town of Denton, the Texas city where the earliest exploration began. In a compromise plan, limited development was approved by the U.S. Forest Service for the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. A 2011 plan draft would have allowed drilling in much of the forest’s 1.1 million acres.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


U.S., China Reach Climate Deal

November 13, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Two nations that account for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions reached a climate deal. The United States will accelerate the pace of its net greenhouse gas emissions reductions from 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 to 26–28 percent by 2025. China will increase the non-fossil fuel share of all its energy to approximately 20 percent—roughly a fifth of its energy supply—by 2030.

“This is a major milestone,” said President Obama. “This is an ambitious goal, but this is an achievable goal. We have a special responsibility to lead the world effort to combat global climate change.”

The deal was reached after several rounds of talks between the two nations. At a joint press conference where the deal was announced, Obama indicated that he hoped the deal would “encourage all major economies to be ambitious and all developed and developing countries to work across divides” so that an agreement could be reached on climate change targets in Paris next year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had similar comments.

“We agreed to make sure international climate change negotiations will reach agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015 and agreed to deepen practical cooperation on clean energy, environmental protection and other areas,” he said. The deal calls for China to deploy an additional 800–1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission energy sources—a capacity greater than that of all the coal–fired power plants in China and nearly equal to total electricity generation in the United States. Among other initiatives on which the two countries agreed: Expand joint clean energy research and development, advance major carbon capture and storage demonstrations, enhance cooperation on hydrofluorocarbons, creating a federal framework for cities in both countries to share experiences and best practices for low-carbon economic growth and adaptation to climate change impacts, and boosting trade in “green” goods, including energy efficiency technology and resilient infrastructure.

China is still largely poor, but its economy and energy use is still growing rapidly. At the same time, China is combating severe air pollution.

“Just the fact that they agreed to cap their emissions in the future is a significant development,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “As important as these two countries are, they can’t get the job done working alone. But without them, the world can’t get the job done.”

Will China’s pledge keep the climate from warming 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a scientific benchmark for averting dangerous climate impacts? A number of scientists say it falls short of what is needed to hit that target.

Congressional Republicans are skeptical of the deal. “As I read the agreement, it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country,” said Mitch McConnell, who is in line to become the new Senate majority leader in January.

Grid Reliability In Question

New analysis by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) discusses the potential impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan on grid reliability (subscription). Specifically, NERC points to rapid transition as a factor in damaging capacity margins, increasing the difficulty of maintaining power quality and leaving the grid vulnerable to extreme weather.

The EPA said the report on the impact of the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants, offered no new analysis and overlooks new capacity that will be built by 2020.

“The world is going to change regardless of this new proposed rule, and we know new capacity is going to build and NERC just ignores that completely,” a staff member in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation told Greenwire (subscription). “There are a lot of assertions and claims in the report that aren’t really substantiated by any particular analytics they mention, or supported by a deeper look into the issues.”

A U.S. Department of Energy study, due out in 2015, will examine the rule’s impact on utilities, according to The Hill.

OPEC Reduces Forecast Amid Low Oil Prices

In its annual World Oil Outlook, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which supplies a third of the world’s crude oil, cut demand forecasts to 28.2 million barrels per day in 2017—a 14-year low. The 2014 report estimates approximately 600,000 barrels a day less than the 2013 report and 800,000 below the amount required this year.

The report further states that there will be a “small decline in real values” over this decade, together with a “constant nominal price” of $110 a barrel between now and 2020.

Booming U.S. oil production has put domestic output on the same level as that of energy giants Russia and Saudi Arabia, but oil prices are on the decline. UT San Diego News says the overall economy may still win, noting that “we still consume far more petroleum—in the form of gasoline and thousands of related products—than we pump from the ground. This means import costs are falling, too.”

Despite the decline in oil prices—to some $77 a barrel—companies like BP and Total are continuing to invest in major projects.

“We are not changing our investment decisions because of this [current price],” said Bob Dudley, BP chief executive.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Climate Change Risks, Impacts Focus of Reports

November 6, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report warning that greenhouse gas levels are at the highest they have been in 800,000 years.

“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within the 2C of warming closes,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “To keep a good chance of staying below the 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, and falling to zero or below by 2100.”

To have a 66 percent chance of limiting total average warming to the U.N.-set threshold of less than 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels, the world’s population can emit no more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide. But we’ve already emitted more than half that much.

The report includes conclusions of three previous IPCC reports on the science, impacts of climate change and on ways to address it.

One key finding: It’s “extremely likely” that humans are contributing to climate change—mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. There is evidence—through sea-level rise, shrinking glaciers, decreasing snow and ice cover and warmer oceans—that human-caused climate change is happening now.

The report indicates that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” In fact, if we stick to our current path, we could see 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

The report is timed just ahead of international negotiations in Lima, Peru, set to take place in December and intended to establish parameters for an emissions reduction agreement that negotiators may sign in Paris next year.

This piggy backs on another recent report, Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015, provides comparable risk data for 198 countries across 26 climate-related issues. Echoing studies by groups such as the Pentagon, the report finds climate change and food insecurity could lead to increased civil unrest and violence in 32 countries assessed in the next 30 years. The countries include Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Haiti, Ethiopia and the Philippines. All 32 depend on agriculture; 65 percent of their combined working population are employed in farming.

“I think the most surprising thing [the new data shows] is how closely linked food security and climate change are,” said James Allan, associate director of global analytics firm Maplecroft. “We were not expecting this level of linkage.”

New Cause for Arctic Warming?

A new mechanism may be a large contributor to warming in the Arctic according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at a long-wavelength region of the electromagnetic spectrum called far infrared.

“Our research found that non-frozen surfaces are poor emitters compared to frozen surfaces,” said lead author Daniel Feldman. “And this discrepancy has a much bigger impact on the polar climate than today’s models indicate. Based on our findings, we recommend that more efforts be made to measure far-infrared surface emissivity. These measurements will help climate models better simulate the effects of this phenomenon on the Earth’s climate.”

Through their simulations, researchers revealed that far-infrared surface emissions have the biggest impact on the climates of arid high-latitude and high-altitude regions. In the Arctic, open oceans were found to hold more far-infrared energy than sea ice, resulting in warmer oceans, melting sea ice and a 2-degree Celsius increase in the polar climate.

The study’s release follows a prediction by one of the leading authorities on the physics of the northern seas who claims the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free by the year 2020.

White House Releases Federal Agency Climate Plans

The White House released a series of reports documenting 38 federal agencies’ vulnerabilities to climate change and their plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, save energy, cut waste and save taxpayer dollars.

“Under President Obama’s leadership, federal agencies have already made significant progress in cutting carbon pollution, improving energy efficiency, and preparing for the impacts of climate change,” said Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “These agency climate plans underscore the administration’s commitment to leading by example throughout the federal government so we can leave behind a planet that is not polluted and damaged and protect our ability to provide the vital services American communities depend on.”

Among some of the findings by agency:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates an increase by 2050 of up to 100 percent in the number of acres annually burned by wildfires.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) not only sees rising sea levels and extreme storms as a major risk but believes that climate change could hinder its ability to get to space. It writes that “Many agency assets—66 percent of assets when measured by replacement value—are within 16 feet of mean sea level and located along America’s coasts, where sea level rise and increased frequency and intensity of high water levels associated with storms are expected.”
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines risks that include more frequent or worse extreme heat events—one weather-related cause of death in the United States.

The reports stem from a five-year process that began with an executive order by President Obama in 2009. The order called on the federal government to reduce its emissions and become more energy efficient and sustainable. According to separate documents, measures to fulfill the order have resulted in a 17 percent decrease in emissions by the federal government since Obama came into office.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.