U.S., Canada Announce Methane Reduction Plan

March 17, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.

“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.

New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.

The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”

Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.

Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.

“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.

A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.

“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”

The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.

“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”

Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events

A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.

“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”

Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”

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.


Supreme Court Denies Request to Block EPA’s Mercury Rule

March 10, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. denied a request for a stay or injunction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule—a rule that 20 states have claimed is “unlawful and beyond EPA’s statutory authority.” The ruling means MATS, which requires coal-burning power plants to install technologies to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants, remains in effect while the EPA continues its study of compliance costs.

The stay denial, issued solely by Chief Justice Roberts and without comment, follows a June Supreme Court decision in which five justices found that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. The June ruling did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.

In a supplemental finding proposed in November, the EPA indicated that the costs of implementing MATS were reasonable. The EPA is expected to finalize its cost accounting, which seeks to address court concerns, in April.

“These practical and achievable standards cut harmful pollution from power plants, saving thousands of lives each year and preventing heart and asthma attacks,” said Melissa Harrison, EPA spokeswoman.

Melting of Greenland’s Ice Sheet Accelerating with Loss of Reflectivity

A study in European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere finds that the reflectivity, or “albedo,” of Greenland’s ice sheet could decrease by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century, potentially leading to significant sea-level rise (subscription). The study links the diminishing capacity of Greenland’s ice sheet to reflect solar radiation—so-called “darkening”—to positive feedback loops that quicken ice melt, allowing it to feed on itself.

Scientists have been aware of the feedback loops, lead author Marco Tedesco, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Christian Science Monitor. “What’s new,” he said, “is the acceleration of the darkening, which started in 1996.”

The research used satellite photos dating back to 1981 plus a model to examine the impact of increases of both impurities in the ice, often visible to the human eye, and the size of grains in the snowpack, which is often invisible to the human eye and which makes snow “‘darker’—not dirtier, but more absorbent of energy from the sun,” said Tedesco. As snowpack melts and refreezes, meltwater binds grains together. The larger the grains, the less reflective the surface of the ice sheet and the faster the melting, which keeps speeding up as the remaining impurities become concentrated at the surface.

The study attributes the acceleration of darkening in 1996 to a change in atmospheric circulation. The North Atlantic Oscillation, a natural weather cycle, went into a phase that favored incoming solar radiation and warm, moist air from the south. Although those conditions shifted in 2013 to favor less melting, the sensitivity of the ice sheet to atmospheric air temperatures had already increased, and in 2015, melting spiked again, affecting more than half of the Greenland ice sheet.

The study rejected one prominent theory of Greenland’s darkening—namely, that worsening wildfires are releasing soot that is increasingly falling on Greenland. It finds “no statistically significant increase” in black carbon from fires in northern regions and an increase that is likely too small to matter from wildfires in temperate North America.

“Overall, what matters, it is the total amount of solar energy that the surface absorbs,” said Tedesco. “This is the real driver of melting.”

U.S. Makes First Green Climate Fund Payment

The United States has made the first payment to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). The $500 million payment is part of a broader $3 billion pledge to the GCF, which helps poor countries fight climate change and adopt clean energy technologies.

“With this announcement, which comes less than three months after the historic Paris climate agreement, the United States continues to demonstrate leadership in the international climate arena,” a State Department official told The Hill. “This grant is the first step toward meeting the president’s commitment of $3 billion to the GCF and shows that the United States stands squarely behind our international climate commitments.”

The GCF currently has $10.3 billion in pledges, of which $2.5 billion could be spent on projects in 2016. The GCF lacks staff to ensure GCF goals are met.

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.


Study, EPA Spotlight Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Industry

March 3, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an updated draft of its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, finding that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were 6.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—1 percent higher than in 2013, but 8 percent lower than the 2007 peak. The most revelatory revision: methane emissions figures for the oil and gas sector were 27 times higher than previous estimates. Over 20 years, that difference, says the Environmental Defense Fund, represents a climate impact equivalent to 200 coal-fired power plants.

News of the upward revision came amid a study from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) published in the journal Science that finds more than 100,000 tons of methane entered the atmosphere during a four-month natural gas leak in Southern California’s Aliso Canyon. Before it was plugged in February, the leak doubled methane emissions in the Los Angeles region. It is the largest methane leak in U.S. history, and it is likely to keep California from meeting its 2016 greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas with a long-term global warming potential thought to be many times that of carbon dioxide, are currently unregulated.

At the annual IHS CERAWEEK conference last week, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy alluded to her agency’s proposal, last year, of methane leak detection and repair requirements for new oil wells. Methane emissions related to the oil and natural gas industry are “much larger than we ever anticipated,” she said. “The data confirm that we can and must do more on methane. By tackling methane emissions, we can unlock an amazing opportunity to better protect our environment for the future.”

Study Revises Carbon Budget Downward

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change warns that the global carbon budget has been over-estimated and should be cut by at least half. In the abstract of their research, the authors state that for a greater than 66 percent chance of limiting warming below the internationally agreed temperature limit of 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, “the most appropriate carbon budget estimate is 590–1,240 GtCO2 from 2015 onwards.” They conclude that global CO2 emissions must be cut quickly to keep within a 2°C-compatible budget.

“At current rates, the carbon budget would thus be exhausted in about 15 to 30 years,” said lead author Joeri Rogelj, a research scholar at the Energy Program of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “These numbers definitely indicate that we should not just sit and wait, because then the window for staying within the budget would become vanishingly small within decades.”

The study analyzes differences among widely varying estimates for a carbon budget consistent with the 2°C target, finding that a major reason for the range is due to assumptions and methodologies in previous studies. Its own estimate differs from many previous estimates in part because it accounts for methane and other greenhouse gases and not only for carbon dioxide.

Despite COP21 Deal, No Increase Expected for European Union Emissions Targets

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed at the United Nations Climate Conference last year, calls for a review of countries’ climate reduction goals in 2018, but a new document suggests the European Union (EU) may not be following that timeline (subscription).

As reported by Reuters, text prepared ahead of a Friday meeting of EU environment ministers on the Paris climate deal says the existing target—cutting emissions by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030—“is based on global projections that are in line with the medium-term ambition of the Paris Agreement.”

“We have the deal,” said EU Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete. “Now we need to make it real. For the EU, this means completing the 2030 climate and energy legislation without delay, signing and ratifying the agreement as soon as possible, and continuing our leadership in the global transition to a low-carbon future.”

This calculation is based on keeping emissions levels to 2 degrees Celsius—but the agreement signed in Paris aspires to hold nations to a global temperature increase of well below this level and to pursuit of an increase limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Euractiv, former chief negotiator for the Netherlands and European Union, Bert Mertz, examines whether a sub-2 degrees Celsius goal is feasible and what might be needed for the EU to meet a more aggressive 1.5 degree Celsius goal. He finds that although the current goal is derived from a long-term target of 80 percent emissions reduction compared with 1990 levels, the EU would need to strengthen that target to 95 percent emissions reductions.

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’s Clean Power Plan Faces Uncertainty

February 25, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

It has been more than a week since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, and states are now beginning to indicate how they will approach the resulting uncertainty the decision brings. Although the stay removes the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA, several continue to move forward. A poll by ClimateWire indicates that 20 states are pressing on with discussions about how to meet carbon emissions limits for power plans, 18 have stopped planning and nine are weighing whether to stop or slow down planning (subscription).

“The stay is just that—it’s a stay—so we need to be mindful that a potential outcome could be that the courts uphold it,” said Glade Sowards, Utah Division of Air Quality’s Clean Power Plan coordinator. “We don’t want to be caught flat footed.”

In an event hosted by the Brookings Institution on the Clean Power Plan, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast also pointed out to attendees that what states are coping with now is bigger than just the Clean Power Plan.

“The Clean Power Plan created a forcing mechanism to bring utility regulators and air regulators and utilities and affected stakeholders to the table to really start engaging about what we want the future of the electricity sector to be,” Monast said. He noted that discussion of that future would not necessarily be organized around the Clean Power Plan.

Study: Frequency, Intensity of Heat Waves Will Increase Due to GHG Emissions

If anthropocentric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue unabated, once-every-20-years extreme heat waves—lasting three or more days—could become annual events across 60 percent of Earth’s land surface by 2075, says a study published in the journal Climatic Change. But only 18 percent of land areas might experience such yearly events by the last quarter of the century if measures to cut GHG emissions are put in place, according to authors Claudia Tebaldi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in research that looks to quantify the benefits of avoiding extreme heat events.

The Department of Energy-funded study also suggests that by 2050 extreme heat waves would be 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they might be today for 60 percent of land areas and nine degrees hotter for another 10 percent, with serious health impacts, particularly for the young, the old, and the sick and in places with historically little temperature variability (subscription).

“The study shows that aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will translate into sizable benefits, starting in the middle of the century, for both the number and intensity of extreme heat events,” Tebaldi said. “Even though heat waves are on the rise, we still have time to avoid a large portion of the impacts.”

The study used an NCAR climate model to examine how the odds of today’s 20-year events—those with a 5 percent chance of occurring in any given year—would change in a business-as-usual scenario and in scenarios in which emissions were cut to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels.

“Even under more dramatic mitigation scenarios . . . future heat wave frequency and intensity increase very dramatically,” Wehner said. But “we do have a choice about how dangerous the future will be.”

January Continued String of Record-Warm Months

January became the ninth consecutive record-breaking month for heat according to data released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That agency, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been keeping weather records for 137 years, agree that the month’s highs were unprecedented, Bloomberg reported. If the rest of the year is as warm as January, 2016 could top the record set in 2015.

According to NASA, last month was 2.03 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. But some parts of the Arctic had temperatures averaging as high as 23 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the month, leading the region’s sea ice to decrease to a new record low for January. It averaged only 5.2 million square miles for the month—90,000 square miles fewer than the previous record set in 2011, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Preliminary data from February indicate that Arctic sea ice continues to set daily record lows.

January’s temperature increases reflect the combination of accelerating manmade global warming and a record strong El Niño.

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.


Supreme Court Events Leave Fate of Clean Power Plan Uncertain

February 18, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The outlook for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, is the subject of debate after two key Supreme Court events last week.

First, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision issued a stay, delaying the execution of the plan, pending the outcome of legal challenges. The New York Times called the decision “unprecedented,” because the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court. At a minimum, the ruling will allow states to skip the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA.

A new twist on the fate of the Clean Power Plan came Saturday with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—leaving the Supreme Court with eight justices split evenly between conservatives and liberals, and evenly split on the question of that week’s stay. Whether the White House or the Senate will confirm a new justice before the November 2016 Presidential election remains unclear, although political cynicism about any nominee’s chances has dominated commentary. President Obama announced plans to nominate a new justice, and Senate Republican leadership has indicated that it does not intend to confirm Obama’s candidate.

The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan in June. Any ruling may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

ClimateWire suggests three potential scenarios. For Clean Power Plan opponents, the best turn of events would be appointment of a new conservative-leaning justice, which would be made possible if the Senate successfully blocks an Obama appointee and a Republican takes the White House. Those in favor of the plan would benefit from appointment of a new liberal-leaning justice or from the court’s consideration of the plan before a new justice is confirmed.

Politics surrounding the nomination of the new justice are complicated, writes Tom Goldstein of the SCOTUS blog.

Study: More Aggressive Emissions Reductions Needed to Curb Air-Pollution-Related Deaths

A new study undertaken by the World Health Organization and presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that 5.5 million die prematurely every year from air pollution. The authors—a team of U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and Indian scientists—said that most of the fatalities are in India and in China, where coal burning alone led to 366,000 deaths in 2013.

Researcher Qiao Ma from Tsinghua University in Beijing said coal burned for electricity was the largest polluter in China and that the country’s new targets to reduce emissions, agreed at last year’s Paris climate talks, are not sufficiently ambitious to end those deaths.

“Even in the most clean scenario in 2030,” Ma said, China’s growing and aging population will still suffer as many as 1.3 million deaths a year. “Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors.”

Although China halted approval of new coal mines for three years at the end of 2015 and has issued stringent requirements similar to those recently proposed in the United States for new coal-fired power plants, these and other measures may not halt increases in mortality, reported Time.

“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”

Agreements Made to Expand Renewables, Reduce Emissions

Governors from 17 U.S. states signed an accord to diversify energy generation with clean energy sources, modernize their energy infrastructure and encourage clean transportation options. Home to about 40 percent of the country’s population, states signing the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

“With this agreement, governors from both parties have joined together and committed themselves to a clean energy future,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown. “Our goal is to clean up the air and protect our natural resources.”

As part of the agreement, states will cooperate on planning and policies—pooling buying power to get cheaper clean-energy vehicles for state fleets and to build more energy-efficient regional electrical grids.

Also preparing for a cleaner-energy future is Fiji, which on Friday became the first country to formally approve the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris when its parliament ratified the agreement. Under its national climate action plan, the archipelago, which is vulnerable to flooding and strong tropical storms as a result of climate change, pledged to generate all its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to reduce its overall energy-sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030—if it receives climate finance from industrialized nations.

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.


Supreme Court Suspends Clean Power Plan

February 11, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants on Tuesday. The court, in a 5–4 decision split along party lines, put a stay on enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We remain confident that we will prevail on the merits,” said the White House in a statement. “Even while the litigation proceeds, EPA has indicated it will work with states that choose to continue plan development and will prepare the tools those states will need.”

But others felt the move could be indicative that the Clean Power Plan will not survive legal scrutiny.

“Should the D.C. Circuit uphold the rule, I think the stay is indicative that the court is likely to want to hear this case,” said Scott Segal, a partner in Bracewell LPP’s Policy Resolution Group. “Even the most ardent supporters would have to concede that this does not bode well for the current rule.”

The EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions stems from the 2007 Supreme Court decision Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that carbon dioxide qualified as a “pollutant” and was subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. But Bloomberg reported that the court’s intervention casts doubt on the legal prospects for the Clean Power Plan, which some utilities, coal miners and more than two dozen states are challenging as an overreach of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority and an intrusion on states’ rights. The D.C. Circuit Court will review the merits of their lawsuits on June 2. The order blocks the Clean Power Plan from taking effect while legal battles play out, making a decision possibly another year or more away.

“A decision overturning the Clean Power Plan would not prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “That case focuses on current regulations. It does not call into questions the Supreme Court’s previous finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”

De-carbonization of U.S. Power Sector Accelerated in 2015

Energy sector transitions envisioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it released its Clean Power Plan last year are already occurring at a faster pace than the EPA may have expected as evidenced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s  (BNEF) 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which called 2015 a “watershed year in the evolution of US energy.”

According to the report, coal use for electricity generation dropped from 39 percent in 2014 to 34 percent last year, while natural gas edged closer to becoming the largest source of U.S. power, accounting for some 32 percent of U.S. generation in 2015. Along with energy efficiency improvements, notable growth in renewable energy installations, and flat energy demand, that shift has major implications for greenhouse gas emissions reductions but not for consumer costs—at least so far.

“We saw natural gas and coal each provide about one third of U.S. electricity, and this was the smallest contribution we’ve seen from coal within the modern era,” said Colleen Regan, BNEF’s senior analyst for North American power. She noted that the decrease in coal use was attributable not only to cheap gas but also to 14 gigawatts’ worth of coal plant retirements—5 percent of U.S. coal capacity—last year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. renewable energy industry brought online 16 gigawatts of clean energy—68 percent of all new installed capacity—helping drop U.S. energy sector carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest annual level since the mid-1990s in a year that saw retail electric rates fall 1.3 percent in real terms from 2014.

Driving what the report authors suggest is a permanent shift in the U.S. energy sector are technological revolutions in the gas industry, increasingly attractive economics for renewables, and international- and national-level policy directives, including the Clean Power Plan and recent extensions of the investment tax credit for solar power and the production tax credit for wind energy (subscription).

Next Few Decades’ Emissions Trajectory Could Affect Earth for Millennia

A group of 22 researchers, including several of the world’s foremost climate scientists, contend that we have been thinking about climate change far too narrowly by making projections only to the year 2100. In a study published in Nature Climate Change, the group suggests that policy makers should consider the consequences of human emissions on global temperatures and sea level over a far longer time horizon.

“The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist,” they write. “This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

The study, which looked at climate data from the past 20,000 years and four emissions scenarios for the period 2000 to 2300, demonstrates the effects of near-term policy decisions on the climate system’s inherent lag effects—namely, the high temperature sensitivity of global ice sheets and the centuries-long atmospheric retention of carbon dioxide.

“If carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked, the carbon dioxide released during this century will commit Earth and its residents to an entirely new climate regime,” the study says.

Report co-author, Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern, put the long-term view of human emissions bluntly, saying that it sends a “chilling message” about the fossil fuel era’s risks and consequences. “It will commit us to massive adaptation efforts so that for many, dislocation and migration becomes the only option.” The study notes that even if warming falls below the United Nations target of 2 degrees Celsius, 20 percent of the world’s population must migrate away from coasts.

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 Implicated in a Specific Extreme Weather Event

February 4, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Scientists have warned that even a few degrees rise in global temperatures can lead to increasingly severe storms. Now an international team of climate scientists has linked man-made climate change to historic flooding that hit the south of England in the winter of 2013–2014. It’s the first time a peer-reviewed research paper has connected climate change to a specific flooding event.

In an article published in Nature Climate Change, the team said that their climate model simulations showed that anthropogenic warming not only increased the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold but also caused a small but significant increase in the number of January days with westerly flow, both of which increased extreme precipitation. The authors explained that climate change “amplified” the violent storms that led to the area’s wettest January in more than a century and that it has likely increased the number of properties at risk and raised the costs of a flooding event.

Based on more than 130,000 simulations of what the weather would have been like with and without human influence on the climate, the study finds that man-made greenhouse gas emissions have raised the possibility of extreme flooding by 43 percent.

“What was once a 1 in 100-year event in a world without climate change is now a 1 in 70-year event,” said study co-author Friederike Otto of Oxford University.

The study—which analyzed circulation in the atmosphere, the additional risk of rainfall, and swollen river flows and then calculated flood potential in the Thames River Basin—goes beyond previous attempts to connect climate change with specific weather events, tracing connections “all the way from the changes in the atmosphere to the impacts on the ground,” lead author Nathalie Shaller of Oxford University told Agency France Presse.

“This study highlights the fact that we need a better understanding of not just how and where climate change is warming the atmosphere, but also how it is changing patterns of wind and rain, in order to best prepare for extreme rainfall and floods,” said Ted Shepherd, a climate change expert at the University of Reading.

Long-Term Warming Not Unpredictable

Large sustained changes in global temperatures do not rise or fall erratically long term, suggesting the importance of changes in atmospheric circulation and the transfer of energy in balancing Earth’s temperature after a warming event. That’s according to a study published in the Journal of Climate by researchers at Duke University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA).

“The bottom line of the study is that the Earth is able to cool itself down after a natural warming event, like an El Nino,” said lead author Patrick Brown, a Duke Ph.D. student. “So then in order to have sustained warming for decades to centuries, you really do need these external drivers, like the increase in greenhouse gases.”

Using global climate models and NASA satellite observations from the last 15 years, the authors cite the Planck Response—the huge increase in infrared energy Earth emits as it warms—for the planet’s capacity to restore the stability of global temperatures. Other important factors, say the authors, are energy transport from the tropic Pacific to polar and continental locations and a net release of energy across cooler regions during unforced, natural warming events.

Studies: East Coast Should Prepare for Warming-Related Sea-Level Rise

Two studies published this week point to regional differences in climate-change-related sea-level rise, specifically, to greater impacts for the U.S. East Coast. A study in Nature Geoscience by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds that “Atlantic coastal areas may be particularly vulnerable to near-future sea-level rise from present-day high greenhouse gas emission rates.” A second study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds a higher-than-expected contribution by thermal expansion to sea-level rise from 2002 through 2014—expansion that led to a rapid rise for the East Coast and a slight temporary drop for the Pacific Coast.

Using a climate change model that simulates the ocean, the atmosphere and carbon cycling, the NOAA study examined sea-level rise in the Atlantic, versus that in the Pacific, under multiple global carbon emissions scenarios. It found that if greenhouse gas emissions rates remained consistent with today’s rates, seal levels in the Atlantic would rise much faster than in the Pacific. The difference owes to the Atlantic’s greater “overturning” ocean circulation that connects waters off New York with those off Antarctica. If this circulation slows due to climate change, the researchers concluded that less cold water will dive to ocean depths, warmer water will pool below the surface, and overall warmth will increase. This warm water expands, causing the study’s expected sea level rise, which will have regional variations based on topography and other factors.

The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put the contribution of thermal expansion to rising sea levels at 50 percent. Based largely on satellite readings of changes in water volumes and masses in seas, the study suggests that tallies of the effects of ocean warming on sea-level rise using autonomous seafaring instruments have underestimated thermal expansion.

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.


Humans Implicated in String of Record-Warmth Years

January 28, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Human activities are the cause of this century’s record warm years, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We find that individual record years and the observed runs of record-setting temperatures were extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change,” the authors say. “These same record temperatures were, by contrast, quite likely to have occurred in the presence of anthropogenic climate forcing.”

The study, written before the release of 2015 temperature data, put the odds between 1 in 770 and 1 in 10,000 that 13 of the 15 warmest years spanning from 2000 to 2014 happened without human influence (subscription). With the inclusion of 2015 temperature data, the group’s computer simulations widened those odds to between 1 in 1,250 and 1 in 13,000, lead author Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.

“Climate change is real, human-caused and no longer subtle—we’re seeing it play out before our eyes,” Mann said.

Mann and his co-authors ran statistical analyses of real-world measurements and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system to distinguish human-caused climate change from natural climate variability, such as that triggered by volcanic eruptions and shifts in the sun’s output.

“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact in Germany, said. “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.”

Study: Low Electricity Costs and Low Emissions Not Mutually Exclusive

A new study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado Boulder researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the United States could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation (using future anticipated costs for wind and solar) by more than 75 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030 at approximately the same cost as 2012. The key? Using new high-voltage power lines to move renewables nationwide, eliminating the need to add new fossil fuel storage capacity.

“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” said Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”

Using NOAA’s high-resolution meteorological data, the researchers built a model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios and found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, the wind and the sun could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs comparable to today’s.

“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Clack said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”

In the expected future scenario—in which renewable energy costs continue to fall while natural gas costs rise—the model predicted that the power sector could cut emissions 78 percent compared with 1990 levels at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 9.4 cents in 2012 (subscription). That finding is predicated on creation of a new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission grid, which according to the authors lowers the chance of energy losses, reducing utilities’ need to amass reserves of excess capacity through natural-gas-powered generators.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”

Update to Social Cost of Carbon Unnecessary

A new interim report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that there is little benefit to updating estimates of the social cost of carbon in the near term. Written by a 13-member expert panel, the report recommends ways to change federal technical support documents on the social cost of carbon to enhance estimates.

“We recommended against a near-term update to the social cost of carbon” based off the IPCC report’s finding, said Richard Newell of Duke University. Newell co-chaired the panel, which includes Sanford School Professor and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Faculty Fellow Billy Pizer.

To set an efficient market price on carbon emissions, it’s helpful to know the social cost of those emissions—that is, the estimate of the economic damages (in dollars) associated with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, usually one metric ton, in a given year. The last revised estimate, in 2015, was $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.

A final report will examine potential approaches for a more comprehensive update to social cost of carbon estimates and is expected in early 2017.

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 Tops WEF Risk Ranking

January 21, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

For the first time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked an environmental risk—climate change—as the most severe economic risk facing the world. Global Risks Report 2016 says climate change is compounding and intensifying other social, economic, and humanitarian stresses such as mass migration, which it ranked as the threat most likely to materialize in the next 18 months.

“Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Groups, one of the report collaborators.

Along with interaction with other risks, Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, head of global competitiveness and risks at the WEF, pointed to recent weather events and the frequency of natural disasters as justification for climate change’s top ranking this year. “We do see more severe and more likely weather events,” she said. “There are more droughts and floods. We have a higher and higher assessment of climate change.”

Among the priority actions outlined in the report: modifying financial systems to “unleash climate-resilient, low-carbon investments.” The authors found that incentives for such investments have yet to be incorporated into financial decision making despite increasing recognition of climate-change-related economic risks.

The report is based on a survey of 750 experts from economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and tech sectors about the perceived impact and likelihood of 29 prevalent global risks over a 10-year period.

Study: Rate of Man-Made Heat Energy Absorbed by Oceans Has Doubled

new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that since 1997 heat uptake by the world’s oceans has nearly doubled by comparison with that uptake in the previous industrial era and that heat is mixing into deeper ocean layers, rather than remaining near the surface.

The study tracked how much man-made heat energy has been buried in the oceans in the past 150 years using ocean-observing data dating as far back as the 1870s. It included readings from high-tech underwater monitors and results of computer models.

Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of man-made heat energy. Since the industrial revolution, deepwater heat content has increased by “several tenths of a degree” when averaged out across the globe, according to Peter Gleckler, the study’s lead author. Although that energy is equivalent to less than 0.5 Celsius of warming averaged across the upper reaches of the ocean, Gleckler said it is still a “huge increase,” adding that “if we want to really understand how much heat is being trapped, we can’t just look at the upper ocean anymore, we need to look deeper.”

The study found that a third of the recent ocean heat buildup occurred at depths of 700 meters or greater, possibly explaining a pause in warming at the sea surface since the end of the 20th century. Why deeper waters may be absorbing greater amounts of heat is not fully understood, according to the study.

The University of California reported that the Nature Climate Change study “found that estimates of ocean warming over a range of times and depths are consistent with results from the latest generation of climate models, building confidence that the climate models are providing useful information.”

Official Numbers: 2015 Was the Hottest Year

Independent analyses by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.K. Met Office found that Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest they have been since record-keeping began.

NASA calculated the rise at 0.23 degree Fahrenheit above 2014 and suggested that 1998 was the only year that a new record was greater than the old record by such a large margin. NOAA put the increase at 0.29 degree Fahrenheit. The U.K. Met Office expects 2016 to set another record.

“A lot of times, you actually look at these numbers, when you break a record, you break it by a few hundredths of a degree,” said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “But this record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.”

Although 2015 temperatures were assisted by an ongoing El Nino weather pattern—which brings heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said “it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”

NASA used surface temperature measurements from more than 6,000 weather and research stations as well as ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures for its analysis. NOAA uses similar temperature data, but it also uses different baseline periods and methods.

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 and Energy of Focus in Obama’s Final State of the Union

January 14, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Obama laid out four big questions the United States has to answer in his nearly hour-long final State of the Union address Tuesday night. One of those four points: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent issues like climate change?

In discussing the role American needs to take in combating this issue, Obama highlighted America’s past willingness to rely on science.

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon … Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

The administration’s push to continue making new discoveries came in a speech optimistic about America’s destiny and referencing the president’s accomplishments in office the last seven years.

Obama also presented a vision for our energy future.

“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he said. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”

“None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo,” he added. “But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve—that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.”

McCarthy Talks Environmental Priorities in 2016

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Washington Post that the Obama administration is preparing an ambitious agenda on climate change in 2016, citing new efforts to lower air pollution and a predication that the administration’s Clean Power Plan would survive legal challenges.

“We’re not just going to stay with what we’ve already done,” she said. “We’re going to look for other opportunities.”

McCarthy echoed these comments on the EPA Connect blog, writing “Heading into 2016, EPA is building on a monumental year for climate action—and we’re not slowing down in the year ahead.” In reviewing 2015, she highlighted announcement of the final Clean Power Plan—a regulation meant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—and the global climate deal reached last month in Paris. She said her office will provide technical leadership to ensure consistent, transparent greenhouse gas reporting and inventory requirements under the global deal and would work to ensure the deal “is cast in stone.”

McCarthy is reportedly touring Ohio this week, touting President Obama’s energy and climate agenda (subscription).

Manmade Climate Change Evidence for Anthropocene Epoch

A group of geoscientists suggest that human activities, including those contributing to climate change, have altered the planet so much that their consequences are already detectable in the geological record and are reason to consider that sometime in the mid-twentieth century Earth moved into a new geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.” As evidence that the planet has left the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago, a new paper published in the journal Science points to mass extinction, reshaping of the planet’s surface, and anthropogenic deposits, including black carbon produced from fossil fuel combustion—all human impacts that the authors say should be acknowledged in the nomenclature.

The scale and rate of change in measures such as carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, said Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and one of the study authors, are larger and faster than the changes that defined the onset of the Holocene.

“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age,” Waters said. “That is a big deal.”

The case to approve the Anthropocene as a new epoch will be presented to the International Commission on Stratigraphy later this year.

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.