Studies Make Predictions of How to Comply, What to Look for in Final Clean Power Plan

July 30, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slated to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, regulating emissions from existing power plants, any day now. Many are already predicting changes, some that could be significant.

A survey by E&E publishing revealed stakeholders expect timing to be the element most likely to change in the final rule (subscription). The Washington Post, citing sources familiar with plans, reports the agency will give states an additional two years—until 2022—to begin implementing pollution cuts.

A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions highlights 11 elements we’ll be watching for. The top three, according to co-author and Climate and Energy Program director Jonas Monast: “I think that the top three issues are did the state targets change, and if so that means that the formula for calculating the state targets changed. Another point that I’ll be looking for is the timing … so when do the states have to submit the plans and when do utilities actually have to start taking action. And then the final, does EPA say more about the potential for using market-based mechanisms under the Clean Power Plan, and how?”

One more—guidance on multistate trading options. A number of organizations have explored options for multi-state trading of emissions credits without formal multistate agreements (subscription). Under a “common elements” or “trading-ready” approach, states could use similarly defined tradable emissions credits and common or linked tracking systems to ease the trade of emissions credits across state boundaries. Expanded emissions markets would increase gains from trade. The final rule may provide guidance on incorporating common elements into state compliance plans, and it may also indicate that the EPA will develop a tracking system to facilitate intrastate and interstate Clean Power Plan credit markets.

Another new study, out this week, suggests regional compliance may be the most cost-effective approach for states to comply with the rule. The Southwestern Power Pool study found under the EPA’s June 2014 draft plan, state-by-state compliance would cost 40 percent more than a regional approach.

“Our analysis affirmed that a state-by-state compliance approach would be more expensive to administer than a regional approach,” said Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering for SPP, in a news release. “A state-by-state solution also would be more disruptive than a regional approach to the significant reliability and economic value that SPP provides to its members as a regional transmission organization.”

According to a newly released Synapse Energy Economics study, states that focus compliance efforts on expanding carbon-free energy production and energy efficiency programs will reap big savings. The largest savings, it says, will be seen by states that take these renewable energy steps early on.

Court Grants the EPA Partial CASPR Victory

The U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, on Tuesday, upheld an EPA regulation, originally challenged by states and industry, to restrict power plant emissions that cross state lines. The ruling did find the EPA erred in its 2014 budgets for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and called for the agency to rework them.

Although the 2011 rule—known as Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR)—remains intact, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said the court expects the agency to “move promptly” and not “drag its feet” in coming up with new budgets. Kavanaugh wrote that EPA’s budgets “have required states to reduce pollutants beyond the point necessary” to achieve air quality improvements in downwind areas (subscription).

The EPA, in a statement released by spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, said “The agency remains committed to working with states and the power sector as we move forward to implement the rule. We are reviewing the decision and will determine any appropriate further course of action once our review is complete.”

CASPR has faced many challenges. The Supreme Court upheld the rule, which aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can lead to soot and smog in 28 states, in May 2014. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants.

Climate Change Undermines Coral Reefs’ Protective Effect on Coasts

Climate change decreases coral reefs’ capacity to protect coasts against wave action and resulting hazards according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. That reduced capacity could make low-lying coral islands and atolls—home to some 30 million people—uninhabitable.

The study by researchers from Dutch institute for applied research Deltares and the U.S. Geological Survey finds that sea level rise and coral reef decay will lessen reefs’ dissipation of wave energy, leading to flooding, erosion, and salination of drinking water resources.

The study authors used Xbeach, an open-source wave model, to understand the effects of higher sea levels and smoother coral as it degrades. Their results suggest that wave runup and thus flooding potential is highest for those coasts fronted by narrow reefs with steep faces and deeper, smoother reef flats.

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.

It’s Official: 2014 Hottest Year on Record

July 23, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four independent global data sets registered 2014 as the warmest year on record, the Weather Channel reported, citing an annual review by international scientists sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The only major region of the world with below-average annual temperatures was Eastern North America.

The review compiled by NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate and based on contributions of more than 400 scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a global average of 397.2 parts per million, a 1.9-ppm-increase in 2014; the global average was 354 ppm in 1990, the review’s first year.

Other highlights of the State of the Climate in 2014 report include

  • Record highs for sea surface temperatures, particularly in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as for global upper ocean heat (oceans absorb more than 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat), and global sea levels (oceans expand as they suck up heat);
  • Continued Arctic warming and low sea ice extent;
  • Highly variable temperature patterns and record-high sea ice extent in the Antarctic; and
  • An above-average number of tropical cyclones.

Human activities are implicated in the record high. Deke Arndt, a NOAA climate scientist and one of the report authors pointed out that it’s no coincidence that it’s the lower atmosphere, rather than the upper atmosphere, that’s warming.

“The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere,” Arndt said. “If an external forcing—such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon—would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don’t.”

Now it appears that 2015 is well on its way to topping 2014 as the warmest on record. A strengthening El Nino is transferring heat from the tropical Pacific around the globe, and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency have reported that the global warmth of June 2015 matched or exceeded any previous June in historical records.

Study: 2-Degree Target Unsafe

New research says keeping within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperatures—the target scientists and global leaders agree represents a safe level of climate change—may be inadequate and “highly dangerous.” Meeting the target, the study says, could lead to runaway ice melt that causes rising sea levels and ocean circulation changes far more serious than previous projections.

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century,” James Hansen—NASA’s former lead climate scientist and 16 other co-authors write in the new, not-yet-peer-reviewed discussion paper due to be published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. “Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

A better strategy, the authors say, is to return to an atmosphere with 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide—we’ve reached about 400 parts per million.

Pope, Mayors Urge Action on Climate Change

A month after the release of his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis urged world leaders to take a “strong position” on climate change in advance of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year.

“I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December and hope a fundamental agreement is reached,” said Francis at a two-day conference of mayors from nearly 60 cities around the world to discuss the issues of climate change and fighting forms of modern slavery. “The U.N. needs to take a strong position on this.”

The mayors in attendance signed a pledge stating that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”

The meeting, the Globe and Mail reports, represents a fundamental shift in how the issue of climate change is framed.

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.

Power Plants Emissions Fall; Progress Unevenly Distributed

July 16, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Power plant carbon dioxide emissions have decreased 12 percent from 2008 to 2013 but remain 14 percent higher than 1990 levels, according to a new report by Ceres, four large utilities, Bank of America and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States focuses on changes in four power plant pollutants for which public emissions data are available: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury (Hg), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

It finds, Ceres President Mindy Lubber says, that “Most parts of the country are firmly on a path toward a clean energy future, but some states and utilities have a longer way to go and overall the carbon emissions curve is still not bending fast enough. To level the playing field for all utilities, and achieve the broader CO2 emissions cuts needed to combat climate change, we need final adoption of the Clean Power Plan.”

The declines so far, according to the report, were due in part to low natural gas prices, environmental regulations and a decline in overall electricity demand. Among the roughly 2,800 power plants surveyed, researchers found uneven performance across power companies and states; carbon emission rates vary by a factor of 10 among the top 100 producers. Forty-two states are decreasing their carbon dioxide emissions.

Scientists Call for Decarbonization

Two new documents spell out how carbon reductions can be made. A United Nations-backed report written by scientists at University College London (UCL) recommended several actions to help the United Kingdom achieve its legally binding emissions reduction target, and the closing statement of a pre-U.N. climate treaty conference recommended actions to close the emissions gap between current climate policy and a pathway limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The UCL report concludes that meeting the U.K.’s domestic climate objectives will require reducing emissions from the country’s power generation in 2030 by 85–90 percent relative to current levels.

The move away from fossil fuels was also the focus of attendees at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change (OCFUCC15) science conference in Paris in preparation for the U.N. climate change talks later this year at which nations will attempt to seal a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“To stay below 2C (36F), or even 3C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20–30 years,” said Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

In its closing statement, the OCFUCC15 Scientific Committee stated that cost-effective C2 pathways require greenhouse gas emission reductions 40–70 percent below current levels by 2050 and noted that investments in climate-change adaptation and mitigation could provide co-benefits that increase protection from current climate variability, decrease damages from air and water pollution, and advance sustainable development.

At the conference, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University called for an enforceable global price on carbon—not the current “spotty” global cap-and-trade program—to drive the shift toward a low-carbon economy and for carbon taxes to be used to reduce other taxes. “This reflects the basic economic principle: that it’s better to tax bad things than good things,” he said.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin noted that the majority of the OCFUCC sessions described how communities, industries, and governments could make energy and climate progress with or without a treaty in Paris—a reality, said Revkin, reflecting “the spreading recognition that relying on top-down treaty-making as the determinative factor in shaping the human-climate relationship is wishful thinking.”

Major Wind Farm Planned in North Carolina

In about a month, construction is set to begin on a commercial-scale wind energy farm—more than 100 turbines on 22,000 acres—in North Carolina. The farm will power Amazon’s cloud-computing division.

The U.S. Department of Energy published a report in 2008 examining the feasibility of using wind energy to generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2030. One challenge—boosting U.S. wind generation to 300 gigawatts. The new wind energy farm is due, in part, to a North Carolina law requiring utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios.

“It’s conceivable that we can see a dramatic growth in wind as we’ve seen in solar because utilities are entering into a new phase,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He noted that factors such as abundant natural gas, coal plant retirements, and aging nuclear plants are already forcing change in the region’s energy market.

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.

McCarthy: Clean Power Plan on Track; Challenges Expected

July 9, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) will have no effect on the proposed Clean Power Plan, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“EPA is still committed to finalizing the Clean Power Plan,” McCarthy said. “Making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics Standards decision and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples and oranges. Last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts. We are still on track to produce that plan this summer and it will cut carbon pollution that is fueling climate change from power plants.”

Although both the MATS rule and the Clean Power Plan deal with air protections, McCarthy noted that the Supreme Court’s MATS ruling was narrowly tailored to a specific aspect of that rule—whether regulation of mercury emissions from the power sector was “appropriate or necessary.” The proposed Clean Power Plan—slated to be finalized this summer—would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final emissions rate limit. Bills to scale back the proposed rule as well as court challenges have already surfaced. McCarthy said others were imminent.

“The Clean Power Plan will absolutely be litigated,” she said. “We actually are very good at writing rules and defending them, and this will be no exception.”

Climate Change Commitments Ahead of Paris

New Zealand is the latest country to announce an emissions reduction target ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year. Minister for Climate Change Issues Tim Groser said the country is aiming for a 30 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030—a target hedged with multiple conditions, including unrestricted access to global carbon markets. But while national pledges command attention, many cities are pursuing their own climate change initiatives.

More than 75 of the world’s biggest cities have formed the C40 group, pledging substantial emissions reductions in the next three decades. And more than 6,000 European cities have signed the Covenant of Mayors, a voluntary commitment to make emissions reductions greater and faster than European Union (EU) climate targets. These municipal climate action plans call for, on average, a 28 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020, 8 percent more than the 2020 EU target.

Such plans will be critical because national pledges will be insufficient to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The group, made up of former heads of state, finance ministers, and banking executives chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, argues that city governments and the private sector have a substantive role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In its just-released New Climate Economy report, the commission says the remainder of the needed reductions can be found by taking steps to halt deforestation and carrying out actions at a local level. Among its 10 recommendations: cities, which generate 71–76 percent of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions, must make low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure investments.

“Low-carbon cities represent a US$17 trillion economic opportunity,” said C40 Chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, adding that by scaling up municipal best practices such as traffic- and pollution-reducing mobility systems “cities can accelerate global climate action and help close the emissions gap.” 

OMB Issues Federal Facilities Climate Change Directive

The White House has revised its model for defining the social cost of carbon (SCC)—a measure of the economic damage caused by planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions—and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said it will—for the first time—require federal agencies to consider the effects of climate change on federal facility construction and maintenance budgets in fiscal year 2017.

The new SCC model—which lowers the estimate from $37 to $36 per metric ton—reflects minor technical revisions following 150 substantive public comments that took 15 months to process, according to a blog post by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Howard Shelanski and Council of Economic Advisers member Maurice Obstfeld, who described the SCC as “a tool that helps Federal agencies decide which carbon-reducing regulatory approaches make the most sense—to know which come at too great a cost and which are a good deal for society.”

“OMB is asking all federal agencies to consider climate preparedness and resiliency objectives as part of their Fiscal Year 2017 budget requests for construction and maintenance of Federal facilities,” wrote Ali Zaidi, OMB’s associate director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science, in a blog post. “We are making it very clear that this is a priority in proposals for capital funding. Why? Because making our Federal facility investments climate-smart reduces our fiscal exposure to the impacts of climate change.”

The SCC, which has appeared in a carbon tax bill proposed by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz, has raised the ire of Capitol Hill Republicans, who say the executive branch has used it to justify the cost of rules such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The idea that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions impose a social cost might revive discussion in the United States of a carbon tax or free-market credit system to control those emissions, according to the Fiscal Times.

Although the timing of future SCC estimate updates is unclear, they will reflect input from the National Academies of Science and be subject to an open process that reflects “the best available science and economics,” the White House said.

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.

SCOTUS Overturns Mercury Rule

July 2, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that the Clean Air Act required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the costs of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

The MATS rule requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimated MATS would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but cut coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generate $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.” Because these benefits are calculated on the basis of increased life expectancies and reduced health effects, the values have been subject to much of the debate.

“It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. “Statutory context supports this reading.”

The Supreme Court did not dictate how the agency should address its ruling. It sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit for reconsideration of the rulemaking.

“EPA is disappointed that the court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” said EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, noting the agency is reviewing the ruling.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast notes that the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely be limited because electric utilities have already taken steps to comply with the regulation.

World’s Top Emitters Announce Climate Pledges

Three of the world’s 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases—Brazil, China and the United States—announced new climate change commitments.

China made its intended nationally determined contribution to the United Nations, which calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60–65 percent from 2005 levels and obtain 20 percent of its energy from low-carbon sources in 2030 (11.2 percent now comes from such sources).

“China’s carbon dioxide emission will peak by around 2030 and China will work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date,” said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

In a joint statement, the United States and Brazil pledged to source 20 percent of their electricity from non-hydropower renewable sources by 2030. Brazil also committed to restore a swath of forest 46,332 square miles—roughly the size of England—through policies that aim to tackle deforestation.

The commitments come just months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where countries will work toward a global climate agreement. Brian Deese, senior White House climate adviser, said the announcement by the United States and Brazil “substantially elevates and builds” on climate progress and “should provide momentum moving into our shared objective of getting an agreement in Paris later this year.”

Alberta Doubles Carbon Fee, Moves on Climate-Policy Review

The Canadian province of Alberta last week announced it would double its carbon fee—the first to be levied by a North American jurisdiction—from C$15 to C$30 a metric ton and increase its emissions intensity reductions target from 12 to 20 percent by 2017 in an effort to curb greenhouse gases from industrial facilities, coal plants and oil-sands production. The government, which will also begin a climate-policy review to prepare recommendations ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year, has said the province needs to be a leader in climate policy in order to support the oil-sands industry, long criticized for its environmental impact.

“If Alberta wants better access to world markets, then we’re going to need to do our part to address one of the world’s biggest problems, which is climate change,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in announcing the news.

The carbon fee is levied on industrial facilities emitting more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for emissions that exceed a facility’s emission intensity target. The levy was introduced in 2008, Alberta has collected fee revenues of $578 million, which it has put into a technology fund for initiatives that reduce emissions. Those 103 facilities have the option of reducing their emissions intensity, buying Alberta-based offsets to meet the intensity targets, or paying into that fund.

While Alberta’s fee is in support of an emissions intensity target rather than on total emissions, neighboring province British Columbia levies a broad-based carbon tax on emissions from most major sources and uses those tax revenues to largely fund tax cuts. A recent Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions-University of Ottawa analysis of that tax found that it was reducing emissions with little net impact, either negative or positive, on provincial economic performance.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) welcomed the news that Alberta would extend its carbon fee measure, officially the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, to December 31, 2017, the date on which Ontario will likely launch its emissions-trading market, “which is intended to link with those of California and Quebec,” according to IETA.

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.

Inaction on Climate Change Has Dismal Consequences

June 25, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new peer-reviewed report saying inaction on climate change is a dire threat to human health and the economy. It specifically estimates the physical monetary paybacks across 20 sectors of the United States by year 2100 if world leaders successfully limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Among its findings: agricultural losses could be reduced by as much as $11 billion, there could be as many as 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality and as much as $110 billion in lost labor hours could be avoided. If nothing is done by 2100, the United States will see thousands of additional deaths annually related to extreme temperatures and poor air quality.

“The results are quite startling and very clear,” said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. “Left unchecked, climate change affects our health, infrastructure and the outdoors we love. But more importantly the report shows that global action on climate change will save lives.”

The Washington Post notes one major concern with the study—citing a recent International Energy Agency analysis—though several major new international commitments could move the world in the right direction, the planet is almost certainly not going to hit its 2 degree target.

The report follows the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical—acknowledging that climate change is largely caused by humans—sparking bipartisan reaction. A review of surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University found the majority of Catholic Republicans agreed that global warming is happening.

EPA Clean Power Plan Under Fire

A White House official this week said the final version of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would retain its ambitious 30 percent cut in emissions (subscription). Slated to be finalized in August, the rule would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit.

Bills to scale back its intended benefits were the subject of House hearings this week. One in particular, the Ratepayer Protection Act—which Obama threatened to veto—was passed with a 247-180 vote by House Republicans Wednesday. It would pause implementation of the rule until all legal challenges have been settled. It also would allow states to opt out if the rule leads to rate increases. Manufacturers on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill. A letter from the National Association of Manufacturers noted that the “rule has the potential to substantially increase the costs of electricity for manufacturers and could threaten the reliability of the electric grid in many parts of the country.” But a report from Public Citizen suggests the Clean Power Plan will actually be beneficial to consumers and the economy generally.

2015 on Pace to Be Warmest Year on Record

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Japanese Meteorological Agency last week reported that the first five months of this year are the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880, putting 2015 on track to top 2014 as the warmest year on record.

In May, the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.57 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, 0.14 degrees above the previous record set in May 2014.

According to NOAA, record warm sea-surface temperatures in the northeast and equatorial Pacific Ocean as well as areas of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Barents Sea north of Scandinavia contributed to the anomalous heat so far in 2015.

“The oceans have been what’s really been driving the warmth that we’ve seen in the last year and a half to two years,” said Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Education. “We’ve seen really large warmth in all of the major ocean basins. So, if there’s anything unusual or weird, I guess, about what we’re seeing, it’s the fact that the entire global ocean is participating in this really extreme warmth that we’ve seen in the last couple years.”

The current El Niño event could help keep temperatures at record or near-record levels for the remainder of the year, but climate scientists are cautious about saying whether 2015 will definitely be a record breaker for heat.

“We expect that we are going to get more warm years, and just as with 2014, records will be broken increasingly in the future. But perhaps not every year,” said Gavin Schmidt, who leads NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

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.

Pope Calls for Sweeping Changes to Address Climate Change

June 18, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, which may play a key role in the United Nations climate change conference in Paris later this year, was released today. Among its key focuses: climate change is real, it is getting worse and humans are a major cause.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” the Pope wrote. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical called for sweeping changes in politics, economics and lifestyles to confront the issue—including moving away from fossil fuel use.

“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” he wrote. “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

A leaked draft of the encyclical published Monday in an Italian magazine sparked bipartisan reaction. Democrats greeted it as a vindication of the science of climate change and of their party’s policy proposals to address it (subscription). Some prominent Republicans—such as GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush—argued that a religious leader has no place in crafting policy. Former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis said the encyclical will force skeptics and critics of environmental regulations in the GOP to do some “soul searching.”

“There’s a lot of Republicans who may have in the past been critical of fellow Catholics who they call ‘cafeteria Catholics’ who don’t follow the church’s teachings—say, on abortion,” said Inglis. “But now, are they going to become ‘cafeteria Catholics’ themselves and not follow the church’s teachings on climate change?”

Carbon Tax Bill Aims to Trade a “Bad” for a “Good”

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii last week introduced the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, a bill that would impose a $45 per metric ton fee on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels—a figure reflecting the federal government’s estimate of the so-called social cost of carbon, a measure of damage attributable to climate change. The location of the announcement, the American Enterprise Institute, was “meant to convey an offer of partnership” with conservatives on what the two Democratic senators hope is a “rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science,” ClimateWire reported (subscription).

The bill’s gradually rising tax (2 percent per year) and credits for carbon sequestration are aimed at reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels. According to a summary of the legislation, the bill would cut emissions by at least 40 percent by 2025. That amount represents a far greater reduction than the 26 to 28 percent that the United States has pledged to achieve through regulatory changes over the same period and would amount to a cut deeper than that proposed by other countries in the run up to discussions surrounding a climate deal in Paris later this year.

Whitehouse and Schatz argued that lack of a carbon tax is a $700 billion annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.

“A carbon fee can repair that market failure by incorporating unpriced damage into the costs of fossil fuels,” Whitehouse said. “Then the free market—not industry, not government—can drive the best energy mix is for the country, with everyone competing on level ground.”

Fossil fuel consumption in British Columbia is down since the Canadian province implemented a carbon tax. New analysis of that tax’s performance by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity describes the tax as straight out of the economist’s playbook.

Co-author and Nicholas Institute Environmental Economics Program Director Brian Murray describes the tax as a “textbook” prescription because of its wide coverage and revenue neutrality, meaning that revenues from the tax go back to British Columbia households and businesses.

“Economists often favor revenue-neutral carbon taxation because it has the potential to enhance economic growth by lowering distortions from the current tax system,” said Murray. “Given these characteristics, the British Columbia carbon tax may provide the purest example of the economist’s carbon tax prescription in practice.”

Similar to revenues from the British Columbia carbon tax, fees from the proposed carbon tax would be recycled back to businesses and individuals. The projected $2 trillion over the course of the first decade would be invested in “American competitiveness” through tax credits, corporate tax cuts, and funding for states, which Whitehouse and Schatz say would help low-income and rural communities transition to new industries.

White House Raises $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

President Barack Obama hopes to spark clean energy innovation with $4 billion in private sector investments and executive actions, officials announced at the White House’s Clean Energy Investment Summit Tuesday. The funding is in response to a call for increased private sector research into low-carbon energy technology. It doubles the funding goal announced in February, when the Obama administration launched its Clean Energy Investment Initiative.

The Clean Energy Impact Investment Center will operate under the Energy Department to speed other financing for clean energy. The idea, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted, is to “make the department’s resources … more readily available to the public.”

He added: “The United States and other countries are providing substantial financial support to the development and commercialization of clean energy technologies but, if were to achieve climate goals, it is imperative that we find ways to incentivize the global capital markets to invest in clean energy. The U.S. government is addressing the need for new financing through a variety of programs that support clean energy technology through the research and development, demonstration and deployment stages.”

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.

Federal Court Finds Challenges to Clean Power Plan Premature

June 11, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, came too early, according to a panel of federal judges.

“Petitioners are champing at the bit to challenge EPA’s anticipated rule restricting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants,” wrote Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the court opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “But EPA has not yet issued a final rule. It has issued only a proposed rule. Petitioners nonetheless ask the court to jump into the fray now. They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule. But a proposed rule is just a proposal. In justiciable cases, this court has authority to review the legality of final agency rules.”

The lawsuit from a group of states and Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp, claimed that the EPA exceeded its authority when it proposed the rule last year. Even though the rule isn’t slated to be final until August, the plaintiffs indicated they were facing steep costs to prepare for it.

The proposed rule sets state-specific emissions targets—interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit—in order to cut heat-trapping emissions from existing power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

“We are obviously disappointed with the court’s ruling today, but we still think we have a compelling case that the rule is unlawful,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who led the states’ challenge to the pending rule. “As the court recognized, the rule will be final very soon, and we look forward to continuing to press the issue.”

G7 Summit Leaders Agree to Phase out Fossil Fuels; Deal in Bonn

G7 Countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom—have reached a non-binding agreement to cut carbon dioxide emissions of 40–70 percent of 2010 levels by mid-century. This agreement backs earlier recommendations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We commit to rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption,” G7 officials said in a statement. “As we do that, we recognize the importance of providing those in need with essential energy services, including through the use of targeted cash transfers and other appropriate mechanisms. This reform will not apply to our support for clean energy, renewables and technologies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The agreement also calls for G7 countries to help poorer countries develop with clean technologies and address risks from weather disasters as well as to intensify their support for vulnerable countries’ efforts to manage climate change. It is intended, in part, to build momentum ahead of the United Nations climate talks later this year in Paris, at which delegates hope to reach a global climate deal.

In Bonn, Germany, where delegates from nearly 200 countries have been working to pare down draft text for that deal, a partial agreement has been reached to slow deforestation and protect regions holding vast carbon stores. The agreement—covering aspects of the scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)—resolves outstanding technical issues on the use of REDD+ and provides standardized rules for developing REDD finance. Other, larger policy details such as how finance will flow to those countries that keep forests intact will need to be resolved in Paris (subscription).

Global Warming Pause Refuted by NOAA Study

A new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Science refutes a global warming “hiatus” reported in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

“Adding in the last two years of global surface temperature data and other improvements in the quality of the observed record provide evidence that contradict the notion of a hiatus in recent global warming trends,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, in a press release. “Our new analysis suggests that the apparent hiatus may have been largely the result of limitations in past datasets, and that the rate of warming over the first 15 years of this century has, in fact, been as fast or faster than that seen over the last half of the 20th century.”

In the Science study, authors replotted average annual surface temperatures since 1880, accounting for anomalies in temperature readings from ocean ships and buoys. The latter are given greater weight in the dataset because the number of buoys deployed in the world’s seas is far higher today than decades ago and because the accuracy of readings from them has increased over time.

“The fact that such small changes to the analysis make the difference between a hiatus or not merely underlines how fragile a concept it was in the first place,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, of the study (subscription).

A separate study published Monday in Nature Climate Change faulted IPCC scientists’ communication at the press conference announcing publication of Fifth Assessment Report, noting that to make anthropogenic global warming (AGW) more meaningful to the public the speakers emphasized the record warmth the world had experienced in the past decade yet dismissed the relevance of decadal time scales when journalists enquired about the similarly short pause in global temperature increase. The speakers thereby created uncertainty about what counts as scientific evidence for AGW.

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.

Bonn Climate Talks Look to Shape More Complete Text Ahead of Paris

June 4, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The next round of international climate negotiations began Monday in Bonn, Germany, and runs through June 11. The main task for the delegates from nearly 200 countries: pare down draft text for a final global climate deal to be negotiated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. The 89-page working draft contains differing options and viewpoints. Some countries, reports Deutsche Welle, want to set intermediate goals and others—including Russia, Canada, the United States, and the European Union—have pledged formal emissions cuts.

“No matter how you cut it, the hard work will be done in Paris,” a senior developing country delegate told Bloomberg BNA. “We will reduce the options in Bonn, but the final language will only come in Paris.

Multiple reports question whether the world is on track to meet the goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. One, by the International Energy Agency (IEA), examines clean energy progress—noting shortcomings.

“Indeed, despite positive signs in many areas, for the first time since the IEA started monitoring clean energy progress, not one of the technology fields tracked is meeting its objectives,” the report said. “The future that we are heading towards will be far more difficult unless we can take action now to radically change the global energy system.”

Others say failure is not an option and note that new mechanisms for future rounds of pledges, perhaps in 2025 and 2030, can hit the mark.

“You don’t run a marathon with one step,” said Christiana Figueres, the United Nation’s top climate change official.

Report Emphasizes Importance of Existing Policies, Clean Power Plan to Meet U.S. Climate Commitment

In preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, the Obama administration pledged to reduce U.S. emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. According to a new paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI), few policy changes will be required for the United States to meet or exceed that commitment. First among the paper’s 10 recommendations: strengthening the Clean Power Plan, which is projected to be finalized in August.

“While our analysis shows that the Clean Power Plan does not need to be strengthened in order to reduce economy-wide emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2025 (as long as ambitious action is taken across other emission sources),” write the authors, “doing so would enable the United States to more easily achieve the upper range of its 2025 target and achieve deeper reductions beyond the 2025–30 time frame.”

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions contributed modeling underlying some of the report’s findings. It used a version of the Energy Information Administration’s well-known National Energy Modeling System (DUKE-NEMS), which is maintained by the Nicholas Institute, to model two pathways for longer-term abatement opportunities through new legislation.

“DUKE-NEMS complements WRI’s model by capturing supply-demand interactive effects,” said Nicholas Institute Senior Policy Associate Etan Gumerman. “We used it to explicitly model economic impacts. It helped us establish the level of emissions reductions that are economically achievable using targeted policies, while highlighting the greater emissions reductions that could come from potential climate legislation.”

Other measures recommended by the WRI report are expanding residential and commercial energy efficiency programs, increasing cuts in emissions of the refrigerant hydroflourocarbon, making industrial emissions standards and fuel economy standards more stringent, establishing emissions standards for new airplanes, increasing carbon sequestration in forests, and cutting methane emissions from coal mines, landfills, and agriculture.

Court Sides with EPA on Ozone Ruling

A federal court is siding with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on enforcement of limits on smog-forming pollution, rejecting challenges from states, industry and environmental groups claiming that the EPA was too strict or too lenient in determining areas that satisfied federal ozone restrictions. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone set the allowable level at 75 parts per billion in 2008. In 2014, the EPA had proposed even stricter emissions limits on ozone of 65 to 70 parts per billion.

“Virtually every petitioner argues that, for one reason or another, the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously in making its final [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] designations,” the opinion states. “But because the EPA complied with the Constitution, reasonably interpreted the Act’s critical terms and wholly satisfied—indeed in most instances, surpassed—its obligation to engage in reasoned decision-making, we deny the consolidated petitions for review in their entirety.”

Ground level ozone—the main ingredient in smog—forms when chemicals in fossil fuel emissions react with sunlight and air.

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.

New Analyses on Clean Power Plan Examine State Compliance Options

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Additional tools have been added to the resources intended to help states and regulators navigate compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, for which the rule is projected to be finalized in August. As proposed last summer, the plan regulates carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, and gives states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, this week, released a plan detailing how energy efficiency financing can help states meet Clean Power Plan goals. And the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) released a “menu of options” for states to weigh emissions reductions strategies.

Developed by former air and energy regulators at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), the NACAA report considers the pros and cons of the 26 options it examines—including cap-and-trade systems, carbon dioxide taxes, electricity storage, smart grid applications and device-to-device communications—but does not rank them (subscription).

“We understand that each state has different needs and different interest and different politics and different experiences,” said Ken Colburn, a senior associate with RAP.

Another analysis by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions finds that with the right policy choices, compliance with the Clean Power Plan can be cost-effective for states. It outlines tradeoffs of three policy options: using state-specific, rate-based emissions goals, as laid out in the proposed plan versus converting that rate into a mass-based standard; identifying how trading emissions credits within state borders or with other states affect the cost of compliance with the rule; and determining whether to include under the rule new natural gas combined cycle units that produce electricity and capture their waste heat to increase efficiency (subscription).

“Our analysis shows how important it can be for states to exercise the flexibility afforded to them under the proposed rule,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute. “None of the compliance options analyzed raise power sector costs more than a few percent nationally, but these costs could be cut in half or more with a mass-based system and interstate trading of credits like we’ve already seen in some regions of the U.S.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis suggests that the proposed Clean Power Plan could put carbon dioxide emissions at about 1,500 million metric tons per year by 2025—roughly what they were in 1980. The EIA analysis points to a reduction in coal-fired generation and increase in natural gas-fired generation as the predominant compliance strategy as implementation begins; renewables play a bigger role starting in the mid-2020s, and demand-side energy efficiency plays a “moderate” role in compliance. The federal government’s energy statisticians find that the plan would raise electricity prices 4.9 percent above their current trajectory by 2020 (subscription).

Study: Roughly 5,500 Glaciers Could Disappear

Over the course of this century, Mount Everest could see major losses as the result of climate change, according to a new study in the journal The Cryosphere.

“The worst-case scenario shows 99 percent loss in glacial mass … but even if we start to slow down emissions somewhat, we may still see a 70 percent reduction,” said Joseph Shea, lead author with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal.

Researchers used previous measurements of glaciers in a region of the Himalayan mountain range that is home to Mount Everest as well as climate change scenarios based on emissions pathways used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to analyze how glaciers have changed and may continue to change as future global temperatures rise. The authors notethat melt isn’t just the result of rising temperatures—there’s a trend of overall warming “raising the elevation of the freezing level, which has two secondary effects: the area exposed to melt will increase, and the amount of snow accumulation will decrease.”

EPA Issues New Air Pollution Rule

The EPA has issued a new regulation to reduce air pollution emissions during power plant startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM)—emissions that may adversely affect the health of people in neighboring and downwind communities. The agency clarifies the SSM policy is consistent with the Clean Air Act and recent court decisions.

“The called-for changes to state plans will provide necessary environmental protection and will give industry and the public more certainty about requirements that apply during these periods,” the EPA said in a statement. The rule also directs 36 states to submit state implementation plans by November 2016.

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.