Arctic Experiencing More Than Just Melt

May 9, 2013
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Carbon dioxide emissions are soaking into Arctic waters and affecting the chemistry of the ocean, a new report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program shows. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater runoff challenge the ocean’s ability to neutralize acidification—an imbalance caused by absorption of the greenhouse gas from the air. The study said the Arctic’s cold water makes it more vulnerable to absorbing carbon dioxide, lowering pH levels and thereby increasing acidity.

“We have already passed critical thresholds,” said Richard Bellerby, report chairman. “Even if we stop emissions now, acidification will last tens of thousands of years.”

In fact, the average acidity of surface ocean waters is now roughly 30 percent higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. This month, experts predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to reach 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time—40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than before that revolution began. Among the report’s other key findings: Arctic marine ecosystems are highly likely to undergo significant change, acidification may contribute to the alteration of fish species, acidity is not uniform across the Arctic, and acidity rise is the result of an uptake in carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.

Negotiating Climate Policy

Nations gathering for the week-long climate talks in Bonn, Germany, moved closer to solidifying details for a 2015 international climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. Although there were no breakthroughs in bridging the divide between the U.S. and China, participants began to lay the groundwork for progress at November’s climate summit in Poland. More specifically, a U.S. proposal to move away from a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and let countries draft their own emissions reduction plans gained support at the meeting. The current level of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is far too low, says U.N. Climate Change Secretariat Christiana Figueres. “The challenge for the 2015 agreement is precisely to bridge the gap,” Figueres said. “The process is not on track with respect to the demands of science.”

In the European Union, politicians announced plans for a “rescue attempt” centered on the union’s carbon trading system, which is designed to provide incentives to industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within the system last month, a plan that would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the system dubbed the world’s largest carbon market. A second vote determining whether to withhold carbon permits from the oversupplied market to address the current imbalance is expected by July.

Obama’s Energy and Environment Team Takes Shape

With Ernest Moniz—a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor—now confirmed as the Energy Secretary, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was scheduled to vote on whether U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Gina McCarthy would get her turn in front of the full Senate. All eight Republican lawmakers on the committee boycotted the hearing on the vote today, contending that McCarthy hasn’t answered several questions fully. At least two Republicans were needed to move ahead with a vote, according to committee rules.

“As you know, all Republicans on our EPW committee have asked EPA to honor five very reasonable and basic requests in conjunction with the nomination of Gina McCarthy, which focus on openness and transparency,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “While you have allowed EPA adequate time to fully respond before any mark-up on the nomination, EPA has stonewalled on four of the five categories. Because of this, no Republican member of the committee will attend [Thursday]’s mark-up if it is held.” Chairwoman Boxer vowed to move McCarthy’s nomination through the committee, even if it required her to change the committee rules to remove the requirement for Republican attendance for a quorum.

Meanwhile, recently confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made her first appearance, since winning confirmation last month, to defend the department’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget.

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.


Weaker Kyoto Protocol Extended at International Climate Negotiations

December 13, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After weeks of deliberation among representatives of nearly 200 countries, the United Nations climate talks ended with an agreement to extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol. The only global agreement in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations, it was set to expire at the end of this year. The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol still leaves off the world’s two largest emitters—the United States and China—and covers no more than 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

In addition, the package adopted at Doha includes assurances to address “loss and damage” at the next conference in Warsaw, where richer nations may be financially responsible to poorer nations for failure to reduce emissions. There was also confirmation of a decision made at last year’s U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to work toward adopting a universal climate change agreement by 2015. The extension of the Kyoto Protocol keeps existing climate targets until this new international agreement takes effect in 2020. This agreement would set emissions goals for all nations, whereas the Kyoto Protocol extension establishes emissions cuts for only a handful of industrialized nations, which include Switzerland, Australia and the European Union.

While the U.S. did join in backing the establishment of the universal treaty, several former U.S. presidential aides and advisors say the country’s involvement hinges on President Barack Obama’s willingness to talk about the issue of climate change. “President Obama needs to talk about climate change and help the American public connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, our energy policy and the progress we are already making on reducing emissions,” said Congressman Edward Markey. “The public will be more accepting of an international climate deal if they understand what we are already doing” to fight global warming.

The outcome of the conference was widely criticized, but some offered glimpses of hope. Michael Jacobs of The Guardian called the talks a start, but noted that 2015—the deadline for negotiating the successor to Kyoto—“will be the moment of truth.” Mother Jones, meanwhile, offered a fairly pessimistic assessment of the talks, but called the extension of Kyoto “something”—even though it doesn’t include the U.S., China or India. China and the U.S. are to be a clear focus next year, others said. And Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action described the outcome as crossing “the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system. We are now on our way to the 2015 global deal … Very intense negotiations lie ahead of us. What we need now is more ambition and speed.”

Arctic Report Card Shows Record Lows

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) again released its annual Arctic Report Card, summarizing the latest scientific observations about the region. Of note: 2012’s record ice loss follows a fairly unremarkable year temperature-wise—relative to the previous decade. The report also found that this year’s summertime sea ice pack was the smallest ever seen, and a new record low June snow cover extent was set.

The melting of ice, it seems, is also affecting the food chain—specifically through the creation of phytoplankton, which is experiencing increasing blooms on land and in open water as ice melts. The report suggests that previous estimates of phytoplankton production may have been ten times lower.

NOAA’s report findings come just days after the release of another study showing increased melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. It found smoke from Arctic wildfires may have contributed to this melting.

Major Brands Focus on Sustainability

With climate and energy policy close to dormant in Congress, a new study finds the majority of the world’s largest companies aren’t waiting on governments to lower emissions and shift to clean energy. Many—approximately 56 percent of Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies—are investing in renewable energy and emission reduction. This comes on the heels of a new list from Climate Counts, which ranks 145 companies’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Rankings were based on 16 criteria and included support of progress on climate legislation as well as their ability to communicate their efforts to reduce emissions to consumers.

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.


What Is the True Social Cost of Carbon?

September 20, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.

Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.

Climate Change in the Stone Age

Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.

In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption  could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.

PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”

Country-Sized Emissions

Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.

It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.

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.


Deep-Sea Methane, Wind that Could Power World?

September 13, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to spend more than $5 million researching the potential to produce natural gas from deep-sea methane hydrates—ice-like formations that contain natural gas and are stable at depths of more than 300 feet. The Energy Department calls them “the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource”—some estimate they are twice as abundant as all remaining natural gas and petroleum reserves. According to William Dillon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “The worldwide amounts of carbon bound in gas hydrates is conservatively estimated to total twice the amount of carbon to be found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.” This is the same methane hydrate that could be released into the atmosphere if Antarctica’s ice sheets thin as a result of climate change.

Another abundant resource sharing headlines is wind: there may be enough wind on Earth to meet global power demands (subscription), at least technically, according to a new report. Wind power to such a degree would require covering much of the Earth’s surface and oceans with turbines. Though wind power currently supplies about 4.1 percent of U.S. electric power, the study concludes that we could produce about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.

Challenges of Climate Change

In the U.S., drought and rising temperatures are posing challenges for power plants. The Washington Post details the burdens these factors are placing on coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power generators—including the Hoover Dam, where low water levels make meeting demand difficult. The news has Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush calling for a probe into whether climate change could threaten the nation’s electricity supply. In their letter, the two cite several cases in which power plants were forced to cease operation or cut back output when nearby water sources became too warm to cool the plants.

Despite suffering the worst drought in 50 years, farmers will collect far more corn crop than previously predicted. Still, at 10.727 billion barrels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will remain at $7 per bushel. The corn yield is still projected to be the worst since 1995.

While climate conditions are impacting farmers, more and more big businesses are seeing the potential impact to their operations. A new report indicates approximately 81 percent of the largest global companies that report sustainability strategies and greenhouse gas emissions include disruptions from climate change among corporate risk disclosures. Thirty-seven percent of those companies consider droughts, fires and the like a serious threat.

Arctic Drilling Sees More Delays

Drifting ice halted Shell’s efforts to drill its first well in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea just one day into the already-delayed project. The arrival of the ice is the latest in a series of regulatory and equipment setbacks for the company, which has already spent about $4 billion on the effort. Though the federal government estimates the Alaska Arctic offshore region contains close to 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, sea ice and harsh conditions make for a short drilling season. The moving ice may bring them closer to the Sept. 24 close of the drilling season—stated in the terms of their permit—with little progress toward their goal. “Depending on conditions, it could be a few or, potentially, several days before it’s safe enough to resume drilling,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

Shell has petitioned for an extension of the season because its projections had shown the arrival of ice much later in the season. The area’s unforgiving conditions have led some doubt how safely these efforts could be carried out—despite extra efforts to beef up the same equipment that failed in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Paul F. Zukunft, who served as the federal coordinator on the 2010 BP spill, said, “I would never be confident [we could handle a major spill]. You’ll never get all the oil.”

In Louisiana, that’s been the case. Nearly two years after the BP spill Hurricane Isaac has churned up tar balls positively identified as originating from the 2010 event. BP has proposed a “deep clean” of these beaches—sifting as deep as 4 feet—to remove contaminants before sand deposited by new storms covers over the tarballs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are looking at other methods—more specifically, blooms of bacterial biomass and whether they could consume oil and gas from the BP spill trapped about a half-mile below the water’s surface. Tests so far say yes—showing these microbes have consumed about 200,000 tons of this oil.

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.