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.


Paris Climate Talks Begin

December 3, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: Dec. 7–11 we will present a series of special issues of The Climate Post featuring updates on climate negotiations and commentary from our staff in Paris.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders on Monday suggested that stakes are too high to end negotiations on Dec. 11 without inking a climate deal that would limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the U.N.-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts.

NPR reports that observers hope the deal will include three main items: agreement by countries to increase pledges in the future, a rigorous system of accountability to ensure nations keep those pledges, and support for poor countries to adopt low-carbon energy technologies.

A major sticking point for delegates of the nearly 200 countries meeting at the conference is the legal status of the treaty they hope to ink.

The Commonwealth and Europe have called for a deal to be legally binding. But the United States is looking to make only some aspects of it legally binding.

“Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding,” President Obama said in Paris. “…that’s going to be critical.”

Countries Pledge Financing for Clean Energy, Withdraw It for Coal

Another key negotiating point in Paris will be whether developing countries get enough financing to make the transition to clean energy worth it given the comparative cheapness of coal. In an announcement intended to give the U.N. climate talks momentum, the leaders of 19 nations, including the United States and many developing economies, on Monday pledged a doubling of clean energy spending to $20 billion in a deal with 28 corporate leaders (the so-called Breakthrough Energy Coalition spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) who are putting up billions of their own (subscription).

According to a White House e-mail, the public component of the public-private agreement, known as Mission Innovation, is aimed at helping energy technologies “cross the investment ‘valley of death’” presented by their risk profiles and long return time horizons.

Brian Deese, White House climate adviser, said that Mission Innovation “should help to send a strong signal that the world is committed to helping to try to mobilize the resources necessary to ensure that countries around the world can deploy clean energy solutions in cost-effective ways.”

In an editorial for the Boston Globe, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wrote that Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are “synergistic initiatives that establish clean energy innovation as a foundation for environmental stewardship, prosperity, security and social responsibility. Strong American leadership in these initiatives has provided a tremendous global leveraging opportunity, and innovation has remained common ground in our political discourse.”

Three questions raised by the initiatives are whether a multinational research effort combining public and private investments could entail intellectual property problems, how much of the newly pledged money might represent formerly pledged funding, and whether the future funding will be approved in national budgets.

In the lead up to the Paris talks, some of the countries that just committed financial support for clean energy signed on to a deal to severely cut funding for some prospective coal projects. A promise by China to control its support for high-carbon projects overseas—part of its most recent climate agreement with the United States—allowed Japan and the United States to develop a proposal that last month became a less stringent agreement by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to curb public financing for coal plants (subscription). Under the policy, which goes into effect in 2017 and will be up for revision in four years, OECD countries will continue to provide export credits for “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired power plants—those constructed to meet the most stringent environmental standards—but public financing for 85 percent of coal plants going forward would effectively be cut off. The agreement does allow support for less efficient plants with a capacity under 500 megawatts in the world’s poorest countries.

House Votes to Block Power Plant Rules

The House approved, largely along party lines, to block the Obama administration’s measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The House voted 242–180 to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, and 235–188 to block EPA rules governing emissions from new power plants. The votes come just weeks after the Senate passed legislation blocking U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that apply to new and existing power plants.

The resolutions now go to President Obama, who last month announced plans to veto them, claiming that they undermine public health protections of the Clean Air Act and “stop critical U.S. efforts to reduce dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.”

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.


Saudi Arabia Joins Climate Change Effort

November 12, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Saudi Arabia—the world’s biggest crude oil exporter—has become the last of the G20 countries to submit an emissions pledge in the run up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Nov. 30–Dec. 11. The desert kingdom said it will avoid up to 130 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030 but whether from existing or projected pollution levels is unclear, and the target is conditional on diversification of the country’s fossil fuel-reliant economy.

Though its commitments are hazy, the pledge is considered symbolically important because Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to fight climate change. References to plans to invest in renewable power and energy efficiency represent an enormous pivot for a country dependent on oil for 90 percent of its exports and holding some 16 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Other emissions-related measures include plans to build a plant to capture and use 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide a day in other petrochemical plants and to explore and produce natural gas.

“These measures focus on harnessing the mitigation potential in a way that prevents ‘lock in’ of high-GHG infrastructure,” the submission said.

At an informal three-day meeting in Paris ending Tuesday, representatives of 70 countries took steps toward resolving two disagreements that could undermine a climate treaty: financing for developing countries to tackle climate change and increased emissions reduction commitments. Participants established that the $100 billion a year in grants and loans provided to poorer states starting in 2020 should be a minimum, and they discussed the possibility of expanding the number of donor countries. Progress was made on how to revise commitments to make additional emissions cuts, given that current pledges will be insufficient to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

As Studies Show Temps Rise, Leaders Urge Action

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), this week, reported that between 1990 and 2014 the world experienced a 36 percent increase in radiative forcing of greenhouse gases (the warming effect on our climate). The change is due to long-lived greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities, the WMO warned. Also this week, the U.K.’s Met Office shared data for 2015 showing, for the first time, global mean temperature at the Earth’s surface is set to reach 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“Every year we report a new record in greenhouse gas concentrations,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Every year we say that time is running out. We have to act now to slash greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have a chance to keep the increase in temperatures to manageable levels. We will soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 parts per million as a permanent reality.”

President Obama used a newly launched personal Facebook account to draw attention to the importance of addressing climate change. Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande met with other leaders to promote the upcoming climate talks in Paris.

“We have to make sure that politicians are able to decide beyond the terms of their mandate, and even beyond their own lifespans,” Hollande said. “I mean that we should make sure that those who hold the future of our planet in their hands can imagine that they will be judged after they are gone. That’s what the Paris conference is about.”

Keystone Pipeline Proposal Rejected

Citing environmental concerns and overhyped benefits, President Barack Obama last week rejected the proposed 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried 800,000 barrels a day of carbon-intensive petroleum from the Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. The project had become the symbol of a broader debate on climate change, energy, and the economy as well as what the Washington Post described as “a litmus test among Democrats for what President Obama was willing to do to tackle global warming in the face of Republican resistance in Congress.”

“The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States,” Obama said. “I agree with that decision.” He also deemphasized the importance of the decision, saying that Keystone had taken on an “overinflated” political role and that it was neither a “silver bullet for the economy” nor “the express lane to climate disaster.”

Nevertheless, the president recognized the decision’s importance in the context of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris and environmentalists and some other observers say the decision may have been timed with the conference in mind.

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” the president said, “and frankly approving this project would have undercut that leadership.”

In what the Guardian described as “a sweeping statement which became a global call to arms ahead of the U.N. climate talks,” Obama promised U.S. global leadership in pursuing an ambitious framework “to protect the one planet we have got while we still can.”

To meet that goal, Obama said, “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.”

He reported that he and newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had concurred that climate change concerns trumped any differences of opinion over Keystone.

Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres and other leaders hailed the decision as building momentum toward Paris, and analysts said it boosts the credibility of the United States in urging other large developed nations to more critically consider their fossil fuel growth (subscription).

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other Republicans in Congress have vowed to reverse Obama’s decision if the GOP wins the White House next year. The Huffington Post catalogued the reactions of other politicians on both sides of the Keystone debate.

TransCanada says that it is reviewing its options, including a new application for a cross-border pipeline. Earlier this month, TransCanada had asked the State Department to suspend review of its federal permit application, arguing that it would be “appropriate” to delay a federal decision until its Nebraska route is settled.

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.


GOP Candidates: Government Action on Climate Change Will Hurt Economy

September 24, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week’s Republican debate drew opinions of several candidates on climate change, namely on how government action to address the problem will hurt the economy. During the four-minute exchange, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dismissed the idea of enacting former Secretary of State George Schultz’s proposed “insurance policy” to guard against global warming risks such as sea-level rise.

When debate moderator Mark Tapper asked about the insurance policy, Rubio responded, “Because we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” and Christie said, “I agree with Marco. We shouldn’t be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild left-wing idea that somehow us by ourselves is going to fix the climate.”

Rubio said he’s not a climate skeptic but that he opposes policies to reduce emissions that he believes will hurt the U.S. economy and fail to affect global temperatures. He suggested that there is little point in the United States reducing its emissions because “America is not a planet.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who suspended his campaign on Monday, concurred with Rubio and referenced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, although not by name.

“I’m going to echo what Senator Rubio just said,” the governor said. “This is an issue where, we’re talking about my state, it’s thousands of manufacturing jobs. Thousands of manufacturing jobs for a rule the Obama administration, its own EPA has said will have a marginal impact on climate change.”

Christie went on to say that “massive government intervention” to deal with climate change is unnecessary, and that New Jersey had already reached its clean air goals for 2020. But ArsTechnica noted that he did not mention that state’s renewable energy standards, net metering, and solar renewable energy credits all required government intervention.

Christie did note that he’d taken New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a now nine-state emissions trading arrangement recently shown to have generated both emissions reductions and economic benefits. Carbon allowances sold by the initiative have just set a new record high. Participating states will use the revenues for energy conservation, renewable energy, and direct bill assistance programs.

Pope Visits United States; Talks Climate Change

The day after arriving in the United States for a six-day visit, Pope Francis acknowledged, in a brief speech at the White House, efforts by the Obama Administration to curb carbon emissions.

“Mr. President,” Francis said in English, “I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” He added “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

The papal visit follows the release of his encyclical on the environment, and Francis’s talks about climate change during the visit may very well touch on the concept of carbon markets. The encyclical says markets are “not good” for rationing natural resource use. “This is where many economists who study environmental markets and carbon markets might take exception to the pope,” the Nicholas Institute’s Brian Murray told American Public Media’s Marketplace. He said markets to limit carbon emissions do curb those emissions, and he attributed the Vatican’s negative view of markets to a failed attempt to use them to go carbon neutral, which used carbon offsets from a voluntary action that did not materialize. A market driven by an enforced cap on emissions, however, would not produce the same risk of failed reductions.

Today, Francis became the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. On the topic of climate change, Pope Francis addressed the divided Congress: “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental change we are undergoing, and its human roots, concerns and affects us all.”

He echoed words in his June encyclical, calling for “courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” Francis said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play … Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Reports: Carbon Pricing Schemes Gain Momentum

The World Bank reports that around the world carbon pricing schemes have nearly doubled (from 20 to 38) since 2012, and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a non-profit that gathers environmental data for investors, reports that the number of companies putting a price on their greenhouse gas emissions for internal planning in 2015 almost tripled (from 150 to 437), with the biggest increase in Asia, where China is slated to launch a national carbon market and South Korea has just introduced one.

According to the CDP report, companies said that carbon prices create incentives for energy efficiency projects and switches to less-polluting fuels. In the United States, utilities cited expected emissions costs as motivation for low- or no-carbon generation investments

The World Bank study estimates that carbon pricing instruments cover about 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and that the combined value of those instruments in some 40 nations and 23 cities, states, and regions is $50 billion a year—$34 billion from markets and $16 billion in taxes. It showed that carbon prices, ranging from less than a dollar a ton of carbon dioxide in Mexico to $130 a ton in Sweden, are for the most part “considerably lower” than needed to help limit temperature rises to a United Nations goal of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. Nations gather for international climate negotiations Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris—a meeting intended to produce a deal that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the hopes of meeting this goal.

The study notes that ex-post analysis of the European Union Emissions Trading System, presently the world’s largest cap-and-trade system by traded volume, has not led industries to move to jurisdictions with comparatively low emissions costs on any significant scale but that the risk of carbon leakage remains as long as carbon price signals are strong and differ significantly among jurisdictions. According to the study, this risk, affecting a limited number of exposed sectors, can be effectively mitigated through policy design.

A parallel report by the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with input from the International Monetary Fund, identified new principles for carbon pricing that it called FASTER: Fairness, Alignment of policies and objectives, Stability and predictability, Transparency, Efficiency and cost effectiveness and Reliability and environmental integrity.

Last week, the European Union urged UN envoys to adopt international carbon market rules and emissions accounting systems by 2017. Negotiations on such systems are not expected to progress far at this year’s climate summit in Paris.

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


Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

September 3, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska this week, sharing blunt language about climate change after laying out initiatives aimed at tackling that issue in the Arctic.

“On this issue—of all issues—there is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama. “And that moment is almost upon us … This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally acts to protect the one planet that we have while we still can.”

On the three-day Alaska trip, Obama is experiencing firsthand the impacts of rapidly melting Arctic ice, which is warming waters that affect local fishing economies and raising sea levels, threatening the state’s coastal villages. To help address some of these local issues, Obama announced new initiatives. One is fish and wildlife cooperation management to help rebuild Chinook salmon stocks. Another is an exchange program that brings urban and rural youth together to understand the challenges of a changing Arctic and the potential for local solutions against the impacts of climate change.

Despite this focus on climate, Obama is receiving criticism for granting Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill for oil off Alaska’s coast. In an op-ed, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard writes “we commend the president for his leadership, and yet this trip comes on the heels of his administration’s decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a move that seriously undermines his climate legacy.”

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters,” said Obama. “Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil explorations conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold as much as 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact remains, said Shell President Marvin Odum that oil will continue to be needed as the United States transitions to renewable energy sources.

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

The impacts of sea level rise could be greater than worst-case scenarios. The reason? The dominant climate models don’t fully account for the accelerated loss of ice sheets and glaciers, a phenomenon highlighted by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.

Recent data on the speed and scope of melting ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica suggest that global average sea level rise may approach or exceed 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, by 2100.

“The ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise sooner and greater than anticipated,” said Eric Rignot, glaciologist at the University of California–Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Right now, the contribution is about one third. We know that in future warming (melting ice sheets) will dominate sea level rise. With future warming we may have multiples of 6 meters, or 18 feet, and higher. It may be a half meter per century or several meters per century, we don’t know. We’ve never seen an ice sheet collapse before.”

Rignot drew attention to the dynamic behavior of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which recently lost a chunk of ice roughly 12 square kilometers in surface area and which could raise sea level by half a meter if it were to melt entirely.

NASA is beginning a three-year effort, Oceans Melting Greenland, to understand the role of ocean currents and ocean temperatures in melting Greenland’s ice from below—and therefore to better predict the speed at which that melting will raise sea level.

Also of concern: Antarctica, which has a great deal of total ice to lose. The West Antarctica ice sheet may be undergoing a marine instability as warm water reaches the base of its glaciers from below.

“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”

Data collected by NASA satellites, which change position in relation to one another as Earth’s water and ice realign and change gravity’s pull, reveal that the ocean’s mass is increasing, translating to a global sea level rise of about 0.07 inches per year, but that rise is not uniform.

A visualization released by NASA illustrates the variation in sea level rise around the world. Although the sea level has fallen slightly along the U.S. west coast due to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), NASA warns that sea level rise could increase on that coast because the PDO recently shifted into a warm phase.

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

This week, delegates met in Bonn, Germany, to take steps to create a workable draft for a deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties November 30 to December 11 in Paris that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that the agreement will show just how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer poorer countries to deal with their own growing energy and climate adaptation needs. Opinions on how to get to this agreement, which would take effect in 2020, differ.

One particularly sticky point: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between rich and poor nations. In an interview with Politico, Robert Orr, a longtime climate advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, identified the outstanding issues.

“The overall question of ambition, just how ambitious an agreement this will be,” said Orr. “Everyone agrees we need to get ourselves on a pathway to 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise or less. This level of ambition will require changes in everyone’s economies, everyone’s fuel mixes, everyone’s infrastructure investments. So, agreeing on a level of ambition in as much specificity as possible is critical to a successful deal. The issue of financing: All of this has to be paid for.”

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.


Recent Studies Provide Examples of Emissions Trading Successes, Failures

August 27, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The emissions trading program in the northeastern United States—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—is responsible for about half the region’s emissions reductions—an amount far greater than reductions achieved in the rest of the country.

The study in the journal Energy Economics determined that even when controlling for other factors—the natural gas boom, the recession, and environmental regulations—emissions would have been 24 percent higher in participating states without RGGI (subscription). RGGI, the first market-based regulatory program in the United States, is a cooperative effort among states to create a “cap” that sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector—a cap lowered over time to reduce emissions. Power plants that can’t stay under the cap must purchase credits or “emissions allowances” from others that can.

“While the study focused on the northeastern states and the RGGI program specifically, the findings suggest that emissions trading could be a cost-effective strategy for states now considering how to comply with EPA’s recently issued regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide from power plants,” said Brian Murray, lead author and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

A separate study in the journal Nature Climate Change found significant misuse of a key carbon offsetting scheme after several factories increased their production of industrial waste products—spiking emissions. It suggests that a loophole in the United Nation’s carbon market may have led to “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants to increase emissions so they could then make money by reducing them.

A companion study indicates that the majority of credits from Russia and Ukraine were a sham and that no emissions were reduced. In fact, the study estimates use of the sham offsets actually enabled greenhouse gas emissions to increase by some 600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“We were surprised ourselves by the extent, we didn’t expect such a large number,” said study co-author Anja Kollmuss. “What went on was that these countries could approve these projects by themselves there was no international oversight, in particular Russia and Ukraine didn’t have any incentive to guarantee the quality of these credits.”

Study Quantifies Global Warming’s Contribution to California’s Drought

How much of California’s drought is due to climate change? A study published in Geophysical Research Letters has an answer: up to 27 percent. The study also indicates that climate change has made the odds of severe droughts twice as likely.

Global warming has worsened the drought through increased evapotranspiration, the contribution of which was quantified in detail for the first time by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the University of Idaho who analyzed 432 combinations of precipitation, temperature, wind, and radiation data gathered between 1901 and 2014 to simulate monthly changes in soil moisture across California. When they modeled these combinations against various greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they concluded that the state’s lack of rainfall is due to natural variability—a finding that accords with most other studies—but that California’s drought is 8 to 27 percent drier because of human-cause climate change (subscription).

“By knowing how much global warming has contributed to the trend in California drought conditions over the past century, we can reliably predict how the future will play out,” said A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty who led the study. By the 2060s, Williams said, drought conditions will be more or less permanent, and evaporation will overpower bursts of intense rainfall.

Williams likened climate change to a “bully” that every year “demands more of your money than the year before. Every year, the bully—or atmosphere—is demanding more resources—or water—than ever before.”

He also said that California should more aggressively police groundwater withdrawals by agricultural operations, increasing use fees and fines for overuse. California is one of the few states that does not regulate such withdrawals, which after three years of drought have led to precipitous drops in groundwater tables and land subsidence.

Obama Announces Renewable Energy Initiatives

In the first stop on an 11-day climate and energy tour, President Obama announced a number of initiatives aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in clean energy technology.

“We are here today because we believe that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change,” said President Obama at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “But we’re also here because we hold another belief, and that is, we are deeply optimistic about American ingenuity.”

According to a White House fact sheet, these measures include:

  • $24 million for 11 projects in seven states to develop innovative solar technologies that double the amount of energy each solar panel can produce.
  • Approval of a transmission line for a 485-megawatt photovoltaic facility planed for Riverside County.
  • An additional $1 billion in federal loan guarantees available through a federal program for innovative versions of residential solar systems.
  • Creation of the Interagency Task Force to Promote a Clean Energy Future for All Americans.
  • Provision of residential Property-Assessed Clean Energy financing that facilitates investment in clean energy technologies for single-family homes.
  • Creation of a new HUD and DOE program to provide home owners with a simple way to measure and improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said federal support is critical as the clean-energy industry seeks to become further established, noting “The playing field is not always as level and that’s where investors and developers can have risks. That’s where things like our loan program come in.”

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 Targets Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

August 20, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took another step to make good on the Obama administration’s pledge to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 by proposing the first methane emissions rules for the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Reducing emissions of methane, which have 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, is a central component of the administration’s overall climate strategy. The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The EPA expects to release its final methane rules next year, after it hears public comments.

“Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean energy economy.”

The rules target new and modified oil and natural gas operations, but as Greenwire reports, they could eventually trigger regulation of methane leakage from the entire sector (subscription). The proposed rules call for oil and gas processing and transmission facilities to locate and repair methane leaks, capture natural gas from hydraulically fractured oil wells, and limit emissions from equipment—actions netting climate benefits of $120 to $150 million in 2025, according to the EPA.

As they are now, the proposed rules could achieve a cut of 25 to 30 percent by 2025, according to Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. To meet the full 40–45 percent goal, the administration expects to rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and a Department of the Interior rule covering drilling on public lands.

The rules supplement recently announced voluntary initiatives to address methane emissions at existing wells—emissions that may be greater than the EPA estimates according to new research.

A study conducted by scientists at Colorado State University and published in Environmental Science & Technology, quantifies emissions from thousands of gathering facilities, which consolidate gas from wells and feed it into processing plants or pipelines. These emissions have been largely unreflected in federal statistics, the report says, but may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain. These newly identified emissions would increase total emissions from that chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent.

Climate Action Declaration

Muslim scholars from 20 countries issued an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” on Tuesday, calling on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to work to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to commit to renewable energy sources.

The declaration drawing on Islamic teachings and to be presented at the global climate summit in Paris was finalized at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul this week.

“The pace of global climate change today is of a different order of magnitude from the gradual changes that previously occurred throughout the most recent era, the Cenozoic,” the declaration reads. “Moreover, it is human-induced: we have now become a force dominating nature. Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger [of] ending life as we know it on our planet.”

The declaration asks Muslim countries, particularly those that are “well-off” and “oil-producing,” to lead the greenhouse gas phase out and to provide financial and technical support for climate change efforts by less-affluent states.

Alaska and Climate Change

Climate change could exacerbate one of Alaska’s worst wildfire seasons—one that has burned some 5 million acres of tundra and forests and ignited fears that large stores of carbon are being emitted into the atmosphere.

“We really need to start considering the long-term implications of big fires that are being predicted,” said Nicky Sundt, a climate change expert for the World Wildlife Fund. “In the Arctic, you have a lot of carbon locked up, and the fires will release that. We need to start thinking seriously about the carbon emissions from these fires.”

A recent Climate Central analysis shows that in the last 60 years large wildfires in Alaska have essentially doubled and that the wildfire season is 40 percent (35 days) longer than it was in the 1950s, mainly due to rapid warming in the globe’s northern reaches.

“The primary driver is temperature. The warmer we get, the more fires we seem to get,” Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said. “We need a 15 percent increase in precipitation to account for the warming. Very few climate models suggest there will be an increase in precipitation to compensate for the increase in temperature. The fuels will be drier in the future and it will be easy to start the spread of fire.”

Of particular concern—drying of peat, which then becomes susceptible to burning and release of centuries’ worth of carbon in the span of a few hours of intense fire. Teresa Hollingsworth, a researcher and ecology professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told NPR that many of the state’s fires burned seven feet deep, where vast amounts of carbon are stored.

“The carbon released from fire emissions during a large fire year in Alaska is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the global fossil fuel and land use emissions,” said Dave McGuire, a research scientist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, in a recent press release.

Obama is visiting the state at the end of this month to highlight climate change impacts that go beyond fires.

“In Alaska, glaciers are melting,” Obama said in a video released last week. “The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended for their way of life and for their jobs are being threatened. Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are all at risk.”

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.


Challenges Ahead for Clean Power Plan, Another EPA Rule

August 13, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Less than two weeks after President Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final Clean Power Plan rule, aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has encouraged states to comply with the plan through emissions trading opportunities—emphasized far more in the final rule than the draft proposal.

It appears that some states may be examining whether they have trade-ready elements in common with other states. If so, they will be able to swap emissions credits with those states in order to comply with the rule.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly in the West, where states are more loosely connected across the electricity grid, about an arrangement where states could adopt some common elements, and thereby allow the compliance entities in that state to trade among states that might not have submitted a joint plan but still have common elements in their plans,” said Colin McConnaha, a greenhouse gas specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Despite the final rule’s flexibility, legal challenges are expected (subscription). Bill Bumpers, a partner at a law firm representing power companies, estimates 22–26 states are considering such challenges, a decision he called “more political than practical.”

The focus of many of these legal challenges, in my opinion, may very well be section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. I spoke with MetroNews Talkline on this issue Wednesday, noting:

“The way the Clean Air Act is set up is that the traditional pollutants like ozone and particulates are regulated under one provision, what they call the hazardous air pollutants like mercury are regulated in a second provision and then there is this third provision, 111 that says if it is not covered under one of the first two then you regulate under 111(d) … Section 111 (d) has been rarely used over history because there hasn’t been a pollutant like CO2 in the mix. So that gives the EPA a lot of flexibility in how it executes because there are not years of precedent, but it also gives them some uncertainty in how the courts are going to interpret it.”

That flexibility may not be so clear for another EPA rule that a group of 16 states and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources are challenging.

At issue—whether states can provide exemptions from emissions limits during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction. The court filing states “specifically, EPA erroneously concluded that the following State’s EPA-approved State Implementation Plans are ‘substantially inadequate’ with respect to periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction and must be revised.”

Carbon Emissions from Electric Power Plants Hit 27-Year Low

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said those same emissions that the Clean Power Plan is trying to diminish hit a 27-year low in April (subscription). Figures released Wednesday show that electric power plants emitted 141 million tons of carbon dioxide in April 2015, the lowest since April 1988.

A big factor in the drop is the long-term shift from coal to cleaner and cheaper natural gas, according to EIA Economist Allen McFarland, who downplayed the role of, economic sluggishness. “You don’t have a 27-year low because of an economic blip. There are more things happening than that,” McFarland said, noting that the price of natural gas has dropped 39 percent in the past year.

Increased renewable fuel use and energy efficiency are additional factors, say other experts, including Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also highlighted the role of regulation.

“A factor behind all these trends is that the writing is on the wall about the future of coal and thus the future of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” said Oppenheimer. “The regulatory noose is tightening and companies are anticipating a future with lower and lower dependence on fossil fuels and lower and lower carbon dioxide emissions.”

Federal analysts predict that this year the amount of electricity from natural gas will increase 3 percent compared to 2014 while power from coal will go down 10 percent.

Significant changes in the electric power sector fuel mix since April 1988 have made electricity generation less energy and carbon intensive. Some analysts point out that power plant emissions have already fallen by about 15 percent since 2005, putting the country halfway to the Obama administration’s goal before the Clean Power Plan goes into effect.

Spring Release for Changes to MATS Rule

Court-mandated changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule, which requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies, are expected by the EPA in 2016.

The EPA wrote in a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that it “intends to submit a declaration establishing the agency’s plan to complete the required consideration of costs for the ‘appropriate and necessary’ finding by spring of next year.” The Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider the costs of MATS when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

In the filing, EPA lawyers note that there is “extensive documentation” of the cost of MATS. The rule will remain in effect while the lower court determines whether to vacate it as the EPA works on the cost issue, Detroit News reports.

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.


Final Clean Power Plan More Ambitious, Flexible

August 6, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday, President Obama announced the release of the final Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets mandatory limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the nation’s fleet of existing power plants may emit. The rule is projected to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said, noting that power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution, a key contributor to climate change. “Until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution plants dump in the air.”

Some Plan Particulars

The complicated and controversial 1561-page rule was developed by the Obama administration using existing authority under the Clean Air Act—specifically, section 111(d). The plan, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “is about as flexible as possible,” because it allows each state to come up with its own compliance program to meet the federal standards.

In broad strokes, the plan is designed to accelerate an already-underway shift from coal-fired electricity to cleaner natural gas and renewables, along with increased energy efficiency, by requiring existing power plants to meet specific carbon dioxide emissions reduction guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the targets based on a “best system of emissions reduction” comprised of three building blocks: making existing coal plants more efficient; shifting generation from coal to gas plants; and increasing generation from renewables.

Once the targets are set, however, states do not have to use the building blocks as a framework for their plans, and have been given a range of market-based, flexible mechanisms to reach their state targets.  In fact, emulating the flexibility afforded power plants under the market-based program devised in 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the CPP allows states to create “trading-ready” plans that will allow affected plants to sell emissions credits or to buy credits, if that’s a less expensive option than taking other actions. Parallel compliance approaches remove the need for formal interstate trading agreements, an approach described in one of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ recent policy briefs. Also facilitating trading are new state goals reflecting uniform national emissions rate standards for fossil steam (coal and oil) and natural gas power plants, respectively, reports ClimateWire (subscription).

The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push to slash U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the final CPP was timed to build momentum toward the start of international climate talks in Paris in November. Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent economist in the U.K., said the rule’s release will “set a powerful example for the rest of the world,” and will reinforce the credibility of the U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalized.

Significant Changes from the Proposal

Changes to the final plan were expected, given some 4 million comments on the proposed plan, and the plan did not disappoint. One big change, according to Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe, is based on the assumption that renewable energy and regional approaches have even greater capacity for helping the power sector reduce emissions than reflected in the draft proposal (subscription). Consequently, the final plan will cut power plant carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 30 percent target in the proposed rule.

The final rule also axed what the draft proposal referred to as Building Block 4, a criterion for achieving emissions reductions through programs that improve electricity consumers’ energy efficiency, as a means of calculating the state targets. Although these efficiency standards and under-construction nuclear plants were left out of the criteria for setting state goals under the plan, both are still available as compliance options.

The plan also includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that rewards states for investing early (2020–2021) in renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power as well as demand side energy efficiency in low-income communities. Details of the incentive scheme are yet to be worked out, but the final rule goals do now expect renewable energy sources to account for 28 percent of the nation’s capacity by 2030—up from 22 percent in the proposal (subscription). The aim, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is to incentivize renewable energy, which will lessen the reliance on natural gas as a replacement for coal power as the dominant compliance strategy.

Many other changes were anticipated in the Nicholas Institute’s most recent policy brief, including:

  • Additional time—an two extra years (to 2022)—for states to submit plans and begin cutting emissions;
  • Easing of the interim goals “glide path,” which states can now craft for themselves; and
  • New state mass emissions targets. These targets, based on states’ energy mixes and a uniform emissions rate for plants that use the same technology but no longer on demand-side energy efficiency, are less disparate than and also vastly different from those in the proposal. They also allow states to choose whether to use one target that includes the emissions from new natural gas units or another target that excludes these units (but still provides mechanisms to ensure that emissions cannot increase through new units).

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.