Four months after it was finalized by delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference, the Paris Agreement will be signed by more than 100 nations on Friday. While the agreement is facially insufficient to meet its overall emissions objectives, the signing of the Paris agreement nevertheless is significant. It brings into effect the approach and policy infrastructure needed to tackle the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s ambitious goal to minimize human-caused climate change. The agreement does not solve the problem on its own, but it is a structured revisitation of the science and national commitments that provide the adaptive approach necessary to reach a solution. It is now on researchers and entrepreneurs to invent solutions; for governments, development banks and the private sector to deploy them; and for nations to hold each other accountable as this agreement goes into effect.
Energy innovation is just one of the benefits of the signing, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
“This will open up a market for energy innovation that U.S. companies have pioneered,” Earnest said. “This is going to open up a global market for the kind of renewable energy technology that U.S. companies are at the cutting edge of.”
Other shifts have occurred since the Paris Agreement was finalized, GreenBiz reports. Big companies have backed the Clean Power Plan, there’s a rise in “sub-national” climate action at the state and city level and President Obama has proposed $10-a-barrel-tax on oil, they say.
EPA Finds Benefits Outweigh Cost of Mercury Rule
Benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule outweigh cost, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in findings released in defense of its issuance of the first-ever federal regulations requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions and other toxics.
The Supreme Court found, last year, that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. In a June ruling, it did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.
In its final 167-page report on the matter, now awaiting publication in the Federal Register, the EPA details how it considered cost in evaluating whether to regulate coal-and oil-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act (subscription).
“Based on this analysis, EPA has determined that the cost of complying with MATS, whether assessed as a percentage of total capital expenditures, percentage of power sector sales, or predicted impact on the retail price of electricity, is reasonable and that the electric power industry can comply with MATS and maintain its ability to provide reliable electric power to consumers at a reasonable cost,” the EPA wrote.
The annual cost of complying with MATS, the EPA found, amounts to between 2.7 and 3.5 percent of electricity sales, and the capital costs between 3 and 5.9 percent of annual power sector capital expenditures over 10 years.
Methane Emissions Greater Than Thought
In its newly released annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory, the EPA raised its estimate of total U.S. methane emissions in 2013 by 13 percent—an increase of more than 3.4 million metric tons and a long-term global warming impact of a year’s worth of emissions from some 20 million cars, Science News reported. The agency’s first estimate of methane emissions for 2014 is even higher, although only slightly so—29.233 million metric tons compared with 28.859 million metric tons.
Although there was a roughly 1 percent increase in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2013 and 2014, the inventory shows 2014 levels were 8.6 percent lower than 2005 levels, taking into account carbon sinks (subscription).
According to the EPA, the biggest methane emitter is the oil and natural gas industry—not animals like cattle and other livestock, as had been suggested by last year’s inventory. The data in this latest inventory are based on new techniques for estimating methane leaking from valves, compressors, vents, and other oil and gas equipment.
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.
A study published in Nature finds that Antarctic ice-sheet collapse driven by greenhouse gas emissions could double the sea-level rise predicted for this century—from 3.2 feet according to a three-year-old United Nations estimate to upward of 6.5 feet by 2100. The research builds on the work of other recent studies pointing to an irreversible melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a result of human-caused climate change, but it suggests that sea-level rise could shift into high gear, becoming an existential problem for low-lying coastal cities within the lifespan of current generations of people absent rapid emissions cuts to contain warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The study findings are based on new computer simulations showing that warming of the atmosphere and the oceans makes the ice sheet vulnerable from above and below. By the 2050s, according to the simulations, the ice sheet would begin disintegrating, and parts of the higher, colder ice sheet of the East Antarctica would also eventually fall apart.
The climate model developed by the study authors accounts for ice loss through complex processes, including “hydro fracturing,” a process whereby meltwater on ice shelves causes huge chunks of ice to fall into the water. By reflecting these processes, the researchers were able to simulate past geological periods in which sea levels were higher than today but carbon dioxide levels were about the same or even much lower. They projected sea-level rise using versions of their model that best simulated these periods—the first model to do so.
Why is reconstruction of past rises in sea level important? High sea levels during warm intervals, such as the Pliocene and Eemian eras, imply that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is highly sensitive to climate warming.
“In the past, when global average temperatures were only slightly warmer than today, sea levels were much higher,” said study co-author Rob DeConto, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “At the high end, the worst-case scenarios, with sort of business as usual greenhouse gas emissions … we will literally be remapping coastlines. North America is kind of a bull’s eye for impacts of sea level rise if it’s the west Antarctic part of Antarctica that loses the ice first. That’s the place that we’re worried about losing ice first.”
Study: Health Impacts of Climate Change Significant
The public health impacts of climate change on people in the United States will be significant and wide ranging, according to a study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The study reflects data and analysis from eight agencies, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that “Nearly all of the health threats, from increases in our exposure to excessive heat to more frequent, severe or longer-lasting extreme weather events to degraded air quality to diseases transmitted through food, water, and vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes)—even stresses to our mental health—are expected to worsen.”
Without rapid efforts to combat climate change, extreme heat alone will cause more than 11,000 additional deaths in the summer of 2030, the study suggests. Other risks include worsening allergy and asthma conditions and increased exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins. But climate change will not just exacerbate existing risks—it will give rise to unprecedented health problems such as the spread of Lyme disease in new locations.
“Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change,” said White House Science Adviser John Holdren, adding that “Some are more vulnerable than others.”
These groups include pregnant women, children, the elderly, low-income people, communities of color and those with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions.
Release of the findings coincided with the Obama administration’s announcement of several new initiatives to address those impacts, such as expanding the scope of a presidential task force on childhood risks to include climate change (subscription). Other actions include creating climate change and health curricula for schools and establishing a Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide funding for prevention of climate-change-related health problems.
Paris Deal: Largest Polluters Agree to Sign
Last week, the White House announced that the United States and China will sign the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change at a United Nations ceremony April 22.
“Our cooperation and our joint statements were critical in arriving at the Paris agreement, and our two countries have agreed that we will not only sign the agreement on the first day possible, but we’re committing to formally join it as soon as possible this year,” said President Obama. “And we urge other countries to do the same.”
Brian Deese, senior adviser to President Obama, said swift approval of the agreement would keep emissions reductions efforts on track. Noting congressional action last year to extend tax credits for wind and solar energy and asserting firm legal ground for the Clean Power Plan, Deese said that the United States has both “the capacity and the tools” to meet its international commitments.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he expects at least 120 countries will sign the agreement at the April 22 ceremony at the U.N.’s New York headquarters. To enter into force, that agreement needs at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions to formally accede to it. So far, three Pacific island nations have ratified the deal.
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.
In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.
“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.
New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.
The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”
Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.
Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.
“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.
A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.
“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”
The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.
“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”
Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events
A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.
“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”
Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The outlook for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, is the subject of debate after two key Supreme Court events last week.
First, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision issued a stay, delaying the execution of the plan, pending the outcome of legal challenges. The New York Times called the decision “unprecedented,” because the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court. At a minimum, the ruling will allow states to skip the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA.
A new twist on the fate of the Clean Power Plan came Saturday with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—leaving the Supreme Court with eight justices split evenly between conservatives and liberals, and evenly split on the question of that week’s stay. Whether the White House or the Senate will confirm a new justice before the November 2016 Presidential election remains unclear, although political cynicism about any nominee’s chances has dominated commentary. President Obama announced plans to nominate a new justice, and Senate Republican leadership has indicated that it does not intend to confirm Obama’s candidate.
The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan in June. Any ruling may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
ClimateWire suggests three potential scenarios. For Clean Power Plan opponents, the best turn of events would be appointment of a new conservative-leaning justice, which would be made possible if the Senate successfully blocks an Obama appointee and a Republican takes the White House. Those in favor of the plan would benefit from appointment of a new liberal-leaning justice or from the court’s consideration of the plan before a new justice is confirmed.
Politics surrounding the nomination of the new justice are complicated, writes Tom Goldstein of the SCOTUS blog.
Study: More Aggressive Emissions Reductions Needed to Curb Air-Pollution-Related Deaths
A new study undertaken by the World Health Organization and presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that 5.5 million die prematurely every year from air pollution. The authors—a team of U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and Indian scientists—said that most of the fatalities are in India and in China, where coal burning alone led to 366,000 deaths in 2013.
Researcher Qiao Ma from Tsinghua University in Beijing said coal burned for electricity was the largest polluter in China and that the country’s new targets to reduce emissions, agreed at last year’s Paris climate talks, are not sufficiently ambitious to end those deaths.
“Even in the most clean scenario in 2030,” Ma said, China’s growing and aging population will still suffer as many as 1.3 million deaths a year. “Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors.”
Although China halted approval of new coal mines for three years at the end of 2015 and has issued stringent requirements similar to those recently proposed in the United States for new coal-fired power plants, these and other measures may not halt increases in mortality, reported Time.
“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”
Agreements Made to Expand Renewables, Reduce Emissions
Governors from 17 U.S. states signed an accord to diversify energy generation with clean energy sources, modernize their energy infrastructure and encourage clean transportation options. Home to about 40 percent of the country’s population, states signing the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
“With this agreement, governors from both parties have joined together and committed themselves to a clean energy future,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown. “Our goal is to clean up the air and protect our natural resources.”
As part of the agreement, states will cooperate on planning and policies—pooling buying power to get cheaper clean-energy vehicles for state fleets and to build more energy-efficient regional electrical grids.
Also preparing for a cleaner-energy future is Fiji, which on Friday became the first country to formally approve the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris when its parliament ratified the agreement. Under its national climate action plan, the archipelago, which is vulnerable to flooding and strong tropical storms as a result of climate change, pledged to generate all its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to reduce its overall energy-sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030—if it receives climate finance from industrialized nations.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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 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
“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.”