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.


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.


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court Grants the EPA Partial CASPR Victory

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

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

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

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

Climate Change Undermines Coral Reefs’ Protective Effect on Coasts

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

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

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

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


Power Plants Emissions Fall; Progress Unevenly Distributed

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Scientists Call for Decarbonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Wind Farm Planned in North Carolina

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

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

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

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


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.


Pope Calls for Sweeping Changes to Address Climate Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White House Raises $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

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

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

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

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


Federal Court Finds Challenges to Clean Power Plan Premature

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Pause Refuted by NOAA Study

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Analyses on Clean Power Plan Examine State Compliance Options

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study: Roughly 5,500 Glaciers Could Disappear

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

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

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

EPA Issues New Air Pollution Rule

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

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

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


States, Nations Announce Commitments Ahead of U.N. Climate Conference

May 21, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Roughly six months before international leaders meet in Paris for a United Nations climate change conference, U.S. states and foreign nations are stepping forward with climate commitments. Canada, on Friday, pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

California is joining a climate agreement with eight foreign nations and four states that aims to keep the world’s average temperature from rising another 2 degrees Celsius. All signatories of the Under 2 MOU commit to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 or achieve a per capita annual emissions target of less than 2 metric tons by 2050.

“This global challenge requires bold action on the part of governments everywhere,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown, who urged Under 2 MOU to serve as a template for Paris. “It’s time to be decisive. It’s time to act.”

The signatories of the non-binding agreement include: California; Vermont; Oregon; Washington; Wales, United Kingdom; Acre, Brazil; Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Baja California, Mexico; Catalonia, Spain; Jalisco, Mexico; British Columbia, Canada; and Ontario, Canada.

India and China—among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases—also committed to working together in advance of Paris negotiations. Neither made formal commitments, indicating they would submit their official plans “as early as possible” and “well before” the December conference. In a statement, both urged “developed countries to raise their pre-2020 emission reduction targets and honor their commitment to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries.”

Studies Examine Cause of Warming

A study published in Environmental Research Letters presents a 1958–2012 temperature and wind dataset of the upper troposphere (Earth’s atmosphere) as clear evidence of emissions-induced climate change.

“Using more recent data and better analysis methods we have been able to re-examine the global weather balloon network, known as radiosondes, and have found clear indications of warming in the upper troposphere,” said lead author and Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science Chief Investigator Steve Sherwood.

The study helps to answer questions about temperature variations throughout different parts of the atmosphere by developing a new method to account for natural variability, long-term trends, and instruments in the temperature measurement—revealing real temperature changes as opposed to artificial changes generated by alterations in data collection methods. It finds that tropospheric warming has continued as predicted and it confirms the expectation that as global warming progresses, the troposphere will warm faster than the Earth surface. In fact, tropospheric temperature is rising roughly 80 percent faster than Earth’s surface temperature (within the tropics region).

“Our data do not show any slowdown of tropical atmospheric warming since 1998/99, an interesting finding that deserves further scrutiny using other datasets,” said the study authors.

Another study, published Monday in Nature Geoscience, sheds yet more light on “missing” heat—or the failure of global surface temperatures to rise as quickly as expected since 1999. Scientists have accounted for the so-called global warming pause by suggesting that there’s been a transfer of heat from the tropical Pacific into the Indian Ocean. It turns out that heat in the Pacific moved with an ocean current strengthened by unusually high trade winds into the Indian Ocean, which is now home to 70 percent of all heat taken up by global oceans during the past decade.

“This is a really important study as it resolves how Pacific Ocean variability has led to the warming slowdown without storing excess ocean heat locally,” said Matthew England, a professor at the University of New South Wales. “This resolves a long-standing debate about how the Pacific has led to a warming slowdown when total heat content in that basin has not changed significantly.”

Others suggest the story is more complex (subscription). Real-world measurements of ocean heat content obtained through the Argo program—which measures temperature and salinity through free-drifting floats—suggest that some of the missing ocean heat might be present at depths between 700 and 1,400 meters, in a region of the ocean south of the 30th parallel; the study authors focused on the Indian Ocean north of the 34th parallel and used climate models to validate observations.

Obama: Climate Change Endangers National Security

The warming planet poses an immediate risk to the United States and urgent action is needed to combat climate change as a national security imperative, President Obama told the U.S. Coast Guard Academy during a commencement address.

“Here at the academy, climate change—understanding the science and the consequences—is part of the curriculum, and rightly so, because it will affect everything you do in your careers,” said Obama. “As America’s maritime guardian, you’ve pledged to remain always … ready for all threats, and climate change is one of those most severe threats. And so we need to act, and we must act now … anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty.”

He noted that droughts and other conditions will pose new challenges for military bases and training areas, that rising oceans will threaten the U.S. economy, and that an increase in natural disasters will result in humanitarian crises.

The U.S. committed to reducing carbon emissions 28 percent by 2025—and Obama is expected to travel to Paris in December to explore whether a global climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gases can be reached.

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.