Saudi Arabia Joins Climate Change Effort

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

As Studies Show Temps Rise, Leaders Urge Action

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

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

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

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

Keystone Pipeline Proposal Rejected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countries Position Themselves for Paris Climate Talks

November 5, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a joint statement on Monday, China and France signaled that any deal reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Nov. 30–Dec. 11, should include five-year reviews of emissions reductions commitments in order to “reinforce mutual confidence and promote efficient implementation.” The two countries also called for an “ambitious and legally binding” deal that will allow global warming to be limited to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the United Nations-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts—and they made a bilateral commitment to formulate low-carbon strategies within the next five years.

The statement was released during a visit by French President François Hollande to China in a bid to persuade Beijing to propel negotiations ahead of the Paris talks. As the world’s largest polluter, China—which has promised to cap its emissions by 2030 but has not yet said at what level—will be a key actor given disputes over whether developed or developing countries should bear a greater emissions reduction burden. New government data indicating that China is annually burning 17 percent more coal than thought will increase the complexity and urgency of achieving its emissions pledge.

The 55-page negotiating text forwarded to Paris at the conclusion of the latest round of talks in Bonn, Oct. 23, left unresolved the fundamental issues plaguing the climate agreement process for decades: common but differentiated responsibility for dealing with climate change impacts and poorer countries’ demands for climate adaptation finance.

The two issues were front and center at a meeting on Saturday of China, South Africa, Brazil, and India that was meant to produce a joint negotiating scheme. In a statement reiterating their “unequivocal commitment towards a successful outcome at the Paris Climate Change Conference through a transparent, inclusive and Party-driven process,” the four countries said that “existing institutions and mechanisms created under the Convention on adaptation, loss and damage, finance and technology should be anchored and further strengthened in the Paris agreement.”

The statement came just after the last major pre-Paris gathering of Pacific island nations, which produced a collective plea for help in addressing the health impacts of climate change (subscription).

U.N. Report on Emissions Pledges: More Cuts Needed

A new United Nations report finds that, if fully implemented, countries’ collective pledges toward a new international climate change agreement would eliminate 4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere by 2030—not enough to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (C) over preindustrial levels but sufficient to greatly improve the chances of meeting that goal (subscription). The report is based on a review of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) of 146 countries that collectively cover 86 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The INDCs have the capability of limiting the forecast temperature rise to around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, by no means enough but a lot lower than the estimated four, five, or more degrees of warming projected by many prior to the INDCs,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN’s climate agency, said in a statement with the report. She added that the INDCs are “not the final word” but do indicate a global decarbonization effort.

The European Union’s Joint Research Centre, which did its own review based on the plans of 155 countries representing some 90 percent of global emissions, put the increase at 3 degrees Celsius.

The UN report points to a sobering conclusion regarding the so-called carbon budget: approximately three-quarters of that budget will have been spent by 2030. Moreover, the report suggests that the world is losing out on the cheapest path to keeping warming under 2 C. That path would require emissions in 2030 to be no more than 41.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), far lower than the 56.7 GtCO2e indicated by the UN analysis.

In a blog post, Paul Bodnar, the top climate official in the White House’s National Security Council, focused on the decelerated emissions growth indicated by the INDCs. He wrote that the UN report shows that the pledges to date “represent a substantial step up in global action and will significantly bend down the world’s carbon pollution trajectory. The targets are projected to significantly slow the annual growth rate in emissions—including a major decrease in rate compared to the most recent decade.”

Clean Power Plan: Latest Legal Developments

On Tuesday, 23 states submitted a petition asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to strike down a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule establishing carbon dioxide emissions standards for new and modified power plants (subscription). Those same states, plus Colorado and New Jersey, have already challenged emissions standards for existing power plants. On Wednesday, the legal brawl expanded when 18 states led by New York and several cities submitted their own petition asking to defend the U.S. Environmental Protection’s Clean Power Plan (subscription).

A court ruling on whether to stay implementation of the regulation will come after the UN climate negotiations in Paris. According to a timeline announced last week, final stay motions are due today, the EPA has until Dec. 3 to respond, and final reply briefs are due Dec. 23, followed by as-yet-unscheduled oral arguments.

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.

Climate Treaty Negotiators, U.S. Businesses Look Ahead to Paris

October 22, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Most countries have now submitted emissions plans ahead of the Paris climate talks later this year, but success in forging a global treaty in Paris is far from guaranteed. Delegations from nearly 200 countries are meeting this week in Bonn, Germany, to pin down details of a draft agreement ahead of the U.N. talks. On the opening day, the dropping of language on financing of climate change and adaptation efforts from the draft text caused concern on the part of developing nations. After countries were invited to reinsert language, the text grew by more than a dozen pages (subscription).

Daniel Reifsnyder, one of the U.N. talks’ chairmen and a senior State Department official, said the Bonn meeting won’t resolve one of the biggest issues of disagreement for delegates—differentiation of developed countries and developing countries’ responsibilities. Progress might be made on other issues, he said, such as “whether there should be a precondition—like submitting a domestic climate plan to the U.N.—to join the agreement and to exercise decision-making rights.”

Looking for a strong outcome at the Paris talks are 81 U.S. companies. On Monday, the White House announced that 68 companies—ranging from banks to energy firms—had joined Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, and nine other original signatories to the White House-sponsored American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Signatories to the pledge, announced this summer, call for the Paris meeting to advance climate action and have offered up individual promises to cut their greenhouse gases and limit waste.

“Delaying action on climate change will be costly in economic and human terms, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy will produce multiple benefits with regard to sustainable economic growth, public health, resilience to natural disasters, and the health of the global environment,” the pledge says.

The White House also said on Monday that it expects a consortium of major investors to announce $1.2 billion in investment capital for companies and projects that can “produce impactful and profitable solutions to climate change.”

Study: Some Cities Already “Sunk” Due to Sea-Level Rise

Some 400 U.S. towns and cities with a collective population of more than 20 million are vulnerable to sea level rise—and some of them may be submerged regardless of efforts to address climate change, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that links carbon dioxide to sea level rise. A new map from Climate Central uses the study data to show how water will flow into U.S. cities under the best and worst climate change scenarios. The map pinpoints which U.S. cities may face “lock-in dates beyond which the cumulative effects of carbon emissions likely commit them to long-term sea-level rise that could submerge land under more than half of the city’s population.”

Lead study author Ben Strauss said that seas could rise 14–32 feet by 2100 in the absence of unchecked carbon emissions but that even with stringent emissions reduction action, it might already be too late for cities like New Orleans and Miami (subscription). Inundation could occur, he said, as soon as the next century, but it could take much longer.

The study finds that decisions made in this century will determine whether Jacksonville, Norfolk, Sacramento, and 11 other U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 will be locked in for inundation of at least half of their populated areas.

Strauss emphasized that many cities can be saved with swift action to reduce carbon emissions.

“The most interesting thing to me is there are a great deal of cities where our carbon choices make a huge difference,” he said. “For example, if you look at Philadelphia, under business as usual, land that accounts for more than 100,000 people could be submerged. But you divide that total by 10 with an extreme carbon cut. The very biggest difference of all is for New York City, where you can avoid submergence of land where one and a half million people live.”

September Global Average Temperature Keeps 2015 on Track for Record

Earth is on course to experience its warmest year on record, according to data and patterns studied by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). NASA put 2015’s record-breaking chances at 93 percent. NOAA put them at 97 percent.

The news comes as a JMA data set that tracks global average surface temperatures indicated a big jump in temperatures in September, compared to the 1981–2010 average. September 2015, the second warmest September on record, had a temperature anomaly of 0.50 degrees Celsius, far exceeding the typical margin by which global average temperature records—whether they’re months or years—are set.

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.

Climate Change Gets Attention in Democratic Debate

October 15, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four of the five candidates mentioned climate change a dozen times as a major campaign issue during at the Democratic presidential debates this week. Candidates at the Republican debate were largely silent on the issue.

“This debate shows that climate has become a central issue, right up there with income inequality and broader economic concerns,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate official under the Clinton administration. “It’s a stunning evolution, one that also shows Democrats see climate change has a profound GOP vulnerability in the general election.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley touted their own efforts to combat climate change. “I’m the only candidate, I believe, in either party to do this—to move America forward to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050,” said O’Malley.

Sanders brought up his push for legislation that puts a price on carbon, and he identified climate change as the main threat for the country—repeating Pope Francis’s message that it was a moral issue.

“The scientific community is telling us: if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be inhabitable,” Sanders said.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, saw climate change as an economic opportunity.

“I’ve traveled across our country over the last months listening and learning,” Clinton said. “And I’ve put forward specific plans about how we’re going to create more good-paying jobs: by investing in infrastructure and clean energy, by making it possible once again to invest in science and research, and taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”

Group Calls for Tougher Action on Climate Change

Twenty countries most at risk of climate change due to arid, landlocked, mountainous, or low lying terrain have formed a new group to demand tougher efforts to curb climate change. The Vulnerable 20 (V20), which held its inaugural meeting in Lima, Peru, last week, is calling for significant mobilization of finance for climate action ahead of a climate agreement set to be negotiated in Paris later this year, and it will share and scale up its own members’ innovative approaches to such finance.

The action plan by the V20 countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, East Timor, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam—seeks to “strengthen economic and financial cooperation and action to address climate change risks and opportunities” as well as to promote a shift to a low-carbon global economy.

The V20 contributes only 2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions but asserts that since 2010 it has recorded more than 50,000 annual deaths and suffered an estimated annual decrease in GDP of 2.5 percent attributable to climate change.

“We established this group recognizing the power and potential of finance as an integral tool in solving [climate change],” Cesar Purisima, the Philippines’ finance minister and chair of the V20. “Unified in our vulnerability, the economic threats and difficulties arising from climate change, and heightened sense of urgency on the issue, we stand together on the front lines of a battle we most certainly cannot afford to lose.”

V20 expects to both raise and manage climate monies, and it will establish a public-private “climate risk pooling mechanism,” an insurance-like fund for recovery from extreme weather events and disasters.

Without an effective global response, said Purisima, the V20’s annual economic losses due to climate change would exceed $400 billion by 2030.

New York Set to Explore Linkage with Carbon Markets

Last Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced four major actions by his state to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One is becoming a signatory to Under 2 MOU—a memorandum of understanding among states, provinces, and cities worldwide to help keep Earth’s average temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, as measured against pre-industrial levels. Another is engaging partners in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in exploring the possibility of linking their power sector-only cap-and-trade program with California and Quebec’s economy-wide carbon markets and with Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, which may join California, Washington, and Quebec in the Western Climate Initiative as soon as 2017.

“Connecting these markets would be more cost-effective and stable, thereby supporting clean energy and driving international carbon emission reductions,” a release stated. “New York State will also engage other states and provinces to build a broader carbon market and further drive an international discussion that encourages government action on carbon emissions.”

ClimateWire reported that carbon trading among states is considered a key mechanism to comply with the Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and acting EPA air chief Janet McCabe has said that interstate trading, for which RGGI is regarded as a model, could help states maintain an affordable and reliable power supply (subscription).

RGGI members are expected to meet through 2016 to discuss both the future of their program, currently slated to end in 2020, and the program’s use as a possible compliance mechanism for the Clean Power Plan.

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.

China Announces Cap-and-Trade Program

October 1, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On his visit to Washington last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that his country, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, will launch a national cap-and-trade scheme in 2017. The move would make China the world’s biggest carbon market and could strengthen global efforts to put a price on carbon.

The planned emissions trading program will consolidate China’s seven existing regional carbon markets and cover industries not currently regulated for carbon in the United States: iron and steel, chemicals, building materials, and paper manufacturing.

China has yet to announce specifics of its cap-and-trade plan, which will face political and technical challenges. “The devil of course is in the details,” said Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University. “It really does matter what the actual cap is.” He added that limits leading to a pre-2030 emissions peak would be a huge move.

Frank Jotzo, the director of the Center for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra and a close tracker of developments in China said the national emissions trading scheme will have a major signaling effect. “The world’s second-largest economy puts in place a price on carbon emissions, and this will be noted the world over,” he said. “If successful, it can grow into playing a major role in facilitating China’s objectives for a cleaner energy and industrial system.”

Jinping’s announcement occasioned this ironic observation in The Atlantic in reference to Republicans’ rejection of a cap-and-trade proposal in Obama’s first term, which led to enactment of climate control policy through regulation of the electric power industry in the form of the Clean Power Plan: “China, the largest self-avowedly communist nation in the world, has created a market to reduce its carbon emissions. And the U.S., the anchor of global capitalism, will limit them through government command-and-control.”

China also made a substantial financial commitment to help poor countries fight climate change—$3.1 billion.

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Adopted

The United Nations General Assembly agreed to 17 new sustainable development goals, which expand on the eight Millennium Development Goals. The new goals are broken down into 169 specific targets each country has committed to achieve over the next 15 years. They focus on everything from eradicating extreme poverty and climate change to providing energy access for all.

Goal 7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Two targets to put the world on this path are to increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix and to double the rate of improvement of energy efficiency by 2030.

World Energy Council Secretary General Christoph Frei welcomed the agreement on the goals. “The adoption of energy among sustainable development goals is timely, critical, and historic,” he said. “Timely because we need to master the energy transition at a time of greatest uncertainty in the energy sector. Critical because we will not solve energy access or achieve energy efficiency objectives without moving the agenda from those who want to those who can. Historic because the development community for the first time recognizes the fundamental role energy is playing in the achievement of most of the other sustainable development goals.”

Goal 13 is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. A few targets to get there—integrate climate change measure into national policies, strategies and planning as well as advance the Green Climate Fund—requiring developed countries to follow through on commitments to provide $100 billion by 2020 to aid developing nations’ efforts to adapt and mitigate climate-related disasters.

With the adoption of the 17 goals, attention now turns to the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris—where member states hope to adopt a global climate agreement. In a CNN editorial, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, said all could take a lesson from Pope Francis’s message on climate change.

“Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, clearly articulated that climate change is a moral issue, and one of the principal challenges facing humanity,” said Ban Ki-Moon, mentioning the Pope’s recent visit to the U.S. where he address the U.N. and Congress. “He rightly cited the solid scientific consensus showing significant warming of the climate system, with the most global warming in recent decades mainly a result of human activity.”

Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling

Royal Dutch Shell suspended its search for oil and gas off the coast of Alaska for the “foreseeable future,” saying that Arctic oil reserves were insufficient and that the regulatory environment was too unpredictable to continue.

“Shell continues to see important exploration potential in the basin, and the area is likely to ultimately be of strategic importance to Alaska and the U.S.,” said Marvin Odum, president of Shell USA. “However, this is a clearly disappointing exploration outcome for this part of the basin.”

Although the decision was celebrated by some environmental activists who had protested Shell’s decision to drill offshore, it should give people on both sides pause, Mike LeVine of Oceana told U.S. News and World Report.

“Meaningful action to address climate change is almost certainly going to mean we can’t keep looking for oil in remote and expensive places,” he said. “Rather than investing in programs like this, we need to figure out how to transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy.”

Alaska House of Representatives member Ben Nageak told the Associated Press that the state must act quickly to find another source to fill its 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

“We stood on the cusp of another economic boom that could have propelled our young people and their children to better futures,” Nageak said. But “a draconian and poisoned federal government” shut it down.

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.

World on Path to Miss 2C Target

September 10, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Plans submitted by world’s top polluters won’t limit global warming to the 2-degree Celsius threshold recommended by the United Nations, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a tool developed by a consortium of four European research organizations.

In a report released last week at climate talks in Bonn ahead of the U.N. climate conference in Paris, the consortium said that pledges of emissions reductions—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)—submitted by 29 governments as of Sept. 1 must be significantly strengthened. Further reductions of 12–15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent are needed by 2025 and another 17–21 gigatons by 2030.

The projections are based on CAT’s analysis of 15 of the 29 INDCs. Of those 15 INDCs, covering 64.5 percent of global emissions, the analysis finds only 2 (those of Ethiopia and Morocco) are “sufficient.” Those of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Russia are “inadequate,” and those of China, the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States are “medium,” that is, consistent with the target.

“It is clear that if the Paris meeting locks in present climate commitments for 2030, holding warming below 2°C could essentially become infeasible, and 1.5°C beyond reach. Given the present level of pledged climate action, commitments should only be made until 2025,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT consortium members. “The INDCs therefore need to be considerably strengthened for the period 2020–2025.”

The CAT report also found that “in most cases” countries didn’t have policies in place to reduce emissions to match their INDCs for 2025. China and the European Union were the exceptions.

The world has already warmed up by 0.8 C—nearly half the 2 C target—and, according to CAT, is on track for 2.9–3.1 C of warming by 2100.

Bonn Talks Conclude

At climate talks in Bonn, Germany, delegates agreed to give two co-chairs of the talks permission to move forward on shrinking down a lengthy draft deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties, November 30 to December 11, in Paris. That deal would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“At this session, countries have crystalized their positions and have requested the co-chairs to produce a concise basis for negotiations with clear options for the next negotiating session in October,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, co-chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group of the mandate. “This means that we will arrive in Paris on time without too much turbulence—not before, not later.”

Delegates will start line-by-line negotiations on the next draft in Bonn, Oct. 19. Major sticking points are how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer to help poorer countries deal with their growing energy and climate adaptation needs.

U.N. Study Examines Global Deforestation Rates

The amount of forest lost across the world in the last 25 years encompasses an area nearly the size of South Africa (about 500,000 square miles) and has resulted in the release of 17.4 billion tons of carbon, according a new United Nations report, which used self-reported data from 234 countries and territories. It finds the biggest losses from deforestation and forest degradation, which are known to increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, are in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Even so, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that the rate of loss has slowed from 0.18 percent annually in the early 90s to 0.08 percent yearly since 2010. Globally, it notes, natural forest area is decreasing, and planted forest area is increasing.

“FRA 2015 shows a very encouraging tendency towards a reduction in the rates of deforestation and carbon emissions from forests and increases in capacity for sustainable forest management,” said FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva. “The direction of change is positive, with many impressive examples of progress in all regions of the world.”

FAO pointed to agriculture as the main driver of deforestation in the tropics. “The place to start and the place to finish in many ways is the agriculture story,” said Kenneth MacDicken, an FAO senior forestry officer (subscription). “We need to boost intensification of food production on less land, and it’s really market forces that drive food production. If the price goes high enough, people will take more risks.”

Some challenged the U.N. findings, disputing the data used to arrive at them and claiming that deforestation rates have actually increased 62 percent during the study time period.

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

Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

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

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

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

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

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

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

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

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.