Climate-change-related environmental, ecological, and social changes in the Arctic are accelerating and are more extreme than ever recorded, undermining the sustainability of current ways of life in the region and potentially destabilizing climate and ecosystems around the world, according to a five-year report released last week by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization formed to protect the region.
“Arctic social and biophysical systems are deeply intertwined with our planet’s social and biophysical systems, so rapid, dramatic and unexpected changes in this sensitive region are likely to be felt elsewhere,” the report states. “As we are often reminded, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
The report noted that the Greenland Ice Sheet, which was thought to be resistant to climate change, is experiencing higher-than-expected thinning “over time scales of only years” due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change and that if it melts completely, global sea levels would rise an average of 7.4 meters.
The report outlines 19 “regime shifts” under way or on the horizon absent efforts to halt them. They range from sea-ice-free summers to ocean circulation changes and collapse of some Arctic fisheries.
“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the co-authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”
Trump Transition: EPA Prospects
Just days after stating his “open mind” to confronting climate change, president-elect Donald Trump was meeting with potential prospects to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would align with his campaign promises to roll back agency regulations.
Two rumored EPA leaders who have called for a significant rollback in regulations—Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and former Texas environmental regulator Kathleen Hartnett White—were scheduled to meet with Trump this week.
In an interview with McClatchy, White confirmed her consideration for the post, which she says she would take on with a new approach to address a “shifting environmental landscape.” White also shared details of her conversation with Trump.
“He wants the EPA to run more carefully, to use stronger science and be unabashedly conscientious to the effect of more and more rules on existing employment and job creation,” she said. “I have no desire to put words in his mouth. But as he is in other areas, he likes a good deal.”
Climate Change Conference in Marrakech Concludes
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22), which brought nearly 200 countries together to hammer out the details of last year’s Paris Agreement, concluded last month. What exactly came out of the two-week conference?
- A timeline for implementing the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Countries participating in COP22 decided to complete detail setting for the agreement by 2018 and to review progress in 2017.
- The Marrakech Action Proclamation. The one-page document reaffirms countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement’s goals following the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. On the campaign trail, Trump stated intentions to end U.S. involvement in the agreement.
- Forty-eight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries pledged to turn in more ambitious targets to Paris before 2020 and to shift to 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050.
- An agreement to continue the discussion on climate finance. There’s still uncertainty surroundingthe pathway to mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, to establishing rules for reporting finance, and to scaling up adaptation finance.
- Nations also agreed on a five-year work-plan on “loss and damage” to address issues beyond climate adaptation like slow-onset impacts of climate change, non-economic losses and migration.
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.
As G20 leaders concluded their meeting in Hangzhou on Monday, they reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change, but they did not agree on deadlines to ratify the Paris Agreement limiting Earth’s temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (subscription). Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement is significantly more likely to take effect this year because on Saturday the United States and China jointly announced that they are formally joining it.
The agreement enters into force once ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the United States and China represent nearly 39 percent of the world’s emissions and bring the number of countries that have signed on to the agreement to 26, according to a count by the World Resources Institute. U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping said they will cooperate on two other global environmental agreements this year: one is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol related to air-conditioning in refrigeration and the other aims to reduce carbon emissions from aviation.
In his opening address to the G20 meeting, Jinping promoted domestic carbon targets and plans to cut a billion tons of coal production capacity in three to five years. Internationally, he declared it a priority to “jointly establish green and low-carbon global energy governance to promote global green development cooperation” (subscription).
On the eve of the G20 summit, a report by Climate Transparency has found that G20 countries’ pledged carbon cuts must be six times deeper to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. As a bloc, the G20 countries produce some 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Study Warns of Impacts Associated with Ocean Warming
Climate change is altering marine species, spreading disease, and threatening food security, according to a major scientific analysis of ocean warming impacts by 80 scientists from 12 countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report said the soaring temperature of the oceans is the “greatest hidden challenge of our generation.”
“We perhaps haven’t realized the gross effect we are having on the oceans, we don’t appreciate what they do for us,” said Dan Laffoley, IUCN marine adviser and one of the report’s lead authors. “We are locking ourselves into a future where a lot of the poorer people in the world will miss out.”
An IUCN press release points to examples of the impacts of ocean warming in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, where there has been a reduction in the abundance of some fish species as the coral reefs they depend on die off, and in southeast Asia, there’s expected to be a 10-30 percent decrease in harvests from marine fisheries by 2050 relative to 1970-2000.
Change in the ocean, according to the report, is happening 1.5 to 5 times faster than on land and could penetrate the ocean at depths at or below 2,300 feet. The report calls for rapid and significant cuts to greenhouse gases, further research, and expansion of marine protected areas to help deal with these impacts.
Expert Working Group Says We Are Living in Age of Anthropocene
This week, members of the Working Group on the Anthropocene said that on the basis of humanity’s profound impact on Earth, it is formally recognizing a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The “age of the humans” designation would mean we’ve moved from the so-called Holocene epoch—the interglacial period during which Homo sapiens flourished—to an epoch in which human activity has manifested itself in ways that leave traces in the geological record, significantly altering the character of the entire biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and cryosphere.
“Our working model is that the optimal boundary is the mid-20th century,” said Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. “If adopted—and we’re a long way from that—the Holocene would finish and the Anthropocene would formally be held to have begun.”
The approval process requires ratification by three other academic bodies and could take at least two years.
“Human action has certainly left traces on the earth for thousands of years, if you know where to look,” Zalasiewicz said. “The difference between that and what has happened in the last century or so is that the impact is global and taking place at pretty much the same time across the whole Earth. It is affecting the functioning of the whole earth system.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
A study published last week in Nature Geoscience provides the first measurements of greenhouse gases from permafrost under Arctic lakes in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada. Although the research reveals that only a small amount of old carbon has been released in the past 60 years, it also suggests that much more could be released as the Arctic warms up faster than any other place on Earth.
“It’s a lit fuse, but the length of that fuse is very long,” said lead author Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska. “According to the model projections, we’re getting ready for the part where it starts to explode. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
The scientists determined that the permafrost-carbon feedback is thus far small by looking at aerial photographs and using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of methane emitted from the Arctic lakes that are expanding to consume and thaw terrestrial permafrost. As that permafrost melts and decomposes, it releases ancient carbon as carbon dioxide and methane. Analysis of 113 radiocarbon dating measurements and 289 soil organic carbon measurements showed that approximately 0.2 to 2.5 petagrams of permafrost carbon was released as methane and carbon dioxide in the past six decades.
The billions of tons of carbon stored in permafrost are approximately double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Many researchers are concerned that emission of that stored carbon will contribute to warming that then contributes to permafrost thawing in an accelerating feedback loop.
NASA: Temperature Reconstructions Suggest Achievement of Paris Agreement Goals “Unlikely”
The Paris Agreement’s goal to limit Earth’s temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is unlikely to be achieved according to temperature reconstructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Those reconstructions reveal that the world is heating up faster than at any other time within the past 1,000 years. Over the next 100 years, according to NASA, it will continue to warm at least 20 times faster than the historical average.
“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination (of temperatures). Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or coordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.”
Using evidence left in tree rings, layers of ice in glaciers, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks, NASA figures that the past century’s warming of 0.7 degrees Celsius is roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.
This year, the average global temperature reached 1.38 Celsius above levels observed in the 19th century, just 0.12 Celsius below the 1.5 Celsius limit that nations aimed for in the Paris Agreement.
Climate Change Major Focus at G20 Summit
Climate change is among the topics world leaders are expected to discuss at a G20 summit in China, beginning September 4.
“This is the first time that the G20 leaders are gathering to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change, (and) how we implement them in parallel,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
President Obama, who began his 10-day trip to Asia on Wednesday, is expected to stress the urgency of climate change. And some media outlets are reporting that the United States and China are expected to announce their ratification of the Paris Agreement prior to the start of the G20 Summit, but the White House has made no formal statement to this effect.
“We’ve made the commitment that we will join in 2016. And we’ve made the commitment to do that as soon as possible this year,” said Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president. “With respect to exactly when, I don’t have any announcements on that front. But we’ve committed, and we’ve been working on that issue.”
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.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.
“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.
New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.
The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”
Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.
Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.
“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.
A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.
“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”
The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.
“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”
Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events
A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.
“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”
Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”
Human activities are the cause of this century’s record warm years, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We find that individual record years and the observed runs of record-setting temperatures were extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change,” the authors say. “These same record temperatures were, by contrast, quite likely to have occurred in the presence of anthropogenic climate forcing.”
The study, written before the release of 2015 temperature data, put the odds between 1 in 770 and 1 in 10,000 that 13 of the 15 warmest years spanning from 2000 to 2014 happened without human influence (subscription). With the inclusion of 2015 temperature data, the group’s computer simulations widened those odds to between 1 in 1,250 and 1 in 13,000, lead author Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.
“Climate change is real, human-caused and no longer subtle—we’re seeing it play out before our eyes,” Mann said.
Mann and his co-authors ran statistical analyses of real-world measurements and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system to distinguish human-caused climate change from natural climate variability, such as that triggered by volcanic eruptions and shifts in the sun’s output.
“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact in Germany, said. “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.”
Study: Low Electricity Costs and Low Emissions Not Mutually Exclusive
A new study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado Boulder researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the United States could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation (using future anticipated costs for wind and solar) by more than 75 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030 at approximately the same cost as 2012. The key? Using new high-voltage power lines to move renewables nationwide, eliminating the need to add new fossil fuel storage capacity.
“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” said Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”
Using NOAA’s high-resolution meteorological data, the researchers built a model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios and found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, the wind and the sun could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs comparable to today’s.
“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Clack said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”
In the expected future scenario—in which renewable energy costs continue to fall while natural gas costs rise—the model predicted that the power sector could cut emissions 78 percent compared with 1990 levels at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 9.4 cents in 2012 (subscription). That finding is predicated on creation of a new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission grid, which according to the authors lowers the chance of energy losses, reducing utilities’ need to amass reserves of excess capacity through natural-gas-powered generators.
“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”
Update to Social Cost of Carbon Unnecessary
A new interim report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that there is little benefit to updating estimates of the social cost of carbon in the near term. Written by a 13-member expert panel, the report recommends ways to change federal technical support documents on the social cost of carbon to enhance estimates.
“We recommended against a near-term update to the social cost of carbon” based off the IPCC report’s finding, said Richard Newell of Duke University. Newell co-chaired the panel, which includes Sanford School Professor and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Faculty Fellow Billy Pizer.
To set an efficient market price on carbon emissions, it’s helpful to know the social cost of those emissions—that is, the estimate of the economic damages (in dollars) associated with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, usually one metric ton, in a given year. The last revised estimate, in 2015, was $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.
President Obama laid out four big questions the United States has to answer in his nearly hour-long final State of the Union address Tuesday night. One of those four points: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent issues like climate change?
In discussing the role American needs to take in combating this issue, Obama highlighted America’s past willingness to rely on science.
“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon … Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
Obama also presented a vision for our energy future.
“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he said. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”
“None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo,” he added. “But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve—that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.”
McCarthy Talks Environmental Priorities in 2016
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Washington Post that the Obama administration is preparing an ambitious agenda on climate change in 2016, citing new efforts to lower air pollution and a predication that the administration’s Clean Power Plan would survive legal challenges.
“We’re not just going to stay with what we’ve already done,” she said. “We’re going to look for other opportunities.”
McCarthy echoed these comments on the EPA Connect blog, writing “Heading into 2016, EPA is building on a monumental year for climate action—and we’re not slowing down in the year ahead.” In reviewing 2015, she highlighted announcement of the final Clean Power Plan—a regulation meant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—and the global climate deal reached last month in Paris. She said her office will provide technical leadership to ensure consistent, transparent greenhouse gas reporting and inventory requirements under the global deal and would work to ensure the deal “is cast in stone.”
McCarthy is reportedly touring Ohio this week, touting President Obama’s energy and climate agenda (subscription).
Manmade Climate Change Evidence for Anthropocene Epoch
A group of geoscientists suggest that human activities, including those contributing to climate change, have altered the planet so much that their consequences are already detectable in the geological record and are reason to consider that sometime in the mid-twentieth century Earth moved into a new geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.” As evidence that the planet has left the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago, a new paper published in the journal Science points to mass extinction, reshaping of the planet’s surface, and anthropogenic deposits, including black carbon produced from fossil fuel combustion—all human impacts that the authors say should be acknowledged in the nomenclature.
The scale and rate of change in measures such as carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, said Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and one of the study authors, are larger and faster than the changes that defined the onset of the Holocene.
“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age,” Waters said. “That is a big deal.”
The case to approve the Anthropocene as a new epoch will be presented to the International Commission on Stratigraphy later this year.
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that climate-change-related water disruptions could significantly decrease electricity production by the hydropower stations and thermoelectric (nuclear, fossil-fueled, biomass-fueled) plants that account for 98 percent of production around the world. Because the plants need water to cool generators and pump power at dams, they are vulnerable to lower river levels and warmer water temperatures, according to researchers at Wageningen University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). These conditions could reduce generating capacity by as much as 74 percent in hydro plants and 86 percent in thermoelectric plants between 2040 and 2069.
“This is the first study of its kind to examine the linkages between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale,” said co-author and IIASA Energy Program Director Keywan Riahi (subscription). “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate.”
The study, which used computer modeling and data from more than 24,000 hydropower plants and nearly 1,500 thermoelectric plants, indicates that the areas most at risk of decreases in usable capacity for electricity production are the United States, southern and central Europe, Southeast Asia, southern parts of South America, Africa and Australia—regions where the study authors say big increases in water temperature will combine with projected decreases in mean annual streamflow.
The potential water supply shortfall coincides with a predicted doubling in demand for water for power generation over the next 40 years.
The study also explored adaptation measures, concluding that increases in power plant efficiency and switches in cooling sources would reduce most regions’ vulnerability to water constraints as would improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods.
Data Points to Hotter Years
Late last year, the World Meteorological Organisation pegged 2011–15 as the hottest five-year period on record. But data from the Met Office suggests 2016 will be warm, too—warmer than the office’s forecast for 2015.
“This forecast suggests that by the end of 2016 we will have seen three record, or near-record years in a row for global temperatures,” said Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office.
El Nino and climate change were among the reasons cited for the increase—an estimated 1.29 and 1.73 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average global temperature in the second half of the 20th century. The Met Office, Express reports, does not expect the record-breaking run to continue indefinitely, but it shows how factors like an El Nino are working together to push temperatures to unprecedented levels of warmth.
Climate Central categorized the changes as a “global warming spurt,” that may be amplified by a slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean—the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—that is also being amplified by climate change and that is the subject of some recent studies.
“Last time we went from a negative to a positive was the mid-70s,” said Gerald Meehl, a National Atmospheric Research scientist, speaking about a warming slowdown linked to Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Then we had larger rates of global warming from the 70s to the 90s, compared to the previous 30 years. It’s not just an upward sloping line. Sometimes it’s steeper, sometimes it’s slower.”
Clean Power Plan Sees Challengers, Supporters
The deadline for filing legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, triggered a host of new lawsuits targeting the rule. To date, 27 states, along with trade groups and companies, are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to delay implementation of the rule (subscription). Among the arguments—the EPA illegally issued duplicative rules for coal-fired plants and infringed on states’ rights (subscription).
Still, some states are beginning to wade through the rule. And many of the nation’s largest cities are seeking to back it. The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others are filing a motion to participate in litigation as amici curiae (friends of the court).
“The acute relevance of climate change to local governments’ responsibilities and activities has led members of the Local Government Coalition to grasp both the need to adapt to climate change and the costs of failing to act to mitigate it,” the filing said. “Prompted by lived experience and by the prospect of future impacts, they [the groups] have made efforts both to adapt to their changing climatic circumstances and to slow or eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.”
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate the remainder of 2015. It will return January 7.
The first pact to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions—the Paris Agreement—was signed by 195 countries in LeBourget, France, on Saturday. Some aspects of the agreement, which will go into effect in 2020, will be legally binding, such as submission of emissions reduction targets and regular review of progress toward them. However, the targets themselves will not be binding.
The agreement contains these key points:
- To keep global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels through the year 2100 and to “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5 degrees Celsius
- To balance carbon source and carbon sinks in the second half of this century
- To review each country’s emissions reduction contribution every five years so that it can be scaled up
- For rich countries to help poor countries by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change.
Previous United Nations talks had called on developed economies but not developing ones to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The new accord, in the works for nine years, requires action in some form from every country, rich or poor. But it imposes no sanctions on countries that fail to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas pollution.
In a televised statement, President Barack Obama praised world leaders for agreeing on a deal that “offers the best chance to save the one planet we have,” while conceding that “no agreement is perfect, including this one.”
Critics say the pact is vague and aspirational and does not do enough to avert serious damage. It lacks a timescale for phasing out fossil fuels, and critics describe the language on monitoring and verifying emissions reductions as weak.
Nevertheless, the agreement was hailed by many world leaders.
“When historians look back on this day, they will say that global cooperation to secure a future safe from climate change took a dramatic new turn here in Paris,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who added that “markets now have the clear signal to unleash the full force of human ingenuity.”
The agreement won’t enter into force until 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s emissions have ratified it.
Deal Details: Finance and Temperature
Finance: According to an agreement made at the talks in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries will aid developing countries with $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 to aid in the transition to sustainable forms of energy. It’s an agreement they opted to continue through 2025. Prior to 2025, a new goal will be adopted—exactly when or who is responsible for meeting it is unclear. The fund, so far, isn’t quite up to that $100 billion goal. There is no legally binding language about it.
Temperature: To keep temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, the agreement calls for parties to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” According to The New York Times, the passage implies that at least some fossil fuels can continue to burn, as long as the greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed by a larger number of “greenhouse sinks,” like new forests.
One environmental organization has already suggested that if commitments pledged before and during the talks in Paris are met, a critical mass of countries could reach emissions peaks by 2030.
Arctic Temperatures Reach Record High
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its Arctic Report Card, which finds that the average annual air temperature over land in the region was 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average (between October 2014 and September 2015). That’s the highest since modern records began in 1900, reports Fortune.
“Warming is happening more than twice as fast in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Richard Spinrad. “We know this is due to climate change.
This warmer air, the report suggests, is affecting sea temperatures and melting ice—expanding oceans and causing sea-level rise. Just how bad is it? In the 80s, about 20 percent of the sea ice in the region was old and about 45 percent had formed that year. By contrast, in 2015, about 70 percent had formed in the previous year; only about three percent was considered “old” ice.
“The conclusion that comes to my mind is these report cards are trailing indicators of what’s happening in the Arctic,” Spinrad said. “They can turn out to be leading indicators for the rest of the globe.”
Jim Overland, a NOAA oceanographer and one of the more than 70 co-authors of the report, suggested that even the newly inked Paris deal may not be enough—at least in the short term—to turn things around.
“Unfortunately, we passed some critical points on that,” Overland said. “If the globe goes to a 2-degree warming, we’re looking at a 4- or 5-degree warming for the winter in the Arctic by 2040, 2050. That’s based upon the CO2 that we’ve already put into the atmosphere and will be putting for the next 20 years.”
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of special issues, this week, of The Climate Post that focus on the climate talks in Paris.
Late yesterday, French leadership at the United Nations climate talks in Paris produced a new draft text of a global agreement calling on countries to keep temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 but recognizing a maximum temperature rise of below 1.5 Celsius as an ideal goal. Although the talks will continue past the Friday deadline—a final draft is expected 0800 GMT Saturday—progress appears to have been made: the number of brackets, which contain contested language, dropped from 300 in Wednesday’s draft to 48 in yesterday’s draft.
Christiana Figueres, the United Nations climate chief, argued that a possible settlement “is already pointing towards an agreement that is ambitious, that is fair and has the transparency of implementation over the few decades that the agreement will last.”
Negotiators worked through the night on what Figueres referred to as “political crunch issues,” including climate finance for developing countries, transparency, and, most divisive, differentiation of mitigation responsibility between developed countries, which historically have been the largest emitters, and developing countries, which today are the largest emitters.
Draft Details, As of Friday
Billy Pizer, faculty fellow with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, discusses where negotiations stand on these issues and what it all means.
As the negotiators head into (hopefully) the final night of negotiation, now is a good time to review what a Paris agreement really means and how some of these crunch issues will likely affect that outcome.
At its core, the Paris agreement is about achieving specific, near-term, national mitigation targets that cover the vast majority of global emissions along, with provisions to regularly review, update, and strengthen those targets. We need specific targets for accountability. These targets need to cover the vast majority of emissions in order to make meaningful progress. And there needs to be regular review, updating, and strengthening in order to deal with the fact that this is but one, modest step in a multiple-step process.
If one considers the long arc of climate change negotiations, from 1992 to the present, the Paris agreement is a significant achievement. In 1992, there were only vague references to near-term targets, and only for developed countries in aggregate. In 1997, there were specific near-term targets and provisions for review and updating, but again only for developed countries. In 2009/2010, there were specific near-term targets for most major countries, but without provisions to review and update them. Now, finally in 2015, we have both participation from countries representing 97.8 percent of global emissions and provisions for review and updating.
So how will the outcome on particular crunch issues affect the new agreement’s success?
Updating. The key questions are both the frequency with which countries will be asked to submit updated targets and guidance for that effort. The current draft requests targets be submitted every five years with an eye towards economy-wide targets for all countries in the future, while recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing countries. This would codify a regularity to the process that, at every five years, would provide a relatively frequent opportunity to rally countries to stronger action. The emphasis on economy-wide targets for all countries would point to an eventual cap on global emissions.
Transparency. What matters here are both the information that countries are required to submit with their target, in order to understand underlying assumptions, as well as how those targets will be reviewed both at the time of submission and as time passes. The current draft only refers to information that countries “may include” with their submitted target. It also offers options for reviewing progress that might focus whether a country achieved its targets, or might be limited to whether its reporting followed established guidelines. In both cases, many details are being left to subsequent negotiations. This vagueness leaves open, for now, how useful this formal process will be in establishing the countries’ track record and rallying future national commitments. It potentially puts a greater emphasis on outside analysis and debate.
Legally binding. There has been much discussion about whether the targets would be legally binding or whether submission of targets and reporting would be legally binding (and whether this would require the U.S. Senate to ratify the agreement). The current draft does not suggest the targets would be legally binding. Ultimately, this is likely not a huge deal: The 1997 Kyoto Protocol included legally binding limits but with countries such as Japan, Canada, and Russia deciding they no longer wanted to comply, they simply withdrew.
Differentiation: Since 1992, developed and developing countries have had bifurcated obligations —nowhere more evident than in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which applied mitigation responsibilities only to developed countries. This differentiation is increasingly problematic as a growing majority of emissions come from developing—particularly emerging—countries. The current draft makes little distinction between developing and developed economies in terms of mitigation and transparency—except for noting that more financial support to developing countries will allow for higher ambition in their actions.
Finance: Finance is always a contentious issue and of critical importance to developing countries. Not surprisingly, language referring to the terms of financial resources remains bracketed in the current text. At the same time, finance is typically not an issue that prevents a deal from being made, and most major developing countries are recognizing the need to take action independent of finance.
Although this last stage of negotiation is tough—everyone wants to get the last little bit out of it—and the stakes are high, it is hard to look at the remaining issues and not believe that success is on the horizon. Moreover, a lot of action is being taken outside of negotiations. As noted in an earlier post by my colleague Brian Murray, there are a host of actions and pledges by sub-nationals actors—states and cities. This activity is complemented by announcements of external finance by a host of wealthy investors. There is a good chance that we’ll wake up Saturday with some good news from Paris.