Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said on Monday that Arctic sea ice cover of 5.607 million square miles on March 24 represented the lowest winter maximum since records began in 1979. That’s 5,000 square miles less than last year’s record low. Contributing to the ice extent loss were record high air temperatures and relatively warm seawater.
“It is likely that we’re going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums in the future because in addition to a warmer atmosphere, the ocean has also warmed up,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “That warmer ocean will not let the ice edge expand as far south as it used to. Although the maximum reach of the sea ice can vary a lot each year depending on winter weather conditions, we’re seeing a significant downward trend, and that’s ultimately related to the warming atmosphere and oceans.”
After this winter’s record ice lows, scientists expect the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer months in the next few decades.
“Sometime in the 2030s or 2040s time frame, at least for a few days, you won’t have ice out there in the dead of summer,” said John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Centre. “The balance is shifting to the point where we are not going back to the old regime of the 1980s and 1990s. Every year has had less ice cover than any summer since 2007. That is nine years in a row that you would call unprecedented. When that happens you have to start thinking that something is going on that is not letting the system go back to where it used to be.”
The effects of diminishing sea ice may not be limited to just the Arctic.
“The Arctic is in crisis,” said Ted Scambos, NSIDC lead scientist. “Year by year, it’s slipping into a new state, and it’s hard to see how that won’t have an effect on weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”
A new paper in the Journal of Climate linked the vanishing Arctic sea ice, along with other sea ice melting and global sea-level rise, to climate change. The authors, who used computer models and field measurements to explore whether Arctic sea ice loss has contributed to melting of the Greenland ice sheet, say that melting Arctic sea ice can block cold, dry Canadian air, increasing the flow of warm, moist air over Greenland and contributing to extreme heat events and surface ice melting. If the Greenland ice sheet completely melted, the paper says, the global sea level would rise about 20 to 23 feet.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Files Brief Defending Clean Power Plan
The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in June. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed its defense of the Clean Power Plan, telling the court that the rule is well within the bounds of its authority (subscription). Dozens of states and industry groups last month called the rule a “breathtaking expansion” of the power Congress gave the EPA—with the Clean Air Act—to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
“The rule reflects the eminently reasonable exercise of EPA’s recognized statutory authority,” the EPA brief says. “It will achieve cost-effective [carbon dioxide] reductions from an industry that has already demonstrated its ability to comply with robust pollution-control standards through the same measures and flexible approaches. The rule fulfills both the letter and spirit of Congress’s direction.”
Renewable Energy Investment Outpaced Other Technologies: Study
Investment in renewable energy generation last year was higher than in new coal- and gas-fired power plants, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-United Nations Environment Programme collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). In fact, renewables added more to global energy generation capacity than all other technologies combined—though they still only account for 10 percent of global electricity production.
“Global investment in renewables capacity hit a new record in 2015, far outpacing that in fossil fuel generating capacity despite falling oil, gas, and coal prices,” said Michael Liebreich, chair of the BNEF advisory board. “It has broadened out to a wider and wider array of developing countries, helped by sharply reduced costs and by the benefits of local power production over reliance on imported commodities.”
All investment in renewables—which includes new renewable energy capacity as well as early-stage technology, research and development—totaled $286 billion in 2015. That’s roughly 3 percent higher than the previous record set back in 2011.
Countries contributing some of the most to these numbers included China, which in 2015 invested $102.9 billion (a 17 percent increase from 2014), representing 36 percent of the global investment total; Chile ($3.4 billion, a 151 percent increase), India ($10.2 billion, a 22 percent increase), Mexico ($4 billion, a 105 percent increase) and South Africa ($4.5 billion, a 329 percent increase).
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.
More than 100 countries, including the United States, Colombia, Mexico, and the European Union, have formed a “high ambition coalition” in an effort to secure a final agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. But members will not be satisfied with merely reaching a final agreement—they want an ambitious solution that includes a mechanism to review and raise countries’ emissions commitments every five years, that creates a unified tracking system to monitor countries’ progress on meeting their emissions goals, that recognizes the proposed 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal, and that contains a climate finance package.
“This is an ambition coalition,” said Giza Gaspar Martins, chair of the group of the 48 most vulnerable countries to climate change. “This is also a coalition that is open to recognizing the difficulties of others, because alone, we can’t achieve that high mitigation ambition that we have.”
European climate action and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said the newly released draft text for the climate deal was not “bold enough, and not ambitious enough.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in address to the conference, echoed the need for a more in the final text. “We didn’t come to Paris to build a ceiling that contains all that we ever hope to do,” he said. “We came to Paris to build a floor on which we can and must altogether continue to build.”
Negotiations are now happening around the clock in the final days of the conference, set to wrap up Dec.11. Nearly every country has declared discontent with the current draft, but none are rejecting the agreement either.
United States Attempts to Spur Momentum on Paris Talks with Funding Announcement
Yesterday the United States announced a doubling of the grant funding it provides to help developing countries adapt to climate change, a pledge that Reuters reports might help “clinch a climate pact.” The pledge announced by Secretary of State John Kerry is part of what the United States views as its contribution to a promise made in 2009 by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private money by 2020 to deal with impacts such as droughts, flooding, and sea level rise. The $860 million, which must be approved by Congress, would come from the State Department and Treasury budgets and would be distributed through both U.S. mechanisms, such as USAID, and multi-lateral systems like the Green Climate Fund.
“If we just continue down our current path, with too many people sitting on their hands and waiting for someone else to take responsibility, the damage is going to increase exponentially,” Kerry said. “To cut to the chase: Unless the global community takes bold steps now to transition away from a high-carbon economy, we are facing unthinkable harm to our habitat, our infrastructure, our food production, our water supplies, and potentially to life itself.”
The announcement appeared intended to give momentum to talks stalled by resistance by China and India to an outside monitoring system for emissions and to submission to a review process for pollution reduction plans.
“This impasse has slowed progress to a crawl, with the U.S. lacking leverage and China and India seemingly content to wait out the process,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration climate adviser who is attending the talks. “The decision to double U.S. adaptation funding itself is a strategic play to head off loss and damage calls by developing nations. This is why Kerry is pushing these lines right now.”
Study: Worldwide Carbon Emissions May Fall in 2015
As ministers work on a deal to cut post–2020 carbon emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that growth in those emissions has stalled, at least temporarily. Specifically, the authors say that in 2015 worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will fall, marking the first time they will have done so during a period of substantial economic growth. The reason? A decrease in coal consumption by China as well as increased use of renewables and decreased growth in demand for oil and gas. But it isn’t clear whether the decrease in China’s emissions is temporary due to the slowing economy or long-term due to changes in how the country consumes energy.
Using preliminary data through October 2015, the authors projected that total carbon emissions this year will be down by 220 million tons. But the decrease—0.6 percent—is so small that it may not be a decrease and could actually be a slight increase because of the margin of error. Nevertheless, the figure appears to mark a departure from an average annual growth of 2.4 percent over the last decade.
Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia and one of the paper’s authors, said that the Chinese think their emissions are going to rise, suggesting a resumption of an upward trajectory. Moreover, the emissions of India, which has emerged as a key player at the Paris talks, are likely to have risen 6.7 percent this year. The study authors warned that for global emissions to peak soon, part of India’s new energy—designed to spur economic growth and connect 300 million people to the grid—must come from low-carbon sources. And even more must be done to avoid dangerous climate change.
“Global emissions need to decrease to near zero to achieve climate stabilization,” said Le Quéré. “We are still emitting massive amounts of CO2 annually—around 36 billion tonnes from fossil fuels and industry alone. There is a long way to near zero emissions. Today’s news is encouraging, but world leaders at COP21 need to agree on the substantial emission reductions needed to keep warming below two degrees Celsius.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
In a 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 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.
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.
In China, 11 cities will peak greenhouse gas emissions—some as early as 2020—to eliminate nearly 25 percent of China’s urban total carbon pollution. In the United States, pledges from 18 cities range from carbon neutrality to carbon reduction. Seattle plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. Houston commits to a 42 percent reduction by 2016 and to 80 percent by 2050 (based on a 2007 baseline). Los Angeles aims for reductions of 45 percent by 2025, 60 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 (based on a 1990 baseline).
In addition to these greenhouse gas targets, the declaration also conveys intentions to regularly report emissions and to establish climate plans to reduce them.
“The commitments that the Chinese and American cities are taking … are a very important component of our broader efforts to deepen climate cooperation and to show that … the two largest emitters in the world are taking seriously our obligation to meet the ambitious goals that we set out last year,” said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to President Obama. He noted that the declaration builds on a climate change deal reached in November by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. That deal called for the United States to lower greenhouse gas emissions as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to peak emissions by 2030.
The pledges come a little more than two months before nations gather for international climate negotiations Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris—a meeting intended to produce a deal that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the 62 climate commitments leading up to the COP—may not be enough to keep global warming to the 2-degree Celsius threshold recommended by the United Nations, said U.N. Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. Her “guestimate” of the pledges, which cover approximately 70 percent of global emissions, is that they would equate to 3-degrees Celsius of warming, compared with pre-industrial levels.
Met Office Report Predicts Warmer Times to Come
The same week researchers released a study finding that the snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada has shrunk to a 500-year low, the U.K. government agency that studies global weather patterns released a peer-reviewed report suggesting the world is moving into a warming trend.
Several global changes, the Met Office says, are occurring simultaneously to cause the change. One is El Nino—warm bands of ocean water in the central and east-central Pacific—which is expected to occur this year and to be particularly strong.
“We know natural patterns contribute to global temperature in any given year, but the very warm temperatures so far this year indicate the continued impact of increasing greenhouse gases,” said Stephen Belcher, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre. “With the potential that next year could be similarly warm, it’s clear that our climate continues to change.”
Southern Ocean’s Carbon-Storing Capacity Increases, but for How Long?
A new study in Science finds that the Southern Ocean carbon sink has been reinvigorated, helping limit climate change. Its uptake of greenhouse gases stalled in the 1980s but roughly doubled to 1.2 billion tonnes—equivalent to the European Union’s annual man-made greenhouse gas emissions—between 2002 and 2011.
“It’s good news, for the moment,” Nicolas Gruber, an author of the study at Swiss university ETH Zurich, told Reuters. But he said it was unclear how long the higher rate of absorption by the Southern Ocean, the strongest ocean region for mopping up carbon, would last. Moreover, increased carbon dioxide could be bad news for marine life because, once absorbed in water, some of it becomes carbonic acid, which disrupt shellfishes’ ability to grow their protective shells.
Gruber and his colleagues analyzed 2.6 million measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the surface waters of the Antarctic Ocean made by ships over three decades. They concluded that the ocean’s carbon uptake fluctuates strongly, rather than increasing monotonically in response to the growing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Wind and temperature changes appear to drive these shifts, which are linked to low-pressure systems in the Pacific and high pressure over the Atlantic section of the Southern Ocean.
Peter Landschützer, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the study, said existing models can’t predict how patterns will change in the future, “so it is very critical to continue measuring the surface ocean CO2 concentrations in the Southern Ocean.” Currently, long-term datasets are the only reliable means for determining the evolution of the ocean’s carbon-storing capacity.
The U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.
Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.
“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”
The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.
President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling
While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.
Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.
In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”
In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”
Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change
A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.
Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”
The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.
At the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties, known as COP20, in Lima, Peru, delegates from more than 190 nations are hashing out details of an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb permanent damage caused by global warming. Those details will set the stage for next December’s UN meeting in Paris, where negotiators are aiming to finalize a global climate change deal.
Diplomats and longtime observers of the talks say there is rising optimism that negotiators will secure a deal committing all countries to take action against climate change. “I have never felt as optimistic as I have now,” said Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, which are sinking as sea levels rise in the Pacific. “There is an upbeat feeling on the part of everyone that first of all there is an opportunity here and that secondly, we cannot miss it.”
What’s driving the momentum?
Last month, the United States and China, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, announced an agreement to slash their emissions. In October, the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. And, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries address climate change, is on track to meet its ten-billion-dollar initial target.
However, researchers note that drastic cuts are needed to achieve the overall goal of the international community: limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Meeting that goal means emissions must be slashed 40 to 70 percent by 2050.
“We’re in far better shape a year ahead of Paris than at any stage leading up to Copenhagen,” where world leaders tried but failed to reach a climate deal in 2009, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
EPA Closes Public Comment Period on Proposed Clean Power Plan
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially closed the public comment period on its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), having collected more than 1.6 million comments from legislators, industry, environmental advocates and the general public.
The EPA had extended the comment period by 45 days, to December 1, to give the public additional time to understand and analyze the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants across the country by approximately 30 percent by 2030.
“We’ve heard that the carbon reductions targets we proposed are too tough and we’ve heard that they’re not tough enough,” said EPA Air and Radiation Administrator Janet McCabe in an official EPA blog. “What we know for sure is that people care about this issue and we know we have a lot to consider as we work toward a final rule.”
Particularly contentious are the CPP’s state-specific emissions goals. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing all U.S. investor-owned utilities, and other industry leadership, the goals could cause power companies to install costly upgrades that would diminish electricity affordability. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say that falling solar and wind power prices and advancements in efficiency standards could allow the EPA to require steeper emissions cuts sooner—by 2020.
The EPA is scheduled to finalize the proposed rule by June 2015.
Mapping Low-Carbon Investments in the United States
A recent report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) says the United States can use existing or soon-to-be-available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050—the trajectory on which the recent U.S. agreement with China would put the country, according to Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.
According to the DDPP report, decarbonization in the United States requires three key strategies:
- Boosting energy efficiency in buildings, cars and industrial facilities
- Cutting the carbon from electricity and other fuels
- Swapping high-carbon fuels with low-carbon alternatives
“If you bet on America’s ability to develop and commercialize new technologies, then the net cost of transforming the energy system could be very low, even negative, when you take fuel savings into account,” said Jim Williams, chief scientist at San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. and the report’s lead author.
Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return on December 4.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2014 report, which for the first time provides energy trend projections through the year 2040. Among the key challenges in the next two and a half decades is, a 37 percent rise in global energy demand, driven mainly by emerging markets in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Asia will account for 60 percent of global growth in demand, and by early 2030s, China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest oil consumer.
“The short-term picture of a well-supplied oil market should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead as reliance grows on a relatively small number of producers,” according to the WEO report.
The IEA projects that global oil consumption will rise from 90 million barrels a day in 2013 to 104 million barrels a day in 2040, requiring a $900 billion investment in oil and gas development by the 2030s.
Overall use of coal is projected to decrease slowly in demand, while use of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower will grow. The IEA anticipates renewables will saturate one-third of global energy demand by 2040.
CO2 emissions are expected to grow by one-fifth by 2040, which puts the world’s temperature well on track to rise to 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, increasing the risk of droughts, rising sea levels, damaging storms and mudslides.
According to IEA projections, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius deemed by U.N. as the level necessary to avoid dangerous changes would require the world to ramp up low-carbon energy investments by four times their current levels—bringing annual global investment up to approximately $1 trillion.
On the domestic front, a majority of Americans support stricter regulations on carbon emissions, according to a new poll by Yale’s Project on Climate Communication. Further, two thirds of those polled (1,275 adults) support limits on carbon dioxide emissions even after being told such measures would raise power prices.
U.S. Pledges $3 Billion to UN’s Green Climate Fund
On the heels of its climate deal with China, the U.S. announced its intent to contribute $3 billion to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund, which was established in 2013 to provide support to developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The “game-changing pledge,” made by President Obama on the eve of the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, last week, makes the U.S. the fund’s largest contributor. The Obama administration has not specified whether its pledge will come from existing sources of funding or new appropriations from Congress—a strategy that could face stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers.
“The contribution by the U.S. will have a direct impact on mobilizing contributions from the other large economies,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund. “The other large economies—Japan, the U.K.—have been watching to see what the U.S. will do.”
It did not take long for Japan to follow suit with a $1.5 billion pledge to the fund. To date, the U.N. has received pledges from 13 countries totaling $7.5 billion—three-quarters of its $10 billion goal. Rich countries meet in Berlin to further discuss the 2014 goal where pledges reached $9.3 billion.
Panel Approves Rules for Unconventional Oil and Gas
After several years of heated debate, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission approved a detailed list of regulations to guide companies interested in securing unconventional oil and gas permits in the state. The rules were unanimously approved by commission members after review of approximately 217,000 public comments by 30,000 groups and individuals.
One of the rules revised by the commission in light of those comments calls for inclusion of leak detection systems and continuous monitoring of liners for open pits where fluids such as drilling waste are stored.
The approved regulations will be reviewed in December by the NC Rules Review Commission and in January by the state legislature. The commission has identified a number of areas for continued work, including authority to stop a company’s work.
“Just because we don’t have that stop-work authority doesn’t mean we can’t stop the work on site,” said Amy Pickle, vice chair of the commission and director of the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “If something is going wrong, there’s injunctive authority, there is the ability to go to court to require them to stop working, there’s an ability through inspections and monitoring to revoke that permit.”
Across the country, unconventional oil and gas issues continue to be highly polarizing, as measures passed during mid-term elections revealed. A development ban was passed by the town of Denton, the Texas city where the earliest exploration began. In a compromise plan, limited development was approved by the U.S. Forest Service for the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. A 2011 plan draft would have allowed drilling in much of the forest’s 1.1 million acres.
In its Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards report—released Friday—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests revising the health-based national ambient air quality standard for ozone.
“Staff concludes that it is appropriate in this review to consider a revised primary [ozone] standard level within the range of 70 ppb [parts per billion] to 60 ppb,” the report said (subscription). “A standard set within this range would result in important improvements in public protection, compared to the current standard, and could reasonably be judged to provide an appropriate degree of public health protection, including for at-risk populations and life stages.”
The report is part of the normal EPA process to consider changing air quality standards. It recommends tightening current smog rules—now at 75 parts per billion—somewhere between 7 and 20 percent, echoing findings of the EPA’s science advisory committee in June. A final decision lies with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has a Dec. 1 deadline to issue a proposal on whether to retain or revise the existing standard.
Earlier in the week, McCarthy announced plans to issue a methane strategy emphasizing efficiency and reducing the need to flare gas—a strategy that could force oil and gas producers to cut emissions.
“We’re going to be putting out a strategy this fall and we hope everybody will pay attention to that effort,” McCarthy said at the Barclays Capital energy forum on Tuesday. “It will be addressing the challenges as well as the opportunities.”
Whether or not actual regulations for the industry will be issued is still being decided. McCarthy noted that the agency is “looking at what are the most cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts that can take a chunk out of methane in the system.”
This effort follows on the heels of an announcement by the White House that directed the EPA to develop an inter-agency strategy to combat methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems. If issued, rules to cut methane emissions would take effect in 2016.
China Eyes Carbon Market
Reuters reports that China will launch the world’s largest carbon market in 2016, although some provinces would be allowed to join later if they lacked the technical infrastructure needed to participate at the outset. “We will send over the national market regulations to the State Council for approval by the end of the year,” Sun Cuihua, a senior climate official with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told a conference in Bejing.
Confirming the earlier statement by Cuihua, Wang Shu, an official with the climate division of the NDRC said “We’ve brought forward this plan because it’s been prioritized in the central government’s economic reforms. The central government is pushing reforms, so everything is speeding up.” According to Reuters, as in other carbon markets, power plants and manufacturers would face a cap on the carbon dioxide they discharge. If an emitter needs to exceed its cap, it will have to purchase additional permits from the market to account for such emissions.
Court Finds BP Grossly Negligent in 2010 Gulf Spill
A U.S. District judge on Thursday ruled that BP was “grossly negligent” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The court concludes that the discharge of oil was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct,” by BP, the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier said. He found that BP was at fault for 67 percent of the spill. Two other companies involved—Transocean and Halliburton—were responsible for 30 and 3 percent, respectively.
“The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case,” BP said in a statement. “BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court. The court has not yet ruled on the number of barrels spilled and no penalty has been determined. The District Court will hold additional proceedings, which are currently scheduled to begin in January 2015, to consider the application of statutory penalty factors in assessing a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty.”
Judge Barbier’s ruling could result in as much as $18 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, according to The Hill.
Bacteria Used to Make Alternative Fuel
A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that Escherichia coli, or E. coli bacteria, which is widely found in the human intestine, can be used to create propane gas that can power vehicles, central heating systems and camp stoves.
“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Patrik Jones, a study co-author. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”
Commercial production is still five to 10 years away—the level of propane produced by the team is 1,000 times less than that needed to make a commercial product. The process, which needs further refinement, uses E. coli to interrupt a biological process to create engine-ready propane rather than cell membranes.
“At the moment, we don’t have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds,” Jones said.
New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.
Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.
“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.
In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.
Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight
As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.
Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.
Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.
“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”
The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.
Renewable Energy Makes Strides
Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.
A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.
“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.