What was scheduled to be about 3.5 hours turned into nearly seven on Tuesday as 10 judges heard oral arguments in a rare “en banc” review of the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The controversial Clean Power Plan, based on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, was first proposed in June 2014 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. In setting those limits, the rule considers the ability to shift power generation to cleaner sources. Its supporters argue that the act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in this way. Its challengers allege the rule amounts to executive overreach because the EPA is effectively forcing owners and operators of coal plants to invest in their competitors—cleaner natural gas or renewable energy. They also contend that the rule undercuts the reliability of the electric grid by forcing coal-fired power plants offline. Moreover, opponents argue that EPA cannot regulate power plants under Section 111(d) in the first place because EPA already limits emissions like mercury under Section 112 of the act. Until these challenges are resolved, the Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the rule.
I was at the Tuesday hearing and wrote about some early takeaways for Bloomberg Government. From my seat in the courtroom, they included:
- It’s now clear that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The question now is whether the methods used by the EPA were permitted under the act. As Judge Tatel noted, the Supreme Court “did that work” in Massachusetts v. EPA.
- The case is caught up in a larger judicial discussion about how much deference to grant the executive branch. As Congress increasingly fails to legislate on major political issues of our day, the executive branch has been looking to existing statutes for the authority to address problems. But the courts are debating whether to provide the traditional broad deference to agencies as they pursue these initiatives, or whether “major” political issues require more scrutiny. EPA’s Clean Power Plan evoked this debate, and as a result may create more precedent that will guide future presidents on the extent of their power.
- The court repeatedly reflected on the Supreme Court’s AEP v. Connecticut ruling, which established that the EPA had the authority to regulate existing power plants and thereby forbade Connecticut from suing those plant owners directly. Any victory for the petitioners in this case will need to explain why that recognition of authority in AEP v. Connecticut does not presume that the EPA possesses the authority underlying the Clean Power Plan.
- Several jurists expressed concern that industry was arguing that the EPA could not consider the shifting of generation to cleaner sources in setting the standard, but nonetheless wanted that low cost option as a means of complying with the rule. Can the industry have its cake and eat it, too?
- The judges’ proficiency in understanding the electric grid was impressive, clearly aided by legal briefs from grid operators. What was not as clear, however, is whether this proficiency had convinced them that managing the generation sources across that system constituted the “best system of emissions reduction” under the act.
Although it is difficult to guess a case’s outcome from any oral argument, all in all the government came through it with clear indications of support from three or four judges. At least four other judges, however, either did not speak or evaluated the case in such a Socratic manner that their positions were more mysterious. With six votes needed for a win, supporters of the rule will be holding their breath until the opinion appears. Overall, the final word on the Clean Power Plan may not come until 2018 or later.
Presidential Debate Highlights Stark Contrasts on Climate Change, Energy Policy
Climate change and energy policy were touched on in the first debate between the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees on Monday. Early on, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, accused businessman and opponent Donald Trump of dismissing climate change as a hoax created by China to harm American competitiveness—a point Trump denied.
“Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese,” said Clinton, implicitly referring to a tweet in which Trump claimed that global warming “was created by the Chinese” to benefit their manufacturing sector. “I think it’s real. And I think it’s important that we grip this and deal with it, both at home and abroad.”
Politifact reports that although Trump indicated the 2012 tweet was a joke, he has a record of using the word “hoax” to describe climate change, especially on Twitter. CNN reported that in September 2015 Trump told its reporters that “I am not a believer in climate change” and that he refuted climate change’s role in the rise in extreme weather phenomena.
On energy, Trump said he favors all forms of energy, but he noted that coal industry workers have been put out of work by cheap natural gas and federal environmental regulations. Clinton, on the other hand, suggested that clean energy could be an important job creator.
“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels,” she said. “We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity.”
Trump responded with an implicit reference to the 2011 bankruptcy of the federally backed solar company Solyndra.
“She talks about solar panels,” replied Trump. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. … Now, look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster.”
Fortune reports that Department of Energy figures show that the loan program that funded Solyndra has created thousands of jobs and that taxpayers have profited from that program because the vast majority of its other loans went to successful projects and companies.
Climate Change and National Security
Climate change will have significant effects on national security, according to a new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says these threats are wide-ranging—including adverse effects on food prices and availability, country stability, increased risk to human health, and heightened social and political tensions—and that these threats could affect the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.
“We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and damaged infrastructure on communities around the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Add to that an increased risk of conflict over water and land, and the large-scale displacement due to rising sea levels, and it’s not hard to see why the Pentagon has deemed climate change a ‘threat-multiplier,’ exacerbating the pressures and challenges far too many countries are already facing.”
The release of the report comes as the White House announced a new policy framework requiring federal agencies to take the impacts of climate change into account when making national security-related policies and plans. It directs several federal agencies to work together to include climate change in their national security planning—providing a timeline of 90 days to create an action plan and 150 days to create a plan to implement it.
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.
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.
Just weeks before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was scheduled to hear challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, the court announced it will push the hearing back four months and hear the case before the entire court.
Originally planned for June 2 before a three-judge panel, the hearing was postponed to Sept. 27 and will now take place in front of a full bench. The rare “en banc” review is allowed by procedural rules when the case involves a question of exceptional importance. According to The Washington Post, the decision to pursue such a review appears to be on the court’s own initiative. The move to skip the customary three-panel review, as was the case in 2001’s U.S. v. Microsoft, is almost unheard of and could signal that the judges feel the issues of the case are so significant that they all must weigh in.
“The court has anticipated, obviously, the significance of whatever the panel would say and the related likelihood that it would end up en banc. They’ve basically truncated that process,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law School professor, told Bloomberg BNA.
The order follows an announcement by the D.C. Circuit last year that it would hear the Clean Power Plan on an expedited schedule and a stay on implementation of the plan in February by the U.S. Supreme Court while the lower court determines its legality.
Even so, some indicate the change may actually speed up the final resolution of the case.
“It definitely shortens the time period for this to get to the Supreme Court,” said Dorsey & Whitney Attorney James Rubin (subscription). “This does show that there is recognition for the need to move this forward. It’ll speed things up to some extent.”
EPA Targets Oil and Gas Industry Methane Emissions
The EPA has taken the first-ever steps under the Clean Air Act to regulate oil and gas industry emissions of methane, announcing a new rule aimed at new or modified oil and natural gas wells. The EPA said the regulations, which the EPA proposed last year, would lower methane emissions by 510,000 short tons—the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—in 2025, the year by which the Obama administration’s goal is to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by at least 40 percent compared with 2012 levels.
The rules will require energy companies to provide pollution information to the EPA so it can regulate methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells.
To begin regulating methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells, the EPA is requiring energy companies to notify the agency about their emissions and leak-stopping technology. The information request is expected to be finalized later this year and data collection from the industry, early next year.
According to the EPA, pound for pound, the impact of methane on climate change is “more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”
Climate Negotiators Meet in Germany to Make Implementation Plan for Paris Agreement
Climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, for the first official meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since the Paris Agreement last year.
A note to Bonn participants stresses the importance of shifting from negotiation to implementation of the landmark agreement—whereby more than 190 countries pledged 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. More than 175 countries have signed the agreement.
The challenge ahead, writes French Environment Minister Segolene Royal and Morocco’s Foreign Prime Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, the previous Paris COP21 president and incoming COP22 president, is to “operationalize the Paris agreement: to turn intended nationally determined contributions into public policies and investment plans for mitigation and adaptation and to deliver on our promises.”
The two-week meeting is expected to produce an agenda for the ad-hoc working group tasked with implementing the Paris Agreement.
Addressing delegates at the start of the meeting, retiring U.N. climate director Christiana Figueres said “The whole world is united in its commitment to the global goals embodied in the Paris Agreement. Now we must design the details of the path to the safe, prosperous and climate-neutral future to which we all aspire.”
Last week more than 150 nations signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts of that half centigrade difference has been published in the journal Earth System Dynamics. The scientists found the additional 0.5 degrees Celsius would lead to longer heatwaves—“the difference between events at the upper limit of present-day natural variability and a new climate regime”—as well as more severe droughts and, in the tropics, decreased crop yield and the potential demise of all coral reefs. The extra 0.5 degrees Celsius could also mean that global sea levels rise 10 centimeters more by 2100.
“We found significant differences for all the impacts we considered,” says the study’s lead author Carl Schleussner, a scientific advisor at Climate Analytics in Germany.
The researchers analyzed climate models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, which focused on the projected regional impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and considered 11 indicators, including extreme weather events, water availability, crop yields, coral reef degradation and sea-level rise.
They found that projected climate impacts at a 2 degrees Celsius increase are significantly more severe than at a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in some regions. In the Mediterranean, for example, fresh-water availability by 2100 would be some 10 percent lower in a 1.5 degrees Celsius world and 17 percent lower in a 2 degrees Celsius world. In Central America and West Africa, the half-degree difference could reduce maize and wheat yields by twice as much. Tropical regions would bear the brunt of the impacts of an additional half degree of warming, experiencing heat waves at about twice the global rate. Those events could last up to three months at 2 degrees Celsius, compared with two months at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the researchers say.
Tropical coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the half degree increase. By 2100, some reefs might adapt to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but the larger increase would put nearly all of them at risk of severe degradation from coral bleaching.
EPA Moves Forward with Clean Energy Incentives Program
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sent a proposal on the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), an optional program included in the Clean Power Plan that rewards states for early investment in certain renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in 2020 and 2021, to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The move is the final step before the CEIP can be formally proposed to the public (subscription).
The EPA released details on the draft CEIP as part of the final Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in August. But, earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the Clean Power Plan.
“Many states and tribes have indicated that they plan to move forward voluntarily to work to cut carbon pollution from power plants and have asked the agency to continue providing support and developing tools that may support those efforts, including the CEIP,” the EPA said. “Sending this proposal to OMB for review is a routine step and it is consistent with the Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan.”
Pleasant Weather Affecting Americans’ View of Climate Change
A new study in the journal Nature finds that 80 percent of Americans live in counties where the weather is more pleasant than four decades ago. This mild temperature trend, the study says, is increasingly preferred, lessening many Americans’ concern about climate change.
“Rising temperatures are ominous symptoms of global climate change, but Americans are experiencing them at times of the year when warmer days are welcomed,” said study co-author Patrick J. Egan, an associate professor at New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics. He adds that “whereas weather patterns in recent decades have served as a poor source of motivation for Americans to demand a policy response to climate change, public concern may rise once people’s everyday experiences of climate change effects start to become less pleasant.”
Conducted by New York and Duke universities, the study examined each county in every U.S. state from 1974 to 2013—assessing the mildness of winters, rainfall averages, and humidity and heat intensity during summer months. It found that 99 percent of Americans live in places where the average January temperature increased.
“Here in the U.S., when we’re experiencing ice storms, the idea of a 1.5 or 2 degree rise might sound like good news,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University. As a result, she said, scientists need to reconsider their messages.
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).
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. denied a request for a stay or injunction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule—a rule that 20 states have claimed is “unlawful and beyond EPA’s statutory authority.” The ruling means MATS, which requires coal-burning power plants to install technologies to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants, remains in effect while the EPA continues its study of compliance costs.
The stay denial, issued solely by Chief Justice Roberts and without comment, follows a June Supreme Court decision in which five justices found that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. The June ruling did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.
In a supplemental finding proposed in November, the EPA indicated that the costs of implementing MATS were reasonable. The EPA is expected to finalize its cost accounting, which seeks to address court concerns, in April.
“These practical and achievable standards cut harmful pollution from power plants, saving thousands of lives each year and preventing heart and asthma attacks,” said Melissa Harrison, EPA spokeswoman.
Melting of Greenland’s Ice Sheet Accelerating with Loss of Reflectivity
A study in European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere finds that the reflectivity, or “albedo,” of Greenland’s ice sheet could decrease by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century, potentially leading to significant sea-level rise (subscription). The study links the diminishing capacity of Greenland’s ice sheet to reflect solar radiation—so-called “darkening”—to positive feedback loops that quicken ice melt, allowing it to feed on itself.
Scientists have been aware of the feedback loops, lead author Marco Tedesco, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Christian Science Monitor. “What’s new,” he said, “is the acceleration of the darkening, which started in 1996.”
The research used satellite photos dating back to 1981 plus a model to examine the impact of increases of both impurities in the ice, often visible to the human eye, and the size of grains in the snowpack, which is often invisible to the human eye and which makes snow “‘darker’—not dirtier, but more absorbent of energy from the sun,” said Tedesco. As snowpack melts and refreezes, meltwater binds grains together. The larger the grains, the less reflective the surface of the ice sheet and the faster the melting, which keeps speeding up as the remaining impurities become concentrated at the surface.
The study attributes the acceleration of darkening in 1996 to a change in atmospheric circulation. The North Atlantic Oscillation, a natural weather cycle, went into a phase that favored incoming solar radiation and warm, moist air from the south. Although those conditions shifted in 2013 to favor less melting, the sensitivity of the ice sheet to atmospheric air temperatures had already increased, and in 2015, melting spiked again, affecting more than half of the Greenland ice sheet.
The study rejected one prominent theory of Greenland’s darkening—namely, that worsening wildfires are releasing soot that is increasingly falling on Greenland. It finds “no statistically significant increase” in black carbon from fires in northern regions and an increase that is likely too small to matter from wildfires in temperate North America.
“Overall, what matters, it is the total amount of solar energy that the surface absorbs,” said Tedesco. “This is the real driver of melting.”
U.S. Makes First Green Climate Fund Payment
The United States has made the first payment to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). The $500 million payment is part of a broader $3 billion pledge to the GCF, which helps poor countries fight climate change and adopt clean energy technologies.
“With this announcement, which comes less than three months after the historic Paris climate agreement, the United States continues to demonstrate leadership in the international climate arena,” a State Department official told The Hill. “This grant is the first step toward meeting the president’s commitment of $3 billion to the GCF and shows that the United States stands squarely behind our international climate commitments.”
It has been more than a week since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, and states are now beginning to indicate how they will approach the resulting uncertainty the decision brings. Although the stay removes the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA, several continue to move forward. A poll by ClimateWire indicates that 20 states are pressing on with discussions about how to meet carbon emissions limits for power plans, 18 have stopped planning and nine are weighing whether to stop or slow down planning (subscription).
“The stay is just that—it’s a stay—so we need to be mindful that a potential outcome could be that the courts uphold it,” said Glade Sowards, Utah Division of Air Quality’s Clean Power Plan coordinator. “We don’t want to be caught flat footed.”
In an event hosted by the Brookings Institution on the Clean Power Plan, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast also pointed out to attendees that what states are coping with now is bigger than just the Clean Power Plan.
“The Clean Power Plan created a forcing mechanism to bring utility regulators and air regulators and utilities and affected stakeholders to the table to really start engaging about what we want the future of the electricity sector to be,” Monast said. He noted that discussion of that future would not necessarily be organized around the Clean Power Plan.
Study: Frequency, Intensity of Heat Waves Will Increase Due to GHG Emissions
If anthropocentric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue unabated, once-every-20-years extreme heat waves—lasting three or more days—could become annual events across 60 percent of Earth’s land surface by 2075, says a study published in the journal Climatic Change. But only 18 percent of land areas might experience such yearly events by the last quarter of the century if measures to cut GHG emissions are put in place, according to authors Claudia Tebaldi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in research that looks to quantify the benefits of avoiding extreme heat events.
The Department of Energy-funded study also suggests that by 2050 extreme heat waves would be 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they might be today for 60 percent of land areas and nine degrees hotter for another 10 percent, with serious health impacts, particularly for the young, the old, and the sick and in places with historically little temperature variability (subscription).
“The study shows that aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will translate into sizable benefits, starting in the middle of the century, for both the number and intensity of extreme heat events,” Tebaldi said. “Even though heat waves are on the rise, we still have time to avoid a large portion of the impacts.”
The study used an NCAR climate model to examine how the odds of today’s 20-year events—those with a 5 percent chance of occurring in any given year—would change in a business-as-usual scenario and in scenarios in which emissions were cut to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels.
“Even under more dramatic mitigation scenarios . . . future heat wave frequency and intensity increase very dramatically,” Wehner said. But “we do have a choice about how dangerous the future will be.”
January Continued String of Record-Warm Months
January became the ninth consecutive record-breaking month for heat according to data released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That agency, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been keeping weather records for 137 years, agree that the month’s highs were unprecedented, Bloomberg reported. If the rest of the year is as warm as January, 2016 could top the record set in 2015.
According to NASA, last month was 2.03 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. But some parts of the Arctic had temperatures averaging as high as 23 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the month, leading the region’s sea ice to decrease to a new record low for January. It averaged only 5.2 million square miles for the month—90,000 square miles fewer than the previous record set in 2011, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Preliminary data from February indicate that Arctic sea ice continues to set daily record lows.
January’s temperature increases reflect the combination of accelerating manmade global warming and a record strong El Niño.
The outlook for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, is the subject of debate after two key Supreme Court events last week.
First, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision issued a stay, delaying the execution of the plan, pending the outcome of legal challenges. The New York Times called the decision “unprecedented,” because the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court. At a minimum, the ruling will allow states to skip the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA.
A new twist on the fate of the Clean Power Plan came Saturday with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—leaving the Supreme Court with eight justices split evenly between conservatives and liberals, and evenly split on the question of that week’s stay. Whether the White House or the Senate will confirm a new justice before the November 2016 Presidential election remains unclear, although political cynicism about any nominee’s chances has dominated commentary. President Obama announced plans to nominate a new justice, and Senate Republican leadership has indicated that it does not intend to confirm Obama’s candidate.
The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan in June. Any ruling may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
ClimateWire suggests three potential scenarios. For Clean Power Plan opponents, the best turn of events would be appointment of a new conservative-leaning justice, which would be made possible if the Senate successfully blocks an Obama appointee and a Republican takes the White House. Those in favor of the plan would benefit from appointment of a new liberal-leaning justice or from the court’s consideration of the plan before a new justice is confirmed.
Politics surrounding the nomination of the new justice are complicated, writes Tom Goldstein of the SCOTUS blog.
Study: More Aggressive Emissions Reductions Needed to Curb Air-Pollution-Related Deaths
A new study undertaken by the World Health Organization and presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that 5.5 million die prematurely every year from air pollution. The authors—a team of U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and Indian scientists—said that most of the fatalities are in India and in China, where coal burning alone led to 366,000 deaths in 2013.
Researcher Qiao Ma from Tsinghua University in Beijing said coal burned for electricity was the largest polluter in China and that the country’s new targets to reduce emissions, agreed at last year’s Paris climate talks, are not sufficiently ambitious to end those deaths.
“Even in the most clean scenario in 2030,” Ma said, China’s growing and aging population will still suffer as many as 1.3 million deaths a year. “Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors.”
Although China halted approval of new coal mines for three years at the end of 2015 and has issued stringent requirements similar to those recently proposed in the United States for new coal-fired power plants, these and other measures may not halt increases in mortality, reported Time.
“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”
Agreements Made to Expand Renewables, Reduce Emissions
Governors from 17 U.S. states signed an accord to diversify energy generation with clean energy sources, modernize their energy infrastructure and encourage clean transportation options. Home to about 40 percent of the country’s population, states signing the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
“With this agreement, governors from both parties have joined together and committed themselves to a clean energy future,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown. “Our goal is to clean up the air and protect our natural resources.”
As part of the agreement, states will cooperate on planning and policies—pooling buying power to get cheaper clean-energy vehicles for state fleets and to build more energy-efficient regional electrical grids.
Also preparing for a cleaner-energy future is Fiji, which on Friday became the first country to formally approve the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris when its parliament ratified the agreement. Under its national climate action plan, the archipelago, which is vulnerable to flooding and strong tropical storms as a result of climate change, pledged to generate all its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to reduce its overall energy-sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030—if it receives climate finance from industrialized nations.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants on Tuesday. The court, in a 5–4 decision split along party lines, put a stay on enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“We remain confident that we will prevail on the merits,” said the White House in a statement. “Even while the litigation proceeds, EPA has indicated it will work with states that choose to continue plan development and will prepare the tools those states will need.”
But others felt the move could be indicative that the Clean Power Plan will not survive legal scrutiny.
“Should the D.C. Circuit uphold the rule, I think the stay is indicative that the court is likely to want to hear this case,” said Scott Segal, a partner in Bracewell LPP’s Policy Resolution Group. “Even the most ardent supporters would have to concede that this does not bode well for the current rule.”
The EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions stems from the 2007 Supreme Court decision Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that carbon dioxide qualified as a “pollutant” and was subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. But Bloomberg reported that the court’s intervention casts doubt on the legal prospects for the Clean Power Plan, which some utilities, coal miners and more than two dozen states are challenging as an overreach of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority and an intrusion on states’ rights. The D.C. Circuit Court will review the merits of their lawsuits on June 2. The order blocks the Clean Power Plan from taking effect while legal battles play out, making a decision possibly another year or more away.
“A decision overturning the Clean Power Plan would not prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “That case focuses on current regulations. It does not call into questions the Supreme Court’s previous finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
De-carbonization of U.S. Power Sector Accelerated in 2015
Energy sector transitions envisioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it released its Clean Power Plan last year are already occurring at a faster pace than the EPA may have expected as evidenced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which called 2015 a “watershed year in the evolution of US energy.”
According to the report, coal use for electricity generation dropped from 39 percent in 2014 to 34 percent last year, while natural gas edged closer to becoming the largest source of U.S. power, accounting for some 32 percent of U.S. generation in 2015. Along with energy efficiency improvements, notable growth in renewable energy installations, and flat energy demand, that shift has major implications for greenhouse gas emissions reductions but not for consumer costs—at least so far.
“We saw natural gas and coal each provide about one third of U.S. electricity, and this was the smallest contribution we’ve seen from coal within the modern era,” said Colleen Regan, BNEF’s senior analyst for North American power. She noted that the decrease in coal use was attributable not only to cheap gas but also to 14 gigawatts’ worth of coal plant retirements—5 percent of U.S. coal capacity—last year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. renewable energy industry brought online 16 gigawatts of clean energy—68 percent of all new installed capacity—helping drop U.S. energy sector carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest annual level since the mid-1990s in a year that saw retail electric rates fall 1.3 percent in real terms from 2014.
Driving what the report authors suggest is a permanent shift in the U.S. energy sector are technological revolutions in the gas industry, increasingly attractive economics for renewables, and international- and national-level policy directives, including the Clean Power Plan and recent extensions of the investment tax credit for solar power and the production tax credit for wind energy (subscription).
Next Few Decades’ Emissions Trajectory Could Affect Earth for Millennia
A group of 22 researchers, including several of the world’s foremost climate scientists, contend that we have been thinking about climate change far too narrowly by making projections only to the year 2100. In a study published in Nature Climate Change, the group suggests that policy makers should consider the consequences of human emissions on global temperatures and sea level over a far longer time horizon.
“The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist,” they write. “This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”
The study, which looked at climate data from the past 20,000 years and four emissions scenarios for the period 2000 to 2300, demonstrates the effects of near-term policy decisions on the climate system’s inherent lag effects—namely, the high temperature sensitivity of global ice sheets and the centuries-long atmospheric retention of carbon dioxide.
“If carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked, the carbon dioxide released during this century will commit Earth and its residents to an entirely new climate regime,” the study says.
Report co-author, Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern, put the long-term view of human emissions bluntly, saying that it sends a “chilling message” about the fossil fuel era’s risks and consequences. “It will commit us to massive adaptation efforts so that for many, dislocation and migration becomes the only option.” The study notes that even if warming falls below the United Nations target of 2 degrees Celsius, 20 percent of the world’s population must migrate away from coasts.
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.