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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
Editor’s Note: Dec. 7–11 we will present a series of special issues of The Climate Post featuring updates on climate negotiations and commentary from our staff in Paris.
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders on Monday suggested that stakes are too high to end negotiations on Dec. 11 without inking a climate deal that would limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the U.N.-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts.
NPR reports that observers hope the deal will include three main items: agreement by countries to increase pledges in the future, a rigorous system of accountability to ensure nations keep those pledges, and support for poor countries to adopt low-carbon energy technologies.
A major sticking point for delegates of the nearly 200 countries meeting at the conference is the legal status of the treaty they hope to ink.
“Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding,” President Obama said in Paris. “…that’s going to be critical.”
Countries Pledge Financing for Clean Energy, Withdraw It for Coal
Another key negotiating point in Paris will be whether developing countries get enough financing to make the transition to clean energy worth it given the comparative cheapness of coal. In an announcement intended to give the U.N. climate talks momentum, the leaders of 19 nations, including the United States and many developing economies, on Monday pledged a doubling of clean energy spending to $20 billion in a deal with 28 corporate leaders (the so-called Breakthrough Energy Coalition spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) who are putting up billions of their own (subscription).
According to a White House e-mail, the public component of the public-private agreement, known as Mission Innovation, is aimed at helping energy technologies “cross the investment ‘valley of death’” presented by their risk profiles and long return time horizons.
Brian Deese, White House climate adviser, said that Mission Innovation “should help to send a strong signal that the world is committed to helping to try to mobilize the resources necessary to ensure that countries around the world can deploy clean energy solutions in cost-effective ways.”
In an editorial for the Boston Globe, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wrote that Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are “synergistic initiatives that establish clean energy innovation as a foundation for environmental stewardship, prosperity, security and social responsibility. Strong American leadership in these initiatives has provided a tremendous global leveraging opportunity, and innovation has remained common ground in our political discourse.”
Three questions raised by the initiatives are whether a multinational research effort combining public and private investments could entail intellectual property problems, how much of the newly pledged money might represent formerly pledged funding, and whether the future funding will be approved in national budgets.
In the lead up to the Paris talks, some of the countries that just committed financial support for clean energy signed on to a deal to severely cut funding for some prospective coal projects. A promise by China to control its support for high-carbon projects overseas—part of its most recent climate agreement with the United States—allowed Japan and the United States to develop a proposal that last month became a less stringent agreement by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to curb public financing for coal plants (subscription). Under the policy, which goes into effect in 2017 and will be up for revision in four years, OECD countries will continue to provide export credits for “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired power plants—those constructed to meet the most stringent environmental standards—but public financing for 85 percent of coal plants going forward would effectively be cut off. The agreement does allow support for less efficient plants with a capacity under 500 megawatts in the world’s poorest countries.
House Votes to Block Power Plant Rules
The House approved, largely along party lines, to block the Obama administration’s measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The House voted 242–180 to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, and 235–188 to block EPA rules governing emissions from new power plants. The votes come just weeks after the Senate passed legislation blocking U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that apply to new and existing power plants.
The resolutions now go to President Obama, who last month announced plans to veto them, claiming that they undermine public health protections of the Clean Air Act and “stop critical U.S. efforts to reduce dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.”
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate next Thursday, November 26, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday proposed updates to its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in response to a recent decision by the D.C. Circuit Court. The update now affects 23 states whose nitrogen oxide emissions blow into other states, increasing their ozone levels. No longer subject to the rule are South Carolina and Florida—neither of which contribute significant amounts of smog to other states.
“States should act as good neighbors, and the EPA must act in its backstop role to ensure they do,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “This rule provides an achievable and cost-effective path to quickly reduce air pollution.”
The proposal calls for states to comply with air quality standards for ozone set by the George W. Bush Administration in 2008. It would reduce summertime emissions of nitrogen oxides using existing, proven and cost-effective control technologies. Along with other measures, The Hill reports, the update could equate to a drop of about 30 percent in nitrogen oxide levels in 2017 compared with 2014.
“This update will help protect the health and lives of millions of Americans by reducing exposure to ozone pollution, which is linked to serious public health effects, including reduced lung function, asthma, emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and early death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
COP: Negotiations Will Go Forward
United Nations and French officials have confirmed that the U.N. Climate Change Conference, which aims to create a global climate treaty, will go forward Nov. 30–Dec. 11 despite recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Still, many public concerts, marches and festive events are expected to be canceled.
“No head of state, of government—on the contrary—has asked us to postpone this meeting,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “All want to be there. To do otherwise would, I believe, be to yield to terrorism. France will be the capital of the world.”
News that the negotiations were still on brought a wave of predictions about the talks’ outcome. President Barack Obama was “optimistic that we can get an outcome that we’re all proud of, because we understand what’s at stake.” David King, the British Foreign Minister’s Special Representative for Climate change expected an “imperfect deal.” Ultimately, the Washington Post reports, divisions remain and many continue to question key elements of the draft agreement.
U.S. negotiators are expecting to use the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (subscription) to show the country’s commitment to tackling climate change. But on Tuesday the Senate approved two resolutions to stop the agency from implementing the plan, which calls for existing power plants to reduce their emissions.
Study: U.S. Forests’ Carbon Sequestration Capacity Is Decreasing
Efforts to protect the health of forests and to slow deforestation—a leading contributor to climate change—are largely absent in the pledges of most countries taking part in historic climate negotiations beginning this month in Paris, reports Climate Central, and the United States is no exception. Although the United States will rely heavily on forest regrowth to meet its emissions reduction target—up to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025—its pre-Paris climate pledge makes no mention of forestry practices or of others means to preserve forests.
Now a study published in Scientific Reports finds that the carbon sequestration capacity of U.S. forests could diminish over the next 25 years as a result of land use change and forest aging. It also finds that decreases in that capacity could influence emissions reduction targets in other economic sectors and affect the costs of achieving policy goals.
Using detailed forest inventory data, Forest Service Southern Research Station scientists David Wear and John Coulston projected the most rapid decline in forest carbon sequestration to be in the Rocky Mountain region, where forests could become a carbon emissions source (subscription).
Land use change greatly influences carbon sequestration. The researchers found that afforesting or restoring 19.1 million acres over the next 25 years, a plausible goal, could yield significant carbon sequestration gains.
“Policymakers interested in reducing net carbon emissions in the U.S. need information about future sequestration rates, the variables influencing those rates and policy options that might enhance sequestration rates,” said Wear. “The projection scenarios we developed for this study were designed to provide insights into these questions at a scale useful to policymakers.”
The recent publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan in the Federal Register triggered the filing of lawsuits by dozens of states in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, along with other challenges, including a petition from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led industry coalition for a rule review and an immediate stay of the regulation. By Monday, 26 states, 15 trade groups, several labor unions, and a host of individual utilities and companies were suing the administration over the Clean Power Plan. By Tuesday, members in both the House and the Senate introduced Congressional Review Act resolutions to stop them (subscription)—resolutions described by The National Journal as “a bid to undermine international climate talks.”
Clean Power Plan critics—among them attorney generals from West Virginia (Patrick Morrisey) and Texas (Ken Paxton), who are leading the states’ legal challenge—allege that the state-by-state targets aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 represent a federal overreach and will hike utility rates and undercut grid reliability.
“The Clean Power Plan is one of the most far-reaching energy regulations in this nation’s history,” said Morrisey. “EPA claims to have sweeping power to enact such regulations based on a rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act, but such legal authority simply does not exist.” But the EPA and many environmental groups contend that the federal government does have the legal authority to curb power plant emissions, and The Huffington Post noted that in the past the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the EPA’s favor.
“The power plan is based on a sound legal and technical foundation,” said Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe. “We feel strongly that given our authorities and legal precedents under the Clean Air Act that our application of [Section] 111(d) here conforms with those authorities and that legal precedent.”
As part of its efforts to help states figure out how to implement the regulation, the EPA last week released a memorandum to regional EPA directors that lays out elements to be included in initial plan submittals to the EPA in September, should states desire to extend their deadline for final plan submittals to 2018.
Even while challenging the Clean Power Plan, some states are simultaneously thinking about developing compliance strategies, which could include creation of carbon-trading plans that allow big polluters to buy emissions credits from lesser emitters.
Also published in the Federal Register last week was the final rule regulating carbon dioxide for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants and the proposed federal implementation plan. That plan—to be imposed on states that fail to submit a compliance plan to the EPA—will be the subject of public hearings in November and a 90-day comment period ending January 21.
Draft Climate Deal Text Sent to Paris
On Friday diplomats endorsed the outlines of a proposed global climate deal to be negotiated starting Nov. 30 in Paris. The hope is to come to an agreement— by the summit’s conclusion on Dec.11—that limits warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the most significant effects of climate change. U.N. Climate Chief Christina Figueres said this week that based on some 150 plans submitted thus far, diplomats could only hope to limit warming to just below 3 degrees.
Even when talks start next month, countries that produce 92 percent of greenhouse gases in the world are expected to have submitted national plans. If fully implemented, they would hold temperature rise by the end of the century to 2.7 degrees Celsius.
“There’s nobody out there that wants a 3 degree world,” said Figueres. “Nobody. We are not giving up on a 2 degree world. In fact, we’re staying under 2 degrees. And what we’re doing is we are building a process that is going to get us there.”
But the goal will have to be met without a global carbon price, Figueres said, which could help create an incentive for power plants operators to switch to clean energy.
“[Many have said] we need a carbon price and [investment] would be so much easier with a carbon price, but life is much more complex than that,” she said. “…it’s not quite what we will have.”
There will be—and are—many pricing mechanisms in place around the globe. Many U.S. states are expected to develop trading-ready plans to meet the mandates laid out by the Clean Power Plan.
Report Finds New Highs in Store for Persian Gulf
“Our results expose a regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” authors write.
It predicts that a 95-degree wet-bulb temperature—the indicator of humidity that matches the temperature of our skin when we sweat—is too hot for extended periods of time. And that temperature could be exceeded in summer months in certain parts of the region.
“On this issue—of all issues—there is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama. “And that moment is almost upon us … This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally acts to protect the one planet that we have while we still can.”
On the three-day Alaska trip, Obama is experiencing firsthand the impacts of rapidly melting Arctic ice, which is warming waters that affect local fishing economies and raising sea levels, threatening the state’s coastal villages. To help address some of these local issues, Obama announced new initiatives. One is fish and wildlife cooperation management to help rebuild Chinook salmon stocks. Another is an exchange program that brings urban and rural youth together to understand the challenges of a changing Arctic and the potential for local solutions against the impacts of climate change.
Despite this focus on climate, Obama is receiving criticism for granting Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill for oil off Alaska’s coast. In an op-ed, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard writes “we commend the president for his leadership, and yet this trip comes on the heels of his administration’s decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a move that seriously undermines his climate legacy.”
Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.
“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters,” said Obama. “Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil explorations conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”
The Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold as much as 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact remains, said Shell President Marvin Odum that oil will continue to be needed as the United States transitions to renewable energy sources.
Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt
The impacts of sea level rise could be greater than worst-case scenarios. The reason? The dominant climate models don’t fully account for the accelerated loss of ice sheets and glaciers, a phenomenon highlighted by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.
Recent data on the speed and scope of melting ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica suggest that global average sea level rise may approach or exceed 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, by 2100.
“The ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise sooner and greater than anticipated,” said Eric Rignot, glaciologist at the University of California–Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Right now, the contribution is about one third. We know that in future warming (melting ice sheets) will dominate sea level rise. With future warming we may have multiples of 6 meters, or 18 feet, and higher. It may be a half meter per century or several meters per century, we don’t know. We’ve never seen an ice sheet collapse before.”
Rignot drew attention to the dynamic behavior of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which recently lost a chunk of ice roughly 12 square kilometers in surface area and which could raise sea level by half a meter if it were to melt entirely.
NASA is beginning a three-year effort, Oceans Melting Greenland, to understand the role of ocean currents and ocean temperatures in melting Greenland’s ice from below—and therefore to better predict the speed at which that melting will raise sea level.
Also of concern: Antarctica, which has a great deal of total ice to lose. The West Antarctica ice sheet may be undergoing a marine instability as warm water reaches the base of its glaciers from below.
“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”
Data collected by NASA satellites, which change position in relation to one another as Earth’s water and ice realign and change gravity’s pull, reveal that the ocean’s mass is increasing, translating to a global sea level rise of about 0.07 inches per year, but that rise is not uniform.
A visualization released by NASA illustrates the variation in sea level rise around the world. Although the sea level has fallen slightly along the U.S. west coast due to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), NASA warns that sea level rise could increase on that coast because the PDO recently shifted into a warm phase.
Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference
This week, delegates met in Bonn, Germany, to take steps to create a workable draft for a deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties November 30 to December 11 in Paris that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that the agreement will show just how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer poorer countries to deal with their own growing energy and climate adaptation needs. Opinions on how to get to this agreement, which would take effect in 2020, differ.
One particularly sticky point: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between rich and poor nations. In an interview with Politico, Robert Orr, a longtime climate advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, identified the outstanding issues.
“The overall question of ambition, just how ambitious an agreement this will be,” said Orr. “Everyone agrees we need to get ourselves on a pathway to 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise or less. This level of ambition will require changes in everyone’s economies, everyone’s fuel mixes, everyone’s infrastructure investments. So, agreeing on a level of ambition in as much specificity as possible is critical to a successful deal. The issue of financing: All of this has to be paid for.”