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.
At the North American Leaders Summit on Wednesday, Mexico, Canada and the United States pledged to generate 50 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2025. The joint commitment by the three countries, according to White House Adviser Brian Deese, is “an aggressive goal” but one that is “achievable continent-wide.”
“The Paris Agreement was a turning point for our planet, representing unprecedented accord on the urgent need to take action to combat climate change through innovation and deployment of low-carbon solutions,” the leaders said in a statement. “North America has the capacity, resources and the moral imperative to show strong leadership building on the Paris Agreement and promoting its early entry into force. We recognize that our highly integrated economies and energy systems afford a tremendous opportunity to harness growth in our continuing transition to a clean energy economy. Our actions to align climate and energy policies will protect human health and help level the playing field for our businesses, households, and workers.”
Last year, 32 percent of North America’s overall power came from clean energy sources. The White House cited renewable energy, nuclear plants, and carbon capture and storage technology as possible avenues to achieving the 50 percent goal in the next nine years. In addition, measures will be taken to reduce greenhouse gases in the economies of the three countries through deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, conduct research to accelerate clean energy innovation, support cross-border transmission projects, and examine adding more renewables to the power grid with a joint study of renewables opportunities and impacts
Mexico will join Canada and the United States in reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. Reduction strategies are planned for the agricultural and waste management sectors.
Could Brexit Complicate EU Effort on Paris Agreement?
Although the full effects of the United Kingdom’s decision, last week, to leave the European Union (EU)—the so-called Brexit—are still unclear, some think it could have far-reaching effects on Europe’s commitment to last year’s landmark Paris climate agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The impending departure of the EU’s second largest emitter and a leading advocate of increased EU ambition ahead of the Paris Agreement complicates Brussels’ plan to divide up the EU’s pledge to cut emissions at least 40 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2030 (subscription). The United Kingdom would have contributed significantly to meeting that pledge—under a 2008 domestic law it is on a pathway to cut its emissions 57 percent by 2030.
Assuming the United Kingdom stays in the Paris Agreement, its contribution would likely be based on its Climate Change Act. To abandon its current emissions reductions commitments would mean repealing the act.
For now, the United Kingdom remains a supporter of the Paris Agreement, and in the short term no changes are slated in its domestic emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050. But the United Nations says that, once the United Kingdom leaves the EU, a “recalibration” of the Paris Agreement will be necessary.
“While I think the U.K’s role in dealing with a warming planet may have been made harder by the decision last Thursday, our commitment to dealing with it has not gone away,” said Amber Rudd, Britain’s Energy Secretary. “Climate change has not been downgraded as a threat. It remains one of the most serious long-term risks to our economic and national security.”
Studies Find Pink Snow Contributing to Climate Change; Humans Changing Vegetation Growth
A study in the journal Nature Communications links the pink-hued snow in higher altitudes in the Arctic to climate-change-related increases in algae blooms that are causing melting in the region at an unprecedented pace. The presence of red algae reduces the snow’s ability to reflect light instead of absorbing it as heat (albedo), reducing albedo by as much as 13 percent in one season.
“The algae need liquid water in order to bloom,” said the University of Leeds’ Stefanie Lutz, lead author of the study. “Therefore the melting of snow and ice surfaces controls the abundance of the algae. The more melting, the more algae. With temperatures rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon will likely also increase leading to an even higher bio-albedo effect.”
It is unclear how widespread these algae blooms can become, but based on her observations, Lutz said “a conservative estimate would be 50 percent of the snow surface on a glacier [will be covered by the algae] at the end of a melt season.”
A separate study by NASA, which analyzed more than 87,000 satellite images, found extensive greening of land in Canada and Alaska while these area’s Boreal regions were browning as a result of climate change.
“Whereas temperature limited tundra regions have almost ubiquitously increased productivity with warming temperatures … trees in the boreal system do not respond well to high temperatures,” said Scott Goetz, deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s not what most people typically think of as drought, related to soil moisture, but the effect is the same. Boreal trees are like living organisms anywhere, they will do what they need to do to survive… It’s all finely tuned by centuries of evolutionary adaptation.”
“Our findings reveal that the observed greening record is consistent with an assumption of anthropogenic forcings, where greenhouse gases play a dominant role, but is not consistent with simulations that include only natural forcings and internal climate variability,” the authors write.
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.
Yellowstone National Park, Venice, Jordan’s Wadi Rum, and Easter Island’s Rapa Nui National Park are some of the 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are threatened by climate change according to a new report released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Melting glaciers, rising seas, increasing wildfires and harsher droughts could severely diminish the value of protected sites, making them unsuitable for a World Heritage designation, the report says. Climate change could eventually cause some of the sites to lose their status.
Also at risk, according to the report, is local economic development in the areas near world heritage sites. Specifically, the tourism sector is vulnerable to loss and damage to assets and attractions as well as to increasing insurance costs and safety concerns.
“The fastest growing risk to World Heritage, and one of the most under-reported by the countries that are parties to the World Heritage convention, is from climate change,” said Adam Markham, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He pointed out that climate change brings not only direct impacts but “acts as a ‘risk multiplier,’” compounding local stresses such as urbanization, agricultural expansion and pollution.
In the Galapagos Islands, threats to wildlife from tourism, invasive species and illegal fishing are exacerbated by rising seas and warming and more acidic oceans. At Stonehenge, warmer winters will likely increase numbers of burrowing animals that could undermine archaeological deposits and destabilize stonework.
“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites,” said Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”
Ocean Current Affecting Temperatures in Antarctica
A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that ocean currents are slowing the warming effects on Antarctica as Arctic ice melts on the other side of the world. Warm waters in Gulf Stream cool as they flow into the North Atlantic, then sink for centuries before surfacing off the coast of Antarctica.
“With rising carbon dioxide you would expect more warming at both poles, but we only see it at one of the poles, so something else must be going on,” said Kyle Armour, lead author and University of Washington assistant professor. “We show that it’s for really simple reasons, and the ocean currents are the hero here.”
Old, deep water that’s coming up to the surface all around Antarctica—water that hasn’t come into contact with the atmosphere or experienced climate change in hundreds of years—is behind the drastic differences in the continent’s water temperature.
Using drifting floats—known as the Argo array—and climate models, the study authors tracked heat. They found that nearly 68 percent of the heat taken up by the southernmost parts of the Southern Ocean was carried north.
A separate study in the journal Remote Sensing of the Environment also attributes ocean currents, in part, to increasing Antarctica temperatures and sea ice growth. It suggests that the Southern Ocean Circumpolar current prevents warmer water from reaching the continent and that icy winds help the formation of sea ice persist.
Record Renewable Investment by Developing Countries in 2015
For the first time, emerging economies spent more on renewable energy than developed economies, according to the Renewables Global Status report prepared by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21). In 2015, developing countries invested $156 billion in renewables—a 19 percent increase from the previous year.
“What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies,” said Christine Lins, REN21’s executive secretary.
By the end of 2015, countries around the world had installed a record annual total of 147 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity—enough to meet 23.7 percent of global electricity demand. China was the leader in renewables investment, followed by the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and India.
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.
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.”
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.
Human activities are the cause of this century’s record warm years, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We find that individual record years and the observed runs of record-setting temperatures were extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change,” the authors say. “These same record temperatures were, by contrast, quite likely to have occurred in the presence of anthropogenic climate forcing.”
The study, written before the release of 2015 temperature data, put the odds between 1 in 770 and 1 in 10,000 that 13 of the 15 warmest years spanning from 2000 to 2014 happened without human influence (subscription). With the inclusion of 2015 temperature data, the group’s computer simulations widened those odds to between 1 in 1,250 and 1 in 13,000, lead author Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.
“Climate change is real, human-caused and no longer subtle—we’re seeing it play out before our eyes,” Mann said.
Mann and his co-authors ran statistical analyses of real-world measurements and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system to distinguish human-caused climate change from natural climate variability, such as that triggered by volcanic eruptions and shifts in the sun’s output.
“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact in Germany, said. “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.”
Study: Low Electricity Costs and Low Emissions Not Mutually Exclusive
A new study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado Boulder researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the United States could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation (using future anticipated costs for wind and solar) by more than 75 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030 at approximately the same cost as 2012. The key? Using new high-voltage power lines to move renewables nationwide, eliminating the need to add new fossil fuel storage capacity.
“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” said Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”
Using NOAA’s high-resolution meteorological data, the researchers built a model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios and found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, the wind and the sun could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs comparable to today’s.
“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Clack said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”
In the expected future scenario—in which renewable energy costs continue to fall while natural gas costs rise—the model predicted that the power sector could cut emissions 78 percent compared with 1990 levels at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 9.4 cents in 2012 (subscription). That finding is predicated on creation of a new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission grid, which according to the authors lowers the chance of energy losses, reducing utilities’ need to amass reserves of excess capacity through natural-gas-powered generators.
“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”
Update to Social Cost of Carbon Unnecessary
A new interim report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that there is little benefit to updating estimates of the social cost of carbon in the near term. Written by a 13-member expert panel, the report recommends ways to change federal technical support documents on the social cost of carbon to enhance estimates.
“We recommended against a near-term update to the social cost of carbon” based off the IPCC report’s finding, said Richard Newell of Duke University. Newell co-chaired the panel, which includes Sanford School Professor and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Faculty Fellow Billy Pizer.
To set an efficient market price on carbon emissions, it’s helpful to know the social cost of those emissions—that is, the estimate of the economic damages (in dollars) associated with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, usually one metric ton, in a given year. The last revised estimate, in 2015, was $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.
Four of the five candidates mentioned climate change a dozen times as a major campaign issue during at the Democratic presidential debates this week. Candidates at the Republican debate were largely silent on the issue.
“This debate shows that climate has become a central issue, right up there with income inequality and broader economic concerns,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate official under the Clinton administration. “It’s a stunning evolution, one that also shows Democrats see climate change has a profound GOP vulnerability in the general election.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley touted their own efforts to combat climate change. “I’m the only candidate, I believe, in either party to do this—to move America forward to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050,” said O’Malley.
Sanders brought up his push for legislation that puts a price on carbon, and he identified climate change as the main threat for the country—repeating Pope Francis’s message that it was a moral issue.
“The scientific community is telling us: if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be inhabitable,” Sanders said.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, saw climate change as an economic opportunity.
“I’ve traveled across our country over the last months listening and learning,” Clinton said. “And I’ve put forward specific plans about how we’re going to create more good-paying jobs: by investing in infrastructure and clean energy, by making it possible once again to invest in science and research, and taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”
Group Calls for Tougher Action on Climate Change
Twenty countries most at risk of climate change due to arid, landlocked, mountainous, or low lying terrain have formed a new group to demand tougher efforts to curb climate change. The Vulnerable 20 (V20), which held its inaugural meeting in Lima, Peru, last week, is calling for significant mobilization of finance for climate action ahead of a climate agreement set to be negotiated in Paris later this year, and it will share and scale up its own members’ innovative approaches to such finance.
The action plan by the V20 countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, East Timor, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam—seeks to “strengthen economic and financial cooperation and action to address climate change risks and opportunities” as well as to promote a shift to a low-carbon global economy.
The V20 contributes only 2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions but asserts that since 2010 it has recorded more than 50,000 annual deaths and suffered an estimated annual decrease in GDP of 2.5 percent attributable to climate change.
“We established this group recognizing the power and potential of finance as an integral tool in solving [climate change],” Cesar Purisima, the Philippines’ finance minister and chair of the V20. “Unified in our vulnerability, the economic threats and difficulties arising from climate change, and heightened sense of urgency on the issue, we stand together on the front lines of a battle we most certainly cannot afford to lose.”
V20 expects to both raise and manage climate monies, and it will establish a public-private “climate risk pooling mechanism,” an insurance-like fund for recovery from extreme weather events and disasters.
Without an effective global response, said Purisima, the V20’s annual economic losses due to climate change would exceed $400 billion by 2030.
New York Set to Explore Linkage with Carbon Markets
Last Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced four major actions by his state to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One is becoming a signatory to Under 2 MOU—a memorandum of understanding among states, provinces, and cities worldwide to help keep Earth’s average temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, as measured against pre-industrial levels. Another is engaging partners in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in exploring the possibility of linking their power sector-only cap-and-trade program with California and Quebec’s economy-wide carbon markets and with Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, which may join California, Washington, and Quebec in the Western Climate Initiative as soon as 2017.
“Connecting these markets would be more cost-effective and stable, thereby supporting clean energy and driving international carbon emission reductions,” a release stated. “New York State will also engage other states and provinces to build a broader carbon market and further drive an international discussion that encourages government action on carbon emissions.”
ClimateWire reported that carbon trading among states is considered a key mechanism to comply with the Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and acting EPA air chief Janet McCabe has said that interstate trading, for which RGGI is regarded as a model, could help states maintain an affordable and reliable power supply (subscription).
RGGI members are expected to meet through 2016 to discuss both the future of their program, currently slated to end in 2020, and the program’s use as a possible compliance mechanism for the Clean Power Plan.
Four independent global data sets registered 2014 as the warmest year on record, the Weather Channel reported, citing an annual review by international scientists sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The only major region of the world with below-average annual temperatures was Eastern North America.
The review compiled by NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate and based on contributions of more than 400 scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a global average of 397.2 parts per million, a 1.9-ppm-increase in 2014; the global average was 354 ppm in 1990, the review’s first year.
Other highlights of the State of the Climate in 2014 report include
- Record highs for sea surface temperatures, particularly in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as for global upper ocean heat (oceans absorb more than 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat), and global sea levels (oceans expand as they suck up heat);
- Continued Arctic warming and low sea ice extent;
- Highly variable temperature patterns and record-high sea ice extent in the Antarctic; and
- An above-average number of tropical cyclones.
Human activities are implicated in the record high. Deke Arndt, a NOAA climate scientist and one of the report authors pointed out that it’s no coincidence that it’s the lower atmosphere, rather than the upper atmosphere, that’s warming.
“The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere,” Arndt said. “If an external forcing—such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon—would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don’t.”
Now it appears that 2015 is well on its way to topping 2014 as the warmest on record. A strengthening El Nino is transferring heat from the tropical Pacific around the globe, and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency have reported that the global warmth of June 2015 matched or exceeded any previous June in historical records.
Study: 2-Degree Target Unsafe
New research says keeping within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperatures—the target scientists and global leaders agree represents a safe level of climate change—may be inadequate and “highly dangerous.” Meeting the target, the study says, could lead to runaway ice melt that causes rising sea levels and ocean circulation changes far more serious than previous projections.
“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century,” James Hansen—NASA’s former lead climate scientist and 16 other co-authors write in the new, not-yet-peer-reviewed discussion paper due to be published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. “Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”
A better strategy, the authors say, is to return to an atmosphere with 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide—we’ve reached about 400 parts per million.
Pope, Mayors Urge Action on Climate Change
A month after the release of his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis urged world leaders to take a “strong position” on climate change in advance of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year.
“I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December and hope a fundamental agreement is reached,” said Francis at a two-day conference of mayors from nearly 60 cities around the world to discuss the issues of climate change and fighting forms of modern slavery. “The U.N. needs to take a strong position on this.”
The mayors in attendance signed a pledge stating that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”
The meeting, the Globe and Mail reports, represents a fundamental shift in how the issue of climate change is framed.