Emissions, Economic Growth Parting Ways

April 23, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis released Monday reveals that the country’s energy-related carbon emissions grew last year but more slowly than the economy as a whole, representing a decoupling of emissions and economic growth that is projected to continue through 2015 (subscription). Bloomberg reports that the difference in the emissions increase and the GDP increase—0.7 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively—is considered a sign that emissions reductions efforts are not restraining economic expansion.

“The more we can grow our economy without increasing emissions by the same amount of that economic growth, it means that other factors such as energy intensity and the amount of carbon dioxide released in the production of that energy are offsetting the economic growth,” said EIA report author Perry Lindstrom in an e-mail to Reuters.

Confirmation of the second consecutive annual increase in U.S. carbon emissions comes on the heels of commitments by the United States to a 26–28 percent cut in those emissions from 2005 levels by 2025.

A recently released short-term forecast for U.S. power by Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that U.S. emissions-cutting efforts are about to get a huge boost. It projects that this year carbon pollution from the U.S. power sector will fall to its lowest level since 1994 as coal plants go offline and renewables come online. But a Duke University-led study based on 1,000 years of temperature records suggests that global warming is not progressing as fast as it would under the most severe emissions scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gas Flaring Initiative Aims to Capture Easy Emissions Reductions

The World Bank announced first-ever commitments by 9 countries, 10 oil companies, and all 6 global development institutions to end the practice of routine gas flaring at oil production sites by 2030. The “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” initiative was launched by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who said the voluntary agreement will cut 40 percent of the global gas flaring that each year results in 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to emissions from approximately 77 million cars.

No U.S.-based companies have signed onto the initiative, which the World Bank and U.N. are using to build support for the U.N.-hosted climate conference aimed at forging a global climate agreement in Paris later this year.

“We think that to eliminate routine gas flaring is the low-hanging fruit on the climate agenda,” said Bjorn Hamso, the World Bank’s program manager for the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership. “Oil-producing countries who decide to join us in this effort, they can make that CO2 reduction part of their contribution to the negotiations in Paris.”

Signatories to the initiative will publicly report their flaring and progress toward the target on an annual basis and will prohibit routine flaring in new oil fields developments.

U.S. Energy Infrastructure Requires “Significant Change”

To deal with the challenges of climate change, new technology, a changing energy supply and national security in the coming years, the U.S. electricity sector will require major modifications, according to a new report by the Obama administration.

“The United States’ energy system is going through dramatic changes,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers.”

The report notes that the U.S. energy infrastructure—2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, about 640,000 miles of transmission lines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, 330 ports handling crude and petroleum and refined petroleum products and more than 140,000 miles of railways that handle crude petroleum—is outdated. It calls for billions in new spending programs and tax credits to modernize this system’s grid and oil and gas and transportation infrastructure. Among the approaches it recommends are these:

  • Establish a Department of Energy-run program that provides financial assistance to states to encourage cost-effective improvements that would accelerate pipeline replacement and enhance maintenance programs for natural gas distribution systems.
  • Promote grid modernization with a proposal in the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request.
  • Make infrastructure investments that optimize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and have Congress update release authorities to reflect modern oil markets.
  • Increase integration of energy data among the United States, Canada, Mexico and other countries.
  • Improve quantification of emissions from natural gas and provide funding for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.

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.


Court Hears Arguments Surrounding EPA Power Plant Rule

April 16, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments Thursday in a set of cases (Murray Energy v. EPA and West Virginia v. EPA) challenging the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to limit greenhouse gases from existing power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. There was skepticism from at least two of the three judge panel about whether they could hear a challenge before the rule is finalized. Judges Griffith and Kavanaugh both questioned whether the rulemaking was “extraordinary” and requiring of immediate court review.

Whether the court decides to review the proposed rule or not, the argument also previewed future challenges claiming the EPA misused sections of the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution. The plaintiffs—a coalition of coal-producing states and a coal company—argue that the EPA rules violate the Clean Air Act’s language limiting regulation of the facilities for pollutants to just one section of the law. A drafting error in 1990 created conflicting language between the House and Senate versions that was never resolved, with the House limiting regulation under section 111(d) to those facilities that were not regulated otherwise, and the Senate limiting regulation only to those pollutants that were not otherwise regulated. The EPA claims that it has discretion to resolve such a conflict of language in the way it has proposed.

Obama Proposes New Offshore Drilling Rules

As the five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico nears, the Obama administration is proposing dozens of rules aimed at strengthening oversight of offshore drilling equipment to ensure that wells can be sealed in emergency situations.

The draft rules would impose tougher standards on equipment designed to maintain well control (such as the blowout preventer that malfunctioned in the BP spill), require real-time monitoring of drilling in deep-water and high-pressure conditions, and establish annual third-part reviews of repair records.

“Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills, and these proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe,” said U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (subscription).

Carbon Emissions from Permafrost: Good and Bad News

A new study in the journal Nature warns that a warming climate can induce environmental changes that hasten the microbial breakdown of organic carbon stored in permafrost (frozen soils) within the Artic and sub-Artic regions, releasing carbon dioxide and methane—a feedback that can accelerate climate change. Although a sudden or catastrophic release of these greenhouse gases from the top three meters of global permafrost soil and Arctic river deltas is unlikely, the projected release of 5–15 percent of an estimated 1,330–1,580 gigatons—equaling an extra 0.13 to 0.27 degrees Celsius of warming—by 2100 is troubling given the tight carbon budget to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

The study’s authors said that target likely will be overshot if the Arctic’s soil carbon stores are not accurately incorporated into climate models used by policy makers to decide how to mitigate missions and limit global warming.

“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under 2 degrees C and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” said study co-author David McGuire.

Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was aware of the potential for permafrost emissions, it didn’t factor them into its most recent major report because estimates from earlier studies were considered uncertain and unreliable.

According to McGuire, data from his team’s syntheses do not support a hypothesized permafrost carbon bomb. “What our syntheses do show,” McGuire said, “is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

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.


Obama Releases Report, Other Initiatives Directed at Tackling Climate Change Impacts

April 9, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama announced a series of steps that aim to tackle the effects of climate change on the health of Americans. These 150 health-focused actions to boost climate change preparedness expand on the Climate Data Initiative launched a year.

“The sooner we act, the more we can do to protect the health of our communities, our kids, and those that are the most vulnerable,” the White House said in a statement. “As part of the administration’s overall effort to combat climate change and protect the American people, this week, the administration is announcing a series of actions that will allow us to better understand, communicate, and reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities.”

Beyond the list of initiatives—including expanding access to climate and health data, improving air quality data and convening a climate change and health summit—the administration released a draft report on the observed and future impacts of climate change on our health. It focuses on risks such as weather extremes, air quality and water-and food-related issues that could affect Americans and is open for public comment. A final draft is expected for release in early 2016.

Another report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adaptation in Action, highlights successful actions by state leaders in Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and New York to reduce the health impacts of climate change.

Study Forecasts Canadian Glacier Loss; Could Have Wider Implications

A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts how much glaciers in western Canada will shrink—as much as 70 percent by 2100—depending on the rate of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere between now and the end of the century.

“Over the next century, there is going to be a huge loss,” said lead author Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia. “The glaciers are telling us that we’re changing the climate.”

The study—the first to model many glaciers in detail at one time—could have implications for predicting glacier loss around the world. New Scientist reports that unlike previous studies—including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—this Nature Geoscience study relies on detailed analysis of how glaciers are likely to move and change shape as they melt. The earlier studies relied on the difference between the amount of snow falling on the glacier at higher altitudes and the amount of thawing at lower ones.

Climate Change Triggers Rising Tide of Troubles for California

Last week the Risky Business Project released its third report on the economic impacts of climate change, a report calling on business leaders to push for policy reform and to factor climate change into their businesses’ risk models.

From Boom to Bust? Climate Risk in the Golden State describes how extreme heat and shifting precipitation patterns from escalating climate change will drain California’s water supply, worsen drought and wildfire, and undermine agriculture. Rising temperatures will also lead to decreased labor productivity, increased energy costs, and greater air pollution. Human health and property will be put at risk: a doubling or tripling of the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit could contribute to nearly 7,700 additional heat-related deaths per year by century’s end, and rising sea levels along the California coast could submerge $10 billion in property by 2050. 

The report was published the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown placed first-ever mandatory water restrictions on all Californians, a response to the state’s fourth year of drought, which has already challenged many of the state’s businesses. The executive order calls for a 25 percent slash in water use and comes as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which Californians rely on heavily for summertime water needs, neared a record low.

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.


United States, Europe Announce Emissions Reductions Pledges

April 2, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“Ambitious and achievable” is how the White House described its formal emissions reduction pledge—a cut of 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025—to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in preparation for negotiation of a binding climate agreement in Paris in December. Opinion about the aptness of the two adjectives was, predictably, mixed.

The U.S. pledge follows on the heels of a U.S. agreement to form a joint task force on climate policy co-operation with Mexico, which has become the first developing nation to formally announce its greenhouse gas emissions reductions ahead of Paris—25 percent by 2030.

The only other countries to meet an informal March 31 deadline to declare formal plans to the UNFCCC for voluntary greenhouse gas emissions cuts—so-called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs)—were the 28-nation European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and, at the midnight hour, Russia, which said it would cut its emissions by as much as 30 percent from 1990 levels. Gabon submitted its pledge April 1.

The delay in INDC pledges by the vast majority of the world’s countries complicates negotiation of a global climate change agreement in Paris in December, Reuters reports. The lag will shrink the time that other countries have to assess whether they will meet others’ offers, potentially leading to a “last-minute pile-up” like the one that scuttled climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

The U.S. target will entail a substantial ramp-up in reductions. According to the U.S. INDC, “Achieving the 2025 target will require a further emission reduction of 9–11 percent beyond our 2020 target compared to the 2005 baseline and a substantial acceleration of the 2005–2020 annual pace of reduction, to 2.3–2.8 percent per year, or an approximate doubling.”

Some of the required efforts have been launched or proposed: increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, methane limits for energy production, cuts in federal government emissions, and pollution rules for power plants. The U.S. INDC outlined no plans to meet INDC targets through international carbon trading, but it does suggest that agricultural land use and carbon sinks such as forests will play some role in achieving the targets.

According to the international analysis group Climate Action Tracker, “The U.S. will need to implement additional policies to reach its proposed targets. The planned policies (such as the targets in the Climate Action Plan), if fully implemented, are sufficient to meet the 2020 pledge [a 17 percent reduction in 2005 emissions levels by 2020]. Additional policies will have to be implemented to reach the 2025 pledge.”

Arctic Oil Exploration

A National Petroleum Council (NPC) draft report, out last Friday, indicates that the United States should tap Arctic oil and gas reserves to boost energy security.

“To remain globally competitive and to be positioned to provide global leadership and influence in the Arctic, the U.S. should facilitate exploration in the offshore Alaskan Arctic now,” the study’s authors wrote.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Arctic contains an estimated 13 percent of all oil resources and up to 30 percent of all natural gas resources on the planet [measured in terms undiscovered conventional energy resources]. According to the NPC report, if drilling began now in Alaska and continued into 2030 or 2040, Arctic production would help sustain domestic supplies if shale and tight oils decline in the lower 48 states.

The report was released just days before the U.S. Department of the Interior reaffirmed a 2008 auction of Arctic drilling rights, giving Royal Dutch Shell the go-ahead to restart oil exploration in the Alaskan Artic. Despite that news, the National Geographic reports that three factors—permits, safety concerns, and oil reserve amounts—could still slow Arctic drilling.

Report: Renewables Could Help States Meet Clean Power Plan Requirements

Renewable energy investment worldwide totaled more than $270.2 billion in 2014—a roughly 17 percent increase from the year previous—according to a new report.

The American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association think renewables have potential. Their new handbook details how states can incorporate renewable energy to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act by establishing state-by-state emissions rate goals for affected fossil fuel-fired power plants.

How much and how fast the Clean Power Plan could help renewable energy development depends on a laundry list of technical and policy questions involving the EPA’s final rule (subscription).

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 Reviews EPA’s Power Plant Mercury Rule; Decision Due in June

March 26, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consideration of cost impacts when developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, (MATS) which are set to go into effect next month. At issue in the case is whether the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider costs in addition to health and environmental impacts when determining whether (not just how) to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.

The MATS rule, finalized in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimates the rule would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but have the benefits of cutting coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generating $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that it is in EPA’s discretion whether to consider costs when deciding whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants. During Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, asserting that Congress instructed the EPA to use its expertise to decide what was appropriate and did not mandate consideration of costs.

Forbes reports that Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly attacked EPA’s interpretation. He asserted, “I would think it’s classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved.”

The Supreme Court’s final decision is expected by the end of June (subscription).

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

This week the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that on Feb. 25 Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, “the lowest in the satellite record,” with implications for the Arctic’s ecology and economy and for weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia. The news, the Belfast Telegraph reported, increases fears that summers in the polar region could be ice free within 20 or 30 years.

Warming Arctic temperatures triggered by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are accelerating ice melt and increasing the amount open ocean exposed to the sun’s rays. Unlike white ice, which reflects those rays, the dark ocean absorbs them, causing further heating and melt.

“[The record low extent] is significant, in that it shows that the Arctic is being seriously impacted by our warming climate,” said NSIDC’s Senior Research Scientist Ted Scambos. “In general, sea ice retreat has proceeded faster than modelling expects in the Arctic, although models are catching up.”

The NSIDC announcement comes in the wake of a new study reporting that Arctic sea ice is thinning at a faster rate than researchers previously thought. It shows that the ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.78 feet to 4.1 feet.

Global warming also appears to be slowing ocean circulation according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals a deceleration of the ocean circulation that helps to drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast, the consequences of which could be significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities and shifts in U.S. and European weather.

The findings suggest that the slowdown—the most dramatic in recorded history and well outside the norm—is probably not part of natural fluctuation.

If the climate relationships identified in the study hold true, increasing melt rates in Greenland “might lead to further weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown” of key components of it, the scientists warn.

“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial,” said lead author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe.”

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

In an effort to help meet emissions reduction goals and spur others to do the same, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels in the next decade. Specifically, the executive order calls for agencies to ensure 25 percent of their total energy consumption is from clean sources, to reduce energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent each year and decrease per-mile greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2014 levels.

“America once again is going to be leading by example,” said Obama. “So we’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way.”

The move by Obama is part of a broader plan to tackle climate change. He previously pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch reports that Obama’s latest moves on climate are part of a larger effort to increase political pressure on other countries to follow suit in the months before a global climate treaty will be discussed at an international climate summit in Paris.

“If I can encourage and gain commitments from the Chinese to put forward a serious plan to start curbing their greenhouse gases, and that then allows us to leverage the entire world for the conference that will be taking place later this year in Paris,” Obama said.

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.


McCarthy: States Must Comply with Clean Power Plan

March 19, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday, a lawyer hired by the world’s largest coal mining company told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power that proposed requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are reckless, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an op-ed, said states should ignore them, but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy warned that the regulations will be enforced whether or not states chose to cooperate.

“The EPA is going to regulate. Mid-summer is when the Clean Power Plan is going to be finalized,” McCarthy said, noting that the EPA is developing a federal implementation plan that will apply to states that fail to submit their own compliance plans. “If folks think any of those pieces aren’t going to happen and [the Clean Power Plan] isn’t going to be implemented, I think they need to look at the history of the Clean Air Act more carefully. This isn’t how we do business.”

A new policy brief by Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions offers a compliance pathway for the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan that allows states to realize the advantages of multistate and market-based solutions without mandating either strategy. Under the common elements approach, states develop individual-state plans to achieve their unique emissions targets and give power plant owners the option to participate in cross-state emissions markets.

“States wouldn’t necessarily have to mandate market-based approaches or even endorse the approaches,” said Jonas Monast, lead author and director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute. “What it would require is the states using a common definition of what a compliance instrument is and ensuring that somehow the credits are verified and tracked.”

The common elements approach would allow cross-state credit transfers without states’ negotiation of a formal regional trading scheme, leave compliance choices to power companies, build on existing state and federal trading programs and maintain traditional roles of state energy and environmental regulators.

Carbon Footprint of Crudes Varies Widely

A first-of-its-kind oil-climate index, produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Climate and Energy Program in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of Calgary, captures the huge spread between the most and least intensive greenhouse gas (GHG) oils. By calculating the carbon costs of various crudes and related petroleum products, the authors suggest that companies and policymakers can better prioritize their development.

The index reflects emissions from the entire oil supply chain—oil extraction, crude transport, refining, marketing, and product combustion and end use—and reveals an 80 percent spread between the lowest GHG-emitting oil and the highest in its sample of 30 crudes, representing some 5 percent of global oil production. That spread will likely grow when more types of crude oil, particularly oil from unconventional sources, are added to the index.

The lead emitter? China Bozhong crude, followed by several Canadian syncrudes derived from oil sands-extracted bitumen.

A blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that the wide emissions spread should give rise to “more responsible practices like capturing rather than flaring gas” and that in some cases “the dirtiest extra-heavy resources are best left in the ground.”

The index, which highlights that attention to the entire lifecycle of a barrel of crude is critical to designing policies that reduce its climate impacts, was released days before the International Energy Agency reported that for the first time in 40 years of record keeping, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use remained steady in 2014. The halt, the report states, is particularly notable because it is not tied to an economic downturn.

More Renewables, Tougher Standards for Public Lands

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell previewed plans to make energy development safer on public and tribal lands and waters in a speech outlining priorities for the Obama administration’s final years.

“…our task by the end of this Administration is to put in place common-sense reforms that promote good government and help define the rules of the road for America’s energy future on our public lands,” Jewell said. “Those reforms should help businesses produce energy more safely and with more certainty. They should encourage technological innovation. They should ensure American taxpayers are getting maximum benefit from their resources. And they should apply our values and our science to better protect and sustain our planet for future generations.”

Among the measures to be unveiled in coming months: tightened spill prevention standards for offshore drilling, increased construction of solar and wind installations and a raise in royalties from coal mining.

Jewell also hinted at plans “in coming days” to propose rules governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands, which are believed to hold about 25 percent of the country’s shale reserves.

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.


Climate Pledges May Not Be Enough

March 12, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The European Union (EU) is now the second body to submit an official climate target to the United Nations ahead of talks to reach a global climate agreement in Paris later this year. One of the world’s top emitters, the EU intends to reduce its emissions 40 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. This commitment is in addition to 2050 emissions reduction targets that a recent report published by the European Environment Agency claims may prove difficult to reach.

“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said. It points to a 60 percent cut in transportation emissions toward which little progress has been made.

Another study that looks at commitments by all nations to curb the effects of climate change suggests that the U.N. goal of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end is unlikely to be met. According to the authors, to attain that goal, the agreement reached in Paris must not only be based on a shared commitment to creating “equitable access to sustainable development,” but must also be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between parties.

Negotiators aim to complete an agreement in Paris that would go into effect in 2020. All countries are due to announce their emissions reductions plans in June in Bonn.

Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change

A severe drought in 2010 doubled the rate of tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest, causing a 1.4 billion ton loss in the forest’s uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of a new study in Nature that finds droughts are causing the trees to exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. The authors say trees store a tenth less CO2 from the atmosphere during droughts, apparently because they are channeling their more limited energy reserves into growth.

“Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they [tropical rainforests] ‘inhale’ carbon through photosynthesis can decrease,” said Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers. “This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts.”

The study provides the first direct evidence of the rate at which individual trees in the Amazonian basin absorb carbon during a severe drought. An international research team compared the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 drought-affected and non-drought-affected rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Researchers discovered that growth rates of the trees in the plots were unchanged but that photosynthesis rates on the six drought-affected plots slowed by some 10 percent over six months.

EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar

Electricity from renewable sources outpaced the growth of electricity from fossil fuel-fired plants in 2014, according to a new Energy Information Administration report. Though solar’s share of electricity production remained smaller than wind’s share, net generation of the former grew by more than 100 percent last year. Wind generation grew by 8 percent and is forecasted to grow by 16.1 percent this year and another 6.5 percent in 2016.

“Because wind is starting from a much larger base than solar, even though the growth rate is lower, the absolute amount of the increase in capacity is more than twice that of solar: 15 GW [gigawatts] of wind versus 6 GW of utility-scale solar between 2014 and 2016,” the EIA reports.

Ultimately, wind will see a net increase of 9.8 gigawatts—the most of any other power source in 2015. California and North Carolina will add the most utility-scale solar capacity to systems (73 percent combined).

“Given current growth rates, especially for solar and wind, it is quite possible that renewable energy sources will reach, or exceed, 14% of the nation’s electrical supply by the end of 2015,” noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “That is a level that EIA, only a few years ago, was forecasting would not be achieved until the year 2040.”

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.


First-Ever Direct Observation of Greenhouse Gas Increase

March 5, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the journal Nature offers that for the first time scientists have directly observed an increase in one major greenhouse gas at Earth’s surface.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” said lead author Daniel Feldman. “Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect.”

Feldman and other researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, measured the amount of infrared heat radiation from the sun reaching Earth’s surface and the amount of heat radiation the Earth emits back. Examination of carbon dioxide concentrations from 2000 to 2010 in Alaska and Oklahoma showed the “fingerprint of carbon dioxide” trapping heat in action. Some of the heat from Earth was being blocked by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—allowing the researchers to calculate that this effect amounted to two-tenths of a watt per square meter of surface warming per decade (22 parts per million between 2000 and 2010).

“The data say what the data say,” Feldman said. “They are very clear that the rising carbon dioxide is actually contributing to an increased greenhouse effect at those sites.”

Net Zero Emissions—The Business Case

A recently leaked European Union planning document states that “the world’s states should commit to a legally binding emissions cut of 60 percent by 2050, with five yearly reviews.” Still, many scientists and policy experts want this year’s Paris climate talks to aim for net zero emissions. In fact, the latest draft climate agreement, forged a few weeks ago in Geneva, does contain 15 versions of a net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions goal.

Using information in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the 2014 United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report, and other scientific literature, a new briefing note from Climate Analytics details timeframes for that goal. For a 66 percent likelihood of avoiding 2 degrees of warming by century’s end, GHG emissions would have to be 40–70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 and would need to reach zero some time between 2080 and 2100, but energy and industry emissions of CO2 would have to reach zero no later than 2075 and perhaps as soon as 2060.

At the outset of the Geneva talks, The B Team, a group of leaders from the business and nonprofit sectors founded by Sir Richard Branson, referenced the 66 percent chance in endorsing a net zero emissions goal: “The B Team view a 1-in-3 chance of failure as an unreasonable risk scenario carrying significant cost implications, strengthening the business case for achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.”

“Momentum is already growing in finance, business and political circles for a net zero goal,” wrote Mary Robinson, the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy on climate change, in the foreword to The Business Case for Adopting the Long-Term Goal for Net Zero Emissions, a report published by Track0.org.

EPA Airline Emissions Plan under Review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first proposed the idea of regulating emissions for the airline industry, which accounts for 2–3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, last year. Media report that the EPA has now sent the White House’s Office of Management and Budget its draft conclusion on whether carbon emitted from airplanes is cumulatively harmful to the environment and what the agency might do to restrict emissions.

NBC reports on how a decision to regulate airline emissions could lead to fuel-efficient planes.

Following the White House’s review of the document, the EPA could, according to Think Progress, make a proposal to the public as early as May with a final decision coming in 2016. The Daily Caller; however, reports the EPA has no timeline in mind.

“We don’t have a timeline for doing a rule,” said an EPA spokeswoman. “For any potential EPA domestic rulemaking to adopt equivalent international standards, EPA would have to propose and then finalize an affirmative endangerment and cause or contribute findings for aircraft greenhouse gas emissions.”

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.


First Rules for Arctic Drilling Released

February 26, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled the first draft rules for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The rules would require energy companies to clear a number of safety hurdles before being approved for drilling.

“The Arctic has substantial oil and gas potential, and the U.S. has a longstanding interest in the orderly development of these resources, which includes establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, the surrounding communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. She noted that the proposed regulations “are designed to ensure that offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to the highest safety standards.”

The regulations, which were crafted with a nod to previous experiences in the Arctic’s first drilling season when a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig ran aground in 2012, are open for public comment now, but they are not expected to be finalized before this summer’s drilling season. If approved, they would—among other things—require energy companies to submit safety plans and have a separate backup rig nearby to quickly drill a relief well to handle any blowout.

Oceans Warming and Seas Rising Faster Than Predicted

Obscured by news that 2014 had the hottest global air temperatures on record was new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about ocean warming. As climate expert John Abraham wrote in the Guardian, “The oceans are warming so fast, they keep breaking scientists’ charts.” Literally. The 2014 heat spike was so pronounced that scientists had to re-scale the chart NOAA uses to track ocean temperatures.

Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of global warming heat, and in recent years they have seen an acceleration in warming. Ocean acidification is a direct result of this absorption of carbon dioxide. A new study in Nature Climate Change, co-authored by Duke University researchers, offers the first nationwide look at the vulnerability of our country’s $1 billion shellfish industry to the problem of more acidic oceans.

“We find that nearly two-thirds of the country will be hit hard, but by different sources of ocean acidification,” said Linwood Pendleton, co-author and senior scholar at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “Some areas are most impacted by CO2 driven ocean acidification, some by upwellings, and some by increased acidification caused by freshwater run-off. Previously, our focus was on the Pacific Northwest, but this study shows that the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and New England also will be impacted.”

According to a separate study in Science and another co-authored by researchers at the University of California–Irvine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and three other institutions, warmer ocean waters are also the culprit in accelerated thawing of a West Antarctica ice sheet.

Rising ocean temperatures are one of the factors contributing to a rate of sea-level rise that according to a new study in Nature is much faster than scientists had predicted. “The acceleration into the last two decades is far worse than previously thought,” said study coauthor Carling Hay. “This new acceleration is about 25 percent higher than previous estimates.”

How do we know? The Nature study relied on a new and improved way of measuring sea-level rise.

“What we have done, which is a bit different from past studies, is use physical models and statistical models to try to look for underlying patterns in the messy tide gauge data observations,” said Hay. “Each of the different contributions actually produces a unique pattern, or fingerprint, of sea-level change. And what we try to do is model these underlying patterns and then use our statistical approach to look for the patterns in the tide gauge observations. That allows us to infer global information from the very limited records.”

If the new method holds up to further scrutiny, scientists could be more confident about their understanding of the precise causes of sea-level rise—and in their ability to project future increases in it.

Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

President Barack Obama left the long-debated Keystone XL Pipeline project in limbo this week after vetoing a bill to approve construction of the oil pipeline.

Of the bill for the pipeline, slated to transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, Obama wrote that “the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest … And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto.”

We haven’t heard the last of this controversy. Obama retains the right to make a final decision on the pipeline on his own timeline, the Washington Post reports, after the executive process (review at the State Department) runs its course. The Senate will vote no later than March 3 to override the veto, according Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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.


McCarthy: Clean Power Plan Targets May Change

February 19, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The EPA Administrator this week, suggested (subscription) that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.

The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are “very, very much on the table.”

“While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they’re going to be effective strategies,” McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners winter meeting. “We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030 and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal.”

New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions

“86 pages, 54,000 words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”—that’s how Sebastian Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week’s climate talks in Geneva summarized the proceedings’ output on social media. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed by all countries—the brackets referred to in Duyck’s tweet—also increased, but although the new draft became more complex—not simpler as planned—it represents progress to some participants.

“Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other’s positions,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.

“After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that,” said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.

Among the new draft’s significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a zero net greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050 and a peaking of emissions “as soon as possible.”

In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions reductions efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.

The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions reductions plans.

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

Last November, the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports the New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems—and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon neutral.

In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, “Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants.” In fact, “Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage.”

In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six environmental Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, “We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA’s apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting.” They added that the decision “contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county’s renewable energy policy.”

But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon—with up to a 145 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study coauthor Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.

On the basis of analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California–Berkeley report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.

“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent – the current 2050 goal in California—but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”

These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate (subscription) on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.

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.