Study: Half a Degree Matters

April 28, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.

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-Change-Related Precipitation Extremes Hard to Predict

April 14, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Scientists have warned that severe drought and precipitation are among the risks of greenhouse-gas-induced climate change, but a study published in the journal Nature finds that extremely warm temperatures do not always translate into record wet and dry extremes. Highlighting the complexities in predicting the effects of planetary warming on precipitation, lead author Fredrik Ljungqvist of Stockholm University said that more dramatic wet-dry weather extremes had occurred in centuries cooler than the 20th century.

“Several other centuries show stronger and more widespread extremes,” he said. “We can’t say it’s more extreme now.”

In this first hemispheric-scale, centuries-long water availability assessment, the researchers statistically analyzed evidence for changes in precipitation and drought, compiling hundreds of precipitation records across the Northern Hemisphere from historical accounts as well as archives on such things as tree-rings and lake sediments.

They detected a pattern of alternating moisture regimes throughout the last 12 centuries, suggesting that “the instrumental period is too short to capture the full range of natural hydroclimate variability.”

Their finding that the last century’s temperature rise may not have affected the hydroclimate as much as previously thought challenges the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In a News and Views article published in Nature, Matthew Kirby of California State University at Fullerton suggested that current climate models should not be discarded because their results, which indicate that “dry gets dryer and wet gets wetter,” do not match the Ljungqvist team’s proxy results, which indicate no difference in the water dynamics of the 20th century and those of the pre-industrial era.

“Do their results invalidate current predictive models?” Kirby asked. “Certainly not. But they do highlight a big challenge for climate modellers, and present major research opportunities both for modellers and for climate scientists who work with proxy data.”

Study: Climate Change Causing Earth to Shift

A study published in the journal Science Advances reveals that climate change affects how Earth tilts on its axis. Although scientists have known that Earth’s spin axis has been drifting due to ice cap melt in Greenland and Antarctica, the new research suggests that changes in terrestrial water storage also play a role in the planet’s decadal axis swings. The finding is based on data collected from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, which can detect changes in the mass of Earth’s ice sheets and oceans.

Before 2000, Earth’s spin axis was moving westward toward Canada, but since then, climate-change-driven ice loss has pulled the direction of drift eastward approximately seven inches a year—a shift that lead researcher Surendra Adhikari of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory described as “very dramatic” and that scientists say is meaningful.

“This is the first time we have solid evidence that changes in land water distribution on a global scale also shift which direction the axis moves to,” said Adhikari.

Although the study data doesn’t indicate whether the most recent shift in the pole is the result of human activities, the study authors think they will be able to use them to tease out man-made climate change later this year. Because polar motion and climate variability appear to be linked, scientists can examine historical records of the pole’s motion in relation to changes in Earth’s climate. If those changes are less dramatic than the ones evidenced today, scientists could assert that global warming has a controlling influence on Earth’s poles.

U.N. Climate Agreement Terms Studied, Launch Pegged Early

Next week on Earth Day (April 22), 130 countries are expected to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, which has a goal of limiting average surface temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. But already the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is looking into the feasibility of what U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres describes as “a moonshot”: limiting global emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Figueres believes the Paris agreement will take effect in 2018—two years sooner than currently slated.

The agreement will come into force once 55 parties representing 55 percent of the world’s total emissions have both signed and ratified it.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Antarctic Ice-Sheet Collapse Could Trigger Rapid Sea-Level Rise

April 7, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A study published in Nature finds that Antarctic ice-sheet collapse driven by greenhouse gas emissions could double the sea-level rise predicted for this century—from 3.2 feet according to a three-year-old United Nations estimate to upward of 6.5 feet by 2100. The research builds on the work of other recent studies pointing to an irreversible melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a result of human-caused climate change, but it suggests that sea-level rise could shift into high gear, becoming an existential problem for low-lying coastal cities within the lifespan of current generations of people absent rapid emissions cuts to contain warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The study findings are based on new computer simulations showing that warming of the atmosphere and the oceans makes the ice sheet vulnerable from above and below. By the 2050s, according to the simulations, the ice sheet would begin disintegrating, and parts of the higher, colder ice sheet of the East Antarctica would also eventually fall apart.

The climate model developed by the study authors accounts for ice loss through complex processes, including “hydro fracturing,” a process whereby meltwater on ice shelves causes huge chunks of ice to fall into the water. By reflecting these processes, the researchers were able to simulate past geological periods in which sea levels were higher than today but carbon dioxide levels were about the same or even much lower. They projected sea-level rise using versions of their model that best simulated these periods—the first model to do so.

Why is reconstruction of past rises in sea level important? High sea levels during warm intervals, such as the Pliocene and Eemian eras, imply that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is highly sensitive to climate warming.

“In the past, when global average temperatures were only slightly warmer than today, sea levels were much higher,” said study co-author Rob DeConto, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “At the high end, the worst-case scenarios, with sort of business as usual greenhouse gas emissions … we will literally be remapping coastlines. North America is kind of a bull’s eye for impacts of sea level rise if it’s the west Antarctic part of Antarctica that loses the ice first. That’s the place that we’re worried about losing ice first.”

Study: Health Impacts of Climate Change Significant

The public health impacts of climate change on people in the United States will be significant and wide ranging, according to a study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The study reflects data and analysis from eight agencies, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that “Nearly all of the health threats, from increases in our exposure to excessive heat to more frequent, severe or longer-lasting extreme weather events to degraded air quality to diseases transmitted through food, water, and vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes)—even stresses to our mental health—are expected to worsen.”

Without rapid efforts to combat climate change, extreme heat alone will cause more than 11,000 additional deaths in the summer of 2030, the study suggests. Other risks include worsening allergy and asthma conditions and increased exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins. But climate change will not just exacerbate existing risks—it will give rise to unprecedented health problems such as the spread of Lyme disease in new locations.

“Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change,” said White House Science Adviser John Holdren, adding that “Some are more vulnerable than others.”

These groups include pregnant women, children, the elderly, low-income people, communities of color and those with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions.

Release of the findings coincided with the Obama administration’s announcement of several new initiatives to address those impacts, such as expanding the scope of a presidential task force on childhood risks to include climate change (subscription). Other actions include creating climate change and health curricula for schools and establishing a Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide funding for prevention of climate-change-related health problems.

Paris Deal: Largest Polluters Agree to Sign

Last week, the White House announced that the United States and China will sign the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change at a United Nations ceremony April 22.

“Our cooperation and our joint statements were critical in arriving at the Paris agreement, and our two countries have agreed that we will not only sign the agreement on the first day possible, but we’re committing to formally join it as soon as possible this year,” said President Obama. “And we urge other countries to do the same.”

Brian Deese, senior adviser to President Obama, said swift approval of the agreement would keep emissions reductions efforts on track. Noting congressional action last year to extend tax credits for wind and solar energy and asserting firm legal ground for the Clean Power Plan, Deese said that the United States has both “the capacity and the tools” to meet its international commitments.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he expects at least 120 countries will sign the agreement at the April 22 ceremony at the U.N.’s New York headquarters. To enter into force, that agreement needs at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions to formally accede to it. So far, three Pacific island nations have ratified the deal.

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.


Record Low Arctic Sea Ice Extent Points to Irreversible Changes

March 31, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

It is expected that whichever side loses in June will appeal to the Supreme Court, which in February issued a stay—sending the rule back to the D.C. Circuit Court.

Renewable Energy Investment Outpaced Other Technologies: Study

Investment in renewable energy generation last year was higher than in new coal- and gas-fired power plants, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-United Nations Environment Programme collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). In fact, renewables added more to global energy generation capacity than all other technologies combined—though they still only account for 10 percent of global electricity production.

“Global investment in renewables capacity hit a new record in 2015, far outpacing that in fossil fuel generating capacity despite falling oil, gas, and coal prices,” said Michael Liebreich, chair of the BNEF advisory board. “It has broadened out to a wider and wider array of developing countries, helped by sharply reduced costs and by the benefits of local power production over reliance on imported commodities.”

All investment in renewables—which includes new renewable energy capacity as well as early-stage technology, research and development—totaled $286 billion in 2015. That’s roughly 3 percent higher than the previous record set back in 2011.

Countries contributing some of the most to these numbers included China, which in 2015 invested $102.9 billion (a 17 percent increase from 2014), representing 36 percent of the global investment total; Chile ($3.4 billion, a 151 percent increase), India ($10.2 billion, a 22 percent increase), Mexico ($4 billion, a 105 percent increase) and South Africa ($4.5 billion, a 329 percent increase).

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


U.S., Canada Announce Methane Reduction Plan

March 17, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.

“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.

New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.

The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”

Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.

Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.

“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.

A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.

“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”

The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.

“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”

Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events

A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.

“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”

Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”

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.


Study, EPA Spotlight Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Industry

March 3, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an updated draft of its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, finding that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were 6.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—1 percent higher than in 2013, but 8 percent lower than the 2007 peak. The most revelatory revision: methane emissions figures for the oil and gas sector were 27 times higher than previous estimates. Over 20 years, that difference, says the Environmental Defense Fund, represents a climate impact equivalent to 200 coal-fired power plants.

News of the upward revision came amid a study from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) published in the journal Science that finds more than 100,000 tons of methane entered the atmosphere during a four-month natural gas leak in Southern California’s Aliso Canyon. Before it was plugged in February, the leak doubled methane emissions in the Los Angeles region. It is the largest methane leak in U.S. history, and it is likely to keep California from meeting its 2016 greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas with a long-term global warming potential thought to be many times that of carbon dioxide, are currently unregulated.

At the annual IHS CERAWEEK conference last week, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy alluded to her agency’s proposal, last year, of methane leak detection and repair requirements for new oil wells. Methane emissions related to the oil and natural gas industry are “much larger than we ever anticipated,” she said. “The data confirm that we can and must do more on methane. By tackling methane emissions, we can unlock an amazing opportunity to better protect our environment for the future.”

Study Revises Carbon Budget Downward

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change warns that the global carbon budget has been over-estimated and should be cut by at least half. In the abstract of their research, the authors state that for a greater than 66 percent chance of limiting warming below the internationally agreed temperature limit of 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, “the most appropriate carbon budget estimate is 590–1,240 GtCO2 from 2015 onwards.” They conclude that global CO2 emissions must be cut quickly to keep within a 2°C-compatible budget.

“At current rates, the carbon budget would thus be exhausted in about 15 to 30 years,” said lead author Joeri Rogelj, a research scholar at the Energy Program of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “These numbers definitely indicate that we should not just sit and wait, because then the window for staying within the budget would become vanishingly small within decades.”

The study analyzes differences among widely varying estimates for a carbon budget consistent with the 2°C target, finding that a major reason for the range is due to assumptions and methodologies in previous studies. Its own estimate differs from many previous estimates in part because it accounts for methane and other greenhouse gases and not only for carbon dioxide.

Despite COP21 Deal, No Increase Expected for European Union Emissions Targets

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed at the United Nations Climate Conference last year, calls for a review of countries’ climate reduction goals in 2018, but a new document suggests the European Union (EU) may not be following that timeline (subscription).

As reported by Reuters, text prepared ahead of a Friday meeting of EU environment ministers on the Paris climate deal says the existing target—cutting emissions by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030—“is based on global projections that are in line with the medium-term ambition of the Paris Agreement.”

“We have the deal,” said EU Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete. “Now we need to make it real. For the EU, this means completing the 2030 climate and energy legislation without delay, signing and ratifying the agreement as soon as possible, and continuing our leadership in the global transition to a low-carbon future.”

This calculation is based on keeping emissions levels to 2 degrees Celsius—but the agreement signed in Paris aspires to hold nations to a global temperature increase of well below this level and to pursuit of an increase limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Euractiv, former chief negotiator for the Netherlands and European Union, Bert Mertz, examines whether a sub-2 degrees Celsius goal is feasible and what might be needed for the EU to meet a more aggressive 1.5 degree Celsius goal. He finds that although the current goal is derived from a long-term target of 80 percent emissions reduction compared with 1990 levels, the EU would need to strengthen that target to 95 percent emissions reductions.

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.


EPA’s Clean Power Plan Faces Uncertainty

February 25, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

It has been more than a week since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, and states are now beginning to indicate how they will approach the resulting uncertainty the decision brings. Although the stay removes the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA, several continue to move forward. A poll by ClimateWire indicates that 20 states are pressing on with discussions about how to meet carbon emissions limits for power plans, 18 have stopped planning and nine are weighing whether to stop or slow down planning (subscription).

“The stay is just that—it’s a stay—so we need to be mindful that a potential outcome could be that the courts uphold it,” said Glade Sowards, Utah Division of Air Quality’s Clean Power Plan coordinator. “We don’t want to be caught flat footed.”

In an event hosted by the Brookings Institution on the Clean Power Plan, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast also pointed out to attendees that what states are coping with now is bigger than just the Clean Power Plan.

“The Clean Power Plan created a forcing mechanism to bring utility regulators and air regulators and utilities and affected stakeholders to the table to really start engaging about what we want the future of the electricity sector to be,” Monast said. He noted that discussion of that future would not necessarily be organized around the Clean Power Plan.

Study: Frequency, Intensity of Heat Waves Will Increase Due to GHG Emissions

If anthropocentric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue unabated, once-every-20-years extreme heat waves—lasting three or more days—could become annual events across 60 percent of Earth’s land surface by 2075, says a study published in the journal Climatic Change. But only 18 percent of land areas might experience such yearly events by the last quarter of the century if measures to cut GHG emissions are put in place, according to authors Claudia Tebaldi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in research that looks to quantify the benefits of avoiding extreme heat events.

The Department of Energy-funded study also suggests that by 2050 extreme heat waves would be 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they might be today for 60 percent of land areas and nine degrees hotter for another 10 percent, with serious health impacts, particularly for the young, the old, and the sick and in places with historically little temperature variability (subscription).

“The study shows that aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will translate into sizable benefits, starting in the middle of the century, for both the number and intensity of extreme heat events,” Tebaldi said. “Even though heat waves are on the rise, we still have time to avoid a large portion of the impacts.”

The study used an NCAR climate model to examine how the odds of today’s 20-year events—those with a 5 percent chance of occurring in any given year—would change in a business-as-usual scenario and in scenarios in which emissions were cut to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels.

“Even under more dramatic mitigation scenarios . . . future heat wave frequency and intensity increase very dramatically,” Wehner said. But “we do have a choice about how dangerous the future will be.”

January Continued String of Record-Warm Months

January became the ninth consecutive record-breaking month for heat according to data released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That agency, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been keeping weather records for 137 years, agree that the month’s highs were unprecedented, Bloomberg reported. If the rest of the year is as warm as January, 2016 could top the record set in 2015.

According to NASA, last month was 2.03 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. But some parts of the Arctic had temperatures averaging as high as 23 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the month, leading the region’s sea ice to decrease to a new record low for January. It averaged only 5.2 million square miles for the month—90,000 square miles fewer than the previous record set in 2011, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Preliminary data from February indicate that Arctic sea ice continues to set daily record lows.

January’s temperature increases reflect the combination of accelerating manmade global warming and a record strong El Niño.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


Study Says Electricity Production Vulnerable to Climate Change

January 7, 2016
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 Climate Change suggests that climate-change-related water disruptions could significantly decrease electricity production by the hydropower stations and thermoelectric (nuclear, fossil-fueled, biomass-fueled) plants that account for 98 percent of production around the world. Because the plants need water to cool generators and pump power at dams, they are vulnerable to lower river levels and warmer water temperatures, according to researchers at Wageningen University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). These conditions could reduce generating capacity by as much as 74 percent in hydro plants and 86 percent in thermoelectric plants between 2040 and 2069.

“This is the first study of its kind to examine the linkages between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale,” said co-author and IIASA Energy Program Director Keywan Riahi (subscription). “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate.”

The study, which used computer modeling and data from more than 24,000 hydropower plants and nearly 1,500 thermoelectric plants, indicates that the areas most at risk of decreases in usable capacity for electricity production are the United States, southern and central Europe, Southeast Asia, southern parts of South America, Africa and Australia—regions where the study authors say big increases in water temperature will combine with projected decreases in mean annual streamflow.

The potential water supply shortfall coincides with a predicted doubling in demand for water for power generation over the next 40 years.

The study also explored adaptation measures, concluding that increases in power plant efficiency and switches in cooling sources would reduce most regions’ vulnerability to water constraints as would improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods.

Data Points to Hotter Years

Late last year, the World Meteorological Organisation pegged 2011–15 as the hottest five-year period on record. But data from the Met Office suggests 2016 will be warm, too—warmer than the office’s forecast for 2015.

“This forecast suggests that by the end of 2016 we will have seen three record, or near-record years in a row for global temperatures,” said Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office.

El Nino and climate change were among the reasons cited for the increase—an estimated 1.29 and 1.73 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average global temperature in the second half of the 20th century. The Met Office, Express reports, does not expect the record-breaking run to continue indefinitely, but it shows how factors like an El Nino are working together to push temperatures to unprecedented levels of warmth.

Climate Central categorized the changes as a “global warming spurt,” that may be amplified by a slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean—the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—that is also being amplified by climate change and that is the subject of some recent studies.

“Last time we went from a negative to a positive was the mid-70s,” said Gerald Meehl, a National Atmospheric Research scientist, speaking about a warming slowdown linked to Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Then we had larger rates of global warming from the 70s to the 90s, compared to the previous 30 years. It’s not just an upward sloping line. Sometimes it’s steeper, sometimes it’s slower.”

Clean Power Plan Sees Challengers, Supporters

The deadline for filing legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, triggered a host of new lawsuits targeting the rule. To date, 27 states, along with trade groups and companies, are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to delay implementation of the rule (subscription). Among the arguments—the EPA illegally issued duplicative rules for coal-fired plants and infringed on states’ rights (subscription).

Still, some states are beginning to wade through the rule. And many of the nation’s largest cities are seeking to back it. The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others are filing a motion to participate in litigation as amici curiae (friends of the court).

“The acute relevance of climate change to local governments’ responsibilities and activities has led members of the Local Government Coalition to grasp both the need to adapt to climate change and the costs of failing to act to mitigate it,” the filing said. “Prompted by lived experience and by the prospect of future impacts, they [the groups] have made efforts both to adapt to their changing climatic circumstances and to slow or eliminate their 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.


Nations Strike Deal to Curb Carbon Emissions

December 17, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate the remainder of 2015. It will return January 7.

The first pact to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions—the Paris Agreement—was signed by 195 countries in LeBourget, France, on Saturday. Some aspects of the agreement, which will go into effect in 2020, will be legally binding, such as submission of emissions reduction targets and regular review of progress toward them. However, the targets themselves will not be binding.

The agreement contains these key points:

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels through the year 2100 and to “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5 degrees Celsius
  • To balance carbon source and carbon sinks in the second half of this century
  • To review each country’s emissions reduction contribution every five years so that it can be scaled up
  • For rich countries to help poor countries by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change.

Previous United Nations talks had called on developed economies but not developing ones to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The new accord, in the works for nine years, requires action in some form from every country, rich or poor. But it imposes no sanctions on countries that fail to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas pollution.

In a televised statement, President Barack Obama praised world leaders for agreeing on a deal that “offers the best chance to save the one planet we have,” while conceding that “no agreement is perfect, including this one.”

Critics say the pact is vague and aspirational and does not do enough to avert serious damage. It lacks a timescale for phasing out fossil fuels, and critics describe the language on monitoring and verifying emissions reductions as weak.

Nevertheless, the agreement was hailed by many world leaders.

“When historians look back on this day, they will say that global cooperation to secure a future safe from climate change took a dramatic new turn here in Paris,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who added that “markets now have the clear signal to unleash the full force of human ingenuity.”

The agreement won’t enter into force until 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s emissions have ratified it.

Deal Details: Finance and Temperature

Some of the biggest crunch issues in the lead up to the climate agreement in Paris were money and temperature goals. So what does the deal say about these issues?

Finance: According to an agreement made at the talks in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries will aid developing countries with $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 to aid in the transition to sustainable forms of energy. It’s an agreement they opted to continue through 2025. Prior to 2025, a new goal will be adopted—exactly when or who is responsible for meeting it is unclear. The fund, so far, isn’t quite up to that $100 billion goal. There is no legally binding language about it.

Temperature: To keep temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, the agreement calls for parties to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” According to The New York Times, the passage implies that at least some fossil fuels can continue to burn, as long as the greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed by a larger number of “greenhouse sinks,” like new forests.

One environmental organization has already suggested that if commitments pledged before and during the talks in Paris are met, a critical mass of countries could reach emissions peaks by 2030.

Arctic Temperatures Reach Record High

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its Arctic Report Card, which finds that the average annual air temperature over land in the region was 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average (between October 2014 and September 2015). That’s the highest since modern records began in 1900, reports Fortune.

“Warming is happening more than twice as fast in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Richard Spinrad. “We know this is due to climate change.

This warmer air, the report suggests, is affecting sea temperatures and melting ice—expanding oceans and causing sea-level rise. Just how bad is it? In the 80s, about 20 percent of the sea ice in the region was old and about 45 percent had formed that year. By contrast, in 2015, about 70 percent had formed in the previous year; only about three percent was considered “old” ice.

“The conclusion that comes to my mind is these report cards are trailing indicators of what’s happening in the Arctic,” Spinrad said. “They can turn out to be leading indicators for the rest of the globe.”

Jim Overland, a NOAA oceanographer and one of the more than 70 co-authors of the report, suggested that even the newly inked Paris deal may not be enough—at least in the short term—to turn things around.

“Unfortunately, we passed some critical points on that,” Overland said. “If the globe goes to a 2-degree warming, we’re looking at a 4- or 5-degree warming for the winter in the Arctic by 2040, 2050. That’s based upon the CO2 that we’ve already put into the atmosphere and will be putting for the next 20 years.”

 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.


Majority Calls for More Ambitious Deal in Paris

December 10, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

More than 100 countries, including the United States, Colombia, Mexico, and the European Union, have formed a “high ambition coalition” in an effort to secure a final agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. But members will not be satisfied with merely reaching a final agreement—they want an ambitious solution that includes a mechanism to review and raise countries’ emissions commitments every five years, that creates a unified tracking system to monitor countries’ progress on meeting their emissions goals, that recognizes the proposed 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal, and that contains a climate finance package.

“This is an ambition coalition,” said Giza Gaspar Martins, chair of the group of the 48 most vulnerable countries to climate change. “This is also a coalition that is open to recognizing the difficulties of others, because alone, we can’t achieve that high mitigation ambition that we have.”

European climate action and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said the newly released draft text for the climate deal was not “bold enough, and not ambitious enough.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in address to the conference, echoed the need for a more in the final text. “We didn’t come to Paris to build a ceiling that contains all that we ever hope to do,” he said. “We came to Paris to build a floor on which we can and must altogether continue to build.”

Negotiations are now happening around the clock in the final days of the conference, set to wrap up Dec.11.  Nearly every country has declared discontent with the current draft, but none are rejecting the agreement either.

United States Attempts to Spur Momentum on Paris Talks with Funding Announcement

Yesterday the United States announced a doubling of the grant funding it provides to help developing countries adapt to climate change, a pledge that Reuters reports might help “clinch a climate pact.” The pledge announced by Secretary of State John Kerry is part of what the United States views as its contribution to a promise made in 2009 by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private money by 2020 to deal with impacts such as droughts, flooding, and sea level rise. The $860 million, which must be approved by Congress, would come from the State Department and Treasury budgets and would be distributed through both U.S. mechanisms, such as USAID, and multi-lateral systems like the Green Climate Fund.

“If we just continue down our current path, with too many people sitting on their hands and waiting for someone else to take responsibility, the damage is going to increase exponentially,” Kerry said. “To cut to the chase: Unless the global community takes bold steps now to transition away from a high-carbon economy, we are facing unthinkable harm to our habitat, our infrastructure, our food production, our water supplies, and potentially to life itself.”

The announcement appeared intended to give momentum to talks stalled by resistance by China and India to an outside monitoring system for emissions and to submission to a review process for pollution reduction plans.

“This impasse has slowed progress to a crawl, with the U.S. lacking leverage and China and India seemingly content to wait out the process,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration climate adviser who is attending the talks. “The decision to double U.S. adaptation funding itself is a strategic play to head off loss and damage calls by developing nations. This is why Kerry is pushing these lines right now.”

Study: Worldwide Carbon Emissions May Fall in 2015

As ministers work on a deal to cut post–2020 carbon emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that growth in those emissions has stalled, at least temporarily. Specifically, the authors say that in 2015 worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will fall, marking the first time they will have done so during a period of substantial economic growth. The reason? A decrease in coal consumption by China as well as increased use of renewables and decreased growth in demand for oil and gas. But it isn’t clear whether the decrease in China’s emissions is temporary due to the slowing economy or long-term due to changes in how the country consumes energy.

Using preliminary data through October 2015, the authors projected that total carbon emissions this year will be down by 220 million tons. But the decrease—0.6 percent—is so small that it may not be a decrease and could actually be a slight increase because of the margin of error. Nevertheless, the figure appears to mark a departure from an average annual growth of 2.4 percent over the last decade.

Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia and one of the paper’s authors, said that the Chinese think their emissions are going to rise, suggesting a resumption of an upward trajectory. Moreover, the emissions of India, which has emerged as a key player at the Paris talks, are likely to have risen 6.7 percent this year. The study authors warned that for global emissions to peak soon, part of India’s new energy—designed to spur economic growth and connect 300 million people to the grid—must come from low-carbon sources. And even more must be done to avoid dangerous climate change.

“Global emissions need to decrease to near zero to achieve climate stabilization,” said Le Quéré. “We are still emitting massive amounts of CO2 annually—around 36 billion tonnes from fossil fuels and industry alone. There is a long way to near zero emissions. Today’s news is encouraging, but world leaders at COP21 need to agree on the substantial emission reductions needed to keep warming below two degrees Celsius.”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.