What was scheduled to be about 3.5 hours turned into nearly seven on Tuesday as 10 judges heard oral arguments in a rare “en banc” review of the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The controversial Clean Power Plan, based on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, was first proposed in June 2014 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. In setting those limits, the rule considers the ability to shift power generation to cleaner sources. Its supporters argue that the act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in this way. Its challengers allege the rule amounts to executive overreach because the EPA is effectively forcing owners and operators of coal plants to invest in their competitors—cleaner natural gas or renewable energy. They also contend that the rule undercuts the reliability of the electric grid by forcing coal-fired power plants offline. Moreover, opponents argue that EPA cannot regulate power plants under Section 111(d) in the first place because EPA already limits emissions like mercury under Section 112 of the act. Until these challenges are resolved, the Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the rule.
I was at the Tuesday hearing and wrote about some early takeaways for Bloomberg Government. From my seat in the courtroom, they included:
- It’s now clear that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The question now is whether the methods used by the EPA were permitted under the act. As Judge Tatel noted, the Supreme Court “did that work” in Massachusetts v. EPA.
- The case is caught up in a larger judicial discussion about how much deference to grant the executive branch. As Congress increasingly fails to legislate on major political issues of our day, the executive branch has been looking to existing statutes for the authority to address problems. But the courts are debating whether to provide the traditional broad deference to agencies as they pursue these initiatives, or whether “major” political issues require more scrutiny. EPA’s Clean Power Plan evoked this debate, and as a result may create more precedent that will guide future presidents on the extent of their power.
- The court repeatedly reflected on the Supreme Court’s AEP v. Connecticut ruling, which established that the EPA had the authority to regulate existing power plants and thereby forbade Connecticut from suing those plant owners directly. Any victory for the petitioners in this case will need to explain why that recognition of authority in AEP v. Connecticut does not presume that the EPA possesses the authority underlying the Clean Power Plan.
- Several jurists expressed concern that industry was arguing that the EPA could not consider the shifting of generation to cleaner sources in setting the standard, but nonetheless wanted that low cost option as a means of complying with the rule. Can the industry have its cake and eat it, too?
- The judges’ proficiency in understanding the electric grid was impressive, clearly aided by legal briefs from grid operators. What was not as clear, however, is whether this proficiency had convinced them that managing the generation sources across that system constituted the “best system of emissions reduction” under the act.
Although it is difficult to guess a case’s outcome from any oral argument, all in all the government came through it with clear indications of support from three or four judges. At least four other judges, however, either did not speak or evaluated the case in such a Socratic manner that their positions were more mysterious. With six votes needed for a win, supporters of the rule will be holding their breath until the opinion appears. Overall, the final word on the Clean Power Plan may not come until 2018 or later.
Presidential Debate Highlights Stark Contrasts on Climate Change, Energy Policy
Climate change and energy policy were touched on in the first debate between the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees on Monday. Early on, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, accused businessman and opponent Donald Trump of dismissing climate change as a hoax created by China to harm American competitiveness—a point Trump denied.
“Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese,” said Clinton, implicitly referring to a tweet in which Trump claimed that global warming “was created by the Chinese” to benefit their manufacturing sector. “I think it’s real. And I think it’s important that we grip this and deal with it, both at home and abroad.”
Politifact reports that although Trump indicated the 2012 tweet was a joke, he has a record of using the word “hoax” to describe climate change, especially on Twitter. CNN reported that in September 2015 Trump told its reporters that “I am not a believer in climate change” and that he refuted climate change’s role in the rise in extreme weather phenomena.
On energy, Trump said he favors all forms of energy, but he noted that coal industry workers have been put out of work by cheap natural gas and federal environmental regulations. Clinton, on the other hand, suggested that clean energy could be an important job creator.
“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels,” she said. “We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity.”
Trump responded with an implicit reference to the 2011 bankruptcy of the federally backed solar company Solyndra.
“She talks about solar panels,” replied Trump. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. … Now, look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster.”
Fortune reports that Department of Energy figures show that the loan program that funded Solyndra has created thousands of jobs and that taxpayers have profited from that program because the vast majority of its other loans went to successful projects and companies.
Climate Change and National Security
Climate change will have significant effects on national security, according to a new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says these threats are wide-ranging—including adverse effects on food prices and availability, country stability, increased risk to human health, and heightened social and political tensions—and that these threats could affect the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.
“We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and damaged infrastructure on communities around the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Add to that an increased risk of conflict over water and land, and the large-scale displacement due to rising sea levels, and it’s not hard to see why the Pentagon has deemed climate change a ‘threat-multiplier,’ exacerbating the pressures and challenges far too many countries are already facing.”
The release of the report comes as the White House announced a new policy framework requiring federal agencies to take the impacts of climate change into account when making national security-related policies and plans. It directs several federal agencies to work together to include climate change in their national security planning—providing a timeline of 90 days to create an action plan and 150 days to create a plan to implement it.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Thirty-one new countries formally agreed to join the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions—bringing the total committed countries to 60. The Paris Agreement takes effect when it is formally adopted by at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, so far, these 60 country commitments only account for 48 percent of total global emissions.
Among the 31 countries who committed this week during Climate Week—a meeting in New York of international business and government leaders to examine progress toward meeting Paris Agreement goals—were Brazil, the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Mexico, Argentina, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kiribati and Bangladesh.
“Today we also heard commitments from many other countries to join the agreement this year. Their combined emissions will take us well past the required amount for the agreement to enter into force,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. “I am convinced that the Paris Agreement will enter into force before the end of 2016.”
Germany, Austria, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the countries planning to formally join the agreement by the end of 2016.
“And in a demonstration of our commitment to the agreement reached in Paris, the U.K. will start its domestic procedures to enable ratification of the Paris agreement, and complete these before the end of the year,” said U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Ban Ki-Moon said he hopes the agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to 2 Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration of keeping it to 1.5 Celsius, can come into force by the 22nd Conference of Parties in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November 2016.
Arctic Sea Ice Hits Second-Lowest Summer Measurement
Arctic ice levels have shrunk to their second-lowest recorded level, tying the 2007 minimum extent, according to a new report released by the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA)-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). On September 10, ice covered just 1.6 million square miles; the lowest level, 1.31 million square miles, was recorded September 17, 2012. Satellites have observed a trend of marked decrease since 1979.
“September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average,” NASA says.
According to NSIDC, all 10 of the lowest summer extents in the satellite record have occurred in the past 10 years. NASA, which released an animation depicting the evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover in 2016 from its wintertime maximum extent to its apparent yearly minimum, has called this pattern the “new normal” for Arctic ice.
“It was a stormy, cloudy, and fairly cool summer,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. “Historically, such weather conditions slow down the summer ice loss, but we still got down to essentially a tie for second lowest in the satellite record.”
NSIDC scientists suspect that the unusually thin sea ice pack melted from below by unusually mild ocean waters and that the ice loss may have been accelerated by a particularly notable late August ice breakup triggered by powerful storms.
“We’ve always known that the Arctic is going to be the early warning system for climate change,” Serreze said. “What we’ve seen this year is reinforcing that.”
He added that sometime in the next few decades the Arctic Ocean is headed for ice-free summers.
Poll Says Americans Care about Climate Change
Sixty-five percent of Americans think climate change is a problem that the government needs to address, according to a new survey by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Of those polled, 57 percent would pay at least $1 month, 39 percent would pay $10 a month and 20 percent would pay $50 a month to combat it.
Nearly 8 in 10 of the poll’s nearly 1,096 respondents indicated that the U.S. should maintain its commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions, even if other countries do not. The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent.
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.
Two laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will ratchet up California’s fight against climate change by launching efforts to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. SB-32 calls for increased renewable energy use, more electric cars, improved energy efficiency, and emissions cuts from key industries. AB-197 provides aid to low-income or minority communities located near polluting facilities and creates a legislative committee to oversee regulators, giving lawmakers a greater voice in how climate goals are met.
“What we are doing is farsighted and far-reaching,” said Brown at the bill’s signing. “I hope it sends a message across the country.”
The new legislation extends the state’s 2006 climate change law, which imposed limits on the carbon content of gasoline and diesel fuel and introduced a cap-and-trade program for polluters. It does not address the cap-and-trade program, which provides economic incentives to companies that achieve reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases. For each ton of greenhouse gases emitted, companies covered by the cap-and-trade program must purchase a permit. The state issues a limited number of permits through quarterly auctions.
Permit sales fizzled during the last two quarterly permit auctions, reports ABC News, but state officials say they are still on track to meet emissions goals. Brown has said the new legislation could provide leverage to convince businesses to support extension of the cap-and-trade program after 2020. If lawmakers don’t act to reauthorize the program soon, Brown said he might try putting the matter before voters in 2018.
Studies: Air Pollution Causes Premature Deaths, Lingers in Brain
Some 87 percent of the world’s population lives in areas affected by air pollution, which a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) finds is the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. In 2013, the most recent year for which relevant estimates are available, indoor and outdoor air pollution caused 5.5 million premature deaths globally and imposed an economic cost in lost wages alone of $225 billion.
“Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital and constrains economic growth,” said Laura Tuck, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. “We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policymakers so that more resources will be devoted to improving air quality.”
GDP losses due to air pollution are significant, according to the World Bank-IHME report. It estimates that in 2013 China lost nearly 10 percent of its GDP, India, 7.69 percent, and Sri Lanka and Cambodia, roughly 8 percent. Welfare costs to developed countries were also high—about $45 billion to the United States. China suffered the highest welfare losses—about $1.5 trillion—followed by India at about $505.
And a separate study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that industrial air pollution leaves magnetic particles in the brain. Because unusually high concentrations of these “magnetite” are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the findings raise the specter of an alarming new environmental risk factor for this and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes,” said the Lancaster Environment Center’s Barbara Maher, who led the new research.
Research Examines Increase in Methane Emissions
Scientists around the world have been trying to figure out whether oil and gas production, particularly a boom in that production in the United States, could be responsible for the global rise in methane since 2007. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to the debate (subscription).
“What’s going on in the gas and oil sector has been the big question with methane,” said lead author Andrew Rice, a researcher at Portland State University. “It’s not settled, but we give some new pieces to the puzzle.”
The study suggests that since the 1980s leaks by the fossil fuel industry have been increasing—by an average of 24 megatons per year. The increase went up in 2000 when methane emissions from biomass burning and rice cultivation decreased.
“We were kind of surprised by these results, to be completely honest,” Rice said. “I’d say up until our work, the evidence was showing that [fugitive] fossil fuel emissions were decreasing, based on ethane data.”
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.
As G20 leaders concluded their meeting in Hangzhou on Monday, they reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change, but they did not agree on deadlines to ratify the Paris Agreement limiting Earth’s temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (subscription). Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement is significantly more likely to take effect this year because on Saturday the United States and China jointly announced that they are formally joining it.
The agreement enters into force once ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the United States and China represent nearly 39 percent of the world’s emissions and bring the number of countries that have signed on to the agreement to 26, according to a count by the World Resources Institute. U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping said they will cooperate on two other global environmental agreements this year: one is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol related to air-conditioning in refrigeration and the other aims to reduce carbon emissions from aviation.
In his opening address to the G20 meeting, Jinping promoted domestic carbon targets and plans to cut a billion tons of coal production capacity in three to five years. Internationally, he declared it a priority to “jointly establish green and low-carbon global energy governance to promote global green development cooperation” (subscription).
On the eve of the G20 summit, a report by Climate Transparency has found that G20 countries’ pledged carbon cuts must be six times deeper to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. As a bloc, the G20 countries produce some 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Study Warns of Impacts Associated with Ocean Warming
Climate change is altering marine species, spreading disease, and threatening food security, according to a major scientific analysis of ocean warming impacts by 80 scientists from 12 countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report said the soaring temperature of the oceans is the “greatest hidden challenge of our generation.”
“We perhaps haven’t realized the gross effect we are having on the oceans, we don’t appreciate what they do for us,” said Dan Laffoley, IUCN marine adviser and one of the report’s lead authors. “We are locking ourselves into a future where a lot of the poorer people in the world will miss out.”
An IUCN press release points to examples of the impacts of ocean warming in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, where there has been a reduction in the abundance of some fish species as the coral reefs they depend on die off, and in southeast Asia, there’s expected to be a 10-30 percent decrease in harvests from marine fisheries by 2050 relative to 1970-2000.
Change in the ocean, according to the report, is happening 1.5 to 5 times faster than on land and could penetrate the ocean at depths at or below 2,300 feet. The report calls for rapid and significant cuts to greenhouse gases, further research, and expansion of marine protected areas to help deal with these impacts.
Expert Working Group Says We Are Living in Age of Anthropocene
This week, members of the Working Group on the Anthropocene said that on the basis of humanity’s profound impact on Earth, it is formally recognizing a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The “age of the humans” designation would mean we’ve moved from the so-called Holocene epoch—the interglacial period during which Homo sapiens flourished—to an epoch in which human activity has manifested itself in ways that leave traces in the geological record, significantly altering the character of the entire biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and cryosphere.
“Our working model is that the optimal boundary is the mid-20th century,” said Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. “If adopted—and we’re a long way from that—the Holocene would finish and the Anthropocene would formally be held to have begun.”
The approval process requires ratification by three other academic bodies and could take at least two years.
“Human action has certainly left traces on the earth for thousands of years, if you know where to look,” Zalasiewicz said. “The difference between that and what has happened in the last century or so is that the impact is global and taking place at pretty much the same time across the whole Earth. It is affecting the functioning of the whole earth system.”
A study published last week in Nature Geoscience provides the first measurements of greenhouse gases from permafrost under Arctic lakes in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada. Although the research reveals that only a small amount of old carbon has been released in the past 60 years, it also suggests that much more could be released as the Arctic warms up faster than any other place on Earth.
“It’s a lit fuse, but the length of that fuse is very long,” said lead author Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska. “According to the model projections, we’re getting ready for the part where it starts to explode. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
The scientists determined that the permafrost-carbon feedback is thus far small by looking at aerial photographs and using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of methane emitted from the Arctic lakes that are expanding to consume and thaw terrestrial permafrost. As that permafrost melts and decomposes, it releases ancient carbon as carbon dioxide and methane. Analysis of 113 radiocarbon dating measurements and 289 soil organic carbon measurements showed that approximately 0.2 to 2.5 petagrams of permafrost carbon was released as methane and carbon dioxide in the past six decades.
The billions of tons of carbon stored in permafrost are approximately double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Many researchers are concerned that emission of that stored carbon will contribute to warming that then contributes to permafrost thawing in an accelerating feedback loop.
NASA: Temperature Reconstructions Suggest Achievement of Paris Agreement Goals “Unlikely”
The Paris Agreement’s goal to limit Earth’s temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is unlikely to be achieved according to temperature reconstructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Those reconstructions reveal that the world is heating up faster than at any other time within the past 1,000 years. Over the next 100 years, according to NASA, it will continue to warm at least 20 times faster than the historical average.
“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination (of temperatures). Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or coordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.”
Using evidence left in tree rings, layers of ice in glaciers, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks, NASA figures that the past century’s warming of 0.7 degrees Celsius is roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.
This year, the average global temperature reached 1.38 Celsius above levels observed in the 19th century, just 0.12 Celsius below the 1.5 Celsius limit that nations aimed for in the Paris Agreement.
Climate Change Major Focus at G20 Summit
Climate change is among the topics world leaders are expected to discuss at a G20 summit in China, beginning September 4.
“This is the first time that the G20 leaders are gathering to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change, (and) how we implement them in parallel,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
President Obama, who began his 10-day trip to Asia on Wednesday, is expected to stress the urgency of climate change. And some media outlets are reporting that the United States and China are expected to announce their ratification of the Paris Agreement prior to the start of the G20 Summit, but the White House has made no formal statement to this effect.
“We’ve made the commitment that we will join in 2016. And we’ve made the commitment to do that as soon as possible this year,” said Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president. “With respect to exactly when, I don’t have any announcements on that front. But we’ve committed, and we’ve been working on that issue.”
Surveys conducted by Yale University and George Mason University suggest that 17 percent of Americans view climate change as an alarming threat and that another 28 percent are concerned about climate change but view it as a distant threat.
The subject has become highly contentious since 1997, when then Vice President Gore helped broker an international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas. The U.S. later withdrew from the treaty.
“And at that moment the two parties began to divide,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who was involved in the surveys. “They begin to split and go farther and farther and farther apart until we reach today’s environment where climate change is now one of the most polarized issues in America.”
Climate change will again be in the spotlight as a group of climate scientists gather in Switzerland to discuss a United Nation’s report expected to detail the impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. In Paris last year, some 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But there are scientific questions not only about the costs and benefits of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but also about how to remain on a 1.5 C pathway. The Huffington Post shows what the Paris Climate Agreement is up against in a series of charts.
What we do know is this decade is the critical decade for action.
“The risks of future climate change—to our economy, society and environment—are serious, and grow rapidly with each degree of further temperature rise,” the Australian government’s Climate Commission wrote in a report. “Minimising these risks requires rapid, deep and ongoing reductions to global greenhouse gas emissions. We must begin now if we are to decarbonize our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. This decade is the critical decade.”
And the Host City of the Summer 2084 Games Is . . .
A study published in The Lancet says that only three North American cities—San Francisco, Calgary, Vancouver—will have a climate sufficiently cool and stable to host the Summer Olympic games in 70 years. The authors, who considered only cities in the northern hemisphere, where 90 percent of the world’s population lives, and only those with a population greater than 600,000 in 2012, the lower limit of host cities since World War II, said that climate change would make most of the 645 cities unsafe venues due to rising temperatures and humidity caused by climate change.
“You could take a risk, and plan your Olympics, and maybe not get the hot days you expect, but that would be a big risk when there are many billions of dollars at stake,” said Kirk Smith, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.
To measure the suitability of future Olympics sites, the researchers used climate change projections and a “wetbulb” globe temperature—a measurement reflecting the combination of humidity, heat radiation, temperature, and wind. They picked 2085 as a target date and as their target event what they considered the Olympics’ most physically challenging outdoor endurance event: the marathon. They selected 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit as the “high-risk” temperature for marathoners.
“The findings indicate that by 2085, Istanbul, Madrid, Rome, Paris and Budapest—all cities that are or were in contention for either the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics—would be unfit to host the games,” the authors said. “Tokyo, the city that has secured the 2020 summer Olympiad, would also be too hot to ensure athlete safety, should these projections come to pass.”
Which cities would be viable hosts? None in Latin America or Africa, 25 in western Europe, 5 in eastern Europe and Asia, and 3 in North America.
“If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?” the study concludes.
One of the most startling implications of the research is that temperatures will be too high for laboring outdoors, where half the world’s population works.
Truck Emissions Limits Set
New emissions requirements affecting heavy- and medium-duty vehicles, which represent only about 5 percent of total highway traffic but account for 20 percent of transportation-related fuel consumption and carbon emissions, were announced this week. The requirements call for as much as a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions and fuel consumption in certain models by 2027. It also requires annual increases in efficiency of 2.5% from 2021-2027 for heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans.
“The standards promote a new generation of cleaner, more fuel-efficient trucks by encouraging the development and employment of new and advanced cost-effective technologies through model year 2027,” said Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which developed the new rules in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “These standards are ambitious and achievable, and they will help ensure the American trucking industry continues to drive our economy — and at the same time protect our planet.”
Official say the new requirements are expected to cut 1.1 billion metric tons of carbon emissions through the next decade and represent a global benchmark for reducing vehicle-exhaust pollutants linked to climate change.
A new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that the evidence to pinpoint expected acceleration of sea-level rise due to climate change was hiding behind the effects of a 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This eruption sent tens of millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere and may have masked the effects of industrial pollution on global sea levels during the two decades since.
“What we’ve shown is that sea level acceleration is real, and it continues to be going on, it’s ongoing, and we understand why you don’t see it in the short satellite record,” said John Fasullo, who conducted the research along with scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder and Old Dominion University. The data from satellite observations that scientists have used to track sea-level rise began in 1993, two years after the eruption, which temporarily cooled the planet. These data indicated that the rate of sea-level rise was holding fairly steady at about 3 millimeters per year.
“When we used climate model runs designed to remove the effect of the Pinatubo eruption, we saw the rate of sea level rise accelerating in our simulations,” Fasullo said. “Now that the impacts of Pinatubo have faded, this acceleration should become evident in the satellite measurements in the coming decade, barring another major volcanic eruption.”
Climate Change Extending Mosquito Season, Raising Zika Risk
A portion of last week’s opening Olympic ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro focused squarely on climate change. A video offered a glimpse of climate change effects and an accompanying graphic showing the incursion of sea-level rise on cities around the world if the average global temperature were to increase 3–4 degrees. Fitting perhaps, suggested The Washington Post, given warming could help accelerate outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika, which has spread from Brazil to Florida, leading to serious birth defects.
Although data confirming a formal link between climate change and the rise and spread of the virus are lacking, Climate Central reports that the initial Brazilian outbreak of Zika was “aided by a drought driven by El Niño, and by higher temperatures caused by longer-term weather cycles and by rising levels of greenhouse gas pollution.” Climate Central’s own research recently showed that in three quarters of major U.S. cities warming temperatures have lengthened the mosquito season—the number of days hot and humid enough for mosquitoes to be biting. According to that research, the ten cities with the biggest increase in the length of the mosquito season over the last 30 years were Baltimore, Maryland; Durham, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Portland, Maine; St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Albany, New York.
For Rio, Zika is not the only health risk potentially increased by longer, rainy summers.
Ratifying the Paris Agreement
In Paris last year, more than 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But keeping within that 1.5 degree Celsius target, The Guardian reports, will be extremely difficult.
An analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands—the third country to ratify the Paris Agreement—suggests that the agreement is nearing a critical threshold of pledges and is likely to enter into force this year or in early 2017. The agreement takes effect 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratify it. The Marshall Islands analysis indicates 58 countries together representing nearly 54 percent of global emissions have either ratified or pledged to work toward ratification of the Paris Agreement by the end of the year.
So far, 22 nations accounting for 1.08 percent of emissions have formally ratified the deal, according to the United Nations.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
In March, the Guardian issued an election-related call-out to online readers in the United States, asking them to identify the “one issue that affects your life you wish the presidential candidates were discussing more.” The results are in. Of the 1,385 respondents from all 50 states, one in five expressed discontent about lack of discussion of climate change, an issue described in vivid terms, such as “cataclysmic” and “slow-motion apocalypse.” Respondents expressed greatest concern about sea-level rise and decreasing food and water security.
“Climate change is the common denominator for us all regardless of gender, creed or political affiliation,” said Sarah Owen in a video response to the survey.
Between parties, there’s divide on the topic of climate change. Eleven House Republicans who are trying to change their party’s attitude about climate change and four of five Republican senators with a record of supporting action on it skipped this week’s GOP convention, where delegates approved a party platform that rejected the Paris Agreement, a carbon tax, and other action on climate change and that downplayed use of renewable energy.
“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it,” reads the platform.
Just how ambitious the Democratic Party will be in attempting to reduce carbon emissions—particularly, its stance on a carbon tax—remains to be seen. The full platform committee will hammer out details in Orlando on Friday and Saturday.
In an interview with ClimateWire, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing suggested that the U.S. presidential election will have less impact on American efforts to combat climate change than a host of other factors ranging from new technologies and appliance standards to political support for renewable energy tax credits.
“To me, there’s more likely to be continuity no matter who’s in office,” Pershing said.
Projecting Clean Power Plan Costs, Impacts
The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants. Assuming the rule survives judicial review and is implemented, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a reduction of power sector emissions of about 35 percent by 2030.
Assuming the Clean Power plan is upheld, EIA projects emissions outcome and electricity generation mix for multiple state implementation strategies—that is, pursuit of mass-based emissions targets or rate-based emissions targets. EIA projects higher prices if emissions allocations under a mass-based regime are given to generators rather than load-serving entities, but “price effects are similar in the [mass] and CPP rate cases where the average electricity price from 2022 through 2030 in both cases is 2 percent higher than in the No CPP case, and 3 percent higher on average from 2030 through 2040,” analysts wrote.
As the EIA data suggests, utilities and other power producers are likely to be in different positions if the rule moves forward—some will benefit from the rule, and others will face costs to comply, which can lead to monetary transfers among different producers and consumers of electricity. A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions builds on this understanding by exploring the distributional impacts of choosing rate-based and mass-based approaches to comply with the Clean Power Plan. It finds that states adopting a mass-based compliance approach can use allowance allocation to largely control monetary transfers within a state. States adopting a rate-based compliance approach lack this direct control mechanism.
Each state’s system of electricity regulation and any changes in wholesale prices for electricity due to the policy in regional electricity markets will play a major role in determining how cost distribution and potential transfers play out, the authors said.
Study: Warm Water, Not Air, Accelerating Glacier Retreat on Western Antarctic Peninsula
A study published in the journal Science found that ocean warming, rather than atmospheric warming, is the primary cause of retreat of 90 percent of the 674 glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula. Because the peninsula’s glaciers are among the main contributors to sea-level rise, the study suggests that better understanding of how and why they’re changing will increase the accuracy of ice-loss predictions.
“Scientists know that ocean warming is affecting large glaciers elsewhere on the continent, but thought that atmospheric temperatures were the primary cause of all glacier changes on the Peninsula,” said lead author Alison Cook of Swansea University. “We now know that’s not the case.”
The scientists came to that conclusion after linking a distinct pattern of melt from north to south on the peninsula with a pattern of temperatures at mid-ocean depths that mirrored the melt. At the southern end of the western side of the peninsula, they found that a welling up of warm Circumpolar Deep Water wears away the fronts of glaciers. At the northern end of the peninsula, the fronts of glaciers are more stable because they terminate at colder waters that come from a different source.
“Our results are key for making predictions of ice loss in response to ocean warming in this region,” Cook said. “The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the largest current contributors to sea-level rise, and the glaciers here are highly sensitive, so [they] are key indicators of how the ice will respond to future changes.”
“We are now able to put a number on the deaths caused by climate change in a heat wave,” said lead author Daniel Mitchell of the University of Oxford. “This has never been done before. Previous studies have attributed changes in heat waves to climate change, or related increased heat stress to human deaths, but none have combined the two.”
The study’s U.S. and U.K researchers calculated that, during a Europe-wide heat wave in summer 2003, 506 of 735 deaths in Paris and 64 of 315 deaths in London were due to a heat wave worsened by anthropogenic climate change. They reached that conclusion after putting the results of several thousand runs of two climate model simulations of the 2003 heat wave into a health impact assessment of death rates.
By comparing two scenarios—one reflecting the climate of 2003 without human influences and one reflecting all known climatic forces contributing to the 2003 heat wave—the researchers determined how climate change had affected that summer’s temperatures.
The study, reports Carbon Brief, analyzes a direct impact measure—mortality—rather than an indirect one—temperature. It links mortalities to climate and introduces another level of uncertainty, especially when long and reliable health datasets are not available for use in analyses.
Nevertheless, reports ClimateWire, the study demonstrates that losses can be directly linked to climate change and thus its framework can be used to assign costs of “loss and damage” and to improve planning and adaptation (subscription).
“It is often difficult to understand the implications of a planet that is one degree warmer than preindustrial levels in the global average, but we are now at the stage where we can identify the cost to our health of man-made global warming,” Mitchell said. “This research reveals that in two cities alone hundreds of deaths can be attributed to much higher temperatures resulting from human-induced climate change.”
Last week at a meeting held by the French government to study Paris Agreement-related actions to reduce health risks linked to climate change, the World Health Organization said that change is likely to kill 250,000 additional people each year by 2030—primarily through malaria, diarrhea, heat stress, and malnutrition. Children, women, older people, and the poor will be most affected.
Climate Change and Cloud Cover
A new study in the journal Nature suggests there’s evidence of climate change in satellite cloud records. By comparing satellite data from 1983 to 2009 to climate models, the authors found that the clouds forming most often are not low-lying reflective ones that cool the planet. Instead, cloud patterns were in line with what scientists would expect to see in climate models—an increase in greenhouse gases associated with human activity over the study period.
“Cloud changes most consistently predicted by global climate models are currently occurring in nature,” the authors write. “As cloud tops rise, their greenhouse effect becomes stronger.”
Clouds have both an Earth-cooling effect by reflecting solar radiation back to space and an Earth-warming effect by restricting the planet’s thermal infrared radiation.
“Even if there is no change in the overall coverage of clouds on the earth, clouds closer to the pole reflect less solar radiation because there is less solar radiation coming in closer to the pole,” said lead author Joel Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In Science magazine, Norris noted one caveat: during the study period, two major volcanic eruptions cooled and then warmed the climate, producing cloud patterns similar to those produced by greenhouse gas-related warming.
Draft Proposes Extension of California Cap-and-Trade Program
The California Air Resources Board released a draft plan to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program beyond 2020, when it is set to expire. The program—one of the first economy-wide programs put in place—aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a fixed number of permits, called allowances, to emit a single ton; compliance entities and other market participants can buy and sell allowances, thereby enabling the market to determine the lowest-cost compliance path.
The draft plan calls to extend the program another decade and to reach emissions levels 40 percent below 1990 levels. It would include preliminary caps through 2050 “to signal the long-term trajectory of the program to inform investment decisions.”
No board vote is scheduled on the proposal until March 2017. A state appeals court is considering a challenge from the California Chamber of Commerce, which contends that the pollution-credit program is an illegal tax, not a fee.