Climate Change Implicated in a Specific Extreme Weather Event

February 4, 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 even a few degrees rise in global temperatures can lead to increasingly severe storms. Now an international team of climate scientists has linked man-made climate change to historic flooding that hit the south of England in the winter of 2013–2014. It’s the first time a peer-reviewed research paper has connected climate change to a specific flooding event.

In an article published in Nature Climate Change, the team said that their climate model simulations showed that anthropogenic warming not only increased the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold but also caused a small but significant increase in the number of January days with westerly flow, both of which increased extreme precipitation. The authors explained that climate change “amplified” the violent storms that led to the area’s wettest January in more than a century and that it has likely increased the number of properties at risk and raised the costs of a flooding event.

Based on more than 130,000 simulations of what the weather would have been like with and without human influence on the climate, the study finds that man-made greenhouse gas emissions have raised the possibility of extreme flooding by 43 percent.

“What was once a 1 in 100-year event in a world without climate change is now a 1 in 70-year event,” said study co-author Friederike Otto of Oxford University.

The study—which analyzed circulation in the atmosphere, the additional risk of rainfall, and swollen river flows and then calculated flood potential in the Thames River Basin—goes beyond previous attempts to connect climate change with specific weather events, tracing connections “all the way from the changes in the atmosphere to the impacts on the ground,” lead author Nathalie Shaller of Oxford University told Agency France Presse.

“This study highlights the fact that we need a better understanding of not just how and where climate change is warming the atmosphere, but also how it is changing patterns of wind and rain, in order to best prepare for extreme rainfall and floods,” said Ted Shepherd, a climate change expert at the University of Reading.

Long-Term Warming Not Unpredictable

Large sustained changes in global temperatures do not rise or fall erratically long term, suggesting the importance of changes in atmospheric circulation and the transfer of energy in balancing Earth’s temperature after a warming event. That’s according to a study published in the Journal of Climate by researchers at Duke University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA).

“The bottom line of the study is that the Earth is able to cool itself down after a natural warming event, like an El Nino,” said lead author Patrick Brown, a Duke Ph.D. student. “So then in order to have sustained warming for decades to centuries, you really do need these external drivers, like the increase in greenhouse gases.”

Using global climate models and NASA satellite observations from the last 15 years, the authors cite the Planck Response—the huge increase in infrared energy Earth emits as it warms—for the planet’s capacity to restore the stability of global temperatures. Other important factors, say the authors, are energy transport from the tropic Pacific to polar and continental locations and a net release of energy across cooler regions during unforced, natural warming events.

Studies: East Coast Should Prepare for Warming-Related Sea-Level Rise

Two studies published this week point to regional differences in climate-change-related sea-level rise, specifically, to greater impacts for the U.S. East Coast. A study in Nature Geoscience by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds that “Atlantic coastal areas may be particularly vulnerable to near-future sea-level rise from present-day high greenhouse gas emission rates.” A second study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds a higher-than-expected contribution by thermal expansion to sea-level rise from 2002 through 2014—expansion that led to a rapid rise for the East Coast and a slight temporary drop for the Pacific Coast.

Using a climate change model that simulates the ocean, the atmosphere and carbon cycling, the NOAA study examined sea-level rise in the Atlantic, versus that in the Pacific, under multiple global carbon emissions scenarios. It found that if greenhouse gas emissions rates remained consistent with today’s rates, seal levels in the Atlantic would rise much faster than in the Pacific. The difference owes to the Atlantic’s greater “overturning” ocean circulation that connects waters off New York with those off Antarctica. If this circulation slows due to climate change, the researchers concluded that less cold water will dive to ocean depths, warmer water will pool below the surface, and overall warmth will increase. This warm water expands, causing the study’s expected sea level rise, which will have regional variations based on topography and other factors.

The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put the contribution of thermal expansion to rising sea levels at 50 percent. Based largely on satellite readings of changes in water volumes and masses in seas, the study suggests that tallies of the effects of ocean warming on sea-level rise using autonomous seafaring instruments have underestimated thermal expansion.

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.


Humans Implicated in String of Record-Warmth Years

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Human activities are the cause of this century’s record warm years, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We find that individual record years and the observed runs of record-setting temperatures were extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change,” the authors say. “These same record temperatures were, by contrast, quite likely to have occurred in the presence of anthropogenic climate forcing.”

The study, written before the release of 2015 temperature data, put the odds between 1 in 770 and 1 in 10,000 that 13 of the 15 warmest years spanning from 2000 to 2014 happened without human influence (subscription). With the inclusion of 2015 temperature data, the group’s computer simulations widened those odds to between 1 in 1,250 and 1 in 13,000, lead author Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.

“Climate change is real, human-caused and no longer subtle—we’re seeing it play out before our eyes,” Mann said.

Mann and his co-authors ran statistical analyses of real-world measurements and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system to distinguish human-caused climate change from natural climate variability, such as that triggered by volcanic eruptions and shifts in the sun’s output.

“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact in Germany, said. “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.”

Study: Low Electricity Costs and Low Emissions Not Mutually Exclusive

A new study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado Boulder researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the United States could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation (using future anticipated costs for wind and solar) by more than 75 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030 at approximately the same cost as 2012. The key? Using new high-voltage power lines to move renewables nationwide, eliminating the need to add new fossil fuel storage capacity.

“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” said Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”

Using NOAA’s high-resolution meteorological data, the researchers built a model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios and found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, the wind and the sun could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs comparable to today’s.

“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Clack said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”

In the expected future scenario—in which renewable energy costs continue to fall while natural gas costs rise—the model predicted that the power sector could cut emissions 78 percent compared with 1990 levels at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 9.4 cents in 2012 (subscription). That finding is predicated on creation of a new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission grid, which according to the authors lowers the chance of energy losses, reducing utilities’ need to amass reserves of excess capacity through natural-gas-powered generators.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”

Update to Social Cost of Carbon Unnecessary

A new interim report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that there is little benefit to updating estimates of the social cost of carbon in the near term. Written by a 13-member expert panel, the report recommends ways to change federal technical support documents on the social cost of carbon to enhance estimates.

“We recommended against a near-term update to the social cost of carbon” based off the IPCC report’s finding, said Richard Newell of Duke University. Newell co-chaired the panel, which includes Sanford School Professor and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Faculty Fellow Billy Pizer.

To set an efficient market price on carbon emissions, it’s helpful to know the social cost of those emissions—that is, the estimate of the economic damages (in dollars) associated with an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, usually one metric ton, in a given year. The last revised estimate, in 2015, was $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.

A final report will examine potential approaches for a more comprehensive update to social cost of carbon estimates and is expected in early 2017.

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 Tops WEF Risk Ranking

January 21, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

For the first time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked an environmental risk—climate change—as the most severe economic risk facing the world. Global Risks Report 2016 says climate change is compounding and intensifying other social, economic, and humanitarian stresses such as mass migration, which it ranked as the threat most likely to materialize in the next 18 months.

“Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Groups, one of the report collaborators.

Along with interaction with other risks, Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, head of global competitiveness and risks at the WEF, pointed to recent weather events and the frequency of natural disasters as justification for climate change’s top ranking this year. “We do see more severe and more likely weather events,” she said. “There are more droughts and floods. We have a higher and higher assessment of climate change.”

Among the priority actions outlined in the report: modifying financial systems to “unleash climate-resilient, low-carbon investments.” The authors found that incentives for such investments have yet to be incorporated into financial decision making despite increasing recognition of climate-change-related economic risks.

The report is based on a survey of 750 experts from economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and tech sectors about the perceived impact and likelihood of 29 prevalent global risks over a 10-year period.

Study: Rate of Man-Made Heat Energy Absorbed by Oceans Has Doubled

new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that since 1997 heat uptake by the world’s oceans has nearly doubled by comparison with that uptake in the previous industrial era and that heat is mixing into deeper ocean layers, rather than remaining near the surface.

The study tracked how much man-made heat energy has been buried in the oceans in the past 150 years using ocean-observing data dating as far back as the 1870s. It included readings from high-tech underwater monitors and results of computer models.

Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of man-made heat energy. Since the industrial revolution, deepwater heat content has increased by “several tenths of a degree” when averaged out across the globe, according to Peter Gleckler, the study’s lead author. Although that energy is equivalent to less than 0.5 Celsius of warming averaged across the upper reaches of the ocean, Gleckler said it is still a “huge increase,” adding that “if we want to really understand how much heat is being trapped, we can’t just look at the upper ocean anymore, we need to look deeper.”

The study found that a third of the recent ocean heat buildup occurred at depths of 700 meters or greater, possibly explaining a pause in warming at the sea surface since the end of the 20th century. Why deeper waters may be absorbing greater amounts of heat is not fully understood, according to the study.

The University of California reported that the Nature Climate Change study “found that estimates of ocean warming over a range of times and depths are consistent with results from the latest generation of climate models, building confidence that the climate models are providing useful information.”

Official Numbers: 2015 Was the Hottest Year

Independent analyses by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.K. Met Office found that Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest they have been since record-keeping began.

NASA calculated the rise at 0.23 degree Fahrenheit above 2014 and suggested that 1998 was the only year that a new record was greater than the old record by such a large margin. NOAA put the increase at 0.29 degree Fahrenheit. The U.K. Met Office expects 2016 to set another record.

“A lot of times, you actually look at these numbers, when you break a record, you break it by a few hundredths of a degree,” said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “But this record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.”

Although 2015 temperatures were assisted by an ongoing El Nino weather pattern—which brings heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said “it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”

NASA used surface temperature measurements from more than 6,000 weather and research stations as well as ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures for its analysis. NOAA uses similar temperature data, but it also uses different baseline periods and methods.

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 and Energy of Focus in Obama’s Final State of the Union

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Obama laid out four big questions the United States has to answer in his nearly hour-long final State of the Union address Tuesday night. One of those four points: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent issues like climate change?

In discussing the role American needs to take in combating this issue, Obama highlighted America’s past willingness to rely on science.

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon … Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

The administration’s push to continue making new discoveries came in a speech optimistic about America’s destiny and referencing the president’s accomplishments in office the last seven years.

Obama also presented a vision for our energy future.

“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he said. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”

“None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo,” he added. “But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve—that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.”

McCarthy Talks Environmental Priorities in 2016

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Washington Post that the Obama administration is preparing an ambitious agenda on climate change in 2016, citing new efforts to lower air pollution and a predication that the administration’s Clean Power Plan would survive legal challenges.

“We’re not just going to stay with what we’ve already done,” she said. “We’re going to look for other opportunities.”

McCarthy echoed these comments on the EPA Connect blog, writing “Heading into 2016, EPA is building on a monumental year for climate action—and we’re not slowing down in the year ahead.” In reviewing 2015, she highlighted announcement of the final Clean Power Plan—a regulation meant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—and the global climate deal reached last month in Paris. She said her office will provide technical leadership to ensure consistent, transparent greenhouse gas reporting and inventory requirements under the global deal and would work to ensure the deal “is cast in stone.”

McCarthy is reportedly touring Ohio this week, touting President Obama’s energy and climate agenda (subscription).

Manmade Climate Change Evidence for Anthropocene Epoch

A group of geoscientists suggest that human activities, including those contributing to climate change, have altered the planet so much that their consequences are already detectable in the geological record and are reason to consider that sometime in the mid-twentieth century Earth moved into a new geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.” As evidence that the planet has left the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago, a new paper published in the journal Science points to mass extinction, reshaping of the planet’s surface, and anthropogenic deposits, including black carbon produced from fossil fuel combustion—all human impacts that the authors say should be acknowledged in the nomenclature.

The scale and rate of change in measures such as carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, said Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and one of the study authors, are larger and faster than the changes that defined the onset of the Holocene.

“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age,” Waters said. “That is a big deal.”

The case to approve the Anthropocene as a new epoch will be presented to the International Commission on Stratigraphy later this year.

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.


Tough Issues Linger in New Climate Deal Draft

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of special issues, this week, of The Climate Post that focus on the climate talks in Paris.

Climate negotiators at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris have until Friday to reach a global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most serious climate change impacts. Negotiators released a new, shorter draft of that deal. The 29-page document leaves some major sticking points unresolved, including whether to reduce overall global temperatures 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or 2 degrees Celsius, who shoulders the cost of moving to a low-carbon economy and how often nations should review their emissions reduction plans.

“On these issues I ask you to scale up your consultations to speedily come to compromise solutions,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told conference delegates. “We’ve made progress but still a lot of work remains to be done. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Many of the countries supporting a 1.5 degree Celsius target are arguing that rich but still developing economies—among them, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea—provide funds to help the poorest countries adapt to climate change—a move that would upend the Kyoto Protocol’s funding structure, which demands that only those countries designated as industrialized in 1992 pay up (subscription). It may be best, Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon tells The Guardian, if developing countries were not treated as a single negotiating bloc.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is not the same as China,” Calderon said. “The G77 [comprising most of the biggest developing economies] is not the same as the Alliance of Small Island States. Arabian countries have different interests.”

On Tuesday, the European Union (EU) forged an alliance with 79 poor African and small-island countries that could, reports the Wall Street Journal, help eliminate the 20-year division between developed countries and developing countries on climate issues. It comes with $517 million in EU funding to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement focuses on some of the highly debated points at the conference so far—including calling for a mechanism to review emissions targets every five years.

Linking Carbon Markets Explored in Paris

As negotiators continue to stew on the details of the agreement’s level of ambition and funding for developing nations, an interesting undercurrent has permeated the talks—whether national commitments could be linked to create a “bottom-up” carbon market. With many nations now looking to carbon markets to execute their national programs—including the top emitter, China—many stakeholders are expressing a desire for collaborative language that would empower nations to bring their programs together.

In a COP 21 side event co-sponsored by the Nicholas Institute, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), stakeholders expressed the logic of such an approach and discussed the language necessary to enable it. According to my Nicholas Institute colleague Brian Murray, the gains from trade increase with the number of participants—the more participants, the lower the cost of compliance.

Steven Rose of EPRI took the concept even further, describing considerations suggested by his modeling of trading among the United States, China and the European Union.

“Expanding the partnership can be welfare improving in total,” he said, “but it can have distributional effects so there will be some strategic incentives and strategic thinking required in terms of the composition of those partnerships.”

These concepts were encouraged by industry representatives from Statoil and the Italian power company Enel. Discussion also focused on what would be required to achieve linkage. In a clear parallel to the “common elements” approach that allows U.S. states to permit linked systems under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, Brian Murray pointed out that only minimal common policies are required to permit jurisdictions to link.

The linkage could be accomplished fairly easily, he said, as long as each jurisdiction adopts a common unit to trade, allows units from other jurisdictions to be used in their own market and participates in a registry that ensures that each unit is counted only once.

There’s been some talk of reflecting the market linkage concept in the eventual climate agreement. A joint proposal from Brazil and the European Union has garnered interest. But the concept does not appear to be in the new draft text released today, and the United States is notably not pursuing it.

“I am speaking for a country that has no intention to use them (carbon markets) in an international concept,” said Christo Artusio, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Change.  And without the U.S.’s support, it is unclear how far the enabling language will proceed.

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.


Sticking Points for the Paris Climate Talks

December 8, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of special issues, this week, of The Climate Post that focus on the climate talks in Paris.

At the Paris climate talks, where ministers are hammering out an international deal to curb climate change, two huge debates remain unresolved: the long-term global warming target and the amount and nature of finance that will flow to poor countries, a debate that hinges on differentiation of developing country and developed country responsibilities.

“Whether the text will also take into account a very justifiable request from the most vulnerable countries to improve on those efforts, it remains to be seen how that is going to be handled,” said United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a recognition of the intense vulnerability of some nations.”

It’s about Money and Temperature Goals

Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, writes from the climate talks in Paris.

The central objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that prevents dangerous interference with Earth’s climate system. The collective proposed efforts of all countries’ pre-Paris emissions pledges, or intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), add up to approximately 3 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels—well short of the 2 degree Celsius goal established at the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009.

Many countries are now advocating for a target of 1.5 C or, alternatively, well below 2 C, but there are no real provisions for revisiting INDCS this week to pursue a 2 C or 1.5 C target. One commenter suggests that the objective of the Paris agreement is not to assign and enforce a temperature goal that will keep the planet safe but to create the “structure and momentum for [mitigation] efforts that are already underway.” However, the difference between 1.5, 2, or 3 C may determine whether low-lying island countries remain habitable. These and other countries that are most vulnerable to climate change view a more aggressive temperature goal as essential to their long-term survival and will likely remain steadfast in their support for such a goal in the agreement to be finalized by Dec. 11.

Acting on the Paris pledges will require money—and the need for money introduces responsibility for providing it. One of the core principles of the UNFCCC is the notion of common but differentiated responsibility—or, more simply, that the responsibility each country bears depends on its economic condition. There is little debate that the very poorest of countries should receive what they need to finance their transition to a low-carbon economy and to adapt to climate change. However, there is disagreement about how much finance major emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil, home to nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, should receive for their efforts. China appears ready to finance much of its climate action, but it seeks headroom on emissions and proposes to lets its emissions grow until 2030. India has thus far refused to establish a peak for its emissions, proposing instead to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of its economy and establish ambitious targets for renewable energy, while allowing coal use to grow steadily and requesting external finance to achieve its goals. Brazil pledges to continue efforts to significantly reduce its largest emissions source, deforestation, largely through payments from Norway. In different ways, each of these countries argues that it is entitled to its share of the global carbon dioxide budget to advance its economy, just as the United States and other countries have done. Convincing them that carbon’s consequences (as we understand them today) should modify the terms of access to that budget will be a difficult sell. Another challenge will be determining how much money the advanced economies will provide to these emerging powers to finance their costs of mitigation and adaptation.

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.


Paris Climate Talks Begin

December 3, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: Dec. 7–11 we will present a series of special issues of The Climate Post featuring updates on climate negotiations and commentary from our staff in Paris.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders on Monday suggested that stakes are too high to end negotiations on Dec. 11 without inking a climate deal that would limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the U.N.-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts.

NPR reports that observers hope the deal will include three main items: agreement by countries to increase pledges in the future, a rigorous system of accountability to ensure nations keep those pledges, and support for poor countries to adopt low-carbon energy technologies.

A major sticking point for delegates of the nearly 200 countries meeting at the conference is the legal status of the treaty they hope to ink.

The Commonwealth and Europe have called for a deal to be legally binding. But the United States is looking to make only some aspects of it legally binding.

“Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding,” President Obama said in Paris. “…that’s going to be critical.”

Countries Pledge Financing for Clean Energy, Withdraw It for Coal

Another key negotiating point in Paris will be whether developing countries get enough financing to make the transition to clean energy worth it given the comparative cheapness of coal. In an announcement intended to give the U.N. climate talks momentum, the leaders of 19 nations, including the United States and many developing economies, on Monday pledged a doubling of clean energy spending to $20 billion in a deal with 28 corporate leaders (the so-called Breakthrough Energy Coalition spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) who are putting up billions of their own (subscription).

According to a White House e-mail, the public component of the public-private agreement, known as Mission Innovation, is aimed at helping energy technologies “cross the investment ‘valley of death’” presented by their risk profiles and long return time horizons.

Brian Deese, White House climate adviser, said that Mission Innovation “should help to send a strong signal that the world is committed to helping to try to mobilize the resources necessary to ensure that countries around the world can deploy clean energy solutions in cost-effective ways.”

In an editorial for the Boston Globe, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wrote that Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are “synergistic initiatives that establish clean energy innovation as a foundation for environmental stewardship, prosperity, security and social responsibility. Strong American leadership in these initiatives has provided a tremendous global leveraging opportunity, and innovation has remained common ground in our political discourse.”

Three questions raised by the initiatives are whether a multinational research effort combining public and private investments could entail intellectual property problems, how much of the newly pledged money might represent formerly pledged funding, and whether the future funding will be approved in national budgets.

In the lead up to the Paris talks, some of the countries that just committed financial support for clean energy signed on to a deal to severely cut funding for some prospective coal projects. A promise by China to control its support for high-carbon projects overseas—part of its most recent climate agreement with the United States—allowed Japan and the United States to develop a proposal that last month became a less stringent agreement by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to curb public financing for coal plants (subscription). Under the policy, which goes into effect in 2017 and will be up for revision in four years, OECD countries will continue to provide export credits for “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired power plants—those constructed to meet the most stringent environmental standards—but public financing for 85 percent of coal plants going forward would effectively be cut off. The agreement does allow support for less efficient plants with a capacity under 500 megawatts in the world’s poorest countries.

House Votes to Block Power Plant Rules

The House approved, largely along party lines, to block the Obama administration’s measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The House voted 242–180 to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, and 235–188 to block EPA rules governing emissions from new power plants. The votes come just weeks after the Senate passed legislation blocking U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that apply to new and existing power plants.

The resolutions now go to President Obama, who last month announced plans to veto them, claiming that they undermine public health protections of the Clean Air Act and “stop critical U.S. efforts to reduce dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.”

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.