States, Nations Announce Commitments Ahead of U.N. Climate Conference

May 21, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Roughly six months before international leaders meet in Paris for a United Nations climate change conference, U.S. states and foreign nations are stepping forward with climate commitments. Canada, on Friday, pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

California is joining a climate agreement with eight foreign nations and four states that aims to keep the world’s average temperature from rising another 2 degrees Celsius. All signatories of the Under 2 MOU commit to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 or achieve a per capita annual emissions target of less than 2 metric tons by 2050.

“This global challenge requires bold action on the part of governments everywhere,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown, who urged Under 2 MOU to serve as a template for Paris. “It’s time to be decisive. It’s time to act.”

The signatories of the non-binding agreement include: California; Vermont; Oregon; Washington; Wales, United Kingdom; Acre, Brazil; Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Baja California, Mexico; Catalonia, Spain; Jalisco, Mexico; British Columbia, Canada; and Ontario, Canada.

India and China—among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases—also committed to working together in advance of Paris negotiations. Neither made formal commitments, indicating they would submit their official plans “as early as possible” and “well before” the December conference. In a statement, both urged “developed countries to raise their pre-2020 emission reduction targets and honor their commitment to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries.”

Studies Examine Cause of Warming

A study published in Environmental Research Letters presents a 1958–2012 temperature and wind dataset of the upper troposphere (Earth’s atmosphere) as clear evidence of emissions-induced climate change.

“Using more recent data and better analysis methods we have been able to re-examine the global weather balloon network, known as radiosondes, and have found clear indications of warming in the upper troposphere,” said lead author and Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science Chief Investigator Steve Sherwood.

The study helps to answer questions about temperature variations throughout different parts of the atmosphere by developing a new method to account for natural variability, long-term trends, and instruments in the temperature measurement—revealing real temperature changes as opposed to artificial changes generated by alterations in data collection methods. It finds that tropospheric warming has continued as predicted and it confirms the expectation that as global warming progresses, the troposphere will warm faster than the Earth surface. In fact, tropospheric temperature is rising roughly 80 percent faster than Earth’s surface temperature (within the tropics region).

“Our data do not show any slowdown of tropical atmospheric warming since 1998/99, an interesting finding that deserves further scrutiny using other datasets,” said the study authors.

Another study, published Monday in Nature Geoscience, sheds yet more light on “missing” heat—or the failure of global surface temperatures to rise as quickly as expected since 1999. Scientists have accounted for the so-called global warming pause by suggesting that there’s been a transfer of heat from the tropical Pacific into the Indian Ocean. It turns out that heat in the Pacific moved with an ocean current strengthened by unusually high trade winds into the Indian Ocean, which is now home to 70 percent of all heat taken up by global oceans during the past decade.

“This is a really important study as it resolves how Pacific Ocean variability has led to the warming slowdown without storing excess ocean heat locally,” said Matthew England, a professor at the University of New South Wales. “This resolves a long-standing debate about how the Pacific has led to a warming slowdown when total heat content in that basin has not changed significantly.”

Others suggest the story is more complex (subscription). Real-world measurements of ocean heat content obtained through the Argo program—which measures temperature and salinity through free-drifting floats—suggest that some of the missing ocean heat might be present at depths between 700 and 1,400 meters, in a region of the ocean south of the 30th parallel; the study authors focused on the Indian Ocean north of the 34th parallel and used climate models to validate observations.

Obama: Climate Change Endangers National Security

The warming planet poses an immediate risk to the United States and urgent action is needed to combat climate change as a national security imperative, President Obama told the U.S. Coast Guard Academy during a commencement address.

“Here at the academy, climate change—understanding the science and the consequences—is part of the curriculum, and rightly so, because it will affect everything you do in your careers,” said Obama. “As America’s maritime guardian, you’ve pledged to remain always … ready for all threats, and climate change is one of those most severe threats. And so we need to act, and we must act now … anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty.”

He noted that droughts and other conditions will pose new challenges for military bases and training areas, that rising oceans will threaten the U.S. economy, and that an increase in natural disasters will result in humanitarian crises.

The U.S. committed to reducing carbon emissions 28 percent by 2025—and Obama is expected to travel to Paris in December to explore whether a global climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gases can be reached.

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.


Organizations Develop Tools to Help States Comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan

May 14, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The same week Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) introduced a new bill pushing back on implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, organizations released tools to help states and regulators navigate compliance with the resulting rule, set to be finalized this summer.

The rule uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. One tool—the Multistate Coordination Resources for Clean Power Plan Compliance—developed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Eastern Interconnection States Planning Council looks to build on the flexibility the proposed rule gives states to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. The document is aimed at helping states overcome institutional barriers to coordination of rule compliance efforts (subscription). The guide includes a multistate planning checklist, a legislative language examples checklist and a sample memorandum of understanding for multistate coordination.

“A range of interactions is possible, from simple awareness of each others’ plans to the transfer of emissions reductions between states that have individual-state plans and targets (not a multi-state plan to meet a joint target) when states have ‘common elements’ in their compliance plan,” the guide notes.

The common elements concept was developed at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and is an idea I spoke about last month at the Navigating American Carbon World conference in California. In a nutshell, power plant owners can transfer low-cost emissions reductions between states whose compliance plans share common elements—credits defined in the same way and mechanisms to protect against double counting. This approach builds on existing state and federal trading programs while maintaining the traditional roles of state energy and environmental regulators.

Still another tool—a calculator—arms state air quality agencies with the data to estimate carbon emissions savings from state adoption and enforcement of stringent building energy codes in state compliance plans under the proposed EPA rule.

“Because energy savings from stronger building energy codes put thousands in the wallets of home and commercial building owners, and improve building quality, comfort, and resale value, state officials should be adopting them simply to benefit their residents,” said William Fay, executive director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition. “But because buildings use 71 percent of America’s electricity, 54 percent of our natural gas, and 42 percent of all energy, improving their efficiency has profound potential benefits to national energy policy as well.”

Oil Drilling Conditionally Approved in Artic Waters

Shell is once again set to take up oil drilling in American Arctic waters after winning approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which said it had accepted the company’s plan to drill up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea after concluding that the operations “would not cause any significant impacts” to the environment, residents, or animals. As part of the conditional approval, Shell must first obtain permits from the federal government and the state of Alaska.

Seasonal conditions in the Arctic mean that drilling can typically occur only over a four-month period, but a reduction of the ice due to climate change could ignite Arctic drilling aspirations. For many in industry, the news was welcome.

“The Chukchi Sea is widely seen as one of the last great unexplored conventional oil basins,” said Alison Wolters, an analyst with Wood MacKenzie’s Alaska and Gulf of Mexico programs. “A positive discovery this season would encourage the other operators to reconsider the region.”

Announcement of the news spurred environmental groups to express concern about Shell’s mishap-filled 2012 Arctic drilling season and about new operations in the harsh region, which has little capacity for emergency response but in which federal scientists believe some 15 million barrels of oil may be held.

On the heels of the BOEM’s greenlighting of renewed oil drilling in the Arctic, Christiana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, noted that achieving net-zero emissions by 2100 means that many oil and gas reserves must remain untapped (subscription).

“We have absolutely no opinion about what governments do with companies that operate within their geographic boundaries,” she said. “But there is an increasing amount of analysis that points to the fact that we will have to keep the great majority of fossil fuels underground.”

Report: Oil Price Drop Could Hurt Global Economy

A new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate finds that the recent drop in oil and natural gas prices—although providing temporary relief for consumers—may compel governments to authorize projects that use expensive carbon-intensive fuels. In fact, the Oil Prices and the New Climate Economy report suggests that governments should take advantage of low prices to reduce dependency and reform fossil fuel subsidies (subscription).

“For years, we’ve had a market failure by not taxing carbon and air pollution nearly enough,” said Lord Stern, co-author and a prominent climate economist. “That is subsidizing hydrocarbons in my book. When oil prices fall, it is a wise time to change it and that will also help protect us against energy price volatility in the future.”

The report notes that renewable energy sources—including solar and wind—have little to no operating cost after installation and suggests their use can lock in the cost of energy for two or more decades.

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.


States Challenge Clean Power Plan, Report Finds Health Benefits

May 7, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Attorneys for two-energy producing states spoke on the legal implications of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan—which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—at a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee this week. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose state is involved in lawsuits filed against the proposed rule, argued that it is illegal and would cause a loss in jobs and raise electricity rates.

“The proposed rule is actually causing real, tangible harm in the states, and also it’s affecting power plant operations currently,” said Morrisey. “If you go and look at our litigation, we have at least eight declarations from very experienced environmental regulators who talk about the cost of trying to comply with this rule. The other point that I would raise is that the time frames associated with this proposal are hyper-aggressive.”

The rule—set to be finalized this summer—uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. It gives states flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. The goals were set by assessing the ability of states to use four “building blocks”—such as expanding renewable energy generation and creating energy efficiency programs—to meet their emissions reduction goals.

At the same time, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the Clean Power Plan would reduce the number of premature deaths in the United States by roughly 3,500 per year. The study modeled three scenarios for reducing carbon emissions. The one that most closely resembled the proposed rule delivered the largest health benefits.

“The general narrative is addressing climate change will be costly, and the benefits will now accrue for generations,” said Dallas Burtraw, study co-author and senior fellow at Resources for the Future. “We take a look at this and see there are important benefits and changes in air quality that accrue in the present and close to home.” He notes that shifts from coal-fired power toward sources such as natural gas, wind and solar would produce health benefits in a “matter of days to weeks.”

Carbon Plans: Are they Enough?

With half a year before countries meet in Paris to work toward a binding global climate agreement, new analysis from the Economic & Social Research Council’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy finds that pledges to date are insufficient to keep the planet from warming no more than two degrees Celsius (C) over pre-industrial levels. Current commitments would bring the current trajectory of 70 gigatons of annual carbon dioxide emissions to 55–57 gigatons. That’s still higher than the annual 40–42 gigatons by 2030 goal to hit the 2 degree C target.

“We think that it is important to offer preliminary analysis of how the pledges and announcements by some of the biggest emitters, together with assumptions about current and planned policies by other countries, compare against pathways for staying within the global warming limit of 2C,” the paper notes. “This allows us to confirm that there is a gap between the emissions pathway that would result from current ambitions and plans, and a pathway consistent with the global warming limit 2C. Consequently, countries should be considering opportunities to narrow the gap before and after the Paris summit.”

The paper makes several suggestions to alter this path, including finding credible ways of achieving bigger emissions reductions, creating a mechanism that can be included in any agreement that emerges from Paris for countries to review and ramp up reductions by 2030 and beyond and intensifying efforts to increase investment and innovation.

It comes on the heels of news that March broke a new carbon dioxide record—concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for an entire month at 39 sites around the world. The measure is an indicator of the amount of planet-warming gases man is putting into the atmosphere, and comes nearly three decades after what is considered the “safe” level of 350ppm was passed.

“We first reported 400 ppm when all of our Arctic sites reached that value in the spring of 2012,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. “In 2013, the record at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory first crossed the 400 ppm threshold. Reaching 400 parts per million as a global average is a significant milestone.”

Study Comes to “Sobering” Conclusion on Biodiversity Loss

If world carbon emissions continue to rise on their current trajectory, one in six species will be gone or on the road to extinction by century’s end, according to a study published in Science magazine.

“It’s a sobering result,” said University of Connecticut ecologist Mark Urban of his examination of 131 peer-reviewed studies to identify the level of risk that climate change poses to species and the specific traits and characteristics that contribute to risk. The most comprehensive look yet at the effect of climate change on biodiversity, the study finds that the rate of biodiversity loss will accelerate with each degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) the planet warms.

Previous studies had provided widely ranging region- or taxon-specific estimates of biodiversity loss with climate change, making the seriousness of the problem hard to assess. According to Urban’s meta-analysis of these studies, global extinction risks increase from 2.8 percent at present to 5.2 percent at the international policy target of a 2 degree Celsius (C) post-industrial temperature rise; if Earth warms 3 degrees C, the extinction risk increases to 8.5 percent—and to 16 percent at the 4.3 degrees C rise projected for the current emissions trajectory.

With that in mind, he said that his findings should inform the Paris climate summit and that they showed the importance of cutting greenhouse gas emissions now rather than waiting for evidence of warming-related species loss “to become identifiable beyond the background noise of ‘natural’ extinctions,” reported the Guardian.

Commenting on the study, Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, said, “We’re not going to go extinct” in the face of climate change and its impact on biodiversity, but he noted that major changes in biodiversity can alter the quality of life. “The question is: What kind of life will we have?”

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.


California Governor Calls for Aggressive Emissions Cuts

April 30, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

California will establish a greenhouse gas reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the state’s Gov. Jerry Brown announced Wednesday. The declaration was made just before a speech on the new executive order at the Navigating the American Carbon World Conference in Los Angeles, where participants took to Twitter to reflect on the news. According to Brown’s office, the target is the “most aggressive benchmark enacted by any government in North America to reduce dangerous carbon emissions.”

“With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached—for this generation and generations to come,” said Brown, whose state already has some of the toughest carbon pollution regulations in the U.S.

The order requires the state to incorporate climate change impacts into its five-year infrastructure plan as well as its planning and investment decisions.

“Four consecutive years of exceptional drought has brought home the harsh reality of rising global temperatures to the communities and businesses of California,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “There can be no substitute for aggressive national targets to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but the decision today by Governor Brown to set a 40 percent reduction target for 2030 is an example of climate leadership that others must follow.”

The commitment aligns with Europe’s greenhouse gas target—dedicated ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. And it is intended to keep the state on track to meet its 2050 target—curbing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050.

“Both California and the EU have set the same 2030 reduction targets—40 percent below 1990 levels,” said Ashley Lawson, a senior carbon analyst with Thomson Reuters. “However, California’s emissions are currently higher than 1990, while Europe’s are lower—so Californians will need to work harder to meet the 2030 target, which we estimate will be in the region of 259 million tonnes (44 percent below the 2012 levels).”

Arctic Council Tackles Black Carbon Plan under U.S. Chairmanship

The Arctic Council—formed in 1996 by the eight nations adjacent to the Arctic to collectively manage the region emerging as North Pole ice melts—has formally adopted a policy to monitor and report on black carbon and methane emissions reductions. Black carbon—or soot—is produced by diesel engines, fires and vehicle and aircraft exhaust and is responsible for accelerating the speed of warming in the Arctic. The Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions was signed on the day council leadership officially transitioned from Canada to the United States, which is making addressing climate change “a key pillar” of its chairmanship program.

A nonbinding and voluntary measure, the framework calls on council members to inventory, in the next six months, emissions of black carbon, which result from incomplete burning of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass and which one council study estimated to have a warming impact 10 to 100 times greater than black carbon emissions from mid-latitude regions (subscription). The framework also calls on members to assess future emissions and to make suggestions to mitigate black carbon.

“Everybody here has talks about the profound impact that climate change is having on this region,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the council’s meeting in Iqaluit on Canada’s Baffin Island. “The framework we’ve worked together to develop expresses our shared commitment to significantly reduce black carbon and methane emissions, which are two of the most potent greenhouse gases.” He added that the framework sets the stage for the council to adopt “an ambitious collective goal on black carbon” by its next ministerial meeting in 2017.

As Kerry promised to make the battle against climate change the first priority of the two-year U.S. council stewardship, Kiribati President Anote Tong urged the council members to refrain from approving development projects that would accelerate global warming, which threatens low-lying Pacific island nations.

House Committee Votes to Delay Climate Rule

In a 28-23 vote largely along party lines, the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved to delay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s summer release of the Clean Power Plan until all court challenges have been exhausted. It would also allow states to opt out of complying with the rule, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (approximately 30 percent by 2030) from existing power plants under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.

The bill will go to the full House for a vote.

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.

Editor’s Note: Last week we reported on a Duke study that looked at 1,000 years of temperature records to assess the magnitude of natural climate wiggles. Our write-up should have indicated that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate models get long-term terms trends right but fail to capture short-term (decadal) natural climate variability. According to Patrick T. Brown, a doctoral student in climatology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, trends over a 10-year period show little about long-term warming that can be expected over a 100-year period. “If that message gets out, then I think there would be less back and forth arguing about these short-term temperature trends because it doesn’t really matter that much scientifically,” said Brown.


Emissions, Economic Growth Parting Ways

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Gas Flaring Initiative Aims to Capture Easy Emissions Reductions

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

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

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

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

U.S. Energy Infrastructure Requires “Significant Change”

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

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

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

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

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


Court Hears Arguments Surrounding EPA Power Plant Rule

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

Obama Proposes New Offshore Drilling Rules

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

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

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

Carbon Emissions from Permafrost: Good and Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Study Forecasts Canadian Glacier Loss; Could Have Wider Implications

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

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

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

Climate Change Triggers Rising Tide of Troubles for California

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

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

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

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


United States, Europe Announce Emissions Reductions Pledges

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arctic Oil Exploration

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

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

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

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

Report: Renewables Could Help States Meet Clean Power Plan Requirements

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

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

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

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

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

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


McCarthy: States Must Comply with Clean Power Plan

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Carbon Footprint of Crudes Varies Widely

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

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

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

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

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

More Renewables, Tougher Standards for Public Lands

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

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

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

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

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