First-Ever Direct Observation of Greenhouse Gas Increase

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Net Zero Emissions—The Business Case

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

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

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

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

EPA Airline Emissions Plan under Review

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

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

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

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

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


First Rules for Arctic Drilling Released

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

Oceans Warming and Seas Rising Faster Than Predicted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

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

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

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

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


McCarthy: Clean Power Plan Targets May Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Stop on Road to a Climate Agreement in Paris: Geneva

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The latest round of climate talks began Feb. 8 in Geneva, where representatives of 190 or so countries have their work cut out for them: streamlining a 37-page draft text of an international agreement covering more than 100 issues, each with multiple options and sub-options, so that a full negotiating text is ready by May as a basis for further negotiations in June and ratification at a summit in Paris in December. The draft text reflects a rich country-developing country divide and is “stuffed with options that reflect conflicting interests and demands on many fundamental points,” reported the Associated Foreign Press in the Gulf Times.

With both global Earth surface and global sea surface temperatures reaching record levels in 2014, pressure to reach a final climate accord is intense.

At the outset of the 6-day conference, the only negotiation period scheduled before delivery of national emissions reductions plans at the end of May, European Union negotiator Elena Bardram acknowledged that countries’ Paris targets are unlikely to keep global temperature rise below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers the tipping point for dangerous climate change.

“We are concerned the targets set in Paris may fall short of what is required by science, that it will not be exactly what is required to remain within the 2 degrees,” she said in a United Nations press conference webcast. “By the Paris conference, we need to have a very clear understanding of how well on track we are with keeping global temperature increase within the two degree centigrade limit,” she said. “We have to know how much is on the table and what more needs to be done, should that be the case.”

All major economies must declare their emissions targets by the end of March, and the European Union is wasting no time in its efforts to make its members fall into line. Reuters reported that it will exert “maximum pressure” to extract pledges “by June at the latest.”

But developed country targets are not the only issue. Other sticking points are whether developing countries should make their own carbon-reduction pledges, whether industrial superpowers should compensate these countries for climate change-related losses and damage, and how pledges of financial support to developing countries should be made good.

Days before the latest talks got under way, a group of CEOs called for the Paris deal to include a goal to reduce global emissions to net zero—no more than Earth can absorb—by 2050.

Final Keystone Legislation Headed to President’s Desk

By a 270–152 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed final legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the project that during seven years of administrative review overseen by the State Department has morphed into a fight about climate change. The president has 10 days once the bill reaches his deck to issue a promised veto.

Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, the architect of the Keystone XL bill, acknowledged that Republicans lack the votes to overcome a veto but said that Keystone measures could be added to other legislation that have bipartisan support.

The bill endorsed changes made by the Senate—that climate change was not a hoax and that oil sands should no longer be exempt from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The President has said he would approve the pipeline only if it does not significantly increase the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State Department to revisit its conclusion that the project’s impact on those emissions was negligible—a conclusion that the EPA says may no longer hold given the implications of lowered oil prices for oil sands development.

National Security Strategy Report Highlights Threat of Climate Change

Among the eight top strategic risks to the United States identified in President Obama’s National Security Strategy report to Congress is climate change. The report, issued Feb. 6, singles out the phenomenon as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water” with “present day” effects being felt “from the Arctic to the Midwest.”

The report echoes many of the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change poses a national security risk, and it alludes to the economic costs of climate change, suggesting that delaying emissions reductions is more expensive than transitioning to low-carbon energy sources.

Although the administration’s last national security strategy, released in 2010, recognized the threat of climate change to U.S. interests, the new report puts global warming “front and center,” according to the National Journal.

The strategy draws attention to the U.S. commitment to reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to developing “an ambitious new global climate change agreement.”

A White House fact sheet on the report says that the United States will advance its own security and that of allies and partners in part by “confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.”

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 Addresses Climate Change with Proposed 2016 Budget

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In an effort to increase energy security and resilience to climate change, President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposes a 7 percent increase in funding for clean energy and a new $4 billion Clean Power State Initiative Fund aimed at encouraging U.S. states to make faster and deeper cuts in power plant emissions.

The proposed $4 billion fund, which would help states pay for infrastructure improvements and renewable and clean-energy initiatives as well as prepare for more extreme weather, signals that the Clean Power Plan’s individual state targets are “minimums, not maximums,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

The proposed fund would be paid for by offsetting reductions from other programs—which congressional Republicans are likely to oppose, reports the Associated Press, given their aversion to the EPA’s climate efforts.

The budget called attention to the costs of delaying carbon-cutting measures, including $300 billion over 10 years for responses to extreme weather events. According to the Obama administration, unabated climate change could cost the United States $120 billion a year.

“The failure to invest in climate solutions and climate preparedness does not just fly in the face of the overwhelming judgment of science—it is fiscally unwise,” states the budget plan released by the White House.

The president’s proposed budget also calls for investments aimed at climate change adaptation. Several hundred million dollars are earmarked for initiatives such as protecting communities at risk from wildfires and assessing and addressing coastal flooding threats.

Also in the budget proposal: a $500 million contribution to the United Nation’s Global Climate Fund to help developing countries combat global warming and adapt to climate change.

Senate Pushes Ahead on Keystone, EPA Pushes Back

In a 62-to-36 vote on Jan. 29, the Senate approved a bill mandating completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama has vowed to veto pending federal environmental reviews.

The Senate measure in effect transfers decision-making authority for Keystone from the administration to Congress. Because the measure differs from the House measure approving the proposed pipeline, the House could hold another vote on the project or a conference with Senate leaders. In either case, Congressional supporters of the project currently lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Because the State Department gave federal agencies a Feb. 2nd deadline to conclude their assessment of Keystone, the president could announce his decision on the project soon.

In 2013, Obama said that decision would be based on whether Keystone’s construction would worsen climate change. This week, the U.S. EPA urged the State Department to “revisit” its 2014 conclusion that the pipeline would not significantly increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

The agency has zeroed in on the “potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions.” It said that with an oil price range at $65 to $75 a barrel, “construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions.”

The White House has not said whether the letter shows that Keystone fails Obama’s “climate test.”

Add Blackouts to Climate Change Effects

For major American cities along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf, climate change may mean more blackouts, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change.

Using a computer simulation model, engineers at Johns Hopkins University examined how fluctuations in hurricane intensity and activity could potentially affect the cities’ electrical power systems. The cities at highest risk of power outage increases during major storms are New York City, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., and Hartford, Conn.

“Infrastructure providers and emergency managers need to plan for hurricanes in a long-term manner and that planning has to take climate change into account,” said study coauthor Seth Guikema.

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


U.S.-India Climate Agreement Less Substantive Than U.S.-China Climate Deal

January 29, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.

Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.

“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”

The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.

President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling

While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.

Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.

In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”

In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”

Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change

A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”

The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.

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 Tackles Climate Change in State of the Union Address

January 22, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

“No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” said President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.

“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate,” he said, “and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

To combat climate change, the president said the government had taken actions ranging from the way we produce energy to the way we use it. Although he did not mention his use of executive power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, he did highlight the landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gases. “In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Early in the speech, the president referenced the twin goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil and protecting the planet. “Today, America is number one in oil and gas,” he said. “America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

The president obliquely alluded to the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the United States, by noting the need to take a comprehensive look at infrastructure development.

In the GOP response to the SOTU, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst admonished the president for stalling a decision on Keystone.

“President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” she said. “The president’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”

Less than 24 hours after Ernst’s remarks, the House of Representatives approved a bill to fast-track federal approval of natural gas pipelines despite a veto threat from the White House.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirm that 2014 was the hottest year on record and the 18th consecutive year that annual average temperatures have exceeded the previous century’s average.

A few of the 21 scientists interviewed by the Washington Post about 2014’s average global surface temperature of 58.24 F (14.58 C) noted that warming has not kept pace with climate model projections, but most thought the record matches what we should expect as heat-trapping greenhouse gases increasingly accrue in the atmosphere.

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The University of Illinois’ Don Wuebbles, a contributor to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, told a Forbes reporter, “We can safely say it’s probably the warmest year in 1,700 and 2,000 years.”

The most remarkable thing about the 2014 record, say climate experts, was that it occurred in a year without a strong El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern in which the Pacific Ocean pumps heat into the atmosphere.

States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets

States are getting a $48 million boost to their efforts to meet emissions reductions targets for existing power plants under the Clean Power Plan. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the California Heising-Simons family announced the grants to “accelerate” a transition to cleaner energy.

“With the price of clean power falling, and the potential costs of inaction on climate change steadily rising, the work of modernizing America’s power grid is both more feasible and urgent than ever,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But smart investments can reduce it while also strengthening local economies.”

Rather than going directly to states, the grants provided by the Clean Energy Initiative will support organizations that can help states with their energy planning, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. But the bulk of the money for technical assistance, including economic forecasting and legal analysis, will go to groups with a state or regional focus.

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.


House and Senate Votes, Court Decision Shorten Road to Keystone Decision

January 15, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday the Senate passed a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline in a procedural vote just shy of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, setting up what could be an extensive debate on energy policy and climate in next year’s presidential election. The move followed a bipartisan vote in which the House of Representatives passed a similar bill, Jan. 9.

The House vote came just hours after Nebraska’s Supreme Court cleared the way for the controversial project by upholding a 2012 law giving the governor permitting authority for major oil pipelines. The court overruled a lower court finding that allowing the governor and pipeline owner TransCanada to use eminent domain to lay the pipeline on private land was unconstitutional. However, an attorney for the landowners in the case suggested that the litigation was not over, stating that the outcome amounted to a “nondecision open to further review” because most judges agreed with the landowners on the standing issue and three declined to weigh in on the law’s constitutionality.

The ruling shifted the debate over Keystone to Washington, where Republicans are pushing for its final approval after more than six years of review by the U.S. State Department.

“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Lisa Murkowski said.

“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests.”

In fact, it could take months for the administration to reach a final verdict because the State Department must take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.

Environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline have highlighted the potential for extraction and transport of crude from Canada’s tar sands to contaminate water, pollute air, and harm wildlife. But the GOP, the oil industry, and other pipeline backers argue that Keystone will lead to jobs and increase oil independence as well as strengthen bonds with Canada.

“Boosting American-made energy results in more American jobs and improved international relations,” said Rep. Leonard Lance. “This is a winning combination for our Nation’s economy, our national security and a centerpiece in our relationship with our ally, Canada.”

Rep. Adam Smith had a different take: “Rather than focusing on Keystone XL, we should be working on bigger picture investments in clean energy and energy efficient technologies that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that hurt our environment.”

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

The Obama administration has announced the first-ever national standards to cut methane emissions from new sources in the oil and natural gas industry. Methane accounts for some 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 20 times carbon dioxide’s planet-warming potency.

“This strategy will benefit the economy, the climate and public health,” said Dan Utech, President Obama’s advisor on energy climate change, though activists say the cuts fall short of those needed to reach the administration’s international climate change pledges.

Unclear is whether the proposed 45 percent reduction by 2025 would eventually apply to existing oil and gas installations as well as to future sources of carbon pollution.

Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology are projected to increase methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines are 50 percent higher than previously thought according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.

Estimates of Social Cost of Carbon Vary Widely, with Policy Consequences

The social cost of carbon (SCC) or the economic damage caused by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which the United States uses to guide energy regulations and, potentially, future mitigation policies—is $37 per ton according to a recent U.S. government study or, according to a new study by Stanford researchers published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, six times that value.

The Stanford scientists say the current pricing models fail to reflect all the economic damage each ton of CO2 causes and that a higher value on that damage could change policy.

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said study co-author Delavane Diaz. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

“For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy,” said study coauthor Frances Moore. “But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true. If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”

But William Pizer, a faculty fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions who has worked on and recommended regular updating of the SCC estimate, questioned the methodology of the Stanford analysis, pointing out that it relied on the impact on national economies of short-term temperature spikes rather than on long-term trends that might reveal permanent economic reductions.

“To me, it just seems like it has to be an overestimate,” Pizer said of the Stanford result of $220 (subscription required). “I think it’s great they’re doing this,” he added. “I just think this is another data point that someone needs to weigh as they’re trying to figure out what the right social cost of carbon is. But this isn’t like a definitive new answer.”

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


EPA Delays Release of Carbon Emissions Rules for Power Plants

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying the release of carbon emissions rules for all power plants and will publish them for new as well as existing plants at the same time mid-summer.

“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality.

McCabe also announced that the EPA will begin drafting a “model rule” for states that do not submit individual plans to meet emissions reduction targets in the existing power plant regulations.

Under the proposed regulations for new sources, the EPA has functionally required new coal power plants to include carbon-capture technology, which critics of the emissions rules say lack proof of efficacy on a large scale and have a high cost to implement. In 2011, the American Electric Power Company reported that including carbon-storing processes at a West Virginia plant would cost an estimated $668 million.

California Cap-and-Trade System Includes Oil and Gas Sector

California’s cap-and-trade program—the country’s first multi-sector carbon emissions trading program—now requires gasoline and diesel producers to supply lower-carbon fuels or to buy carbon allowances—pollution permits—for the greenhouse gases emitted when those fuels are burned.

Key program stakeholders, industry leaders, public officials and environmental advocates agree that consumers will see a rise in gas prices, but the amount remains uncertain.

“There’s a very large universe of variables which could affect gas prices on a daily basis, and we don’t set fuel prices,” said California Air Resources Board spokesperson Dave Clegern. He added, “We don’t see them going up more than a dime, at the most, based on any current cap-and-trade compliance costs.”

It is estimated that 25 percent of secured funds from the emissions trading program will be allotted to the state’s high-speed rail project.

California’s program includes an allowance reserve initially proposed by Nicholas Institute and Duke University researchers that prevents carbon allowance prices from reaching levels beyond the scope of purchasers.

Congress Prepare to Vote on Keystone XL Pipeline

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has cleared legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver some 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest, citing the Obama administration’s “well-established” review process, said, “If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it.”

The pipeline has become a flash point in the debate over climate change and economic growth.

In a December 19 press conference, the president said, “I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless.”

Critics of Keystone have pointed to the carbon intensive production of the crude it will carry. In an op-ed in The Hill, the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Rheh Suh, called production of oil from Canadian tar sands an “environmental disaster.”

Supporters argue that Keystone will be a source of economic stimulus. In a statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said, “After six years of foot-dragging, it’s time to finally say yes to jobs and yes to energy. It’s time to build [this pipeline].”

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.


UN Climate Negotiators Ink Deal in Lima

December 18, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the holidays, The Climate Post will not circulate on December 25th and January 1st. We will return on January 8, 2015.

Negotiators have reached a deal at United Nations (UN) talks in Peru, setting the stage for a global climate pact in Paris in December 2015. The agreement, dubbed the Lima Call for Climate Action, for the first time in history commits every nation to reducing its rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

“As a text, it’s not perfect but it includes the positions of the parties,” said Peru environment minister and conference chair Manuel Pulgar-Vidal.

In addition to an “ambitious agreement” in 2015 that reflects each nation’s “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” the Lima document calls for submission of national pledges by the first quarter of 2015 by those states “ready to do so” and for setting of national targets that go beyond countries’ “current undertaking.”

Countries already imperiled by climate change, such as small island states, were promised a “loss and damage” program of financial aid.

Through Belgium’s pledge of $62 million, the UN Green Climate Fund met its initial target of $10 billion to aid developing countries in curbing carbon emissions.

“There is still considerable work to be done,” said Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico and chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, at the conclusion of the talks. “But I am encouraged that countries, all around the world, are beginning to see that it is in their economic interest to take action now.”

“We are happy that the final negotiated statement at COP20 in Lima has addressed the concerns of developing countries,” said India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar. “It gives enough space for the developing world to grow and take appropriate nationally determined steps,” he said.

But the negotiations, at which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had made an impassioned plea for agreement, were considered a failure by those hoping for ambitious emissions reductions commitments.

“Against the backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year ever recorded, governments at the U.N. climate talks in Lima opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions,” said Samantha Smith, leader of World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy initiative.

The remaining North-South divide over which countries should carry the majority of emissions-cutting costs—plus other thorny matters, such as how to finance poorer countries’ reductions and preparations for extreme climatic events—has increased the diplomatic heavy-lifting required to reach a final agreement in 2015.

“They [countries] got through Lima by largely skirting the issue for now,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s hard to see that flying in Paris.”

Solar Net Metering Terms Set in South Carolin​a

An agreement filed in South Carolina outlines new terms for solar net metering in the state. The terms ensure homes, businesses, schools, and any nonprofit organizations using rooftop solar panels will be provided “one-to-one” retail credit (or full retail value) from the state’s utilities for each kilowatt hour generated back to the electric grid—making South Carolina the 44th state (subscription) to allow for full rate credit.

Referred to as net metering, this process was a key component of Act 236, a law passed in June, which made solar power more accessible in the state.

Upon gaining approval from the South Carolina Public Service Commission, the agreement—supported by utilities such as Duke Energy and environmental groups—will provide homeowners the opportunity to lease solar systems while allowing utility companies to recoup costs of offering service.

According to Dukes Scott, executive director of the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan on reducing carbon emissions will help determine the value or contribution of solar power.

Last Big Warmup May Offer Sneak Peek into Today’s Climate Change

Despite climate warming by five to eight degrees Celsius during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, nearly 55.5 million years ago, most of the species around that time survived. However, it took nearly 200,000 years for Earth to recover from that rise.

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.