Clean Power Plan Court Hearing Delayed to September

May 19, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Just weeks before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was scheduled to hear challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, the court announced it will push the hearing back four months and hear the case before the entire court.

Originally planned for June 2 before a three-judge panel, the hearing was postponed to Sept. 27 and will now take place in front of a full bench. The rare “en banc” review is allowed by procedural rules when the case involves a question of exceptional importance. According to The Washington Post, the decision to pursue such a review appears to be on the court’s own initiative. The move to skip the customary three-panel review, as was the case in 2001’s U.S. v. Microsoft, is almost unheard of and could signal that the judges feel the issues of the case are so significant that they all must weigh in.

“The court has anticipated, obviously, the significance of whatever the panel would say and the related likelihood that it would end up en banc. They’ve basically truncated that process,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law School professor, told Bloomberg BNA.

The order follows an announcement by the D.C. Circuit last year that it would hear the Clean Power Plan on an expedited schedule and a stay on implementation of the plan in February by the U.S. Supreme Court while the lower court determines its legality.

Even so, some indicate the change may actually speed up the final resolution of the case.

“It definitely shortens the time period for this to get to the Supreme Court,” said Dorsey & Whitney Attorney James Rubin (subscription). “This does show that there is recognition for the need to move this forward. It’ll speed things up to some extent.”

EPA Targets Oil and Gas Industry Methane Emissions

The EPA has taken the first-ever steps under the Clean Air Act to regulate oil and gas industry emissions of methane, announcing a new rule aimed at new or modified oil and natural gas wells. The EPA said the regulations, which the EPA proposed last year, would lower methane emissions by 510,000 short tons—the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—in 2025, the year by which the Obama administration’s goal is to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by at least 40 percent compared with 2012 levels.

The rules will require energy companies to provide pollution information to the EPA so it can regulate methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells.

To begin regulating methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells, the EPA is requiring energy companies to notify the agency about their emissions and leak-stopping technology. The information request is expected to be finalized later this year and data collection from the industry, early next year.

According to the EPA, pound for pound, the impact of methane on climate change is “more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”

Climate Negotiators Meet in Germany to Make Implementation Plan for Paris Agreement

Climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, for the first official meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since the Paris Agreement last year.

A note to Bonn participants stresses the importance of shifting from negotiation to implementation of the landmark agreement—whereby more than 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. More than 175 countries have signed the agreement.

The challenge ahead, writes French Environment Minister Segolene Royal and Morocco’s Foreign Prime Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, the previous Paris COP21 president and incoming COP22 president, is to “operationalize the Paris agreement: to turn intended nationally determined contributions into public policies and investment plans for mitigation and adaptation and to deliver on our promises.”

The two-week meeting is expected to produce an agenda for the ad-hoc working group tasked with implementing the Paris Agreement.

Addressing delegates at the start of the meeting, retiring U.N. climate director Christiana Figueres said “The whole world is united in its commitment to the global goals embodied in the Paris Agreement. Now we must design the details of the path to the safe, prosperous and climate-neutral future to which we all aspire.”

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


Study: Half a Degree Matters

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week more than 150 nations signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts of that half centigrade difference has been published in the journal Earth System Dynamics. The scientists found the additional 0.5 degrees Celsius would lead to longer heatwaves—“the difference between events at the upper limit of present-day natural variability and a new climate regime”—as well as more severe droughts and, in the tropics, decreased crop yield and the potential demise of all coral reefs. The extra 0.5 degrees Celsius could also mean that global sea levels rise 10 centimeters more by 2100.

“We found significant differences for all the impacts we considered,” says the study’s lead author Carl Schleussner, a scientific advisor at Climate Analytics in Germany.

The researchers analyzed climate models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, which focused on the projected regional impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and considered 11 indicators, including extreme weather events, water availability, crop yields, coral reef degradation and sea-level rise.

They found that projected climate impacts at a 2 degrees Celsius increase are significantly more severe than at a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in some regions. In the Mediterranean, for example, fresh-water availability by 2100 would be some 10 percent lower in a 1.5 degrees Celsius world and 17 percent lower in a 2 degrees Celsius world. In Central America and West Africa, the half-degree difference could reduce maize and wheat yields by twice as much. Tropical regions would bear the brunt of the impacts of an additional half degree of warming, experiencing heat waves at about twice the global rate. Those events could last up to three months at 2 degrees Celsius, compared with two months at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the researchers say.

Tropical coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the half degree increase. By 2100, some reefs might adapt to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but the larger increase would put nearly all of them at risk of severe degradation from coral bleaching.

EPA Moves Forward with Clean Energy Incentives Program

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sent a proposal on the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), an optional program included in the Clean Power Plan that rewards states for early investment in certain renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in 2020 and 2021, to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The move is the final step before the CEIP can be formally proposed to the public (subscription).

The EPA released details on the draft CEIP as part of the final Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in August. But, earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the Clean Power Plan.

“Many states and tribes have indicated that they plan to move forward voluntarily to work to cut carbon pollution from power plants and have asked the agency to continue providing support and developing tools that may support those efforts, including the CEIP,” the EPA said. “Sending this proposal to OMB for review is a routine step and it is consistent with the Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan.”

Pleasant Weather Affecting Americans’ View of Climate Change

A new study in the journal Nature finds that 80 percent of Americans live in counties where the weather is more pleasant than four decades ago. This mild temperature trend, the study says, is increasingly preferred, lessening many Americans’ concern about climate change.

“Rising temperatures are ominous symptoms of global climate change, but Americans are experiencing them at times of the year when warmer days are welcomed,” said study co-author Patrick J. Egan, an associate professor at New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics. He adds that “whereas weather patterns in recent decades have served as a poor source of motivation for Americans to demand a policy response to climate change, public concern may rise once people’s everyday experiences of climate change effects start to become less pleasant.”

Conducted by New York and Duke universities, the study examined each county in every U.S. state from 1974 to 2013—assessing the mildness of winters, rainfall averages, and humidity and heat intensity during summer months. It found that 99 percent of Americans live in places where the average January temperature increased.

“Here in the U.S., when we’re experiencing ice storms, the idea of a 1.5 or 2 degree rise might sound like good news,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University. As a result, she said, scientists need to reconsider their messages.

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


Nations to Sign Paris Climate Agreement Friday

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four months after it was finalized by delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference, the Paris Agreement will be signed by more than 100 nations on Friday. While the agreement is facially insufficient to meet its overall emissions objectives, the signing of the Paris agreement nevertheless is significant. It brings into effect the approach and policy infrastructure needed to tackle the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s ambitious goal to minimize human-caused climate change. The agreement does not solve the problem on its own, but it is a structured revisitation of the science and national commitments that provide the adaptive approach necessary to reach a solution. It is now on researchers and entrepreneurs to invent solutions; for governments, development banks and the private sector to deploy them; and for nations to hold each other accountable as this agreement goes into effect.

Energy innovation is just one of the benefits of the signing, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

“This will open up a market for energy innovation that U.S. companies have pioneered,” Earnest said. “This is going to open up a global market for the kind of renewable energy technology that U.S. companies are at the cutting edge of.”

Other shifts have occurred since the Paris Agreement was finalized, GreenBiz reports. Big companies have backed the Clean Power Plan, there’s a rise in “sub-national” climate action at the state and city level and President Obama has proposed $10-a-barrel-tax on oil, they say.

EPA Finds Benefits Outweigh Cost of Mercury Rule

Benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule outweigh cost, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in findings released in defense of its issuance of the first-ever federal regulations requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions and other toxics.

The Supreme Court found, last year, that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. In a June ruling, it did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.

In its final 167-page report on the matter, now awaiting publication in the Federal Register, the EPA details how it considered cost in evaluating whether to regulate coal-and oil-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act (subscription).

“Based on this analysis, EPA has determined that the cost of complying with MATS, whether assessed as a percentage of total capital expenditures, percentage of power sector sales, or predicted impact on the retail price of electricity, is reasonable and that the electric power industry can comply with MATS and maintain its ability to provide reliable electric power to consumers at a reasonable cost,” the EPA wrote.

The annual cost of complying with MATS, the EPA found, amounts to between 2.7 and 3.5 percent of electricity sales, and the capital costs between 3 and 5.9 percent of annual power sector capital expenditures over 10 years.

Methane Emissions Greater Than Thought

In its newly released annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory, the EPA raised its estimate of total U.S. methane emissions in 2013 by 13 percent—an increase of more than 3.4 million metric tons and a long-term global warming impact of a year’s worth of emissions from some 20 million cars, Science News reported. The agency’s first estimate of methane emissions for 2014 is even higher, although only slightly so—29.233 million metric tons compared with 28.859 million metric tons.

Although there was a roughly 1 percent increase in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2013 and 2014, the inventory shows 2014 levels were 8.6 percent lower than 2005 levels, taking into account carbon sinks (subscription).

According to the EPA, the biggest methane emitter is the oil and natural gas industry—not animals like cattle and other livestock, as had been suggested by last year’s inventory. The data in this latest inventory are based on new techniques for estimating methane leaking from valves, compressors, vents, and other oil and gas equipment.

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Study: Health Impacts of Climate Change Significant

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Deal: Largest Polluters Agree to Sign

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

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

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

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

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


Record Low Arctic Sea Ice Extent Points to Irreversible Changes

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said on Monday that Arctic sea ice cover of 5.607 million square miles on March 24 represented the lowest winter maximum since records began in 1979. That’s 5,000 square miles less than last year’s record low. Contributing to the ice extent loss were record high air temperatures and relatively warm seawater.

“It is likely that we’re going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums in the future because in addition to a warmer atmosphere, the ocean has also warmed up,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “That warmer ocean will not let the ice edge expand as far south as it used to. Although the maximum reach of the sea ice can vary a lot each year depending on winter weather conditions, we’re seeing a significant downward trend, and that’s ultimately related to the warming atmosphere and oceans.”

After this winter’s record ice lows, scientists expect the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer months in the next few decades.

“Sometime in the 2030s or 2040s time frame, at least for a few days, you won’t have ice out there in the dead of summer,” said John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Centre. “The balance is shifting to the point where we are not going back to the old regime of the 1980s and 1990s. Every year has had less ice cover than any summer since 2007. That is nine years in a row that you would call unprecedented. When that happens you have to start thinking that something is going on that is not letting the system go back to where it used to be.”

The effects of diminishing sea ice may not be limited to just the Arctic.

“The Arctic is in crisis,” said Ted Scambos, NSIDC lead scientist. “Year by year, it’s slipping into a new state, and it’s hard to see how that won’t have an effect on weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”

A new paper in the Journal of Climate linked the vanishing Arctic sea ice, along with other sea ice melting and global sea-level rise, to climate change. The authors, who used computer models and field measurements to explore whether Arctic sea ice loss has contributed to melting of the Greenland ice sheet, say that melting Arctic sea ice can block cold, dry Canadian air, increasing the flow of warm, moist air over Greenland and contributing to extreme heat events and surface ice melting. If the Greenland ice sheet completely melted, the paper says, the global sea level would rise about 20 to 23 feet.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Files Brief Defending Clean Power Plan

The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in June. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed its defense of the Clean Power Plan, telling the court that the rule is well within the bounds of its authority (subscription). Dozens of states and industry groups last month called the rule a “breathtaking expansion” of the power Congress gave the EPA—with the Clean Air Act—to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“The rule reflects the eminently reasonable exercise of EPA’s recognized statutory authority,” the EPA brief says. “It will achieve cost-effective [carbon dioxide] reductions from an industry that has already demonstrated its ability to comply with robust pollution-control standards through the same measures and flexible approaches. The rule fulfills both the letter and spirit of Congress’s direction.”

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

Renewable Energy Investment Outpaced Other Technologies: Study

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

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

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

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

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


U.S., Canada Announce Methane Reduction Plan

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events

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

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

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

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


Supreme Court Denies Request to Block EPA’s Mercury Rule

March 10, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. denied a request for a stay or injunction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule—a rule that 20 states have claimed is “unlawful and beyond EPA’s statutory authority.” The ruling means MATS, which requires coal-burning power plants to install technologies to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants, remains in effect while the EPA continues its study of compliance costs.

The stay denial, issued solely by Chief Justice Roberts and without comment, follows a June Supreme Court decision in which five justices found that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. The June ruling did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.

In a supplemental finding proposed in November, the EPA indicated that the costs of implementing MATS were reasonable. The EPA is expected to finalize its cost accounting, which seeks to address court concerns, in April.

“These practical and achievable standards cut harmful pollution from power plants, saving thousands of lives each year and preventing heart and asthma attacks,” said Melissa Harrison, EPA spokeswoman.

Melting of Greenland’s Ice Sheet Accelerating with Loss of Reflectivity

A study in European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere finds that the reflectivity, or “albedo,” of Greenland’s ice sheet could decrease by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century, potentially leading to significant sea-level rise (subscription). The study links the diminishing capacity of Greenland’s ice sheet to reflect solar radiation—so-called “darkening”—to positive feedback loops that quicken ice melt, allowing it to feed on itself.

Scientists have been aware of the feedback loops, lead author Marco Tedesco, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Christian Science Monitor. “What’s new,” he said, “is the acceleration of the darkening, which started in 1996.”

The research used satellite photos dating back to 1981 plus a model to examine the impact of increases of both impurities in the ice, often visible to the human eye, and the size of grains in the snowpack, which is often invisible to the human eye and which makes snow “‘darker’—not dirtier, but more absorbent of energy from the sun,” said Tedesco. As snowpack melts and refreezes, meltwater binds grains together. The larger the grains, the less reflective the surface of the ice sheet and the faster the melting, which keeps speeding up as the remaining impurities become concentrated at the surface.

The study attributes the acceleration of darkening in 1996 to a change in atmospheric circulation. The North Atlantic Oscillation, a natural weather cycle, went into a phase that favored incoming solar radiation and warm, moist air from the south. Although those conditions shifted in 2013 to favor less melting, the sensitivity of the ice sheet to atmospheric air temperatures had already increased, and in 2015, melting spiked again, affecting more than half of the Greenland ice sheet.

The study rejected one prominent theory of Greenland’s darkening—namely, that worsening wildfires are releasing soot that is increasingly falling on Greenland. It finds “no statistically significant increase” in black carbon from fires in northern regions and an increase that is likely too small to matter from wildfires in temperate North America.

“Overall, what matters, it is the total amount of solar energy that the surface absorbs,” said Tedesco. “This is the real driver of melting.”

U.S. Makes First Green Climate Fund Payment

The United States has made the first payment to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). The $500 million payment is part of a broader $3 billion pledge to the GCF, which helps poor countries fight climate change and adopt clean energy technologies.

“With this announcement, which comes less than three months after the historic Paris climate agreement, the United States continues to demonstrate leadership in the international climate arena,” a State Department official told The Hill. “This grant is the first step toward meeting the president’s commitment of $3 billion to the GCF and shows that the United States stands squarely behind our international climate commitments.”

The GCF currently has $10.3 billion in pledges, of which $2.5 billion could be spent on projects in 2016. The GCF lacks staff to ensure GCF goals are met.

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


Study, EPA Spotlight Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Industry

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Study Revises Carbon Budget Downward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EPA’s Clean Power Plan Faces Uncertainty

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January Continued String of Record-Warm Months

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

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

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

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


Supreme Court Events Leave Fate of Clean Power Plan Uncertain

February 18, 2016
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The outlook for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, a rule intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants, is the subject of debate after two key Supreme Court events last week.

First, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision issued a stay, delaying the execution of the plan, pending the outcome of legal challenges. The New York Times called the decision “unprecedented,” because the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court. At a minimum, the ruling will allow states to skip the September deadline to submit compliance plans to the EPA.

A new twist on the fate of the Clean Power Plan came Saturday with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—leaving the Supreme Court with eight justices split evenly between conservatives and liberals, and evenly split on the question of that week’s stay. Whether the White House or the Senate will confirm a new justice before the November 2016 Presidential election remains unclear, although political cynicism about any nominee’s chances has dominated commentary. President Obama announced plans to nominate a new justice, and Senate Republican leadership has indicated that it does not intend to confirm Obama’s candidate.

The D.C. Circuit is set to begin hearing oral arguments challenging the Clean Power Plan in June. Any ruling may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

ClimateWire suggests three potential scenarios. For Clean Power Plan opponents, the best turn of events would be appointment of a new conservative-leaning justice, which would be made possible if the Senate successfully blocks an Obama appointee and a Republican takes the White House. Those in favor of the plan would benefit from appointment of a new liberal-leaning justice or from the court’s consideration of the plan before a new justice is confirmed.

Politics surrounding the nomination of the new justice are complicated, writes Tom Goldstein of the SCOTUS blog.

Study: More Aggressive Emissions Reductions Needed to Curb Air-Pollution-Related Deaths

A new study undertaken by the World Health Organization and presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that 5.5 million die prematurely every year from air pollution. The authors—a team of U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and Indian scientists—said that most of the fatalities are in India and in China, where coal burning alone led to 366,000 deaths in 2013.

Researcher Qiao Ma from Tsinghua University in Beijing said coal burned for electricity was the largest polluter in China and that the country’s new targets to reduce emissions, agreed at last year’s Paris climate talks, are not sufficiently ambitious to end those deaths.

“Even in the most clean scenario in 2030,” Ma said, China’s growing and aging population will still suffer as many as 1.3 million deaths a year. “Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors.”

Although China halted approval of new coal mines for three years at the end of 2015 and has issued stringent requirements similar to those recently proposed in the United States for new coal-fired power plants, these and other measures may not halt increases in mortality, reported Time.

“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”

Agreements Made to Expand Renewables, Reduce Emissions

Governors from 17 U.S. states signed an accord to diversify energy generation with clean energy sources, modernize their energy infrastructure and encourage clean transportation options. Home to about 40 percent of the country’s population, states signing the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

“With this agreement, governors from both parties have joined together and committed themselves to a clean energy future,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown. “Our goal is to clean up the air and protect our natural resources.”

As part of the agreement, states will cooperate on planning and policies—pooling buying power to get cheaper clean-energy vehicles for state fleets and to build more energy-efficient regional electrical grids.

Also preparing for a cleaner-energy future is Fiji, which on Friday became the first country to formally approve the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris when its parliament ratified the agreement. Under its national climate action plan, the archipelago, which is vulnerable to flooding and strong tropical storms as a result of climate change, pledged to generate all its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to reduce its overall energy-sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030—if it receives climate finance from industrialized nations.

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.