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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Drilling Conditionally Approved in Artic Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report: Oil Price Drop Could Hurt Global Economy

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

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

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

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


States Challenge Clean Power Plan, Report Finds Health Benefits

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Carbon Plans: Are they Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

Study Comes to “Sobering” Conclusion on Biodiversity Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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


California Governor Calls for Aggressive Emissions Cuts

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Committee Votes to Delay Climate Rule

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

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

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

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


Court Hears Arguments Surrounding EPA Power Plant Rule

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

Obama Proposes New Offshore Drilling Rules

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

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

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

Carbon Emissions from Permafrost: Good and Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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


United States, Europe Announce Emissions Reductions Pledges

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arctic Oil Exploration

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

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

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

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

Report: Renewables Could Help States Meet Clean Power Plan Requirements

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions

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

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

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

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

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


McCarthy: States Must Comply with Clean Power Plan

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Carbon Footprint of Crudes Varies Widely

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

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

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

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

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

More Renewables, Tougher Standards for Public Lands

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

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

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

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

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


Climate Pledges May Not Be Enough

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The European Union (EU) is now the second body to submit an official climate target to the United Nations ahead of talks to reach a global climate agreement in Paris later this year. One of the world’s top emitters, the EU intends to reduce its emissions 40 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. This commitment is in addition to 2050 emissions reduction targets that a recent report published by the European Environment Agency claims may prove difficult to reach.

“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said. It points to a 60 percent cut in transportation emissions toward which little progress has been made.

Another study that looks at commitments by all nations to curb the effects of climate change suggests that the U.N. goal of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end is unlikely to be met. According to the authors, to attain that goal, the agreement reached in Paris must not only be based on a shared commitment to creating “equitable access to sustainable development,” but must also be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between parties.

Negotiators aim to complete an agreement in Paris that would go into effect in 2020. All countries are due to announce their emissions reductions plans in June in Bonn.

Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change

A severe drought in 2010 doubled the rate of tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest, causing a 1.4 billion ton loss in the forest’s uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of a new study in Nature that finds droughts are causing the trees to exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. The authors say trees store a tenth less CO2 from the atmosphere during droughts, apparently because they are channeling their more limited energy reserves into growth.

“Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they [tropical rainforests] ‘inhale’ carbon through photosynthesis can decrease,” said Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers. “This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts.”

The study provides the first direct evidence of the rate at which individual trees in the Amazonian basin absorb carbon during a severe drought. An international research team compared the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 drought-affected and non-drought-affected rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Researchers discovered that growth rates of the trees in the plots were unchanged but that photosynthesis rates on the six drought-affected plots slowed by some 10 percent over six months.

EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar

Electricity from renewable sources outpaced the growth of electricity from fossil fuel-fired plants in 2014, according to a new Energy Information Administration report. Though solar’s share of electricity production remained smaller than wind’s share, net generation of the former grew by more than 100 percent last year. Wind generation grew by 8 percent and is forecasted to grow by 16.1 percent this year and another 6.5 percent in 2016.

“Because wind is starting from a much larger base than solar, even though the growth rate is lower, the absolute amount of the increase in capacity is more than twice that of solar: 15 GW [gigawatts] of wind versus 6 GW of utility-scale solar between 2014 and 2016,” the EIA reports.

Ultimately, wind will see a net increase of 9.8 gigawatts—the most of any other power source in 2015. California and North Carolina will add the most utility-scale solar capacity to systems (73 percent combined).

“Given current growth rates, especially for solar and wind, it is quite possible that renewable energy sources will reach, or exceed, 14% of the nation’s electrical supply by the end of 2015,” noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “That is a level that EIA, only a few years ago, was forecasting would not be achieved until the year 2040.”

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-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.


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.