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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Obama also presented a vision for our energy future.

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

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

McCarthy Talks Environmental Priorities in 2016

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

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

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

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

Manmade Climate Change Evidence for Anthropocene Epoch

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

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

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

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

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


Study Says Electricity Production Vulnerable to Climate Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that climate-change-related water disruptions could significantly decrease electricity production by the hydropower stations and thermoelectric (nuclear, fossil-fueled, biomass-fueled) plants that account for 98 percent of production around the world. Because the plants need water to cool generators and pump power at dams, they are vulnerable to lower river levels and warmer water temperatures, according to researchers at Wageningen University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). These conditions could reduce generating capacity by as much as 74 percent in hydro plants and 86 percent in thermoelectric plants between 2040 and 2069.

“This is the first study of its kind to examine the linkages between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale,” said co-author and IIASA Energy Program Director Keywan Riahi (subscription). “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate.”

The study, which used computer modeling and data from more than 24,000 hydropower plants and nearly 1,500 thermoelectric plants, indicates that the areas most at risk of decreases in usable capacity for electricity production are the United States, southern and central Europe, Southeast Asia, southern parts of South America, Africa and Australia—regions where the study authors say big increases in water temperature will combine with projected decreases in mean annual streamflow.

The potential water supply shortfall coincides with a predicted doubling in demand for water for power generation over the next 40 years.

The study also explored adaptation measures, concluding that increases in power plant efficiency and switches in cooling sources would reduce most regions’ vulnerability to water constraints as would improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods.

Data Points to Hotter Years

Late last year, the World Meteorological Organisation pegged 2011–15 as the hottest five-year period on record. But data from the Met Office suggests 2016 will be warm, too—warmer than the office’s forecast for 2015.

“This forecast suggests that by the end of 2016 we will have seen three record, or near-record years in a row for global temperatures,” said Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office.

El Nino and climate change were among the reasons cited for the increase—an estimated 1.29 and 1.73 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average global temperature in the second half of the 20th century. The Met Office, Express reports, does not expect the record-breaking run to continue indefinitely, but it shows how factors like an El Nino are working together to push temperatures to unprecedented levels of warmth.

Climate Central categorized the changes as a “global warming spurt,” that may be amplified by a slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean—the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—that is also being amplified by climate change and that is the subject of some recent studies.

“Last time we went from a negative to a positive was the mid-70s,” said Gerald Meehl, a National Atmospheric Research scientist, speaking about a warming slowdown linked to Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Then we had larger rates of global warming from the 70s to the 90s, compared to the previous 30 years. It’s not just an upward sloping line. Sometimes it’s steeper, sometimes it’s slower.”

Clean Power Plan Sees Challengers, Supporters

The deadline for filing legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, triggered a host of new lawsuits targeting the rule. To date, 27 states, along with trade groups and companies, are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to delay implementation of the rule (subscription). Among the arguments—the EPA illegally issued duplicative rules for coal-fired plants and infringed on states’ rights (subscription).

Still, some states are beginning to wade through the rule. And many of the nation’s largest cities are seeking to back it. The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others are filing a motion to participate in litigation as amici curiae (friends of the court).

“The acute relevance of climate change to local governments’ responsibilities and activities has led members of the Local Government Coalition to grasp both the need to adapt to climate change and the costs of failing to act to mitigate it,” the filing said. “Prompted by lived experience and by the prospect of future impacts, they [the groups] have made efforts both to adapt to their changing climatic circumstances and to slow or eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.”

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


Tough Issues Linger in New Climate Deal Draft

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linking Carbon Markets Explored in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paris Climate Talks Begin

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countries Pledge Financing for Clean Energy, Withdraw It for Coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Votes to Block Power Plant Rules

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

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

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


Tougher Rules for Pollution That Crosses State Lines

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate next Thursday, November 26, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday proposed updates to its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in response to a recent decision by the D.C. Circuit Court. The update now affects 23 states whose nitrogen oxide emissions blow into other states, increasing their ozone levels. No longer subject to the rule are South Carolina and Florida—neither of which contribute significant amounts of smog to other states.

“States should act as good neighbors, and the EPA must act in its backstop role to ensure they do,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “This rule provides an achievable and cost-effective path to quickly reduce air pollution.”

The proposal calls for states to comply with air quality standards for ozone set by the George W. Bush Administration in 2008. It would reduce summertime emissions of nitrogen oxides using existing, proven and cost-effective control technologies. Along with other measures, The Hill reports, the update could equate to a drop of about 30 percent in nitrogen oxide levels in 2017 compared with 2014.

“This update will help protect the health and lives of millions of Americans by reducing exposure to ozone pollution, which is linked to serious public health effects, including reduced lung function, asthma, emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and early death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

COP: Negotiations Will Go Forward

United Nations and French officials have confirmed that the U.N. Climate Change Conference, which aims to create a global climate treaty, will go forward Nov. 30–Dec. 11 despite recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Still, many public concerts, marches and festive events are expected to be canceled.

“No head of state, of government—on the contrary—has asked us to postpone this meeting,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “All want to be there. To do otherwise would, I believe, be to yield to terrorism. France will be the capital of the world.”

News that the negotiations were still on brought a wave of predictions about the talks’ outcome. President Barack Obama was “optimistic that we can get an outcome that we’re all proud of, because we understand what’s at stake.” David King, the British Foreign Minister’s Special Representative for Climate change expected an “imperfect deal.” Ultimately, the Washington Post reports, divisions remain and many continue to question key elements of the draft agreement.

U.S. negotiators are expecting to use the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (subscription) to show the country’s commitment to tackling climate change. But on Tuesday the Senate approved two resolutions to stop the agency from implementing the plan, which calls for existing power plants to reduce their emissions.

Study: U.S. Forests’ Carbon Sequestration Capacity Is Decreasing

Efforts to protect the health of forests and to slow deforestation—a leading contributor to climate change—are largely absent in the pledges of most countries taking part in historic climate negotiations beginning this month in Paris, reports Climate Central, and the United States is no exception. Although the United States will rely heavily on forest regrowth to meet its emissions reduction target—up to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025—its pre-Paris climate pledge makes no mention of forestry practices or of others means to preserve forests.

Now a study published in Scientific Reports finds that the carbon sequestration capacity of U.S. forests could diminish over the next 25 years as a result of land use change and forest aging. It also finds that decreases in that capacity could influence emissions reduction targets in other economic sectors and affect the costs of achieving policy goals.

Using detailed forest inventory data, Forest Service Southern Research Station scientists David Wear and John Coulston projected the most rapid decline in forest carbon sequestration to be in the Rocky Mountain region, where forests could become a carbon emissions source (subscription).

Land use change greatly influences carbon sequestration. The researchers found that afforesting or restoring 19.1 million acres over the next 25 years, a plausible goal, could yield significant carbon sequestration gains.

“Policymakers interested in reducing net carbon emissions in the U.S. need information about future sequestration rates, the variables influencing those rates and policy options that might enhance sequestration rates,” said Wear. “The projection scenarios we developed for this study were designed to provide insights into these questions at a scale useful to policymakers.”

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.


Countries Position Themselves for Paris Climate Talks

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a joint statement on Monday, China and France signaled that any deal reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Nov. 30–Dec. 11, should include five-year reviews of emissions reductions commitments in order to “reinforce mutual confidence and promote efficient implementation.” The two countries also called for an “ambitious and legally binding” deal that will allow global warming to be limited to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the United Nations-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts—and they made a bilateral commitment to formulate low-carbon strategies within the next five years.

The statement was released during a visit by French President François Hollande to China in a bid to persuade Beijing to propel negotiations ahead of the Paris talks. As the world’s largest polluter, China—which has promised to cap its emissions by 2030 but has not yet said at what level—will be a key actor given disputes over whether developed or developing countries should bear a greater emissions reduction burden. New government data indicating that China is annually burning 17 percent more coal than thought will increase the complexity and urgency of achieving its emissions pledge.

The 55-page negotiating text forwarded to Paris at the conclusion of the latest round of talks in Bonn, Oct. 23, left unresolved the fundamental issues plaguing the climate agreement process for decades: common but differentiated responsibility for dealing with climate change impacts and poorer countries’ demands for climate adaptation finance.

The two issues were front and center at a meeting on Saturday of China, South Africa, Brazil, and India that was meant to produce a joint negotiating scheme. In a statement reiterating their “unequivocal commitment towards a successful outcome at the Paris Climate Change Conference through a transparent, inclusive and Party-driven process,” the four countries said that “existing institutions and mechanisms created under the Convention on adaptation, loss and damage, finance and technology should be anchored and further strengthened in the Paris agreement.”

The statement came just after the last major pre-Paris gathering of Pacific island nations, which produced a collective plea for help in addressing the health impacts of climate change (subscription).

U.N. Report on Emissions Pledges: More Cuts Needed

A new United Nations report finds that, if fully implemented, countries’ collective pledges toward a new international climate change agreement would eliminate 4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere by 2030—not enough to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (C) over preindustrial levels but sufficient to greatly improve the chances of meeting that goal (subscription). The report is based on a review of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) of 146 countries that collectively cover 86 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The INDCs have the capability of limiting the forecast temperature rise to around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, by no means enough but a lot lower than the estimated four, five, or more degrees of warming projected by many prior to the INDCs,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN’s climate agency, said in a statement with the report. She added that the INDCs are “not the final word” but do indicate a global decarbonization effort.

The European Union’s Joint Research Centre, which did its own review based on the plans of 155 countries representing some 90 percent of global emissions, put the increase at 3 degrees Celsius.

The UN report points to a sobering conclusion regarding the so-called carbon budget: approximately three-quarters of that budget will have been spent by 2030. Moreover, the report suggests that the world is losing out on the cheapest path to keeping warming under 2 C. That path would require emissions in 2030 to be no more than 41.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), far lower than the 56.7 GtCO2e indicated by the UN analysis.

In a blog post, Paul Bodnar, the top climate official in the White House’s National Security Council, focused on the decelerated emissions growth indicated by the INDCs. He wrote that the UN report shows that the pledges to date “represent a substantial step up in global action and will significantly bend down the world’s carbon pollution trajectory. The targets are projected to significantly slow the annual growth rate in emissions—including a major decrease in rate compared to the most recent decade.”

Clean Power Plan: Latest Legal Developments

On Tuesday, 23 states submitted a petition asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to strike down a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule establishing carbon dioxide emissions standards for new and modified power plants (subscription). Those same states, plus Colorado and New Jersey, have already challenged emissions standards for existing power plants. On Wednesday, the legal brawl expanded when 18 states led by New York and several cities submitted their own petition asking to defend the U.S. Environmental Protection’s Clean Power Plan (subscription).

A court ruling on whether to stay implementation of the regulation will come after the UN climate negotiations in Paris. According to a timeline announced last week, final stay motions are due today, the EPA has until Dec. 3 to respond, and final reply briefs are due Dec. 23, followed by as-yet-unscheduled oral arguments.

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.


Clean Power Plan Publication Triggers Wave of Challenges

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The recent publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan in the Federal Register triggered the filing of lawsuits by dozens of states in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, along with other challenges, including a petition from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led industry coalition for a rule review and an immediate stay of the regulation. By Monday, 26 states, 15 trade groups, several labor unions, and a host of individual utilities and companies were suing the administration over the Clean Power Plan. By Tuesday, members in both the House and the Senate introduced Congressional Review Act resolutions to stop them (subscription)—resolutions described by The National Journal as “a bid to un­der­mine in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks.”

Clean Power Plan critics—among them attorney generals from West Virginia (Patrick Morrisey) and Texas (Ken Paxton), who are leading the states’ legal challenge—allege that the state-by-state targets aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 represent a federal overreach and will hike utility rates and undercut grid reliability.

“The Clean Power Plan is one of the most far-reaching energy regulations in this nation’s history,” said Morrisey. “EPA claims to have sweeping power to enact such regulations based on a rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act, but such legal authority simply does not exist.” But the EPA and many environmental groups contend that the federal government does have the legal authority to curb power plant emissions, and The Huffington Post noted that in the past the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the EPA’s favor.

“The power plan is based on a sound legal and technical foundation,” said Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe. “We feel strongly that given our authorities and legal precedents under the Clean Air Act that our application of [Section] 111(d) here conforms with those authorities and that legal precedent.”

As part of its efforts to help states figure out how to implement the regulation, the EPA last week released a memorandum to regional EPA directors that lays out elements to be included in initial plan submittals to the EPA in September, should states desire to extend their deadline for final plan submittals to 2018.

Even while challenging the Clean Power Plan, some states are simultaneously thinking about developing compliance strategies, which could include creation of carbon-trading plans that allow big polluters to buy emissions credits from lesser emitters.

Also published in the Federal Register last week was the final rule regulating carbon dioxide for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants and the proposed federal implementation plan. That plan—to be imposed on states that fail to submit a compliance plan to the EPA—will be the subject of public hearings in November and a 90-day comment period ending January 21.

Draft Climate Deal Text Sent to Paris

On Friday diplomats endorsed the outlines of a proposed global climate deal to be negotiated starting Nov. 30 in Paris. The hope is to come to an agreement— by the summit’s conclusion on Dec.11—that limits warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the most significant effects of climate change. U.N. Climate Chief Christina Figueres said this week that based on some 150 plans submitted thus far, diplomats could only hope to limit warming to just below 3 degrees.

Even when talks start next month, countries that produce 92 percent of greenhouse gases in the world are expected to have submitted national plans. If fully implemented, they would hold temperature rise by the end of the century to 2.7 degrees Celsius.

“There’s nobody out there that wants a 3 degree world,” said Figueres. “Nobody. We are not giving up on a 2 degree world. In fact, we’re staying under 2 degrees. And what we’re doing is we are building a process that is going to get us there.”

But the goal will have to be met without a global carbon price, Figueres said, which could help create an incentive for power plants operators to switch to clean energy.

“[Many have said] we need a carbon price and [investment] would be so much easier with a carbon price, but life is much more complex than that,” she said. “…it’s not quite what we will have.”

There will be—and are—many pricing mechanisms in place around the globe. Many U.S. states are expected to develop trading-ready plans to meet the mandates laid out by the Clean Power Plan.

Report Finds New Highs in Store for Persian Gulf

A new Nature Climate Change study finds that climate change could render some cities in the Persian Gulf too hot for humans to live in—without mitigation measures.

“Our results expose a regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” authors write.

It predicts that a 95-degree wet-bulb temperature—the indicator of humidity that matches the temperature of our skin when we sweat—is too hot for extended periods of time. And that temperature could be exceeded in summer months in certain parts of the region.

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.


GOP Candidates: Government Action on Climate Change Will Hurt Economy

September 24, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last week’s Republican debate drew opinions of several candidates on climate change, namely on how government action to address the problem will hurt the economy. During the four-minute exchange, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dismissed the idea of enacting former Secretary of State George Schultz’s proposed “insurance policy” to guard against global warming risks such as sea-level rise.

When debate moderator Mark Tapper asked about the insurance policy, Rubio responded, “Because we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” and Christie said, “I agree with Marco. We shouldn’t be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild left-wing idea that somehow us by ourselves is going to fix the climate.”

Rubio said he’s not a climate skeptic but that he opposes policies to reduce emissions that he believes will hurt the U.S. economy and fail to affect global temperatures. He suggested that there is little point in the United States reducing its emissions because “America is not a planet.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who suspended his campaign on Monday, concurred with Rubio and referenced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, although not by name.

“I’m going to echo what Senator Rubio just said,” the governor said. “This is an issue where, we’re talking about my state, it’s thousands of manufacturing jobs. Thousands of manufacturing jobs for a rule the Obama administration, its own EPA has said will have a marginal impact on climate change.”

Christie went on to say that “massive government intervention” to deal with climate change is unnecessary, and that New Jersey had already reached its clean air goals for 2020. But ArsTechnica noted that he did not mention that state’s renewable energy standards, net metering, and solar renewable energy credits all required government intervention.

Christie did note that he’d taken New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a now nine-state emissions trading arrangement recently shown to have generated both emissions reductions and economic benefits. Carbon allowances sold by the initiative have just set a new record high. Participating states will use the revenues for energy conservation, renewable energy, and direct bill assistance programs.

Pope Visits United States; Talks Climate Change

The day after arriving in the United States for a six-day visit, Pope Francis acknowledged, in a brief speech at the White House, efforts by the Obama Administration to curb carbon emissions.

“Mr. President,” Francis said in English, “I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” He added “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

The papal visit follows the release of his encyclical on the environment, and Francis’s talks about climate change during the visit may very well touch on the concept of carbon markets. The encyclical says markets are “not good” for rationing natural resource use. “This is where many economists who study environmental markets and carbon markets might take exception to the pope,” the Nicholas Institute’s Brian Murray told American Public Media’s Marketplace. He said markets to limit carbon emissions do curb those emissions, and he attributed the Vatican’s negative view of markets to a failed attempt to use them to go carbon neutral, which used carbon offsets from a voluntary action that did not materialize. A market driven by an enforced cap on emissions, however, would not produce the same risk of failed reductions.

Today, Francis became the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. On the topic of climate change, Pope Francis addressed the divided Congress: “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental change we are undergoing, and its human roots, concerns and affects us all.”

He echoed words in his June encyclical, calling for “courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” Francis said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play … Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Reports: Carbon Pricing Schemes Gain Momentum

The World Bank reports that around the world carbon pricing schemes have nearly doubled (from 20 to 38) since 2012, and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a non-profit that gathers environmental data for investors, reports that the number of companies putting a price on their greenhouse gas emissions for internal planning in 2015 almost tripled (from 150 to 437), with the biggest increase in Asia, where China is slated to launch a national carbon market and South Korea has just introduced one.

According to the CDP report, companies said that carbon prices create incentives for energy efficiency projects and switches to less-polluting fuels. In the United States, utilities cited expected emissions costs as motivation for low- or no-carbon generation investments

The World Bank study estimates that carbon pricing instruments cover about 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and that the combined value of those instruments in some 40 nations and 23 cities, states, and regions is $50 billion a year—$34 billion from markets and $16 billion in taxes. It showed that carbon prices, ranging from less than a dollar a ton of carbon dioxide in Mexico to $130 a ton in Sweden, are for the most part “considerably lower” than needed to help limit temperature rises to a United Nations goal of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. Nations gather for international climate negotiations Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris—a meeting intended to produce a deal that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the hopes of meeting this goal.

The study notes that ex-post analysis of the European Union Emissions Trading System, presently the world’s largest cap-and-trade system by traded volume, has not led industries to move to jurisdictions with comparatively low emissions costs on any significant scale but that the risk of carbon leakage remains as long as carbon price signals are strong and differ significantly among jurisdictions. According to the study, this risk, affecting a limited number of exposed sectors, can be effectively mitigated through policy design.

A parallel report by the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with input from the International Monetary Fund, identified new principles for carbon pricing that it called FASTER: Fairness, Alignment of policies and objectives, Stability and predictability, Transparency, Efficiency and cost effectiveness and Reliability and environmental integrity.

Last week, the European Union urged UN envoys to adopt international carbon market rules and emissions accounting systems by 2017. Negotiations on such systems are not expected to progress far at this year’s climate summit in Paris.

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


Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska this week, sharing blunt language about climate change after laying out initiatives aimed at tackling that issue in the Arctic.

“On this issue—of all issues—there is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama. “And that moment is almost upon us … This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally acts to protect the one planet that we have while we still can.”

On the three-day Alaska trip, Obama is experiencing firsthand the impacts of rapidly melting Arctic ice, which is warming waters that affect local fishing economies and raising sea levels, threatening the state’s coastal villages. To help address some of these local issues, Obama announced new initiatives. One is fish and wildlife cooperation management to help rebuild Chinook salmon stocks. Another is an exchange program that brings urban and rural youth together to understand the challenges of a changing Arctic and the potential for local solutions against the impacts of climate change.

Despite this focus on climate, Obama is receiving criticism for granting Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill for oil off Alaska’s coast. In an op-ed, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard writes “we commend the president for his leadership, and yet this trip comes on the heels of his administration’s decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, a move that seriously undermines his climate legacy.”

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

“I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters,” said Obama. “Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil explorations conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.”

The Chukchi and Beaufort seas could hold as much as 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact remains, said Shell President Marvin Odum that oil will continue to be needed as the United States transitions to renewable energy sources.

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

The impacts of sea level rise could be greater than worst-case scenarios. The reason? The dominant climate models don’t fully account for the accelerated loss of ice sheets and glaciers, a phenomenon highlighted by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.

Recent data on the speed and scope of melting ice sheets in Greenland and parts of Antarctica suggest that global average sea level rise may approach or exceed 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, by 2100.

“The ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise sooner and greater than anticipated,” said Eric Rignot, glaciologist at the University of California–Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Right now, the contribution is about one third. We know that in future warming (melting ice sheets) will dominate sea level rise. With future warming we may have multiples of 6 meters, or 18 feet, and higher. It may be a half meter per century or several meters per century, we don’t know. We’ve never seen an ice sheet collapse before.”

Rignot drew attention to the dynamic behavior of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which recently lost a chunk of ice roughly 12 square kilometers in surface area and which could raise sea level by half a meter if it were to melt entirely.

NASA is beginning a three-year effort, Oceans Melting Greenland, to understand the role of ocean currents and ocean temperatures in melting Greenland’s ice from below—and therefore to better predict the speed at which that melting will raise sea level.

Also of concern: Antarctica, which has a great deal of total ice to lose. The West Antarctica ice sheet may be undergoing a marine instability as warm water reaches the base of its glaciers from below.

“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”

Data collected by NASA satellites, which change position in relation to one another as Earth’s water and ice realign and change gravity’s pull, reveal that the ocean’s mass is increasing, translating to a global sea level rise of about 0.07 inches per year, but that rise is not uniform.

A visualization released by NASA illustrates the variation in sea level rise around the world. Although the sea level has fallen slightly along the U.S. west coast due to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), NASA warns that sea level rise could increase on that coast because the PDO recently shifted into a warm phase.

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

This week, delegates met in Bonn, Germany, to take steps to create a workable draft for a deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties November 30 to December 11 in Paris that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that the agreement will show just how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer poorer countries to deal with their own growing energy and climate adaptation needs. Opinions on how to get to this agreement, which would take effect in 2020, differ.

One particularly sticky point: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between rich and poor nations. In an interview with Politico, Robert Orr, a longtime climate advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, identified the outstanding issues.

“The overall question of ambition, just how ambitious an agreement this will be,” said Orr. “Everyone agrees we need to get ourselves on a pathway to 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise or less. This level of ambition will require changes in everyone’s economies, everyone’s fuel mixes, everyone’s infrastructure investments. So, agreeing on a level of ambition in as much specificity as possible is critical to a successful deal. The issue of financing: All of this has to be paid for.”

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 Targets Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

August 20, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took another step to make good on the Obama administration’s pledge to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 by proposing the first methane emissions rules for the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Reducing emissions of methane, which have 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, is a central component of the administration’s overall climate strategy. The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The EPA expects to release its final methane rules next year, after it hears public comments.

“Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “Cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas are key compliance options for our Clean Power Plan and we are committed to ensuring safe and responsible production that supports a robust clean energy economy.”

The rules target new and modified oil and natural gas operations, but as Greenwire reports, they could eventually trigger regulation of methane leakage from the entire sector (subscription). The proposed rules call for oil and gas processing and transmission facilities to locate and repair methane leaks, capture natural gas from hydraulically fractured oil wells, and limit emissions from equipment—actions netting climate benefits of $120 to $150 million in 2025, according to the EPA.

As they are now, the proposed rules could achieve a cut of 25 to 30 percent by 2025, according to Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. To meet the full 40–45 percent goal, the administration expects to rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and a Department of the Interior rule covering drilling on public lands.

The rules supplement recently announced voluntary initiatives to address methane emissions at existing wells—emissions that may be greater than the EPA estimates according to new research.

A study conducted by scientists at Colorado State University and published in Environmental Science & Technology, quantifies emissions from thousands of gathering facilities, which consolidate gas from wells and feed it into processing plants or pipelines. These emissions have been largely unreflected in federal statistics, the report says, but may be the largest methane source in the oil and gas supply chain. These newly identified emissions would increase total emissions from that chain in EPA’s current Greenhouse Gas Inventory by approximately 25 percent.

Climate Action Declaration

Muslim scholars from 20 countries issued an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” on Tuesday, calling on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to work to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to commit to renewable energy sources.

The declaration drawing on Islamic teachings and to be presented at the global climate summit in Paris was finalized at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul this week.

“The pace of global climate change today is of a different order of magnitude from the gradual changes that previously occurred throughout the most recent era, the Cenozoic,” the declaration reads. “Moreover, it is human-induced: we have now become a force dominating nature. Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger [of] ending life as we know it on our planet.”

The declaration asks Muslim countries, particularly those that are “well-off” and “oil-producing,” to lead the greenhouse gas phase out and to provide financial and technical support for climate change efforts by less-affluent states.

Alaska and Climate Change

Climate change could exacerbate one of Alaska’s worst wildfire seasons—one that has burned some 5 million acres of tundra and forests and ignited fears that large stores of carbon are being emitted into the atmosphere.

“We really need to start considering the long-term implications of big fires that are being predicted,” said Nicky Sundt, a climate change expert for the World Wildlife Fund. “In the Arctic, you have a lot of carbon locked up, and the fires will release that. We need to start thinking seriously about the carbon emissions from these fires.”

A recent Climate Central analysis shows that in the last 60 years large wildfires in Alaska have essentially doubled and that the wildfire season is 40 percent (35 days) longer than it was in the 1950s, mainly due to rapid warming in the globe’s northern reaches.

“The primary driver is temperature. The warmer we get, the more fires we seem to get,” Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said. “We need a 15 percent increase in precipitation to account for the warming. Very few climate models suggest there will be an increase in precipitation to compensate for the increase in temperature. The fuels will be drier in the future and it will be easy to start the spread of fire.”

Of particular concern—drying of peat, which then becomes susceptible to burning and release of centuries’ worth of carbon in the span of a few hours of intense fire. Teresa Hollingsworth, a researcher and ecology professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told NPR that many of the state’s fires burned seven feet deep, where vast amounts of carbon are stored.

“The carbon released from fire emissions during a large fire year in Alaska is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the global fossil fuel and land use emissions,” said Dave McGuire, a research scientist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, in a recent press release.

Obama is visiting the state at the end of this month to highlight climate change impacts that go beyond fires.

“In Alaska, glaciers are melting,” Obama said in a video released last week. “The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended for their way of life and for their jobs are being threatened. Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are all at risk.”

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.