China Announces Cap-and-Trade Program

October 1, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On his visit to Washington last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that his country, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, will launch a national cap-and-trade scheme in 2017. The move would make China the world’s biggest carbon market and could strengthen global efforts to put a price on carbon.

The planned emissions trading program will consolidate China’s seven existing regional carbon markets and cover industries not currently regulated for carbon in the United States: iron and steel, chemicals, building materials, and paper manufacturing.

China has yet to announce specifics of its cap-and-trade plan, which will face political and technical challenges. “The devil of course is in the details,” said Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University. “It really does matter what the actual cap is.” He added that limits leading to a pre-2030 emissions peak would be a huge move.

Frank Jotzo, the director of the Center for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra and a close tracker of developments in China said the national emissions trading scheme will have a major signaling effect. “The world’s second-largest economy puts in place a price on carbon emissions, and this will be noted the world over,” he said. “If successful, it can grow into playing a major role in facilitating China’s objectives for a cleaner energy and industrial system.”

Jinping’s announcement occasioned this ironic observation in The Atlantic in reference to Republicans’ rejection of a cap-and-trade proposal in Obama’s first term, which led to enactment of climate control policy through regulation of the electric power industry in the form of the Clean Power Plan: “China, the largest self-avowedly communist nation in the world, has created a market to reduce its carbon emissions. And the U.S., the anchor of global capitalism, will limit them through government command-and-control.”

China also made a substantial financial commitment to help poor countries fight climate change—$3.1 billion.

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Adopted

The United Nations General Assembly agreed to 17 new sustainable development goals, which expand on the eight Millennium Development Goals. The new goals are broken down into 169 specific targets each country has committed to achieve over the next 15 years. They focus on everything from eradicating extreme poverty and climate change to providing energy access for all.

Goal 7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Two targets to put the world on this path are to increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix and to double the rate of improvement of energy efficiency by 2030.

World Energy Council Secretary General Christoph Frei welcomed the agreement on the goals. “The adoption of energy among sustainable development goals is timely, critical, and historic,” he said. “Timely because we need to master the energy transition at a time of greatest uncertainty in the energy sector. Critical because we will not solve energy access or achieve energy efficiency objectives without moving the agenda from those who want to those who can. Historic because the development community for the first time recognizes the fundamental role energy is playing in the achievement of most of the other sustainable development goals.”

Goal 13 is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. A few targets to get there—integrate climate change measure into national policies, strategies and planning as well as advance the Green Climate Fund—requiring developed countries to follow through on commitments to provide $100 billion by 2020 to aid developing nations’ efforts to adapt and mitigate climate-related disasters.

With the adoption of the 17 goals, attention now turns to the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris—where member states hope to adopt a global climate agreement. In a CNN editorial, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, said all could take a lesson from Pope Francis’s message on climate change.

“Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, clearly articulated that climate change is a moral issue, and one of the principal challenges facing humanity,” said Ban Ki-Moon, mentioning the Pope’s recent visit to the U.S. where he address the U.N. and Congress. “He rightly cited the solid scientific consensus showing significant warming of the climate system, with the most global warming in recent decades mainly a result of human activity.”

Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling

Royal Dutch Shell suspended its search for oil and gas off the coast of Alaska for the “foreseeable future,” saying that Arctic oil reserves were insufficient and that the regulatory environment was too unpredictable to continue.

“Shell continues to see important exploration potential in the basin, and the area is likely to ultimately be of strategic importance to Alaska and the U.S.,” said Marvin Odum, president of Shell USA. “However, this is a clearly disappointing exploration outcome for this part of the basin.”

Although the decision was celebrated by some environmental activists who had protested Shell’s decision to drill offshore, it should give people on both sides pause, Mike LeVine of Oceana told U.S. News and World Report.

“Meaningful action to address climate change is almost certainly going to mean we can’t keep looking for oil in remote and expensive places,” he said. “Rather than investing in programs like this, we need to figure out how to transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy.”

Alaska House of Representatives member Ben Nageak told the Associated Press that the state must act quickly to find another source to fill its 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

“We stood on the cusp of another economic boom that could have propelled our young people and their children to better futures,” Nageak said. But “a draconian and poisoned federal government” shut it down.

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.

World on Path to Miss 2C Target

September 10, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Plans submitted by world’s top polluters won’t limit global warming to the 2-degree Celsius threshold recommended by the United Nations, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a tool developed by a consortium of four European research organizations.

In a report released last week at climate talks in Bonn ahead of the U.N. climate conference in Paris, the consortium said that pledges of emissions reductions—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)—submitted by 29 governments as of Sept. 1 must be significantly strengthened. Further reductions of 12–15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent are needed by 2025 and another 17–21 gigatons by 2030.

The projections are based on CAT’s analysis of 15 of the 29 INDCs. Of those 15 INDCs, covering 64.5 percent of global emissions, the analysis finds only 2 (those of Ethiopia and Morocco) are “sufficient.” Those of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Russia are “inadequate,” and those of China, the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States are “medium,” that is, consistent with the target.

“It is clear that if the Paris meeting locks in present climate commitments for 2030, holding warming below 2°C could essentially become infeasible, and 1.5°C beyond reach. Given the present level of pledged climate action, commitments should only be made until 2025,” said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT consortium members. “The INDCs therefore need to be considerably strengthened for the period 2020–2025.”

The CAT report also found that “in most cases” countries didn’t have policies in place to reduce emissions to match their INDCs for 2025. China and the European Union were the exceptions.

The world has already warmed up by 0.8 C—nearly half the 2 C target—and, according to CAT, is on track for 2.9–3.1 C of warming by 2100.

Bonn Talks Conclude

At climate talks in Bonn, Germany, delegates agreed to give two co-chairs of the talks permission to move forward on shrinking down a lengthy draft deal slated to be negotiated at the Conference of the Parties, November 30 to December 11, in Paris. That deal would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“At this session, countries have crystalized their positions and have requested the co-chairs to produce a concise basis for negotiations with clear options for the next negotiating session in October,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, co-chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group of the mandate. “This means that we will arrive in Paris on time without too much turbulence—not before, not later.”

Delegates will start line-by-line negotiations on the next draft in Bonn, Oct. 19. Major sticking points are how much pollution will be cut and exactly how much money rich nations will offer to help poorer countries deal with their growing energy and climate adaptation needs.

U.N. Study Examines Global Deforestation Rates

The amount of forest lost across the world in the last 25 years encompasses an area nearly the size of South Africa (about 500,000 square miles) and has resulted in the release of 17.4 billion tons of carbon, according a new United Nations report, which used self-reported data from 234 countries and territories. It finds the biggest losses from deforestation and forest degradation, which are known to increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, are in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Even so, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that the rate of loss has slowed from 0.18 percent annually in the early 90s to 0.08 percent yearly since 2010. Globally, it notes, natural forest area is decreasing, and planted forest area is increasing.

“FRA 2015 shows a very encouraging tendency towards a reduction in the rates of deforestation and carbon emissions from forests and increases in capacity for sustainable forest management,” said FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva. “The direction of change is positive, with many impressive examples of progress in all regions of the world.”

FAO pointed to agriculture as the main driver of deforestation in the tropics. “The place to start and the place to finish in many ways is the agriculture story,” said Kenneth MacDicken, an FAO senior forestry officer (subscription). “We need to boost intensification of food production on less land, and it’s really market forces that drive food production. If the price goes high enough, people will take more risks.”

Some challenged the U.N. findings, disputing the data used to arrive at them and claiming that deforestation rates have actually increased 62 percent during the study time period.

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.

McCarthy: Clean Power Plan on Track; Challenges Expected

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) will have no effect on the proposed Clean Power Plan, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“EPA is still committed to finalizing the Clean Power Plan,” McCarthy said. “Making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics Standards decision and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples and oranges. Last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts. We are still on track to produce that plan this summer and it will cut carbon pollution that is fueling climate change from power plants.”

Although both the MATS rule and the Clean Power Plan deal with air protections, McCarthy noted that the Supreme Court’s MATS ruling was narrowly tailored to a specific aspect of that rule—whether regulation of mercury emissions from the power sector was “appropriate or necessary.” The proposed Clean Power Plan—slated to be finalized this summer—would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final emissions rate limit. Bills to scale back the proposed rule as well as court challenges have already surfaced. McCarthy said others were imminent.

“The Clean Power Plan will absolutely be litigated,” she said. “We actually are very good at writing rules and defending them, and this will be no exception.”

Climate Change Commitments Ahead of Paris

New Zealand is the latest country to announce an emissions reduction target ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year. Minister for Climate Change Issues Tim Groser said the country is aiming for a 30 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030—a target hedged with multiple conditions, including unrestricted access to global carbon markets. But while national pledges command attention, many cities are pursuing their own climate change initiatives.

More than 75 of the world’s biggest cities have formed the C40 group, pledging substantial emissions reductions in the next three decades. And more than 6,000 European cities have signed the Covenant of Mayors, a voluntary commitment to make emissions reductions greater and faster than European Union (EU) climate targets. These municipal climate action plans call for, on average, a 28 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020, 8 percent more than the 2020 EU target.

Such plans will be critical because national pledges will be insufficient to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The group, made up of former heads of state, finance ministers, and banking executives chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, argues that city governments and the private sector have a substantive role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In its just-released New Climate Economy report, the commission says the remainder of the needed reductions can be found by taking steps to halt deforestation and carrying out actions at a local level. Among its 10 recommendations: cities, which generate 71–76 percent of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions, must make low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure investments.

“Low-carbon cities represent a US$17 trillion economic opportunity,” said C40 Chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, adding that by scaling up municipal best practices such as traffic- and pollution-reducing mobility systems “cities can accelerate global climate action and help close the emissions gap.” 

OMB Issues Federal Facilities Climate Change Directive

The White House has revised its model for defining the social cost of carbon (SCC)—a measure of the economic damage caused by planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions—and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said it will—for the first time—require federal agencies to consider the effects of climate change on federal facility construction and maintenance budgets in fiscal year 2017.

The new SCC model—which lowers the estimate from $37 to $36 per metric ton—reflects minor technical revisions following 150 substantive public comments that took 15 months to process, according to a blog post by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Howard Shelanski and Council of Economic Advisers member Maurice Obstfeld, who described the SCC as “a tool that helps Federal agencies decide which carbon-reducing regulatory approaches make the most sense—to know which come at too great a cost and which are a good deal for society.”

“OMB is asking all federal agencies to consider climate preparedness and resiliency objectives as part of their Fiscal Year 2017 budget requests for construction and maintenance of Federal facilities,” wrote Ali Zaidi, OMB’s associate director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science, in a blog post. “We are making it very clear that this is a priority in proposals for capital funding. Why? Because making our Federal facility investments climate-smart reduces our fiscal exposure to the impacts of climate change.”

The SCC, which has appeared in a carbon tax bill proposed by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz, has raised the ire of Capitol Hill Republicans, who say the executive branch has used it to justify the cost of rules such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The idea that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions impose a social cost might revive discussion in the United States of a carbon tax or free-market credit system to control those emissions, according to the Fiscal Times.

Although the timing of future SCC estimate updates is unclear, they will reflect input from the National Academies of Science and be subject to an open process that reflects “the best available science and economics,” the White House 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.

SCOTUS Overturns Mercury Rule

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that the Clean Air Act required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the costs of its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

The MATS rule requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimated MATS would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but cut coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generate $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.” Because these benefits are calculated on the basis of increased life expectancies and reduced health effects, the values have been subject to much of the debate.

“It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. “Statutory context supports this reading.”

The Supreme Court did not dictate how the agency should address its ruling. It sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit for reconsideration of the rulemaking.

“EPA is disappointed that the court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” said EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, noting the agency is reviewing the ruling.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jonas Monast notes that the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely be limited because electric utilities have already taken steps to comply with the regulation.

World’s Top Emitters Announce Climate Pledges

Three of the world’s 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases—Brazil, China and the United States—announced new climate change commitments.

China made its intended nationally determined contribution to the United Nations, which calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60–65 percent from 2005 levels and obtain 20 percent of its energy from low-carbon sources in 2030 (11.2 percent now comes from such sources).

“China’s carbon dioxide emission will peak by around 2030 and China will work hard to achieve the target at an even earlier date,” said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

In a joint statement, the United States and Brazil pledged to source 20 percent of their electricity from non-hydropower renewable sources by 2030. Brazil also committed to restore a swath of forest 46,332 square miles—roughly the size of England—through policies that aim to tackle deforestation.

The commitments come just months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where countries will work toward a global climate agreement. Brian Deese, senior White House climate adviser, said the announcement by the United States and Brazil “substantially elevates and builds” on climate progress and “should provide momentum moving into our shared objective of getting an agreement in Paris later this year.”

Alberta Doubles Carbon Fee, Moves on Climate-Policy Review

The Canadian province of Alberta last week announced it would double its carbon fee—the first to be levied by a North American jurisdiction—from C$15 to C$30 a metric ton and increase its emissions intensity reductions target from 12 to 20 percent by 2017 in an effort to curb greenhouse gases from industrial facilities, coal plants and oil-sands production. The government, which will also begin a climate-policy review to prepare recommendations ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year, has said the province needs to be a leader in climate policy in order to support the oil-sands industry, long criticized for its environmental impact.

“If Alberta wants better access to world markets, then we’re going to need to do our part to address one of the world’s biggest problems, which is climate change,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in announcing the news.

The carbon fee is levied on industrial facilities emitting more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for emissions that exceed a facility’s emission intensity target. The levy was introduced in 2008, Alberta has collected fee revenues of $578 million, which it has put into a technology fund for initiatives that reduce emissions. Those 103 facilities have the option of reducing their emissions intensity, buying Alberta-based offsets to meet the intensity targets, or paying into that fund.

While Alberta’s fee is in support of an emissions intensity target rather than on total emissions, neighboring province British Columbia levies a broad-based carbon tax on emissions from most major sources and uses those tax revenues to largely fund tax cuts. A recent Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions-University of Ottawa analysis of that tax found that it was reducing emissions with little net impact, either negative or positive, on provincial economic performance.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) welcomed the news that Alberta would extend its carbon fee measure, officially the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, to December 31, 2017, the date on which Ontario will likely launch its emissions-trading market, “which is intended to link with those of California and Quebec,” according to IETA.

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.

Inaction on Climate Change Has Dismal Consequences

June 25, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The White House and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new peer-reviewed report saying inaction on climate change is a dire threat to human health and the economy. It specifically estimates the physical monetary paybacks across 20 sectors of the United States by year 2100 if world leaders successfully limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Among its findings: agricultural losses could be reduced by as much as $11 billion, there could be as many as 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality and as much as $110 billion in lost labor hours could be avoided. If nothing is done by 2100, the United States will see thousands of additional deaths annually related to extreme temperatures and poor air quality.

“The results are quite startling and very clear,” said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. “Left unchecked, climate change affects our health, infrastructure and the outdoors we love. But more importantly the report shows that global action on climate change will save lives.”

The Washington Post notes one major concern with the study—citing a recent International Energy Agency analysis—though several major new international commitments could move the world in the right direction, the planet is almost certainly not going to hit its 2 degree target.

The report follows the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical—acknowledging that climate change is largely caused by humans—sparking bipartisan reaction. A review of surveys by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University found the majority of Catholic Republicans agreed that global warming is happening.

EPA Clean Power Plan Under Fire

A White House official this week said the final version of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would retain its ambitious 30 percent cut in emissions (subscription). Slated to be finalized in August, the rule would limit emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act by giving states flexibility in how they can meet interim state-level emissions rate goals (2020–2030) and a final 2030 emissions rate limit.

Bills to scale back its intended benefits were the subject of House hearings this week. One in particular, the Ratepayer Protection Act—which Obama threatened to veto—was passed with a 247-180 vote by House Republicans Wednesday. It would pause implementation of the rule until all legal challenges have been settled. It also would allow states to opt out if the rule leads to rate increases. Manufacturers on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill. A letter from the National Association of Manufacturers noted that the “rule has the potential to substantially increase the costs of electricity for manufacturers and could threaten the reliability of the electric grid in many parts of the country.” But a report from Public Citizen suggests the Clean Power Plan will actually be beneficial to consumers and the economy generally.

2015 on Pace to Be Warmest Year on Record

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Japanese Meteorological Agency last week reported that the first five months of this year are the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880, putting 2015 on track to top 2014 as the warmest year on record.

In May, the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.57 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, 0.14 degrees above the previous record set in May 2014.

According to NOAA, record warm sea-surface temperatures in the northeast and equatorial Pacific Ocean as well as areas of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Barents Sea north of Scandinavia contributed to the anomalous heat so far in 2015.

“The oceans have been what’s really been driving the warmth that we’ve seen in the last year and a half to two years,” said Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Education. “We’ve seen really large warmth in all of the major ocean basins. So, if there’s anything unusual or weird, I guess, about what we’re seeing, it’s the fact that the entire global ocean is participating in this really extreme warmth that we’ve seen in the last couple years.”

The current El Niño event could help keep temperatures at record or near-record levels for the remainder of the year, but climate scientists are cautious about saying whether 2015 will definitely be a record breaker for heat.

“We expect that we are going to get more warm years, and just as with 2014, records will be broken increasingly in the future. But perhaps not every year,” said Gavin Schmidt, who leads NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

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.

Pope Calls for Sweeping Changes to Address Climate Change

June 18, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, which may play a key role in the United Nations climate change conference in Paris later this year, was released today. Among its key focuses: climate change is real, it is getting worse and humans are a major cause.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” the Pope wrote. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical called for sweeping changes in politics, economics and lifestyles to confront the issue—including moving away from fossil fuel use.

“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” he wrote. “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

A leaked draft of the encyclical published Monday in an Italian magazine sparked bipartisan reaction. Democrats greeted it as a vindication of the science of climate change and of their party’s policy proposals to address it (subscription). Some prominent Republicans—such as GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush—argued that a religious leader has no place in crafting policy. Former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis said the encyclical will force skeptics and critics of environmental regulations in the GOP to do some “soul searching.”

“There’s a lot of Republicans who may have in the past been critical of fellow Catholics who they call ‘cafeteria Catholics’ who don’t follow the church’s teachings—say, on abortion,” said Inglis. “But now, are they going to become ‘cafeteria Catholics’ themselves and not follow the church’s teachings on climate change?”

Carbon Tax Bill Aims to Trade a “Bad” for a “Good”

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii last week introduced the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, a bill that would impose a $45 per metric ton fee on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels—a figure reflecting the federal government’s estimate of the so-called social cost of carbon, a measure of damage attributable to climate change. The location of the announcement, the American Enterprise Institute, was “meant to convey an offer of partnership” with conservatives on what the two Democratic senators hope is a “rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science,” ClimateWire reported (subscription).

The bill’s gradually rising tax (2 percent per year) and credits for carbon sequestration are aimed at reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels. According to a summary of the legislation, the bill would cut emissions by at least 40 percent by 2025. That amount represents a far greater reduction than the 26 to 28 percent that the United States has pledged to achieve through regulatory changes over the same period and would amount to a cut deeper than that proposed by other countries in the run up to discussions surrounding a climate deal in Paris later this year.

Whitehouse and Schatz argued that lack of a carbon tax is a $700 billion annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.

“A carbon fee can repair that market failure by incorporating unpriced damage into the costs of fossil fuels,” Whitehouse said. “Then the free market—not industry, not government—can drive the best energy mix is for the country, with everyone competing on level ground.”

Fossil fuel consumption in British Columbia is down since the Canadian province implemented a carbon tax. New analysis of that tax’s performance by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity describes the tax as straight out of the economist’s playbook.

Co-author and Nicholas Institute Environmental Economics Program Director Brian Murray describes the tax as a “textbook” prescription because of its wide coverage and revenue neutrality, meaning that revenues from the tax go back to British Columbia households and businesses.

“Economists often favor revenue-neutral carbon taxation because it has the potential to enhance economic growth by lowering distortions from the current tax system,” said Murray. “Given these characteristics, the British Columbia carbon tax may provide the purest example of the economist’s carbon tax prescription in practice.”

Similar to revenues from the British Columbia carbon tax, fees from the proposed carbon tax would be recycled back to businesses and individuals. The projected $2 trillion over the course of the first decade would be invested in “American competitiveness” through tax credits, corporate tax cuts, and funding for states, which Whitehouse and Schatz say would help low-income and rural communities transition to new industries.

White House Raises $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

President Barack Obama hopes to spark clean energy innovation with $4 billion in private sector investments and executive actions, officials announced at the White House’s Clean Energy Investment Summit Tuesday. The funding is in response to a call for increased private sector research into low-carbon energy technology. It doubles the funding goal announced in February, when the Obama administration launched its Clean Energy Investment Initiative.

The Clean Energy Impact Investment Center will operate under the Energy Department to speed other financing for clean energy. The idea, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted, is to “make the department’s resources … more readily available to the public.”

He added: “The United States and other countries are providing substantial financial support to the development and commercialization of clean energy technologies but, if were to achieve climate goals, it is imperative that we find ways to incentivize the global capital markets to invest in clean energy. The U.S. government is addressing the need for new financing through a variety of programs that support clean energy technology through the research and development, demonstration and deployment stages.”

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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

Studies Examine Cause of Warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama: Climate Change Endangers National Security

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

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

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

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

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

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.