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.


California Governor Calls for Aggressive Emissions Cuts

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Committee Votes to Delay Climate Rule

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

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

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

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


Emissions, Economic Growth Parting Ways

April 23, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis released Monday reveals that the country’s energy-related carbon emissions grew last year but more slowly than the economy as a whole, representing a decoupling of emissions and economic growth that is projected to continue through 2015 (subscription). Bloomberg reports that the difference in the emissions increase and the GDP increase—0.7 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively—is considered a sign that emissions reductions efforts are not restraining economic expansion.

“The more we can grow our economy without increasing emissions by the same amount of that economic growth, it means that other factors such as energy intensity and the amount of carbon dioxide released in the production of that energy are offsetting the economic growth,” said EIA report author Perry Lindstrom in an e-mail to Reuters.

Confirmation of the second consecutive annual increase in U.S. carbon emissions comes on the heels of commitments by the United States to a 26–28 percent cut in those emissions from 2005 levels by 2025.

A recently released short-term forecast for U.S. power by Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that U.S. emissions-cutting efforts are about to get a huge boost. It projects that this year carbon pollution from the U.S. power sector will fall to its lowest level since 1994 as coal plants go offline and renewables come online. But a Duke University-led study based on 1,000 years of temperature records suggests that global warming is not progressing as fast as it would under the most severe emissions scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gas Flaring Initiative Aims to Capture Easy Emissions Reductions

The World Bank announced first-ever commitments by 9 countries, 10 oil companies, and all 6 global development institutions to end the practice of routine gas flaring at oil production sites by 2030. The “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” initiative was launched by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who said the voluntary agreement will cut 40 percent of the global gas flaring that each year results in 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to emissions from approximately 77 million cars.

No U.S.-based companies have signed onto the initiative, which the World Bank and U.N. are using to build support for the U.N.-hosted climate conference aimed at forging a global climate agreement in Paris later this year.

“We think that to eliminate routine gas flaring is the low-hanging fruit on the climate agenda,” said Bjorn Hamso, the World Bank’s program manager for the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership. “Oil-producing countries who decide to join us in this effort, they can make that CO2 reduction part of their contribution to the negotiations in Paris.”

Signatories to the initiative will publicly report their flaring and progress toward the target on an annual basis and will prohibit routine flaring in new oil fields developments.

U.S. Energy Infrastructure Requires “Significant Change”

To deal with the challenges of climate change, new technology, a changing energy supply and national security in the coming years, the U.S. electricity sector will require major modifications, according to a new report by the Obama administration.

“The United States’ energy system is going through dramatic changes,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers.”

The report notes that the U.S. energy infrastructure—2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, about 640,000 miles of transmission lines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, 330 ports handling crude and petroleum and refined petroleum products and more than 140,000 miles of railways that handle crude petroleum—is outdated. It calls for billions in new spending programs and tax credits to modernize this system’s grid and oil and gas and transportation infrastructure. Among the approaches it recommends are these:

  • Establish a Department of Energy-run program that provides financial assistance to states to encourage cost-effective improvements that would accelerate pipeline replacement and enhance maintenance programs for natural gas distribution systems.
  • Promote grid modernization with a proposal in the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request.
  • Make infrastructure investments that optimize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and have Congress update release authorities to reflect modern oil markets.
  • Increase integration of energy data among the United States, Canada, Mexico and other countries.
  • Improve quantification of emissions from natural gas and provide funding for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.

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 Releases Report, Other Initiatives Directed at Tackling Climate Change Impacts

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Barack Obama announced a series of steps that aim to tackle the effects of climate change on the health of Americans. These 150 health-focused actions to boost climate change preparedness expand on the Climate Data Initiative launched a year.

“The sooner we act, the more we can do to protect the health of our communities, our kids, and those that are the most vulnerable,” the White House said in a statement. “As part of the administration’s overall effort to combat climate change and protect the American people, this week, the administration is announcing a series of actions that will allow us to better understand, communicate, and reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities.”

Beyond the list of initiatives—including expanding access to climate and health data, improving air quality data and convening a climate change and health summit—the administration released a draft report on the observed and future impacts of climate change on our health. It focuses on risks such as weather extremes, air quality and water-and food-related issues that could affect Americans and is open for public comment. A final draft is expected for release in early 2016.

Another report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adaptation in Action, highlights successful actions by state leaders in Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and New York to reduce the health impacts of climate change.

Study Forecasts Canadian Glacier Loss; Could Have Wider Implications

A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts how much glaciers in western Canada will shrink—as much as 70 percent by 2100—depending on the rate of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere between now and the end of the century.

“Over the next century, there is going to be a huge loss,” said lead author Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia. “The glaciers are telling us that we’re changing the climate.”

The study—the first to model many glaciers in detail at one time—could have implications for predicting glacier loss around the world. New Scientist reports that unlike previous studies—including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—this Nature Geoscience study relies on detailed analysis of how glaciers are likely to move and change shape as they melt. The earlier studies relied on the difference between the amount of snow falling on the glacier at higher altitudes and the amount of thawing at lower ones.

Climate Change Triggers Rising Tide of Troubles for California

Last week the Risky Business Project released its third report on the economic impacts of climate change, a report calling on business leaders to push for policy reform and to factor climate change into their businesses’ risk models.

From Boom to Bust? Climate Risk in the Golden State describes how extreme heat and shifting precipitation patterns from escalating climate change will drain California’s water supply, worsen drought and wildfire, and undermine agriculture. Rising temperatures will also lead to decreased labor productivity, increased energy costs, and greater air pollution. Human health and property will be put at risk: a doubling or tripling of the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit could contribute to nearly 7,700 additional heat-related deaths per year by century’s end, and rising sea levels along the California coast could submerge $10 billion in property by 2050. 

The report was published the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown placed first-ever mandatory water restrictions on all Californians, a response to the state’s fourth year of drought, which has already challenged many of the state’s businesses. The executive order calls for a 25 percent slash in water use and comes as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which Californians rely on heavily for summertime water needs, neared a record low.

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Keystone Legislation Headed to President’s Desk

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

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

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

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

National Security Strategy Report Highlights Threat of Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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


Obama Addresses Climate Change with Proposed 2016 Budget

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Pushes Ahead on Keystone, EPA Pushes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add Blackouts to Climate Change Effects

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

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

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

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


Obama Tackles Climate Change in State of the Union Address

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Hottest Year on Record

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

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

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

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

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

States Get Help Meeting Clean Power Plan Targets

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Administration Targets Methane Emissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Negotiations Heat Up in Closing Stages of UN Climate Change Conference

December 11, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Optimism at the outset of the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, has given way to the hard work of reaching high-level resolution prior to the December 2015 UN meeting in Paris.

Among the challenges is disagreement about regular auditing of carbon emission pledges. The European Union insists on a formal review of all country pledges, whereas the United States recommends a voluntary approach to emissions cuts with the disclaimer of no backtracking in targets. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it,” said Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change. “This is a way to get everyone in.”

Another challenge is differentiating the responsibilities of developed countries and those of developing countries. China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have coordinated their positions at the Lima talks, want to make sure the potential new agreement will allow poorer nations to meet their prevalent needs such as poverty eradication. “Poor people have aspirations,” said India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. “We must give them energy access.”

Host country Peru, along with other Latin American nations (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama), is pushing for aggressive emission cuts by major economies as well as emerging economies such as China and Brazil. However, critics are quick to point out the country’s poor record in protecting rainforests, which play a critical role as carbon sinks.

Struggling through hammering rainfall from Typhoon Hagupit, the Philippines are asking for all nations, developing and developed, to cut use of fossil fuels.

“The thinking of the pivot is—we’re going to take on commitments and do our part,” said Tony La Viña, a Philippine climate change delegate. “The call has always been for developed countries to act. But the thinking is simple. If we’re going to get hit every year again and again, how can we call on developed countries to reduce their emissions, but not reduce our own?”

A new UN report showing climate adaptation costs for developing countries could be two to three times higher than current global estimates makes the 2050 zero-carbon goal another contentious issue. Meeting this goal would significantly affect oil and gas production as well as coal extraction methods. “With a concept like zero emissions and ‘let’s knock fossil fuels out of the picture’, without clear technology diffusion and international cooperation program, you are really not helping the process,” said chief Saudi Arabian negotiator Khalid AbuLeif.

Emissions Reduction Pledges Underscore Importance of Social Cost of Carbon Estimates

The Climate Action Tracker report released by a group of independent scientists notes that recent pledges by the United States, China and the European Union to limit greenhouse gas emissions will, in fact, slow the rate of global warming this century, though not enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Draft text of the 2015 global climate change agreement being negotiated in Lima includes a May 3, 2015, deadline for nationally determined contributions—promises from individual countries for internal action on climate change. Figuring into these commitments are estimates of the social cost of carbon, or the per-metric-ton dollar value of reducing climate change damages—a metric that the United States uses in regulatory analysis and that it and other developed countries could use to leverage greater emissions reductions commitments from developing countries.

Several economy and environmental policy experts are recommending that the government change the way (subscription) it establishes this cost. In an article in Science, former U.S. Department of the Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy and Nicholas Institute faculty fellow William Pizer and his coauthors recommend that the United States adopt a standardized process to regularly evaluate the cost and that the process undergo a public comment period and a review by the National Academy of Sciences.

Commenting on the need for a consistently used and rigorously maintained estimate of climate damages, Pizer said, “It’s important that we draw on the expertise of all government agencies, as well as independent experts in the field. This level of high-quality collaboration and peer review would decrease the likelihood of political factors interfering with the process, and ensure we have the most robust Social Cost of Carbon.”

2014—Hottest Year on Record?

A report issued by The United Nation’s World Meteorological Association says that 2014 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961–1990 average.

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate,” said Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General. “Record-breaking heat combined with torrential rainfall and floods destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives.”

A report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that finds that the historic California drought is due to natural weather patterns, as opposed to hot temperatures across the state, raised the ire of some climate scientists, who said the report did not take into account how record warmth worsened the drought.

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.