U.N. Report: Carbon Dioxide Levels at Record Highs

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The concentration and the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are spiking, according to new analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Scientists believe the record levels are not only the result of emissions but also of plants and oceans’ inability to absorb the excess amounts of CO2.

“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification.”

The WMO study found that CO2 concentrations increased more during 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984—and significantly higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution (278 parts per million in 1750 compared with 396 parts per million in 2013). Other greenhouse gases are also on the rise—methane has risen by 253 percent since the Industrial Revolution,   and nitrous oxide has risen to 121 percent of pre-industrial levels.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on how countries grow their economy while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions linked to energy concluded that the gap is widening between what the world is achieving and what it needs to do in terms of limiting global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels—the target agreed at the United Nations 2009 climate summit. Carbon intensity was reduced, on average, 1.2 percent from 2012 to 2013. The needed annual reduction is 6.2 percent.

The PwC report also found that places like China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey are reducing their carbon intensity far better than the world’s rich nations.

“What we found this year is that emerging economies have outperformed the G7 countries because their economies are growing much more rapidly than their emissions,” said Jonathan Grant, PwC director of sustainability and climate change.

BP Gets U.K. Support in Court Filing

The British government, in a court filing, offered support to limit payments by BP to victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that court-mandated compensation by a U.S. District Court in 2012 undermined confidence in judicial fairness. BP has spent much of this year working to convince federal courts in New Orleans that the settlement deal allowed millions in payments to go to what it says are undeserving businesses.

In its Sept. 4 filing, the British government said the prospect of payments going to people unaffected by the spill raises “grave international comity concerns.”

“The lower courts’ rulings have dramatically expanded [BP’s] scope of liability far beyond anything that would seem to be appropriate under our shared common-law traditions or that anyone would reasonably expect,” the British government wrote in an Amicus Curiae.

The brief comes on the heels of another more recent court ruling that found the company “grossly negligent” in the explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling opened the door to new civil penalties that could amount to as much as $18 billion and that could pressure the company to sell assets from the Americas to Asia and Russia.

Regulating Emissions from the Airline Industry

As it did to implement a tailpipe rule that sets greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could use an endangerment finding to regulate emissions from the airline industry.

The EPA announced plans to release an endangerment finding proposal in April 2015 that looks at whether emissions from airlines endanger public health or welfare.

“If a positive endangerment and cause or contribute findings are made, U.S./EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to set [greenhouse gas] emission standards for aircrafts,” the EPA said. A process to finalize such a finding could take up to year.

The announcement comes as the electricity industry faces proposed regulations that would cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels, a move that governors of 15 states recently wrote “exceeds the scope of federal law” in a letter to President Obama.

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 Considering Lower Ozone Standard, Methane Strategy

September 4, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In its Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards report—released Friday—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests revising the health-based national ambient air quality standard for ozone.

“Staff concludes that it is appropriate in this review to consider a revised primary [ozone] standard level within the range of 70 ppb [parts per billion] to 60 ppb,” the report said (subscription). “A standard set within this range would result in important improvements in public protection, compared to the current standard, and could reasonably be judged to provide an appropriate degree of public health protection, including for at-risk populations and life stages.”

The report is part of the normal EPA process to consider changing air quality standards. It recommends tightening current smog rules—now at 75 parts per billion—somewhere between 7 and 20 percent, echoing findings of the EPA’s science advisory committee in June. A final decision lies with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has a Dec. 1 deadline to issue a proposal on whether to retain or revise the existing standard.

Earlier in the week, McCarthy announced plans to issue a methane strategy emphasizing efficiency and reducing the need to flare gas—a strategy that could force oil and gas producers to cut emissions.

“We’re going to be putting out a strategy this fall and we hope everybody will pay attention to that effort,” McCarthy said at the Barclays Capital energy forum on Tuesday. “It will be addressing the challenges as well as the opportunities.”

Whether or not actual regulations for the industry will be issued is still being decided. McCarthy noted that the agency is “looking at what are the most cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts that can take a chunk out of methane in the system.”

This effort follows on the heels of an announcement by the White House that directed the EPA to develop an inter-agency strategy to combat methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems. If issued, rules to cut methane emissions would take effect in 2016.

China Eyes Carbon Market

Reuters reports that China will launch the world’s largest carbon market in 2016, although some provinces would be allowed to join later if they lacked the technical infrastructure needed to participate at the outset. “We will send over the national market regulations to the State Council for approval by the end of the year,” Sun Cuihua, a senior climate official with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told a conference in Bejing.

Confirming the earlier statement by Cuihua, Wang Shu, an official with the climate division of the NDRC said “We’ve brought forward this plan because it’s been prioritized in the central government’s economic reforms. The central government is pushing reforms, so everything is speeding up.”  According to Reuters, as in other carbon markets, power plants and manufacturers would face a cap on the carbon dioxide they discharge.  If an emitter needs to exceed its cap, it will have to purchase additional permits from the market to account for such emissions.

Court Finds BP Grossly Negligent in 2010 Gulf Spill

A U.S. District judge on Thursday ruled that BP was “grossly negligent” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and allowed millions of barrels of oil to flow out of the Macondo oil well into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The court concludes that the discharge of oil was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct,” by BP, the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier said. He found that BP was at fault for 67 percent of the spill. Two other companies involved—Transocean and Halliburton—were responsible for 30 and 3 percent, respectively.

“The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case,” BP said in a statement. “BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court. The court has not yet ruled on the number of barrels spilled and no penalty has been determined. The District Court will hold additional proceedings, which are currently scheduled to begin in January 2015, to consider the application of statutory penalty factors in assessing a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty.”

Judge Barbier’s ruling could result in as much as $18 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, according to The Hill.

Bacteria Used to Make Alternative Fuel

A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests that Escherichia coli, or E. coli bacteria, which is widely found in the human intestine, can be used to create propane gas that can power vehicles, central heating systems and camp stoves.

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Patrik Jones, a study co-author. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Commercial production is still five to 10 years away—the level of propane produced by the team is 1,000 times less than that needed to make a commercial product. The process, which needs further refinement, uses E. coli to interrupt a biological process to create engine-ready propane rather than cell membranes.

“At the moment, we don’t have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds,” Jones 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.


EPA Releases Proposed Rule for Existing Power Plants

June 5, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal 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. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”

An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.

The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.

The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.

China Taking Action as Well?

The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.

“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”

Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”

Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”

New Imports for Solar

The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.

Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.

“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.

For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.

“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”

Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”

Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.

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.


Upcoming EPA Power Plant Rule Stirs Speculation

May 29, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is just days away from the release of its first-ever proposed rule regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The rule will push states to cut pollution primarily from coal-fired generators. As many await details of the rule, The New York Times reports that sources familiar with proposal suggest that it will call for a 20 percent reduction.

One new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was skeptical of the regulation, slated for release on June 2, finding that they would cost the economy $51 billion a year in lost investments. The Chamber further suggests that the rule could diminish coal-fired generation, which currently represents 40 percent of electricity generation in the country, by one third.

In a blog post, the EPA disputed the Chamber of Commerce findings.

“The chamber’s report is nothing more than irresponsible speculation based on guesses of what our draft proposal will be,” wrote Tom Reynolds, associate administrator for external affairs. “Just to be clear—it’s not out yet. I strongly suggest that folks read the proposal before they cry the sky is falling.”

second report from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions identifies opportunities for states to comply with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act using policies that generate benefits beyond reductions in CO2 emissions. States may choose, for example, to reduce carbon emissions in a way that hedges risk of future air regulations, potentially lowers long-term compliance costs and limits emissions of other pollutants. In a separate report released this week, researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities identified potential air quality impacts of section 111(d) policy designs that vary in stringency and flexibility.

Americans React to Climate Terms Differently

When the president discusses the proposed rule, a part of his Climate Action Plan, choosing whether to use “climate change” or “global warming” could elicit far different public responses, according to a new report.

The two terms are often used synonymously, but it turns out “global warming” invokes a stronger negative reaction than “climate change.” In national surveys, respondents were 13 percentage points more likely to say global warming is bad than they were to say climate change is bad—76 percent compared with 63 percent.

“The whole realm of connotative meaning is actually where most of us live our daily lives,” said lead Yale University researcher Anthony Leiserowitz. “When looking at a menu and deciding what to have for lunch, you see the word ‘sushi’— some people have the reaction, ‘Oh, delicious, I’ll order that,’ and other people have a reaction of: ‘Disgusting, raw fish.’ So these terms play out not only in our every day decision making but also in our politics.”

Between 2004 and 2014, “global warming” was the term searched more frequently on the Internet. Even though it’s more scientifically accurate to talk about the problem as “climate change,” the term “global warming” is more effective in conveying urgency. In The New York Times, Andrew Revkin argues that the latter term should dominate for other reasons: “As Roger A Pielke Jr. has pointed out for a decade, ‘climate change’ has proved problematic in a more technical sense—with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defining the term differently, in ways that have significant ramifications in treaty negotiations.”

Politically, the researchers said, “use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

New Safety Conditions Set for Keystone

Safety regulators put two extra conditions on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline after learning of potentially dangerous construction defects involving the project’s southern leg, including high rates of bad welds, dented pipe and damaged pipeline coating.

The defects have been fixed. However, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) wants to prevent similar problems from occurring in the pipeline’s controversial northern segment, which is on hold pending a decision by the Obama administration.

“TransCanada had identified and addressed these issues prior to any product being introduced into the pipeline and reported them voluntarily to the government,” said TransCanada spokesperson Davis Sheremata, noting that the southern leg’s problems were a completely separate matter than issues related to the construction of the northern leg.

One of the two new conditions requires TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor the construction and report on its soundness to the U.S. government. The second requires TransCanada to adopt a quality management program to ensure that the pipeline is built to Keystone and its contractors’ highest standards.

Meanwhile, TransCanada is filing an amicus brief in Nebraska, siding with the governor and the state in a lawsuit filed by three Nebraska ranchers who want to block Keystone.

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 Power Plant Rule Deadline Approaching

May 22, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Next month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue a proposed rule that sets the first-ever carbon emissions standards for the country’s existing power plants. The rule, to be announced by President Barack Obama, is rumored to include a phased approach leading to steeper emissions limits over time.

Though little has formally come out about the rule, to be released on or around June 2, EPA officials have said it will be flexible.

“It is going to be flexible, and it will set goals,” said Curt Spaulding, EPA administrator for New England. “I can’t tell you what those goals are going to be—that’s being worked on in Washington at the highest levels.”

Bloomberg has reported that the administration is considering a two-stage reduction of emissions by 25 percent. The reduction would begin with small cuts; deeper cuts would start in 2024 and run through 2029.

Reports Point Finger at Climate Change for Increased Risks

On the heels of news that last month ranked as the world’s hottest April on record—1.39 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average for the month (56.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—new reports are pointing to rising global temperatures for increased threats to the food industry, landmarks and credit ratings.

  • A new Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services report finds rising temperatures could be bad for a nation’s credit rating. The report rates 128 sovereign governments on the basis of creditworthiness, suggesting that poorer countries and nations with already low ratings would be hit hardest by the effects of climate change. Global warming “will put downward pressure on sovereign ratings during the remainder of this century,” Standard & Poor analysts wrote. “The degree to which individual countries and societies are going to be affected by warming and changing weather patterns depends largely on actions undertaken by other, often far-away societies.”
  • Many of the nation’s historic and cultural landmarks may be irreparably damaged or lost forever due to the effects of climate change, according to a non-peer-reviewed report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Harriet Tubman National Monument in Maryland, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Jamestown, are among the 30 sitesat risk for rising seas, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, wildfire and drought.
  • Growth of global food production could be reduced 2 percent each decade for the next century as a result of climate change, according to a report by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It further suggests that climate change threatens to undermine not only how much food can be grown but also the food’s nutritional quality.

Hydraulic Fracturing Bans, Impacts Assessed

Santa Cruz became the first county in California to ban hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, two state Senate committees in North Carolina unanimously passed legislation lifting the state’s moratorium on that oil and natural gas production technique.

The entire North Carolina Senate voted to lift the moratorium Thursday. It will now go to the House for consideration. The bill focuses on extending the deadline for development of rules for hydraulic fracturing by the Mining and Energy Commission and reduces fees for drillers.

It also requires companies to report any chemicals used in the drilling process—information the state would hold confidentially and disclose to emergency responders or health care professionals in case of emergency. But it would make unauthorized disclosure of those chemicals a misdemeanor.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology focuses on the implications of increasing use of this production technique for the climate. It finds that natural gas can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but that in the absence of targeted climate policy measures it will not substantially change the course of global GHG concentrations.

“Over the range of scenarios that we examine, abundant natural gas by itself is neither a climate hero nor a climate villain,” said co-author and Duke University Energy Initiative Director Richard Newell.

Design of these climate policies is as important as the abundance of natural gas. Increased supply of natural gas has the potential to decrease the cost of implementing comprehensive climate policies.

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.


Court Upholds Soot Standards

May 15, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A federal court of appeals on Friday unanimously found that the Clean Air Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) substantial discretion in setting air quality standards. The ruling upheld the EPA’s tightened limits on soot, or fine particulate matter from coal plants, refineries, factories and vehicles. In the challenge brought by industry groups, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) pointed to scientific studies and lack of public comment on revised rules.

“Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, we exercise great deference when we evaluate claims about competing bodies of scientific research,” the court wrote. “Petitioners simply have not identified any way in which the EPA jumped the rails of reasonableness in examining the science.”

The stricter air quality standards, set in 2012, limited the annual level of outdoor ambient exposure to soot by 20 percent. EPA had justified the change by pointing to a number of studies that linked exposure to soot particles to a variety of cardiovascular illnesses.

“We’re disappointed in today’s ruling that only further adds to thousands of regulations facing manufacturers,” said NAM’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Linda Kelly. “The court’s decision also underscores the difficulty manufacturers face in pushing back against a powerful and often overreaching EPA.”

Last month, a Supreme Court ruling reinstated the agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which regulates pollution from coal-fired power plants that drift across state lines. In June—the same month proposed rules for existing coal-fired power plants will be issued—a Supreme Court decision is expected on whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”

Studies Look at Climate Change Risk

A report authored by 16 generals and admirals on the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Corporation’s Military Advisory Board finds that climate change poses a severe risk to U.S. national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict.

“Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation,” they wrote. “…Time and tide wait for no one.”

The report, which follows up a 2007 study, suggests an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will raise demand for American troops. It also suggests that rising seas and extreme weather could threaten U.S. military bases and naval ports. These findings, The New York Times reports, would influence American foreign policy.

The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change impacts are already speeding instability in regions such as the Arctic.

“We think things are accelerating in the Arctic faster than we had looked at seven years ago,” said Gen. Paul Kern, the board chairman. “As the Arctic becomes less of ice-contaminated area it represents a lot of opportunities for Russia.” He noted that the situation has the potential to “spark conflict there.”

Another study published in Nature indicates climate change caused by humans could be responsible for as little as half the melting of sea ice in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The other half is traced to changes in temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean—that is, to natural climate variability, not greenhouse gases.

“We find that 20 to 50 percent of warming is due to anthropogenic [man-made] warming, and another 50 percent is natural,” said lead study author Qinghua Ding. “We know that global warming due to human impacts can’t explain why it got warm so fast.”

The area north of Greenland and the Canadian archipelago has seen temperature increases nearly twice as large as the Arctic average.

“We find that the most prominent annual mean surface and tropospheric warming in the Arctic since 1979 has occurred in northeastern Canada and Greenland,” the authors wrote. “In this region, much of the year-to-year temperature variability is associated with the leading mode of large-scale circulation variability in the North Atlantic, namely, the North Atlantic Oscillation.”

In the Antarctica, a combination of warm ocean currents and geographic peculiarities has begun a glacial retreat that “appears unstoppable.” Two studies—one to be published in Geophysical Research Letters and the other out in Science—find there’s little to nothing that can be done physically to slow the thaw of these glaciers. In fact, melting is expected to push up sea levels in the region by four feet or more. This melt will occur over a longer period of time—centuries not decades.

“This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rise worldwide,” said University of California-Irvine Professor Eric Rignot and author of the Geophysical Research Letters study. It will raise sea levels by 1.2m, or 4ft, but its retreat will also influence adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could triple this contribution to sea level.”

Energy Efficiency Bill Fails, While Research Tax Credit Wins Vote

On Monday, a bill to promote U.S. energy conservation by tightening efficiency guidelines for new federal buildings and providing tax incentives to make homes and commercial buildings more efficient fell short.

The bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was just 5 votes shy of the 60 needed to move forward. Its demise also derailed a promised vote on the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Friday prior, the House voted to make permanent a tax credit that rewards businesses for investing in research and development. Although the bill would give businesses a tax break of 20 percent for qualifying research, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate amid criticism that no new tax credit offsets its estimated 10-year, $156 billion cost to U.S. taxpayers.

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.


Federal Climate Assessment Report Pegs Climate Change as Culprit for Rising Temperatures, Seas

May 8, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new federal scientific report, out Tuesday, concluded that global warming is affecting the United States in profound ways and that human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of warming over the past 50 years.

Mandated by Congress and written by a federal advisory panel, the more than 800-page National Climate Assessment further says that the average U.S. temperature has increased 1.3 to 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since record keeping began in 1895 and that 44 percent of that rise has occurred since 1970. It projects that temperatures will continue to rise 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in coming decades.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the report notes. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter. … Rain comes in heavier downpours.”

The report also suggests that human-induced climate change has already increased the number and strength of some extreme events, such as heavy rain. In the Northeast, the amount of precipitation falling in heavy events increased by 71 percent between 1958 and 2012 but only by 5 percent in the West.

Rising global sea levels will threaten water supplies and cause flooding. By 2100, the report projects a sea level increase of 1 to 4 feet. More dire news on sea levels came this week from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In their Nature Climate Change study, institute researchers saidthat East Antarctica is at a higher risk of melting earlier than previously thought, triggering an unstoppable sea level rise of up to 4 meters (13 feet).

The National Climate Assessment report did find some benefits from climate change—at least in the short term. Crop-growing seasons as well as shipping seasons on the Great Lakes could lengthen. But these benefits will likely be counteracted as food production is hit by rising temperatures and water demands increase.

The report comes just weeks before the Obama administration is set to release proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants—an announcement that has the fossil fuel industry paying attention.

Republican Voice for Climate Action

On Tuesday, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman offered a viewpoint on climate change that contrasts with that of many Republicans. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, he counseled the Republican party to “get back to [its] foundational roots as catalysts for innovation and problem solving” and urged it to tackle the problem of climate change.  Huntsman recalled the party’s instinct to hedge against risk and to “do now . . . what we have always done well: combine our ingenuity and market forces” to keep greenhouse gas emissions on a trajectory of reductions. He noted that current climate change debate in the party had been “reduced to believing or not believing, as if it were a religious mantra.”

Carbon Dioxide Levels Exceed 400 ppm throughout April

The average level of CO2 in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million (ppm) throughout April, breaking another record, according to data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

CO2 broke the daily average of 400 for the first time in May 2013. Though largely symbolic, the 400 parts per million mark was last hit consistently when humans did not exist.

“The rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million is an indicator that the problem of global warming is getting worse, not better,” said Mark Jacobson, a Stanford atmospheric scientist and environmental engineer. “This means we need to focus more heavily on solutions to this problem, namely converting to wind, water and solar power for all purposes.”

The average for April was reported at 401.33 ppm at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii. Concentrations of CO2 are rising roughly 2 to 3 ppm a year. The United Nations suggests the concentration of all greenhouse gases should be allowed to peak no higher than 450 ppm this century to maximize chances of limiting global temperature rise.

Department of Energy Debuts Regional Gas Reserves

By late summer, two “gasoline reserves” in New York and New England will be set up to provide short-term relief to first-responders and consumers in the event of extreme weather. The reserves are intended to prevent the fuel shortages experienced in the region after Hurricane Sandy nearly two years ago.

“We think we can help mitigate some of the impacts of sudden, unexpected climate disruptions,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “The issue of fuel resiliency is certainly one of the important parts of that preparation for extreme weather.”

Each of the reserves will hold 500,000 barrels in leased commercial storage terminals. The Department of Energy will maintain the reserves for at least five hurricane seasons. Moniz said the gasoline held in the reserves “will be turned over as part of commercial transactions. We cannot store the same molecules for five years.”

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


Climate Change, EPA Rules Focus of McCabe Confirmation Hearing

April 10, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.

“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.

Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”

Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.

EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.

EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports

Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.

Between 2012 and 2013, net energy imports decreased by 19 percent. The EIA cited increased growth in oil and natural gas production as the reason. Crude oil production grew 15 percent in 2013.

“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.

Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface

Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”

Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.

Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.

Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.

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.


Air Pollution Now Top Environmental Health Risk

March 27, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.

Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.

“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.

In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight

As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.

Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.

Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.

“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”

The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.

Renewable Energy Makes Strides

Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.

A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.

“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.

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.


Reports, Website Document Effects of and Need for Dialogue on Climate Change

March 20, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Last year, carbon dioxide briefly passed the 400 parts per million milestone. Now, says Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, we’re on track to “see values dwelling over 400 in April and May. It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever.”

This pronouncement comes the same week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report and the White House, a website, that seek to illustrate the effects of climate change and advance dialogue about it.

“We believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

The AAAS report offers three messages about climate change: (1) it is happening, and humans are the cause; (2) risks posed by climate change are high and potentially damaging; and (3) the sooner we act, the lower the risks and costs. The report takes readers through a series of potential consequences of climate change that include accelerated sea level rise and food shortages as a result of the increasing difficulty of growing crops.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report, due out at the end of the month, is expected to touch on one of these topics. A leaked draft obtained by The Independent suggests that climate change will reduce crop yields by 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century. One study out now in the journal Nature Climate Change finds crop yields—specifically rice, corn and wheat—will decline more than 25 percent as a result of climate change.

Navy Tests Space Solar Idea

California and Texas topped a list of the 10 best states for clean energy jobs last year. The largest job creator? The solar industry.

Now, the impact of solar technology could extend into outer space. The United States Navy is working on a project that could, in theory, allow for the capture of enough solar power to run military bases and even cities. The Navy is working on “sandwich” modules or prototypes far larger than the International Space Station that would collect solar power while aboard an orbiting satellite. Specifically, a photovoltaic panel atop the satellite would absorb the sun’s energy. An electronics system would convert the energy into a radio frequency sent back to Earth.

“People might not associate radio waves with carrying energy, because they think of them for communications, like radio, TV, or cell phones,” said Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer leading the project. “They don’t think about them as carrying usable amounts of energy.”

The idea of capturing solar power in space is not a new idea. The International Academy of Astronautics recently suggested that space solar technology would be viable in the next 30 years.

Decision on U.S. Oil Exports Complex

In 2013, crude oil production in the United States reached its highest level since 1989—a roughly 15 percent increase from 2012, according the Energy Information Administration.

The Ukrainian crisis and record-setting levels of U.S. oil production have some policymakers and industry officials calling for the reversal of a ban on most crude oil exports. Opponents and proponents disagree about the impact to consumers should the ban be lifted.

“I think it is realistic that the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by the end of this decade,” said Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “We’re already the world’s largest natural gas producer (and) last year crude oil production surpassed levels not seen since the 1980s.”

The topic’s varying angles dominated discuss at the annual IHS CERAWeek energy conference in Houston recently.

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.