First Rules for Arctic Drilling Released

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled the first draft rules for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The rules would require energy companies to clear a number of safety hurdles before being approved for drilling.

“The Arctic has substantial oil and gas potential, and the U.S. has a longstanding interest in the orderly development of these resources, which includes establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, the surrounding communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. She noted that the proposed regulations “are designed to ensure that offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to the highest safety standards.”

The regulations, which were crafted with a nod to previous experiences in the Arctic’s first drilling season when a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig ran aground in 2012, are open for public comment now, but they are not expected to be finalized before this summer’s drilling season. If approved, they would—among other things—require energy companies to submit safety plans and have a separate backup rig nearby to quickly drill a relief well to handle any blowout.

Oceans Warming and Seas Rising Faster Than Predicted

Obscured by news that 2014 had the hottest global air temperatures on record was new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about ocean warming. As climate expert John Abraham wrote in the Guardian, “The oceans are warming so fast, they keep breaking scientists’ charts.” Literally. The 2014 heat spike was so pronounced that scientists had to re-scale the chart NOAA uses to track ocean temperatures.

Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of global warming heat, and in recent years they have seen an acceleration in warming. Ocean acidification is a direct result of this absorption of carbon dioxide. A new study in Nature Climate Change, co-authored by Duke University researchers, offers the first nationwide look at the vulnerability of our country’s $1 billion shellfish industry to the problem of more acidic oceans.

“We find that nearly two-thirds of the country will be hit hard, but by different sources of ocean acidification,” said Linwood Pendleton, co-author and senior scholar at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “Some areas are most impacted by CO2 driven ocean acidification, some by upwellings, and some by increased acidification caused by freshwater run-off. Previously, our focus was on the Pacific Northwest, but this study shows that the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and New England also will be impacted.”

According to a separate study in Science and another co-authored by researchers at the University of California–Irvine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and three other institutions, warmer ocean waters are also the culprit in accelerated thawing of a West Antarctica ice sheet.

Rising ocean temperatures are one of the factors contributing to a rate of sea-level rise that according to a new study in Nature is much faster than scientists had predicted. “The acceleration into the last two decades is far worse than previously thought,” said study coauthor Carling Hay. “This new acceleration is about 25 percent higher than previous estimates.”

How do we know? The Nature study relied on a new and improved way of measuring sea-level rise.

“What we have done, which is a bit different from past studies, is use physical models and statistical models to try to look for underlying patterns in the messy tide gauge data observations,” said Hay. “Each of the different contributions actually produces a unique pattern, or fingerprint, of sea-level change. And what we try to do is model these underlying patterns and then use our statistical approach to look for the patterns in the tide gauge observations. That allows us to infer global information from the very limited records.”

If the new method holds up to further scrutiny, scientists could be more confident about their understanding of the precise causes of sea-level rise—and in their ability to project future increases in it.

Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

President Barack Obama left the long-debated Keystone XL Pipeline project in limbo this week after vetoing a bill to approve construction of the oil pipeline.

Of the bill for the pipeline, slated to transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, Obama wrote that “the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest … And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto.”

We haven’t heard the last of this controversy. Obama retains the right to make a final decision on the pipeline on his own timeline, the Washington Post reports, after the executive process (review at the State Department) runs its course. The Senate will vote no later than March 3 to override the veto, according Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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


McCarthy: Clean Power Plan Targets May Change

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The EPA Administrator this week, suggested (subscription) that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.

The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are “very, very much on the table.”

“While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they’re going to be effective strategies,” McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners winter meeting. “We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030 and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal.”

New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions

“86 pages, 54,000 words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”—that’s how Sebastian Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week’s climate talks in Geneva summarized the proceedings’ output on social media. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed by all countries—the brackets referred to in Duyck’s tweet—also increased, but although the new draft became more complex—not simpler as planned—it represents progress to some participants.

“Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other’s positions,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.

“After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that,” said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.

Among the new draft’s significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a zero net greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050 and a peaking of emissions “as soon as possible.”

In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions reductions efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.

The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions reductions plans.

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

Last November, the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports the New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems—and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon neutral.

In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, “Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants.” In fact, “Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage.”

In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six environmental Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, “We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA’s apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting.” They added that the decision “contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county’s renewable energy policy.”

But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon—with up to a 145 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study coauthor Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.

On the basis of analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California–Berkeley report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.

“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent – the current 2050 goal in California—but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”

These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate (subscription) on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.

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


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.


U.S.-India Climate Agreement Less Substantive Than U.S.-China Climate Deal

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S.-India climate agreement announced January 25 creates a new agreement between the second- and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world but does not have the strength of the U.S.-China climate deal reached last year. Rather than committing India to cap its emissions, the U.S.-India deal called for “enhancing bilateral climate change cooperation” in advance of the United Nations effort to reach an international agreement on emissions and finance in Paris in December.

Specifically, the deal calls for cooperation on reducing emissions of fluorinated gases and beefing up India’s promotion of clean energy investment. The two countries also renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, extending by five years funding for research on advanced biofuels, solar energy, and building energy efficiency as well as launching new research on smart grid and grid storage technology.

“It’s my feeling that the agreement that has been concluded between the United States and China does not impose any pressure on us,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding, “But there is pressure. When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure. Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure.”

The agreements have not bridged the gap in the two countries’ perspectives on UN climate talks: the United States wants major emitters to take legal responsibility for climate change action, but India argues that the United States and other developed countries have not followed through on their own pledges and should not demand that developing countries take on new emissions reductions responsibilities.

President Moves to Shut Artic National Wildlife Refuge to Oil Drilling

While proposing to open portions of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas extraction, an Obama administration plan would prohibit energy development on nearly 10 million acres off the Alaskan coast. The administration has also proposed setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, squashing opportunities for oil exploration there.

Less than 40 percent of the refuge currently has the wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available for public lands. The president’s plan would block efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum.

In a press conference, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down.”

In a White House blog post, John Podesta a counselor to the president and Mike Boots, leader of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that the United States today is the world’s number-one producer of oil and natural gas and that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge “is too precious to put at risk” of an oil-related accident. “By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity—ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”

Increasing Frequency of La Niñas Attributed to Climate Change

A new climate modeling study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that by century’s end human-caused climate change will double the frequency of La Niñas—weather patterns associated with a temperature drop in the central Pacific Ocean—resulting in floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

Extreme La Niña events might be experienced about every 13 years, rather than every 23 years, as they are now, but not like clockwork, according to lead study author Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Aspendale, Australia. “We’re only saying that on average, we expect to get one every 13 years,” said Cai. “We cannot predict exactly when they will happen, but we suggest that on average, we are going to get more.”

The study finds that powerful La Niñas will immediately follow intense El Niños, causing weather patterns to alternate between wet and dry extremes.

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.


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.


Optimism at UN Climate Change Conference

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

At the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference twentieth Conference of the Parties, known as COP20, in Lima, Peru, delegates from more than 190 nations are hashing out details of an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and curb permanent damage caused by global warming. Those details will set the stage for next December’s UN meeting in Paris, where negotiators are aiming to finalize a global climate change deal.

Diplomats and longtime observers of the talks say there is rising optimism that negotiators will secure a deal committing all countries to take action against climate change. “I have never felt as optimistic as I have now,” said Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, which are sinking as sea levels rise in the Pacific. “There is an upbeat feeling on the part of everyone that first of all there is an opportunity here and that secondly, we cannot miss it.”

What’s driving the momentum?

Last month, the United States and China, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, announced an agreement to slash their emissions. In October, the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. And, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries address climate change, is on track to meet its ten-billion-dollar initial target.

However, researchers note that drastic cuts are needed to achieve the overall goal of the international community: limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Meeting that goal means emissions must be slashed 40 to 70 percent by 2050.

“We’re in far better shape a year ahead of Paris than at any stage leading up to Copenhagen,” where world leaders tried but failed to reach a climate deal in 2009, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

EPA Closes Public Comment Period on Proposed Clean Power Plan

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially closed the public comment period on its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), having collected more than 1.6 million comments from legislators, industry, environmental advocates and the general public.

The EPA had extended the comment period by 45 days, to December 1, to give the public additional time to understand and analyze the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants across the country by approximately 30 percent by 2030.

“We’ve heard that the carbon reductions targets we proposed are too tough and we’ve heard that they’re not tough enough,” said EPA Air and Radiation Administrator Janet McCabe in an official EPA blog. “What we know for sure is that people care about this issue and we know we have a lot to consider as we work toward a final rule.”

Particularly contentious are the CPP’s state-specific emissions goals. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing all U.S. investor-owned utilities, and other industry leadership, the goals could cause power companies to install costly upgrades that would diminish electricity affordability. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council say that falling solar and wind power prices and advancements in efficiency standards could allow the EPA to require steeper emissions cuts sooner—by 2020.

The EPA is scheduled to finalize the proposed rule by June 2015.

Mapping Low-Carbon Investments in the United States 

A recent report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) says the United States can use existing or soon-to-be-available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050—the trajectory on which the recent U.S. agreement with China would put the country, according to Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.

According to the DDPP report, decarbonization in the United States requires three key strategies:

  • Boosting energy efficiency in buildings, cars and industrial facilities
  • Cutting the carbon from electricity and other fuels
  • Swapping high-carbon fuels with low-carbon alternatives

“If you bet on America’s ability to develop and commercialize new technologies, then the net cost of transforming the energy system could be very low, even negative, when you take fuel savings into account,” said Jim Williams, chief scientist at San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. and the report’s lead author.

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.


IEA Unveils World Energy Outlook 2014: Looking Ahead to 2040

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return on December 4.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2014 report, which for the first time provides energy trend projections through the year 2040. Among the key challenges in the next two and a half decades is, a 37 percent rise in global energy demand, driven mainly by emerging markets in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Asia will account for 60 percent of global growth in demand, and by early 2030s, China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest oil consumer.

“The short-term picture of a well-supplied oil market should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead as reliance grows on a relatively small number of producers,” according to the WEO report.

The IEA projects that global oil consumption will rise from 90 million barrels a day in 2013 to 104 million barrels a day in 2040, requiring a $900 billion investment in oil and gas development by the 2030s.

Overall use of coal is projected to decrease slowly in demand, while use of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower will grow. The IEA anticipates renewables will saturate one-third of global energy demand by 2040.

CO2 emissions are expected to grow by one-fifth by 2040, which puts the world’s temperature well on track to rise to 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, increasing the risk of droughts, rising sea levels, damaging storms and mudslides.

According to IEA projections, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius deemed by U.N. as the level necessary to avoid dangerous changes would require the world to ramp up low-carbon energy investments by four times their current levels—bringing annual global investment up to approximately $1 trillion.

On the domestic front, a majority of Americans support stricter regulations on carbon emissions, according to a new poll by Yale’s Project on Climate Communication. Further, two thirds of those polled (1,275 adults) support limits on carbon dioxide emissions even after being told such measures would raise power prices.

U.S. Pledges $3 Billion to UN’s Green Climate Fund

On the heels of its climate deal with China, the U.S. announced its intent to contribute $3 billion to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund, which was established in 2013 to provide support to developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The “game-changing pledge,” made by President Obama on the eve of the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, last week, makes the U.S. the fund’s largest contributor. The Obama administration has not specified whether its pledge will come from existing sources of funding or new appropriations from Congress—a strategy that could face stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers.

“The contribution by the U.S. will have a direct impact on mobilizing contributions from the other large economies,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund. “The other large economies—Japan, the U.K.—have been watching to see what the U.S. will do.”

It did not take long for Japan to follow suit with a $1.5 billion pledge to the fund. To date, the U.N. has received pledges from 13 countries totaling $7.5 billion—three-quarters of its $10 billion goal. Rich countries meet in Berlin to further discuss the 2014 goal where pledges reached $9.3 billion.

Panel Approves Rules for Unconventional Oil and Gas

After several years of heated debate, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission approved a detailed list of regulations to guide companies interested in securing unconventional oil and gas permits in the state. The rules were unanimously approved by commission members after review of approximately 217,000 public comments by 30,000 groups and individuals.

One of the rules revised by the commission in light of those comments calls for inclusion of leak detection systems and continuous monitoring of liners for open pits where fluids such as drilling waste are stored.

The approved regulations will be reviewed in December by the NC Rules Review Commission and in January by the state legislature. The commission has identified a number of areas for continued work, including authority to stop a company’s work.

“Just because we don’t have that stop-work authority doesn’t mean we can’t stop the work on site,” said Amy Pickle, vice chair of the commission and director of the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “If something is going wrong, there’s injunctive authority, there is the ability to go to court to require them to stop working, there’s an ability through inspections and monitoring to revoke that permit.”

Across the country, unconventional oil and gas issues continue to be highly polarizing, as measures passed during mid-term elections revealed. A development ban was passed by the town of Denton, the Texas city where the earliest exploration began. In a compromise plan, limited development was approved by the U.S. Forest Service for the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. A 2011 plan draft would have allowed drilling in much of the forest’s 1.1 million acres.

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.


U.S., China Reach Climate Deal

November 13, 2014
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Two nations that account for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions reached a climate deal. The United States will accelerate the pace of its net greenhouse gas emissions reductions from 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 to 26–28 percent by 2025. China will increase the non-fossil fuel share of all its energy to approximately 20 percent—roughly a fifth of its energy supply—by 2030.

“This is a major milestone,” said President Obama. “This is an ambitious goal, but this is an achievable goal. We have a special responsibility to lead the world effort to combat global climate change.”

The deal was reached after several rounds of talks between the two nations. At a joint press conference where the deal was announced, Obama indicated that he hoped the deal would “encourage all major economies to be ambitious and all developed and developing countries to work across divides” so that an agreement could be reached on climate change targets in Paris next year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had similar comments.

“We agreed to make sure international climate change negotiations will reach agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015 and agreed to deepen practical cooperation on clean energy, environmental protection and other areas,” he said. The deal calls for China to deploy an additional 800–1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission energy sources—a capacity greater than that of all the coal–fired power plants in China and nearly equal to total electricity generation in the United States. Among other initiatives on which the two countries agreed: Expand joint clean energy research and development, advance major carbon capture and storage demonstrations, enhance cooperation on hydrofluorocarbons, creating a federal framework for cities in both countries to share experiences and best practices for low-carbon economic growth and adaptation to climate change impacts, and boosting trade in “green” goods, including energy efficiency technology and resilient infrastructure.

China is still largely poor, but its economy and energy use is still growing rapidly. At the same time, China is combating severe air pollution.

“Just the fact that they agreed to cap their emissions in the future is a significant development,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “As important as these two countries are, they can’t get the job done working alone. But without them, the world can’t get the job done.”

Will China’s pledge keep the climate from warming 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a scientific benchmark for averting dangerous climate impacts? A number of scientists say it falls short of what is needed to hit that target.

Congressional Republicans are skeptical of the deal. “As I read the agreement, it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country,” said Mitch McConnell, who is in line to become the new Senate majority leader in January.

Grid Reliability In Question

New analysis by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) discusses the potential impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan on grid reliability (subscription). Specifically, NERC points to rapid transition as a factor in damaging capacity margins, increasing the difficulty of maintaining power quality and leaving the grid vulnerable to extreme weather.

The EPA said the report on the impact of the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants, offered no new analysis and overlooks new capacity that will be built by 2020.

“The world is going to change regardless of this new proposed rule, and we know new capacity is going to build and NERC just ignores that completely,” a staff member in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation told Greenwire (subscription). “There are a lot of assertions and claims in the report that aren’t really substantiated by any particular analytics they mention, or supported by a deeper look into the issues.”

A U.S. Department of Energy study, due out in 2015, will examine the rule’s impact on utilities, according to The Hill.

OPEC Reduces Forecast Amid Low Oil Prices

In its annual World Oil Outlook, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which supplies a third of the world’s crude oil, cut demand forecasts to 28.2 million barrels per day in 2017—a 14-year low. The 2014 report estimates approximately 600,000 barrels a day less than the 2013 report and 800,000 below the amount required this year.

The report further states that there will be a “small decline in real values” over this decade, together with a “constant nominal price” of $110 a barrel between now and 2020.

Booming U.S. oil production has put domestic output on the same level as that of energy giants Russia and Saudi Arabia, but oil prices are on the decline. UT San Diego News says the overall economy may still win, noting that “we still consume far more petroleum—in the form of gasoline and thousands of related products—than we pump from the ground. This means import costs are falling, too.”

Despite the decline in oil prices—to some $77 a barrel—companies like BP and Total are continuing to invest in major projects.

“We are not changing our investment decisions because of this [current price],” said Bob Dudley, BP chief executive.

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.