China Announces Cap-and-Trade Program

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Adopted

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOP Candidates: Government Action on Climate Change Will Hurt Economy

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope Visits United States; Talks Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

Reports: Carbon Pricing Schemes Gain Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cities in the World’s Top Greenhouse Gas Emitters Announce Stronger Climate Pledges

September 17, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Cities in China and the United States pledged to take ambitious steps to address climate change at the state and local level in the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Declaration this week.

In China, 11 cities will peak greenhouse gas emissions—some as early as 2020—to eliminate nearly 25 percent of China’s urban total carbon pollution. In the United States, pledges from 18 cities range from carbon neutrality to carbon reduction. Seattle plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. Houston commits to a 42 percent reduction by 2016 and to 80 percent by 2050 (based on a 2007 baseline). Los Angeles aims for reductions of 45 percent by 2025, 60 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 (based on a 1990 baseline).

In addition to these greenhouse gas targets, the declaration also conveys intentions to regularly report emissions and to establish climate plans to reduce them.

“The commitments that the Chinese and American cities are taking … are a very important component of our broader efforts to deepen climate cooperation and to show that … the two largest emitters in the world are taking seriously our obligation to meet the ambitious goals that we set out last year,” said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to President Obama. He noted that the declaration builds on a climate change deal reached in November by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. That deal called for the United States to lower greenhouse gas emissions as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to peak emissions by 2030.

The pledges come a little more than two months before nations gather for international climate negotiations Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris—a meeting intended to produce a deal that would commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the 62 climate commitments leading up to the COP—may not be enough to keep global warming to the 2-degree Celsius threshold recommended by the United Nations, said U.N. Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. Her “guestimate” of the pledges, which cover approximately 70 percent of global emissions, is that they would equate to 3-degrees Celsius of warming, compared with pre-industrial levels.

Met Office Report Predicts Warmer Times to Come

The same week researchers released a study finding that the snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada has shrunk to a 500-year low, the U.K. government agency that studies global weather patterns released a peer-reviewed report suggesting the world is moving into a warming trend.

Several global changes, the Met Office says, are occurring simultaneously to cause the change. One is El Nino—warm bands of ocean water in the central and east-central Pacific—which is expected to occur this year and to be particularly strong.

“We know natural patterns contribute to global temperature in any given year, but the very warm temperatures so far this year indicate the continued impact of increasing greenhouse gases,” said Stephen Belcher, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre. “With the potential that next year could be similarly warm, it’s clear that our climate continues to change.”

Southern Ocean’s Carbon-Storing Capacity Increases, but for How Long?

A new study in Science finds that the Southern Ocean carbon sink has been reinvigorated, helping limit climate change. Its uptake of greenhouse gases stalled in the 1980s but roughly doubled to 1.2 billion tonnes—equivalent to the European Union’s annual man-made greenhouse gas emissions—between 2002 and 2011.

“It’s good news, for the moment,” Nicolas Gruber, an author of the study at Swiss university ETH Zurich, told Reuters. But he said it was unclear how long the higher rate of absorption by the Southern Ocean, the strongest ocean region for mopping up carbon, would last. Moreover, increased carbon dioxide could be bad news for marine life because, once absorbed in water, some of it becomes carbonic acid, which disrupt shellfishes’ ability to grow their protective shells.

Gruber and his colleagues analyzed 2.6 million measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the surface waters of the Antarctic Ocean made by ships over three decades. They concluded that the ocean’s carbon uptake fluctuates strongly, rather than increasing monotonically in response to the growing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Wind and temperature changes appear to drive these shifts, which are linked to low-pressure systems in the Pacific and high pressure over the Atlantic section of the Southern Ocean.

Peter Landschützer, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the study, said existing models can’t predict how patterns will change in the future, “so it is very critical to continue measuring the surface ocean CO2 concentrations in the Southern Ocean.” Currently, long-term datasets are the only reliable means for determining the evolution of the ocean’s carbon-storing capacity.

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

World on Path to Miss 2C Target

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonn Talks Conclude

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

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

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

U.N. Study Examines Global Deforestation Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Talks Climate, Oil Drilling

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

Obama addressed these criticisms last weekend.

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

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

Sea Level Rise Accelerating as Ice Sheets Melt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delegates Divided Ahead of Paris Climate Conference

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

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

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

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

Recent Studies Provide Examples of Emissions Trading Successes, Failures

August 27, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The emissions trading program in the northeastern United States—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—is responsible for about half the region’s emissions reductions—an amount far greater than reductions achieved in the rest of the country.

The study in the journal Energy Economics determined that even when controlling for other factors—the natural gas boom, the recession, and environmental regulations—emissions would have been 24 percent higher in participating states without RGGI (subscription). RGGI, the first market-based regulatory program in the United States, is a cooperative effort among states to create a “cap” that sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector—a cap lowered over time to reduce emissions. Power plants that can’t stay under the cap must purchase credits or “emissions allowances” from others that can.

“While the study focused on the northeastern states and the RGGI program specifically, the findings suggest that emissions trading could be a cost-effective strategy for states now considering how to comply with EPA’s recently issued regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide from power plants,” said Brian Murray, lead author and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

A separate study in the journal Nature Climate Change found significant misuse of a key carbon offsetting scheme after several factories increased their production of industrial waste products—spiking emissions. It suggests that a loophole in the United Nation’s carbon market may have led to “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants to increase emissions so they could then make money by reducing them.

A companion study indicates that the majority of credits from Russia and Ukraine were a sham and that no emissions were reduced. In fact, the study estimates use of the sham offsets actually enabled greenhouse gas emissions to increase by some 600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“We were surprised ourselves by the extent, we didn’t expect such a large number,” said study co-author Anja Kollmuss. “What went on was that these countries could approve these projects by themselves there was no international oversight, in particular Russia and Ukraine didn’t have any incentive to guarantee the quality of these credits.”

Study Quantifies Global Warming’s Contribution to California’s Drought

How much of California’s drought is due to climate change? A study published in Geophysical Research Letters has an answer: up to 27 percent. The study also indicates that climate change has made the odds of severe droughts twice as likely.

Global warming has worsened the drought through increased evapotranspiration, the contribution of which was quantified in detail for the first time by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the University of Idaho who analyzed 432 combinations of precipitation, temperature, wind, and radiation data gathered between 1901 and 2014 to simulate monthly changes in soil moisture across California. When they modeled these combinations against various greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they concluded that the state’s lack of rainfall is due to natural variability—a finding that accords with most other studies—but that California’s drought is 8 to 27 percent drier because of human-cause climate change (subscription).

“By knowing how much global warming has contributed to the trend in California drought conditions over the past century, we can reliably predict how the future will play out,” said A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty who led the study. By the 2060s, Williams said, drought conditions will be more or less permanent, and evaporation will overpower bursts of intense rainfall.

Williams likened climate change to a “bully” that every year “demands more of your money than the year before. Every year, the bully—or atmosphere—is demanding more resources—or water—than ever before.”

He also said that California should more aggressively police groundwater withdrawals by agricultural operations, increasing use fees and fines for overuse. California is one of the few states that does not regulate such withdrawals, which after three years of drought have led to precipitous drops in groundwater tables and land subsidence.

Obama Announces Renewable Energy Initiatives

In the first stop on an 11-day climate and energy tour, President Obama announced a number of initiatives aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in clean energy technology.

“We are here today because we believe that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change,” said President Obama at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “But we’re also here because we hold another belief, and that is, we are deeply optimistic about American ingenuity.”

According to a White House fact sheet, these measures include:

  • $24 million for 11 projects in seven states to develop innovative solar technologies that double the amount of energy each solar panel can produce.
  • Approval of a transmission line for a 485-megawatt photovoltaic facility planed for Riverside County.
  • An additional $1 billion in federal loan guarantees available through a federal program for innovative versions of residential solar systems.
  • Creation of the Interagency Task Force to Promote a Clean Energy Future for All Americans.
  • Provision of residential Property-Assessed Clean Energy financing that facilitates investment in clean energy technologies for single-family homes.
  • Creation of a new HUD and DOE program to provide home owners with a simple way to measure and improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said federal support is critical as the clean-energy industry seeks to become further established, noting “The playing field is not always as level and that’s where investors and developers can have risks. That’s where things like our loan program come in.”

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

EPA Targets Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Action Declaration

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

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

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

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

Alaska and Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges Ahead for Clean Power Plan, Another EPA Rule

August 13, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Less than two weeks after President Obama announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final Clean Power Plan rule, aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has encouraged states to comply with the plan through emissions trading opportunities—emphasized far more in the final rule than the draft proposal.

It appears that some states may be examining whether they have trade-ready elements in common with other states. If so, they will be able to swap emissions credits with those states in order to comply with the rule.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly in the West, where states are more loosely connected across the electricity grid, about an arrangement where states could adopt some common elements, and thereby allow the compliance entities in that state to trade among states that might not have submitted a joint plan but still have common elements in their plans,” said Colin McConnaha, a greenhouse gas specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Despite the final rule’s flexibility, legal challenges are expected (subscription). Bill Bumpers, a partner at a law firm representing power companies, estimates 22–26 states are considering such challenges, a decision he called “more political than practical.”

The focus of many of these legal challenges, in my opinion, may very well be section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. I spoke with MetroNews Talkline on this issue Wednesday, noting:

“The way the Clean Air Act is set up is that the traditional pollutants like ozone and particulates are regulated under one provision, what they call the hazardous air pollutants like mercury are regulated in a second provision and then there is this third provision, 111 that says if it is not covered under one of the first two then you regulate under 111(d) … Section 111 (d) has been rarely used over history because there hasn’t been a pollutant like CO2 in the mix. So that gives the EPA a lot of flexibility in how it executes because there are not years of precedent, but it also gives them some uncertainty in how the courts are going to interpret it.”

That flexibility may not be so clear for another EPA rule that a group of 16 states and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources are challenging.

At issue—whether states can provide exemptions from emissions limits during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction. The court filing states “specifically, EPA erroneously concluded that the following State’s EPA-approved State Implementation Plans are ‘substantially inadequate’ with respect to periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction and must be revised.”

Carbon Emissions from Electric Power Plants Hit 27-Year Low

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said those same emissions that the Clean Power Plan is trying to diminish hit a 27-year low in April (subscription). Figures released Wednesday show that electric power plants emitted 141 million tons of carbon dioxide in April 2015, the lowest since April 1988.

A big factor in the drop is the long-term shift from coal to cleaner and cheaper natural gas, according to EIA Economist Allen McFarland, who downplayed the role of, economic sluggishness. “You don’t have a 27-year low because of an economic blip. There are more things happening than that,” McFarland said, noting that the price of natural gas has dropped 39 percent in the past year.

Increased renewable fuel use and energy efficiency are additional factors, say other experts, including Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also highlighted the role of regulation.

“A factor behind all these trends is that the writing is on the wall about the future of coal and thus the future of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” said Oppenheimer. “The regulatory noose is tightening and companies are anticipating a future with lower and lower dependence on fossil fuels and lower and lower carbon dioxide emissions.”

Federal analysts predict that this year the amount of electricity from natural gas will increase 3 percent compared to 2014 while power from coal will go down 10 percent.

Significant changes in the electric power sector fuel mix since April 1988 have made electricity generation less energy and carbon intensive. Some analysts point out that power plant emissions have already fallen by about 15 percent since 2005, putting the country halfway to the Obama administration’s goal before the Clean Power Plan goes into effect.

Spring Release for Changes to MATS Rule

Court-mandated changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule, which requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies, are expected by the EPA in 2016.

The EPA wrote in a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that it “intends to submit a declaration establishing the agency’s plan to complete the required consideration of costs for the ‘appropriate and necessary’ finding by spring of next year.” The Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider the costs of MATS when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.

In the filing, EPA lawyers note that there is “extensive documentation” of the cost of MATS. The rule will remain in effect while the lower court determines whether to vacate it as the EPA works on the cost issue, Detroit News reports.

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.

Final Clean Power Plan More Ambitious, Flexible

August 6, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

On Monday, President Obama announced the release of the final Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets mandatory limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the nation’s fleet of existing power plants may emit. The rule is projected to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said, noting that power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution, a key contributor to climate change. “Until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution plants dump in the air.”

Some Plan Particulars

The complicated and controversial 1561-page rule was developed by the Obama administration using existing authority under the Clean Air Act—specifically, section 111(d). The plan, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “is about as flexible as possible,” because it allows each state to come up with its own compliance program to meet the federal standards.

In broad strokes, the plan is designed to accelerate an already-underway shift from coal-fired electricity to cleaner natural gas and renewables, along with increased energy efficiency, by requiring existing power plants to meet specific carbon dioxide emissions reduction guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the targets based on a “best system of emissions reduction” comprised of three building blocks: making existing coal plants more efficient; shifting generation from coal to gas plants; and increasing generation from renewables.

Once the targets are set, however, states do not have to use the building blocks as a framework for their plans, and have been given a range of market-based, flexible mechanisms to reach their state targets.  In fact, emulating the flexibility afforded power plants under the market-based program devised in 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the CPP allows states to create “trading-ready” plans that will allow affected plants to sell emissions credits or to buy credits, if that’s a less expensive option than taking other actions. Parallel compliance approaches remove the need for formal interstate trading agreements, an approach described in one of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ recent policy briefs. Also facilitating trading are new state goals reflecting uniform national emissions rate standards for fossil steam (coal and oil) and natural gas power plants, respectively, reports ClimateWire (subscription).

The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push to slash U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the final CPP was timed to build momentum toward the start of international climate talks in Paris in November. Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent economist in the U.K., said the rule’s release will “set a powerful example for the rest of the world,” and will reinforce the credibility of the U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalized.

Significant Changes from the Proposal

Changes to the final plan were expected, given some 4 million comments on the proposed plan, and the plan did not disappoint. One big change, according to Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe, is based on the assumption that renewable energy and regional approaches have even greater capacity for helping the power sector reduce emissions than reflected in the draft proposal (subscription). Consequently, the final plan will cut power plant carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 30 percent target in the proposed rule.

The final rule also axed what the draft proposal referred to as Building Block 4, a criterion for achieving emissions reductions through programs that improve electricity consumers’ energy efficiency, as a means of calculating the state targets. Although these efficiency standards and under-construction nuclear plants were left out of the criteria for setting state goals under the plan, both are still available as compliance options.

The plan also includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that rewards states for investing early (2020–2021) in renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power as well as demand side energy efficiency in low-income communities. Details of the incentive scheme are yet to be worked out, but the final rule goals do now expect renewable energy sources to account for 28 percent of the nation’s capacity by 2030—up from 22 percent in the proposal (subscription). The aim, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is to incentivize renewable energy, which will lessen the reliance on natural gas as a replacement for coal power as the dominant compliance strategy.

Many other changes were anticipated in the Nicholas Institute’s most recent policy brief, including:

  • Additional time—an two extra years (to 2022)—for states to submit plans and begin cutting emissions;
  • Easing of the interim goals “glide path,” which states can now craft for themselves; and
  • New state mass emissions targets. These targets, based on states’ energy mixes and a uniform emissions rate for plants that use the same technology but no longer on demand-side energy efficiency, are less disparate than and also vastly different from those in the proposal. They also allow states to choose whether to use one target that includes the emissions from new natural gas units or another target that excludes these units (but still provides mechanisms to ensure that emissions cannot increase through new units).

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.

It’s Official: 2014 Hottest Year on Record

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four independent global data sets registered 2014 as the warmest year on record, the Weather Channel reported, citing an annual review by international scientists sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The only major region of the world with below-average annual temperatures was Eastern North America.

The review compiled by NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate and based on contributions of more than 400 scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a global average of 397.2 parts per million, a 1.9-ppm-increase in 2014; the global average was 354 ppm in 1990, the review’s first year.

Other highlights of the State of the Climate in 2014 report include

  • Record highs for sea surface temperatures, particularly in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as for global upper ocean heat (oceans absorb more than 90 percent of Earth’s excess heat), and global sea levels (oceans expand as they suck up heat);
  • Continued Arctic warming and low sea ice extent;
  • Highly variable temperature patterns and record-high sea ice extent in the Antarctic; and
  • An above-average number of tropical cyclones.

Human activities are implicated in the record high. Deke Arndt, a NOAA climate scientist and one of the report authors pointed out that it’s no coincidence that it’s the lower atmosphere, rather than the upper atmosphere, that’s warming.

“The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere,” Arndt said. “If an external forcing—such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon—would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don’t.”

Now it appears that 2015 is well on its way to topping 2014 as the warmest on record. A strengthening El Nino is transferring heat from the tropical Pacific around the globe, and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency have reported that the global warmth of June 2015 matched or exceeded any previous June in historical records.

Study: 2-Degree Target Unsafe

New research says keeping within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperatures—the target scientists and global leaders agree represents a safe level of climate change—may be inadequate and “highly dangerous.” Meeting the target, the study says, could lead to runaway ice melt that causes rising sea levels and ocean circulation changes far more serious than previous projections.

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century,” James Hansen—NASA’s former lead climate scientist and 16 other co-authors write in the new, not-yet-peer-reviewed discussion paper due to be published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. “Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

A better strategy, the authors say, is to return to an atmosphere with 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide—we’ve reached about 400 parts per million.

Pope, Mayors Urge Action on Climate Change

A month after the release of his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis urged world leaders to take a “strong position” on climate change in advance of the United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year.

“I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December and hope a fundamental agreement is reached,” said Francis at a two-day conference of mayors from nearly 60 cities around the world to discuss the issues of climate change and fighting forms of modern slavery. “The U.N. needs to take a strong position on this.”

The mayors in attendance signed a pledge stating that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”

The meeting, the Globe and Mail reports, represents a fundamental shift in how the issue of climate change is framed.

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.