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.


California Adopts Cap-and-Trade System, Serves as Greenhouse Guinea Pig

October 27, 2011

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After a unanimous vote by the California Air Resources Board, the state adopted the most comprehensive cap-and-trade system in the country, a key part of a 2006 global warming law that had yet to be implemented. The system will cover 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and allows businesses to counterbalance up to 8 percent of their emissions by buying offset credits.

The state is making itself a guinea pig for climate legislation and hopes to inspire other states to follow suit—a precedent the state has set with other environmental legislation.

At first, most of the emissions credits will be given out free, but it’s expected by 2016 to be a $10 billion market.

Slow Growth

After the economic crash of 2008, the growth of clean energy slowed—and the outlook for the rest of the decade is single-digit growth, according to analyses by IHS Emerging Energy Research and others. A major factor has been that cash-strapped governments have cut back on subsidies that helped drive the growth in renewables.

The U.K. reshuffled its renewable subsidies, taking away from onshore wind and hydro power, and giving more to tidal and biomass power plants. Scotland—which sets its subsidies separately from the rest of the U.K., and which boasts some of the world’s best wind and tidal resources—also made subsidy support adjustments.

Industry experts fear the U.K. may soon slash solar subsidies by half—after already cutting them earlier this year—so they are encouraging people to install solar systems now.

But the World Wildlife Fund argues that high growth of renewables is still possible, and the U.K. could get nearly all of its energy from renewables by 2030.

In the U.S., solar industry jobs grew about 7 percent in the past year—much faster than job growth in the whole economy, but only about a quarter of the rate that the industry had expected, according to the Solar Foundation’s newly released National Jobs Census.

High-Tech Efficiency

In Europe, “business as usual will not be an option for most energy utilities,” according to McKinsey analysts who argued that energy demand is reaching a peak, and existing technologies could drastically cut consumption. In response, utilities should look to other services to keep their revenue up, such as selling solar panels, insulation, or central control units that track and manage a building’s electricity consumption.

One company is already trying to make such products cool. Nest Labs, a well funded start up founded by former Apple employees, have created a thermostat that studies your habits to help adjust the temperature to save energy.

Climate Change Conundrum

Climate change could exceed dangerous levels in some parts of the world during the lifetime of many people alive today, according to research papers published in the journal Nature.

University of Washington Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner argued in Yale Environment 360 that humanity’s institutions aren’t up to the ethical challenge presented by environmental change. As these problems get worse, he argues, we might see apush for technological fixes such as geoengineering.

Some scientists are looking into such methods, and a U.K. group had planned a test flight of a balloon tethered to a hose—the kind that could shoot reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, scatter sunlight and potentially cool the planet. But that group postponed its test until spring to allow “more engagement with stakeholders”—which New Scientist argued is crucial.

Most of the public is not against such research on “solar radiation management” according to a new survey. But critics say the survey may be some biased toward geoengineering research.

Skeptic Changes Mind

A study led by a self-described climate change skeptic—physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley—released results from a re-analysis of temperature records. The “biggest surprise,” Muller said, was how closely his study matched earlier assessments, such as those by NASA and the U.K.’s Hadley Centre. Muller’s study had been hailed by climate change skeptics since it took seriously many of their criticisms.

But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Muller said “global warming is real,” and argued no one should be a skeptic about this warming any longer.

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.