President Donald Trump signed a long anticipated executive order greatly diminishing the role climate change plays in U.S. government decision making by directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the Clean Power Plan, which sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil-fuel fired power plants.
The order directs each executive department and agency in the federal government to identify regulations, rules, policies, and guidance documents that slow or stop domestic energy production. In addition, the order also calls to review use the “social cost of carbon,” a metric for weighing the potential economic damage from climate change. Effective immediately, it instructs federal officials to use the 2003 Office of Management and Budget guidance “when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations, including with respect to the consideration of domestic versus international impacts and the consideration of appropriate discount rates, agencies shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law.”
Regulations affecting methane leaks at oil and gas production facilities and hydraulic fracturing will all be reviewed, and a moratorium on coal leases on federal lands will be eliminated.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” said Trump. “I made them this promise. We will put our miners back to work.”
Coal’s share of the electric sector dwindled in the last decade to some 32 percent last year, according to The Associated Press, while gas and renewables have made gains as hundreds of coal-burning power plants have been retired or are on schedule to retire soon.
Low natural gas prices are, in large part, responsible for those retirements, making it unlikely that rolling back the Clean Power Plan will bring back coal jobs. Given the way market forces—rather than regulations—have hurt the coal industry and reduced employment Trump should “temper his expectations,” said Robert Murray, the founder and CEO of Murray Energy.
“[Utilities] are not going to flip a dime and say now it’s time to start building a whole bunch of coal plants because there’s a Trump administration,” said Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Scientists Propose “Carbon Law”; Human Fingerprint Evident in Extreme Weather Events
An article published in Science says that “alarming inconsistencies” remain between the Paris Agreement’s science-based targets and national commitments. To harness the dynamics associated with disruption, innovation, and nonlinear change in human behavior and to calibrate for “political short-termism,” the authors propose that the decarbonization challenge be framed as a global decadal roadmap based on a “carbon law” of halving carbon dioxide emissions every decade.
Inspired by Moore’s Law, which predicted steady advances in computing power, the carbon law, say the researchers, is a flexible way to think about reducing carbon emissions because it can be applied across borders and economic sectors and at both regional and global scales.
It would require fossil-fuel emissions to peak by 2020 and to fall to zero by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The idea is to reduce the risk of blowing the remaining global carbon budget to stay below 2 degrees Celsius by making the greatest efforts to reduce emissions now rather than later.
The researchers call for a ramping up of technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere, a rapid reduction of emissions from agriculture and deforestation, and a doubling of renewables in the energy sector every five to seven years.
“We are already at the start of this trajectory,” said lead author Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. “In the last decade, the share of renewables in the energy sector has doubled every 5.5 years. If doubling continues at this pace, fossil fuels will exit the energy sector well before 2050.”
By 2020, according to the roadmap outlined by authors, the world would implement “no-brainer” policies, including ending fossil-fuel subsidies, putting a $50 per ton price on carbon emissions, and cracking down on energy efficiency. Both coal and polluting vehicles would have to be phased out, and new clean technology, including superconducting electricity grids, would have to be developed.
In the 2030s, coal use would end in the energy sector and in the 2040s oil use would end. By 2050, the carbon price would have risen to $400 per ton.
A study published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports suggests human-caused global warming is changing the behavior of planetary waves such as the jet stream in a way that intensifies droughts, wildfires and floods (subscription).
“We came as close as one can to demonstrating a direct link between climate change and a large family of extreme recent weather events,” said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study.
Authors used computer simulations, historical temperature data going back as far as 1880 and roughly 50 climate models to explore a series of unusual and deadly weather events, which they connect with an increase in the stalling of the jet stream, a phenomenon that occurs with a decreased temperature difference between the Arctic and tropical air streams. Conditions that favor that phenomenon have increased nearly 70 percent since the start of the industrial age—and most of that change has occurred in the past four decades, according to the study.
“The more frequent persistent and meandering jetstream states seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, which makes it even more relevant,” said co-author Dim Coumou from the Department of Water and Climate Risk at VU University in Amsterdam. “Such non-linear responses of the Earth system to human-made warming should be avoided. We can limit the risks associated with increases in weather extremes if we limit greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Keystone Pipeline Application Approved
President Donald Trump continued to tout restoration of American jobs with his approval of a Canadian firm’s application to construct the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Nebraska, linking existing pipelines to carry oil to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s a great day for American jobs, a historic day for North America and energy independence,” said Trump Friday. “This announcement is part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families, and very significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
The Obama administration had cited environmental concerns in rejecting the Keystone permit in 2015. In the 30-page explanation that the State Department gave for its presidential permit, signed by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon Jr., it said it relied on yet earlier environmental studies into the pipeline’s possible environmental effects. The only new material in the permit is communications from TransCanada.
“In making his determination that issuance of this permit would serve the national interest, the Under Secretary considered a range of factors, including but not limited to foreign policy; energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; and compliance with applicable law and policy,” a statement on the U.S. Department of State website reads.
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.
President Donald Trump is not considering a national carbon tax proposal that a group of Republicans discussed in February. A White House official told GreenWire in an e-mail that although the group of Republican leaders visited the White House to discuss their proposal that “the Trump Administration is not considering a carbon tax.”
The plan had called for an increase in the cost of fossil fuels to bring down consumption—suggesting a tax of $40 a ton that would increase steadily over time. Tax proceeds, they state, would be redistributed to consumers on a quarterly basis in what they call “carbon dividends” that could be approximately $2,000 annually for a family of four.
The Hill reports that White House advisors, along with National Economic Council (NEC) Director Gary Cohn, met with the group led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
“Part of the NEC’s responsibility in coordinating economic policy for the president is to listen to a range of viewpoints on various issues,” said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. “The Trump administration is not considering a carbon tax.”
Nominee for Supreme Court Sheds Little Light on How He Would Weigh Environmental Issues
The Senate hearing began this week for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant in February 2016 by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. How Gorsuch may weigh environmental issues is difficult to discern due to his slender case record on energy and climate topics.
“His record is kind of skimpy,” said Peter McGrath, a member of the Moore & VanAllen law firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s hard to predict where he might rule.”
His third day of Senate testimony has revealed little about how Gorsuch might consider specific issues. He repeatedly said that it is his duty to “apply the law impartially.”
He has been skeptical of a judicial doctrine whereby government agencies’ interpretation of ambiguous statutes prevails unless it is unreasonable—the so-called Chevron deference. Chevron has become the basis of the legal argument for many environmental cases since the 1980s. But according to a concurring opinion Gorsuch wrote last year, the doctrine empowers bureaucrats to “swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power” and to “concentrate federal power” in a way with which the framers of the Constitution would have disagreed.
On day two of his Senate hearing, Gorsuch may have partly clarified his stance on the legal doctrine.
“Scientists, biologists, chemists—the experts get great deference from the courts,” Gorsuch said. “The only question is who decides what the law is.”
The hearing for Gorsuch is expected to continue through Thursday and possibly into Friday. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said the plan is for the full Senate to vote on Gorsuch by Easter.
Complex Picture of Carbon Emissions Emerges; Record Temps Continue
Thanks to a combination of stricter emissions regulations, a decline in the use of coal, cheaper natural gas and a rise in clean energy, climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions—totaling 32.1 metric gigatons in 2016—have remained flat for the third consecutive year despite 3.1 percent growth in the global economy over the same period, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced on Monday. The biggest drop came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3 percent, while the economy grew 1.6 percent. Carbon dioxide output also declined 1 percent in China, where the economy grew by more than 6 percent, showing that the world’s two largest energy users and carbon emitters may be able to balance economic growth with emissions reductions. The decreases offset increases in most of the rest of world.
“These three years of flat emissions in a growing global economy signal an emerging trend and that is certainly a cause for optimism, even if it is too soon to say that global emissions have definitely peaked,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “They are also a sign that market dynamics and technological improvements matter.”
In 2016, renewables, particularly hydro, supplied more than half the growth in global electricity demand. The overall increase in the world’s nuclear net capacity last year was the highest since 1993, with new reactors becoming operational in China, the United States, South Korea, India, Russia and Pakistan. And coal demand fell worldwide but particularly in the United States, where it was down 11 percent in 2016 and where, for the first time, more electricity was generated from natural gas than from coal.
Although positive for air pollution, the emissions pause, said the IEA, is insufficient to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius, the cutoff that scientists say helps us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Transparent, predictable policies are needed worldwide to ensure temperatures do not rise above 2 degrees Celsius.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday announced that last month’s average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average of 53.9 degrees Fahrenheit, making February 2017 the second warmest, behind last February, in 137 years of record keeping.
On the heels of this announcement, the annual State of the Global Climate report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also showed that 2016 was the warmest year on record. The El Niño weather phenomenon contributed 0.1 to 0.2 degrees to the longer-term warming driven by carbon dioxide emissions.
“The year 2016 was the warmest on record—a remarkable 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, which is 0.06 degrees Celsius above the previous record set in 2015,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas. “This increase in global temperatures is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system. Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise, and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year.”
According to WMO, provisional data also indicates that there has been no easing in the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide despite the fading of 2016’s strong El Niño conditions, a phenomenon in the Pacific that increases global temperatures and affects weather patterns.
“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system,” said David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme. “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”
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.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, a revamped White House website announced the new administration’s intention.” That same day, Reuters reported that all references to climate change had been removed from the WhiteHouse.gov site, and the Wall Street Journal’s Amy Harder tweeted that the URL to the climate change page had gone dead.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration instructed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove its website’s climate change page, which contains links to climate research and detailed data on emissions. The news was reported to Reuters by staffers who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media. One of them said some employees were scrambling to save some of the information on the website (subscription).
“If the website goes dark, years of work we have done on climate change will disappear,” an EPA staffer told Reuters.
Yahoo News reported that, late last year, scientists had begun backing up the climate data publicly available on government websites in fear that the data might disappear under Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax.”
But on Wednesday, the Trump administration walked back its directive.
“We’ve been told to stand down,” an EPA employee told E&E News, which reported that administration officials may have been prompted to change course because of the backlash that erupted over its previous instructions. The instructions didn’t go over well with agency employees, said the unnamed EPA staffer, adding that the information is “world class” data. “And it’s true.”
And at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer commented on reports this week that the White House had curtailed social media use at the EPA, the Interior Department and the Energy Department.
“They haven’t been directed by us to do anything,” Spicer said of the restrictions. “From what I understand,” he added, staffers “have been told within their agencies to adhere to their own policies, but that directive did not come from here.”
Executive Actions Reflect About Face on Climate Change Action
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump acted on campaign promises to remove hurdles to domestic energy development by signing an executive action to advance the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Nebraska, linking existing pipelines to carry oil to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, and a memorandum calling for an expedited review and approval of the Dakota Access pipeline. Both were projects that the Obama administration blocked due in part to environmental concerns, including their influence on greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Trump said both pipelines would be subject to renegotiation and that the materials for them must be sourced from the U.S.
The impact of the orders is likely to be felt first in North Dakota, where Energy Transfer Partners wants to install the final 1,100-foot section of the 1,172-mile pipeline that runs under Lake Oahe, a route that sparked protests after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe raised concerns about potential spills and leaks. The pipeline would carry oil from North Dakota to refineries and pipeline networks in Illinois. The Keystone XL pipeline would also reach those refineries along its route.
Revival of the two pipeline projects (subscription) was Trump’s first action to make good on his America First Energy Plan, presented on a new WhiteHouse.gov web page that has replaced the Obama administration’s climate change web page.
The Climate Action Plan, introduced by Obama in June 2013, outlined plans for the U.S. to cut its carbon pollution, prepare for the effects of climate change, and lead international efforts to address global warming. The brief America First Energy Plan goes in another direction.
“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry,” it reads. “Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years.”
Trump’s plan encourages the burning of coal and the use of shale oil and gas. It does not reference solar, wind, or other sustainable energy sources but does offer up a commitment to “clean coal technology.” That term sometimes refers to plants outfitted with “scrubbers” or having the capacity to capture and store carbon emissions, which has reportedly not been demonstrated to work in a cost-effective way.
Trump Cabinet Nominees Acknowledge Some Influence of Humans on Climate Change
At Senate confirmation hearings, President Donald Trump’s picks to run some key federal agencies have said that the climate is changing and that human activity is a factor. The extent of human influence on climate change, they say, is up for study and debate, along with policies that might be needed.
The Washington Post reports that transition officials say that there has been no coordination to get these candidates—Ryan Zinke, Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson—on message. “This is an accurate reflection of what they believe, and Cabinet nominees are encouraged to give their opinion on questions when they’re asked,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In opening remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing last Thursday, Rick Perry, Trump’s Energy Secretary pick, acknowledged that his call for the Department of Energy’s elimination, made during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, was in error.
“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” said Perry. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”
Like many of Trump’s other cabinet picks, he softened his earlier position on climate change.
“I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity,” said Perry. “The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs.”
At his confirmation hearing, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, indicated he would give the power to apply environmental rules back to states. However, he also stated that he would review a federal waiver under the Clean Air Act allowing California to set emissions standards for vehicles. The state mandates that 15 percent of new cars by 2025 have zero emissions—a standard that’s stricter than anywhere else in the country.
“That’s what would be evaluated, it’s very difficult, and we shouldn’t prejudge the outcome,” said Pruitt.
There are some hints that in this case giving the power back to states may not align with the new administration’s objectives. On Tuesday Trump told auto executives to increase U.S. production and boost American employment and said that he would cut regulations and taxes to make operating in the U.S. more attractive.
“We’re bringing manufacturing back to the United States big league, we’re reducing taxes very substantially and we’re reducing unnecessary regulations,” Trump said, calling himself an environmentalist, but indicating that environmental regulations are “out of control.”
Some states vowed not to let the new administration roll back environmental efforts. Gov. Jerry Brown stated Wednesday that “California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, won approval in a 11–10 vote along party lines from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His nomination now moves to the full Senate, where he needs the support of 51 members for confirmation. That final vote could come as early as next week.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Climate change has entered a new phase, said the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Monday. The WMO reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) “surged again to new records in 2016,” and it predicted that the annual average for CO2 would remain above 400 parts per million (ppm), 44 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, for generations.
The 400 ppm threshold, a symbolic red line in the methodical march of greenhouse gas concentrations, was continuously breached for the first time in 2015—a rise driven largely by fossil fuel emissions and aided by a strong El Niño, which “triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of sinks like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2,” the WMO said. Last year’s jump in carbon dioxide was the largest annual increase on record (subscription).
“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.” “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not . . . Without tackling carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation.”
Taalas added that improvements in the climate will be seen by 2060 if countries begin to lower their carbon dioxide emissions now.
Between 1990 and 2015, Earth experienced a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—because of greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural, and domestic activities, according to the WMO.
WMO’s announcement comes within a week of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s report that found September was the 11th consecutive month to set record high temperatures.
Study: Glacier Melt in Antarctica Could Help Predict Global Sea Level Rise
A number of research studies have suggested Antarctica’s ice is melting faster than previously thought, but two new studies may help better predict future Antarctica ice loss and global sea level rise. The studies examined the Pope, Kohler, and Smith glaciers—part of the Dotson and Crosson ice shelves—in West Antarctica.
“Our primary question is how the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise in the future, particularly following our observations of massive changes in the area over the last two decades,” said University of California Irvine’s Bernd Scheuchl, lead author on the first of the two studies published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Using satellite data, we continue to measure the evolution of the grounding line of these glaciers, which helps us determine their stability and how much mass the glacier is gaining or losing. Our results show that the observed glaciers continue to lose mass and thus contribute to global sea level rise.”
A second study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that a significant portion of Antarctica is subject to “intense unbalanced melting” revealing high rates of ice loss from glaciers’ undersides. It also blames receding glacial grounding lines for the ice loss—spurred by an influx of warm ocean water beneath the ice shelves.
The glacier that saw the most melt, the study says, was Smith. It lost about 1,000 feet of ice between 2002 and 2009, which authors think is “a strong piece of evidence” that these glaciers, along with the larger Amundsen region, were subjected to a large influx of warm ocean water during that period.
“If I had been using data from only one instrument, I wouldn’t have believed what I was looking at, because the thinning was so large,” said author Ala Khazendar, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noting how the work shows how important it is to understand both the ocean circulation and seabed topography when determining future melt and sea level rise.
IEA: Significant Renewables Growth Expected by 2021
The renewable energy market is growing around the world, according to a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA raised its estimate of the amount of renewable energy on power grids 13 percent from its 2015 forecast. It forecasts a 825 gigawatt boost in capacity by 2021 (a 42 percent increase from today).
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The growth will mostly be driven by four countries: China, the U.S., India and Mexico. China is the leader.
“About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world last year,” according to the report. “In China, which accounted for about half the wind additions and 40 percent of all renewable capacity increases, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.”
In the United States over the next five years, renewable capacity is forecast to grow to 328.2 gigawatts from 221.1 gigawatts. During this period, solar PV is forecast to nearly triple—from 26.1 gigawatts to 77.5 gigawatts—and wind to grow nearly 71.5 percent.
“Renewables are and still remain dependent on policies … to create the right market rules and the right framework to attract investments,” said Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division.
A week after the Paris Agreement to limit global warming met requirements to come into force, the subject of climate change was referenced only once in Tuesday’s second U.S. presidential debate—after audience member Ken Bone posed the question “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
“I have a comprehensive energy policy,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton responded in the town-hall style debate, “but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving to more clean, renewable energy because I believe we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower.”
She prefaced the remark with a nod to the significance of expanded natural gas production.
“We are … producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels, and I think that is an important transition,” said Clinton, who two days later delivered a climate change message in Florida with Al Gore.
Republican candidate Donald Trump did not mention climate change but did assert support for renewables and clean coal, which he suggested would be an option for another millennium.
“Now, I’m all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar,” Trump said, “but we need much more than wind and solar … There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.”
The short shrift given climate change during the debate did not match its popularity in an online poll organized by the Open Debate Coalition. Four questions on climate and energy made the poll’s top 30 crowd-sourced questions, which moderators of Sunday’s debate had agreed to consider. Of some 15,900 questions garnering 3.8 million votes in the poll, the fourth most popular was “What are the steps you will take to address climate change?”
In the two presidential debates so far, presidential candidates have mentioned “climate change” and “energy” only a few times. Yet, as highlighted by a report we have just co-published with Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the next administration will, through a combination of market forces, statutory deadlines, pending lawsuits, and open agency rulemakings, be forced to tackle a wide range of energy issues. The resulting decisions could shape the electricity sector for decades to come, and the chosen candidate will certainly play a large role in how the United States deals with climate change.
Study: Western Fire Season Worse Due to Climate Change
A new study in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change impacts have made forests in the western United States drier and easier to burn, adding more than 16,000 square miles of forest fire area since 1984.
“We’re no longer waiting for human-caused climate change to leave its fingerprint on wildfire across the western U.S. It’s already here,” said lead author John Abatzoglou, a climatologist at the University of Idaho.
Rising temperatures that make the air drier and draw out moisture from vegetation have increased the likelihood of burning, according to annual wildfire data and climate models used by the authors.
“Climate change is playing a substantial role in the variability of fire activity … and we expect that to continue into the future,” Abatzoglou said. “The question is how are people going to respond to that.”
Aviation Industry Agrees to Curb Emissions
Member states of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to a market-based measure to offset the growth of emissions from international flights after 2020. The agreement, which involves 191 countries, caps carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels by 2035. Airlines will be encouraged to purchase credits through global carbon markets to offset their emissions for many flights beginning in 2021.
“Aviation can now claim its ‘Paris moment,’” said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the president of the ICAO council, in a statement following the news.
The agreement initially starts off with voluntary participation, which becomes mandatory in 2027 through 2035. The United States, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and the aviation conference of the European Union (44 nations) have indicated they will participate in the voluntary portion of the agreement.
Thirty-one new countries formally agreed to join the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions—bringing the total committed countries to 60. The Paris Agreement takes effect when it is formally adopted by at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, so far, these 60 country commitments only account for 48 percent of total global emissions.
Among the 31 countries who committed this week during Climate Week—a meeting in New York of international business and government leaders to examine progress toward meeting Paris Agreement goals—were Brazil, the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Mexico, Argentina, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kiribati and Bangladesh.
“Today we also heard commitments from many other countries to join the agreement this year. Their combined emissions will take us well past the required amount for the agreement to enter into force,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. “I am convinced that the Paris Agreement will enter into force before the end of 2016.”
Germany, Austria, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the countries planning to formally join the agreement by the end of 2016.
“And in a demonstration of our commitment to the agreement reached in Paris, the U.K. will start its domestic procedures to enable ratification of the Paris agreement, and complete these before the end of the year,” said U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Ban Ki-Moon said he hopes the agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to 2 Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration of keeping it to 1.5 Celsius, can come into force by the 22nd Conference of Parties in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November 2016.
Arctic Sea Ice Hits Second-Lowest Summer Measurement
Arctic ice levels have shrunk to their second-lowest recorded level, tying the 2007 minimum extent, according to a new report released by the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA)-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). On September 10, ice covered just 1.6 million square miles; the lowest level, 1.31 million square miles, was recorded September 17, 2012. Satellites have observed a trend of marked decrease since 1979.
“September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average,” NASA says.
According to NSIDC, all 10 of the lowest summer extents in the satellite record have occurred in the past 10 years. NASA, which released an animation depicting the evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover in 2016 from its wintertime maximum extent to its apparent yearly minimum, has called this pattern the “new normal” for Arctic ice.
“It was a stormy, cloudy, and fairly cool summer,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. “Historically, such weather conditions slow down the summer ice loss, but we still got down to essentially a tie for second lowest in the satellite record.”
NSIDC scientists suspect that the unusually thin sea ice pack melted from below by unusually mild ocean waters and that the ice loss may have been accelerated by a particularly notable late August ice breakup triggered by powerful storms.
“We’ve always known that the Arctic is going to be the early warning system for climate change,” Serreze said. “What we’ve seen this year is reinforcing that.”
He added that sometime in the next few decades the Arctic Ocean is headed for ice-free summers.
Poll Says Americans Care about Climate Change
Sixty-five percent of Americans think climate change is a problem that the government needs to address, according to a new survey by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Of those polled, 57 percent would pay at least $1 month, 39 percent would pay $10 a month and 20 percent would pay $50 a month to combat it.
Nearly 8 in 10 of the poll’s nearly 1,096 respondents indicated that the U.S. should maintain its commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions, even if other countries do not. The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent.
Antarctica is home to Earth’s largest ice mass, which unlike the Arctic remains frozen year round. But a new satellite-based study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that atop the coastal Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land, large numbers of meltwater lakes have been forming.
The study suggests that the lakes—nearly 8,000 of them—appeared in the summer months between 2000 and 2013. Like lakes that have formed from the meltwater of ice sheets in areas such as Greenland, those in East Antarctica may affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration.
“What we find is that the appearance of these lakes, unsurprisingly, is correlated directly with the air temperature in the region, and so the maximum number of lakes, and the total area of the lakes, as well as the depth of the lakes, all of these things peak when the air temperatures peak,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the U.K. and one of the study’s authors.
The concern is that the lakes’ meltwater will drain into the underlying ice, causing the ice sheet to weaken. The long-term effects are unknown, the authors say.
“We do not think that the lakes on Langhovde Glacier are at present affecting the glacier, but it will be important to monitor these in the future to see how they evolve with surface air temperature changes,” said lead study author Emily Langley of Durham University in the U.K.
Natural Gas Emissions to Edge Out Coal Emissions This Year
In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, released last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that for the first time since 1972 energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas will surpass those from coal. Although natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, its consumption has increased while coal consumption has decreased, leading to what the EIA expects will be 10 percent greater energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas than from coal in 2016.
The EIA estimates that this year natural gas will fuel 34 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared with 30 percent for coal. Last year, natural gas generated slightly less than 33 percent of electricity, and coal generated slightly more than 33 percent.
The EIA also noted that annual U.S. carbon intensity rates have been falling since 2005, in part because of increased consumption of low- or zero-carbon electricity from nuclear plants and renewables. Along with the decrease in coal consumption, the increase in non-fossil fuel consumption has reduced U.S. total carbon intensity from 60 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2005 to 54 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2015.
But the EIA’s emissions numbers do not reflect emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas released by gas drilling and transport operations. The extent of methane emissions from oil and gas production and distribution is uncertain, complicating the climate impacts of switching from coal to gas. Once those emissions total more than 4 percent of total gas production, according to a study cited in Utility Dive, they begin to negate the climactic benefits of gas over coal.
Obama Uses Anniversary to Remind Country of Climate Change’s Threat to National Parks
As the United States marks the centennial of the National Park Service this week, its parks are being widely celebrated for their natural grandeur. But President Obama used the milestone as a reminder of the threat climate change poses to the parks in a video released Saturday.
“As president, I’m proud to have built upon America’s tradition of conservation. We’ve protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters—more than any administration in history,” said Obama.
“As we look ahead, the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
The National Park Service warns that today’s “rapid climate change challenges national parks in ways we’ve never seen before. Glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate, increasingly destructive storms threaten cultural resources and park facilities, habitat is disrupted—the list goes on.”
How is the National Park Service planning for climate change? The Atlantic reports that although parks have been slow to adapt their management practices, they are taking steps to cut emissions and educate the public about climate change and its effects. It reports that the visitors’ center at California’s Pinnacles National Park runs on electricity from solar panels, passenger vehicles are banned in Zion National Park during the summer, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, several beach restoration projects are in the works due to erosion caused partly by sea-level rise.
Surveys conducted by Yale University and George Mason University suggest that 17 percent of Americans view climate change as an alarming threat and that another 28 percent are concerned about climate change but view it as a distant threat.
The subject has become highly contentious since 1997, when then Vice President Gore helped broker an international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas. The U.S. later withdrew from the treaty.
“And at that moment the two parties began to divide,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who was involved in the surveys. “They begin to split and go farther and farther and farther apart until we reach today’s environment where climate change is now one of the most polarized issues in America.”
Climate change will again be in the spotlight as a group of climate scientists gather in Switzerland to discuss a United Nation’s report expected to detail the impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. In Paris last year, some 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But there are scientific questions not only about the costs and benefits of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but also about how to remain on a 1.5 C pathway. The Huffington Post shows what the Paris Climate Agreement is up against in a series of charts.
What we do know is this decade is the critical decade for action.
“The risks of future climate change—to our economy, society and environment—are serious, and grow rapidly with each degree of further temperature rise,” the Australian government’s Climate Commission wrote in a report. “Minimising these risks requires rapid, deep and ongoing reductions to global greenhouse gas emissions. We must begin now if we are to decarbonize our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. This decade is the critical decade.”
And the Host City of the Summer 2084 Games Is . . .
A study published in The Lancet says that only three North American cities—San Francisco, Calgary, Vancouver—will have a climate sufficiently cool and stable to host the Summer Olympic games in 70 years. The authors, who considered only cities in the northern hemisphere, where 90 percent of the world’s population lives, and only those with a population greater than 600,000 in 2012, the lower limit of host cities since World War II, said that climate change would make most of the 645 cities unsafe venues due to rising temperatures and humidity caused by climate change.
“You could take a risk, and plan your Olympics, and maybe not get the hot days you expect, but that would be a big risk when there are many billions of dollars at stake,” said Kirk Smith, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.
To measure the suitability of future Olympics sites, the researchers used climate change projections and a “wetbulb” globe temperature—a measurement reflecting the combination of humidity, heat radiation, temperature, and wind. They picked 2085 as a target date and as their target event what they considered the Olympics’ most physically challenging outdoor endurance event: the marathon. They selected 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit as the “high-risk” temperature for marathoners.
“The findings indicate that by 2085, Istanbul, Madrid, Rome, Paris and Budapest—all cities that are or were in contention for either the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics—would be unfit to host the games,” the authors said. “Tokyo, the city that has secured the 2020 summer Olympiad, would also be too hot to ensure athlete safety, should these projections come to pass.”
Which cities would be viable hosts? None in Latin America or Africa, 25 in western Europe, 5 in eastern Europe and Asia, and 3 in North America.
“If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?” the study concludes.
One of the most startling implications of the research is that temperatures will be too high for laboring outdoors, where half the world’s population works.
Truck Emissions Limits Set
New emissions requirements affecting heavy- and medium-duty vehicles, which represent only about 5 percent of total highway traffic but account for 20 percent of transportation-related fuel consumption and carbon emissions, were announced this week. The requirements call for as much as a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions and fuel consumption in certain models by 2027. It also requires annual increases in efficiency of 2.5% from 2021-2027 for heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans.
“The standards promote a new generation of cleaner, more fuel-efficient trucks by encouraging the development and employment of new and advanced cost-effective technologies through model year 2027,” said Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which developed the new rules in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “These standards are ambitious and achievable, and they will help ensure the American trucking industry continues to drive our economy — and at the same time protect our planet.”
Official say the new requirements are expected to cut 1.1 billion metric tons of carbon emissions through the next decade and represent a global benchmark for reducing vehicle-exhaust pollutants linked to climate change.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
At the North American Leaders Summit on Wednesday, Mexico, Canada and the United States pledged to generate 50 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2025. The joint commitment by the three countries, according to White House Adviser Brian Deese, is “an aggressive goal” but one that is “achievable continent-wide.”
“The Paris Agreement was a turning point for our planet, representing unprecedented accord on the urgent need to take action to combat climate change through innovation and deployment of low-carbon solutions,” the leaders said in a statement. “North America has the capacity, resources and the moral imperative to show strong leadership building on the Paris Agreement and promoting its early entry into force. We recognize that our highly integrated economies and energy systems afford a tremendous opportunity to harness growth in our continuing transition to a clean energy economy. Our actions to align climate and energy policies will protect human health and help level the playing field for our businesses, households, and workers.”
Last year, 32 percent of North America’s overall power came from clean energy sources. The White House cited renewable energy, nuclear plants, and carbon capture and storage technology as possible avenues to achieving the 50 percent goal in the next nine years. In addition, measures will be taken to reduce greenhouse gases in the economies of the three countries through deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, conduct research to accelerate clean energy innovation, support cross-border transmission projects, and examine adding more renewables to the power grid with a joint study of renewables opportunities and impacts
Mexico will join Canada and the United States in reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. Reduction strategies are planned for the agricultural and waste management sectors.
Could Brexit Complicate EU Effort on Paris Agreement?
Although the full effects of the United Kingdom’s decision, last week, to leave the European Union (EU)—the so-called Brexit—are still unclear, some think it could have far-reaching effects on Europe’s commitment to last year’s landmark Paris climate agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The impending departure of the EU’s second largest emitter and a leading advocate of increased EU ambition ahead of the Paris Agreement complicates Brussels’ plan to divide up the EU’s pledge to cut emissions at least 40 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2030 (subscription). The United Kingdom would have contributed significantly to meeting that pledge—under a 2008 domestic law it is on a pathway to cut its emissions 57 percent by 2030.
Assuming the United Kingdom stays in the Paris Agreement, its contribution would likely be based on its Climate Change Act. To abandon its current emissions reductions commitments would mean repealing the act.
For now, the United Kingdom remains a supporter of the Paris Agreement, and in the short term no changes are slated in its domestic emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050. But the United Nations says that, once the United Kingdom leaves the EU, a “recalibration” of the Paris Agreement will be necessary.
“While I think the U.K’s role in dealing with a warming planet may have been made harder by the decision last Thursday, our commitment to dealing with it has not gone away,” said Amber Rudd, Britain’s Energy Secretary. “Climate change has not been downgraded as a threat. It remains one of the most serious long-term risks to our economic and national security.”
Studies Find Pink Snow Contributing to Climate Change; Humans Changing Vegetation Growth
A study in the journal Nature Communications links the pink-hued snow in higher altitudes in the Arctic to climate-change-related increases in algae blooms that are causing melting in the region at an unprecedented pace. The presence of red algae reduces the snow’s ability to reflect light instead of absorbing it as heat (albedo), reducing albedo by as much as 13 percent in one season.
“The algae need liquid water in order to bloom,” said the University of Leeds’ Stefanie Lutz, lead author of the study. “Therefore the melting of snow and ice surfaces controls the abundance of the algae. The more melting, the more algae. With temperatures rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon will likely also increase leading to an even higher bio-albedo effect.”
It is unclear how widespread these algae blooms can become, but based on her observations, Lutz said “a conservative estimate would be 50 percent of the snow surface on a glacier [will be covered by the algae] at the end of a melt season.”
A separate study by NASA, which analyzed more than 87,000 satellite images, found extensive greening of land in Canada and Alaska while these area’s Boreal regions were browning as a result of climate change.
“Whereas temperature limited tundra regions have almost ubiquitously increased productivity with warming temperatures … trees in the boreal system do not respond well to high temperatures,” said Scott Goetz, deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s not what most people typically think of as drought, related to soil moisture, but the effect is the same. Boreal trees are like living organisms anywhere, they will do what they need to do to survive… It’s all finely tuned by centuries of evolutionary adaptation.”
“Our findings reveal that the observed greening record is consistent with an assumption of anthropogenic forcings, where greenhouse gases play a dominant role, but is not consistent with simulations that include only natural forcings and internal climate variability,” the authors write.