Clean Power Plan Publication Triggers Wave of Challenges

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

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The recent publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan in the Federal Register triggered the filing of lawsuits by dozens of states in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, along with other challenges, including a petition from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led industry coalition for a rule review and an immediate stay of the regulation. By Monday, 26 states, 15 trade groups, several labor unions, and a host of individual utilities and companies were suing the administration over the Clean Power Plan. By Tuesday, members in both the House and the Senate introduced Congressional Review Act resolutions to stop them (subscription)—resolutions described by The National Journal as “a bid to un­der­mine in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks.”

Clean Power Plan critics—among them attorney generals from West Virginia (Patrick Morrisey) and Texas (Ken Paxton), who are leading the states’ legal challenge—allege that the state-by-state targets aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 represent a federal overreach and will hike utility rates and undercut grid reliability.

“The Clean Power Plan is one of the most far-reaching energy regulations in this nation’s history,” said Morrisey. “EPA claims to have sweeping power to enact such regulations based on a rarely used provision of the Clean Air Act, but such legal authority simply does not exist.” But the EPA and many environmental groups contend that the federal government does have the legal authority to curb power plant emissions, and The Huffington Post noted that in the past the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the EPA’s favor.

“The power plan is based on a sound legal and technical foundation,” said Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe. “We feel strongly that given our authorities and legal precedents under the Clean Air Act that our application of [Section] 111(d) here conforms with those authorities and that legal precedent.”

As part of its efforts to help states figure out how to implement the regulation, the EPA last week released a memorandum to regional EPA directors that lays out elements to be included in initial plan submittals to the EPA in September, should states desire to extend their deadline for final plan submittals to 2018.

Even while challenging the Clean Power Plan, some states are simultaneously thinking about developing compliance strategies, which could include creation of carbon-trading plans that allow big polluters to buy emissions credits from lesser emitters.

Also published in the Federal Register last week was the final rule regulating carbon dioxide for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants and the proposed federal implementation plan. That plan—to be imposed on states that fail to submit a compliance plan to the EPA—will be the subject of public hearings in November and a 90-day comment period ending January 21.

Draft Climate Deal Text Sent to Paris

On Friday diplomats endorsed the outlines of a proposed global climate deal to be negotiated starting Nov. 30 in Paris. The hope is to come to an agreement— by the summit’s conclusion on Dec.11—that limits warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the most significant effects of climate change. U.N. Climate Chief Christina Figueres said this week that based on some 150 plans submitted thus far, diplomats could only hope to limit warming to just below 3 degrees.

Even when talks start next month, countries that produce 92 percent of greenhouse gases in the world are expected to have submitted national plans. If fully implemented, they would hold temperature rise by the end of the century to 2.7 degrees Celsius.

“There’s nobody out there that wants a 3 degree world,” said Figueres. “Nobody. We are not giving up on a 2 degree world. In fact, we’re staying under 2 degrees. And what we’re doing is we are building a process that is going to get us there.”

But the goal will have to be met without a global carbon price, Figueres said, which could help create an incentive for power plants operators to switch to clean energy.

“[Many have said] we need a carbon price and [investment] would be so much easier with a carbon price, but life is much more complex than that,” she said. “…it’s not quite what we will have.”

There will be—and are—many pricing mechanisms in place around the globe. Many U.S. states are expected to develop trading-ready plans to meet the mandates laid out by the Clean Power Plan.

Report Finds New Highs in Store for Persian Gulf

A new Nature Climate Change study finds that climate change could render some cities in the Persian Gulf too hot for humans to live in—without mitigation measures.

“Our results expose a regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” authors write.

It predicts that a 95-degree wet-bulb temperature—the indicator of humidity that matches the temperature of our skin when we sweat—is too hot for extended periods of time. And that temperature could be exceeded in summer months in certain parts of the region.

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 Treaty Negotiators, U.S. Businesses Look Ahead to Paris

October 22, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Most countries have now submitted emissions plans ahead of the Paris climate talks later this year, but success in forging a global treaty in Paris is far from guaranteed. Delegations from nearly 200 countries are meeting this week in Bonn, Germany, to pin down details of a draft agreement ahead of the U.N. talks. On the opening day, the dropping of language on financing of climate change and adaptation efforts from the draft text caused concern on the part of developing nations. After countries were invited to reinsert language, the text grew by more than a dozen pages (subscription).

Daniel Reifsnyder, one of the U.N. talks’ chairmen and a senior State Department official, said the Bonn meeting won’t resolve one of the biggest issues of disagreement for delegates—differentiation of developed countries and developing countries’ responsibilities. Progress might be made on other issues, he said, such as “whether there should be a precondition—like submitting a domestic climate plan to the U.N.—to join the agreement and to exercise decision-making rights.”

Looking for a strong outcome at the Paris talks are 81 U.S. companies. On Monday, the White House announced that 68 companies—ranging from banks to energy firms—had joined Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, and nine other original signatories to the White House-sponsored American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Signatories to the pledge, announced this summer, call for the Paris meeting to advance climate action and have offered up individual promises to cut their greenhouse gases and limit waste.

“Delaying action on climate change will be costly in economic and human terms, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy will produce multiple benefits with regard to sustainable economic growth, public health, resilience to natural disasters, and the health of the global environment,” the pledge says.

The White House also said on Monday that it expects a consortium of major investors to announce $1.2 billion in investment capital for companies and projects that can “produce impactful and profitable solutions to climate change.”

Study: Some Cities Already “Sunk” Due to Sea-Level Rise

Some 400 U.S. towns and cities with a collective population of more than 20 million are vulnerable to sea level rise—and some of them may be submerged regardless of efforts to address climate change, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that links carbon dioxide to sea level rise. A new map from Climate Central uses the study data to show how water will flow into U.S. cities under the best and worst climate change scenarios. The map pinpoints which U.S. cities may face “lock-in dates beyond which the cumulative effects of carbon emissions likely commit them to long-term sea-level rise that could submerge land under more than half of the city’s population.”

Lead study author Ben Strauss said that seas could rise 14–32 feet by 2100 in the absence of unchecked carbon emissions but that even with stringent emissions reduction action, it might already be too late for cities like New Orleans and Miami (subscription). Inundation could occur, he said, as soon as the next century, but it could take much longer.

The study finds that decisions made in this century will determine whether Jacksonville, Norfolk, Sacramento, and 11 other U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 will be locked in for inundation of at least half of their populated areas.

Strauss emphasized that many cities can be saved with swift action to reduce carbon emissions.

“The most interesting thing to me is there are a great deal of cities where our carbon choices make a huge difference,” he said. “For example, if you look at Philadelphia, under business as usual, land that accounts for more than 100,000 people could be submerged. But you divide that total by 10 with an extreme carbon cut. The very biggest difference of all is for New York City, where you can avoid submergence of land where one and a half million people live.”

September Global Average Temperature Keeps 2015 on Track for Record

Earth is on course to experience its warmest year on record, according to data and patterns studied by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). NASA put 2015’s record-breaking chances at 93 percent. NOAA put them at 97 percent.

The news comes as a JMA data set that tracks global average surface temperatures indicated a big jump in temperatures in September, compared to the 1981–2010 average. September 2015, the second warmest September on record, had a temperature anomaly of 0.50 degrees Celsius, far exceeding the typical margin by which global average temperature records—whether they’re months or years—are set.

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 Gets Attention in Democratic Debate

October 15, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Four of the five candidates mentioned climate change a dozen times as a major campaign issue during at the Democratic presidential debates this week. Candidates at the Republican debate were largely silent on the issue.

“This debate shows that climate has become a central issue, right up there with income inequality and broader economic concerns,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate official under the Clinton administration. “It’s a stunning evolution, one that also shows Democrats see climate change has a profound GOP vulnerability in the general election.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley touted their own efforts to combat climate change. “I’m the only candidate, I believe, in either party to do this—to move America forward to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050,” said O’Malley.

Sanders brought up his push for legislation that puts a price on carbon, and he identified climate change as the main threat for the country—repeating Pope Francis’s message that it was a moral issue.

“The scientific community is telling us: if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be inhabitable,” Sanders said.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, saw climate change as an economic opportunity.

“I’ve traveled across our country over the last months listening and learning,” Clinton said. “And I’ve put forward specific plans about how we’re going to create more good-paying jobs: by investing in infrastructure and clean energy, by making it possible once again to invest in science and research, and taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”

Group Calls for Tougher Action on Climate Change

Twenty countries most at risk of climate change due to arid, landlocked, mountainous, or low lying terrain have formed a new group to demand tougher efforts to curb climate change. The Vulnerable 20 (V20), which held its inaugural meeting in Lima, Peru, last week, is calling for significant mobilization of finance for climate action ahead of a climate agreement set to be negotiated in Paris later this year, and it will share and scale up its own members’ innovative approaches to such finance.

The action plan by the V20 countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, East Timor, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam—seeks to “strengthen economic and financial cooperation and action to address climate change risks and opportunities” as well as to promote a shift to a low-carbon global economy.

The V20 contributes only 2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions but asserts that since 2010 it has recorded more than 50,000 annual deaths and suffered an estimated annual decrease in GDP of 2.5 percent attributable to climate change.

“We established this group recognizing the power and potential of finance as an integral tool in solving [climate change],” Cesar Purisima, the Philippines’ finance minister and chair of the V20. “Unified in our vulnerability, the economic threats and difficulties arising from climate change, and heightened sense of urgency on the issue, we stand together on the front lines of a battle we most certainly cannot afford to lose.”

V20 expects to both raise and manage climate monies, and it will establish a public-private “climate risk pooling mechanism,” an insurance-like fund for recovery from extreme weather events and disasters.

Without an effective global response, said Purisima, the V20’s annual economic losses due to climate change would exceed $400 billion by 2030.

New York Set to Explore Linkage with Carbon Markets

Last Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced four major actions by his state to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One is becoming a signatory to Under 2 MOU—a memorandum of understanding among states, provinces, and cities worldwide to help keep Earth’s average temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, as measured against pre-industrial levels. Another is engaging partners in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in exploring the possibility of linking their power sector-only cap-and-trade program with California and Quebec’s economy-wide carbon markets and with Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, which may join California, Washington, and Quebec in the Western Climate Initiative as soon as 2017.

“Connecting these markets would be more cost-effective and stable, thereby supporting clean energy and driving international carbon emission reductions,” a release stated. “New York State will also engage other states and provinces to build a broader carbon market and further drive an international discussion that encourages government action on carbon emissions.”

ClimateWire reported that carbon trading among states is considered a key mechanism to comply with the Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and acting EPA air chief Janet McCabe has said that interstate trading, for which RGGI is regarded as a model, could help states maintain an affordable and reliable power supply (subscription).

RGGI members are expected to meet through 2016 to discuss both the future of their program, currently slated to end in 2020, and the program’s use as a possible compliance mechanism for the Clean Power Plan.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Studies Make Predictions of How to Comply, What to Look for in Final Clean Power Plan

July 30, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slated to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, regulating emissions from existing power plants, any day now. Many are already predicting changes, some that could be significant.

A survey by E&E publishing revealed stakeholders expect timing to be the element most likely to change in the final rule (subscription). The Washington Post, citing sources familiar with plans, reports the agency will give states an additional two years—until 2022—to begin implementing pollution cuts.

A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions highlights 11 elements we’ll be watching for. The top three, according to co-author and Climate and Energy Program director Jonas Monast: “I think that the top three issues are did the state targets change, and if so that means that the formula for calculating the state targets changed. Another point that I’ll be looking for is the timing … so when do the states have to submit the plans and when do utilities actually have to start taking action. And then the final, does EPA say more about the potential for using market-based mechanisms under the Clean Power Plan, and how?”

One more—guidance on multistate trading options. A number of organizations have explored options for multi-state trading of emissions credits without formal multistate agreements (subscription). Under a “common elements” or “trading-ready” approach, states could use similarly defined tradable emissions credits and common or linked tracking systems to ease the trade of emissions credits across state boundaries. Expanded emissions markets would increase gains from trade. The final rule may provide guidance on incorporating common elements into state compliance plans, and it may also indicate that the EPA will develop a tracking system to facilitate intrastate and interstate Clean Power Plan credit markets.

Another new study, out this week, suggests regional compliance may be the most cost-effective approach for states to comply with the rule. The Southwestern Power Pool study found under the EPA’s June 2014 draft plan, state-by-state compliance would cost 40 percent more than a regional approach.

“Our analysis affirmed that a state-by-state compliance approach would be more expensive to administer than a regional approach,” said Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering for SPP, in a news release. “A state-by-state solution also would be more disruptive than a regional approach to the significant reliability and economic value that SPP provides to its members as a regional transmission organization.”

According to a newly released Synapse Energy Economics study, states that focus compliance efforts on expanding carbon-free energy production and energy efficiency programs will reap big savings. The largest savings, it says, will be seen by states that take these renewable energy steps early on.

Court Grants the EPA Partial CASPR Victory

The U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, on Tuesday, upheld an EPA regulation, originally challenged by states and industry, to restrict power plant emissions that cross state lines. The ruling did find the EPA erred in its 2014 budgets for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and called for the agency to rework them.

Although the 2011 rule—known as Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CASPR)—remains intact, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said the court expects the agency to “move promptly” and not “drag its feet” in coming up with new budgets. Kavanaugh wrote that EPA’s budgets “have required states to reduce pollutants beyond the point necessary” to achieve air quality improvements in downwind areas (subscription).

The EPA, in a statement released by spokeswoman Melissa Harrison, said “The agency remains committed to working with states and the power sector as we move forward to implement the rule. We are reviewing the decision and will determine any appropriate further course of action once our review is complete.”

CASPR has faced many challenges. The Supreme Court upheld the rule, which aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can lead to soot and smog in 28 states, in May 2014. The rule was invalidated by a federal appellate court in August 2012 after it was challenged by a group of upwind states and industry because it enforced pollution controls primarily on coal plants.

Climate Change Undermines Coral Reefs’ Protective Effect on Coasts

Climate change decreases coral reefs’ capacity to protect coasts against wave action and resulting hazards according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. That reduced capacity could make low-lying coral islands and atolls—home to some 30 million people—uninhabitable.

The study by researchers from Dutch institute for applied research Deltares and the U.S. Geological Survey finds that sea level rise and coral reef decay will lessen reefs’ dissipation of wave energy, leading to flooding, erosion, and salination of drinking water resources.

The study authors used Xbeach, an open-source wave model, to understand the effects of higher sea levels and smoother coral as it degrades. Their results suggest that wave runup and thus flooding potential is highest for those coasts fronted by narrow reefs with steep faces and deeper, smoother reef flats.

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.

Pope Calls for Sweeping Changes to Address Climate Change

June 18, 2015
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Pope Francis’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, which may play a key role in the United Nations climate change conference in Paris later this year, was released today. Among its key focuses: climate change is real, it is getting worse and humans are a major cause.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” the Pope wrote. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical called for sweeping changes in politics, economics and lifestyles to confront the issue—including moving away from fossil fuel use.

“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” he wrote. “In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

A leaked draft of the encyclical published Monday in an Italian magazine sparked bipartisan reaction. Democrats greeted it as a vindication of the science of climate change and of their party’s policy proposals to address it (subscription). Some prominent Republicans—such as GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush—argued that a religious leader has no place in crafting policy. Former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis said the encyclical will force skeptics and critics of environmental regulations in the GOP to do some “soul searching.”

“There’s a lot of Republicans who may have in the past been critical of fellow Catholics who they call ‘cafeteria Catholics’ who don’t follow the church’s teachings—say, on abortion,” said Inglis. “But now, are they going to become ‘cafeteria Catholics’ themselves and not follow the church’s teachings on climate change?”

Carbon Tax Bill Aims to Trade a “Bad” for a “Good”

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii last week introduced the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, a bill that would impose a $45 per metric ton fee on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels—a figure reflecting the federal government’s estimate of the so-called social cost of carbon, a measure of damage attributable to climate change. The location of the announcement, the American Enterprise Institute, was “meant to convey an offer of partnership” with conservatives on what the two Democratic senators hope is a “rebooted debate on climate change that focuses on legislation over science,” ClimateWire reported (subscription).

The bill’s gradually rising tax (2 percent per year) and credits for carbon sequestration are aimed at reducing emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels. According to a summary of the legislation, the bill would cut emissions by at least 40 percent by 2025. That amount represents a far greater reduction than the 26 to 28 percent that the United States has pledged to achieve through regulatory changes over the same period and would amount to a cut deeper than that proposed by other countries in the run up to discussions surrounding a climate deal in Paris later this year.

Whitehouse and Schatz argued that lack of a carbon tax is a $700 billion annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.

“A carbon fee can repair that market failure by incorporating unpriced damage into the costs of fossil fuels,” Whitehouse said. “Then the free market—not industry, not government—can drive the best energy mix is for the country, with everyone competing on level ground.”

Fossil fuel consumption in British Columbia is down since the Canadian province implemented a carbon tax. New analysis of that tax’s performance by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity describes the tax as straight out of the economist’s playbook.

Co-author and Nicholas Institute Environmental Economics Program Director Brian Murray describes the tax as a “textbook” prescription because of its wide coverage and revenue neutrality, meaning that revenues from the tax go back to British Columbia households and businesses.

“Economists often favor revenue-neutral carbon taxation because it has the potential to enhance economic growth by lowering distortions from the current tax system,” said Murray. “Given these characteristics, the British Columbia carbon tax may provide the purest example of the economist’s carbon tax prescription in practice.”

Similar to revenues from the British Columbia carbon tax, fees from the proposed carbon tax would be recycled back to businesses and individuals. The projected $2 trillion over the course of the first decade would be invested in “American competitiveness” through tax credits, corporate tax cuts, and funding for states, which Whitehouse and Schatz say would help low-income and rural communities transition to new industries.

White House Raises $4 Billion to Fight Climate Change

President Barack Obama hopes to spark clean energy innovation with $4 billion in private sector investments and executive actions, officials announced at the White House’s Clean Energy Investment Summit Tuesday. The funding is in response to a call for increased private sector research into low-carbon energy technology. It doubles the funding goal announced in February, when the Obama administration launched its Clean Energy Investment Initiative.

The Clean Energy Impact Investment Center will operate under the Energy Department to speed other financing for clean energy. The idea, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted, is to “make the department’s resources … more readily available to the public.”

He added: “The United States and other countries are providing substantial financial support to the development and commercialization of clean energy technologies but, if were to achieve climate goals, it is imperative that we find ways to incentivize the global capital markets to invest in clean energy. The U.S. government is addressing the need for new financing through a variety of programs that support clean energy technology through the research and development, demonstration and deployment stages.”

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.