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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A new report that provides a long-term view of the evolution of the world’s power markets suggests that by 2027 building new wind and solar will become cheaper than running existing coal and gas generators in many parts of the world. Between 2016 and 2040, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s New Energy Outlook projects that $7.8 trillion will be invested in renewables globally.
“One conclusion that may surprise is that our forecast shows no golden age for gas, except in North America,” said report co-author Elana Giannakopoulou. “As a global generation source, gas will be overtaken by renewables in 2027. It will be 2037 before renewables overtake coal.”
The energy sector, which accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, will not change quickly enough to meet the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. According to the report, to meet this target, leaders must invest $13.1 trillion—$5.3 trillion more than the $7.8 trillion expected to be invested in renewables by 2040. This will presumably require further changes in technology and policy to increase the uptake of new low carbon investment to meet that target.
What happens with fossil fuel emissions, it says, will largely depend on choices made by the Asia-Pacific region that’s forecast to see major growth in wind, solar and coal.
By 2040, the study suggests energy storage market will be valued at $250 billion or more as battery costs are projected to fall and storage deployment rises. Utility-scale batteries are projected to become widespread in little more than a decade.
Greenland Ice Melt Points to Warming Feedback Loop
As news emerged that Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low in May, a study published in Nature Communications provided evidence that links melting ice in Greenland to so-called Arctic amplification or faster warming of the Arctic than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere as sea ice disappears. The study revealed that changing temperatures at the poles driven by global warming have the potential to affect the jet stream, causing it to bend further north than usual.
“If loss of sea ice is driving changes in the jet stream, the jet stream is changing Greenland, and this, in turn, has an impact on the Arctic system as well as the climate,” said lead author Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It’s a system, it is strongly interconnected and we have to approach it as such.”
During July 2015, according to the study, a “cutoff high”—a relatively immobile region of high pressure—allowed sunny conditions to be sustained for many days over northwest Greenland, producing record melting there. The study suggests that the high was linked with a record-breaking northward departure of the mid-latitude jet stream, which is thought to result from the jet stream’s slowing due to a reduction in the temperature difference between polar latitudes and more temperate regions.
According to study co-author Edward Hanna, an earth scientist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, these cut-off highs are becoming more prevalent in the Arctic, and they may be here to stay because of climate change.
Record Temps Continue in May
Analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies showed that Earth experienced its hottest May on record—1.67 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1951–1980 average. The data, according to the Daily Mail, showed 370 straight months of warm or warmer-than-average temperatures worldwide.
David Carlson, director of the U.N.’s World Climate Research Program, expressed concern about the records: “We are in uncharted territory. Exceptionally high temperatures. Ice melt rates in March and May that we don’t normally see until July. Once-in-a-generation rainfall events. The super El Nino is only partly to blame. Abnormal is the new normal.”
The Great Barrier Reef, which last year narrowly avoided being put on the World Heritage endangered list, is experiencing its worst bleaching in recorded history. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, overall mortality of the reef is 22 percent, but along Lizard Island, off far north Queensland, it’s 93 percent. Coral bleaching is also occurring along the Maldives, Thailand, and Christmas Island.
By year’s end, what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has designated the third global coral bleaching in less than two decades, and the longest and most severe so far, will have killed 12,000 square kilometers of reefs and affected more than a third of the world’s corals.
Satellite data produced for The Guardian by Mark Eakin, head of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, reveals the increasingly widespread impact of ocean temperature increases on the Great Barrier Reef, where bleaching is predicted to become an annual event by 2020.
“While there was a considerable amount of variability—from El Niños and other things—there was an obvious upward trend in the data,” Eakin said. “So you’re looking at the background warming, which is having a major effect on the corals.”
Although coral bleaching is thought to result largely from abnormally high sea temperatures that kill marine algae crucial for coral health, a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications and based on a three-year experiment on a coral reef in the Florida Keys nuances that understanding. Its authors say that widespread coral deaths observed in recent decades are being caused by a combination of multiple local stressors that become lethal in the presence of higher temperatures.
“This makes it clear there’s no single force that’s causing such widespread coral deaths,” said study co-author Rebecca Vega Thurber of Oregon State University. “Loss of fish that help remove algae, or the addition of excess nutrients like those in fertilizers, can cause algal growth on reefs. This changes the normal microbiota of corals to become more pathogenic, and all of these problems reach critical levels as ocean temperatures warm.”
United States and India Announce Climate and Energy Agreements
On Tuesday, following a meeting with President Obama partly focused on climate change and energy, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gases producer, would ratify the Paris Agreement this year. The action is considered a key step in cementing the deal, which goes into effect 30 days after 55 nations representing 55 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions ratify it. To date, countries representing approximately 50 percent of global emissions have announced that they will submit legal documentation of their compliance with the deal, under which more than 190 nations agreed to keep global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius.
“Both leaders feel as if the collaboration between the two leaders was an important element of actually getting Paris successfully negotiated last December,” said Brian Deese, President Obama’s top climate change advisor. “They will both clearly endorse the importance of promoting full implementation of the Paris agreement.”
President Obama indicated that the speed with which the agreement could be brought into force would depend in part on securing “the climate financing that’s necessary for India to be able to embark on a bold vision for solar energy and clean energy” laid out by Modi.
Among the other climate and energy agreements the countries announced was a joint effort to adopt, this year, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol on the use of hydrofluorocarbons (subscription). That amendment would increase financial support to the protocol’s multilateral fund and contain an “aggressive phasedown schedule” for the potent greenhouse gas.
According to a White House fact sheet, other joint efforts include a $40 million program to provide capital for solar projects and a $20 million clean energy finance initiative.
India also agreed to a low greenhouse gas emissions development strategy.
Ontario Unveils Climate Plan with Carbon Market Funding
Yesterday, Ontario announced its climate change action plan for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 and explained how that plan will work with its recently adopted carbon market, which it plans to link with that of California and Quebec in 2018.
According to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the action plan helps define how market proceeds will be spent. “By law, proceeds must be invested in projects and programs that help reduce greenhouse gas pollution,” said the ministry.
Most of the action plan’s C$8.3 billion in planned spending on combatting climate change will come from the annual C$1.9 billion that the government expects to raise by auctioning greenhouse gas emissions credits.
Canada’s four most populous provinces—representing 86 percent of Canadians—have, or are introducing carbon pricing, either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program aimed at emissions reductions.
Yellowstone National Park, Venice, Jordan’s Wadi Rum, and Easter Island’s Rapa Nui National Park are some of the 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are threatened by climate change according to a new report released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Melting glaciers, rising seas, increasing wildfires and harsher droughts could severely diminish the value of protected sites, making them unsuitable for a World Heritage designation, the report says. Climate change could eventually cause some of the sites to lose their status.
Also at risk, according to the report, is local economic development in the areas near world heritage sites. Specifically, the tourism sector is vulnerable to loss and damage to assets and attractions as well as to increasing insurance costs and safety concerns.
“The fastest growing risk to World Heritage, and one of the most under-reported by the countries that are parties to the World Heritage convention, is from climate change,” said Adam Markham, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He pointed out that climate change brings not only direct impacts but “acts as a ‘risk multiplier,’” compounding local stresses such as urbanization, agricultural expansion and pollution.
In the Galapagos Islands, threats to wildlife from tourism, invasive species and illegal fishing are exacerbated by rising seas and warming and more acidic oceans. At Stonehenge, warmer winters will likely increase numbers of burrowing animals that could undermine archaeological deposits and destabilize stonework.
“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites,” said Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”
Ocean Current Affecting Temperatures in Antarctica
A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that ocean currents are slowing the warming effects on Antarctica as Arctic ice melts on the other side of the world. Warm waters in Gulf Stream cool as they flow into the North Atlantic, then sink for centuries before surfacing off the coast of Antarctica.
“With rising carbon dioxide you would expect more warming at both poles, but we only see it at one of the poles, so something else must be going on,” said Kyle Armour, lead author and University of Washington assistant professor. “We show that it’s for really simple reasons, and the ocean currents are the hero here.”
Old, deep water that’s coming up to the surface all around Antarctica—water that hasn’t come into contact with the atmosphere or experienced climate change in hundreds of years—is behind the drastic differences in the continent’s water temperature.
Using drifting floats—known as the Argo array—and climate models, the study authors tracked heat. They found that nearly 68 percent of the heat taken up by the southernmost parts of the Southern Ocean was carried north.
A separate study in the journal Remote Sensing of the Environment also attributes ocean currents, in part, to increasing Antarctica temperatures and sea ice growth. It suggests that the Southern Ocean Circumpolar current prevents warmer water from reaching the continent and that icy winds help the formation of sea ice persist.
Record Renewable Investment by Developing Countries in 2015
For the first time, emerging economies spent more on renewable energy than developed economies, according to the Renewables Global Status report prepared by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21). In 2015, developing countries invested $156 billion in renewables—a 19 percent increase from the previous year.
“What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies,” said Christine Lins, REN21’s executive secretary.
By the end of 2015, countries around the world had installed a record annual total of 147 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity—enough to meet 23.7 percent of global electricity demand. China was the leader in renewables investment, followed by the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and India.
A new study published in the journal Nature is drawing attention to the effect of warming water on the world’s largest ice mass, Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. Melting of the glacier, which has an ice catchment area bigger than California, could lift oceans at least two meters (6.56 feet). According to researchers who mapped the shape of the ice sheet as well as the thickness of rocks and sediments beneath it to examine the historical characteristic of erosion of Totten’s advances and retreats, unabated climate change could cause the glacier to enter an irreversible and rapid retreat within the next century.
“While traditional models haven’t suggested this glacier can collapse, more recent models have,” said study co-author Alan Aitken of the University of Western Australia. “We confirm that collapse has happened in the past, and is likely to happen again if we pass a tipping point, which would occur if we had between 3 and 6 degrees of warming above present.”
Aitken said that the Totten Glacier could ultimately account for nearly 15 percent of Antarctica’s total contribution to sea-level rise.
Satellite measurements from a previous study show that the glacier is thinning at a rate of about half a meter per year—a thinning that is most likely due to warm ocean water moving under and melting the glacier’s floating front. A retreat of another 100–150 kilometers (62–93 miles) may cause that front to sit on an unstable bed, triggering the Antarctic ice to shrink by 300 kilometers (186 miles).
“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought,” said study co-author Martin Siegert of Imperial College London. “This is something we should worry about.”
Index Suggests Increase, Acceleration of Carbon Dioxide Levels
The latest Annual Greenhouse Gas Index released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are not just rising but accelerating and that the level of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, rose sharply last year. The index, which compares global greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial revolution levels, suggests that warming capacity has increased 37 percent since 1990.
“We’re dialing up Earth’s thermostat in a way that will lock more heat into the ocean and atmosphere for thousands of years,” said Jim Butler, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division.
According to the latest index, the global average carbon dioxide concentration for 2015 reached 399 parts per million (ppm), far above the 278 ppm just prior to the Industrial Revolution and a record increase of 3 ppm compared to the year previous.
Following on the heels of that news, NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that last month was the hottest April on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization, April marked the 12th consecutive month of global temperature records, the longest such streak since global record-taking began in 1880.
EPA Proposes Rise in Biofuel Targets
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed an increase in the amount of corn-based ethanol and biofuels that must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply in 2017. The new targets call for 18.8 billion gallons of biofuels, up 4 percent from 2016 but far less than the 24 billion-gallon biofuel target that lawmakers established in a 2007 statute.
The reason for the lower-than-mandated target, EPA says, is lack of infrastructure to blend ethanol into gasoline as well as the cellulosic biofuel industry’s slow development and marketplace constraints, such as lower gasoline and diesel demand than Congress envisioned in 2007.
Nevertheless, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe said that the Obama administration is “committed to keeping the [biofuels mandate] on track, spurring continued growth in biofuel production and use, and achieving the climate and energy independence benefits that Congress envisioned from this program.”
Under the renewable fuel standard (RFS), the proposed rule sets the 2017 renewable volume obligations (RVOs) for cellulosic biofuel at 312 million gallons and the advanced biofuel RVO at 4 billion, and it sets the 2018 RVO for biomass-based diesel at 2.1 billion gallons.
The proposed volumes would represent growth over historic levels. Between 2016 and 2017, total renewable fuel volumes are expected to increase by nearly 700 million gallons and advanced renewable fuels, which require 50 percent reductions in life-cycle carbon emission, by nearly 400 million gallons.
The proposed volumes are subject to public comment through July 11, and a public hearing is scheduled June 9. The EPA has until Nov. 30 to finalize the 2017 quotas.
Editor’s Note: Dec. 7–11 we will present a series of special issues of The Climate Post featuring updates on climate negotiations and commentary from our staff in Paris.
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders on Monday suggested that stakes are too high to end negotiations on Dec. 11 without inking a climate deal that would limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—the U.N.-declared threshold for avoiding the most dangerous climate change impacts.
NPR reports that observers hope the deal will include three main items: agreement by countries to increase pledges in the future, a rigorous system of accountability to ensure nations keep those pledges, and support for poor countries to adopt low-carbon energy technologies.
A major sticking point for delegates of the nearly 200 countries meeting at the conference is the legal status of the treaty they hope to ink.
“Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding,” President Obama said in Paris. “…that’s going to be critical.”
Countries Pledge Financing for Clean Energy, Withdraw It for Coal
Another key negotiating point in Paris will be whether developing countries get enough financing to make the transition to clean energy worth it given the comparative cheapness of coal. In an announcement intended to give the U.N. climate talks momentum, the leaders of 19 nations, including the United States and many developing economies, on Monday pledged a doubling of clean energy spending to $20 billion in a deal with 28 corporate leaders (the so-called Breakthrough Energy Coalition spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates) who are putting up billions of their own (subscription).
According to a White House e-mail, the public component of the public-private agreement, known as Mission Innovation, is aimed at helping energy technologies “cross the investment ‘valley of death’” presented by their risk profiles and long return time horizons.
Brian Deese, White House climate adviser, said that Mission Innovation “should help to send a strong signal that the world is committed to helping to try to mobilize the resources necessary to ensure that countries around the world can deploy clean energy solutions in cost-effective ways.”
In an editorial for the Boston Globe, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wrote that Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are “synergistic initiatives that establish clean energy innovation as a foundation for environmental stewardship, prosperity, security and social responsibility. Strong American leadership in these initiatives has provided a tremendous global leveraging opportunity, and innovation has remained common ground in our political discourse.”
Three questions raised by the initiatives are whether a multinational research effort combining public and private investments could entail intellectual property problems, how much of the newly pledged money might represent formerly pledged funding, and whether the future funding will be approved in national budgets.
In the lead up to the Paris talks, some of the countries that just committed financial support for clean energy signed on to a deal to severely cut funding for some prospective coal projects. A promise by China to control its support for high-carbon projects overseas—part of its most recent climate agreement with the United States—allowed Japan and the United States to develop a proposal that last month became a less stringent agreement by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to curb public financing for coal plants (subscription). Under the policy, which goes into effect in 2017 and will be up for revision in four years, OECD countries will continue to provide export credits for “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired power plants—those constructed to meet the most stringent environmental standards—but public financing for 85 percent of coal plants going forward would effectively be cut off. The agreement does allow support for less efficient plants with a capacity under 500 megawatts in the world’s poorest countries.
House Votes to Block Power Plant Rules
The House approved, largely along party lines, to block the Obama administration’s measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The House voted 242–180 to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, and 235–188 to block EPA rules governing emissions from new power plants. The votes come just weeks after the Senate passed legislation blocking U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that apply to new and existing power plants.
The resolutions now go to President Obama, who last month announced plans to veto them, claiming that they undermine public health protections of the Clean Air Act and “stop critical U.S. efforts to reduce dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.”