Climate change has entered a new phase, said the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Monday. The WMO reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) “surged again to new records in 2016,” and it predicted that the annual average for CO2 would remain above 400 parts per million (ppm), 44 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, for generations.
The 400 ppm threshold, a symbolic red line in the methodical march of greenhouse gas concentrations, was continuously breached for the first time in 2015—a rise driven largely by fossil fuel emissions and aided by a strong El Niño, which “triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of sinks like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2,” the WMO said. Last year’s jump in carbon dioxide was the largest annual increase on record (subscription).
“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.” “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not . . . Without tackling carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation.”
Taalas added that improvements in the climate will be seen by 2060 if countries begin to lower their carbon dioxide emissions now.
Between 1990 and 2015, Earth experienced a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—because of greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural, and domestic activities, according to the WMO.
WMO’s announcement comes within a week of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s report that found September was the 11th consecutive month to set record high temperatures.
Study: Glacier Melt in Antarctica Could Help Predict Global Sea Level Rise
A number of research studies have suggested Antarctica’s ice is melting faster than previously thought, but two new studies may help better predict future Antarctica ice loss and global sea level rise. The studies examined the Pope, Kohler, and Smith glaciers—part of the Dotson and Crosson ice shelves—in West Antarctica.
“Our primary question is how the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise in the future, particularly following our observations of massive changes in the area over the last two decades,” said University of California Irvine’s Bernd Scheuchl, lead author on the first of the two studies published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Using satellite data, we continue to measure the evolution of the grounding line of these glaciers, which helps us determine their stability and how much mass the glacier is gaining or losing. Our results show that the observed glaciers continue to lose mass and thus contribute to global sea level rise.”
A second study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that a significant portion of Antarctica is subject to “intense unbalanced melting” revealing high rates of ice loss from glaciers’ undersides. It also blames receding glacial grounding lines for the ice loss—spurred by an influx of warm ocean water beneath the ice shelves.
The glacier that saw the most melt, the study says, was Smith. It lost about 1,000 feet of ice between 2002 and 2009, which authors think is “a strong piece of evidence” that these glaciers, along with the larger Amundsen region, were subjected to a large influx of warm ocean water during that period.
“If I had been using data from only one instrument, I wouldn’t have believed what I was looking at, because the thinning was so large,” said author Ala Khazendar, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noting how the work shows how important it is to understand both the ocean circulation and seabed topography when determining future melt and sea level rise.
IEA: Significant Renewables Growth Expected by 2021
The renewable energy market is growing around the world, according to a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA raised its estimate of the amount of renewable energy on power grids 13 percent from its 2015 forecast. It forecasts a 825 gigawatt boost in capacity by 2021 (a 42 percent increase from today).
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The growth will mostly be driven by four countries: China, the U.S., India and Mexico. China is the leader.
“About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world last year,” according to the report. “In China, which accounted for about half the wind additions and 40 percent of all renewable capacity increases, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.”
In the United States over the next five years, renewable capacity is forecast to grow to 328.2 gigawatts from 221.1 gigawatts. During this period, solar PV is forecast to nearly triple—from 26.1 gigawatts to 77.5 gigawatts—and wind to grow nearly 71.5 percent.
“Renewables are and still remain dependent on policies … to create the right market rules and the right framework to attract investments,” said Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division.
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.
What was scheduled to be about 3.5 hours turned into nearly seven on Tuesday as 10 judges heard oral arguments in a rare “en banc” review of the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The controversial Clean Power Plan, based on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, was first proposed in June 2014 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. In setting those limits, the rule considers the ability to shift power generation to cleaner sources. Its supporters argue that the act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in this way. Its challengers allege the rule amounts to executive overreach because the EPA is effectively forcing owners and operators of coal plants to invest in their competitors—cleaner natural gas or renewable energy. They also contend that the rule undercuts the reliability of the electric grid by forcing coal-fired power plants offline. Moreover, opponents argue that EPA cannot regulate power plants under Section 111(d) in the first place because EPA already limits emissions like mercury under Section 112 of the act. Until these challenges are resolved, the Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the rule.
I was at the Tuesday hearing and wrote about some early takeaways for Bloomberg Government. From my seat in the courtroom, they included:
- It’s now clear that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The question now is whether the methods used by the EPA were permitted under the act. As Judge Tatel noted, the Supreme Court “did that work” in Massachusetts v. EPA.
- The case is caught up in a larger judicial discussion about how much deference to grant the executive branch. As Congress increasingly fails to legislate on major political issues of our day, the executive branch has been looking to existing statutes for the authority to address problems. But the courts are debating whether to provide the traditional broad deference to agencies as they pursue these initiatives, or whether “major” political issues require more scrutiny. EPA’s Clean Power Plan evoked this debate, and as a result may create more precedent that will guide future presidents on the extent of their power.
- The court repeatedly reflected on the Supreme Court’s AEP v. Connecticut ruling, which established that the EPA had the authority to regulate existing power plants and thereby forbade Connecticut from suing those plant owners directly. Any victory for the petitioners in this case will need to explain why that recognition of authority in AEP v. Connecticut does not presume that the EPA possesses the authority underlying the Clean Power Plan.
- Several jurists expressed concern that industry was arguing that the EPA could not consider the shifting of generation to cleaner sources in setting the standard, but nonetheless wanted that low cost option as a means of complying with the rule. Can the industry have its cake and eat it, too?
- The judges’ proficiency in understanding the electric grid was impressive, clearly aided by legal briefs from grid operators. What was not as clear, however, is whether this proficiency had convinced them that managing the generation sources across that system constituted the “best system of emissions reduction” under the act.
Although it is difficult to guess a case’s outcome from any oral argument, all in all the government came through it with clear indications of support from three or four judges. At least four other judges, however, either did not speak or evaluated the case in such a Socratic manner that their positions were more mysterious. With six votes needed for a win, supporters of the rule will be holding their breath until the opinion appears. Overall, the final word on the Clean Power Plan may not come until 2018 or later.
Presidential Debate Highlights Stark Contrasts on Climate Change, Energy Policy
Climate change and energy policy were touched on in the first debate between the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees on Monday. Early on, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, accused businessman and opponent Donald Trump of dismissing climate change as a hoax created by China to harm American competitiveness—a point Trump denied.
“Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese,” said Clinton, implicitly referring to a tweet in which Trump claimed that global warming “was created by the Chinese” to benefit their manufacturing sector. “I think it’s real. And I think it’s important that we grip this and deal with it, both at home and abroad.”
Politifact reports that although Trump indicated the 2012 tweet was a joke, he has a record of using the word “hoax” to describe climate change, especially on Twitter. CNN reported that in September 2015 Trump told its reporters that “I am not a believer in climate change” and that he refuted climate change’s role in the rise in extreme weather phenomena.
On energy, Trump said he favors all forms of energy, but he noted that coal industry workers have been put out of work by cheap natural gas and federal environmental regulations. Clinton, on the other hand, suggested that clean energy could be an important job creator.
“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels,” she said. “We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity.”
Trump responded with an implicit reference to the 2011 bankruptcy of the federally backed solar company Solyndra.
“She talks about solar panels,” replied Trump. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. … Now, look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster.”
Fortune reports that Department of Energy figures show that the loan program that funded Solyndra has created thousands of jobs and that taxpayers have profited from that program because the vast majority of its other loans went to successful projects and companies.
Climate Change and National Security
Climate change will have significant effects on national security, according to a new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says these threats are wide-ranging—including adverse effects on food prices and availability, country stability, increased risk to human health, and heightened social and political tensions—and that these threats could affect the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.
“We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and damaged infrastructure on communities around the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Add to that an increased risk of conflict over water and land, and the large-scale displacement due to rising sea levels, and it’s not hard to see why the Pentagon has deemed climate change a ‘threat-multiplier,’ exacerbating the pressures and challenges far too many countries are already facing.”
The release of the report comes as the White House announced a new policy framework requiring federal agencies to take the impacts of climate change into account when making national security-related policies and plans. It directs several federal agencies to work together to include climate change in their national security planning—providing a timeline of 90 days to create an action plan and 150 days to create a plan to implement it.
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.
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
“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.
On Tuesday, a lawyer hired by the world’s largest coal mining company told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power that proposed requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are reckless, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an op-ed, said states should ignore them, but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy warned that the regulations will be enforced whether or not states chose to cooperate.
“The EPA is going to regulate. Mid-summer is when the Clean Power Plan is going to be finalized,” McCarthy said, noting that the EPA is developing a federal implementation plan that will apply to states that fail to submit their own compliance plans. “If folks think any of those pieces aren’t going to happen and [the Clean Power Plan] isn’t going to be implemented, I think they need to look at the history of the Clean Air Act more carefully. This isn’t how we do business.”
A new policy brief by Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions offers a compliance pathway for the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan that allows states to realize the advantages of multistate and market-based solutions without mandating either strategy. Under the common elements approach, states develop individual-state plans to achieve their unique emissions targets and give power plant owners the option to participate in cross-state emissions markets.
“States wouldn’t necessarily have to mandate market-based approaches or even endorse the approaches,” said Jonas Monast, lead author and director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute. “What it would require is the states using a common definition of what a compliance instrument is and ensuring that somehow the credits are verified and tracked.”
The common elements approach would allow cross-state credit transfers without states’ negotiation of a formal regional trading scheme, leave compliance choices to power companies, build on existing state and federal trading programs and maintain traditional roles of state energy and environmental regulators.
Carbon Footprint of Crudes Varies Widely
A first-of-its-kind oil-climate index, produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Climate and Energy Program in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of Calgary, captures the huge spread between the most and least intensive greenhouse gas (GHG) oils. By calculating the carbon costs of various crudes and related petroleum products, the authors suggest that companies and policymakers can better prioritize their development.
The index reflects emissions from the entire oil supply chain—oil extraction, crude transport, refining, marketing, and product combustion and end use—and reveals an 80 percent spread between the lowest GHG-emitting oil and the highest in its sample of 30 crudes, representing some 5 percent of global oil production. That spread will likely grow when more types of crude oil, particularly oil from unconventional sources, are added to the index.
The lead emitter? China Bozhong crude, followed by several Canadian syncrudes derived from oil sands-extracted bitumen.
A blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that the wide emissions spread should give rise to “more responsible practices like capturing rather than flaring gas” and that in some cases “the dirtiest extra-heavy resources are best left in the ground.”
The index, which highlights that attention to the entire lifecycle of a barrel of crude is critical to designing policies that reduce its climate impacts, was released days before the International Energy Agency reported that for the first time in 40 years of record keeping, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use remained steady in 2014. The halt, the report states, is particularly notable because it is not tied to an economic downturn.
More Renewables, Tougher Standards for Public Lands
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell previewed plans to make energy development safer on public and tribal lands and waters in a speech outlining priorities for the Obama administration’s final years.
“…our task by the end of this Administration is to put in place common-sense reforms that promote good government and help define the rules of the road for America’s energy future on our public lands,” Jewell said. “Those reforms should help businesses produce energy more safely and with more certainty. They should encourage technological innovation. They should ensure American taxpayers are getting maximum benefit from their resources. And they should apply our values and our science to better protect and sustain our planet for future generations.”
Among the measures to be unveiled in coming months: tightened spill prevention standards for offshore drilling, increased construction of solar and wind installations and a raise in royalties from coal mining.
Jewell also hinted at plans “in coming days” to propose rules governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands, which are believed to hold about 25 percent of the country’s shale reserves.
New research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society finds that climate change influenced the majority of 16 extreme weather events in 2013. Specifically, it found evidence that climate change linked to human causes—particularly burning of fossil fuels—increased the odds of nine extreme events: amplifying temperature in China, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe; intense rain in parts of the United States and India and severe droughts in New Zealand and California.
“It is not ever a single factor that is responsible for the extremes that we see; in many cases, there are multiple factors,” said Tom Karl, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center, of the third NOAA-led annual report to make connections between human-caused climate change and individual extreme weather events.
Twenty groups of scientists conducted independent peer-reviewed studies on the same 16 extreme events occurring on four continents to arrive at their conclusions.
“There is great scientific value in having multiple studies analyze the same extreme event to determine the underlying factors that may have influenced it,” said Stephanie C. Herring of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and lead report editor. “Results from this report not only add to our body of knowledge about what drives extreme events, but what the odds are of these events happening again—and to what severity.”
Although the report concludes that the long durations of heat waves “are becoming increasingly likely” due to human-caused climate change, the effects of such change on other types of extremes—California’s drought and extreme rain in Colorado—are less clear.
“Temperature is much more continuous as opposed to precipitation, which is an on/off event,” said Karl. “If you have an on/off event, it makes the tools we have a little more difficult to use.”
Although the NOAA study reached mixed conclusions about the ongoing California drought’s connection to climate change, new research out of Stanford University is a bit more confident. The Stanford study found it is “very likely” that atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought in the state are linked to human-caused climate change.
“Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region—which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California—is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist.
According to the study, these high pressure ridges—currently parked over the Pacific Ocean—are now three times more likely to occur, and as long as high levels of greenhouse gases remain severe, drought will become more frequent.
Emissions from Industrial Facilities Rose Last Year
Reported greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities were 0.6 percent—or roughly 20 million metric tons—higher in 2013 than in the year previous, according to new data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which linked the rise to greater coal use for power generation. A large majority of the increase, 13 million metric tons, was from the power sector alone—though overall emissions from power plants are down 9.8 percent since 2010. Reported emissions from the oil and natural gas sector declined 12 percent from 2011 levels, according to the report.
The news comes on the heels of an extension of the public comment period on EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, and of new comments by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy concerning the proposal.
There will be “changes between proposal and final,” said McCarthy. “You may see adjustments in the state levels. You may see adjustments in the framework,” McCarthy noted, referring to the emissions reduction targets the EPA proposed for each state and to the formula used to calculate those targets. The changes could also include updates to the values for nuclear power and natural gas generation.
IEA Says Solar Could Become Dominate Energy Source by 2050
Solar could surpass fossil fuels as the largest source of electricity by mid-century, according to reports issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The reports suggests that together solar photovoltaic systems (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) could provide 27 percent of the world’s energy by 2050; fossil fuels would account for somewhere between 12 percent and 20 percent.
“The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “However, both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”
By 2050, the IEA said, PV will surge from today’s 150 gigawatts of installed capacity to 4,600 gigawatts, while CSP will increase from 4 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts (subscription). These projections are based on the IEA’s expectations that China and the United States will remain top installers for the foreseeable future and that PV will dominate up until 2030.
World leaders gathered in New York this week for the United Nations Climate Summit, a meeting aimed at raising carbon reduction ambitions and mobilizing progress toward a global climate deal. In speeches at the summit, President Obama and other leaders recognized that countries across the world are feeling climate change effects, particularly extreme weather.
“In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record,” said Obama, who also announced the launch of new scientific and technological tools to increase global climate resilience and extend extreme weather risk outlooks. “Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of year. In our heartland, farms have been parched by the worst drought in generations, and drenched by the wettest spring in our history. A hurricane left parts of this great city dark and underwater. And some nations already live with far worse.”
Like Obama, representatives of other major nations had their own news. The European Union unveiled a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and China shared plans to set aside $6 million for U.N. efforts to boost South-South cooperation on global warming.
Other summit outcomes included a commitment by several countries and nearly 40 companies to support alternatives to deforestation, ending the loss of forests—which accounts for 12 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions—by 2030.
“Forests represent one of the largest, most cost-effective climate solutions available today,” the declaration said. “Action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests can contribute to economic growth, poverty alleviation, rule of law, food security, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.”
More than $1 billion in new financial pledges were made to the Green Climate Fund, which was established at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit to help developing countries ease their transition away from fossil fuels and fight climate change.
The climate summit came on the heels of news that many countries are missing their emissions targets and that avoidance of runaway climate warming is slipping out of reach. A report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that says the world is dangerously close to no longer being able to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold the U.N. declared as necessary to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change. Another study published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience put 2014 world carbon emissions at 65 percent above 1990 levels and further suggested that the U.N.’s two-degree Celsius goal was becoming unobtainable.
Obama Announces New Solar Efficiency Measures
The White House announced new steps intended to increase deployment of solar and other energy efficiency measures to cut carbon pollution by nearly 300 million metric tons through 2030. The efforts are predicted to save $10 billion in energy costs.
Among the measures:
- The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is launching the Solar Powering America website, providing access to a wide range of federal resources to drive solar deployment.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture will award $68 million in loans and grants for 540 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, 240 of which will be solar projects.
- DOE and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are releasingthree new studies showing that the cost of solar energy continues to fall across all sectors, which indicates that initiatives targeting soft costs are starting to work.
- DOE is updating itsGuide to Federal Financing for Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Deployment. The guide will highlight financing programs located in various federal agencies, such as the Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can be used for energy efficiency and clean energy projects.
- A new program will train veterans to install solar panels.
The Transition to Clean Energy
Despite these clean energy plans, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows just how far the United States is behind Europe in its pursuit of non-carbon electricity.
“While most of the countries that produce at least half of their power from zero-carbon sources rely heavily on nuclear and hydroelectric power, the U.S. has been slow to convert its power sources to renewables like wind, solar, or biomass,” Slate reports.
“While other economics have made clean-energy industries and services a trade priority, some of us cling to the notion that our carbon-based fuels constitute our only competitive advantage,” the report says.
In the U.S., states like New York have plans to grow their clean energy contributions. New York State Energy and Research Development Authority submitted its plan for a new Clean Energy Fund—roughly $5 billion to grow clean energy programs in the next decade by continuing a utility bill surcharge.
The White House on Wednesday announced executive actions to help states and communities build their resilience to more intense storms, high heat, sea level rise, and other effects of climate change. The actions, which involve several federal agencies, were among the recommendations by the president’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.
“…Climate change poses a direct threat to the infrastructure of America that we need to stay competitive in this 21st century economy,” said President Obama. “We’re going to do more, including new 3D maps to help state, local officials in communities understand which areas and which infrastructure are at risk as a consequence of climate change. We’re going to help communities improve their electric grids, build stronger seawalls and natural barriers, and protect their water supplies. We’re also going to invest in stronger more resilient infrastructure.”
The National Journal runs down the individual efforts by agency, which include a more than $236 million award to fund eight states’ efforts to improve rural electric infrastructure and a new guide by the Centers for Disease Control that will help local public health departments assess their area’s vulnerabilities to health hazards associated with climate change.
States Focus of Work after EPA’s Proposed Power Plant Rule
More than a month after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants, a new study says states are well positioned to handle the rule’s requirements.
The rule, which uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets and devise individual or joint state plans to meet those targets, has garnered some negative reactions. But the study conducted by the Analysis Group sees real benefits. The research examined states that have already taken steps toward reducing power plant emissions and found that if states design programs effectively, electricity rate increases will be modest in the near term, and electric bills will fall in the long term.
“Several states have already put a price on carbon dioxide pollution, and their economies are doing fine,” said Susan Tierney, senior adviser of the Analysis Group. “The bottom line: the economy can handle—and actually benefit from—these rules.”
States that work together to form carbon markets and other collaborative initiatives could experience even greater rewards, according to the Analysis Group.
“Experience shows that states that work together on market-based compliance initiatives—like RGGI [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] in the Northeast—can provide net economic benefits in terms of jobs and economic output,” said study co-author Paul Hibbard. “And RGGI shows that each state can have control over its own program design, so that combined efforts don’t step on states’ rights.”
Earlier this week environmental attorneys and representatives from states, industry, and NGOs gathered to discuss the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan—specifically state choices under and the potential impacts of the proposal—at an event hosted by the Environmental Law Institute and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Keynote speaker and U.S. EPA Senior Counsel Joseph Goffman highlighted three aspects of the rule: the EPA developed state emission goals based emission reduction strategies already being used by states, the proposal allows each state maximum flexibility to optimize strategies given local considerations, and state flexibility with the timing of implementation allows the coordination of compliance strategies with other dynamics in the energy sector.
Mountaintop Removal Focus of Court Case, Study
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled in favor of the EPA’s permitting process for mountaintop mining, a controversial practice to extract coal by way of clear cutting trees and removing mountain tops with explosives. The ruling overturned a decision by a lower court that found the EPA did not have authority to require mountaintop removal coal permits to go through an enhanced review process to crack down on water contamination from mining operations.
In 2009 the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers adopted the Enhanced Coordination Process, allowing the EPA to screen and review individual mining permits submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. By 2011, the EPA recommended states impose more stringent conditions for issuing permits under the act—issuing a final guidance document relating to these permits.
“In our view, EPA and the Corps acted within their statutory authority when they adopted the Enhanced Coordination Process,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh (subscription). “And under our precedents, the Final Guidance is not final agency action reviewable by the courts at this time.”
A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey finds that mountaintop removal mining negatively affects downstream fish populations.
Researchers compared samples collected from nearby bodies of water in 2010 and 2011 to samples collected by Penn State University researchers in 1999 and 2001. They found that mountaintop mining creates landscape changes, including changes in water flow that have significant impacts on fish.
“We’re seeing significant reductions in the number of fish species and total abundance of fish downstream from mining operations,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a study co-author.
Solar on the Rise in the U.S.
Solar power is becoming a vital part of the American economy, according to a report from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).
“Solar markets are booming in the United States due to falling photovoltaic (PV) prices, strong consumer demand, available financing, renewable portfolio standards (RPSs), and financial incentives from the federal government, states and utilities,” said Larry Sherwood, vice president and COO of the IREC. “Thirty-four percent more PV capacity was installed in 2013 than the year before accounting for 31 percent of all U.S. electric power installations completed in 2013.”
The report, produced annually, highlights major factors affecting the solar market and ranks the top 10 states in several categories.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week announced a proposed rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel–fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This first-of-its-kind proposal uses an infrequently exercised provision of the Clean Air Act to set state-specific reduction targets for carbon dioxide and to allow states to devise individual or joint plans to meet those targets. The EPA expects to finalize the rule by next June.
“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants. By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”
An analysis by our Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions researchers highlights key details of the 600-plus-page rule, which assigns each state interim and final emissions goals. These goals are based, in part, on the efficiency of each state’s fossil fleet in 2012. They also reflect estimates of the emissions-reduction potential of efficiency upgrades to coal plants and increased use of renewable energy, demand-side energy efficiency, and existing natural gas capacity.
The rule provides states considerable flexibility to decide how to meet their interim and final emissions reduction goals. States may consider methods such as expanding renewable energy generation, creating energy efficiency programs and working with other states on the creation of regional plans. Once the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, states will be given one to three years to finalize their state plans.
The rule sparked predictable political commentary. Republican leadership pilloried the rule, the President’s allies expressed gratitude for his leadership, and political pundits mused over the rule’s impact on the midterm elections. A Washington Post-ABC News post–rule-announcement poll found a large majority of Americans—70 percent—support regulating carbon from power plants. Americans in coal states were supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether their state was forced to make bigger adjustments than other states. And at least one set of political commenters—former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and I—point out that, if executed effectively, the rule could begin the nation’s path back to more comprehensive climate change policy.
China Taking Action as Well?
The proposed rule appeared to spur another of the world’s largest emitters—China—to consider capping its carbon dioxide emissions, starting with its next five-year plan in 2016. The suggestion, offered by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change at a Beijing conference, was reported in several media outlets but was not an official pronouncement of the government.
“What I said today was my personal view,” said Jiankun. “The opinions expressed at the workshop were only meant for academic studies. What I said does not represent the Chinese government or any organization.”
Still, some saw the statement—by a senior advisor—as a promising development ahead of international climate negotiations that began Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.”
Not all commenters were sanguine about the EPA rule. According to a German study released this week, even with the 30 percent emissions cut outlined in the EPA’s proposed rule, climate pledges the United States set at United Nations climate talks may not be met. The study found the EPA rule would reduce 2030 U.S. national emissions only about 10 percent below 2005 levels. In 2010, the United States promised to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
“While the proposal is welcome, it is insufficient to meet the U.S.’s pledges of 17 percent reduction of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and is inconsistent with its long-term target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050,” said Niklas Hoehne of Ecofys, a German group that helped analyze the plan’s impact. “The plan implies an economy-wide decarbonisation rate of about 0.9 percent per annum, significantly lower than the 1.4 percent per annum achieved in the last decade. This is not as fast as required for a 2 C decarbonisation pathway.”
New Imports for Solar
The United States has set new import tariffs on some solar panels from China, saying some manufacturers had unfairly benefitted from subsidies. The still-preliminary Commerce Department ruling was prompted by a petition of charges filed by a group led by SolarWorld in 2011. The petition claims some Chinese companies avoided tariffs by shipping solar cell parts to locations like Taiwan—flooding the U.S. market with cheap products.
Duties imposed in the preliminary decision could range from 18.5 to 35.21 percent.
“The import duties, which are in line with our expectations, will wipe out the price competitiveness of Chinese products in the U.S. market,” said Zhou Ziguang, an analyst at the Chinese investment bank Ping An Securities in Beijing.
For U.S. companies, the news was mixed—some could see great benefits; others, very little.
“SunPower will be the primary beneficiary of the decision, given its presence in the U.S. distributed generation market where most Chinese companies supply product,” according to Morgan Stanley. “Although First Solar theoretically benefits, we believe that the impact will be small given limited presence of Chinese companies in the U.S. utility scale market.”
Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar.”
Last year the European Union overcame a similar trade dispute with Beijing when the trade partners agreed to set a minimum price for solar panels from China.
New analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO) links exposure to air pollution to roughly 7 million deaths annually. The report confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest environmental health risk. It estimates 4.3 million people died in 2012—mainly due to cooking inside with coal or wood stoves. Another 3.7 million died from outdoor pollution, including diesel engine and factory emissions. The figures—more than double previous estimates—indicate that air pollution kills more people than smoking, diabetes and road deaths combined.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
The Western-Pacific region—including China, Japan and Australia—represented 41 percent (2.88 million) of the global deaths due to air pollution in 2012. In that year, countries in this region combined with countries in southeast Asia accounted for 5.8 million air pollution-related deaths.
Only three of 74 Chinese cities fully complied with state pollution standards in 2013. Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang classified air pollution as a top priority for the nation’s authorities. China is now using drones to spy on industries in Beijing and other cities where illegal polluting may be contributing to the nation’s smog problem. These unmanned crafts take photographs of smokestack scrubbers and assess smoke color in the images for pollution.
“You can easily tell from the color of the smoke—black, purple, brown—that the pollution is over the limit, because if smokestack scrubbers are operating properly, only white smoke is emitted,” said ministry official Yang Yipeng.
In new tests led by the China Meteorological Administration, drones could be used during peak air pollution periods to spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.
Texas Disaster Puts Oil Spills in Spotlight
As news headlines commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the waters off Alaska, emergency crews were dealing with a new disaster in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels: the Houston Ship Channel.
Though millions of gallons smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill or the BP’s Deep Horizon spill in 2010, the spill from a barge collision near Galveston closed the shipping lane for several days while a high-tech buoy system helped guide the cleanup.
Since the Exxon Valdez, the United States has experienced at least two-dozen major oil spills, ranging from a few hundred to millions of gallons. Scientists are still discovering the ecological costs associated with these spills.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds grim implications for the hearts of fish that were embryos, larvae or juveniles at the time of the BP oil spill, which coincided with tuna-spawning season. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the study links the spill to potentially lethal heart defects in species of tuna, amberjack and other predatory fish.
“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” said study leader John Incardona. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels [of crude oil], or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”
The NOAA study follows research out in February suggesting that low concentrations of crude can disrupt the signaling pathways responsible for regular heart rhythms in fish.
Renewable Energy Makes Strides
Cheap installation costs, high electricity prices and government subsidies have allowed the cost of solar power to stay on par with the cost of traditional energy sources—at least in Germany, Spain and Italy. That’s according to a new report by the consulting firm Eclareon. “Soft costs” and demand are keeping the same from ringing true in the United States, according to The Week.
A new experimental house—developed by the University of California, Davis, and Honda—is designed to generate more electricity than it consumes and to store the extra energy in a car’s battery for later use.
“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
The home uses a geothermal system to provide heating and cooling. Solar panels, energy-efficient automated lighting, electric vehicle charging and pozzolan-infused and post-tensioned concrete use less than half of the energy of a similarly sized new home in the Davis area.
Last year, carbon dioxide briefly passed the 400 parts per million milestone. Now, says Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, we’re on track to “see values dwelling over 400 in April and May. It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever.”
This pronouncement comes the same week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report and the White House, a website, that seek to illustrate the effects of climate change and advance dialogue about it.
“We believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”
The AAAS report offers three messages about climate change: (1) it is happening, and humans are the cause; (2) risks posed by climate change are high and potentially damaging; and (3) the sooner we act, the lower the risks and costs. The report takes readers through a series of potential consequences of climate change that include accelerated sea level rise and food shortages as a result of the increasing difficulty of growing crops.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report, due out at the end of the month, is expected to touch on one of these topics. A leaked draft obtained by The Independent suggests that climate change will reduce crop yields by 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century. One study out now in the journal Nature Climate Change finds crop yields—specifically rice, corn and wheat—will decline more than 25 percent as a result of climate change.
Navy Tests Space Solar Idea
Now, the impact of solar technology could extend into outer space. The United States Navy is working on a project that could, in theory, allow for the capture of enough solar power to run military bases and even cities. The Navy is working on “sandwich” modules or prototypes far larger than the International Space Station that would collect solar power while aboard an orbiting satellite. Specifically, a photovoltaic panel atop the satellite would absorb the sun’s energy. An electronics system would convert the energy into a radio frequency sent back to Earth.
“People might not associate radio waves with carrying energy, because they think of them for communications, like radio, TV, or cell phones,” said Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer leading the project. “They don’t think about them as carrying usable amounts of energy.”
The idea of capturing solar power in space is not a new idea. The International Academy of Astronautics recently suggested that space solar technology would be viable in the next 30 years.
Decision on U.S. Oil Exports Complex
In 2013, crude oil production in the United States reached its highest level since 1989—a roughly 15 percent increase from 2012, according the Energy Information Administration.
The Ukrainian crisis and record-setting levels of U.S. oil production have some policymakers and industry officials calling for the reversal of a ban on most crude oil exports. Opponents and proponents disagree about the impact to consumers should the ban be lifted.
“I think it is realistic that the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by the end of this decade,” said Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “We’re already the world’s largest natural gas producer (and) last year crude oil production surpassed levels not seen since the 1980s.”