On Monday, President Obama announced the release of the final Clean Power Plan (CPP), which sets mandatory limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the nation’s fleet of existing power plants may emit. The rule is projected to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama said, noting that power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution, a key contributor to climate change. “Until now, there have been no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution plants dump in the air.”
Some Plan Particulars
The complicated and controversial 1561-page rule was developed by the Obama administration using existing authority under the Clean Air Act—specifically, section 111(d). The plan, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “is about as flexible as possible,” because it allows each state to come up with its own compliance program to meet the federal standards.
In broad strokes, the plan is designed to accelerate an already-underway shift from coal-fired electricity to cleaner natural gas and renewables, along with increased energy efficiency, by requiring existing power plants to meet specific carbon dioxide emissions reduction guidelines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the targets based on a “best system of emissions reduction” comprised of three building blocks: making existing coal plants more efficient; shifting generation from coal to gas plants; and increasing generation from renewables.
Once the targets are set, however, states do not have to use the building blocks as a framework for their plans, and have been given a range of market-based, flexible mechanisms to reach their state targets. In fact, emulating the flexibility afforded power plants under the market-based program devised in 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, the CPP allows states to create “trading-ready” plans that will allow affected plants to sell emissions credits or to buy credits, if that’s a less expensive option than taking other actions. Parallel compliance approaches remove the need for formal interstate trading agreements, an approach described in one of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ recent policy briefs. Also facilitating trading are new state goals reflecting uniform national emissions rate standards for fossil steam (coal and oil) and natural gas power plants, respectively, reports ClimateWire (subscription).
The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push to slash U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the final CPP was timed to build momentum toward the start of international climate talks in Paris in November. Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent economist in the U.K., said the rule’s release will “set a powerful example for the rest of the world,” and will reinforce the credibility of the U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions as a new international agreement on climate change is being finalized.
Significant Changes from the Proposal
Changes to the final plan were expected, given some 4 million comments on the proposed plan, and the plan did not disappoint. One big change, according to Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe, is based on the assumption that renewable energy and regional approaches have even greater capacity for helping the power sector reduce emissions than reflected in the draft proposal (subscription). Consequently, the final plan will cut power plant carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 30 percent target in the proposed rule.
The final rule also axed what the draft proposal referred to as Building Block 4, a criterion for achieving emissions reductions through programs that improve electricity consumers’ energy efficiency, as a means of calculating the state targets. Although these efficiency standards and under-construction nuclear plants were left out of the criteria for setting state goals under the plan, both are still available as compliance options.
The plan also includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that rewards states for investing early (2020–2021) in renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power as well as demand side energy efficiency in low-income communities. Details of the incentive scheme are yet to be worked out, but the final rule goals do now expect renewable energy sources to account for 28 percent of the nation’s capacity by 2030—up from 22 percent in the proposal (subscription). The aim, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is to incentivize renewable energy, which will lessen the reliance on natural gas as a replacement for coal power as the dominant compliance strategy.
- Additional time—an two extra years (to 2022)—for states to submit plans and begin cutting emissions;
- Easing of the interim goals “glide path,” which states can now craft for themselves; and
- New state mass emissions targets. These targets, based on states’ energy mixes and a uniform emissions rate for plants that use the same technology but no longer on demand-side energy efficiency, are less disparate than and also vastly different from those in the proposal. They also allow states to choose whether to use one target that includes the emissions from new natural gas units or another target that excludes these units (but still provides mechanisms to ensure that emissions cannot increase through new units).
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The European Union (EU) is now the second body to submit an official climate target to the United Nations ahead of talks to reach a global climate agreement in Paris later this year. One of the world’s top emitters, the EU intends to reduce its emissions 40 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. This commitment is in addition to 2050 emissions reduction targets that a recent report published by the European Environment Agency claims may prove difficult to reach.
“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said. It points to a 60 percent cut in transportation emissions toward which little progress has been made.
Another study that looks at commitments by all nations to curb the effects of climate change suggests that the U.N. goal of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end is unlikely to be met. According to the authors, to attain that goal, the agreement reached in Paris must not only be based on a shared commitment to creating “equitable access to sustainable development,” but must also be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between parties.
Negotiators aim to complete an agreement in Paris that would go into effect in 2020. All countries are due to announce their emissions reductions plans in June in Bonn.
Droughts in the Amazon Accelerating Climate Change
A severe drought in 2010 doubled the rate of tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest, causing a 1.4 billion ton loss in the forest’s uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of a new study in Nature that finds droughts are causing the trees to exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. The authors say trees store a tenth less CO2 from the atmosphere during droughts, apparently because they are channeling their more limited energy reserves into growth.
“Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they [tropical rainforests] ‘inhale’ carbon through photosynthesis can decrease,” said Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers. “This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts.”
The study provides the first direct evidence of the rate at which individual trees in the Amazonian basin absorb carbon during a severe drought. An international research team compared the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees at 13 drought-affected and non-drought-affected rainforest plots across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Researchers discovered that growth rates of the trees in the plots were unchanged but that photosynthesis rates on the six drought-affected plots slowed by some 10 percent over six months.
EIA Report Sees Growth in Wind, Solar
Electricity from renewable sources outpaced the growth of electricity from fossil fuel-fired plants in 2014, according to a new Energy Information Administration report. Though solar’s share of electricity production remained smaller than wind’s share, net generation of the former grew by more than 100 percent last year. Wind generation grew by 8 percent and is forecasted to grow by 16.1 percent this year and another 6.5 percent in 2016.
“Because wind is starting from a much larger base than solar, even though the growth rate is lower, the absolute amount of the increase in capacity is more than twice that of solar: 15 GW [gigawatts] of wind versus 6 GW of utility-scale solar between 2014 and 2016,” the EIA reports.
Ultimately, wind will see a net increase of 9.8 gigawatts—the most of any other power source in 2015. California and North Carolina will add the most utility-scale solar capacity to systems (73 percent combined).
“Given current growth rates, especially for solar and wind, it is quite possible that renewable energy sources will reach, or exceed, 14% of the nation’s electrical supply by the end of 2015,” noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “That is a level that EIA, only a few years ago, was forecasting would not be achieved until the year 2040.”
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.
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 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.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate next week. It will return July 3.
The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 12 to 10 on a bill Wednesday approving the long-debated Keystone XL oil pipeline. The pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, requires presidential approval as it crosses international boundaries. Without a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring it to a vote by the full Senate, the bill is likely to languish.
Even so, Forbes deemed the vote “more than symbolic,” saying “It serves to tell the truth about Keystone XL, the need for new pipelines in this country, and for making our future energy security our top priority.”
Others, like Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift, disagreed. “This latest vote on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is all about politics and bad policy,” he said. “Locking ourselves into a massive infrastructure to move the dirtiest oil on the planet for the next 50 years would greatly worsen carbon pollution—at a time when we’re facing growing and grievous costs wrought by climate change.”
Another Canadian pipeline did get the official green light—the Northern Gateway project. Just as controversial as Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to British Columbia, where it would be loaded on supertankers for shipment to Asia through sensitive waters in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. Before construction can begin on the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge must meet about 100 conditions imposed by the regulator. Inside Climate News focuses on the “eerie” parallels between the debates on each pipeline project.
As the United States Grapples with EPA Rule, Japan Considers Carbon Trading
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants has made it into the pages of the Federal Register, an event marking the start of a 120-day comment period.
In the weeks since the rule’s release, there has been closer examination of how states can meet emissions standards cost effectively. Some say energy efficiency is the answer. Another potential solution: wind and solar. In an op-ed in The Hill, representatives of the American Wind Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association point to the technologies’ cost decreases and significant carbon reduction benefits. Others like Ed Throop, director for the Sikeston Board of Municipal Utilities, are not so convinced. “The wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time,” he said. It’s good, clean energy, but it’s not what you’d call baseload energy. You can’t call on it anytime you need it.”
Japan has its own strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to unnamed government sources, the country may have plans to agree to a carbon deal with India. Japanese companies would install carbon-cutting technology in India and in return receive carbon credits that can be used to offset their country’s emissions under the joint crediting mechanism. So far, Japan has signed agreements with 11 countries to launch the joint crediting mechanism. Several news outlets reported the likelihood of a bilateral agreement in early July during annual talks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ocean Sanctuary Would Close Parts of Pacific to Energy Exploration
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced his intent to expand a U.S. sanctuary in the central Pacific Ocean. Slated to go into effect later this year, the proposal extends protection around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to 200 miles and limits fishing and energy development. The White House said it will consider input from lawmakers and fishermen before making any final decisions about the geographic scope of the sanctuary.
In video remarks, Obama said climate change, overfishing and pollution have threatened economic growth opportunities in the ocean.
“We cannot afford to let that happen,” Obama said. “That’s why the United States is leading the fight to protect our oceans. Let’s make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world.”
Marine reserves, Smithsonian Magazine reports, can mitigate some of these problems by increasing the size and number of marine creatures within its borders and helping species deal with climate change.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidelines on the use of diesel fuel in oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that involves pumping water containing chemicals into shale formations to unlock trapped energy resources. The EPA defines five substances as diesel variations and outlines guidelines and “technical recommendations” for their use.
“Decisions about permitting hydraulic fracturing operations that use diesel fuels will be made on a case-by-case basis, considering the facts and circumstances of the specific injection activity and applicable statutes, regulations and case law, and will not cite this guidance as a basis for decision,” the EPA said.
Although the EPA has limited authority to regulate fluids in fracking, it has been allowed to regulate diesel fluids under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Tuesday’s guidelines mark the first time the agency has done so.
The guidelines are intended to protect underground stores of drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These new standards, the agency said, can be adopted by states to govern natural gas production.
Olympians, World Leaders Look to Make Progress on Climate Change
Just one day after Sochi Olympians released a statement calling on world leaders to take action on climate change and prepare a global agreement at a U.N. meeting in Paris in 2015, President Barack Obama and French Republic President Francois Hollande pledged joint efforts on climate. The two leaders agreed to expand their work in the area ahead of the U.N. meeting that will bring world leaders together to forge a global climate agreement to take effect in 2020.
“Even as our two nations reduce our own carbon emissions, we can expand the clean energy partnerships that create jobs and move us toward low-carbon growth,” according to an op-ed published in the Washington Post. “We can do more to help developing countries shift to low-carbon energy as well, and deal with rising seas and more intense storms.”
Beyond the pledge, the Obama administration may be preparing to bring a new U.S. carbon-reduction pledge to the U.N. talks in Paris.
“In at least three interagency meetings at the White House since September, administration sources said, officials have debated whether the new goals should extend to 2025 or 2030. They also have laid out the scientific and economic modeling that must be done in the coming months and discussed whether a new target should assume Congress will eventually enact climate legislation or whether the White House must continue to use existing authority under the Clean Air Act to squeeze out more emissions reductions,”ClimateWire reports (subscription).
Study Challenges Climate Effects of Wind Farms
European wind farm installations have little large-scale impact on temperature and precipitation, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The latest research challenges the idea, which some earlier studies suggested, that wind farms’ warming effects might not be purely local.
The weather effects from wind “remain small and likely unnoticeable,” Francois-Marie Bréon, study co-author, said of the research, which constitutes the first continent-scale modeling of the relationship of turbines, precipitation and temperature (subscription).
To arrive at their finding, study authors used the measured local weather impacts of wind farms operational in 2012 to model future effects based on the projected two-fold increase in wind production by 2020. They concluded that “the impacts remain much weaker than the natural climate interannual variability and changes expected from greenhouse gas emissions.”
In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took just 5 minutes of the 65-minute speech to cover energy and environment issues. He declared climate change “a fact,” stating “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Despite this assertion, National Geographic reports Obama’s efforts on climate change since his last State of the Union address have come up short in the minds of many in the environmental community. On Tuesday, Obama did mention a number of issues, most of which he had discussed before, to deal with climate change. He wants to set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks, and he promised to “cut red tape” to establish natural-gas-powered factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks. He endorsed natural gas not only as an economic driver, but also as a way to further cut emissions.
He also mentioned efforts to set emissions limits for power plants, and, if necessary, to use his executive power to move the effort forward. But portending the political drama to come, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted earlier Tuesday to scrap a measure (subscription) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.
Obama went on to tout the administration’s work toward attaining energy independence, offering that there is more “oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.” According to White House reports, domestic crude oil production surpassed crude oil imports in October 2013 for the first time since 1995.
The president did not mention whether he intends to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—projected to carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The closest he came, Politico reports, was alluding to “tough choices along the way” during a shift to a “cleaner energy economy.” Coal, nuclear power and wind—sources responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s electricity generation—received no mention.
Long-Awaited Farm Bill Passes House
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a five-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, containing provisions for renewable energy, energy efficiency programs in rural areas, cuts to food stamps and modifications to the federal agricultural subsidy system.
The bill, which will now go before the Senate, contains $881 million in mandatory funding for energy programs. The provision—which extends over the next 10 years—provides funding for projects focused on advanced biofuels and a program encouraging the development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and biogas projects.
“With stable policy and the investments included in this conference report, Farm Bill energy programs will continue to help rural communities create economic growth and good paying jobs,” said Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood. “The expansion of eligibility to new renewable chemical technologies and the support for new energy crops will create additional opportunities and improve U.S. economic growth across the country.”
The bill also includes an enhanced crop insurance program that would aid livestock producers in the event of a natural disaster and severe weather.
Botched Analysis Leaves Arctic Drilling in Question
The federal government failed to properly evaluate environmental risks related to offshore drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, a federal appellate court ruled recently. Three Ninth Circuit Court judges found the environmental review the U.S. Department of the Interior conducted before approving the sale of 2008 drilling leases considered the impact of drilling for 1 billion barrels of oil. A lawsuit brought by environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes alleged a larger environmental impact given that available oil was much higher.
The ruling brings the oil leases, covering some 30 million acres of sea floor, into question. And it means another setback for Shell, which announced plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, following several mishaps in the area in 2012. Of the companies that purchased leases in 2008, Shell is the only company that has begun drilling in the Arctic. On Thursday, the oil giant announced it will abandon plans to drill off the coast of Alaska this year.
The case is currently scheduled to return to a U.S. District Court in Alaska.
Washington braced for a prolonged shutdown, the first in 17 years, this week after members of Congress failed to pass a budget. The closure has affected the workforce of many climate and energy programs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for one, lost more than 90 percent of its employees, disrupting monitoring of air and water quality as well as potentially setting back efforts to advance the president’s climate plan. Only those dealing with events that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property” remain on duty. This could, as the National Law Review notes, affect the rule promulgation process for the EPA’s proposed standards for new power plants, released last month.
The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Department of Energy will lose a chunk of their workforce, which could directly impact America’s capacity to drive global energy innovation the Christian Science Monitor suggests.
Other programs, such as the National Weather Service will continue operation. The shutdown would affect how employees carry out their work.
“We are restricted to ‘mission critical’ duties,” a National Weather Service meteorologist told Climate Central. “We aren’t allowed to engage the public in outreach activities (such as spotter talks or school talks), and we’re supposed to only include forecast-critical information on Facebook and Twitter accounts. Only emergency equipment maintenance is allowed, which means that routine maintenance is not. This will hamstring us in the future, either when the shutdown is lifted and the rush of delayed work hits or when equipment breaks because it is not being maintained properly.”
Wind Tax Credit under Debate
Meanwhile, lawmakers are divided over the extension of a wind tax credit. The credit is set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress votes to renew the 2.3 cent per kilowatt-hour credit. Without renewal, the incentive would be limited to energy projects that start construction before Dec. 31. The credit was extended at the beginning of 2013 as part of a deal to avoid sending the country over the fiscal cliff.
A congressional analysis suggested extending the tax credit for new wind farms for just one year would cost $6.1 billion over the next decade. Rob Gramlich, senior vice president for policy at the American Wind Energy Association, told the House Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements Subcommittee Wednesday that the credit would help diversify the country’s energy portfolio while driving down energy costs.
“This tax credit … drives over $20 billion of private investment annually and brings electricity to 15 million American homes,” said Gramlich. “Allowing it to expire … will move us away from further diversification of our energy portfolio, take away opportunities for consumers to save money, dampen domestic manufacturing and innovation and cause companies to hold off on investing in communities across America.”
IPCC Report Points Finger at Human Activity
At a meeting in Stockholm last week, a panel of the world’s leading climate scientists asserted that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of global warming since 1950 and for the first time identified a carbon emissions ceiling for avoiding climate change’s worst effects.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at the meeting, released a summary of its fifth assessment report stating, with at least 95 percent certainty, that people are responsible for warming oceans, melting ice and rising sea levels observed since the mid-twentieth century. The report authors warned that the carbon ceiling—the 2 degree Celsius target—when carbon dioxide emissions reach 1 trillion tons. This is likely to be broken in a matter of decades unless emissions reductions begin soon. They predict average temperatures would rise 2.6 to 4.8 degrees Celsius higher than today between 2080 and 2100, if carbon emissions continue unchecked.
Reactions to the report have been critical charging both best- and worst-case estimates of global warming are too conservative or that the models on which it is based are faulty. Others called it a “wake-up call” to governments and society about the role of humans in global warming and break down modeling projections contained in the study.
The report does directly address one issue raised by climate change skeptics: the slow-down in global temperature rise since 1998. While acknowledging this pause, the authors conclude that 15 years is not a long enough timescale to draw firm conclusions about it. According to the report, such short periods are influenced by natural variability and generally do not reflect long-term climate trends.
The next round of U.N. climate change talks began in Bonn, Germany—the final round of midyear negotiations before the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in November. The talks are, in part, focused on defining elements of a universal climate agreement by 2015, an agreement that would be enforced by 2020.
“The negotiations are now in a crucial conceptual phase of the 2015 agreement,” said U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres. “Stakeholders need to provide clear inputs as to where more ambition is possible, and where international policy guidance from governments can unleash even more action on their part.”
Early stories regarding research by the Stockholm Environment Institute aims to guide emissions targets being devised by U.N. climate talk delegates. Their plan suggests the U.S. would be responsible for 29.1 percent of greenhouse gas reductions by 2020—three times the effort assigned to the current emissions leader, China—to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The Obama administration also opted to raise the social cost of carbon emissions—a monetized estimate of health, property and environmental damage tied to federal regulations—from about $21 to roughly $35 a metric ton. In theory, this means the government could justify stricter regulations for greenhouse gas emissions in the future, according to the Washington Post.
Wind, Solar, Geothermal Projects to Increase Domestic Renewable Production
Projects with the potential to create 520 megawatts of new clean electricity generation were announced by the U.S. Department of Interior this week. Located in Arizona and Nevada, the projects—the 350-megawatt Midland Solar Energy Project near Boulder City, Nev., the 100-megawatt Quartzsite Solar Energy Project near Quartzsite, Ariz., and the 70-megawatt New York Canyon Geothermal Project—are the first approved by Department Secretary Sally Jewell on public lands since she took over the department earlier this year.
“These projects reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to expand responsible domestic energy production on our public lands and diversify our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Jewell. “Today’s approvals will help bolster rural economies by generating good jobs and reliable power and advance our national energy security.”
Separately, the department announced its first ever commercial wind energy lease sale in federal waters, south of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The July 31 sale will include 164,750 acres that could produce enough electricity to power more than one million homes, if fully developed. Nine companies, including the developer of the Cape Wind Project, expressed interest in participating. The area sits between, and to the south of, Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Although several offshore wind farms are being developed in the U.S., there are none currently in operation. In Maine, a team did recently launch a prototype of a floating turbine—making history. The turbine, which stands 65 feet tall, is now afloat and connected to the grid with a capacity of about 20 kilowatts. The research team hopes the prototype will cut the traditional cost of erecting a tower in the water, allowing the U.S. to better tap into its offshore wind potential, which is estimated at 4,000 gigawatts.
Keystone Hearing Rumored
This summer, there could be another public hearing in Washington, D.C. on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, but State Department officials have yet to confirm the news regarding the long awaited project.
Meanwhile, another Canadian company is quietly building a network of new and expanded pipelines that would achieve the same goal as Keystone—but bring even more oil into the U.S.
Unless Congress reaches a deal by Friday, a set of automatic spending cuts—known as the sequester—will take effect. According to the Obama Administration, this trigger, for $85 billion worth of across-the-board federal spending cuts, is expected to have significant implications for climate and energy.
Newly released estimates by the White House detail how the cuts are projected to impact programs in each state. Decreases in environmental funding will be in the multi-millions, with the hardest hits to clean air efforts in California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Overall more than $100 million in budget cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air program are proposed. The acting chief of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, warned of furloughs for staff. In a letter, he detailed the widespread potential effects of the cuts, which included reduced monitoring of oil spills, air pollution and hazardous waste.
The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would be impacted by the cuts. For example, the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also at risk, which could potentially degrade the government’s ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts. Specifically, the sequester could cause a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation weather satellites being developed through a program called GOES-R. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage—especially to our weather preparedness.”
The energy sector will also feel the effects if the cuts aren’t avoided by March 1. There could be a slowdown in the development of oil and gas resources as well as a decline in the permitting of solar and wind installations on federal lands. The cuts could also affect clean energy deployment, decrease the number of homes eligible for energy-efficiency upgrades and delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.
Obama’s Picks for Energy, Environment
Gina McCarthy and Ernest Moniz are still clear favorites to help lead President Barack Obama’s environment and energy team. Timing for formal announcements, however, are less clear, sources told Politico.
McCarthy is expected to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month. Moniz, currently the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, could replace Steven Chu as the head of the Department of Energy. Reuters says McCarthy “would likely become the face of Obama’s latest push to fight climate change,” while Nature says Moniz “would bring to the office a pragmatic support for nuclear power and natural gas, along with a candid desire to, in his own words, ‘innovate like hell’ on basic energy technologies.”
BP Oil Spill Trial Opens
Testimony began this week in the civil trial surrounding the deadly explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Unless a settlement is reached, Federal District Judge Carl J. Barbier will determine who is liable for damages resulting from the rupture and discharge of millions of gallons of crude oil from BP’s high-pressure Macondo well. In addition, Barbier will assess whether BP, Transocean or other companies that worked on the project were grossly negligent in their handling of the rig and well in order to decide how much money will be paid.
Record-Setting Renewable Energy Projects See Light
In a conference of leaders in the offshore wind industry, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation’s energy future. “It is going to be very much a continuation agenda,” Salazar said. Though the sequester could slow offshore wind energy development in the Atlantic, he noted that Cape Wind—the first proposed offshore wind project in the U.S.—should break ground in 2013, despite earlier holdups.
Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cleared the $1 billion McCoy Solar Project for fast-track approval. Estimated to provide enough electricity to power 264,000 homes, the solar project would be the world’s biggest (subscription required).
And across the pond, Saudi Arabia revealed a plan to install 54 gigawatts of renewable energy—a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants by 2032. The project aims to reduce the amount of oil burned in power stations by the world’s top oil exporter.
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for doubling research and development funding for renewable energy. A policy document released by the White House following the State of the Union proposes making the wind production tax credit—which was renewed in January for one year as part of the deal to avert the fiscal cliff—permanent.
“To once again double generation from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020, the President has called on Congress to make the renewable energy production tax credit permanent and refundable, as part of a comprehensive corporate tax reform, providing incentives and certainty for investments in new clean energy,” the policy document states. Internal analysis by the American Wind Energy Association indicates phasing out the credit—over the course of six years—would give the industry the time it needs to establish a “stable base market” in the U.S.
Vote Saves EU Trading Scheme, for Now
The world’s largest carbon market was saved from collapse this week. The European Parliament’s environment committee voted to support a proposed plan to remove a record surplus of emissions permits from their carbon trading scheme, which imposes emission limits on some 12,000 power plants and factories. The surplus—a result of the recession and factors such as an increase in carbon auctions—has driven carbon prices to an all-time low. The “backloading” plan delays the scheduled release of permits by up to five years. The vote did fail to provide a hoped-for boost to carbon allowance prices, which dropped 20 percent following the announcement.
The backloading plan still needs approval by the full European Parliament and the governments of the 27 member states.
Studies Put Arctic Ice Loss under Microscope
A reduction in summer Arctic ice cover reached a record low in 2012. But new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests this melting doesn’t stop in cooler months. It finds sea ice volumes have declined 9 percent during the winter and 36 percent during autumn months over the course of the last decade.
This widespread reduction of ice is disrupting the balance of the region’s greenhouse gases. The melting affects both the uptake and release of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, which can end up in the soil and cause lasting negative effects.
As the ice retreats and more shipping routes are opened, access for oil and gas exploration has also become easier. The United Nations Environment Programme says the region needs to be better protected as a result. Their report, UNEP Year Book 2013, recommends using economic instruments to create financial incentives that would improve chemical safety. A better understanding of how exploration would affect the region’s ecosystems and populations, Reuters reports, is also needed before taking further steps to develop the Artic.