Sandy Surfaces, Kyoto at Stake in U.N. Climate Talks

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Thousands have converged for a two-week meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Running through Dec. 7, the U.N. conference brings together environmental minds across the world to work toward a legally binding agreement on climate change. At stake: the Kyoto Protocol. Last week, the World Bank issued a report suggesting that a temperature rise of  more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 could cause widespread crop failures, malnutrition and significant sea-level rise. Kyoto is the only global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, and it is set to expire at the end of this year. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer shows what Kyoto has (and has not) achieved, and what any new agreement must achieve in order to avoid 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming.

The world is watching to see whether details for a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which lays the groundwork for a new global treaty, can be agreed upon. A second phase of Kyoto, Nature reports, would only temporarily replace the original agreement. That’s why some hope COP 18 climate negotiators commit to signing a new treaty by 2015, to take effect by 2020—or possibly earlier if some countries pushing for more ambitious action get their way.

Counterparts from European and vulnerable nation delegations routinely criticize the U.S. as the major reason these negotiations lack ambition. Experts say China and the United States aren’t keeping pace with the smaller countries—the global leaders in generating power from clean sources. Still, some are cautiously optimistic the U.S. will be more than a bystander during talks in light of the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Studies Coming out of Doha

A number of new studies informing decisions during COP 18 are being shared at the conference by organizations across the world. Among the highlights:

Permafrost: The United Nations Environment Program released a report recommending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) address the gases emitted from melting permafrost, which could account for almost 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change: A report by the World Meteorological Organization stated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere reached record highs in 2011, indicating “climate change is taking place before our eyes.”

Blue Carbon: Destruction of coastal habitats may release as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, 10 times higher than previously reported. A new report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions looks at how this blue carbon—stored in sediment layers below mangroves sea grasses and salt marshes—might be addressed within existing UNFCCC mechanisms.

Sea-Level Rise: Another report says sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than the United Nations originally predicted.

Criminal Charges Bar BP from New Contracts

BP appeared in court this week to answer to charges brought over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At a brief arraignment hearing before a federal judge in New Orleans, BP’s lawyer said the company’s board authorized entering a not guilty plea as a procedural matter, but the company still intends to plead guilty later.

On Nov. 15, the company announced that it would plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges and agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11. As a result of those criminal charges, the company and its affiliates were recently suspended from new contracts with the U.S. government for a “lack of business integrity.” The temporary suspension won’t affect current contracts, but it was unclear what new or pending contracts were affected. “Federal executive branch agencies take these actions to ensure the integrity of federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies. Suspensions are a standard practice when a responsibility question is raised by action in a criminal case,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Climate Change a Focus for President in Second Term

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation Nov. 22, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. We will return Nov. 29. 

In his first press conference since being re-elected, President Barack Obama acknowledged he’ll focus on climate change in his second term. “I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior, and carbon emissions,” Obama said at a televised news conference on Wednesday. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

Obama vowed to remain engaged in getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on a course of action on climate change, but not at the cost of jobs and economic growth. While he steered clear of making specific proposals for addressing climate change, Obama did offer this: “So what I am going to be doing over the next several weeks, the next several months, is having a conversation—a wide-ranging conversation—with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more we can do to make short-term progress. You can expect that you will hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and help moves this agenda forward.”

Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy continues to drive attention to climate change. Most recently, a New York Daily News op-ed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated New York “will not allow the national paralysis over climate change to stop us from pursuing the necessary path for the future” and “denial and deliberation from extremists on both sides about the causes of climate change are distracting us from addressing its inarguable effects.” Cuomo’s words may follow shifting public perception if a new Zogby poll is to be believed. It found that “half of Republicans, 73 percent of independents and 82 percent of Democrats saying they’re worried about the growing cost and risks of extreme weather disasters fueled by climate change.”

Fiscal Cliff Renews Debate about the Environment

The environment was a focus this week as the still newly re-elected President Obama faced negotiations over a metaphorical “fiscal cliff”—when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 go into effect at the end of 2012, increasing taxes and putting in place spending cuts that could threaten environmental protections. Some have suggested a carbon tax as one means of avoiding the fiscal cliff, as it would curb climate change and help reduce the deficit. “It will be difficult for sure but we can back away from the fiscal cliff and the climate cliff at the same time,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said in an interview with The Guardian. “One way is with a carbon tax.” Obama didn’t specifically endorse that approach in a press conference Wednesday. According to The Hill, a Treasury Department official “did not rule out White House backing for a carbon tax as part of fiscal policy talks, but noted the administration isn’t going to propose one and that initiative would have to come from Republicans.” Earlier this week, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist suggested a “carbon tax swap”—a tax on carbon offset by an income tax cut—might not violate his no-tax pledge. After he was criticized by a Koch-backed group, he reversed the statement he made prior.

A number of environmentally focused services remain at risk should lawmakers fail to avert the fiscal cliff. Among those threatened—energy efficiency and production. Mother Nature Network reports: “Sequestration would take $148 million away from the U.S. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, according to the White House report, which Natural Resources Defense Council notes ‘would be equivalent to cutting the solar energy program at the Department of Energy in half, or equal to eliminating the entire wind and geothermal energy programs.’”

Country Eyeing California Cap-and-Trade Program

As Germany’s renewable energy institute, IWR, announced global carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.5 percent in 2011, California unveiled the nation’s first economy-wide carbon market to combat harmful emissions and potentially serve as a model for other states to fight climate change. The state’s cap-and-trade program requires businesses to purchase pollution allowances for going beyond their designated “cap” of greenhouse gases emissions. Despite a last-minute lawsuit by the California Chamber of Commerce alleging that the sale of allowances was an unconstitutional tax, the first auction moved forward.

The program was years in the making, designed with the assistance of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, among others. It is now the second largest carbon market in the world behind the European Union. ThinkProgress pointed out four important things about the program. Among them: money from auctions will be used to invest in California’s clean energy future that could reach $11 billion a year by 2020. The price for carbon will also vary as the program evolves. As The Associated Press explains: “For the first two years of the program, large industrial emitters will receive 90 percent of their allowances for free in a soft start meant to give companies time to reduce emissions through new technologies or other means. The cap, or number of allowances, will decline over time in an effort to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” The results of Wednesday’s closed, online auction will be available Nov. 19.

Meanwhile, the European Commission announced it will hold off requiring airlines based outside the European Union to pay for their carbon emissions until 2013—following threats of international retaliation. China, the United States, Russia and India opposed the charges, and the European Union plans had begun to cloud international trade relations. Around 30 governments that oppose the charges issued a joint declaration in February that cited possible retaliatory steps, such as imposing charges on European airlines.

Will the U.S. Be an Oil Giant Again?

Growing supplies of crude oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” could transform the United States into one of the largest oil producers within the next decade. By around 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects, the U.S. will be the world’s largest global oil producer, overtaking both Russia and Saudi Arabia. It further predicts the U.S. will be virtually self-sufficient within 25 years. The implications are many. “There is a shift in competitiveness,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. If production forecasts are borne out, “it will have a major impact on the return of industry to United States.”

Gas prices, however, are falling—reaching numbers we haven’t seen since 2011.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Climate Change Back on Political Radar after Sandy, Election

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his re-election victory speech, President Barack Obama finally touched on a seldom-mentioned issue of the campaign—climate change: “We want our children to live in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Whether or not Hurricane Sandy can be  attributed to climate change, the storm’s devastating flooding brought the issue to the forefront of the country’s consciousness. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the issue the centerpiece of his endorsement of Obama last week: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

A number of environmental groups have expressed hope Obama will finally be at liberty to take steps to address the issue. “I do think there’s an opportunity, if the president chooses to take it, to show leadership and get attention on the cost that climate change is likely to cause,” said Kevin Kennedy of the U.S. Climate Initiative of the World Resources Institute. The Hill dubbed the issue of climate change one of the winners of the election, along with tax credits for wind energy.

But the future of U.S. climate policy is far from certain. With comprehensive climate legislation dead in Congress, many see the path forward in continued regulation of carbon emissions from power plants. Sen. Harry Reid said he hopes the Senate, where the Democrats have expanded their majority, can address climate change, but he didn’t offer any specifics. Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund says the President should simply begin talking about the issue—“not just once in a while but routinely, as a fact of life rather than a special-interest issue.”

What Does Obama’s Win Mean for Energy?

The Scientific American foresees executive orders similar to Obama’s previous term, which raised vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and increased efforts to regulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Others, meanwhile, see harsher regulations for energy companies during a second Obama administration—specifically for the natural gas and coal industries.

While hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas brings with it plenty of air pollution and potential water contamination concerns, its use is likely to soar. Even so, regulations of this practice may tighten. Federal officials have already indicated they may increase oversight in some areas, such as developing national standards for wastewater disposal.

Some speculate Obama’s first big test during his second term will be approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In a recent interview with Audubon Magazine, the president discusses a number of environmental issues—including the controversial pipeline. “There are a number of sensitive issues involved in the consideration of the Keystone pipeline, demanding a fair and full assessment,” Obama writes. “My administration is conducting a thorough assessment that takes into consideration issues of public health and safety, environmental health, along with American energy security and economic factors. I am committed to reducing our reliance on foreign oil in a way that benefits American workers and businesses without risking the health and safety of the American people and the environment.”

States Taking up Climate Change Action

Despite a new study saying it’s too late for two degrees—and suggesting a more urgent need for a climate policy at the national and international levels—states are starting to take steps to reduce harmful emissions.

In fact, state clean-energy funds supported 18 percent more projects in over 20 states in 2011 compared to 2010. Next week, California will be the first to combat greenhouse gas emission by requiring utilities to cut their output or buy permits for the emissions they emit beyond the capped amount. On Nov. 14, the state will hold the nation’s largest-ever auction for these permits.

The Washington Post reports while states are the laboratories for progress, their experimentation has slowed and is more heavily focused on renewable energy. “We still see all the states doing things on clean energy,” said Judi Greenwald of C2ES. “But definitely fewer states are calling what they do ‘climate.’”

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.

Hurricane Resurfaces Forgotten Election Issue: Climate Change

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, bringing blizzards to West Virginia and flooding to the northeast, some debated the storm’s connection to climate change. Scientists took to Twitter to share their opinions on how warming has made Sandy worse with Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe tweeting that sea level is 7 inches higher now compared to 100 years ago and about 15 percent of the unusually warm sea surface temperatures fueling Sandy are a result of climate change. Bloomberg Businessweek left no one guessing on the focus of their Sandy coverage with a cover reading: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

The storm, Slate claimed, is a hybrid many scientists just don’t really understand well. Actually connecting the storm to man-made climate change is much more challenging. The Houston Chronicle reported: “The bottom line is that climate change is unquestionably having an effect on the weather around us by raising the average temperature of the planet. This is producing warmer temperatures and very likely increasing the magnitude of droughts. However, it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time.” David Roberts of Grist disagrees with this kind of hedging. He says, “When the public asks, ‘Did climate change cause this?’ they are asking a confused question”—one akin to asking if steroids caused a specific home run by Barry Bonds. Others avoid the causation question altogether, and wonder whether Sandy will be a wake-up call for climate resilience.

While Sandy smashed records—for economic loss, closure of the New York Stock Exchange and mass transit—its effect on the impending election remain uncertain. The Los Angeles Times suggests that Sandy’s arrival may actually get presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to address climate change—a long-ignored issue of the campaign thus far. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are among those calling for the candidates to circle back to the issue.

Energy Impacts in Wake of Sandy

In the wake of Sandy, nuclear power outages were the second highest in a decade. More than 6.1 million customers in the northeastern U.S. have been left without power, and utility companies have warned that blackouts may persist until after the election. Many of these power companies had come under fire for their slow response to recent storm-related power outages, and their response to Sandy could put them to the test.

To help deal with energy needs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waived clean gasoline rules—required under the Clean Air Act—for more than a dozen states. The waiver lets conventional gasoline be sold instead of cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia through Nov. 20.

Alternative Sources Rising

The International Energy Agency released a report challenging the notion hydropower has peaked. It shares the steps necessary to double hydroelectricity power by 2050—preventing roughly 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel plants annually.

Across the globe in Germany, renewable energy production is projected to grow far faster than original forecasts. “The current boom in new installations of wind, solar and other renewable power sources will easily top the official target of 35 percent by 2022, reaching about 48 percent by then,” said Stephan Kohler, head of the government-affiliated agency overseeing Germany’s electricity grid. Scotland is also looking to ambitious renewable energy goals—setting a 50 percent renewables target by 2015.

Sweden is looking to other ways to cut carbon dioxide: garbage. In fact, only 4 percent of the country’s waste ends up in the landfill due to their efficiency to convert waste into renewable energy. They generate enough electricity to power roughly 250,000 homes annually—even importing near 800,000 tons of trash to fuel their habit.

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.