EIA: Carbon Emissions Decline

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In 2012, energy-related carbon emissions in the United States declined 3.8 percent even as global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 percent, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The recorded 5.29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide amounted to the largest decline since 1994, continuing a downward trend that started in 2007. EIA attributed last year’s decrease to several factors, including a mild winter and alterations in energy consumption for transportation. Notably, U.S. power plants reduced their carbon emissions by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. The overall energy-related emissions decline occurred in tandem with an increase in gross domestic product and energy output (subscription).

The downward trend may not last, The Washington Post reports. Energy-related emissions rose 2.6 percent in the first part of 2013, and the EIA expects emissions to keep rising. The U.S. State Department said the nation could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020, if it enacts proposed rules to curb methane leaks and to cut pollution from power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to solidify regulations. This week, it began its 11-citylistening tour,” which is intended to solicit ideas from the public on how to best regulate emissions from more than 1,000 power plants currently in operation.

Cleanup Delayed for Fukushima as Britain Signs First Nuclear Deal

Japan delayed plans to clean up towns surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for up to three years—affecting more than 90,000 people who are unable to return home after a series of meltdowns following an earthquake and tsunami two and half years ago. The original plan indicated cleanup of the most contaminated towns would be completed by March 2014.

“We would have to extend the cleanup process, by one year, two years or three years, we haven’t exactly decided yet,” said Shigeyoshi Sato, an official from the Environment Ministry in charge of the decontamination efforts. One reason for the delay—a lack of space to store the radioactive waste that comes out of the decontamination process.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom signed a roughly $26 billion deal to build new nuclear reactors—the first in 20 years—financed in part by China. The twin reactors are envisioned to advance the government’s goal of adding low-carbon energy sources. If built on time, the new reactors would begin operation in 2023 and operate for 35 years.

Studies Look at Climate Change Effects in Next Century

Several studies, looking at everything from ocean health to energy use, have found their way into recent media headlines.

New Climate by 2050: Research published in the journal Nature suggests that, on average, locations worldwide will leave behind the climates that have existed from the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 21st century as soon as 2047, depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the next few decades. The new, more extreme temperatures would first occur in the tropics, where plants, people and wildlife are least equipped to adapt. About 1 billion people, according to the study, currently live in areas where the climate would exceed historical bounds of variability by 2050. The work highlights the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions because a warming climate may drive some species to extinction, threaten food supplies and spread disease.

Climate Change to Impact Ocean Health: Every inch of the world’s oceans are predicted to undergo chemical changes associated with global climate change by 2100, according to research published in the journal PLOS Biology. More than two dozen scientists used projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with biological and socioeconomic data, to predict how oceans could be altered by the end of the century.

“If global CO2 emissions are not reduced, substantial degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardships are very likely to occur,” the study said.

This follows research published in Nature showing that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, coral reefs could be extinct by 2050.

Carbon Capture and Storage Development Slows: A new study suggests that since 2012, the number of projects that capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped from 75 to 65 worldwide. Although the number U.S. is a global leader in developing and deploying carbon capture and storage and carbon capture utilization and storage technology, it has proposed no new projects in these areas—in fact, no new projects have been proposed outside of China.

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.

Leadership Change in the White House

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Heather Zichal, President Barack Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, announced plans this week to step down. Zichal has advised the president since 2008 and assisted in the creation of his Climate Action Plan, unveiled in June, to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants and other sources.

Although a replacement has not been named, some news outlets reported that Dan Utech, a deputy director for energy and climate at the White House, could be tapped for the role. Politico reported other names such as Kevin Knobloch, now chief of staff to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; Gary Guzy, deputy director of the Council on Environmental Quality and Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. Whomever is chosen will face a sizeable to-do list that includes turning the president’s climate plan into a reality (subscription).

“Heather had her fingerprints on every climate and clean-energy success of this administration,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. “Heather’s replacement is going to have a big job ahead of them—she wrote the blueprint of the climate-action plan, and they’ll have to see it through.”

Her departure in the next few weeks marks a nearly complete turnover of the administration’s climate and energy team.

Renewable Fuel Standard Challenged by Industry

The American Petroleum Institute (API)—representing hundreds of oil and natural gas companies—has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s estimate of the amount of ethanol that should be mixed with conventional gas under the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard. Harry Ng, API vice president said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated refiners use 4 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2013 but that so far only 142,000 gallons have been available to refiners to blend.

“EPA issued this year’s requirement nine months late and has once again mandated significantly more cellulosic ethanol than is available in the marketplace,” said Ng.

The API filed its suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court that in January ruled in another API-filed lawsuit that the EPA was too “aspirational” in setting its 2012 cellulosic biofuels mandate.

Meanwhile, a report by GreenWire indicated draft proposals circulating among stakeholders signal the EPA intends to scale back 2014 targets for conventional corn ethanol and advance biofuels (subscription).

Government Shutdown Hits 10-Day Mark

As the partial government shutdown reaches its second week, there are glimmers of hope that Republicans and Democrats could break their impasse. House Republican leaders are considering a plan to raise the nation’s borrowing limit temporarily to buy time for negotiations on broader policy measures. The Washington Post reports that if the plan goes over well with rank-and-file Republicans, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could put it on the floor for a vote late today, but getting things up and running again with this approach could take until next spring as the effects on the environment become more wide-reaching.

  • Science: Everything from the funding of scientific research to environmental protection programs are on hold, including groundbreaking work to harness the power of the sun through self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
  • Oil and Gas Permits: Though the government is still issuing offshore drilling permits, similar approvals for onshore oil and gas wells on public lands have stopped, and an oil and gas lease auction scheduled for later this month in New Mexico has been canceled. Thus, the shutdown will deprive the federal government of a reliable revenue source—more than 6 million acres of federal land leases auctioned in 2012 brought in more than $233 million.
  • Energy Markets: If the shutdown is prolonged, the data relied on to shape future commodity markets—especially for energy and agriculture—may not exist.
  • Workforce: The Department of Energy, though still fully operational, won’t be for long (subscription). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began furloughing employees today.
  • EPA Rulemaking: The shutdown has forced the EPA to postpone the start of hearings on proposed carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants (subscription).

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.

European Union Rejects Carbon Market Solution

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. We will return to regular postings May 2. 

The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within its Emissions Trading Scheme this week. The proposed “backloading” plan would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the world’s largest carbon market—potentially saving it from collapse and making fossil fuels more expensive for utilities and factories to burn. The surplus, partly a result of the recession, had driven carbon prices down from 25 euros in 2008 to just 5 euros per ton in February. As a result, the permits were no longer doing their intended job of encouraging manufacturers and utilities to invest in cleaner fuels and new technology. Announcement of the ruling sent permit prices to their lowest yet and dealt a blow to partner Australia. The country intends to link to the EU carbon market in 2015.

“We will continue with our plans to link with the European emissions trading scheme from 1 July, 2015,” said Australia Climate Minister Greg Combet. “But this year’s budget, as is usual practice by Treasury, will include a revised forecast for a carbon price in 2015-16.”

On Wednesday, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard vowed to fight to save the system through new measures that include restricting rights to carbon permits and allowing for reviews of the number of permits companies receive for free.

EPA Says U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Declined

A new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped 1.6 percent from 2010 to 2011. Since 2005, that number has decreased 6.9 percent. The agency attributed the drop to factors such as improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and mild winter weather.

Electricity generation by power plants was termed the largest source of emissions, accounting for 33 percent of the 2011 total, according to the report. The EPA missed an April 13 deadline to issue a final rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, instead delaying release indefinitely on Friday. In its draft form, the rule would have made building new coal plants difficult. The Washington Post indicated that the EPA will alter the rule to better withstand legal challenge, including potentially establishing separate standards for gas-fired and coal-fired plants.

Meanwhile, little progress has been made to reduce the carbon content of the world’s energy supply over the last two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In its third annual report tracking clean energy progress, the IEA found the resurgence of coal counters many of the greenhouse gas benefits of clean energy production. “The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.” Renewables are a bright spot in the data, which reveal that solar and wind technologies grew by 42 and 19 percent, respectively, from 2011 to 2012.

Nuclear Leak Prompts Review, New Guidelines

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has begun reviewing the decommissioning process for Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the site of a 2011 nuclear meltdown following a tsunami. Multiple leaks have been detected at the plant, and the IAEA will be analyzing the melted reactors and radiation levels.

The EPA, meanwhile, has been prompted by the disaster to rewrite rules to enlarge the focus of U.S. nuclear disaster response beyond immediate emergency response to long-term cleanup efforts. A new draft of recommended procedures will address the duration of evacuations, limits to radiation exposure over time and other concerns.

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.

Carbon Tax Is a Popular Topic in Washington

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Since China announced it will hold off plans to introduce a carbon tax, the idea has generated some activity on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a draft bill that would charge the largest industrial polluters a fee for, or carbon tax on, their fossil-fuel emissions. The plan, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), includes three possible per-ton prices for carbon pollution—$15, $25 or $30—and annual cost increases ranging from 2 percent to 8 percent to ensure that emissions continue to decrease. The new bill solicits feedback on how revenue (subscription required) generated by the fee or tax should be spent but proposes that proceeds go toward mitigating energy costs for consumers, reducing the deficit, protecting jobs, decreasing the tax liability for businesses and individuals and investing in other activities that could reduce carbon pollution.

The Waxman-Whitehouse draft, which has not been formally introduced into Congress or even finalized, is one of a few carbon tax proposals circulating in Washington. A measure by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was released last month. The same week as the release of the Waxman-Whitehouse draft, Republicans introduced a resolution that opposed a national carbon tax, citing its threat to the economy and businesses.

Two studies of a carbon tax have produced very different results. A study by the National Association of Manufacturers finds that a carbon tax starting at $20 per ton and rising 4 percent yearly would result in an economic slowdown. Meanwhile, a report by the Brookings Institution finds that a carbon tax could have benefits—including improving environmental outcomes and increasing economic efficiency.

A national poll released recently by Duke University found that 29 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat supported a carbon tax. There was much more support surrounding a clean energy standard or other traditional measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Will “Fire Ice” Discovery Revolutionize the Energy Industry?

Japan has produced methane from methane hydrates, a fossil fuel that behaves like ice, from deep under the ocean for the first time. Deposits of the fuel source, known as “fire ice,” may be large enough to supply the country’s natural gas needs for years. An estimated 1.1 trillion cubic meters of gas are trapped off Shikoku Island. Japan hopes to convert the trapped methane into natural gas that could help address recent energy woes, but the Japanese government says it is still at least five years away from commercial extraction. Japanese officials point to the recent gas boom in the United States as evidence that complex drilling processes can yield big results—a fact that has Australia worried. Japan is Australia’s top natural gas customer.

The fuel source is also being explored in Canada and the United States, with the latter funding 14 research projects on methane hydrates. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that naturally occurring gas hydrates could contain more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—potentially more organic carbon than the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined. Recent mappings off the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts show large offshore accumulations of methane hydrate, but the potential environmental effects of drilling for hydrates remain little understood.

The Future of Nuclear Power

Monday marked the second anniversary of Japan’s tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, behind the United States. Now just two of the country’s 50 operable reactors are online. With plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040, the long-term energy strategy is expected to bring higher electricity rates for consumers this year.

The future of nuclear remains less certain worldwide. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently told more than 3,000 industry executives, experts and government regulators that when it comes to commercial reactors they must be ready to deal with the unknown.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists is more critical of the industry. It points to safety mishaps at nuclear plants across the United States in 2012. The study, released shortly after the NRC annual report card, details a dozen events.

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

Obama Announces Leaders of His Energy, Environment Team

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama officially announced his selections to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on Monday. Gina McCarthy was chosen to lead the EPA, replacing Lisa Jackson, while Ernest Moniz will take over as energy secretary, replacing Steven Chu. Together, Obama said, they are charged with “making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.” They join Sally Jewell, named to the Department of the Interior last month. Jewell’s confirmation hearing is slated to take place today.

Assuming Moniz and McCarthy win confirmation from the Senate, what can we expect them to focus on? Using the power of executive authority, quite a bit, reports The Washington Post. On the list: reducing global hydrofluorocarbon emissions, tightening emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles, new energy efficiency standards, and using the Clean Air Act pursue stricter rules for natural gas and methane emissions and cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

For the last four years, McCarthy has been working with the EPA as the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Under her leadership, the EPA proposed the first regulations to cap emissions from new power plants under the Clean Air Act in 2012 and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in 2011. A large number of pollution rules that have been postponed or delayed in the courts—such as the cross state air controls for power plants—will come up in Obama’s second term. In this new role McCarthy could face considerable opposition from industry polluters, which some say could be worse than her predecessor.

Moniz, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is a former Energy Department undersecretary. “Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, water and our climate,” Obama said when he introduced Moniz Monday. The nomination of the MIT physicist comes with mixed reactions, as Moniz is a known advocate of shale gas and nuclear energy. The coal industry, however, is much more welcoming of Moniz than McCarthy, GreenWire reports (subscription required) because making coal fit into a low-carbon world has been a focus of his research.

Climate Change to Open Arctic Shipping Routes

As a result of climate change, by mid-century ships could sail directly over the North Pole, according to a new study. The Northwest Passage is now only accessible to a few icebreaker ships on average one summer of every seven years. Through computer simulations using independent climate forecasts for the years 2040 to 2059, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, predict the route—20 percent short than today’s most trafficked Arctic shipping lane—to be passable more frequently with warming of the North Pole that will lead to record low levels of summer sea ice.

“The development is both exciting from an economic development point of view and worrisome in terms of safety, both for the arctic environment and for the ships themselves,” said lead researcher Laurence Smith, who mapped the likeliest routes, usable by icebreakers and other open water vessels, during the month of September. The price of oil and locations of natural gas will be big determinants for whether or not Arctic navigation increases, the authors said. Numerous obstacles, aside from sea ice, stand in the way of increased navigation in the region. Just last month, Shell called off drilling exploration efforts after several mishaps.

House Votes to Increase Funds for Satellite

Sequester budget cuts had threatened to impose a two- to three-year delay in the production and deployment of the first next-generation weather satellites being developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a program called GOES-R. Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to approve legislation that could breathe new life into the program that aims to create more timely and accurate weather forecasts. The spending bill would set aside $802 million for NOAA’s satellites. The catch—it must be approved by the Senate, and even if passed the new figure is still subject to additional cuts.

Record Carbon Dioxide Spike

Researchers at NOAA say the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose significantly in 2012. Carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to a total just under 395 parts per million and could make it unlikely global warming can be limited another 2 degrees Celsius. The spike is the second highest since record keeping began in 1959, surpassed only by the 1998 increase of 2.93 parts per million.

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.

Heated Discussion about Energy in Second Presidential Debate, but No Mention of Climate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Next to jobs and the economy, the National Journal reports, no other issue has dominated this year’s election as much as energy because it’s a proxy for many other things (subscription). “Energy has not been this big an issue in a presidential campaign since the tumultuous years of the 1970s,” when the Arab oil embargo raised gasoline prices and had Americans waiting in lines at the pump around the country, said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning energy historian. Six major energy issues are a focus—oil, hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, nuclear, renewable energy and coal—with their views shaping two very different energy industries.

In the second of three presidential debates Tuesday Barack Obama and Mitt Romney revisited several aspects of energy policy in a night of one-liners and disagreements about the issue and many others, such as taxes, measures to reduce the deficit, pay equity for women and health care. Climate change, however, didn’t even make it off the debate moderator’s list of prepared questions. Mother Jones called climate change the “big loser” in the debate, while MSNBC likened the candidates’ failure to mention it in their remarks about energy to not mentioning cancer in a discussion about smoking. Compared to their first debate Oct. 3, much more of their 90 minutes was spent on energy.

Candidates argued about who was the bigger friend to the coal industry and weighed how government could influence gasoline prices—though many factors other than administrative policy tend to influence prices according to the Federal Trade Commission. Among the more heated energy-focused exchanges was one about oil and gas production on federal lands. Romney claimed production on these lands has decreased, while Obama maintained the assertions weren’t true. A check of the facts by NBC indicates these claims may have been slighted skewed. “Oil production did fall by 14 percent on federal lands—onshore and offshore—but that was only in one year, from 2010 to 2011,” NBC writes. “And it was mainly the result of the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But Obama is correct, that since he took office, oil production on federal lands is up.” This wasn’t the only factoid snafu for these two candidates. Early on, Obama misstated the length of time oil production had risen and each took a few other things out of context.

Supercomputer to Give New Push for Climate Research

Widespread drought has put increasing pressure on global food supplies, allowing reserves to reach their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, which could trigger a food crisis in 2013. A new supercomputer—capable of crunching 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second—just may be able to help scientists improve our understanding of everything from hurricanes and tornadoes to tsunamis, air pollution and the location of water beneath the earth’s surface. TIME claims it can narrow down the 60-square-mile units used in climate change modeling today to just seven-square-mile-tranches—zooming in on the movement of everything from raindrops to wind.

Researchers from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson report that computer modeling methods developed to predict climate change on Earth have successfully predicted the age and location of glaciers and other climatic conditions on Mars. Their predictions have been confirmed through new satellite observations. Lead researcher William Hartmann said, “Some public figures imply that modeling of global climate change on Earth is ‘junk science,’ but if climate models can explain features observed on other planets, then the models must have at least some validity.”

Challenges to an Energy Transition

While some forecast Germany could save billions if it sticks to its plans of replacing nuclear with renewable energy, the plan may come at great cost to consumers. The country’s four main grid operators released estimates this week showing that households will see a nearly 50 percent increase in the tax needed to fund the transformation to renewables, requiring a typical family of four to pay about $324 per year on top of their bill—renewing debate over the transition sparked by the Fukushima disaster.

The Christian Science Monitor calls the energy transition claims made across the world clunky, offering that history suggests it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure. The problem, according to the Monitor?  We don’t have that long.

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.

North Carolina Legislature Mulls Ban on Sea Level Rise Projections

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The link between climate change and sea level rise, already well established, has been reinforced by recent studies. But sea level rise also made headlines in a more unusual way recently after some North Carolina legislators introduced a bill that would call into question some of the scientific projections related to sea level rise in the state. Specifically, their draft legislation would “prohibit state and local government agencies from using projections of accelerated sea level rise—due mainly to global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps—when forming coastal development policies and regulations.”

The document has drawn criticism across the world, even finding a spot on the popular spoof television show The Colbert Report. Duke University’s Bill Chameides characterized it as an attempt to “legislate away” what is possibly “the greatest threat that climate change poses to North Carolina.” The Senate’s Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hear the bill today.

Elsewhere, rising temperatures are being blamed for the transformation of more shrubs into trees in the northwestern Eurasian tundra. According to a Reuters report, the advancing of such forests could negatively impact the climate—increasing warming by as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. And in other remote parts of the Arctic, scientists have recorded what’s been labeled a climate milestone—carbon dioxide levels above the level of 400 parts per million. It’s a measurement some scientists believe hasn’t been reached in roughly 800,000 years.

Climate’s Effect on Energy

Warming waters and reduced river flows in the United States and Europe could have a significant impact on power generation, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change. Rising temperatures, the study said, would affect coal and nuclear plants dependent on rivers for cooling during production. In the U.S. alone, capacity could fall as much as 16 percent on warmer days between 2031 and 2060.

While coal use dropped to 34 percent in March—its lowest level since January 1973—so did the U.S. utility industry’s confidence in the energy source. In fact, in a survey of utility industry executives, 56 percent said coal had a future as a fuel source, down from 82 percent in 2010. Confidence in renewables, however, was higher at 96 percent.

Or maybe executives won’t have to choose. One new technology, out this week, claims to be equipped to produce cost-effective electric power with little to no emissions from any fuel source.

In Japan, solar makers are betting a new feed-in tariff could help the country boost power generation from solar past its current 1 percent. The tariff program is set to launch next month. Meanwhile, in the U.K. the use of solar and wind power as a source of secondary income for farmers is gaining popularity. The move, according to the National Farmers’ Union, could be a major contributor to profitable farming.

Emission Stunners

Despite congressional deadlock, new International Energy Administration (IEA) data indicates the U.S. leads the world in CO2 emission cuts since 2006. The IEA cited lower oil use and a shift from coal to gas as factors in the 7.7 percent cut.

Negotiations for a new climate treaty that would help to reduce emissions worldwide fizzled in Bonn, Germany recently. The deadlock was a result of disputes among rich and poor countries over technicalities—namely how to divide the burden of emissions cuts between developed and developing nations.

Cities are the solution to addressing climate change, according to a new infographic by C40 cities. Cities across the world are creating plans to reduce emissions. Where are climate change plans more prevalent? In places prone to natural disasters, increasing temperatures and rainfall variability such as Latin America. In fact, 95 percent of Latin American cities are planning for climate change. In New York, rooftops are being transformed—speckled with solar panels, coated with white paint and even plants—to make them more climate-friendly. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is expected to extend a 100 percent green electricity option to customers this month.

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.

Stakes High as Negotiators Begin Climate Talks in Germany

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation the next two weeks, returning again June 7. 

Negotiators picked up discussions toward a new global climate treaty in Bonn, Germany this week. The meeting was the first since the 2011 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban where leaders initially agreed to put together a plan that would limit Earth-warming emissions. The stakes for the 10-day meeting are high—negotiators have set goals of building support for funding developing nations to the tune of $100 billion a year by 2020 and of constructing a global, legally binding climate agreement that extends the Kyoto Protocol. While countries agreed in Durban to sign the deal by 2015, U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres insisted milestones should be set in 2012.

So far, the European Union and groups of developing countries are divided over details of how the Kyoto Protocol should be extended. The talks may have inspired Qatar—one of the largest emitters of carbon—to cut its emissions and pay into the Green Climate Fund. Qatar will host the next round of annual climate negotiations in November—the first member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to do so.

One university in Australia is looking at the effects of climate change by creating an atmosphere where CO2 is 40 percent higher than current levels and studying its impact on the environment, humans and other living things. The Aussie researchers predict an average increase of about 3 degrees centigrade, but the first results of the study won’t be available until next year. A new journal article says, depending on the area, as many as 40 percent of mammals migrate too slowly and won’t be able to keep pace with climate shifts expected in the next hundred years.

Japan Faces Summer Test

While Iran and the U.N. nuclear agency discussed Iran’s nuclear program and suspicions Tehran may have tested nuclear arms technology, Japan decided to restart nuclear reactors in one town as others there contemplated how to handle things nuclear-free before the summer’s heat sets in. At least one utility in the country is considering a rate hike to compensate for the impending hot weather, while the Japanese operator of the Fukushima plant posted a $10 billion loss stemming from the meltdown. The town is the first to restart a nuclear reactor since all the nation’s nuclear reactors were shut off following the Fukushima disaster roughly one year ago. According to one newspaper poll, residents there are split on nuclear power.

In the U.S., California also faces threats of summer power shortages due to complications with the San Onofre nuclear plant. And the nuclear reactor being built in Augusta, Ga., will not only be completed behind schedule, but come in at a much higher price—approximately $900 million.

Could cheap natural gas be choking aging nuclear plants? E&E Publishing reported the nuclear industry is questioning whether lower natural gas prices will put pressure on plants, just as cheap gas has done to coal.

EPA Declares ‘Gasland’ Town’s Water Safe

Vermont made history this week by becoming the first state to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the hotly debated natural gas drilling technique that injects a mixture of water and chemicals underground at high pressures to release hard-to-reach oil and natural gas. The ban is not predicted have an immediate effect, however, because the state has no fracking projects under way and no evidence of natural gas reserves.

The news comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested more money to probe the technique. It was just days after the EPA announced water in the town made famous by hydraulic fracturing and the movie “Gasland” was given a clean bill of health. Though water at one home did show elevated levels of methane, the well water was declared safe. The EPA released data for 59 of the 61 wells tested, claiming “the set of sampling did not show levels of contaminants that would give the EPA reason to do further testing.” The finding has residents of the northeastern Pennsylvania town disputing the claim. The lawsuits and tests revolving around the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas have made it difficult for insurers to price risk.

While drilling continues in Pennsylvania—generating about $3.5 billion in 2011—the U.S. Department of Interior recently found roughly two-thirds of land leased by the oil industry goes unused. This equates to roughly 46 million acres both on- and offshore.

Recent cyber attacks aimed at computer networks belonging to U.S. natural gas pipeline companies may have ties to China, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The U.S. and China have agreed to cooperate on cyber security despite China’s implication in the pipeline attacks. As a whole, the energy sector is becoming more vulnerable to these types of attacks, which also struck Iran last month.

Some, however, are looking to other methods for energy generation. One group of researchers in California is trying to harness viruses for energy needs. As Norway opened the world’s largest carbon capture and storage test facility, La Ventosa Mexico—the windy place—inched its way toward earning a title for “the largest growth of wind power projects anywhere in the world.” The Atlantic Wind Connection project, a network of offshore wind farms off the East Coast that could power close to two million homes in the next 10 years, received permission to move forward. The “first-of-its-kind project” would be served by a 380-mile underwater power line running from Virginia to New Jersey.

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.


Arctic Oil Drilling Opens as Pitfalls Pondered Miles Away

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. It will return May 10.

Nearing record highs in March, gasoline prices have dropped for most of April across the U.S. and on average are cheaper than they were a year ago. As pump prices ease, federal prosecutors are turning up the heat in the BP oil spill case, arresting an ex-engineer accused of obstructing justice by deleting potentially damaging e-mails. And as the feds begin arrests, local reactions in the Gulf among individuals and businesses harmed by the spill are mixed, with oyster leaseholders “overjoyed” by the BP settlement, while shrimp processors are challenging some features of the deal. While watermen and women digest the settlement, Gulf of Mexico fish near the spill—such as grouper and red snapper—are showing telltale signs of sickness associated with oil exposure.

Across the world, a new pact by Russia and Italy has opened the Arctic to drilling. Some say an Arctic oil rush could damage ecosystems; others worry about the special challenges an oil spill in the Arctic would pose. Meanwhile, a new study says climate change is posing “significant challenges to the survival of some of the Arctic’s unique marine species.” And the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite is providing data on Arctic ice thickness—offering a more complete view of rapidly melting ice.

Climate Change Threatens to Alter Agricultural Landscape

Last weekend marked Earth Day, and some critics say the environmental movement has lost its mojo, while others were critical of President Obama’s Earth Day address after he failed to directly mention climate change. Later in the week, however, President Obama told Rolling Stone climate change will be a central feature of the presidential campaign. “I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he said.

Beyond climate politics, a warming world will increase the cost of corn, according to a new study. The study warns that unless farmers plant more heat-tolerant varieties, corn prices will be subject to greater volatility. Another study suggests that scrapping corn ethanol subsidies and converting much of corn country to pasture for management-intensive grazing would reduce agricultural land-use emissions by 36 percent. Meanwhile, corn growers are speaking out about the “grave threat” climate change poses to their livelihoods.

While Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster is still fresh in many people’s minds, Ukraine recognized the 26-year anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion this week by unveiling a new, safer shelter over the damaged reactor. Others, such as Britain, continue to debate building new nuclear facilities.

Renewables Gaining Momentum with Farmers

Renewable energy makes economic sense, at least in Virginia, according to a new study. Across the country, Americans are split on whether to get rid of U.S. subsidies—with 47 percent favoring the idea.

More and more farmers are turning to renewables and earning the name “new green pioneers,” harvesting fuel cells, biogas, cogeneration and solar arrays to lower costs. While farmers embrace alternative energy despite time and risks, the solar energy industry has created a new plastic film that sprays on like an adhesive, enabling solar power to be harvested inside buildings and not just by way of conventional rooftop panels. Yet, the discovery of Native American bone fragments is throwing the large Genesis solar project into question.

Wind is not doing much better than solar, with a measure to extend production tax credits stalled in Congress despite bipartisan support. Uncertainty as to whether Congress will extend the credit is making it more difficult for developers to advance and fund wind projects. Offshore, the U.S. and Great Britain have announced plans to develop floating wind turbines in deep water where conventional technology cannot reach. Because the turbines do not require deep seabed installation, the technology is expected to be cheaper than current offshore wind projects. Despite the vagaries of renewable power, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on nations to double the amount of power produced from renewable sources by 2030.

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.