Sunday, August 31, 2014

EPA Staff Policy Assessment Recommends Reduction in Ozone Standard from 75 ppb to 60-70 ppb

Signboard in Gulfton, Houston indicating an ozone watch (Credit: Click to enlarge.
The staff of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OAQPS) has released the final version of the policy assessment (PA) for the review of the ozone (O3) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

Among the staff recommendations are to further reduce the primary ozone standard from the current 75 ppb (parts per billion) to a revised level within the range of 70 ppb to 60 ppb—and preferably below 70 ppb.

Ozone acts as a greenhouse gas, absorbing some of the infrared energy emitted by the earth. Quantifying the greenhouse gas potency of ozone is difficult because it is not present in uniform concentrations across the globe.  However, the most widely accepted scientific assessments relating to climate change (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report) suggest that the radiative forcing of tropospheric ozone is about 25% that of carbon dioxide.

EPA Staff Policy Assessment Recommends Reduction in Ozone Standard from 75 ppb to 60-70 ppb

The People’s March - James Hansen

People's Climate March Logo (Credit: Click to enlarge.
I wish to persuade you (if you live close enough to make it reasonable) that you should take the trouble to join us in the great People’s Climate March in New York City on 21 September.  The March web page is at

However, before plainly stating why the March is important, let me address several issues.

Multipath Strategy.  One can readily argue that any specific action, such as the People’s March, will not slow the fossil fuel juggernaut.  Indeed, by itself it would have little effect, and our media has shown themselves to be quite capable of ignoring even large demonstrations.

However the March is not occurring in a vacuum.  Success requires actions on many fronts, notably in the courts, on the streets, and within the political system.  That’s why I support Our Children’s Trust,, and Citizens Climate Lobby.  And that is not enough.

Getting the public and the business community fully behind effective climate action requires not simply getting them to agree that action is needed.  It requires getting them to understand the fundamentals about what actions are needed, and to demand those actions by governments.

Laser Focus on Solution.  Lessons have been learned on global and national levels.  These must not be forgotten.  We cannot let our political leaders pretend that they do not understand.

The ineffectual UN Kyoto cap-and-trade scheme was doomed from the start.  A “cap” approach inevitably raises 190 fights about each nation’s cap.  Countries must be bribed to accept a low cap, governments at home often refute them, and even ineffectual caps are unenforceable.
The way to phase down fossil emissions rapidly is via a rising carbon fee collected at domestic mines and ports of entry.  Each nation can choose how to use the funds, but in most nations the funds had better be distributed to all legal residents.

The carbon fee can be made near-global, because border duties would be collected on products from non-participating nations, a huge incentive for all nations to join.

Reparations.  Developed countries emitted most of the excess carbon that is in the air today, and are thus mainly responsible for human-caused climate change.  Many developing countries are at low latitudes where climate impacts will be severe.  Reparations are appropriate and needed.
Malarkey.  We have learned that it is not enough to get political leaders to admit the reality of human-caused climate change and promise to address it.  We must make specific demands, or we end up with ineffectual monstrosities such as the cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Congress.

I recently read that a carbon tax was needed, or its “functional equivalent”, cap-and-trade. Functional equivalent?  Pretentious nonsense!  I hope the discussion above made clear that a “cap” approach does not have a prayer of reducing emissions fast enough.
The fastest way is a simple rising carbon fee that makes fossil fuel costs honest, our economies more efficient, and provides incentives for the public, businesses, and technology entrepreneurs.  The money that is collected should go to the public where it is needed, where it would spur the economy – not to the government to make the government bigger and more intrusive.

Why march, why you?  Remember that in the prior big moral issue, civil rights, the courts and political system hardly moved until pressured by people in the streets.

The People’s March - James Hansen

No Economic Reason to Delay Climate Action - Global Commission

Windmills and a power plant are seen in the distance as beachgoers watch sunset in the city of Dongfang on the west side of China's island province of Hainan, June 18, 2014.  (Credit: Reuters/John Ruwitch) Click to enlarge.
Acting to curb climate change makes economic sense, even before counting the benefits of lower risks from climate threats, an upcoming report by leading financial, business and political officials will say.

But that action must happen soon, or the world will be locked into dangerous levels of climate change that will disrupt economies and lives for decades or centuries to come, the report will warn.

“The next 15 years are absolutely critical,” said Jeremy Oppenheim, programme director for the New Climate Economy project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by former Mexican president Felipe Calderon.

“People always tend to make the case for urgency … But the science in this case, leaving all rhetoric aside, makes it extraordinarily clear we have a 15-year window to change the underlying current premise,” he said.

The commission, established last year, has been studying whether acting to keep global temperature rise to relatively safe levels would help or hurt the world’s economies.

Members of its council include former heads of state, ex-finance ministers from countries like Indonesia and South Africa, former heads of many major development banks, including China’s, corporate leaders from businesses such as Unisys, and trade union officials.


The group’s report, due out in September, will make the case that “it is possible to deliver between 50 and 90 percent of the emissions cuts required to get onto what could be described as the ‘2-degree path’…with measures that make good economic sense for countries and cities even before taking into account the benefits of decreased climate risk,” Oppenheim told a World Health Organization conference on health and climate change in Geneva this week.

International negotiations on a new global deal to address climate change aim to hold temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, a level climate scientists consider relatively safe.  But with climate-changing emissions continuing to rise as a result of economic growth, deforestation and population expansion, the world is currently on a path to a 4-degree rise in temperatures, scientists warn.

Efforts to tackle climate change must consider broader economic realities – particularly flagging economic growth rates around the world, the need for jobs and concerns about energy security – if they are to be taken seriously and be effective, Oppenheim said.

“There is no point in banging the climate risk drum and hoping people will pay attention without it fitting into a wider agenda,” he said. 


The commission has come up with a list of 10 “transformative actions” it believes are crucial for effective action to curb climate change.  They include weighing climate risks in financial, economic and other decision making, and making sure a new global climate deal is agreed as planned in 2015.

Some of the other key changes proposed include ending fossil fuel subsidies and deforestation, building more compact cities, cutting the use of coal as a fuel, putting a value on carbon emissions, scaling up clean innovations and making it easier to get cheap capital for low-carbon investment.

No Economic Reason to Delay Climate Action - Global Commission

Lessons from Kyoto: a Vision for Effective Global Action on Climate Change

The tiring process of climate negotiations. (Credit: Spencer Schecht) Click to enlarge.
Climate change is essentially a crisis of the global commons that requires unprecedented collective action on the international level (Jinnah, 2013, “Governance”).  The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 with the explicit objective of stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."  However, even with this rhetoric agreed upon by over 190 nations, GHG emissions have continued to rise virtually unabated.  Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400ppm in 2013 for the first time in human history (IPCC, 2013); a threshold many scientists have warned is the tipping point of catastrophic interference with the climate system.  The task before humanity is therefore how to act quickly and effectively in reducing greenhouse gases while adapting to the changes already guaranteed by human changes to the planet.

With the end of Kyoto’s first commitment period in sight and no serious action on global GHG emission reductions actualized, the deadline was set at the Conference of the Parties in Durban in 2011 so by the year 2015 a new UNFCCC agreement would be reached that will take effect in 2020 (Jinnah, 2013).  Whether it is improved upon or altogether scrapped, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as is no longer accommodates for the state of the global economic landscape and what that means for distributing responsibility fairly.  Will countries be held to blanket commitments such as under the KP or will each country decide domestically what actions are appropriate according to their own circumstances?  Who will provide the funds to the poorest countries and to what projects?  What happens if we fail to act in time and climate change begins irreversibly altering weather patterns, livelihoods, and coastlines?  We are living through a tremendously transformative period where for the first time humanity is attempting to answer these questions and to cooperate in redefining the fundamentals of economic prosperity to safeguard the global environment from irreversible damage.

This analysis reflects on the lessons that can be derived from the successes and failures of the Kyoto Protocol to conjure collective global action on climate change.  From these lessons, along with scholarly perspectives and critical analysis from the author, a new structure for global climate governance will take shape.

Lessons from Kyoto: a Vision for Effective Global Action on Climate Change

Politicians Ignore People’s Power Pleas

Field of dreams: a community-owned solar farm near Oxford, UK (Credit: Neil Maw/Westmill Solar Co-operative via Wikimedia Commons) Click to enlarge.
Consumers worldwide increasingly want renewable energy sources to provide their electricity, yet many governments are ignoring them by continuing to exploit fossil fuels.

Public support for renewable energies across the world continues to grow, particularly in more advanced economies - with solar power being especially popular.

At the same time, the policies of the governments in most of these richer countries do not mirror public opinion as many continue to develop fossil fuels, which do not command such popular support.

An example is the UK, where the government wants to exploit gas reserves by the controversial method of fracking – fracturing rock to allow the gas to reach the ground surface.  The Conservative government is also promising to cut down on subsidies for onshore wind farms and to build nuclear power stations.

According to the public attitudes report published this month by the British government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, 36% of the population supports the plan to build new nuclear stations, and only 24% support shale gas extraction by fracking.

In contrast, 79% of the public is in favor of renewable energies to provide electricity.  The UK has plentiful renewable energy and is exploiting several different types.  Solar panels are the most popular form, with 82% of the public supporting their widespread use on the roofs of private houses and, more recently, solar farms in fields in the countryside.

Other high scores for renewables were offshore wind (72% in favor), onshore wind (67%), wave and tidal (73%), and biomass (60%) - even though all need public subsidy to compete with fossil fuels.

Despite the government’s public support for nuclear, there has been no start on a new station because a subsidy offered by the government is being investigated as potentially illegal under European Union competition legislation.  Fracking is still at the exploratory stage and requires years of investment before any power could be produced.

Meanwhile, renewables keep on growing.  In the first three months of this year, they produced nearly one-fifth of the UK’s electricity.  Renewable energy generation was 43% higher than a year previously, showing the massive growth in the industry.

Both onshore and offshore wind farms are growing quickly, with the UK now having the largest offshore wind industry in the world.

Politicians Ignore People’s Power Pleas

The New Face of Electricity

Ambri liquid battery is one of a dozen companies trying to revolutionize the power grid with a new energy storage device - Al Jazeera America (Credit: Ambri) Click to enlarge.
When Elon Musk’s Tesla announced that it will start building lithium ion batteries to fuel its electric cars and signed a deal with Panasonic to build a $5 billion Gigafactory, it resonated in certain circles as the ultimate challenge.

The race for energy storage is on.  Tesla’s lithium ion is in the lead, but other companies think they can invent a better, cheaper battery.  Not for cars, but to harness renewable energy like wind and solar and make the world’s electricity infrastructure more resilient and reliable.

“If I could boost this nation’s electricity production by 40 percent without having to build one power plant, that means the unit cost of electricity is going to fall and the amount of pollution is going to fall.  Who’s not going to cheer about that?” says Donald Sadoway, inventor of a liquid battery for Ambri, a four-year-old company that thinks it has a battery that will change the world.

It consists of two liquid metals and a salt solution.  “It accepts electrical current from the grid, stores it and will return it back when it’s needed,” says David Bradwell, Ambri’s chief technology officer.

There are about a dozen companies that are working on different batteries, each with a unique combination of materials and components.  Big-name investors are seeding the industry with big money and placing their bets on which company will come up with the winning idea.  Ambri has the backing of Bill Gates and Total, a French energy company.

The New Face of Electricity

   Saturday, August 30

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Renewable Energy Capacity Grew at Fastest Pace Ever in 2013

Solar panel array (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
The world's collective capacity to generate renewable power grew at its fastest annual pace ever last year, the Guardian reported on Thursday.  But underneath that finding, there's also an uncertain future for green power and the world's chances of containing global warming.

The numbers, drawn from a new analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) -- a Paris-based agency that pursues the goal of reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 29 member countries -- show that renewables like wind and solar now produce 22 percent of the world's electricity, and will likely rise to 26 percent by 2020.

Among countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which includes the United States, much of Europe and most other developed western nations, clean energy sources made up 80 percent of new power capacity installed in 2013.  And renewables have made impressive strides in the U.S. specifically.

Amongst non-OECD countries, renewables were 70 percent of the growth in new capacity in 2013, "spurred by diversification needs in many countries and increasing air quality concerns in China, in particular" the report said.  Africa is anticipated to add more renewable power in 2014 than it's installed in the last 14 years combined, and a recent market outlook released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance said renewable energy could take up two-thirds of the $7.7 trillion the world will likely invest in new power plants between now and 2030.

The bad news is that, beyond 2020, the IEA doesn't think this pace will be sufficient to hit the greenhouse gas... reduction targets the international community is currently haggling over. That pessimism is unfortunately backed up by another recent analysis, which found the most likely deals currently on the table won't be able to keep the world under 2 degrees C of temperature rise -- the threshold beyond which scientists suspect climate change becomes truly dangerous.

According to the report, much of the problem is that the rate of global investments in renewables, while large, will likely plateau at an average of $230 billion annually through 2020. That's down from a recent peak of $280 billion in 2011.

The IEA chalked up much of that coming slowdown to the uncertainty investors face when it comes to different countries' renewable policies, as the various rules and subsidies affect when and how much they invest.  "Unanticipated changes to incentive schemes represent a risk that investors cannot manage, and can lead to elevated financing costs and boom-and-bust development patterns," the report said.

Examples include a lack of spending by China on its electricity networks, the haziness of E.U. renewable plans beyond 2020, and the fate of a planned pan-European grid.  Here in the United States, another example is the habit the legislature has fallen into of neglecting subsidies like the production tax credit for wind power, then renewing it at the last minute, leading to a jagged cycle of spikes and collapses in investment.

"Renewables are a necessary part of energy security.  However, just when they are becoming a cost-competitive option in an increasing number of cases, policy and regulatory uncertainty is rising in some key markets," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.  "Many renewables no longer need high incentive levels.  Rather, given their capital-intensive nature, renewables require a market context that assures a reasonable and predictable return for investors.  This calls for a serious reflection on market design needed to achieve a more sustainable world energy mix."

Renewable Energy Capacity Grew at Fastest Pace Ever in 2013

California to Invest in Low-Carbon Truck and Bus Technologies

A.B. 2398 would raise fines for drivers who injure "vulnerable road users" in California - primarily, bicyclists and pedestrians. (Credit: Richard Masoner/Flickr) Click to enlarge.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) applauds the California Legislature for its passage of a bill that will help to reduce carbon pollution by encouraging more widespread adoption of advanced technologies for heavy-duty vehicles.

California Senate Bill 1204 authorizes the use of proceeds from California's cap-and-trade carbon allowance auctions to invest in low-carbon truck and bus technologies and programs.  It creates the California Clean Truck and Bus Program, which will support the development and deployment of hybrid and electric trucks and buses.

Heavy-duty trucks are responsible for one-fifth of the global warming pollution from the transportations sector in California.  While efforts have been made to remove older, polluting trucks from the road, this program invests in the cleanest new technologies to curtail emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.

Below is a statement by Don Anair, Research and Deputy Director of the UCS Clean Vehicles Program:
"This legislation will have particular benefits in low-income communities along major freeway and freight corridors that suffer most from breathing diesel exhaust. The San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, which have some of the most extreme air pollution in the nation, will gain a great deal from this incentive program.

"In addition to tackling global warming pollution, this program will help to cut smog-forming emissions while lowering operating costs for truckers and reducing our overall fuel consumption.

"California should be proud of taking another step on the road to meeting our air quality and climate goals."

California to Invest in Low-Carbon Truck and Bus Technologies

Geothermal Power Approaches 12,000 Megawatts Worldwide

Geothermal Share of Electricity Generation in Top 10 Countries (Credit: Click to enlarge.
In 2013 world geothermal electricity-generating capacity grew 3 percent to top 11,700 megawatts across 24 countries.  Although some other renewable energy technologies are seeing much faster growth--wind power has expanded 21 percent per year since 2008, for example, while solar power has grown at a blistering 53 percent annual rate--this was geothermal's best year since the 2007-08 financial crisis.

Geothermal power's relatively slower growth is not due to a paucity of energy to tap.  On the contrary, the upper six miles of the earth's crust holds 50,000 times the energy embodied in the world's oil and gas reserves.  But unlike the relative ease of measuring wind speed and solar radiation, test-drilling to assess deep heat resources prior to building a geothermal power plant is uncertain and costly.  The developer may spend 15 percent of the project's capital cost during test-drilling, with no guarantee of finding a viable site.

Once built, however, a geothermal power plant can generate electricity 24 hours a day with low operation and maintenance costs--importantly because there is zero fuel cost.  Over the life of the generator, geothermal plants are often cost-competitive with all other power sources, including fossil fuel and nuclear plants.  This is true even without considering the many indirect costs of fossil- and nuclear-generated electricity that are not reflected in customers' monthly bills.

The top three countries in installed geothermal power capacity--the United States, the Philippines, and Indonesia--account for more than half the world total.  California hosts nearly 80 percent of the 3,440 megawatts of U.S. geothermal capacity; another 16 percent is found in Nevada.

Indonesia has the most ambitious geothermal capacity target. It is looking to develop 10,000 megawatts by 2025.  Having only gained 150 megawatts in the last four years, this will be a steep climb.  But a new law passed by the government in late August 2014 should help move industry activity in that direction: it increases the per-kilowatt-hour purchase price guaranteed to geothermal producers and ends geothermal power's classification as mining activity.  (Much of Indonesia's untapped geothermal resource lies in forested areas where mining is illegal.) Even before the new law took effect, geothermal company Ormat began construction on the world's largest single geothermal power plant, a 330-megawatt project in North Sumatra, in June 2014.  The plant should generate its first electricity in 2018.

Indonesia is just one of about 40 countries that could get all their electricity from indigenous geothermal power--a list that includes Ecuador, Ethiopia, Iceland, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, and Tanzania.  Nearly all of them are developing countries, where the high up-front costs of geothermal development are often prohibitive.

To help address this mismatch of geothermal resources and funds, the World Bank launched its Global Geothermal Development Plan in March 2013.  By December, donors had come up with $115 million of the initial $500 million target to identify and fund test-drilling for promising geothermal projects in the developing world.  The Bank hopes that the experience gained from these projects will lead to lower costs for the geothermal industry overall.  This would be good news on many fronts--simultaneously reducing energy poverty, air pollution, carbon emissions, and costly fossil fuel imports.

Geothermal Power Approaches 12,000 Megawatts Worldwide

Louisiana Is Drowning, Quickly

House surrounded by water (Credit: Edmund D. Fountain, ProPublica/The Lens) Click to enlarge.
In just 80 years, some 2,000 square miles of its coastal landscape have turned to open water, wiping places off maps, bringing the Gulf of Mexico to the back door of New Orleans and posing a lethal threat to an energy and shipping corridor vital to the nation's economy.

And it's going to get worse, even quicker.

Scientists now say one of the greatest environmental and economic disasters in the nation's history is rushing toward a catastrophic conclusion over the next 50 years, so far unabated and largely unnoticed.

At the current rates that the sea is rising and land is sinking, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say by 2100 the Gulf of Mexico could rise as much as 4.3 feet across this landscape, which has an average elevation of about three feet.  If that happens, everything outside the protective levees -- most of Southeast Louisiana -- would be underwater.

The effects would be felt far beyond bayou country.  The region best known for its self-proclaimed motto "laissez les bons temps rouler" -- let the good times roll -- is one of the nation's economic linchpins.

This land being swallowed by the Gulf is home to half of the country's oil refineries, a matrix of pipelines that serve 90 percent of the nation's offshore energy production and 30 percent of its total oil and gas supply, a port vital to 31 states, and 2 million people who would need to find other places to live.

The landscape on which all that is built is washing away at a rate of a football field every hour, 16 square miles per year.

For years, most residents didn't notice because they live inside the levees and seldom travel into the wetlands.  But even those who work or play in the marshes were misled for decades by the gradual changes in the landscape.  A point of land eroding here, a bayou widening there, a spoil levee sinking a foot over 10 years.  In an ecosystem covering thousands of square miles, those losses seemed insignificant.  There always seemed to be so much left.

Now locals are trying to deal with the shock of losing places they had known all their lives -- fishing camps, cypress swamps, beachfronts, even cattle pastures and backyards -- with more disappearing every day.

Louisiana Is Drowning, Quickly

Russia's Warming Faster than the Rest of the Planet--and Seeing Disease, Drought, and Forest Fires as a Result

Smog from forest fires is engulfing Russia more and more often. (Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin) Click to enlarge.
When Vladimir Putin declined to support the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to limit carbon emissions, he famously quipped that higher temperatures might actually benefit Russia since its people would have to spend less on fur coats.

Well, he's getting his wish. Changes in wind and ocean currents caused by global warming shift heat around unevenly, causing some areas to heat up dramatically even as other regions cool.  Russia, it turns out, is in the unusually hot category.  Between 1976 and 2012, average Russian temperatures rose 0.43 degrees C (0.8 degrees F) a decade--more than twice the global average of 0.17 degrees C--according to a new report out by Russia's climate and environment agency.

This is a big problem for a variety of reasons, say Russia's climate scientists.  Hotter temperatures appear to be driving a spike in episodes of dangerous extreme weather:

The frequency of forest fires (Russian) in the Siberian taiga, Evenki, and Khabarovsk regions and in the far northeast have surged between 30% and 50% in the past two to three decades.

Those extreme-weather episodes are taking their toll on Russians' health.  The report notes that the forest fires that often accompany summer heat waves give off noxious fumes.  In 2010, this smog caused Moscow mortality rates to double.

Balmier climes are also making Russia more hospitable for certain diseases.  The report notes that by 2010, the breeding ground for harmful insects was twice what it was in 1973.  This trend, says the report, is linked with a flare-up of West Nile virus in the last 15 years, as well as an expanded range of Crimean hemorrhagic fever and tick-borne encephalitis.

One of the arguments that Putin and others have advanced in favor of global warming is that it will make more of Russia's land arable.  The report notes that is happening, as agriculture shifts to central and northern parts of the country.  However, it's something of a wash given that drought is also hurting output in Russia's breadbasket region.  Others note that the melting of permafrost could galvanize Russia's mining and oil industries by making nickel, copper, diamonds, oil and natural gas more accessible.

Russia's Warming Faster than the Rest of the Planet--and Seeing Disease, Drought, and Forest Fires as a Result

   Friday, August 29

Friday, August 29, 2014

New California Law Puts State on Road to a Million Zero-Emission Vehicles

California Charge Ahead Logo (Credit: Click to enlarge.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) commends the California Legislature for approving the Charge Ahead Initiative, which aims to bring one million electric cars, trucks and buses to California by 2023.

The bill will help clean our air, improve public health and save consumers money by extending the benefits of clean transportation, particularly to low-income communities disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

Exhaust from millions of gasoline and diesel-powered cars, buses, and trucks pollute our air and cost California billions in avoidable health costs.  Four in 10 Californians live close enough to a freeway or busy road that they are at increased risk of asthma and other health hazards.

California’s policy leadership has helped to make the state the nation’s largest market for electric vehicles, accounting for more than one-third of all U.S. electric vehicle sales.  The bill approved today is designed to expand that market by encouraging car-sharing programs, providing purchase rebates, and installing charging infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles more readily available.

Below is a statement by David Reichmuth, Senior Engineer in the UCS Clean Vehicles Program:
“The Charge Ahead California Initiative will spread the economic and health benefits of electric transportation to more Californians, including those in the state’s most polluted and disadvantaged communities.

“Cars, buses, and trucks powered by petroleum products pollute our air and are also the single largest source of global warming pollution in California.  By accelerating the deployment of zero emission vehicles, this initiative will enable the state to achieve California’s healthy air standards and carbon reduction targets.

“The legislation will also boost California’s economy because the use of electricity as a transportation fuel will help keep money in the state, stimulating the economy and insulating family budgets from gas price spikes, which hit lower income households especially hard.

“By embracing clean transportation initiatives, California continues to lead the nation down the road to a future of reduced fossil fuel consumption and more choices for consumers.”
New California Law Puts State on Road to a Million Zero-Emission Vehicles

Chile Is Poised to Pass South America’s First Carbon Tax

Chile’s Atacama Desert. (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
It’s a big year for fighting climate change in Chile.  A carbon tax is set to go before its House of Representatives next week, as part of a larger tax reform package that includes measures intended to fight air pollution and climate change.  Chile would become the first country in South America to institute a carbon tax, and the second in Latin America after Mexico, which imposed its carbon tax in January.

A carbon tax is what it sounds like.  The government charges emitters of carbon pollution for every metric ton they release into the atmosphere.  Carbon taxes are gaining popularity as a way to massively cut the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere, while creating jobs, raising incomes, and cutting deficits in countries where they’re implemented.  British Columbia, Canada, has had a carbon tax since 2008 and has seen success cutting energy use and carbon emissions, and giving revenue from the tax back to low-income families to offset higher energy prices.

Chile’s initial tax will be $5 per ton of CO2, and Mexico’s taxes fuels at different rates, averaging out to about $3.50 per ton.  Those are both pretty low, but once a carbon tax is in place, it can be raised.  British Columbia’s started at C$10 per ton in 2008, ramping up over the years to C$30 in 2012.  A study in California found that even a $200-a-ton carbon price would actually help businesses and create jobs in the state, though it’s far higher than anything that has been tried yet.

There is currently no carbon tax in the United States, and any attempt to pass one would be extremely difficult, thanks in part to a pledge from the Koch-backed organization Americans For Prosperity that requires signers to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.  ”A third of the U.S. House of Representatives and a quarter of Senators have signed the pledge.

Chile Is Poised to Pass South America’s First Carbon Tax

Britain Announces Plans for the Next Generation of Emissions-Free Public Transit

One of London’s double-decker, hybrid fuel technology buses. {Credit: AP / Matt Dunham) Click to enlarge.
Trains and buses of the low and even emissions-free variety are on the rise in Britain, evidenced by two new projects underway in the country.

On Thursday, BusinessGreen reported that the city of London is launching a trial project for specially-designed hybrid buses that can wirelessly recharge their batteries while sitting at bus stops.  And earlier in August, the outlet also passed along word that Network Rail, the owner and operator for most of Great Britain’s railway infrastructure, is testing out a new model of battery-powered train.

Transport for London (TfL) is overseeing the first project, which will start running four buses along the city’s route 69 between the Canning Town and Walthamstow bus stations — both of which will be outfitted with inductive wireless charging technology.  As hybrids, the buses also have a diesel engine they can fall back on whenever their battery gets depleted, so the idea behind the wireless re-charging is to cut down on fossil fuel emissions by allowing the buses to run in pure electric mode as long and as often as possible.

The project is being partially funded by the Zero Emissions Urban Bus System (ZeEUS), a network of eight demonstration projects across six European countries that aims to create better-coordinated, energy-efficient, and all-electric urban bus networks.

TfL didn’t disclose how much they expect the trial to reduce carbon emissions, air pollution, and fuel costs, but they did say they anticipate the buses would make use of their diesel engines “only be a small amount of the time.”

“This trial of extended-range diesel-electric hybrid buses … could be a step closer to getting even cleaner double-deck buses on London’s streets,” Mike Weston, TfL’s director of buses, said in a statement.  “We will be closely monitoring the results of the trials, which may help us adopt this new cleaner technology more widely in London.”

Meanwhile, Network Rail’s battery-powered train tests are being carried out with the help of the Independently-Powered Electric Multiple Unit (IPEMU) project, a joint effort between Network Rail, Bombardier, the Department for Transport, and several other operators.  The idea here is to create purely electric trains that can run on railways with electrified infrastructure, and railways that don’t.

Diesel-electric trains are already becoming commonplace in Britain, but so far the “electric” part has required that electrified infrastructure along their track in order to run.  The battery-powered trains, on the other hand, could draw power in the standard fashion while running on the electrified sections of the rail system, then rely on the battery when traveling on the non-electrified portion.

The end result is a train that both relies less on fossil fuels, and that costs less to run, as it requires less electrification infrastructure.  “Over the next five years, Network Rail has a target to reduce the cost of running Britain’s railway by a further 20 per cent,” James Ambrose, Network Rail’s senior engineer leading on the IPEMU project, told the Network Rail Media Centre.  “At the same time, we are always looking for ways to make the railway greener too. This project has the potential to contribute significantly towards both those goals.”

Britain Announces Plans for the Next Generation of Emissions-Free Public Transit

5 Terrifying Facts from the Leaked UN Climate Report - Mother Jones

A massive "ice island" breaks free from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2012. (Credit: Rex Features/AP) Click to enlarge.
This week, a big report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked before publication, and it confirmed, yet again, the grim--dire, frightful--reality the we face if we don't slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.

This "Synthesis Report," to be released in November following a UN conference in Copenhagen, is still subject to revision.  It is intended to summarize three previous UN climate publications and to "provide an integrated view" to the world's governments of the risks they face from runaway carbon pollution, along with possible policy solutions.

As expected, the document contains a lot of what had already been reported after the three underpinning reports were released at global summits over the past year.  It's a long list of problems: sea level rise resulting in coastal flooding, crippling heat waves and multidecade droughts, torrential downpours, widespread food shortages, species extinction, pest outbreaks, economic damage, and exacerbated civil conflicts and poverty.

But in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of "irreversible" ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.

Here are five particularly grim--depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant--takeaways from the report.
  1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.
  2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) is going to be very hard.
  3. We'll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.
  4. Dangerous sea level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world's coastlines by the end of the century.
  5. Even if we act now, there's a real risk of "abrupt and irreversible" changes.
5 Terrifying Facts from the Leaked UN Climate Report - Mother Jones

Accounting for the Expanding Carbon Shadow from Coal-Burning Plants

A coal-fired power plant at night on the outskirts of Datong, Shanxi Province. (Credit: Jason Lee/Reuters) Click to enlarge.
Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine, and Robert Socolow of Princeton (best known for his work dividing the climate challenge into carbon "wedges") have written Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions, a valuable new paper in Environmental Research Letters showing the value of shifting from tracking annual emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants to weighing the full amount of carbon dioxide that such plants, burning coal or gas, could emit during their time in service.

This makes sense because of the long lifetime of these plants once built -- typically 40 years or so -- and the long lifetime of carbon dioxide once released.  (I'd love to see some data visualization experiments on this idea from Adam Nieman, building on his work showing the volume of daily CO2 emissions from cities and the like.)

Accounting for the Expanding Carbon Shadow from Coal-Burning Plants

US State Department Underestimates Carbon Pollution from Keystone XL - by John Abraham

The Syncrude tar sands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, November 3, 2011. Syncrude is one of the largest oil sands producers in Alberta.  (Credit: Todd Korol/Reuters) Click to enlarge.
This is like the movie Groundhog Day. I seem forever forced to correct the State Department's errant analysis of Alberta tar sands emissions.  Now, however, other people are agreeing with me.  A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change reviewed the State Department's accounting and found it deeply flawed.

The authors, Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Institute included the impacts of Keystone on the global oil markets. This inclusion tripled the climate change impact of the Keystone pipeline compared to the State Department's analysis.  Let's get into the study to see the reason for the change and also to understand why even this new analysis is flawed.

First, the State Department assesses the impact of tar sands by assuming it will merely displace, barrel for barrel, some other oil extracted somewhere else on the planet.  Therefore, the State Department analysis only counts the incremental emissions for tar sands.  Tar sands are approximately 17% worse in terms of emissions than other fuels (it depends on which fuel is the reference); the State Department only counts these extra emissions.

What the new study does is ask, how will the Keystone pipeline increase oil extraction globally?  For instance, if oil prices decrease because of Keystone, then more oil will be extracted (up to 0.6 barrels more per barrel of tar sands).  They reason, correctly, that an honest account must include the increased extraction.

In fact, this new accounting shows that the actual emissions are up to four times those proposed by the government analysis.  To put some real numbers in, the authors report that Keystone would lead to up to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

The paper received a lot of well-deserved attention in the media both online at Think Progress and at Climate Central, by first-rate writer Seth Borenstein, and others.  Of course, there was the quick (and ironic) complaint from Andrew Leach who is the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta.  The first irony is that Enbridge is a Canadian company that deals with tar sands and is fighting to expand its own pipelines.  The second irony is that Andrew Leach argues we should consider the economic benefits of increased oil consumption at lower prices but is silent in his critique about the economic consequences of climate change.

But it is clear that even this new analysis is too low.  Why do economists take an incremental approach to emissions?  The true way to count the amount of carbon that the Keystone pipeline is responsible for is to count the amount of carbon that would flow through the pipeline when it is built.

US State Department Underestimates Carbon Pollution from Keystone XL - by John Abraham

Could Climate Change Cause Deadly Epidemics?

Aedes aegypti, the primary mosquito that spreads dengue fever, is shown biting a human victim. (Credit: USDA) Click to enlarge.
If people aren’t as concerned about climate change as they should be, one reason may be that the gradual rise of temperatures and ocean waters seems to give us plenty of time to take mitigating measures, such as seawalls to protect coastal cities and genetically-engineered crops that would be able to flourish in the altered environment.  It’s harder to understand that climate change may endanger us in other ways that will be more difficult to combat.  For example, it may cause a slew of deadly diseases, which are now seen mostly in poorer regions in the tropics, to spread to developed nations in temperate zones.

The latest concern:  a newly-published study in BMC Public Health looked at dengue fever, a virus spread by mosquitoes that sickens 50 million people and kills about 12,000 people worldwide each year, mostly in tropical areas.

The researchers found that dengue eventually could become a significant health problem in parts of Europe, including Mediterranean and Adriatic coastal areas that are popular with tourists. Europe is becoming hotter and more humid, conditions that foster the growth of the mosquitoes.

That comes after a 2013 study warned that people in the United States are also at risk from dengue due to climate change.  Traditionally, America has only had a few hundred reported cases of dengue each year, usually involving international travelers.  But the Natural Resources Defense Council says that the mosquito that transmits dengue now is found in 28 states.

Another 2014 study found that climate change may be increasing the spread of Lyme disease.

Could Climate Change Cause Deadly Epidemics?

   Thursday, August 28

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Germany's Grid:  Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid reliability: Minutes of power outages per year. (Credit: Click to enlarge.
Last Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing.  The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014.  In fact, Germany's grid is one of the world's most reliable.

According to the Bundesnetzagentur, unplanned outages left the average German consumer without electricity for 15.32 minutes in 2013, down from 15.91 minutes in 2012 and 21.53 minutes in 2006.  The performance, using the power industry's System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), affirms Germany's place in the top five for grid reliability for European countries.

German grid reliability, meanwhile, far outstrips the best SAIDI results delivered by U.S. and Canadian utilities.  The top quartile of SAIDI results captured by last year's North American reliability benchmarking exercise by the IEEE Power & Energy Society, for example, had consumers without power for an average of 93 minutes — six times longer than outages experienced by the average German consumer.

What makes Germany's grid reliability notable is the repeated insistence by critics of renewable energy that blackout risk is rising under the German Energiewende or 'energy transition'.  As Craig Morris, lead author of the Berlin-based German Energy Transition, writes this week:  "The news may come as a surprise to international critics of the Energiewende."

Germany's Grid:  Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

A Climate for Change:  A Solution Conservatives Could Accept - Washington Post Editorial

Rep. McDermott’s Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014 compared to June 2014 EPA “Clean Power” proposal (Credit: Click to enlarge.
A prominent member of Congress has proposed a comprehensive national climate-change plan.  It’s only 28 pages long, it’s market-based, and it would put money into the pockets of most Americans.

This is not the first time that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a House Democratic leader, has made the point that the best climate-change policy is not complicated.  He introduced a similar plan in 2009. The underlying logic is older still:  Since the beginning of the climate debate, mainstream economists, left and right, have argued that the best way to cut greenhouse gases is to use simple market economics, putting a price on emissions that reflects the environmental damage they cause.

As economists see it, the nation is giving a massive implicit subsidy to the users of fossil fuels, who fill the air with carbon dioxide, imposing real costs on society, without paying for the privilege.  Make users pay for the carbon dioxide they emit and they will waste less energy, while investment will flow into low-carbon technologies.  The nation would obtain emissions cuts at a minimum cost to the economy.

This is Economics 101, but Republicans have largely ceded the free-market arena to Democrats such as Mr. Van Hollen.  His proposal would put a limit on the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a cap that would decline each year.  Beneath that cap, companies would have to buy permits for the emissions their fuels produce.  The buying and selling of permits would set a market price for carbon dioxide.  The government would rebate all of the revenue from selling permits back to anyone with a Social Security number, more than offsetting any rise in consumer prices for 80 percent of Americans.  Most upper-income people, who use more energy, and government, which would get no rebate, would pay more under the plan.

Behind the plan’s elegance are some inevitable complications.  Mr. Van Hollen would slap a border charge on goods that come from countries that lack comparable anti-emissions policies. That will be hard to pull off efficiently.  Officials will have to calculate the carbon footprint of various goods from various points of origin, and other countries will accuse the United States of protectionism.  Yet any carbon pricing plan will have to include some trade adjustment. Otherwise U.S. industry will be disadvantaged.

Mr. Van Hollen’s plan also faces political challenges.  Lawmakers will be tempted to give away pollution permits to interests they favor, shattering the equity and efficiency of the policy.  This is among the reasons we have preferred enacting a carbon tax.  It would be less vulnerable to political gaming, and its revenue also could be rebated back to consumers or recycled back through cuts in other taxes.  But both approaches have strengths.

A Climate for Change:  A Solution Conservatives Could Accept - Washington Post Editorial

WHO:  Climate Change Brings New Health Threats

A villager carrying a child crosses a flooded area in the Jorhat district, in the Indian state of Assam, August 25, 2014, where the latest heavy rains have caused landslides and floods. (Credit: Reuters) Click to enlarge.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday that major killer diseases will spread and health problems will worsen with climate change.  

The WHO, which is holding the first global conference on health and climate in Geneva, urged nations to act quickly to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, which lead to climate change.  

Although some countries could see localized benefits from global warming -- cold countries could experience fewer winter deaths due to more temperate weather as well as increased food production -- the WHO says overall health effects are likely to be overwhelmingly negative.  

Maria Neira, director of the Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Department at WHO, says seven million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution, but that number can be cut.  

“We can reduce dramatically non-communicable diseases, cardiovascular diseases, heart disease, respiratory diseases, by promoting, for instance a more sustainable, low-carbon society where instead of using very pollutant and solid fuels," Neira said, "we will move into a more sustainable energy consumption and, therefore, by doing so, we will obtain plenty of benefits for our health.”  

The health community is working to improve surveillance to control infectious diseases and she says deadly diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue are highly sensitive to weather and climate.

Recent WHO figures show that climate change already causes tens of thousands of deaths every year from shifting patterns of disease and extreme weather events, such as heat waves and floods.

WHO:  Climate Change Brings New Health Threats

Climate Change May Disrupt Global Food System Within a Decade, World Bank Says

Tough conditions likely to get tougher for many.  (Credit: Getty Images) Click to enlarge.
The world is headed "down a dangerous path" with disruption of the food system possible within a decade as climate change undermines nations' ability to feed themselves, according to a senior World Bank official.

Rising urban populations are contributing to expanded demand for meat, adding to nutrition shortages for the world's poor.  Increased greenhouse gas emissions from livestock as well as land clearing will make farming more marginal in many regions, especially in developing nations, said Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group Vice President and special envoy for climate change.

"The challenges from waste to warming, spurred on by a growing population with a rising middle-class hunger for meat, are leading us down a dangerous path," Professor Kyte told the Crawford Fund 2014 annual conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

Agriculture and land-use change account for about 30 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.  Feed quality can be so low in arid parts of Africa, where livestock typically graze on marginal land and crop residues, that every kilo of protein produced can contribute the equivalent of one tonne of carbon dioxide - or 100 times more than in developed nations, Professor Kyte said.

"Unless we chart a new course, we will find ourselves staring volatility and disruption in the food system in the face, not in 2050, not in 2040, but potentially within the next decade," she said, according to her prepared speech.

Professor Kyte said the focus has to turn to so-called "climate-smart agriculture", which contributes to increased productivity of crops, less wastage, and a smaller climate change impact.

Climate Change May Disrupt Global Food System Within a Decade, World Bank Says

Indonesia Steps Up Audits of Companies Operating in Rain Forests

A worker walks through a palm oil plantation in Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia.  (Credit: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg) Click to enlarge.
Indonesia’s latest tactic for slowing the world’s fastest rate of deforestation is to crack down on licensing of companies with concessions for agriculture on peat lands and rain forests.

The agency for Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation is auditing 18 companies to check for proper licensing, Heru Prasetyo, head of the REDD+ office in Jakarta, said in an interview.  The country’s laws and the way they are enforced need to be changed, said Prasetyo.

“After we review the licenses, we register them and we start doing the dirty things like revoking the licenses,” Prasetyo said on Aug. 18.  “Three companies are being prosecuted,” he said, declining to identify them.

A lack of central government oversight and corruption in licensing, traditionally done at the local level, contributed to illegal burning of Indonesia’s peat lands and forests.  The environment ministry is separately investigating 29 cases this year against 26 companies accused of using fires to clear land in Riau, a national center for palm oil, pulp and paper production, it said Aug. 6.  Only seven criminal cases involving forest fires were filed in 2013.

The audits come after Singapore passed a bill last month on trans-boundary haze to fine companies proven to engage, authorize or condone acts that contribute to haze. The city-state endured its worst-ever air quality last year.

Joko Widodo, who takes over as president of Indonesia in October after winning 53 percent of the vote in July elections, has said the lack of a single national forestry map results in overlapping permits.  There may be about 1,000 mid-sized palm oil companies below the radar of international organizations, while nearly a third of local regents are being tried for alleged graft, Prasetyo said.

“The track record of Indonesia in terms of law enforcement is not good,” Prasetyo said.  “The condition of our forests is not pretty.”

Indonesia lost more than 6 million hectares of its primary forest, an area the size of England, from 2000 to 2012.  The deforestation rate surpasses that of Brazil, scientists including Belinda Arunarwati Margono and Fred Stolle wrote in Nature Climate Change on June 29.

Indonesian companies can be put on trial if they fail to participate with mandatory environmental assessments or used bribery to win licenses, said Prasetyo.

Indonesia, estimated to be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S. because of deforestation, has imposed a moratorium on new permits to develop peat lands and primary forests.

Indonesia Steps Up Audits of Companies Operating in Rain Forests

   Wednesday, August 27

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty

A coal-fired power plant in Kentucky. Coal-heavy states could be economic losers in any climate-change protocol that targets such plants, which are among the largest greenhouse gas emitters. (Credit: Luke Sharrett / The New York Times) Click to enlarge.
The Obama administration is working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions, but without ratification from Congress.

In preparation for this agreement, to be signed at a United Nations summit meeting in 2015 in Paris, the negotiators are meeting with diplomats from other countries to broker a deal to commit some of the world’s largest economies to enact laws to reduce their carbon pollution.  But under the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

To sidestep that requirement, President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions.  The deal is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path.

“If you want a deal that includes all the major emitters, including the U.S., you cannot realistically pursue a legally binding treaty at this time,” said Paul Bledsoe, a top climate change official in the Clinton administration who works closely with the Obama White House on international climate change policy.

Lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill say there is no chance that the currently gridlocked Senate will ratify a climate change treaty in the near future, especially in a political environment where many Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of the established science of human-caused global warming.

“There’s a strong understanding of the difficulties of the U.S. situation, and a willingness to work with the U.S. to get out of this impasse,” said Laurence Tubiana, the French ambassador for climate change to the United Nations.  “There is an implicit understanding that this not require ratification by the Senate.”

American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges.  The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.

Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change.  Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts.

“There’s some legal and political magic to this,” said Jake Schmidt, an expert in global climate negotiations with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.  “They’re trying to move this as far as possible without having to reach the 67-vote threshold” in the Senate.

The strategy comes as scientists warn that the earth is already experiencing the first signs of human-caused global warming — more severe drought and stronger wildfires, rising sea levels and more devastating storms — and the United Nations heads toward what many say is the body’s last chance to avert more catastrophic results in the coming century.

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month, delegates will gather at a sideline meeting on climate change to try to make progress toward the deal next year in Paris.  A December meeting is planned in Lima, Peru, to draft the agreement.

Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty