Saturday, February 28, 2015

Solar Takes Off in Eastern U.S.

SNL Energy's map showing utility-scale solar farms currently in development across the U.S. (Credit: SNL Energy) Click to Enlarge.
Though the Southeast is a tad bit less sunny than Southern California, the bullseye of solar power development in the U.S., utilities in the South are scrambling to capture their own rays of sunshine.  In fact, North Carolina is leaping ahead of California for the amount of new utility-scale solar farms currently under development, a new SNL Energy report released Wednesday shows.

The trend is occurring as the solar industry in the U.S. is coming off one of its best years ever.  The number of solar installations connected to the electric power grid jumped about 140 percent between 2013 and 2014 nationwide, SNL Energy data show.  More than 3.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity were installed across the U.S. in 2014, which closed out with more than 10 GW of utility-scale solar farms in operation, enough to power more than 2 million homes.

“The adoption of solar is spreading quickly nationwide — and nowhere is that more evident than in states like Texas, as well as Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Georgia,” Ken Johnson, vice-president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said.

Solar development is spreading throughout the Southeast as costs of solar photovoltaic technology falls and utilities rush to take advantage of federal subsidies for solar, which could expire at the end of 2016 if Congress fails to renew them.

The biggest flurry of solar development is in North Carolina, which is coming for California’s solar crown.  While about 3.8 GW of utility-scale solar power production capacity is under development in California, North Carolina has nearly 4 GW of solar under development, SNL Energy Associate Director Steve Piper said.

One reason North Carolina is leading in solar is the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard, which requires major utilities to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021, with each individual utility being required to generate a specific amount of that power from solar, a provision known as a solar set-aside, he said.

Piper said that as Congress debates the fate of solar subsidies, known as the solar investment tax credit, growth in utility-scale solar is going to explode over the next two years before possibly leveling out if subsidies are cut.

A map of solar power production potential across the U.S., showing that the Southeast, from Texas to Virginia, receives roughly the same amount of solar radiation. (Credit: NREL) Click to Enlarge.
The trend is occurring all over the eastern and central U.S., including one of the largest solar projects outside of the desert Southwest, a solar development in South Texas designed to help the city of San Antonio meet its goal of getting 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Read more at Solar Takes Off in Eastern U.S.

Looming Warming Spurt Could Reshape Climate Debate

Extreme heat can exacerbate drought. (Credit: Kecko/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Humanity is about to experience a historically unprecedented spike in temperatures.

That’s the ominous conclusion of a vast and growing body of research that links sweeping Pacific Ocean cycles with rates of warming at the planet’s surface — warming rates that could affect how communities and nations respond to threats posed by climate change.

Papers in two leading journals this week reaffirmed that the warming effects of a substantial chunk of our greenhouse gas pollution have been avoided on land for the last 15 to 20 years because of a phase in a decades-long cycle of ocean winds and currents.  With Pacific trade winds expected to slacken in the years ahead, the studies warn that seas will begin absorbing less of global warming’s energy, and that some of the heat they’ve been holding onto will rise to the surface.

“Their results make sense to me, and are consistent with other evidence,” National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Kevin Trenberth, who has published research dealing with the relationship between Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) phases and surface warming, but who was not involved with either of the new studies, said.  “The PDO clearly plays a key role — and very high PDO values in recent months appear to signal a change.”

The growing body of research helps explain why ocean temperatures have been rising faster than anticipated, and, perhaps more compellingly, why land temperatures rose less than models had projected after the turn of the century — a mystery, sometimes dubbed the warming “hiatus,” “pause” or “faux pause,” that confounded science until just the last couple of years.
Along with rising tides caused by rising temperatures, intense heat and heat waves are the clearest signs so far that human activity is altering the climate.  A suite of modeling studies have independently concluded that heat waves that ravaged Australia in 2013 would have been almost impossible without the warming effects of our greenhouse gas pollution. Scientists have also directly linked record-breaking heat in Europe with global warming.

Meanwhile, California’s record-breaking heat last year, which some research links more closely with ocean cycles than with global warming, substantially worsened the drought-inducing effects of low rainfall and snowfall rates.  That’s a problem that will continue to worsen fire risks throughout the American West, and much of the rest of the world, as temperatures start to really spike.  That could threaten the survival of entire ecosystems, including the spectacular high-altitude forests of the American Southwest.

Read more at Looming Warming Spurt Could Reshape Climate Debate

Wyoming Legislature Votes to Allow Science-Based Climate Education in State Schools

Teacher recognizes student (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
Science standards that treat climate change as fact are no longer banned in Wyoming, now that a bill reversing the state’s ban has been passed by the House and Senate.

Last March, Wyoming became the first state to reject the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were developed by 26 states and multiple science and education organizations and serve as guidelines for teaching science — including climate change and evolution — from state to state.  The ban came in the form of a footnote in Wyoming’s budget, which stated that “neither the state board of education nor the department shall expend any amount appropriated under this section for any review or adoption of the next generation science standards.”

Now, pending Gov. Matt Mead’s signature, Wyoming’s Board of Education is free to adopt NGSS if it so decides.  House Bill 23, introduced late last year by Wyoming Rep. John Patton (R), has cleared the House and Senate, despite some conflict over its wording.  As originally introduced, the bill repealed the footnote about NGSS from the state’s budget entirely, but the version passed by the state’s Senate included an amendment stating that “the state board of education may consider, discuss or modify the next generation science standards, in addition to any other standards, content or benchmarks as it may determine necessary, to develop quality science standards that are unique to Wyoming.”

That amendment was concerning to NGSS supporters, who worried that the amendment would make it possible for Wyoming to remove or alter key parts of the standards.  West Virginia’s Board of Education did just that last year — passing the NGSS but with key changes to sections that addressed climate change — before, facing public outcry, it backtracked and agreed to change the standards back to their original version and re-issue them for public comment.
Thankfully for NGSS advocates, the House and Senate reached a compromise on the bill, removing the offending amendment but adding a different stipulation, which stated:  “the state board of education shall independently examine and scrutinize any science standards proposed or reviewed as a template in order to ensure that final standards adopted for Wyoming schools promote excellence.”

Read more at Wyoming Legislature Votes to Allow Science-Based Climate Education in State Schools

Facing the Truth About Climate Change - by Jeffrey Ball in New Republic

Percentage of Global CO2 Emissions (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Something has to change.  Partisan fighting on either side of the aisle won’t do it.  Neither will international climate agreements, which have been easily gamed.  A technological breakthrough—a clean-energy silver bullet that would allow the world to decouple economic growth from carbon dioxide—might.  But betting on a grand laboratory innovation requires hope for the best; better to hedge against the worst.  The means to meaningful change on global warming is within the world’s grasp.  It requires smarter climate policy:  more targeted and more economically efficient.  It requires, in short, getting more realistic.
Another approach is needed.  Instead of cap-and-trade, the United States should impose a carbon tax.  The tax could be structured so that it is revenue-neutral—a phrase much beloved by politicians—and returns the carbon proceeds to the American people by cutting other taxes, such as those on income, which fiscal conservatives contend are a bigger drag on the economy.  For years economists have called for a carbon tax, and for years politicians have dismissed the idea as a nonstarter.  But a pivotal moment is approaching in Washington, one in which overarching tax reform actually might take place.  Such a moment could provide political cover for this tax, because it would be part of a larger political bargain.  Demo­cratic environmentalists would get a stick with which to cajole (or worse) emitters to cut carbon; Republican fiscal conservatives would get the carrot of rolling back income taxes and other levies that they believe stymie growth.

A world in which the mean global temperature stayed within the two-degree threshold would be different in almost every respect from the one that presently exists.  It would require eating, traveling, trading, and manufacturing in palpably new (but hopefully not archaic) ways.  Humanity has solved a multitude of localized environmental problems: dirty water, dirty air, dirty soil.  It even has addressed some global ones, most notably the ozone hole.  But it never has solved an environmental problem as complicated as climate change.

The measures proposed thus far by the United States, China, and other countries in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference will not prevent the planet from breaking through the two-degree threshold.  They do suggest, however, that competing global players can fashion climate strategies if they see them as serving, rather than eroding, their own economic interests.  The test now will be whether that shift toward geopolitical realism can usher in environmentally meaningful action.

It is exactly what the fight against global warming needs.  In the United States, too many conservatives have ignored environmental reality, discounting the mounting science; and too many liberals have ignored economic reality, larding on inefficient support.  Both approaches are irresponsible and must be discarded.

Unless an astounding number of scientists across a multitude of disciplines are stupendously wrong, man-made climate change is no hoax.  But if it’s as serious as they say, it requires a serious response.  Serious doesn’t mean loud and grandiose.  It means robust for the environment and feasible for policy makers across the political spectrum.  One without the other is just cheap ideology.  Here’s the real inconvenient truth:  global warming won’t be solved by political hot air.

Read more at Facing the Truth About Climate Change

The Warming World:  Is Capitalism Destroying Our Planet?

Balcony overlooking power plant (Credit: Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
Is Capitalism the Problem?
... Might it be enough ... to fundamentally change the rules by which the global economy functions?  That is what Canadian bestselling author Naomi Klein is demanding.  The leftist icon's controversial new book, which will be published in Germany next week, is a carefully researched polemic about mankind's collective failure in the face of the greatest challenge it has ever faced.  Klein spells out her thesis in the introduction to her book This Changes Everything:  "We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis."

In other words, climate protection and capitalism are mutually exclusive.  In order to stop global warming, Klein argues, we have to use fewer resources.  But in order to prevent the collapse of our capitalist economic system, unlimited growth is necessary.  "Only one of these sets of rules can be changed," Klein writes.  "And it's not the laws of nature."
The climate economist argues that Earth's fate hinges largely on whether countries can agree to an appropriate price for CO2.  Of course, the world is far from reaching any agreement, particularly given that Europe is comparatively more environmentally conscientious than other areas of the world and it still hasn't come up with a working model.
Is Germany a Model for the World?
...Two countries could prove decisive in the battle to improve the climate globally.  One is Germany.  As controversial as it is domestically, the "German Energiewende," the shift away from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energies, has become a term that has been picked up internationally.  So far, the Germans have gone further than any other country in seeking to address the very existential question at hand:  can an industrialized nation succeed in entirely transforming its energy production within the scope of a few decades?  And if so, at what price?  Germany has begun this process, but the costs have proven enormous.  German electricity customers are currently paying €23 billion a year in extra costs, billions that are the direct result of the expansion of alternative energies.
Indeed, the rest of the world is directly profiting from Germany's shift.  A study conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology and the Berlin think tank Agora Energiewende found that wind and solar energy are becoming the "cheapest way of producing electricity in an increasing number of regions around the world."
And what about the other country that could provide a solution for climate change?

A Bit of Hope
China's wind power capacity has quintupled over the past four years.  Meanwhile, investments in coal, gas and oil power plants declined by 50 percent in China between 2008 and 2012, whereas those in non-fossil energies rose by 40 percent.  In total, around one-third of the electricity produced in China today comes from renewable sources.
Ironically, it is China's boundless pursuit of growth that is now contributing to its efforts to make green energy more affordable and thus competitive.  In order to secure its energy supplies, China has increased manufacturing of solar panels one hundred fold in the past 10 years.  That's one reason that prices for photovoltaic cells have fallen by 80 percent since 2008.  A similar development is happening in the wind industry.  Recently, Australian economists John Mathews and Hao Tan concluded in the science magazine Nature that, in this manner, China is "contributing more than any other country to a climate-change solution."

Whatever the reason or motive behind Beijing's move to reduce coal consumption and increase the share of renewable energies, the rest of the world should accept it because China is officially planning to double both economic output and the per-capita income during each of the next two decades.

Read more at The Warming World:  Is Capitalism Destroying Our Planet?

   Friday, February 27

Friday, February 27, 2015

Poll Finds Most Americans See Combating Climate Change as a Moral Duty

A truck engine is tested for pollution exiting its exhaust pipe as California Air Resources field representatives (unseen) work a checkpoint set up to inspect heavy-duty trucks traveling near the Mexican-U.S. border in Otay Mesa, California September 10, 2013. (Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake) Click to Enlarge.
A significant majority of Americans say combating climate change is a moral issue that obligates them–and world leaders–to reduce carbon emissions, a Reuters/IPSOS poll has found.

The poll of 2,827 Americans was conducted in February to measure the impact of moral language, including interventions by Pope Francis, on the climate change debate.  In recent months, the pope has warned about the moral consequences of failing to act on rising global temperatures, which are expected to disproportionately affect the lives of the world's poor.

Read more at Poll Finds Most Americans See Combating Climate Change as a Moral Duty

Here's What Happened to the Lobbyists Who Tried to Reshape the U.S. View of Climate Change

This Jan. 16, 2015, file photo shows pumpjacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, California. (Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP) Click to Enlarge.
In early 1998, some of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world were hatching a plan to hijack the science of human-caused global warming.

Representatives from major fossil fuel corporations and industry groups had joined forces with operatives from major conservative think tanks and public relations experts to draft what they called their Global Climate Science Communications (GCSC) plan.

In a memo the plan boldly declared its goal would be to convince “a majority of the American public” that “significant uncertainties exist in climate science”.

Earlier this week it was revealed that major US coal utility Southern Company had paid scientist Dr Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, more than $400,000 in recent years for science research.

In total, Soon had received more than a million dollars from Southern Company, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute in the last 14 years.  These three key funders of Soon’s work were also involved in formulating the GCSC plan.

Soon is a popular and oft-cited scientist within climate science denialist circles and claims the sun is the key driver of climate change with fossil fuels playing a minimal role.

But climate scientists have repeatedly dismissed his views, which are at odds with science academies around the world.  Soon has previously stated that his fossil fuel funding does not influence his scientific work.
The investigation published here, with support from DeSmogBlog and the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), finds many of those involved are still trying to convince politicians, legislators and the public that the science is faulty or can be largely ignored.
“Impacting the voice of elected officials was a key target under the ‘Victory will be achieved’ section of the memo.  Now in the US, about half our elected officials are climate deniers or are scared to even talk about the subject, so the impact of this 1998 campaign and subsequent misinformation campaigns around climate science is still clearly holding us back from climate policy solutions.”

Read more at Here's What Happened to the Lobbyists Who Tried to Reshape the U.S. View of Climate Change

China Cut Its Coal Use 2.9 Percent Last Year, Will They Peak Even Before 2020?

Miners shovel coal at a north China mine near a power plant and chemical factory. (Credit: AP/Oded Balilty) Click to Enlarge.
China cut its coal consumption 2.9 percent in 2014, the first drop this century.  Domestic coal production fell 2.5 percent.

As we reported last year, the Chinese government announced in November it would cap coal use by 2020. The new data raise the possibility the peak in coal consumption will come even sooner.

This reversal on coal utterly refutes the GOP claim that China’s recent climate pledge with the United States “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.”

In reality, what a stunning turnaround this is for Chinese energy policy, where the focus has been building one or more coal plants a week for some for two decades — a key reason China was responsible for about half of the world’s recent growth in carbon pollution.

Now they’ll be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades to meet their commitment, made in the deal with the U.S., to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.”  That means adding some 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon power in 16 years, which is “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress, notes that the 2014 coal drop suggests the country is “well on track to peak coal use by 2020″ but “if coal growth remains sluggish over the next few years Chinese coal use could possibly peak even earlier.”  Also, she points out that “most models indicate that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak about ten years after coal.”

Read more at China Cut Its Coal Use 2.9 Percent Last Year, Will They Peak Even Before 2020?

McCarthy Defends Viability of Carbon Capture Technologies Before House Energy Panels

Boundary Dam - The Project The World is Watching (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Carbon capture and sequestration technologies are available and will provide a path forward for the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the U.S., Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said Feb. 25.

McCarthy told a joint hearing of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees that the EPA has never considered withdrawing its new source performance standards for future power plants, but she also said no final decision has been made about whether to effectively require carbon capture and sequestration technology, as was done in the proposed rule.

McCarthy's defense of carbon capture and sequestration technologies comes amid a series of high-profile setbacks for projects used by the EPA to justify the technology's availability and feasibility.  McCarthy, though, said the agency didn't rely on those projects alone to justify its conclusion that CCS technologies are adequately demonstrated and economically feasible.

“We feel very confident that this technology is available,” McCarthy said.  “We feel very confident that the use of CCS technology—at the levels we’re proposing—will leave a viable option for coal to continue to be a part of the future.”

In its proposed new source performance standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new fossil fuel-fired power plants (RIN 2060-AQ91), the EPA cited a number of CCS projects as the basis for the feasibility and availability of the technology.  But one of those projects—Southern Co.'s Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi—is billions of dollars over-budget and another—the FutureGen 2.0 project in Illinois—lost federal funding in early February after it became clear it would not meet several statutory deadlines. 

In Canada, SaskPower International Inc. installed carbon capture equipment on the Boundary Dam plant, establishing the first commercial-level operation of its kind when it opened last year.  Republicans said the fact only one project in North America was operational showed the technology was not feasible and could not be used to justify the regulations.

“Some [projects] haven’t been completed, some haven’t been started, one has been discontinued, one isn’t even in this country and none of them are large-scale,” Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said.  “I’m not sure that EPA is actually following the law on this.”

The EPA also has argued in a supplement to its proposal that engineering studies have shown that carbon capture systems are technologically viable.

Read more at McCarthy Defends Viability of Carbon Capture Technologies Before House Energy Panels

   Thursday, February 26

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why States Rejecting EPA's Clean Power Plan Could Face Bigger Rate Hikes

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy prepares to announce the Clean Power Plan in January 2015. Several coal states have sued over the plan, and legislatures have set up blockades to delay its implementation. Refusing to cooperate could be costly. (Credit: EPA) Click to Enlarge.
Since the Obama administration announced its plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions and combat climate change last year, many states have been on the offensive.  Some have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the agency has overstepped its authority.  Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to dismantle carbon emission regulations.  And state legislatures have set up numerous blockades to delay the Clean Power Plan.

Given the current political climate, it seems inevitable that at least a handful of states will continue to fight the EPA over the Clean Power Plan.  Here's a rundown of what might happen if states refuse to cooperate––and why it might be in their best interest to comply with the EPA’s rules.

What exactly does the EPA want the states to do?

The EPA is trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nationwide by 30 percent by the year 2030.  The targets assigned to each state vary widely ranging from 11 percent for North Dakota to 72 percent for Washington.  Most states have a target between 20 and 45 percent.

The EPA calculated targets for states by evaluating a number of factors, including their access to renewable energy and ability to reduce emissions by switching to natural gas power plants.

To meet these goals, the EPA has proposed four methods, or "building blocks."
  • Increase efficiency at coal plants by upgrading equipment and modifying operations.
  • Switch from coal-powered plants to less carbon-intensive sources such as natural gas-fired plants.
  • Expand investments in solar, wind and other types of renewable energy.
  • Increase energy efficiency in homes, buildings and industries to reduce power consumption.
When do these plans have to be submitted?

The Clean Power Plan was announced last year in June.  The EPA is currently engaging with stakeholders and reviewing the comments it has received concerning the plan.  EPA’s top official, Gina McCarthy, has said that the final rules will be released mid-summer this year. Once the rules are announced, states have until summer of 2016 to submit a plan outlining how they intend to meet their targets.  These plans don't have to be final.  States can submit an initial plan in 2016 and request a one- or two-year extension.

What happens if a state doesn't submit a plan?

If a state doesn't submit a plan, or submits one that doesn’t meet the EPA's requirements, the agency will formulate a federal plan for the state.
The EPA likely has authority to enforce only one, or, according to the agency, two of the four building blocks.  While states can adopt policies to support investments in renewables and increase demand-side energy efficiency, the EPA has only the authority granted by the federal Clean Air Act.  The act, as it stands now, allows the EPA to restrict emissions from plants but does not give it the authority to increase power generation from plants or order states to set up more renewable energy sources.

So, what would a federal plan look like?

A federal plan would probably be limited to curbing emissions from coal plants.  The EPA could force coal plants to upgrade equipment. It could also mandate that a state’s coal generators be run for a specified amount of time each day, effectively reducing emissions from the plant.  But this strategy would reduce the amount of energy produced, and states would be responsible for finding alternatives.

And what does that mean for a utility customer?

A federal plan is going to be bad news for customers.  Reducing emissions at coal plants is a lot more expensive than, say, increasing customer energy efficiency.  It’s fairly certain that a federal plan will result in higher electricity prices than a state plan would.

According to a study prepared for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the National Mining Association and other groups, if states implemented a plan without building blocks 3 and 4, they could expect to pay an additional $15 billion per year nationally for power. In Texas, for instance, the study predicted that the state’s ratepayers will see a 54 percent increase in costs if only two of the building blocks were used, as opposed to a 10 percent increase if all four building blocks were used.  A typical Texas utility bill for a household for July is $224.  If a plan were implemented without two of the building blocks, Texans could expect to pay about $120 more.

Read more at Why States Rejecting EPA's Clean Power Plan Could Face Bigger Rate Hikes

If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico and Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have to Change - by Joe Romm

Immigration policy and the funding of the Homeland Security Department are front page news.  But here is a rarely-asked question raised by a new NASA study that builds on considerable recent recent drought research.

If the United States, through our role as the greatest cumulative carbon polluter in history, plays a central role in rendering large parts of Mexico and Central America virtually uninhabitable, what will that mean for Homeland Security?  And will we have some moral obligation to change our immigration policy?

People often associate environmental refugees primarily with sea level rise, and that is likely to be the case in places like Bangladesh and the South Pacific.  But for North America, the primary cause will be the near-permanent Dust Bowls we are creating.

Recall that during the U.S. Dust-Bowl era, some 3.5 million people fled the region.  As I noted in The Next Dust Bowl, a 2011 Nature article reviewing the literature, “Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible.  Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’.”

Nature-Dust-Bowl-smallBut what scientists tell us we are doing to our climate will be much worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930 — worse even than medieval U.S. droughts.  Indeed, Climate Central quotes Lisa Graumlich, Dean of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, saying that the Southwest drought from 1100-1300, ”makes the Dust Bowl look like a picnic”!

Remember, the Dust Bowl itself was mostly contained to the 1930s, whereas multiple studies project that future Dust Bowls will be so-called “mega-droughts” that last for many decades — “at least 30 to 35 years,” according to NASA.  Further, the 1930s Dust Bowl was regionally localized.  As the NASA map below makes clear, we are on track to Dust-Bowlify much of the U.S. breadbasket and Southwest, and virtually all of Mexico and Central America.  Other recent research makes clear we would also turn large parts of Amazon, Europe, and Africa into near-permanent dustbowls.  And this would be “irreversible” on a timescale of centuries.

These bleak projections are not new.  As far back as 1990, NASA scientists warned that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could start coming every-other-year by mid-century if carbon pollution trends continued.  A quarter century of dawdling later, NASA wants us to know that the situation is even worse than they initially warned.

The researchers’ findings are unusually robust, explained lead author Benjamin Cook of NASA:  “The surprising thing to us was really how consistent the response was over these regions, nearly regardless of what model we used or what soil moisture metric we looked at.  It all showed this really, really significant drying,”

Here’s a video explaining their findings:

If we stay on business-as-usual CO2 emissions, we will turn the normal climate of our southern neighbors into “severe drought.”  Would it then be incumbent upon us to change our immigration policy?  (Credit: NASA)  Click to view.

Read more at If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico and Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have to Change - by Joe Romm

First Direct Observation of Carbon Dioxide's Increasing Greenhouse Effect at Earth's Surface

The scientists used spectroscopic instruments operated by the Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility. This research site is on the North Slope of Alaska near the town of Barrow. They also collected data from a site in Oklahoma. (Credit: Jonathan Gero) Click to Enlarge.
Scientists have directly confirmed what they have long assumed to be true:  increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, are trapping heat from escaping back into space and are thereby causing global warming.

The observations of what is known as radiative forcing were made over the course of 11 years between 2000 and 2010 from two locations in North America, in Oklahoma and the North Slope of Alaska.  Highly specialized instruments in both locations were used to measure thermal infrared energy fluctuations and analyze the source of such changes.

The study, published Wednesday in the advance online edition of the journal Nature, explores the Earth's energy account balance.  It found that over time, the planet is running a surplus of energy at the surface, causing global air and ocean temperatures to increase with a wide variety of mostly negative impacts.

Before this study, scientists already knew that the energy balance was tilted in the direction of a growing surplus, but they lacked precise measurements at the surface.  The researchers were also able to trace this energy surplus mainly to man made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, as well as forest fires.

The research provides observational evidence that the increased heating of the atmosphere during the period was due in large part to the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations at the time.  The study found that the 22 parts per million increase in carbon dioxide during this period caused the amount of energy absorbed at the Earth's surface to increase by about two-tenths of a Watt per square meter per decade.

"We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation," Daniel Feldman, a scientist in Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

"Numerous studies show rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect," Feldman added.

Earth's energy surplus is growing
The study's findings confirm longtime predictions as well as observations of a man made enhancement of the greenhouse effect, and also help to reinforce the results of many climate models that are predicated in part on accurately simulating the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Read more at First Direct Observation of Carbon Dioxide's Increasing Greenhouse Effect at Earth's Surface

Britain Awards Renewable Subsidy Contracts Worth $489 Million

The East Anglia ONE Offshore Wind-farm development will be located in the south of the zone 5 area and covers an area of approximately 300km2.  (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Britain has awarded investment contracts worth more than 315 million pounds ($489 million) to 27 renewable energy projects in the first allocation round of its new contracts-for-difference (CfD) scheme.

The scheme gives renewable power generators certainty of a minimum electricity price over 15 years.  It will replace the Renewables Obligation, the main support mechanism for large-scale renewables projects, which runs out in 2017.

The projects awarded CfDs will deliver 1.1 gigawatts of power generation capacity in total and include two offshore wind farms, 15 onshore wind farms and five solar photovoltaic (PV) projects, the government's Department of Energy and Climate Change said in a statement.

"These projects could power 1.4 million homes, create thousands of green jobs and give a massive boost to home-grown energy while reducing our reliance on volatile foreign markets," Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said.

Among the projects were Scottish Power Renewables' East Anglia One 714 megawatt (MW) offshore wind farm project, Mainstream Renewable Power's 450 MW Neart na Gaoithe offshore wind farm off the Scottish coast and three RWE Innogy onshore wind projects.
The next round of CfD auctions will be held in the autumn.

The government said funding for CfDs for renewables and carbon capture and storage technology could rise to more than 1 billion pounds per year by 2020/21.

Read more at Britain Awards Renewable Subsidy Contracts Worth $489 Million

   Wednesday, February 25

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Felling of Tropical Trees Has Soared, Satellite Shows, Not Slowed as UN Study Found

The Democratic Republic of Congo contains half of Africa's tropical forest and the second largest continuous tropical forest in the world. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data from the USGS Global Visualization Viewer and park boundary data from Protected Planet) Click to Enlarge.
The rate at which tropical forests were cut, burned or otherwise lost from the 1990s through the 2000s accelerated by 62 percent, according to a new study which dramatically reverses a previous estimate of a 25 percent slowdown over the same period.  That previous estimate, from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Forest Resource Assessment, was based on a collection of reports from dozens of countries.  The new estimate, in contrast, is based on vast amounts of Landsat image data which directly record the changes to forests over 20 years.

"Several satellite-based local and regional studies have been made for changing rates of deforestation [during] the 1990s and 2000s, but our study is the first pan-tropical scale analysis," explains University of Maryland, College Park, geographer Do-Hyung Kim, lead author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Kim and his University of Maryland colleagues Joseph Sexton and John Townshend looked at 34 forested countries which comprise 80 percent of forested tropical lands.  They analyzed 5,444 Landsat scenes from 1990, 2000, 2005 and 2010 with a hectare-scale (100 by 100 meter) resolution to determine how much forest was lost and gained.  Their procedure was fully automated and computerized both to make the huge datasets manageable and to minimize human error.

They found that during the 1990-2000 period the annual net forest loss across all the countries was 4 million hectares (15,000 square miles) per year.  During the 2000-2010 period, the net forest loss rose to 6.5 million hectares (25,000 square miles) per year -- a 62 percent increase is the rate of deforestation.  That last rate is the equivalent to clear cutting an area the size of West Virginia or Sri Lanka each year, or deforesting an area the size of Norway every five years.

In terms of where the deforestation was happening, they found that tropical Latin America showed the largest increase of annual net loss of 1.4 million hectares (5,400 square miles) per year from the 1990s to the 2000s, with Brazil topping the list at 0.6 million hectares (2,300 square miles) per year.  Tropical Asia showed the second largest increase at 0.8 million hectares (3,100 square miles) per year, with similar trends across the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.  Tropical Africa showed the least amount of annual net forest area loss.  Still, there was a steady increase of net forest loss in tropical Africa due to cutting primarily in Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar.

Read more at Felling of Tropical Trees Has Soared, Satellite Shows, Not Slowed as UN Study Found

For the West, a Winter that Has Felt More Like Spring

Temp extremes have been remarkable this month across the US. 10-13° warmer than normal across much of the West! (Credit: NWS Sacramento) Click to Enlarge.
“California's really feeling the effect of these incredibly warm temperatures,” Daniel Swain, an atmospheric science PhD student at Stanford University, said in an email.  That, combined with “very large multi-year precipitation” shortfalls is “resulting in the continuation of severe drought conditions,” he said.

Return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge

Record warm temperatures have been piling up across the West this year like snow in Boston.  The town of Sandberg, Calif., outside Los Angeles, had nine straight days with highs above 70°F this month, besting the previous record of seven such days set last year.  Salt Lake City had 43 straight days of above-average temperatures.  Portions of western Oregon had a record warm January.

California, for the second year in a row, saw it’s warmest December-January, with a monthly average temperature 5.1°F higher than its 20th century average.  With that heat having continued into February, it’s almost certain to be the warmest winter on record in California, surpassing the previous record set just last year.

“In the 121-year period of record, never have there been back-to-back Dec-Jan periods that were record warm for California, making this unprecedented in the state's history,” Jake Crouch, a NOAA climatologist, said in an email.

The reason for the warmth out West is an area of high pressure off the coast that Swain dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge back in 2013 for its incredible persistence as a feature in the atmosphere — week after week, month after month.

What’s keeping the ridge around for so long is something scientists, including Swain, are actively looking into.  So far, there are three main theories, Swain said:  one is that it’s just random chance in a chaotic atmosphere, though Swain says the longer the ridge holds on, the less likely that is.  Another is the idea that the amplified warming across the Arctic is lessening the temperature difference between pole and equator that fuels the jet stream, causing that river of air to meander more wildly and become stuck in certain patterns.

The most favored explanation for now, though, seems to be the extremely warm waters across the Pacific Ocean, particularly just off the West Coast, which can give rise to high pressure systems — and hold them in place.  “At least part of the answer lies in the Pacific,” Swain said.

Understanding why the waters in the Pacific are so anomalously hot requires further research, but they’re expected to retain the additional warmth for some time.

“Ocean temps change very slowly, so the record and near-record warm [sea surface temperatures] off California really help explain the continuation of the warmth out West,” Crouch said.

Read more at For the West, a Winter that Has Felt More Like Spring

Shell Withdraws from Largest Tar Sands Project Yet

Alberta tar sands, 2010. (Credit: Flickr/ NWFBlogs) Click to Enlarge.
The outsized debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which entered a new era yesterday after Obama wielded his veto pen against legislation approving its construction, is not the only element in the debate over whether the greenhouse gas-intensive tar sands get developed.  Oil supply, demand, and cost are pulling some major levers too: with oil prices at rock-bottom lows, on Monday Royal Dutch Shell announced it was shelving plans to build a new tar sands mine in northern Alberta — the largest such project to be deferred.

Shell withdrew its applications for the Pierre River project, which would have produced 200,000 barrels-per-day (bpd), to focus on maintaining profitability for its existing 255,000-bpd tar sands operations, according to the company.

“The Pierre River Mine (PRM) remains a very long term opportunity for us but it’s not currently a priority,” said Lorraine Mitchelmore, Shell Canada President and Executive Vice President of Heavy Oil.  “Our current focus is on making our heavy oil business as economically and environmentally competitive as possible.

Shell was one of the earliest tar sands producers to cut staff due to low oil prices, laying off around 300 workers at its Albian tar sands project in Alberta starting last month.

Instability makes it hard for most companies to do business, and unreliable oil prices are no different.  Crude oil prices have fallen more than 50 percent over the last six months, hovering between $50 and $60 per barrel of late.  Last August, Mitchelmore said Shell Canada’s tar sands business met profitability markers when crude traded above $70 per barrel.

Shell originally halted work on the Pierre River project a year ago, stating the need to re-evaluate the timing as a heated environmental review process was taking longer than anticipated.  The project was first proposed in 2007.

Tar sands are extremely GHG intensive, and the shelving of the Pierre River project along with two other tar sands endeavors — Total’s Joslyn North and Statoil’s Corner Project — has helped avoid the emissions of 2.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to stopping the construction of 18 new coal plants with a lifespan of four decades.  Tar sands oil produces as much as three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil.  The government of Alberta, where the mines are sited, expects to lose $5.5 billion in revenue this year because of low oil prices.

Read more at Shell Withdraws from Largest Tar Sands Project Yet

Are We Entering a New Period of Rapid Global Warming? - Bob Henson

Residents of New England may understandably look back at 2015 as the year of their never-ending winter.  For the planet as a whole, though, this year could stand out most for putting to rest the “hiatus”— the 15-year slowdown in atmospheric warming that gained intense scrutiny by pundits, scientists, and the public.  While interesting in its own right, the hiatus garnered far more attention than it deserved as a purported sign that future global warming would be much less than expected.  The slowdown was preceded by almost 20 years of dramatic global temperature rise, and with 2014 having set a new global record high, there are signs that another decade-plus period of intensified atmospheric warming may be at our doorstep.
Departures from average sea-surface temperature (degrees C) and wind (arrows) that typically prevail when the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is in its positive mode (left) and negative mode (right). (Credit: University of Washington) Click to Enlarge.

The most compelling argument for a renewed surge in global air temperature is rooted in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).  This index tracks the fingerprint of sea surface temperature (SST) across the Pacific north of 20°N.  A closely related index, the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), covers a larger swath of the entire Pacific.  Both the PDO and IPO capture back-and-forth swings in the geography of Pacific SSTs that affect the exchange of heat between ocean and atmosphere (see Figure at right).  We’ll use PDO as shorthand for both indexes in the following discussion.
From the AMS meeting
The hiatus was discussed at length in a series of talks during the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society last month in Phoenix.  Jerry Meehl, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (my former employer), gave a whirlwind 15-minute overview of hiatus-oriented research conducted over the last six years.  Meehl’s talk can be viewed online.  More than 20 papers have studied the hiatus and its links to the PDO/IPO, according to Matthew England (University of New South Wales).  Most of the flattening of global temperature during the hiatus can be traced to cooler-than-average conditions over the eastern tropical Pacific, which pulled down global averages.  An emerging theme is that natural, or internal, variability in the tropical Pacific can explain at least half of the hiatus.  NCAR’s Clara Deser presented new modeling evidence along these lines (see video online). Other factors may be involved as well, including a series of weak volcanic eruptions that could explain a small part of the hiatus, according to a recent analysis by Ben Santer (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). 

One crucial point is that global warming didn’t “stop” during the hiatus:  the world’s oceans actually gained heat at an accelerated pace.  Trade winds blew more strongly from east to west across the Pacific, consistent with the tendency toward La Niña conditions, as described in this open-access article by NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo.  Over parts of the central tropical Pacific, trade winds averaged about 3 mph stronger during 1999-2012 compared to 1976-1988.  These speeds are higher than for any previous hiatus on record, bolstering the idea that other factors may have joined this negative PDO/IPO phase.  The faster trade winds encouraged upwelling of cooler water to the east and helped deepen and strengthen the warm pool to the west—enough, in fact, to raise sea level around the Philippines by as much as 8 inches.  Other parts of the deep ocean warmed as well.  A new study led by Dean Roemmich (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) maps the areas of greatest ocean heating from 2006 to 2013 and finds that significant warming extended to depths of greater than 6600 feet. 

What next for the PDO?
The PDO index, as calculated at the University of Washington, scored positive values during every month in 2014, the first such streak since 2003.  By December it reached +2.51, the largest positive value for any December in records that go back to 1900.  The January value from UW was 2.45, again a monthly record. (NOAA calculates its own PDO values through a closely related methodology.)
When looking at global temperature over a full PDO cycle (1970s to 2010s), the overall rise becomes evident, despite the flattening observed in the last 15 years. (Credit: NOAA) Click to Enlarge.
“I am inclined to think the hiatus is over, mainly based on the PDO index change,” NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth told me.  While Matthew England isn’t ready to offer such a prediction, he emphasized that any post-hiatus global temperature rise is likely to be fairly rapid.  Trenberth also commented on an interesting NOAA analysis (see Figure left):  “If one takes the global mean temperature from 1970 on, everything fits a linear trend quite well except 1998.”

A record-strong El Niño occurred in 1998, providing an unusually powerful boost to global temperature and fueling years of subsequent declarations that “global warming stopped in 1998.”  The record warmth of 2014 made it clear that global warming has no intention of stopping, and the next few years are likely to reinforce that point.

Read more at Are We Entering a New Period of Rapid Global Warming?

Energy Giant’s Bleak Outlook Is 25% Rise in CO2

Lots of petrol stations closing down is not something BP envisages happening in the next 20 years. (Credit: John W. Iwanski via Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
It may come as a shock, as governments ponder how to tackle climate change, to learn that the world is moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

But BP, one of the world’s six biggest oil and gas companies, says it thinks that, on present trends, emissions of CO2 will be 25% greater within two decades than they are today.

The prediction is published in BP’s Energy Outlook 2035, which it says is its best effort “to describe a ‘most likely’ trajectory of the global energy system”.

Global consumption
Some of the company’s other projections are hardly less startling.  It thinks, for instance, that global energy consumption will be 37% greater by 2035 than it is today, with more than half the growth coming from India and China, and virtually all of it from countries that are not members of the OECD − the 34-member group of highly developed countries.

Global energy intensity − which measures the energy efficiency of a country’s economy − in 2035 is expected to be only half of what it was in 1995, and 36% lower than in 2013.

The lower the energy intensity is, the less it costs to convert energy into wealth.  Even so, global energy use per person is projected to increase by 12%, as growing numbers of people demand higher living standards.

Renewables are expected to grow faster than any other energy source, by 6.3% annually. Nuclear power, at 1.8% a year, and hydro-electric power (1.7%) will grow faster than total energy use.

Read more at Energy Giant’s Bleak Outlook Is 25% Rise in CO2

   Tuesday, February 24

The Eiffel Tower Just Got a Wind Turbine Makeover

Wind turbine in Eiffel Tower (Credit: UGE)  Click to Enlarge.
As part of its first major retrofit in 30 years, two custom-designed wind turbines have started generating power for the Eiffel Tower. Located above the World Heritage Site’s second level, about 400 feet off the ground, the sculptural wind turbines are now producing 10,000 kWh of electricity annually, equivalent to the power used by the commercial areas of the Eiffel Tower’s first floor. The vertical axis turbines, which are capable of harnessing wind from any direction, were also given a custom paint job to further incorporate them into the iconic monument’s 1,000-foot frame. At the same time they bring the image of the 1889 tower firmly into the 21st Century.

“The Eiffel Tower is arguably the most renowned architectural icon in the world, and we are proud that our advanced technology was chosen as the Tower commits to a more sustainable future,” said Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of Urban Green Energy (UGE), the U.S.-based distributed renewable energy company that installed the turbines. The publicity provided by the Tower’s seven million annual visitors might add some wind to the sails of the micro-turbine industry as well.

In addition to the wind turbines, the renovation includes energy efficient LED lighting, high-performance heat pumps, a rainwater recovery system, and 10 square meters of rooftop solar panels on the visitor pavilion.

Read more at The Eiffel Tower Just Got a Wind Turbine Makeover

What We Can Learn from British Columbia’s Carbon Tax - by David Roberts

Vancouver (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
For seven years, the Canadian province of British Columbia has had a carbon tax.  It is, on its own terms, a resounding success — carbon emissions are falling even as the economy continues to grow.

Not only is it effective, but it is, from a policy standpoint, incredibly elegant:
  • It is predictable, rising according to a set schedule (though it topped out in 2012 — more on that later).
  • It is broad, covering 70 percent of the province’s emissions.
  • It is simple, levied on a relatively small number of fossil fuel extractors and importers, piggybacking on an existing tax, thus requiring almost no additional administration or enforcement resources.
  • It is revenue-neutral, offset entirely by cuts to other taxes, mainly corporate and personal income.  (In fact, each year the B.C. government publishes a table showing what tax cuts were enabled by the carbon tax.)
It all sounds like an economist’s wet dream.  The one substantial flaw is that the tax remains far too low to achieve the radical reductions that will be required from B.C. (and all of the developed world) by 2050.  But then, that’s true of all extant climate policies.

How did B.C. pull off this policy triumph?

Research and advocacy group Clean Energy Canada had a simple but rather brilliant idea:  it asked!  Last fall, it interviewed 14 key figures, including some of the plan’s political architects (like B.C.’s then-premier and then-finance minister) as well as experts from business and academia who were involved in the process.

CEC has now released a report distilling what it learned from those interviews:  How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price (pdf).  There are 10 key takeaways.  I’ll list them all, but I’m only going to dig in on a couple.  See the report for more (it’s short and readable):
  1. A carbon tax and a thriving economy can co-exist.
  2. You need strong political leadership to get a carbon tax in place. (Public concern about climate disruption helps, too.)
  3. Keep it simple:  design a policy that’s easy to administer thanks to broad coverage and minimal exemptions.
  4. Commit from day one to a schedule of price increases, and stick with it.
  5. Start with a low price.
  6. Revenue neutrality helps address private-sector concerns and makes the policy more durable.
  7. On the other hand, revenue neutrality doesn’t get you very far with voters.
  8. A carbon tax can’t do everything; it needs to be just one component of a full suite of climate policies.
  9. Prepare for motivated, vocal — and not necessarily fact-based — opposition.  You’ll need active, engaged supporters and targeted communications strategies to counter the critics.
  10. Expect a cleaner environment, an enhanced reputation, and a thriving clean technology sector.
Read more at What We Can Learn from British Columbia’s Carbon Tax

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

   Monday, February 23

Here’s Where Ocean Acidification Will Hit the U.S. Hardest

Ocean acidification rates and social vulnerability around the U.S. (Credit: NRDC)  Click to Enlarge.
U.S. coastal communities better start preparing for ocean acidification now, especially if we want scallops, oysters and other shellfish to keep appearing on our dinnerplates.

That’s the message of a new study that shows that shellfisheries across the U.S. are more vulnerable to climate change’s less considered counterpart than previously thought.  That vulnerability is due to more than changing ocean chemistry. Social and economic factors, local and more distant pollution and natural ocean processes could conspire to make ocean acidification a problem sooner rather than later.

The chemical process of ocean acidification starts with the extra carbon dioxide humans are adding to the air.  About 25 percent of it is sucked up by the ocean where it dissolves and contributes to making the ocean more acidic and less friendly to carbonate, a compound that shellfish and coral need to grow.

But the new study published in Nature Climate Change on Monday makes it clear that while ocean acidification may make conditions tougher on shellfish, how much coastal communities rely on those shellfish and how ready they are to deal with changes makes a big difference in how ocean acidification plays out on land.  With more than $1 billion in revenue to U.S. coastal communities from mollusks, which the study focuses on, just how prepared those communities are could have huge financial ramifications.

“The conventional wisdom has been to think of vulnerability to ocean acidification only in terms of ocean chemistry.  We wanted to fold in a few other dimensions, particularly socioeconomic dimensions, to fill out that picture,” Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist for Natural Resources Defense Council who contributed to the new study, said.  “Doing that, you see many more communities are vulnerable to ocean acidification than previously thought.”
Fisheries in Massachusetts face lower acidification rates than in the Pacific Northwest but higher vulnerability.  Southern Massachusetts brings in more than $300 million in mollusks annually, accounting for the vast majority of the region’s fisheries revenue.

"Massachusetts and Maine are places that are just screaming for problems,” Suatoni said. “New Bedford, is the highest earning fishing port in the country.  Eighty-five percent of landings are coming from one species: scallops.  They’re really vulnerable.”

Read more at Here’s Where Ocean Acidification Will Hit the U.S. Hardest