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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
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DecisionMakr at Doha: Can a new smartphone app hold leaders more accountable?

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Project Director, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

This post was also published by the Huffington Post.

Expectations for the global climate negotiations taking place over the next two weeks in Doha, Qatar, are dismally low, and major political transitions in China and the United States – the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases – further temper hope for any kind of game-changing proposal. So what are the more than 7,000 civil society members and 1,500 journalists(myself included) in attendance going to do to make their opinions count and to hold their governments accountable for accomplishing something in Doha?

Well, there’s an app for that, and it’s called DecisionMakr.

Having attended many of these negotiations in the past, I question the value of emitting carbon to fly halfway around the world to attend another COP meeting. As an observer, I am relegated to the corridors, where I hope to bump elbows with negotiators and deliver my two-minute elevator pitch. I’ve spent hours in the back of general plenary sessions trying to make sense of diplomatese and the carefully prepared platitudes that ultimately restrict nations’ ability to compromise on difficult issues. After two weeks of these meetings, my head is spinning, and it’s challenging to distill what just happened.

When I knew I’d be attending Doha this year, I started thinking about how to make better sense of what goes on at a huge and hectic conference like these UN meetings. Technology – in particular, social media -- came to mind as a potential solution to the problem. I first started blogging and using Twitter while attending the watershed Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009. With approximately 50,000 observers, nearly 100 heads of state, and close to 200 countries represented, it was chaotic and difficult to keep track of what was happening. With all the high-intensity drama including secret negotiation texts, exclusive back-door meetings, developing countries suspending talks and staging a walk-out, Twitter became an invaluable tool for receiving up-to-the minute updates, crowd-sourced from the multitudes of civil society observers and journalists who were “live-tweeting” events as they were unfolding.

After a conference ends, one is left with hundreds of thousands of tweets, but not a good way to hear the signal through the noise. So I pitched the idea of a smartphone app that leverages crowd-sourcing via Twitter to give observers a way to assess the quality of negotiation statements and policy proposals with ratings that can then be averaged to produce a final score. In this way, both observers and negotiators can have a real-time record of a speaker or country’s actions at a conference, and a ranking that provides an indication of how the public felt about their statements compared to others. In the Environmental Performance Index– a biennial ranking of environmental policy results in 132 countries – we’ve seen how rankings matter and how powerful they can be in terms of galvanizing action among leaders and laggards. I wanted to see if we can generate the same type of data and accountability for negotiators though an app – in a way similar to how user feedback ratings influence how we shop on retail sites like Amazon.com, where we eat using restaurant guides like Yelp.com, and where we travel and stay using feedback from other travelers at tripadvisor.com.

Teaming up with developers and engineers at Pariveda Solutions at the Social Good Forum Hackathon sponsored by AT&T, I developed a smartphone and web application called DecisionMakr that will be the start of a social (and academic) exercise in Doha to see whether we can use technology and social media to hold negotiators more accountable. One singular rating along with a log of all statements and proposals will add greater transparency to these sometimes opaque negotiations. While it is difficult to distill how two weeks or more of deliberations often end in one single negotiation text, the app will provide documentation of the shifting positions of countries to allow outsiders to better understand how the end result came to be. We hope that leaders will see their ratings and feedback, and respond as a result.

The DecisionMakr app will officially launch in Doha on Nov. 26 and is currently available at www.decisionmakr.org and free for download at the Apple iPhone App Store. All of the action can also be followed on Twitter @DecisionMakr.    

Posted in: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & Governance
Monday, November 26, 2012
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What to Expect from China in Doha

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Project Director, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

This post originally appeared November 22, 2012, on China FAQs.

The next round of United Nations climate negotiations is gearing up to take place starting next week in Doha, Qatar, where countries will look to both China and the United States to see whether domestic political events will provide any momentum for the stalling talks. However, because of the proximity of the U.S. Presidential Election and the start of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition that will culminate in March, it is not expected that the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) will be bringing too much by way of game-changing developments to Doha. Instead, we can expect most of the discussions in Doha to focus on securing final details for a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, primarily for the E.U. and now Australia, as well as starting to formulate language for a new deal that will be decided by 2015.

1) Demonstrating Progress toward energy-intensity reduction goals.

Recently released provincial energy consumption data for 2011 shows that China is on its way to meeting the binding energy intensity reduction goals announced last year in the 12th Five-Year Plan. The new data show a 2.01 percent reduction in energy intensity for 2011, the first year of the 12th Five-Year Plan, which is significant considering that only 1.79 percent was reduced in the first year of the 11th Five-Year Plan. Although the goal for 2011 was a 3.5 percent reduction in energy intensity, Chinese officials blamed this miss on faltering hydropower due to droughts in southern China and have vowed to reach goals in subsequent years. Publishing these statistics prior to the Doha negotiations is an important step for China to demonstrate it is making substantial progress toward meeting its energy and carbon intensity reduction goals first made in the watershed Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009 and then reaffirmed in both Cancun and Durban.

In addition to this release of data, China’s State Council revealed more specifics about how the country aims to achieve the remainder of its energy intensity reduction targets in the publication of its 2012 edition of a White Paper on China’s energy policy. In this high-level policy document, the Chinese government acknowledges challenges for China in making substantial shifts in its energy supply, reductions in consumption, and investments in renewable energy. Acknowledging that its primary energy output in 2011 ranked first in the world at 3.18 billion tons of coal equivalent, the white paper provides some insights on priorities and what the Chinese delegation may be emphasizing in Doha. For one, the White Paper definitively states that fossil energy, including coal and oil, will continue to play a dominant role in China’s energy supply “for a long time to come.” This language may indicate that conversations speculating on when China’s emissions may peak at Doha may be premature, although developed countries will surely try another push for China to include language in the next global agreement defining a peak year for its emissions. The white paper also clearly emphasizes technology innovation, technology transfer, and market mechanisms that will be critical topics discussed in Doha.

We can expect China in Doha to emphasize this progress as well as its 12th Five-Year Coal Plan released in April, which sets limits for coal production capacity at 4.1 billion tons and an annual output target of 3.9 billion tons by 2015 (read more about the Coal Plan in a previous ChinaFAQs blog). China also released more details for renewable energy targets in early August, including a goal for total renewable energy consumption set at 478 million tonnes of coal equivalent or 9.5 percent of the overall energy consumption mix by 2015. Of this goal, total installed hydropower generation capacity is targeted to reach 260 gigawatts; wind to reach 100 gigawatts; solar capacity at 21 gigawatts; and biomass energy at 13 gigawatts.

2) New alliances, such as the “Like-Minded Developing Countries” negotiation bloc.

Given how entrenched country positions and political alliances can be at these meetings, particularly between developed and developing (or Annex I and non-Annex I countries under the UNFCCC), it is encouraging that China, along with around 20 other developing countries from the G77 & China, have formed a new group called the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) that may help to push through some of previous meetings’ deadlock. Beijing hosted the first meeting of the group in mid-October and in attendance were Bolivia, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Venezuela – a geographically, economically, and politically diverse subset of the G77 & China that has bonded together over their “common interests and priorities,” which appear to be focused on the adverse effects of climate change and extreme weather events that have impacted their “survival and development aspirations.” With the Northeastern coast of the United States recently suffering a climate-related extreme weather event in the form of Hurricane Sandy, it will be interesting to see whether the United States will empathize with the LMDC position and form an alliance, perhaps similar to the coalition that formed between the European Union and the most vulnerable small island states and least-developed countries in the Durban talks last year. At very least, the combination of China, along with OPEC-member Saudi Arabia, in addition to Bolivia, which gained notoriety in the Cancun talks two years ago for being the lone country opposing the final agreements would hopefully help to secure consensus amongst the G77 & China for a clear strategy moving for a new global climate deal by 2015. It is nevertheless encouraging to see China playing a leadership role if this signals it is trying to think creatively about the negotiations and for solutions to break the intractable stalemate that often plagues these climate talks.

3) Emissions Trading Pilots.

China has continued preparation for the launch of seven carbon-trading pilots by next year and an eventual nationwide carbon-trading program in 2015. The emissions trading programs are currently being piloted in the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing and Shenzhen and the provinces of Hubei and Guangdong. These pilots will provide inputs into the design of an eventual nationwide program, and in large part will shape the future of carbon markets in China. China’s leadership on this front may help to encourage other countries that are considering developing similar domestic carbon trading schemes, and for eventual linkage of national schemes to a global carbon market, as Australia is considering for a national registry to be launched in 2013 and connected to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) by 2015. These pilots could also galvanize other emerging economies such as India and Brazil to follow suit, as well as help to shape the discussion of new market mechanisms for climate mitigation in Doha.

A key issue that will be discussed in Doha that may have bearing on China’s emissions trading pilots and its national system in 2015 is with respect to accounting rules for GHG emission baselines, inventories, and registries. The pilots have not yet released details about specifications for accounting rules. China still has a ways to go with respect to developing transparent energy and climate accounting methods that are consistent across entities both amongst regions in China and internationally. Already, a number of reports questioning the accuracy of China’s energy statistics have brought increased international scrutiny of the country’s data. High-quality GHG emissions data will also be imperative if China is to be successful in ramping up its seven emissions trading pilots to the national level. In the European experience with the EU ETS, the price of trading allowances dropped after emissions data was released – something that could have been avoided if data had been reported more transparently. It appears that the success of the pilots largely hinges on transparent and effective MRV mechanisms, particularly if China hopes to expand these programs regionally within the next few years.

It is clear that transparency and quality of data in MRV will build a foundation of international trust. This has implications not only for climate change negotiations, but also for multinational firms dealing with different MRV systems, which may also stand to benefit from improved market stability that comes with more frequent data. China has already made strides in showing its commitment to transparency with the release of its second national climate change communication to the UNFCCC earlier this month, which includes an update to its national GHG emissions inventory that includes data for 2005. GHG emissions data are disaggregated by sector and by gas, with an explanation of uncertainty estimates and methodologies used – key elements that establish China’s progress on data transparency. China will hopefully be able to incorporate further discussions on accounting rules, market mechanisms, and MRV in Doha to ensure the pilots and the eventual national scheme can effectively link globally in the future.

4) Hints from the new Chinese leadership.

A discussion of what to expect from China in Doha would be incomplete without talk of any implications China’s leadership transition could have in Doha. Unfortunately, there are so far not many indications as to how a new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang might impact energy and climate issues. At very least, with the 12th Five-Year Plan set in stone until 2015, we can expect the new leaders to follow a course to achieve the range of energy and environmental targets in the Plan. In particular, at the 18th National People’s Congress meetings that started immediately following the U.S. Presidential Election, outgoing President Hu Jintao stressed the need to incorporate “ecological progress” into all aspects of the nation’s development moving forward. He also declared that his “Scientific Outlook on Development” first introduced in 2003 was the most important Party achievement in the past decade, cementing it as the guiding ideology for the Communist Party moving forward. Therefore, we can anticipate that the new Chinese leaders will continue to emphasize its commitments to energy, climate change, and the environment with a people-centered, scientific approach.

In Doha, China will also look toward the United States for leadership, although China may take a similar approach in its messaging as it did last year in Durban – testing several new ideas and being more proactive on discussions such as legally-binding agreements and absolute emission limits that seemed to have helped pressure the U.S. to concede to an agreement with “legal force” in the final hours of the negotiations.

Look for more of my updates coming from Doha by following the action in real-time on Twitter at @DecisionMakr and blogs on ChinaFAQs.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
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Setting the Stage for Climate Negotiations

By Guest Author, Marissa Knodel, Yale F&ES '14, and Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

This month, a group of enthusiastic Yale students will take part in the ongoing drama of climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar. They will participate in the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the global stage where countries have been meeting to tackle climate change since 1992. While the experience will be new for the students, seasoned diplomats are prepared for a familiar scene: from Cancun to Durban to Doha, efforts to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change and prevent harm to millions of vulnerable people around the world have instead turned into deliberations over the process itself.

Even if developed countries were in full compliance with their Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas mitigation pledges, the global average temperature would only be reduced by 0.03°C by 2100. It turns out that this would not be enough to prevent severe economic, environmental, social, political, and cultural consequences from being felt around the world.[1] Small island nations, in particular, will face existential threats that include off-island migration and the massive displacement of people.[2] Failure to reach agreement threatens to render the UNFCCC a mere rhetorical aspiration. 

The Doha conference presents an opportunity to buck the intractability of the negotiations. At the previous COP in Durban, countries declared that they would “raise the level of ambition”[3], and, at the same time, they created an open-ended structure for future agreements. The future agreement, to be negotiated by 2015, may either be a “protocol, legal instrument or outcome with legal force”[4] and will start to become formulated at Doha. The concept of “common but differentiated abilities” isn’t mentioned in the Durban Platform, however, meaning that the official division between developed and developing countries isn’t as clear as it once was in Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC.[5] This opens up a potential avenue for change. In the words of the climate change scholar Daniel Bodansky, “[The Durban Platform] is an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever content the parties choose.”[6] All in all, the future pathway of negotiations remains uncertain.

Last month, we visited met with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figures, who shared some of her insights as to the keys for success in Doha:

- The negotiations in Doha are an opportunity for countries to extend the Kyoto Protocol and will help pave the way for a new treaty regime.

- Consumers, civil society, and the private sector must play important roles in reaching the low-carbon economy.

A closed-room conversation with Ms. Figueres gave us a chance to ask frank questions that were of interest to the up-and-coming diplomats in the room.  She started off with a discussion of where we currently are at in the negotiation process, noting that progress has been made despite the fact that movement has been,  in her words, “excruciatingly slow.” However, she was cautiously optimistic overall and thought that the future offers a critical chance to change the psychology of the UNFCCC process; participants must go from a perception of  “burden-sharing” to one of "opportunity-sharing.” At the next conference, a Doha Amendment will be needed  to bring about the “seamless continuity” of the climate regime for all countries, including a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

Ms. Figueres also advocated a more decentralized and approach to solving the climate problem. She told us that we can’t leave all of this work to governments—consumers, civil society, and the private sector are essential to making the new low-carbon economy a success. She urged us to change our personal habits by re-evaluating our transportation means, electricity demands, and purchasing choices. As our time with her drew to a close, she called on all of us to take personal responsibility and holistically change our carbon-consumptive lifestyles. "Move it!” she said, as she banged on the table. “This country is paralyzed! The problem is going to be in your laps.”

Though most citizens will not have the opportunity to attend an international climate change negotiation or meeting, they may nevertheless wield power through influence on politicians, delegates, and the nature of the negotiations. Looking ahead to Doha, nations face the option of negotiating an outcome more ambitious than the Durban Platform that takes the commitment to prevent dangerous climate change seriously or continue the pattern of “a meta-negotiation about what to negotiate.”[7] By raising public awareness, consciousness, and activism, participants at both the “top” and “bottom” hope to make people rather than process the focus of negotiations. 

 



[1]
William D. Nordhaus & Jospeh Boyer, Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming, 152-153 (2001).

[2]Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. p. 845-870. Accessed online.

[3]The Durban Platform (CP.17), Paragraph 6.

[4]The Durban Platform (CP.17), Paragraph 4.

[5]Daniel Bodansky, “The Durban Platform Negotiations: Goals and Options,” Viewpoints, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. July 2012.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Daniel Bodansky, “The Durban Platform Negotiations: Goals and Options,” Viewpoints, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. July 2012.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Monday, November 19, 2012
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Troubling Trends for South Africa

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale F&ES '12, with Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

Last year the citizens of the Republic of South Africa were preparing their hotels and conference centers for another wave of foreigners to descend upon their shores. This year the revelers of 2010’s World Cup competitions were replaced by the more stoic diplomats of a world climate negotiation (specifically the 17th Congress of the Parties to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change). Despite the change in dress (business suits over track suits) the results of the proceedings were similar:  much fanfare, some victory, a good deal of disappointment.

For South Africa both events signaled a general desire to take to the world stage and bask in adoration for Africa’s most developed economy - and the newest member of the BRICS emerging economies consortium.  These events, the climate conference in particular, also showed a willingness on the part of South Africa to accept a new, greater role in leading the governance of our planet.

Which is why the latest trends in the environment of South Africa are so troubling.

In the 2012 Environmental Performance Index, published in January by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where we are researchers, South Africa ranked 128 out of 132 rated countries, just above Iraq and just below Yemen.  Our index ranks the countries of the world on aggregated measures of environmental performance, in sectors like air and water quality, forest and fisheries protection, regulation of pesticides, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Across the general board (though there are exceptions), South Africa is one of the world’s worst performers and the worst in Africa (which is no small feat, as Oluseyi Fanyanju’s article on Nigeria’s poor performance reveals).

What accounts for this trend?

Analysis of our index points to two key places where South Africa is lagging and, generally, getting worse:  air quality and water quantity.

It should be no surprise that Africa’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter is experiencing worsening air quality. According to the International Energy Association, over 90% of the South African electricity supply is coal-generation based. Compare that to 42% in the United States (no world leader in this regard).[1]  Emissions from this antique power sector, combined with rapid industrialization around urban areas, has created air pollution “hot spots” across the country, where respirable particulate matter concentrations have reached historic unhealthy levels. Though the air situation is improving for some damaging pollutants (notably sulphur dioxides, which contribute to acid rain) air quality in South Africa hovers around the lowest in the world, at least when ecosystem effects are taken into account, and that is not likely to change soon.

Related to its unhealthy energy mix, South Africa - a naturally arid and water-stressed state, with annual rainfall six times lower than the global average – is seeing its small water supply spent on extracting the coal it burns (mining processes demand huge amounts of water) and fueling an expanding mining industry (gold mining in particular). A 2010 report by the Africa Earth Observatory Network found 16 of South Africa's 19 Water Resource Management Areas to be in a marginal or stressed state (meaning current clean water resources do not meet demand). “It seems clear,” the authors reported, “that water shortages are going to occur on a large scale in South Africa, even if the country follows a no-to-very-slow economic growth path.” They estimated that R360 billion, (15% of South Africa’s GDP in 2010) will need to be spent to provide adequate water infrastructure for human populations and stressed ecosystems, unless less water-intensive energy resources are invested in.

Reversing the trend

The social problems facing South Africa as it seeks to spur economic growth are immense, as is the chasm that exists between its haves and have-nots. South Africa has the highest income inequality of any African nation.  And with an unemployment rate just over 24%, this fact isn’t likely to change anytime soon. (An OECD report predicted that the SA economy would have to grow by 7% for over 20 years to achieve a significant reduction in unemployment – current growth rates hover around 3%). As NPR reported earlier this year, a staggering 73% of those unemployed are under the age of 35.

But current environmental trends and an abysmal EPI ranking suggest that South Africa may be heading towards an ecological tipping point.  If economic progress isn’t tied to improving environmental health and justice, South Africa may find it hard to fulfill its ultimate commitment to its citizens – to provide quality lives and real, sustainable livelihoods; recent protests and the spread of violence around unsafe working conditions and low pay at South African mines attest to a failure of current policies to deliver these basic rights.

Though its rivers go dry to fuel coal extraction, and its airways grow dark with smog, it isn’t too late for South Africa to reverse the trend. Real potential exists for renewable energy production across the country. And if South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, were to make good on their early commitment to invest in renewable energy, new solar and wind power projects could create desperately needed jobs and drive real human and environmental health benefits.

In his opening address at the world’s last climate conference, held in Durban, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, called on the leaders of the world to work together to “to save tomorrow today.”[2] We agree. Now might be time for South Africa to lead the way.



[1]
http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/

[2]http://www.cop17-cmp7durban.com/downloads/news/speeches/en/111206_cop17_hls_jacob_zuma.pdf

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Friday, November 16, 2012
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Webinar Recap: Capturing Climate Benefits from Natural Gas

By Guest Author, Nora Hawkins, Yale F&ES '14

In the second installment of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development webinar series, Dr. Ramón Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) presented research from a paper he recently co-authored on natural gas use and its implications for climate change.    

Dr. Alvarez noted that natural gas, which is increasingly available due to a boom in domestic shale gas production, has several potential environmental and economic advantages over coal and oil. However, he also emphasized that these benefits will only fully materialize if natural gas production and distribution is done correctly. He described this qualification as a “big if.”

Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions Throughout the Supply Chain

Many people believe that natural gas can be a gateway fuel to catalyze the United States’ movement away from carbon-intensive fuels and toward a cleaner energy economy because natural gas-fired power plants emit only half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour of electricity as do coal fired ones.

Dr. Alvarez confirmed this potential benefit but stressed that CO2 emissions from electricity generation are only part of the story. In fact, natural gas production can also contribute to (worsen) climate change through greenhouse gas emissions that occur during earlier stages of the supply chain.

To fully understand the climate tradeoffs between different fuels, their associated greenhouse gas emissions must be accounted for at each stage of the fuels’ lifecycles, from production to use.

Accounting for Methane Leakage

Natural gas’ climate impacts are not limited to the CO2 emitted during combustion. Rather, natural gas also contributes to climate change if the gas (methane), itself a potent greenhouse gas, escapes or “leaks” to the atmosphere during earlier stages of the supply chain.

In comparing natural gas to coal or oil, it is essential to keep in mind the amounts and different warming properties of both CO2 and methane. Because CO2 and methane persist in the atmosphere on different timescales and contribute different levels of warming, the total emissions of both greenhouse gases from different fossil fuels and the properties of the gases themselves must be accounted for and compared.

Building a More Nuanced Accounting Model for Emissions

Prior studies have used Global Warming Potential (GWP) to compare the relative warming effects of different greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, but Dr. Alvarez argued that GWP can be misleading.

Specifically, because GWP looks at warming effects at only a single point in time (e.g., 100 or 200 years after emissions), it obscures the dynamics of emissions of different greenhouse gases, which, due to their specific lifecycles, create warming impacts on different timescales. For example, over a 100-year period, methane has 25 times the global warming impact of CO2 but if you consider a 20-year period instead, methane’s impacts are 72 times worse. These differences are due to the fact that an individual molecule of methane causes more warming than CO2 in the short-term, but methane also remains in the atmosphere for a comparatively short duration of only 12 years. CO2, on the other hand, causes less warming per molecule, but remains in the atmosphere much longer so its warming effects are more persistent.

To address this limitation, Dr. Alvarez and his colleagues have generated an alternative metric, which they dub Technology Warming Potential (TWP). TWP compares different fuels’ overall contributions to climate change across all greenhouse gases and timeframes. The figure below, taken from Dr. Alvarez’s study, shows the TWP for natural gas relative to three different fuel sources and uses.

The horizontal line on each graph (TWP = 1.0) represents the point at which natural gas has the same climate change impact as the alternative (conventional) fuel source. Points below this line signify that the climate impact of natural gas is less than that of the fuel to which it is being compared; points above signify higher climate impacts. For example, graph C shows that a natural gas power plant has roughly half the global warming impact of a coal power plant over a 200-year time horizon, but at time zero, natural gas’ climate benefits are lower—only 20 percent better than coal due to methane leakage.

Methane Leakage and Uncertainty in Leakage Rates

While the relative CO2 emissions of different fossil fuels are well known, a key unknown in the fuel comparisons is the rate of methane leakage from natural gas wells. Graphs A and B in the figure above assume that the rate of methane leakage from the natural gas supply chain is 3.0 percent of the total gas produced. Graph C assumes that this rate is 2.1 percent (the difference is based on varying assumptions about supply chains). The actual leakage rates are unknown, yet assumptions about natural gas’ benefits rely heavily on these leakage rates. For example, natural gas use in cars would provide climate benefits after 25 years instead of the 80 years shown in graph A if methane leakage were reduced from 3.0 to 2.0 percent. At 1.6 percent or less, natural gas would always have net climate benefits over gasoline.

The methane leakage rate is critical. As shown in the figure below (also from Dr. Alvarez’s study), when methane leakage rates, as represented on the y-axis, are lower, it takes less time to achieve net climate benefits from natural gas. The points at which the curves intersect the y-axis are the leakage thresholds below which natural gas has climate benefits over the conventional fuels for any time scale considered.

Dr. Alvarez emphasized that the threshold levels are not the only important points to consider. If, for example, the leakage rate of methane was found to be 4.0 percent, natural gas power plants would initially be worse for the climate than coal, but they would not be worse forever. In this scenario, beginning around 25 years after the conversion from coal-fired power plants to natural gas-fired ones—and continuing on into the future—there would be net climate benefits from having moved away from coal.

Summing Up

If natural gas is to replace other fossil fuels, then it is critical not only to understand the relative climate impacts of CO2 and methane, but also to find ways to minimize methane leakage in the natural gas supply chain. Dr. Alvarez concluded his presentation by mentioning that EDF is currently working with several companies in the natural gas industry to better measure and reduce the level of uncertainty about methane leakage at every stage of the natural gas production process. During the question and answer session, he mentioned that “green completions” of hydraulically-fractured shale gas wells could be a cost-effective strategy for reducing methane leakage. Green completions represent one key step in resolving the “big if” of whether natural gas production and distribution are being carried out correctly so that the theoretical climate benefits of natural gas can be realized in reality and when considered on any timeframe.

Dr. Alvarez’s powerpoint presentation is available for download here, and the webinar recording is available for viewing here:

What It Takes To Get Sustained Climate Benefits From Natural Gas from YCELP on Vimeo.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Thursday, November 15, 2012
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Climate Action is NOT Back on the Table

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

In his first post-election news conference President Obama put to rest the speculation that he might be preparing to take serious and comprehensive action to combat climate change.

While acknowledging that global climate change is a real danger and agreeing that his administration has not done enough to fight the threat, the President declined to offer any specific plan or even general commitment for how the United States might address climate change in the next four years. Instead, President Obama reminded the public that crafting a political solution to climate change is a difficult task, saying:

“I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point because this is one of those issues that is not just a partisan issue. There are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices.”

Although the Obama administration took some actions in its first term, including first-ever standards for new coal plants (although very few new coal plants are planned) and fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles, there has been speculation and hope that the Administration would make a push for broad Congressional action.

The political difficulties of such action are no secret. On the other hand, the President has taken on and succeeded at other difficult political tasks such as passing his healthcare reform law. Of course that effort happened with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, which no longer exists. The healthcare battle may, in fact, have been the very reason that the Democrats lost control of the House.

The President did not rule out any new effort in the next term, but he did put an end to the almost giddy expectations. Luckily, there is still hope for mitigating climate change even without the United States. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Yale Climate and Energy Institute and the Oscar M. Ruebenhausen Fund at the Yale Law School co-hosted the international conference “Global Climate Change Policy Without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable.”  The conference took for granted that the U.S. will not enact national climate legislation and then offered many technologies, legal mechanisms, sub-national programs and private sector initiatives that could move the globe in the right direction.

The Yale conference, perhaps, offers an implicit suggestion that as President Obama reflects on his “tough political choices” he should remember that many other nations, with less responsibility on their shoulders, have managed to surmount the politics and take action. Sooner or later the United States will either have to act or admit that our leaders simply do not have the courage or creativity to move forward.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Thursday, November 08, 2012
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Is Climate Action Back on the Table?

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

Early Wednesday morning President Obama mentioned climate change for the first time in a long time. Couched in a list of problems that the next generation will face, President Obama briefly mentioned “the destructive power of a warming planet” in his victory speech on Wednesday morning. Later in the day Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also said that he hopes the U.S. Senate can address climate change.

Even overlooking this limited enthusiasm, it is difficult to believe federal climate action will be a major theme in the next Congress – but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

Amid the talk of climate action yesterday the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) co-hosted Dorothy Barnett as part of the climate policy speaker series, “The ‘C’ Words: Addressing Climate Change Without Talking About Climate Change.” Dorothy is the executive director of the Kansas-based non-profit Climate and Energy Project (CEP), which works throughout the lower Midwest.

Dorothy’s region is consistently hostile toward federal or even state climate policy; however, as Dorothy explained last night, there are plenty of effective local and regional tactics for dealing with climate change (without talking about climate change).

CEP has created successful programs such as the Take Charge Challenge, Kansas Interfaith Power and Light and HART, the Heartland Alliance for Regional Transmission, all of which build non-traditional partnerships to address things such as economics, jobs, faith and energy independence.

The Take Charge Challenge, for example, was a competition between residents of six Kansas towns to save the most energy over the course of a year. Building on the spirit of friendly competition and the money that individuals can save by reducing their energy use, the towns and local electricity providers worked with residences to switch light bulbs, install programmable thermostats and undertake home weatherization, among other energy saving measures. The winning town reduced energy use by 5 percent over the course of a year. More importantly, the competition showed that people are willing to take the personal action necessary to address climate change, but they do not need to take action because of climate change.

In response to an audience question last night, Dorothy said she was hopeful for federal climate action, but as her experience shows, there is more than one way to make progress. President Obama and Majority Leader Reid have a big and important task ahead of them, but they will have (unwitting) help from political opponents and climate skeptics in places like Kansas where personal steps to save money and create local jobs will move us all in the right direction.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, November 05, 2012
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Shale Gas: A Bridge to Which Climate Future?

By Bruce Ho

If you are familiar with shale gas, you probably have heard the argument that this resource has the potential to be a “bridge” between today’s polluting energy mix and a clean energy future. This argument rests on three basic premises: (1) when burned for energy, shale gas, which is natural gas extracted from shale, emits less carbon dioxide and other air pollutants than either coal or petroleum; (2) there are large, economically-available shale gas resources in the U.S. that could be used to displace a significant portion of the coal used in our power sector and, potentially, the petroleum used for transportation; and (3) for technical, economic, or political reasons, renewable energy and savings from energy efficiency cannot yet provide for all of our energy needs – hence the need for a bridge to get from the coal and petroleum of today to the renewables and energy efficiency of tomorrow.

But while this argument makes at least some sense, significant questions remain. For example, how much cleaner is shale gas than coal and petroleum when you consider the full gas production lifecycle, from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to eventual combustion? Further, even if shale gas is a cleaner fossil fuel, what will be the long-term effect of cheap and abundant gas on the adoption of even cleaner energy efficiency and renewables?

Answering these questions is critical to understanding how shale gas fits into the overall U.S. energy mix. Last month, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy began exploring these issues in the inaugural presentation of the Center’s 2012-2013 Policy Workshop Webinar Series on “Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development.”

This coming Thursday, November 8 from 12-1pm EST, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy will further explore, through a presentation by Dr. Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the structural underpinnings of the bridge-to-clean-energy narrative by examining whether shale gas is likely to reduce or only exacerbate climate change. I highly encourage anyone interested in shale gas issues and energy policy more broadly to attend this free online presentation on “What It Takes To Get Sustained Climate Benefits From Natural Gas.” To register for this webinar, click here.

As a preface to Dr. Alvarez’s webinar, I outline below the basic climate case for shale gas as well as two issues that could undermine this case: the possibility that natural gas leakage in the supply chain could, rather than reduce climate change, lead to more global warming; and also the possibility that shale gas might displace cleaner renewable energy and energy efficiency and thus slow the country’s transition away from climate-polluting fossil fuels. Ultimately, understanding these two issues is essential to understanding whether shale gas can be a bridge to a clean energy future or is instead a bridge to nowhere – or worse.

The Basic Climate Case for Shale Gas

Shale gas is not a “clean” fuel. While burning shale gas releases less pollution than coal or petroleum, like any other fossil fuel, burning gas still releases carbon dioxide pollution and contributes to climate change. Moreover, as Yale Professor of Hydrology Jim Saiers discussed in the Center’s first shale gas webinar last month, there are a variety of non-climate related environmental impacts associated with shale gas drilling, including air and water pollution, water usage, and land disturbance. While some of these impacts may be avoidable with proper regulation and industry best practices, some will likely still occur.

Yet the climate case for shale gas does not rely on the total elimination of climate-related impacts. Rather, the climate case is based on the fact that, on a per-unit energy basis, natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than either coal or petroleum (e.g., a kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from natural gas results in less carbon pollution than a kilowatt-hour from coal). Recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) bear out the potential climate benefits. According to the EIA, natural gas is beginning to displace coal in the power sector, largely as a result of domestic shale gas production. And this shift is at least partly responsible for a decline in carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector in recent years. (Another significant reason was the recession, which caused total U.S. energy use to fall.) These data support the first two premises of the bridge-to-clean-energy narrative described above. The third premise – that natural gas is needed due to the current limits of renewable energy and energy efficiency – is a matter of debate. But even studies that show that existing clean energy technologies could satisfy U.S. energy needs often acknowledge that this shift is unlikely to occur overnight. Some researchers also argue that fast-starting natural gas power plants can help integrate variable wind and solar energy by helping fill in gaps in renewable generation. If these propositions are true, shale gas could very well help slow the rate of climate change relative to the status quo.

The Unknowns That Could Undermine This Climate Case

The problem is that shale gas’ contributions to climate change are not limited to the carbon dioxide it emits during combustion. Rather, natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, also contributes to climate change when it is released directly to the atmosphere – intentionally or accidentally – without being burned. In fact, methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas, which, in the near-term (20-year time horizon) is more destructive on an individual molecular basis than carbon dioxide by a factor of 50 or more. Carbon dioxide is the main driver of climate change because much more of it is released globally, but if large amounts of methane also “leak” from the shale gas supply chain, the climate impacts of this resource could be significantly higher than the bridge-to-clean-energy narrative assumes.

The current rate of methane leakage from shale gas wells is unknown. According to a study co-authored by Dr. Alvarez in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, methane leakage estimates range from 2% to more than 7% of total natural gas produced from shale gas wells. Any methane leakage reduces the potential climate benefits of shale gas relative to other fossil fuels. But for shale gas to be less damaging to the climate than coal, the total leakage from gas wells (as achieved through voluntary industry practices or regulatory mandates) would need to be less than 3.2% of the total gas produced. Anything higher than 3.2%, and shale gas could actually accelerate and worsen climate change relative to coal. In comparison to petroleum, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal but more than natural gas, methane leakage rates would need to be even lower to break even.

Further, while methane leakage is a critical issue, it is just one potential way in which shale gas could worsen climate change. If, for example, cheap and abundant shale gas delays the U.S. transition to renewable and more efficient uses of energy, then the net effect regardless of gas’ benefits relative to coal and petroleum might still be to cause more global warming. Of course, as noted earlier, fast-starting natural gas power plants might also help support increased utilization of variable wind and solar energy by being available to operate on short notice should wind or solar production unexpectedly decline (e.g., due to a sudden slowdown in wind velocities or unexpectedly high cloud cover). This is in contrast to coal plants, which can sometimes take days to start generating power. The net climate effect here could be complicated, though the net effect is ultimately what’s important.

Getting to the Bottom Line on Climate

Understanding these unknowns and determining answers is essential to understanding how shale gas fits into the current U.S. energy picture; the types of policies and practices that may be needed to minimize or avoid adverse shale gas impacts; and the role that shale gas may or may not be able to play in helping the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy.

In his presentation on Thursday, Dr. Alvarez will shed additional light on these issues and their complexities as he discusses the frameworks and research needed to ensure that shale gas development, which is already proceeding rapidly, contributes to a more positive rather than a more destructive climate future. In addition to registering to attend this free webinar, you can learn more about Dr. Alvarez’s research by reading his paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as well as his blog. You can also visit EDF’s website to learn more about the organization’s current work on natural gas, including an initiative to measure methane leakage rates from shale gas wells.

Coming up Next in Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development

As the Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development webinar series begins to look at specific policy responses to the environmental impacts of shale gas development, I am pleased to announce that the third webinar in this series will feature Florida State University Law Professor Hannah Wiseman, who has written several leading works on the state of U.S. shale gas regulations (e.g., Risk and Response in Fracturing Policy, Fracturing Regulation Applied, and Regulation of Shale Gas Development, Including Hydraulic Fracturing). On Wednesday, December 5, from 3-4pm EST, Professor Wiseman will discuss the current state of U.S. shale gas regulations, regulatory gaps, and ways in which federal, state, and local regulations may need to change. You can register for Professor Wiseman’s webinar on “Understanding and Improving Regulation of Shale Gas Development” by clicking here.

Posted in: Energy & Climate

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