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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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President’s Climate Action Plan is a Mixed Bag

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

I want to make a few points about the climate plan President Obama spoke about yesterday. It’s the kitchen sink of climate policy, so there is a lot to say – but I’ll keep it brief.

Overall, this is a step in the right direction simply because the President stood up and gave a speech completely dedicated to addressing climate change. Climate was absent from the campaign trail and has only received piecemeal attention from the White House otherwise. While I have some concerns about the details of the plan, its mere existence is a starting point for a dialouge. Unfortunately, it is a dialouge that should be much further along.


The President’s plan presents what he himself calls an “all of the above energy policy.” That’s a reassuring phrase. My concern is that one of the above—namely coal—is one of the top drivers of climate pollution. I am not suggesting that a better climate policy would require the immediate retirement of all the country’s coal plants; that is patently irresponsible. But a better climate policy would at least recognize that coal is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Specifically, the White House plan proposes to support “clean coal” through loan guarantees for technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and “advanced fossil energy projects,” which presumably includes technologies like coal gasification. The words “clean coal” peppered through this plan is worrisome. There is “cleaner” coal, which emits less carbon, less sulfur, or has other pollutant reductions, but no coal is clean in the sense that wind, solar, or energy efficiency is clean.  Coal gasification can reduce pollutants and CCS can reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, but only if utilities can bring the technology to scale. But new technologies do not address the upstream impacts of coal, from mining to transportation, or the downstream waste storage problems.

Moreover, CCS may not ever be the technology that this plan envisions. When attached to a coal plant, CCS technology requires electricity to operate. That electricity comes directly from the coal plant to which it is attached, which means that CCS will reduce the amount of electricity that leaves the coal plant and goes to homes and businesses. Some estimate that CCS technology could require 40 percent of a coal plant’s electrical output. This means that a coal plant would need to increase its output by 40 percent to make up for the electricity that goes to the CCS process, thereby burning over 40 percent more coal.

The loan guarantee plan is a sort of fossil fuel subsidy, albeit a subsidy that will help reduce the cost of private borrowing for “advanced fossil energy projects” rather than offer direct payments to the industry. In fact, elsewhere in his plan the President promises to reduce direct subsidies.  Coal is king because it is cheap, and it is cheap, in part, because it has had help from the government. Reducing subsidies will help alternative energy sources compete.

One of the most valuable subsidies that coal power receives is permission to emit greenhouse gases, creating a significant social cost but bearing almost none of that cost internally. The new climate plan promises to remove this subsidy as well and that is an important highlight: President Obama promises to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt carbon standards for new and existing power plants. The process is underway (albeit delayed) for new-plant standards but previous EPA statements indicated that the Agency would not address existing plants. Perhaps yesterday’s announcement will change that.


Everything I’ve so far discussed is aimed at reducing climate change. These issues, and many others, have been at the center of the climate change debate, in one form or another, since the beginning. Adaptation, however, has been mostly absent. Yet adaptation is critical. The climate ball is rolling and mitigation seeks to slow it. Adaptation helps us avoid getting flattened by it. Adaptation helps sure-up infrastructure and make society more resilient to change. Local governments have been working tirelessly to adapt and organizations such as Mayor Bloomberg’s C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have been supporting urban resilience efforts. But adaptation has not been a major part of the national dialouge.

With respect to mitigation, the President’s plan largely works at the margin. But with respect to adaptation, whether it is strengthening coastlines or protecting hospitals from floods, the President has finally raised its policy profile and that will likely be the biggest achievement of this plan.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
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Process and progress at the UNFCCC: A report from SB 38 in Bonn

By Guest Author, Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

I was just in Bonn for the mid-year meeting of the advisory bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The purpose of these meetings is to work out the details of the agreements that came out of last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP), and to prepare for the next COP in Warsaw in November. The three groups meeting are the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA), and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP). Ultimately, the goal of these talks is to help transition from the Kyoto Protocol to a new international agreement on climate change that is supposed to be signed in 2015.

For those who follow climate change talks, many familiar themes emerged from this conference. For instance, the talks were an especially iterative process: meetings are started in a large plenary hall and then move to more focused and smaller contact groups. After that, they move to closed-door meetings, and then—where some argue the real substance of negotiations happens—the delegates go into bilateral discussions before returning to plenary meetings. It’s a cycle of refinement. Another major theme was the UNFCCC process itself. A point of debate that came up at one of last week’s meetings, for instance, was an accusation that Secretariat was speeding the talks along too quickly and perhaps single-handedly steering the process. This is an issue because sovereignty and consensus are both major parts of the negotiations. So while it is in the Secretariat’s interest to move things forward, there’s a catch-22 insofar as the UNFCCC Secretariat can lose credibility by trying too hard to get things done.

This brings up a question: Is progress measured by the process or the product?

To this end, indices are used to gauge various forms of progress in climate change policymaking. One slightly tongue-in-cheek example, above, is contained in the infographic shared by the Climate Action Network (CAN) at the Bonn conference, which shows the correlation between daylight in the conference’s host city and the “level of productivity” achieved. While leaving the future open to success, it implies that the negotiators who attend the conferences are simply subject to the rhythm of the solar-system.

Another—more serious--assessment by CAN along with Germanwatch, a climate change institute, is the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). The CCPI rates countries on their relative performance on a number of climate change indicators, including sector-specific carbon dioxide emissions levels, energy efficiency, renewables, and national as well as international policies. It’s interesting to note that part of the international policy score comes from surveys done at international conferences such as the SB 38 of the UNFCCC.

On a final note, please check out the accompanying photos of the conference below. During the conference eastern and southern Germany experienced major flooding. This is a reminder that the true measure of climate progress is preventing dangerous on-the-ground impacts, as extreme weather events are one of the underlying drivers for stopping climate change in the first place. 

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, June 04, 2013
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Heat Action Plan Ads Hit the Streets of Ahmedabad!

By Guest Author, Kathryn Wright, MEM '13 and Lauren Sanchez, MEM '14 and 2013 YCELP Moran Environmental Fellow
In mid-March, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat launched the first comprehensive heat action plan in South Asia in collaboration with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and its partners. Now that the heat season is just around the corner for Gujarat, 
the AMC will have the opportunity to put the heat action plan in motion. The heat action plan is composed of an early warning system and public awareness campaign about staying healthy during extreme temperatures and may be accessed online on the AMC’s website.
Climate scientists predict that extreme heat waves will increase in frequency due to climate change. A key component of NRDC's example materials and advertisements is to try and establish the link between extreme temperatures, health and climate change. NRDC, in partnership with the Indian Institute of Public Health
(IIPH), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and Georgia Institute of Technology, was able to develop public service announcements, recommendations and protocols for heat waves and extreme heat events.
Advertisements and print-distribution are already picking up around the city. Billboards, as pictured below, are being put up around the city providing heat prevention tips. In the coming months, key stakeholders will continue to meet, discuss and revise the early warning system.
 Photo courtesy of Anjali Jaiswal, Director of India Initiative
(Photo courtesy of Anjali Jaiswal, Director of the NRDC India Initiative)
This billboard and other heat action plan advertisements are directed at several unique groups, vulnerable to the effect of increased heat:
  • Young and elderly populations – development stages contribute to increased vulnerability due to challenges maintaining homeostasis. These populations are at-risk because of lack of control of their surrounding environments

  • Slum communities - typically lack access to cooling facilities, healthcare and other amenities to help combat the heat 

  • Outdoor workers - physical exertion under the hot sun contributes to dehydration and susceptibility to other extreme heat illnesses

The heat action plan will be primarily disseminated throughout the city of Ahmedabad through public ads in a variety of media. The advertisements and publications were further tailored to address these unique groups. A separate easy-read version of the heat action plan was developed to reach a broader audience. There are also plans to place public service announcements on ambulances. Another exciting development is that the AMC printed health tip sheets for 6,000 school children to take home to their families! 
In addition to the advertisements around the city, NRDC and its partners are also providing health fact sheets for medical workers and community outreach groups around the city. Through these dissemination strategies, Ahmedabad residents will be able to properly prepare for heat season, and will begin to think about the impacts associated with climate change.

Diagram courtesy of NRDC and its project partners
(Diagram courtesy of NRDC and its project partners)
The heat action plan also involves coordination and cooperation between multiple different government responses to create an integrated emergency response system. The flowchart on the left details the coordinated action between government departments and other stakeholders. These agencies will work together to reach as many residents as possible. There are even plans to coordinate with key electric and water providers during the most extreme temperatures. 
In the coming months, key stakeholders will continue to meet, discuss and revise the early warning system and the heat action plan. Keep an eye on the India Initiative website for updates. 
Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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