On the Environment
Energy & Climate
Monday, November 05, 2012
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.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
By Guest Author, Gabe Scheffler, Yale Law School '14
On October 10, in the first event of this year’s Policy Workshop Webinar Series Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development, Dr. Jim Saiers, Professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, joined the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy to present an overview of shale gas development and its implications for the environment. Focusing on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus region, Professor Saiers discussed the history of shale gas development in the United States, the processes that are used to extract it, and their potential environmental consequences. Throughout the talk, Professor Saiers highlighted the state of existing research and the diversity of opinions on these issues.
Growth in Shale Gas Development
As Professor Saiers noted, the past decade has witnessed a twelve-fold increase in the United States’ shale gas production, and currently, natural gas satisfies about a quarter of the U.S.’s total energy needs. This tremendous growth is due in large part to George Mitchell, the founder of an oil-service company, who pioneered a technique which combines horizontal drilling with high-volume slick water fracturing to reach and extract shale gas deposits.
Shale gas extraction has several stages. Before gas companies can commence drilling, they first must lease land, acquire the relevant permits, and prepare the drilling site (an intensive process that can involve clear-cutting forests or “re-engineering” the landscape to accommodate the drilling pad). The drilling and casing process takes several weeks. In the Marcellus shale, a well may extend 5,000 to 7,000 feet underground before turning horizontally. Cement casing must also be installed to maintain the integrity of the wellbore and to isolate it from surrounding water aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves shooting holes in the lateral portion of the casing with a perforation gun, and then pumping large volumes of a water-based fluid containing chemicals and sand through the borehole and out of the perforations in the casing at high pressures. This increases the fluid pressure within the shale formation and generates fractures.
Potential Environmental Impacts
This process has a number of potential environmental implications. One, featured prominently in the movie Gasland, is that the methane released during extraction could contaminate household drinking water. Professor Saiers observed that if gas wells are improperly cased, then methane can indeed migrate along the borehole and escape into drinking water aquifers. However, he cautioned that these leaks can be avoided by following best practices, and noted that methane sometimes occurs naturally in aquifers or could originate from abandoned oil and gas wells not associated with fracking.
Another concern is that the chemicals used in fracking will contaminate groundwater. Yet the seriousness of this risk is a subject of dispute. For example, Rebecca Wodder, President Obama’s former nominee for Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, has charged that fracking creates a toxic chemical soup that pollutes groundwater and streams. By contrast, Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has stated that she is not aware of any proven case in which the fracking process itself has affected water. Professor Saiers conceded that it’s difficult to reconcile these opposing views. However, he observed that the most likely way contamination would occur would be through surface spills and “flow-back” of frac-water, which could happen during transportation, through accidental releases at the drill sites, or because of leaks in the pits that store flow-back water.
An additional concern is the impact that shale gas has on the climate. While burning gas is cleaner than combusting coal, the carbon emissions footprint of burning gas is still non-negligible (roughly 50% of the carbon emissions from coal). Moreover, the process used to extract shale gas can release or “leak” this gas, a.k.a. methane, which is itself an extremely potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, estimates of how much methane is released during the extraction process vary dramatically. Thus, more research on this subject is urgently needed, since the total climate impact of natural gas development depends to a great extent on the magnitude of this methane leakage. (This critical issue will be the subject of the second webinar in the Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development series from 12-1pm EST on Thursday, November 8, when Dr. Ramon Alvarez discusses “What It Takes To Get Sustained Climate Benefits from Natural Gas.”)
Shale gas development could have other negative environmental consequences as well, including landscape disturbance and decreased air quality. During the Q&A session following Professor Saiers’ presentation, one question also concerned the potential of fracking to lead to earthquakes. Professor Saiers stated that there is a general scientific consensus that fracking can induce some small amounts of seismic activity, but that current research suggests that it may do so at a level that is not threatening. Professor Saiers also discussed the large volumes of water used in fracking, and noted that the impact of this practice will vary depending on regional water availability.
Overall, Professor Saiers presented a relatively optimistic view of the potential to develop shale gas, particularly in the Marcellus region, in an environmentally responsible manner. However, he cautioned that more research is still needed on shale gas’ environmental impacts, and that proper regulatory controls and industry best practices (e.g., proper well construction standards, drilling at depths that are sufficiently below drinking water aquifers, and monitoring around gas wells) are necessary to prevent environmental harms. Based on our current understanding, Professor Saiers believes that shale gas can be produced safely if the right safeguards are in place, and he maintained that current development does appear to be safe in a large number of cases.
Future webinars in the Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development series will continue to explore these critical issues of environmental science and policy. A recording of Professor Saiers’ webinar presentation is available for viewing here:
 “America’s Bounty: Gas Works,” The Economist, July 14, 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21558459
 For example, in a recent interview with Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Fellow Bruce Ho, Dr. Sheila Olmstead from Resources for the Future mentioned that habitat fragmentation as a result of increased shale gas development is a potentially significant environmental impact that has yet to be fully considered. The Nature Conservancy is one organization that has been looking at this issue.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, '12
Pollution does not respect borders.
This old adage is one of the first messages to arise from last week’s International Workshop for a Better Environmental Performance Index (EPI): Towards a Next Generation of Air Quality Monitoring – a workshop jointly hosted by Yale and Columbia Universities and the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at the Seoul National University in Korea.
During a technical session on monitoring and modeling of heavy metals, Dr. Seung-Muk Yi of Seoul National University presented his research findings on the sources and movement of mercury in the Korean environment. His findings were stark.
Mercury is typically released into the air when fossil fuels containing mercury are burned for power generation. Though South Korean emissions of mercury are about one-tenth that of US emissions (18.5 tons a year compared to 143 tons a year), average blood mercury concentrations in Korean citizens are five times greater than average US concentrations.
As Dr. Yi presented, one-third of Koreans have blood mercury levels above those deemed safe by US health guidelines – putting them at risk for neurological health effects and neurodegenerative disorders.
What accounts for this looming public health threat?
Two phenomena combine in Korea to create this potential health disaster:
1. Koreans consume a lot of seafood (74-95 grams a day, about five times the US average); and
2. Korea is near China.
According to Dr. Yi, China’s annual emissions of mercury are nearly four times greater than the US’s and nearly 30 times greater than Korea’s.
By tracing mercury concentration changes over time across monitoring sites within Korea, scientists in Seoul were able to implicate Chinese emissions in Korea’s pollutant problems.
“As our local emissions went down [following new regulations],” he said, “mercury concentrations in our rural and remote stations remained constant.”
China contributed the most to our high mercury events, he said, noting that more than 60 percent of high mercury events in Seoul, when government air monitors detected unusually acute mercury levels in the air, were the result of air masses carried from China.
Coal combustion in Hunan, metal smelting in Guizhou, and dust storms in the Gobi Desert were all implicated in Korea’s pollution problem. Meaning what happens in China doesn’t stay in China.
Lessons like this – an old lesson made new - underscore the importance of international workshops like this one where atmospheric scientists, chemical engineers, and policy experts from around the world wrestled with the very modern problem of global pollution. Hopefully, the knowledge generated here in Seoul won’t stay here.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
By Guest Author, Bruce Ho, Environmental Law & Policy Fellow
Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted that within the next decade the U.S. will become a net exporter of natural gas for the first time since the 1950s. This marks a dramatic shift from only a few years ago when the EIA predicted that domestic natural gas demand would continue to outstrip supplies and that U.S. natural gas imports would rise with seemingly no end in sight. Even as recently as 2011, the EIA predicted that the U.S. would remain a net importer of gas through at least 2035.
So what happened? The answer, quite simply, is shale gas.
The figure to the left, from the EIA Annual Energy Outlook for 2006, 2009, and 2012, details (a) projected imports in 2006 before the shale gas boom; (b) projected imports in 2009 near the beginning of the boom; and (c) projected imports in 2012. LNG is liquefied natural gas.
Until recently, shale gas, which is natural gas produced from shale, had not been an economically recoverable resource. But now, new technologies and techniques – namely horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – are providing ready access to domestic shale gas reserves. Many commentators have hailed this development, which is upending energy markets, as a game changer for the environment. Abundant shale gas, they argue, will help protect the environment by providing a cheaper, cleaner energy alternative to dirty-burning coal. Supporters also argue that cheap and abundant gas is a boon for the economy, energy independence, and national security.
Yet as Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) Associate Director Josh Galperin recently noted, many others are concerned that shale gas development is proceeding full bore without sufficient understanding of the environmental consequences associated, not with its burning, but with its extraction, including air and water pollution and significant water use requirements. Moreover, while burning natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, it still contributes to climate change, and natural gas (which is simply methane) is itself a potent global warming pollutant. Uncertainty about the level of methane that escapes to the atmosphere during drilling and from leaks in the supply chain means that the climate benefits from shale gas are still far from certain.
YCELP's Policy Workshop Seminar Series: Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development
This year, YCELP will explore the rapid rise in production of domestic shale gas and its potentially significant effects on environmental and energy policy through our second annual Policy Workshop Webinar Series. This year’s series, which focuses on “Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development,” will consider shale gas opportunities, risks, and uncertainties through presentations by experts from a variety of sectors and fields. The series aims to provide participants with the latest scientific knowledge and policy expertise, and all webinars, which will be conducted entirely online, are free and open to the public (though registration is required to receive the log-in details), and will also be archived for later viewing.
Toward this end, YCELP is excited to begin the Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development series with a trio of fall semester speakers, who will introduce and address a variety of important topics:
· On Wednesday, October 10 from 4-5pm EDT, Yale Professor of Hydrology Jim Saiers will provide an overview of the latest science on the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction through fracking. Interested individuals can register to participate in this webinar by clicking here.
· Professor Saiers will be followed on Thursday, November 8, from 12-1pm EST, by Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who will discuss the potential climate benefits and challenges posed by the shale gas boom.
· And finally, the fall semester line-up will conclude on Thursday, December 6, from 12-1pm EST, with Bill Dornbos, YCELP’s previous Associate Director and now the Connecticut Director of Environment Northeast, who will discuss the current regulatory structure for shale gas development as well as the effects that this development is already having on state energy planning.
A full roster of additional webinar speakers will follow in the spring.
As a prelude to the series, YCELP recently sat down with Sheila Olmstead, who is a Fellow at Resources for the Future, to discuss some of the implications of the shale gas boom.
As this interview attests, the shale gas boom has already begun, but as the EIA’s changing figures reveal, the future is also difficult to predict. Whether domestic shale gas development will continue to grow rapidly, as suggested by the EIA’s most recent figures, or proceeds instead on some other trajectory, will depend in large part on resolution of the uncertainties that will be discussed in our upcoming series.
Monday, October 01, 2012
By Guest Author, Josh Galperin, YCELP Associate Director
These days it seems there is constant release of new information about hydraulic fracturing. Recent news from a federal court in New York, however, is a departure from this trend. A September 24th ruling in State of New York v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rejected an attempt to require officials at the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to gather and release potentially valuable new information on the anticipated effects of hydraulic fracturing on the Delaware River Basin.
The Delaware River Basin is a coveted landscape that provides drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia, among other locales. Because the water resources of the Basin are important to multiple states and communities, they are cooperatively governed by the DRBC.
Underlying much of the Delaware River Basin is the Marcellus Shale, a rich source of natural gas that has only recently become available and economic to exploit. Recognizing the potential environmental, economic and cultural impacts of significant new shale gas development, in 2010, DRBC began the process of developing regulations regarding natural gas extraction within the Basin. DRBC also determined that it would not permit any gas extraction in the Basin until such time as it adopts final regulations. Over the past two years DRBC has drafted and proposed – but not yet voted to adopt – new regulations that would lift the current ban on natural gas extraction in the Basin and permit regulated drilling.
In this interim period, the State of New York and a number of NGOs sued DRBC (and a series of federal partners) claiming that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires DRBC to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing the potential impacts of its proposed gas drilling regulations.
Generally speaking, NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare an EIS whenever they are undertaking a project that will have significant environmental impacts. In the EIS, the federal agency considers the environmental implications of its project and evaluates possible alternatives. One important benefit of the EIS is that it is a single, comprehensive source for an abundance of data and information on the environmental impacts of a proposed federal project or program.
Unfortunately, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled on September 24th that New York State and the other plaintiffs cannot continue a lawsuit that might have forced DRBC to complete an EIS at this stage. This decision not only delays DRBC’s potential obligation to perform environmental review, but ratifies DRBC’s poor planning, which so far has proceeded with development of regulations without the benefit of an environmental review.
The primary question that the court addressed was whether New York State and the other plaintiffs would suffer injury if DRBC did not complete an EIS. In similar situations, other courts ruled that failure to complete an EIS could lead to “uninformed decisionmaking,” which amounts to an injury, and, because of this injury, past lawsuits were allowed to move forward. However, the court here looked critically at the past cases and found that “in each case, the government had acted in the form of a final order, regulation, plan, denial of a request, or statute.” In other words, the court determined that failure to complete an EIS could only injure a plaintiff when it is attached “to an actual agency action,” which, according to the court, has not yet occurred in the DRBC case.
This reasoning appears strained. NEPA is designed to inform decisionmaking, and most federal agencies, at a minimum, recommend that the required environmental review happen at an early stage of project development. Here, the court found that a review is not required before an “actual agency action.” Yet there is no reason that issuance of draft regulations could not be considered sufficiently “actual.” Issuance of proposed regulations should suffice because it is at this point that potentially injured parties will become fully aware of the existence and scope of the impending injury. In fact, at least one other court has specifically agreed that proposed action is enough to present a real threat of uninformed decisionmaking.
The court here sets up a straw man, saying that it “believes that the reasoning [of other courts, allowing plaintiffs to sue for failure to complete an EIS] cannot be extended indefinitely backward, to embrace internal agency deliberations, drafts or legal analysis . . .” But the official public issuance of proposed regulations is certainly more substantial than internal drafts, deliberations or legal analysis.
In reality, the threat of uninformed decisionmaking arises as soon as decisionmakers begin to consider regulations without the benefit of an EIS. As the court noted, it is not practical to require an EIS at very early stages, in part because there is not any concrete government action associated with early deliberations. Conversely, though, when an agency officially issues proposed regulations without an EIS, it is clear that the agency developed these regulations without complete information, and this is when the actionable threat emerges.
Aside from the legal arguments, the real trouble here is that the basis for this lawsuit was not merely a battle of pro- and anti-fracking factions. Rather, it was an effort to gather information, to put as much transparent analysis as possible into the public sphere, and to improve decisionmaking. As it stands, the fracking debate is heated but largely under-informed. A great many questions about fracking’s air quality, climate, community, water use, wastewater, groundwater, economic and electricity generation impacts are still unanswered. Had this lawsuit turned out differently, it could have led to important new insights.
Thanks to Bruce Ho, Research Scholar in Law, Coca-Cola World Fund Faculty Fellow, and Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School for his contributions to this post.
 State of New York v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, 11-CV-2599 (Sept. 24, 2012).
 Sierra Club v. U.S. Dep’t of Energy, 287 F.3d 1256, 1265 (10th Cir. 2002).
 See, e.g., Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 446 F.3d 808 (8th Cir. 2006).
Thursday, June 07, 2012
By Guest Author, Corinne Bell, Pace University School of Law ‘13
Corinne Bell is a joint-degree student concentrating in energy systems and policy at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and concentrating in environmental law at Pace Law School.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), announced December 21, 2011, regulate power plant emissions in accordance with the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. These standards, which take effect April 2013, will prove to be a substantial planning challenge to grid planning and reliability.
Plants affected by MATS have two options: retrofit to meet the new standards within three years, or retire. More than half of the nation’s coal plants are over forty years old, and for a good portion of them, retrofitting will not be cost effective. The EPA estimates that the new rules will result in the retirement of 4.7 GW of coal-fired plants, while Brattle Group estimates the number to be around 50-65 GWs, or 15 percent to 20 percent of our current fleet. Independent System Operators (ISOs) and Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs) have serious concerns about how this will affect the reliability of the nation’s power grid.
ISOs are particularly concerned about the localized effects of decommissioned plants in transmission-constrained areas, including reduced service to certain load pockets. The Midwest ISO (MISO), covering all or part of eleven states in the Midwest, is one ISO that will be greatly affected by the new standards. MISO expects to retire 12.6 GW out of its current resources, totaling 114.5 GW. MATS will also increase pressure on marginal units, and regions are coordinating with neighboring generators and system operators to manage for outages and ensure resource adequacy. Other options being explored to lessen the blow include demand response and behind-the-meter generation. Demand response allows utility customers to adjust their consumption based on price signals and behind-the-meter generation is defined as generation that delivers energy to load without use of the transmission system (for example, solar panels on a residential roof).
In the instance that retrofitting an affected plant is viewed as a sound investment, managers have two big issues to overcome: supply chain and retrofitting timeline restraints and plant outage scheduling.
Two of the available retrofit options, flue gas desulfurization and fabric filters, require a timeline longer than the three years allowed under MATS. The timing issue is further complicated by the relatively small supply of these technologies; it is not possible for suppliers to meet in a timely manner the surge in demand created by MATS. MISO, for example, is looking very closely at these supply chain issues.
Given the large number of plants affected, retrofitting must be carefully scheduled to ensure that enough capacity remains online to meet demand. These retrofit outages will be much longer than standard maintenance outages, which ISOs and utilities have more experience scheduling.
And then there is the issue of who foots the bill. Someone has to pay for the retrofits; does the plant absorb these costs, or can they be passed on to the ratepayer?
While some have called MATS an “attack on coal,” it is only one of the many gathering challenges to coal. (1) The economics of coal power are faltering: coal prices have been on the rise while natural gas prices have fallen drastically. (2) Coal plants are much less efficient than combined-cycle technologies. (3) Proposed Cooling Water Quality rules would also greatly affect coal-fired power plants and, (4) if new plants are evaluated under New Source Review Standards, they could not be built without carbon capture and sequestration (effectively meaning that no new coal can be built). To point to MATS as a coal killer is an overly simplistic view; it should instead be seen as finally internalizing some of the negative externalities for which these plants have not been held accountable in the past.
 Energy Bar Association, Sixty-Sixth Annual Meeting, (April 26, 2012) Panel on EPA Regulation of Generator Emissions.
 MISO, EPA Regulations: Balancing Reliability, Affordability and Environmental Protection presentation to Energy Bar Association, Sixty-Sixth Annual Meeting.
 A MISO report on supply chain issues was expected in late April.
 Continental Economics, EPA Regulation of Generator Emissions—Key Market Issues, Energy Bar Association, Sixty-Sixth Annual Meeting.
Monday, June 04, 2012
By Susanne Stahl
The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy is very pleased to introduce Bruce Ho, who will be joining the Center and Yale Law School as an Environmental Law and Policy Fellow for the 2012-2013 academic year.
Mr. Ho is currently a Sustainable Energy Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Chicago where his research focuses on methods for accelerating the Midwest’s clean energy economy. He has worked on climate and energy issues for NRDC in Beijing, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Environmental Protection Agency as well as water quality and aquatic resource protection in northern California and his home state of Texas.
Mr. Ho is a graduate of Stanford Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; he holds a BA in History from the University of Texas at Austin.
YCELP: What initially drew you to environmental law and policy?
Bruce Ho: I have been interested in the environment and the outdoors since I was child, but I never saw this area as a career path – much less the passion that it has become for me – until my last semester in college when I enrolled, on a whim, in a class called Political Ecology. That course, and the wonderful professor who taught it – Professor Diana Davis, who is now at UC Davis – challenged me to think about how humans interact with our world and inspired me to pursue a new direction. In fact, I became so engaged that Professor Davis encouraged me to apply to graduate school, which ultimately led me to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FE&S). I owe her more than anybody for leading me to this path.
YCELP: You've spent time at the California Air Resources Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency as well as NRDC's Beijing and Chicago offices; given the geographic scope of your work, what do you see as some of the most pressing issues?
Bruce Ho: I also spent a summer working on groundwater in Texas, three years in California wine country at the state’s water quality agency, two years on the East Coast when I was a graduate student at FE&S, and some time in Europe as a law student participating in climate meetings, so I’ve been all over! Perhaps the most important thing that I’ve learned in my travels is that there is interesting and challenging environmental work to be done no matter where you are on all kinds of different issues. In the last few years, though, I have increasingly focused on energy and climate change, and I’d be hard pressed right now to point to anything more important than accelerating the movement toward cleaner and more efficient sources of energy – everywhere.
YCELP: What policy issues are you focused on right now?
Bruce Ho: Currently, I am working primarily on energy efficiency in the Midwest and the challenge of aligning the financial interests of utilities, which under traditional regulatory models profit by selling more electricity, with those of ratepayers and society more broadly, which benefit by avoiding the cost and pollution of expensive new power plants and reducing reliance on outdated, dirty old ones. In addition to my work on energy efficiency, which is by far the cheapest, cleanest, and fastest to deploy energy resource available, I am also working on electricity transmission planning and policies to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles.
YCELP: What projects are you planning to work on during your time at Yale?
Bruce Ho: My project portfolio is still evolving, but as a fellow next year at YCELP and Yale Law School, one of my chief tasks will be to help instruct students in Yale’s Environmental Protection Clinic as they work on a variety of interesting and cutting-edge legal and policy issues. I also hope to help build the energy law and policy offerings available to graduate students and to continue working on some of the issues that I have been tackling at NRDC, such as figuring out ways to integrate increasing amounts of efficient and renewable energy onto the electric grid.
YCELP: Any environmental law & policy book recommendations?
Bruce Ho: I recently read Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in urban development or the growth of the United States and changes in our environment more broadly. It’s not an environmental policy book per se, but is a fascinating exploration of how the City of Chicago developed during the 19th century in concert with – and as a direct result of – the development and exploitation of its natural resource hinterlands. For anyone frustrated by the state of the global climate negotiations, I also recommend Scott Barrett’s Environment and Statecraft, which won’t necessarily make you more hopeful about the future, but does offer helpful insights that explain why these issues are so difficult to resolve and provides some thought-provoking recommendations on the pathways forward.
Friday, June 01, 2012
By Guest Author, By Halley Epstein, Yale Law School ‘14
Halley Epstein attended the recent Conference on Climate Change Justice at the University of Chicago. She’s summarized some of the highlights in the post below.
A deep debate exists among academics and policymakers about what constitutes climate change justice, and the failures of various international climate change summits – each convened to draft climate treaties with teeth – perhaps most acutely reflect the discord among power players, including the U.S., China, and India.
In their 2010 book Climate Change Justice, Eric Posner and David Weisbach argue for a climate treaty requiring nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions without addressing any issues not immediately connected to that task. Justice, whether distributive or corrective, should not guide the negotiations for a climate change treaty because the cooperation of all nations – both rich and poor, industrialized and developing – is required, and each nation holds conflicting views of the role justice should play. Posner and Weisbach’s central assertion is that a climate treaty must instead satisfy International Paretianism – it must make all nations involved better off (but could be satisfied if it makes at least one nation better off and no nation worse off). This, they contend, is a feasibility principle, not an ethical principle.
The recent Conference on Climate Change Justice, sponsored by the Institute for Law and Economics and the Chicago Journal of International Law, gave scholars an opportunity to respond to this idea while offering their own. Many conference discussions dealt with ethical questions of distributive and corrective justice, as well as whether moral and ethical considerations might actually alter nations’ views of their climate obligations.
I left the conference convinced that countries have been blinded by their pursuit of policy victories rather than reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Some highlights from the event follow.
Conflating a Climate Treaty with Distributive Justice
Posner and Weisbach assert that a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale should not involve the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor countries. Most conference participants seemed to agree that promoting all global goals through a climate treaty alone is unreasonable. University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum cautioned against bracketing off distributive goals from a climate treaty entirely as there are opportunities to discover causal links and “fertile intervention points,” such as increasing the participation of women in matters of governance and promoting environmental policies and goals in countries such as India and Nepal.
As Posner and Weisbach suggest, sustaining ethical claims that a climate change treaty must redistribute wealth or that most abatement measures must occur in rich countries is difficult, but some presenters distinguished between seeking distributive justice through mitigation versus adaptation. University of Oxford Professor Henry Shue said it would be irrational for countries lacking the financial resources to deal with their own adaptation needs to make sacrifices for global climate change mitigation without an agreement from wealthier nations to help them with adaptation. Such an agreement, Shue said, could make up for the fact that poorer nations constrain development to some extent by restraining emissions, and whatever the treaty or agreement nations settle on for reducing emissions, distributive effects – whether from a moral or feasibility standpoint – must be part of the talks.
Posner and Weisbach approach International Paretianism as an empirical principle with the assumption that no nation or state will agree to a treaty that leaves it worse off. But this does not address Shue’s concern about individuals. The poorest individuals lack political capital (as may their governments at the international negotiating table). So a treaty presumably could make a country better off, on the whole, while worsening conditions for its poorest people.
Corrective Justice: Who Pays? Do Historical Emissions Matter?
Posner and Weisbach do not believe historic emissions can or should be included in a climate treaty, but Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Paul Baer argued that the assumption that polluters should be unaccountable for cross-border damages is itself unsupportable. One of his major problems with the authors’ view is that they assume externalization of greenhouse-gas-emissions costs is a legitimate status quo.
Many conference presenters discussed the idea of fairness, which represents another feasibility constraint to forming a treaty that works for developed and developing nations alike. While some developing nations view historical emissions as a necessary calculation in determining nations’ obligations, nations that would shoulder responsibility for historic contributions reject the concept of accountability as justice, at least in this manner.
Lukas Meyer, a professor at the University of Graz, Austria, said compensating countries with cash payments for historical contributions would be difficult to justify, distinguishing that type of distribution from distributive justice – basing the latter on evening out undeserved benefits or harms. Nussbaum pointed out that applying corrective justice turns into the blame game with a lot of jockeying for a less blameful (or blameless) position rather than cooperation for the sake of actually reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. I agree with both speakers, and think their comments reflect feasibility constraints and political realities. Ideally, though, rich and industrialized countries that have contributed to historical emissions and laid the path for the world’s current emissions trajectory should recognize the effect of their actions.
Posner and Weisbach criticize the notion of collective responsibility and point out that many of the people living today in industrialized countries are not actually the ones responsible for climate change (though they acknowledge these people have benefited from the emissions of their predecessors in, say, the U.S.). Past emissions, they say, will be largely moot since developing nations, namely China, India, and Brazil, will catch up to the U.S.
Equal Future Shares
University of Chicago Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert discussed the equal future shares theory, which disregards historical carbon emissions and divides up the remaining carbon commons equally per capita (based on limits). Using this method he calculates the fair share of remaining carbon commons at 70 tonnes per person. What does this mean for Americans and the Chinese, for example? At current rates, North Americans would need to stop emitting carbon in 13 years while the Chinese could continue emitting for 56 years. If historical usage is factored in, North Americans used up their fair share in 1970; the Chinese will use up their fair share in 2040. Hopefully, we will have a climate treaty well before 2040 and countries will collectively have initiated significant steps to reduce emissions by that time.
Equal distribution of emissions allowances in an international system would be arbitrary, said Tel Aviv University Law Professor Yoram Margalioth, and would further assume common ownership. That, Margalioth argued, is an assumption we do not apply to most other goods; for example, countries with valuable mineral deposits are not required to divide profits among other nations. Posner and Weisbach also criticized this assumption: “When governments close commons, they do not . . . distribute shares of it to citizens on a per capita basis.” Climate change affects nations in different ways, so it is unclear how distributing emissions allowances on a per-capita basis would achieve justice if countries that would benefit and countries that would suffer greatly from climate change received the same allowances.
Realism or Pessimism: Some Predictions of the Way Forward for a Climate Treaty
The conference presenters expressed a range of ideas for what the future may hold for an international climate treaty:
-Any international agreements may simply follow what nations are already doing to reduce GHG emissions.
-For an effective international climate treaty that addresses mitigation, the world needs the buy-in of the U.S., China, India, and Brazil.
-The U.S. should have been a first actor, but arguably has already positioned itself to be at best a second actor.
-The “common but differentiated responsibilities” outlined at Rio in 1992 and solidified in Berlin in 1997 simply will no longer work. Harvard Professor Robert Stavins said this “dichotomous distinction” made progress virtually impossible in later international negotiations. At a minimum, Stavins believes the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action breaks with the Berlin Mandate because it is a mandate to adopt by 2015 a new legal framework to include all key countries for implementation in 2020; this opens up negotiations to outside-of-the-box thinking.
-If countries continue to pursue cap-and-trade systems, harmonizing the systems in advance will minimize or avoid political discord about features of such systems, such as whether a safety valve should be included. For example, the EU does not want a safety valve provision while any U.S. system would likely include that “escape hatch,” so reconciling these positions will be necessary to achieve international coordination.
More information about the conference, including a list of participants and links to paper drafts, is available online on the conference website.
 Eric Posner & David Weisbach, Climate Change Justice 136 (2010).
 Posner and Weisbach suggest in their book that first actors could be given preferential claims to surpluses generated by mitigation activities (in the form of harms avoided and so forth) to encourage countries to take early, strong stances when confronted with international issues, avoiding stand-offs.
Friday, May 18, 2012
By Guest Author, Beren Argetsinger, Pace University School of Law ‘13
Meeting clean energy goals, complying with environmental standards, achieving state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and maintaining grid reliability require enormous resource and capital investment throughout the energy industry. The recent Energy Bar Association (EBA) Spring Seminar and 66th Annual Meeting in Washington DC offered insight into numerous aspects of these important issues, including the effects of shale gas and new EPA regulations on coal-fired electric generating units (EGU), challenges facing the integration of renewable energy resources, and a discussion of recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) orders, including Order 1000. A summary of meeting highlights follows.
Coal Plant Economics
Rapid growth in shale gas production throughout the United States has led to the lowest natural gas prices in over a decade. Futures prices dipped below $2.00 per thousand cubic feet in April 2012 for the first time since September 2001, and the Energy Information Administration projects that low natural gas prices (in the $4- to $6-per-thousand-cubic-feet range) will continue for the foreseeable future. Low natural gas prices combined with increasingly stringent EPA regulations on power plant emissions have important implications for the electric power industry.
Kurt Bilas, Executive Director of Government Relations at the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), noted that out of the approximately 70 gigawatts of coal-generation capacity in the MISO service territory, 60 GW will need to retrofit or retire as a result of EPA’s Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS) and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, which is currently under stay). Out of that 60 GW, approximately 12 GW (representing over 10 percent of MISO’s total generation capacity) would have to retire.
With EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas rule, the economics for coal fired EGUs – both existing and new – are becoming increasingly marginal in competitive wholesale electricity markets. Further complicating the issue, the decision to retrofit or replace these units must account for the possibility that a significant retrofit of a facility could trigger New Source Review (NSR) and compliance with New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) under the Clean Air Act. Many operators are looking for greater stability and certainty for the long term, and natural gas is quickly emerging as the fuel of choice for new electric power generation.
Some regions of the country already rely heavily on natural-gas-fired generation. In 2010 natural gas supplied over 45 percent of the power produced in the ISO-New England service territory, up from just 6 percent in 1990. In other regions, natural gas represents the second largest portion of proposed new generation (second only to proposals for wind). However, switching from coal to gas generation is complicated: new facilities must be constructed and pipeline transportation infrastructure must be in place to deliver the fuel.
In fact, the pipeline infrastructure and nature of the natural gas delivery contracts represent some of the most significant barriers to the transition. In regions such as the Northeast, natural gas is also used as a heating fuel in the winter months. Because gas generators generally take natural gas delivery on an interruptible basis, other customers taking delivery on a firm contract basis – such as the home heating market – take precedent when demand is high and pipeline capacity is full. Expanding pipeline capacity is the logical solution to this problem; however, this takes years of planning, environmental review, siting, permitting, and construction.
Compounding the issue for coal plants is the EPA’s 2015 compliance deadline for MATS (2016, if a state extension is granted). Many operators will choose to retire these old generators rather than upgrading them to meet the new standards. Without adequate replacement capacity in the system, a generation facility could be called upon to run for reliability reasons – putting it out of compliance with the law. The U.S. House of Representatives recently responded to this issue with the passage of H.R. 4273.
H.R. 4273 would amend the Federal Power Act (FPA) to exempt a generator operating under an FPA Section 202(c) emergency order from liability if it were otherwise in violation of federal, state or local environmental laws. While the principles contained in the bill are sound – dispatching a generator for emergency reliability purposes should not subject that generator to liability for non-compliance with the law – it opens the door for generators to subvert environmental policy and extend the date of compliance.
Opponents of the legislation have argued the bill would effectively write a loophole into the FPA that would delay compliance with EPA regulation. Further, the EPA maintains that Section 202(c) orders are rare and the legislation is unnecessary, given the other tools that EPA has at its disposal. While the fate of HR 4273 may be a bellwether for how Congress ultimately responds to EPA regulation in the electric industry, the long-term generation resource portfolio that will replace retiring coal units largely will depend on economic, technological, and infrastructure constraints. Public policy, such as state RPS or EPA regulations like MATS, CSAPR, and the proposed greenhouse gas rule, must be considered in regional transmission planning processes pursuant to FERC Order 1000.
In July 2011 FERC issued Order 1000 in an attempt to address challenges associated with transmission planning and cost-allocation. At the EBA meeting, former FERC Commissioner Suedeen Kelley noted that the promotion of competition in regional transmission planning processes lies at the core of Order 1000. Requiring the incorporation of public policy into the planning process should stimulate a more holistic assessment of transmission needs, costs, and benefits for transmission infrastructure. This is particularly important for the integration of renewables – which has a sort of “chicken and egg” conundrum associated with it. Renewable developers won’t build new wind turbines if there are no transmission lines to deliver the power to load, and transmission developers won’t build new transmission in the hopes that a wind farm will go up and energize the line.
The Midwest has vast wind resource potential that could play an important role in the nation’s energy portfolio over the long term. Texas, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa have over 6,900 GW of combined wind generation potential. With only 46 GW of installed wind power capacity in the United States in 2011, wind has a long way to go to before it represents a significant portion of the nearly 1000 GW of the country’s total installed capacity.
Balancing Short-Term Market Signals with Long-Term Energy Policy
FERC Order 1000 fosters greater competition and inter-ISO/RTO cooperation in transmission planning, requiring the incorporation of public policy goals in the transmission planning process. While this is a step in the right direction, comprehensive Congressional action is critical – but unlikely in the near term. That makes it all the more critical for states and regional entities to coordinate on clean energy goals and cost-effective solutions to meeting environmental standards while maintaining grid reliability.
Greater harmonization of state RPS, even if only among states within the same ISO/RTO service territories, could lead to more cost-effective renewable power integration and ease the transmission planning and cost-allocation process. While increased natural gas development will and must be part of our energy future, short-term market signals must be tempered by long-term energy policy goals, including increased federal attention to transmission and renewable energy development.
Beren Argetsinger is a joint-degree student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he is pursuing a MEM with a concentration in energy systems and policy, and Pace Law School.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
By Guest Author, Agustín F. Carbó-Lugo, MEM '12, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board, gave the keynote address at the Yale Environmental Law Association’s second annual New Directions in Environmental Law Conference. While she was on campus, she sat down for an interview with Agustín F. Carbó-Lugo, a MEM candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Agustín Carbó: Environmental justice groups argue that California’s greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program will create “hot spots” in low-income communities. How is California addressing these concerns from a legal and programmatic perspective?
Mary Nichols: First of all, when we began developing the cap and trade program, we were operating under the requirements of AB 32, which has very specific provisions that order the Air Resources Board to consider environmental justice in every aspect of our decisionmaking. And before we could even begin to adopt a market-based program of any kind, we had to make certain findings, including findings that the program would not increase air pollution in any community in the state.
So from the beginning we were analyzing the rule and developing it in a way that we felt [we] would be able to make those kinds of findings -- that [process] involved looking at how the program would actually operate in a worst-case situation: Assuming that the most polluting companies in the state subject to the rule were trying to buy as many credits as they could rather than cleaning up themselves, would they actually be able to do that in a way that would increase localized air pollution?
We were able to satisfy ourselves based on some scenarios that we developed that it could not happen because of existing air quality regulations already on the books. But we also, in the course of writing the regulation, put in some safeguards that we felt would make sure – and hopefully assure concerned members of the public – that it was not going to happen. Those safeguards involved extra monitoring at the localized level and the ability to take action to disallow further use of imported allowances or offsets if we found increased pollution from facilities under the cap and trade program.
One reason we think there’s not a real issue here, despite the concern, is that there’s a tendency on the part of facility owners to make decisions based on actual costs of compliance with the program. In other words, putting a price on carbon causes people to take a look at their operations and decide how to operate more efficiently. Generally speaking, the oldest, dirtiest plants are also those where the company has chosen not to clean up because they’re not operating very efficiently in addition to the pollution that they put out. Either they decide to clean up – and thereby also improve their operating profile – or they’ll tend to shut down their least efficient facilities and concentrate on the places where they get more output per unit of fuel.
The other reason is that when we look at our low-income and minority communities in California with the greatest concentrations of toxic contaminants, the sources of those pollutants tend not to be the industrial facilities themselves, but instead community-level transportation like the ports and the rail yards where the major pollutants of concern are diesel toxic emissions. These facilities are not being directly affected by the cap and trade program, but they are subject of a lot of other regulatory attention from the Air Resources Board these days.
We do understand how in parts of the world – where there are great concerns about whether localized communities have any kind of air pollution protection – adding in carbon trading or carbon allowances could add to a community’s concerns if they’re not also accompanied by a push to deal with health. But in our situation in California, we just don’t think it’s an issue.
Agustín Carbó: Is California’s cap-and-trade program pushing the climate change agenda to a national level? Do you foresee that eventually the federal government may preempt this issue?
Mary Nichols: Some of the thinking behind the original AB 32 was clearly that if our state and other states adopted climate legislation, especially if that legislation was in some ways conflicting or created different pressures on companies, that it would make them more anxious to support federal legislation.
The truth is, a lot of impetus behind the adoption of the Waxman-Markey legislation by the House of Representatives came from the business community; large companies that operate at the national and international level were already experiencing the push and pull of being held accountable in different states and were hoping Congress would step in and preempt state programs like ours. Of course, no bill was passed in the Senate, and it looks now like it’s going to be a long time before that happens.
But I expect that someday Congress will take action. There will be federal climate legislation and if it has a cap and trade element, then state programs probably will be merged into that program. Whether it would be an absolute preemption or a set of steps creating incentives for states to join I can’t say – either way, we would much prefer to be operating under a national program rather than running our own; it’s just more efficient that way.
Agustín Carbó: In light of skeptics and partisan propaganda that insists climate change is not real, what needs to happen to gain more public acceptance and force the U.S. government to commit to international initiatives to fight climate change?
Mary Nichols: I don’t think the impediment has anything to do with science. The science debate is a distraction. Scientists are still debating exactly how cigarette smoking causes cancer. That’s the nature of science – to continue to raise problems and objections.
I recognize that people will be questioning the accepted consensus on human-caused climate change for many years into the future. But the fact is there is enough agreement on the need to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s not what’s holding back any kind of effective regulatory or legislative program. It’s politics, and it’s the cost – and until there’s a sufficient demand and understanding that there are ways to do this that don’t hurt the economy, that actually help the economy, we’ll continue to see blockage at the national level.
Agustín Carbó: Recent UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations have made it clear that climate protection will depend on actions on the ground in both developing and developed countries, a concept that may involve Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and Low-Emissions Development Strategies (LEDS). Is California considering to design, plan and/or implement some of these measures?
Mary Nichols: I think the California program and the programs we’ve worked on with other states and other subnational groups through various mechanisms – including the Western Climate Initiative and others — constitute that kind of on-the-ground control measure. We think what we’re doing is actually developing some of the operating rules and the experiences that will make it possible for other places to do some of the things we’re doing. The cap-and-trade program is only one example. We also have the low-carbon fuel standard, our advanced fleet cars programs, our industrial audits – there’s a panoply of rules that we’re working on.
But I think what’s more relevant to many parts of the developing world are programs we’re working on that involve incentives and/or voluntary programs – working with agriculture, working with local sanitation districts, helping to promote better technology for the capture and reuse of methane from waste materials. These areas are critically important if we’re actually going to make a dent in the overall buildup of greenhouse gasses. And these are programs that are also underway in California, but they’re not all necessarily being led out of the Air Resources Board. We have a variety of other government agencies at the state and local level working together with the private sector to pioneer some of these activities.
It’s very exciting to pick up the paper every morning to see examples new technologies. For example, there’s a little rural community outside of Las Angeles called Norco, which is famous because it’s zoned for horses. Along with the horses, they also have a very large waste disposal problem – and the city has been spending tens of thousands of dollars each year to collect and truck the stuff to a land disposal site. They’ve just signed a contract with a subsidiary of Chevron, which is developing for them a waste-to-energy plant. The plant will not only alleviate the cost of disposal, but also provide the city with some of its electrical power. This is great stuff, and it’s happening because of interest in waste disposal, energy policy – and it also helps our climate numbers.
This interview has been edited and condensed. A video recording of their conversation is available below as well as here.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
By Guest Author, Erin Burns Gill, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, MEM '12
In January’s Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe webinar, Dr. Shi-Ling Hsu, law professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the new book The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-Ups to Effective Climate Policy, joined the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy to discuss climate policy from Canada's perspective. His presentation, “Climate Policy in Canada: (Snow)Boots on the Ground,” explained the nuances of Canadian policy that outsiders may miss by focusing only on the similarities between Canada and the United States.
On the surface, many of Canada’s climate actions appear to parallel those of the United States: Canada’s recent withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol or its acceptance of the Copenhagen Accord might be seen as Canada simply following the U.S. lead in international policy, and Canada’s efforts to impose federal command-and-control policies for greenhouse gases might look similar to President Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act. However, there are several subtle but important distinctions between the two neighbors’ attitudes toward climate policy, Hsu said.
He outlined four “puzzles” that, when explained, reveal differences between the United States and Canada:
Why is Canada’s conservative and market-savvy federal government embracing command-and-control climate policy, rather than a market-based approach?
Why is British Columbia—the only province in North America to have accepted a carbon tax—so far ahead of the country and the continent?
Why are four important Canadian provinces still participating in the Western Climate Initiative, when all U.S. states except California have abandoned the program?
What explains Alberta’s voluntary adoption of carbon policy when its economy and policies are so tightly linked with oil & gas extraction?
To explain these puzzles Hsu identified four unique Canadian qualities:
Trade Dependence. Canada places a strong emphasis on maintaining healthy trade relationships with the U.S., Europe, and (more and more) China.
Conciliatory Attitudes. Canadian political leaders often value consensus and conciliation over confrontation and conflict.
Federalism. Canada is a very federalist country—the jurisdiction of Canadian provinces is much broader than that of U.S. States. Provincial responsibility for action on climate change is well recognized, and passing federal climate policies can be very challenging.
Strong Executives. Canada’s executives (the Prime Minister and provincial Premiers) can be very powerful if backed by a legislative majority. Additionally, Canadian courts are highly deferential to executive branch action or inaction. Unlike in the U.S., if an executive agency makes a decision, Canadian courts are unlikely to question or overturn that decision.
Hsu then explained how these four Canadian qualities—unique compared to the U.S.—explain the four “puzzles” of Canadian climate policy:
Trade Dependency and Federalism explain Canada’s command-and-control approach to carbon regulation. To avoid trade tariffs and to otherwise remain competitive in a global marketplace, Canadian companies want to show that they operate under similar regulatory conditions as other countries. Additionally, command-and-control regulation is one of the few carbon policies that the federal government is positioned to impose; the federal government does not have constitutional authority to implement a cap-and-trade program. Hsu notes, however, that the proposed means of achieving federal command-and-control may be a tough sell: the government has defined greenhouse gases as toxic substances, and thus plans to regulate emissions under criminal law.
The Strong Executive role of British Columbia’s Premier Gordon Campbell explains why the province succeeded in passing a carbon tax. Premier Campbell was politically and intellectually interested in a carbon tax policy, and in 2008 he faced ideal political conditions to lead parliament in adopting the legislation. Interestingly, Campbell’s political party was the less liberal of the province’s two parties; by taking leadership on carbon, Premier Campbell won support from environmentalists who were traditionally more supportive of his opponents.
Federalism explains why the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario remain in the Western Climate Initiative when all U.S. states (except California) have dropped out. Because there is no expectation of leadership from the federal government, Canadian constituencies demand and expect action from their provincial leadership; thus, participation in the Western Climate Initiative is well supported.
Trade Dependence, Conciliatory Attitudes, and Federalism explain why the fossil fuel-dependent province of Alberta has taken voluntary (albeit tepid) action on climate. Oil and gas production accounts for 25 percent of GDP, 75 percent of exports, and 35 percent of government revenue in Alberta. This dependence on fossil fuel trading motivates Alberta to remain an attractive trade partner to countries that more and more prefer climate-friendly suppliers; Alberta’s climate policy is a sign to trading partners that the province is doing something to address climate change. Additionally, a general inclination to remain conciliatory with neighboring Canadian provinces likely motivated Alberta to pursue some degree of voluntary action. Finally, Canadian federalism means that Alberta’s voluntary action may also prove strategic: by having a climate policy in place, Alberta makes it more difficult for the federal government to impose top-down (and potentially more impactful) legislation.
To conclude, Hsu predicted climate action will continue to come from Canadian provinces, rather than from Canada’s federal government. He recognized that, despite the unique qualities of Canadian politics, action from the United States would likely motivate action from Canada. In the perhaps more likely case that the U.S. fails to pass significant climate legislation in the short term, there is still potential that Canada might show leadership by adopting a carbon tax.
Such a tax, Hsu said, could be significant even if it’s not very steep. Even a slight price on carbon could guide upcoming capital decisions (regarding the construction of new power plants, for example) toward less carbon-intensive paths.
A full recording of Dr. Hsu’s presentation, along with recordings of all the other webinars in the Climate Change Solutions series, is available at http://yaleenvirocenter.webex.com.
Friday, December 09, 2011
By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Max Song, and Jonathan Smith
The following post is republished from China FAQs: The Network for Climate and Energy Information.
One of the most persistent themes so far at Durban has been how to bridge gaps - the divide between the developed and developing countries, many of whom disagree about whether the Kyoto Protocol should be extended into a second commitment period; the hole in climate finance pledges from developed countries; and the ambition or emissions gap between the Copenhagen pledges and the stabilization of global temperatures below a 2 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels.
These three major gaps must be addressed in Durban. One major question will be whether developing and some developed countries, Europe in particular, can work together to find a solution that enables the Kyoto Protocol to be extended. When it comes to money, there are questions about where some $2 billion USD out of the $30 billion promised to developing countries at Copenhagen and Cancun to assist them in mitigation and adaptation efforts will come from.
Perhaps the most prominent issue being discussed in Durban is the emissions or ambition gap between Copenhagen emission reduction pledges and the goal to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. To help facilitate the negotiations, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report Bridging the Emissions Gap which concludes that even if countries fully implement their Copenhagen commitments, the world would only be about halfway towards the emission reductions necessary to ensure global temperatures do not warm more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, the good news is that we have the technological and financial capacity now to achieve the emissions reductions necessary to avoid such an increase. Focusing on projections of global greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2020, the report looks at the “emissions gap” between:
the level of emissions needed to ensure an average global temperature increase below 2 degrees C; and
the level of global emissions in 2020 we’re likely to see given the voluntary emission reduction pledges in the Copenhagen Accord.
The report finds that even if all Copenhagen reduction pledges are met, total emissions would still exceed the level necessary to prevent a 2-degree increase by 6 to 11 gigatonnes. This is about 1 gigatonne greater than last year’s gap, an increase brought about by some countries such as Australia and Brazil having clarified how they calculate the baseline emissions from which their reductions would be made - effectively weakening their Copenhagen pledges.
But on the bright side, the full implementation of current technologies could more than make up for the gap, and at an economically feasible price. Existing energy efficiency technologies, renewable energy sources, and agricultural practices will be enough to put us back on the right track. In other words, we no longer need to wait for the next great technological breakthrough, just the next great policies to deploy the technology we have now. The report also emphasizes the need to improve measurement and accounting for market-based incentives such as the carbon reduction projects through the Clean Development Mechanism and from land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).
Negotiators here in Durban have been actively discussing the report and referencing the emissions scenarios that show global emissions must peak sometime before 2020 if temperature rise is to be contained below 2 degrees C. Delegates have been referring to the 6-11 gigatonne gap on the plenary floors and in the working groups over the last week.
We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kejun Jiang of China’s Energy Research Institute and a lead author of the UNEP report, about their analysis and what China can do here in Durban to help bridge the gap.
Q: The UNEP report concludes that global emissions will need to peak before 2020 if the “emissions gap” is to be closed. How likely do you think it will be for countries to agree on this here in Durban and what about the time frame for when China’s emissions will peak?
A: It’s necessary for the world to see emissions peak by 2020. We can get there supposing China’s emissions peak in 2025, and developed countries will have significantly reduced emissions by 2025. This way, it’s still possible to control global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. It’s not quite possible to observe the global peak before 2015. For China, emissions are expected to peak around 2030. However, if we look at clean tech development in China now, the speed is very fast and it’s still possible to see major changes coming from China in 3 to 4 years to help close the gap.
Q: So is China’s Copenhagen pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40-45 percent enough to help bridge the emissions gap?
A: Actually, the 12th-Five Year Plan was made according to a target of 45 percent carbon intensity reduction. There are a lot of policies and actions in the plan on energy efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy. If all this work could be done well, it is possible for China to do better than the target.
Q: Technology transfer continues to be a very hot-button issue in the UN climate negotiations. Will China be pushing for technology transfer to contribute to their ability to help close the emissions gap?
A: There is much capital from China looking for investment opportunities, however domestic investment has been pretty much saturated, and they are now looking at overseas investments. Clean tech investment is a good choice because China has the most competitive technologies that can bring down the cost of wind and solar power. So this is what we want to convey here in Durban: it’s not just emission reductions, it’s also about the country’s future competitiveness in the clean tech sector.
China will have a lot of capital in the future, like I just said, and China is not really in need of CDM money, which is only a tiny little part of GDP. What China needs is high-end technology.
The Durban Agenda
Q: What do you think can be accomplished here in Durban?
A: So here are my suggestions for us observers this time in COP-17. First, we want to leave some more room for the negotiators. Copenhagen was about debating; Cancun was about moving forward, and Durban is a working conference where countries don’t really want to fight each other but to finish the “homework” left from Copenhagen and Cancun. Also, countries in Durban want to nail down some technical details. For example, the EU wants to promote a “road-map” this time, and countries like China are waiting for that proposal to see how much it can be promoted. If Durban fails again, then countries will start to doubt UN’s capability.
Also China is changing very fast, and the negotiators need time to follow up. For example, China expected financial support in Copenhagen, but this time, this is not a major issue for China.
Q: If Parties fail to decide on a second commitment period before the Kyoto Protocol expires next year, what do you think China’s response will be?
A: I think this [failure to agree on the Kyoto Protocol] would be unimaginable. Without the KP - the minimum-level of agreement - it would be a mess. Ideally, we should have an improved KP, both considering the needs from G77+China and developed countries. China can also compromise on some issues here in Durban.
Q: If a new agreement can only be made for 2020, do you think that would be too late?
A: Certainly too late. There is possibility for some countries to make new adjustments to their 2020 emission goals. So I think countries should start to make targets for 2025 and 2030. If those targets are made very clear, then we can start to place less emphasis on emission targets for 2020.
Angel Hsu is a PhD candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to ChinaFAQs.org; Max Song is a MEM student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and Jonathan Smith is a JD/MEM candidate at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They are all attending COP-17 in Durban.
Thursday, December 08, 2011
By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, PhD candidate, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
The following post is republished from China FAQs: The Network for Climate and Energy Information.
When China launched its first official pavilion at a UN climate conference last week, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat Cristiana Figueres was there alongside China’s NDRC Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua to cut the ribbon. Swarmed by journalists in the standing-room only conference center of the China pavilion in Durban, Figueres applauded China for being a “trend-setter” in global renewable energy, resonating around the world and during the first week of climate negotiations in Durban.
“As I look at what has happened here at Durban in the negotiations this past week, what I see is a sailboat that has been sailing over very difficult waters, but with the wind blowing the right direction. And now that you have arrived, that boat now has a powerful motor behind it,” she said. The motor propelling talks forward into the second and final week of negotiations here in Durban may be developments in China’s negotiation position that emerged last week. An announcement that made waves was with regards to China’s willingness to consider signing on to a legally-binding agreement with binding climate targets after 2020 for the country.
Lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei told media last Friday that, “We do not rule out the possibility of legally binding. It is possible for us, but it depends on the negotiations,” Su is quoted as speaking in English rather than Chinese, presumably to make his point clear.
Although China made similar noises in Cancun, Su’s statement is the first time in the international climate negotiations that China has made this type of overture so clear with regards to a willingness to consider placing its post-2020 action into a legally binding instrument. This willingness to discuss the legal nature of post-2020 targets comes directly counter to the United States’ position put forth in Durban last week in which Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Envoy for Climate Change, said that a legally binding post-2020 agreement would be unacceptable unless other major economies also agree to be legally bound. Indeed it would seem to fulfill one of the US’ main conditions for moving forward.
If China is indeed open to placing its post-2020 commitment into an internationally legally binding instrument, it has just opened a pathway forward to both securing the Kyoto Protocol for the post-2012 period and building a bridge, with all Parties, to a legally binding regime in the near future. The impact of this is not to be underestimated.
Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua confirmed China’s stance when he spoke at a briefing for international NGOs immediately following the China Pavilion’s launch. “We can start the process for a legally-binding framework for issues after 2020,” Xie said, clarifying five conditions that must be met before China can make its commitments legally binding in an international agreement. These conditions are:
Parties must continue the Kyoto Protocol through a second commitment period;
Developed countries must meet financial commitments to provide developing countries $30 billion in fast-start financing and $100 billion per year by 2020 through the Green Climate Fund;
Institutionalization of consensus on finance, technology transfer, REDD+, adaptation, and transparency measures;
Commitment to completion of the review of adequacy of long-term goals scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2015.
Define a framework for a post-2020 agreement that upholds common but differentiated responsibilities, equity, respective capacities, and environmental integrity.
If all conditions are met, Xie says, “We are open to the process.”
Implications – Will China’s move bolster the EU mandate?
The question remains as to whether these major developments in China’s position here in Durban will have a significant impact on the negotiations in Durban. The European Union has stated its openness to placing its 2020 targets into the legally binding Kyoto Protocol if it is part of a package. The package includes a roadmap that would clearly show the way forward for all major economies to be in a binding regime in the post-2020 time period, the negotiations for which would end in 2015. China’s statements agreeing to internationally-binding emissions limits in a post-2020 framework might galvanize other major emerging economies such as India and Brazil to do the same.
Jennifer Morgan, the Climate and Energy Program Director at the World Resources Institute, explained the significance of China’s new posture:
“If China is indeed open to placing its post-2020 commitment into an internationally legally binding instrument, Europe and the most vulnerable countries are now its key allies. If these Parties can work together this week, Durban has a good chance of success,” Morgan added.
It is not yet clear what kind of commitment China would be willing to bind, and that level of specificity does not appear to be part of the current discussion.
Jonathan Smith (JD‘12/MEM’12) and Max Song (MEM’12) contributed to this piece.
Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to ChinaFAQs.org; Max Song is a MEM student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and Jonathan Smith is a JD/MEM candidate at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They are all attending COP-17 in Durban.
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Max Song, and Jonathan Smith
The following post is republished from China FAQs: The Network for Climate and Energy Information.
The idea of a total cap on energy consumption in China, first suggested last March before the National People’s Congress, has reemerged in Durban -- and surprisingly there are now suggestions that China might consider some kind of a cap on carbon emissions. This has been suggested apparently as part of domestic policy rather than as a negotiating position, but details are very sketchy.
Over the last week, we have been witnessing an active debate amongst Chinese academics and researchers on energy and carbon caps, although these discussions have taken place separately, from outside the plenary floor and in the multitude of side events the Chinese delegation has been hosting. Chinese negotiators have been careful to not muddy the waters in Durban, especially after making such a loud splash late the first week of negotiations by supporting a legally-binding treaty after 2020. Read more.
What senior government researchers have been suggesting, however, is that China is considering an absolute rather than an intensity-based emissions target that is more restrictive after 2020. Statements by senior researchers from the Energy Research Institute - a high-level government think tank associated with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) - are the first time that China has suggested they might soon be ready to set a timetable and limit for its emissions, at least in the context of domestic policy.
This idea first emerged prior to the March release of the Five-Year Plan. Senior representatives of the Chinese government suggested that an energy consumption cap of 4.1 billion tons coal equivalent might be included in the Plan. Since then we understand the question of a total energy cap has been hotly debated within the Chinese government. Now its advocates are speaking fairly forcefully in Durban and going beyond the energy cap to suggest a carbon cap as well.
At a side event on local pilot carbon trading schemes on Dec. 1 organized by Tsinghua University and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the debate of absolute versus intensity emissions targets was prominently mentioned. Tsinghua University professor Teng Fei emphasized that whether these preliminary carbon-trading schemes will cap emissions on an absolute or an intensity basis is the biggest issue for government leaders in deciding how to roll out these programs to the four cities and two provinces selected as pilots. Lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei was also present and added, “It’s very clear in China’s Five-Year Plan that it’s our objective to gradually establish a national system on carbon emissions trading. Certainly the pilot system is still in the design stage but we have more or less set the direction of piloting market mechanisms.” It certainly could be the case that experience with regards to the design of caps (i.e. sectoral or provincial basis; baseline calculations, etc.) in these local pilot projects may eventually inform a national level cap on emissions.
One reason for a possible shift to an absolute target is because an emissions cap may spur growth in alternative energy sectors – such as natural gas, renewables and nuclear – according to Yang Fuqiang, Senior Advisor on Energy, Environment, and Climate Change for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
While Chinese experts and delegates have not suggested what kind of carbon number they are considering, Jiang Kejun of NDRC’s Energy Research Institute noted, “If you add up the coal consumption cap, the target for non-fossil energy consumption, and the natural gas target, you can basically calculate what an emissions limit for China might be.”
At this point this discussion mainly concerns domestic policy, but its active airing in Durban suggests the scope for Chinese policy development in the next several years.
Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to ChinaFAQs.org; Max Song is a MEM student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and Jonathan Smith is a JD/MEM candidate at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. They are all attending COP-17 in Durban.
Friday, October 21, 2011
By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, PhD candidate, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
The news late last month from China’s environment ministry that it plans to bring one of the country’s most destructive and widespread pollutants – tiny particulates widely known as PM 2.5 – into national air quality standards suggests that attitudes to pollutant data, once deemed too politically sensitive to gather, may be shifting.
Air particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (hence “PM 2.5”) have serious health implications. Small enough to penetrate human lung tissue, they can cause asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In most parts of China, PM 2.5 has beenfound to account for more than half of air particulate pollution. But despite these serious pollution levels and impacts, national air-quality standards in China have lacked requirements for monitoring PM 2.5, or specific reduction targets – until now.
Speaking at Seventh Environment and Development Forum on September 22, China’s pollution control secretary Zhao Hualin announced that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) intends to revise its national ambient air quality standards to include PM 2.5 measurements. Recognising the contribution of PM 2.5 pollution to poor visibility and air quality, Zhaotold the audience, “We have now started to address the haze problem, which is precisely a PM 2.5 problem”.
The idea is for China’s so-called “model cities” to pilot particulate measurement, themselves something of a shifting phenomenon. In late August, the MEP made revisions for the second time as to what criteria are necessary to qualify as a National Environmental Protection Model City – a title given to cities to reward special efforts in the green sphere – and PM 2.5 measurement is among the requirements.
Under these new standards, only 11 cities now qualify as model cities, vastly fewer than the 77 reported to have carried the title before the changes. They are: Wujiang, Liaocheng, Qingpu District of Shanghai, Linyi, Dongguan, Xuzhou, Yinchuan, Yichang, Linan, Huai’an and Foshan. Three more have undergone review and are in the process of being designated as model cities, while the remaining locations previously considered model cities are under review.
The strengthening of air quality metrics suggests that the political tides surrounding pollutant data may be changing. When the MEP released draft amendments to its Air Pollution Index (API) in late February of this year, the inclusion of PM 2.5 was notably absent, despite the addition of ozone and a number of other considerable improvements.
The omission was criticised as a political maneouvre rather than a decision stemming from a lack of technical capacity in Chinese cities to measure the pollutant. Ma Jun, who directs the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times, “Government agencies feel the [inclusion of PM 2.5 in the] index may hurt the image of many cities that want to attract investment or that they may not be able to improve PM 2.5 pollution in a short time.”
Secret US diplomatic cables, released by Wikileaks, further corroborated such suspicions, reporting research by local scientists that revealed PM 2.5 levels five to 10 times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines was deemed “too sensitive” for authorities and therefore not systematically measured in major Chinese cities. But just months after the release of draft API revisions and the diplomatic cables, secretary Zhao has claimed that measurement of PM 2.5 is “technically no longer a problem”. So, how big a step is this?
The first thing to make clear is that Zhao was most likely referring to the question of technical capability to measure PM 2.5, and questions remain as to whether political sensitivities around environmental data still exist. The memory of a failed attempt to quantify economic losses attributable to environmental harms is still fresh in the MEP’s memory. In 2007, the conclusions of China’s “Green GDP” project met stiff resistance from provincial leaders who feared yet another performance metric, and the results of the report were never officially released. The then-State Environmental Protection Agency and National Bureau of Statistics were left quibbling over data and methodology – a testament to how contentious attributing numbers to pollution can be.
However, recent signs that China is embracing a more transparent approach to its environmental challenges are evident. In early June, the MEP released a franker assessment of China’s environment than seen previously in the latest annual State of the Environment Report. Vice-minister Li Ganjie stated that while some aspects of the environment showed modest improvement, “the overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges”. Only 3.6% of the 471 cities monitored in the most recent report garnered top ratings for clean air.
Deborah Seligsohn, principal advisor to the World Resources Institute’s Climate and Energy Program, has also noted a dramatic shift in language since the 1990s when the annual reports claimed that China’s environmental situation was “basically good” or, later, “basically unchanged”. Not until the State Environmental Protection Agency achieved ministerial status in 2007 did the reports become more critical, describing the environment as “not inspiring”.
Including the politically sensitive PM 2.5 in air-quality standards signals a push for greater transparency in China’s environmental governance. Over the course of a few months the MEP has already taken significant strides to improve air quality measurements and standards. This will bring China’s policies closer to international best practices for air quality monitoring.
Piloting measurement in model cities makes political sense as a way of easing China into eventual binding PM 2.5 targets for all provinces – a mandate that will likely be included in the 13th Five-Year Plan. By first signaling that PM 2.5 is an aspiration for “model cities”, the government is taking an important step toward lessening political stigma surrounding the pollutant: instead of being punished, cities will be rewarded.
PM 2.5’s inclusion is also indicative of a broader trend: China’s transition to a political culture that is more open about environmental conditions. Importantly, if it continues, this openness will allow greater public access to data and information, in turn spurring better results for the environment.
Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and project director for the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.
This piece was originally posted on the China Dialogue website on October 19th.