British-based electricity firm Ecotricity will complete the world's first electric highway by September of this year by installing twelve electric charging stations between London and Edinburgh. The first of its kind, the aim is to bring the all-electric vehicle out of the city and make longer distance (not just commuter) traveling possible.
On the Environment
Energy & Climate
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released this past Friday the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), a new and potentially powerful regulation that limits the amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that can cross state borders. CSAPR is a response to the environmental dilemma created by airborne pollutants that can disperse widely and across state boundaries, a dilemma that particularly afflicts the eastern half of the United States (for instance, sulfur dioxide emissions from a Pennsylvania power plant creating acid rain in New York’s Adirondacks). Under CSAPR, 27 states will be required by 2014 to cut their SO2 emissions to 2.4 million tons per year and their NOx emissions to 1.2 million tons per year, down from 8.8 million tons and 2.6 million tons in 2005.
CSAPR’s public health and environment benefits could be vast. The EPA announced that they expect the rule to prevent 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days a year beginning in 2014. The EPA also estimated that CSAPR’s benefits will overwhelmingly outweigh its costs. The following graphic tells the story well.
For more information about the EPA’s new rule on cross-state pollution, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/airtransport/.
In a creative effort to curb carbon emissions, six states, along with New York City and several land trusts, decided to pursue a different policy tactic than previous environmental campaigns. Rather than lobbying for Congressional legislation, this coalition sued five major electric utilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2004, claiming that their emissions constituted a public nuisance and, therefore, should be regulated by the courts under federal common law. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, bringing national attention to this environmental campaign and issue.
This week, however, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendants in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The Court stated that it was the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as charged under the Clean Air Act to regulate US carbon emissions, not that of the courts. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, "Congress set up the EPA to promulgate standards for emissions, and the relief you're seeking seems to me to set up a district judge, who does not have the resources, the expertise, as a kind of super EPA."
While undoubtedly a setback for those who desire real reductions in U.S. carbon emissions, this case may still have a silver lining. By highlighting the responsibility of the EPA to set standards for carbon emissions, the Court has placed renewed pressure on the EPA to take meaningful action on climate change. The Court’s decision has also clarified the stakes for all concerned. As long as Congress refuses to address climate change through new legislative solutions, the EPA will remain the only national policymaking body in the United States with the ability to tackle the problem. Efforts to impede or constrain EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act now seem doubly dangerous.
Read the Court’s official decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut.
Want to understand the basics of shale gas? Then the U.S. Energy Information Administration has the primer for you. Key facts include:
- U.S. shale gas plays could provide approximately 110 years of use in the United States at 2009 rates of consumption.
- Shale gas (or natural gas extracted from shale resources) made up 14% of total U.S. natural gas supply in 2009. The EIA estimates that this share could increase to 45% by 2035.
- Natural gas is a predominantly domestic energy resource -- 87% consumed in the United States in 2009 was also produced in the United States.
There's much more, including links to other relevant EIA reports and some helpful visuals. This is an excellent starting point for further research.
According to a recent estimate, CO2 emissions in the RGGI region experienced a significant decrease from 2005 to 2009 -- approximately 33%. What's been overlooked is the key role natural gas played in that drop. Here's the relevant chart:
No doubt there are several important factors driving the emissions drop -- the recession, the weather, increased energy efficiency, and increased renewables capacity, among them. But what's worth underscoring is the 31.2% coming from fuel switching. That's all from natural gas -- specifically, generally decreasing natural gas prices that were lower than petroleum prices after 2006 and much closer to coal prices by 2009. Per another excellent chart:
This trend could be very important for our climate future. It suggests natural gas might actually be the viable transition fuel that's been heavily promised. Though of course much more research and analysis needs to be done on that front before a firm conclusion can be drawn. Nevertheless, natural gas prices are now something very much worth watching in the coming years.
The Cleantech Group released preliminary results yesterday from their 2011 first quarter report. The major finding: a total of $2.57 billion in clean technology venture investment across 159 companies. While the total number of deals were down, actual dollar investments increased by 52% compared to the previous quarter. The top investment areas were:
SOLAR - $641 million in 26 deals
TRANSPORTATION - $311 million in 8 deals
MATERIALS - $296 million in 9 deals
BIOFUELS - $148 million in 13 deals
The report also found a huge increase in investment in North America, while the UK saw a sharp drop from the previous quarter. After the US, Canada raised the most clean tech investment dollars, followed by India.
Sobering look at sea level rise in the Northeast and the hard choices it puts before us. Do taxpayers pay to defend coastline with expensive sea walls in what looks to be a losing battle? Do emotionally-invested homeowners on the coast retreat now while their property may be at its optimal value? What can we save from the sea's rise, if anything? How will we as a society triage the many victims of this climate change harm?
I detect no real sense that policy makers have a good handle on how to resolve, or even approach, these kinds of terrible choices. Unfortunately, going forward blindly is also a choice, and one that usually doesn't end too well.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is investing $20 million dollars into each of three major studies looking at the effects of climate change on agriculture and forest production.
1. Dr. Lois Wright Morton of Iowa State University will lead a research team estimating the carbon, nitrogen and water footprints of corn production in the Midwest. The team will evaluate the effects of various crop management practices when various climate models are applied. The Iowa State project, which includes researchers from 11 institutions in nine states, will integrate education and outreach components across all aspects of the project, specifically focusing on a place-based education and outreach program called “I-FARM.” This interactive tool will help the team analyze the economic, agronomic and social acceptability of using various crop management practices to adapt and mitigate to the effects of climate change.
2. Dr. Tim Martin, of the University of Florida, will lead a team looking at climate change mitigation and adaptation as it relates to southern pines, particularly loblolly pine, which comprises 80 percent of the planted forestland in the Southeast. The team of 12 institutions will establish a regional network to monitor the effects of climate and management on forest carbon sequestration. Research in the project will provide information that can be used to guide planting of pine in future climates, and to develop management systems that enable forests to sequester more carbon and to remain robust in the face of changing climate.
3. Dr. Sanford Eigenbrode, of the University of Idaho, willlead a team monitoring changes in soil carbon and nitrogen levels and greenhouse gas emissions related to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change in the region’s agriculture, which produces 13 percent of the nation’s wheat supply and 80 percent of its specialty soft white wheat for export. The research team will look at the effects of current and potential alternative cropping systems on greenhouse gas emissions, carbon, nitrogen and water-levels and how that, in turn, affects the local and regional farm economy.
“Climate change has already had an impact on agriculture production," said NIFA Director Roger Beachy. “These projects ensure we have the best available tools to accurately measure the effects of climate change on agriculture, develop effective methods to sustain productivity in a changing environment and pass these resources on to the farmers and industry professionals who can put the research into practice.”
For further details, see the full press release here.
There are many valuable lessons to be drawn from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation's only operational, and mandatory, cap-and-trade program. One worth dwelling on is the effectiveness of RGGI's CO2 emissions cap. Recent analysis suggests this cap is much too forgiving -- not just now, but, more importantly, also over the next two decades.
The whole point of the RGGI emissions cap is to create a market for CO2 emissions from power plants that will ultimately drive down those emissions over time in the most economically efficient way possible. A relatively harder cap - one set below actual CO2 emissions, for example - should make RGGI's tradeable CO2 pollution allowances more scarce and thus more valuable to polluters, resulting in higher prices per allowance than a cap set above actual emissions would. The key idea here is that RGGI's cap on CO2 emissions from its regulated entities - electric utilities basically - creates a new market that has the potential to push those utilities towards low- or no-carbon generation. Where policy makers set the cap can therefore matter a great deal; a relatively tough one pushes harder than a relatively lenient one. This chart, produced on behalf of RGGI, strongly suggests the RGGI cap is not hard enough now, nor will it be hard enough in the future:
The important lines to look at for our purposes are the dashed one - that's the RGGI cap as set by agreement of the RGGI members - and the solid black line - that's both historical and projected total CO2 emissions from RGGI's regulated entities. You can see that presently, the cap is simply way too high (and to be fair, some of that is on purpose). The factors behind the recent massive drop in actual CO2 emissions are several (more on that later). The recession undoubtedly plays a huge part. Nevertheless, the cap just does not appear to be exerting real pressure on utilities right now. Maybe that's not a problem. There's an argument that a soft cap is just fine early on, as we refine and tweak RGGI. That argument might be even stronger in the current economic climate. No need to clamp down on utilities in the midst of the recession.
So perhaps the short-term performance issues of the cap are okay to put aside for the moment. That's not at all true for the long-term performance issues. Here's the major problem, and one policy makers should make an urgent focus of their thinking: According to these projections, the cap doesn't appear to really bite until maybe 2030 or later, and that's just too late in the scheme of things. Climate science tells us we need meaningful CO2 reductions much much sooner than that to avoid catastrophic harms. So what's the point of an emissions cap if it doesn't drive change when we need it? It's time to give serious thought to how best to tighten the RGGI cap to make it better correspond with the scientific reality we find ourselves in.
As oil prices increase and energy security becomes a concern in the US, more is being done to explore cleaner burning fuels such as natural gas. Natural gas has seen big increases in the number of wells and total production as shale gas extraction, in particular, intensifies. The EPA projects that 20% of US gas supply will come from shale gas by 2020.
An EPA report in 2004 found that "there was little to no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water during hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane production wells." But public concern over the process by which shale gas is extracted known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has escalated with the growing number of wells. Each well requires the pumping of tremendous amounts of fracking fluid into the earth and, according to the EPA's 2004 report, "[t]here is very little documented research on the environmental impacts that result from the injection and migration of these fluids into subsurface formations, soils, and USDWs." Until last year (when the EPA called for the voluntary reporting of chemicals used in fracking fluids), many of the chemicals used in fracking were unknown. Chemicals now known to sometimes be involved in the process include: diesel fuel (which contains benzene and other toxic chemicals), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide. Given this situation, the EPA has announced another study to examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater. The EPA aims to issue preliminary findings in 2012 and a full report in 2014. The draft study plan is available at here.
The disaster in Japan has focused new attention on nuclear power in the United States. Here are the basic contours: At present, the U.S. has 104 nuclear plants in 31 states - producing 20% of the nation's electricity. Of the pending proposals to build 30 new units, it is likely that fewer than seven will be built before 2020. No new power plants have been built in the U.S. since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. The Obama Administration wants to ramp up nuclear power in the U.S. as part of a plan to increase domestic energy security and meet clean energy targets. In practical terms, that means an investment of $54 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for nuclear energy - loan guarantees are often used to help investors since nuclear power plants are extremely costly to set up, have uncertainty around permit approvals, and often take many years to realize a profit. Read more here.
The House Energy and Power Subcommittee approved a bill on Thursday by Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, to halt the EPA’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Upton claims that the cap-and-trade legislation and other “needless EPA regulations stifle growth, kill jobs, and raise energy costs.” In December 2010, the EPA announced that it would regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and oil refineries, the nation's two biggest sources of carbon dioxide (accounting for almost 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), beginning in 2011. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 called for the voluntary reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration activities, but the EPA is now looking to take the next step by actively regulating these emissions. Read more here
Guest post by Angel Hsu Original post can be found in The Atlantic. Coming away from this past week of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin, the sense is certainly that time is not on our side. While delegates from more than 150 countries were charged the task of whittling down options on the table to prepare for heads of state and ministers in Cancun, the talks concluded with dishearteningly little progress, a widening divide between developed and developing countries, and resurfacing tensions between the U.S. and China on climate change. From my observations in Copenhagen to most recently in Tianjin, the acrimony between the US and China appears to still rest on three of the most hotly-contested letters in the climate debate - M, R, and V, which refer to the measurement, reporting, and verification of mitigation actions and financial support. In Copenhagen, China agreed to international verification of actions receiving financing, technology transfer, or capacity building; while also consenting to "international consultation and analysis" (ICA) for its domestic actions, which include a pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. At a press conference early in the week, I heard the head of the Chinese delegation Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua say that China was trying to increase transparency and did not have any major problems with MRV - as long as national sovereignty was respected. The differences in viewpoints between the US and China at the talks in Tianjin caused major rifts in the discussions and culminated with the Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei calling the US a "pig preening itself in a mirror." In the classical Chinese idiom where Su derived the comparison, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren - meaning "pig in mirror, not human inside or outside" - the half-man, half-pig character Zhubajie is portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, and idiotic. [my note: anyone who is familiar with China's Journey to the West will know the Monkey King and Man-Pig characters] Needless to say, in Chinese culture, this less-than-desirable comparison is considered an undiplomatic slight. Su's comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During a press conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself "isn't doing anything," Su said. His remarks were counter to a speech Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the United States, gave at the University of Michigan Law School in which he said that China was "spurning" commitments made in Copenhagen, acting as if the agreement "never happened." And there's evidence that the Chinese are working to improve capacity as well as transparency of its measurement and reporting systems. Sun Cuihua, the Deputy General-Director of the Climate Change Coordination Office in China's National Development and Reform Commission announced at a side event that China is currently working on a centralized database of GHG emissions, which would include emissions data from Chinese municipalities and provinces and would eventually become open for the public. Although no specific timeline was given for completion, this is a major announcement, considering the most recent publicly-available data for GHG emission levels of Chinese provinces dates back to 1994. Despite these efforts, the US still pushed China on the MRV issue in Tianjin, which I think could have been a negotiating tactic on the part of the US to deflect attention away from the fact that the Washington still has been unable to pass national legislation on energy and climate change. What perhaps bothers the US most on the MRV issue is the fear that if China indeed backs away from the Copenhagen Accord in the negotiations, its promises of MRV and ICA go along with it. This fear was expressed by lead US negotiator and Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing. Discussion on measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG emissions even amongst non-government actors has also become particularly sensitive following the Tianjin talks, as I've heard from colleagues here in China that several US-China bilateral workshops planned to discuss MRV have been canceled. So without the two largest climate behemoths talking constructively - and not bickering - what does this mean moving forward to Cancun? First, geographical differences aside, Cancun is not going to be any Copenhagen. The expectations are already much lower -BBC news is contemplating only sending one correspondent to cover the talks, as opposed to around 30 last year. Hopes for a legally-binding deal have long been off the table - I could even sense the difference in Pershing's more relaxed demeanor in Tianjin compared to Copenhagen. Second, the inability of countries in Tianjin to make enough progress on the negotiation text means that some important issues identified in the Copenhagen Accord may not be discussed in Cancun. Bright points at Copenhagen, such discussion on credits from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), were barely even touched at the talks at Tianjin, which do not bode well for hopes of a decision in Cancun. There is an urgent feeling that Cancun is the last shot for all parties to come up with enough concrete action to maintain the credibility of the process moving forward into the next year. If countries are unsuccessful in agreeing upon enough concrete actions in Cancun, there are rumblings, particularly from the European Union, that some parties might jump ship and try bilateral talks or negotiations through the G-20 or Major Economies forum instead. Unfortunately, if multilateral negotiations do start to disperse centrifugally, the one bilateral relationship that stands to make the most difference on the global climate - the one between the US and China - could be damaged in the UNFCCC process.