What is the emissions impact of switching from coal to gas?

  • 27 Oct 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Arizona gas | Shutterstock

The US's shale gas boom is credited with helping the country cut power sector emissions 16 per cent since 2007.  Official figures released earlier this week suggest a switch from coal to gas was largely responsible for the drop.

But there are competing theories. Last week,  Greenpeace released analysis with the headline 'Renewables cutting US emissions more than gas as coal consumption drops'.  Business Green and  Thinkprogress reported the finding, amongst others.  

So why are the US's emissions falling?

Fuel 'switching'

Figuring out why the power sector's emissions change is quite hard, and relies on lots of assumptions about how the energy market works.

The US gets power mainly from coal, gas, renewables and nuclear. By analysing changes in this mix, it should be possible to work out how switching from one fuel to another affects emissions.

Data from the US's Energy Information Administration shows how much power each fuel generated over a particular timeframe.

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Daily Briefing | Global Warming has doubled risk of harsh winters in Eurasia

  • 27 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Global warming has doubled risk of harsh winters in Eurasia, research finds 
The Guardian reports on new research that shows the risk of severe winters in Europe and northern Asia has been doubled by global warming. The counter-intuitive finding is the result of climate change melting the Arctic ice cap and causing new wind patterns that push freezing air and snow southwards.The Independent also has the story, while Carbon Brief has more on the research  here.     The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

Ed Davey hails EU energy deal as blow to Vladimir Putin 
Britain's energy secretary, Ed Davey, has hailed a European deal on climate change as a blow to Vladimir Putin as it will reduce the region's dependence on Russian gas imports. "This is a big shot across his bows," Davey said, referring to the Russian president. "We are strategically moving away. Europe will not be as dependent on Mr Putin as before and I think that's a very important national security and energy security message."      The Financial Times 

Climate change: Carbon trading edges closer as UN brokers deal 
A deal to use market forces in the fight against climate change on a truly global scale is close, United Nations officials have claimed. So far, 74 countries, including the EU, China and Russia (but not the US, Canada, Japan or Australia) have signed up to a UN declaration in support of carbon pricing. It is also supported by 1,000 businesses, from oil firms BP and Statoil to giant corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Unilever. This means that an international carbon market - in which companies buy and sell the right to produce harmful emissions - is now close to becoming a reality.     The Independent 

The ocean AND the atmosphere are equally to blame for one of the biggest changes in climate in Earth's history, researchers find 
The Mail reports on a new study that says the major cooling of Earth and continental ice build-up in the Northern Hemisphere 2.7 million years ago coincided with a shift in the circulation of the ocean. The research suggests that changes in the storage of heat in the deep ocean could be as important to climate change as other hypotheses - tectonic activity or a drop in the carbon dioxide level - and likely led to one of the major climate transitions of the past 30 million years.      Mail Online 

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New study strengthens link between Arctic sea-ice loss and extreme winters

  • 26 Oct 2014, 19:11
  • Robert McSweeney

Winter scene in Russia | Shutterstock

Declining Arctic sea-ice has made severe winters across central Asia twice as likely, new research shows. The paper is the latest in a series linking very cold winters in the northern hemisphere to rapidly increasing temperatures in the Arctic.

But the long-term picture suggests these cold winters might only be a temporary feature before further warming takes hold.

Arctic amplification

Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing almost twice as fast as the global average. This is known as Arctic amplification. As Arctic sea-ice shrinks, energy from the sun that would have been reflected away by sea-ice is instead absorbed by the ocean.

Arctic amplification has been linked with very cold winters in mid-latitude regions of the northern hemisphere. The UK, the US and Canada have all experienced extreme winters in recent years. Just last year, for example, the UK had its second-coldest March since records began, prompting the Met Office to call a rapid response meeting of experts to get to grips with whether melting Arctic sea-ice could be affecting British weather.

The new study, published in Nature Geoscience, suggests the likelihood of severe winters in central Asia has doubled over the past decade. This vast region includes southern Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and northern China. And it's the Arctic that's driving the changes once again, the authors say.

Pronounced change

The study finds that almost all of the very cold winters in central Asia during the past decade have coincided with particularly warm conditions in the Arctic.

The paper points to sea ice loss in the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea as the cause. These sit to the north of Scandinavia and Russia and to the south of the Arctic Ocean, as shown in the map below.


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Q&A: The EU's 2030 climate targets

  • 24 Oct 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

Last night EU leaders came to a compromise deal on climate targets for 2030.

The headline target is to cut EU emissions by "at least" 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030. The EU has also agreed targets to get at least 27 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to cut energy use by at least 27 per cent against business as usual.

Is the deal ambitious and world-leading, as some EU countries are claiming? Or is it more a case of bungs to the Polish coal industry and weak ambition on energy saving and renewables?

We take you through the essential questions about the 2030 deal.

How ambitious is the EU being?

The EU announcement is certainly world-leading in at least one sense: it is the first major player to lay down its commitment to tackling climate change out to 2030. UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon says the target demonstrates the continued global climate leadership of the EU.

The likes of China and the US are expected to take note when deciding their own commitments in the run up to next year's talks in Paris, where a global climate deal is due to be signed.

In this context the two little words, "at least", are all-important.

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Daily Briefing | EU strikes compromise to set new climate target

  • 24 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

EU strikes compromise to set new climate target 
EU leaders have, as expected, agreed a deal to set a series of targets that will guide EU climate and energy policy through to 2030. An overall target to cut emissions at least 40 per cent by 2030 is the headline, but the bloc has also agreed a target to increase the amount of electricity coming from renewables to 27 per cent across the EU as a whole, and a similar but non-binding target to cut energy use. Reuters has a brief  summary of the key elements of the deal. The FT  suggests "the EU has set the pace for a global climate agreement in Paris next year by overcoming resistance from eastern member states and agreeing a landmark target to cut greenhouse gas emissions." But the BBC's Roger Harrabinsays "the deal is a compromise between countries like the UK, willing to stretch to 50% by 2030, and Poland and others which heavily rely on coal."     Reuters

Climate and energy news

Science chief warns on acid oceans 
The UK's chief scientist tells the BBC that "ocean acidification" poses risks to marine ecosystems. The rate at which the oceans are becoming more acidic is thought to be unprecedented within the last 65 million years. The oceans absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide that humans are adding to the atmosphere, and when the gas reacts with sea water it forms carbonic acid. The warning comes as a new paper finds that acidification could have even more serious consequences for marine life, as it increases the amount of pollutants sea creatures absorb. Walport told the BBC's Today programme: "This is another set of [climate change] impacts that is going to be extremely important for life on Earth... [these changes] are very unlikely to be good."     BBC News 

Government 'allowing coal industry to get green subsidies' 
The chief executive of gas company Centrica has said the government's planned capacity market mechanism, which will pay power producers to make their generating capacity available to cover demand, will end up providing money to coal power stations. The scheme should have been designed to cover only gas power stations, he suggested.      The Independent 

Japan coal power plant export push hits U.S. resistance 
The US has told Japan that it should change its policy of offering financing to countries wanting to build new coal plants using Japanese technology that don't capture their emissions. Japan wants to boost its exports of coal-fired infrastructure, and has "politely rebuffed the criticisms", according to an unnamed source who spoke with Reuters. Japanese exports of power technology, including coal turbines, rose 55 per cent over the past year or so.     Reuters 

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The gas industry's delicate climate policy balancing act

  • 23 Oct 2014, 15:39
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

European leaders are currently meeting to discuss the future of the region's climate and energy policy. Today, representatives of the gas industry called for ambitious changes to ensure the EU hits its ambitious emissions reduction goal without jeopardising their commercial interests.

"Dealing with climate change is a long term issue," Elisabeth Tørstad, CEO of fossil fuel industry advisers DNV told an audience of experts at the Financial Times' gas summit today. Tørstad was part of a panel tasked with assessing current threats to the European gas industry.

So how enthusiastic is the gas industry feeling about climate policy?

Carbon pricing

If the gas industry wants to help cut emissions and boost it's own prospects, the biggest obstacle is Europe's dysfunctional carbon market, the panel agreed.

EU leaders are due to discuss a  suite of reforms to the emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) this week. Passing those reforms is an "opportunity that has to be seized", says Dick Benschop, vice president of Shell's gas market development.

It might seem odd that an industry that would bear much of the economic cost of those reforms should be so keen to see them implemented. But there's an obvious reason for the gas industry to support a price on carbon: it could help squeeze coal out of Europe's energy mix.

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EU climate policy, energy bills and how best to decarbonise the UK

  • 23 Oct 2014, 15:20
  • Simon Evans

Whitelee wind farm | Shutterstock

A string of headlines this morning say EU climate policies will add £150 to household energy bills in 2020.

The Daily Express says: "Green energy will send household bills soaring: Energy bills to rise by £150." The Times says: "EU is blamed for big rise in power bills."

The Daily Mail has the story too. These articles are based on a new report from free-market thinktank Open Europe that argues against targets for renewable energy.  We spoke with report author Raoul Ruparel to find out what it's all about.

Energy bills going up - and down

Coverage of the Open Europe report says it finds that energy bills will rise £150 in 2020 as a result of EU green policies. Open Europe sources this figure from a 2013 report from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which we covered at the time.

The headlines aren't quite right, however. The DECC figures show that an average bill in 2020 would be £1,331, up from £1,255 in 2013. That's an increase of £76 or six per cent.

Ruparel says it's fair to argue some of the headlines are "a bit misleading".

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Daily Briefing | Wind farms outstrip nuclear power

  • 23 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Sourced under creative commons

Wind farms outstrip nuclear power 
The UK's wind farms generated more power than its nuclear power stations on Tuesday, the National Grid says. Wind made up 14.2 per cent of all generation and nuclear offered 13.2 per cent. The National Grid said this was caused by a combination of high winds and faults in nuclear plants. It follows another milestone on Saturday, when wind generated a record amount of power - 6,372 MW, forming nearly 20% of the the UK's electricity.      BBC News 

Climate and energy news

EU green targets could add £150 to energy bills: Brussels wants UK to slash carbon emission by 40% by 2030 
David Cameron was urged to ditch EU green energy targets last night, amid warnings they will add £150 to the average family's bills over the next five years, reports The Mail. A study by European think-tank, Open Europe, suggests EU green measures have already added £59 to the average dual-fuel energy bill. The author's say this will rise to £149 by 2020 as the Government strives to meet a binding target of producing 15 per cent of electricity from renewable sources. In response, the Department for Energy and Climate Change says that green policies meant household bills were around 5 per cent lower in 2013 and would continue to result in lower energy bills.  The Times and  also have the story.      Mail Online 

EU nations threaten to block green energy rules at summit talks 
EU leaders face hours of haggling as they seek to agree on a new decade of climate and energy policy at talks beginning on Thursday, with nations from Poland to Portugal threatening to block a deal. Poland, whose economy depends on highly polluting coal, has always been at the forefront of objectors. While Portugal is holding out for a firm commitment on investment in new pipeline and grid infrastructure across EU borders.  RTCC also reports on Poland's objections.      Reuters 

Weak EU 2030 climate deal risks nearly a million jobs, warn unions 
Nearly a million potential jobs will be lost if EU leaders fail to agree strong climate and energy targets at a summit starting on Thursday, according to the head of Europe's trade union movement, Bernadette Ségol. The European Trade Union Confederation, which represents around 60 million workers, warned that the proposed targets were too low to reap the benefits of a new clean energy economy.     The Guardian 

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US emissions increase hints at limitations of Obama’s clean power plan

  • 22 Oct 2014, 17:10
  • Mat Hope

President Obama | Shutterstock

US energy sector emissions increased slightly in 2013, according to new data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This may seem like bad news for President Obama, who has pledged to cut the country's emissions 17 per cent by 2020.

Obama unveiled his  clean power plan earlier this year to much fanfare. The centrepiece of the plan is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 30 per cent by 2020.

The US's rising energy sector emissions seem to  suggest the policy may not be as effective as Obama hopes.

Obama's clean power plan specifically targets emissions from power generation, which accounts for   about 32 per cent of the US's total emissions. Cutting emissions from the US's homes and businesses is a much smaller part of his wider   Climate Action Plan.

The EIA's data shows the potential limitations of focusing on cutting power generation emissions without addressing the country's broader energy consumption.

Emissions increase

US energy sector emissions increased 2.5 per cent in 2013 compared to year before, the EIA's data shows. The EIA says the main reason for the increase was colder weather.

Winter temperatures at the start of 2013 were lower than a year before, and the US also experienced a particularly mild spring last year. Temperatures fell again later in the year, when the US was  engulfed by the polar vortex.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 16.15.40.png
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average monthly temperatures. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Households and businesses turned up their thermostats in response to the lower temperatures, which meant burning a lot more gas and a bit more oil. The residential sector was responsible for 48 per cent of 2013's emissions increase, mostly due to heat demand, the EIA says.

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Factcheck: Will climate change lead to giant, man-eating snakes, tiny horses and shrunken goats?

  • 22 Oct 2014, 14:01
  • Robert McSweeney

The film 'Anaconda'. Time

Rising temperatures have caused mountain goats in the Alps to 'shrink' by up to 25 per cent, according to new research . The news follows on from recent stories of how climate change could bring us huge spiders, tiny horses and giant snakes.

Despite the slightly ridiculous headlines such research prompts, there is actually some science behind it all.

Behavioural change

So, first things first; rising temperatures haven't actually caused any goats to shrink per se. Rather the research, published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, finds that young goats aren't as big as they were 30 years ago.

Scientists analysed records of the Alpine Chamois goat in the Italian Alps and found they were as much as 25 per cent smaller than goats of the same age in the 1980s.

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