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Supreme Court backs Obama’s plan to sidestep Congress and regulate carbon emissions

  • 25 Jun 2014, 12:35
  • Simon Evans

CC: Gouldy99

The use of executive powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions has been reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court in a ruling issued on Monday. We take a look at the history of US efforts to regulate emissions and what the latest ruling means for the future.

First, here's a brief timeline of US efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

2003, 2005, 2008 and 2010

Between 2003 and 2010 the US Congress repeatedly tried and  failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation that would have limited emissions across the US economy.

The number of climate laws reaching Congress peaked in 2009-10, as the chart below shows. The current Congress still has until mid-term elections in November to catch up.

EPA Supreme Court Bar Chart

Source: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

The 112th US Congress during 2011-2012 was the first to make no attempt to pass cap-and-trade rules since the first effort, way back in 2003. Obama has effectively given up on getting Congress to act and is using the executive powers of the US Environmental Protection Agency instead.

2007

The EPA's executive powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions stem from a 2007 Supreme Court ruling. This said the Nixon-era Clean Air Act should be used to regulate "any pollutant" that "endangers public health or welfare". This case is often referred to as Massachusetts vs EPA.

 

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Academics urge scientists to do more to engage the public on climate change

  • 24 Jun 2014, 14:30
  • Roz Pidcock

David Adamec, ABC News

There's something amiss with the public's understanding of climate change - and it's got a lot to do with scientists' inability, ill-preparedness or unwillingness to take on the role of communicators. Those are the conclusions of a new report out today that may just ruffle a few feathers in the science community.

A call to arms

The  new report from the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science examines the role of climate scientists in public engagement, society and policy making.

Entitled 'Time for change? Climate science reconsidered', the report makes several recommendations for how scientists can up their game on all these fronts.

Top priorities, according to the report, are increasing the transparency of the scientific process and matching up what scientists do to what society needs to better appreciate the scale and urgency of climate change.

The challenge

Climate science finds itself "mismatched to societal needs", the report claims. The information society needs to get a handle on the climate challenge is not getting through, say the authors:

"There is widespread public acceptance of the reality of climate change, but not of the urgency and scale of the challenges that the science indicates it represents".

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Risking it all: Report highlights how climate change threatens US business

  • 24 Jun 2014, 13:25
  • Mat Hope & Ros Donald

CC: P Sableman

From coastal properties slipping into the sea to diminishing corn yields, new analysis suggests climate change could cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars if policymakers fail to take action.

The report, by the Risky Business Project, backed by dozens of prominent industry leaders, warns that the US faces "profound risks" from climate change.

With its cross-party backers and focus on economic risks, the report aims to help transform climate change from a politically divisive issue into a business case for action.

New normal

The research says two impacts of climate change put US's economy at most risk: extreme heat and sea-level rise.

The world should expect  more intense heatwaves, rainfall, and droughts as emissions increase and global temperatures rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Models show  sea level is likely to rise by between 29 and 82 centimeters by the end of the century, and that hurricanes will become more common in some regions.

Under these conditions, the Risky Business report says the US should expect extreme weather events to become more frequent. The chart below illustrates how climate change has shifted the range of what people can come to expect from the weather:

Risky business extreme weather

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Is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

  • 23 Jun 2014, 16:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Kimon Berlin

Australian coal mining firms are caught in a "perfect storm", the Financial Times reports. They are in deep trouble because coal prices have halved since 2011.

Back home, the UK has a coal problem. Use is up a fifth in four years due in part to low prices and the government has been looking at extending the life of coal plants. German use is up 13 per cent too.

Some are saying the shift to coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, has been at the expense of cleaner gas and nuclear. If it persists it would be a threat to EU plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent in 2030.

So is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

Supply and demand

First, let's take a look at today's coal price and why it has become so cheap.

Coal prices haven't been this low since 2009, as the chart below shows, and have almost halved since a peak in 2011. Over the same period crude oil has remained above the historically unprecedented $100 per barrel level (purple line). So low coal prices aren't being caused by generally weak demand for energy.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 At 16.04.19

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Updated: The UK, Europe, and an energy efficiency revolution

  • 19 Jun 2014, 16:30
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Mohammed Saeed

Update 19/6/14: Uncertainty over the European Commission's preferences for a 2030 energy efficiency target continue. A  leaked impact assessment suggests it favours a binding EU-level reduction of at least 30 per cent with no national targets. But commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and energy commissioner Günther Oettinger are said to favour a non-binding 27 per cent goal.  See paragraph five onwards for updates.

Does Vladimir Putin secretly want you to get your walls insulated? He certainly seems to be doing his best to encourage strong EU energy efficiency legislation.

But if the EU does raise its ambition on energy efficiency as part of its   2030 climate and energy package, UK energy saving policies would also have to become much more ambitious. How big a task would it be to meet an EU energy saving goal, and how would the UK go about it?

Persuasive Putin

EU member states are currently negotiating the details of the 2030 policy package that will set targets for emissions and - maybe - for renewable energy and energy efficiency too.

The UK and many other member states are   against an energy efficiency goal. But Russia's decision on Monday to   shut off gas supplies to Ukraine will have focused minds. The EU currently   spends more than €1 billion per day on imports, a figure that is expected to rise. Russia   supplies about a third of its coal, oil and gas imports. A 40 per cent energy efficiency target   could remove the need to import Russian gas entirely.

European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger is today meeting commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard to discuss efficiency.   Germany and   six other EU member states have backed a binding efficiency target in a   letter sent to the commission. They write:

"The current situation in the Ukraine emphasises the importance of reducing dependence on imported oil and natural gas."

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New statistics show world’s tentative steps towards low carbon energy

  • 17 Jun 2014, 17:00
  • Mat Hope

CC: Walter Baxter

Europe's green fields are becoming dotted with wind turbines, North American cars are chugging biogas rather than oil, and China's rooftops are ever more adorned with solar panels. Everywhere, there are signs that the world is undergoing a clean energy revolution. But for all politicians' talk of the  "promise of clean energy", new data shows the world is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

While countries are taking tentative steps down a path to a low carbon energy sector, BP's  annual statistical review shows just how long that road could be. We take a look at some of the potential obstacles ahead.

Curbing consumption

Policymakers are increasingly touting energy efficiency as a strategy to improve  energy security and curb emissions. But BP's data shows that whatever progress rich countries are making to reduce demand is largely being cancelled out by energy-hungry developing economies.

BP says global energy consumption increased by 2.3 per cent in 2013, continuing a long-term trend of growing energy demand - as the grey line on the graph below shows. Emerging economies were responsible for around 80 per cent of that increase, it reports.

BP Stats Global Consumption Blog

The data shows South and Central America, the Asia Pacific and Middle East combined were responsible for about 56 per cent of energy consumption. North America and Europe consumed around 20 per cent of the world's energy each.

The IEA says that if energy demand continues to grow at this rate, the world is on track for almost  four degrees of warming - so implementing energy efficiency policies will be key to curbing emissions. But Europe was the only region to see demand decrease compared to the year before - by about 0.3 per cent.

So as it stands, policymakers must do much more to reduce demand worldwide if energy sector emissions are to be curbed.

Accelerating renewables

As well as reducing demand, policymakers must ensure renewables provide for much more of the world's energy needs. For all renewable energy's growth, BP's data shows most of the world's energy demand is met by fossil fuels.

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Lord Stern says economic models of climate change need better climate science

  • 16 Jun 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: BY-SA

Economic analysis can help policymakers gauge how much action it's worth taking to tackle future climate change. But some economic models have been criticised for failing to account for the findings of the latest climate science - resulting, critics say, in significant blind spots.

Prominent climate economist, Lord Stern, is one of those critics. He's previously warned that models  "grossly underestimate"  the risks of climate change, and consequently the cost of failing to act.

In a  new paper due to be published in The Economic Journal and released by LSE today, Stern and co-author Dr Simon Dietz try to redress the balance. They suggest informing models with the latest research strengthens the case for stringent action to tackle climate change.

Estimating costs

There are a number of models that try to work out how much economic damage climate change will cause in the future, and how much we should pay now to avoid that.

But the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that such models were  incomplete. The IPCC uses multiple 'integrated assessment models' (IAMs) to estimate the future cost of climate change. The models estimate changes in temperature and economic conditions based on future emissions. They then calculate how much additional damage is caused by emitting an extra tonne of carbon dioxide today.

That cost is known as the social cost of carbon and is expressed in dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide - a carbon price, effectively.

But the information you get out of models in only as good as the information you put in. Professor Chris Field, co-chair of one of the groups that wrote the IPCC report, has  previously said the numbers produced by economic models are "old fashioned" when you consider "the modern science".

What does that mean? It implies that economic models don't capture all the potential impacts of climate change. That means they produce low social cost of carbon estimates, and underestimate the risk of failing to take action to tackle climate change.

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Why National Grid will pay companies to switch off

  • 11 Jun 2014, 14:50
  • Mat Hope

CC: Firstfreddy

Network operator National Grid yesterday announced plans to balance the UK's electricity supply and facilitate more renewable energy generation. As part of the move, it intends to pay some companies to use less power at times when demand is high.

That hit headlines, with the new measure variously described as an  "emergency plan" to avoid power blackouts and a  "safety net" to ensure the kettle always boils. So which is it?

Here's a guide to the small but significant new policy.

What is it?

The plan has two components. National Grid intends to pilot what it calls a 'demand side balancing reserve' this winter, and introduce a 'supplemental balancing reserve' next year.

The demand side reserve is the measure that  caught  the  media'sattention. National Grid will pay energy intensive business to reduce their use during peak times - 4pm to 8pm on winter weekdays. Reducing the amount big power users need at peak time should help National Grid match demand for power with supply.

National Grid says the measure should be good value for consumers, as it avoids the need to build additional power stations just to meet sporadic peaks in demand. National Grid stresses that the scheme is volun  tary, and no business will be forced to switch off. Many large companies already reduce their energy use in peak times to save money, it notes.

Moreover, the measure covers less than one per cent of peak winter demand. So the new measures are smoothing around the edges, rather than making a big dent in demand.

The supplemental reserve is something quite different. It's a measure intended to keep power plants that would be mothballed because of a lack of demand open. National Grid will pay energy generators to keep these plants - normally gas - in a state where they can be switched on quickly to meet peak demand.

National Grid already buys some extra power through the  short term operating reserve when there's unexpected shortages, such as when a power plant fails. The supplemental reserve is just an extension of that policy. 

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Carry on coal? The cost of keeping the UK's dirty power stations alive

  • 10 Jun 2014, 16:30
  • Mat Hope

CC: Mitch Rue

Both parties in the coalition government got elected on promises to decarbonise the UK's energy sector. But as the next election nears, is the government considering extending the life of the UK's most polluting energy source, coal?  

The UK's coal power plants are getting old, with many that were built in the 1970s and 80s  due to be shut in the next few years. But in theory, the plants could be upgraded and kept open for another decade or so.

Yesterday, consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff released a government-commissioned  report looking into the cost of keeping the UK's coal power plants online. The report could be seen as the next step in a government plan to keep existing coal plants running, although the Department for Energy and Climate Change denies this.

So does the report offer any insights into the future of coal in the UK?

Paying to keep coal burning

There are two things that could influence the government's decision on whether to keep coal plants open: economics and politics.

Yesterday's report contains detailed estimates of what would need to be done to keep the UK's fossil fuel power plants open. It says companies would have to spend millions to upgrade existing equipment and add new technology to reduce the plant's emissions.

In January 2016, the European Commission's  Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) will require existing fossil fuel power plants to reduce their nitrous oxide emissions to 200 milligrams per normal cubic meter. That's about half the emissions they were allowed under the  Large Combustion Plant Directive, which the IED replaces.

To get to that level, the plants will have to add technology that converts the nitrous oxide into nitrogen and water. If the plants choose not to comply with the IED, they will have to curb their operational hours and close by 2023.

Parson Brinkerhoff's figures seem to suggest it could be around £147 million to keep an average-sized 1,000 megawatt coal power plant going for an extra 10 years.

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Can the world curb global warming and save $740 billion? Only if the alternative becomes more costly

  • 09 Jun 2014, 14:40
  • Mat Hope

The world could save billions of dollars and avoid dangerous global warming if policymakers double the amount of energy people get from renewable sources, a new report claims.

Sounds great. But the calculation uses a slightly circular logic which relies on the assumption that the alternative - polluting - becomes more costly.

Curbing emissions

The  International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) calls for governments to increase renewable energy's global share from 18 per cent of demand in 2010 to 36 per cent in 2030. Doing so could prevent temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, it claims.

It bases that statement on figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA says global emissions must not exceed 25 gigatonnes in 2030 to prevent warming of more than two degrees. IRENA claims global emissions could be limited to 25.5 gigatonnes in 2030 if policymakers follow its proposals. That's 15.9 gigatonnes lower than they otherwise may be, as this graph shows:

IRENA emissions

IRENA concludes "renewable energy and energy efficiency are the world's best chances to avoid catastrophic climate change". But it acknowledges those can't be the only policy focuses.

If global emissions are around 25 gigatonnes in 2030, the IEA says policymakers will have to accelerate their efforts to prevent dangerous warming in the following two decades. That means ensuring policymakers divert resources toward curbing industrial and transport sector emissions, too.

$740 billion

While few people doubt renewable energy's potential to curb emissions, critics remain concerned about how much a mass rollout could cost. But IRENA says its proposal could save the global economy $740 billion a year by 2030.

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