Analysis

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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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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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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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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Analysis: Who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework

  • 17 Oct 2014, 12:45
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Number 10

Ambitious EU 2030 climate targets could be crucial to unlocking a global climate deal in Paris next year. Yet EU leaders still can't agree the details, with just days to go.

Uncertainty remains because different EU member states want different things from the 2030 policy framework, which will set the trajectory for EU climate and energy policy for the next 15 years. Some countries want three targets - to cut emissions, increase use of renewable energy and boost take up of energy efficiency. Others want an emissions target only. And a few say they will only accept targets with sweeteners.

So who wants what from the EU 2030 climate framework, and what does that mean for how ambitious it will be?

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Owen Paterson on scrapping the UK’s commitment to reducing emissions

  • 15 Oct 2014, 20:50
  • Mat Hope & Simon Evans

Former environment secretary Owen Paterson tonight delivered a lecture to climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In his speech, he called on the government to suspend the UK's legally binding obligation to cut emissions and abandon its pursuit of renewable energy in favour of submarine-style nuclear power.

Paterson's speech was  heavily trailed in the media earlier this week, which we  analysed in detail here. Here's a summary, with some extra context on what Paterson had to say on...

The science

Paterson suggests forecasts of climate change's impacts have been "consistently and widely exaggerated", adding that the atmosphere has failed "to warm at all over the past 18 years".

This is incorrect. The atmosphere has warmed by about 0.05 degrees since the end of the 1990s. This is slower than in previous decades, but when what's happening to the oceans is also considered, scientists are clear that the planet as a whole is warming.

Scientists expect air temperatures to rise quickly again when natural cycles that are currently pushing heat into the deep ocean reverse. This kind of natural fluctuation has happened many times in earth's history - and when you take the ups and downs out, the long term trend is one of warming since industrialisation.

Paterson doesn't dispute that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but he says there is "considerable uncertainty" over how much warming we'll see.

Scientists haven't pinned down exactly how much temperatures rise per doubling of carbon dioxide - known as the climate sensitivity. But importantly, if we continue emitting greenhouse gases as fast as we are, we'll see serious warming this century wherever climate sensitivity sits within the range scientists have identified.

The lights going out

Cutting emissions and decarbonising the energy sector means "the lights would eventually go out".

While the idea of the lights going out is an attractive shorthand for journalists and commentators, it  isn't seriously expected to become reality.

However, the government has long recognised the need for significant investment to replace the UK's aging energy infrastructure. Many of the UK's power stations are  very old and are due to  reach the end of their natural life over the coming decades. There are  particular concerns about generating capacity over the next few winters.

That's why the government is planning to pay firms to  reduce demand at peak times, and is creating a  capacity market. This will pay power companies money to ensure there is always enough capacity to cover peak demand, so that the lights will always stay on, even if we have to pay to make sure.

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Five weird things about the EU's cost of energy study

  • 15 Oct 2014, 11:11
  • Simon Evans

The cost of energy tends to dominate arguments about how the world should respond to climate change.

Opponents of strong climate action say that coal is cheap, and government support for renewables is expensive. Green energy advocates say that apparently 'cheap' fossil fuels are failing to pay the full costs they impose on society, including health impacts and climate change. There's an argument about which costs should count, and which shouldn't.

Getting the right answer really matters. A case in point are the climate and energy targets for 2030 that are due to be agreed by European leaders at a summit next week. Much of their attention will be taken up by whether climate ambition will lead to higher energy costs.

In the lead up to the summit the European Commission has published a  detailed study that attempts to tease apart all of the different types of energy cost. The idea is to assess fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear power on a level playing field, including government subsidies and costs not currently priced by the market.

The study contains mountains of information that took a monumental effort by consultants Ecofys to pull together. But it still leaves almost as many questions as answers.

Here are five weird things we learnt from looking at their work, that show how fiendishly difficult it is to assess the true costs of energy.

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US military outlines plan to deal with increasing climate change threat

  • 14 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

Flood trucks | US Navy

"A changing climate will have real impacts on [the US] military and the way it executes its missions", US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday said. And the US military is planning how to deal with the threat now.

The Department of Defense's 2014 Climate Adaptation Roadmap, published yesterday, suggests climate change has the potential to exacerbate some of the world's most significant challenges, from disease to international conflict. It calls climate change a "threat multiplier" with the potential to increase the impact of numerous security concerns.

This  isn't the first time the US military has expressed its concerns about climate change. But the roadmap is one of the first documents to "really go into great detail about what the US military should be doing in response to climate change now" Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security thinktank, tells Carbon Brief. The report shows that military has decided the risk from climate change "is great and it's immediate", Femia says.

New activities

The roadmap outlines a number of new ways climate change could cause the military to be called into action. Its findings are driven by two things, Femia says: developments in climate science and "what the military is seeing on the ground".

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Owen Paterson’s objections to the Climate Change Act: some context

  • 13 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Wind & coal | Shutterstock

Former environment minister Owen Paterson has been in the papers over the weekend. In an article on the front page of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph he says we won't be able to keep the UK's lights on unless we scrap the Climate Change Act. This is a law requiring the government to cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, which he himself voted for.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 12.45.06.png

Paterson is due to give a lecture to climate sceptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation on Wednesday, where he will expand on this theme. In advance of his talk we've taken a look at what he has to say.

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How much of China's carbon dioxide emissions is the rest of the world responsible for?

  • 09 Oct 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

China smog | Shutterstock

China is the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, by far. The country produces more than a quarter of the planet's annual greenhouse gas emissions.

World leaders increasingly reference China's spiralling emissions as a reason why it should commit to dealing with climate change.

But is it fair to ask China to lead the way? After all, a hefty share of the pollution rising out of China's smokestacks comes from factories churning out TVs, mobile phones and cheap toys for the rest of the world.

China's emissions

In 2006, China became the  world's largest emitter, overtaking the US. By 2013, 28 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from China, according to data from the Global Carbon Project.

This graph shows the dramatic step change in the growth of China's carbon dioxide emissions that's taken place in the last 15 years:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 15.09.41.png
Source: Data from the Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Atlas. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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