A detailed Q&A on Obama's Clean Power Plan

  • 04 Aug 2015, 18:00
  • Simon Evans

On Monday, President Obama launched his Clean Power Plan designed to cut emissions from the power sector by 32% in 2030, against a 2005 baseline.

It's more ambitious than a draft, published for comment last year, which targeted a 30% reduction. Obama says it is the "single most important step" the US has taken to tackle climate change.

It has attracted a huge quantity of news coverage, comment and analysis. However, the final rule is 1,560 pages long, making it hard to unpick the impact of the plan from the spin. It also has international significance in advance of the impending UN climate talks in Paris.

Carbon Brief's Q&A aims to help cut through the noise, explaining the why, how and what next of the Clean Power Plan.

Why is Obama doing this?

The Clean Power Plan is one part of the Obama administration's Climate Action Plan, launched in June 2013. The president hopes climate action will be a legacy issue, says the National Journal.

In a video released the over the weekend, Obama justifies his approach, saying that the changing climate is threatening the economy, security and health. He says:

"If you believe like I do that we can't condemn our kids and grandkids to a planet that's beyond fixing, then I'm asking you to share this message with your friends and family...We can do this. It's time for America, and the world, to act on climate change."

Obama's other climate policies includes vehicle efficiency standards, rules to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, controls on warming HFCs and a range of other efforts. Vox has a good summary of Obama's other climate initiatives.

Collectively, these are designed to meet the US pledge to the UN climate process, known as an INDC. The US is the world's second largest emitter, responsible for 12% of global emissions in 2012. It has promised to cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2030, against a 2005 baseline.

The power sector was responsible for 31% of US carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) in 2013, so any plan to cut to tackle overall emissions has to address the power sector.

There is also a legal imperative to regulate after the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that emissions endanger public health, a ruling that has since been upheld. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is effectively bound to establish emissions targets for existing sources of CO2 under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, though this is disputed (see below).

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Five charts show the historic shifts in UK energy last year

  • 30 Jul 2015, 17:25
  • Simon Evans
Eggborough Power Station

Eggborough power station | Shutterstock

Last year was a historic one for UK energy, with significant consequences for UK emissions

New data from the Department for Energy Climate Change (DECC) shows energy use fell to its lowest level for at least half a century, while coal use fell to levels not seen since the 19th century and renewable power increased by a fifth.

Along with a record warm year, the combined impact of these changes was a 10% reduction in UK  carbon emissions -- the largest ever fall to accompany economic growth.

Carbon Brief has five charts that show what happened to the UK's energy mix in 2014.

Energy low

For decades if not centuries, a growing economy has usually been accompanied by rising energy use. Recessions have been the only sure-fire way to dampen rising demand. Since 2005, however, the UK has been busy  breaking that link.

In 2014 the downward trend accelerated, with a 6.6% reduction in energy use, even as the economy grew by a relatively rapid 2.8%. That left energy use last year down 18% since a 2005 peak and at the lowest level for at least half a century.

Within that overall picture, there were large reductions in gas, oil and coal use (light grey, brown and dark grey areas, below). As first estimated by Carbon Brief in January, UK coal use in 2014 fell to levels last seen during the  industrial revolution of the late 1800s.

Uk -primary -energy -useUK primary energy use by source. Source:  DUKES table 1.1.1. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Fossil fuel low

Total and fossil energy use were both down last year, making it hard to gauge the bigger picture. If we slice things up more simply, you can see that fossil fuels claimed a record low share of the UK energy mix in 2014, at 85% (grey area, below).

Fossil -fuel -share -uk -energy -mixThe UK's energy mix since 1990. Source:  DUKES table 1.1.1. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Renewables grabbed a growing share of UK energy use, reaching 7% of the total in 2014. As a result, the UK beat its  interim target on the path to a 15% by 2020 goal under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, including heat, power and transport.

Longer-running data from  BP shows that fossil fuels supplied 98% of the UK's energy needs in 1965 and it's a safe bet that last year's low of 85% is a record for the modern era. Even so, the UK is a very long way from the decarbonised economy it is aiming for. The  Climate Change Act commits the UK to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, against a 1990 baseline.

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Explainer: Amber Rudd ends Green Deal energy efficiency scheme

  • 24 Jul 2015, 17:05
  • Sophie Yeo
A roll of insulating glass wool on an attic floor

Loft insulation | Shutterstock

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has announced that the government will no longer fund the Green Deal scheme, which provided loans designed to help homeowners improve the energy efficiency of their property.

The department said that the latest target in its cull of green policies was aimed at protecting taxpayers, and was the result of low take-up of the scheme and concerns about industry standards.

But the government has yet to announce how it will fill the gap in its energy efficiency policies left by the Green Deal. 

It comes on the heels of an  announcement that subsidies for small scale solar and biomass projects would be scaled back.

DECC has previously forecast that the Green Deal scheme would provide savings on energy bills by 2020, as energy efficiency measures mean that tenants and homeowners pay less to heat their homes.

The government now has the task of designing a replacement scheme that will promote energy efficiency that fits with the Conservative ideals on how to tackle climate change - an approach that secretary of state Amber Rudd  promised today would be effective.

What is the Green Deal?

The Green Deal was officially launched in 2013, as a means to cut carbon emissions and save money on energy bills.

The government finances the scheme through the Green Deal Finance Company, which provides loans that can be used to install improvements, such as insulation, double-glazing and solar panels.

The beneficiary then pays back the money through a payment attached to their energy bill, which is cancelled out by the saving made on the bill by the new measures. The loan remained attached to the property, with the duty of paying back the loan falling on whoever pays the bills for the property.

However, the Green Deal did not prove the success that DECC had hoped it would be. Around 15,600 Green Deal plans had been issued by June 2015, according to the  latest statistics published yesterday. The f  igures by the department show a continuing downward trend on the number of households interested in applying for Green Deal financing.

Number -of -assessmentsNumber of Green Deal Assessments lodged by month. Source:  Domestic Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation in Great Britain, Monthly report


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DECC: Amber Rudd reduces subsidies for renewable energy

  • 22 Jul 2015, 16:20
  • Sophie Yeo
Amber Rudd

Amber Rudd | Shutterstock

The UK government has unveiled a package of measures to reduce subsidies to renewable energy in what it says is an effort to keep down household bills.

The announcement was widely expected, and comes off the back of recent projections from the  Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that subsidies for renewable energy will exceed the levels expected at the point when the spending cap, known as the Levy Control Framework (LCF), was established.

Carbon Brief looks at the reforms and collects reaction, including from Ed Davey, the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, who says the changes are "based on ideology, not on evidence".

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Recession rather than shale gas caused US carbon cuts - study

  • 21 Jul 2015, 16:00
  • Simon Evans
Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County.

Fracking rig | Nicholas A Tonelli

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the shale gas revolution has led to a fall in US emissions. But what if that wasn't true?

New research published in Nature Communications suggests it was the global financial crisis, not fracking, that has done most to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the US.

The paper concludes:

"After 2007, decreasing emissions were largely a result of economic recession...substitution of gas for coal has had a relatively minor role."

Carbon Brief looks at the findings, and why they could be politically significant.

Conventional wisdom

The idea that shale gas has been behind US emissions reductions is repeated in  news coverage, speeches and  reports. It is used by gas  advocates making the case for fracking in the UK. It has entered the political consciousness and is widely accepted as fact.

This conventional wisdom runs to the highest levels of scientific analysis. In its latest assessment report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  says fracking is "an important reason for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States".

In the US context, shale gas is seen as a key reason both for emissions reductions and in creating the political space necessary to take action on climate change.

One veteran of the Congressional climate and energy debate has told Carbon Brief that shale gas had changed the political conversation. During  failed attempts to impose a national cap-and-trade scheme, the talk was of expensive overseas gas being imported to help limit emissions.

Now, the source said, almost all of the emissions reductions required to meet President Obama's  Clean Power Plan are expected to come from coal-to-gas switching, using cheap US shale gas.


Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States between 1990 and 2014. Total greenhouse gas emissions have followed a similar trend but available figures are less up to date. Source: US Energy Information Administration. Chart by Carbon Brief.


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Japan's 2030 climate pledge leaves room for coal expansion

  • 21 Jul 2015, 11:15
  • Sophie Yeo
Mt. Fuji with fall colors in Japan.

Mt Fuji | Shutterstock

Japan has finalised its emissions reductions pledge to the UN, targeting a 26% reduction below 2013 levels by 2030.

This goal was widely expected. The Japanese government proposed an early, informal version of the pledge, known as an "intended nationally determined contribution" (  INDC), in June. Despite a month of deliberations, the goals contained in this draft have not changed.

Japan's INDC is closely tied to its long-term energy strategy out to 2030, written by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and  published in Japanese on Thursday.

The government says that its 2030 emissions reductions targets are a "bottom-up calculation...based on the amount of domestic emission reductions and removals assumed to be obtained" by this strategy.

Japan's energy history

Until recently, nuclear formed the bedrock of Japan's energy supply, meaning that around 30% of its power was generated without emitting carbon dioxide.

That changed with the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Three of the plant's six nuclear reactions went into meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by an earthquake. Following this, almost all of Japan's nuclear reactions were either shut down or suspended. By 2014, Japan had gone from generating 29% of its electricity from nuclear to none at all.

Japan turned to fossil fuels to fill the gap, causing its emissions to rise. In 2013, Japan registered its highest rate of emissions to date, at 10.8% higher than they were in 1990. For comparison, the  EU saw its emissions peak in 1979.

This caused Japan to backtrack on its 2020 pledge under the Copenhagen accord. Originally, Japan had said it would reduce its emissions by  25% on 1990 levels. In November 2013, the government announced it would instead target a reduction of 3.8% below 2005 levels - equivalent to an  increase of 5.2% on 1990 levels.

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Climate finance: Funding a low-carbon global economy

  • 16 Jul 2015, 15:00
  • Sophie Yeo
Wall Street sign

Wall Street | Pixabay

Over the next decades, trillions of dollars will be required to tackle climate change.

Leveraging it is a question that concerns politicians and financial institutions alike. Largely, it has been a conversation that the two have held separately.

The political discussion centres around a promise made in 2009 at the UN's climate conference in Copenhagen, when developed countries committed to provide $100bn a year from 2020 to help poor nations reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, with a significant portion of this flowing through a Green Climate Fund.

Nations  reaffirmed that pledge at the Financing For Development conference in Addis Ababa this week, where the UN largely focused on the issue of how to finance its  post-2015 sustainable development agenda - a set of guidelines, to be finalised this September, on reducing poverty, hunger and climate change, among other issues.

$100bn may sound like a lot of money. It is. But the investment required to deal with climate change will likely cost trillions, as infrastructure and energy across the world reshape into a greener, more resilient form, compatible with a world where temperatures rise no more than 2C. Enabling this will require a rethink of how the financial system itself works.

Part 1: The $100bn-a-year promise

Unlike the vague trillions required for a low-carbon overhaul of the global economy, the $100bn is a precise figure embedded in a political agreement.

The text of the Copenhagen agreement states that this could come from a variety of sources: public and private, bilateral and multilateral, and alternatives. It also established a Green Climate Fund (GCF). This has been designed to channel a significant proportion of these funds, but by no means all of them.

Despite this, the GCF is often seen as synonymous with the $100bn pledge.

Green Climate Fund

Many poor nations are in a situation where their capacity to reduce their emissions is limited by a lack of funding. The GCF was established to ensure that developing countries have access to additional and predictable finance that will allow them to scale up their own efforts to tackle global warming.

Under intense pressure from campaign groups and developing countries, rich nations have already started to trickle public funds into the GCF. So far this amounts to $10.2bn, with much of this pledged at a  Berlin meeting in November 2014. Others, including  Australia, added to that sum at the UN conference in Lima.

To date, 58.5% of these pledges have been  signed off by the donor nations into actual contributions, surpassing the 50% threshold required for the GCF to start allocating resources through bodies that have been approved by the board.

As a new financial institution, the GCF remains a work in progress.

Since it was established, countries have been  debating issues such as what kind of projects it can fund (a complication that is exacerbated by the lack of an official definition of "climate finance"), who gets to disburse the money, and how it intends to manage financial risk.

Some observers are concerned about the  lack of an explicit ban on fossil fuel projects for the GCF, following the revelation that Japan had used its early climate finance contributions to  fund a coal plant in Indonesia.

Another challenge is ensuring that developing countries are ready to receive the funds. Héla Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund, said in a  speech last month at the UN that, although $6bn had been requested from the fund so far, only $500m of this was from funds that "look promising".

Private versus public

The extent to which the GCF will be publicly funded has become one of the most contentious issues in climate finance.

It is widely accepted that a portion of the $100bn will be from private sources, and the GCF has set up a  Private Sector Facility to enable this.

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German coal compromise leaves doubts over climate goal

  • 02 Jul 2015, 17:00
  • Simon Evans
Pile of coal

Coal | Shutterstock

After late night coalition talks, Angela Merkel's German government has abandoned a planned levy on the oldest and dirtiest coal plants. Instead, it will adopt an industry-backed proposal to pay a small number of lignite power stations to retire.

The levy was part of a climate action plan, launched in December 2014, to get Germany back on track towards its self-imposed 2020 climate goal of cutting emissions by 40% against 1990 levels. The levy was designed to cut lignite emissions by 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) each year.

Under the new plan, lignite closures will save roughly half that, with the remainder being made up through other measures. The coal compromise has been welcomed by mining unions. Shares in coal-heavy German utility RWE were up 5% today, as the news emerged. However, critics say the plan will achieve less and cost consumers more.

Carbon Brief lays out Germany's coal problem and looks at the details of today's coal compromise.

Germany Climate Ambition Gap

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Raise carbon price to address aviation emissions, says Airports Commission

  • 01 Jul 2015, 14:45
  • Sophie Yeo
Heathrow airport departures sign with a plane in the sky

Heathrow airport | Shutterstock

The Airports Commission has  recommended a third runway at Heathrow, advising that this is the best way to expand the UK's aviation sector.

While some, such as  Chancellor George Osborne, have focused on the boost that airport expansion could bring to the UK's economy, others have expressed doubt over whether the UK can simultaneously cater for increased demand for flights and hit its legally binding emissions targets.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that, in order for the UK to cut its emissions 80% by 2050, emissions from aviation must be limited to 2005 levels. At this time, the sector emitted 37.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

In February 2013, CCC chairman Lord Deben  wrote to Howard Davies, the head of the commission, to highlight the limitations imposed on the aviation industry by the need to constrain its carbon emissions.

Davies has attempted to alleviate Deben's climate concerns in a  letter published today alongside the final commission report.

An exchange of views

Research by the commission in preparation for the report reveals the difficulties of expanding the UK's airport capacity and staying within the 37.5MtCO2 cap.

A new runway at either Heathrow and Gatwick would push the UK's aviation sector beyond this limit - although Heathrow expansion would do so by a wider margin. Carbon Brief has already  explained the consequences in detail.

In his letter to Davies, Deben wrote:

"Aviation emissions at 2005 levels could be achieved with fuel and operational efficiency improvements, use of sustainable biofuels and by limiting demand growth to around 60% by 2050 compared to 2005."

But limiting growth to 60% is easier said than done. The CCC  says that the number of passengers travelling by aeroplane could grow by more than 200% if airport expansion is unconstrained and there is no attempt to put a price on carbon.

With some constraints and a carbon price of £200 per tonne of CO2 by 2050, growth in demand could be limited to 115% says the CCC - but this is still almost double its target.


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Explainer: Aviation's battle to limit rising emissions

  • 30 Jun 2015, 10:45
  • Sophie Yeo
Aircraft Landing

Aircraft landing | Shutterstock

Tomorrow, the Airports Commission is expected to make its recommendation on how to expand the aviation industry in the UK.

Sir Howard Davies, the economist behind the report, has weighed up three options: a new runway at Heathrow, a new runway at Gatwick, and extending Heathrow's northern runway. 

But a question mark hangs over how the new runway would be compatible with the UK's climate change targets, rendering it an issue of not where it should be built, but whether it should be built at all.

The UK's dilemma is a microcosm of the global story of rapid expansion in the aviation industry, at a time when emissions need to rapidly decrease.

UK aviation emissions

Under the UK's 2008 Climate Change Act, emissions must be reduced by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050.

In 2009, the government  decided that aviation emissions must be capped at 2005 levels - 37.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) - by 2050. However, in 2012, it  said it would not officially incorporate this target into its legally binding carbon budgets due to policy uncertainty at an international level.

Nonetheless, the government has informally left space within its carbon budgets to accommodate 37.5MtCO2 from the aviation sector in 2050.

Currently, aviation emissions are set to far exceed 2005 levels in 2050. Even if no new runways are built in the UK, CO2 emissions are expected to be at 47Mt in 2050, according to  statistics from the Department of Transport.

Aviation Infographic FinalClick to expand. Credit: Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief

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