Climate Change News December 13, 2010

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
December 13, 2010


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UN Climate Negotiations Conclude with 'Cancun Agreements'

On December 11, 193 nations reached agreement in several areas at the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico. Known as the 'Cancun Agreements', the package solidifies key elements from last year's summit in Copenhagen, which were never formally adopted. The new global framework includes the creation of a Green Climate Fund to transfer money from rich nations to poor nations for climate change mitigation and adaptation in addition to research centers that will ease the transfer of clean technology and the establishment of a system to compensate nations for preserving forests that are vulnerable to logging or burning. The deal does not include details on how the pledged aid will be funded, whether the Kyoto Protocol will be extended, or targets that will keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius--a target nations agreed to in Copenhagen. “None of this, of course, is world changing,” said Michael A. Levi, who follows climate issues at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The Cancún agreement should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to: it focuses on those areas where the U.N. process has the most potential to be useful, and avoids other areas where the U.N. process is a dead end. The outcome does not change the fact that most of the important work of cutting emissions will be driven outside the U.N. process.”

For additional information see: Washington Post, BBC, New York Times, UNFCCC Press Release

Court Denies Request to Block EPA Regulations

On December 10, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a request to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from implementing new rules on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Industry groups had appealed to the court, arguing that the EPA did not conduct enough of its own research when it found that carbon is a danger to human health. Critics of the rules also argued that the agency was not equipped to control GHG emissions and the rules would harm the economy. However, the court said the opponents' case did not meet the "stringent standards" necessary for the court to stop the rules. Opponents did not prove that the rules were "certain" to create negative consequences and not "speculative", the court said. Several lawsuits, however, still proceed against the EPA's climate-related rules.

For additional information see: Reuters, Politico

China Offers Voluntary Emissions Target, U.S. Wants More Transparency

On December 6, Chinese government officials offered for the first time to submit its voluntary carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions target to a binding UN resolution. China hopes that developed countries will agree to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which sets mandatory greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets for developed countries through 2012, as the global GHG emissions agreement. The Protocol allows developing countries’ GHG emissions targets to be voluntary. China’s envoy, Xie Zhenhua said, “developing countries can. . . make their own voluntary emissions commitments and these should be under the Convention.” However, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Huang Huikang, told ClimateWire that China is “poor” and “not on the same level” as the United States. "In principle we will make our commitment under the convention, but this time it is probably premature to discuss whether China's commitment is legally binding or not." Japan, Russia, and Canada are among the developed nations that are seeking a new agreement that would set legally binding CO2 emissions targets for all countries.

In response, chief U.S. envoy, Todd Stern, said he doesn’t see China’s statement as a game-changer, and still wants China to increase its transparency by allowing an expert panel to verify emissions cuts.“I’ve seen quotes from some people saying this can be a game-changer,” Stern said. “I’d love it to be a game-changer, but as far as I’m concerned, this is business as usual.” He went on to say, "that was the Copenhagen Accord, as far as we're concerned." India proposed guidelines that would put rapidly developing countries like China into a separate category from the poorest nations. To that, Stern said, “there is a lot of support in the conference and among developing countries for the proposal the Indians have put forward.”

For additional information see: Bloomberg, Reuters, New York Times

Supreme Court Will Hear Public Nuisance Climate Change Case

On December 6, the Supreme Court announced it will hear the case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut next year. The case began in 2004 when eight states, New York City, and several land trust groups filed a public nuisance lawsuit against utility companies for emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Public nuisance lawsuits allow the plaintiffs to bring a lawsuit against defendants whom they believe are creating a public nuisance. In 2005, a federal judge in New York ruled that the plaintiffs could not proceed with the lawsuits because they raised political questions that the court could not answer. However, in 2009, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled they could proceed. The utilities in question have challenged this decision, and the Supreme Court will consider their challenge. The plaintiff states include Connecticut, New York, California, Iowa, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Vermont. The utility companies include American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy, Southern Co., Xcel Energy Inc., and the Tennessee Valley Authority. When the lawsuit was filed, the federal government was not regulating greenhouse gas emissions, but since then it has been ordered to do so under the 2007 Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself because she heard the case while serving as an appeals court judge.

For additional information see: Politico, Dow Jones Newswire, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

NM Regulators Approve Emissions Cap

On December 6, New Mexico regulators approved an environmental group’s proposal for capping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. New Energy Economy (NEE), a non-profit New Mexico-based organization, petitioned the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board asking large polluters such as coal-fired power plants and refiners to reduce their GHG emissions by three percent per year from 2010 levels. The program will take effect in 2013 and end in 2020, or sooner if a national or regional carbon pollution reduction plan preempts it. It will apply to electricity generators and other facilities that emit at least 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is in line with the state’s recently adopted cap and trade program, which will go into effect only if other U.S. states or Canadian provinces move ahead with similar programs. Opponents fear the newly approved proposal and the cap and trade program will put New Mexico at a disadvantage. Supporters believe the plan will allow New Mexico to control GHG emissions independent of the cap and trade program, which relies on regional partners. "This new policy makes New Mexico the nation's leader in carbon pollution reduction while at the same time stimulating our economy and creating jobs for New Mexico families and communities," said Mariel Nanasi, NEE Senior Policy Advisor. "The board understands that the same technologies that can reduce carbon pollution can also make New Mexico more competitive in the clean energy economy, which means more long-term, well-paying jobs for New Mexicans."

In related news, on December 7, the Farmington City Council voted to challenge the state’s recently approved cap and trade program, which was approved in November by the state Environmental Improvement Board and would allow New Mexico to participate in a regional cap and trade program with other Western states and Canadian provinces. The program would require coal-fired power plants, refineries, natural gas compressor stations, and other facilities that pump out a certain level of carbon dioxide (CO2) to reduce their CO2 emissions two percent every year beginning in 2012. Facilities that are unable to reduce their emissions would be able to buy allowances through the regional trading program, and facilities under the emissions cap would be able to sell their allowances for a profit.

For additional information see: Associated Press, Sustainable Business, Associated Press, Farmington Daily Times

Cancun Negotiations Close to Agreement on Forest Preservation

The second week of climate negotiations in Cancun held promise for a deal to cut carbon emissions through forest preservation, also known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Many leaders agreed that a new fund should be set up to allow rich countries to pay poor countries to preserve their forests. The idea was met with some resistance by others who don’t want trees to become global commodities. Around 13 million hectares of forest are cut down every year for timber or land-grazing purposes, which contributes about 15-20 percent of carbon emissions every year, because the trees are no longer absorbing carbon. Most of the money to preserve the forests would likely come from global carbon trading markets that allow industries to purchase offsets for the carbon that they emit. The U.S. has said that it will not support a REDD deal unless its core requirement — an emissions verification system — is met. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said REDD is the "the fastest, the cheapest and easiest way" to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said it is a way "to reduce both poverty and emissions at the same time."

For additional information see: London Telegraph, Washington Post, Guardian, Associated Press

India Offers Binding Emissions Targets

On December 9, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said that India will consider a legally binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target in the future. “All countries must take a binding commitment under an appropriate legal form,” he said while speaking at the UN climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. Previously, India, like China, had been unwilling to commit its voluntary emissions targets to a legally binding commitment. Ramesh said that he wanted to see the content of a future agreement including any penalties for non-compliance first. Currently, India is considered a developing country, and thus is not required to set mandatory GHG targets under the Kyoto Protocol, which will end in 2012.

For additional information see: Agence France Presse, Reuters, Indian Express

World Bank Announces Carbon Market Fund for Developing Countries

On December 8, World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced the establishment of a multi-million dollar fund to help developing countries set up carbon markets. The countries expected to participate include China, Mexico, Chile, and Indonesia. The fund could reach up to $100 million and will provide technical and institutional support to developing countries. “This new Partnership – which brings together developed and developing nations – will help countries get ready to put in place domestic trading schemes and other market-based instruments to meet national mitigation objectives,” Zoellick said. “The fact that developing countries are looking for market-readiness support is testament to the drive for climate action at the national level – these countries are not waiting, they’re getting on with it as part of their development goals.” The fund is expected to be operational by 2011.

For additional information see: Reuters, Business Green, New York Times, World Bank Press Release

Committee Urges UK Government to Increase Carbon Emissions Cuts

On December 7, the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) released a report urging its government to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 60 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels. This means that the 2020 target would have to be revised from a 34 percent to a 37 percent reduction. Prior CCC targets were turned into laws, and this target is a step to having a legally binding 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 as required by the nation’s Climate Change Act. "We are recommending a stretching but realistic fourth carbon budget and 2030 target, achievable at a cost of less than 1% of GDP. We therefore urge the government to legislate the budget, and to develop the policies required to cut emissions," said CCC Chair Adair Turner. The CCC also recommends a fundamental change in the UK’s electricity market. CCC recommends a better planned approach by having the government tender long-term contracts for low-carbon power generation and commit to buy a certain percentage of the power. The CCC also recommends that 60 percent of new vehicles in 2030 should be electric.

For additional information see: Business Green, Reuters, Guardian, Report

Large Human Death Toll and Economic Costs Expected from Climate Change Impacts

On December 3, a leading humanitarian research organization released a report claiming that 5 million deaths are expected by 2020 from climate change impacts. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor report was prepared by DARA, a non-profit international organization, and the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), an alliance of countries most vulnerable to climate change. The report estimated there are already 350,000 deaths per year due to climate change, most of whom are children and women in developing countries, and this number will only increase. The report assessed 184 countries and estimates that by 2030, 170 of those countries will experience at least one significant climate-related impact. Global financial losses due to climate change effects are expected to reach $200 billion by 2020 and $275 billion by 2030. The report predicted that the U.S. will have the largest economic loss of any country due to climate change impacts. “Whilst it is the poorest, most vulnerable nations on earth that will bear the brunt of the climate crisis, the industrialized world is not immune from its impact,” advisor to the report, Jose Figueres said. “Countries such as the United States will suffer the greatest economic losses from climate change so it is clearly in their own interest to act now to address these impacts, and to mitigate climate change.” The report also listed 50 actions that nations can take to avoid the worst climate impacts.

For additional information see: Forbes, Sustainable Business, Report

Report Ranks Countries on Climate Change Performance

On December 6, Germanwatch and Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe released its sixth annual Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) during the UN climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. The index “compares the climate protection performance of 57 industrialized countries and emerging economies that together account for more than 90 percent of the global energy related carbon dioxide emissions.” The index is based on the strength of climate policies and how well countries control greenhouse gases. The first three spots were left vacant because no country did enough to earn the honor. The index ranks Brazil as the top climate protection performer (fourth) due to its efforts to cut emissions and reduce deforestation. Sweden, Norway, and Germany followed Brazil on the list. Canada was ranked fifty-seventh, followed by Australia, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. was ranked fifty-fourth.

For additional information see: United Press International, CBC News, Report

Current Shortage of GHG Professionals Likely to Get Worse

In the first week of December, the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI) and Sequence Staffing released a report that shows there is a shortage of greenhouse gas (GHG) professionals in the global marketplace. This is the second annual survey centered on GHG professionals, and like last year’s report, it found a significant gap in the supply and demand of GHG professionals. The report examines the “trends, requirements, and sentiment of the global practitioner corps that is undertaking work to measure and manage climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.” More than half of the respondents have worked in the field for less than five years, most respondents believe that GHG auditing needs some type of certification for individual auditors, and less than half of the respondents used GHG software. The shortage of GHG professionals is likely to increase as climate change programs increase globally.

For additional information see: GreenBiz, Report

Ocean Acidification Could Threaten Food Security

On December 2, the United Nations Environment Program released a report showing that ocean acidification linked to climate change may threaten food security. The report shows that shellfish, mussels, shrimp, and lobsters could be most at risk because ocean acidification makes it harder for them to form protective shells. Additionally, the damage to coral reefs could cause problems for many commercial fisheries as the reefs for are critical for nurseries. The oceans have become 30 percent more acidic since the industrial revolution due to increased absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2). Ptetropods — tiny mollusks at the bottom of the food chain — may reduce in number due to the inability to form protective shells, which will affect a number of larger fish higher on the food chain. Carol Turley, lead author of the report, said, "we are seeing an overall negative impact from ocean acidification directly on organisms and on some key ecosystems that help provide food for billions. We need to start thinking about the risk to food security." The report states that fish supplies 15 percent of the protein requirements for three billion people, and another one billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein. The report urges cuts in CO2 emissions to reduce ocean acidification and more support for research to quantify the risks and identify the species most at risk.

For additional information see: Reuters, Agence France Presse, CNN, UNEP Report

Climate Change Drove Cultural Changes in the Prehistoric Period

On December 6, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that cultural shifts in North American populations during the prehistoric period were likely due to climactic changes that occurred simultaneously. The team of researchers, led by geographer Samuel Munoz from the University of Ottawa, analyzed a multitude of data to show that nearly all of the transitions between cultural periods occurred at times of ecological changes. The cultural shifts that accompanied the climate shifts were marked by a more sedentary lifestyle, a change in the plants and animals used for food, and a change in the kinds of tools they used.

For additional information see: Science, Abstract

Climate Change Cycle Turns Arctic Forests into Major Carbon Emitters

On December 5, a study published in Nature Geosciences shows that climate change is causing more frequent and severe Alaskan wildfires, which pumps higher amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere than previously thought. The intensity of forest fires in Alaska is growing largely due to the lengthening of the summer burning season. The late-season fires burn deeper into the soil, which ignites peat that ordinarily acts as a long-term carbon sink. According to the researchers, this is the first study to show that fires in the Alaskan interior have become more severe in the past 10 years, and have released more CO2 into the atmosphere than was stored during the same period. “There is no way these systems are serving as a net carbon sink anymore,” said Merritt Turetsky, lead author of the report. "Essentially, it represents a runaway climate change scenario in which warming is leading to larger and more intense fires, releasing more greenhouse gases and resulting in more warming." The study focused on the interior forests of Alaska, but the findings likely apply to forests in Siberia, Canada, and northern Europe. The amount of CO2 stored in soil and peat layers across the Northern hemisphere is vast, therefore, these findings have significant implications for the global climate.

For additional information see: Reuters, New York Times, Press Release, Abstract

Climate Change May Change Midwest Crop Strategies

In the second week of December, researchers at Purdue University told farmers in Indiana that they may have to change crop varieties due to climate change. The researchers held a conference to help farmers understand the effects that climate change will have on weather patterns. The researchers said one scenario predicts southern style climate in the Midwest by 2100 with Virginia-like winters and Oklahoma-like summers. Purdue agricultural economist Otto Doering said warmer winters could mean that pests are not wiped out during the cold months. Corn pollination is dependent on warmer days and cooler nights, which could be affected as climate change occurs. Doering also said that climate change could force farmers to choose seed varieties with different resistance traits and maturity dates. Additionally, soil erosion may change as temperature and rainfall patterns change.

For additional information see: United Press International, Press Release

Increased Carbon Dioxide Creates Cooling Effect from Increased Plant Growth

On December 7, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that a doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) will create additional growth of plants and trees, which will create a cooling effect. Results from a new NASA computer modeling effort indicated that while the increased plant growth could create a cooling effect, it could not reverse or halt climate change. The computer model calculated the cooling effect to be -0.3°C globally, and -0.6°C over land. In a CO2 doubling scenario, the model calculated a warming of 1.94°C globally without accounting for the negative feedback. This is the first model to incorporate “down-regulation” — the ability of plants to use water more efficiently when higher amounts of CO2 are available —into predictions about how the climate will change with increased levels of CO2. The latest research shows "how, over time, scientists will create more sophisticated models that will chip away at the uncertainty range of climate change and allow more accurate projections of future climate," NASA said.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Agence France Presse, Abstract

Deforestation May Account for Less Carbon Emissions than Previously Thought

In the first week of December, Winrock International ecologists stated that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from deforestation are much lower than previously thought. The analysis, funded by the World Bank and the Norwegian government, shows that CO2 emissions from deforestation during 2000-2005 were responsible for 5-12 percent of total global emissions. In 2006, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated CO2 emissions to be around 20 percent during the same period. Researchers used more than three million data points and 4000 carbon inventories to complete the study which has not yet been formally published. New Scientist spoke with some forest scientists who believe that the recent analysis done by Winrock may underestimate the CO2 emissions from the conversion of natural forests to palm oil plantations. The IPCC includes these conversions in its estimates, so these scientists believe this may account for the discrepancy in the two findings.

For additional information see: New Scientist

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Writers: Matthew Johnson and Amber Pembleton

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