Climate Change News April 2, 2012

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
April 2, 2012


EPA Unveils Greenhouse Gas Rules for New Power Plants

On March 27th, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson issued a draft rule that places the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. The proposed rule will require any future fossil fuel-based electric utility generating units producing more than 25 megawatts to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.  The rule does not affect existing plants and provides an exception for coal plants that are already permitted and beginning construction within a year.  The rule would allow new power plants to begin operating with higher levels of emissions as long as the average annual emissions over a period of 30 years met the standard. The proposed rule is rooted in Massachusetts v. EPA, the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required the EPA to decide whether carbon dioxide was a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. EPA decided it was a pollutant in 2009.  Jackson called the proposed rule, “a common-sense step to reduce pollution in the air, protect the planet for our children and move us into a new era of American energy.”  EPA is accepting comments on the proposal for 60 days.

For additional information see: New York Times, Washington Post, EPA

Airlines Give Up Legal Battle Against European Carbon Emissions Law

Airlines opposed to the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a law that requires airlines to purchase carbon offset credits for flights taking off from or landing in Europe, have given up their fight against the law in European courts. The airlines hope that the U.S. government will fight on their behalf. Airlines for America, American Airlines, and United Continental had filed suit against the regulations, which also apply to parts of flight paths outside EU air space and could add $2.66 to $15.96 to the price of tickets. Nicholas Calio, Airlines for America president and CEO said, “There is a clear path for the United States to force the EU to halt the scheme and protect U.S. sovereignty, American consumers, jobs and international law.” European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, is optimistic about reaching a compromise, and said, “There is a will to try to look for a solution. What matters is that the end result is good for climate.”

For additional information see: The Guardian, Washington Post

Oil & Gas Industry Can Reduce Methane Waste by 80 Percent

A March 28 report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that by fixing leaks and introducing affordable technologies throughout the production chain, oil and gas companies could cut methane emissions by 80 percent, or by one-third of total U.S. methane emissions. This is equivalent to removing the GHG emissions from over 50 coal-fired power plants.  Efforts to reduce emissions are expected to pay for themselves within a few months or years; at 2011 gas prices, the retained methane would be worth $2 billion annually. Methane is a powerful global warming pollutant, at least 25 times more potent than CO2.

For additional information see: NRDC, The State Journal

Investors Express Concern Over Flaring in Shale Oil Production

In a letter to 21 companies, including Exxon Mobile, Continental Resources, and Chesapeake Energy Corp, 37 investors expressed concern over the air quality impacts, climate change effects and economic loss associated with flaring, the burning off of natural gas associated with shale oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The letter stated, “the 100 million cubic feet of natural gas that were flared each day in North Dakota last year represent approximately $110 million in lost revenue. It also represents annual emissions of at least 2 million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as adding 384,000 cars to the road.” The practice "poses significant risks for the companies involved, and for the industry at large, ultimately threatening the industry's license to operate," said the letter. Oil produced along with high flaring rates also has a high life-cycle cost, potentially drawing penalties under clean fuel standards. The letter requested information about flaring rates and measures taken to reduce and prevent flaring.

For additional information see: Reuters, Letter

Study: Natural Gas Not Much Better than Coal in Climate Change Impacts

A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in February concluded that replacing coal power with cleaner-burning natural gas over the next 40 years will result only in 17-25 percent reduced warming by 2100.  It found a much sharper cut, 10 to 20-fold, in greenhouse gas emissions is needed to significantly reduce warming; switching from coal to low-emitting technologies, such as nuclear, wind or solar emissions would lower temperature increases by 57 to 81 percent. Patrick Bean, energy advisor at the American Clean Skies Foundation pointed out the importance of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner energy sources.  Study author Ken Caldeira cautioned that further investments in natural gas “puts new money in the fossil fuel industry and expands the size of [its] political force,” and commented, “conservation and efficiency are essential” regardless of energy source.

For additional information see: National Geographic

Victoria, Australia Dumps Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target

The government in Victoria, Australia is scrapping a plan to reduce carbon emissions to 20 percent below 2002 levels by 2020. An independent review concluded that the state target, which is inconsistent with the 5% national target, would disproportionately burden Victoria, allowing other states to do less to meet the national standard. Instead, according to state Environment Minister Ryan Smith, Victoria “will look to support practical areas such as improving energy efficiency.” Environment Victoria Chief Kelly O’Shanassy said, “Either way it’s an irresponsible decision environmentally and economically . . . Premier Baillieu has caved in to the demands of a handful of polluters instead of acting to protect the environment and the public interest.” Tim Piper, Australian Industry Group Victorian director, supported the decision, saying, “You simply can’t have different requirements in one part of the country . . . for industry working across state lines.”

For additional information see: The Sidney Morning Herald

New Study Predicts 1.4-3 Degrees Celsius Warming by 2050

A study by the BBC’s Climate Change Experiment and published in the journal Nature Geoscience, borrowed home computer time to run a climate change model about 10,000 times using different physical parameters. The study concluded that, “If people keep emitting fossil fuels in the way we expect, with no price on carbon or no future policy initiatives, we expect a range of 1.4 to 3 degrees [Celsius] by 2050,” according to David Frame, an author. The researcher’s methodology of running the same forecast model under slightly different conditions is often used in weather forecasting. Unlike running a single “best” model, this strategy gives researchers a sense of the range of possible climate responses and allows them to predict broader trends. The study’s low-end warming predictions match those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but the high end of possible warming is higher than the IPCC analysis.

For additional information see: BBC, ABC (Australia), Wired (UK), USA Today

Study, IPCC Report Highlight Link between Extreme Weather and Global Warming

A study published by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in the journal Nature Climate Change has identified a relationship between global warming and extreme rainfalls and heat waves, and a weaker association between warming and storms. While global warming usually cannot be proven to be the cause of a single extreme weather event, the researchers used basic physics, statistics and computer simulations to show that the recent high number of extreme weather events around the world, including 14 U.S. events last year that each caused over $1 billion in damage, is not normal. Study co-author Stefan Rahmstrof explained, “Single weather events are often related to regional processes, like a blocking high pressure system or natural phenomena like El Nino . . . These are complex processes that we are investigating further. But now these processes unfold against a background of climatic warming. That can turn an extreme event into a record breaking event.”

In related news, a report published on Wednesday, March 29, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also concluded that anthropogenic climate change has already affected some weather events, increasing drought, severe rainstorms and heat waves. The report urged countries to prepare for climate change impacts, and pointed out that effects of extreme weather are felt most strongly in the poorest, least developed areas. Chris Fields, a lead author cautioned, “Reducing disaster risk should be a priority in every country . . . There is disaster risk almost everywhere, in the world’s developed regions as well as in developing regions, in areas where the problem is too much water, and areas where the problem is too little water and in areas where the problem is high sea level.” The report points to large coastal cities, such as Mumbai and Miami, as particularly vulnerable areas.

For additional information see: Reuters, Science Daily, Washington Post, AFP, San Francisco Chronicle

Global Warming Approaches Critical Tipping Point

Scientists at the “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London, England warned that global warming trends are at a tipping point. Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute said, “We are on the cusp of some big changes. We can . . . cap temperature rise at two degrees, or cross the threshold beyond which the system shifts to a much hotter state.” Steffen said that ice sheets are past the tipping point; the Greenland ice sheet has lost about 200 cubic kilometers annually since the 1990’s. Questions remain about the release of sequestered carbon from melting Siberian permafrost and the point at which drought-stricken rain forests release more carbon through tree death than they absorb. London School of Economics Professor Anthony Giddens commented on the dominance of fossil fuels in global energy, “We have enormous inertia within the world economy and should make more of an effort to close down coal-fired power stations.”

For additional information see: Scientific American, Planet Under Pressure

March Warmth Shattered Thousands of Environmental Records

Over 6000 record highs were set between March 1 and March 22, 2012 while only 250 record lows were observed. In a typical March, one or two record warm days are followed by cooler weather, but this year, cities, including Chicago and Detroit, saw long streaks of high-temperature days. Heidi Cullen of Climate Central called the heat wave, “essentially unprecedented,” and observed, “when low temperatures are breaking previous record highs, that’s when you see this is incredibly special.” Cullen noted that Spring in the United States has moved three days earlier on average, with the date of first leafing advancing from March 20 (1951-1980) to March 17 (1981-2010). Earlier spring extends the pollen season, affecting allergy sufferers as pollen counts break records along with temperatures. Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheiemer explained, “most likely, the weird weather arises from natural variation on top of climate change.”

For additional information see: Reuters, MSNBC

Insurance Costs Rise as Insurers Acknowledge Climate Change Risks

Connecticut insurers are recognizing climate change risks and are reacting by raising insurance rates, attempting to predict future losses based on scientific predictions, lobbying for tougher building codes, and encouraging customers to build further from the coast and drive less. Insurers are also setting an example by going green; Hartford Insurance was ranked twelfth on a Newsweek ranking of green businesses last year. In Connecticut, the average homeowner premium has risen 30 percent since 2004. Last year, for every dollar earned in premiums, Connecticut insurers spent $1.50 due to weather, including Hurricane Irene, blizzards and storms. State regulators who have traditionally considered historic trends are under pressure to consider climate change effects. Peter Kochenburger, executive director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut, said, “Global warming is something that can dramatically impact your market. Not to be on top of it is a matter of bad corporate governance."

For additional information see: The Connecticut Mirror

European Study Looks For Climate Change Impact on Trees

A multinational project seeking to understand how tree species grow under the effects of climate change is underway in Europe, with test plots in 12 countries, from Portugal to Scotland. “The kind of information we’re getting out of it is going to inform the policy makers and the foresters of the future about the species that they will be able to use,” said Chris Jones, of the Forestry Commission in Wales. “We’ve already got examples of species getting out of their climate niche. And we’re already getting problems with drought,” he continued. Trees will be measured and monitored to provide information to the timber industry and others about where, and under which conditions, including new diseases, different species thrive. The full scope of results will not be understood until trees are mature, 50 to 100 years from now.  

For additional information see: BBC

Thawing Permafrost Evident in Satellite Images

Scientists are using data from satellite images to project how climate change is affecting the arctic and sub-arctic climates.   Satellite images show evidence that melting permafrost (frozen ground that remains at sub-zero temperatures for over two years in a row) is further exacerbating the release of underground methane gas.  Half of the world’s underground carbon is found buried under frozen tundra in the arctic regions, and when the permafrost thaws, it releases stored methane emissions into the atmosphere. “Combining field measurements with remote sensing and climate models can advance our understanding of the complex processes in the permafrost region and improve projections of the future climate,” said Dr. Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten, head of the Alfred Wegner Institute Research Unit.

For additional information see: Science Daily

Other Headlines

Writers: Alison Alford, Justin Jones, Zuzana Culakova and Samantha Shiffman

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