Climate Change News July 2, 2012

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
July 2, 2012


Court Upholds EPA Emission Rules

On June 26, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was “unambiguously correct” using its authority to limit emissions from power plants and automobiles in order to reduce the level of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere. The ruling upheld four aspects of the rules, including the “tailoring rule” and the “endangerment finding” rule. Fourteen states, including Virginia and Texas, challenged the EPA’s ruling, stating that the EPA overstepped its authority when it declared that carbon emissions endangered human health and that it intended to regulate these emissions under the Clean Air Act. Manufacturing, oil, and gas industry groups also challenged the ruling, claiming that regulating greenhouse gases is “complex and burdensome.” Fifteen states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, testified in court in support of the EPA ruling. Numerous automakers also supported the decision, stating that car companies across the nation have made great strides in improving fuel economy standards, and that reducing carbon dioxide emissions were one of their top priorities. The appeals court wrote that the Clean Air Act "speaks in terms of endangerment, not in terms of policy, and EPA has complied with the statute."

For additional information see: New York Times, Miami Herald, E & E Publishing, National Journal

Exxon Chief Says Elimination of Fossil Fuels not Solution to Climate Change

In a speech Wednesday, Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson said that global efforts to address climate change should focus on adapting to rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns, not the elimination of fossil fuels. "Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around - we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions," Tillerson said in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. Under Tillman, Exxon has acknowledged that human emissions are contributing to warming temperatures, a break from the company’s longstanding policy of climate change denial. He did, however, express doubts over the ability of climate models to accurately project future impacts. Tillerson also argued that fear over climate change should not keep governments from allowing new oil and gas explorations, as energy from fossil fuels raises the quality of life for people around the globe. He also addressed public concerns over new drilling techniques, and said the risks involved are small and manageable.

For additional information see: Associated Press, Reuters

Minnesota City Looks to Build Climate-Resilient Infrastructure

Recent flash floods have left Duluth, Minnesota with the task of repairing and upgrading its storm water removal system. However, the city wants to be sure that any upgrades to the 400 miles of pipes and drains incorporate climate change forecasts that predict more precipitation and more severe thunderstorms in the Midwest. This requires city planners to make expensive guesses on Duluth’s future weather patterns to ensure a resilient infrastructure. Minnesota experienced twice as many two-inch rainfalls between 1991 to 2010 over the historical average. One recent storm totaled up to ten inches of rain in 24 hours – twice the city’s threshold for a 100-year storm. "The big question is: Do you build it the same way, or build it to somehow manage for bigger events, like we seem to be seeing more and more often?" said Jesse Schomberg of the Minnesota Sea Grant. "But then the question is: How much bigger? That's something we don't really know yet." The communities of the Duluth metro area have commissioned a study to come up with new storm water management strategies, including larger pipes and underground precipitation storage, to handle larger and more frequent storms.

For additional information see: Minneapolis Star Tribune

Australia Sets World’s Highest Price on Carbon Emissions

Australia’s new carbon tax, which goes into effect on July 1, will require companies to purchase emissions permits of US $23.15 for every metric ton of greenhouse gases they produce. This tax will then give way to a full-fledged emissions trading system in 2015, where the market will determine the price of the permits. Australia took lessons from Europe’s trading scheme when designing their system, building in price ceilings and floors for permits and allowing for adjustments in the supply of permits. The tax, which places the world’s highest price on carbon emissions, has been dubbed the “toxic tax” by Australia’s opposition party. Opposition leader Tony Abbot said the tax will take a “wrecking ball” to the economy and has vowed to scrap the measure if elected into power. The tax is the first step towards Australia’s goal of reducing total emissions by five percent by 2020.

For additional information see: Business Week, Sydney Morning Herald

Rio+20 Declaration Calls for Phase-Down of Potent HFC Emissions

The declaration at the close of the Rio+20 Earth Summit on June 22 included support for a global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), factory-made gases used as a coolant in air conditioners. HFCs, when leaked into the atmosphere, have a significant climate impact. By weight, these emissions warm the climate thousands of times more than carbon dioxide. The Rio+20 agreement is the first global commitment to reduce HFCs for the purposes of climate change mitigation. “This global declaration is an important step toward a planet free of climate damaging HFCs,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her remarks to the plenary session, welcomed targeted action on HFCs. The use of HFCs is rising by 10 to 15 percent annually due to growing demand for air conditioning as the world becomes more affluent. HFCs are a replacement for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Air conditioning coolant alternatives that do not harm either the climate or ozone are in development but are not yet available at commercial scale.

For additional information see: New York Times, IGSD Press Release

British Columbia Cuts emissions, but Future Reductions Remain Uncertain

In 2007, British Columbia pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions from then-current levels by 33 percent in 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, with an interim goal of a six percent reduction by 2012. The province announced last week that it has reduced emissions by 4.5 percent through 2010. Environment Minister Terry Lake explained that this put British Columbia within reach of the 2012 target, but that challenges remain. He attributed three percent of the reductions through 2010 to the global economic downturn and may not be part of a sustained pattern. The approval of three liquefied natural gas plants further jeopardizes reduction plans. In addition to temporarily reducing emissions, the economic downturn has led Finance Minister Kevin Falcon to call for a comprehensive review of the province’s carbon tax, which rose to 6.67 cents per liter of gasoline over the weekend. “We remain committed to addressing climate change and are proud that B.C. is a North American leader,” said Falcon in a written statement. “However, four years in, the revenue-neutral carbon tax remains the only one of its kind in North America and this is a good time to pause and examine how the carbon tax is affecting our economic competitiveness.”

For additional information see: Vancouver Sun

Rate of Rising Seas Highest on North American East Coast

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) studied tide-gauge records from 1950 to 2009 to conclude that the 600-mile stretch of coastline between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Boston, Massachusetts is a “hotspot” for sea level rise. The USGS study found that the rate of East Coast sea level rise is three to four times faster than the global average and will continue at this accelerated rate into the next century. USGS predicts that by 2100, East Coast sea levels will rise 0.20-0.29 meters higher than the global average of approximately one meter. The accelerated rise on the East Coast is caused by a slowdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation, which includes the Gulf Stream. USGS oceanographer Asbury Sallenger Jr. explains that as melting glaciers deliver fresh water to the current, the ensuing change in water salinity and density slows the current down. The slope of the sea then must change to balance against the slower current. Such a slope would push up sea levels along the North American eastern seaboard.

For additional information see: Nature, Reuters, CBC

Climate Change to Alter the South Asian Summer Monsoon

A study published by Nature Climate Change found that summer monsoon rains in South Asia are expected to become heavier and more variable as global temperatures rise and increase atmospheric moisture levels. The changes will be particularly pronounced towards the Equator, most significantly affecting South India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. With over one billion people living in these areas, such a change in rainfall totals and seasonal patterns could threaten regional food security. The South Asian region has not yet recorded a significant increase in average precipitation despite rising temperatures. According to the report, this can be explained by the inhibiting effects of increased atmospheric aerosols and land-use, as well as by inconsistent observations and decadal variability. Improved data collection and climate modeling should lead to better predictions of monsoon patterns.

In related news, the current summer monsoon season is expected to bring average rainfall to India, which is looking to end two years of drought. The rains have so far been 24 percent below the average, which has affected crop planting. India’s weather office, however, projects an average monsoon season with rains at 96 percent of the 50-year average. By mid-July, the monsoon should cover the whole country, putting this season in line with historical trends.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Reuters, Nature Climate Change

Study Cuts Estimates on Emissions from Tropical Deforestation

A new study utilizing National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images has found that carbon emissions from worldwide deforestation may be 70 percent lower than previously thought. The study, published in the journal Science, used satellite images from 2000 to 2005 to match areas of global deforestation to their carbon stocks, or the amount of carbon that was stored in the forests. Using the images, the study estimated that 0.81 billion metric tons of carbon were emitted from deforestation every year, or roughly ten percent of human-related global carbon emissions during the six year period. "These detailed emissions estimates would not have been possible without the NASA satellites that helped us quantify forest cover change and forest carbon stocks, which are the two critical data sources for this work," said NASA researcher Sassan Saatchi. Nearly 40 percent of the forest loss was dry forest, but those areas accounted for only 17 percent of the carbon emissions because wet, tropical forests store significantly higher amounts of carbon. Previous estimates of deforestation emissions have relied on tabular bookkeeping models, which use national reports on forest loss and emissions from the affected countries.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Jakarta Globe

Canadian Bird Species on the Decline

A new study entitled “The State of Canada’s Birds 2012” reports a 12 percent drop in Canadian bird populations since 1970. According to the study, 44 percent of the country’s more than 460 bird species have experienced declines. Sixty-six species have suffered enough losses to warrant consideration for endangered protections. The study cites climate change and habitat loss as likely reasons for the declines, especially for birds classified as aerial insectivores (birds that catch insects in the air). Warming temperatures may be causing insect populations to peak earlier in the year, before migratory birds return to Canada. These species now arrive too late to take full advantage of their main food source. The report also finds that conservation efforts and regulations on DDT and other hazardous chemicals have been successful in sustaining some of Canada’s bird populations, but that the pervasive threat posed by climate change will be difficult to manage through such traditional means. Furthermore, the general decline in bird populations may demonstrate danger to the country’s wildlife as a whole, as birds often serve as indicators of widespread environmental decline.

For additional information see: CBC

Other Headlines

Writers: Daniel Querejazu, Samuel Brock, Rebecca Kreutter, and Alison Alford

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