Paris Climate Talks Facing Growing Carbon Emissions and Credibility Gaps

Credit: Peter Fairley

EN GARDE! Paris treaty pledges are still too rich, and contain some iffy ingredients

Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement to curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.

Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.

The best news out of Paris so far is that, as of last week, climate plans—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in UN-speak—had been submitted for 156 countries (129 INDCs, including a joint submission for the 28 European Union states). The 156 countries account for about 90 percent of global greenhouse emissions according to the Paris talks’ organizer, the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Broad involvement marks a dramatic contrast with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That deal, which was exclusively for developed countries, was never ratified by the United States. But in the run up to Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached a broad deal a year ago assuring that their countries would ante up; that encouraged the six of the world’s next biggest carbon emitters, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia,to step up.

The plans, by and large, propose massive shifts to from fossil fuels to renewables. Number crunching by the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute shows that the “Big 8” emitters have pledged to roughly double their use of renewable energy by 2030 compared with 2012 levels.

The INDC filed by the United States fits the pattern. It largely relies on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which mandates a one-third reduction in carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 2030. The EPA projects that coal-fired power will drop from 39 percent of the nation’s electricity supply in 2013, to 27 percent by 2030—largely thanks to the addition of renewables.

Globally speaking, the promised emissions cuts are both substantial and inadequate. Fully implementing the INDCs submitted so far would hold global temperature rise this century to about 2.7 °C above pre-industrial levels, according to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Policy consultancy Climate Interactive, in Washington, D.C., projects a 3.5 °C rise without stronger action post-2030. (These jumps include the 0.85 °C increase already recorded between 1880 and 2012.)

Those projections represent a substantial step down from the 4.5 °C net rise by 2100 that is projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based on current emissions trends. But a degree-and-a-half hotter than the 2 °C limit that world leaders agree is needed to head off the worst impacts of climate change is still significant.

And for some parties, 2 degrees Celsius remains unacceptably high. For example, that amount of warming could cause sea levels to rise far enough to devastate some small island nations such as the Maldives, and some continental coastal zones such as the Mekong Delta and the shores of Bangladesh. The Dalai Lama and other authorities representing over half a billion practicing Buddhists worldwide issued a letter calling for political leaders find the will for a more protective 1.5-°C target.

A tighter target for 2030 appears unlikely, considering that the UN climate secretariat stated categorically last month that the INDCs are not be up for discussion at Paris. But there is growing support for a belt-tightening mechanism that would continually raise ambitions post-2030. Last week, Xi Jinping and French president Francois Hollande endorsed the idea of a five-year review mechanism for INDCs.

Recent developments suggest there is room for greater ambition. California, for example, was on track to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan even before last month when legislators approved new renewable power mandates for the state’s power sector. Renewable energy’s share of California’s power generation mix is to rise from at least 33 percent in 2020 to at least 50 percent by 2030.

Unfortunately, uncounted emissions could push the global warming trajectory in the opposite direction, making the INDC-based temperature projection, predicting an increase between 2.7 °C and 3 °C, look optimistic.

Consider the underestimated methane leaks in the United States. A molecule of methane released into the atmosphere traps over 80 times as much heat within 20 years as a CO2 molecule does; after a 100-years, it will still be 28 to 34 times as potent as the longer-lived CO2 molecule. Remote sensing suggests that U.S. methane emissions are 25 to 75 percent higher than what the EPA acknowledges in its bottom-up inventory of methane sources such as oil and gas facilities, belching livestock, and landfills.

The reality of this missing methane was affirmed in July by an intensive bottom-up accounting of methane leaks at oil and gas operations in Texas’ Barnett Shale reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The study predicts that methane leaks from the Barnett are about 50 percent higher than what is reported in the EPA’s inventory

What that means for Paris is that the U.S. INDC understates its carbon footprint and overstates some of the promised carbon reductions that rely on a switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants. “There has been no adjustment made for this,” says Ramón Alvarez, a coauthor on the Barnett study and a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Other loopholes are seeing increased scrutiny thanks to intensifying media coverage in the run up to Paris. The New York Times reported last week that China has been undercounting coal emissions for many years.

And a series by online outlet Climate Central in October questioned emissions reductions attributed to European power plants burning U.S.-produced wood pellets instead of coal. According to the report, this accounts for almost half of what European regulators count as carbon-neutral renewable energy. But the source of wood is critical. Scientists say that power plants burning waste biomass can play a key role in reducing emissions. But Climate Central’s reporting found that U.S. forests are being harvested to fuel Europe’s biomass power; forest regrowth to recover the released carbon could take over a century.

There was an attempt to head off such accounting discrepancies ahead of the Paris talks by setting standardized accounting rules for INDCs, or perhaps even subjecting INDCs to a pre-Paris vetting process, according to Jennifer Morgan at WRI. Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Oklahoma last month, Morgan said those attempts failed. Countries were instead merely encouraged to be transparent in their accounting methodologies. “It was voluntary. Some did,” said Morgan.

Morgan is looking for negotiators to create a process by which a robust INDC verification mechanism will be created in the months and years ahead. She predicts that rule-making will take about two years of work post-Paris.

All of these issues make the Paris treaty look more like the end of the beginning than a final destination.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Solar Power Towers Aren’t the Avian Annihilators Once Thought

Solar power towers have had a reputation as alleged avian vaporizers since preliminary reports emerged in 2014 of birds being burned in mid-air as they flew through the intense photonic flux at California’s Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Their reputation was muddied even more during tests early this year at SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes power tower in Nevada; the solar thermal plant just recently began producing power. California public radio station KCET reported that as many as 150 birds were killed during one six-hour test in January.

It is obviously upsetting to imagine birds ignited in the name of renewable energy. (KCET reporter Chris Clarke, who has tracked the issue since BrightSource Energy began building Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert, described burning birds as “beyond the pale” in a recent article suggesting that power towers may be finished in California.)

But, upsetting as any killing of birds is, avian mortality is a downside common to many modern human creations—including buildings, highways, and powerlines. The best data on bird mortality at Ivanpah, macabre as it might be, shows the death rate to be small and likely of little ecological significance.

Meanwhile, operational adjustments at both Ivanpah and Crescent Dunes are pushing avian impacts even further below levels that could threaten local bird populations. “The data does support a low level of avian mortalities and hopefully, through adaptive management and deterrence, it will go even lower,” says Magdalena Rodriguez, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Continue reading

Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall. Here’s Why it Should Work.

Readying refrigeration lines at Fukushima to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Readying refrigeration lines to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Japan’s TEPCO is about to flip the switch on the infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors at Fukushima and thus help stem the contamination of fresh groundwater at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, say radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests.

“The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. The report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Looney’s lab and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was completed in February but only released late last month; it found the system’s design to be sound and within the bounds of prior practice. Continue reading

Arizona Utility Blinks in Bitter Battle Over Rooftop Solar

Arizona’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, is withdrawing its bid to jack up monthly fees for rooftop solar users in its territory. The retreat, tendered last week to the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), capped an eventful month in the high-stakes battle between utilities and solar advocates that’s raging across Arizona rooftops. The party with the most bruises is not Arizona Public Service (APS), however, but the ACC itself. The elected body referees the state’s power markets, but all five of its commissioners now face accusations of bias that challenge their ability to fairly adjudicate the rooftop solar dispute.

Arizona’s solar dispute is hot, but not unique. Across the United States utilities are fighting to contain or eliminate “net metering” policies Continue reading

Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions


Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy. Continue reading

First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment

SEJ-Awards-logo_1Time to toot my horn. The Society of Environmental Journalists has honoured my work in their 2015 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. I took first place in Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for “History, Technology, Politics and Impact of Solar Power” — a series of articles published in MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum magazines:

Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?
Topaz Turns On 9 Million Solar Panels
Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid
How Rooftop Solar Can Stabilize the GridContinue reading

Renewable Minigrids Should Be the End Goal for Rural Poor

The percentage of population with grid access declined in many of the 20 least-electrified nations between 2010 & 2012. Image: SE4ALL

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, launched in New York City this week amidst the latest gathering of the United Nations’ universal energy access program.

Power For All brings together businesses and not-for-profit organizations that distribute off-grid solutions, including solar-LED lights and home power systems. Founding members include San Francisco-based d.light; Arusha, Tanzania-based Off Grid Electric; and London-based NGO SolarAid—owner of solar-LED light global market leader SunnyMoney, which sold 650,000 lights last year.

Their message is that bottom-up distributed energy solutions should be thepreferred solution for assuring universal access to electricity because they are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions.

Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to Power for All’s argument. Continue reading