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

Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to a 100% Renewable Power Grid

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply.

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says. Continue reading

EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

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

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading

EU Climate Summit Commits to 2030 Carbon Cuts

European leaders wrapped up a two-day climate summit in Brussels last week with a deal to cut the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels. This would continue a downward trend – the EU is already on track to meet a 20 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 – but the agreement is weak relative to Europe’s prior ambitions to confront climate change.

Investors in green tech pushed aggressively for the deal, seeking a longterm signal that the European market will continue to reward advances in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production. The deal is also a shot in the arm for the Paris global climate talks, scheduled for December 2015, which will seek to achieve the decisive binding global targets for greenhouse gas reductions that failed to emerge from the 2009 Cophenhagen climate talks.

What the deal lacks is specificity and ambition regarding the mechanisms by which European countries are to achieve the carbon reduction. “Key aspects of the deal that will form a bargaining position for global climate talks in Paris next year were left vague or voluntary,” reported The Guardian. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”