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

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

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

Renewables to Dethrone Nuclear Under French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation’s cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.

Under the plan, nuclear’s share of the nation’s power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy’s role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world’s second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva. Continue reading

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

Minnesota Finds Net Metering Undervalues Rooftop Solar

Utilities should be paying more for their customers’ surplus solar power generation according to a solar pricing scheme approved by Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission last month and expected to be finalized in early April. Minnesota’s move marks the first state-level application of the ‘value of solar’ approach, which sets a price by accounting for rooftop solar power’s net benefits, pioneered by the municipal utility in Austin, TX.

Minnesota is one of 43 U.S. states that requires utilities to pay retail rates for surplus solar power that their customers put on the grid. Utilities across the U.S. are fighting such net metering rules, arguing that they fail to compensate the utility for services that their grid provides to the distributed generator. So last year pro-solar activists and politicians in Minnesota called the utilities’ bluff, passing legislation tasking the state’s Department of Commerce with calculating the true value of rooftop solar power. Continue reading