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.

Last month the European Union, which until recently had provided most of the global leadership on carbon cutting, announced relatively weak commitments for 2030. And earlier this month the Republican Party in the United States, whose leaders dispute the anthropogenic origins of climate change, regained control of the U.S. Senate vowing to block EPA’s proposed limits on carbon emissions from power plants.

Thwarting EPA’s June 2014 proposal could lead to a replay of 2009, when Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s carbon cap-and-trade legislation and thus scuppered the Copenhagen climate talks held that December. A Republican take-down of EPA’s June 2014 Clean Power Plan could similarly derail climate talks scheduled for late-2015 in Paris.

The U.S.-Chinese deal makes that scenario less likely by, as Bloombergeditorialized, eliminating “the biggest excuse for inaction on a global climate pact: that any other country’s commitments would be meaningless until the two biggest carbon emitters acted.”

According to the White House the U.S. can meet its commitment under existing law. In essence it has enshrined the proposed EPA rules in the China deal. As Reuters put it: “The baseline, scale and timing of the reductions are essentially the same as those proposed in the Clean Power Plan.”

For Reuters, whose story ran under the dismissive headline “U.S.-China climate statement is no breakthrough”, the deal is a let-down because it tracks what both Obama (and Xi) are already pursuing domestically. For the editorialists at Bloomberg, in contrast, Obama’s diplomatic encapsulation of the EPA power plant rules “outmaneuvers” the Republicans:

If Republicans in Congress block those rules, they risk tanking the agreement with China, which in turn gives China a reason to back out of the deal. The EPA rules that previously looked senseless in the absence of Chinese emissions reductions are now, arguably, thesingle most important thing the U.S. can do to ensure those reductions.

Harvard University economist and climate policy expert Robert Stavins appears to favor this more favorable view of the deal. Speaking to Scientific American, Stavins called getting China on-side on climate “the most important development, in my mind, in the last decade—maybe the last 20 years.”

In addition to targets, the deal also includes a few concrete measures. One is a pledge to cofinance a major carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration project in China. CCS has been slow to take off, but the IPCC is increasingly counting on it to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees C this century and thus avoid the most damaging aspects of climate change.

For China, CCS could help directly address a growing drinking water gap. Obama and Xi agreed to jointly advance the use of CCS as a means of pumping out ground water. Their deal calls for a project that will inject about 1 million tons per year of CO2 and, in the process, create approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of water annually. (The carbon capture process itself tends to make coal-fired power plants consume more water than they ordinarily would.)

One job left undone: settling the two country’s dispute over alleged dumping of Chinese solar panels. The U.S. Department of Commerce is set to announce final duties on Chinese exports next month.

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

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

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

How Canada Should Return Obama’s Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year’s U.S. elections. Obama’s move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta’s tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude’s bloated carbon footprint. Continue reading

Notorious Grid Bottleneck Spawns Western Blackout

The blackout that squelched power flows to nearly 5 million residents of Arizona, California and northern Mexico last night and shut down California’s San Onofre nuclear power plant may be the latest sign of strain in an outdated U.S. power grid. The incident began during maintenance at a substation in Yuma, Arizona that lies at the center of a sclerotic section of the grid between Phoenix and Tucson—one long recognized as critically congested and thus at heightened risk of failure. Continue reading