How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto, and its impact faded as first the United States and then other major producers of greenhouse gases declined to ratify the treaty or dropped out.

High-level diplomacy to secure a Paris deal, in contrast, began building in earnest last year with a bilateral climate agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—representing the largest climate polluters and, respectively, the developed and developing worlds. Global buy-in grew over the following 12 months as one nation after another anted in with their own emissions reduction plans. “Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted [pledges], a much broader response than many had anticipated,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

Broad political backing was then decisively reaffirmed on day one of the two-week talks, which 150 world leaders attended in the largest single-day gathering ever of heads of state. Their presence empowered negotiators to move beyond entrenched positions according to the Guardian’s deal-making narrative. Angela Merkel secured a personal pledge from Vladimir Putin that major oil and gas exporter Russia would not block a deal. Obama huddled with Xi Jinping and Indian president Narendra Modi, as well as with leaders of some of the least developed and thus most vulnerable of the 196 nations present.

Developing high-level trust helped overcome the toughest disagreements, according to The Guardian, after a “coalition of high ambition” formed in the final days between less-developed countries and some big developed countries, including Canada. The latter, often seen as a deal-blocker at earlier climate talks, came to Paris with new marching order after October elections in which Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau defeated the Conservative Party led by the Albertan oil and gas supporter Stephen Harper.

Ultimately every nation counted because any one could have squelched the consensus-based negotiations. As Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey writes, “most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries—the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec.” The annual UN climate talks are, “one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.”

A second major distinction for the Paris Agreement—and one that secured support from small island nations—is that this climate deal is pegged to scientifically-defined climate targets. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction goals reflected political viability, the central stated purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.”

Both targets derive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Holding warming to 2 C is the scientific body’s consensus threshold for avoiding “catastrophic” impacts, which it says will require complete elimination of carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st Century. Faster action is required to meet the more stringent 1.5 C limit, which is the maximum warming allowable if small island nations are to be saved from sea level rise.

Prior to the Paris meeting few players were talking seriously about the 1.5 C limit, and rapidly-industrializing and coal-dependent China and India held out against its inclusion until the meeting’s final days. They ultimately accepted it in exchange for other provisions, such as a guarantee that developed countries will provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries comply with the deal and adapt to climate change. As Prime Minister Modi puts it: “Climate justice won.”

World leaders agreed to these science-based criteria for success knowing full well that they were not yet capable of hitting the targets. The pre-Paris action plans their nations submitted were estimated to put the world on a path for a temperature rise of 2.7 C or greater.

However, the deal includes antidotes to this apparent “reality gap,” creating mechanisms for assessing national action plans, verifying progress towards achieving them, and regularly increasing their ambition. These pathways for future emissions reductions are the number one source of post-Paris optimism for Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.

Instead of defining legally-binding reductions for a set period as the Kyoto Protocol had—and thus setting the Paris Agreement on a path to similarly circumscribed impact—the Paris Agreement requires nations to set their own plans for emissions reductions. But it also demands that they update and tighten their plans regularly, and calls for transparent mechanisms for reporting and verifying progress.

By 2020 and every five years thereafter, wrote Morgan in a blog post early this week, countries will submit more ambitious action plans. There will also be a five-year global review of collective progress. The numbers will be both transparent, and verifiable. “Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable,” according to Morgan.

Elliot Diringer, C2ES’ executive vice president, agrees: “This cycle of commitment—tell us what you’ll do, show us you’re doing it, tell us what you’ll do next—will strengthen confidence that all countries are doing their fair share. And that will make it easier for each to do more.”

One final reason to believe that the Paris Agreement is worth more than its papier: the reaction of global stock markets, where coal firms sank and renewable stocks surged on Monday in response to the deal.“The transition to clean energy will take place on a long and bumpy road, but investors appear to be taking the transition seriously,” noted oilprice.com yesterday.

Reuters cited several analysts whose views captured the market assessment, including a note from London-based financial services firm Barclays that summed up the deal thusly: “We think the Paris agreement represents a strong outcome and will therefore help boost the long-term fundamentals of the capital-goods and low-carbon power-generation sectors while weakening the long-term fundamentals of fossil-fuel industries.”

Even Greenpeace—the environmental movement’s most respectable outsiders—took a moment to be (semi) hopeful in a statement by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause… The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

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

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. 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

Understanding the IPCC’s Devotion to Carbon Capture

P1130803-3I’ve delivered several dispatches on carbon capture and storage (CCS) recently, including a pictorial ‘how-it-works’ feature on the world’s first commercial CCS power plant posted this week by Technology Review and typeset for their January print issue. Two aspects of CCS technology and its potential applications bear further elaboration than was possible in that short text.

Most critical is a longer-term view on how capturing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants (and other industrial CO2 sources) can serve to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Continue reading

Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?

LLNL process image

Water recovery concept for CCS at GreenGen. Source: LLNL

In an intriguing footnote to their historic climate deal this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama called for demonstration of a hitherto obscure tweak to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that could simultaneously increase its carbon storage capacity and reduce its thirst for water. Such an upgrade to CCS holds obvious attraction for China, which is the world’s top carbon polluter and also faces severe water deficits, especially in the coal-rich north and west.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it in its The Equation blog, “Cracking this nut … could be a huge issue for China.” 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