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

NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

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Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading

Rendering Greenhouse Gases Visible

Natural gas has no odor, but you can smell a leak thanks to the addition of an odorific mercaptam compound. Do carbon dioxide and other similarly odorless greenhouse gases (GHGs) require some analogous device to make their presence known and thus prompt evasive action? Yes, and for these ubiquitous gases, it will be a visual cue indicating the source and quantity of GHGs Continue reading

Applying ‘Trust, but verify’ to Climate Change Policy

Last year Swiss researchers demonstrated that European countries release more of the potent greenhouse gas trifluoromethane than they report. It was just the latest in a growing number of case studies showing that polluters and governments might be under-estimating their climate change impact, but it served to highlight the science and technology that can reveal such cheating Continue reading