Climate scientists are getting their fair share of surprises this year, from the record-breaking ice melt in the Arctic to the fact that first-quarter U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have hit their lowest point since 1992. CO2 emissions from energy consumption for the January-March period fell to 1.34 billion metric tons, down 8 percent from a year ago. While the depressed economy and rising renewable energy generation have contributed to emissions reductions in the past few years, the early 2012 low-point is due mainly to a combination of three factors: the relatively warm winter, reduced gasoline demand, and the continued decline in coal-fired electricity.

Natural gas and wind dominated new capacity additions in the first half of 2012 (Source: EIA)

The declining demand for coal power is especially significant. Although emissions from natural gas and petroleum each dropped nearly 3 percent from the same period in 2011 (mainly because of lower heating demands in the mild winter), coal emissions fell 18 percent, to their lowest point since 1986.

The first half of 2012 also saw significant additions of new renewable energy capacity, although natural gas plants accounted for the vast majority of new capacity in states that traditionally rely on coal power. The low price of natural gas, bolstered by the U.S. shale gas boom, has driven many power producers to shift from dirtier coal generation to cleaner natural gas-fired power plants. When burned, natural gas emits around half of the CO2emissions as coal combustion.

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Climate Change, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, natural gas, United States

For those who spent this year’s mild winter worrying about how incredibly hot the summer would be, recent damages to crops and homes should come as little surprise. Although the abnormally early spring delivered some benefits—such as one of the best blue crab seasons in a long time—they will be largely outweighed by the costs inflicted by the historic drought that is currently plaguing most of the United States, with particularly dire consequences in agricultural states.

The word “historic” is not an exaggeration: the 12 months running from June 2011 to June 2012 are the warmest on record, and more than two thirds of U.S. farms are in drought conditions, a magnitude that has not been experienced since 1956 and is nearing Dust Bowl-like proportions.  

Amid fluctuating rain patterns and crop price speculation, one trend is already emerging: we can expect higher food prices worldwide starting next year, and perhaps as early as this autumn. The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration focused on climate change, recently published a helpful estimate of how some basic foods could be affected by 2013. For instance, a 20-ounce loaf of white bread would go from an average price of $1.81 to $1.96; a whole chicken would sell at $4.91, compared to the 2011 average of $4.52.

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agriculture, Climate Change, climate effects, drought, food, food prices

By Wenna Wang and Haibing Ma

Source: EIA | Distribution of China's shale gas basins.

On June 27th, 5 shares of shale gas reached their daily limits at Shanghai Composite Index, the largest stock market in China, lifting the whole Oil & Gas sector above the otherwise decreasing Chinese stock market. This was stimulated by a signal from the nation’s Ministry of Land and Resources: the second round of shale gas exploration rights is expected to open for bidding in September, and this time it will be open to private investors.

Shale gas, which is natural gas found in hydrocarbon rich shale formations, is one of the most important unconventional sources of natural gas and represents a rapidly expanding trend in onshore gas exploration and production today. The deposits are mainly extracted through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Though it is not an ideal alternative to conventional energy sources, shale gas can be a key to energy independence and a lower carbon footprint, since it produces 43 percent and 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than coal and oil per thermal unit produced, respectively. However, not everything about shale gas is an improvement, as its extraction process may contaminate ground water and release volatile compounds into the soil, while the use of shale gas will still lead to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The main mining techniques used for extraction, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have been linked to various problems like water shortages, groundwater contamination, methane gas seeps, micro-earthquakes and coal fires. Sample surveys show that methane concentrations were 17-times higher on average (19.2 mg/L) in shallow wells located in active drilling and extraction areas than in wells located in non-active areas (1.1 mg/L on average). In addition, there are studies showing properties with shale gas wells were valued down due to the fracturing.

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12th Five-Year Plan, China, Climate Change, energy demand, green house gases, low-carbon, renewable energy, shale gas, sustainable development

Last week, I attended a Washington event on Arctic energy; I was hoping for some insights on the challenges ahead, namely greenhouse gas emissions, diplomatic tensions, and indigenous rights. Since Arctic exploitation hasn’t yet enjoyed a “Keystone XL” level of public attention, it seemed healthy to get some first-hand information from Arctic experts, as major oil players like Shell are getting closer to full-scale commercial exploitation. After all, a generation’s treasure chest often turns out to be another generation’s ticking bomb.

Instead, I ended up listening to lengthy presentations by analysts, consultants, fellows and executives talking about climate change “removing constraints”, “effective diplomatic work” being made, and “supply chain complexity” hampering the process, for a solid two hours. There’s a saying in the marketing industry that ‘eco-friendly’ should be the third button to push when advertising a product, after, say, affordability or quality. In this discussion, ‘eco-friendly’ was clearly the fourth or fifth button, if it was mentioned at all. One should have expected this, however, as the event invitation used no apparent irony when announcing in the same sentence that Arctic experts would examine “what nations can do to protect the environment andincrease production” (my emphasis).

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arctic, Climate Change, coal, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy security, low-carbon, peak oil, renewable energy, Unconventional oil, United States

Worldwatch presents the Wind & Solar Roadmap to energy and government officials in the Dominican Republic. (From Left: Hon. Pelegrin Castillo, National District Representative; Manuel Pena, National Energy Commission; Maria Eugenia Salaverria, Energy and Climate Partnership of Central America; Mr. Enrique Ramirez, National Energy Commission President; Alexander Ochs; Mark Konold; Mr. Omar Ramirez, Executive President of the National Council for Climate Change and the Clean Development Mechanism

Yesterday the Climate & Energy Program of the Worldwatch Institute officially launched its first Sustainable Energy Roadmap in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The Roadmap, which was completed with financial support from the Energy & Environment Partnership in Central America (EEP) and with guidance from the National Energy Commission of the Dominican Republic (CNE), focuses on strategies the government of the Dominican Republic can use to begin moving toward a more sustainable energy future.

The Worldwatch research team worked with 3TIER, a renewable resource mapping company, to develop detailed solar resource assessments for the country’s two major cities, Santo Domingo and Santiago, as well as wind resource assessments in six provinces. The report also explores the potential for distributed and centralized renewable power generation in the country, job creation opportunities from renewables, and challenges facing the integration of renewable energy into the existing electricity grid. It then examines the Dominican Republic’s energy regulatory framework and the current status of the country’s financial sector for supporting renewable energy growth. Finally, the Roadmap contains strong and actionable recommendations the government can follow to begin ramping up the presence of renewable energy, drawing down its dependence on fossil fuel imports and creating an energy future that is socially, environmentally and financially more sustainable.

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Caribbean, Climate Change, Dominican Republic, energy, energy security, low-carbon, renewable energy

New policies in Central America are connecting small-scale renewable energy users to the grid—but not in the direction you might expect.

Net metering policies allow owners of small-scale distributed renewable energy systems to feed power produced by their installations back into the grid. Under net metering, utility customers who own such systems can install a bi-directional meter that records both incoming and outgoing power and calculates the net difference. If customers produce more electricity than they use, they receive compensation from the utility company, often in the form of avoided costs or by receiving a pre-selected payment per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

Solar project in Esterillos. Source: Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad

Net metering is a low-cost, low-risk policy and has been successfully implemented in many countries around the world. The right of utility customers to produce renewable energy and connect their systems to a distribution network – in conjunction with other polices that promote renewables such as tax concessions and financial assistance —is helping individuals and communities to introduce renewables into the grid on a small scale. In Central America, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala have already introduced net metering policies to promote renewable energy deployment.  

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Central America, Climate Change, Costa Rica, net metering, renewable energy, renewable energy policy, small scale distributed renewable energy, solar power

Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy, energy policy, Green Technology, low-carbon, low-lying island nations, Maldives, Nasheed, renewable energy, sustainable development, sustainable prosperity, UNFCCC

In the months leading up to last week’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a number of organizations and individuals called for an increased focus on the world’s oceans. As the Global Ocean Forum argued, they are after all “the quintessential sustainable development issue… Just as one cannot do without a healthy heart, the world cannot do without a healthy ocean.”

Illustration of the effects of ocean acidification, Pre-Industrial Revolution through 2100 (Source: Ocean Acidification Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

One of the many elements of truth behind this statement is that oceans represent a massive carbon sink, having taken up approximately 48 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Through this process of ongoing absorption, the oceans have played a vital role in maintaining global balance and mitigating the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions: the more CO2 we released into the atmosphere, the more the oceans absorbed. Unfortunately, the ocean – despite its vastness – has its limits, and this absorption comes at an enormous cost.

Once absorbed by the ocean, CO2 sets in motion a series of chemical reactions that decrease seawater’s pH level, making it more acidic and depleting the water of essential compounds like calcium carbonate that many marine organisms (including corals and mollusks) need to construct their shells. Ocean acidification – dubbed by some commentators as the other carbon dioxide problem, or ‘global warming’s evil twin’ – can also reduce respiratory efficiency in animals like squid and impair sensory ability in reef fish, making it difficult for them to locate prey.

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biodiversity, carbon dioxide, carbon sinks, Climate Change, marine ecosystem, oceans, Rio+20

LEED Platinum Manitoba Hydro Place had its performance meticulously tracked for two years to determine whether it was living up to its ambitious goals. In fall 2012, Manitoba Hydro is expected to publicly release the full schedule of performance results. (Source: Flickr user stevecoutts)

Data collection is increasingly recognized as a priority in the evaluation and evolution of green buildings. Though the importance of green building design and its impact on climate change have been well documented, the actual performance of many green buildings often fails to meet expectations. There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon, and the ability to accurately measure the energy efficiency of buildings is crucial to improving performance and standards. Performance data makes it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of different building strategies and technologies. This information is instrumental in the advancement of codes, standards, and best practices. Below, I will highlight a few initiatives that are attempting to gather and process performance data from buildings.

Data Collection Initiatives CBECS

One such effort to gather building energy information is a survey conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Office of Energy Consumption and Efficiency Statistics. Through the use of a national sample survey called the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the EIA provides data that supports the development of energy standards and codes. The latest iteration of the survey is set to include information from approximately 8,500 commercial buildings. The two previous attempts to deliver survey results were derailed by funding issues: in 2007, a less exhaustive data gathering technique was used due to a lack of funding; more recently, poor implementation of the new technique led to faulty data that could not be used. In 2011, the survey was suspended as a result of budgetary cuts by Congress.  Due to these setbacks, the latest available data dates back to 2003. Despite resuming work on a 2012 CBECS, there are still budgetary issues that might sidetrack the program.

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Climate Change, development, energy efficiency, Green Technology, Innovation, United States

The development of the world’s energy sector will have an enormous role to play in achieving the sustainable future that tens of thousands are working to secure at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development this week in Brazil. Energy is an indispensable component of modern societies. However, the same sector can be extremely destructive, destroying local environments, depleting natural resources, causing sickness and premature death, and pumping record levels of carbon dioxide (C02) into our atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the earth’s climate.

Worldwatchers Ed Groark, Alexander Ochs and Evan Musolino with IRENA Director General Adnan Amin and Director of Knowledge Management Gauri Singh (source: Evan Musolino)

On June 17th, Worldwatch Climate and Energy director Alexander Ochs and I were joined in Rio by Adnan Amin, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and over 20 top experts for a high-level consultation on Measuring for a Renewable Future. The discussion was a first step in Worldwatch’s development of renewable energy indicators in partnership with IRENA.

The event brought together public and private sector leaders in the field from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe to discuss barriers to renewable energy development and deployment and the enablers that can help us to overcome them. We were excited to be joined by leading thinkers such as Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg New Energy Finance), Christine Lins (REN21), Abeeku Brew-Hammond (Ghana Energy Commission), Ari Huhtala (CDKN), Leena Srivastava (TERI), Dan Kammen (University of California, Berkely), Nebojsa Nakicenovic (IIASA), Vivien Foster (The World Bank), Sunita Narain (Center for Science and the Environment), Youba Sokona (UN Economic Commission for Africa) and many others.

Putting countries on the path to meeting their full potential for deploying renewable energy is a challenging endeavor that necessitates overcoming many myths that still exist about the technologies. Renewables are no longer the costly, fringe technologies that many still believe them to be. In many parts of the world, renewables are already cost-competitive or even a more affordable option than traditional fossil fuels. If additional costs to society that result from burning fossil fuels are taken into account, which are yet to be internalized into energy pricing, renewables quickly become an even more attractive alternative.

Participants at the event outlined a host of challenges that must be addressed. Significant barriers exist in respect to finance, cost efficiency, policy and regulation, infrastructure, knowledge management, public acceptance, and the political climate, among others. The discussion highlighted that while there are certainly many challenges facing the sector, there is also significant hope for the future if the necessary actions are identified and implemented. Governments must be extremely active in designing, implementing and monitoring policies aimed at moving these barriers.

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Climate Change, energy policy, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development