While many participants had hoped for a rocking performance by negotiators, they left still straining to hear the sounds of success.

The most recent round of the United Nations climate change negotiations began early the morning of November 11. After a marathon final session that lasted more than 24 hours, talks concluded at nearly 9 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd. This dramatic finish has become an almost yearly occurrence of governments rocking all Friday night and partying every (Satur)day. With so much activity late in the game, observers might reasonably have expected a lengthy set of agreements to step up the fight against climate change. Or, at the very least, confirmation that Saturday night’s alright for fighting when nations can’t agree.

Instead, based on the reactions from many participants, the final agreements said more about the state of negotiations by what they left out than what they included. To be fair, these negotiations were not intended to reach a final decision on major climate change issues. Warsaw was built as a step toward agreement on a new climate change treaty at negotiations in Paris in December 2015. A successful agreement in Paris depends on countries making commitments to reduce their carbon pollution. Putting their cards on the table as early as possible would help even more. It would leave more time to assess if the commitments will be enough to stop dangerous and potentially runaway levels of climate change. And to negotiate stronger commitments if not.

Rather, governments, particularly the wealthiest and most polluting, spent all of Warsaw showing each other their best poker faces, with no new commitments pledged. Governments did manage to agree to state their commitments “well in advance” of Paris. They did not, however, clarify when exactly that would be.

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adaptation, Adaptation Fund, climate finance, Climate Policy, Green Climate Fund, Lima, loss and damage, music videos, Paris, Peru, Poland, REDD, Secretary-General, Typhoon Haiyan, UNFCCC, Warsaw

Over the past twenty years, climate negotiations have been dominated by concerns that addressing global warming is anti-business and onerous to future development.  The insufficient progress we have made at the last 18 COPs towards ‘preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system,’ the ultimate goal of the UN Climate Convention, is a consequence of this – and the summit currently underway in Warsaw is not exactly on course to make a change. Working in many places around the world, from Haiti to India to Europe and the United States, I have witnessed little success in convincing people of the importance of sacrifice for the global commons.  This approach has proven ineffective.

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Climate Policy, COP19, energy, Typhoon Haiyan

In early April, leading French nuclear company AREVA signed a series of strategic agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to foster a strategic civil nuclear partnership between France and China. With presidents Francois Hollande and Xi Jinping in attendance, the two governments finalized a letter of intent to build a facility for treating and recycling spent nuclear fuel in China.

Citizens protest nuclear energy in China.

Just three months after the agreement, China cancelled a planned China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) nuclear fuel processing project in Heshan, Guangdong province, in the wake of opposition from local residents. Although China has both official support and the technological capacity for nuclear energy development, emerging public resistance to nuclear projects is an increasing challenge.

In 2011, nuclear power provided 13 percent of the world’s electricity, but less than 2 percent in China. The country still relies heavily on coal—accounting for 68.5 percent of electricity generation in 2012—because of its lower cost and greater accessibility. Meanwhile, China’s carbon emissions have grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent since 2000, reaching 7.57 billion tons in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency.

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China, Climate Policy, greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power, wind power

During my past efforts to decipher the UN climate negotiations on this blog, I’ve said once or twice that the most important thing about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences, a.k.a. the COPs (Conference of the Parties), is not so much what they deliver – often very little – but rather the conversations they start, the incoherencies they lay bare, and the movements that emerge in their trail.

Peru is preparing to host the 20th round of UN climate talks in 2014, a crucial step on the path to a global agreement in 2015 (Source: Peruvian Government).

At the Regional Workshop organized by CliMates in Bogotá, Colombia last week, I had the chance to observe it for myself. CliMates, an international, student-led think-and-do-tank dedicated to the elaboration and implementation of innovative solutions to climate change, had put together this conference in an effort to gather young climate leaders from the LAC region, so that they could share skills, exchange climate knowledge, and elaborate together a strategy for Latin American youth involvement and influence in 2014.

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Climate Change, Climate Policy, COP 20, Copenhagen Accord, Latin America

Once celebrated as the best policy instrument for curbing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, emissions trading seems to be attracting new critics every week. Europe’s cap-and-trade scheme, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), has come under particular scrutiny. With carbon prices falling from around EUR 30 in 2008 to lows of under EUR 3 in April 2013, voices from within and outside of Europe are challenging not only the region’s choice of instrument, but also its willingness to take ambitious climate action.

Is all the criticism of Europe’s flagship policy justified? And are cap-and-trade schemes still the go-to climate policy that we should be promoting globally?

Critics are wrong to pronounce the demise of the EU ETS, but policymakers should go beyond small adjustment measures, such as the decision to temporarily hold back the sale of allowances, to fix its carbon price. Internationally, the importance of emissions trading is growing as new schemes emerge. Discussions of the benefits of emissions trading should make way for efforts to ensure the optimal design of new systems that can ultimately be interlinked.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

Critics should remember that the most important job of cap-and-trade schemes is to ensure the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The EU emissions target is enforced through a mandatory emissions cap, a tightly controlled monitoring system, and heavy fines for non-compliance. The cap is declining by 1.74 percent year by year for the sectors covered under the scheme. Other policy initiatives—such as feed-in tariffs, renewable quota obligation, and energy efficiency laws—also contribute to emission reductions, but only the EU ETS can guarantee that the actual environmental target is met. The scheme serves as the backbone policy instrument to ensure that the EU remains on a predefined path of decarbonization.When setting interim targets, emission reductions from additional measures should be factored into the cap.

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California, China, Climate Policy, EU 20/20/20 policy, EU-ETS, European Union, GHG emissions, transatlantic power series

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why today I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader, a global leader in the fight against climate change.”

- President Barack Obama, 6/25/2013

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

Climate change policy is back on the political agenda.  In a powerful speech at Georgetown University yesterday, President Barack Obama found the right words for the scale and urgency of the climate problem. He announced a Climate Action Plan outlining a wide array of actions his administration will take to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and strengthen America’s resilience to climate impacts. Throughout the speech, President Obama struck down critics’ claims, which have been bolstered by wealthy special interest groups, that climate protection poses a threat to the country’s economy. If implemented promptly, the plan can lead to much needed reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and re-engage the United States with other climate leaders in the international community.

However, the plan also reinforces the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which is at odds with the necessity for swift and significant emission reductions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. President Obama yesterday restated his pledge to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – an insufficient target given the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the U.S. contribution to global emissions on an absolute, historical, and per capita basis.

Perhaps the most important policy announcement in the President’s climate action plan is a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards by 2015 to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed carbon standards for new power plants over a year ago that would effectively halt the construction of new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Although the shale gas boom has already made it unlikely that new coal plants would be built anyway, the proposed regulation would nevertheless be an important step toward passing carbon standards for existing power plants that could accelerate the phase-out of coal power.

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carbon standard, CCS, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, greenhouse gas emissions, Keystone XL, nuclear power, President Obama, renewable energy, shale gas

I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.

Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).

In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.

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China, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, energy policy, France, Germany, green transition, Italy, nuclear, renewable energy, solar power, United States, wind power

Last week I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new proposed standard for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel power plants. The long-awaited regulation would limit emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced, essentially guaranteeing that no new coal power plants will be built in the U.S. without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

Almost 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from coal power plants. Image source: epa.gov

Almost 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from coal power plants. Image source: epa.gov

In an effort to minimize opposition to the proposed standard, the EPA emphasized the limited negative impact on industry, as utility companies are already choosing to invest in natural gas rather than coal plants for new capacity. This is due mostly to abundant new reserves of relatively cheap shale gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing.

So just how accurate are the EPA’s claims that the proposed regulation is in line with industry business-as-usual? Other projections of future coal plant construction support the overall claim that the industry was already moving away from investing in new coal power.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected there would be “virtually no new coal in [the] reference case [scenario] following several CCS demos.” The EIA reports that there are 9.3 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity currently planned by 2015, and none thereafter. Nearly all of this new capacity will be built within the next 12 months and will therefore be exempt from the proposed CO2 standards. Any plants scheduled to begin construction in more than a year will need to include CCS technologies in order to comply with the 1,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh limit of the proposed EPA regulation. Power plant emissions can be averaged over a 30-year period to meet the regulations, so it is also possible for power producers to build coal plants in the near-term provided they install CCS systems in the future.

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carbon emission, Climate Policy, coal, EPA, United States
Weyerhaeuser Biomass CHP Plant

This Weyerhaeuser paper mill in Kentucky installed a highly efficient 88 MW biomass CHP system in 2001.

Earlier this month, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick proposed revisions to the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that would restrict the eligibility of wood-burning biomass electricity generators to qualify for renewable energy credits (RECs). The regulations are now being reviewed for comment by a committee within the state legislature and should go into effect early this summer.

The Massachusetts RPS requires that retail electricity suppliers within the state derive a certain share (6 percent in 2011, rising at 1 percent per year) of their power from renewable sources, either directly or through the purchase of RECs.

The proposed revision to the state RPS comes in response to an independent study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), which found that large-scale biomass-fired electricity would result in a 3 percent increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 as compared with coal generation. Based on this finding, reliance on biomass to meet the RPS proves inconsistent with other state environmental priorities, including the Global Warming Solutions Act, which calls for ambitious economy-wide GHG emission reductions of 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent reductions by 2050.

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biomass, Climate Policy, energy efficiency, RPS

This month marked the release of the European report Energy Savings 2020, authored by Ecofys and the Fraunhofer Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung and commissioned by the European Climate Foundation and the Regulatory Assistance Project. The report provides a summary of progress toward reaching energy savings goals in the region, as well as projections for the future.

Source: Energy Savings 2020

The bad news? Despite the recent economic recession and current progressive policies, the European Union still needs to save an estimated 208 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) before it can reach its energy savings target of 20 percent by 2020. The good news? The study concludes that the target can be met—provided that there is a tripling of policy impact!

Energy savings is paramount in the transition to a low-carbon economy. For one, it can curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Energy Savings 2020 estimates that energy savings can account for half of the reductions necessary to cut European GHG emissions 80 percent by 2050. Energy savings can also reduce the need for energy imports and increase energy security. Europe imported nearly 50 percent of its energy in 2000, and this share is projected to reach 68 percent in 2030. According to the study, by meeting its “20 percent by 2020” efficiency target, Europe could reduce this dependency to 55 percent in 2020, assuming that fossil energy imports are saved.

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Climate Policy, energy, energy efficiency, energy security, European Union, green jobs, greenhouse gas, low-carbon