The European Union’s emission trading scheme (EU ETS) has hit a brick wall erected by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In an October 4 resolution, the ICAO denied a country (or in this case, a region) the right to unilaterally include another country’s airline in its ETS. Instead, the ICAO committed to agree, in 2016, to a global emissions trading mechanism that would take effect in 2020. There is no guarantee, however, that such a system will be introduced, and that it would be as environmentally beneficial as an all-inclusive EU ETS.

Source: Dave Keeshan

This is widely perceived as a political defeat of the EU, which had offered to exclude from its scheme any emissions released outside of EU airspace, but to include all emissions within it. In doing so, the EU had hoped to reach an international deal, particularly with the United States and China, which have opposed inclusion of their airlines in the EU ETS.

The EU has justified the inclusion of foreign airlines in its ETS on the basis of the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which allows for each country’s sovereignty of its own airspace. Although the consequences of the ICAO resolution are unclear, the decision is poised to make enforcement of the EU ETS in the aviation sector much more difficult.

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airline emissions, EU-ETS, European Commission, European Union, greenhouse gas emissions, United States

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

“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

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city (SSTEC), China’s latest and largest eco-city project, saw its first residents earlier this year. The city is built on a blend of non-arable saline and alkaline land that was virtually uninhabitable five years ago. While this is an accomplishment in and of itself, SSTEC is trying to go even greener in terms of the energy efficiency of its buildings.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city in 2012 (Source: http://www.tianjinecocity.gov.sg/)

SSTEC aims to offer green building certification based on more stringent standards than anywhere else in the country, including the national standards. It has already set up a Green Building Evaluation Committee (GBEC) to supervise building quality.

But in terms of energy efficiency, SSTEC’s GBEC still lacks the clearly defined requirements found in comprehensive international standards like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. According to a World Bank report, the GBEC provides standards only for the building envelope and central heating, unlike LEED, which covers a broad range of energy systems including lighting, air conditioning, water heating, and appliances. While the ambition in this eco-city project is commendable, the oversights in SSTEC’s efficiency standards reflect a lack of comprehensiveness in green building standards across China, as the GBEC is already the country’s most advanced and comprehensive building standard.

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12th Five-Year Plan, China, emissions trading, energy efficiency, energy policy, Green Buildings, greenhouse gas emissions, LEED
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected challenges to EPA's greenhouse gas rules last month. (Source: cadc.uscourts.gov)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected challenges to EPA's greenhouse gas rules last month. (Source: cadc.uscourts.gov)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to regulate greenhouse gases have been under attack ever since the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court ruling that confirmed its authority to do so. In 2010, just before efforts to pass a cap-and-trade climate bill were abandoned in the Senate, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored failed legislation to nullify the Supreme Court decision and block EPA from moving forward with greenhouse gas regulations. Attempts to undermine EPA’s regulatory authority were once again thwarted last month when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected several legal challenges and upheld EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding for greenhouse gases.

First, a bit of background to explain how EPA began regulating greenhouse gases. In 2003 under the Bush Administration, EPA determined that it lacked authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and that even if EPA did have this authority it would not set vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards. In response, Massachusetts led a coalition of 12 states and several cities and non-governmental organizations to sue EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gases.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Massachusetts, mandating that EPA determine whether greenhouse gas emissions “endanger public health or welfare”. EPA released its endangerment finding in 2009, which determined that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to both humans and the environment because they constitute the main driver of human-caused climate change. Based on the Supreme Court ruling, the endangerment finding legally required EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. In order to avoid overwhelming permitting agencies with a huge new bureaucratic burden, EPA established a “tailoring rule” for greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources so that initially only large industrial facilities will be required to obtain greenhouse gas emissions permits.

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emission standards, EPA, greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. Court of Appeals, United States

Call it unconventional oil, tight oil, shale oil, continuous oil, you name it, but the end result is the same: the bottom of the barrel. Recent technological developments are changing the oil extraction industry dramatically and opening up oil reserves to economically viable extraction. Unequivocally, this new development will have repercussions for the environment and the development of renewable energy and a sustainable energy economy.

Hydraulic fracturing of a shale. Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Unconventional oil sources are created by the same processes as conventional oil—that is, through the combination of organic material, heat, and pressure. The main difference between the two is their ability to move underground. Conventional oil migrates upward due to its buoyancy. This oil moves through pathways in the underground rock in its fluid state and becomes trapped between impermeable layers of rock.

Unconventional oil, meanwhile, is formed in sealed spaces of rock and is not able to move up; it therefore remains in the source rock, trapped in unconnected pores. The development of new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing(or “fracking”), which is used to break up the porous rock in order to connect these micropores, is making the extraction of unconventional oil technologically possible and economically viable.

To put such advances into perspective, the amount of recoverable oil from the Bakken Reserve in the U.S. states of North Dakota and Montana increased 25-fold (an additional 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil) from the 1995 estimate, becoming the largest oil accumulation in the lower 48 states and accounting for 7 percent of the total U.S. onshore oil production. Other technically accessible shale oil resources in the United States include the Eagle Ford formation in South Texas and the Avalon and Bone Springs formations in southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

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Bakken, fracking, Fuel Quality Directive, greenhouse gas emissions, hydraulic fracturing, life-cycle analysis, Low Carbon Fuel Standards, shale oil, tight oil, Unconventional oil

The last few weeks have demonstrated an unfortunate juxtaposition between the U.S. federal climate policy debate and the scientific case for climate action. Strong evidence for the need to regulate greenhouse gas emissions continues to pile up, but meanwhile last week the U.S. House Appropriations Committee passed drastic cuts to environmental regulations in the Fiscal Year 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill.

The bill proposes $1.5 billion in cuts from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s budget. Members of Congress supporting these cuts hold that the EPA is too costly and hampers economic growth. The bill would cut climate change spending by $83 million, or 22 percent below last year’s budget. One of the many prohibitions in the bill prevents the EPA from regulating stationary greenhouse gas emissions. EPA’s regulation of climate-altering greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act, which will be finalized in 2012, are the only federal greenhouse gas regulations on the table, as the U.S. has not passed comprehensive climate legislation, and the prospects for doing so in the near future seem dim. Negotiations on the House and Senate floor will likely alter the contents of the bill with a Democratic majority in the Senate that is very likely to refuse to withdraw EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs and impose major cuts on its budget. Also, President Obama threatened to veto the bill. Still, the proposed cuts highlight the strong disconnect between climate science and climate policy within the United States.

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Climate Change Policy, environmental policy, environmental research, greenhouse gas emissions, United States

Given the need to rapidly reduce energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, many see a role for natural gas as a proven, reliable transitional fuel that can replace coal generation relatively quickly and inexpensively. You can find Worldwatch’s extensive research on the issue here. Natural gas emits 60 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal during combustion, and gas plants are easier to turn on and off in response to demand than typical baseload plants like coal and nuclear. Natural gas can thus complement renewable production by compensating for ongoing concerns about the variability in supply.

A natural gas plant in Morro Bay, California.

Other observers, however, are less optimistic. They point out that the falling price of natural gas could also undermine renewable energy projects, even including some already under way. Although the renewables sector is growing and production costs are declining, deployment of renewables could be stifled by the low cost and fast construction time of natural gas-fired power plants. Critics of the rapid increase in natural gas production warn that the success of gas could push back large-scale implementation of renewable energy sources.

Minnesota, the fourth largest wind-producing state in the United States, after Texas, Iowa and California, is working to maintain its wind industry despite attempts by opponents to remove statewide Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). U.S. wind production has been expanding rapidly since 2005, but the growth in new capacity slowed in 2010. This slowdown is attributed in part to the overall lower power demand as a consequence of the economic recession but also to the low prices of the expanding natural gas industry.

The natural gas sector is booming, especially with the expansion of drilling of unconventional sources like shale gas, which uses the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing. U.S. gas production increased 10 percent from 2005–09, with most of that growth coming from shale sources.

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Climate Change, environmental impacts, extraction technologies, greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas, renewable energy

The Waste Management Hierarchy

At a May 11 event in Washington, D.C. cohosted by the German Embassy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, panelists discussed the differences in how Germany and the United States deal with their municipal solid waste (MSW). Germany, which created a national ban on landfilling MSW without pre-treatment in 2005, sent only 1 percent of its MSW to landfills in 2007. Sixty-four percent of Germany’s waste was recycled or composted, and the remaining 35 percent was incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. The United States, on the other hand, landfills 69 percent of its MSW, recycling only 24 percent and using 7 percent for WTE.

At first glance, WTE would seem to be a win-win. It involves incinerating MSW to run a turbine and produce electricity. WTE reduces the amount of space needed for landfills by 90 percent, prevents the expenditure involved with procuring fossil fuels and disposing of MSW, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions from landfills and replacing fossil fuel consumption in waste transport and electricity production.

But WTE has many opponents, for a wide variety of reasons. Some object to the high costs. In the United States especially, with so much unused land, landfilling is cheap and the economics of any alternative are not good. Other critics worry about local air pollution or simply don’t want an industrial facility that deals in garbage near their homes or businesses. And some see WTE as taking attention and urgency away from recycling and composting (a better method of dealing with waste) and therefore believe it does more harm than good. This post will look deeper into this last claim.

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compost, composting, European Union, Germany, greenhouse gas emissions, Methane, municipal solid waste, recycling, United States, waste, waste-to-energy


In recent months, several sources have called natural gas’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions potential over coal into question. Because the GHG benefit of a coal-to-natural gas shift in the power sector is a critical assumption in our common conclusion that natural gas can facilitate a reduction in power sector GHG emissions, the Worldwatch Institute and Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors are embarking on a joint study to assess the currently available emissions data, develop a rigorous and transparent life cycle assessment of electricity generated from gas and coal, and identify data gaps that must be prioritized in further research.

Why is it commonly held that electricity generated from natural gas is 50-60 percent cleaner than coal, and why is this belief being challenged?

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coal, Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors, electricity, EPA, fuel-switching, greenhouse gas emissions, life-cycle analysis, methane leakage, natural gas, power sector