The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

Sorry, Roger Pielke, climate change is causing more disasters

typhoon haiyan damage
typhoon haiyan damage

Damage in Tacloban from super Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of The Daily Mail).

Back in March, controversial political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. published his first post for FiveThirtyEight. The piece centered on the argument that climate change is not contributing to an increase in scale of disasters globally; rather, Pielke argued, “the numbers reflect more damage from catastrophes because the world is getting wealthier.”

The piece immediately drew consternation and criticism from a number of individuals and even prompted Nate Silver to commission a formal response from MIT climate scientists Kerry Emanuel. In particular, Emanuel and fellow climate scientist Michael Mann criticized Pielke’s decision to normalize GDP data. As Emanuel wrote,

To begin with, it’s not necessarily appropriate to normalize damages by gross domestic product (GDP) if the intent is to detect an underlying climate trend. GDP increase does not translate in any obvious way to damage increase; in fact, wealthier countries can better afford to build stronger structures and to protect assets (for example, build seawalls and pass and enforce building regulations). A grass hut will be completely destroyed by a hurricane, but a modern steel office building will only be partially damaged; damage does not scale linearly with the value of the asset.

Pielke’s critics also noted that he used an oddly brief time span for his investigation (1990-2013), that his use of global data tends to cover up significant differences in disaster damages among regions, and that he does not account for disaster damages that have been avoided due to investments in disaster mitigation and risk reduction. There’s also the fact that he includes geological disasters (i.e. earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) in an analysis that purportedly dismisses climate change as a factor; would it really have been that hard to get the original data on climate-related disasters directly from EM-DAT?

Not suprisingly, Pielke and a number of his friends, colleagues, and allies defended the piece, portraying Pielke as the victim of a coordinated witch hunt from climate activists and radical environmentalist bloggers. In an interview with Pielke, Keith Kloor, someone with whom I have disagreed on many occasions but respect, wrote that various commenters had “used slanderous language in an attempt to discredit” Pielke’s work. The basic argument is that few people had any real qualms with the research itself; instead, Pielke’s critics could not escape their personal feelings towards him and allowed those to color their critiques of his work.

Disaster frequency in the Asia-Pacific region

All of this is just an excessively long introduction to a new study published this week in the journal Climatic Change. In the article, researchers Vinod Thomas of the Asian Development Bank, Jose Ramon G. Albert of Philippine Institute for Development Studies, and Cameron Hepburn from Oxford University (herein known as TAH) “examine the importance of three principal factors, exposure, vulnerability and climate change, taken together, in the rising threat of natural disasters in Asia-Pacific” during the period from 1971-2010.

Now, there are three key reasons why this article piqued my interest and why its results are relevant to the topic at hand, particularly in contrast to Pielke’s research:

  1. The Asia-Pacific region typically accounts for at least a plurality of all disaster metrics – frequency, victims, and economic damages. From 2002-2011, according to EM-DAT (PDF, see page 27), Asia-Pacific was home to 39.6% of disaster events, 86.6% of disaster victims, and 47.9% of economic losses.
  2. The overwhelming majority of disaster events, losses, and victims in Asia result from climate-related disasters. For instance, the region accounts for 40% of all flood events (PDF, see page 6) over the last 30 years, and three-quarters of all flood-related mortality occurs in just three Asian countries – Bangladesh, China, and India.
  3. Both the size of the region’s populations and economies have grown dramatically over the past 40 years. As the figure below demonstrates, East and South Asia have seen GDP per capita growth rates of 8.4% and 5.6%, respectively, easily outpacing other regions. Asia-Pacific is also rapidly urbanizing. From 1950 to 2010, the number of Asians living in urban areas grew seven fold to 1.77 billion (PDF, see page 32). Many of these individuals live in areas highly exposed to disasters; for instance, 18% of all urbanized Asians live in low elevation coastal zones. Accordingly, if population growth and increased exposure to disaster risk were the ultimate drivers of increasing disaster occurrence, Asia would likely be the test case.

So, does this new research validate Pielke’s assertions that disasters are not becoming more frequent and, if they are (which they aren’t), it has nothing to do with manmade climate change?

In a word, no.

Unlike Pielke, who apparently believes that normalized economic losses represents an appropriate proxy for disaster occurrence, TAH actually examine the frequency of intense disasters over a four-decade period. And whereas Pielke considers damages from geological disasters, which, – given the fact that we have not suddenly entered an age of earthquakes – are a function of increasing physical and economic exposure, these authors focus exclusively on climatological (droughts, heat waves) and hydrometeorological (floods, tropical storms, etc.) disasters, which can be influenced by a changing climate.

Moreover, TAH only consider the occurrence of intense disasters, which they define “as those causing at least 100 deaths or affecting the survival needs of at least 1,000 people.” The use of this metric ensures that any increase in the number of observed disasters is unlikely to be the result of better reporting mechanisms alone, countering Pielke’s assertion that any perceived increase “is solely a function of perception.”

TAH explore the frequency of climate-related disasters in 43 Asian-Pacific countries, using both random and country-fixed effects*, which provides them with a greater sense of the validity of their results. They use the log of population density as a proxy for population exposure, the natural log of real income per capita as a proxy for socioeconomic vulnerability, and both average annual temperature and precipitation anomalies as proxies for climate hazards. Additionally, they break the data into 5 subregions and the timeframe into decade-long spans as sensitivity tests.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of disasters in Asia-Pacific

Results show that both population exposure and changes in climate hazards have a statistically significant influence on the frequency of hydrometeorological disasters. For each 1% increase in population density and the annual average precipitation anomaly, the frequency of such events increases by 1.2% and 0.6%, respectively. The authors then applied these results to historical trends in three Asia-Pacific states – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As a result, a moderate increase in the precipitation anomaly of 8 millimeters per month (well within the observed changes for Southeast Asia over the past decade) leads to 1 additional hydrometerological disaster every 5-6 years for Indonesia, every 3 years for the Philippines, and every 9 years for Thailand.

In contrast, the models suggest that only changes in precipitation and temperature anomalies affect the frequency of climatological disasters. While a 1 unit increase in the average precipitation anomaly (logically) produces a 3% decrease in the number of droughts and heat waves, an equivalent jump in the annual average temperature anomaly leads to 72% increase.

It is not surprising that population exposure would play a role in determining the frequency of disaster events; if a tropical storm hits an uninhabited island, it doesn’t get recorded as a disaster. But what is surprising, if you take Pielke at his word, is the clear influence of our changing climate. As TAH conclude,

This study finds that anthropogenic climate change is associated with the frequency of intense natural disasters in Asia-Pacific countries. A major implication of this is that, in addition to dealing with exposure and vulnerability, disaster prevention would benefit from addressing climate change through reducing man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Ultimately, there can be no question that climate change will, is, and has changed the frequency and nature of disasters globally. That’s not to say that exposure and vulnerability are not playing an important role; we know they are. Bending over backwards to inject climate change into every event and subject, as some climate activists are prone to do, is misleading and irresponsible. But so is cherry picking data to downplay its role in shaping the nature and scope of disaster events, when the data tell us otherwise.

*Obviously I am, by no means, an economist or statistician of any repute. That said, here is how TAH define the difference between random and country-fixed effects: “In panel data analysis, while the random effects model assumes that individual (e.g. country) specific factors are uncorrelated with the independent variables, the fixed effects model recognizes that the individual specific factors are correlated with the independent variables.” Accordingly, because there is likely some correlation between the independent variables, it is impossible to assume that they are completely exogenous variables.

Here’s the editorial on carbon emissions the PD should have written

coal plant carbon emissions

So The Plain Dealer is at it, once again, on climate change and carbon regulations. As I documented last June, when President Obama announced his plan to use his executive authority to curb power plant carbon emissions, the PD has a history of drafting inaccurate, lazy editorials on this subject. Surprise surprise, they’ve struck once more.

On Saturday, the paper posted a piece titled “The EPA’s overly ambitious carbon-reduction mandate is unacceptable as written.” Needless to say, the editorial rehashed the same tired, easily refuted, arguments that the EPA’s proposed rule on power plant carbon emissions will kill jobs, raise electricity costs, and drive investments out of Ohio.

The PD seems to hold some impressively incongruous views on climate change. They can call for action on the issue, writing that inaction would force us to “watch some of our most beloved and vital cities be eaten away like sand castles on the beach” and decry SB 310 as “obnoxious” and “an unacceptable bill,” all while criticizing anyone who tries to actually tackle the challenge as a radical. I imagine any other person might find it difficult to stand up straight given the vertigo that holding such contrary views would surely produce.

I took the liberty of rewriting the piece for the editorial board to make it more accurate and intellectually honest. Since that link expires at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10 (the only draw back of shrturl), below you will find the original text of the piece, overlain with my changes. The original text that I’ve deleted is crossed out, and my additions are in red. Feel free to use any of these, PD editors.

The EPA’s overly ambitious carbon-reduction mandate is unacceptable as written: editorial

The EPA’s proposed carbon rule is an overdue step to tackle climate change: editorial

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a major step this week toward battling climate change by announcing a plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent nationally by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal designed to reduce the country’s reliance on coal, boost the use of natural gas and renewable energy, improve plant efficiency and shrink consumer demand through conservation.

Climate change already poses serious risks of catastrophic ocean-level rises and other impacts both globally and domestically, ranging from of catastrophic sea level rise, to crushing heatwaves, to deadly floods. Policy actions to reduce the manmade carbon emissions causing global warming are long carbon emissions known to contribute to global warming are overdue. More than 97 percent of climate scientists and every major national academy of science agrees on this point.

Ohio needs to do more — far more — than it’s doing now to expand its energy portfolio, encourage energy conservation, support energy innovation and renewable-energy jobs and clean its air. The current legislative backsliding in Columbus on renewable-energy and energy-efficiency requirements is embarrassing and terribly shortsighted.

Nonetheless, the proposed EPA carbon rule as written is unacceptable.

It raises more unanswered questions and unpredictable scenarios than there are electrons on the grid. The lack of specifics about potential impacts on coal-reliant states such as Ohio is especially worrisome — as are the short time lines and large reductions involved. The obvious politics of the effort, driven by the White House, leaves it vulnerable to destructive political demagoguery in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible elimination by the next occupant of the White House.

At a minimum, the rule needs to be drastically revised before it’s finalized, to reduce the size of the mandate, extend the timeline and add safeguards to prevent devastating utility-bill increases in states with the greatest reliance on coal power.

Given these facts, the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations constitute an important, if ultimately inadequate, step to tackle the preeminent policy issue of our times.

The rule, as written, is highly flexible and takes into account the different energy mixes in each state. It provides significantly more leeway for states that rely heavily on coal for electricity production, like Ohio. The plan is part of President Obama’s attempt to tackle climate change before leaving office in January 2017, a commitment he made in his 2008 convention speech.

It would obviously be preferable for Congress to act on this issue by passing a national cap on carbon emissions, much like the 2009 cap and trade proposal that passed the House but floundered in the Senate. But, due largely to the rampant rise of the radical, climate change denying wing of the Republican Party, such talk is anathema on Capitol Hill.

The rule, which seeks to meet President Obama’s 2009 Copenhagen commitment to cut carbon emissions, puts the United States on the right path. Moreover, it has already begun to pay dividends at the international level, as China has committed to implement a national carbon cap by 2016. The rule may help foster the good will needed to secure a binding global agreement next fall in Paris.

The EPA says it In crafting the rule, the EPA applied a national formula to each state’s individual power profile to set target emission rates for “carbon intensity,” defined as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by all types of fuel, be it fossil, nuclear or renewable. Each state can come up with its own plan for meeting the mandate.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis says Ohio’s 28 percent reduction goal by 2030 is The proposed rule sets Ohio’s 28 percent reduction goal by 2030, less than that of 31 other states. West Virginia and Kentucky, which is are even more coal-reliant than Ohio, has a target rate of 20 percent have targets of 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Steve Frenkel, Midwest director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Ohio has already begun to chip away at its reliance on coal, and that meeting the mandate is not only doable but affordable because it will create a more efficient and sustainable energy system less subject to the price volatility of coal.

“It requires investment, there’s no question,” he said, “but we think that investment will pay dividends.”

Just how much investment remains to be seen, but it most surely will be substantial. He’s right. The investment may be substantial, but it will put Ohio on a path for more sustainable growth. Ohio’s net electricity generation in 2012, according to the federal Energy Information Agency, was nearly 130 million megawatt-hours. With nearly 70 percent of Ohio’s generation attributable The state currently gets 65 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, so a 28 percent reduction in the carbon emission rate, as foreseen in the EPA rule, would be equivalent to conserving, producing more efficiently or finding cleaner power sources for about 25 million megawatt-hours of electrical generation by 2030.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy likened any short-term national rate increase as a result of the mandate to the price of a gallon of milk per month, and said that by 2030, average rates should be down 8 percent.

That’s unlikely to be the case in Ohio. Moreover, it seems irresponsible to make such assertions when there are so many moving parts to take into consideration, and when state plans are at least two years from being finalized.

Fortunately, Ohio can cut its carbon emissions while lowering electric prices and creating jobs. From 2009-2012, Ohio reduced its electricity consumption by more than 5 million megawatt hours, even as the state created jobs, and energy efficiency lowered electric bills by 1.4%. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the proposed rules could be a boon for the state. The proposal has the potential to created 8,600 new jobs and cut the average household’s monthly electric bill by $6.80.

EPA will be soliciting more input on its draft plan over the next three months with all states required to submit complete or initial plans by June 30, 2016. Among the strategies that could be employed is a multistate market that allows pollution credits to be bought and sold. Among the strategies that could be employed is a multistate market that allows pollution credits to be bought and sold.

Climate change is a real concern that could have serious impacts, including in the Great Lakes region, whether by producing a larger number of violent storms that overload sewers and flood basements, contributing to the formation of dead zones in Lake Erie or nurturing the growth of toxic algal blooms.

It’s about time Ohio got serious about addressing carbon emissions and repositioned the state for the future energy and energy-innovation marketplace. The question is whether the EPA rule is the best or proper way to achieve those goals. If Ohio’s economy tanks because its electricity costs are three times those of Pennsylvania, Michigan or New York, there will be major economic and, likely, health impacts.

At a minimum, the rule should be significantly altered before it is finalized to lower the targets and protect against burdensome rate hikes in coal-reliant states.

All the evidence suggests it is. While opponents in the coal industry will claim that this plan will doom the economy and drive up energy costs, we’d be wise to ignore their claims. They have been wrong before – time after time – and they will be wrong yet again. This rule is an excellent first step in the right direction, but we must do more to ensure that we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Tackling this crisis is an imperative to protect not just to ourselves, but to the generations to come.

Ohio already has a compliance plan for the EPA’s carbon rules. It’s called SB 221.

epa carbon reduction goals by state
epa carbon reduction goals by state

Carbon reduction goals by state under the EPA’s proposed rule (courtesy of Business Insider).

As you’ve no doubt heard, President Obama took the most serious executive action in American history to tackle climate change on Monday. The US EPA unveiled its long-anticipated rule to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rule calls for a 30% reduction in carbon intensity within the electric power sector by 2030. The rule is extremely complex and lengthy (645 pages, to be exact), but the details are starting to emerge.

Like the Affordable Care Act, the EPA’s proposed rule is highly flexible and will be implemented at the state level. Cognizant that states have different fuel makeups within the electric sector, the EPA set carbon reduction targets for each state, ranging from just 10.6% in North Dakota to 71.8% in Washington. The rule also provides states with tremendous flexibility in how they can reduce carbon emissions, listing a bevy of different options, including:

  1. Improving fossil fuel plant efficiency
  2. Switching from coal to natural gas for electric generation
  3. Ramping up electricity production from renewable energy
  4. Investing in end user energy efficiency
  5. Adopting a cap-and-trade system or join an existing program, like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

This rule is far from being finalized. It still needs to go through a public comment period, an implementation phase, and – no doubt – a lengthy battle in the courts. That said, it is already starting to reap potential dividends. Yesterday, Chinese officials announced that they may include a carbon cap in its next Five Year Plan, which begins in 2016. The Chinese have are already experimenting with pilot cap and trade systems in seven cities, though the experiment has not been a rousing success.

How will this rule affect Ohio?

Understanding that it will be more difficult for some states – namely, the most coal-dependent ones – to reduce their electric power emissions, the EPA set more lenient emissions reductions standards for these states. Ohio, which gets 65% of its electricity from coal and emits more CO2 than all but three other states, is required to reduce its carbon emissions from 1,850 tons per megawatt (MW) of energy to 1,338 tons per MW (see page 30 of PDF) by 2030. That represents a 27.7% reduction, slightly under the overall 30% standard nationwide.

Predictably, lawmakers in Columbus have already started their posturing over the issue. More than a week before EPA even announced the rule, a bipartisan group of coal boosters in the Statehouse introduced House Bill 506, which requires the Ohio EPA to establish rules that dictate how the state will implement the regulation. The bill, which passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, is intended to shield Ohio’s coal industry. According to Gongwer (subscription required):

[Rep. Jack Cera (D-Bellaire] said the bill looks to continue Ohio’s energy supply portfolio that relies heavily on coal-fired generation. He said the industry has a significant impact in his district, and the use of coal is vital to the region’s economic security….

[Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta)] said he is looking to make sure Ohio continues to have affordable, reliable power supplies based on reasonable policies. He said the bill allows the state agency to consider each power generating unit, and how changes would impact local communities. If done properly, the state policy could prevent the retirement of older coal-fired plants.

Mr. Cera said a rush to meet federal requirements could be detrimental to families by increasing energy costs and eliminating jobs. He said further reduction of coal-fired power facilities could bring the state and region closer to having inadequate power supplies. Mr. Cera added that while technology is advancing, additional time may be needed to get enhanced controls in place.

Mr. Thompson told Rep. Tony Burkley (R-Paulding) there is a place for a mix of power sources, but said it is essential that the state has a baseload source that is available at all times.

“Coal is there,” he said. “Coal is on site. There is no delay.”

Craig Butler, the Director of the Ohio EPA, who would be tasked with developing the compliance plan, has decried the proposed regulations as “unnecessary federal mandates.” He has also sworn to “preserve as much existing coal-fired electric generation” as possible.

Because nothing makes sense any more, FirstEnergy has actually downplayed the rule and made it seem like it’s happy to comply. CEO Tony Alexander, who last made news for bashing the same EPA over its nonexistent “war on coal,” told the New York Times he supports cap and trade, saying,

By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost. The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.

VP Ray Evans even told the AP that the company was “generally pleased by the overall direction of the federal plan.”

Now, under normal circumstances, if FirstEnergy approved of an environmental regulation and felt it could comply with it easily, I’d be freaking out over how lax the rule was. And I do have some concerns about the plan, namely the decision to make the baseline year 2005, which is when carbon emissions reached their peak in the US. I would be much happier with 2012 as the baseline, as emissions fell 16% during that seven-year span. This would make the rule far more ambitious and beneficial. As it currently stands, the rule would only lead to a 17% reduction from 2012 emission levels, not the 30% headline number we are all seeing (which is relative to 2005).**

But I digress. What I really want to emphasize here that the executives at FirstEnergy are apparently more progressive on environmental regulations than the head of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Let that one sink in for a minute.

SB 221 and the carbon rule

So how should Ohio go about meeting this new rule? What should the state’s compliance plan look like? Well, it’s first important to note that, in addition to the 2030 goal, the EPA’s rule also includes an interim reduction target for states to achieve by 2025; for Ohio, this involves a reduction to 1,452 tons per MW. This amounts to a 21.5% decrease by 2025. So Ohio roughly needs to reduce its carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 22% by 2025.

Wait, 22.2% by 2025 – where have I heard that number before? Oh, right, that’s the standard for energy efficiency set by SB 221 back in 2008. Under those standards, Ohio’s four investor-owned utilities need to reduce the amount of electricity that their customers use by 22.2% through 2025, against a 2006-2008 annualized baseline. The similarities are startling.

sb 221 energy efficiency benchmarks

Annual energy efficiency benchmarks for Ohio’s investor-owned utilities, as specified by SB221 (courtesy of Mark Rabkin).

Now, you may note that carbon emissions and energy efficiency are not the same thing. And you’d be right.

But, under the EPA’s proposed plan, states that choose to invest in energy efficiency would need to improve demand-side energy efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2020-2030. Conveniently, SB 221 requires the state to improve its energy efficiency by 2% per year from 2020-2025, allowing it to meet and even exceed that standard. And while 22.2% savings still comes up short of the 27.7% mark required by 2030, the state would be well on its way to meeting this standard, and it could make up the rest of the gap by continuing to implement its existing renewable portfolio standard, which also exists due to SB 221.

In other words, Ohio already has compliance plan in place. The state passed it, nearly unanimously, six years ago. But, thanks to the legislature, we are just one signature away from derailing these standards.

SB 310 and Ohio’s compliance plan

SB 310 will leave Ohio in a precarious situation. The freeze would last until December 31, 2016, six months after the date that EPA has set for states to submit their compliance plans*. The state could sue over the rule, which may affect that date – Mike DeWine has already shown a predilection to waste taxpayer resources over the latest right wing cause du jour – but I feel pretty confident the courts will uphold the regulation.

So, where will Ohio find itself as the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2017? Will it implement weakened energy standards, as SB 310 makes clear the legislature plans to do, or will it allow SB 221 to come back into force? Will it put together a satisfactory compliance plan, or will the US EPA have to step in and take over?

Surely, the legislators behind SB 310 considered these questions when crafting the law. Not quite. According to Tom Knox at Columbus Business First,

Rep. Sandra Williams of Cleveland, the ranking Democrat, asked him how the freeze would impact the state’s ability to meet new regulations to limit coal-plant carbon dioxide emissions. Balderson said he was unaware of the rules but didn’t think they would impact his bill.

That’s right. An elected official who sits on the Senate Public Utilities Committee and introduces a bill as significant as SB 310 openly admitted that he was “unaware” of forthcoming EPA standards that anyone with a passing knowledge of Google could have found out about. Did he miss the massive speech that President Obama gave last summer when he announced these rules? It wasn’t exactly a secret.

The climate change imperative in policy making

That’s what makes things like SB 310 or Cuyahoga County’s decision to sign a 20-year deal to get coal-fired power from from  Cleveland Thermal so mind boggling. Policy making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Obviously uncertainty always exists, and it’s sometimes necessary to make simplifying assumptions and leave out exogenous factors. But the preeminent policy challenge of our times is not just one of those things you can ignore. Pretending science doesn’t exist won’t make it so.

A changing climate is not just one of many factors at play. It is a baseline factor that directly and indirectly influences everything else. From insurance markets to credit worthiness, from allergies to vector-borne diseases, from human and economic development to violence and conflict, climate change is always a factor in play. While it would be nice to pretend otherwise, it’s no longer an option available to us.

Even if you reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue, it makes sense to assume it’s true. Because consider the risks if your wrong. What if that expensive new bridge or road your state just built was only designed to withstand one foot of sea level rise? Or what if a farmer invested his or her life savings in a crop that can’t survive the megadrought happening in the West?

Every single policy decision we make now, regardless how mundane or seemingly unrelated, must have climate change embedded in it. It may be convenient to pretend this one local project can’t possibly have any bearing on such a global issue – I’m looking at you, ODOT – but we cannot afford that luxury.

So the people in charge in Columbus can – and, I’m quite sure, will – continue to ignore what I’ve just said, because they have a clear profit motive to do so. But if there is one thing that these new carbon rules make clear, it’s that the day of reckoning on issue is coming, and it’s a lot closer than some people may like.

Ohio has 30 months to decide whether or not it will act on climate change or whether it will cling to the status quo. Because, whether or not Columbus likes it, the EPA has supremacy on this issue, and it has the law in its side.

So what does this all mean?

Oh, I guess you were expecting me to actually go somewhere with this. Okay then.

Ohio’s best option is for John Kasich to veto SB 310 and call on lawmakers to not only protect the state’s clean energy standards, but actually discuss ways to strengthen them through 2030. But seeing as I’m not the benevolent dictator of this state (but seriously, I’d be ever so benevolent…), and the Governor has made it clear he will sign SB 310, that leaves us searching for alternatives.

Given the options available, our next best choice is to ensure that Ed Fitzgerald and David Pepper get elected as Governor and Attorney General this fall. That would empower Governor Fitzgerald to veto any GOP-led plan to weaken the standards that may emerge during the freeze and ensure that Attorney General Pepper does not foolishly sue the EPA over the carbon rules. That may seem like a long shot at this point, but the alternative is far, far worse.

Ohio is poised to meet the EPA’s carbon rules while creating jobs, cleaning its air, and creating thousands of good jobs. Or we can throw all of that out the window to gamble that the GOP-led legislature can somehow come up with a law that is better equipped to do all of this than SB 221. Don’t hold your breath.

Update (6/4/2014 3:31 p.m.): I originally thought the EPA was requiring states to submit their compliance plans by December 31, 2016, the same date as the end of the proposed freeze. The actual date is June 30, 2016; I have updated the post to reflect this change.
Update 2 (3:44 p.m.): Brad Plumer just pointed me to a post from Resources for the Future, which argues that everything people have been saying about the 2005 baseline is incorrect. Apparently EPA was only using 2005 as the headline year, because President Obama’s commitment to reduce US emissions by 17% at the Copenhagen Conference uses 2005 as its reference point. But, in reality, all of the EPA targets for state carbon reductions are based on 2012 numbers, meaning that this rule really does represent a strong emissions reduction standard. Look for cheers from fellow environmentalists and cries of impending economic doom from fossil fuel boosters.

Maintaining road quality is good for the climate & the budget

cleveland potholes
cleveland potholes

Driving down West 117th has been a real adventure this winter (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

It’s not exactly a secret that Cleveland’s roads are in rough shape right now. The city’s streets are pockmarked with potholes of all shapes and sizes, most of them enormous. The Scene recently parodied the issue, writing

After driving into a massive pothole at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th Street last week, Lakewood resident Harold Dreifer has now begun to live there. He tells Scene, “There was just nowhere else to go. It was a long fall down here; I decided that I may as well set up shop.”

While the City claims that this year has been relatively average, it does seem to be admitting it has been overwhelmed by the problem, as evinced by the fact that it is paying a private “pothole killer” $225 per hour to patch city streets. I have no doubt that I had to repair two flat tires last week in large part because of the fact that driving down my street is like driving down a Connect Four board lain on its side.

connect four

Connect Four: great for leisure, not so much for road surfaces (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Obviously much of this road quality issue stems from this year’s relatively brutal winter. January’s polar vortexes gave way to Cleveland’s 5th coldest February since 1964. This winter has produced 10 days with temperatures below 0°F, the most in three decades, and 66 days with at least a trace of snow (through February 28). The persistent cold and snow, followed by continual freeze-thaw cycles, provides prime conditions for potholes. It weakens the pavement, leads to continued plowing, and prevents road crews from repairing potholes in timely manner.

But other factors beyond the weather have conspired to create this problem. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Kasich has balanced the state budget on the backs of local governments. Over the past four years (two biennial budget cycles), the State of Ohio has pilfered roughly $1 billion from the Local Government Fund, the primary pool of state tax revenues available to municipalities. The 2012-2013 state budget alone cost the city of Cleveland $45 million in foregone tax revenues that could fund vital city services.

In this era of slashing government revenue to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest Ohioans, it’t not surprising that road maintenance has gotten short shrift. While investing in public infrastructure construction and maintenance can create jobs and generate a wide array of other benefits, it’s also extremely expensive. According to data from a 2008 report by Nicholas Lutsey, maintaining road surface quality, or “strategic management of pavement roughness” in academ-ese, is much less cost effective than other transportation sector options, as shown in the table below.

transportation sector cost effectiveness

Cost-effectiveness of various transportation sector policies. Note that lower numbers – particularly negative values – indicate more cost-effective options (courtesy of Wang, Harvey & Kendall).

But incorporating the value from reducing greenhouse gas emissions can change these ratios. According to Ting Wang, John Harvey, and Alissa Kendall, authors of a recent article with the incredibly captivating title “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of highway pavement roughness,” maintaining road quality is an excellent strategy for tackling climate change.

Road maintenance can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector because pavement roughness causes vehicles to lose energy as waste heat. As the authors note,

Because an improvement in smoothness immediately affects every vehicle traveling over the pavement, the cumulative effects on GHGs can be substantial in the near term.

According to their research, implementing optimal road maintenance strategies in California could reduce GHG emissions by 0.57-1.38 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year in the state. The maximum value is similar to the annual GHG emissions of 300,000 passenger vehicles or, using the State Department’s extremely flawed analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline. Accounting for GHG reductions and total user costs, the cost effectiveness of maintaining pavement quality goes from $416 per ton of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), a net loss, to -$710 to -$1,610/tCO2e, a major net benefit. Accordingly, incorporating the climate benefits of proper road maintenance can make the practice 2.75-4.9 times more cost effective for governments.

President Obama ordered federal agencies to incorporate climate change into their planning and policy making activities last fall. As this research demonstrates, this approach is a sound one, and municipal governments should follow suit.

Climate culprits: 7 countries account for more than half of global warming

national global warming share

Probably the single largest hurdle to negotiating a new global climate change treaty to replace the defunct Kyoto Protocol is the question of culpability for global warming. Determining who caused the crisis and, accordingly, who should shoulder the burden for reducing emissions has been a fly in the ointment since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992.

During the negotiations over Kyoto, developing states argued, quite effectively, that developed countries must lead the way in emissions reductions, because they took advantage of cheap fossil fuels to drive their economic growth. This debate led to the division of countries into two major groups in the final treaty. Annex 1 countries (OECD members plus “economies in transition,” which were largely former Soviet bloc states) committed to reducing their emissions to varying degrees, while non-Annex 1 countries (developing states) were exempted from making emission reduction commitments.

This distinction outraged many policymakers in the West and all but ensured that the US would never ratify the agreement. Although President Bill Clinton actually signed Kyoto in 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 to endorse the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which stated that the body would never ratify a treat “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance.”

Twenty odd years later, the debate continues to linger today. The question of who are the climate change culprits is front and center as the parties to the UNFCCC work to develop a successor treaty by the end of the 2015 Paris Conference. While developed states note that China is now the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, developing states point out that Western countries and Japan dominate cumulative emissions totals since 1850.

A new study in Environmental Research Letters (open access!) will help to shed some additional light on the discussion, though I imagine it will do little to change the tenor. In the article, the authors aggregate the total greenhouse gas emissions for each country from 1906-2005; using these data, they then attribute to each country its associated proportion of total observed global warming during this period (roughly 0.7°C).

The study is unique because it accounts not only for CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, but also from land use changes, non-CO2 GHG emissions, and aerosol emissions, which tend to have a cooling effect.

Unsurprisingly, the authors point their fingers at the usual suspects. The top seven emitters – the US, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany, and the UK – account for 63% of the observed warming. The US claims the largest share, by far, accounting for 0.1517°C or 21.6% of total warming. Second-place China (which passed the US as the annual emissions leader in 2007), is responsible for 0.063°C, less than half of the US’s share. Overall, the top 20 emitting countries are responsible for 82% of warming.

national global warming share

National contributions to observed global warming from 1906-2005, including emissions from all sources.

While this outcome would appear to bolster the US’s argument, the authors dive further into the data and make the picture murkier. If you just account for fossil fuel use emissions, the list changes significantly. Land use changes, particularly deforestation and agriculture, make up 65% of Brazil’s emissions, while they are responsible for an astounding 86.7% of eighth-place Indonesia’s total contribution.

Moreover, the picture changes dramatically when the authors calculate emissions per capita. As the map below shows, developed states end up bring responsible for a far larger share of total warming than developing states. China and India, for intance, go from second and fourth place on the total warming list to 19th and 20th, respectively, in per capita emissions. The top eight states for per capita warming are all Annex 1 countries, as are eight of the top 10.

warming per country per capita

The share of observed global warming for each country on a per capita basis.

The authors devote a considerable amount of attention to the issue of per capita emissions and climate inequality. They note that, in order for us to keep total warming below 2°C in a world with 9 billion people, we would need to maintain per capita warming below 0.22°C. Multiple developed states already significantly exceed this number, emphasizing the importance of reducing their “luxury” emissions to make room for emissions from the developing world. The UK and US produce 0.54°C and 0.51°C of warming per billion people, respectively, which is more than twice the maximum rate the planet can sustain.

The data also do not account for outsourcing of emissions from the developed world to the developing world. The latest draft of the IPCC’s Working Group II report states that, while developing countries have increased their annual emissions to 14 gigatonnes per year, approximately 2 gigatonnes of those emissions stem from producing goods that are exported to the West. Accordingly, the cumulative and per capita share of emissions would change dramatically if we accounted for these trends.

As the authors note,

Balancing the current inequities in per-capita contributions to climate warming across countries may be a fundamental requirement if we are to make the changes necessary to decrease emissions and stabilize global temperatures.

This study will not end the discussion on who must reduce emissions and by how much – far from it. But it does provide further data to inform the debate, and it makes it clear that, despite recent changes in emissions trends, the developed world bears most of the responsibility for our existing climate crisis.

Moving beyond the mitigation vs. adaptation debate

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country's climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country’s climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Last week, there was a blog post at AlertNet titled “Climate Conversations – Is acceptance of climate change adaptation an admission that mitigation has failed?” The title caught my attention, and I read the piece with some dread; I thought we had already moved beyond this debate. Fortunately, the piece does not rehash this tired argument.

That said, the fact that climate activists still have to use raise this question is disheartening. I had thought that recent international actions hard largely shelved this line of thought. For instance, through the 2001 Marrakesh Accords, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) noted the need to explore adaptation and created the Least Developed Countries Fund to support the development and implementation of adaptation plans. Subsequent UNFCCC actions supplemented this:

    • Marrakesh established The Adaptation Fund, though this body did not officially begin operating until 2008. The fund recognizes the vulnerability of developing countries to the impacts of climate change and is supposed to “finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes.”
    • The 2007 Bali Action Plan (PDF) formally established that adaptation represents a key component of the international response to climate change and called for increasing resources for this purpose.
    • The 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework stated that “adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation” and called for additional action and support to make this a reality. Cancun also launched the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to supplement the Adaptation Fund by promoting “low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways” and providing support to developing countries for adaptation.

It is clear that the international commitment has made a commitment to adaptation (at least vocally). The otherwise highly disappointing Cophenagen Accord that emerged in 2009 included a commitment from developed countries to mobilize “USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries” (emphasis mine). It remains highly unclear where those funds will come from, and, to date, the developed countries have come nowhere close to meeting their pledge. Yet, the commitment is on paper, and it demonstrates that adaptation is here to stay.

Generally, climate researchers argue that we must “adapt to what we cannot mitigate, and mitigate what we cannot adapt to.” The international community has agreed that we should not go beyond 2°C warming. This is the point at which adaptation becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that we are on the verge of blowing past this cutoff. The World Bank has argued we are on the path to a 4°C world, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers projects that our current emissions trajectory puts us on a path to 6° of warming. Even the normally conservative International Energy Agency notes that business as usual will exhaust the carbon budget for 450ppm by 2017.

British climate scientist Kevin Anderson has argued that the difference between 4°C & 6°C is essentially irrelevant; 4°C will likely quickly give way to 6°C due to a series of feedback mechanisms. As such, once we hit 4°C, it becomes “extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death,” as this level of warming “is incompatible with an organized global community.” (Listen to Anderson speak about this risk below).

Clearly, the conventional mitigation-adaptation equation does not fit this formula. It is missing another key variable – suffering. As (my professor at AU) Dr. Paul Wapner has argued, “We need to mitigate, we need to adapt, but no matter how much we mitigate and no matter how much we adapt, there is going to be suffering. There already is and it’s inevitable.”

One can see this suffering globally. The World Health Organization has estimated that, as early as 2004, climate change was already responsible for 140,000 premature deaths per year.  Last year, DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor increased this projection to roughly 400,000 climate-related deaths annually. The IPCC estimates that climate change will make an additional 132 million Asians malnourished and increase the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa facing water stress by 350-600 million by 2050.

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

These estimates are based on current warming and/or mid-range projections (at or below 2°C). It’s abundantly clear that mitigation is essential for sustaining an inhabitable planet. Yet, the increasingly obvious effects of extreme weather, much of which is tied to climate change, also make it clear that we must adapt now. Climate-related disasters reduced the US’s GDP by 1% in 2012; the effects are significantly worse in developing countries. Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1998, “set back development in Nicaragua by 20 years.”

All of this information makes it clear that, for climate change, mitigation and adaptation are not an either/or proposition. We need both, and we need them now. It’s time to leave this mitigation vs. adaptation debate back in the 1990s, where it belongs.