US-China climate goals go well beyond business as usual

The climate targets announced this month by the United States and China will require a significant effort beyond a business-as-usual scenario for both countries. More details will likely follow in the weeks and months ahead, but here is what we know so far for each country.

China

China announced a goal for its greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2030 or sooner. This marks the first time that China has pledged a peak or absolute target for greenhouse gas emissions, rather than an intensity-based target. In business-as-usual scenarios, China’s emissions wouldn’t peak until 2040 or later.

China also announced it would boost its share of zero-carbon energy, which includes nuclear, hydropower and renewables, to 20 percent – up from about 13 percent today. Meeting that goal will require a substantial build-out of nuclear power stations, hydroelectric stations, wind turbines, and solar panels, as well as transmission and other infrastructure. In a separate announcement, China said it plans to cap its coal consumption by the year 2020.

China can’t, as critics claim, sit idly by for 15 years and reach these targets. It will need to significantly restructure its energy system. China will have to add more than 1 GW of zero-carbon power a week for the next 15 years – an amount roughly equal to the entire installed electricity capacity of the United States.

SaskPower unveils first commercial-scale, coal-fired power plant to capture carbon

For the first time ever, a large-scale, coal-fired power plant is capturing carbon dioxide to keep it from being released into the atmosphere – a milestone for a technology critical to addressing climate change.

Canadian electric utility SaskPower has switched on unit 3 at its Boundary Dam power plant, about 10 miles from the North Dakota border, and will hold an official grand opening Oct. 2. Following a $1.2 billion retrofit, the 46-year-old, 110-megawatt coal unit is now on course toward capturing 90 percent of its carbon emissions. Other upgrades reduce nitrous oxide emissions and capture 100 percent of the unit’s sulfur dioxide emissions.

Numerous commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology projects have been deployed in the industrial sector. In the power sector, demonstration-scale projects have been deployed, but this is the first commercial-scale project.

We will need to construct hundreds of such projects (along with other zero- and lower-emitting technologies) if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to levels that avoid the worst effects of climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, more than 440 terawatt-hours (TWh) of CCS must be generated between 2020 and 2035 to give us a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. To get a sense of that scale, SaskPower’s unit 3 can produce up to 1 TWh of electricity per year.

The Boundary Dam project is important not just because it’s the first of its kind, but because it demonstrates a way to help make carbon capture technology economically viable -- by turning unwanted pollutants into valuable commodities. SaskPower has agreed to transport and sell its captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to an oilfield operated by Cenovus for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations. The captured CO2 helps coax additional production from declining oil fields and results in the permanent storage of the CO2 underground. (In addition, captured sulfur dioxide emissions will be used to produce 50 tons per day of sulfuric acid for industrial customers, and SaskPower will sell the plant’s coal combustion residuals, also known as coal ash, for use in construction products like drywall and concrete.)

No single solution to nuclear’s troubles

A range of tools, including state action and power market changes, are needed to ensure that existing nuclear power plants help keep the United States on track to meeting its climate goals. That was the consensus of experts C2ES convened this week at the National Press Club to discuss nuclear’s role as a zero-carbon energy source.

In a new brief, Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, C2ES laid out some of the factors that led to the premature retirement of five nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of zero-carbon emission electricity in the United States. So further closures will make it harder to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

C2ES assembled a group of experts, including Peter Lyons, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Carol Browner, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA Administrator; and Bill Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, to suggest potential remedies for preserving the existing nuclear fleet.

Notably, not all of the 100 operating nuclear reactors are at risk, only the 46 that operate as “merchant” generators and compete in wholesale power markets. Pressures they face include low natural gas prices, renewables policy, a slowdown in demand for electricity, unfavorable power market structures, and the absence of a price on carbon.

Maintaining U.S. nuclear power helps meet our climate goals

From late 2012 through the summer of 2013, four power companies announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors. In early 2014, the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants announced that it, too, is considering early retirements for some of its Midwest reactors.

In a new brief, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) looks at what’s behind these recent announcements, and how a continued loss of nuclear power – a zero-carbon energy source -- could make it harder for the United States to meet its climate goals.

Since 1990, nuclear power has consistently supplied about one-fifth of U.S. electricity. More importantly from a climate perspective, it has represented the lion’s share -- 60 to 70 percent -- of all zero-carbon electricity.

Stronger action needed to meet U.S. climate pledge

In a recent report to the United Nations, the State Department lays out the United States’ strategy for achieving its goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The strategy is “ambitious,” as the State Department says. But a close read reveals that, in some key respects, it is more a menu of options than a clear blueprint.

The Biennial Report is the first required of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as part of a series of measures aimed at ensuring greater transparency about steps countries are taking to meet their international climate pledges.

The figure below helps visualize the challenge facing the United States. The blue bar on the left represents 100 percent of U.S. emissions in 2005, or 7,195 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. On the right side is the 2020 goal to reduce emissions by 1,223 million metric tons, or 17 percent.