Climate Compass Blog

The Paris talks: Looking behind the scenes

Negotiations toward a new global climate agreement resume Monday in Bonn amid growing concern that time is running short – the agreement is due this December in Paris – and that the remaining task is monumental.

Indeed, while the new text negotiators will be working from is a bit more coherent than the last one, it is still a very long way from something countries could sign on to in Paris.  Parties hopefully will make progress this week narrowing options and will task the co-chairs with producing a much more streamlined text for the next meeting in October.

The state of the text, though, may not the best measure of the state of the negotiations.  The tedious slog of the formal sessions in Bonn may be what’s most visible. But countries are spending even more time talking in other, less formal settings, at multiple levels. And the conversations there are considerably more encouraging.

One example is C2ES’s Toward 2015 dialogue, which brought together senior negotiators from China, the United States and 20 other European, Asian, Latin American and African countries for eight in-depth discussions over 15 months.  A final report last month from dialogue co-chairs Valli Moosa and Harald Dovland outlines key elements of a Paris deal.

Strikingly, many of the same elements are reflected in the official summaries from two recent ministerial-level meetings – an informal consultation hosted by France and Peru, and a meeting of the Major Economies Forum hosted by Luxembourg and the United States, where C2ES was invited to present the Toward 2015 report.

All three documents suggest growing convergence on many of the components of the Paris agreement. They foresee a pact that:

  • Allows countries considerable flexibility in defining their own nationally determined contributions to the agreement, but sets rules and norms to ensure transparency and accountability and encourage rising ambition;
  • Requires all parties to report on implementation of their contributions through a common transparency framework, with flexibility and support for countries with limited capacity;
  • Relies largely on the de facto self-differentiation reflected in nationally determined contributions, rather than defined categories of countries, to achieve a balanced distribution of effort;
  • Builds ambition over time through periodic review of collective progress and updating of national contributions, probably every five years;
  • Creates a clear expectation of “no backsliding” or “forward progression” i in the scale, scope or type of parties’ contributions;
  • Puts much stronger emphasis on climate adaptation; and
  • Mobilizes support for developing countries.

Strong differences remain on some issues – including whether countries’ emission goals should be internationally binding. But these signals from informal and ministerial-level dialogues suggest far greater convergence on fundamentals than is evident so far in the formal negotiations – or than ever emerged in the run-up to the calamitous 2009 Copenhagen conference.

Meantime, 56 countries accounting for about two-thirds of global emissions have submitted their intended contributions to the Paris agreement. And other major-emitting countries – including India, Brazil and South Africa – are under strong pressure to do so soon.

It’s easy to understand, given the disappointing history of the U.N. climate talks, the deep cynicism in many quarters that the process can ever produce meaningful results.  But this well-earned cynicism shouldn’t blind us to the genuine opportunity in Paris to establish a more balanced, durable and effective global framework.

What’s achievable in the formal negotiations is always a function of the understandings that can be reached at a more political level. Hopefully, this coming week we’ll begin to see the encouraging signs at that level translate into concrete progress on the text of a Paris agreement.

We’ll be tracking the talks closely and, in the weeks ahead, will be offering additional blog posts taking a closer look at key issues likes differentiation, finance, adaptation, transparency, the role of market mechanisms, and the legal form of the Paris agreement.





Climate change and the near-record 2015 wildfire season

The wildfires ravaging the Western United States are among the most damaging on record, and the season isn’t over yet. For those who have been following the region’s changing climate patterns, however, the damage is hardly surprising, and this could be only the beginning.

So far this year, 41,000 fires have burned 7.5 million acres of forests and grasslands across the United States. Only nine years have seen more acres burned in total than have already burned this year. The record is 9.8 million acres in 2006.

Baked Alaska

In Alaska, the 2015 wildfire season will likely go down as the second-biggest on record. More than 5.1 million acres – or 8,000 square miles – have burned so far this year. The most damaging – 6.6 million acres – occurred in 2004. Although this was an extreme fire season, the state was fortunate that the weather eventually cooperated. By mid-July, the fires had already charred 4.5 million acres, or 88 percent of the total.

The fires that plagued central Alaska during the late spring and early summer months are now mostly under control, as the dry summer heat gives way to cooler and wetter weather. The persistent ridge of high pressure has broken down as waves of moisture now stream in from the surrounding waters – the annual sign that autumn is quickly approaching.

As the fires die out in Alaska, the attention now turns to the lower 48. What was a sporadic, yet manageable, start to the fire season has now turned into conflagration of tragic proportions.

Why the shift to the Lower 48?

A shift in the weather pattern over Alaska set into motion changes in the atmosphere that would affect the Lower 48. An upper-level low dropped down from the Gulf of Alaska and moved off the coast of Northern California. The low-pressure system met up with a persistent ridge of high pressure situated over the Western United States. The same system is responsible for waves of record-breaking heat from Phoenix to Seattle, and for extending the magnitude of extreme drought conditions from California into Oregon, Washington, and the Northern Rockies.

The clash of weather systems culminated in a series of dry thunderstorms, which produced lightning that sparked numerous fires across the Northwest. A series of weak low-pressure troughs have since moved along the northern parts of the ridge, cranking up the wind and fanning the flames.

How bad is it?

The result was a perfect storm of ingredients that have set the west ablaze. Currently, 1.5 million acres are burning. Five states – Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, and Montana – all have at least ten active large fires, and all have states of emergency in effect to receive federal relief money.

Current large-scale wildfires (8/25/15). (Source: National Interagency Fire Center)

More than 30,000 wildland firefighters have been called in to battle the blazes, the largest number in 15 years. The fires have grown so numerous and so large that U.S. Forest Service resources are spread thin. Last week, the Army got involved for the first time in almost a decade, mobilizing 200 personnel to assist. Canadian firefighting forces are also responding with additional crews and equipment. The USFS has also called in help from Australia and New Zealand.

And those firefighters who spent the first half of summer in Alaska? They are now being redeployed to fire locations throughout the Northwest.

Thirteen firefighters have died in their efforts to stop these fires. Thousands of people have been displaced, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed, and livestock killed.

Cabin Creek on the first night
Cabin Creek Fire outside of Dillon, MT (8/14/15). (Source: US Forest Service)

And while these numbers are dramatic, they shouldn’t come as much of surprise. Climate change is altering the landscape of the Western United States. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average annual temperature in the Western United States has risen 1.9°F since 1970. The average winter snowpack is also shrinking, now melting up to 4 weeks earlier than in previous decades. And those are the years when there is a measureable snowpack. This creates dry ground conditions that are more conducive to the start and spread of fires.

Weather conditions like the ones that sparked and fanned the flames are also becoming more common. The multi-year, persistent ridge over the Western U.S., dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR), has intensified the hot and dry conditions. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has concluded that climate change has intensified the California drought by roughly 15 to 20 percent. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the wildfire season is now more than two months longer that it was a generation ago.

Beyond Summer

However, as summer progresses to autumn, and autumn to winter, fire season will come to an end, as cooler air and much needed moisture – a result of the effects of El Niño – begin to overspread parts of the drought-stricken region. 

Potential El Nino impacts across the United States. (Source: NOAA)

The winter rain and snow will provide some drought relief, but it is highly unlikely to end it. There are large water deficits throughout California and the Western United States. According to a recent study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it would take a year’s worth of rain to alleviate the drought.

The fact remains that even with a high likelihood of much needed precipitation this winter, the climate of the Western United States is changing. One season of rain and snow will not be enough to solve the myriad of water crises, nor will it help to buck the trend of longer and more dangerous fire seasons.

The record-threatening fire season is the result of prolonged drought and extreme heat, and should act as a wake-up call to continue the push toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigating its effects. Without these efforts, these extreme events will become even more commonplace. Simply adapting to a hotter and drier Western U.S. will not be enough.

What the EPA rules mean for carbon capture and storage

In its final rules for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants, EPA recognized the importance of carbon capture and storage technologies to achieving U.S. carbon reduction goals.

New coal-fired power plants will likely need to capture some portion of potential emissions to meet final federal standards for emissions. While not required, existing coal and natural gas power plants may pursue carbon capture and storage (CCS) to meet state emissions targets under the final Clean Power Plan.

However, a regulatory requirement for CCS does not guarantee the development of commercial-scale projects, and additional work will be needed to address the economic barriers to CCS.

In the rule covering new power plants, EPA confirmed its original finding that CCS is technically available and feasible to implement. EPA’s final rule set an emissions standard of 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated. This is less stringent than the 1,100 lbs CO2/MWh limit originally proposed. But given that the most efficient coal plant without CCS is still likely to emit around 1,700 lbs CO2/MWh, adopting CCS is likely required.

US cities offer diverse incentives for electric vehicles

Cities and states are deploying a wide variety of incentives to promote more adoption of electric vehicles to reduce emissions and improve our energy security.

Consumers in Houston can get a state subsidy for buying a new EV. In the Phoenix area, EV buyers get registration fees waived and single-occupant HOV lane access. EV drivers in Portland receive fewer city and state incentives, but benefit from more publicly available charging infrastructure.

EV incentives vary by the amount consumers can save, how the incentives are applied, and who is offering the incentive.

A new report sheds light on how the 25 largest U.S. cities stack up in promoting EV deployment. These cities together represent more than half of the public electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the U.S. and about two-thirds of new electric vehicle registrations.

The white paper published by the International Council on Clean Transportation with input from C2ES and C40 and support from the 11th Hour Project, catalogues data on policies and actions by state agencies, municipal agencies, and local utilities that promote EV sales and analyzes the benefits to consumers.

EPA's Clean Power Plan puts states in the driver's seat

The finalization today of EPA’s Clean Power Plan offers Americans a clear, realistic roadmap for addressing planet-warming emissions that threaten the environment and the U.S. economy.

Most importantly, it puts states in the driver’s seat to devise innovative strategies to reduce emissions efficiently and cost-effectively. Now it's time for states to work together with businesses and cities to craft the approaches that work best for them.

Climate change is a critical challenge, and the impacts will only grow more costly if we fail to act. Last year was the warmest on Earth since we started keeping records over a century ago. During the first half of this year, it got even hotter. Climate change impacts include more extreme heat, which can exacerbate drought and wildfires, more frequent and intense downpours that can lead to destructive floods, and rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities.

Many cities, states, and companies recognize climate risks. And many are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New federal standards are already reducing heat-trapping emissions from the second-biggest source, transportation, by increasing the fuel economy of cars and trucks. The Clean Power Plan takes the next logical step by addressing the largest source: the electric power sector, responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.