Climate Compass Blog

Clean power progress will continue despite Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan may slow, but certainly does not stop, progress toward a cleaner power system in the United States.

There’s no telling how the legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan, which were always expected, will ultimately play out. But here are a few important points to keep in mind:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases is settled. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. It affirmed that ruling 8-0 in 2011 when it rejected nuisance suits against greenhouse gas emitters, ruling that “the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants.”  

What’s at issue is whether the particular way EPA has chosen to exercise that authority in regulating carbon emissions from power plants is appropriate.  Because there was little precedent to work from, EPA had to chart the direction, and did so with a very careful eye to the legal defensibility of its approach. 

The Clean Power Plan has already generated tremendous learning about the practicalities of decarbonizing our power sector. In crafting the rule, EPA engaged extensively with states, utilities and others (and was widely praised for doing so). The adoption of the rule last summer has triggered similar state-level conversations across the country. Even states that are suing to overturn the rule have been actively considering how to implement it.

As a result, we all know a lot more today about the challenges of cutting carbon and the smartest strategies for doing it cost-effectively. That knowledge will be of tremendous value going forward, with or without the Clean Power Plan.

This temporary setback may give us more time to innovate. The only immediate impact of the Court’s stay is that states will not have to file paperwork with EPA later this year requesting additional time to develop their implementation plans (as most were expected to do).

Some states may suspend their planning efforts, given the court’s stay, but others will press on with preparations. If the plan is ultimately upheld, the implementation timeline may have to be extended. This means that states that keep doing their homework will have had more time to sort through the complexities and develop solid implementation plans that consider the roles of both cities and market-based approaches.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of reason to believe emissions will keep declining. U.S. emissions are at a 20-year low thanks to a mix of technological, market and policy drivers. These include improved technology to monitor and increase energy efficiency, plentiful supplies of cheap natural gas, and state and federal policies supporting renewable energy.

Going forward, we can count on these and other forces to continue driving down emissions from the power sector. A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, for instance, found that Congress’ recent extension of tax credits for solar and wind power will by itself go a long way toward meeting the state reduction targets set under the Clean Power Plan.

In the long run, we need an economy-wide approach. EPA regulation was never anyone’s first choice, which is why many of us worked so hard to enact economy-wide cap-and-trade legislation. But when Congress failed to act, the science and the law compelled the Administration to move forward with the tools at hand – meaning a sector-by-sector approach under the Clean Air Act.

Under those circumstances, the Clean Power Plan is the right approach. It sets ambitious, achievable targets, and gives states the flexibility and incentives to employ market-based strategies to meet them. We’ll continue working with businesses, states and cities on smart ways to implement it and to make progress together in the meantime.

But ultimately – to get the steep reductions we need, and to do that cost-effectively – we need a comprehensive market-based solution. And that will require action by Congress. The regulatory uncertainty inherent in lengthy judicial reviews could conceivably mean we’ll get there that much sooner.

The bottom line is that the Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily stay the Clean Power Plan may prove only a minor setback, and regardless of the ultimate legal outcome, the broader trends at play favor continued momentum toward stronger climate action. It’s easy to get distracted by legal intricacies and punditry. What’s important is that we keep our eye on the goal – a low-carbon economy – and keep crafting practical, on-the-ground strategies to get there. 

Nations need to agree to reduce aviation emissions

Image courtesy International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

The new Paris Agreement provides a broad global framework to strengthen efforts to address climate change. Now, governments are working toward another agreement on a critical issue Paris doesn’t directly address – reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

The Paris Agreement, negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ties together national efforts pledged by more than 180 countries to limit or reduce their own emissions. However, international aviation is inherently a cross-border activity, and a global approach to reducing emissions from aviation is being negotiated separately under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). A new sector-wide agreement is expected this October.

Emissions from the aviation sector comprised 2 percent of global emissions in 2013, but that share is set to expand rapidly by 2050 without policy interventions. In 2010, the aviation industry carried 2.4 billion passengers and 40 million metric tons of goods. By 2050, that could grow to 16 billion passengers and 400 million metric tons of goods.

If global aviation were a country, it would rank as the seventh largest carbon dioxide emitter. So reducing emissions from aviation is critical to meeting the global goal of limiting average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

ICAO was established in 1947 to regulate civil aviation by establishing common standards on safety, pollution, technology, and other important issues. In 2010, governments adopted a goal put forward by the airline industry to achieve carbon neutrality from 2020 onwards – known as CNG2020. This means that, from 2020 onwards, net carbon emissions from international aviation would remain constant.

Negotiations are moving toward an agreement on how to achieve this target. The key challenge will be allocating obligations to individual countries. The Chicago Convention, which established ICAO, is based on the principle of uniform application (e.g., all nations must meet the same standards), which is in contrast to the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities familiar to those involved in the UNFCCC. It will be a challenge for negotiators to find a workable compromise that apportions obligations in a manner deemed fair by all nations.

To meet the CNG2020 goal, a number of policy options are available. Technology improvements in aircraft and engine design, operational efficiency gains, and investments in new infrastructure will all reduce emissions. Additionally, the development and possible use of biofuels would drive down emissions by reducing the jet fuels burned by aircraft.

However, in the face of continued aviation sector growth, industry believes that emission reductions occurring outside the sector must also be available to count toward the goal. At the 38th ICAO Assembly in 2013, member states agreed to develop a global market-based mechanism, allowing for offsetting aviation sector emissions. A task force has been deliberating the rules and eligibility criteria that would underpin this mechanism, and it is hoped that these rules will be adopted at the October ICAO Assembly and take effect from 2020.

2016 is an opportunity to continue the momentum of international cooperation on climate change, with aviation becoming the first sector to sign a binding international agreement to reduce its emissions. 

2015 was the warmest year on record

Image courtesy NOAA

This visualization from NOAA shows much warmer than average or record warm temperatures across much of the globe in 2015, the warmest year on record.

The data are in, and 2015 was officially the warmest year globally ever recorded. We’ve been keeping temperature records since 1880. The last time the record was broken? 2014.

What’s interesting is just how much warmer 2015 was. The observed annual average surface temperature was more than 1.8° F (1° C) above the 19th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That’s already half the warming countries have agreed to as the international limit.

And 2015 was about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit warmer than 2014. That might seem small, but it’s actually huge when compared to the year-to-year differences observed in the record.

A strong El Niño, when the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms, contributed to the record warmth of 2015. But even compared to other El Niño years, 2015 set records. The agencies reporting the data attribute this to the long-term warming trend due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As with all climate and weather data, the 2015 data shows some variability. Not all locations set high temperature records, and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean actually set a cold temperature record.

In the contiguous United States, 2015 was the second warmest year on record, with 2012 still holding the top spot. It was the 19th consecutive year that the annual average U.S. temperature was more than the 20th century average.

As the dataset grows, we can grow more and more confident in the long-term warming trend. Scientists expect 2016 will be a record-breaker as well. And new science is telling us that it’s not just the atmosphere heating up – the ocean is absorbing heat as well, at a faster rate and at greater ocean depths than we had previously thought.

This points to a future with more frequent and stronger climate change impacts, including heavy precipitation events (downpours and snowstorms), heat waves, and rising sea levels, unless strong action is taken to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause temperatures to increase. National governments have agreed to take action, but all actors – states, cities, businesses, and individuals – can play a part. As a new year begins, we will see if the world can set records for action, and not just temperature.

Building on the climate successes of 2015

2015 may well prove the warmest year globally on record, but it also saw unprecedented momentum on climate solutions – most notably, the completion of the U.S. Clean Power Plan and a landmark global climate agreement in Paris.

These two successes reflect growing public support globally and in the United States for stronger climate action, as well as rising investment and innovation by business toward low-carbon solutions.

Now we must turn the momentum of last year’s successes toward the next set of challenges – like putting these major new policies into action.

Here in the U.S., states have until September to tell the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) how they plan to implement the Clean Power Plan (or to request more time). Most observers think the courts are unlikely to block the Clean Power Plan while legal challenges are heard. So we expect state planning will proceed and are encouraged to see so many states exploring market-based approaches.

Internationally, countries must now put the Paris agreement into place. A high-level signing ceremony is set for Earth Day (April 22) in New York. And in May, governments will begin fleshing out details of the new Paris architecture, including critical transparency provisions and the process to periodically strengthen countries’ individual contributions.

Just after Paris, the United States submitted its latest biennial report, showing how current policies can put the country on track for its 2020 target (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels), and lay the foundation for meeting the 2025 target (reducing emissions 26-28 percent). The report showed that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined 10 percent since 2005, while GDP is up 10 percent. For the first time, GDP has grown while energy use has fallen – about 2 percent.

Here are other things to watch for domestically and internationally in 2016:

Strong growth in U.S. wind and solar power. Improving technologies, dropping prices, and growing investment have been spurring a renewables boom. U.S. wind capacity has doubled and solar capacity has increased more than tenfold over the past six years. Together, the Clean Power Plan and a new five-year extension of production tax credits for wind and solar should further accelerate development.

Action to curb methane emissions. Federal regulations and incentive-based programs to curb leaks of methane from oil and gas operations are expected to be finalized this year. Methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide, but stays in the atmosphere a much shorter time, meaning action to reduce leaks can have a more immediate benefit. How EPA, states, and industry (both upstream producers and downstream users) work together to address this important issue will be crucial in 2016.

Checking in on fuel efficiency. This year, EPA will formally adopt new regulations aimed at cutting emissions from medium- and heavy-duty trucks. And an upcoming technical assessment will indicate how EPA is viewing progress toward the goal of nearly doubling light duty vehicle fuel efficiency to 54 miles per gallon from 2011 levels and cutting carbon emissions from new cars nearly in half by 2025. The auto industry is soaring, with sales at an all-time high and new technologies resulting in lighter vehicles and more low- or zero-emission choices.

Reducing hydrofluorocarbons. This could be the year we finally get a handle on the fastest-growing family of greenhouse gases – extremely potent hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam blowing. In the U.S., new EPA rules and commitments by companies like Dow Chemical and Coca Cola have demonstrated the feasibility of shifting to alternatives. Now we’re looking to nations this year to adopt an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which successfully tackled ozone-depleting chemicals, to phase down the use of HFCs.

Addressing airplane emissions. Aviation makes up about 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions but is one of the fastest growing sources. If global aviation were a country, it would rank as the seventh largest carbon dioxide emitter. The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a global forum to develop standards for the industry, is expected to adopt a package of policies to meet the sector’s targets of carbon-neutral growth after 2020, and cutting emissions in half by 2050.

Another key development last year was the surge of cities and businesses making significant commitments to climate action. More than 400 cities globally have committed to measure and reduce their emissions. More than 150 companies signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge and committed to steps such as cutting emissions, reducing water usage, and using more renewable energy. 2016 will be the year these commitments begin to be demonstrated on the ground.

Whether it’s paving the way for the rapid development of renewables or investing in energy efficiency technology and lower carbon electricity a huge wave of innovation has been unleashed. This momentum must be used as a springboard for more and even faster progress in 2016.


Climate agreement signals to business to invest, innovate

A panel of business leaders discusses innovation and investment to meet climate challenges at a C2ES side event at COP 21 in Paris.

Fourteen major U.S.-based companies signed a C2ES-organized statement earlier this year urging the adoption of a new global climate agreement that would get all the major economies on board, provide stronger long-term direction, and hold countries accountable.

On December 12, 2015, nations reached a landmark climate agreement in Paris that accomplished exactly that aim.  

The Paris Agreement commits all countries to contribute their best efforts, sets up a system to hold them accountable, and promises stronger efforts to address the causes and consequences of climate change in the years ahead. It sends a signal to ramp up investment and innovation in a clean energy and clean transportation economy by:

  • Providing Long-Term Direction – The agreement calls for achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This goal, which is another way of expressing a progressive decarbonization of the global economy, provides the clear signal to markets to shift long-term investments toward energy efficiency and other lower-carbon alternatives.
  • Addressing Competitiveness – All major economies support the new agreement, which commits all parties to put forward their best efforts through binding commitments to submit and maintain nationally determined contributions (NDCs), to regularly report on them, and to strengthen them over time. More policy clarity and visibility will ease concerns about global competitiveness and about potentially double-counting carbon reductions.
  • Promoting Transparency – Parties are encouraged to map out their long-term strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They are also required to regularly report on their progress in implementing their contributions to the agreement and participate in procedures holding them accountable. This enhanced transparency system, which covers all parties, makes it easier for companies to anticipate regulatory risks and economic opportunities.
  • Facilitating Carbon Pricing – The Paris Agreement requires parties to ensure the integrity of international transfers of emissions units they are relying on to meet their contributions and prohibits double counting, facilitating the growth and credibility of the global carbon market, a cost-effective tool for reducing emissions.