Climate Compass Blog

Cities and businesses join to build resilience

How does a city become resilient? With more communities facing climate impacts, including more severe storms, heat waves, and sea level rise, it’s a question many city planners are struggling with. And it’s a question best answered through collaborative efforts.

To move its resilience planning forward, the City of Providence brought together state officials, city departments, local businesses, universities, hospitals, utilities, and others for a two-day workshop facilitated by C2ES. At the workshop, AECOM and IBM led city and community officials through the Disaster Response Scorecard where participants discussed the risks they face, strategies in place or needed to lessen those risks, and how they can respond now and in the future to minimize loss of life and damage to critical infrastructure.

Providence has already seen rising sea levels and increased flooding. In Rhode Island, sea level could rise as much as 2 feet by 2050 and 7 feet by 2100. The Third National Climate Assessment says the region will experience heat waves, more heavy downpours, and more coastal flooding.

With its extensive waterfront, Providence is on the frontlines of climate change. As Mayor Jorge Elorza told the Providence Journal, “We simply can’t afford to kick the can down the road. By planning ahead we can make wiser investments … to minimize our risk and enhance resilience.”

Cities like Providence are one of many working to strengthen their resilience to climate change now, rather than waiting for a disaster to occur. C2ES held a similar exercise with the City of Anchorage, and will soon hold resilience workshops with Kansas City, MO, Miami Beach, FL, and Phoenix, AZ.

Cities across the U.S. are looking to change how they prepare for and respond to extreme weather and climate change impacts. Strategies to improve resilience include:

  • Working with community leaders. Cities are working together with diverse community groups to raise citizens’ awareness of climate change and extreme weather. For example, Providence recently held a workshop with faith-based organizations on hurricane preparedness.  
  • Partnering to pool resources. The adage “There’s strength in numbers” holds true. Through memorandums of understanding, cities are partnering with their local businesses and non-profits to prepare for and respond to extreme weather. Some businesses are funding collaborative resilience efforts. PG&E will award $1 million  to local governments in their utility territory that propose resilient solutions, focused on disadvantaged communities, that others can replicate.
  • Visualizing and combining information and data. Mapping of climate change risks can help people understand vulnerabilities. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council has mapped sea level rise, storm surge, and other risks to coastal communities in the state.
  • Developing innovative solutions. The City of Hoboken, N.J., which experienced devastating flooding during Hurricane Sandy, is partnering with BASF to build a park and parking garage that can double as floodwater storage. Once finished, it could hold at least 1 million gallons of excess water.

Innovative solutions like these could help communities improve their resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, and C2ES will continue to share new approaches and best practices

Cities flex their muscles to improve existing commercial buildings

With up to 70 percent of total global emissions originating within the boundaries of cities, local governments are at the center of the fight against climate change.

One area where local governments are stepping up to meet this challenge is the building sector, which offers a variety of opportunities to reduce energy demand. Local governments have long sought to improve energy performance among new buildings, however, new buildings aren’t replacing older ones at a fast enough rate to put a noticeable dent in commercial building energy use. In response, cities are working to improve the performance of the existing commercial building stock.

The new C2ES brief, Local Climate Action: Cities Tackle Emissions of Commercial Buildings, explores four commercial building policy strategies that leading cities are adopting: energy use benchmarking and disclosure mandates, retro-commissioning, retrofitting, and requirements for building upgrades to meet current codes. The brief offers examples of how these policies are developed, structured, and implemented. We looked at several examples in an earlier blog post.

These policies are showing promise for reducing emissions in cities that adopt them. For example, New York City is pursuing a suite of building actions, including a local law that requires buildings greater than 50,000 square feet to ensure all lighting systems meet current city standards in common areas and non-residential tenant spaces greater than 10,000 square feet by 2025. Those non-residential spaces must also be sub-metered, and energy use disclosed to tenants. The city intends to extend the policy to include buildings between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet. The move is expected to reduce annual emissions by about 60,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) and cut energy costs by $35 million annually.

As we reviewed these four policy categories, two conclusions became clear:

  1. Although policies like New York’s retrofitting requirement are not common in U.S. cities, replicating them broadly could provide widespread co-benefits in our communities and possibly contribute measurable greenhouse gas reductions at the national level.
  2. A larger energy transformation is needed to achieve the aggressive community emissions targets cities have set, and that won't happen without stronger collaboration.

While a number of federal programs provide cities with technical assistance and funding, additional support could be provided by U.S. states and businesses in the form of complementary programs, private investment, and active engagement in policy development. We’ve already seen more of this kind of collaboration through initiatives like the City Energy Project. The increasing number of businesses publicly committing to climate goals indicates there are many more opportunities.

In addition, the Clean Power Plan requires states to meaningfully reduce emissions from the power sector. Properly designed, state implementation plans for the Clean Power Plan could incentivize utilities and commercial building operators to improve the performance of the building stock.

If the actions of New York City, Seattle, and others are any indication, local governments have the potential to enact policies that foster climate action. These key players must continue taking bold actions to help create a policy environment across the country that promotes high-performing buildings, no matter when they were built. 

Models tell us Clean Power Plan will cut emissions at low cost

In the year since the Clean Power Plan was finalized, natural gas prices have dropped and federal tax incentives for renewables have been extended. Both developments make it cheaper to generate lower- emitting electricity.

C2ES compared five economic modeling studies released this spring and summer to get an updated look at the Clean Power Plan’s expected impact on carbon emissions, the U.S. power mix, and electricity prices. Each study included several scenarios and made slightly different assumptions, so we focused on observations found in multiple studies. Three key findings were:

1. The Clean Power Plan reduces total power sector emissions compared to business-as-usual scenarios in every study.

Market forces alone, such as lower costs for renewables and natural gas-fired generation, do not achieve the same reductions, even with federal tax credit extensions for wind and solar. On average, the scenarios project total emissions in 2030 will be 18 percent lower with the Clean Power Plan than what they’d be in a business-as-usual scenario.

2. Renewable energy increases and coal decreases compared to business-as-usual generation levels across all five studies.

In each study, power sector emissions decline under the Clean Power Plan because of changes in the electricity generation mix. The models are clear that the Clean Power Plan will cause an increase in renewables and a decrease in coal. The models are less clear on the impact the rule will have on natural gas and nuclear generation, though they suggest that these technologies will benefit from Clean Power Plan implementation. In all studies, the diversity of power generation is maintained.

3. The Clean Power Plan will have minimal impact on U.S. national average retail electricity rates.

Two of the five studies examined the plan’s likely impact on rates. In most scenarios, rate changes range from a 2 percent decrease to a 5 percent increase, depending on how the Clean Power Plan is implemented in each state. A 5 percent increase translates to $4.65 per month, or about 15 cents a day, for the average household.

The chart shows the projected CO2 emissions in 2030 from the studies we examined for three scenarios: business as usual (BAU), mass-based Clean Power Plan implementation, and rate-based Clean Power Plan implementation. One studied modeled a mixed, or “patchwork” implementation scenario. The five studies are:  MJ Bradley & Associates (MJB)U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC)Center for Strategic and International Studies partnering with Rhodium Group (CSIS/Rhg), and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University.

Another key finding is that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions are very similar under rate-based and mass-based compliance plans (See Figure 1). In other words, the choice of implementation approach doesn’t seem to affect the overall reductions — at least, not when every state makes the same choice.

The Clean Power Plan gives each state an emissions target and leaves it up to the state to determine the best path forward. This gives states maximum choice, even though it could lead to fewer reductions than a comprehensive national approach.

Many states are weighing whether to use a mass-based approach, similar to what California and the nine Northeast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative use that limits the total amount of carbon emissions, or a rate-based approach that limits emissions per unit of electricity produced.

What’s clear from the models is that if states choose to go different directions, a patchwork of mass- and rate-based implementation, emissions are likely higher than if they all choose a similar path.

From these studies, we can be confident the Clean Power Plan will reduce power sector emissions compared with business as usual. Now it’s up to states to choose how they will implement the plan to best serve the needs of consumers and reduce the emissions that are causing damaging and costly climate impacts to our communities.


Putting carbon capture technology in context


Photos by Dennis Schroeder / NREL, Iberdrola Renewables, Inc., U.S. Department of Energy

Wind and solar power were once considered expensive and were not widely deployed. Today, skeptics say the same about technology to capture, use and store carbon dioxide emissions (CCUS or carbon capture).

So what lessons can we draw from the experience of the wind and solar industries as they’ve become more mainstream to facilitate a faster and broader deployment of carbon capture technology?

Wind Energy

The cost of wind energy has declined by more than 60 percent since 2009 and average nameplate capacity increased 180 percent between 1998-99 to 2015. These improvements have led to an installed wind capacity of 74,821 MW in the United States, enough electricity to power nearly 20 million average U.S. homes every year.  

These wind energy milestones in cost reduction, performance improvements, and scale of deployment were supported by the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal deployment incentive. It’s reasonable to assume that the PTC would have been even more successful if it had been maintained consistently instead of experiencing periods of uncertainty regarding its fate, leading to boom-and-bust wind power development cycles.

Ongoing federal research and development (R&D) also spurred improved wind industry technology. For example, in 2007, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory initiated the Gearbox Reliability Collaborative in response to industry-wide technology challenges. That research led to improved gearbox designs, reducing the overall cost of wind energy and showing how collaborative industry efforts and federal support for R&D can resolve performance challenges.  

Solar Energy

Solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies experienced similar dramatic cost declines due to economies of scale and improved manufacturing and performance. The cost of utility-scale solar has fallen more than 54 percent since 2011. The efficiency of all PV cells steadily improved between 1975 and 2010, supported by multi-decade R&D programs like the Department of Energy’s Thin Film PV Partnership.

These cost declines and performance improvements were facilitated by the Investment Tax Credit, another federal deployment-focused incentive, and the Section 1603 Treasury program, a federal loan guarantee mechanism to support project financing. Strong state policies like the California Renewables Portfolio Standard enabled developers to enter into above-market power purchase agreements. The experience of utility-scale solar PV demonstrates that overlapping policies are essential to achieve financing for first-of-a-kind projects.

Lessons for carbon capture

We can draw three key conclusions from wind and solar energy’s experience:

  • Stable, long-term deployment incentives that build on previous public and private investments in technology research, development and demonstration (RD&D) are essential to facilitate a large volume of projects;
  • As more projects are deployed, costs are reduced through economies of scale, learning from experience, and technological innovation;
  • Ongoing government support for RD&D can deliver cost reductions by supporting innovation and overcoming performance challenges.

In contrast to wind and solar, the U.S. lacks an effective federal incentive for commercial deployment of CCUS—despite being a world leader in public and private RD&D for early stage technology demonstration. Fifteen commercial-scale CCUS projects are operating globally; eight of those are in the United States. But that’s not nearly enough to meet our mid-century climate goals.

Carbon capture can be used at coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, which are baseload generation resources. It’s also the only way to reduce carbon emissions from some industrial plants, such as facilities producing chemicals, steel, and cement.  Also, over the long-term, we’ll need to integrate biomass energy systems with carbon capture (BECCS). Combining the capture of photosynthetic carbon from biomass with CCUS can enable negative emissions.

While first-of-a-kind, commercial-scale CCUS projects are expensive, we know that as more projects come online, they will become cheaper. SaskPower estimates it could cut costs by up to 30 percent on the next unit to be retrofitted following its current experience operating the world’s first commercial-scale, coal-fired power plant carbon capture project. Developers are exploring novel approaches, including the Exxon and Fuel Cell Energy partnership and the Exelon-supported NET Power project, that have the potential to reduce costs still further. 

It’s essential to extend and expand tax incentives for carbon capture, update state laws to include CCUS technology in clean energy standards, and fund continued carbon capture  RD&D, among other things, if we are going to reach our emissions-cutting goals. 


The enduring power of US-China climate leadership

US-China FlagsIt would have been hard to imagine just a few short years ago that the United States and China would – together – be the ones driving a stronger global response to climate change.

For years, each claimed inaction by the other as an excuse for not doing more. But with their simultaneous acceptance today of the Paris Agreement, the world’s two largest economies and emitters committed themselves to a low-carbon future, and solidified a new global framework that will keep pressure on all countries to keep doing more.

The precise mix of motivations varies between the two. But fundamentally, the heads of both the United States and China have assessed the risks and opportunities presented by climate change, and they have decided it is in their nations’ interests – and is their responsibility as global leaders – to do more.

How faithfully the two countries now follow through on their commitments will depend in part on a host of shifting political and economic currents, and who assumes the reins in the years ahead.

But with their leadership up to and since last year’s Paris conference, the United States and China have helped establish new mechanisms and unleash new energies that ensure a staying power beyond the comings and goings of individual governments.

With the Paris Agreement, countries have applied the lessons of a quarter-century of fitful climate diplomacy to create a new framework that offers the best hope ever of an effective international response.

The agreement binds countries to a set of processes requiring them to: tell the world how they’re going to fight climate change; report regularly on how well they’re doing; undergo review by experts and by other countries; and, every five years, say what they’ll do next.

It is, in essence, institutionalized peer (and public) pressure. And if it works as designed, the agreement will over time strengthen confidence that countries are doing their fair share, making it easier for all to do more.

Beyond the agreement itself, and the role of national governments, Paris also will keep nurturing stronger action through its powerful “signaling” effect. For many mayors, governors, CEOs and other real-world decision makers, Paris was a catalytic moment, and its signals continue to resound.

From Warren Buffett, who cited Paris in his annual letter to shareholders as further impetus for Berkshire Hathaway’s multibillion-dollar investments in renewable power, to Moody’s, which is now taking countries’ Paris pledges into account in rating future investments, mainstream business is internalizing the Paris goals.

Mayors, too, are reading Paris as a cue for stronger action. In a new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, more than 7,000 mayors in 119 countries pledged to set climate goals beyond those of their national governments. C2ES recently joined with The U.S. Conference of Mayors to form the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, bringing mayors and business leaders together to forge collaborative approaches to cutting emissions.

In the long run, this activation of mayors, CEOs and other “non-state actors” could prove as decisive as the actions of national governments in determining the success of Paris.

No one moment and no one agreement can ensure the long-term transformation needed to keep climate change in check. But today’s U.S.-China announcement is the latest in a series of breakthrough moments that could mean the difference between a successful low-carbon transition and a future of climate calamity.