Climate Compass Blog
I have an in-law who is, shall we say, rather skeptical about climate change. Any discussion on the topic usually begins with some contrarian science theory that he heard on one of his favorite talk shows (e.g. sun spots, deep ocean magma, urban heat islands), and then devolves from there.
Why do some Americans believe the antithesis of the scientific consensus on issues like climate change?
This topic is explored by Professor Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan in his new book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. As suggested by the title, Hoffman’s thesis – a distillation of considerable research from social scientists over the past several years – is that the public’s understanding of climate change, like other historically contentious issues such as evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, and genetically modified food – is as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.
One of the key arguments is that a scientific consensus does not necessarily reflect a “social consensus,” the latter being something that the majority of society would consider to be true. For instance, the scientific consensus that cigarettes harm human health emerged decades before the social consensus emerged.
In a sign that low-carbon policies may finally be gaining traction, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions leveled off last year even while the world economy grew.
Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that energy-related CO2 emissions (from burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, industry, space heating and so on) remained unchanged from the previous year at 32.3 billion metric tons. Meanwhile, economic growth increased 3.3 percent.
One year’s data doesn’t necessarily translate into a trend. Even with much stronger efforts, it will be some time before we can truly announce that we have turned the corner on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But 2014 is notable in that it’s the first time since the IEA was established in the early 1970s that a levelling off or a drop in global carbon emissions didn’t accompany an economic downtown.
Historically, energy-related CO2 emissions have moved in lockstep with economic growth. They’re being decoupled due to policy changes and market forces affecting two factors – energy intensity and fuel mix – both in China and in the developed economies.
I recently wrote a piece for China Dialogue about the US announcement of its intended contribution to a new international climate agreement due this December in Paris. Here is that article:
The US pushed strongly for getting climate targets on the table well ahead of this year’s Paris negotiation, arguing that exposing countries’ offerings to a bit of scrutiny would encourage them to “put their best foot forward.” With the formal submission of its intended target, the Obama administration arguably has done just that.
The US contribution is, for the moment, only a declaration of intent. But by coming out early with the strongest target it believes it can muster, the White House has charted an ambitious course at home. And it is upping the pressure on China and other major economies to do the most that they can too.
The end result, hopefully, is a new agreement in Paris that not only pulls all these numbers together, but also holds countries accountable for their promises, and commits them to keep returning to the table in the years ahead to assess and strengthen their efforts.
As the country’s largest landlord, fleet operator, and purchaser of goods and services, the federal government can lead by example in moving the country toward a more sustainable future.
Taking that opportunity, the Obama Administration recently issued a new executive order, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, that builds on energy-saving advances and ups the targets for federal agencies to do even more. Joining in the commitment to cleaner energy and energy efficiency were 14 companies that are major federal suppliers.
A 2009 executive order set a target of reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The March 2015 executive order raises the bar – to 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025. The goal is expected to save taxpayers up to $18 billion in avoided energy costs.
The order also directs federal agencies to:
- Increase the use of renewable energy sources to 30 percent of total consumption by 2025,
- Reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions from federal fleets 30 percent by 2025 and ensure a fifth of the fleet is made up of zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025, and
- Reduce the amount of water used in federal buildings 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2025.
Complementing the new executive order, 14 large federal suppliers committed to new or expanded emission pledges that would cumulatively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by 2020. Several members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council made commitments:
- IBM will reduce its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and buy 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by that year.
- GE will invest $25 billion in research and development in energy efficiency and clean energy and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below a 2011 baseline by 2020.
- HP will reduce the emissions intensity of its product portfolio 40 percent by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.
Taken together, the new executive order and the voluntary commitments from federal suppliers will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million metric tons below 2008 levels by 2025, according to White House estimates.
Figure: Fiscal Year 2013 Federal Government Direct Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Category
Federal direct greenhouse gas emissions totaled nearly 45 million metric tons of CO2e in Fiscal Year 2013. Over 60 percent of emissions are from purchased electricity. Transportation emissions include those from passenger fleet vehicle, vehicles, aircraft, ships, and related equipment.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy (2014), "Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance"
A number of analysts have raised concerns that the proposed Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing power plant carbon emissions, could threaten the reliability of electric power. But a closer look at the U.S. power system and the safeguards in place suggests that these reliability issues are manageable. The greater threat to reliability, in fact, is the rising incidence of extreme weather driven by climate change.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is overseen by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and government authorities in Canada, is responsible for keeping our power system reliable. NERC develops reliability standards and assesses the power system to anticipate and minimize the risk of disruption. It was established after a 1965 multi-hour Northeast blackout. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by 65 percent and power generation is more than 3.5 times greater with only one comparable blackout, in 2003.
Last fall, NERC issued an initial report identifying reliability issues under the Clean Power Plan that required further investigation. NERC and other analysts have questioned whether our natural gas system can handle more demand if more power plants switch from coal to natural gas. NERC also questioned how the power system will respond to less 24/7 baseload coal generation and more intermittent renewable generation.
Since the NERC report was issued, the Department of Energy, The Analysis Group and the Brattle Group have offered analyses that suggest power plant emissions can be reduced under the Clean Power Plan without compromising system reliability.