Climate Compass Blog

Back to Bonn ... Again

It’s off to Bonn again, this time for the first substantive negotiations under the UN Climate Convention since Copenhagen.  That’s the hope, at least.

Climate negotiators last gathered in Bonn (home base for the UN climate secretariat) for a few days back in April.  That time the agenda was strictly “procedural,” although in truth the main issue – whether the Copenhagen Accord could enter into the formal negotiations going forward – had rather broad substantive implications.

The Accord, you’ll recall, was the political agreement struck by a few dozen world leaders in the final hours of the chaotic Copenhagen summit last December.  To date, 130 countries have associated themselves with the agreement, and 79 of them, including all of the world’s major economies, have listed nonbinding targets or actions to reduce their emissions.

What the Gulf Oil Spill Tells Us About Innovation

It will probably take some time to fully understand what went wrong in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and what ought to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But at least one thing is already perfectly clear: recent technological advances in extracting oil in deep water offshore have been dramatic, whereas unfortunately the same cannot be said for technological advances in spill prevention and cleanup techniques.

Why is this the case?  Innovation is complicated, but we do know something about it.  In the private sector, the profit motive is a primary driver of innovation.  Because of the world’s seemingly insatiable demand for petroleum products (mainly gasoline and diesel), oil companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore drilling technology (just one company, GE Oil & Gas, reported offshore oil and gas drilling-related R&D spending of $150 million from 2009-2011) in order to reap tens of billions in proceeds from fuel sales (for fiscal year 2009, MMS reported oil production worth $20.2 billion from the Gulf of Mexico federal outer continental shelf). According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), oil production from federal offshore areas accounted for 29 percent of total domestic oil production in 2009. In 2009, ultra-deepwater offshore drilling (drilling in more than 5,000 feet of water) accounted for about a third of total federal offshore oil production, and ultra-deepwater production tripled from 2005 to 2009. Until recently there has been no comparable incentive for spill prevention and cleanup techniques:  the pre-Deepwater Horizon spill record had been excellent, lulling both regulators and oil companies into complacency. 

The free market by itself cannot motivate investment in spill prevention and cleanup technology, because spills themselves yield public damage, not private profits.  Our government, on behalf of the public interest, could have put rules in place that would have motivated the private sector to make such investments – such as requiring oil companies to actually demonstrate that spill prevention technology works as a condition for obtaining drilling rights. 

We have an analogous situation with respect to energy security and climate change.  The free market by itself is driving innovation, but in the wrong things: in energy investments that are warming the climate and making us ever more dependent on foreign oil.  We need our government to intervene on behalf of the public interest to motivate private investment and innovation in clean energy, through comprehensive energy and climate legislation. 

The catastrophe in the Gulf is still unfolding, and will ultimately provide many lessons relevant to our energy and environmental future.  But one lesson we can take to heart and act on right away is that there is a profound public interest in spurring innovation in clean and safe energy and that the private market on its own will not adequately provide it.  It is our job as the public to demand it, and it is our government’s job to use all the tools at its disposal – from regulations to incentives to penalties – to make it happen. 

Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions

A Big Tent for Fuel Economy Standards

Through a recently signed Presidential Memorandum, Barack Obama is continuing the push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector using its authorities under the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). While the memorandum includes provisions for passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and support of an electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the most notable component involves vehicles that have eluded fuel efficiency regulators.

When it comes to GHG emissions and the transportation sector, the elephant in the room has been medium- and heavy-duty vehicles (freight trucks). The recently released memorandum will bring these vehicles under the regulatory umbrella and increase the likelihood that the transportation sector will contribute its share to economy-wide GHG emission reductions.

Can 6,000 Businesses All Be Crazy?

Listening to opponents of clean energy and climate legislation and their predictions of American economic ruin if we try to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, you could scarcely imagine that even one business would be crazy enough to support energy and climate policy.  Yet today, a group of 60 leading organizations and businesses representing over $1.2 trillion in revenue and over 1 million American employees sent a letter  to the President and the Senate proving that idea wrong.  These groups collectively said:

“The time to act is now. The U.S. needs a comprehensive energy and climate policy that will get us back on track by creating American jobs in the new, low-carbon economy…We face a critical moment that will determine whether we will be able to unleash homegrown American innovation or remain stuck in the economic status quo. Much as the transcontinental railroad ushered in an unprecedented era of expansion, innovation and economic growth, the transition to a diversified clean energy economy offers extraordinary opportunities for environmental and economic rewards. Americans need and deserve a comprehensive energy and climate policy and we urge you to take action without delay…It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to unite behind bipartisan, national energy and climate legislation that increases our security, limits emissions, and protects our environment while preserving and creating American jobs.”

Comprehensive Climate Science Reports Released Today

Today the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released three of its long-awaited “America’s Climate Choices” (ACC) reports. A fourth report will be released later this year, as will an overarching synthesis report. The three reports released today focused on advancing the science of climate change, adapting to unavoidable climate change, and limiting the ultimate extent of climate change. The reports and background information on the study are accessible from the ACC web site.

Collectively, the ACC reports are the most comprehensive study the NAS has conducted on climate change. The project was mandated by Congress and requested by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in 2008. Unlike past NAS efforts, the ACC reports emphasize how the nation can move forward on solving the climate change problem.

NAS president Ralph J. Cicerone said, “These reports show that the state of climate change science is strong.” The study emphasizes that our current understanding of human-induced climate change is supported by many independent lines of evidence that have weathered intense debate and serious exploration of alternative explanations: “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems,” the report says.

A statement about the ACC by our center's president Eileen Claussen is available here.

We will be sure to let you know when the remaining pieces of the ACC report come out later this year.

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science & Impacts Program