Climate News of the Week Roundup: World Passes 400ppm, “Another waystation along the road of idiocy”

This week features atmospheric CO concentrations passing 400ppm, the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Angela Merkel telling the world that waiting to tackle climate change is not an option while doing exactly that herself, options for reforming the EU ETS and successes of the RGGI and Australian systems, discussions of Obama’s climate record, expanding renewables, 99 one-liners to stump climate contrarians and more.

This week, atmospheric CO2 concentration passed 400 parts per million, a level not seen for millions of years. Before industrialisation started, the concentration was at 280ppm. Robert Monroe discusses what the world looked like the last time concentrations were at this level: average temperatures 3-4 degrees C higher than today’s and sea level ranged between five and 40 meters higher than today. And the problem is not only the absolute level, it’s also the speed at which concentrations are rising. In ancient times an increase of 10ppm might have taken 1,000 years.

As George Monbiot notes, the 400ppm figure as such is not a threshold or anything in terms of climate impacts, there is not much difference between 399 and 400 ppm. But the upward trend shows few signs of abating. “So here we stand at a waystation along the road of idiocy, apparently determined only to complete our journey.”

The Bonn climate negotiations I covered in my last roundup were followed by the fourth installment of the informal “Petersberg Climate Dialogue” of 35 countries in Berlin. Angela Merkel told the assembly that “waiting is not an option” and that delaying action would just mean higher costs later on. Well, she could start to end the waiting by stopping to dally on the reform of the EU ETS and strengthening the EU’s emission target. One key reason the EU isn’t able to move forward is that Germany doesn’t have a position because the environment and economy ministers are at loggerheads. And being head of government usually comes with the task of resolving such conflicts.

Two related articles in German: Lorenz Beckhardt had a rather scathing commentary on Germany’s ETS logjam here. And Oliver Geden noted that while renewable electricity is growing apace in Germany, there is rather little progress on energy efficiency, building heat and transport. With current measures, Germany is set to miss its target of reducing emissions by 40% by 2020.

At least there seems to be little risk of getting new coal plants run up in Germany, also not in the Netherlands and Spain. At least that’s what a study says which energy analysts Pöyry did on behalf of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. While several projects are in the pipeline, 22 have been abandoned since 2007 and new ones are not likely to be commissioned. The economic case simply isn’t there due to rising capital costs, new renewables, low electricity prices and the risk of higher carbon prices in the future. However, the study also says that the existing fleet isn’t going to be phased out with current policies.

Speaking of the ETS, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency released an interesting study on how to reform it. It concluded that introducing a minimum price would be the best option. The EU is indeed pretty much the odd man out, nearly all emission trading systems that are currently emerging around the world have some form of price management.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the North-Eastern US has had similar problems as the EU ETS, with emissions coming in much below the cap due to the recession, the gas glut and other factors. But in contrast to the EU, emission allowances have mostly been auctioned from the start and the proceeds have been plowed back into the economy through programmes promoting energy efficiency, renewables etc. David Robert reports that according to a recent study the system has produced a net economic benefit for the region. And in contrast to the EU the RGGI states seem to be able to put their house in order. A recent review of the system concluded to cut the 2014 cap by no less than 45% and another 2.5% in each subsequent year.

Australia may currently be demonstrating the benefits of a fixed carbon price, or at any rate the benefits of having a carbon price at relatively high levels. The Age reports that since it was introduced, electricity generation from brown coal plants has dropped by 14% and generation from black coal plants has dropped by 4.7%. Meanwhile, renewables have grown by 28% and gas by 9.5%. The carbon price was not the only factor but undoubtedly played a role. Unfortunately, Australia plans to move to a flexible price in 2015 and allow the use of EU allowances, which will probably drive the Australian price down sharply.

Back to the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, the co-chairs’ conclusions suggest that some timelines have been nailed down for negotiating the 2015 agreement: elements and functions of the agreement are to be clarified by early 2014 and the draft text of the agreement is to be ready by March 2015. Which would give much stronger chances of success than in Copenhagen, where delegates went into the conference with a lengthy unwieldy monster of brackets.

Monica Araya has an interesting piece on the need for a new climate protection narrative. “The struggle against the high-carbon economy cannot be won unless the battle for a low-carbon shift becomes a political battle that is fought publicly and at the ballot box.” And to achieve that, the political narrative needs to put people, not emissions, at its centre, she thinks.

Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine article “Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President” sparked quite a bit of discussion. Chait thinks that those who condemn Obama’s record are judging him unfairly given the political framework conditions he has to work work with. And “there is a difference between failing to do anything and failing to do enough”. And according to Chait Obama has done quite a bit, especially the US$90 billion of clean energy spending in the economic stimulus package, vehicle efficiency standards, and standards for new power plants. And Chait is convinced that the administration is also going to pass strong standards on existing power plants, which would be a major contribution to reducing emissions.

Grist’s David Roberts mostly agrees with his assessment. While the US clearly isn’t doing enough compared to what needs to be done, Obama is in his view doing quite well given the dysfunctional political system he has to work with. “The impediments to climate action in the U.S. are primarily structural and systemic; systems thinking, not Romantic tales of individual heroism, is what’s needed.”

Joe Romm disagrees. He thinks future generations won’t ask about political constraints, they’ll only ask whether we left them a planet able to feed a human population of 9 billion. And even in terms of Realpolitik Obama is a failure in his view as he accuses him of having made a series of strategic blunders that contributed to the failure of the climate bill. Romm is also far from optimistic about the prospects of the power plant regulations Chait mostly bases his positive view on.

Ryan Koronowski posted four charts illustrating the rapid price drop of solar, wind and batteries on Climate Progress. The price of solar panels dropped by 80% in the last five years alone, wind turbines came down by 29% and electric vehicle battery prices dropped 40% since 2010 (three of the slides are from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, related post here). While fossil-based energy gets more expensive the more it is used due to increasing scarcity, renewables get less expensive the more they are used due to technological learning and economies of scale.

Which leads to accelerating deployment. A new report anticipates that another 220 GW of distributed solar, that is, installations under 1 MW in size, will be added by 2018. Total installed solar capacity including large-scale is currently about 100 GW.

In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy Company, the state’s largest energy company, plans to add 1 GW of wind by 2015 to produce nearly 40% of the energy used by customers, which the state’s governor described as the largest economic development project in the state’s history.

The indispensable Skeptical Science website delivers another must-see public service: 99 one-liners rebutting climate contrarian’s talking points. Plus a paragraph backing up each one-liner with more details. Plus lengthy articles backing up each paragraph for those really interested in the science.

Auf deutsch:

WI-Kollege Michael Kopatz hatte die Tage einen lesenswerten Artikel zu Optionen, Energiearmut zu bekämpfen und gleichzeitig die Energiewende zu befördern.

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