European Union environment ministers are meeting this week to hatch together some kind of agreement for greenhouse gas emission reduction in time for December’s UN-sponsored meetings.
After a revolt from the newer, Eastern, member states (helped along by Italy) the latest tenor of the conversation has been to place demands on China and India to reduce greenhouse gases by 15% from “business as usual” levels.
This appears to be the first time that the EU has so publicly floated targets for developing countries. Once the Bush Administration came around to accepting the reality of climate change, its official stance was to reject mandatory emissions reductions unless India and China went along with a reduction plan. The EU largely kept quiet about the Bush stance while India and China protested, saying that any scheme requiring them to reduce emissions was unfair, given the carbon footprint of Westerners and the fact that the historical accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere came almost exclusively from Western countries.
If the EU winds up taking a more aggressive stand towards China and India, it should make things interesting in December. At that point the EU would be moving towards a more Bush-friendly stand, but a new US President will be immanent. Whomever wins the presidency will be planning on having a high-profile role as the post-Kyoto framework is developed.
In this US leadership void, the EU stance in December will become key in setting the agenda for the 2009 agreement. A strong stance towards China and India will likely be embraced by the next President, while a strong Western country reduction target will test the commitment of either Obama and McCain.
Both have said they want the US to take an active role in the UN discussions, but I have not heard either candidate say anything about their stance on requiring India or China to reduce emissions.
The Washington Post has an interesting article on the stress being placed on water systems as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Most models predicting the extent of future risk insist that more extreme precipitation events are likely.
As a result, sewage and purification systems will come under greater stress. The effects of this on antiquated water management systems will likely be significant. Under these scenarios, floods will become more frequent and municipalities will have to dump large amounts of raw sewage directly into water sources. This, in turn, increases the risk of E. coli and cryptosporidium outbreaks. More standing water and hotter temperatures will also provide a more attractive habitat to mosquitoes, facilitating the spread West Nile, dengue, and malaria.
The article points to an element of the climate change problem that is often ignored in the US: namely, the costs of adaptation. This element receives a lot of attention in international discussions, as less developed countries, which are already facing policy challenges stemming from climate change, argue for more development aid to be dedicated to adapting to changing circumstances.
In the United States and Europe, adaptation has not really been on the agenda. Our water management systems are generally more resilient than those in the less developed world; but in many areas of the country, expansion has been deferred or inadequate to meet current demand. If we are to expect more extreme weather events as a result of increasing carbon emissions, finding mechanisms for adaptation is something to take seriously.
Curiously, neither Obama nor McCain have adaptation on their respective climate change agendas.
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times has a good article today comparing the climate change policies of the two US Presidential candidates. Here’s a capsule summarization of the main differences:
- Both are proponents of a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, but differ in their goals. Obama wants a reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. McCain wants a 60% reduction. Obama’s target is in line with the growing scientific consensus that 80% global reduction is required to stave off the most hazardous scenarios. It is also in line with targets announced by Britain last week.
- Obama wants to auction emissions credits. McCain seems to want to give them away with possible auction in the future. Obama will use a portion of the proceeds earned from the auction to fund his venture capital scheme that encourages private sector development of renewable energy technologies.
- McCain wants to build 45 nuclear reactors by 2030. Obama wants to shift to renewable energy sources, with a goal of 25% of the country’s energy coming from renewables by 2025. The 25% by 2025 threshold has been adopted in Great Britain. The RAND Corporation recently completed a study on how the US would get to this point (namely, through wind and biofuels).
- Both candidates are committed to the UN process for developing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol–although the key preliminary discussions are taking place in December, so Bush’s climate curmudgeons will be leading the US delegation. Nevertheless, there will be ample opportunity for the new US president to shape the talks as the final agreement is targeted for completion in December, 2009.
In sum, Obama is in line with most of the industrialized world on climate policy. McCain is lagging behind. Additionally, the fact that his running mate (who McCain describes as “one of the foremost experts in this nation on energy issues”) is an anti-science climate change denier and that he wants to put her in charge of energy policy suggests his lack of commitment to the issue.
The $750 billion bailout of banks in the US and the millions of more euros, pounds, yen and kronor going to save financial institutions prompted John Vidal at the Guardian to ask what that kind of money could do to help save the environment.
His list is interesting:
- The Stern Report warned that $540 billion annually is needed to forestall the worst effects of climate change.
- The protection of the world’s forests, watersheds, oceans, mountains, and seas would cost only $45 billion annually
- The article cites a study by Google’s climate change guru, Jeffery Greenblatt, that estimates $4.4 trillion over 30 years to switch US energy from fossil fuels to renewables.
- To provide all of the people in the world with clean and safe water would only cost $64 billion.
Here are a couple of my own (not necessarily environmental) back of the envelope calculations:
- The US bailout package money could build 25,000 miles of light rail. That would be the equivalent of 73 systems identical in size to the New York City subway.
- $750 billion could pay for 31.5 million people to go to a private university in the US. There are about 18.4 million people enrolled in both private and public universities.
The head of the United Nations’ effort on climate change, Yvo de Boer, expressed concern at the turmoil surrounding greenhouse gas emission targets that accompanied the meeting of EU leaders this week.
Ever the diplomat, de Boer, expressed confidence in French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ability to re-forge an EU agreement before the next major international meeting to be held in Poland in December.
One would think that the EU leaders would be able to put something relatively concrete together. The fact that the meeting is taking place in Poland–which has been critical of strong EU emissions reduction agreements–will likely place pressure on the Polish government to step back a bit from its recalcitrant position. The outcome of the US election also will likely influence the emergence of a unified EU position.
The fact that both McCain and Obama have campaigned on different variants of a cap-and-trade policy could give the EU leverage to advocate for a strong plan that has a chance of being accepted as part of a post-Kyoto agreement. But they have to get their own house in order first.
In a post earlier today, I expressed some healthy skepticism about the EPA’s historic strengthening of lead emissions rules, feeling that the Bush administration has a less than stellar track record when it comes to enforcing federal environmental laws and that the rule left some wiggle-room when it comes to monitoring.
Well, tonight comes word that NOAA has issued a rule listing the beluga whale as an endangered species. These whales populate the Cook Inlet in Alaska and have been at the forefront of a politicized debate in the state relating to the impact that such designation would have on resource extractive industries.
In Alaska, all of state’s major politicians–including Gov. Sarah Palin–have been against the designation given their general antipathy towards any governmental measures that might inhibit the energy industry. Thus, this designation is surprising–regardless of the fact that during the public comment period, NOAA received 180,000 comments, of which 90% supported listing the beluga as endangered.
Perhaps the fact that the sub-agency in charge of making the designation, the National Marines Fisheries Service, is run by an actual scientist made the normal Bush political tomfoolery less difficult to pursue. The rule looks pretty clean[.pdf], making the next step in the quest for protecting the beluga the development of a habitat protection plan over the next few months.
Yesterday, to general praise (e.g. see the Sierra Club Executive Director, Carl Pope’s “Getting it Right at the EPA”), the Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations that would “slash the amount of lead allowed in the nation’s air by 90%.”
The lead emissions regulations had not been updated for thirty years and were badly in need of revisiting due to the real harm that lead exposure can have on children especially. Given the Bush Administration’s enthusiasm for polluters, on the surface, this endorsement of strong reduction is unusual.
This set the folks at OMB Watch to look at the issue a bit closer. Matt Madia suggests that the regulations may mean little given the erosion of the EPA’s monitoring system over the past two and a half decades. In addition, there appears to be some problems in how compliance is measured. The current method is to look at emissions over a three month period and compute a daily average that emitters must meet. EPA scientists wanted to shrink the period to one month, which would make it impossible for polluters to have prolonged periods of emission.
I haven’t had the chance to read the 413 page rule–but it appears that looking carefully at how this thing is actually going to be monitored will be essential in order to fully assess the effectiveness of the rule’s supposed “strength.”
With rising fuel prices accompanied by rising food prices, the use of ethanol as a substitute for fossil fuels has come under increasing scrutiny. The price of many basic foodstuffs have risen over the past several years as the fuel producers are pushing up the demand for corn.
As a way to get out of this fuel or food quandary, the notion of encouraging the development of “cellulosic biofuels” has garnered widespread support. Everyone from George Bush to Barack Obama have pushed for the development of cellulosic biofuels. The purported advantage of cellulosic ethanol is that it does not require food inputs. It can be produced using “wood waste” and grass.
Therein lies the problem. The environmental website Mongbay features an article on the connections between cellulosic biofuels and deforestation. The article centers around an interview with North Carolina environmental activist Scot Quaranda of the group, Dogwood Alliance. They argue that the forest industry already is exploiting Southeastern US forest resources at an unsustainable rate and that the rhetoric equating cellulosic ethanol as using “waste” is misleading.
In many current forest product manufacturing facilities, according to Quaranda, the amount of waste is minimal. If the government adopts plans like Obama’s–which is to capitalize a $50 billion investment fund–this could result in incentives to expand the definition of wood waste to include fallen biomass as well as to prompt further deforestation.
Such policies could have the effect of decreasing the capacity of forests to act as carbon sinks, aggravating climate change, and destroying forest habitats for birds and mammals. Looking at the full spectrum of consequences for these new biofuels programs should be mandatory when assessing some of these policy initiatives.
Trying to find a common European stance on emissions targets is a little bit like trying to pin down the S&P 500. After eight of the newer, Eastern European, EU members (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia) objected on Wednesday to fulfilling previous greenhouse gas emission commitments due to the “high economic cost,” they were joined by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who threatened to veto the emissions targets. On the other hand, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM Gordon Brown argued that current economic uncertainties should not derail action on climate change policy.
Here are the main sticking points:
- The plan agreed upon earlier in the year has an aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in its emissions trading scheme by 20% from 2005 levels by 2020. The objectors want the base to be 1990 since most of these countries had lower levels of GHG emissions in 2005.
- The plan also calls for an expansion of the scheme to include gases other than CO2 and more affected industries with auctioning of emissions allocations occurring in key sectors–namely, the power sector. The objectors are either against auctioning or want the date for auctioning to begin to be pushed back.
In the end, the leaders issued a statement [.pdf] saying that the “European Council confirms its determination to honour the ambitious commitments on climate and energy policy which it approved” earlier in the year and hope to have, by December, “appropriate responses to the challenge of applying that package in a rigorously established cost-effective manner to all sectors of the European economy.”
I’m not sure that really clears up matters! Although, immediately following the summit, UK climate change minister, Ed Miliband, announced that the government endorsed the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation to cut UK emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050–a most ambitious target. This will likely be used as a point to pressure recalcitrant countries into agreeing to strong commitments as the negotiations continue through December.
Nothing surprising happened in yesterday’s Canadian election. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper increased its hold on seats in Parliament from 127 to 143, keeping them short of the elusive 155 seats needed for a majority.
It appears that the big loser is Stephane Dion and the Liberals. In an interesting story regarding their three-seat loss in New Brunswick, the CBC speculates that it was Dion’s heralding of a carbon tax that contributed to their decline.
Given the fact that New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham has himself been promoting a carbon tax scheme in the province, it seems likely that he might shift his priorities somewhat following the federal result.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on the future of Liberal leader, Stephane Dion. Not surprisingly, calls are being made for his ouster. How a new leadership fight might affect the party platform on a carbon tax will be important to watch. It doesn’t appear promising given the amount of attention Dion paid to the issue.