Climate 411

New Power Plant Rule: Strong, Smart, and Legally Sound

Yesterday EPA published its revised proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for new power plants. When finalized, these standards will be the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution emitted by new power plants in the United States. The standards will finally require new coal-fired power plants — the largest source of carbon pollution in our country — to install carbon capture technology and sequester the climate-destabilizing carbon pollution they produce underground.

Back in 2011, after testing this technology at a power plant in West Virginia, American Electric Power’s former CEO and president Mike Morris told investors:

We’re encouraged by what we saw. We’re clearly impressed with what we learned and we feel that we have demonstrated to a certainty that carbon capture and storage is in fact viable technology for the United States and quite honestly for the rest of the world going forward.

It is now 2014. The technology is being deployed across the world, and here at plants in Canada, Mississippi, California, and at two plants in Texas. EPA’s standards will ensure that the United States is leading the energy revolution — in carbon capture technologies as well as in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Of course these realities did not stop the attacks from industry lawyers.

Jeff Holmstead, Counsel to the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council — a coalition of coal-dependent energy companies — released a statement arguing that we just can’t do it … can’t produce clean, safe, affordable power. He is wrong. These standards are common sense and legally sound. Not only are carbon capture technologies — long in use in other industries — being deployed in the power sector across the world, but renewables are taking off.

Between 2011 and October of 2013, wind generation in the United States increased by over 40%.  In April of 2013, the United States had a record month for wind power with generation of over 17,000 gigawatt hours. In 2012, rooftop solar panels cost approximately 1 percent of what they did 35 years ago. Since 2008, as the cost of a solar module dropped from $3.80/watt to $.80/watt, solar deployment has jumped by about 10 times.

We can, and we will build the low-carbon power sector of the 21st century—and we will not let those companies still investing in the dangerous, harmful energy technologies of the past dictate our future.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight | Comments closed

EPA Publishes Proposed Standards to Limit Carbon Pollution from New Power Plants

November of 2013 was the warmest November on record.

It was also was the 345th consecutive month (that’s almost 29 years!) with a global temperature above the 20th century average, according to the most recent data from NOAA.

So while some folks may be dismissing climate change because of the current blisteringly cold weather in parts of the U.S., we are still very clearly seeing the long-term trend of warming that experts at leading scientific and government agencies (like NASA and many, many others) agree is occurring.

This long-term trend of warming and the serious consequences at stake underscores the need to address carbon pollution now.

Here’s some good news on that front:

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its proposed standards to limit carbon pollution from new power plants in the Federal Register.

There are currently no national limits on carbon pollution from power plants, the single largest source of this pollution in the United States.

The standards published today will help ensure that we get our power from cleaner sources, and that we reduce climate-destabilizing pollutants like carbon dioxide.

Cleaner power means healthier lives for millions of Americans.

We are learning more and more about the impact of climate change on human health. From increased asthma attacks to disease and sanitation concerns, a changing climate will have a significant impact on Americans’ health now and in the future.

  • In one recent study, Harvard researchers found that high temperatures correlated with more hospital visits for five conditions including kidney, glandular, and urinary tract problems; accidents; and self-harm.
  • In another study, researchers found that those suffering from allergies or asthma are likely going to have to cope with earlier pollen seasons for some allergenic species in a changing climate.

Health groups, states, moms, environmental groups, and businesses have all expressed support for common-sense limits on carbon pollution. About four million Americans have written to EPA in support of carbon pollution standards for power plants.

This opinion piece from the American Medical Association may best sum up the health risk if we don’t act:

If physicians want evidence of climate change, they may well find it in their own offices. Patients are presenting with illnesses that once happened only in warmer areas. Chronic conditions are becoming aggravated by more frequent and extended heat waves. Allergy and asthma seasons are getting longer. . . . Rising air and water temperatures and rising ocean levels since the late 1960s have increased the severity of weather, including hurricanes and droughts, and the production of ground-level ozone. That means more asthma and respiratory illnesses, more heat stroke and exhaustion, and exacerbation of chronic conditions such as heart disease.

Fortunately, we have the technology to meet our clean energy and human health goals, and EPA’s standards will play a key role in getting us there.

Cost-effective, low-carbon energy solutions are being deployed across the country now. They are creating homegrown, good jobs while protecting Americans health and prosperity.

In fact, ALL of the new electric power that came online in November in America was from renewable energy.

In 2012, wind power was:

[T]he number one source of new U.S. electric generation capacity for the first time—representing 43 percent of all new electric additions and accounting for $25 billion in U.S. investment.

However, there are opposition forces working to derail EPA’s efforts to address carbon pollution.

We need all of the support we can muster to ensure EPA goes forward with its commonsense standards that will help ensure the healthier, clean energy future we know we must achieve for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Please tell EPA you support a clean energy future for our children

Posted in Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, News, Policy | Comments closed

EDF and Allies Defend EPA Emission Standards for Oil and Gas Pollution

(This post was co-authored by Tomás Carbonell, EDF Attorney, and Brian Korpics, EDF Legal Fellow. It originally appeared on EDF’s Energy Exchange blog.)

A new year may be upon us, but – unfortunately – some members of the oil and gas industry would prefer we roll back the clock on common sense, long-overdue emission standards for oil and gas equipment.

Oil and natural gas production continues to expand rapidly in the United States – and with it the potential for emissions of climate-destabilizing pollutants (especially methane), smog-forming compounds and carcinogenic substances, such as benzene. We urgently need rigorous national standards that comprehensively address the full suite of pollutants from oil and gas facilities, protect public health and the environment and conserve needless waste of our nation’s natural resources.

In August 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a promising first step by issuing emission standards for new natural gas wells and other oil and gas equipment, including the thousands of large storage tanks built near gas wells, pipelines and processing facilities each and every year. These “New Source Performance Standards” (NSPS) were based on proven and highly-effective emission control technologies that leading companies have been using for years. Many of these control technologies also directly benefit a company’s bottom line by reducing avoidable waste of natural gas from vents and leaks – saving money while protecting our climate and air.

Regrettably, some industry associations have consistently attacked these common-sense standards. In response to industry petitions seeking to weaken vital clean air requirements for storage tanks, EPA proposed to revise these standards in April 2013. Among other things, the proposed revisions would have created a broad exemption for approximately 20,000 facilities built between August 2011 and April 2013. EDF and five other environmental organizations joined together to file extensive comments strongly opposing these proposed rollbacks, and highlighting the benefits of rigorous national emission standards. Our comments objected that the proposed exemption would lead to massive increases in emissions of harmful pollutants – over 3 million tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and 700,000 tons of methane over the lifetime of these storage tanks.

Fortunately, these and other comments prompted EPA to retract this broad exemption in its final rule issued in August 2013. EPA instead maintained its requirement that operators of all high-emitting storage tanks built since August 2011 reduce emissions by 95 percent. EPA noted that the supply of emission controls for storage tanks was adequate, and concluded that the broad exemptions sought by industry were not justified.

Industry responded to this development by taking EPA to court. On November 22, five industry groups – the American Petroleum Institute (API), Texas Oil and Gas Association, Independent Petroleum Association of America, Western Energy Alliance and Gas Processors Association – filed suit in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. challenging EPA’s emission standards.

Just before the holidays, Earthjustice and EDF filed a motion to intervene in that suit. Along with several other environmental organizations, we are vigorously seeking to defend EPA’s action and safeguard these national emission standards.

While some industry players attempt to obstruct critical clean air progress, others are supporting common sense air pollution control measures. Last month, Colorado proposed new air regulations for oil and gas operations that, if adopted, will help dramatically reduce harmful air and climate pollution caused by oil and gas operations. The state of Colorado, EDF and three energy companies—Anadarko Petroleum, Encana Corporation and Noble Energy — worked together on these measures that could result in cleaner, safer air for all Coloradoans.

In places like Colorado, diverse interests are putting aside their differences and finding clean air solutions. It’s time for API and other oil and gas associations to do the same – and invest in clean air solutions for our nation, not litigation.

Posted in EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy | Comments closed

New Study — Web of Entities Invests Heavily in Obstructing Climate and Clean Energy Progress

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Peabody Coal Company is one of the top five worst performing stocks of 2013.

In a year when the S&P 500 was up 29 percent and the Dow rose by 26 percent, Peabody Coal’s stock plummeted by 28 percent.

While most investors recognize the serious environmental and financial risks associated with coal and its pollution, not all do.

Drexel University Professor Robert Brulle reviewed IRS data from 2003 to 2010 and found a web of entities investing over $900 million annually in organizations dedicated to obstructing climate progress and fighting the deployment of safe, clean energy in America.

If you take a closer look at those specific organizations identified in Brulle’s study, you’ll find that several of them are involved – now – in extensive efforts to obstruct climate and clean energy progress under the nation’s clean air laws and leading state programs.

Take a look at these examples:

The Landmark Legal Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks all just filed briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the Clean Air Act’s requirement that, at the time of their design and construction, large industrial sources deploy cost-effective modern pollution control technologies to mitigate their climate pollution.

In its challenge to clean air measures for climate pollution, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks brief (filed along with Southeastern Legal Foundation) relies extensively — and chillingly — on the tobacco industry case FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and the legal attacks on our nation’s efforts to eliminate the scourge of youth tobacco addiction:

The Court’s approach to FDA’s assertion of regulatory authority over tobacco products has direct relevance in the present case and should control the outcome here.

(That’s from page 7 of their brief. The Supreme Court has already considered – and rejected – this misguided legal attack in the context of EPA's authority to regulate climate pollution.)

Earlier this year, the Landmark Legal Foundation unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review EPA’s science-based determination that six greenhouse gases endanger the health and welfare of current and future generations. They tried to challenge EPA’s determination, anchored in extensive science reflecting decades of research, by ridiculously questioning whether this finding is a “scientific judgment.” (see page 11 of their brief)

The Competitive Enterprise Institute also litigated to overturn New York Republican Governor George Pataki’s leading efforts to cap and reduce the climate pollution from fossil fuel power plants in New York and to participate in a broader regional pollution control program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

On December 5th, New York’s appellate court affirmed the decision of the state’s trial court firmly rejecting these legal attacks.

In his study, Brulle also chronicles the “evidence of a trend toward concealing the sources of [climate obstructionism] funding through the use of donor directed philanthropies” such as the Donors Trust.

A closer look at funding by the Donors Trust through its most recent IRS Form 990 (2011) indicates $1,189,730 in grant funding provided to an organization called the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).  CFACT is a major outlet for climate denialism.

CFACT, too, just filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in which it asserts that the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-induced climate change is “tenuous, biased, inaccurate, incomplete, unsupported by actual observations, and lacking in scientific integrity.”

The recent scientific findings of the world’s leading scientists set out in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that climate change is unequivocal and its impacts are unprecedented and profound.

Another organization that has received support from the Donors Trust according to the Trust’s IRS Form 990 (2011) is the Judicial Education Project.

They also just filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the federal government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of such pollution. The brief alleges that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 landmark case, Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the Court stated that the “harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized.”

Earlier this year, the Mercatus Center — another group identified by Brulle’s researchsubmitted adverse comments on proposed clean air standards for cars and gasoline by calling into question the extensive body of peer reviewed science linking particulate pollution and mortality.

It is well documented that these clean air standards for cars and gasoline will provide healthier, longer lives. They have also won the support of diverse interests, including the American Lung Association and the U.S. auto industry, because of the dual benefits of reducing health-harming pollutants and enabling more efficient clean car technologies.

Recently, the Landmark Legal Foundation joined by the Cato Institute — both groups identified in Brulle’s research — challenged the Department of Energy’s adoption of improved appliance efficiency standards for microwaves.

The microwave standards will lead to less energy use, consumer cost savings and pollution reductions. Landmark Legal Foundation and the Cato Institute objected to DOE’s consideration of the societal benefits of mitigating carbon pollution. Patrick Michaels, a well-known climate denialist, co-authored the Cato comments. Landmark asked DOE to immediately halt implementation and rescind the Rule.

DOE has denied the request to upend these common sense energy conservation standards for our nation.

And it is not surprising that Peabody Coal Company, too, has just filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court objecting to the Clean Air Act requirement that our nation’s largest industrial emitters use modern pollution controls to mitigate climate pollution.

Peabody’s brief begins by asserting that “[w]hether and how to regulate GHGs [greenhouse gases] remains a highly debated, contentious issue in Congress, agencies and the courts.” (Page 2 of their brief)

But Brulle’s research elucidates how Peabody’s assertion is a tautology. Through massive funding of groups dedicated to climate obstructionism, Brulle documents how climate change remains contentious because there is a vast climate change counter-movement dedicated to making it so:

[A] number of conservative think tanks, trade associations, and advocacy organizations are the key organizational components of a well-organized climate change counter-movement (CCCM) that has not only played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.

Climate change is happening. The toll exacted from extreme weather — fueled in part by climate change – on human life and our economy is profound, and reaches from the ravages wrought on New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy to the tragic flooding in the Rockies.

However, the solutions are at hand.

In 2012, wind power was “the number one source of new U.S. electric generation capacity for the first time—representing 43 percent of all new electric additions and accounting for $25 billion in U.S. investment.”

And even more recently, in November 2013, 100 percent – ALL – of the new electrical power in America came from renewable energy.

While Peabody’s stock falls and its rhetoric rises, and while the forces of obstructionism fight clean energy, the winds of change are blowing briskly.

Brulle’s study is a clarion call for moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to resolve that in 2014 we will work together to fight for clean air and clean energy for our children — and for all children.

In spite of a well-funded group of obstructionists, we can prevail.

We can secure climate progress and clean energy for our nation, for our communities and for our future.

Posted in EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight | 1 Response, comments now closed

EDF Goes to Court to Defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule

Last week, at the same time that the Supreme Court was considering states’ good neighbor obligations to protect  the health of residents in downwind states by controlling pollution from sources within their own states, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was hearing challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics rule.

The Mercury and Air Toxics rule is a major public health rule that is the result of a decades long effort to ensure power plants clean up the mercury, acid gases, and toxic metals that are released into our environment from burning coal.

At the core of the case is one issue:

  • Did Congress intend to give power plants a sweetheart deal on air toxics when they passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990?

Or:

  • Was Congress merely asking EPA to stop and check whether other programs that were passed at the same time might do enough to address the risks of toxic air pollution from power plants?

The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments did a great deal to strengthen our air pollution laws. In addition to limiting the pollution that led to acid rain and ozone, Congress tightened enforcement and monitoring requirements, and completely overhauled regulation of toxic air pollution to speed up and strengthen EPA’s previously slow regulation efforts on toxics.

In court last week, while counsel for the utility industry tried to suggest that Congress has intended an entirely separate, distinct, and less stringent toxics plan just for the utility industry, the court seemed skeptical, asking if this was just a political deal to give industry more time.

Power companies also argued that EPA should have taken cost into consideration when deciding whether to regulate them.

Both EPA and EDF’s counsel give an apt response –the cost of control technology isn’t relevant to deciding whether EPA should regulate toxic pollution from power plants. Instead, cost is taken into account when setting the pollution standards – either indirectly, by looking at what industry has already installed (and thus what is cost-effective), or directly, when setting standards that go “above the floor” of what has already been achieved by the best performing plants in the industry.

The coalition defending the rule is extraordinarily broad:

  • Lawyers for Massachusetts spoke on behalf of their own state and for Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont and the District of Columbia,.
  • Calpine and Exelon gave a view from inside the industry, pointing out to the court that petitioners were trying to use the rule to game the system so that the dirtiest plants could remain dirty.
  • EDF’s counsel, Sean Donahue, spoke on behalf of a broad coalition that included NAACP, American Lung Association, American Nurses Association, NRDC, Sierra Club, and host of other environmental and public health associations. (Click here for a list of the parties in both the Mercury case and the Cross-State case)

Each year, between 300,000 and 600,000 American children are born with methylmercury blood levels high enough to impact their brain development.

All fifty states in the U.S. have fish-consumption advisories because of mercury.

Many states cannot meet water quality advisories based on deposition of mercury from air pollution.

Many power companies have found implementing the rule to be cheaper and easier than expected.

Regulating mercury from power plants carries health benefits that may be up to ten times greater than the costs, and realizes a promise Congress made to Americans more than twenty years ago with the Clean Air Act amendments.

Let’s hope the D.C. Circuit agrees that getting mercury out of the air is one of the best gifts we can give our kids.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Health, News, Policy | Comments closed

Broad Coalition Presents Case for Clean Air to the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court just heard arguments in a case over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) critically important Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule would clean up the pollution from power plant smokestacks across the eastern U.S. that drifts downwind, up to hundreds of miles, transforming into lethal particulates and ground-level smog.

A coalition of states, cities, leading health associations, power companies, and environmental groups – including EDF – presented a strong case to the High Court to defend these clean air protections for 240 million Americans.

This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has addressed the issue of the interstate transport of air pollution. In 1907, the State of Georgia sued Tennessee Copper Company for polluting its air and its forests. In enjoining the harmful air pollution at issue, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated:

[i]t is a fair and reasonable demand on the part of a sovereign [in our federal system] that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale … by the act of persons beyond its control.

This week, the Supreme Court gave modern meaning to its decision from over a century ago. The Justices peppered attorneys with questions about the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, and the questions indicated that they recognize the important role of the federal government in protecting the citizens in downwind states from upwind pollution sources.  Indeed, modern air quality monitoring systems, measurements of the emissions from smokestacks, and advanced modeling plainly show that interstate transport is a serious 21st century air pollution problem.

EPA estimates that about 30 percent to 90 percent of smog and 50 percent to 90 percent of soot pollution in areas that are out of compliance with national health-based air quality standards are caused by power plants, factories and other sources in states upwind.

Unfortunately, when EPA stepped in to address the issue (which the Clean Air Act also requires) with its science-based and cost-effective Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Rule.

EDF joined EPA, plus a host of other environmental and public-health organizations, states and cities, and power companies in filing briefs with the Supreme Court asking it to overturn the D.C. Circuit’s decision. Several more parties, representing a wide-range of interests and expertise, filed amicus (or “friend of the Court”) briefs in support of EPA’s clean air protections.

Fortunately, during this week’s oral argument a number of Supreme Court Justices seemed open to EPA’s cost-effective solution to the difficult problem of interstate air pollution.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the Justices:

 expressed sympathy for the Environmental Protection Agency's approach to air pollution that crosses state lines.

One of the most noteworthy moments in this week’s argument occurred when Justice Breyer said:

with this [Cross-State] plan, we get the job done at much lower cost.  Now, where in the statute does it say they can’t do that?

Similarly, Justice Kagan stated:

what the EPA said here was . . . we’re going to distinguish between States that . . . have put a lot of technology and a lot of money into this already and on the other hand States that have lots of cheap and dirty emissions. And why isn’t that a perfectly rational thing to do under this very statute?

At Environmental Defense Fund, we have fought hard for these clean air safeguards — from their genesis to the highest Court in the land — so that 240 million Americans can breathe easier. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will make that possible by ruling in favor of clean air.

Posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, News, Policy | Comments closed

EPA's Proposed Carbon Pollution Standards are Legally and Technically Sound

America is building cleaner cars, more efficient freight trucks, and smarter power systems.

Wind power was the top source of capacity additions for new electricity generation in 2012, with states like Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado leading the way.

Yet even as American companies build cars that are leading the world in fuel economy and saving families money at the pump, and as innovative new wind turbines provide zero-emitting electricity for all of us and a stable income source for farmers and ranchers, the supporters of high-emitting coal power claim that it is not capable of deploying advanced technologies to cut carbon pollution.

On September 20th, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed Carbon Pollution Standards that will provide the first nationwide limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. The Carbon Pollution Standards could be met through clean renewable energy resources or fossil fuels such as an efficient combined cycle natural gas plant or coal plants using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to control their carbon emissions.

But coal’s boosters have attacked the long overdue EPA standards, asserting that coal is unable to use modern technologies. Last month, Majority members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to EPA asking the agency to withdraw the proposed standards.  The letter argues that because three of the coal plants currently being built to use CCS receive funding under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), EPA cannot rely on those plants to support its determination that CCS is an adequately demonstrated technology and the best system of emission reduction for coal-fired power plants.

As this legal analysis shows, EPA’s proposal is technically and legally sound.

Although EPAct provides that an innovative technology supported under that Act cannot by itself prove that the technology is adequately demonstrated, EPA relied on a broad body of evidence beyond the three EPAct-funded plants in identifying CCS as the best system of emission reduction for coal-fired power plants.

EPA’s finding that CCS is adequately demonstrated is in line with what the power industry itself has said.  American Electric Power’s former CEO and president Mike Morris had this to say about the company’s Mountaineer CCS project in 2011:

We’re encouraged by what we saw. We’re clearly impressed with what we learned and we feel that we have demonstrated to a certainty that carbon capture and storage is in fact viable technology for the United States and quite honestly for the rest of the world going forward.

There is no time to delay our transition to a clean energy economy. The United States experienced twelve separate climate disasters in 2012 each costing over a billion dollars, and climate change continues to impact the health and wellbeing of our families and communities every day. As the success of clean energy and energy efficiency programs across our country demonstrates, the solutions are at hand. We have but to deploy them.

While coal refuses to innovate, the world is turning toward cleaner energy. Earlier this year the U.S. and World Bank announced that they would no longer finance dirty coal projects abroad. Meanwhile, the wind farms continue to crop up across America’s heartland.

As a Midwesterner, I am thankful that there is a bolder vision for America – of engineers, welders, fabricators, and inventors, working together, who know that we can and we must make clean energy our future.  For our sake, and for our children and grandchildren.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy | Comments closed

Global climate change can make fish consumption more dangerous

Hundreds of thousands of babies are born in the U.S each year with enough mercury in their blood to impair healthy brain development. As they grow, these children’s capacity to see, hear, move, feel, learn and respond can be severely compromised. Why does this happen? Mostly because a portion of mercury emitted from local power plants and other global anthropogenic sources is converted to methylmercury, a neurotoxic and organic form of mercury that accumulates in fish.

In addition to poisoning human diet, mercury continues to poison the Arctic. Despite a lack of major industrial sources of mercury within the Arctic, methylmercury concentrations have reached toxic levels in many arctic species including polar bears, whales, and dolphins because of anthropogenic emissions at lower latitudes.

Relationship between mercury exposure and climate change: In its latest report to policymakers, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that climate change and local high temperatures will worsen air pollution by increasing concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in many regions. However, no scientific body has collectively assessed the potential impact of changing climate on mercury, a dangerous pollutant that contaminates not just our air but our soils and waters (and as a result human and wildlife’s food supply).

After attending this summer’s International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) in Edinburgh (Scotland), I don’t have good news. In the past few months, I have talked to several leading scientists who do research on different aspects on mercury cycle and they all seemed to agree with many recently presented and published peer-reviewed studies (see a selected list below): Climate change can significantly worsen mercury pollution. Even if global anthropogenic emission rate of mercury was to somehow be made constant, climate change can make fish-eating more dangerous because of the following:

Enhanced inorganic mercury release into waters — A combination of the following climate-related factors can lead to the release of higher amounts of mercury into waters:

  • Climate change (i.e., increased local precipitation under warmer conditions) will cause more local direct deposition of the emitted inorganic mercury on our lakes and ocean as compared to deposition under colder and dryer conditions.
  • Run-off (i.e., flow of mercury over land in a watershed that drains into one water body) an indirect but primary means by which mercury enters our local waters, will also increase under warmer and wetter conditions.
  • Extreme events (storms, hurricanes, forest-fires, tornadoes and alternating wetting-drying cycles) will cause erosive mobilization of inorganic mercury and organic matter in soils and release it into coastal and open waters where it can get methylated.
  • Thawing of the enormous areas of northern frozen peatlands may release globally significant amounts of long-stored mercury and organic matter into lakes (including those in the Arctic), rivers and ocean.

Enhanced Methylmercury production from inorganic mercury: In addition to increased release on inorganic mercury into the waters, the inorganic mercury might also have higher chances of getting converted to methylmercury.

  • In the open ocean, methylmercury is produced in regions known as “oxygen minimum zones”. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will cause higher primary productivity  which will widen the existing ocean’s oxygen deficient zones leading to enhanced production of methylmercury.
  • Continued melting of permafrost will release organic matter which naturally contains high concentration of aromatic structures (structures similar to benzene rings). These kinds of organic matter have been shown to enhance the production rate of methylmercury.

Enhanced methylmercury bioaccumulation in the fish:

  • For a given amount of methylmercury in the water, there are various factors that control the concentration and bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the food chain. In a given water body, bigger fishaccumulate more methylmercury than smaller fish. Because of climate change, oceanic temperatures will be higher and higher temperatures have been shown to increase the metabolic growth rate and size of fish. Therefore, for a given amount of inorganic mercury emitted in the atmosphere or water, more methylmercury will accumulate in the fish (consequently, increase human exposure to methylmercury) as climate change becomes more severe.

These research results combined with the recent reports on higher genetic susceptibility of some people to mercury poisoning suggest that in order to protect human and wildlife health from negative effects of methylmercury exposure it is essential to swiftly enact and implement stringent laws to reduce both global mercury and greenhouse emissions from all major sources including coal power plants.

Governments across the globe now recognize that mercury is an extremely toxic metal that harms health of millions of children and adults every year and have moved forward with an international treaty to address this toxic pollution, called the Minamata convention. The Minamata convention was recently opened for signatures after 4 years of negotiations. The treaty will come into effect as soon as the 50th nation ratifies it. It has already been signed by 93 nation-states. I am happy to note that United States has been the first nation to ratify the treaty. We await , however, ratification from 49 more countries before the treaty can go into effect.

As an organization, EDF has been educating consumers and seafood businesses about mercury in seafood via our EDF Seafood Selector by doing quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood for many years. We also have expertise on the scientific, legal, and stakeholder processes that laid the groundwork for implementation of Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in the U.S; the health and economic implications of these emission standards; and the current state of technology available to reduce emissions from power plants in the U.S.

Thanks to your strong support, the U.S. has taken action to reduce mercury from power plants, the largest domestic source of mercury pollution. While many power plant companies are moving forward with investments to reduce mercury pollution, we need you to continue making your voices heard because the mercury standards (MATS) are still being challenged in the court from time to time.

References

  1. Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Robert P. Clickner, and Rebecca A. Jeffries (2009) Adult Women’s Blood Mercury Concentrations Vary Regionally in the United States: Association with Patterns of Fish Consumption (NHANES 1999–2004) Environ Health Perspect. 117(1): 47–53.
  2. Goacher, W. James and Brian Branfireun (2013). Evidence of millennial trends in mercury deposition in pristine peat geochronologies. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  3. Dijkstra JA, Buckman KL, Ward D, Evans DW, Dionne M, et al. (2013) Experimental and Natural Warming Elevates Mercury Concentrations in Estuarine Fish. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58401. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058401
  4. Webster, Jackson P. et al. (2013) The Effect of Historical and Recent Wildfires on Soil-Mercury Distribution and Mobilization at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  5. Blum et al (2013) Methylmercury production below the mixed layer in the North Pacific Ocean Nature Geoscience 6, 879–884
  6. Stramma, Lothar (2010) “Ocean oxygen minima expansions and their biological impacts,” Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers. 57: 587–595
  7. Bjorn, Erik et al. (2013) Impact of Nutrient and Humic Matter Loadings on Methylmercury Formation and Bioaccumulation in Estuarine Ecosystems. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  8. Bedowski, Jacek et al. (2013) Mercury in the coastal zone of Southern Baltic Sea as a function of changing climate: preliminary results. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  9. Grandjean, Philippe, et al. (2013) Genetic vulnerability to MeHg. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  10. Qureshi et al (2013): Impacts of Ecosystem Change on Mercury Bioaccumulation in a Coastal-Marine Food Web presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.

Posted in Health, Policy, Science | 2 Responses, comments now closed

UN talks produce a strong agreement on forest protection, but otherwise déjà vu

This post originally appeared on EDF’s Climate Talks blog. 

Around midnight on Friday, November 25 – several hours after the annual UN climate conference was scheduled to have ended – I stood in the hallway of a temporary conference center erected on the soccer pitch of the National Stadium in Warsaw, watching the scrum of the climate talks in their final hours.

nat_keohane-377x287

Nat Keohane is EDF's Vice President for International Climate and a former economic adviser to the Obama administration.

NGO representatives were pitching stories and sharing intelligence with reporters, negotiators were huddling in groups or dashing off to last-minute bilateral meetings, and everyone was scrounging for coffee or late-night sandwiches to power another all-nighter.

The talks appeared on the brink of failure as countries deadlocked over the core questions of which countries should be obligated to reduce emissions and who should pay for it. In the end, as nearly always happens, an agreement was reached and the talks didn’t fall apart. That has become a typical pattern at these annual UN talks.

If the scene was familiar, the headlines that came out of the talks were familiar as well: Developing Nations Stage Protest at Climate Talks (NY Times); UN presses rich nations to act on climate funds (FT); Modest deal breaks deadlock at UN climate talks (AP); UN talks limp towards global 2015 climate deal (Reuters); Climate Finance Battle Shows Expectation Gap at UN Talks (Bloomberg).

But despite the dulling sense of déjà vu that Friday night in Warsaw, there was already reason for celebration. That’s because earlier that same evening – in a break with past years – the Conference of the Parties (or COP, as the talks are formally labeled) had already held the first part of its closing plenary to formally adopt decisions on areas in which negotiators could agree.

During that session, the COP agreed on a comprehensive agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) – leading to what the UN, countries, media outlets and NGOs all identified as a bright spot in the negotiations.

Forest protection remains a crucial part of the climate action toolkit

With deforestation responsible for about 15% of the world’s manmade greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than all the cars and trucks in the world – we can’t solve climate change without saving our forests. REDD+ creates economic incentives to reward countries and jurisdictions that reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation below rigorously defined baselines.

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+ Action, as it’s formally known, sets down deep roots for REDD+, and sends a clear signal that it will continue to be a crucial tool for protecting forests and the people who depend on them, by:

  1. ensuring a rigorous, transparent framework for measuring emissions reductions from reduced deforestation;
  2. affirming that financial flows will be “results-based,” meaning that REDD+ compensation will be tied to demonstrated results; and
  3. creating a structure for forest nations to share views on the effectiveness of REDD+ implementation.

The REDD+ outcome was a “big step forward,” my colleague and EDF REDD+ expert Chris Meyer told E&E News, explaining:

We had a foundation for the house; now we have the walls, the plumbing, the electricity and the roof for REDD+.

On the issue of forest protection, at least, the UN talks did exactly what they are supposed to do: they reaffirmed work that had been done in previous years, built upon it in negotiating sessions held over the past twelve months, and made the final push to resolve key issues of disagreement in the two weeks of talks in Warsaw.

This comprehensive package of decisions provides a structure for countries to develop REDD+ programs at a national level, and take advantage of the approximately $700 million per year already pledged for REDD+ program preparation and to pilot results-based payments.

The REDD+ agreement also opens a path for the International Civil Aviation Organization and other bodies that are considering developing market-based mechanisms, whether multi-lateral, national or regional, to bring REDD+ into their systems with an imprimatur of a multilateral standard.

Beyond REDD+, little formal progress

Outside of REDD+, the talks were notable more for what didn’t happen than what did. The talks didn’t make significant progress, although they managed not to collapse.

With two years until a new agreement is supposed to be reached in Paris, countries didn’t set a clear template for what they need to announce in terms of emissions reductions targets, or when they need to announce the targets. Nor did they make much progress on the key issue of climate finance – although surprisingly constructive talks on the difficult issue of compensating the world’s most vulnerable countries for the impacts of climate change reached a compromise agreement to create the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage to address the issue going forward.

On two important but lower-profile issues, there appeared to be signs of common ground behind closed doors – but these didn’t translate into movement in the formal negotiations.

On the issue of agriculture, useful conversations occurred that could help integrate agriculture into a more holistic discussion of the role of the land sector in responding to climate change, even if no formal progress were made in the context of these negotiations.

On the critical question of how to construct an international climate architecture that promotes and supports ambitious national action through carbon markets, countries put some useful options on the table – but could not reach a decision, instead deferring further discussion until next June.

To be sure, we never expected much to happen at these Warsaw talks. They were always going to be more about headaches than headlines.

But it’s hard to escape the sense that countries spent two weeks reopening issues that we thought had been resolved and fighting the same battles that have been fought before, only to make a last-minute lunge in the final hours to finish barely ahead of where they started.

A good example is on the key question of participation. Since the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which listed the world’s advanced economies in an appendix or “annex,” the distinction between “Annex I” and “Non-Annex I” countries has been a central point of contention. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol assigned emissions reductions only to “Annex I” countries. Eliminating the so-called “Kyoto firewall” has been a red line of the U.S. and other advanced economies, which point to the rapid growth in major emerging economies such as China and India, and the concomitant rise in their greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2011, at the UN talks in Durban, South Africa, countries declared that a new agreement, to be finalized in Paris in 2015, would be “applicable to all Parties” – a phrase widely understood to mean that the Annex I/Non-Annex I distinction would be erased. But the first draft of the negotiating text in Warsaw hardly referred to Durban and instead used the different term “broad participation.” That opening salvo didn’t last, and the final text reaffirmed the Durban agreement – but not before significant energy had gone into re-fighting that battle.

The world outside the UN talks

With little to show for their two weeks of long days and all-nighters, negotiators have left themselves a lot to do over the next two years to reach a meaningful outcome in Paris.

However, countries and other actors don’t need to wait for an international agreement in 2015 to start addressing climate change. It was clear, through events on the sidelines of the negotiations and conversations with other attendees at the conference, that cities, states, countries and regions around the world have already started moving to cut their emissions and adapt to climate change.

Some of the most interesting side events highlighted the progress made in China on provincial carbon trading pilots and explored how the Chinese experiments could learn from California’s experience in building a successful carbon market. And the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – a group of more than 70 state and nonstate partners working together to reduce short-lived super-pollutants like methane, black carbon, and HFCs – also announced important progress. Those side events were a reminder that the UN talks, while they remain important, are not the only game in town.

That’s a good thing, and a reason for optimism. Because with the damaging impacts of climate change already apparent in the United States and around the world, the world urgently needs near-term action to turn the corner on global emissions and put us on a downward trajectory toward climate safety.

Also read EDF's press release on the outcome of the Warsaw negotiations: Strong agreement to protect forests highlight of UN climate talks.

Posted in International, News, Policy | Comments closed

Correcting the maths of the "50 to 1 Project"

A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:

  1. Fundamental misunderstanding of basic climate science: Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were at around 280 parts per million (ppm).[i] One of the most commonly stated climate policy goals is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm CO2. Monckton, oddly, adds 280 and 450 to get to 730 ppm as the goal of global stabilization efforts, making all the rest of his calculations wildly inaccurate.
  2. Prematurely cutting off analysis after ten years: Monckton calculates the benefits of the carbon tax over a ten-year time horizon. That is much too short to see the full effects of global warming or of the policy itself. Elevated carbon levels persist for hundreds to thousands of years.[ii]
  3. Erroneously applying Australian “cost-effectiveness” calculation to the world: This may be the most troubling aspect from an economist's point of view. Monckton first calculates the effect of the Australia-only tax on global temperatures, which is unsurprisingly low, as Australia accounts for only 1.2% of world emissions. Next, he calculates the tax’s resulting “cost-effectiveness” — defined as the Australian tax influencing global temperatures. No surprise once again, that influence is there, but Australia alone can't solve global warming for the rest of us. Then, Monckton takes the Australia-only number and scales it to mitigate 1ºC globally, resulting in a purported cost of “$3.2 quadrillion,” which he claims is the overall global “mitigation cost-effectiveness.” But this number simply represents the cost of avoiding 1ºC of warming by acting in Australia alone. Monckton has re-discovered the fact that global warming is a global problem! The correct calculation for a globally applied tax would be to calculate cost-effectiveness on a global level first. If Australia’s carbon price were to be applied globally, it would cut much more pollution at a much lower cost. And that, of course, is very much the hope. Australia, California, and the European Union are called “climate leaders” for a reason. Others must follow.

What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.

With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.


[i] "Summary for Policymakers," IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I (2013).

[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)

[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.

Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.

Posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Economics, International | Comments closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change.

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Meet The Bloggers

    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
    Attorney

    Nat KeohaneNat Keohane
    Vice President for International Climate

    Ilissa Ocko
    High Meadows Fellow, Office of Chief Scientist

    Peter Zalzal
    Staff Attorney

    Gernot Wagner
    Senior Economist

    Graham McCahan
    Attorney

    Mandy Warner
    Climate & Air Policy Specialist

    Pamela Campos
    Attorney

    Kritee
    High Meadows Scientist

  • Posts by topic

  • Archives