Policy & Politics
Interview: A Call for Climate Goals Other Than Two Degrees Celsius
When international delegates meet in Paris next year to negotiate a new climate agreement, they'll be aiming to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees
Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the maximum seen by many for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. But David Victor, a professor of international relations at University of California San Diego, argued in a recent controversial commentary in Nature
that the 2-degree goal is now unattainable and should be replaced by more meaningful goals. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Victor explains why he believes the 2-degree threshold has failed to position policy makers to take serious action on climate change and outlines the "basket of indicators" that he and his co-author are suggesting be used instead. Read the interview.
24 Sep 2014:
Nations Announce Agreement
To End Forest Loss by 2030 at UN Summit
The U.S., Canada, and the European Union agreed at yesterday's UN climate summit to cut global
Deforestation for palm oil in Malaysian Borneo
deforestation in half by the end of the decade and eliminate net forest losses entirely by 2030, marking the first time such a deadline has been set. If the goal is met, it will cut carbon emissions by an amount equal to taking 1 billion vehicles — every car on the planet — off the road, the UN said
. Notably missing from the list of committed countries was Brazil, which has been a key player in Amazon deforestation, because of concerns that the pledge would clash with national laws permitting managed deforestation. Critics say ending deforestation is nearly impossible without Brazil's cooperation. In addition to the 32 national governments that signed onto the declaration, 35 corporations, including Kellogg's, L'Oreal, and Nestle, pledged to support sustainable forest practices in their supply chains.
23 Sep 2014:
Food Security Issues Often
Neglected After Extreme Weather Events
Extreme weather events — the sort likely to arise with increasing frequency as the planet warms — took a heavy toll on Russia and East Africa in 2010 and 2011, in large part because governments and authorities were ill-equipped to address resulting food shortages and other fallout, according to researchers at the University of Oxford. Russia experienced a heat wave that led to food hoarding and price-fixing of staple crops by speculators, according to the report, which was commissioned by Oxfam
. A drought in East Africa in 2010 through 2011 was tied to an uptick in armed conflicts in the region, which interrupted international and domestic aid for six months. Crop prices reached record levels in several markets, including wheat in Ethiopia, maize in Kenya, and red sorghum grain in Somalia, the report notes. Investing in additional health facilities, establishing pre-positioned food supplies, and other tactics aimed at mitigating the effects of future heat waves, droughts, and floods, could help to blunt the effects of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable populations, the researchers say.
19 Sep 2014:
Global Population on Track to
Reach 11 Billion by 2100, Researchers Say
A new analysis of United Nations global population data finds an 80-percent probability that the number of
people in the world, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100. Published in the journal Science
, the study counters the widely accepted projection that global population will peak at roughly 9 billion by 2050, then gradually decline. The new study instead finds a 70-percent likelihood that population will grow continuously throughout the century to reach 10.9 billion by 2100. Researchers attribute the higher projections, in part, to increasing fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa, where population growth had been predicted to continue slowing. The Guardian
notes that many widely cited global policy assessments, such as recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, assume a population peak by 2050.
16 Sep 2014:
Tackling Climate Change Could
Pay Off in as Little as 15 Years, Report Finds
Limiting greenhouse gas emissions globally over the next 15 years is both economically feasible and likely to save money, according to a new report
from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Between 2015 and 2030, nations are expected to invest roughly $90 trillion in urban land-use and energy infrastructure, the analysis estimated. Steering those investments toward renewable energy, efficiency improvements, and other low-emission technologies would make that global investment more costly, the panel of government and business leaders conceded. But these costs could eventually be offset by the lowered operating costs associated with renewable power, the report suggested. Although they are difficult to quantify, health care savings associated with improved air quality would also offset costs. According to the report, the biggest challenges for governments will be enacting stronger rules and policies that favor low-carbon development, such as cutting the $600 billion currently spent on fossil fuel subsidies.
08 Sep 2014:
U.S. Dietary Guidelines Would
Lead to Rise in Emissions, Study Says
Following U.S. federal guidelines for a healthy diet is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions, even though the guidelines recommend a diet with less meat than the average American currently consumes, according to a recent analysis in the Journal of Industrial Ecology
. Compared to U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines, American's don't eat enough fruits, vegetables, seafood, and dairy, and they consume too much meat, eggs, nuts, soy, oils, solid fats, and added sugars. If the population were to shift its diet to match USDA guidelines, greenhouse gas emissions would actually rise by 12 percent, researchers found, because calories from meat, eggs, fats, and sugars would largely be replaced by dairy products. Methane emissions
from dairy and beef cattle contribute significantly to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. The findings highlight a need to consider both environmental and health objectives when making dietary recommendations, the researchers say.
Interview: Calling for Moratorium
On Development of Tar Sands Oil
In a recent commentary in Nature
, aquatic ecologist Wendy Palen and seven colleagues were sharply critical of the way that Canada and the United States have gone
about developing Alberta’s vast tar sands deposits and the infrastructure needed to transport those fossil fuels to market. Rather than looking at the cumulative impact of this massive energy development on the climate and the environment, Palen and her co-authors wrote, major decisions have been made in piecemeal fashion. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Palen talks about why a moratorium on new tar sands developments is needed, how the decision-making process is biased in favor of short-term economic benefits, why the fate of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is critical, and what can be done to begin factoring in the real costs of exploiting the tar sands.
Read the interview.
27 Aug 2014:
Obama Seeks Climate
Accord Without Congressional Approval
The Obama administration is aiming to forge a legally binding, international agreement that would cut fossil
fuel emissions and direct funds to poor nations dealing with climate change, without ratification from Congress, The New York Times
reports. The agreement would combine legally binding updates to an existing 1992 climate change treaty — allowing Obama to sidestep the constitutional requirement that treaties be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate — with voluntary pledges for specific emissions targets and aid to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. Nations would then be legally required to report progress toward their emissions targets at international meetings that would "name and shame" countries making slow or no progress, the Times
reports. Lawmakers from both political parties say that no climate agreement requiring congressional approval could be reached in the near future. Republican leaders are expected to oppose the agreement being worked on by the administration and say it would be an abuse of executive authority.
25 Aug 2014:
Health Care Savings Can Far
Outweigh Costs of Carbon-Cutting Policies
Implementing policies to curb carbon emissions dramatically cuts health care costs associated with poor air quality — in some cases, by more than 10 times the cost of policy implementation, according to
new research published in Nature Climate Change
. Policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions are as effective as laws targeting polluting compounds like ground-level ozone, also known as smog, and fine particulate matter, the MIT researchers say. An analysis of three climate policies — a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program — found that savings from avoided health problems could recoup 26 percent of the cost of implementing a transportation policy, and up to to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program. A cap-and-trade program would cost roughly $14 billion to implement, whereas a transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements could cost more than $1 trillion, according to the analysis.
19 Aug 2014:
Wind Energy Prices at
All-Time Low, According to U.S. Report
The cost of wind power in the U.S. is at an all-time low of 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a new report
from the U.S. Department of Energy, and utility companies are in some cases electing to use wind as an energy source over fossil fuels because of its low cost. Although wind power grew modestly in 2013 — installations were only 8 percent of those seen in the record year of 2012 — it now meets 4.5 percent of U.S. energy needs, producing enough electricity to power 16 million homes. The country ranks second only to China in installed wind capacity, the report says, and wind power accounts for 33 percent of all new U.S. electric capacity additions since 2007. That progress has been heavily dependent on federal, state, and local incentives, however, and wind power's growth could slow if those incentives expire. Its viability could also fall if natural gas becomes more affordable than wind, the report cautions.
11 Aug 2014:
Climate Effects of Keystone XL
Significantly Underestimated, Study Finds
The U.S. State Department's final environmental review of the Keystone XL Pipeline may have underestimated carbon dioxide emissions associated with the pipeline by as much as four times, according to
a new study published in Nature Climate Change
. The addition of Keystone XL crude oil to the market will drive global oil prices down, the authors say, which in turn will increase demand for oil worldwide — by as much as 0.6 barrels for every barrel of Keystone XL oil added to the market. The extra oil consumption could add up to 110 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, an amount four times larger than the State Department's estimate of up to 27 million tons annually, according to the study. President Obama has said he will let the pipeline proceed only if it will not "significantly exacerbate" greenhouse gas emissions. The State Department's final review determined that the pipeline's effect on climate change would be negligible, but that analysis did not take into account the increase in crude oil demand that could be sparked by Keystone XL, the authors of the new study say.
08 Aug 2014:
China Added Large Amount
Of Solar Power in First Half of 2014
In the first half of 2014, China added 3.3 gigawatts of solar power — as much as is installed in the entire
Distributed solar in Kunming, China
continent of Australia — China's National Energy Administration reports
. The country now has 23 gigawatts of solar power installed, which is nearly twice that of the United States. China, the world's largest carbon emitter, has set a goal of 35 gigawatts of installed solar power by the end of next year. The nation's push toward solar energy will include distributed solar, such as rooftop and ground-mounted installations near homes and municipal buildings, Chinese officials say, and the government could announce distributed solar incentive programs later this month, Bloomberg News reports. Renewable energy, especially solar, has become a high priority for the Chinese government as major cities and industrial areas have experienced choking air pollution. Earlier this week, officials announced that Beijing would ban coal use by 2020.
31 Jul 2014:
U.S. Public and Congress Similarly
Split on Environmental Spending, Study Says
American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, according to
new research from Michigan State University. The gap between conservatives who oppose environmental protection and liberals who support it has risen drastically in the past 20 years, the study found. A national poll from 2012 (the most recent data in the study) with a question on environmental spending indicated that 68 percent of Democrats believe the country has spent too little on the environment, versus only 40 percent of Republicans. The polling data, which reach back to 1974, indicate the gap started growing particularly wide in 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that point, the researchers say, the conservative movement replaced the “Red Scare” with the “Green Scare” and became increasingly hostile toward environmental protection, a trend amplified in recent years by the Tea Party.
Interview: Making the Rights of
Farm Animals a Basic Green Issue
Conservation organizations have long sought to protect pandas, polar bears, and pelicans, but the welfare of
farm animals has largely been left to activist animal-welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States
. For the past 10 years, that organization has been headed by the politically savvy Wayne Pacelle, who has greatly increased its visibility and influence. Under his leadership, the society has lobbied successfully to curb what it calls the worst excesses of “factory farms.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Pacelle talked about how treatment of farm animals is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, why his group is promoting “meatless Mondays,” and why consumers should be willing to pay more for products from animals that are sustainably raised.
24 Jul 2014:
Protecting Community Forests
Is a Major Tool in Climate Fight, Study Says
Expanding and strengthening the community forest rights of indigenous groups and rural residents can make a major contribution to sequestering carbon and
The Brazilian Amazon
reducing CO2 emissions from deforestation, according to a new report
. The World Resources Institute
(WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative
said that indigenous people and rural inhabitants in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have government-recognized rights to forests containing nearly 38 billion tons of carbon, equal to 29 times the annual emissions of all the world’s passenger vehicles. By enforcing community rights to those forests
, the study said, governments can play a major role in tackling climate change. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, deforestation rates are 11 times lower in community forests than in forests outside those areas. In areas where community forest rights are ignored, deforestation rates often soar. The report made five major recommendations, from better enforcement of community forest zones to compensating communities for the benefits their forests provide.
21 Jul 2014:
India Doubles Coal Tax to
Fund Ambitious Clean Energy Initiatives
India's finance minister has doubled the tax on coal imported to or mined in the country, raising the tariff from $0.83 to $1.67 per metric ton, with plans to use the revenue to fund a host of renewable energy projects over the next decade, Clean Technica
reports. The revenue will be added to the National Clean Energy Fund, which was established to provide low-cost financing for renewable energy projects. The fund's scope will be expanded to include environmental projects as well as clean energy research and development, including a national wind energy program, four major solar power projects, and an initiative that aims to establish transmission corridors for distributing electricity from renewable energy sources. The revenue will also be used to fund a new, separate ministry focused on cleaning the heavily polluted Ganges River. The tax could raise as much as $1.2 billion in the first year, according to estimates.
18 Jul 2014:
Germany Tops Energy-Efficiency
Ranking and U.S. Scores Near Bottom
Germany tops a new energy efficiency ranking of the world’s major economies, followed by Italy, China, France, and Japan, according to
the American Council
for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The United States ranked 13th out of 16 nations, behind countries such as India, China, and Canada, although new carbon pollution standards proposed this June for existing power plants would be a major stride in the right direction, the ACEEE said. The group also admonished Australia, which ranked 10th, for demonstrating "a clear backward trend" in adopting energy efficiency measures. Germany took the top spot largely due to regulations it has imposed on commercial and residential buildings. And China, despite lax enforcement of building codes, uses less energy per square foot than any other country, the analysis found.
16 Jul 2014:
Politics and Education Affect
When People Search for Climate Information
People across the United States search the Internet for information on climate change when they experience unusual or severe weather events, but the timing of their searches differs based on political ideology and education levels, according to
research published in the journal Climatic Change
. An analysis of Google searches and weather patterns between 2004 and 2013 found that Democratic-leaning regions and those with higher education levels were more likely to seek information about climate change when average summer temperatures were above normal, whereas those in Republican and less educated areas sought climate change information when they experienced extreme heat. Searches peaked during weather consistent with climate change as well as during cold snaps, the study found. This could indicate that people who observe unusual extreme weather conditions are genuinely interested in learning more about climate change, or that climate deniers, when experiencing unusually cool weather, go online to confirm their skeptical views, the researcher speculated.
Five Questions for Jeffrey Sachs
On Decarbonizing the Economy
Thirty scientific institutions from 15 countries recently released a report for the United Nations outlining how
the world’s major carbon dioxide-emitting nations can slash those emissions by mid-century. Called the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project
, the initiative aims to provide leaders with a plan of action in advance of a UN summit in September and climate negotiations in Paris in late 2015. Yale Environment 360
asked Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a key player in the decarbonization project, five questions about the initiative and the prospects for global action on the climate front.
19 Jun 2014:
Rerouting Flights to Avoid
Contrails Would Slow Climate Change
Rerouting the flight paths of commercial aircraft to minimize the condensation trails, or contrails, they leave behind would help slow global warming, even if
the new flight path is longer, according to research published today
. Contrails, thin clouds composed of ice crystals condensed from an aircraft's exhaust, can persist for 17 hours or more and are likely the single largest contributor to climate change
associated with aviation. They form when a plane passes through parts of the atmosphere that are very cold and moist, usually near high pressure systems. The new research shows that avoiding contrail formation has greater climate benefits than avoiding additional carbon dioxide emissions associated with slightly longer flight routes. For example, for a small aircraft that is predicted to form a contrail 20 miles long, an alternative path that adds less than 200 miles will have a smaller climate impact than the contrail. For a larger aircraft, which emits more CO2 per mile than a smaller plane, the alternative route is preferable if it adds less than 60 miles, according to researchers from the University of Reading.
18 Jun 2014:
Global Energy Systems Must
Prepare for Climate Change, Study Says
Power plants and energy systems around the world will experience potentially disastrous effects from climate change and should develop plans for dealing with those effects, according to a report released today
by the World Energy Council and European researchers. Long-term droughts, for example, could threaten water supplies needed to cool large power plants as they produce electricity, the report notes
. Many energy facilities are also lacking protection from floods, rising seas, and severe weather events — a problem highlighted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Strong global political action could have major impacts on the energy sector, the report says, especially if governments make a coordinated effort to invest in renewable and low-carbon energy and upgrades to power distribution grids.
06 Jun 2014:
Brazil Leads the World
In Cutting Deforestation, Analysis Finds
Brazil has become the world leader in reducing deforestation and, at the same time, has increased its soy and beef production, researchers report
Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil
. The country has cut its forest loss by 70 percent since 2004, sparing more than 86,000 square kilometers of rainforests and keeping more than 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Brazil's decline in deforestation in 2013 alone represented a 1.5 percent reduction in global emissions that year, the report says; globally, tropical forest loss
accounts for 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The analysis credits the success to bold government policies, pressure from environmental groups, and market fluctuations in the price of soy and beef, but the authors warn that these wins may be short-lived without more positive incentives for farmers. “These gains are globally significant, but fragile,” one researcher explained. “We’re bumping up against the limits of what can be achieved through punitive measures.”
04 Jun 2014:
New Ozone-Depleting Gases
Discovered in Atmosphere, Researchers Say
Researchers this week identified three new ozone-depleting gases
in the atmosphere, bringing the total number of such gases discovered this year to seven.
Ozone hole as of September 2013
Alone, none of the three gases were found in concentrations high enough to harm the ozone layer, researchers from the University of East Anglia. But the scientists believe more such gases will likely be discovered, and, cumulatively, they could have a significant impact. Two of the newly discovered gases are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and one is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), both of which were once widely used in refrigerants. All three of the newly discovered gases are likely man-made, researchers said. Both CFCs and HCFCs fall under the Montreal Protocol
, an international agreement that bans the use of 13 such compounds. Including the four new gases discovered earlier this year, there are now a total of 20 known ozone-depleting gases.
03 Jun 2014:
Developing Countries Lead
Global Surge in Renewable Energy Capacity
The number of developing nations with policies supporting renewable energy has surged more than six-fold in just eight years, from 15 developing countries
in 2005 to 95 early this year, according to a report from REN21
, an international nonprofit renewable energy policy network. Those 95 developing nations today make up the vast majority of the 144 countries with renewable energy support policies and targets in place. The report credits
such policies with driving global renewable energy capacity to a new record level last year — 1,560 gigawatts, up 8.3 percent from 2012. More than one-fifth — 22 percent — of the world's power production now comes from renewable sources. Overall, renewables accounted for more than 56 percent of net additions to global power capacity in 2013, the report says. Although financial and policy support declined in the U.S. and some European countries, China, the U.S., Brazil, Canada, and Germany remained the top nations for total installed renewable power. China's new renewable power capacity surpassed new fossil fuel and nuclear capacity for the first time, the analysis found.
02 Jun 2014:
New U.S. Coal Plant Rules
Could Lead to a Steep Drop in Emissions
The Obama administration today unveiled a sweeping new plan
that aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants by roughly a third. Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new rules would give states maximum flexibility
to achieve the goal of reducing power plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Hundreds of coal-fired power plants are expected to close under the EPA plan. But rather than immediately shutting down plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, continuing to expand the use of natural gas, and by starting or joining state and regional “cap and trade” programs. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution ... so each state’s path can be different,” said McCarthy. The proposed regulations could be held up by legal challenges. Obama administration officials said the rules would lift the U.S. into a clear global leadership position
on combating global warming.
Video Report: Americans on the
Front Lines of Climate Change
A fire chief in Colorado whose department is battling increasingly intense blazes in the American West. A Texas rancher struggling to operate in the face of years of drought. Oyster farmers in Washington state scrambling to adapt to increasingly acidic waters that are damaging their harvests. These Americans are the subjects of videos created by The Story Group
, a non-profit journalism initiative. The videos are meant to put a human face on the science behind the recently released National Climate Assessment
, which stressed that global warming is already having a major impact on the United States.
Watch the videos.
27 May 2014:
To Sway the U.S. Public,
‘Global Warming’ Beats out ‘Climate Change’
If politicians and scientists want to convey the urgency and importance of a warming world, they are far better off using the term "global warming"
than “climate change,” according to a new report. Produced by researchers at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University, the report
says that Americans are much more familiar with the term “global warming” and that it engenders more negative associations and concern. Based on recent surveys, the report said moderates, women, Hispanics, political independents, and younger Americans associate “global warming” with alarming developments such as melting glaciers and extreme weather. Among many groups, “global warming” also creates a greater sense of threat to one’s family and future generations. “Scientists often prefer the term climate change for technical reasons, but should be aware that the two terms generate different interpretations among the general public and specific subgroups,” the report said. The survey found that among Republicans the two terms are generally synonymous.
23 May 2014:
Oil Drilling Permits
Issued for Key Area of Yasuni Park
The Ecuadorean government has issued permits to begin oil drilling
in a key area of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve and National Park
, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Environment Minister Lorena
Tapia said the government had signed permits to begin preparations for drilling in the so-called ITT section of the park, which contains two uncontacted indigenous tribes; drilling itself could begin as early as 2016, the government said. Ecuador’s President, Rafeal Correa, had offered to ban drilling in large sections of the park if the international community raised $3.6 billion to compensate the country for leaving the oil in the ground. But after only $13 million was raised, Correa gave the green light to drilling, saying “the world has failed us.” Oil drilling has already taken place in some areas of the 6,500-square-mile park. As this Yale Environment 360 video
shows, Yasuni is home to a remarkable array of species, including roughly 400 species of fish, 600 species of birds, and thousands of species of vascular plants and trees.
22 May 2014:
Donors Commit $220 Million
To Protect and Expand Huge Amazon Reserve
A coalition of private donors and government funders has pledged $220 million
over the next 25 years to better protect the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA), the world’s largest protected area network. WWF, the World Bank, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and more than a dozen other donors are contributing funds to the initiative, which also will add another 8.9 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to the ARPA program
, driving the total to more than 60 million hectares. That’s 232,000 square miles, an area larger than France. Most of the funds will be used to better police and enforce environmental laws on ARPA territory, which includes 90 parks and comprises 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. "The explosion in demand for natural resources has made our parks and world heritage sites vulnerable," said WWF president Carter Roberts. The initiative is also upgrading long-neglected parks and creating sustainable-use reserves for local communities and indigenous people.
Interview: Putting San Francisco
On the Road to Zero Waste by 2020
For 20 years, Jack Macy has spearheaded San Francisco’s efforts to become a global leader in recycling. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
Macy describes how San Francisco has succeeded in reusing or composting 80 percent of its garbage and how the city has engaged the public in a recycling crusade, allaying initial fears of “trash police” sifting through residents’ garbage. While San Francisco has made tremendous progress, Macy says further changes are needed. “Part of the principle of zero waste is that the local government can’t shoulder all the burden,” he says, “so it’s important that we encourage consumers to take responsibility for what they buy ... and producer responsibility for the products they design and market.”