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It’s not all about CO2: A plan to help reduce short-term climate pollutants

coal plant
Shutterstock

People are always lamenting the lack of small-scale, practical legislation that can address climate change without getting mired in polarized culture wars. Problem is, when legislators introduce bills like that, they're often completely ignored. It's the sexy, controversial stuff that gets attention.

So, in the name of bucking that trend, let me call out a bill just introduced by California Rep. Scott Peters (D). It's called the Super Pollutant Emissions Reduction Act, or SUPER Act. It's not particularly earth-shattering, but it is smart, and well-targeted. Basically, it would create a new federal task force to track, coordinate, and rationalize the various scattered efforts underway to reduce so-called "super pollutants."

What are super pollutants, you ask? They are greenhouse gases that produce much more warming, molecule-for-molecule, than carbon dioxide. However, unlike CO2, they have a short atmospheric lifecycle. When emitted, they hang out up there for anywhere from a few days to a few years and then drop back to earth. They include: black carbon, tropospheric ozone, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Think of them as the Fast & Furious of the greenhouse-gas world.

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Once more, with feeling: EPA is required to regulate carbon from existing power plants

old-power-plant
subadei

I didn't set out to spend all week endorsing Jonathan Chait posts, but he's got a follow-up to the cover story he wrote last week and, well, I endorse it. Like Chait, I continue to believe that Obama's EPA will issue CO2 standards on existing power plants. At the very least, there's no dispositive evidence that it won't. And I too believe that those standards are the most important piece of Obama's climate legacy, if not his overall legacy.

But Chait passes over a key fact that, to my eternal puzzlement, plays little role in the discussion about EPA rules. Quite simply, EPA is legally obligated to issue these rules.

I said it all in a post I wrote early last year, but to recap:

1. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Mass v. EPA that CO2 qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

2. In 2009, EPA issued an endangerment finding that deemed CO2 a threat to public health.

Once those two things happened, a cascading series of of legal obligations was set into motion.

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Is Obama the ‘environmental president’?

Several people have asked me what I think of Jonathan Chait's new column in New York magazine: "Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President." Apparently some folks are quite upset about it and think it's terrible, though I'm not entirely sure why.

Seems to me Chait mostly gets it right. He's right that Obama has made much more progress on climate and clean energy than he gets credit for. He's right that Obama has mostly done it through the stimulus bill and a series of low-key regulatory actions, rather than through high-profile "green" fights. In the high-profile green fights that have been had, cap-and-trade and Keystone, Obama has disappointed, and is disappointing, and promises to further disappoint many greens, but Chait is right that the disappointment has unfairly tarred the whole presidency. He's right that greens' harsh judgment is born of a sense of desperate urgency about the scale of action necessary.

And -- perhaps more controversially -- Chait is right that the decisions Obama makes on Clean Air Act authority in his second term are more significant, in carbon terms, than the much more high-profile decision he's going to make on the Keystone XL pipeline. (Glad to see Chait call out NRDC's ingenious proposal to make carbon regulations do serious work at low cost.)

What I think has my friends upset, and where they differ, is Chait's overall assessment: that Obama is therefore "the environmental president." The question here is -- as it is for every historical figure, but especially Obama, and especially on climate -- compared to what?

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Cap-and-trade puttering along quite nicely in the Northeast U.S.

Last week, I argued that people shouldn't be so gloomy about carbon-trading systems, despite the hue and cry around the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS) right now. One example of a carbon-trading system that seems to be doing just fine is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which currently involves nine states in the U.S. Northeast.

RGGI is pretty modest as these things go. It only covers power plants, and only those 25 megawatts or greater. (There are 211 covered plants at the moment.) Its first three-year trading period ended at the end of 2011.

Thus far, it seems to be working as planned -- better than planned, actually. Over the 2008-11 period, CO2 emissions from covered plants were down 23 percent compared to the three years prior. That's 126 million short tons of emissions eliminated.

In fact, over 2008-11, RGGI power plants came in 33 percent under the cap set by the program. (In 2012, they came in at 45 percent below the cap.)

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What would ‘wartime mobilization’ to fight climate change look like?

"What, this Death Star? It's for climate change."
Deadliestfiction
"What, this Death Star? It's for climate change."

The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should "hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity." For there to be a chance -- even just a 50/50 chance -- of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.

Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.

That metaphor gets used a lot. I've used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There's been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?

An interesting pair of papers from Laurence L. Delina and his colleague Mark Diesendorf at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales helps to frame the discussion. "Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?" will be published in Energy Policy, and "Governing Rapid Climate Mitigation" [PDF] was delivered at the Earth System Governance Conference this year in Tokyo.

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The medium chill, revisited

hammock feet
Shutterstock

A little less than two years ago, I wrote a post called "the medium chill," about efforts by my wife and me to step off the "aspirational treadmill" and accept some material constraints in exchange for lives with more free time, relationships, and experiences. It has gone on to be my most popular post ever. I don't know if it got the most hits, but it has solicited the most feedback, by a wide measure. It is one of very few posts I've ever written that is regularly mentioned to me by Normal People, i.e., people outside my online circles of green wonks and political obsessives. Several people have told me it gave them a way to express something they'd already been thinking, which is pretty much the nicest thing you can say to a writer.

Happiness small
Susie Cagle

Anyway, in some modest way, it resonated. Since Grist's theme this past month has been "happiness," my editor asked me to revisit the essay and talk a little about how my thinking has (or hasn't) changed. So here goes. Pardon me if this is a little discursive and rambly -- and by a little I mean a lot.

If I had to sum up, I'd say that I'm more skeptical/cautious about one part of my post and more committed than ever to the rest of it.

First, the part I'm more skeptical about. In my post, I cited research showing that above a certain level of income, money brings no further happiness. This is known as the Easterlin paradox, based on the work of USC professor Richard Easterlin. Those who want government to focus on quality of life rather than GDP (like me!) are very, very fond of citing this research, to the point that it's become a bit of a cliche, something "everyone knows."

The problem is that Easterlin got it wrong -- or at least, it sure looks like he got it wrong. I was going to round up some of the new research on this, but Dylan Matthews already did it for me. He sums up:

Read more: Living

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Why climate change is not an environmental problem: The video

Ryan L. Cooper, the able young web editor over at Washington Monthly, is the guy who remixed my TEDx talk to such nifty effect. Now he's finished a new climate video of his own, which he produced and narrated.

Ryan will be the first to tell you that he's not a video production guru. He's an amateur, figuring stuff out on the fly. He just feels like he needs to be doing something, so he's doing something. Would that there were more like him.

Here's the video:

Feel free to critique, but don't be a dick.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The limits of climate adaptation are social, not physical or economic

Presidential science advisor John Holdren is fond of saying that there are only three possible responses to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We'll prevent what we can, adjust to what we can't prevent, and suffer through what we can't adjust to. All that remains is to determine the proportions.

Lots of people are averse to large-scale suffering. But lots of people are also averse to substantial mitigation measures. This leaves them placing a great deal of faith in adaptation. Just based on conversations I've had over the years, I think there are lots of people who are vaguely aware of climate change, convinced that something is really happening, but who have a kind of free-floating confidence in human beings' ability to adjust to circumstances. Adjusting is what we do -- humans live in just about every kind of microclimate the planet offers, after all. If climate zones shift or move around, we'll get used to it. Why break the bank trying to prevent something that we can just learn to live with?

Now, on the merits, this is crazy. Our best understanding is that preventing (mitigating) a degree of global temperature rise is much, much cheaper than adapting to it. Compared to adaptation, mitigation is a huge bargain, whether you're measuring by money, time, disruption, ecosystem integrity, whatever.

But still, people have an extremely deep-seated faith in adaptation. What's odd is that, as much as we talk about it, as much as we trust in it, we don't have a very good understanding of its dynamics or its limits. It remains, in popular discussions of climate policy, a kind of unexamined deus ex machina.

A new commentary in Nature Climate Change attempts to move the ball forward a little by offering an analytical framework for thinking about adaption. The key insight is that human adaptation is an intrinsically social process, so the most salient limits on adaptation may be social rather than biophysical or economic. However, the authors note ...

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Everybody chill out a little, carbon trading will be fine

ETS carbon price
The Economist
Carbon cheapification at work.

I know you've all been following the developments around the European Union's carbon-trading system and are concerned that ... hm? What's that? You say you have a life?

OK, fine, some background then.

In 2005, the EU launched the world's first (and still biggest) carbon trading system, the Emissions Trading System (ETS), which now covers over 30 countries and some 11,000 industrial facilities and power plants. The ETS has been a source of hope for supporters of carbon policy, who aren't exactly wallowing in hope these days.

Problem is, haggling among EU countries and industries, some of them considerably bigger emitters than others, meant that the ETS launched by issuing way too many pollution permits for free. Then the recession hit and the EU economy went in the tank, where it remains, which has driven the cost of carbon down to almost nothing -- under $10 a ton, not enough to drive much investment in clean alternatives. That's why coal's having a bit of a renaissance in Europe.

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A master class on the state of clean-energy investment [VIDEO]

I just got back from the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in NYC. It was a mixed bag, like all conferences -- not sure I understand the rationale behind inviting so many fossil-fuel shills to an event like this (Canadian oil minister Joe Oliver? really?) -- but the ratio of new-and-interesting to Christ-how-many-times-have-I-heard-this was substantially above average. Congrats to the crew at BNEF, whose work, I hardly need to point out, you should be following.

One of the highlights of the event, as I expected, was BNEF head honcho Michael Liebreich's keynote address on trends in clean energy investment. It was centered around the conference's theme of a "new ROI," i.e., resilience, optionality, and intelligence. (I wrote a piece on that theme a little while back.)

If you have a few minutes and are interested in the present and future of clean energy, I recommend watching it: