Several people have suggested that President Obama will make climate change a key initiative of his second term. I’ve never really believed that, but today the New York Times reports that it might be for real:
President Obama is preparing a major policy push on climate change, including, for the first time, limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants, as well as expanded renewable energy development on public lands and an accelerated effort on energy efficiency in buildings and equipment, senior officials said Wednesday
News outlets are reporting that Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, will not return for the second term of the Obama administration.
Jackson will probably be remembered as the point person for the first US attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It wasn’t necessarily a position that she—or Obama—chose. But partisan gridlock ensured that there would be no legislation addressing emissions, and Jackson inherited a Supreme Court decision from the Bush administration that indicated the Clean Air Act required some sort of action. Within months of the inauguration, Jackson’s EPA used Bush-era research to issue an endangerment finding on greenhouse gasses. Three years later, that finding led to the first limits imposed on carbon dioxide emissions by large sources, limits that would severely curtail the construction of new coal plants.
By the time they were issued, however, a sharp fall in the price of natural gas was already doing more to limit the use of coal than any EPA regulation could. (Fracking, which led to the plunge in prices, was also the subject of some initial EPA oversight.)
More than 1,000 coal-fired power plants are being planned worldwide, new research has revealed.
The huge planned expansion comes despite warnings from politicians, scientists, and campaigners that the planet’s fast-rising carbon emissions must peak within a few years if runaway climate change is to be avoided and that fossil fuel assets risk becoming worthless if international action on global warming moves forward.
Coal plants are the most polluting of all power stations and the World Resources Institute (WRI) identified 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India. The capacity of the new plants add up to 1,400GW to global greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of adding another China — the world’s biggest emitter. India is planning 455 new plants compared to 363 in China, which is seeing a slowdown in its coal investments after a vast building program in the past decade.
“This is definitely not in line with a safe climate scenario — it would put us on a really dangerous trajectory,” said the WRI’s Ailun Yang, who compiled the report, considered to be the most comprehensive in the public domain. But she said new emissions limits proposed in the U.S. and a voluntary cap on coal use in China could begin to turn the tide. “These policies would give really strong signals about the risks to the future financial performance of coal of climate policies.”
Much more from Kate Sheppard at the link above.
1. States would oversee fossil fuel development on federal lands. Romney’s campaign has promised that as part of his plan to “dramatically increase domestic energy production,” states “will be empowered to control all forms of energy production on all lands within their borders, excluding only those that are specifically designated off-limits.” That could include some national parks.
2. Regulations would be weakened. Romney has pledged to “take a weed whacker” to federal environmental regulations. His plan lacks specifics, but calls for “streamlining” environmental review periods for energy development plans and “allowing state reviews to satisfy federal requirements.” (See numbers 3 and 6 for more.)
3. Coal companies would get to do pretty much whatever they want. Romney has accused the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal,” and has pledged to reverse many of the administration’s regulations. As president, he would likely approve the most extreme anti-environmental bills offered in Congress—like the “Stop the War on Coal Act,” passed in September. The bill was a grab-bag for coal interests, taking away the EPA’s ability to regulate mountaintop-removal coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions, coal ash disposal, mercury and air toxins.”I like coal,” Romney said at the Oct. 3 debate. “I’m going to make sure we’re going to be able to burn clean coal.” However, he has offered few specifics on what he would do to make coal “clean” as president.
One of the biggest problems with climate change is that, at least in the short term, it’s largely invisible. Unlike many other environmental calamities—say, oil spills or forest fires—we simply can’t see the carbon dioxide that we emit when we drive a car or turn on an air conditioner.
Scientists can quantify the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a country, city or power plant, but it’s cognitively difficult to take that number and picture the actual impact of our actions on the long-term health of the climate. This factor, perhaps more than any other, has prevented significant action on climate change.
Now, software has been designed to make greenhouse gas emissions something we can actually see. In the Hestia Project, presented in a paper published yesterday in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from Arizona State University created a technology that maps emissions at the street and neighborhood level, painting a rich picture of a city’s greenhouse gas metabolism. With their maps and videos—currently available for the city of Indianapolis—you can look at specific airports, roads and buildings and see how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each entity emits.
In the 3-D image above, each piece of land in Indianapolis is coded with a color according to the density of its carbon emissions, ranging from green (the lowest amount) to dark red (the highest). Additionally, the height of each bar represents the total amount of emissions for that building or road. As a consequence, most residential areas are green, while the highways and main roads that traverse the city are yellow or orange, while the industrial center, power plants and airports are a deep red.
Fish species are expected to shrink in size by up to 24% because of global warming, say scientists.
Researchers modelled the impact of rising temperatures on more than 600 species between 2001 and 2050.
Warmer waters could decrease ocean oxygen levels and significantly reduce fish body weight.
The scientists argue that failure to control greenhouse gas emissions will have a greater impact on marine ecosystems than previously thought.
Previous research has suggested that changing ocean temperatures would impact both the distribution and the reproductive abilities of many species of fish. This new work suggests that fish size would also be heavily impacted.
The researchers built a model to see how fish would react to lower levels of oxygen in the water. They used data from one of the higher emissions scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Scientists are finding evidence that man-made climate change has raised the risks of individual weather events, such as floods or heatwaves, marking a big step towards pinpointing local costs and ways to adapt to freak conditions.
“We’re seeing a great deal of progress in attributing a human fingerprint to the probability of particular events or series of events,” said Christopher Field, co-chairman of a U.N. report due in 2014 about the impacts of climate change.
Experts have long blamed a build-up of greenhouse gas emissions for raising worldwide temperatures and causing desertification, floods, droughts, heatwaves, more powerful storms and rising sea levels.
But until recently they have said that naturally very hot, wet, cold, dry or windy weather might explain any single extreme event, like the current drought in the United States or a rare melt of ice in Greenland in July.
But for some extremes, that is now changing.
A study this month, for instance, showed that greenhouse gas emissions had raised the chances of the severe heatwave in Texas in 2011 and unusual heat in Britain in late 2011. Other studies of extremes are under way.
Growing evidence that the dice are loaded towards ever more severe local weather may make it easier for experts to explain global warming to the public, pin down costs and guide investments in everything from roads to flood defenses.
Long-running arguments over who needs to do what to stop the planet from overheating are back in focus this week as rich and poor countries meet in Bonn, Germany, to resume talks on a new global climate treaty.
It’s the first major round of talks since countries agreed in Durban, South Africa, in December to come up with a binding agreement by 2015 that would take effect five years later.
In a webcast news conference Monday, U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres noted that the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions pledged so far fall short of what scientists say is needed to avoid serious effects of global warming.
But she said “bridging the gap is both technically attainable and economically feasible” if rich countries, in particular, raise their ambitions on emissions cuts.
The recent boom in U.S. natural gas production has been hailed as the cure to all America’s ills. Gas, its boosters say, can reduce household heating expenses, enhance energy security, create jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
That last part is crucial to winning over environmentalists. “Over its full cycle of production, distribution, and use, natural gas emits just over half as many greenhouse gas emissions as coal for equivalent energy output,” the green group Worldwatch Institute reported last August. But all of that may amount to a lot of hot air if researchers from Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund are right. Thanks to the little-known problem of methane leakage, in the short term at least, natural gas may be worse for the climate than other fossil fuels.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which is itself a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. And it leaks into the air at every point of the process of getting and using the fuel. The technology exists to capture the leaking gas at hydraulic fracturing - aka fracking - sites, but industry officials say it’s not worth the cost. With the price of natural gas having dropped 90 percent since 2005, that attitude is not likely to change soon.
Ramon Alvarez, a physical chemist who works at the Environmental Defense Fund, co-authored a study, published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that compares the impacts of natural gas with gasoline, diesel, and coal on the climate. His conclusion: “The amount of methane released can affect whether or not natural gas is a better fuel for the climate than other fuels.”
In February, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed air samples from a region of Colorado where a lot of gas is being extracted through fracking. They found the air contained twice as much methane as the EPA had estimated there would be, suggesting a lot more methane than previously thought was leaking during extraction.
Copper — the stuff of pennies and tea kettles — is also one of the few metals that can turn carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuels with relatively little energy. When fashioned into an electrode and stimulated with voltage, copper acts as a strong catalyst, setting off an electrochemical reaction with carbon dioxide that reduces the greenhouse gas to methane or methanol.
Various researchers around the world have studied copper’s potential as an energy-efficient means of recycling carbon dioxide emissions in powerplants: Instead of being released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide would be circulated through a copper catalyst and turned into methane — which could then power the rest of the plant. Such a self-energizing system could vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired and natural-gas-powered plants.
But copper is temperamental: easily oxidized, as when an old penny turns green. As a result, the metal is unstable, which can significantly slow its reaction with carbon dioxide and produce unwanted byproducts such as carbon monoxide and formic acid.
Now researchers at MIT have come up with a solution that may further reduce the energy needed for copper to convert carbon dioxide, while also making the metal much more stable. The group has engineered tiny nanoparticles of copper mixed with gold, which is resistant to corrosion and oxidation. The researchers observed that just a touch of gold makes copper much more stable. In experiments, they coated electrodes with the hybrid nanoparticles and found that much less energy was needed for these engineered nanoparticles to react with carbon dioxide, compared to nanoparticles of pure copper.
A paper detailing the results will appear in the journal Chemical Communications; the research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Co-author Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli of MIT says the findings point to a potentially energy-efficient means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from powerplants.
“You normally have to put a lot of energy into converting carbon dioxide into something useful,” says Hamad-Schifferli, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and biological engineering. “We demonstrated hybrid copper-gold nanoparticles are much more stable, and have the potential to lower the energy you need for the reaction.”
The team chose to engineer particles at the nanoscale in order to “get more bang for their buck,” Hamad-Schifferli says: The smaller the particles, the larger the surface area available for interaction with carbon dioxide molecules. “You could have more sites for the CO2 to come and stick down and get turned into something else,” she says.
Hamad-Schifferli worked with Yang Shao-Horn, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, postdoc Zhichuan Xu and Erica Lai ‘14. The team settled on gold as a suitable metal to combine with copper mainly because of its known properties. (Researchers have previously combined gold and copper at much larger scales, noting that the combination prevented copper from oxidizing.)
To make the nanoparticles, Hamad-Schifferli and her colleagues mixed salts containing gold into a solution of copper salts. They heated the solution, creating nanoparticles that fused copper with gold. Xu then put the nanoparticles through a series of reactions, turning the solution into a powder that was used to coat a small electrode.
To test the nanoparticles’ reactivity, Xu placed the electrode in a beaker of solution and bubbled carbon dioxide into it. He applied a small voltage to the electrode, and measured the resulting current in the solution. The team reasoned that the resulting current would indicate how efficiently the nanoparticles were reacting with the gas: If CO2 molecules were reacting with sites on the electrode — and then releasing to allow other CO2 molecules to react with the same sites — the current would appear as a certain potential was reached, indicating regular “turnover.” If the molecules monopolized sites on the electrode, the reaction would slow down, delaying the appearance of the current at the same potential.
The team ultimately found that the potential applied to reach a steady current was much smaller for hybrid copper-gold nanoparticles than for pure copper and gold — an indication that the amount of energy required to run the reaction was much lower than that required when using nanoparticles made of pure copper.
Going forward, Hamad-Schifferli says she hopes to look more closely at the structure of the gold-copper nanoparticles to find an optimal configuration for converting carbon dioxide. So far, the team has demonstrated the effectiveness of nanoparticles composed of one-third gold and two-thirds copper, as well as two-thirds gold and one-third copper.
Hamad-Schifferli acknowledges that coating industrial-scale electrodes partly with gold can get expensive. However, she says, the energy savings and the reuse potential for such electrodes may balance the initial costs.
“It’s a tradeoff,” Hamad-Schifferli says. “Gold is obviously more expensive than copper. But if it helps you get a product that’s more attractive like methane instead of carbon dioxide, and at a lower energy consumption, then it may be worth it. If you could reuse it over and over again, and the durability is higher because of the gold, that’s a check in the plus column.”