Is it time to give up on reducing emissions? Absolutely not.
Better to Pursue Climate Action Now
While things may look bad today, unchecked global warming will exponentially increase the human and economic toll of responding to a permanently altered planet. A recent report from the World Bank outlines the devastating effects of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial levels: flooding of coastal cities, risks to food production, unprecedented heat waves, increased frequency of killer storms, and more. This is not the future that we want to leave our children and grandchildren. Nor can we simply adapt to this future – even if we wanted to.
The IEA makes it clear that acting now will be less costly than waiting until later on. We should be moving toward a low-carbon future, investing in low-carbon energy systems, and preparing our infrastructure for oncoming climate impacts. According to the IEA, delaying action would increase the costs by having to retrofit energy sources and risking their becoming obsolete. The IEA lays out four sensible measures that countries can undertake to curb growth in GHG emissions by 2020—and which come at no net economic cost.
Another season of extreme weather events is upon us. A severe storm, with winds up to 70 miles per hour, whipped its way from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Colorado is experiencing one of its worst wildfires in history—the Black Forest Fire has burned 15,700 acres, displaced more than 38,000 people, and impacted 13,000 homes. These events are reminders of what the world will look like as our climate system moves into increasingly dangerous and unfamiliar territory.
This week also brought a trifecta of events with significant implications for climate change.
The latest report from the International Energy Agency revealed that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hit an all-time high in 2012. These emissions are driving up global temperatures and increasing climate instability. The IEA concludes that it’s not too late to change course, but the window for action is closing rapidly.
Our current response to climate change is grossly inadequate. Fortunately, there are some signs that the winds are starting to change.
When President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping meet in California this week, they will be seeking to build trust and chart a course for improved relations. While tensions abound over various issues, clean energy and climate is one area where cooperation can work.
Last month, the United States and China released a statement declaring that joint action on climate change can “set the kind of powerful example that can inspire the world.” These two countries have the opportunity to tackle this global challenge, helping keep the world within 2 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, and embrace clean energy on the path to a low-carbon future.
Given the stakes, business leaders should be paying attention.
Clean energy is one of the most important growth sectors in the global economy. It has been projected that $2.3 trillion will be invested in clean energy by 2020, reaching $269 billion last year. China was the number world’s top clean energy investor in 2012, with a record $68 billion. China’s investments are not only within its borders. China’s total overseas investment in 2011 extended to over 130 countries and topped $60 billion.
An amazing 24 percent of all food calories produced today go uneaten. Reducing this loss and waste is a critical step toward generating enough food for a population set to reach more than 9 billion by 2050.
Fortunately, there are low-cost methods that can begin saving food immediately in both the developing and the developed world. WRI’s new working paper, Reducing Food Loss and Waste, identifies a number of these strategies. Some methods cut loss “close to the farm,” while others reduce waste “close to the fork.”
Reducing Food Loss Close to the Farm
Improved storage methods
Simple, low-cost storage methods can drastically cut food loss, especially for small-scale farmers in the developing world, who frequently lose food to factors like pests, spoilage, and transportation damage. For example, a system developed by researchers at Purdue University in which grain is stored in three interlocking plastic bags locks out pests and keeps grain fresh for months. The Food and Agriculture Organization has built more than 45,000 small, metal storage silos—just big enough for use by a single farmer—in 16 different countries. These silos have cut food loss during the storage phase to almost zero. Even using a plastic crate instead of a plastic sack during transport can cut loss dramatically by preventing bruising and squashing.
A new study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals troubling news: The aquifers that millions of Americans rely on for freshwater are being depleted at an accelerating rate. In fact, aquifer depletion in the years between 2004 and 2008 was nearly triple the historical average.
Population growth and increasing demand—in particular for irrigating crops—are straining these underground freshwater sources. In many cases, aquifers have accumulated over the course of millions of years.
There are two lessons we take away from this USGS study:
Growing demand is increasingly coming into conflict with our finite global water supply. Even in places that are historically water-abundant, growth in water demand is outstripping available supply. (That’s why WRI’s Aqueduct project focuses on water stress – the ratio of water supply and demand – more than measures of water quantity.)
The U.S. Department of Energy made a big announcement late last week, green lighting the country’s second liquefied natural gas (LNG) export project. Many argue that natural gas exports will bring economic and geopolitical benefits for the United States--with Japanese and French companies coming on board as key partners in the proposed export station.
Indeed, natural gas can contribute to a lower-emissions trajectory--but only if it’s done right. With effective policies and standards in place, natural gas can help displace coal while complementing lower-carbon, renewable energy sources. But without these protections, U.S. LNG exports will likely lead to an increase in domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, as discussed below, may have a negative effect on global climate change.
Here at WRI, we are constantly working to understand and minimize the environmental impacts of our work. Using research and expertise from around the Institute to guide us, WRI is committed to limiting the resources we use and purchasing products that reflect our environmental and social mission.
Our guidelines at our Washington, D.C. office require paper products to be certified[^1] and have high recycled fiber content. However, we had not identified other requirements beyond product certification, nor had we effectively communicated these guidelines or any paper purchasing standards with our non-D.C. offices. We also found that we were not maintaining records on all our offices’ paper purchases.
U.S. natural gas production is booming. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), production grew by 23 percent from 2007 to 2012. Now—with production projected to continue growing in the decades ahead—U.S. lawmakers and companies are considering exporting this resource internationally. But what are the climate implications of doing so?
This is a topic I sought to address in my testimony yesterday before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. The hearing, “U.S. Energy Abundance: Exports and the Changing Global Energy Landscape,” examined both the opportunities and risks presented by exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). I sought to emphasize a number of points that are often overlooked in this discussion; in particular, fugitive methane emissions and cost-effective options for reducing them.
Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas Production
While burning natural gas releases half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal, producing the fuel comes with considerable environmental risks (see: here, here, and here). We’re already seeing these risks play out domestically. In addition to habitat disruption and impacts on local air and water quality, one of the most significant implications of natural gas production is fugitive methane emissions.
Research by the World Resources Institute has found that cuts in upstream
methane leakage from natural gas systems are among the most important steps the U.S. can take
toward meeting our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals by 2020 and beyond.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released its annual greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory report. Using new data and information, the EPA lowered its estimate of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas development by 33 percent, from 10.3 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010 to 6.9 MMT in 2011. While such a reduction, if confirmed by measurement data, would undeniably be a welcome development, it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved.
Here are five big reasons we should care about fugitive methane emissions:
1) Emissions Are Still Too High.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and a key driver of global warming. Methane is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period and 72 times stronger over a 20-year period. In fact, 6.9 MMt of methane is equivalent in impact to 172 MMt of CO2 over a 100-year time horizon. That’s greater than all the direct and indirect GHG emissions from iron and steel, cement, and aluminum manufacturing combined. Reducing methane emissions is an essential step toward reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the rate of global warming.
Note: the Y-axis does not start at zero; residential, commercial, and industrial savings from the AEO 2013 High Demand Technology Scenario. Source: EIA, Annual Energy Review 2012; EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2013.
This report highlights the critical role of energy efficiency in improving the economic and environmental performance of Midwest pulp and paper mills. WRI’s analysis finds that less efficient facilities could realize significant annual energy cost savings, and decrease their greenhouse gas...
New energy efficiency legislation has been introduced by Senators Shaheen and Portman that could come before the U.S. Senate as early as this month. This bill, formally known as the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013 (S. 761), provides goals, incentives, and support for energy efficiency efforts across the U.S. economy. Passage of this bill would be a positive step toward saving money through improved efficiency while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The passage of the American Climate and Energy Security bill by the House
of Representatives in June 2009 represents the biggest step yet taken toward an
ambitious national climate policy. The bill sets forth a long-term roadmap to
shift the U.S. economy to a low carbon path.
John Larsen is a senior associate on WRI’s forty-person climate team. For three
years, he has analyzed the greenhouse gas emission reduction trajectories in
numerous proposals in the run-up to the bill.
“There’s a real appetite on Capitol Hill for WRI’s objective research and
analysis,” says Larsen. “Lawmakers turn to our climate experts to better
understand the bill’s impact on complex issues like U.S. competitiveness, trade,
and jobs.” Larsen’s own work helped inform the bill’s targets and timetables.
WRI, he believes, helped make the bill as strong as politically possible.
No bill would have been possible without buy-in from the business community.
As a co-founder of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), WRI helped
bring leading businesses and environmental organizations together to urge
significant and mandatory regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. USCAP
recommendations helped shape the bill’s provisions and were widely cited in
Congress as a basis for the legislation.
Alexander Perera leads WRI’s work in renewable energy. Looking back to the year
2000, he recounts how few companies were thinking about green power options
and how few utilities offered them. “Commercial and industrial use of renewable
energy in the U.S. totaled less than 250 megawatts – equal to just one quarter the
output of a large coal-fired power plant.”
Nine years later, a pioneering group of fifteen U.S. companies quadrupled this
output, reaching a collective goal of purchasing 1,000 megawatts of new, cost competitive
green power generated from renewable resources. In reaching this
landmark, the Green Power Market Development Group (GPMDG) has helped
catalyze a dramatic scale up of the domestic renewables industry.
WRI convened the Group and has worked with companies to explore workable
renewable energy technologies, financing strategies, and partnership arrangements.
It also helped the Group establish best practices for green power purchasing.
“Companies now obtain green power from a variety of sources,” says Perera,
“including solar and wind power, biomass, low-impact hydropower, and landfill gas.”
Core members of the GPMDG include Alcoa, Dow Chemical, DuPont, FedEx,
GM, Georgia-Pacific, Google, IBM, Interface, J&J, Michelin NA, Natureworks,
Pitney Bowes, Staples, and Starbucks.
In January 2010, two WRI-recommended features were incorporated into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) regulations for implementing the new Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). These regulatory features will help minimize the negative impacts of biofuels by ensuring comprehensive accounting of their lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The 2007 expansion of the RFS program required the EPA to set lifecycle GHG threshold standards to ensure that biofuels being used to meet the RFS emit fewer greenhouse gases than the petroleum fuel they replace. The framework the EPA would develop to calculate the GHG emissions factors of biofuels was critical. A framework that was less than comprehensive could end up creating incentives for U.S. biofuels that would actually lead to more GHG emissions than the traditional fossil-based fuels they replace. Two accounting factors were particularly important:
How to account for carbon dioxide emissions that occur in the future. WRI recommended applying a zero discount rate over a shorter time horizon, rather than the more popular proposal of a two percent discount rate over a 100 year time horizon. Our recommendation was more consistent with prior research and would minimize the risk of artificially inflating the emissions reductions benefits of bio-fuels.
Whether or not to include the emissions associated with indirect land-use changes. For example, a shift from soybean to corn farming in Iowa to make ethanol can result in a ripple effect that drives land conversion for soya in the Brazilian Cerrado. This land conversion may result in significant emissions of carbon dioxide. The uncertainty of indirect land use impacts does not render them insignificant. WRI recommended that emissions associated with global indirect land-use changes be included in the framework, along with approaches for refining the estimates as the science improves.
EPA adopted both our recommendations. In particular, the adoption of an accounting methodology that accounts for the emissions associated with global indirect land use impacts of domestic policy sets a precedent that has significant implications well beyond the biofuels sector.
WRI was the pioneering voice on the zero discount rate. WRI’s Biofuels and the Time Value of Carbon was the first and, to the best of our knowledge, only publication to address the issue of how to choose a discount rate for physical carbon in the context of biofuels accounting. WRI’s Liz Marshall was selected as one of five professional peer reviewers for the time parameters portion of the RFS rule. WRI’s perspective on indirects, set forth in Biofuels, Carbon, and Land-use Change and Rules for Fuels, also provided the analytical foundation for advocacy NGOs during the course of this debate.
In January 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued new guidance clarifying that publicly-traded companies need to disclose financially material impacts related to climate change. Material impacts may range from compliance costs related to emissions regulation, to the physical impacts of changing weather patterns on operations.
The SEC ruling creates more incentives for capital to flow to sustainable businesses, while also improving awareness of the importance of climate change among the financial community. Companies are expected to improve GHG emissions accounting and reporting - an important stepping stone to managing and reducing corporate carbon footprints. WRI plans to continue engagement with the SEC, companies, and other advocates to help develop more specific rules, methodologies, and guidance relating to environmental disclosure.
For the past decade, WRI’s Markets and Enterprise Program (MEP) has been working to analyze material impacts of climate change on companies. MEP’s publication, Coming Clean, was one of the first reports identifying the need for improved corporate disclosure and providing specific recommendations for the SEC that were grounded in detailed financial analysis. Since then, WRI has worked closely with the investment community, as well as businesses, to foster support for better financial analysis and climate change-related reporting.
Meanwhile, WRI’s GHG Protocol team has worked over the last six years to build the foundation, constituency and the accounting infrastructure for companies to engage in corporate emissions disclosure and prepare for exactly this type of requirement. The GHG Protocol’s Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard in particular is an important precursor to the SEC requirements. The SEC guidance refers to three business programs – the Carbon Disclosure Project, The Climate Registry, and the Global Reporting Initiative - that illustrate increasing corporate disclosure of climate change impacts and risks. All three of the programs’ greenhouse gas emissions reporting components are based on the GHG Protocol’s Corporate Standard.
Since 2007, both the Markets and Enterprise Program and the GHG Protocol Team have also been working through an international collaborative effort – the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), which includes the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), The Climate Registry (TCR), CERES, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) to inform and guide SEC and other national financial accounting regulatory boards to address the issue of climate change reporting in the financial statements.
Extreme weather and climate events such as storms, floods, droughts and wildfires visibly impact not only our communities and livelihoods, but also our resources and related infrastructure. In its latest report, U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) warns that domestic energy supplies are likely to face more severe disruptions given rising temperatures that result in extreme weather events. The report accurately outlines the risks climate change poses to the energy sector in the United States and serves as a wake-up call on this critical issue, which I highlighted in my testimony before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year.
While manufacturing is a critical part of the U.S. economy, it’s struggled over the last several years—both financially and environmentally. Overall U.S. manufacturing employment has dropped by more than one-third since 2000. Meanwhile, U.S. industry—of which manufacturing is the largest component—still uses more energy than any other sector and serves as the largest source of U.S. and global greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that energy efficiency can help U.S. manufacturing increase profits, protect jobs, and lead the development of a low-carbon economy. The Midwest’s pulp and paper industry is a case in point: New WRI analysis finds that the pulp and paper sector—the third-largest energy user in U.S. manufacturing—could cost-effectively reduce its energy use in the Midwest by 25 percent through use of existing technologies. These improvements could save hundreds of thousands of jobs, lower costs, and help the United States achieve its goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent by 2020. As the White House moves to cut carbon dioxide pollution in America, energy efficiency improvements in Midwest pulp and paper mills are a tangible example of the win-win-win emissions-reduction opportunities in U.S. industry.