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.
A new report from CERES draws a connection between water risk and hydraulic fracturing in the United States. The report adds an important dimension to the conversation about how energy use and water stress will play out in the years ahead.
The report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water, brings together Aqueduct’s high-resolution water stress maps with FracFocus.org data on the location and water use of U.S. shale oil and gas wells. The complete map (see below) shows where potentially water-intense hydraulic fracturing is happening in water-stressed areas.
The results of the study are eye-opening: Almost half of the more than 25,000 oil and gas wells mapped by Ceres are in water basins with either high or extremely high water stress.
Back in 2009, developed countries pledged to provide $30 billion in climate finance by the end of 2012 in order to help developing countries implement low-carbon, climate-resilient development initiatives. This funding period—which took place from 2010 to 2012—is known as the “fast-start finance” period.
Our analysis reveals two sides to the U.S. contribution of roughly $7.5 billion in fast-start finance: On one hand, it represents a significant effort to increase international climate finance relative to previous years, in spite of the global financial crisis. On the other, it is not clear that the entirety of the contribution aligns with internationally agreed principles, which stipulate that the finance be “new and additional” and “balanced” between adaptation and mitigation. In any case, the United States, along with other developed countries, is now faced with the challenge of scaling up climate finance to developing countries to reach a collective $100 billion per year by 2020.
The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies. They are also the two largest producers and consumers of coal, and the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. In recent years, however, their paths on coal have started to diverge.
Over the last few years, coal consumption has dropped dramatically in the United States, mainly due to low natural gas prices. In response to weak domestic demand, the U.S. coal industry has been rushing to find its way out to the international market. Last year, U.S. coal exports hit a historical high of 114 million metric tons.
However, it is worth noting that the shift away from coal in the U.S. may not be permanent. As my colleague, Kristin Meek, pointed out in an earlier blog post, coal use in the U.S. power sector was on the rise again towards the end of 2012, likely driven by the new uptick in natural gas prices.
On the other side of the globe, China’s appetite for coal continues to grow. In response, Chinese power companies are looking to tap the international coal market for sources that are more reliable and cost competitive. Among those markets is the United States. In 2012, China imported 290 million metric tons of coal. China was the third largest destination for U.S. coal exports, behind the Netherlands and the U.K.
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.
In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Obama ratified, a pioneering law that requires emissions targets and timetables for a U.S. government agency, and the development of a human rights policy for an export credit agency.
The legislation, a first of its kind, was incorporated into the 2010 Appropriations Bill and requires the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to take action on climate change and to develop - and publish - binding internal environmental and human rights guidelines.
They are also mandated to implement a revised climate change mitigation plan to phase down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with projects and sub-projects they finance by at least 30% in 10 years and 50% in 15 years over 2008 levels. This marks the first time that a U.S. government agency has set a target and timetable on its emissions reductions. In August 2010, under the leadership of new president Elizabeth Littlefield, OPIC took this mandate one step further, and adopted progressive environmental and human rights guidelines that have set the gold standard for financial institutions worldwide.
WRI played a key role in the outcome, engaging with Congress on the issue over three years, along with a wider coalition of NGOs. WRI served as a key resource for legislators in the U.S. Congress who drafted the legislation. The legal requirement builds on WRI’s earlier work to get OPIC to adopt a voluntary greenhouse gas initiative in 2007 to reduce its emissions by 20% over 10 years as well as a February 2010 landmark settlement of a 2002 lawsuit filed against OPIC by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and several U.S. cities affected by climate change, to which they alleged OPIC’s investments had made a substantial contribution.
The settlement required OPIC to establish a goal of reducing its emissions by 20% over the next 10 years, to conduct full environmental impact assessments for projects that emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and to publicly report its emissions from these projects annually. In August 2010, OPIC released their environmental and human rights guidelines, which strongly reflect the inputs and recommendations of WRI.
In October 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order (EO) 13514 on Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, requiring the federal government to lead by example towards a clean energy economy and measure, report and reduce, direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. The EO also set an important precedent by mandating that a national government reduce GHG emissions from its own operations.
“Every year, the Federal Government consumes more energy than any other single organization or company in the United States,” said President Obama. “That energy goes towards lighting and heating government buildings, fueling vehicles and powering federal projects across the country and around the world. The government has a responsibility to use that energy wisely, to reduce consumption, improve efficiency, use renewable energy, like wind and solar, and cut costs.”
The collective emissions reduction targets established by the EO (a 28% total reduction in scope 1 (direct emissions) and scope 2 (indirect emissions associated with purchased electricity) below 2008 levels by 2020 and a 13% reduction in scope 3 (other indirect emissions)) will ensure significant reductions in the U.S., while demonstrating that ambitious reductions are achievable by other large U.S. entities and corporations. By including scope 2 and 3 emissions, the EO will also drive important shifts throughout the government’s vast supply chain.
To comply with the EO, agencies will conduct GHG inventories based on the GHG accounting principles articulated in the newly developed GHG Protocol for the US Public Sector, which outlines how government agencies in the U.S. – whether federal, state or local – should develop a GHG inventory. WRI coordinated a large stakeholder process to develop this protocol that included over 50 U.S. agencies, ensuring its relevance and utility to the government. This extensive engagement during the process also built capacity within the federal agencies for effective emissions measurement and management. The federal government also drew upon the principles in the draft of the GHG Protocol Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Standard in developing rules to account for Scope 3 emissions.
This has been a big week for U.S.-China collaboration on climate change. Yesterday the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG), which was established in April by the Joint Statement on Climate Change, presented their report on bilateral cooperation between the two countries. Not only does it lay out actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a close reading sheds light on important themes for the future of U.S.-China collaboration on climate change.
The report centers on five separate “action initiatives.” to address key drivers of greenhouse gas emissions in both countries. The U.S. and China make up more than 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, so significant collaboration between the countries is absolutely essential to addressing the problem. The five areas that the report singles out include: vehicle emissions; smart grids; carbon capture, utilization and storage; greenhouse gas data collection and management; and building and industry energy efficiency.
Although the report is built around these five initiatives, four big themes can also be seen: