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Bring in Smart Policies, Clear the Air on Clean Energy

This post was co-authored with Jamshyd Godrej, chairman of Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd and a WRI Board Member. It originally appeared in The Economic Times.

Ministers are gathering in New Delhi today to address an urgent challenge: how to unlock the full potential of clean energy to drive economic growth, expand energy access, and protect the climate. The 4th Clean Energy Ministerial — which brings together energy ministers and other delegates from more than 20 leading economies — is a critical opportunity to inject new life into the global clean energy transition.

While we've seen progress on renewable energy, the sector still faces barriers to increase financial support and create strong national policies that will enable it to flourish. First, some good news: The renewable energy market has blossomed in recent years. In just the last decade, global clean energy investment has increased five-fold, from $50 billion a year to more than $250 billion. And more than 100 countries have renewable energy targets in place.

India has set itself on a remarkable journey by ushering in renewable energy growth. The National Action Plan on Climate Change, launched in 2008, aims to have 15 percent of India's electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2020. Currently, the country produces slightly more than 12 percent of its energy from renewables, putting it on track for that goal. India has been using various policy levers to advance renewable energy, including tax and generation-based incentives, capital subsidies, and feed-in tariffs. The Renewable Portfolio Obligations is also providing support for renewable energy developers. Even so, the country is not yet achieving its full potential — which is critical for the 400 million people who lack access to basic electricity.

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Capturing the Fugitives: Reducing Methane Emissions from Natural Gas

The rapid expansion of natural gas development in the United States has been a double-edged sword. While natural gas supporters are quick to point out its economic benefits and green attributes—natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal during combustion—this isn’t the whole story. Natural gas comes with environmental consequences, including risks to air and water quality.

One risk is “fugitive methane emissions,” potent greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas development process. This methane—which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe—contributes to global warming and undercuts the climate advantage that cleaner-burning natural gas has over coal and diesel. (Learn more about fugitive methane emissions in our recent blog post.)

Despite the controversy surrounding natural gas development, energy forecasts suggest that natural gas is here to stay. Fortunately, several pathways are available to limit the climate impacts associated with its development. WRI just released a working paper, Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems, which outlines a number of state and federal policies and industry best practices to cost-effectively reduce fugitive methane emissions. We find that with the right amount of reductions, natural gas does offer advantages from a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions perspective over coal and diesel.

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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas

Natural gas is booming in the United States. Production has increased by 20 percent in the last five years, fueled largely by technological advances in shale gas extraction. Other countries--including China--are now studying our experience with this abundant new resource.

But the growing role of natural gas in the U.S. energy mix hasn’t come without controversy. Natural gas development poses a variety of environmental risks. In addition to habitat disruption and impacts on local water and air quality, one of the most significant concerns is the climate impact resulting from the “fugitive methane emissions” that escape into the atmosphere from various points along the natural gas supply chain.

So what are fugitive methane emissions, and how big of a problem are they? How do emissions from natural gas compare to those from coal? And are there ways to mitigate them? The answers to these questions will help us better understand how natural gas development will affect climate change.

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Lessons from Thailand: Mobilizing Investment in Energy Efficiency

Developing countries will need about $531 billion of additional investments in clean energy technologies every year in order to limit global temperature rise to 2° C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s worst impacts. To attract investments on the scale required, developing country governments, with support from developed countries, must undertake “readiness” activities that will encourage public and private sector investors to put their money into climate-friendly projects.

WRI’s six-part blog series, Mobilizing Clean Energy Finance, highlights individual developing countries’ experiences in scaling up investments in clean energy and explores the role climate finance plays in addressing investment barriers. The cases draw on WRI’s recent report, Mobilizing Climate Investment.

The development of Thailand’s energy efficiency sector is an interesting case study. It demonstrates how strong government leadership combined with strategic support from international climate finance can drive the transition toward an energy-efficient economy.

In the early 1990s, Thailand’s economy was growing rapidly at 10 percent per year; the power sector was growing even faster. The government recognized that conserving energy would provide a low-cost way to meet its citizens’ rising demand for energy.

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New Data Reveals Rising Coal Use

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

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Climate Change Must Factor in Smart Policy

This piece originally appeared on TheHill.com.

America is blessed with abundant energy sources, from an array of traditional fuels and natural gas to solar, wind, and other renewable resources. But as the pressure on these resources grows, the United States must have a plan to ensure a stronger and more sustainable future. In today’s world, any smart and effective energy strategy must take into account the risks of climate change.

Climate change impacts are already here. They do not have a political affiliation, nor are they constrained by state boundaries. Moreover, climate impacts are taking a serious toll on America’s infrastructure and economy.

Let’s look at some examples:

America’s coastal areas are particularly vulnerable, as rising sea levels and heavier precipitation are increasing the impacts of hurricanes and other storms. More than 58 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, some $8.3 trillion, is generated in coastal areas (including the Great Lakes). This accounts for some 66 million jobs. Florida, in particular, faces significant threats due to rising seas.

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China’s New Leadership: Confronting Energy, Climate, and Environmental Challenges

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQs.org.

Leading China experts and top media representatives participated in a ChinaFAQs briefing this past Friday to discuss how the country will address pressing environmental, climate, and energy challenges at home and globally in the coming years. At the National People’s Congress beginning March 5, 2013, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are expected to formally become China’s president and premier, respectively. Other top spots in China’s ministries will also be assigned, with implications for China’s future of low-carbon development and for the United States.

The briefing was one of ChinaFAQs’ events highlighting the reasons for China’s action on low-carbon energy, including: energy security, economic competitiveness through technological innovation, and climate and environmental impacts.

Listen to the recording:

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Embracing Ecological Progress in China

This post originally appeared on ChinaDaily.com.

Over the past two decades, the world has witnessed a remarkable period of economic and human development: More than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water; life expectancy has increased by approximately five years; more children are going to school, with 90 percent enrolled in primary education; and per capita income levels have doubled across developing countries.

China has experienced an even more profound transformation during this period. The country has sustained an annual GDP growth of around 10 percent. Five hundred million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. People's lives have visibly improved and there are more opportunities for them.

Yet, many challenges remain. With the world's expanding population, rapid economic growth, and booming middle class, the pressure on natural resources is mounting. The truth is the world is on an unsustainable path.

China is part of this problem, but it also must be part of the solution. China faces real challenges when it comes to the environment and natural resources. Demand for water is rapidly outpacing supply, with food, energy, and domestic use intensifying for this scarce resource. The need for affordable and clean energy is on the rise. China's rapidly expanding urban population is having a significant impact on transportation, energy, and water infrastructure.

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Mobilizing Climate Investment

The Role of International Climate Finance in Creating Readiness for Scaled-Up, Low-Carbon Energy

Limiting global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels will require billions of dollars in investments each year to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and shift to low-emissions development pathways. This report draws on the experiences of six developing countries to examine how...

Debunking 3 Myths About U.S. Emissions

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

The national conversation around climate change has resumed. In both the Inauguration and State of the Union addresses, President Obama devoted considerable time to the issue, including his declaration that “we must do more to combat climate change.”

For some, this call to action may come as a surprise, as multiple recent reports have hailed falling U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, found that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States dropped 13 percent over the past five years.

However, the story is not as simple as it seems. By taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the United States needs to do more to shift to a safer pathway.

Here are three popular misconceptions about U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and the underlying truth behind them:

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