Normative Narratives


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Trump’s War on the Environment

Despite President Trump’s “pledge” to “promote clean air and clean water”, things are not looking good on the climate change front. By targeting key U.S. policies–the Clean Power Plan and vehicle emission standards–and international agreements–the Paris Climate Accord and the Green Climate Fund–Trump’s administration is threatening to undo recent progress made combating climate change.

Trump’s proposed budget would cut EPA funding by 31%. Scott Pruitt, the new EPA head, said he is unconvinced “that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change.” This is an old tobacco industry tactic, justifying inaction by saying that more research is needed–it is not, there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject.

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said of investing in climate change mitigation, “we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money”. Trump is also reconsidering the government’s use of the “social cost of carbon” metric, which takes into account the potential economic damage from carbon emissions that would result from proposed policies.

All things considered, it is not hyperbolic to say that the Trump administration is carrying out a multi-pronged “War on the Environment”

U.S Emissions–The Clean Power Plan and Vehicle Emission Standards:

Pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2015. 29 percent is from electricity, 27 percent is from transportation, 21 percent is from industry, 12 percent is from commercial and residential, and 9 percent is from agriculture.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are highly concentrated in the electricity, transportation, and industry sectors. These three sectors accounted for 77% of 2014 emissions according to the EPA.

While a national cap-and-trade policy or carbon tax would help reduce emissions across the board, partisan disagreement has prevented such a policy from being enacted. To get around this gridlock, the Obama administration targeted key sectors through existing legislation and executive action. Specifically, the Clean Power Plan (part of the Clean Air Act) addresses emissions in the electricity sector, while stricter vehicle emission standards address emissions in the transportation sector. These important new rules are now in the crosshairs of the Trump administration:

“The tailpipe pollution regulations were among Mr. Obama’s major initiatives to reduce global warming and were put forth jointly by the E.P.A. and the Transportation Department. They would have forced automakers to build passenger cars that achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, compared with about 36 miles per gallon today.

Those regulations are locked into place for vehicle model years through 2021, and just before Mr. Trump took office, the E.P.A. put forth a final rule intended to cement them for vehicles built from 2022 through 2025. However, the E.P.A. did not jointly release its plan to do so with the Transportation Department, leaving a legal loophole for the Trump administration to take advantage of.

The E.P.A.’s Clean Power Plan regulations, which would cut climate-warming pollution from power plants, will probably be much harder for Mr. Pruitt to undo. He will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to replace it, a process that could take up to two years and is expected to be fraught with legal challenges and delays along the way.”

Undoing the Clean Power Plan and/or stricter vehicle emission standards would have devastating impacts on air quality (and therefore people’s health) and the fight against climate change.

Global Emissions–The Paris Climate Accord and The Green Climate Fund

The Paris Climate Accord, agreed to by 194 countries, is built on the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). These contributions represent a country’s climate change mitigation targets, taking into consideration its economic ability and level of development. Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Accord.

Failure by the U.S. to realize our commitments (a certainty if the Clean Power Plan and stricter vehicle emissions standards are scrapped) would not completely undo the Paris Accord–other countries have stated they will press ahead with its implementation. But, as the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, such a failure would surely crimp the Accord’s effectiveness.

Furthermore, as INDCs are to be updated every 5 years, future commitments by other countries are likely to be less ambitious without U.S. commitment, leadership, and funding. Climate change experts are relying on more ambitious future commitments to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The Accord was seen as a starting point towards stronger future action, now even this starting point is in jeopardy.

What about the commitments of developing countries, many of which face increasing energy needs and have untapped fossil fuels reserves? While it is true that sustainable development is a challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic. These countries have neither the strong fossil fuel lobbyists nor the “sunk” energy grid infrastructure costs the U.S. does. Furthermore, these countries tend to rely more on agriculture for their economic output, placing a premium on predictable climate patterns and environmental protection. Therefore, with a little prodding in the right direction, developing countries may be willing to largely forgo fossil fuel use–this is where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) comes into play:

“The agreement reaffirms an earlier collective pledge from the developed nations to jointly provide $100 billion a year in grants, loans, and investments in developing countries, from public and private sources.

With energy use soaring over the past decade in Asia, it is clear that helping emerging economies avoid tapping their coal reserves in favor of installing renewable sources in solar, wind, tidal, wave, and geothermal energy will be essential in mitigating their carbon emissions without unfairly stifling their economic development.”

Trump’s proposed budget would completely eliminate America’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund. U.S. leadership is needed to galvanize global efforts to even come close to the lofty GCF goal of $100 billion a year. Without this funding, poorer countries will not be able to meet their commitments under the Paris Accord, further undermining its effectiveness.

If absent Green Climate Funding developing countries develop unsustainably, efforts taken by developed countries to lower their emissions would likely prove inadequate in preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

“It’s the Economy (and National Security), Stupid”

Even if you do not care about the environment or sustainable development, climate change has economic and national security implications for the U.S.

“In terms of returns on investment, climate finance is ridiculously cheap for what America gets for it: goodwill and cooperation, less warming, clean and resilient growth, and, importantly, fewer refugees.

What’s more, these renewable energy sectors hold vast business potential for American companies wanting to supply technical expertise and equipment. Establishing the U.S. as a leader in green energy is directly in the Trump administration’s interest as it aspires to slow, or at least balance, China’s expanding global clout.

Aid to help poor rural farmers on marginal lands adapt and thrive can be the key to avoiding a surge of climate refugees flowing either into already crowded urban centers in the developing world or, worse yet, forcing people to set out on dangerous voyages over land or water in search of a livable future. In security terms, the U.S. military and relief agencies alike understand that an ounce of this kind of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Some people may dismiss the notion that climate change is a national security risk as liberal-hippy nonsense, but this is simply not the case. Trump’s own Defense Secretary James Mattis stated climate change was a national security risk during his confirmation hearing.

On the economic front, clean energy related activities already are and will increasingly be big employers in the U.S. However, growth in future clean energy employment could be compromised if Trump’s budget for the Department of Energy comes to pass. “The [budget] plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research.” This is exactly the type of public R&D needed to ensure the U.S. is a leader in the emerging clean energy economy.

Multilateral clean energy financing also promotes American exports. “…of the top 30 markets for U.S. renewable energy exports—as determined by the Commerce Department—more than half are eligible for GCF [Green Climate Fund] investments. As has occurred in other multilateral environment funds, the GCF is beginning to directly finance some projects that have U.S. sponsors or use U.S. equipment and services.”

China aims to spend at least $360 Billion on renewable energy by 2020 because it understands the value of being the global leader in the clean energy economy. Trump talks about “being tough on China”, however his stance on clean energy investment is anything but.

Resistance Is Not Futile

As with any war, the Trump administration will face resistance in its efforts to undo important environmental protections. Obviously liberals will oppose Trump, and many foreign leaders will try to get him to reconsider his position. The state of California, a progressive thorn in the Trump administration’s side on a number of issues, recently upheld stricter vehicle emission standards in a challenge to the aforementioned rollbacks at the federal level.

Perhaps most significantly, however, is the resistance to Trump’s anti environmental protection agenda that is growing in the Republican party:

The activists’ efforts have not swayed anywhere near a majority yet on Capitol Hill. Only 20 or so of the 237 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have spoken out on climate change this year. But they hope to build a big enough bloc in Congress, or enough influence at the White House, to temper Trump’s agenda.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that more and more Republicans are interested in this issue,” said Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “This issue was regrettably politicized some 20 or so years ago, and we are in the process of taking some of the politics out.”

The negative effects of environmental degradation–economic, national security, and health–are felt by people across the political spectrum. If enough Republicans take a stand, it just might be enough to get the fight against climate change back on track.


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Green News: Competition in the Waste-to-Fuel / Energy Industry

(Everyone is sick of hearing about this government shutdown anyways right??)

The potential of the waste-to-energy industry is a recurring topic here at NN. To quote a NYT article on the subject, “THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.” It seems that energy producers and waste management companies agree, as there has been a strong push in the past decades to turn energy based waste / fuel into commercially viable alternative power source. Most articles I have reviewed so far have referred to the gasification of garbage in specially designed power plants. A new concept proposes to capture the methane released from garbage already in landfills and turning it into energy/fuel:

Clean Energy Fuels will announce on Thursday that it has started selling a fuel made of methane from landfills and other waste sources at its more than 40 filling stations in California. The company, which is backed by T. Boone Pickens, is developing a nationwide network of natural gas pumps and plans to introduce the fuel elsewhere as well.

The company expects to sell 15 million gallons of the fuel in California this year, more than double the amount of similar fuels the Environmental Protection Agency projected would be produced nationwide.

To many in the industry, the pace of the fuel’s development has been something of a surprise.

“Though California and others have been investing in the development of this fuel, I don’t think people were expecting there to be a significant public supply or access this soon — maybe not even this decade,” said Tim Carmichael, who leads the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, a trade group.

A big factor in methane’s rise is the surge in natural gas production from shale drilling, which had already nudged the transportation industry to begin shifting to vehicles that can run on the cleaner-burning fuel, making it easier to meet emissions standards.

Another reason is powerful government incentives, especially in California, that have imposed strict regulations intended to help reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the program, suppliers that reduce emissions during the production, transportation and use of the fuel are awarded tradable credits.

These and similar federal incentives are allowing Clean Energy to sell the fuel, which is called Redeem, at the same price as its conventional natural gas fuel even though it is more expensive to produce.

But because of its source, the fuel counts as renewable and takes less energy to extract and process, making it more attractive to companies seeking to burnish their green credentials

The fuel’s environmental benefits also include capturing the methane before it is released into the atmosphere. When the methane-derived fuel is burned, it is far less harmful to the atmosphere than petroleum fuels. But the methane that escapes directly from decomposing waste is more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon.

For this reason, many large-scale farms, wastewater treatment companies and garbage companies have developed systems to capture escaping methane — known as biogas — for both transportation and electricity, and several start-up companies are working on systems of their own. There are projects in Europe as well, where biogas for transport is more common.

Beyond the bottom line, customers are increasingly interested in how clean the fuel is, said Andrew J. Littlefair, the chief executive of Clean Energy, adding that Redeem can burn 90 percent cleaner than diesel. “We’re seeing from these heavy-duty trucking fleets, and these shippers that hire these trucking fleets, they’re really interested in sustainability,” he said. “It’s gotten to be a very important part of the sale.”

John Simourian, chief executive of Lily Transportation, which uses a nationwide network of trucks to move a range of products, including construction materials and groceries, said that only a small portion of his fleet ran on natural gas but that the company was shifting over.

Not only is the fuel less expensive, but it gives the company a competitive advantage with customers on price and environmental concerns. “It’s just a win all around,” he said.

It is interesting to note all the different avenues being explored when it comes to turning waste into something valuable and environmentally friendly–and why not? According to Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs “Waste is a problem, so if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.” But you don’t need to be en expert to know that trash is a problem, especially in densely populated areas (such as major cities) which produce a lot of trash; it stinks, it takes up room, and it costs money to get rid of. It is safe to say that, with the current trash disposal system, we have a “surplus of trash”.

Now imagine a world where not only is trash not a liability, but there are actually companies biding for trash (both intra-industry and inter-industry; some want it for landfill methane extraction, others to gasify the garbage directly into energy)–a trash shortage! A stream of revenue could open up for large municipalities, instead of a large bill for waste management. It is true that eventually waste-to-trash will have to get off subsidies to become truly commercially viable. However, if as a society we are unwilling to reward waste-to-energy for it’s positive externalities (such as less emissions and less garbage around), we can still hold “dirty” energy producers accountable for their negative externalities via carbon tax / cap and trade. As waste-to-energy matures and becomes more efficient, and emissions prices stabilize due to a more complete global market, the industry should eventually be able to compete without subsidies. It would appear this world is not so unimaginable or far-off as one may think.

 

 


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Green News: Who Is Cutting and Who is Increasing GHG Emissions? The Answer May Suprise You

I gotta say, it is nice to not be covering the Syrian civil war in this post. Events in Syria have dominated the news lately, but it seems that at least for the immediate future diplomatic exercises have stalled the prospect of outside military intervention.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an interesting trend I have noticed lately, involving different countries efforts (or lack thereof) to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The trend is interesting because it involves major players from both extremes (both high emitting nations and sustainability champions) moving forward with policies that would seem to contradict their historical stances on climate change. In recent news, the U.S. and China are moving to curb GHG emissions , while Australia and Canada are moving towards less sustainable energy portfolios.

(For some background, please see interactive maps on: GHG emissions by country per capita, CO2 emissions by country, renewable / fossil fuel energy production and consumption by country)

Australia and Canada have, in recent history, been global champions of sustainable development. Both countries were original ratifying members of the Kyoto Protocol, and have signed the protocol into law (although it appears Canada will not make it’s emissions targets). Australia became one of the first countries to sign a carbon tax into law, and while Canada does not have a federal carbon tax, several Providences have their own regulations in place. Canada and Australia, with their natural beauty, seemed like global poster-children for sustainable development. However, recent developments show these two countries shifting in the other direction.

Economic downturns have pitted environmentalists vs. industry in a zero-sum and short-sighted game, in which advocacy for sustainable development could be political suicide. Of course, in the long run, we need a more sustainable global energy portfolio; but these are problems for future generations who do not have the unemployment problems of today’s world, opponents of carbon taxes argue (I am not considering the climate change skeptic as a legitimate opposition anymore).

Canada has seen rising GHG emissions in recent years, with no future decline in sight–if anything, increased production of oil sands forecasts emissions trending upwards in Canada. Politics have turned against environmentalists in Canada for reasons discussed above; anybody who thinks about environmental sustainability implicitly does not care about jobs / the economy / problems facing Canadians today (sound familiar? this is a common argument for putting off action on reducing emissions around the world).

Australia recently had elections, which were won by conservatives based partially on a promise to abolish the unpopular carbon tax:

The Australian mining industry welcomed Saturday’s election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition’s pledge to abolish the carbon tax on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

The coalition of Liberal and National parties campaigned on a platform to repeal the taxes within 100 days of taking the reins of government.

“On the first sitting day of Parliament under a coalition government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax,” Abbott said on the Liberal party’s website that included policy documentation stating the party would also rescind the MRRT.

For some Australians, the free-rider issue seems to make being environmentally conscious not worth fronting the bill–literally:

The carbon tax is one reason Sydney resident Geoff Hamment, who normally votes for Labor, is supporting the conservatives this time around. Hamment said he’s seen his household electricity bills go “through the roof” since the tax was introduced.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think us paying so much is just pointless when you have countries like China churning it out.”

The tax is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that most Australians, but not the wealthy, get government compensation for higher electricity prices.

For all the well-founded China bashing on the environmental front–China has overtaken the U.S. as the global leader in terms of absolute GHG emissions (although the U.S., per capita, still emits more than China; this is arguably a better measure of a countries energy efficiency)–the Chinese government appears to be trending towards more sustainable environmental policies:

BEIJING — The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.

The plan, released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.

The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China’s largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed.” he said. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning — China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”

In the United States, the world’s number two GHG emitter, the issue of emissions has been divided largely down partisan lines. Liberals, led by President Obama, believe in taxing carbon and subsidizing renewable energies as part of an “all of the above” energy portfolio to meet future demand and cut emissions. Conservatives tend to argue against the need to curb GHG emissions, largely for the same reasons mentioned above with respect to Canada and Australia. However, it seems Obama intends to bypass partisan gridlock by passing executive orders, carried out through the EPA, to curb emissions from fossil fuel power plants:

The Environmental Protection Agency is due to unveil next week the first batch of regulations under President Barack Obama’s new climate action plan – a carbon emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants.

If standards are as strict as the industry expects, it could be the death knell for new coal plant construction. The recent bankruptcy of Longview, a highly efficient West Virginia coal plant, is an example of the pressures already facing the industry.

The EPA is due to issue an emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants by September 20. Proposed standards on existing plants will follow in 2014.

Obama asked the EPA to re-propose a rule it introduced last year using a section of the federal Clean Air Act that required all new power plants, including those that use coal, to meet a standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour – the rate of an average gas-fired plant.

Sources that have met with the administration in recent weeks said the agency has likely revised its earlier proposal to provide separate standards for natural gas and coal plants, and also raised the emissions limits for coal plants.

The new rules, like those initially proposed in 2012, are also likely to include a requirement for new coal plants to use a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon emissions and stores the carbon underground, that is years away from being available on a commercial scale.

Eugene Trisko, a lawyer who represents clients such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in energy and environmental matters, said CCS cannot be deployed if coal plants, such as Longview, are unable to run.

“If you really wanted to advance CCS, you really need to build new coal plants because those are the plants that one day or another would be the laboratories for CCS,” he said.

“Nobody is going to put CCS on plants that are 50 years old,” he added.

But some environmentalists argue that new EPA rules will only add another layer of financial risk around coal plant investment even in coal-reliant states like West Virginia.

Instead of investing in new coal plants, which will only become more costly, states should diversify their energy supply, said Cathy Kunkel, an energy research consultant and fellow at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The concept behind taxing carbon emissions and subsidizing renewable energies is pretty straightforward. Emissions represent a negative externality, pollution, that is a detriment to society as a whole. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system creates a cost for this negative externality, discouraging its use and potentially helping to fund R & D in renewables (and therefore encouraging competing cleaner energy sources). Renewable energy has positive externalities (energy with lower levels GHG emissions), subsidies compensate producers for these externalities. Furthermore, renewable energy is still a relatively infant industry, which combined with its inherent positive externalities and increasing global energy demand, make it a prime candidate for government subsidy.

Do not get me wrong, we are still a long way away from the point where China and America can lecture Australia and Canada about their emissions (especially considering that China and America represent large export markets for Australian and Canadian fossil fuels respectively). However, it is interesting to note the role reversal, which I believe at it’s root is a failure of the international community to embrace the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Previous environmental champions, discouraged by the lack of international commitment to emissions reductions, have created an environment where politicians can win elections by tapping into that frustration. “We have tried, now we are concerned with our own problems.” people in these countries may argue. Australia has taken this stance on step further, with respect to ODA:

The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”

“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy.”

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation’s image of global cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 in 2014.

While this stance on international relations is obviously flawed and short-sighted, it is understandable how Canada and Australia got to this point. The U.S. and China, on the other hand, are recognizing they must lead any global initiative to reign in GHG emissions, before the costs rise further and irreparable damage is done.  China has an even more pressing problem, with the deadly smog it’s unchecked emissions has produced. This is the natural ebb and flow of accountability without coordinated global policy. Those who are mostly responsible for GHG emissions, fearing future accountability, want to work together to make those future costs as low and evenly shared as possible. Those who have forgone some economic growth for sustainable development in the past feel they have already done their part, and are beginning to forsake what they see as failed international commitments for domestic goals.
This is a failure of global policy coordination, and one the world cannot afford. The G20 would be a natural place to come up with a global environmental commitment, based on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (which is really only fair) as the worlds largest emitters are represented there. Furthermore, as a relatively new group (established in 1999, the first meeting of the G20 Leaders took place in Washington, D.C., on November 14-15, 2008)the G20 doesn’t have the history of failed negotiations that sometimes doom other global climate change efforts. Australia taking over the U.N.S.C. and G20 presidency in 2014 looked liked a “win” for sustainable development a few years back; now I am not so sure that is the case.