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Power Plants Emissions Fall; Progress Unevenly Distributed

Power plant carbon dioxide emissions havedecreased 12 percent from 2008 to 2013 but remain 14 percent higher than 1990 levels, according to a new report by Ceres, four large utilities, Bank of America and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States focuses on changes in four power plant pollutants for which public emissions data are available: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury (Hg), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

It finds, Ceres President Mindy Lubber says, that “Most parts of the country are firmly on a path toward a clean energy future, but some states and utilities have a longer way to go and overall the carbon emissions curve is still not bending fast enough. To level the playing field for all utilities, and achieve the broader CO2 emissions cuts needed to combat climate change, we need final adoption of the Clean Power Plan.”

The declines so far, according to the report, were due in part to low natural gas prices, environmental regulations and a decline in overall electricity demand. Among the roughly 2,800 power plants surveyed, researchers found uneven performance across power companies and states; carbon emission rates vary by a factor of 10 among the top 100 producers. Forty-two states are decreasing their carbon dioxide emissions.

Scientists Call for Decarbonization

Two new documents spell out how carbon reductions can be made. A United Nations-backed report written by scientists at University College London (UCL) recommended several actions to help the United Kingdom achieve its legally binding emissions reduction target, and the closing statement of a pre-U.N. climate treaty conference recommended actions to close the emissions gap between current climate policy and a pathway limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The UCL report concludes that meeting the U.K.’s domestic climate objectives will require reducing emissions from the country’s power generation in 2030 by 85–90 percent relative to current levels.

The move away from fossil fuels was also the focus of attendees at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change (OCFUCC15) science conference in Paris in preparation for the U.N. climate change talks later this year at which nations will attempt to seal a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“To stay below 2C (36F), or even 3C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economyover the next 20–30 years,” said Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

In its closing statement, the OCFUCC15 Scientific Committee stated that cost-effective C2 pathways require greenhouse gas emission reductions 40–70 percent below current levels by 2050 and noted that investments in climate-change adaptation and mitigation could provide co-benefits that increase protection from current climate variability, decrease damages from air and water pollution, and advance sustainable development.

At the conference, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University called for an enforceable global price on carbon—not the current“spotty” global cap-and-trade program—to drive the shift toward a low-carbon economy and for carbon taxes to be used to reduce other taxes. “This reflects the basic economic principle: that it’s better to tax bad things than good things,” he said.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin noted that the majority of the OCFUCC sessions described how communities, industries, and governments could make energy and climate progress with or without a treaty in Paris—a reality, said Revkin, reflecting “the spreading recognition that relying on top-down treaty-making as the determinative factor in shaping the human-climate relationship is wishful thinking.”

Major Wind Farm Planned in North Carolina

In about a month, construction is set to begin on a commercial-scale wind energy farm—more than 100 turbines on 22,000 acres—in North Carolina. The farm will power Amazon’s cloud-computing division.

The U.S. Department of Energy published a report in 2008 examining the feasibility of using wind energy to generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2030. One challenge—boosting U.S. wind generation to 300 gigawatts. The new wind energy farm is due, in part, to a North Carolina law requiring utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios.

“It’s conceivable that we can see a dramatic growth in wind as we’ve seen in solar because utilities are entering into a new phase,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He noted that factors such as abundant natural gas, coal plant retirements, and aging nuclear plants are already forcing change in the region’s energy market.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.