Climate Science and Policy Don’t Add Up
Compromise does little to address impacts of a changing climate
September 10, 2015
Two degrees Celsius is one of the few numbers world leaders agree on in relation to climate change. If humans can rein in greenhouse-gas emissions, largely generated by the burning of fossil fuels, quickly enough to prevent the atmosphere from warming more than 2 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels, then sea-level rise, severe storms, droughts, wildfires, ocean acidification and myriad other negative impacts of a changing climate will be more manageable.
Alternatively, an increase in global temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius could result in irreversible impacts that could make adapting to climate change nearly impossible.
World leaders agreed to this 2-degree limit in 2009, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Even then, the limit was considered somewhat arbitrary. The limit had been suggested by the Stockholm Environment Institute in an early 1990s report, but the report’s authors acknowledged that “temperature increases beyond 1 degree Celsius may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and nonlinear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”
In Copenhagen, the delegation from the island nation of Tuvalu argued that its country could be submerged even if warming was held to the “acceptable” 2 degree-Celsius limit, and, therefore, demanded a limit below 1.5 degrees. Because wealthy and developing nations refused to support a lower limit, Tuvalu, along with other less-wealthy nations, was stuck with the 2-degree limit.
Since the Copenhagen agreement six years ago, many scientists have concluded that the 2-degree limit is too high. In December 2013, James Hansen, former NASA and current Columbia University climatologist, co-authored a paper that suggested a limit closer to 1 degree.
“A 2 degree Celsius global warming target would cause large climate change with disastrous consequences,” he wrote.
In July, Hansen published another paper, suggesting that 2 degrees of warming could result in several meters of sea-level rise because of ice-sheet melt. In a follow-up essay to that paper, he wrote: “My conclusion, based on the total information available, is that continued high emissions would result in multi-meter sea level rise this century and lock in continued ice sheet disintegration such that building cities or rebuilding cities on coastlines would become foolish.”
Petra Tschakert, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, described a 2-degree target as “utterly inadequate” in a commentary published earlier this year.
“A low temperature target is the best bet to prevent severe, pervasive, and potentially irreversible impacts while allowing ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring food production and security, and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner,” she wrote.
This December, world leaders will once again meet to discuss the changing climate, at a U.N. conference in Paris. They will negotiate strategies to adhere to the 2-degree limit they agreed to in Copenhagen — the same limit that scientists now describe as “inadequate,” “disastrous” and “unpredictable.”
The Paris summit will showcase the disconnect between what is politically feasible and what is scientifically necessary to address climate change.
A 6 percent annual decrease of fossil-fuel emissions beginning in 2013, with 100 gigatons of carbon reforestation, according to Hansen, would have limited carbon dioxide levels to a scientifically acceptable 350 parts per million (ppm) and warming of about 1 degree in 2100.
These are generally the figures Peter Nightingale, physics professor at the University of Rhode Island and concerned grandfather of six, references. Like Hansen, he describes the 2-degree limit as “totally irresponsible.”
“If you strive for (a 2 degrees Celsius limit) there will be places that are OK, but there are lots of places that will be really cooked,” Nightingale said during a recent interview with ecoRI News.
He said global emissions are still headed in the wrong direction, increasing by about 3 percent annually since 2000. For each year the global community fails to meet the prescribed emissions reduction target, the struggle becomes more difficult, Nightingale said.
Delay of emission reductions until 2020 requires a reduction rate of 15 percent annually to achieve 350 ppm in 2100, according to Hansen. In other words, how quickly the global community acts and to what extent matters a lot.
When Nightingale compares policy proposals introduced at the Rhode Island Statehouse to current science, he said he finds the proposals to be inadequate.
In March 2013 he submitted testimony on a bill to extend and enlarge the distributed generation program, concluding that the program should be expanded by a factor of 20-30 to be aligned with science. His recommendations weren’t adopted, and the bill passed into law at a scope inadequate to the task of addressing climate-change impacts, according to Nightingale.
Nightingale also cited Rhode Island’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES). The RES is a mandate that requires the state’s utility company, National Grid, to annually buy a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable-energy sources. The amount increases by 1.5 percent annually and will reach 14.5 percent in 2019.
In years when there isn’t enough renewable energy being generated to satisfy the mandate, National Grid must instead make alternative compliance payments to the Renewable Energy Fund, which invests in new renewable energy projects to remedy the shortfall.
The concept, if implemented in tandem with aggressive emissions reduction strategies in other sectors such as home heating and transportation, is sound, according to Nightingale, but the rate at which the mandate increases is too small.
Emissions from the electricity sector, which the RES targets exclusively, account for about 25 percent of Rhode Island’s overall emissions. Therefore, in 2019, the RES will actually reduce the state’s overall emissions by about 3.5 percent compared to the law’s 2007 baseline.
Nightingale calculated, based on a 7 percent annual emission-reduction rate beginning in 2015, that Rhode Island should aim to reduce emissions by about 30 percent in 2019 compared to 2014 levels. Despite the two approaches use of different baselines — Rhode Island’s 2007 emissions for the RES and global 2014 emissions for Nightingale’s calculations — the discrepancy is significant.
During this year’s Rhode Island legislative session, a bill was introduced to extended the RES beyond 2019, its current end date, to 2035. The bill continued to raise the mandate at a rate of 1.5 percent annually, which translates to National Grid buying 38.5 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2035.
Jerry Elmer, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, supported the bill during a January House of Representatives hearing. If the law was extended through 2035, he said, “Rhode Island would have one of the most aggressive (and) strongest renewable-energy standards in the country.”
Nightingale, uninterested in how the bill compared to laws from other states, testified against the bill, because of its disregard for science. Again, assuming that electricity comprises about 25 percent of Rhode Island’s overall emissions in 2035, the RES would be responsible for reducing the state’s overall emissions by some 9.5 percent in 2035 compared to the 2007 baseline. Nightingale’s calculations call for overall emission reductions of about 78 percent in the same year compared to his 2014 baseline.
“I am not interested in what is politically feasible,” he said. “I am interested in what Mother Nature demands of us.”
Ideally, the state will be attacking its greenhouse-gas emissions on many fronts by 2035, but, should the RES continue to rise at only 1.5 percent annually, those other emission-reduction efforts will need to be numerous and aggressive to close the gap between the reductions achieved via the RES and the total emissions reduction the state needs to achieve based on Nightingale’s calculation.
Despite its lax targets, and broad support from the business and environmental sectors, the bill to extend the RES at 1.5 percent annually until 2035 failed to pass, leaving the local renewable-energy industry wringing its hands in regard to making investments beyond 2019.
An act of resiliency
In 2014, the Rhode Island Legislature passed the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which set firm greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets for the state. The targets are a 10 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020, a 45 percent reduction by 2035 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, chairman of the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee and lead sponsor of the bill, told ecoRI News in a recent interview that the Resilient Rhode Island Act’s emissions targets were taken from the Climate Solutions Act, a bill he had been struggling to pass since 2008.
This earlier bill called for a 20 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. These targets were loosely based on recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 to avoid 2 degrees of global warming.
In the seven years that passed between Handy’s initial attempt to pass climate-change legislation and the passage of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, many scientists began concluding that 2 degrees of global warming would be insufficient to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, scientists also began to warn that more substantial emissions reductions than initially calculated would be required to prevent even the outdated 2-degrees-of-warming scenario from becoming reality. Some scientist have concluded that emissions must be reduced 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 in order to avert 2 degrees of warming.
Handy said he recognizes the scientific community’s trend toward more dire predictions in relation to climate change.
Despite this shift in scientific thinking, the Resilient Rhode Island Act’s emission-reduction targets were actually weakened during the 2014 legislative session, so that by the time the bill passed into law, the 2020 emission-reduction target had been reduced to 10 percent below 1990 levels. Such a target is insufficient even by the standards of the IPCC’s 2007 report and, if adopted on a global scale, would almost certainly result in greater than 2 degrees of warming.
“Politics definitely plays into the actions of the Legislature,” Handy said. “I try to do the right thing, scientifically speaking, but I still need to consider (how to get lawmakers to support a bill).” He noted that to gain enough support to move a bill forward he sometimes needs to compromise.
Regarding the Resilient Rhode Island Act, Handy said he felt strongly about setting emission-reduction benchmarks to hold the state accountable, but to ensure benchmarks were included in the final legislation, he accepted a lower 2020 benchmark of 10 percent as a more rational option than the higher, science-based target initially included in the bill.
“When people analyzed where we were, and what the trajectory was, (the lower emissions reduction target) seemed more plausible,” he said.
Handy said another factor that dictates the aggressiveness of a bill is what has passed in other states. “You are competing with other states, other countries,” he said. “You want to say your state’s law is the strongest.”
While this line of thinking does generally bend toward more-aggressive climate-change legislation, it does nothing to ensure the legislation actually reflects the demands of science. While Rhode Island’s emission-reduction benchmarks are among the strongest in the nation, they are still increasingly out of step with recent science.
Handy said voters can play a role in determining how closely state policy reflects scientific findings. “If the public lets (their representatives) know that science informing decision making is important to them, that helps,” he said.
The most significant contributor to carbon emissions in Rhode Island is the transportation sector, accounting for about 40 percent of total emissions in 2010. The states’s transportation-sector emissions grew by about 10 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to a recent draft of Energy 2035, Rhode Island’s soon-to-be-finalized state energy plan.
“In the Northeast, the transportation sector is the single largest and the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions,” said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.
Despite being the second-most urbanized state in the country, however, Rhode Island’s transit mode-share — the percentage of travelers who ride the bus and other forms of public transportation — stands at just 2.5 percent, according to Flaherty. New Jersey’s transit mode-share — in the most urbanized state — is more than 11 percent, he said.
Danny Musher, chief of program development at the Office of Energy Resources, said transportation-sector emissions will be reduced indirectly through the Resilient Rhode Island Act. While the 2014 law didn’t set emission-reduction targets for specific energy sectors such as transportation, it did create the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), which is tasked with creating a plan to meet the law’s emissions targets.
“EC4 is in the process of bringing on board an expert consultant team to help prepare this plan, based on research, modeling, analysis and stakeholder involvement,” Musher said. “The plan will recommend strategies to reduce emissions in all sectors, including transportation.”
Energy 2035 includes a sustainably scenario that would achieve a 46 percent reduction in economy-wide greenhouse-gas emissions below 2013 levels by 2035. This reduction, because of its 2013 baseline, is weaker than the target called for in the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which, as noted above, is unlikely to avert 2 degrees of warming because of its limited 2020 emission-reduction target of 10 percent. It’s significantly less than what has been called for by climatologists such as Hansen.
Still, the scenario results in a 40 percent reduction in transportation-sector emissions below 2013 levels by 2035 — 28 percent more than the report’s business-as-usual scenario.
Energy 2035 relies on four main strategies to achieve its transportation energy savings:
Reducing vehicle miles traveled through investment in alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit, biking and carpooling, the promotion of sustainable development and land-use practices, such as encouraging density instead of sprawl, and programs that incentivize reduced discretionary driving.
Improving fuel efficiency and reducing vehicle emissions through adopting something similar to California’s increasingly stringent vehicle-emissions standards. While the federal government sets nationwide emission standards, states are allowed to adopt stricter standards.
Expanding the biofuels mandate to diesel fuel. Currently, 5 percent of home heating oil must be biodiesel. Energy 2035 recommends increasing that number to 20 percent and expanding the mandate to the transportation sector.
Promoting alternative fuel and electric vehicles through expanding fueling infrastructure, easing upfront costs for consumers through tax incentives and addressing other barriers to adoption. Energy 2035 recommends switching all public and private buses to natural gas and increasing the number of electric vehicles to 85,000 — 78,000 more than would otherwise be on the road in 2035.
Energy 2035’s authors note that Rhode Island policymakers have given only “secondary consideration” to transportation-sector energy during the past two decades — despite the transportation sector accounting for about a third of the state’s energy use and 40 percent of its greenhouse-gas emissions.
If the state intends to meet even the unscientific targets of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, investment, policy and regulation relating to the transportation sector needs to be ramped up quickly.
But, according to Flaherty, reimagining the transportation sector will be challenging. Municipal comprehensive plans and zoning laws have encouraged sprawling suburbs and strip-mall highways for decades. Such development patterns, which have moved shops and jobs away from traditional village centers, have resulted in freight being delivered by truck instead of train and people transporting themselves almost exclusively by car.
Efforts to reverse this trend, such as RhodeMap RI — a voluntary planning tool for municipalities that encouraged dense, multi-use development — were met with strong opposition.
Flaherty described public transit in Rhode Island as being in a “death spiral.” Low ridership results in less revenue. Less revenue results in rate hikes and service cuts. Rate hikes and service cuts make the public transit system even less attractive to existing and prospective riders. Additionally, the transit system is funded, in part, by the gas tax, which has lost value as cars have become more fuel efficient.
Despite the challenges, Rhode Island is well suited to reverse these trends, Flaherty said. He noted that close to 80 percent of Rhode Island residents live within a 5-minute walk of a bus stop. If bus frequency and reliability could be improved, and incentives and assistance were aimed at driving economic growth back into town centers instead of toward sprawling suburb highways, Rhode Island could see a significant increase in its transit mode-share, he said.
Flaherty also noted that the “death spiral” also works the opposite way. If the state can get more people using transit, revenue, then service would increase, resulting in a more attractive product.
To reverse the downward cycle “requires more investment and political will than we have had,” Flaherty said, but he sees that changing as well. Millennials, he said, are demanding better transit, and as they become a bigger portion of the voting and office-holding population, they may prioritize the issue.
When that happens, he said, decision makers will need to take a holistic approach to reforming the transit system.
“It can’t just be the state saying ‘we are going to invest in a street car,’” Flaherty said. “They need to consider how the different modes fit with one another, and how to prioritize projects and sequence investments.”
Flaherty doesn’t pretend that increasing Rhode Island’s mode-share is going to solve global climate change. “Pragmatically, few things (Rhode Island does) are going to change the course of climate change alone,” he said. “But, if we as a nation don’t make serious progress attracting more residents to mass transit, we won’t be able to make any meaningful progress towards averting climate change.”
Since the science of climate change predicts slow change, especially compared to election cycles, it’s difficult to create urgency among legislators, said Rep. Handy. “You have to find an alternate way to argue for the same point,” he said. “You don’t necessarily pick a different target, but a different rationale.”
The economy is an issue that resonates with legislators, Handy said. Therefore, he frames many of his arguments for mitigating global-warming emissions and adapting to climate change in economic terms such as growing local industry and jobs in the renewable-energy field, or avoiding the costs associated with rising seas and superstorms.
But, as has proven to be the case, once the conversation becomes about the economy or public health instead of science, compromise on lower targets seems pragmatic instead of ignorant.
Hansen, the Columbia University climatologist, called setting targets that don’t adequately address climate change “intergenerational injustice.”
“It is distressing that, despite the clarity and imminence of the danger of continued high fossil fuel emissions, governments continue to allow and even encourage pursuit of ever more fossil fuels,” he wrote. “Perceptions of what is ‘politically feasible’ may partially account for acceptance of targets for carbon emissions that are well into the range of ‘dangerous human-made interference’ with climate.”
Indeed, U.S. politicians — even those that claim to understand the science and scope of climate change — are brazenly supporting new fossil-fuel infrastructure at both the federal and state level. President Obama, who over the course of his presidency has learned to talk with clarity and eloquence about climate change, continues to pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
Just last month, during an otherwise full-court press on climate change, the president awkwardly approved the export of American oil to Mexico and exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic. He then visited Alaska to highlight the severe impacts climate change is already having on that state and acknowledged America’s role in creating global warming and its responsibility to be a major part of the solution.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo recently supported a proposal by a Chicago-based company to build a 900-megawatt natural-gas power plant in Burriville. On the same site, the administration has already worked in concert with New England’s other governors to expand a natural-gas compressor station and pipeline owned by a Texas-based company so that more fossil fuels from hydraulically fractured natural gas drilling sites can be transported to southern New England, and possibly beyond as an export commodity.
“Consider the celebration we had (in April) about Deepwater Wind (beginning construction on the offshore Block Island Wind Farm), a 30 MW project. This project has to compete with a 30×30 MW natural-gas power plant in Burrlllville,” said Nightingale, the URI physicist. “What you end up with does not even come close to what science says we should be doing, even if you use numbers from people who are less conservative than Hansen and myself.”
Nightingale and Flaherty both agree with Hansen that the problem can only be solved on a global scale, but they don’t excuse Rhode Island from doing its part because of inaction at the federal and international level. Local decisions, they said, such as supporting renewable-energy projects instead of building natural-gas infrastructure and reshaping development patterns at the municipal level, put Rhode Island in a more advantageous position to meet a future national or global standard.
Nightingale said he recognizes that changing societal perceptions or norms often takes a generation, and that replacing the entire energy sector could take 50 years. He takes some consolation in the fact that Rhode Island is “at least facing the right direction.”
He said the worst impacts of climate change can still be averted, but it will take an all-in approach. He referenced the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era research effort that created the world’s first atomic bomb and launched an entire nuclear industry in a matter of years.
“There is no law of nature that says we can’t do it,” Nightingale said.