Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama's signature climate action plan was formally published. The new regulations will require many states to reduce their use of coal, the dirtiest form of energy, in an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by about a third by 2030. Almost immediately, the plan came under a barrage of legal attacks from two dozen coal-dependent states, almost all led by Republican governors and attorneys general. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress introduced legislation to overturn the plan.
On Tuesday, after the House of Representatives resolution was approved in committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) claimed a victory for all Americans. The vote, he said, shows that "the American people are not happy with President Obama's climate change policy."
Except that, they kind of are happy about it. That's according to new polling by Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, which found that 61 percent of residents in the states suing the Obama administration support tight limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Individual state results are listed in the table above. Even in Kentucky, home to the plan's biggest opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), most residents support the plan.
Makes you wonder whose interests all these governors, attorneys general, and legislators are really representing.
The rationale, according to the letter TransCanada sent Secretary of State John Kerry, is to await a decision by regulators in Nebraska about a possible change to the pipeline's route. But since that decision isn't expected for seven to twelve months, a delay would likely punt the final decision to whoever takes over the White House after President Barack Obama.
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
Environmental groups were quick to claim the development as a victory, a sure sign that TransCanada knows its project doesn't stand a chance under the Obama administration (which has to approve the construction permit, since it crosses an international border), and is reverting to desperate tactics.
"Clearly TransCanada has lost and they recognize that," Bill McKibben, founder of activist group 350.org, said in a statement. "It's one of the great victories for this movement in decades."
But the $8 billion pipeline, which would enable crude oil from Canada's oil sands to reach refineries and ports in the United States, isn't dead yet. The next step will be for the State Department to decide whether or not to grant TransCanada the delay it is seeking. The Department is "reviewing" the letter while it continues to weigh a final decision, a spokesperson said today. If it does choose to delay, the final outcome will essentially boil down to whether a Republican or a Democrat wins the 2016 presidential election. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
The other option, advocated by McKibben and his peers, is that State reject the requested delay and forge ahead to reject the permit. That would send a clear signal to other countries that Obama is serious about climate action ahead of upcoming international negotiations in Paris. It would also test the relationship of Obama with soon-to-be Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has promised to take more serious action on climate than his predecessor Stephen Harper, but who last month visited Washington, D.C. to advocate for the pipeline.
Whether that rejection would really benefit the climate is less clear. The oil sands oil destined for Keystone XL—some of the most carbon-intense fossil fuels on Earth—needs to stay buried in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a growing body of science. Would a rejection from Obama keep in the ground? Not necessarily: TransCanada would have the option to re-apply for the permit starting from scratch under the next administration.
Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game.
Meanwhile, with global oil prices persisting at the very low level of around $50 per barrel, oil sands developers are eager for more pipelines, since exporting oil by pipe is much less expensive than doing so by truck or train. An analysis this year from the Environmental Protection Agency noted that as long as oil prices remain under about $75 a barrel, building the pipeline would lead to "increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."
Even if oil prices dip further, the pipeline could still look attractive to oil producers, so they can be prepared to pounce when the market turns back in their favor, said Anthony Swift, an international affairs attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"For risk-averse companies, in many ways knowing that cheap transportation is available is more important than a sense of where oil prices are today," he said.
Still, a rejection from Obama would be a considerable setback. Reapplying, which would require starting the State Department's complex formal environmental review process from scratch, could still be long and costly even under a Republican president. And TransCanada would be racing against the clock: Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game. Just last week, Shell announced it will abandon a $2 billion investment in a oil sands project in Alberta, citing concerns about how it would move the oil to market.
Meanwhile, opposition to the project by environmental groups isn't getting any weaker.
"TransCanada would be reapplying in a very different climate" than when it first proposed the pipeline in 2008, Swift said. "On both sides of the border there's a new awareness of the environmental impacts of tar sands development."
The Porsche Cayenne was among a handful of Volkswagen models named in a new citation.
Things just keep getting worse for Volkswagen. In mid-September, the German automaker was suddenly faced with the possibility of billions of dollars in fines after federal regulators accused it of selling half a million diesel-powered cars in the United States that were equipped with software that intentionally falsified emissions performance.
The citation, which named half a dozen models sold since 2009, drove the company's share price off a cliff and forced the ouster of CEO Martin Winterkorn. In testimony last month in Congress, VW's chief of US operations apologized for the deception but maintained that responsibility lay with a handful of German engineers and not with the company's top management. That same day, the company's offices in Germany were raided by police.
The story took another turn on Monday, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is expanding its investigation to include several previously unmentioned VW models, covering an additional 10,000 cars sold in the US. Those models are the diesel versions of:
2014 VW Touareg
2015 Porsche Cayenne
2016 Audi A6 Quattro, A7 Quattro, A8, A8L, and Q5
The inclusion of a Porsche on the list is especially interesting, as Winterkorn was replaced in VW's driver's seat by Matthias Müller, who had previously run the Porsche division. Volkswagen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new allegations.
By some estimates, the excess emissions caused by VW's cars could contribute to thousands of deaths. In addition to continuing its investigation into VW, the EPA has also promised to implement more stringent emissions testing procedures designed to counteract such software.
On Friday, the United Nations released a survey of the plans laid out by more than 100 countries to fight climate change. Its report uncovered some interesting trends, including that most countries are planning to invest in renewable energy and that global adaptation efforts focus first and foremost on protecting the food and water supply.
But the survey also affirmed that all this collective global action doesn't add up to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the internationally agreed-upon goal. That brought to mind the great interview with Bill Gates that The Atlantic, one of our Climate Desk partners, recently released. In the above video, Gates points out another key flaw in the international negotiating process: Most countries' goals focus on the progress to be made by 2030—phase one of the global push to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The United States' goal, for example, calls for cutting emissions by about a third by that time.
If we're really serious about keeping global warming in check, Gates argues, we need to start thinking more concretely about what comes after 2030. The Obama administration has promised that the short-term goal will get us on track to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. But Gates cautions that that second phase will much more difficult to achieve than the first.
"Let's be realistic about how we're going to get to the 2050 goal," Gates says. "There are things that have such long lead times—including innovation itself—that if they're a part of your 2050 solution, you need to get started now. The rate of innovation should be doubled."
To that end, Gates has pledged $2 billion out of his own pocket to invest in sustainable-energy projects. He thinks research and development funding by the United States and China needs to grow massively, since "the climate problem has to be solved in the rich countries." In the extended interview between Gates and Atlantic editor James Bennet, he also makes a case for a "significant" global tax on carbon emissions. That's the only way to fix the market failure that lets companies get away with the pollution caused by fossil fuels—and, he says, the only way to encourage the private sector to switch to clean energy.
"Yes, the government will be somewhat inept," he said. "But the private sector is in general inept."
World leaders have a pretty comprehensive plan to fight climate change, according to a United Nations report released Friday—even if it doesn't go as far as many of them had hoped.
In just over a month, representatives from most of the countries on Earth will gather in Paris in an attempt to finalize an international agreement to limit global warming and adapt to its impacts. The video above is a snappy explainer of what's at stake at this meeting, but suffice it to say the proposed deal is split into two keys parts. First is the core agreement, parts of which may be legally binding, that comprises broad, non-specific guidelines for all countries. It calls on countries to take steps such as transparently reporting greenhouse gas emissions and committing to ramp up climate action over the next few decades.
But the real meat-and-potatoes is in the second part, the "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs). The INDCs are what sets the Paris talks apart from past attempts at a global climate agreement in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Those summits either left out major polluters (the US dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol; China and India were exempted) or fell apart completely (Copenhagen), in large part because they were built around universal greenhouse gas reduction targets that not everyone could agree to.
The UN process is like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities.
This time around, the UN process is more like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities; those are the INDCs. The US, for example, has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. So far, according to the World Resources Institute, 126 plans have been submitted, covering about 86 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. (The European Union submitted one joint plan for all its members.) Those contributions are likely to limit global warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.
Now, we have a bit more insight into how countries are planning to make this happen. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the group that is overseeing the Paris talks, combed through all the INDCs to look for trends. Its report is a bit convoluted and repetitive; I don't recommend it to any but the nerdiest climate nerds. But I pulled out a few of the charts as an overview of what global action on climate change really looks like.
Types of targets: Most of the INDCs contain specific emission reduction targets. (Not all do; some countries, such as the small island nations, have such small or nonexistent emissions that it wouldn't make sense to promise to reduce them.) The most common way to state these targets is to promise that emissions at X future date will be lower than they would be with no action. Indonesia, for example, has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. The US commitment fits in the second category, an "absolute" target where emissions actually begin to go down. Others specify a date at which emissions will "peak," or set a goal for emissions per unit of GDP or energy production ("intensity").
Greenhouse gases: The commitments cover a broad range of greenhouse gases (most cover more than one), but carbon dioxide is the most common enemy. That's no surprise, as it's by far the most common.
Economic sectors: In different countries, different economic sectors are more or less responsible for climate pollution. In the US, the number-one source of emissions is coal-fired power plants; thus, President Barack Obama's plans focus on the power sector. In Indonesia, by contrast, deforestation is the biggest problem. Most plans cover more than one sector, but the most common is energy.
How to fix it: This section finds that implementing renewable energy is the most common way countries are planning to meet their targets. More interesting is the tiny role played by carbon capture, use, and storage, down at the bottom of the chart. This refers to technology that "captures" greenhouse gas emissions on their way out of power plants, or directly from the atmosphere, and buries or re-purposes them. Support for carbon capture—also known as "clean coal"—is popular with policymakers who don't want to curb coal use (including GOP presidential contender John Kasich), even though it remains costly and unproven at scale.
How to adapt: Many countries' INDCs also contain information about how they plan to adapt to climate change. Water use, agriculture, and public health appear to be the biggest areas of focus.
A terrible, no-good, very bad summary: The most important question is clearly how all this adds up to reducing the world's greenhouse gas footprint and averting the worst threats posed by climate change. But the chart that addresses this question (below) is…not great. I'm including it so you have some sense of one big drawback of the Paris approach—without universal emissions targets, it's a lot harder to specify what the cumulative effect of these plans will really be. In short, here's what this chart shows: The gray line is global greenhouse gas emissions up to today. The orange line is how emissions will grow over the next couple decades if we do nothing. The three blue lines show how quickly we would need to reduce emissions to keep global warming to 2 degrees C; the longer we wait to take action, the steeper the cuts have to be. The yellow rectangles show a snapshot of where the INDCs leave us.
So, we're better off than before, but we're not out of danger. That's why it's essential for the core agreement to include requirements that countries adopt even more aggressive goals in the future; that's one of the key things that will be debated in Paris. In other words, the Paris meeting is just one key battle in a war that's far from over, Jennifer Morgan, director of the WRI's global climate program, said in a statement.
"Despite the unprecedented level of effort, this report finds that current commitments are not yet sufficient to meet what the world needs. Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible."