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By Jake Johnson

In another alarming signal that the international community is failing to take the kind of ambitious action necessary to avert global climate catastrophe, NOAA released new data Tuesday showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — which environmentalist Bill McKibben described as the "single most important stat on the planet" — reached a "record high" in the month of May.

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Daily average CO2 values in April. NOAA

April was the first month in recorded history with an average concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide topping 410 parts per million (ppm).

This dubious new milestone was recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii by the Keeling Curve, a program of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

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Greenpeace

The United Nations (UN) Environment program has released its eighth annual Emissions Gap Report, which ominously found that greenhouse gas emissions are set to overshoot the Paris climate deal by about 30 percent.

The goal of the Paris agreement is to keep global temperature rise this century to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with each nation making individual efforts to mitigate global warming. But according to the new review, released ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, national pledges made so far cover only a third of the cuts needed by 2030 to avoid worst impacts of climate change.

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Concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) increased at "record-breaking" speed last year, according to the World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin released Monday.

According to the report, concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400.00 parts per million the year prior. This acceleration was due to a strong El Niño event—which triggered droughts and reduced the capacity of forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2—as well as human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels.

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Carbon captured in a new process from a coal-fired power plant in Chennai, India will be used by chemicals manufacturer Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals & Fertilizers (TACFL) to produce soda ash.

Tuticorin power plant in India will convert carbon emissions to soda ash.Roger Harrabin / The Guardian

The process was developed by London-based Carbon Clean Solutions Limited (CCSL). A pilot project, completed in May 2016, demonstrated the advantages of the process. Soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), is used in glass manufacturing, fiberglass insulation, sweeteners and household products. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), is one of those products.

"This project is a game-changer," said Aniruddha Sharma, chief executive officer at Carbon Clean Solutions. "This is a project that doesn't rely on government funding or subsidies—it just makes great business sense."

CCSL said that it can capture CO2 at $30 per metric ton, far lower than the $60 to $90 per ton typical in the global power sector. It said that the project will capture more than 60,000 metric tons (about 66,000 U.S. tons) of carbon each year.

Carbon Clean Solutions is not the first company to attempt to commercialize a process to convert CO2 emissions into commercially marketable products.

In 2012, a U.S. startup named Skyonic raised $9 million from investors to build a plant to convert carbon emissions from a cement plant in San Antonio, Texas. The investors included ConocoPhilips, BP and PVS Chemicals. The facility opened in October 2014 at the Capitol Aggregates plant and became operational in January 2016. Outputs include baking soda, bleach and hydrochloric acid.

Skyonic has said that, at full capacity, the plant will be able to capture 75,000 tons annually of CO2. The company claims that its process uses 30 percent less energy than more common carbon capture technologies. The plant was financed with the aid of a $28 million award under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

California-based Blue Planet produces concrete and other building materials from sequestered CO2. The company says its concrete can be carbon neutral or carbon negative. Climate activist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a member of the firms' government affairs advisory board.

In Germany, ThyssenKrup Steel Europe began a pilot project in December 2015 to produce ammonium bicarbonate (NH4HCO3) from carbon emissions. This compound is used in the manufacturing of ceramics and in the plastic and rubber industries among others. Initial results, the company said, have been promising.

In a twist on the idea of creating baking soda from carbon emissions, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has created microcapsules and an absorbent sponge that use baking soda itself to capture carbon. They believe this process could be about 40 percent cheaper than current carbon capture methods.

TACFL has been producing soda ash at the Tuticorin plant since 1981. The chemical is generally made from trona ore. Major deposits of the ore are found in California, Wyoming and Utah in the U.S. as well as Botswana, Egypt, Turkey, China and parts of Africa.

Carbon Clean Solutions' patented technology scrubs CO2 emissions and feeds them to a chemicals plant where they are used to manufacture common products such as baking soda.Source: Carbon Clean Solutions Limited

In the Chennai coal plant, flue gases are diverted to an absorber that removes CO2 using technology patented by CCSL. The CO2 is then fed to the TACFL chemical plant.

Ramachadran Gopalan, owner of the Tuticorin plant, told BBC Radio, "I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it."

Gopalan said the plant now produces zero carbon emissions. He is looking to install a second coal boiler to produce additional CO2 that can be used to synthesize fertilizer.

By Alex Kirby

Humanity has now entered a new climate reality era, with carbon dioxide concentrations expected to remain above the level of 400 parts per million throughout 2016 and for many generations to come, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.

The WMO—the United Nations system's leading agency on weather, climate and water—said the globally averaged concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached "the symbolic and significant milestone of 400 parts per million" for the first time in 2015 and surged again to new records in 2016 on the back of the very powerful El Niño event.

CO2 levels reached the 400 ppm barrier for certain months during 2015 and in certain places, but they have never done so on a global average basis for the entire year. The WMO says in its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin that the growth spurt in CO2 was fueled by El Niño, which started in 2015 and had a strong impact well into this year.

This, it says, triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of "sinks" like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2. These sinks currently absorb about half of CO2 emissions, but there is a risk that they could become saturated, increasing the proportion of carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere.

Between 1990 and 2015, the bulletin says, there was a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.

"The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. "The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not."

"The real elephant in the room is carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years and in the oceans for even longer. Without tackling CO2 emissions, we cannot tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2 C above the pre-industrial era," added Taalas.

"It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on Nov. 4 and that we fast-track its implementation," said Taalas.

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin provides a scientific base for decision-making and the WMO has released it ahead of the UN climate change negotiations to be held in the Moroccan city of Marrakech from Nov. 7-18. They will be seeking to translate the agreement into an effective way of coping with the new climate reality era the WMO has identified.

The bulletin says the pre-industrial level of about 278 ppm of CO2 represented a balance between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, have altered the natural balance and in 2015 globally averaged levels were 144 percent of pre-industrial levels. The increase of CO2 from 2014 to 2015 was larger than the previous year and the average over the previous 10 years.

The bulletin says the last El Niño, as well as reducing the capacity of vegetation to absorb CO2, led to an increase in CO2 emissions from forest fires. According to the Global Fire Emissions Database, CO2 emissions in equatorial Asia—where there were serious forest fires in Indonesia in August-September 2015—were more than twice as high as the 1997-2015 average.

Drought also has a big impact on CO2 absorption by vegetation and scientists saw similar effects during the 1997-98 El Niño.

Methane is the second most important long-lived greenhouse gas and contributes about 17 percent of radiative forcing. About 40 percent of methane is emitted into the atmosphere by natural sources like wetlands and termites, with the rest coming from human activities like cattle breeding, rice growing, fossil fuel exploitation, landfills and biomass burning.

Atmospheric methane reached a new high of about 1,845 parts per billion in 2015 and is now 256 percent of its pre-industrial level. Nitrous oxide's atmospheric concentration in 2015 was about 328 parts per billion, 121 percent of pre-industrial levels.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

By Sophie Yeo

How do you reduce CO2 emissions? The Global CO2 Initiative is pushing a unique approach: turn them into useful products, then sell them.

Based in San Francisco, the company has the ambitious aim to capture 10 percent of global CO2 emissions through carbon capture and usage. While this method is still in its infancy, the initiative aims to commercialize new ideas quickly by granting up to $100 million a year for 10 years to researchers developing viable new products. Its global advisory board includes Steven Chu, the former U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Jeremy Oppenheim, program chair of the New Climate Economy project.

Carbon Brief spoke to Dr. Issam Dairanieh, the company's CEO, about his idea to tackle climate change through CO2 reuse. He explained what carbon capture and usage is, and how it could play a role in future efforts to reduce emissions:

"The idea here is go with what we call 'carbon negative technologies.' So think of trees on steroids. That's really what it is. So it is acceleration absorption of CO2 converted into products. Nature does it, does it very well, but does it slowly, and our solution says let's see what nature does, and do that extremely fast. So, instead of years, we want to do that in minutes. And the idea here is really all about developing and commercializing technologies that can absorb CO2 and convert it into useful products."

He spoke about the products that can be made using CO2 and their potential reduce emissions:

"The first product that we are going to invest in is making cement. So think about cement and concrete and how much is produced. It is probably the material that has the highest amount of any material that man makes, basically. Just this product contributes over 7 percent of the global emissions of CO2. We have identified a company that produces cement and concrete at a carbon footprint 70 percent less than what's currently done. So imagine what we can do with this. If you can replace everything we're doing right now with this new type of cement material, you will reduce global emissions by 5 percent, which is significant. What we have set out to do is, we said we want to reduce carbon emissions by 10 percent a year. That's really our objective. And we think that just by adopting one technology we will be able to reduce it by half of our target."

He talked about how best to capture CO2 emissions to be used in products:

"Where we're going to start is where it's very easy to do so. So, if you go to power plants, CO2 is mixed with other things. The concentration can be anywhere between 3 percent and 12 percent, maybe 13 percent, but that's about it. However, if you go to different places, in a refinery where hydrogen is generated using something called methane reforming, when you do that, you generate pure CO2 that's just emitted. We think there is 100, 200 million tons of that that we can go to. The second area is if you look at how biofuels are made, when you ferment basically biomass and you end up with ethanol that's used in biofuels. As a byproduct, you get a stream which is 100 percent CO2, so you don't have to concentrate, you don't have to purify—it's there."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.

Many hail the Paris agreement—set to cross the threshold this week to come into effect—as a panacea for global climate change. Yet tragically, this perspective neglects to take into account the scientific reality of our climate system, which tells a much different story.

Our latest research, Young People's Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions, appeared Monday as a "Discussion" paper in Earth System Dynamics Discussion, and outlines how—if national governments neglect to take aggressive climate action today—today's young people will inherit a climate system so altered it will require prohibitively expensive—and possibly infeasible—extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Global temperatures are already at the level of the Eemian period (130,000 to 115,000 years ago), when sea level was 6-9 meters higher than today. Considering the additional warming "in the pipeline," due to delayed response of the climate system and the impossibility of instant replacement of fossil fuels, additional temperature rise is inevitable.

Continued high fossil fuel emissions place a burden on young people to undertake "negative CO2 emissions," which would require massive technological CO extraction with minimal estimated costs of $104-$570 trillion this century, with large risks and uncertain feasibility.

Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, possibly implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both, scenarios that should provide incentive and obligation for governments to alter energy policies without further delay.

The paper provides the underlying scientific backing for the Our Children's Trust lawsuit against the U.S. government, which argues that climate change jeopardizes the next generation's inalienable rights under the U.S. Constitution to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The paper offers an opportunity to examine the current state of the planet with respect to climate change. Four key takeaways include:

1. The Paris Climate Accord is a precatory agreement, wishful thinking that mainly reaffirms, 23 years later, the 1992 Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change. The developing world need for abundant, affordable, reliable energy is largely ignored, even though it is a basic requirement to eliminate global poverty and war. Instead the developed world pretends to offer reparations, a vaporous $100B/year, while allowing climate impacts to grow.

2. As long as fossil fuels are allowed to be held up as the cheapest reliable energy, they will continue to be the world's largest energy source and the likelihood of disastrous consequences for young people will grow to near certainty.

3. Technically, it is still possible to solve the climate problem, but there are two essential requirements: (1) a simple across-the-board rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the source, and (2) government support for RD&D (research, development and demonstration) of clean energy technologies, including advanced generation, safe nuclear power.

4. Courts are crucial to solution of the climate problem. The climate "problem" was and is an opportunity for transformation to a clean energy future. However, the heavy hand of the fossil fuel industry works mostly in legal ways such as the "I'm an Energy Voter" campaign in the U.S. Failure of executive and legislative branches to deal with climate change makes it essential for courts, less subject to pressure and bribery from special financial interests, to step in and protect young people, as they did minorities in the case of civil rights.

For a deeper dive, click here.

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Life evolved to live within limits. It's a delicate balance. Humans need oxygen, but too much can kill us. Plants need nitrogen, but excess nitrogen harms them and pollutes rivers, lakes and oceans. Ecosystems are complex. Our health and survival depend on intricate interactions that ensure we get the right amounts of clean air, water, food from productive soils and energy from the sun.

Water flowing to the ocean from the Greenland ice sheet.macaroni2552 / Imgur

Climate change deniers either willfully ignore or fail to understand this complexity—as shown in their simplistic argument that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a beneficial gas that helps plants grow and is therefore good for humans.

Industry propagandist Tom Harris of the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition writes, "Grade school students know CO2 is not pollution; it is aerial fertilizer." He adds, "Increasing CO2 levels pose no direct hazard to human health."

The unscientific Heartland Institute-ICSC study he references claims, against all evidence, "Carbon dioxide has not caused weather to become more extreme, polar ice and sea ice to melt or sea level rise to accelerate."

It's a facile argument, designed to downplay the seriousness of global warming and its connection to CO2 emissions and to promote continued fossil fuel use. Deniers like Harris and Patrick Moore in Canada extoll the virtues of burning coal, oil and gas.

It's deliberate deception, rather than an outright lie, as most plants do require CO2 to grow. But overwhelming scientific evidence shows that, along with other greenhouse gases, CO2 causes ocean acidification and fuels climate change, putting humans and other life at risk.

Even its benefit to plants is more complicated than deniers let on. As the website Skeptical Science states, "Such claims fail to take into account that increasing the availability of one substance that plants need requires other supply changes for benefits to accrue. It also fails to take into account that a warmer earth will see an increase in deserts and other arid lands, reducing the area available for crops."

A Stanford University study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, illustrates the claim's lack of scientific validity. After observing plants grown in California over 16 years, under altered CO2, nitrogen, temperature and water levels, researchers concluded that only higher nitrogen levels increased plant growth, while higher temperatures hindered the plants.

A study in Nature Climate Change concluded that a 1 degree C temperature increase will cause wheat yields to decrease by about five percent, and a French study found higher temperatures negatively affected corn crops.

Another study, published in Science, examined the complexity of CO2 uptake by plants. It found only those associated with particular types of fungi in their roots can take advantage of increased CO2, because the fungi regulate nitrogen plants obtain from soils. Plants such as coniferous trees that associate with ectomycorrhizal fungi can derive benefits from higher carbon dioxide levels, but plants associated with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, such as grassland vegetation, can't.

The Imperial College London researchers cautioned that even plants that can take advantage of higher CO2 levels could be harmed by other climate change impacts, such as increased temperature and ozone concentration. Climate change–related droughts and flooding also hinder plant growth.

Burning fossil fuels, creating emissions through industrial agriculture and destroying "carbon sinks" like wetlands and forests that sequester carbon are already affecting the planet in many ways detrimental to the health and survival of humans and other life.

No matter what inconsistent, contradictory and easily debunked nonsense deniers spread, there's no denying climate change is real, humans are contributing substantially to it and it will be catastrophic for all life if we do little or nothing to address it immediately.

Recently, 375 U.S. National Academy of Sciences members, including 30 Nobel laureates, published an open letter stating:

"We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt … that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems."

The evidence is clear and overwhelming: Rapid increases in CO2 emissions are not beneficial. It's past time we started conserving energy and shifting to cleaner sources.

Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere stayed above 400 parts per million (ppm) during September—a time when CO2 levels typically hit the yearly low—raising fears that the planet has reached a point of no return.

A sunset over the Arctic during a NOAA Climate Program expedition north of Russia.NOAA Photo Library/Flickr cc 2.0

"Concentrations will probably hover around 401 ppm over the next month as we sit near the annual low point. Brief excursions towards lower values are still possible but it already seems safe to conclude that we won't be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year—or ever again for the indefinite future," Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in a blog post.

The increase in CO2 levels runs parallel to a marked increase in global temperatures.

For a deeper dive:

Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Fortune, Think Progress, Motherboard, Global News

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

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For years, this is known as a smoky, hazy time of year in Sumatra, Indonesia. And each year it’s getting worse. It’s the dry season, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of Indonesian peatland fires will burn for months. Those fires are a direct result of decades of forest and peatland destruction.

Peat is partially decayed, dead vegetation, which has accumulated over thousands of years. It is typically saturated with water and therefore virtually impossible to set alight. But when peatlands are cleared and drained to make way for plantations, like they are for palm oil and pulp and paper, carbon-rich peat becomes tinder dry—and vulnerable to fires.

If you haven’t heard of peatlands or don’t really know why we should all be joining forces to protect them, here are some facts that will help you see why:

[slideshow_deploy id='346906']

Last year, Greenpeace was one of the first NGOs to call out palm oil companies for their role in peatland fires. The Haze Wave sent pollution levels in Singapore skyrocketing, sparking frenzied buying of facemasks and a flurry of meetings between regional governments.

This year it could get worse. Weather patterns are colluding to make this year’s drought particularly strong. More peat and forest have been cleared than ever before. It’s giant tinderbox.

Now is the time for action.

In the last 12 months, Greenpeace supporters have pushed companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and forest-resource giants like Asia Pulp & Paper to end their role in forest destruction. There’s momentum. Which is why this year we need to come together and demand that outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono firms up his green legacy.

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Earth Policy Institute

By Emily E. Adams

Increasing global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping gas, are pushing the world into dangerous territory, closing the window of time to avert the worst consequences of higher temperatures, such as melting ice and rising seas.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have grown exponentially. Despite wide agreement by governments on the need to limit emissions, the rate of increase ratcheted up from less than one percent each year in the 1990s to almost three percent annually in the first decade of this century. After a short dip in 2009 due to the global financial crisis, emissions from fossil fuels rebounded in 2010 and have since grown 2.6 percent each year, hitting an all-time high of 9.7 billion tons of carbon in 2012.

Carbon emissions would have risen even faster were it not for the seven percent drop among industrial countries since 2007—a group that includes the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The U.S., long the world’s largest emitter until it was eclipsed by China in 2006, cut carbon emissions by 11 percent over the past five years to 1.4 billion tons. The biggest drop was in emissions from coal—which is primarily used to generate electricity—as power plants switched to cheaper natural gas and as the use of carbon-free wind energy more than quadrupled. U.S. emissions from oil, mostly used for transportation, also dipped.

Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning in Europe—as a whole the third largest emitter—fell nine percent from 2007 to 2012. Emissions in Italy and Spain shrank by 17 and 18 percent, respectively. The United Kingdom’s emissions dropped by 11 percent to 126 million tons. Germany’s emissions fell by four percent to 200 million tons. These countries have been leaders in either wind or solar energy or both.

Russia and Japan are two industrial countries that did not see an overall decline in carbon emissions over the past five years. Russia had an uptick in oil use, increasing its emissions by two percent to 449 million tons. And in Japan, the quick suspension of nuclear power generation after the Fukushima disaster led to more natural gas and oil use, pushing emissions up one percent to 336 million tons in 2012. 

CO2 emissions in developing countries surpassed those from industrial countries in 2005 and have since continued to soar. China’s carbon emissions grew by 44 percent since 2007 to 2.4 billion tons in 2012. Together the U.S. and China account for more than 40 percent of worldwide emissions. Emissions in India, home to more than a billion people, overtook those in Russia for the first time in 2008. From 2007 to 2012, India’s emissions grew 43 percent to reach 596 million tons of carbon. Carbon emissions in Indonesia, another fast-growing economy, have exploded, growing 52 percent to hit 146 million tons in 2012. 

Although emissions from developing countries now dominate, the industrial countries set the world on its global warming path with over a century’s worth of CO2 emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere. Furthermore, emissions estimates discussed here include only those from fossil fuels burned within a country’s borders, meaning that the tallies do not account for international trade.

For example, emissions generated from producing goods in China destined for use in the U.S. are added to China’s books. When emissions are counted in terms of the final destination of the product, the industrial countries’ carbon bill increases.

On a per person basis, the U.S. emits 4.4 tons of carbon pollution—twice as much as in China. The highest per capita carbon emissions are in several small oil and gas producing countries. In 2012, Qatar spewed out 11 tons of carbon per person. Trinidad and Tobago is next with nine tons of carbon per person, and Kuwait follows at 7.5 tons.

Fossil fuels are not the only source of CO2 emissions. Changing the landscape, for example by burning forests, releases roughly 1 billion tons of carbon globally each year. Brazil and Indonesia have high levels of deforestation and are responsible for much of the current carbon emissions from the land.

About half of the CO2 that is released through fossil fuel burning or land use changes stays in the atmosphere. The other half is taken up by the oceans or by plants. As more CO2 is absorbed by the world’s oceans, the water becomes more acidic. This change in ocean chemistry can strip away the building blocks of coral reefs, weakening an important link in the oceanic food chain. Scientists warn that the oceans could eventually become saturated with CO2, compromising their capacity to absorb our carbon emissions, with serious consequences for the global thermostat.

For some 800,000 years, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere did not go above 300 parts per million (ppm). But in the 250 years following the start of the Industrial Revolution, enough CO2 built up to bring the average concentration to nearly 394 ppm in 2012. Throughout each year, the concentration of the gas fluctuates, reaching its annual peak in the spring. In May 2013, the CO2 concentration briefly hit 400 ppm, a grim new milestone on the path of climate disruption. Never in human history has the atmosphere been so full of this odorless and colorless yet powerfully disruptive gas.

CO2 acts like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat. Since humans began burning fossil fuels on a large scale, the global average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), with most of the increase occurring since 1970. The effects of higher temperatures include rising sea levels, disappearing Arctic sea ice, more heat waves and declining yields of food crops.

More warming is in the pipeline as the climate system slowly responds to the higher CO2 concentrations. Reports from international institutions, such as the International Energy Agency, based on work by thousands of scientists emphasize that little time remains to cut emissions and avoid a climate catastrophe. The World Bank notes that absent any policy changes, the global average temperature could be 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the end of this century, well above what human civilization has ever witnessed.

But a different future—one based on a clean energy economy—is within our reach. Germany, not a particularly sunny country, has harnessed enough of the sun’s rays to power some 8 million homes, for example. The U.S. has enough wind turbines installed to power more than 15 million homes. Kenya generates roughly a quarter of its electricity from geothermal energy. This is but a glimpse of the enormous potential of renewable energy. The question is not whether we can build a carbon-free economy, but whether we can do it before climate change spirals out of control.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

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Earth Island Journal

By Maureen Nandini Mitra and Michael Stoll

One hot day this spring John Buckley scrambled up a dusty slope of a patch of deforested land in the middle of California’s Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, five miles west of Yosemite National Park, and surveyed the bleak landscape: 20 acres of blackened tree stumps and the shriveled remains of undergrowth. On neighboring ridges, similar brown expanses dotted the green forest canopy. “This,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “is resource management.”

For environmentalists like John Buckley, who finds clear signals of climate change in the Sierra Nevada's rapidly receding snow line, the idea of timber companies that clear cut forests being allowed to sell offsets is worrisome. Photo credit: Photo by Ian Umeda // Public Press

The denuded clearing is on a tract of private forestland owned by timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries that is close to being approved as a sort of carbon bank under California’s new cap-and-trade scheme. It will soon grow into a plantation of mostly Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and cedar.

Based on calculations of how much carbon the new and old trees in this forest area will remove from the atmosphere, the timber giant will soon be able to sell carbon credits, which regulators call “offsets,” to the largest California polluters so they can compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. Looking to make a profit from their environmental practices, companies in forestry and other industries are rushing to meet the demand.

Buckley, an environmental activist from Tuolumne County, is dismayed that projects like these—that involve clearing out old, diverse forests and replanting the area with a handful of quick-growing timber varieties—are being considered as a means to enable California industries to emit more pollutants into the air.

Many environmentalists say that because it is notoriously difficult to prove that such projects actually reduce the state’s overall carbon footprint, California should proceed slowly in approving a vast expansion of the cap-and-trade market.

The plan is to start the Compliance Offset Program this summer. Sellers include some of the largest forestland owners in the U.S., dairy farms and companies that neutralize greenhouse effect-producing refrigerants. The program might also expand to other activities, such as methane capture from mining and rice farming.

Proponents say that by providing incentives to voluntarily reduce emissions and use new technology, the offset program could help California meet its legal requirement, set in 2006, to reduce its carbon footprint from all sources by about 16 percent by 2020, and even more in later years.

But critics call offsets a loophole that could undermine an effective cap-and-trade system. They say pledges of reductions that are not required by law often cannot be considered real, since companies might have made them anyway without the extra money from selling offsets. Left unchecked, the critics warn, poorly measured offsets could lead to an overall increase in California’s emissions.

Depending on the future price of offsets, the addition of these credits from around the country and possibly abroad could swamp the existing regulated emissions market. Independent environmental economists now estimate that offsets could  grow to more than 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) or the equivalent in other greenhouse gases—representing at least 50 percent of the program.

And under certain supply-and-demand conditions, state trading rules could allow offsets to cover 100 percent of the reductions required under cap-and-trade. In those circumstances, no power plant, cement factory or refinery would have to cut its emissions to comply with the carbon cap.

Offsets “create the illusion that we are doing something to mitigate climate change,” said Kathleen McAfee, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, who studies global markets for environmental services. Instead, she said, the government should impose strict regulations on fossil fuel extraction and invest in renewable energy technology.

Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, the main state agency writing regulations to fight global warming, argued that carbon reductions can take many forms and should not be limited to one accounting method. He said several other regulatory programs in the state also aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions cover many of the same sectors regulated by cap-and-trade.

“Frankly, as long as the emissions are reduced we are achieving our goals,” Clegern said. “Whether that’s done with offsets, whether that’s done with allowances, whether that’s done with reductions, there obviously would have to be some reduction in there to achieve this.”

Billions of Dollars

The cap-and-trade program, which went into effect in January, covers about 80 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, those emitted by the biggest electricity, industrial and fuel facilities.

It sets an annual limit on total emissions that California’s largest polluters can release. The total supply of pollution allowances falls each year, helping the state reach emissions targets established by the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The offsets program allows regulated industries to use offsets to cover up to eight percent of their carbon emissions. But analysts say that based on the rules, that figure could exceed the reductions required statewide for the entire cap-and-trade program. That means offsets—until now offered mostly as voluntary credits to companies hoping to burnish their green image—could soon become a major part of California’s lucrative mandatory program.

Experts estimate that the higher price for California’s state-issued carbon allowances, currently more than $14 per metric ton, make the use of cheaper offsets, projected to bring costs down to about $10, especially attractive. If California industries do require at least 200 million offsets over the next eight years it would make them worth more than $2 billion on the market.

The high financial stakes make accurate measurement of offsets a key concern. Cap-and-trade sets carbon allowance targets based on gases detected from smokestacks at the state’s 350 largest polluting companies at about 600 facilities. By contrast, offsets are calculated as comparisons with predicted future “business-as-usual” levels of pollution.

This modeling requires teams of scientists and economists to anticipate choices that companies would have made had the offset payments not been available. And as any economist will admit, predicting the future is hard.

Even when emissions cuts are proved to prevent the business-as-usual growth scenario, the exact amount of CO2 stored or released comes with great scientific uncertainty. Supporters of offsets concede that it is hard to verify whether the offsets are valid.

The use of offsets is also associated with unintended consequences such as increases in other pollutants locally, loss of biodiversity in timber plantations and reduced incentives to invest in local mitigation technologies.

That is why some scientists and environmental advocates say cap-and-trade should not incorporate offsets.

“The integrity of the offsets is the integrity of the cap-and-trade program, because of how strongly the program is relying on them,” said Brian Nowicki, California climate policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Foggy Future

Offsets preapproved for California’s cap-and-trade program are thus far restricted to U.S.-based projects in four sectors—industrial forestry, urban forestry, dairy digesters and destruction of ozone-depleting substances.

The Air Resources Board has developed elaborate protocols for each. The first round of credits, totaling 6 million metric tons of carbon from 45 offset projects, are expected to go on sale after a final staff review, according to a Reuters Point Carbon analysis.

The board is considering adding offsets from other domestic sectors, such as methane capture from rice plantations and mines. It will expand the program internationally, linking up with Quebec’s offset program in 2014. It is also considering including offsets from a controversial program called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) that offers carbon credits for preserving forests and plantations in Mexico, Colombia and other developing countries.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

One obvious benefit of offsets for polluters is lower-cost mitigation. Since global warming can be addressed by reducing greenhouse gases anywhere, offsets proponents say innovative projects out of state or in other countries can achieve reductions more cheaply.

“You want to make the program as cost-effective as possible to reduce the economic burden of the program for California consumers,” said Gary Gero, president of Climate Action Reserve. He said offsets offer businesses now outside cap-and-trade an incentive to curb emissions through innovation.

Critics say this reasoning ignores myriad uncertainties that beset offsets, including measurement, verification and environmental justice concerns. The conundrum facing climate offsets policy is the debate over “additionality”—whether emissions reductions would have been made anyway. Carbon-saving technologies include installing methane-capture devices at large dairy farms or keeping trees standing for 100 years instead of 50.

But there is no counterfactual world against which to measure which reductions are real. In many instances they must accept offset developers at their word.

Economist David Roland-Holst at the University of California, Berkeley, said background changes in consumer demand for products and services with a lower carbon footprint make additionality difficult to determine.

“Rising energy prices and a rapidly increasing public desire for environmental quality will drive emerging markets toward pollution mitigation,” Roland-Holst wrote in a recent paper on sustainable economics.

But Roland-Holst notes that relying on offsets also produces “unwelcome secondary effects.” If industries meet the majority of their cap-and-trade requirements through out-of-state offsets, local air pollution in California’s industrial areas would worsen.

In June 2012, two environmental groups, Citizens Climate Lobby and Our Children’s Earth Foundation, sued the state. They said offsets “credit emission reductions that would occur or have already occurred without the incentive of offset credit payments,” resulting in “false accounting of progress.” They sought a court order prohibiting offsets trading.

But a San Francisco Superior Court judge rejected the petition in January, saying the judiciary could not rewrite the statute. Our Children’s Earth Foundation filed an appeal on May 24. A hearing date has not been set.

State officials say that they have developed stringent standards for additionality, and that offsets are subject to continuous monitoring. If the state finds flawed credits, they will be invalidated.

“There are third-party verifiers who have been certified by us and there are more of them being trained,” said Air Resources Board (ARB) spokesman Clegern, adding that independent experts will do on-site inspections.

“If ARB finds malfeasance by any party that developed or verified the offset,” he said, the state “can take enforcement action on that party.”

Larger Than They Seem

Steven Cliff, manager of the cap-and-trade program at the Air Resources Board, said it was “premature” to make assumptions about the scope of the offsets program.

Offsets, he said, “can account for a pretty high portion of overall reductions. But under the most likely scenario, offsets would cover no more than 41 percent of the reductions.” Cliff based his assessment on a 2011 white paper by Adam Diamant, an energy and environment analyst at Electric Power Research Institute.

More recent assessments by Diamant and at least one other independent researcher, Barbara Haya, a fellow at the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, show that offsets could represent a big chunk of the allowed emissions from industry—anywhere from 53 percent to 224 percent of required carbon reductions, measured cumulatively through the year 2020.

Diamant said the range of projections is so wide because the calculations depend on several variables. The first is the overall cap. The state plans to block off a small portion of credits each year to ensure a steady price for allowances. This reduces California’s emissions limit. But if demand for allowances is high, the state will release reserves starting at $40 per metric ton.

Other complementary state policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases might further reduce emissions. These include energy efficiency, mandates on electric companies to produce renewable energy, and the low-carbon fuel standard for vehicles. That would ease the reductions requirements under cap-and-trade. If reserve allowances were untouched and complementary policies achieved their targets, total allowed offsets could add up to more than twice the reductions needed to make cap-and-trade work.

Achieving reductions from complementary programs achieves the same overall environmental goals, Diamant said. “So it’s not like nothing is happening.”

But critics say that if industries can buy offsets to meet all their reductions requirements in the program’s first eight years, technological innovation could stagnate. They say it also deprives California of the environmental, economic and public health benefits that former Gov. Schwarzenegger promised when the global warming law was passed in 2006.

“The more offsets you allow to be used,” said Nowicki, “the more you put the program at risk.”

Clear cutting wipes out blocks of habitat, one after another, that are important shelter and food sources for wildlife species that depend upon mature shady forest conditions. Photo credit: Earth Island Journal

Forest or Tree Farm?

Clear cutting wipes out blocks of habitat, one after another, that are important shelter and food sources for wildlife species that depend upon mature shady forest conditions. The risk is most evident in the case of forest offsets, which market analysts predict is the sector where the bulk of California offsets will be generated.

“Forestry offers the greatest opportunity, but it is also by far the most complicated and challenging offset protocol,” said Belinda Morris, California director of the American Carbon Registry, another agency certifying offsets for the state.

Environmentalists say the state’s forest protocol, which rewards carbon sequestration through reforestation, forest management and avoided conversion of forests to other uses, contains several fundamental flaws.

The rules do not account for “critical carbon pools” on the forest floor. It also inadequately accounts for soil carbon released during logging, said Nowicki. The protocol only accounts for soil disturbance through “deep ripping, furrowing or plowing” on more than 25 percent of a project area, which can cover several thousand acres.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s guidelines for voluntary greenhouse gas reporting estimates that one acre of typical California mixed-conifer forest contains 60 percent more carbon collectively stored in soil (19.2 tons), litter and duff (12.6 tons), down deadwood (2.6 tons), understory (0.9 tons) and standing deadwood (2.5 tons) than in live trees (25.4 tons).

Nowicki said even conservative estimates like these show that if logging takes place on smaller parcels, soil disturbance could dramatically change the overall carbon storage capacity of the area: “The worst case would be that the project gets carbon credits in a year that they should actually show a carbon deficit if they had fully accounted for the soil carbon emissions.”

California’s forest protocol is also the first in the world to credit durable wood products, including building materials and furniture, that lock carbon out of the atmosphere for a long time.

The Air Resources Board says objections to state rules are premature because none of the proposed offsets have yet been approved for the market.

Lobbying Rewards

That the forest protocol allows timber companies to sell offsets by replanting trees in areas they clear-cut is among the most controversial of the state rules. This is called “even-aged management”—a stand of trees all planted at the same time, for future harvesting.

Landowners may clear-cut up to 40 acres at once, as long as they show that tree growth elsewhere in the project area stores more carbon than is lost.

But environmental groups contend that making even-aged management more profitable undermines less damaging alternative carbon storage options. Clear-cutting degrades forest ecosystems, water quality and wildlife diversity, scientists say.

Initial drafts of the forest protocol disallowed clear-cutting. But around 2007, the timber industry began to seek more favorable rules. Some of the most aggressive lobbying came from Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s wealthiest timber company and largest private landowner. It made sure to regularly attend offset rule-making workshops hosted by Climate Action Reserve. The company, which owns nearly 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington, has long sparred with environmentalists who oppose its clear-cutting practices.

A recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that between 2007 and 2008 Sierra Pacific Industries hired a Sacramento lobbying firm, California Strategies, for $37,500, to present its case. In September 2007, the company sent a letter to the Air Resources Board requesting rule changes to permit even-aged management and storage of carbon in wood products. The board accepted most of the recommendations. But the decision to include clear-cutting led to a schism among environmentalists.

Nearly 50 groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, urged the Air Resources Board to exclude offsets for clear-cutting. But other big green groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pacific Land Trust supported the idea.

“It’s a sticky situation, but it’s probably the best way to get landowners to follow better forest management practices,” said Paul Mason, vice president of policy and incentives at the Pacific Land Trust.

Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability at Sierra Pacific Industries, said the company’s influence in framing the forestry protocol was completely aboveboard: “It was an open and public process, and there were many diverse groups involved. We just participated in the process like anyone else in the public would.”

Rajinder Sahota, the Air Resources Board’s offsets policy manager, dismissed criticisms that carbon accounting was imprecise and that the standards for additionality were lacking.

“With an approved forest project you can have situations where you are able to harvest within a geographical boundary and also sequester carbon at the same time,” Sahota said.

Wildlife vs. Carbon

Sierra Pacific Industries is now preparing four offset project areas on its land totaling 80,000 acres for approval by the Air Resources Board. This includes the clear-cut area near Yosemite that Buckley surveyed. The company owns about 130,000 acres of forestland in the area. Viewed from an airplane, its land resembles a patchwork quilt of green forests and brown clear-cut land that stretches for miles.

Pawlicki said improved land management practices in the project areas would remove an additional 5.6 million tons of carbon from the air over 40 years. That would yield the Redding-based company $56 million at current offset prices.

For Buckley, who finds clear signals of climate change in the Sierra Nevada’s rapidly receding snow line, this is worrisome news.

“It is not the loss of a 20-acre block of forest that hurts any particular species, because most wildlife can move to another area when bulldozers and chainsaws destroy a block of forests,” he said.

Aggressive logging and replanting, he explained, leads to “a loss of the biggest trees—most of the oaks, dogwoods, maples and alders, and most of the plant diversity. It wipes out blocks of habitat, one after another, that are important shelter and food sources for wildlife species that depend upon mature shady forest conditions.”

Heavy logging has been associated with the disappearance of the American marten and Pacific fisher from that corner of the Sierra Nevada, and has affected populations of the spotted owl, the northern goshawk, the pileated woodpecker and the northern flying squirrel.

“To somehow claim that this will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have no impact on the environment,” Buckley said, “is ridiculous.”

This story is part of a special report on California’s cap-and-trade program, in collaboration with San Francisco Public Press and Bay Nature magazine. It was made possible by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE and BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.

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