Author Archives: Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

UN Climate Chief: 2014 "Will Alarm the World"

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wrapped up his three-day Global Climate Summit today, with signatures and ceremony, the U.N.’s top climate official set a sobering tone with his own parting shot.

In a final panel this afternoon, the Governor was joined by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Pachauri said the worst-case scenarios from previous climate modeling appear to be coming true, and warned that the next climate change assessment from the IPCC, due out in 2014, “will alarm the world.”

Then he went on to reiterate a prediction he made before the U.N. earlier this month; that based on the science he’s seen, 12 countries are in danger of becoming failed states due to the impacts of climate change. And while he stopped short of listing the nations, previous statements appear to imply that several of the states on his list are in Africa.

Elsewhere at the summit, 30 delegates from state and local governments around the world signed a final agreement to collaborate on climate change. If they follow through with some muscle on the partnership, they’ll be collaborating on clean transportation and on climate adaptation strategies.

Governors from Brazil, Indonesia and U.S.also called on their national governments to address deforestation at the UN climate treaty talks in Copenhagen. Forest loss accounts for 20% of climate emissions globally. California also signed its agreement with the Jiangsu Province of China.

The three-day summit’s title was “On the Road to Copenhagen” and the international talks have been front and center in the discussions here. The governors attending would like their role in combating climate change formally recognized there. They see themselves on the front lines of climate change, as evidenced by this much cited statistic: 50-80% of the emissions cuts needed to reach the UN’s goals will be implemented by states and cities.

But despite the Copenhagen-mania, Schwarzenegger stuck with his subnational message, saying: “Climate change isn’t all about this one treaty.” Even if the talks at Copenhagen fail, he says states and provinces should keep forging ahead.

Photo: Office of the Governor.

A Bottom-Up Climate Approach

Governor's Office

Photo: Governor's Office

The second Governors’ Climate Summit kicked off yesterday with a plenary on adaptation to climate change. Most of the climate policy we hear about has to do with mitigation; cutting emissions to reduce the rate of climate warming. Increasingly, though, policy makers are looking at ways to adapt to the effects that are already palpable.

Several international leaders had stories to tell:

– Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia said that due to warming winters, pine beetles will kill 80% of the mature pine forests in his province by 2013.

– Dr. Dessima Williams of the Alliance of Small Island States said rising sea levels make climate change “a case of life and death” for island nations.

According to a World Bank analysis cited by Michele De Nevers of the Bank’s Environment Department, adapting to climate change will cost $75-100 billion dollars a year for developing countries–and that’s with only 2 degrees (Celsius) of warming by 2050. That seems like a big number, but De Nevers reminded the crowd that it’s on par with the recent financial bailout.

I also spoke with Margret Kim, China Program Director for the California Air Resources Board and EPA, who has been working with the government of the Jiangsu Province in China.  She filled me in on the agreement that Governor Schwarzenegger is expected to sign today with leaders from the province to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Based on this framework, California would develop an action plan to share expertise and research with the province.

This partnership is built on a 2005 agreement that California signed with the province, which was focused on energy efficiency. Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council says real progress was made on the first agreement with Jiangsu, which set several efficiency incentives and programs in motion. But they have more to do.  Ninety-five percent of the province’s electricity comes from coal.

The announcement comes on the heels of President Hu Jintao’s declaration less than two weeks ago that China would make notable reductions in its carbon intensity by 2020.  Carbon intensity isn’t quite as simple as a straight emissions cut. It measures the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each dollar of economic output.  And fixed targets aren’t part of the expected Jiangsu agreement either. But Finamore says this is a landmark agreement since it shows an important shift in China’s willingness to tackle climate change. As she said, “I’ve been working in China on energy issues for more than 20 years, and there has been a tremendous amount of recent progress.” And a bottom-up approach–with states piloting environmental policies before national governments adopt them–is certainly something we’re familiar with in California.

Provincial Climate Summitry: Day One

Governor Schwarzenegger kicked off his second Global Climate Summit Wednesday in Los Angeles–and “global” is certainly the emphasis.  The three-day conference features panelists from more than 70 states, provinces and countries who are discussing “subnational” strategies to cut carbon emissions.  (That’s the policy wonk term for regional, state and provincial governments).

Events like these are at risk of being feel-good political meet-and-greets, but I spoke with Louis Blumberg of The Nature Conservancy, who believes that the partnerships created at the last climate summit have borne fruit in the past year. Blumberg is part of a deforestation working group made up of five Brazilian states, two provinces in Indonesia and three states in the U.S. They’re working on carbon accounting techniques for forestry projects–or in carbon parlance, REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

Expect more partnership announcements from the rest of the summit.  The first signed this week came from California and Mexico, who announced a partnership to protect Monarch Butterfly habitat in Mexico through reforestation.  California forests are also getting some attention.  The Governor also announced a deal with the largest private forest owner in California, Sierra Pacific Industries, to produce carbon credits from its forestry projects.

Still, for all the state-level dialogue, national climate news stole the show.  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson appeared just after the Governor to announce  a proposed rule to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large power plants and refineries. And in Washington, Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry released a national climate bill in the Senate (see Craig Miller’s post for more on that).

The Governor took it all in stride, reminding the audience that California piloted many of the policies the national government is now considering. “That’s how powerful states and regions are,” said Schwarzenegger. “We really are the laboratories for the national governments. That’s where the action is.”

China: Have a Carb and a Smile

carb_stockWhat does coal power have to do with popping a can of soda? This morning, NPR’s Anthony Kuhn reported on a power plant in China that is successfully capturing some of the carbon dioxide it releases. They extract it, liquefy it, and send it off to companies that use it in dry ice, fire extinguishers, and even carbonated beverages. A handful of power plants in U.S. are already doing the same.

Of course, when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, capture is only half the battle. The carbon snared from these plants is only temporarily stored – it gets released eventually–like when someone pops the top of the soda can.  It’s more like carbon recycling. The greater hurdle is in “sequestering” part of it.  In order to make a lasting difference in cutting emissions, that carbon has to be stored permanently.

President Obama has signaled that developing carbon sequestration technology is a key part of his energy plan, and is handing out billions in stimulus dollars.  But the U.S. is already behind the curve.  While there are several ways to store carbon, the main focus has been on storing carbon underground in geologic formations. There are several power plants in Europe that are already capturing and sequestering carbon emissions underground.  The Bush Administration backed off its first attempt at carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the FutureGen project, in 2008 after the costs became too high. The name of game now is to simply get a demonstration plant working. Anywhere.

Here in California, CCS is an option, thanks to the underground geologic formations throughout the Central Valley that could be ideal sites. A western consortium known as WESTCARB is leading the charge with backing from the California Energy Commission and the Department of Energy.  They’ve announced a pilot project in Bakersfield where carbon will be captured from a 50-megawatt power plant. But construction is described as still “months away.”

As with any new technology, cost is the make-or-break issue.  Capturing and stashing carbon is prohibitively expensive–at least until there’s a price on carbon or the technology improves. This week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he doesn’t expect to see cost-effective technology for at least eight years. And he raised another point. “Even if the United States or Europe turns its back on coal, India and China will not,” Chu said.  At last fall’s climate summit in Los Angeles, members of the Chinese delegation told Climate Watch that they were looking to the U.S. to provide key technology. But as Anthony Kuhn reported, the Chinese went to Australia to get technical advice.

It’s commonly forecast that coal will remain a central power source in the U.S. for decades to come. But as critics of carbon sequestration have stated, it’s really a question of whether cost-effective technology will arrive in time to slow down climate change.

Lauren Sommer is an associate producer with Quest at KQED, and a self-described “carbon geek.” Her story on plans for a “smart” electrical grid is Monday’s Quest Radio feature.