Energy and Global Warming News for December 6th: China to hit 500 gigawatts of renewable power by 2020; NY carbon auction yields $16.9 million; Michigan Senates $160 million high-speed rail opportunity

JR: The staggering imbalance between the scale of clean energy action being pursued by China and that pursued by this country grows clearer every day.China to hit 500 Gigawatts of Renewable Power by 2020!

On the same day that Senate Republicans filibustered a vote for renewable energy in the USA, by contrast — China has just published an astoundingly ambitious and exciting renewable energy plan for the next ten years.

China’s plan is to get a total of 500 Gigawatts of renewable energy on the grid by 2020. It explodes wind power from a mere 25 GW on the grid now, to a staggering 150 GW, a six-fold increase on the previous already ambitious plan.

Liquid fuels would get a boost. The plan would grow ethanol production from 2 million tons to 10 million tons, to expand biodiesel from 0.05 million tons to 2 million tons, biomass pellets for heating, from under a million tons to 50 million tons, and biogas and biomass gasification from 8 billion cubic meters to 44 billion cubic meters.

China is already the world leader in solar thermal hot water heaters for rooftops. The solar hot water goal is to have 300 million square meters of solar hot water collectors, up from 100 million in 2006.

Electric power would come from adding 100 GW to make 300 GW of hydro power, adding 125 GW to have 150 GW of wind power, adding 28 GW to have 30 GW of biopower, and going from a half Gigawatt to 20 GW of solar. Giant steps.

To put that in perspective: the US will have added 16 GW of all renewable energy combined once the Obama administration Recovery Act funds are allocated — which, while a fabulous change for us, because it doubles the entire last thirty years of renewables on the grid — pales by comparison with 500 GW.

And even that 16 GW is only if the last of the Recovery Funds can be protected from our loyal opposition. That doesn’t look likely. The GOP filibustered a vote to extend Recovery Act support for renewable energy.

China has no filibuster. I never thought I would live to see the advantages of a political process other than democracy, but living in one that seems to have devolved into a plutocracy (run for and by the fossil fuel industry, the richest industry on the planet) is changing my mind.

There actually are some big advantages with one-party rule. Clarity of purpose is one. Having a domestic enemy, sworn to make your side lose, at any cost to the country, is not helping America compete in creating the new clean energy economy. Because they don’t have an opposition party filibuster in China, their climate plan can actually be implemented.

But”¦ wipe those tears away. Think globally.

If there is one country we climate hawks should be happy is not run like America, it is China. Because China is the world’s factory. And carbon emissions from the world’s factory are about to get lower. And that is a good thing.

Carbon Auction Yields $16.9 Million for New York

New York made $16.9 million in the latest auction of carbon dioxide credits, held this week under the cap-and-trade system known as Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But it remains to be seen whether the money will go to the energy efficiency programs it is intended for.

Gov. David A. Paterson set a precedent last year when he took $90 million from the money generated by the initiative to deal with a projected state budget deficit of nearly $50 billion through March 2013. New York has so far collected $282 million from RGGI (pronounced “reggie”), the most of any of the 10 participating Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

State officials said that dipping into the environmental pool of money was a necessity in a moment of crisis and was not expected to happen again. In a statement, officials with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said Friday that more than 80 percent of the auction proceeds were being invested in strategic energy programs like “EmPower New York,” which helps households do energy audits and save on their energy bills by upgrading equipment and improving insulation, among other steps.

“RGGI continues to demonstrate we can take market-based actions to limit our carbon footprint and lay the groundwork for a clean energy economy,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the department’s acting commissioner.

Under the program, the 10 states agreed to cap carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants and charge the plants for the emissions they produce. As an incentive for the plants to pollute less, the states allow those that cut their emissions below the cap level to sell or trade their excess carbon allowances through online auctions four times a year.

Michigan Senate’s $160 Million High-Speed Rail Opportunity

Here’s a good, simple question for you, “Would you pay $37 to receive $161?”

As the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) points out, “That’s the question facing Michigan, multiplied by a million, with respect to high-speed and commuter rail funding.”

Unfortunately, Tea Partiers and high-speed rail disinformers have been framing high-speed rail projects as a problem lately. While they do cost money, they are projected to create much more in most circumstances. Michigan has the opportunity to get a high-speed rail project rolling in its state now, but its state senators need to act soon to do so. A Michigan bill, House Bill 6484, needs to be voted on by the end of the year.

The Michigan LCV and others are making this a priority topic, for obvious reasons. High-speed rail is important for creating jobs, cutting global warming emissions, and improving social and economic connectivity in the region.

“While automobiles remain important, especially next-generation vehicles like the Chevy Volt, our state also needs to invest in high-speed and commuter rail for the promise it holds,” Lisa Wozniak, Michigan LCV’s executive director says. “That includes a lower carbon footprint for our state and faster commutes that can spur tourism and job growth across Michigan.”

House Bill 6484 was passed by the state’s representatives on November 10 and would put $100 million of state construction bonds towards a passenger rail project between Detroit and Chicago. This $100 million would include the $37 million that is required to unleash $161 million more in federal high-speed rail funding.

“This is a clear benefit for Michigan’s cities and towns,” said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council. “It will spur economic activity, improve the environment, establish affordable connections between communities and smooth the commutes between home and work.”

New Low Energy Water Treatment Purifies, Desalinates and Makes Hydrogen, Too

In an amazing sustainability quadruple play, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver are working on a fuel cell that can desalinate water, treat wastewater and generate electricity in a single process, while producing hydrogen gas that is re-used to make the treatment process run efficiently. What’s amazing about it is that the operation is run by microscopic living organisms that exist all around us and even inside of us, otherwise known as microbes — yes, microbes.

Microbial Fuel Cells

Fuel cells produce energy through a chemical reaction, so the use of living beings might sound a bit far fetched but let’s not sell the little critters short. After all, microbes came to the rescue of all human life when our planet was viciously attacked by alien invaders with superior technology (at least according to H.G. Wells in the sci-fi classic War of the Worlds). More to the point, researchers have been already demonstrated the ability of microbes to generate electricity as they metabolize food, and the result has been an emerging generation of fuel cells that can scavenge energy from parts of the environment where large colonies of bacteria can be found, which basically means you can get a fuel cell to run on wastewater or even on mud.

The New Super-Duper Desalinating Microbial Fuel Cell

The Colorado researchers have stepped up the microbial fuel cell — wastewater connection to include a desalination capability, and that’s where it gets interesting. They were stumped for a while on how to get the whole operation to run efficiently, until they investigated the potential for storing the hydrogen waste gas from the process. Building on research conducted at Penn State University, the team produced a study demonstrating that the process results in enough hydrogen to run the desalination component. Not only that, it creates excess hydrogen that can be put to other uses.

The U.S. Navy and Microbial Fuel Cells

The Office of Naval Research is behind the Colorado study, which should come as no surprise. For obvious reasons, the U.S. Navy has a long term interest in developing high efficiency desalination processes, and now it foresees a future in which entire ships are powered by microbial fuel cells which can scavenge energy on-the-go from seawater. Bio-based fuel cells and batteries are also of great interest to other branches of the armed services, so it’s a safe bet that microbial fuel cells will cross over into mainstream civilian use”¦especially if the incoming Congress continues funding for new energy research.

New Google Earth Technology Allows Tracking of Environmental Changes

Google has unveiled an online technology that allows scientists and researchers to track and measure changes to the environment using 25 years worth of satellite data. Google Earth Engine, introduced during climate talks in Cancun, utilizes “trillions of scientific measurements” collected by NASA’s LANDSAT satellite, the company said.

Google is already working on applications for tracking deforestation and mapping land use trends, including the creation of the most comprehensive scale map of Mexico’s forest and water resources ever made.

That project alone would have taken three years to process using a single computer, Google officials say, but took just one day using Google Earth Engine. “No one has ever been able to analyze that entire data set for Mexico, or even come close,” said Rebecca Moore, the project’s engineering manager.

Google says it will offer 20 million CPU hours free to developing nations and scientific organizations to utilize the platform, which could emerge as a critical tool in the enforcement of such land management initiatives as the UN’s REDD program in which wealthier nations pay developing nations to preserve rainforests.

PwC: Governments cannot deliver climate resilience alone

Governments and businesses will have to work much more closely together if they are to ensure economies adapt effectively to inevitable climate change impacts, according to a major new report from PrivewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The report, which will be released today on the sidelines of the Cancun Climate Summit to coincide with the meeting’s Global Business Day, warns the links between policymakers and business leaders are currently too weak to deliver a coordinated adaptation response to climate change.

The report also notes that many businesses are failing to develop sufficiently ambitious climate adaptation plans, observing that while “experience of adaptation practices is steadily building… for the most part, adapting to climate change is still not mainstreamed into business activities”.

Based on interviews with senior executives at 40 firms around the world, the study finds that business leaders feel climate adaptation efforts are facing a range of constraints such as “a lack of awareness on specific climate risks within some businesses, a lack of clarity on policy direction, and uncertainties regarding the extent of future risks”.Richard Gledhill, head of climate change services at PwC, said that businesses and policymakers needed to urgently improve co-operation in order to deliver coherent national adaptation plans.

“Traditionally, policymakers and the private sector don’t just sit in different rooms, they speak different languages,” he said. “The new enthusiasm that the UNFCCC and the Mexican Government hosts are showing for engaging the private sector will be good for business and good for climate. Business engagement is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have in the process.”

Dr Celine Herweijer, director at PwC’s sustainability and climate change division, said there was a strong commercial case for businesses to invest in the development of new risk management and insurance services, as well as adaptation technologies.

“For business, adaptation is not just a defensive play, to protect business as usual,” she said. “It is about capitalising on new opportunities, innovations and markets. That’s often the forgotten story.”

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, welcomed the report and its calls for tighter links between businesses and policymakers. “Adaptation to climate change is no longer the exclusive ambit of the public sector,” she said. “Investment in adaptation makes business sense, due both to the need for companies to climate-proof their operations, as well as to the new business opportunities opening in the area of adaptation.”

The report comes just days after scientists gathered in Cancun released a series of new studies warning that average global temperatures are on track to rise by more than four degrees by the later part of the century, leading to huge increases in the incidence of extreme weather events and significant rises in sea levels.

Ministers arrive in Cancun touting optimistic outlook

Ministers from around the world will begin to gather in Cancun today for the UN’s crucial climate change summit with opinion largely divided on the extent to which the negotiations progressed last week.

Observers said progress had been made on a number of issues, including proposals for improved forestry protection, the formation of a global green fund, and the independent verification of countries’ emission pledges.

However, experts also warned the talks remained on a knife edge over the future of the Kyoto Protocol following Japan’s surprise declaration that it will not support any extension of the controversial treaty.There had been reports over the weekend that a number of developing countries led by Bolivia and Venezuela could abandon the talks if the latest version of the official negotiating text dropped proposals to extend the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

A walk out was averted when the latest version of the draft negotiating text, released on Saturday, appeared to include many of the demands put forward by developing countries. However, it largely fudged the question over the future of Kyoto and continued to contain numerous sections where agreement has not been reached, raising the prospect of a repeat of last year’s Copenhagen Summit where ministers and world leaders arrived to find a draft negotiating text that was nowhere near ready.

Connie Hedegaard, the European climate commissioner who chaired the first week of the Copenhagen Summit, admitted to reporters that the current draft texts being used in Cancun “are not ready to be used by ministers to finalise a deal”.

However, speaking before flying out to join the summit, British Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said he was cautiously optimistic that tangible progress could be delivered over the next week.

“We do not underestimate the scale of the task. The negotiations are wide-ranging and complex. In their scope and their detail, they are without parallel,” he said. “But the indications are good. Already, the mood has been cautiously positive. People are talking. The show is on the road… On issues such as mitigation, MRV (measurement, reporting and verification), forests, technology and adaptation, we can agree a package of measures that would send a clear signal to governments, investors and people around the world: that the low-carbon transition is affordable, achievable and essential.”

His comments came as it emerged the UK delegation has been paired with its Brazilian counterpart in an attempt by the Mexican hosts to break some of the deadlocks that continue to mar the talks.Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa told the summit over the weekend that she had asked pairs of industrialised and developing nations to team up to work on some of the more contentious issues overshadowing the negotiations in a move designed to thrash out a compromise position.

The UK and Britain have been given arguably the most challenging task and have been asked to develop a plan for ending the deadlock over the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Many developing nations are insistent that Kyoto should be extended as it represents the only legally binding mechanism for curbing emissions from developed nations. However, industrialised nations would generally prefer to see Kyoto replaced with an entirely new treaty that covers all countries, and the stand off has now been forced to the top of the agenda after Japan stated categorically that it would not sign up to any extension of Kyoto.

Meanwhile, Espinosa said Sweden and Grenada would work on proposals for new long term goals for tackling climate change, while Spain and Algeria are to work on plans for adaptation measures, and Australia and Bangladesh will work on proposals for climate finance and technology transfer.

In related news, carbon traders were left disappointed after analyst firm Point Carbon reported that negotiators in Cancun could delay by another year proposed reforms to the UN-backed Clean Development Mechanism carbon offsetting scheme.

The Thomson Reuters-owned firm said that a draft decision on proposals for a new appeals mechanism for emission reduction projects that are refused entry to the CDM revealed that a technical panel would be tasked with reporting back on the scope of a new appeals body at next year’s summit in South Africa.

The document also suggests that the CDM’s future remains dependent on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which provides the legal basis for the scheme but is currently scheduled to expire in 2012. The draft rule “recognizes that the continuation of the CDM beyond 2012 will depend on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations process”.

A Low Bar in Cancºn? Not for U.S., Envoy Declares

Todd Stern, the chief American climate change negotiator, arrived on Friday in the Mexican resort town of Cancºn, where the annual two-week United Nations climate extravaganza has been under way since Monday.

He made clear at an afternoon press briefing that the United States was seeking an agreement that addresses all the major issues that make up the current climate change agenda. He said quite emphatically that he was not interested in some sort of face-saving partial deal that makes progress on some questions but kicks the more difficult problems down the road.

He said the United States was seeking a “balanced set of decisions” that makes measurable progress on the six issues now before the conference: emissions reductions, technology transfers, adaptation, verification, financing and forest preservation. The issues formed the core of the Copenhagen Accord negotiated last year, and an agreement that does not make comparable progress on all of them is not acceptable, Mr. Stern said.

“Anyone who says that any of these issues is too difficult or should be put off for another day is not trying hard enough,” he said. “None of these issues is too difficult for us and none of them should be put off.”This is not a new stance for the United States, but it sets a very high bar for a meeting from which little concrete progress is expected. If all of the 190 nations attending the talks have to agree on a package that deals with all of these issues “” and each one has a long, complicated and emotional history “” then it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to emerge at the end of the conference with anything that looks like success.

The American position makes it easy for any one nation “” including the United States “” to walk away, saying it could not accept, for example, the majority view on financing for adaptation programs in vulnerable nations, or how to verify emissions reductions in, say, India or Russia.

Mr. Stern was asked why it was not more practical to focus on the areas where there is emerging agreement and save more contentious matters for future meetings.

“We don’t buy that,” he said. “The agreements on various issues reached last year at the leader level were all part of a package and the different parts balanced each other off. The way forward is not simply to work on those issues that are important to some countries but not important to others. That doesn’t make sense.”

He said he did not expect the Cancºn meeting to produce a legally binding agreement; in fact, nobody does. But he said that should not stand in the way of incremental progress.

“You can’t always get the perfect,” he said. “But to say that because you don’t get the home run you won’t play ball, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Although delegates have been arriving in Cancºn this week, the negotiations do not get started in earnest until next week. If the past is any guide, nothing will be settled until the final hours of the final day, next Friday “” if then.

As Mr. Stern put it: “The outcome hangs in the balance. We don’t know which way it’s going to go yet.”

India proposes a system to monitor carbon pollution reductions

As nations seek an international agreement to reduce global warming pollution, one of the biggest issues on the table is transparency. When a country says it has reduced emissions, other nations want to know they mean it. Transparency and accountability provisions are an essential building block of an effective international system to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year at the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, negotiators made a key breakthrough in the final hours. As a result of this breakthrough, developing countries will report national emissions inventories and emission reduction actions every two years. Making continued progress on this issue will be critical to a successful outcome in the climate conference now taking place in Cancun. As NRDC explains in their recent “Tracking Carbon with Transparency” fact sheet, “advancing progress toward robust measurement, reporting and verification systems is an imperative for the Cancun Climate Summit.”

Given all of that, it should come as no surprise that transparency and accountability have been among the major sticking points in the international negotiations this past year, with differing views among developed and developing countries on both the format and application of a monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) system. India recently proposed a new monitoring system for major emitters that aims to bridge some of these major differences and help facilitate an agreement.

However, a Nov. 15 letter [PDF] from Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern and Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman clarifies that India’s proposed MRV system would be contingent on two things. First, India wants developed countries to provide money and technology assistance for developing countries. Second, most developed countries — with the exception of the United States — have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol and made commitments to reduce emissions. India wants nations which signed on to the treaty to make further emissions after the treaty expires in 2012. Without these two conditions, Ramesh wrote, the new MRV framework “will simply not fly.”

The gist of India’s proposal is that both developed and developing countries report their emission reduction efforts for international review, albeit subject to different reporting requirements and different reporting timelines. For example, developed countries would report on their emission reduction commitments and progress toward reaching those commitments, whereas developing countries would report on mitigation actions and the impact of those actions.

Commenting on Ramesh’s letter, Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, sounded a cautiously optimistic note. “I’m not sure if Ramesh’s thing is what solves this, but the fact that he’s trying to put forward a proposal that bridges the gap is positive.”

Countries are currently considering India’s proposal and it is unclear exactly how they will react. The U.S. remains insistent that any international climate deal include international verification of developing country emission reduction actions, but China and some other developing nations insist that actions they take domestically should not be subject to international monitoring. But this latest effort by India may put increased pressure on China to soften its position, especially if the other BASIC countries show strong support for the proposal.