from Energy Realpolitik and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

UN Climate Action Summit: Five Things Governments Should be Doing

A mangrove plant grows on a shore in Cancun. In the 40 years since Cancun was founded, countless acres of mangrove forests have been lost. Now many scientists say that mangrove forests can help slow climate change, and are desperate to save them. REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia

As the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit concludes, world leaders need some outside the box thinking about steps to strengthen their national commitments to shrink their greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the next phase of the Paris Agreement.

September 24, 2019

A mangrove plant grows on a shore in Cancun. In the 40 years since Cancun was founded, countless acres of mangrove forests have been lost. Now many scientists say that mangrove forests can help slow climate change, and are desperate to save them. REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia
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By Amy Myers Jaffe, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the program on energy security and climate change and Benjamin Silliman, research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit concludes, world leaders need some outside the box thinking about steps to strengthen their national commitments to shrink their greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the next phase of the Paris Agreement.

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Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on leaders to come to this year’s summit with plans to achieve net-zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, by 2050, in alignment with a goal to cap the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. He specifically mentioned countries should place a ban on construction of new coal plants after 2020. Addressing emissions from coal plants is important. Coal power generation worldwide is a major source of carbon in the atmosphere, accounting for nearly 30 percent of total global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Problematically, despite huge commitments to renewable energy, both China and India are still experiencing widening coal use. According to the German environmental group Urgewald, China has 226.2 gigawatts (GWs) of coal power capacity announced to come online.  This amounts to nearly 40 percent of the world’s total planned coal power additions. The average age of a coal power plant in China is 12 years, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), meaning that few retirements can be expected due to age for China’s coal plant fleet. In addition to the large domestic reliance on coal, China has already committed or proposed about $35 billion in financing for 102 GWs of coal power capacity in 23 different countries through its Belt and Road Initiative.

The aspiration to retire coal is certainly critical. But the difficulty of doing so, leads us to two other conclusions. Firstly, the United Nations needs to reinvigorate global spending on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The United States has allocated funding to this technology that has the potential to render existing coal plants as carbon neutral. It is a technology area all nations can agree on and support together. But getting the costs down on CCS has been slow going so we also suggest five other key solutions that are easier to do and could also have a large impact. Here they are:

Impose a strict ban on new sales of internal combustion vehicles  

Several countries around the globe have announced plans to ban sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) technology after 2040 as a key policy to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  A recent survey on designing ICE car bans revealed that ICE vehicles need to be fully banned by 2035 or 2040 to “align with deep GHG-reduction goals.” Because new passenger vehicles tend to be used for fifteen years or longer (oftentimes across multiple owners and countries), ICE car bans need to be implemented sufficiently early and convincingly to signal private automakers and national industries to hasten development of sufficient alternative fuel vehicle model lines, supply chains, and manufacturing expertise needed to implement ICE engine bans.

France, the U.K., and China have all made announcements regarding future restrictions on new sales of ICE cars by 2040. Other countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, and even India, have set more ambitious timelines for banning ICE cars. The details on how bans will be implemented has been lacking until recently when China unveiled an ambitious and sensible approach. A recent study on how to implement a national ban in China suggests a phased approach could be needed. Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, a leading Chinese and U.S. think tank focused on Chinese environmental policy sponsored China Oil Consumption Cap Plan and Policy Research Project, which has an advisory role to government policy makers in China, recently unveiled a discussion paper on China’s timetable and possible methodology to phase out traditional ICE engine vehicles.

To date, the most immediate ICE engine bans are happening at the regional or city level. British Columbia has instituted an electric vehicle mandate as an interim step to its new law to end new sales of ICE engines by 2040. Oslo, Norway is the first city to implement an ICE ban in its center city. Other cities including London, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Seattle, and Hainan, China, have citywide bans planned for 2030.

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Initiate tighter emissions standards for trucking

Ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit, California Governor Gavin Newsome announced his state’s new aggressive approach towards emissions from trucks. California’s new law, SB 44, requires the California Air Resources Board to create a comprehensive plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from medium and heavy-duty trucks. Freight and working trucks account for 20 percent of California’s transport greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike personal automobiles, freight trucks are particularly well-suited for fast turnover because of the high number of miles traveled per year. For example, a single Class 8 semi-truck hauling one or two trailers on North American highways can travel more than 500 miles and consume nearly 100 diesel gallons per day. It is typical industry practice to purchase new fleet vehicles every three years and then to resell old vehicles into a secondary market. This practice affords the opportunity to phase in new cleaner technologies more rapidly than in the passenger car sector where the average consumer keeps a vehicle for a decade or longer.

Technological advances are driving many of the potential solutions needed to decarbonize the trucking industry. Big data and artificial intelligence algorithms are being used to optimize trucking routes to improve coordination and reduce vehicle miles traveled in the delivery of goods. Dedicated trucking lanes for autonomous vehicles might add to possible reductions possible in carbon emissions.

At the end of 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled a long-haul electric truck that will have Tesla’s autonomous technology. Self-driving trucks could someday have the capacity to follow behind each other in synchronization like a virtual train. This practice, called platooning, reduces the natural drag created by the wind shear between vehicles, reducing the amount of fuel needed for each trip by up to 20 percent. China’s startup TuSimple aims to launch autonomous semi-tractor trailers by 2020.

In Europe, some countries are taking a different approach to electrification of trucking. For example, Sweden unveiled the first stretch of electric highway in 2018. This past spring, Germany installed overhead power lines onto a prominent highway system. These electrified highway systems offer an alternative that does not require batteries large enough to generate enough force to move the heaviest freight loads.

Electricity is not the only alternative to oil-based fuels for trucks. In the United States and China, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is increasingly being used in specialized natural gas trucks. At present, natural gas is estimated to provide a 15 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions when compared to diesel fuel for use in trucking. However, if renewable natural gas (RNG) is widely available, running natural gas trucks on RNG could drop lifecycle greenhouse gas emission by more than 85 percent compared to diesel fuel due to negative emissions from upstream operations. Hydrogen-powered trucks might be an additional alternative fuel option down the road.

Convert landfill gas to usable energy to capture negative emissions benefits of otherwise released methane

Landfill gas to energy (LGTE) is a method of capturing the naturally occurring methane and CO2 emissions occurring from the breakdown of waste in a landfill. In many landfills, free methane enters the atmosphere, worsening greenhouse gas accumulations or commonly, landfill methane is simply flared off, breaking it down into CO2. But commercial technologies exist today to capture landfill gas and convert it into electricity or renewable natural gas as a trucking fuel to replace or mix with fossil natural gas. Landfill gas represents 17 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. China has over 5,000 landfill sites as does India.  

Renewable natural gas can be processed so that it meets existing fossil natural gas pipeline and vehicle specifications. The United States has a government-supported program that creates state and local networks to tap landfill gas as an energy source. U.S. landfills are a large potential source of methane gas at 2,455 thousand tons per year. When burned in vehicles, RNG emits similar levels of greenhouse gases as fossil-based fuels, but different upstream processes result in an overall reduction of lifecycle GHG emissions due to methane capture and avoided methane emissions from landfill.

Landfill Gas Potential

Regulations to eliminate methane leakage from oil and gas production

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, although it has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2. Methane is estimated to contribute to 16 to 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions and worldwide emissions of methane from oil and gas production, which represents six percent of global energy sector GHG emissions, has been rising. Fortunately, many new technologies are becoming available to help identify leaks as they are happening. Drones and other remote sensing devices can be strategically placed to alert facilities when they leak methane, allowing it to be captured and eventually brought to market.

Many large U.S. oil and gas producers have already pledged to address methane leakage from their operations. Capturing methane leakage makes good business sense since customers in Asia and Europe are increasingly focused on the relative carbon content of their fuels, as well as carbon pricing and other carbon-related regulations.

Implementation of methane leakage standards in California, Colorado, and Wyoming have spurred new technologies, jobs, and exportable U.S. products and services. That means new technologies to reduce methane leakage could become a major U.S. export product. Revisiting U.S. rules for fugitive emissions could contribute up to 100 MMT of CDE of additional reductions of methane and other volatile organic compound emissions.

Reforestation and preservation of mangroves and wetlands

Between 1990 and 2016, 502,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than Peru, of forest was lost through land use changes, industry, and clearing for agriculture. Forests act as a natural carbon sink and can serve as an effective carbon control method. A single acre of forest can have the potential to sequester between 2.2 and 9.5 metric tons of CO2 each year. For perspective, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 each year. Analysis by the Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute estimates that by stopping deforestation, restoring lost forest, and improving forestry practices nearly 7 billion metric tons of CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere annually, more than all of the cars in the world today. A scientific paper calculated that as much as 21% of annual U.S. carbon emissions could be offset via comprehensive natural climate solutions such as reforestation and restoration of grasslands, wetlands and seagrass, as well as other methods, such as use of biochar, improved management of plantations, cover crops, and manure management. Farming, livestock grazing, mining, and drilling accounted for more than half of all deforestation.

Some countries have found success in their efforts to develop forests. Europe’s forest cover has actually increased by 65,600 square miles since 1990. This was mostly due to a successful push to afforestation, the planting of trees in areas that were not previously planted. Despite afforestation success, ongoing deforestation activities remains a concern and the EU has pledged to completely halt deforestation by 2020. The European Commission recently released a communication detailing how they would address the issue.

Deforestation has increasingly become a global issue. At a recent meeting of the G-7, an offer was made to Brazil to incentivize it to combat fires burning in the Amazon. International financing institutions are likely to reconsider funding measures that add to deforestation, and deforestation could become a matter of trade policy where penalties are placed on goods that require extensive deforestation.

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