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“Negotiators from more than 170 countries on Saturday reached a legally binding accord to counter climate change by cutting the worldwide use of a powerful planet-warming chemical used in air-conditioners and refrigerators,” describes the New York Times the successful negotiations on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

The Kigali Amendment is a big deal because it phases out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The wealthy countries begin to phase out these powerful greenhouse gases already in 2019, most developing countries follow in 2024, and some major HFC producers such as India in 2028. Estimates suggest that the Kigali Amendment alone might reduce global warming by almost 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

But the Kigali Amendment is also a small step. It does not get us any closer to solving the hideously complicated political problems related to reducing the use of fossil fuels. Because HFCs are only used in a specific, heavily concentrated sector and alternatives are readily available, the bitter conflicts related to carbon emissions do not surface.

In the Kigali Amendment, almost all countries in the world had very little to lose. Major industrialized countries benefit from a deal that phases out dirty chemicals and creates markets for cleaner substitutes – a pattern we have seen before in chemicals negotiations. Most developing countries do not produce these chemicals, so the number of countries that stand to lose from HFC phase-out is very, very small. In the negotiations, these countries – especially India – were given extra time to adjust, and a deal was closed.

The difference in the logic of HFC phase-out and carbon abatement can be seen by comparing the Kigali Amendment and the Paris Agreement. The Kigali Amendment says phase-out: the substances are to disappear from the face of the earth. The Paris Agreement says that countries can do whatever they want, but they need to submit documents for review.

This is not a bad thing. The Kigali Amendment is a good, aggressive solution to an easy but important problem. The Paris Agreement is a partial, complicated solution to a massive and massively important problem.

A few years back, I proposed that the future of climate policy is in big dreams and small wins. There is no silver bullet or master plan, given the complex global politics of climate change. But innovative, pragmatic negotiators can help governments solve a series of smaller problems that gradually reduce the rate of global warming. It probably will not be enough for 2 degrees Celsius, but every reduction of 0.01 degrees Celsius is worth celebrating.

Photo Credit: Kevin Gill via Flickr

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Natural gas is commonly called a “bridge” to a low carbon future. Why this metaphor?

A bridge crosses over an obstacle, like a river or canyon. The metaphor suggests that transitioning from coal to natural gas for electric generation is one of the most cost-effective and scalable opportunities for cutting greenhouse gases on our way to the promised shore of even lower emissions. This is especially true in the US, which has plentiful low-cost natural gas resources. The idea is that natural gas can carry the US economy in the short term while higher impact carbon mitigation solutions are still too expensive on a large scale. At some point, though, we need to reach the other side of the natural gas bridge so we can continue our journey with even lower carbon solutions like renewable energy, next-generation nuclear, or carbon capture and sequestration.

Politico Morning Energy recently reported that a major environmental group, the Sierra Club, doesn’t want to cross the natural gas bridge at all. They are organizing an aggressive campaign to stop the construction of natural gas power plants and pipelines. In the Sierra Club’s view there’s no river or canyon in our way. The US just needs to make the leap directly to a low carbon future, abandoning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The Sierra Club believes that if the US and other countries cross the natural gas bridge, the world is headed toward a climate catastrophe.

Photo by Rennett Stowe,

Photo by Rennett Stowe,

With the impending turnover in the US executive branch, and possible changes in the legislative and judicial branches, policymakers need to critically evaluate these two visions of the future. Is natural gas a bridge to a low carbon future that should be supported? Or will natural gas take us somewhere we don’t want to go – a greenhouse gas point of no return?

Argument 1: We’re Already on the Natural Gas Bridge

MIT’s 2010 Future of Natural Gas report illustrates how the natural gas bridge could work. The authors, led by now-Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, developed several scenarios of future energy supply and demand out to 2050. One scenario assumed that price-based policies are used to achieve a 50% reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels. This scenario found that natural gas demand would increase through 2040, then begin to slowly decline.

The shift from coal to natural gas has already pushed down US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 12% between 2005 and 2015, as Lucas Davis discussed in a recent blog. We’re already on the natural gas bridge.

Changes in the relative market prices of coal and natural gas, driven by the shale gas revolution, provide much of the explanation. However, policy is also influencing the competitive standing of natural gas generation. As evidence, the EIA reports that 30% of the nation’s coal capacity that closed in 2015, shut down in April. That was the month that the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards went into effect.

Would the two major presidential candidates continue over the natural gas bridge?

For Donald Trump the concept is moot, since he has no interest in moving to a low carbon future.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, supports policies that would take the US further across the natural gas bridge. In particular she wants to implement the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Trump wants to kill it.

Modeling by the EIA estimates that the CPP’s greenhouse gas reduction requirements would boost natural gas generation by 10% by 2040 relative to a scenario with no CPP.

Source: Duke Energy, HF Lee Energy Complex; combined-cycle plant; generating station; power plant; Goldsboro, NC.

Source: Duke Energy, HF Lee Energy Complex; combined-cycle plant; generating station; power plant; Goldsboro, NC.

The Sierra Club, however, wants to take a different path altogether. They enthuse about Clinton’s aggressive renewable goals, such as her pledge that half a billion solar panels will be installed by the end of her first term.

Their preferred path is more consistent with the Deep Decarbonization Pathways laid out in a study conducted by Energy and Environmental Economics (E3), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. This study models reducing US emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The study includes four scenarios. In two, natural gas is all but gone from the electricity mix in 2050. In another scenario the market share of gas is cut in half. In the final scenario, natural gas remains important, but only with carbon capture and sequestration.

Proponents point to California as evidence that a rapid transition away from natural gas is realistic. Natural gas consumption for electric generation in California decreased by 3% between 2014 and 2015. This drop occurred despite the state’s drought, which led to a 16% drop in hydroelectric generation. The growth in renewable generation provides much of the explanation.

Photo by Paolo Crosetto.

Photo by Paolo Crosetto.

If the US is headed down one of these paths then the Sierra Club’s strategy to stop the construction of new natural gas power plants and pipelines could save society money. It’s worth considering because it would mean we’re potentially wasting billions of dollars to build a natural gas bridge headed to the wrong place.

Reality: Stopping Natural Gas Could Benefit Coal

I find the Sierra Club strategy troubling.

The displacement of coal generation by natural gas generation is a highly cost effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even without a nationwide carbon policy, the US is seeing widespread replacement of coal with natural gas.

Recent research looking at the period from June 2008 to the end of 2012 found that the degree to which natural gas replaced coal varied by region. In areas where more natural gas power plants had been built during the prior five years, greenhouse gases from power generation dropped more since there was more natural gas capacity available to come on-line and compete with coal. The Sierra Club’s “Beyond Natural Gas” strategy would retard the continued displacement of coal by natural gas.

I am also skeptical that the California example is relevant to the US as a whole. The nation is much more reliant on coal than California. California also has unusually attractive solar, wind, and geothermal resources. I expect replicating California’s move away from natural gas would be much less cost-effective elsewhere. Also, electricity intensive industry in other states would strongly oppose policies that pushed electric rates up toward California levels.

Rather that categorically declaring natural gas a loser, the US should stick to market-based policies that prioritize the most cost-effective climate solutions. In the near-term, that likely means the US needs to continue its way across the natural gas bridge. Anyone who suggests otherwise is trying to sell us a … well, you know.

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Nations came together Saturday and agreed to take a big bite out of future increases in global temperatures. Following nearly a decade of talks, a landmark agreement to phase down hyrofluorocarbons (HFCs) was reached at the conclusion of the 28th Meeting of the Parties of the Montreal Protocol in Rwanda.

The Kigali Amendment sets out a schedule of targets and timetables for all developed and developing countries to phase down their use of HFCs,a family of industrial chemicals used worldwide in air conditioners and refrigeration that are one of the most potent and rapidly expanding greenhouse gases.

The amendment links these control requirements with a renewed commitment by developed countries to provide financial support for developing countries through the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund. The agreement sets out key principles for how the fund will transition from supporting projects aimed at safeguarding the ozone layer to spurring action focused on climate protection.

Curbing HFCs is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve significant near-term reductions in climate pollution and is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius. More than 100 nations came together at the recent U.N. General Assembly to press for an ambitious reduction schedule.

In the final stages of negotiations in Kigali, it was clear that only a few countries stood in opposition. To break the logjam, the agreement provided the flexibility for reluctant developing countries (India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States) to meet a phasedown schedule with a baseline and reduction steps delayed by four years. It also included a separate provision for an alternative baseline and compliance schedule for Russia, Belarus and several neighboring countries.

Phasing down HFCs offers a unique opportunity for a significant double win for the climate. HFCs themselves are a potent, fast-growing climate pollutant. Reducing HFCs can reduce global warming by as much as 0.5 degrees by the end of the century. Because they are widely used in rapidly expanding, high energy-consuming refrigeration and air conditioning sectors, the transition to alternatives also provides an opportunity to reduce climate change through enhanced energy efficiency.

The Kigali Amendment seeks to capture these benefits first through a fast start fund created by 19 philanthropic groups and individuals who have contributed $ 53 million to move from HFCs to more energy-efficient alternatives.

In addition, a decision reached in Kigali calls for the Multilateral Fund, in developing and supporting projects shifting to alternatives, to fund investments aimed at maintaining and enhancing energy efficiency.

The adoption of the HFC amendment is an important accomplishment, but much work lies ahead in making a successful transition to energy-efficient, low or zero global warming alternatives. For example, hydrocarbon refrigerants and foam blowing agents represent important alternatives, but because they are flammable, changes in national and industry standards and codes will be required to ensure that they can be used safely. The Parties agreed on a decision aimed at facilitating the necessary revisions to standards and codes and supporting enhanced training of air conditioning and refrigeration technicians in the safe use of these alternatives through the Multilateral Fund.

Hydrofluorooleinfs (HFOs) are also a family of chemical substitutes to replace HFCs. India and China raised concerns about whether patents held by transnational chemical companies on the production and use of HFOs would block their access to them. Over the coming years the availability of HFOs will need to be advanced through expanding commercial arrangements between companies, which could be facilitated by financial support from the Multilateral Fund.

The Kigali Amendment on HFCs caps an extraordinary couple of weeks for global climate protection. Enough countries have ratified the Paris Agreement that it has already met its conditions to formally enter into force. In addition, a path-breaking agreement was reached to limit emissions from international air travel.

After years of slow and difficult global efforts to address climate change, these recent developments demonstrate a new and stronger commitment to tackle the near and present danger of this critical threat to our global community.

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