Near Zero Solutions: A New Climate and Energy News Round-Up

02/03/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

This is the first installment of Near Zero Solutions, a round-up of climate and energy news, focusing on efforts to move the world toward zero greenhouse gas emissions. The first post reviews the top news from the past month, and future posts every week or two will give timely summaries of important stories. Mason Inman writes these posts in his position as communications director of Near Zero, a nonprofit research organization.

The top stories in this issue include the future of China's coal consumption, global spending on renewables, and findings about the hottest year on record. If you'd like to get email alerts for future posts in this series, sign up here.

Peak coal?

In 2014, China -- the world's biggest coal producer and consumer -- saw the first drop in its coal production in the past century, falling by 2.5 percent from the year before. Preliminary estimates suggest that consumption has likewise dropped, between 0.4 percent and 3.5 percent.

With China consuming as much coal as the whole rest of the world combined, China's drop in coal consumption may mean that the global total consumption also dropped slightly in 2014. Is this just a blip, or could this mean the peak of coal consumption in China -- and perhaps the world?

The drop in China's coal consumption was influenced by lower economic growth and temporary factors such as strong rainfall that enabled high hydroelectric production. But the nation has also been fighting pollution and rapidly increasing spending on renewable energy. Last year China was the world's biggest spender on renewables and efficiency, with annual 32 percent higher than in 2013, and in 2014 responsible for nearly one-third the global total.

In 2013, a report "The Illusion of Peak Coal" by energy consultancy Wood MacKenzie expected China's coal consumption to double by 2030, while International Energy Agency forecasts expected China's coal consumption to grow at a slower pace, increasing about 1.5 to 2.5 percent a year through 2020, and reaching a plateau only around 2030. In light of the data for 2014, however, Greenpeace argues China could push its energy transition further and start to consistently decrease its coal consumption sooner, "well before 2020." The Institute for Energy Economical and Financial Analysis expects China's coal consumption to peak sooner, by 2016.

Near-record spending on solar and wind

Last year the world spent $310 billion on renewables and efficiency, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, with solar accounting for nearly half the total.

The 2014 spending was up significantly from the year before, breaking a two-year spell of declining spending, and nearly as high as 2011's record of $318 billion. Half the spending was in the Asia Pacific region (including China), and the remaining half was split equally -- a quarter of the total in the Americas and the final quarter in Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined.

Meanwhile, prices for renewable energy have been falling, so that each dollar can build more capacity, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Prices for several forms of renewable energy -- biomass, hydropower, geothermal and onshore wind -- are already below that of fossil fuels in many parts of the world, the report says.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank predicted that with falling solar prices, by 2017 solar would be cheap enough to compete in about two-thirds of world markets. Adding solar to homes also significantly increases the resale value of the homes, according to a U.S. study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Although European solar installations have been falling, the rest of the world -- especially the US, China, and Japan -- have seen booms, pushing annual solar capacity additions to a new record high of about 45 gigawatts, up from about 8 gigawatts five years earlier.

Clouds over renewables

Since Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident and the shut-down of all their nuclear power plants, the nation has seen a solar power boom, spurred by guaranteed high prices for electricity from solar. But now Japan's ministry overseeing utilities has put limits on solar power installations which could stymie projects already in planning, citing concerns about stability of the electric grid if too much solar gets connected. Some see it as a battle between nuclear and solar for market share, and argue solar faces "political and bureaucratic hostility." At the same time, however, the ministry is mulling a $700 million program to support energy storage, which could go toward new battery systems.

Saudi Arabia -- which burns oil to supply much of its electricity -- has planned to expand its solar, wind, and geothermal power in order to save more of its oil for export, the nation's main source of revenue. But now the kingdom has delayed the target for the solar ramp-up: instead of aiming to get one-third of their electricity from solar by 2032, they'll instead aim to hit that mark in 2040.

Renewable energy investment also plummeted in Australia, with spending in 2014 of $3.7 billion, 35 percent lower than the year before. The future of Australia's renewables spending is also unclear, with debates over changing or canceling the guaranteed prices for electricity from solar.

U.K.'s "dash for gas"

An investigation by The Guardian found allegations that two prominent renewable energy bodies -- the European Wind Energy Association and European Photovoltaic Industry Association -- have been co-opted by utilities and fossil-fuel companies. As a result, according to anonymous insiders, was that these renewable energy bodies lowered their targets for renewable energy, so that instead of calling for Europe to achieve 45 percent renewable energy by 2030, instead they called for a more "realistic" 30 percent target. (The European Union finally settled on a 27 percent target, which was voluntary rather than binding.)

The United Kingdom has been debating fracking, with Prime Minister David Cameron in support, calling for a "dash for gas," while plans to frack have spurred many local protests. Weighing in on the debate, Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee issued a report arguing against use of fracking, since it "cannot be compatible" with the nation's targets for cutting emissions, said the Committee's chair.

State of the Climate

In President Barack Obama's annual State of the Union address, he made stronger statements on climate change than in any of his earlier such addresses, saying: "no challenge -- no challenge -- poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

Although Obama did not propose any new policies in the speech, the week before the Obama Administration had proposed new regulations on emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas -- a move The New Republic called the "second big stage of President Barack Obama's climate strategy," following on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal last year to limit CO2 emissions from all power plants, including coal.

With the proposed regulations, the Obama administration is aiming for U.S. methane emissions from the oil and gas industry to drop 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. (The U.S. is now the world's largest producer of natural gas, and rivals Russia and Saudi Arabia as one of the biggest oil producers.) The proposed regulations would target only new sources of methane, such as new wells drilled and pipelines built -- so critics say that it would miss some of the biggest sources, such as existing pipelines that leak gas.

Hottest year?

The news that 2014 was apparently the hottest year on record should be the end of the notion of a "pause" in global warming -- which was only ever a selective way of choosing years for calculating a trend.

The Japan Meteorological Agency was the first to anoint 2014 the hottest year, and later U.S. agencies -- NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration -- released their analyses that agreed.

The news sparked a discussion among climate skeptics about whether it really was certain that 2014 was the hottest year. This led to rebuttals, explaining how researchers estimate the temperature, and the uncertainties on such estimates.

Uncertainties are inevitable in science, so for those who want a nuanced version of the claim: 2014 was the year most likely to be the hottest on record. "The basic issue is the long-term trend, and it is not going away," NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt told the New York Times.

For those following tennis, Climate Central did an analysis of the temperatures during each of the four Grand Slam events, from 1968 to 2014. Although 2014 was not the hottest year for any of the tournaments, nonetheless each showed a warming trend.

Denial watch

The U.S. Senate held three votes on their opinions on climate change, presented as amendments to a bill about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The first asked simply whether the "sense of the Senate" was that "climate change is real and not a hoax," to which 98 agreed and only 1 voted no.

Two other amendments brought up the question of what was causing the warming, attributing it to human activity. Both of these amendments did gain a majority of votes, but neither got over the threshold of 60 (out of 100) votes required to gain approval.