Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
As the Biden administration develops both an interim and final social cost of carbon estimate, what factors will be most important to consider?
In the early days of the new administration, President Joe Biden reconvened an interagency working group that had been disbanded under the Trump administration and tasked it with developing an updated social cost of carbon (SCC) estimate—an assessment of the economic damages of carbon pollution—by January 2022. The working group has much to consider before then, including questions about the international consequences of climate change and concerns that previous administrations undervalued the future benefits of reduced pollution. But first, the administration will release an interim SCC estimate that will guide federal policymaking over the course of the next year and likely will have a substantial impact on near-term environmental regulations. The interim estimate, which could be at least as high as Obama-era assessments, is expected to be released as early as today. “I think [Biden officials] understand that it’s to everyone’s benefit to elevate the scientific conversation,” says RFF Fellow Kevin Rennert. “The way to do that is to be as transparent and inclusive in the process as possible.”
RFF has been at the forefront of recent research and commentary about the complexities of the SCC. Just this week, RFF Senior Fellow Maureen Cropper and University Fellows David Anthoff and James Stock coauthored a Nature piece that advises the Biden administration to “establish an authoritative process for regular SCC updates” and consider the disproportionate impacts of climate change on underserved communities. Last week, RFF released an open-source computing platform that allows users to modify models employed by the interagency working group to estimate the SCC and hosted a panel discussion about how the Biden administration could approach both the interim and final estimates. And earlier this year, Cropper and RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell reflected on their role as co-chairs of a 2017 National Academies of Sciences report on the SCC in a blog post. “We find that the executive order has the potential for a perfect score if implemented in accordance with the full set of [National Academies of Sciences] recommendations for estimating the SCC,” they write.
Related research and commentary:
Steel companies are committing to deep decarbonization. Can hydrogen-based technologies help them achieve net-zero emissions?
Heavy industry, often referred to as the “last mile” of decarbonization, has long proven a challenge to decarbonize, but that isn’t stopping the world’s largest steelmakers from promising swift change. The three largest steel manufacturers in the world—Luxembourg’s ArcelorMittal, China’s Baowu, and Japan’s Nippon Steel—all have committed in recent months to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. These steelmakers have joined other titans from emissions-intensive industries, such as cement and aviation, to form the Mission Possible Partnership, a coalition of companies accounting for nearly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Members of that partnership have promised to release “climate action agreements” by 2024, which outline their plans to achieve carbon neutrality. Details about how these companies will decarbonize remain sparse for now, but steelmakers—which typically use coal or natural gas as feedstock—have increasingly looked to decarbonized hydrogen as a promising alternative. Major producers in Europe and Asia already are piloting hydrogen-based technologies that, if feasible on a wider scale, could substantially reduce the sector’s emissions.
In a new blog post—part of an ongoing series that expounds on a recent report about decarbonized hydrogen—RFF Senior Research Associate Jay Bartlett and Senior Fellow Alan Krupnick explore whether decarbonized hydrogen can cost-effectively reduce emissions from iron and steel production relative to alternative approaches. The scholars look closely at two forms of steel production today—the blast furnace–basic oxygen furnace route and the direct reduction of iron–electric arc furnace (DRI-EAF) route—and assess options for deep decarbonization within each pathway. While currently too expensive to be competitive with options that involve carbon capture, utilization, and storage, substituting green hydrogen for natural gas in the DRI-EAF route is a technically feasible option that could provide a long-term solution once costs come down. But “in the near to medium term,” Bartlett and Krupnick contend, “emissions from steel production could be reduced by increasing the efficiency and lowering the carbon content of fuel and feedstock.”
Related research and commentary:
- Blog: The Potential of Hydrogen for Decarbonization: Reducing Emissions in Iron and Steel Production
- Report: Decarbonized Hydrogen in the US Power and Industrial Sectors: Identifying and Incentivizing Opportunities to Lower Emissions
- Podcast: The Environmental Appeal of Green Steel, with Chris Bataille
Forest bioenergy is considered carbon neutral by the European Union, despite concerns that the growing wood products industry negatively affects forest ecosystems. What are the actual environmental impacts of harnessing wood for energy?
A new report from think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende finds that renewables accounted for a larger share of electricity than fossil fuels in Europe for the first time last year. Such progress is due in no small part to the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, which required member states to supply at least 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and has set even more ambitious future targets. But the directive has been a source of contention among some environmentalists due to its classification of forest bioenergy as carbon neutral. Affirming some of these concerns, a recent EU report concludes that 14 percent of all wood biomass used in Europe is of unknown origin, making it hard to track climate impacts, and stresses that improved monitoring is essential to protect forest ecosystems. Despite calls for reform, including from hundreds of environmental scientists and economists in a recent petition, the European Union so far has promised only to reevaluate how it classifies forest bioenergy.
On a new episode of Resources Radio this week, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Professor Francisco X. Aguilar explores the economic and ecological impacts of EU renewable energy policy and reflects on whether harnessing forest bioenergy can truly be carbon neutral. Elaborating on a recent study he coauthored with RFF Senior Fellow Dallas Burtraw and other scholars, Aguilar discusses how the Renewable Energy Directive has coincided with a major expansion of the US wood pellet industry and raised concerns about depleting forests. Aguilar’s research suggests that the industry’s expansion has not significantly impacted carbon stocks or the number of trees in the southeastern United States, though he notes that “there might be room for improvement” in terms of managing the soil and understanding the ecological functions of dead trees. “From a policy perspective,” Aguilar says, “I think monitoring, being dynamic, and being open to make sure that we're balancing economic objectives with conservation objectives, are key.”
Related research and commentary: