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4 undeniable signs we're making progress on climate change

Seven months ago, I made a strong statement that may have left some people shaking their heads. I said that we can turn the corner on climate change – end the centuries-long rise in greenhouse gas emissions and see them peak and begin to decline – in just five short years.

As it turns out, 2015 is shaping up to be a year of giant steps toward that goal.

In a deeply reported New York Magazine piece, political writer Jonathan Chait calls it “the year humans finally got serious about saving themselves.” Says Chait, “The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with – by the standards of its previous behavior – astonishing speed.”

I agree. Here are four reasons I believe we’re headed in the right direction:

1. America is tackling greenhouse gas pollution

The United States remains among the world’s largest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants. But thanks to this year’s action by the Environmental Protection Agency, America now has a Clean Power Plan that will cut emissions from power plants, our single largest source of carbon, by 32 percent over the next 15 years.

The era of unlimited climate pollution is over.

On the heels of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan came a proposed rule to cut methane from newly built facilities in the oil and gas industry. More needs to be done, but this is an important step in dealing with a potent greenhouse gas that accounts for 25 percent of Earth’s current warming.

These climate laws will help the U.S. meet our target to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, a commitment we made to the international community that is key to getting other large polluters to do their share.

We’ll need further reductions, but this is a very significant start.

2. China is building momentum for global action

The world’s No. 1 greenhouse gas emitter, China submitted its climate plan to the United Nations in June, confirming it will let emissions peak by 2030 – and possibly sooner. I know from my colleague Dan Dudek in China that “sooner” is possible because this is a country that’s serious about climate action.

Pollution is choking Chinese cities and threatening economic growth, but the country’s leaders also see opportunity in the emerging clean energy industry. China has pledged to have 20 percent of its energy come from wind, solar and other non-fossil energy sources within 15 years – a massive investment in a nation of 1.4 billion.

This year alone, China is expected to add 18 gigawatts of new solar capacity. By comparison, the U.S. recently surpassed 20 gigawatts total.

To have China and the U.S. making such significant commitments has transformed the dynamic going into the U.N. climate summit in Paris. Instead of making excuses for inaction, the leading emitters have launched a virtuous cycle of increasing ambition.

That changes everything.

3. Clean energy is lifting people out of poverty

One billion people worldwide still have no energy, and more than 1 billion live in extreme poverty. Turning the corner on climate cannot mean that economies can’t develop.

But just as some developing economies adopted cellular technology without ever having land lines, some will leap-frog the dirty energy phase of economic development and go straight to clean.

In fiscal 2014, the World Bank more than doubled lending for renewable energy projects to nearly $3.6 billion – or 38 percent of its total energy lending.

As Rachel Kyte, the bank’s vice president and special envoy for climate change, recently said, what poverty-stricken people of the world need now is a “a low-carbon revolution.”

And this is starting to happen. In 2014, the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and South Africa invested $131 billion in clean energy, just 6 percent less than the developed world did.

4. Pope Francis is galvanizing world opinion 

When Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on environmental stewardship in June, he made an urgent moral appeal to the world.

As my colleague Paul Stinson noted at the time, “A leading voice without political boundaries, the pope has the ability to reach people who previously could not or would not face the reality of climate change.”

Pope Francis called on us to push harder to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy sources – and people are listening.

The day he speaks to Congress later this month, a climate rally is expected to draw many thousands to the nation’s capital in a unified call for action. Environmental Defense Fund will be there, too.

The momentum is growing. We’re on our way to turn the corner on climate change – and the race of our lives is on.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy, Science, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed

Lima climate talks showcase another path to global climate action: through states, provinces and cities

Kevin de Leon Peru COP
California state Senate President Kevin de León arrives at the conference center for the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru. Image used with permission from Senator de León.

The chattering classes of the climate policy world are abuzz with their customary post-mortems following the latest breathless two-week session of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change 20th Conference of Parties (also known simply as COP 20), held in Lima, Peru.

Consensus is forming around a “slightly better than nothing” assessment of the Lima Call for Climate Action, which was adopted in the wee hours of Sunday amidst the usual skirmishes over money, monitoring, and mandates.

Lima clarified some of the expected content of the national pledges (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” INDCs in COP shorthand) to be presented by all countries next year.

Notwithstanding the softness engendered by the word “intended,” at least we aren’t firmly stuck in the “old world order” where only developed countries are taking on mitigation actions.

Subnational cooperation and pathways to climate progress outside UN process

While nations squabbled about intentions, another story was playing out on the sidelines of the COP, showcasing real, groundbreaking and consequential progress at the subnational level – within states, provinces, and cities.

After spending the vast majority of my time in Lima with innovative and dynamic subnational leaders, I came away with an unbridled sense of optimism and renewed hope that there are pathways to climate progress, even if many of them go around rather than through the formal UN process.

California, laboratory of climate change solutions

California delegation to COP 20
California's delegation to the Lima climate negotiations. Image used with permission from Senator de León.

California has long been a laboratory of climate change solutions and will be expanding its cap-and-trade program to cover transportation fuels in two short weeks.

Meetings with the California contingent are always a sought-after ticket at the COPs, and California delegates are always eager to learn from and trade ideas with their counterparts around the world.

California’s low-carbon leadership was amplified in Lima by Senate President Kevin de León, who regaled delegates with his always charismatic case for the connection between climate action, jobs, and economic growth, pointing to California’s cap-and-trade system as an example of how California can "lead the world and show other nations the way to de-carbonize their economies."

A very encouraging trend is the evolution of subnational cooperation from platitudes to concrete plans.

Partnership between California and China

I moderated a panel highlighting the collaboration between California and China, a partnership that involves a substantive, two-way exchange of ideas and expertise on issues such as emissions trading, clean vehicles, sustainable infrastructure, and technology deployment.

In less than two years, cities and provinces in China have developed pilot cap-and-trade programs that are paving the way for a future national emissions trading system in China. California has a lot to learn from the Chinese experience, and Chinese leaders studied the design of California’s system as the pilots were being developed.

Cooperation among North American states and provinces

Subnational partnerships in North America are taking off, in part because of the lack of action at the national level, particularly in the U.S. and Canada.

California and Quebec recently completed a successful joint allowance auction, the final step in fully linking the two jurisdictions’ cap-and-trade systems.

In Lima, the top environmental officials from California, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec issued a joint statement resolving to “work together towards mid-term greenhouse gas reduction goals,” a key step towards locking in long-term action and unleashing innovation in low-carbon technologies.

California Governor Jerry Brown announced his support for a 2030 GHG target at the UN Climate Summit in September, and legislation has been introduced in California that would establish a 2050 mandate and require interim targets in 2030 and 2040.

Commitments from subnational governments

While countries are submitting their INDCs, subnational governments are also putting their commitments to paper.

An important initiative called The Compact of States and Regions, launched at the UN Climate Summit by The Climate Group, will aggregate and evaluate the commitments being taken by subnational governments around the world.

States, provinces, and cities are not waiting for the UN or their national governments to act.

Meanwhile, Governor Brown’s indefatigable policy czar Ken Alex is spearheading a “subnational INDC process,” wherein subnational leaders around the world will be invited to sign an agreement, to be unveiled over the next year, committing to reducing their emissions at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, or to cutting their per capita emissions to below two tons.

Thankfully, states, provinces, and cities are not waiting for the UN or their national governments to act. There is a lot to be optimistic about, and subnational and subnational governments are showing leadership and forging ahead in what could be seen as a friendly competition to develop and implement the boldest and most successful climate change initiatives.

These leaders are restless, motivated, and they realize that the future of people and the planet are at stake. As my friend Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, said time and again in Lima: “We’re going to do this.”

This post originally appeared on our EDF Talks Global Climate Blog.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Read 1 Response

US-China climate pact a "game changer" for clean energy

(This blog by Karin Rives originally appeared on EDF Voices)

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China. Source: Flickr/White House

For the first time, the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters have pledged to reduce carbon pollution. This is a game changer, writes Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

The agreement between the United States and China will be a giant boost for clean-energy markets.

Having the world’s two largest economies competing to accelerate the adoption of no-carbon and low-carbon technologies will send one of the most powerful market signals we have ever seen, Fred writes.

China, spurred by its smog-burdened cities and the growing costs from the impact of climate change, will be increasing its already substantial investments in solar and wind, working with the U.S. on new approaches to cleaner energy and reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

And America’s fears of competition from China may now be cast in a new, positive direction: Who will dominate – and profit from – the renewable-energy resources that will power the world’s low-carbon economy?

In the past century, fossil fuels were the surest route to wealth and power. Now, the companies that produce and sell carbon-free and low-carbon technologies – from solar and wind to energy efficiency and nuclear – will be advantaged.

And the U.S. must demonstrate that it is up to the task of competing with China in all of these areas, Fred writes.

His full article is available to subscribers of the Wall Street Journal.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Comments are closed

An Urgent Call to Climate Action in the IPCC Synthesis Report

Photo: IPCC

It was released two days late for Halloween, but an international report on the dangers of climate change still has plenty of information about our warming planet that will chill you to the core.

The report is the latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC releases a series of reports every six or seven years that assess the latest data and research on climate change. This latest is the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report—a culmination of three earlier reports in this series.

The Synthesis Report summarizes the physical science of climate change; current and future impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation of the human and natural worlds; and mitigation opportunities and necessities.

More than anything else, the report underscores the urgent need for action.

Here are 13 details from the report that illustrate why:

1.  “Warming of the climate is unequivocal… The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

2.  Changes in climate have impacted all continents and the oceans.

3. The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere.
Glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide. Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover has continued to decrease.

4. Permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s. Arctic sea-ice has decreased in every season and in every successive decade since 1979.

5. From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by more than half a foot. The rate of sea-level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.

6. In the future, it is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes in most areas, on both daily and seasonal timescales. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer. The oceans will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.

7. A large fraction of species face increased extinction risk due to climate change during and beyond the 21st century. Most plant species cannot naturally shift their geographical ranges sufficiently fast to keep up with climate change.

8. Climate change puts humanity at risk from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and storm surges. Climate change is projected to undermine food security.

9. “Human influence on the climate system is clear.” Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.

10. Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

11. It is virtually certain that global mean sea-level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise dependent on future emissions.

12. Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness.

13. Substantial emissions reductions of greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide and methane — over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.

According to the IPCC Synthesis Report, planet Earth is in pretty dire shape – but the report isn’t hopeless.

Imagine our planet as a patient at a doctor’s office. It’s too late to just stay healthy – we’ve already caught a cold. But we can prevent the cold from deteriorating into pneumonia.

In order to do that, though, we need to act now. We need people, and governments, across the world to join together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support adaptation efforts, and help reduce the damages from climate change.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy, Science| Read 1 Response

'Feeding 9 billion' requires facing up to climate change

This post was co-authored by Kritee, Senior Scientist, International Climate; Richie Ahuja, Regional Director, Asia; and Tal Lee Anderman, Tom Graff Fellow – India Low-Carbon Rural Development

National Geographic's May cover story, “Feeding 9 billion,” offers valuable insights into how to feed a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. But it omits some key connections with a critical issue: climate change.

Drought in the U.S. causes withering of corn. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

As the Food and Agriculture Organization recently documented in great detail, climate change is likely to fundamentally alter the structure of food systems around the globe. With about 43% of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s vital that farmers have the knowledge and tools they need both to adapt to climate change and to help mitigate it.

Author Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, lays out several steps for “Feeding 9 billion.” Though he starts by acknowledging that agriculture emits “more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined,” he doesn’t explicitly mention how his plan relates to a changing climate.

The first of his steps – halting conversion of additional forests and grasslands to agriculture – is crucial to stopping climate change, given the vast quantities of greenhouse gases released in these conversions. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation noted, protecting forests and increasing carbon content of the soils can decrease global emissions by as much as 13 gigatons CO2eq/year by 2030 – more than a quarter of current annual global emissions.

Foley also highlights the need to reduce meat consumption, because only a very limited portion of calories consumed by animals yield edible food for humans, and to reduce food waste. According to the IPCC, these consumer-level steps have the potential to decease agricultural emissions by 60% below the current trajectory. While Foley didn’t acknowledge these mitigation potentials, we agree that these are important steps to feeding the world’s population and protecting our environment.

But it’s his steps calling for improving productivity – both by growing more food on existing farms, and by using fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently – where the interactions with climate are more complex and need special attention.

Climate adaptation and resilience in agriculture

Foley rightly points out that to feed the world’s future population, more food needs to grow on existing farms. However, he doesn’t note that some of the effects of climate change – droughts, floods and heat waves in many parts of the world – are already reducing crop yields, and these effects and their consequences are expected to worsen.

The IPCC’s recently published 5th Assessment Report on adaptation concludes that:

  • Climate change is already negatively affecting yields of crops and abundance of fish, and shifting the regions where crops grow and fish live
  • Future changes in climate will increase competitiveness of weeds, making it difficult and more expensive to control them
  • By 2050, changes in temperature and precipitation alone will raise global food prices by as much as 84% above food prices projected without these two climatic factors
  • Major grains like wheat, corn, and rice could see as much as a 40% decrease in yield from a 20C increase in local temperatures. That’s because of the changing rainfall frequency and intensity, unpredictability and irregularity of growing seasons, and higher ozone levels that often accompany high CO­2 levels

To deal with these consequences and ensure food security and livelihoods, adaptation to climate change is essential. Indeed, adopting carefully chosen adaptation and resilience measures could improve crop yields as much as 15-20%. The IPCC recommendations include:

  • Altering planting/harvesting dates to match the shifting growing seasons
  • Using seed varieties that might be more tolerant of changing climatic patterns
  • Better managing water and fertilizer use

A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

Achieving high yields requires enabling farmers all over the world to adapt, build and restore the resilience of agricultural ecosystems in the face of continued climate change. Given that many farmers in developed countries have already reached what are currently maximum possible yields, it’s particularly urgent to work with farmers in the developing world.A vast majority of these farmers in developing countries own small-scale farms (less than two acres in size) and have limited resources, and as a result are on the frontline of experiencing the unfolding impacts of climate change. These farmers are already growing the majority of the world’s food – more than 90% of the world’s rice, over 65% of its wheat and 55% of its corn. Notably, as opposed to our recommendations for farmers in the developed countries, some of them might need to increase their fertilizer use to achieve better yields as opposed to decreasing it. Feeding a world of 9 billion thus requires facing the disproportionate effect that climate change has on the 2 billion people who depend on small-scale farms for their livelihood.

Barriers to climate adaptation & mitigation in agriculture

The latest IPCC report also noted that the “nature” of the agriculture sector means:

“There are many barriers to implementation of available mitigation options, including accessibility to … financing, … institutional, ecological, technological development, diffusion and transfer barriers.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Many farmers, especially small scale land-owners in developing parts of the world, lack access to reliable scientific information and technology. In some cases, relevant information has not even been generated.

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

For example, small-scale rice farmers in Asia lack access to information enabling them to determine what amounts of water, organic and synthetic fertilizer will optimize yields while also minimizing release of the greenhouse gases methane (which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released), and nitrous oxide (which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). EDF is working with the Fair Climate Network in India and with Can Tho University and other partners in Vietnam to help generate that information and facilitate its use by farmers.

More generally, agricultural institutions at all levels – international, regional, national and local – need to work closely with farmers to learn and promote evidence-based, locally appropriate agricultural adaptation and mitigation technologies and practices. Farmer access to finance can further help improve the adoption rate of these technologies. Larger investments in farming infrastructure and science from government and private sector also need to be channeled to promote food security through low-carbon farming.

Our food system cannot achieve high yields without building and restoring the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and the system won’t be sustainable if agriculture doesn’t do its part to mitigate climate change.

To feed 9 billion people, we must overcome barriers to reducing climate change’s effects on agriculture, and agriculture’s effect on climate.

This post first appeared on EDF Talks Global Climate blog

Also posted in Plants & Animals, Policy, Science| Read 2 Responses

Top takeaways from the latest IPCC report

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Yesterday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its last report in a three-part series that makes up the fifth assessment report (AR5) on the latest data and research on climate change. The reports have been issued approximately every five years since 1990.

This latest round of reports began in September 2013 with anupdate on the latest science behind climate change (known as Working Group I). Last month, the second report was released and discussed climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability already observed and projected in the future (known as Working Group II).

The new report released yesterday (known as Working Group III) discusses actions to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change, termed mitigation. Over 400 experts from over 50 countries were involved in the development of the report, which was accepted by representatives from 195 nations.

Here are 5 key findings from the new lPCC report:

1. Global emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have continued to rise. Emissions are dominated by carbon dioxide (mainly from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes), which account for 78% of total greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 to 2010 (when other gas emissions are weighted to incorporate warming capability relative to CO2). Greenhouse gas emissions have grown more rapidly between 2000 and 2010 than in previous decades despite a recent push to limit emissions; economic and population growth are driving these increases and continue to outgrow emission savings from energy improvements.

2. Action to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change is needed immediately. Climate conditions are changing rapidly as shown in Working Group I, and the impacts to society and ecosystems are unequivocal, consequential, and increasing as shown in Working Group II. Scenarios to limit warming to 2ºC (3.6ºF) relative to preindustrial levels require drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century through large-scale changes in energy systems and land-use practices. The longer we delay action, the more expensive it will be.

3. It is key to reduce energy demand, deploy low-carbon technologies, and better conserve and manage forestry and agriculture. There is a range of technological and behavioral options for sustainable climate actions; nearly one thousand scenarios were analyzed in the report.

  • Near-term reductions in energy demand through efficiency enhancements in transport, buildings, and industry sectors are cost-effective, provide flexibility for decarbonizing in the energy supply sector, reduce risks in energy supply, and prevent future lock-in to carbon-intensive infrastructures.
  • Behavioral and lifestyle changes—such as lower energy use in households, buying longer-lasting products, changing dietary habits, and reducing food waste—can considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions alongside technological and structural changes. Further development and implementation of low-carbon energy and/or carbon removal technologies is important.
  • Renewable energy technologies—such as wind, hydro, and solar power—have finally achieved a level of maturity to enable large-scale deployment. However, steep challenges exist, including varying costs, regional circumstances, and the existing background energy system.
  • The best climate actions for forestry include afforestation, sustainable forest management, and reducing deforestation. For agriculture, best practices include cropland and grazing land management, and restoration of organic soil. Sustainable agriculture practices can also promote resilience to climate change impacts.

4. Effective actions will only be achieved by international cooperation. Climate change is a global problem because most heat-trapping gases accumulate over time and mix globally. Therefore, emissions by an individual, community, company, or country, affect the globe. The number of institutions for international cooperation is increasing, and sharing knowledge and technologies with other nations speeds up finding solutions. The issue is complicated by the fact that different countries’ past and future contributions to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are different, as is their capacities to implement actions to limit climate change and build resilience.

5. Co-benefits strengthen the basis for undertaking climate action. Measures to limit energy demand (efficiency, conservation, and behavioral changes) and renewable alternatives can reduce the risk of energy supply, improve public health and the environment by limiting pollution, induce local and sectoral employment gains, support good business practices, improve security of energy supply at the national level, and eradicate poverty. Adverse side effects, such as reduced revenue from coal and oil exporters, can be to a certain extent avoided by the development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

The IPCC will conclude the AR5 in October 2014 with a final report that summarizes the three-part series, recapping the major findings of the physical science of climate change, its effects on society and ecosystems, and actions to avert catastrophic climate change.

There are many ways YOU can help promote climate actions, such as supporting the U.S. to continue its emission-reducing efforts like the EPA’s power plant standards.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy, Science| Read 1 Response
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