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NY Times forests oped is out on a limb: protecting trees still key to solving climate change

In an oped in Saturday's New York Times (To Save the Planet, Don't Plant Trees), Nadine Unger argues that reducing deforestation and planting trees won't help fix climate change but will rather make it worse. One might ask how the 2,000-plus scientists and experts on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) got this one wrong – they found tropical deforestation a major source that must be reduced to control climate change – but in fact it's Unger who's way out on a limb here.

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

When trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. When people cut the trees down and burn them to clear forest for cattle pasture or crops, as they have at a rate of 13 million hectares of forest per year in the tropics over the last decade, this releases CO₂ back into the atmosphere.

Unger argues that forests absorb more sunlight than crops or grassland, which reflect more sunlight back into space and cool the earth. But that's not true in the tropics. In tropical forests like the Amazon, where deforestation is happening and thus where the Climate Summit's attention is focused, trees take up water from rainfall and evaporate it through their leaves, and create cloud cover. These clouds reflect even more sunlight than grasslands or bare earth, thus cooling the earth more. This is why large-scale deforestation disrupts rainfall regimes – and why deforestation in the Amazon, if unchecked, may reduce rainfall in California.

Emissions from tropical deforestation are, from the perspective of the atmosphere, just the same as emissions from burning fossil fuels – carbon that was wood, coal, oil or gas is turned into CO₂ and released to the atmosphere. In a living forest, trees do die and, over time release CO₂ to the atmosphere. But then new trees grow, and absorb that CO₂ again – not the case when forests that have stored carbon for centuries are replaced by grass to feed cattle or oil palm plantations.

Contrary to Unger’s claims, the "high risk" is to ignore the 200 billion tons of at-risk carbon stocks in the world’s tropical forests. In fact, as the IPCC has concluded, stopping tropical deforestation is a critical priority for controlling climate change.

Also posted in Deforestation| 5 Responses

California-Mexico partnership on climate change: promise, possibility, and a whole lot of work to do

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials pose after signing climate pact. (Credit: Danae Azuara)

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials pose after signing climate pact. (Credit: Danae Azuara)

When California Governor Jerry Brown kicked off a three-day trade and investment mission to Mexico last week, he didn’t do it by meeting with the minister of finance (though that did come later in the trip).

Instead, Governor Brown presided over a marquee event where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mexico’s federal Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to cooperate on combating climate change – a key priority that complements a broader joint economic agenda very well.

The Governor, staff, high-level administration officials, and legislators on the California delegation had a packed agenda that covered not only climate change, but also trade, investment, education, energy and immigration.

As a participant in the large delegation, I attended official events focused on energy and climate that were both substantive and informative. Both sides spoke thoughtfully and enthusiastically about implementation of the MOU.

But it was the meetings we had after the delegation had departed that gave me additional insight – and hope – that this agreement can truly signal the beginning of a new chapter in Mexico and California’s history, and one with global significance.

Still, it is fair to ask: In a world where MOUs are plentiful but action often seems in short supply, why is this agreement actually, as my colleague Nat Keohane argues, a sign that momentum is growing on climate action? I provide here some perspective on what we know about California’s and Mexico’s past and potential future paths on climate change.

Climate change optimism in Mexico

Mexico is currently the world’s 13th largest economy, though it’s projected to grow to the 5th largest by 2050. The country boasts a stable currency, saw modest growth in the middle class over the last decade, and is California’s biggest export market. Mexico’s foreign minister, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, had no shortage of such statistics at hand when he explained to a group of business delegates in Sacramento why Mexico is such a good place to invest and build partnerships.

But Mexico is also a good place to invest in working to combat climate change. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has inherited a legacy on climate change leadership, through high-profile international emissions-reduction targets and a sweeping domestic climate change law that passed just before he took office. It is also a country poised for big changes, in no small part because its congress just approved a national energy reform, with potentially enormous implications for its energy future and emissions trajectory.

Regardless of whether Mexico’s climate change law passed on Peña Nieto’s watch, it is his to interpret, to implement, and potentially to capitalize on immensely. Ratcheting down Mexico’s national emissions toward the 2020 target of 30% below business as usual can be achieved by implementing smart energy and economic development policy that also drives the growth of a sustainable, low-carbon economy. There is enormous opportunity in Mexico to achieve significant, economy-wide emissions reductions (many at low cost) to meet the country’s ambitious mitigation goals and to stimulate green investment and economic growth, particularly in the energy sector.

California-Mexico climate partnership opportunities on display

Given that opportunity, EDF staff met last week in Mexico City with policymakers, NGOs, think tanks and other experts to understand how this MOU could help propel Mexico and California forward, and serve as an important impetus for even broader ambitious action.

What we heard repeatedly, especially from those close to the California-Mexico climate agreement, was optimism and a multitude of perspectives on ripe opportunities to work together.

The MOU itself outlines cooperative work on policy and technical tools, such as putting a price on carbon (the price being a key ingredient to drive investment in low-carbon technologies and increased efficiency); potential harmonization of measurement, monitoring, and tracking of greenhouse gas emissions; and promoting the development of renewable energy (an area where California has enormous expertise and Mexico a huge untapped potential).

California’s bet on win-wins for the environment and the economy is paying dividends, with a state economy back on track after weathering a recession and implementing the second largest cap-and-trade program in the world. And California sees the lion’s share of green investments in the country, with green job growth outpacing all other sectors ten-fold.

Mexico has the opportunity to strengthen its investment in a green economy and benefit the health of its citizens and the planet, while showing itself as a shining example of global vision and leadership. And in California, it has found the ideal partner to help make it happen.

Could the energy on both sides fizzle? Could Mexico’s President decide to walk away from Mexico’s climate leadership?

Sure, it’s possible – but it’s hard to make a case for doing so. The very same strategies reduce emissions – improvements in technology, efficiency, increasing green investment, and making smart decisions on fuels, transportation, and infrastructure – also provide short- and long-term economic gains for Mexico, and ultimately, could do so for the entire region.

Governor Brown spoke passionately last week about the reality and the urgency of climate change, and both governments reflected a sincere desire to do something real to make a difference together. For my part, I was convinced – now it’s time to get down to work.

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3 takeaways from the California, Mexico climate agreement

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials signing climate agreement. in Mexico City

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials sign climate pact. (Photo credit: Danae Azuara)

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices on July 30

If you are looking for a sign that momentum is growing on climate action, this week’s groundbreaking agreement between California and Mexico to cooperate on climate change is a good place to start.

Most of the agenda at the four-day gubernatorial event was what you would expect to find at a trade and investment mission: agreements to cooperate on education, immigration, investment, but the inclusion of serious talks on climate change was surprising and hopeful.

The most tangible impact of the collaboration will be seen in the technical cooperation, information sharing, and potential policy alignment that are envisioned in the climate change agreement. But this week’s pact also suggests three less tangible but no less important takeaways:

1. Combatting climate change is sound economic policy

The fact that the climate change agreement was one of a handful of issues highlighted on California Governor Jerry Brown’s trip underscores the increasing importance of climate change to economic growth.  The impacts of climate change in California and the United States are becoming increasingly apparent, and Mexico faces similar issues of rising temperatures, increasing wildfires, and extreme precipitation.

With the growing evidence that climate risk will bring significant economic costs in the near term, and that delay will drive up the costs of taking action, smart climate policy is increasingly a key component of sound economic policy.

At the same time, the agreement also highlights the enormous opportunities for smart policy to drive clean energy innovation and investment on both sides of the border.  California’s leadership on climate change has already helped to make it a world leader in clean technologies. For its part, Mexico is poised to tap its enormous potential in solar, wind, and geothermal energy to help drive economic growth and energy security.

2. Carbon pricing continues to gain traction

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed on Monday by Governor Brown and Rodolfo Lacy, Undersecretary of Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, highlights carbon pricing as one of the key issues for cooperation under the agreement.

Both sides are already taking action in this area: California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) includes the world’s most comprehensive emission trading program for greenhouse gases, while Mexico has instituted a partial carbon tax on fossil fuels that represents an important initial step that could lay the groundwork for a more effective price on carbon in the coming years.

A price on carbon is a crucial policy tool to achieve the deep emissions reductions the world needs to avoid dangerous climate change. By ensuring that the true costs of climate pollution are reflected in the price of fossil fuels, and rewarding emissions reductions, carbon pricing ensures deployment of cost-effective climate solutions — and creates a powerful incentive to develop new technologies.

The agreement by California and Mexico adds another boost to the growing momentum on carbon pricing around the world. About 40 national and more than 20 sub-national jurisdictions, accounting for more than 22 percent emissions already have a price on carbon, according to the World Bank.

3. A new model for cooperation

The agreement between California and Mexico can provide a model for collaboration in the emerging “bottom-up” approach to climate change, in which national policies take center stage, rather than a “top-down” global agreement negotiated at the UN. Bilateral and regional cooperation will be all the more important in a bottom-up world, to foster greater ambition and give countries confidence that others are taking action as well.

California and Quebec have already linked their carbon markets. Now with carbon pricing a centerpiece of cooperation between California and Mexico, it does not seem too far-fetched to envision a “North American carbon market” emerging in the not-too-distant future.

California and Mexico face joint challenges from a changing climate. Together they can demonstrate to the world concrete progress on practical solutions to reduce carbon emissions, drive clean energy innovation and promote low-carbon prosperity.

Also posted in Emissions trading & markets, Mexico| 4 Responses

How Mexico’s reforms open new doors for reaching clean energy and climate goals

(This post originally appeared on Foreign Policy Blogs on Feb. 24)

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With a new climate change law and President Enrique Peña Nieto's overhaul of federal oil and electricity monopolies, Mexico now has important opportunities to meet renewable energy and emissions reduction goals and grow its economy. Credit: Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s major policy reform proposals, on everything from new taxes on soda pop to amending the 70-year constitutional prohibition on foreign investment in Mexico’s petroleum sector, have swept through that nation’s congress with breathtaking speed.

The reform agenda did not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. Peña Nieto had campaigned on a platform of increasing economic growth and jobs through major (and controversial) reforms. The energy reform restructures and opens up Mexico’s federal energy monopolies to foreign investment — a major goal being to boost the country’s oil and gas production.

But in all the discussion of shifting the global energy map, a critical potential is being overlooked: The overhaul of Mexico’s federal oil and electricity monopolies also breathes new life into prospects for making the energy sector cleaner and opening the door to green growth in the long run.

Mexico now has important opportunities to meet renewable energy and emissions reduction goals and grow its economy.

Energy and climate goals

Mexico’s new climate change law, which I’ve written about previously, sets voluntary national targets to reduce Mexico’s total emissions to half of 2000 levels by 2050 and requires Mexico to get over a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024.

At present, Mexico’s energy sector is responsible for roughly 65 percent of its national greenhouse gas emissions and renewables make up a small fraction of electricity production. Over the last decade, multiple independent analyses have shown certain measures in the energy sector could save or even make Mexico money while keeping millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.

So, if Mexico’s energy sector could make money while modernizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (seemingly a win-win), what’s the hold up? Some of the most significant barriers have been a shortage of new capital to invest in modernization, efficiency, and long-term upgrades, as well as old-school inertia and institutional resistance to doing things differently.

But much of that old system, without a doubt, is changing now.

Moving toward a greener future

The latest reforms and the 2012 climate change law lay the groundwork for the country’s transition from relying on an aging infrastructure, old technologies and heavy fossil fuel dependence to a green growth future.

1. Emissions reduction targets

Mexico has committed to reducing its emissions 30 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2020 and 50 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. While voluntary, the targets it set at the U.N. climate negotiations in 2009 and reiterated in its climate law are a serious commitment on an international stage, and Mexico’s high-profile leadership on climate change should not be taken lightly. Experts from Mexico’s environment ministry and National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change based these targets on extensive analysis — and they were put on the table precisely because they can be achieved with the right incentives.

2. National emissions registry and green light on emissions trading

Mexico’s climate change law created the national emissions registry as part of its National Climate Change System; polluting industries’ reporting is mandatory, standardized and public. Addressing emissions across an entire national economy through the integrated measurement, reporting, accounting and transparency required by the national registry helps establish the building blocks for emissions trading. (The law also explicitly authorized, but did not require, the development of a voluntary emissions trading system.)

3. Price on carbon in fossil fuels

Fiscal reforms by the Peña Nieto administration include a tax on carbon in fossil fuel products, which aims to reduce Mexico’s emissions by seven million tons annually, and applies to everything, from diesel, to coal, to propane. The amount of the tax is based on the carbon content and linked to global market prices for carbon tons.

Built in to the tax legislation is eligibility for companies to pay the carbon tax through carbon offsets projects of an equivalent number of tons.

4. Pilot trading of carbon credits

The passage of the new carbon tax coincided with the announcement of a new offset trading platform on the Mexican stock exchange where credits for carbon emissions reductions (in tons) can be purchased either for the voluntary market, or in lieu of paying the carbon tax for those tons. This would create, in essence, a mini-compliance market for carbon credits.

It’s unclear what the scale and rules around offsets under the tax law will be, but the platform will mean developing key precursors to a future emissions-trading system — accountability, transparency, tracking of credits and transactions.

While Mexico may be tip-toeing into the emissions-trading-system arena, analysis by Environmental Defense Fund shows developing a full-scale emissions-trading system would be profitable and effective for meeting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. Legally binding targets would be a necessary step in getting there.

5. New opportunities for capital, technology, and transparency

Most of Mexico’s energy infrastructure to meet demand beyond 2020 is yet to be built and it is widely acknowledged that the potential for renewable energy in Mexico vastly outweighs the current development. Opening Mexico’s major energy producing sectors to private investment provides capital, pressure to reduce waste and increase transparency to attract investment, and — particularly in the electricity sector — opens the field to a wide array of clean energy players who previously could not break in to Mexico.

Key pieces of the policy outlined have been driven by different goals and approaches, and of course, spanned a presidential election. But they do provide essential ingredients for a cohesive climate and energy policy and an effective mechanism to get to Mexico’s climate and development goals, and the time is ripe to put them together.

The Peña Nieto administration has already issued its climate change strategy (see my analysis from last June), and a roadmap for implementing climate policy between now and 2018 — just approved by its high-level commission — is due to be released this spring. Legislation to implement the Peña Nieto reforms is being crafted now.

Mexico will face the challenge of balancing the much-hyped economic potential of tapping its fossil fuel reserves with the climate change leadership it has established over the last decade. But as the world aspires to transition toward low-carbon economies that are no longer dependent on the fossil fuel reserves so keenly eyed in Mexico, there is significantly underappreciated opportunity here — to reduce the environmental impact of old, dirty sources of energy, while taking the long view and building a sustainable future economy.

Also posted in Mexico| 5 Responses

Passengers on India’s largest airline can now invest in low-carbon rural development

Airline travelers in India who fly the country’s largest airline now have an opportunity to support low-carbon rural development programs across the country.

Indian_farmer_Ahuja

A new partnership will allow passengers on India's largest airline to invest in offsets that promote low-carbon rural development programs, including low-carbon farming. Credit: Richie Ahuja

The landmark partnership was unveiled this weekend between the Fair Climate Network (FCN), a consortium of Indian groups that is committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities, promoting climate resilience and reducing climate pollution, and IndiGo, the country’s largest and fastest growing airline.

The company will use the funds collected through this voluntary program to purchase some of the offsets generated by more than 300,000 Indian families from 36 climate mitigation projects. The projects, being developed and implemented by FCN, help families in rural India gain access to clean, reliable energy and improve farm income while cutting carbon emissions.

These climate adaptation and mitigation activities include innovative and sustainable low-carbon farming techniques and cooking with clean methane power instead of highly polluting traditional wood stoves. The families produce the methane fuel by using biogas digesters to process livestock manure.

Why this is a big deal for India – and Indians

It bears repeating that this is an Indian company buying carbon offsets created in India. We’ve seen other projects in India create offsets that have been purchased by, for example, European organizations. But this project is truly an effort of and for the people of the world’s largest democracy.

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300,000 Indian families participate in programs under the Fair Climate Network, a consortium of Indian groups committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities. Credit: Tal Lee Anderman

In offering this program, Indigo is providing its customers an opportunity to support its commitment to shared prosperity and “inclusive” growth – growth that benefits not only rural families that are members of the Fair Climate Network, but also IndiGo’s passengers and all Indians, who will benefit from a healthier environment.

Ram Esteves, the Convener of FCN said addressing rural development is a "high priority," adding:

We need programs that support economic development and deliver social, health and environmental co-benefits, including climate adaptation and mitigation. IndiGo has reposed faith and trust in this understanding of inclusive development where a stable and healthy economy is good for business. This partnership is a strong step in this direction.

IndiGo’s President and Executive Director Aditya Ghosh called the move a “momentous opportunity” for the company, saying:

We strive to make a difference each day and find solutions that help manage our carbon footprint. We are delighted to partner with FCN on this initiative which not only helps us and our passengers achieve just that, but goes far beyond by creating a sustainable positive impact and improving many individuals’ livelihoods.

The company is showing leadership by making this commitment to inclusive growth and offsets, along with other green technology investments, an integral component of its future growth. This partnership can serve as a model for Indian business leaders looking to make a difference in their communities.

Learn more at:

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Warsaw talks can lay groundwork for new international climate architecture

For the next two weeks, representatives from more than 190 countries are meeting in Warsaw for the annual international climate negotiations, known as the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — or “COP-19.”

Countries in Warsaw face the challenge of how to invite broad participation to an international climate agreement, while encouraging ambitious emissions cuts. Above: UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres gives a welcome speech in Warsaw. Source: Flickr (UNFCCC)

But while the delegates are gathering in Poland — and their hearts are with the Philippines — their minds will be 850 miles to the west, in Paris. That’s because in two years’ time, the same set of countries will meet there to conclude a new global agreement to fight climate change, intended to take effect from 2020.

As a result, even as delegates in Warsaw continue to work on individual issues – such as how to support policies that reduce emissions from deforestation, and how to finance work that reduces greenhouse gas emissions — they are also beginning to grapple with how to knit those components together in an overarching agreement.

No major breakthroughs are expected this year, but many nations have expressed the desire to develop a skeletal framework and flesh out a coherent design for the 2015 agreement.

Their challenge: How to invite broad participation, while simultaneously encouraging ambitious emissions cuts?

A middle path between “top-down” and “bottom-up”

The answer may be to seek a middle ground between what are sometimes called the “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches.

The top-down approach envisions a sweeping agreement that would allocate the allowable “carbon budget” among countries and create a comprehensive system to implement it. Solving the problem in a single go would be great for the climate. But that approach doesn’t mesh with the political realities of tackling the climate issue in an arena with 190+ different nations, each with its own energy mix and development priorities. Those realities came into sharp relief four years ago in Copenhagen, where grand hopes of a “global deal” ran into the reality of a UN process better suited to incremental progress.

At the other extreme, a purely “bottom-up” approach may appear more realistic, but risks achieving little. Without any framework in place to encourage countries to undertake ambitious actions, to verify that they are abiding by commitments they have made, or to provide them with the tools they need to carry them out, it is unlikely that their pledges will add up to anything remotely ambitious enough to solve the problem, or that their pledges will be implemented.

A middle road is needed: a path between “top down” and “bottom up,” and an approach that recognizes that while the UN can’t solve the problem at one blow, it has a key role to play in supporting and promoting effective action by countries. The key to this approach is constructing a legal framework, or “architecture,” that provides a home for a range of different national approaches while ensuring market integrity and encouraging ambition.

In Warsaw, an important portion of the discussion about the architecture of the 2015 agreement will play out in a track known as the “framework for various approaches,” established in Durban in 2011. Created as a forum for exploring both market and non-market approaches for reducing emissions, the “FVA" offers an important opportunity to set guidelines for the design of effective, high-integrity national programs. As a result, it provides an opening to chart the middle path.

Minimum pillars of an effective climate architecture

A sound climate architecture should give countries the confidence to take on and implement ambitious targets. It can do that by ensuring rigorous and transparent monitoring and reporting — so that countries can verify that other nations are following through on their own commitments. An architecture should create incentives for early action, even before a new agreement takes effect from 2020.

An architecture should also establish minimum guidelines or standards for the integrity of domestic programs, enabling countries to evaluate each other’s actions. Such an approach would also have the effect of facilitating environmentally sound linkages between and among those nations with existing and emerging carbon markets.

This kind of architecture could then become a “gift that keeps on giving,” as it would reinforce nations’ willingness to undertake even more ambitious targets in the future, secure in the knowledge that their negotiating partners are also undertaking and implementing their commitments.

Fortunately, establishing these guidelines does not require re-inventing the wheel: existing domestic and international emissions reductions programs have provided lessons that can be applied to both non-market and market approaches to reducing greenhouse gases. (We’ve summarized these in our most recent submission to the UN [PDF].)

One clear lesson from existing programs is that a workable and effective agreement to reduce carbon pollution would contain the following “minimum pillars”:

  1. National emissions budgets, with sectoral or jurisdictional emissions caps which may be internationally or domestically enforceable, supported by rigorous measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of emissions following internationally agreed standards, to ensure transparency;
  2. Incentives for early action;
  3. For those nations that choose to use them, high-integrity market mechanisms to meet their emissions caps; and
  4. Flexibility in how nations might participate in a new agreement, recognizing that some nations may not be able to ratify internationally binding elements of any final 2015 deal.

Our policy brief, A Home for All: Architecture of a future global framework for mitigation action [PDF], has more details.

What the Warsaw talks can deliver

Although nations are unlikely to define the content and structure for the 2015 agreement at this level of specificity by the close of the Warsaw meeting, we hope countries can agree on a clear blueprint for the next phase of work that incorporates these “minimum pillars” of transparency and environmental efficacy.

The Warsaw meetings are unlikely to generate much front-page news. But behind the scenes, the talks can play an important role in preparing the ground for Paris. The key task is to lay the foundation for a durable and dynamic legal architecture that accommodates real-world constraints, while refusing to accept a lack of ambition: an architecture that provides a home for all nations to contribute to addressing the shared global challenge of climate change.

As the impacts of warming temperatures and rising seas become ever more apparent around the globe, the need for such an architecture becomes all the more urgent.

Also posted in REDD, UN negotiations, Warsaw (COP-19)| Leave a comment
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