4 Undeniable Signs We’re Making Progress on Climate Change

Stretch as far as eye can see the grass and the horizon distance, wind turbine.

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.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted September 12, 2015 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Fred, yes, we’re making progress. The pathetically slow progress we’re making is unworthy of your optimism, however.

    For example: you seem impressed that China is on track to add 18 GW of solar capacity in 2015. With China’s average capacity factor of 14%, the country will be able to count on an insignificant 2.5 GW of additional power.

    Insignificant, because the Chinese consume two hundred and fifty times as much electricity – 624 GW – and consumption is rising at an annual rate of 8 GW/year. So they would have to add three times as much solar every year merely to keep up with consumption.

    New nuclear will be part of the equation, which you choose to acknowledge euphemistically as one of “other non-fossil energy sources”. Even still, they say only 20% of their energy will come from all of these sources by 2030. How does any of this constitute a giant step towards meeting your wildly optimistic prediction of carbon emissions peaking by 2020?

  2. Posted September 13, 2015 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Fred, because you nor anyone else at EDF is able to refute the points I raise here, I expect it to be deleted again. At its twin on theenergycollective.com, honest and respectful dialog isn’t discouraged. It remains.

    “Fred, yes, we’re making progress. The pathetically slow progress we’re making is unworthy of your optimism, however.

    For example: you seem impressed that China is on track to add 18 GW of solar capacity in 2015. With China’s average capacity factor of 14%, the country will be able to count on an insignificant 2.5 GW of additional power.

    Insignificant, because the Chinese consume two hundred and fifty times as much electricity – 624 GW – and consumption is rising at an annual rate of 8 GW/year. So they would have to add three times as much solar every year merely to keep up with consumption.

    New nuclear will be part of the equation, which you choose to acknowledge euphemistically as one of “other non-fossil energy sources”. Even still, they say only 20% of their energy will come from all of these sources by 2030. How does any of this constitute a giant step towards meeting your wildly optimistic prediction that carbon emissions will peak by 2020?”

    • Jamie Fine
      Posted September 17, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Hi Bob, your arguments are getting further and further from the facts, so I’m finding it difficult to have a reasoned dialogue.

      1. Regarding your concern about cost shifts, the California Public Utilities Commission’s study of the NEM policy finds that NEM customers, on average, are contributing 103 percent of the costs to serve them. That is, NEM customers are providing a subsidy to others.

      2. You claim renewable energy policy has driven up prices in California, but there is evidence that California policy will save billions in consumer costs. (Shockproofing Society; recent Chris Busch paper on Smart Growth).

      3. You blame EDF for zealotry but provide no evidence to support your claim. EDF is not an anti-nuclear organization, but we do support strong safety regimes with respect to design standards, waste management (including transportation) programs, operator training, security, inspections, etc. Our president, Fred Krupp addressed this in an interview with MSNBC saying, “Well nuclear power is a carbon free source of energy so it should be on the table, absolutely. The concerns right now are cost. The utilities that are going ahead and building nuclear power plants are hitting their customers with much higher electricity costs but absolutely, anything that’s proved safe should be on the table, including nuclear.”

      4. Finally, you provide no plausible argument in suggesting that fossil fuel reliance is a least cost pathway. It’s not. Fossil fuel prices are rising while renewable generation prices are falling dramatically. Nor do you address the reality that your preferred a path leads to climate change, which causes suffering, worsening inequality, flooding, drought, and massive loss of land, property, and habitat.

  3. Posted September 18, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Jamie, this is the first time I’ve seen EDF respond to any criticism, at theenergycollective.com or at this website. So there has been no dialogue, reasoned or other. Your post addresses none of the points I’ve raised here but I’m happy to respond.

    In 2013 an analysis of NEM was prepared for CPUC by Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. The result was the “Draft California Net Energy Metering Evaluation”, and in section 4.5.1 the analysis addresses export-only NEM case – compensating residential solar customers only for the energy they sell back to the grid. It concludes that in the year 2012, California non-NEM customers subsidized more affluent customers with solar panels to the tune of $75 million/year, and that amount will grow:

    “Table 34 shows the total net cost of NEM in millions of dollars in the year 2020 for the Export Only case. Recall that we defined net cost such that a positive value indicates a cost shift from NEM participants to other ratepayers. The total net cost of NEM exports, at full subscription in the year 2020, will be in the range of $359 million dollars per year.”

    https://ethree.com/documents/CSI/CPUC_NEM_Draft_Report_9-26-13.pdf

    You claim the reverse is true, that “NEM customers, on average, are contributing 103 percent of the costs to serve them. That is, NEM customers are providing a subsidy to others.” Based on what?

    You’ve commented on other large topics not addressed here, to which I’ll respond briefly.

    I’m not suggesting that fossil fuel is a “least cost pathway” – that’s a fact. Natural gas prices are at twenty-year lows. The idea is to change that, not reinforce it with solutions which guarantee it permanence in electricity generation.

    Seeing as strong safety standards are important to nuclear advocates too, we’re in agreement here. That doesn’t have anything to do with irrational antinuclearism, which is responsible for grossly inflating the dangers of nuclear waste and driving up nuclear’s cost to multiples of what it costs in China or France. Charles E. Till directed Argonne National Laboratory’s Integral Fast Reactor program. In his book, “Plentiful Energy: the Story of the Integral Fast Reactor”, he explains how antinuclearism is killing the promise of safe nuclear energy in the U.S.:

    “Controlling indirect costs is of the utmost importance, and those have varied widely from project to project. In past U.S. experience, the indirect costs dominated the direct costs in some plants, with the indirect costs running up to ridiculous levels, actually higher than the direct costs. Interest on the borrowed capital kept adding on as plant construction was held up by one legal challenge after another.”

    When we double the cost of a robust, carbon-free technology by spending $billions to placate irrational fears, it doesn’t bode well for our ability to get a handle on climate change.