Paris Agreement: The Slow Walk Continues

COP 24 is quickly approaching. This COP will be held in Katowice, Poland. The intent of the 24th Council of Parties is to facilitate and adopt a set of strategies that will lead to the full deployment of the goals expressed during COP 21, i.e. the Paris Agreement. There will also be greater focus at this COP to identify not only mitigation strategies, but also more carbon sequestration strategies via improved land-use practices.


A Quick Review of Paris Agreement

In 2015 all of the countries of the world convened at COP 21. The 21st meeting of the UN’s Council of Parties. The goal of COP 21, aka 2015 Paris United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (shortened to the Paris Agreement), was to identify the strategies that would help countries, and the globe at large, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The expectation was that by countries cooperating and coordinating on a variety of emission reduction and carbon sequestration efforts, we would decrease the likelihood of the planet warming more than 1.5 degrees. 1.5 degrees being the threshold that was set by climate scientists to be the maximum amount the plant can warm beyond the pre-industrial revolution baseline of the late 19th century. Beyond 1.5 degrees, and it is expected the earth would see some pretty catastrophic impacts. This would largely be an increase in number and intensity of extreme weather events, both short-lived such as hurricanes and of longer duration, such as droughts.

To establish the Paris Agreement, all countries worked to provide Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) for mitigation. These are largely the sectors countries will focus on to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This includes the energy sector; agriculture; land-use; waste; transportation, etc. By April 2016, 97% of all participants, 190 of the 196 possible participants, in the United Nations Framework Climate Change Covenant (UNFCCC) had submitted INDCs. This covered about 94.6% of all carbon emissions.

What has happened since the Paris Agreement?

What happened between COP 21 and COP 24? Some would argue progress was made, but largely not enough progress to adequately address the extreme risk we face with a rapidly changing climate. Some progress is better than no progress. We did see advancements in commitment for financing and funding both mitigation and adaptation activities; greater focus on supporting indigenous populations; and the development of additional coordination mechanisms that facilitate dialogues across countries, as well as between the public and private sector.

There was COP 22 in Morocco. This was largely a follow-up to COP 21 to demonstrate that countries are on board . A joint statement was issued to this effect demonstrating that countries are committed to the goals they established in COP 21. The COP did ask for not only ongoing commitment but also a willingness by countries to increase their financial contributions to this effort, both internally and to countries in need of greater financial support. It also recommended that countries up their goals a bit, as there was a increasing realization that the goals set during COP 21 were not sufficient to meet the 1.5 degree threshold.

There was then COP 23, held in Bonn, Germany and led by the country of Fiji. The focus of COP 23 was to further develop implementation strategies for COP 21 goals, as well as further develop a facilitative dialogue known as the Talanoa Dialogue. The intent of this dialogue is to build trust among participating countries. With greater trust, it is believed there will be improved knowledge sharing, as well as increased likelihood of greenhouse gas reduction strategies being implemented. Some other highlights includes United States’ cities and states recommitting after the US federal government pulled out of the Paris Agreement.  With Fiji taking the lead, there was also significant focus and progress on indigenous populations, particularly those that are most at risk to sea-level rise and other climate risks.

Where do things stand?

We have all of this improved coordination and cooperation happening across countries, as well as with greater public/private partnership efforts. Further, we have greater investment in mitigation and adaptation efforts. However, we still are very much falling short. In October 2017 the UN Environment’s Emissions Gap report was issued. The report was issued prior COP 23 in Bonn. It assesses the INDCs and the progress countries are meeting. The conclusion was not great. The INDCs meet only about 1/3rd of what needs to be done to keep under the 1.5 degree threshold and those pledges that have been made are not all reducing emissions as quickly as anticipated.

As a planet, we are way behind where we need to be to decrease the likelihood of hitting the 1.5 degree threshold. In the next blog post, I discuss the electric power transition and the current barriers that are slowing it down and the ways in which to reduce these barriers.


The United States’ Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – Does it matter?

The_Arc_de_Triomphe_Is_Illuminated_in_Green_to_Celebrate_Paris_Agreement's_Entry_into_ForceAt first glance one can argue that the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement hurts the United State’s standing in the climate mitigation arena and puts the entire agreement at risk. The US has abdicated its leadership position on climate and is turning its back on the global effort to mitigate climate change. That sounds pretty bad and there are plenty of experts arguing that by stepping away, the United States has created a leadership vacuum that may or may not be filled (some see China stepping into the role) and that a domino effect will occur where other countries will withdraw or at least step back on their climate goals. On the contrary, what we have seen so far is that signatories to the agreement are increasing their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Will this defiance to the Republican Party’s actions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement continue? At this point, it is hard to say. However, there is no reason to believe that countries will not continue to pursue their goals.  There is no reason for them not to. The economics to continue the transition are already here. The NERA Economic Consulting report, (funded by the US Chamber of Commerce, Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil) was the report largely sited by the Trump Administration and Republican Party as the justification for why the US should lead the accord. It argues that it is too costly to make the renewable energy transition and would have negative economic consequences. However, the reality on the ground completely counters this report and any of the other arguments that climate mitigation efforts would have negative consequences on economic growth.

Here are some examples from countries, India and China, that the Republican’s see as a key threat to the US. The belief by the Republicans is that these countries get a free ride with the Paris Agreement continuing business as usual while the United States suffers economic losses through overly stringent climate regulations. However, for India and China, the status quo of a carbon based economy is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

For example, India has already stopped the development of 13.7 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants in May 2017, and feels that with the current cost of renewables, the 8.6 gigawatts of recently built coal-fired plants will be not able to compete with renewable resources. That is 22 GW of power that is not coming online or will not remain online because of renewables. India has also committed to only selling electric cars by 2030. Of course, this may not be too great of benefit of there is still significant coal powered electricity. However, if it meets its goal of 60% renewable energy by 2027, then it is a very good thing. 

In China, they have already put in place policies that will over-achieve their carbon reduction goals.  If you want to argue that these policies are not that stringent, then look at their transition of their coal fired power plants. China is currently shuttering their old-coal fired power plants and all new plants must meet very stringent efficiency standards that far out-perform US plants. China is also rolling out the largest renewable energy investment on the planet. Their commitment to renewable energy makes up 36% of the total renewable energy investment made in 2016. Their goal is to lead in clean energy technology manufacturing while the Republican Party decides to sideline the United States. They are also looking to add 13 million new renewable energy jobs by 2020 and shed about 1.3 million coal related jobs

For the United States, at least for the short-term, any progress will have to depend upon the policies of state and local governments, as well as the private sector.  Although we have lost the strength of the United States government leading climate mitigation activities and supporting the deployment and export of US clean energy technology and services, there is room to be optimistic. Many city mayors, state governors and the private sector have agreed that it is too important to not work on decarbonizing our economy. Further, many of them find economically, it makes absolutely no sense to not decarbonize our economy. Decarbonizing our economy has proved to be a very large job creator and economic engine for many companies and communities. According to a Meister Consulting Group and EDF report, in 2016 there were 4.4 million working in the clean energy and sustainability sector. Renewable energy jobs are growing at a rate of 20% per year in the last few years. A great reference to further understand the economic benefit of a decarbonized economy would the Rocky Mountain Institute’s  (RMI) Reinventing Fire. Research by RMI suggests that a $5 trillion benefit awaits the United States economy if we take the appropriate steps.

So, does it matter? We will see. Other countries have upped their commitment to carbon reduction goals. Our main rivals, at least according to the Republican Party, are doubling down on decarbonization while the Trump Administration and the Republican Party takes another step away from the global stage. Fortunately, we are a country that has the capacity and capability to do work in absence of federal leadership. The desire and drive to decarbonize is still here in the United States, it has just been made a lot more difficult to accomplish.