US sinks to new low in climate change ambition

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 10.09.47 PMIn 2015, the United States submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that committed the country to doing its fair share to keep the global temperature from increasing beyond “well below 2C.” In it, the US specifically promised that it “intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.” This INDC became a binding international treaty commitment on November 4, 2016, when the Paris Agreement entered into force.  Under Article 4.2, the US agreed that it “shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.” 177 of the 181 Paris Agreement Parties that have submitted their own NDCs relied on the United States’ promise when preparing, communicating, and maintaining their nationally determined contributions.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries like the US agreed, in Article 4.9, that “[e]ach Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision. In addition, under Article 4.3, each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.” Article 4.11 highlights that a Party “may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” Yet no Paris Agreement article permits NDC adjustments of lower ambition.

The Trump Administration’s efforts not to maintain adequate national laws and policies to achieve the current US NDC hit an new low last week. That’s when the Washington Post broke the story of a “startling assumption” located “deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement”: “On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century.” According to the IPCC, this kind of warming is beyond human history records and would imperil food security and drinking water sources, and lead to sea level rise that wipe out most coastal cities.

tailpipeWhile this admission is scary enough, the Washington Post noted that how the Trump Administration was using it was even scarier.  “[T]he administration did not offer this dire forecast, premised on the idea that the world will fail to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.”  Essentially the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drew this conclusion to justify the decision to freeze Obama-era federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. The logic is that global temperature will increase nearly 3.5C above the average temperature between 1986 and 2005 regardless of whether Obama-era tailpipe standards take effect or are frozen for six years – so why bother?

No ambition at all.

 


It takes more than government

green roof busHundreds of people, from all over the world, gather in Bonn, Germany for the twenty-third Conference of the Parties (COP23). At first glance, COP23 appears to be policy driven, science based, and a negotiations filled conference. It is that and more. It has become the place for green industry where 850 different organizations applied to participate in COP23 and offer their products and services.

This interaction did not occur by accident.

When the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, it called for enabling the private sector to “promote and enhance the transfer of, and access to, environmentally sound technologies” in Article 10 (c). In the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016, Article 6.4 (b) calls for incentivizing the public and private sectors to participate in mitigating green house gases. These treaties create the conditions for private sector involvement in mitigation. So private/non-profit organizations are active participants in COP23 and not simply vendors at a trade show.

A good example of such partnership is in transportation, which is one of COP23’s Global Climate Action (GCA) themes. ABB, a for-profit company with over 136,000 employees spread over a 100 countries, works on projects as varied as sun powered rickshaws and clean energy buses. Non-profits have also played a role in shaping climate change policies. Organizations like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policies (ITDP) work with policy makers on an international level and also seek to influence policies at the local level in urban areas.

These organizations go beyond the boundaries of a country and provide needed technical expertise that policy makers sometimes lack. In a recent GCA meeting at COP23, representatives of these organizations pointed out the need for different climate friendly policies in Barcelona, Spain than in Atlanta, GA. Even though they have populations similar in size, Atlanta occupies an area that is over twenty five times larger than Barcelona.


Global aviation CO2 emissions cap almost clear for takeoff

While global aircraft emissions do not fall under the purview of the Paris Agreement, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has nevertheless been making strides toward regulating aviation carbon dioxide emissions.

Photo: Miranda Jensen

New ICAO scheme seeks to cap CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. Photo: Miranda Jensen

Last week at the conclusion of its 39th Assembly Meeting, ICAO members recommended for adoption “the first-ever global market-based measure adopted by an entire industry sector.” The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) standards are designed as market-based measures to work alongside the airline industry’s whole “basket of measures,” with the goal of achieving “carbon neutral growth from 2020.” Other tools in the basket include technology improvements, alternative fuels, and operational changes.

The airline industry is among the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide emissions, currently responsible for more than 3% of the world’s GHG emissions and projected to “increase seven times by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.” While aircraft manufacturers have already made significant progress on the technology front, ICAO claims that those developments alone would not achieve carbon neutral growth.

CORSIA will complement other developments in aircraft emissions regulation. Earlier this year, ICAO proposed the first global carbon dioxide emissions standards for aircraft. These standards call on aircraft manufacturers to use certain technologies in new models of aircraft starting in 2020 in order to improve fuel efficiency. Together with the other items in the basket of measures, these carbon dioxide emissions standards and the CORSIA program will help mitigate the aviation industry’s impact on climate change.

According to ICAO’s 2016 Environmental Report and Appendix B of the draft resolution, the CORSIA scheme requires airlines to purchase offsets to compensate for their portions of carbon dioxide emissions that exceed the country’s baseline. This baseline is calculated based on airline market shares and the country’s projected 2020 aviation emissions levels. The program will apply in a series of phases. The pilot phase (2021­­­–2023) and first phase (2024–2026) will both be voluntary for any country that would like to begin participating in the program before 2027. Indeed, a surprising number of countries have already signed up to do so. In the pilot phase, countries will have flexibility to choose the basis for offsets whereas the first phase will require a specific calculation for determining the offsets. CORSIA goes live in 2027, when all countries except LDCs, SIDS, LLDCs, and “states with very low levels of international aviation activity,” will be required to implement the scheme. However, if one or both countries on the route is exempt and not participating in the program, CORSIA offsets will not apply to that route.

Some claim that ICAO’s CORSIA scheme does not go far enough to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Groups like Transport and Environment question the effectiveness of offsets and argue that the standards are not rigid enough to achieve carbon neutral growth. However, others such as Boeing are supportive of these new measures, applauding ICAO for helping industry curb aviation emissions.

In addition to these developments at ICAO, the United States has also been constructing the framework to regulate aviation GHG emissions. In August, EPA issued an endangerment finding, which concluded that six greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) “endanger public health and welfare” under the Clean Air Act. This conclusion paves the way for EPA to regulate aircraft emissions domestically.


Clean cars, clean energy

electric carThis piece in Bloomberg news, The Dirty Road to Cleaner Cars, captures well the conundrum of cleaning up vehicular emissions.  22% of US CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector.  (This number is17% worldwide.)

Tesla set records when it launched its Model 3 in April, racking up more than 400,000 reservations for the $35,000 sedan since then. So it’s clear that there is a level of consumer awareness of, and demand for, reducing tailpipe GHG emissions.

But while electric cars are part of the solution – especially in sparsely populated locations, where mass transit is not feasible (like rural Vermont, where vehicular emissions comprise 26% of our carbon footprint) – they can only be as clean as the source of the juice that fuels them.

Eric Roston writes “with the solar, wind, natural gas, and (still potential) nuclear revolutions, the metabolism of the energy system is accelerating. Electric cars lead the parade.”

For Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, electric cars are just one of three ways of cleaning up the US energy system.  He first points to improving the efficiency of fossil fuel-generated electricity while also increasing zero-carbon power as quickly as possible before plugging buildings and vehicles into this clean(er) electric power grid.  His mantra? “Clean electricity, and electrify everything you can.