earth at night graphic for Open Climate Collection

Virtuous Climate Cycles Needed

For our second author response to the IPCC response, Kelly Sims Gallagher writes about the need for virtous climate cycles. She is the coauthor of Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Process in the United States and China with Xiaowei Xuan as well as The Globalization of Clean Energy Technology and China Shifts Gears. 

The new IPCC report on 1.5°C provides more clarity about how steep the task is before us to avoid harmful climatic changes, but it does not fundamentally change what we already knew: the longer the delay in facing up to the challenge, the harder it will be to face it. The report is scary and will be daunting to many readers with the facts plainly laid out about the difference between a 1.5 °C and 2°C world. Up to 10 million fewer people would be exposed to related risks from sea-level rise if temperature is kept to 1.5°C global warming rather than 2°C, for example.

The wrong response is to throw up one’s hands and give up. The world has already proven that it can cooperate on climate and come to international agreement with good will. It will need to do so again if we want to limit damages from climate change even further. The precedent is encouraging in many respects.

Although it took too long, the world came together in spectacular fashion to adopt the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015. It is a near universal agreement, with only Nicaragua and Syria refusing to sign it. As of now, 180 countries out of 197 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have ratified it. In a departure from earlier zero-sum approaches that led to fruitless arguments about who should reduce emissions more, each country was asked to make its own pledge to limit emissions under the Paris agreement.

The United States and China were the first to announce their goals, and they did so together in a formal joint announcement by Presidents Obama and Xi in Beijing in November 2014, initiating a new virtuous cycle on climate change. One by one, most countries came forward with their “nationally-determined contribution” throughout 2015. Some countries even attempted to outdo each other by putting forth more ambitious pledges than ones already on the table.

Putting all the commitments together, scientists have estimated that emissions will be limited to close to current levels with the Paris Agreement, thus avoiding a near doubling of emissions in the absence of the agreement. That’s real progress. Countries need to focus on implementing this agreement so that the planned emissions-reductions can be realized. Temperatures would then be limited to approximately 2.5-3.0°C from what they otherwise would have been: 4-5°C. That gets us halfway there, which isn’t bad. In fact, it is an excellent start.

Just like with any daunting task, you have to start somewhere, and once you take that first step, it becomes manageable. Countries, states, and cities that have already begun to reduce their emissions have generally found that it is not particularly difficult to do at first, and surprisingly steep reductions have materialized with no apparent harm to the economy. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is a multi-state emissions trading regime in the Northeast United States has already reduced power sector greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 36% between 2005 and 2015. Overall, the United States reduced its GHG emissions by 11% between 2015 and 2016, and in the electric power sector, emissions have dropped by 25%. Europe has reduced its emissions by 23% between 1990 and 2016. Some rapidly growing economies are limiting the growth in emissions and beginning to approach a peak, after which emissions will begin to fall. China’s emissions have already plateaued, with little to no growth for the past three years even though their pledge to peak emissions is not until 2030.

Many policies are being experimented with all around the world by countries as they attempt to implement the agreement, whether it is Chile’s new carbon tax, India’s coal fee, or Ethiopia’s green industrial policies. The more we learn about which policies work and which ones don’t, the more efficient and cost-effective we can make them. We already know that energy efficiency standards work amazingly well to make computers, refrigerators, and cars do more work using less energy, saving consumers money to boot. Competitive bidding for new power plants has already led to reduced costs of clean energy for average consumers. Green industrial policies can produce clean jobs—we already have 3.2 million of them in the United States. Market-based policies like carbon taxes and emissions trading regimes can create incentives for emissions reductions. Innovation policies can cause new technologies to emerge that can produce low carbon energy at lower cost.

Of course, there is a real danger of a vicious circle, and President Trump himself threatened to initiate it when he pledged to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. When even one country walks away, all the others have an excuse for doing so as well. Trump cannot actually withdraw from the Paris Agreement until the day after the next Presidential election, so it’s entirely possible that the United States will remain in. If it does so, the first urgent task will be to rebuild US-China relations sufficiently so that they initiate a new virtuous cycle of even more ambitious pledges that would catalyze the world again to listen to its better angels and strengthen the Paris Agreement enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Our children will thank us.