Getting meaningful action to address climate change out of the United States’ political system has been a bit like pulling teeth. Denial that human activity is driving global warming runs higher among Americans than in any other advanced country, and is rife in Congress. Despite our wealth, we’re one of the few advanced western nations without a price on greenhouse gas emissions. And the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new effort to cut the nation’s emissions, while significant in its own right, is less ambitious than equivalent efforts in Europe, not to mention politically and legally embattled.
Still, President Obama sought to put the U.S. at the forefront of the global effort to address climate change this year, taking more action than any president in the country’s history. And America is far from the only player here. Countries like China and the members of the European Union are big contributors to global emissions, and are deeply involved in the international discussion about what the world can do about them. So here are the big climate moves — good, bad and ugly — from around the world this year:
China Agreed To A Deal: Whatever the shortcomings of the United States as a whole, the White House did talk the Chinese into a new climate commitment in early November. The government pledged to peak its emissions in 2030, and to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources that same year, in exchange for the U.S. getting a 26 to 28 percent cut in its emissions from their 2005 baseline by 2025. That latter target was deliberately designed around what President Obama can achieve using existing executive branch authority, rather than relying on Congress to pass new legislation.
The strategy also depends on keeping a sympathetic occupant in the White House — but given the demographics of the Democratic Party and of presidential election years, that might well be an achievable goal.
“Renewable and nuclear energy accounted for 9.8 percent of China’s energy mix in 2013,” said Melanie Hart, Director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress, telling ThinkProgress that China’s energy mix goal was ambitious but achievable. The government’s current five-year energy plan calls for 11.4 percent renewables by 2015, and China spent 2014 bulking up its spending on solar, wind, and other clean energy projects, while reforming policy to make it easier to add renewable power to its grid.
The deal is also a potential game-changer for the international politics of climate action, as it puts the world’s biggest GHG emitter historically, and its biggest emitter currently, on record committing to all-new levels of emission reduction. That should create momentum for more international agreements going into the climate summit in Paris in 2015, and it arguably vindicates President Obama’s argument that the U.S. most move unilaterally to cut its emissions in order to build the international trust and goodwill for collective commitments by the international community — contra Republican insistence that reductions by America alone are pointless.
The European Union’s New Climate Commitment: Another development that boded well for President Obama’s strategy, while raising hopes for the 2015 summit, was the decision by the E.U. to ratchet up reductions for its collective greenhouse gas emissions. In late October, the European Council announced an ambitious deal to slice its emissions 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2030. The plan is to divvy up the target into individual and legally binding requirements for each E.U. member country, based on how much effort their economy can shoulder. The deal also included a goal — which is only legally binding for the E.U. as a whole — to get 27 percent of the continent’s power from renewable sources by 2030, and a voluntary commitment to increase energy efficiency 27 percent by that same year.
Eastern European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia had balked at the deal, citing their less advanced economies and their dependency on coal. Ultimately, a revenue sharing scheme was hit on to compensate Poland and the others for their efforts, along with moving to the softer targets for efficiency and renewable energy. The European Commission still has to pen the specific legislation and the European Parliament still has to pass it. But the deal by the Council is evidence that all the necessary political agreements and log-rolling are in place.
The United Nations’ Green Climate Fund Hit Its Goal: One of the big sticking points in international climate negotiations is what aid the advanced world will provide poorer and developing nations to adapt to climate change and to cut their emissions. While China is now the single biggest emitter of carbon per year, the U.S. and Europe remain the biggest emitters historically — and since climate change is driven by the cumulative concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the latter remain primarily responsible for the effects. Furthermore, the enormous levels of wealth per person that America and the West built up while producing all those emissions leave them far more room to cut their fossil fuel use and to invest in sustainable energies.
So if the poorer regions of the world are also going to be in on the effort, some form of support from the advanced world will be necessary. To that end, the wealthy countries of the UN have put together the Green Climate Fund, a pot of money to aid developing countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The fund had been creeping up on its goal of $10 billion for a while, helped along by a $3 billion pledge by the U.S.
While it’s difficult to determine what a “fair share” is for each country, the U.S. and other advanced nations seem to have agreed to theirs. But it was the surprising last-minute pledge of $200 million by Australia — after long resistance by the country’s prime minister, Tony Abbott — that put the fund over the top.
The Deal In Lima: Earlier this month, international negotiators in Lima, Peru hammered out the framework that will govern how and what countries submit in terms of their climate commitments before the final round of negotiations in Paris in December 2015. The agreement came at the tail-end of highly contentious talks, and many environmentalists felt the language was entirely too watered-down. But the deal arguably represents a fundamental shift in strategy for international climate negotiations, after decades of near-total gridlock.
Each country will submit a plan for cutting their greenhouse gas emissions — their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDC) — which “may” (earlier language said “shall”) include hard timeframes and targets for reductions. To prepare for the Paris talks, the United Nations will then synthesize all the INDCs into an overall projection of how much they will likely reduce emissions. The Lima deal also left out any requirements for how progress on INDCs are to be judged, and didn’t really address how poor countries are to be compensated for adaptation and mitigation efforts by wealthier nations.
Abandoning hard goals and legal teeth in the language was necessary to bring many of the poorer and developing countries on board. But as Robert Stavins, the director of the Environmental Economics Program at Harvard University, explained on his blog, that will allow the agreement to go “broad” instead of “deep.” The previous top-down approach focused on getting a small number of developed countries to agree to legally binding cuts, but it’s gone nowhere after decades. The new method could bring 80 to 90 percent of global emitters under its umbrella.
Political scientist David Victor also told Vox that the looser framework will allow countries to proceed and different speeds, and for smaller pockets of cooperation — like the deal between China and the U.S. — to emerge organically and interlock. That could allow countries to build momentum towards longer-term cuts over time, establishing trust as they go, which may well yield more concrete accomplishments than the attempt to engineer a coordinated approach from on high. The dynamic of decentralized, small group cooperation within the larger framework could also provide a form of accountability; China likely won’t submit to an outside review by representatives from 100-plus countries, but it might submit to one carried out by just the United States.
Chile Passed A Carbon Tax: One of the most widely-praised policies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is a carbon tax. Just put a price on every ton of carbon emitted, then let every firm and individual figure out how to avoid those costs in the way that works best for them. It’s one of the simplest ways to shift an entire economy in a greener direction, and both economic modeling and real-world evidence show that, when they’re designed correctly, the drag carbon taxes exact on job growth is negligible.
But carbon taxes still raise the cost of energy produced by fossil fuels, which makes them a politically difficult lift. So whenever a new carbon tax gets passed, the precedent and momentum is worth noting. In 2014, Chile became the first South American country to pass one, as part of a larger reform of the country’s tax regime. It’s a relatively modest tax, coming in at just $5 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, and it uses the revenue to fund education and green energy research, rather than plowing it directly back into taxpayers pockets through rebates or tax cuts elsewhere. But it does get the policy in place, which is more than can be said for the U.S. And Chilean policymakers can always come back to ratchet the tax up over time.
Canada Is Still Selling Its Soul To The Tar Sands: Ever since the rise of tar sands, or oil sands, Canada has turned more and more against efforts to combat climate change — both domestically and internationally — and 2014 was no different. Early this year, the Canadian government moved to shutter a number of libraries that house a huge amount of historical information for scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The move was ostensibly done to save money, and government officials said materials at the libraries would be digitized. But government documents also mentioned “culling materials” as one method for cost-cutting. And scientists and environmentalists expressed little faith in the digitization effort, characterizing the closing as part of a larger federal attempt to muzzle scientific information that’s inconvenient to the fossil fuel drive.
Furthermore, the government does not allow its meteorologists to discuss climate change; a number of journalists told ThinkProgress this year that Canadian officials attempted to intimidate them over environmental reporting or blocked their access to scientific information; and the government has gone after environmental groups using hostile public relations blitzes.
Much of the controversy has focused around the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring crude oil from the tar sands down through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. The project has set off confrontations between the Canadian government and activists, along with large protests here in the United States, and native tribes also getting in on the act. Oil producers in Canada have an enormous amount riding on the development of the tar sands and the construction of Keystone, but as it turns out, America’s own Koch Brothers are among the biggest land holders in the tar sands. In fact, the rush to exploit the area is so massive that Canada’s energy industry has surpassed its transportation sector as the country’s top carbon emitter, thanks to all the increase drilling and production activity.
The tar sands are home to bitumen, an unusually carbon-heavy form of crude oil. According to estimates by the Canadian government, it’s the third-largest oil reserve in the world, and capital investment in its production could reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Of course, the vast majority of the world’s proven oil reserves — including the tar sands — must remain in the ground to prevent catastrophic climate change. So it should probably be unsurprising that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has skipped international climate negotiations, and has leant a sympathetic ear to international efforts that resist taking action to address climate change.
Australia Axed Its Carbon Tax: Unfortunately, that $200 million Australia gave to the UN climate fund may have been intended as a face-saver, after the country scuttled the carbon tax it put in place back in 2012. Research by the Centre for Climate Economics & Policy at Australian National University suggested the policy had successfully cut the country’s emissions by 0.8 percent during its first year — the biggest one-year drop in 24 years of record-keeping. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the 2008 recession kicked off a turn against climate policies amongst Australian voters, and in his campaign for the 2013 election, then-soon-to-be Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to repeal the tax.
“A useless destructive tax which damaged jobs, which hurt families’ cost of living and which didn’t actually help the environment is finally gone,” Abbott said when the repeal passed. The Prime Minister has since traveled the globe, attempting to drum up a coalition of countries — in particular Canada’s Harper — to oppose further international moves toward putting a price on carbon emissions. And thanks to a tug-of-war over what to with its Renewable Energy Target, Australia has also seen investment in clean energy projects plummet by 70 percent since 2013. Meanwhile, the last two years have been the hottest ever recorded in Australia, and have brought with them a punishing host of extreme weather events.
The Big Picture: For all the genuine good that occurred in 2014, the fact is all the big structural arrows still point towards a disastrous worldwide climate upheaval by the end of the century. The total amount of carbon dioxide humanity released into the atmosphere in 2013 jumped 2.3 percent over 2012, setting a new global record for annual emissions. The world can only emit so much this century before a rise in global temperatures beyond 2°C becomes inevitable, and at the rate we’re going we’ll hit that wall by 2040. The realistic paths to staying under 2°C all require global emissions to peak within roughly a decade or less, and to then start falling fast. Otherwise, a rise of at least 4°C over pre-industrial levels looks likely.
According to the World Bank, 4°C of warming would come with “extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,” with “no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.” On top of that, even 2°C could result in significantly more severe weather events and ecological upheavals than are currently anticipated.
A recent analysis from the UN found that the developing world will need to be collectively investing $250 to $500 billion a year by 2050 to handle the effects of climate change, even if the world stays at 2°C of global warming. Which makes the $10 billion the UN’s climate fund has collected so far a mere drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed. And even if countries’ stick with their likely commitments when the end of 2015 rolls around, an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that those pledges will still leave us well short of the 2°C goal.
Our chances of staying under 2°C, while still arguably doable, are increasingly slim — but even limiting warming to 3°C would be a massive accomplishment over limiting it to 3.5°C, or allowing it past 4°C. The fight against climate change isn’t a matter of dramatic breakthroughs, but of cumulatively piling one small victory atop another. Thanks to the world’s efforts, we gained a bit more ground in 2014. But there’s still a long way to go.