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Paris Agreement Becomes Official As Climate Change Hits U.S. State Ballots

By: Bob Henson 5:29 PM GMT on November 04, 2016

The first truly global agreement to reduce human-produced greenhouse gas emissions--a huge milestone in the effort to address climate change--went into effect on Friday, November 4, 2016. The Paris Agreement was forged at the 21st annual United Nations Conference of Parties meeting (COP 21) in December 2015. In order to become official, the agreement needed to be ratified by 55 nations representing 55% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. That goal was met in October when the European Union ratified the plan.

The Paris Agreement is weaker than the preceding Kyoto Protocol in that it doesn’t mandate emission cuts by international law. Instead, think of it more like a pot-luck dinner: each nation determines its own contribution and submits its plan in the form of an “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC). The idea is that regular scrutiny of the plans, and the progress in meeting them, will provide enough international peer pressure to make the agreement work. Moreover, having virtually every country on board is a marked change from the Kyoto Protocol, which was not ratified by the United States and which mandated no reductions from China and India, thus leaving more than half of the world’s greenhouse emissions unchecked. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use have more than doubled since the early 1970s.

Figure 1. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in green light on November 30, 2015, on the first day of the COP 21 meeting in Paris. The tower and the Arc de Triomphe were scheduled to be lit in green on Friday night, November 4, 2016, in honor of the Paris Agreement going into force. Image credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.

As stated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement’s central aim is “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.” The goals seem more ambitious than ever in light of the stunning global temperature jump of the last three years. For the period January through September, NOAA data show that temperatures have risen about 1.2°C in the last 100 years. In 2016 alone, we’re running a full 1°C above readings that prevailed in the 1940s to 1960s, and every year is boosting the atmosphere’s temperature-goosing storehouse of carbon dioxide. The weekly average of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory dropped below 400 parts per million in late August 2016. It’s virtually certain to be the last weekly value below 400 ppm in any of our lifetimes.

Where do the national pledges stand?
The independent organization Climate Action Tracker is carrying out detailed analyses of each nation’s INDCs. Thus far, they’ve analyzed the INDCs from more than 30 countries representing about 70% of the world’s population and about 80% of global emissions. Their work suggests that the plans submitted thus far will cut global emissions, but not by enough to meet the ambitious Paris targets. The group has rated the INDCs of 5 nations as “sufficient” in helping the world meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. However, the INDCs from 11 other nations and the European Union were rated “medium,” while those from 14 countries were deemed “inadequate”.

Sufficient: Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Morocco
Medium: Brazil, China, European Union, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Switzerland, United States
Inadequate: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates
Not rated: Nepal, Gabon

Climate Action Tracker has a page with capsule summaries that link to the full analyses for each country, including details on how each analysis was carried out. The group takes into account how much each nation’s plan is likely to cut emissions, as well as “whether a government is doing its ‘fair share’ compared with others toward the global effort to limit warming below 2°C.” Because each nation has leeway to forge its own plan, the assumptions and techniques in each plan vary from country to country, making it a challenge to compare apples with apples as well as oranges, cantaloupes, strawberries, and everything else.

For example, in the large, heavily forested United States, the longstanding difficulty in assessing how much net carbon is taken up by vegetation and soil makes a big difference. A recent change in methodology has increased the amount of carbon dioxide projected to be taken up by forests and land-use changes by the year 2025 from 33% to 50%. This, in turn, reduces the amount of emission cuts required to meet U.S. targets by more than 4%. Carbon emissions from the U.S. have already dropped by a few percent in the last decade. Some big factors in the mix include a flattening of vehicle miles driven, a large-scale shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, and the growth of energy-efficient technologies such as cars that get better gas mileage and LED light bulbs. As shown in Figure 2, further progress will hinge in large part on whether the Clean Power Plan is implemented. That plan, put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 to limit carbon pollution from power plants, was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2016, pending judicial review. (Needless to say, there are major differences in where the U.S. presidential candidates stand on climate change policy.)

Figure 2. The United States’ carbon emissions since 1990 (black line at left) and the projected emissions through 2030 based on current policy (blue extension], which assumes that the U.S. Clean Power Plan and at least some parts of the U.S. Climate Action Plan will be implemented. Also shown are the projected emissions if the Clean Power Plan is not implemented (black dashed line) and if the plan and all major parts of the preexisting Climate Action Plan are fully implemented (blue dashed line). Image credit: Climate Action Tracker.

Climate-related items on U.S. state ballots
There are two especially noteworthy items relevant to climate change on the state-level ballots in next week’s U.S. general election. In Washington, voters will consider a Carbon Emission Tax and Sales Tax Reduction Initiative. If it passes, this will be the first-ever carbon tax in a U.S. state. The idea behind such a tax--implemented thus far in only a handful of nations and provinces around the world--is to prod emission reductions by putting a cost on the act of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through fossil fuel use. The proposed tax in Washington is based on an influential carbon tax implemented in neighboring British Columbia in 2008. It’s crafted as a revenue-neutral approach, where revenue brought in through the carbon tax is returned to taxpayers in the form of personal and business tax cuts and credits (as has been the case in British Columbia), including a sales tax reduction.

The Washington carbon tax has drawn support from dozens of earth, atmospheric, ocean, and space-science faculty at the University of Washington, as well as the eminent former NASA scientist James Hansen, a longtime proponent of putting a price on carbon. In a Seattle Times op-ed, Hansen said: “Washington [state] has a singular opportunity, with approval of Initiative 732, to address the threat of climate change and alter the ineffectual course of national climate policies. As if that isn’t enough, Washington voters also would be sending a broader message to our nation’s capital: The public demands an alternative to putrid politics-as-usual and is taking action.” The initiative is opposed by a number of industry groups and labor organizations, as well as by several environmental groups that would prefer to see revenue from any carbon tax used more specifically to advance clean-energy and climate-justice efforts.

At the other end of the nation, residents of the Sunshine State will vote on the Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use, Amendment 1. This is the latest skirmish in a heated debate playing out in states nationwide on how ever-growing residential solar power should be accommodated by the nation’s energy grid. In many states, “net metering” allows homeowners with solar panels to sell unused power back to their electric utility, typically at retail rates. This happens most often on hot, sunny summer days, when the utilities can use the extra power to combat spikes in power demand from air conditioning, so in many ways it’s a win-win arrangement. However, in some areas, homeowners sell back enough power to reduce their electric bills to little or nothing (or even pocket a small dividend at times). This has prompted claims that such users aren’t paying their fair share to keep the overall grid functioning. More broadly, the growth of rooftop solar is shifting the balance of energy production away from large utilities.

Figure 3. Logos for Consumers for Smart Solar (left), which supports the solar power amendment in Florida, and Floridians for Solar Choice (right), which opposes the amendment.

The Florida amendment is a cleverly constructed two-parter. The official ballot summary opens with a carrot to fans of solar power: “This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” The second part takes a different tack: “State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

The main coalition supporting the amendment, the grass-rootsy-sounding Consumers for Smart Solar, has spent more than $21 million, with more than $19 million of that total provided by four utilities. The main opposition group, Floridians for Solar Choice, is vastly underfunded by comparison. However, virtually every newspaper in Florida that’s weighed in on the amendment has come out against it.

Ballotpedia has extensive background on both the proposed Washington initiative and the proposed Florida amendment. Utilitydive.com has an excellent summary of various solar-related state legislative developments as of early 2016.

We’ll be back with a new post on Monday. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Bob Henson

Figure 4. SolarCraft workers Craig Powell (left) and Edwin Neal install solar panels on the roof of a home in San Rafael, California, on February 26, 2015. According to a survey report by the Solar Foundation in 2015, the solar industry employs more workers than coal mining, with nearly 174,000 people working in solar compared to close to 80,000 mining coal. Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Climate Change Politics

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.