Why the world could actually avoid climate catastrophe (if we don't screw it up)

The outlook for global climate negotiations has never looked so promising, an NRDC expert tells Salon

Published November 14, 2014 11:58AM (EST)

President Barack Obama  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)  (AP)
President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)

The long, winding solar bike path that is international climate negotiations took a sharp turn for the optimistic this week with the announcement that the U.S. and China are committed to the uphill climb. At its end lies the promise, remote though it may seem, of the world coming together to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Whether or not we'll stick to those commitments, of course, is another matter entirely -- but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We have over a year until the world's leaders gather in Paris to hammer out the details of a global accord, and there's a lot that can go wrong before we even get to that point. There are some suddenly influential U.S. leaders, to take just one example, who have all but made derailing these plans the cornerstone of their political agendas. And there are a whole lot of fossil fuels we're going to have to decide to leave in the ground before we can start breathing easy.

But considering the fact we're hurtling toward catastrophe, Jake Schmidt, the international program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Salon, things, for the moment, are looking pretty good. And that's despite some considerable noise from the doubters. Schmidt puts little stock in the knee-jerk Republican reactions to the deal (as he quipped on Twitter, "if Sen. Inhofe believes the Chinese target is too tough then it must be a good one" -- reality, in other words, is likely the exact opposite of what the man who wrote the book on climate denial claims).

But Obama's fiercest opponents aren't the only ones wondering just how significant the deal really is: More informed opinions are concerned not with whether we should be working with China to fight climate change, but whether this much-hyped agreement is going to do the trick. Others are questioning the hype itself, asking how much was actually achieved here. The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing -- for now. As Schmidt points out, you can spend as much time as you like trying to predict and model the future, but nothing guaranteed until we get in there and make it a reality.

Schmidt spoke with Salon about how that can happen, and gave us his updated outlook for the road ahead. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Last time we spoke was following the U.N. Climate Summit, which was a little bit anticlimactic. At the time, you stressed that the meeting was just a first step down a long path toward a global agreement. A month and a half later, and with the news of the deal with China, how would you say the mood has changed?

I think the mood is a lot more upbeat. There’s a natural, “OK this is great, but --” and I think we’re seeing some of those pieces, but at least for the past 10 years, people have been saying China and the U.S. are critical in solving climate change. They’re the biggest emitters in the world; they’ve been, historically, the main block to international climate action. These two countries need to get together and help to solve this piece of the puzzle. With this agreement, they’ve come together around strong targets that are going to significantly reduce their carbon pollution, and I think that sends a pretty powerful signal as we go into next year.

In your view, has it changed the outlook for Paris 2015 at all?

It makes Paris quite possibly successful. As I’ve said to other folks, there’s zero chance that Paris could succeed if China and the U.S. weren’t prepared for strong climate commitments. You can theoretically construct an agreement that doesn’t include them, but politically, there’s no way that could happen. The countries that I have talked to, whether they’re South Africa or Brazil or the Europeans, they’ve all said we have to have the U.S. and China solidly as a part of this agreement. That means that you needed the U.S. to come forward with a deep carbon target for that post-2020 time frame and that you needed China to signal when its emissions will peak and, hopefully, at what level.

You sort of saw this coming: Last week you wrote on your blog that China was ready to come to the table, that it was poised to take action on climate. What have you seen changing that’s allowed that to happen?

Air pollution and air pollution, and probably air pollution, air pollution, air pollution is No. 1. About two years ago, we started work explicitly on the need for China to cap its coal consumption, mostly because it was the right thing to do from an air pollution and carbon standpoint. And at the time, people, including leading Chinese researchers, sort of said, “Nice idea, we’re not sure that it’s going to happen.”

Over the past year or so, the debate in China has picked up steam, and I think you can trace it back to the air pollution debate quite clearly, starting with when the public calling for the need for stronger air pollution control from Chinese government. The Chinese government was saying, “The air’s great, don’t worry about it,” and the U.S. embassy had a monitor saying, “Well, actually, in fact, the air’s not great. It’s pretty darn unhealthy compared to modern standards for healthy air.” That led to the Chinese government having to make data publicly available across the country in terms of air pollution and, more recently, it drove the State Council, which is China’s equivalent of the Cabinet, to set in motion a series of air pollution responses that included coal consumption peaks for the three biggest regions in the country.

I think what we’ve seen is that air pollution has driven a number of ideas that were talked about in China, and turned them into practical policies that the government is beginning to adopt. I expect that more will probably be coming in the near term.

You also wrote that China could reach peak emissions by 2025. That jibes with some of the analysis coming out saying that, when you look into it, the agreement is mostly business as usual: Both countries are already on track to meet these goals and more would need to be done to have a significant impact or to meet the two-degree limit. Do you think this is mostly a symbolic agreement?

Oh, definitely not. I am not one that believes that these are business as usual agreements. I’ve worked enough in both countries to know that you can model any scenario, but predicting the future is not reality unless you make it happen. There are signs that China’s emissions will peak, and very credible analysts have modeled it, but there are a lot of reasons why that may not happen if China doesn't put its shoulder into such an effort. The most recent (credible) study from MIT and researchers at Tsinghua [University in Beijing] says that short of new policy, China’s emissions wouldn’t peak for the foreseeable future. Effectively, the line goes off the graph in the 2040 and 2050 time frame:

That was the general consensus in China as of about a year ago: that Chinese CO2 emissions wouldn’t peak for the foreseeable future because even under optimistic scenarios, China’s population won’t be using energy the same way that the Americans will until very far into the future. So I think there are signs that China’s emissions will peak earlier, but you have to make it happen in the real world. And this is an important signal that I think will have a ripple effect across the Chinese economy.

The other piece is, we are confident that we can help to drive, collectively, an earlier peak in Chinese emissions -- and at a much lower level -- than what might occur if they don’t take any more action. Our assessment has been that if China’s coal consumption peaks in 2020, that could lead to a CO2 peak as early as 2025. And it’s not just about what year does it peak, it’s also about at what level does it peak, because the atmosphere cares not about a date but about the total carbon pollution.

On the U.S. side, I don’t think that this is business as usual. This is this administration and the next administration continuing to push as hard as possible and using all of its available tools to drive strong climate action. We’ve seen enough swings in energy dynamics to know that nothing’s guaranteed in American energy and emissions unless you actually have smart policies that drive the kinds of cuts that we need.

What actual policies and actions from the U.S. should we be looking out for? In addition to implementing the EPA's power plant rule, is there more we can expect to see?

The Clean Power Plan is obviously a central component of it. There’s a critical need for the administration to propose and finalize rules on oil and gas methane, which is the next biggest source of uncontrolled carbon pollution in the U.S. There’s a set of rules and standards around HFCs -- the super greenhouse gas emissions that are used in air-conditioners and refrigerators -- that the EPA has begun to set in motion, but they need to finalize that and expand the basket of sources that are covered. Then there will be a number of appliance efficiency standards and other renewables programs that the administration has sort of set in motion but hasn’t yet finalized, and those will have to get done.

I expect that the next administration will have to do the same thing President Obama did, which is look across the variety of tools that it has available and come up with a plan in terms of the next steps it’s going to take to meet this overall objective. The president’s Climate Action Plan was bound by two dynamics: What can we do under existing law, and what can we do by the end of my administration? And the next administration can potentially build upon those tools and deepen them over time.

I guess that's to worry about: What if we see a Republican administration that isn’t as concerned about seeing this deal through? How much can Obama get the ball rolling, or solidify things into place, so that they have to keep going with this?

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan can set in motion many of the pieces we’re going to need to meet this target. Each of those measures does have a life beyond 2020, even though that was obviously the critical milestone. Each of them does drive emissions reductions beyond 2020, so there is a lasting impact of those policies.

The reality is that it’s much harder for an administration to unwind the regulations that are already finalized and implemented. It’s much harder for them to do that in the court system; the courts tend to not unwind those. If you’re a business and you’ve just made plans on the basis of what the previous administration did and now some new person comes in and says, “We’re going to change those,” that tends to upset their business plans and they may push back. We fully expect that, in the power sector, for example, which likes to invest in the long term, that as companies begin to implement the steps under the Clean Power Plan, that they will become champions for continuing with that policy because they'll already have made investments along those lines, and anything that upsets that will have a big impact on their shareholders and their long-term investment plans.

You mentioned methane earlier. How is fracking going to play into the U.S. drive to lower emissions? Are we going to have to rely heavily on natural gas to meet these goals?

Our focus is on how you can meet strong Clean Power Plan standards with energy efficiency and renewables. We think that the EPA sort of underestimates how much that’s going to come into play in the real world and that that will actually play a larger role in terms of state policies and programs than people expect. You see that in the real world, that the real numbers in terms of energy efficiency and wind and solar are constantly breaking records across the U.S. It’s almost hard for analysts to keep up with it.

The piece we’re most concerned about, and why we joined with 17 other groups to call for strong oil and gas methane standards is that if you don’t control the methane from America’s leaky oil and gas system, then there’s a big carbon impact from the switch from coal to natural gas. We’ve been calling for the president and the EPA to finalize standards that significantly capture these methane leaks, so that we’re not driving climate change at a time that we shouldn’t be digging the hole even deeper.

But that’s a piece that they have to finalize. They’re supposed to decide later this fall what they’re going to do on oil and gas methane. They can go strong or they can go weak, and they have to go strong to both meet the president's climate target but also to ensure that oil and gas methane is not driving climate change.

Just going back to international negotiations, are we seeing promising signs from other countries? I know the EU recently reached a deal to reduce emissions pretty significantly …

Yeah, with the U.S., China, and the Europeans, you’ve now got commitments from countries that account for over 50 percent of the world’s emissions, that have outlined their post-2020 targets as we go into Paris. That’s pretty significant, to have those commitments over a year in advance of the meeting -- climate negotiators tend to wait until the last minute to make their decisions. I expect that the Chinese and the U.S. will be going into the meetings with the G-20 countries early next week and saying, “We’ve stepped up to the plate, now it’s your turn.” I think we’re seeing some reactions from around the world that point to how countries are closely following and reacting to the news coming out of China in the last couple days.

And I think there is a clear focus on the remaining countries to step up, and we expect that by early next year all countries will come forward with their planned targets for the 2025 time frame to help secure a strong agreement in Paris. The milestone that was agreed on last year was that in the first quarter of next year, countries are supposed to come forward with their proposed targets.

What about the huge outliers like Australia and Canada, the countries that still aren’t really acknowledging the reality of climate change? Is it going to take more pressure to get them to come to the table?

[Sighs] Yeah. It’s so sad when we have to go back to countries that, at one point in time, weren’t too bad. Canada has to deal with its tar sands emissions. The overexpansion of the tar sands has been driving their climate policy and they have constantly pegged their ambition to the U.S. -- or at least that’s been the rhetoric -- but unfortunately, the U.S. emissions are declining and Canada’s emissions continue to shoot through the roof. So I think this is a wake-up call for Canada. They can no longer rely upon the fact that the U.S. won’t act, and they can’t rely upon the fact that China won’t act.

The same is true for Australia. The Australians love to talk about, “How can we act? China’s not acting.” That debate plays out in the U.S., but it really plays out in Australia, because their economy is very closely related to that part of the world, so I think this puts a lot of pressure on them. It also puts pressure on their policies because part of the current administration's thinking has been that Australia is a coal economy and we need to keep exporting our coal to the rest of the world. I think the end of unfettered coal consumption in China should be a wake-up call to Australia’s export plans.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Pollution China Climate Change Epa Greenhouse-gas Emissions Paris 2015