Formal negotiations leading to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began in February 1991 at the Westfields Conference Center in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. There have been ups and downs in the struggle to address climate change in the 25 years since then, but at times it certainly seemed like we were trying to push a giant carbon boulder uphill. At long last, as 2015 comes to a close with a string of big wins for the climate movement, I feel like we may have crested the hill.
Certainly, there is much work remaining to accelerate our progress to the pace needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change—and there will be bumps along the way. But the road leading to the clean energy economy that can solve climate change looks far more direct than it ever has before. Here are four reasons why I’m optimistic about the New Year and beyond.
1) The Unlimited Carbon Pollution Era is Over. The Obama Administration finalized the Clean Power Plan in August, establishing the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Opponents can complain, and sue, and vote to block it, but the public strongly supports limiting carbon pollution and Congressional opponents aren’t even close to having enough votes to override President Obama’s veto of any legislation that would block it from coming into force.
2) The Four Pillars of Progress in Paris. Under the agreement adopted in Paris all countries have committed to update their climate plans every five years with the goal of containing global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Equally important, the Paris Climate Conference saw an unprecedented convergence of nations, states, cities, businesses, and citizens committed to concrete action to solve climate change.
3) Clean Energy Goes to Scale. Clean energy accounted for more than two-thirds of all new electricity generating capacity installed in the United States during the first ten months of 2015. Total installed wind power capacity reached 70 GW, and supplied more than 40 percent of the electricity on the main Texas grid and more than 60 percent of the electricity on the main Colorado grid during some periods in November. Solar power is also on track to a record-breaking year, with total capacity now exceeding 24 GW and module prices continuing to fall. These industries received a huge boost for the future when Congress passed a long-term extension of renewable energy tax credits as part of the year-end deal to fund the government, bridging the period between now and when the Clean Power Plan will create a more level playing field for clean energy starting in 2020.
4) Dirty Energy is in Decline. With increases in the supply of clean energy, and decreases or moderated growth in energy demand due to efficiency and slower economic growth in China, something has to give. That something is dirty energy, in particular coal. Researches calculate that global carbon emissions will decline slightly in 2015 compared to 2014, the first time we have seen such a decline absent a global recession. The International Energy Agency is now projecting a long-term decline in global coal demand. Meanwhile, the tar sands carbon bomb appears to be contained, at least for now, after President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline and Canadians elected more climate-friendly governments in Alberta and Ottawa.
The fight against climate change is far from over, and some setbacks along the way are inevitable. I remember only too well being elated when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and being thrilled when the Waxman-Markey bill passed the House of Representatives in 2009, only to see these victories unravel in the face of stiff opposition from fossil fuel interests and their allies in Congress.
Yet the stunning string of wins in 2015 feels different. The United States now has carbon pollution standards in place for its two biggest sources, power plants and cars; clean energy investments are beginning to outpace fossil fuels, not just in the United States, but around the world; mainstream business support for climate action is unprecedented; and the climate movement has proven that it is a force to be reckoned with.
I look forward to even more progress in 2016.
Happy New Year!