The Environment

Earth Day: What’s At Risk?

April 22, 2013  • David Monsma

The Energy and Environment Program returned yesterday from Delhi after completing the third in a series of Track II dialogue meetings with Aspen Institute India on Climate Change and Energy. The difficult challenge and complexity of reaching agreement (domestic and international) on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions necessary to prevent heating of 3-4◦ C by the end of the century, well beyond the 2◦ C guardrail, weighed heavy on the group of US and India participants led by co-chairs John Podesta and Jamshyd Godrej. Podesta and GodrejAs official (Track I) parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change work on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol set to be developed by 2015 and implemented by 2020, our Track II dialogue attempted to map out bi-lateral pathways for renewable energy and non-binding efforts to reduce emissions in the meantime.

The near-term outlook for the US is surprisingly good, with emissions at their lowest levels since 1994, and the US is likely to hit its 2020 climate target of 17% below 2005 levels. However, the long-term picture is unsustainable with projections showing the US will not reach critical 2050 climate targets, which would require a dramatic shift in the composition of the domestic energy supply toward lower carbon resources. Although a range of projections exist for what the US energy mix will look like in the future, no BAU scenario has the US meeting the 2030 or 2050 climate targets needed to hold at or below 2◦ C heat up (over the pre-industrial average). A 3-4◦ C increase in temperature by the end of the century is “not unlikely” and a 5-6◦ C warming potential is now used in some adaptation models. Since the early 20th century, Earth’s mean surface temperature has increased 0.8◦ C (1.4◦ F).

Even if the US were to move to what Thomas Friedman referred to yesterday as the “radical center” with a phased-in carbon tax “as the best place to start,” this does not ensure climate stabilization. To be effective, an aggressive domestic plan for a low-carbon economy must be accompanied by national action from all of the world’s major carbon emitters, notwithstanding modest market enthusiasm for renewable energy and clean disruptive technology. Though deployment of clean energy is higher than ever before and the cost of producing green energy is falling, such markets – without policy changes – cannot deliver global climate stability based on their own entrepreneurial exuberance. One useful exercise contemplated by the Aspen Institute Track II participants would be to embrace a common low-carbon or zero-carbon targets in the electricity sector with a common benchmark (TBD) for 2035.

President Obama isn’t waiting for Congress to act and has called for stronger energy efficiency standards and proposed using revenue from oil and gas production on federal lands to develop alternative fuel technologies, including electric-vehicles. Last week, at the Clean Energy Ministerial held [in Delhi] just before the Aspen Track II dialogue, Prime Minister Singh announced a target to double clean energy by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan. Over the next year the Track II Dialogue on Climate Change and Energy will aim to build the ambition of both countries to collaborate, innovate and lead with bi-lateral action for reducing GHG emissions, ideally in anticipation of a once and future mutli-lateral agreement on climate change.