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A Big Week for Climate Action

green week

Rhea Suh, President, New York City

Three countries took major steps toward making the Paris climate commitments real.

Global agreements are about turning intentions into commitments – and commitments into action. That’s why it’s it’s so important that China, Canada, and the United States took key steps this week to advance the global climate goals leaders set last December in Paris.

China cuts coal consumption

First came word that China cut its coal consumption for the second year in a row. The world’s largest user of coal and largest emitter of the carbon pollution driving climate change, China burned 3.7 percent less coal last year than it did in 2014. In 2014, coal consumption fell 2.9 percent.

The country’s economy continued to grow at an official 2015 rate of 6.9 percent. The amount of energy consumed as a share of economic output, though, fell 5.6 percent.

And China led the world in efforts to get more clean power from the wind and sun, investing a record $110.5 billion in renewable power, up 17 percent from 2014 and accounting for a third of the 2015 global investment of $329 billion in clean energy technology. That’s important. Carbon pollution from burning coal is the leading contributor to climate change, and China burns about as much of this dirty fuel as the rest of the world combined.

In Paris, China joined the United States, India, Mexico, and more than 180 other countries in putting plans on the table to cut or curb carbon emissions.China committed to peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 – sooner, if possible – and to install, by that date, nearly enough wind and solar generating capacity to power the entire United States. This week’s news shows the world’s most populous country is moving forward on those goals.

The U.S. and Canada join forces

Similarly, the United States and Canada opened a new chapter in their clean energy partnership on Thursday, when President Obama hosted new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a White House summit.

We don’t have better friends and allies than the Canadians. We share a border 5,500 miles long. Nearly 400,000 people, along with about $2 billion in goods and services, cross that border every day.

Agreements reached this week between Obama and Trudeau will help the two countries work together to cut the carbon footprint of heavy trucks, passenger aircraft, and power plants; reduce leaks ofmethane, another powerful greenhouse gas, from both countries’ extensive oil and gas operations; and curb releases of yet another strong climate disrupter, the hydrofluorocarbons widely used in refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment.

Both leaders committed to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations 40 percent to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. That will require new standards to reduce methane leaks from hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells in both countries. This is an essential part of our climate strategy. These methane leaks are the second-largest industrial source of climate-changing pollution in our country, after our dirty power plants. The Clean Air Act gives the administration the authority, and the responsibility, to protect the public from the urgent and growing dangers this pollution presents. And because air quality doesn’t respect international borders, it’s important that the United States and Canada work in concert to address this problem together.

Obama and Trudeau also agreed to strengthen protections for Arctic waters and lands, reaffirming earlier commitments to safeguard at least 17 percent of the region’s lands and 20 percent of its marine areas by 2020, and pledging to work to do even better than that.

This, too, is essential. Canada and the United States share vast reaches of Arctic waters and lands, including some of the last truly wild places on earth. Canadians and Americans alike share a responsibility to protect this region and all it supports.

Oregon gets serious about clean energy

Finally, Oregon became the first state to mandate an end to electricity produced from coal, putting the state on the road to getting more than 70 percent of its power from carbon-free sources.

Right now, coal provides about a third of Oregon’s electricity. Most of that is purchased from out of state. Under legislation signed into law this week, those purchases will be phased out by 2035. The law also calls for the power companies that supply 70 percent of the state’s power to get at least half of their electricity from clean energy sources like the wind and sun by 2040. And it includes provisions tohelp promote the use of electric cars.

Already, hydroelectric dams supply about 40 percent of the state’s power. Twinning that with the renewable mandates spelled out in the new law means that Oregon is on track to get between 70 percent and 90 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources within the next 25 years. That’s progress.

Oregon is hardly alone. By 2020, investor-owned power companies in Colorado must produce 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Minnesota is requiring its investor-owned utilities to get 26 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.

California and New York have gone even further, with plans to get half of their electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2030. Similar renewable standards are already in place in Texas, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, and 16 other states around the country.

We reached a historic turning point in Paris. The real point, though, is action, exactly the kind we’ve seen this week.

Photo Credit: Jamie Davies via Flickr


Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 21, 2016

Nice update. Given that China is the world’s largest carbon emitter it was great news to hear that they are making very real progress and actually cutting use of coal, the largest emitter of CO2. China is noteable in that they have had good follow through on plans made to add renewables. As some of the article points to long term plans, it is helpful to see the follow through that often follows these types of commitments. While cynics point to failures, there have been many successes.

It is also noteworthy that the US has surpassed 24GW installed PV with over 7GW installed in 2015 alone. Only a few short years ago many scoffed at the notion that we would see sustained multi-gigawatt annual deployments of PV. Yet it has come to pass.

With the cost of renewables and electric transportation dropping rapidly and deployment growing exponentially, it is an exciting time. I suspect that we will look back, even a decade from now and wonder how we could have been so naive that with dropping costs and growing world support, we could have so underestimated the transformation in the energy sector.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 26, 2016

Clayton, what climate “action” occurred this week which is distinguishable from the pro-renewables handwaving/propaganda/statistical manipulation which has been going on for the last 40 years?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 20, 2016

Rhea, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an article on TEC with a title so vacuously at odds with its content.

A big week for climate action? According to your article there was none, unless you consider “action”:

Celebrating climate successes from the year before (China)
Setting goals for targets 9 years into the future (Obama/Trudeau summit)
Setting goals for targets 24 years into the future (Oregon renewables)
Setting goals for targets 9 years into the future (CA/NY renewables)
Setting goals for targets 19 years into the future (Oregon coal)

This kicking the can down the road seems to be endemic among antinuclear organizations like NRDC, which don’t have much to show for progress with renewables. In fact, the main story is one NRDC studiously neglects: that California’s $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar plant may be forced to shut down for, um, underperformance.…

Time to face facts, NRDC: renewable energy is a loser, and the false hopes you foster are making legit efforts to fight fossil fuel carbon emissions exponentially more difficult.

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Mar 20, 2016

Oh ye of limited faith. Why don’t you believe that just because politicians say they are going to make technologically unbelievable reductions in China’s, Canada’s, America’s and other nations’ carbon emissions that they won’t magically become feasible? It sounds like you are letting your knowledge of the technical and economic realities available today and in the near future get in the way of blind-faith political claims acceptance.

Just kidding, I agree that celebrating goals that lack sound and feasible solutions are not reasons to repetitively celebrate last year’s Paris non-legally binding agreement to significantly and actually reduce most world nation’s carbon equivalent emissions in the future.

And yes, the apparently poorly designed and grossly underperforming Ivanpah solar thermal project is likely to become another Solyndra. Solyndra’s $0.5 billion loan default, paid for by tax payers, may seem like it was not such a big deal compared to Ivanpah’s potential $1.5 billion federal backed loan default potential loss.

NRDC Switchboard's picture

Thank NRDC for the Post!

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