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Green Christmas, Malaysian Floods Pointed to Gaps in Climate Action

This is not what December 26 should look like in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: Karen Irving

2014 was widely seen as a breakthrough year when decision-makers finally turned the corner in the effort to avert runaway climate change.

But for all that the year brought heightened attention and greater momentum to the fight for a low-carbon future, the news over the holiday break—from record flooding in Malaysia, to astonishingly warm temperatures in New York City—framed the two most urgent climate priorities for 2015:

  • Political solutions must set aggressive carbon reduction targets and resolve the well-worn debate over funding and technology for climate action in developing countries, so that no one is left behind in the low-carbon transition.
  • Technology solutions must emphasize efficiency and renewable energy options that are already known, proven, and often stunningly cost-effective, and support the shift to a more distributed, democratic energy system.

As I strolled through my neighbourhood’s own green Christmas on December 26, when Ottawa saw a maximum temperature of 6ºC (42.8ºF) and New York had just recorded a Christmas Day high of 62ºF (16.7ºC), I thought back to a conference presentation by Canadian author and political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, during the warm, warm winter of 2012. It was February, and Homer-Dixon reported two weird things going on in his new hometown of Guelph, Ontario.

It was early February, and there was no snow on the ground.

And although everyone knew they were looking at climate change, nobody would talk about it.

Three years later, at least we’re talking about it. (At least, more of us are talking about it, more of the time.) But the disconnect between words and action is still too deep, the scale of the action far too modest and scattered, to fully confront the challenges ahead.

2014: The Year of the Climate Change Breakthrough?

Many of the year-end assessments from climate and energy organizations chronicled the growing momentum toward a coherent global response to climate change.

In November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its toughest-ever assessment report, calling for carbon pollution to peak by 2020 and fall to zero by 2100. The IPCC warned that climate change has already increased the risk of wild weather and heat waves, food shortages, and violent conflict, and will produce “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” without deep, rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. That language, coming from scientists who are conservative by nature, fell “just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola,” wrote 350.org founder Bill McKibben.

In September, a climate meeting convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon drew hundreds of thousands of marchers to 2,646 events in 156 countries, including nearly 400,000 at the People’s Climate March in New York City. “The next time you hear someone say ‘no one gives a shit about climate change,’ show them this photo,” tweeted Mother Jones magazine. And there were so many photos from around the world.

Leading into the New York climate meeting, the $900-million Rockefeller Brothers Fund declared a “moral imperative” as well as an “economic case” for divesting its fossil fuel assets. Later in the year, the conclusion that most known fossil fuel reserves are unburnable in any plausible low-carbon scenario was declared “pretty obvious” by U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern, a matter for “deepening and widening” study by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

2014 also saw a surge in the commercialization of clean energy technologies—from Tesla Motors’ new gigabattery factory in Reno, Nevada, to Deutsche Bank’s prediction that solar will reach grid parity in all 50 U.S. states by 2016. The year saw innovative models for financing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, and for integrating distributed generation with traditional grids. SolarCity closed out the year by hiring a former Obama campaign strategist “to lead its grass-roots effort to put solar panels on every roof in the United States,” the Washington Post reported, using “the tactics of a grassroots political campaign to influence consumers’ energy decisions.”

Already in 2014, plummeting technology costs made solar and wind cost-competitive with natural gas and coal, energy efficiency came in at less than half the cost of new coal-fired generation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on track to regulate carbon through its Clean Power Plan, the U.S. and China announced their landmark climate deal, and Canadians learned that clean energy created more jobs in our country than the tar sands/oil sands industry.

And increasingly, we heard about the opportunity for developing countries to leapfrog economic development that relies on fossil fuels and centralized generation, thereby avoiding the mistakes in the industrialized North that brought us the climate crisis.

Even the United Nations climate negotiations in Lima opened on a hopeful note, with government and civil society representatives “speaking about the potential for 100% renewable energy,” and UN Climate Secretary Christiana Figueres “openly talking about the need to completely phase out emissions,” according to 350.org.

But in the end, the tepid results from Lima underscored the challenges ahead—to reach an agreement at next year’s UN conference in Paris that carries governments toward the climate solutions we need, and to clear the policy, structural, and attitudinal barriers to the clean energy transition.

2014: The Year of the Big Miss

Negotiators in Lima agreed to table national carbon reduction targets by mid-2015, and the draft negotiating text for the Paris conference includes references to a fossil fuel phase-out. But the meeting lost momentum on key outstanding issues, including financing and technology for climate action in developing countries, robust assessment of the post-2020 emission reduction commitments that nations are to develop by mid-2015, and emission reductions between 2015 and 2020.

The final result “neither reflects the growing public support for the ongoing transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies nor the urgency to accelerate this transition,” reported the 450-member Global Call for Climate Action.

“One of Lima’s biggest disconnects on display was the inability of governments to pick any of the low-hanging fruit provided by the recent explosive growth in renewable energy—growth driven by plummeting prices over the last few years—apparently ignoring the enormous gap between their current commitments and the need to move quickly and strongly.”

“Once again, poorer nations have been bullied by the industrialized world into accepting an outcome which leaves many of their citizens facing the grim prospect of catastrophic climate change,” said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Asad Rehman. “This outcome can only be read as a call to action for people around the world,” added Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima.

Beyond the mild joys and deeper sorrows of the Lima conference, 2014 closed with growing investment in clean technology that still fell far short of the $1 trillion per year—1.4% of global GDP—that will be needed through 2050 to finance the low-carbon transition. By contrast, five years after G20 governments agreed to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, the latest available data still showed the world’s government shoveling $775 billion per year into the wildly profitable industries that brought us the lion’s share of the climate crisis.

And discussion through the year revealed lingering confusion about the mix of technologies that can plausibly deliver the deep greenhouse gas reductions we need in the time available to achieve them. The Energy Collective was by no means the only outlet that carried laudatory coverage of marginal technologies like carbon capture and storage, next generation nuclear fission, even nuclear fusion—all of which are far from being cost-competitive, and will depend on traditional grid infrastructure that is on the cusp of its own major transformation.

Taking It to the Next Level

Three years after Thomas Homer-Dixon noticed the eerie silence about climate change in his neighbourhood, more and more citizens and citizen activists are standing up, speaking up, and searching for climate solutions that will avert global catastrophe. From pipeline protests and fracking bans, to localization efforts in food, energy, and transportation, 2014 saw more and more communities trying to do their part to respond to climate change.

But we’re past the point where “just doing something” will get the job done.

We need practical, comprehensive low-carbon scenarios that backcast from a mid-century outcome to the present day, pointing the way for countries to massively improve their energy efficiency and productivity, decarbonize and modernize their electricity systems, and electrify energy end use as widely as they can.

We need national policies to price carbon and reinvest the proceeds in low-carbon alternatives. And we need governments—across the G20, and around the world—with the political courage to cut off fossil fuel subsidies and divert them to productive use.

We need local transition plans that build on cities’ climate leadership, take full advantage of low-carbon resources like Architecture 2030’s Roadmap to Zero Emissions, and turn a re-imagined energy system into a catalyst for local business development and job creation. Those plans can begin by better understanding the needs and interests of citizens, many of whom would happily choose lower-carbon lifestyles if they had the choice.

And we need more investors and financial advisors to understand the risks associated with stranded fossil fuel assets, compare them to opportunities in clean energy development, and make the financially and environmentally responsible choice.

As 2014 drew to a close, global greenhouse gas emissions were still rising, a trend the International Energy Agency saw continuing through 2040. So let’s hope everyone had a good rest over the last couple of weeks. Because now, it’s a new year—and notwithstanding the ground we covered in 2014, we have our work cut out for us over the next 12 months.

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