Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and flooding to the Houston-Galveston region. The impacts of the storm and ensuing flooding included loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. In response, researchers from the region with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning came together to strategize on solutions.
In December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convened the annual Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris1. A significant step was taken toward the decarbonization of the planet. At COP 21, 195 countries came together to adopt the Paris Agreement2. The primary goal of this Agreement is to implement carbon reduction programs and technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. The expectation is that these efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will limit global temperature rise below a 2 degree Celsius increase, and ideally below a 1.5 degree Celsius increase.
Implementation of the Paris Agreement required ratification by at least 55 countries, representing 55% percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. On October 4, 2016, this was achieved when the European Union agreed to ratify. To date, a total of 84 countries have ratified meaning that the Paris Agreement will go into effect on November 4, 2016. The ratifying parties will now come together at COP 22, in Marrakech, Morocco beginning November 8, 20163.
All 195 countries have established their own greenhouse gas reduction goals and are developing plans to reach them. Importantly, countries have significant flexibility to meet their goals with the Paris Agreement largely establishing the rules to keep the countries on track to meet them. The Paris Agreement does not prescribe any specific goal or action that a country must implement. The Agreement only requires that the ratifying countries develop and implements nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and report on them every five years. The benefit is that this approach allows ratifying nations to develop country-specific actions. The problem is that the goals are not enough to reach the 2 degree Celsius goal, much less the 1.5 degree Celsius goal.
What should we expect to see?
Much will depend on what happens at COP 22, where many of the details will be worked out. Particulars include determining how to move from intended national determined contributions (INDCs) to NDCs. Discussion will also focus on how to develop the appropriate measurement and verification mechanisms to track progress over time.
A key focus will be on how to grow national economies while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (known as decoupling), a significant area of concern for former UN climate chief, Cristiana Figurers. This will require greater engagement with the private sector to work toward technology development and transfer, as well as bringing more capital to the clean energy economy. For example, there has been a significant growth in the international green bond market indicating growing interest in financing greenhouse gas reducing infrastructure projects for both climate mitigation and adaptation5. According to the World Economic Forum the green bond market has grown from $36 billion in 2013 to an estimated $80 billion by the end of 2016. Mission Innovation6, an agreement between 20 leading countries and the European Union in November 2015 is another indicator of the growing interest of the private sector in a new climate economy. The Mission Innovation program is expected to drive greater innovation and deployment through capital investments; an increase in clean energy research, development and deployment; and improvement in the regulatory environment for clean energy implementation.
As the NDCs are further defined and implemented, the United States is making some progress in meeting its goals, particularly through the decarbonization of the power generation sector. In Texas, due to the deployment of wind and, to a growing extent solar, the state is in good shape to meet its Clean Power Plan goal of reducing power-generation carbon emissions by 33% by the year 2030. However, heading in the right direction versus actually achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius global temperature increase goal are two separate things, with the latter being a bit more difficult to accomplish. Getting to net zero carbon emissions by 20507, a goal that is essential to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, will require significant international cooperation and capital investment. The ratification of the Paris Agreement is a positive step forward. It demonstrates a willingness by the international community to identify solutions and work together to solve the problem of man-made climate change. Marrakech will be the first test to see how serious we really are.
Specific to the United States, the Clean Power Plan8 is one of the key mechanisms for the United States to meet its Paris Agreement goals. The overall goal for the United States is to reduce 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 26% to 28% by 2025. The Clean Power Plan, based on section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. This can happen through an improvement in the efficiency of coal-fired power plants, an increase in natural gas fired power plants, and an increase in renewable energy deployment. There is also significant opportunity for energy efficiency to play a role in meetings these goals. At this time, the implementation of the Clean Power Plan has been delayed due to a stay placed on the Plan by the US Supreme Court9. However, after a favorable hearing in the DC District Court10 in September 2016, it appears likely that at minimum some components of the Clean Power Plan will be implemented.