This should be achievable, but there’s one sector in the U.S. that is increasing its CO2 emissions at a rapid pace—trucking. Currently, trucks move 72% of the tonnage and 70% of the goods’ value nationwide. By 2050, truck travel is expected to increase by 80% nationally and by 50% in California. Given current trends, the Energy Information Administration projects trucks will account for a large and growing share of freight transport energy use (Figure 1) and CO2 emissions through 2040.
But this CO2 future does not have to happen—there are a range of measures that can be taken to dramatically cut truck CO2 emissions. One is fuel economy improvements, and this is being tackled via the federal government’s truck fuel economy standards program, with measures nearly set through 2027. That is great news, but it’s not enough—it will probably keep truck CO2 emissions at a fairly constant level rather than reducing them.
Another measure is to replace fossil diesel and natural gas with renewable fuels. Low carbon diesel alternatives (e.g. made from waste oils or natural gas captured from landfills and waste water treatment facilities) could make a significant contribution to cutting carbon emissions from trucks. But, competition for these fuels from hard-to-electrify sectors like aviation and limitations on the amount of low carbon renewable feedstocks will constrain their overall impact.
Therefore, to go for deep CO2 reductions from trucks, we will very likely also need very low CO2 emission technologies—namely fuel cell and battery electric vehicles, both of which are “ZEVs” – zero emission vehicles. The only CO2 they will emit is from upstream processes to produce the fuel, and these are progressing towards very low CO2 emissions over time. ZEV trucks can also help tackle a related problem—air pollution. These vehicles do not emit any pollutants at the tailpipe, a huge co-benefit, particularly in polluted areas such as around Los Angeles.
But we have a problem: there are almost no ZEV trucks on the nation’s roads at this point. Why not? An obvious reason is that the key technologies (e.g. batteries and hydrogen/fuel cell systems) are new and more expensive.
Another issue is the “range problem.” Trucks often need to drive long distances in a day, and battery systems typically do not have sufficient energy density to meet the needs of high-mileage trucking, particularly given their long recharge times. Fuel cell trucks can typically travel farther and refuel much faster (like diesel trucks), but need hydrogen fuel, which is not easily available in many locations, another major challenge.
But shoots of grass are emerging in the cracks, as some types of trucks can more easily run on batteries than others. For example urban delivery trucks, large refuse collection trucks, and drayage trucks which operate at ports often have a daily use pattern that can fit with a battery system, and some electric trucks are appearing in these markets. Battery costs for cars have been dropping rapidly, and this also helps to lower battery costs for other vehicle types—so electric truck costs are declining even if very few are being built today.
Other types of trucks that “return to base” once or twice per day can operate on hydrogen that is dispensed at that base—they don’t need a widespread refueling infrastructure. A few hydrogen trucks and bus projects are underway around the country. AC Transit, located in Oakland, California, has been operating fuel cell buses for ten years, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently proposed a very large demonstration program for ZEV trucks and buses at California ports and in disadvantaged communities across the state.
Another challenge will be “scale-up”—how do we get from a few promising applications and projects to much more widespread use of these technologies? The needed rate of scale up is one question; we produced a white paper on this topic in 2015 that shows that a major transition to ZEV trucks needs to begin fairly soon if it is to be completed by 2050. As shown in the figure below, even with a very rapid transition, it takes a long time to go from niche markets to dominating the large markets, so each year counts.
In our paper (and in the figure to the right) we also show that widespread use of advanced biofuels in conventional trucks could really help, since some types of biofuels do not require changing truck technologies—a big plus. But drop-in diesel replacement biofuels require advanced technologies. Producing high volumes of these biofuels from sustainable feedstocks resulting in low greenhouse gas emissions will be a significant challenge.
So, what’s to be done? There are in fact a number of things that our local, state and federal governments can do to get moving on a transition to ZEV trucks:
In this process, there is an important “virtuous circle” we can benefit from: the more we produce and use these vehicles, the better and cheaper they will become. Governments have a critical role to play to help the truck manufacturing industry and truck purchasers/operators to get onto that circle. This can be done, for example, with price incentives to produce and purchase these technologies, perhaps starting with the applications that make the most sense.
Overall the outlook is bright for moving to very low emissions trucking in the U.S. We have several ways to do it and we are getting some initial experience in some “pioneer” applications. But we have to take up the challenge to move this along faster, and create a sense of urgency that may be lacking today on many fronts. 2050 is just around the corner…
Dr. Lewis Fulton has worked internationally in the field of transport/energy/environment analysis and policy development for over 25 years. He is Co-Director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) program within the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. There he leads a range of research activities around new vehicle technologies and new fuels. He is also a lead author on the recent IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Mitigation (“Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change”, transport chapter).
Dr. Marshall Miller received his B.S.E. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. After a postdoc at the University of Chicago, he joined the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. For over 20 years he has worked on advanced fuels and technologies to increase vehicle fuel economy and reduce vehicle criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases. Dr. Miller runs a laboratory on campus where he studies advanced batteries and ultracapacitors for use in electric and hybrid vehicles.]]>
One of the best memories from my time working in the Corn Belt over the past four years was a visit I had with a farmer in South Dakota. I spent the afternoon hours interviewing this farmer in his kitchen where we talked about conservation practices, his experience with extreme weather, and perspectives on climate change. He then took me on a “tour” of his corn and soybean fields to show off his no-till fields, proud as he was of his “residue,” or residual plant life from a prior years’ cash crop. This farmer had observed that his farming practices had improved the health of his soil and thus improved the productivity and resilience of his farm operation.
Another memory that strikes me is a visit I made to a farmer in Northeast Iowa, who took me on a truck bound tour on dirt roads around his cropland to point out the erosion problems he has observed on neighboring fields while proudly boasting about the lack of erosion problems on his own fields. Both of these farmers, along with many others interviewed as part of this project (159 farmers in total) spent a lot of time qualitatively discussing their relationship to their soil resources by noting the color, texture, and function of their soils, often describing improvements in infiltration rates and reduced compaction due to conservation practices that they had implemented on their farms.
My research examines in-depth interviews with farmers across nine Corn Belt states by assessing how farmers respond to weather related risks and specifically, how they might alter management practices in response to increased weather variability and projected climate change. Through my conversations with farmers, many of them described an evolving relationship with their soil resources, through a kind of social-ecological feedback, often brought about through changes in their use of conservation practices, such as no-till farming and cover crops.
Outreach efforts with the Natural Resource Conservation Services’ (NRCS) Soil Health Initiative, and other climate change outreach efforts targeting agricultural producers, should start with the concept of soil health stewardship. Focusing on the message of managing soil health to mitigate weather related risks and preserve soil resources for future generations may provide a pragmatic solution for engaging farmers in strategies that have soil building and soil saving at their center.
Focusing on communication, however, may not be enough to incentivize farmers to manage their soil resources differently, particularly in agriculturally intensive regions such as the Corn Belt where there is a direct cost associated with the use of conservation practices in the context of an already expensive production system. We need to do a better job of placing value on soil resources that have been retained (e.g., erosion prevention) and enhanced (e.g., improved soil health) so that farmers are better able to implement soil stewardship on their farm for the long-term resilience of their operation.
This challenge requires new research to simultaneously ensure profitability while protecting and renewing the environmental systems that support agriculture. Increased funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a competitive research program of the USDA, is an important investment in the future of food and will likely benefit farmers, society, and pave the way for a more sustainable agrifood system. My work suggests that starting with the soil, and farmers’ relationship to this valued resource, provides a critical pathway that links on-farm productivity with longer-term environmental sustainability.
Gabrielle recently received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She has worked in the U.S. Corn Belt for the past four years conducting and analyzing in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems (www.sustainablecorn.org). The results reported in this blog will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later in 2016. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate to read the full piece once it is published.]]>
This new Organic Initiative appears to be the manifestation of the goals of “green consumerism”—the idea that more informed and responsible shoppers can transform the way goods are produced. But in the case of organic wheat, what seems like a straight line from consumer demand to physical reality is not so straightforward. In other words, the votes have been cast, but what happens next is unclear.
The economic incentive for farmers to go organic is substantial. Today, organic wheat sells for almost 3 times as much per bushel than conventional. But as the chasm between supply and demand indicates, this incentive has not been enough. Ardent Mills hopes that they can ramp up organic wheat supply through long-term contracts for transitional and organic wheat, and greater access to educational resources for making the transition.
But there may be deeper reasons for the lag in supply.
“Organic farming is a philosophical and emotional commitment.”
This is what Jean Hediger told me when I asked her why more wheat farmers weren’t growing organic. Jean has been a dryland organic wheat and millet farmer at her family farm in Nunn, Colorado for almost 30 years.
“The truth of the matter is it’s really hard to be an organic farmer if your heart is conventional, and the other way around.”
In part, this is because organic farmers are prohibited from using some cheap and easy solutions to unpredictable and devastating problems.
Put yourself in Jean’s shoes: it’s the summer of 2015, weeks away from harvesting the largest wheat crop you have ever grown. Then, in a matter of days, the whole field turns bright orange, the result of a fungal pathogen called wheat stripe rust. Fungicide would be a quick and inexpensive solution for conventional producers, but the organic standards prohibit the use of these synthetic pesticides. It takes a deep commitment to watch a fungus take over hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wheat and not give in to the desire to spray fungicides. But Jean held on and it paid off. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the rust had arrived too late to cause much damage.
The Hedigers transitioned to organic in 1989 before there was a large economic incentive to do so. They did it to keep their son safe from harmful chemicals, and they are truly proud of how they farm.
“Even if you told me conventional wheat was 8 times the price of organic wheat, I still don’t think we would do it.”
The Hedigers’ long-term commitment to the organic standards suggests a worrisome prospect for the Organic Initiative. Most of the farmers who are motivated by reasons other than economics to go organic have already done so. For farmers who go organic in pursuit only of economic gain, what will they do if organic practices aren’t in their immediate economic interest? Compared to conventional, the organic toolkit for handling pests and pathogens is inconvenient, and it can be extremely difficult to justify a holistic management approach when nature threatens this year’s bottom line.
Ardent Mills is connecting prospective organic producers with experienced ones to help prepare them for situations like these, but undoubtedly there will be producers who realize too late the depth of the organic commitment.
While meeting organic demand is an important goal, rushing to meet it by reaching minimum standards risks losing sight of what “organic” means to many producers and consumers alike. After decades of simplification and industrialization in the organic sector, new calls to ramp up organic production need to be vigilantly matched by the call for environmental sustainability if organic is to stay an ecologically preferable alternative to conventional.
Some organic wheat production practices are already falling far short of the organic ideal.
There are a hundred ways to farm organically, but I doubt if wheat-fallow belongs in that category. Wheat-fallow is a crop rotation that involves planting wheat one year, leaving the land bare (fallow) for the next 14 months, and then planting wheat again.
According to the USDA organic regulations, farmers are required to implement a crop rotation that maintains or builds soil organic matter, works to control pests, manages and conserves nutrients, and protects against erosion. Wheat-fallow achieves none of these goals, but accredited certifiers in states like Wyoming and Colorado are certifying wheat-fallow, citing the semi-arid climate as a sufficient reason for its permission.
For dryland farmers like the Hedigers, lack of rainfall is a barrier to diversifying crop rotations beyond wheat-fallow. But there are enough examples of diversified producers to show that wheat-fallow isn’t a necessity. In the same dry climate where wheat-fallow is an acceptable practice, the Hedigers grow a rotation of wheat and millet with a cover crop of yellow sweet clover to provide the soil with a natural source of nutrients.
With growing American concern about the realities of climate change and biodiversity loss, hopefully more consumers will be looking to agriculture to become part of the solution instead of its role today as a massive part of the problem. Organic agriculture is often touted as a path to move us closer to achieving environmental goals, but for this to be effective, the commitment to ecological sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought. Hitching the organic wheat wagon to ongoing movements in soil health or agroecology could help prepare a new wave of organic producers for the difficult road ahead, and more closely align the outcomes of the Organic Initiative with the organic ideal.
Steven is a Ph.D. student in Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University. He is researching the socioeconomic and political barriers to diversifying crop rotations, and assessing the impact of more diverse crop rotations on soil health. You can find him on Twitter @zweigST]]>
Here in the US, public opinion has been muted by misinformation and lobbying campaigns directed by the energy industry. The result is little political will for constructive engagement on climate change and climate impacts. It is worth noting that this is National Public Health Week, and on Monday the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a comprehensive report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the US. Concerted urgent action is needed if we are to realize humanity’s opportunities for improved health and well-being.
Over the past few years I’ve been joined by dedicated Minnesota doctors and nurses to form a new organization, Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate (HPHC). Our goals are to educate health care professionals and institutions on the public health implications of climate change and to encourage a strong and sustained voice of health care providers to affect public attitudes and actions in this area. Like other public health campaigns such as smoking cessation or seat belt use, information about climate and pollution can be very effective in motivating change.
Last year, HPHC created and presented an accredited Continuing Medical Education Course, Climate Change and Public Health, an Interprofessional Review, as part of our efforts to educate health professionals on the connection between climate change and public health. We recently composed a letter to Minnesota legislators in support of Minnesota’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The letter, co-signed by over 125 doctors and nurses as well as 13 Minnesota health care organizations, urges Minnesota legislators to support our state’s plan to meet the standards of the federal CPP. It has received significant attention, including a recent feature in Midwest Energy News.
We need more health care professionals and groups to join our campaign so we can bring even more awareness to this critical issue. HPHC is training climate speakers, producing informational videos, lobbying officials, and writing letters and commentary pieces among other efforts. If you’re interested in adding your talents, energy and ideas to our efforts, you can contact us through our website , our Facebook page or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Health professionals can play a unique and powerful role in educating the public and policy makers on climate change and its impacts and encouraging them to act. I hope you’ll join us in advocating for a strong Clean Power Plan in Minnesota.
Dr. Bruce Snyder is a retired neurologist. He is a UCS Science Network member and works with several environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and Fresh Energy. He lives in Mendota Heights, Minnesota and is hoping the squirrels don’t eat his tulips.]]>
Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic agriculture can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers. Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic with conventional agriculture. In the last 15 years, the number of these kinds of studies has skyrocketed.
The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story for the February issue of the journal Nature Plants. It is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and social wellbeing.
Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. It’s true that organic farming produces lower yields, averaging 10 to 20 percent less than conventional. Proponents contend that the environmental advantages of organic agriculture far outweigh the lower yields, and that increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would reduce the yield gap. Sometimes excluded from these arguments is the fact that we already produce enough food to more than feed the world’s 7.4 billion people but do not provide adequate access to all individuals.
In some cases, organic yields can be higher than conventional. For example, in severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change in many areas, organic farms can produce as good, if not better, yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.
What science does tell us is that mainstream conventional farming systems have provided growing supplies of food and other products but often at the expense of other sustainability goals.
Conventional agriculture may produce more food, but it often comes at a cost to the environment. Biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and severe impacts on ecosystem services have not only accompanied conventional farming systems but have often extended well beyond their field boundaries. With organic agriculture, environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater.
Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s more energy-efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services that nature provides, like pollination, and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions.
Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices, called price premiums, can be justified as way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.
Although studies that evaluate social equity and quality of life for farm communities are few, what is available suggests that both organic and conventional farming leave room for improvement. Still, organic farming comes out ahead when it comes to providing jobs for workers and reducing farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Many organic certification programs also have wellbeing goals for farmworkers, as well as animals.
Organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. Yet, no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock, and still undiscovered systems.
With only 1% of global agricultural land in organic production, organic agriculture can contribute a larger share in feeding the world. Yet, significant barriers to farmers adopting organic agriculture hinder its expansion. Such hurdles include existing policies, the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Governments should focus on creating policies that help develop not just organic but also other innovative and more sustainable farming systems. Specifically, agricultural policies should:
For a copy of the study, please email John Reganold.
Dr. John Reganold is Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University and has spent 30-plus years bringing a blend of innovative research and teaching on sustainable farming systems into the mainstream of higher education and food production. His research has measured the effects of organic, integrated, and conventional farming systems on productivity, financial performance, environmental quality, and social wellbeing on five continents. His former students are on the front lines of sustainability around the world, bringing food security to sub-Saharan Africa for the U.S. Agency for International Development, adapting quinoa to the salty soils of Utah, working on agroecology for Pacific Foods in Oregon, and turning wastes into resources in Haiti.
The recent Paris climate agreement has helped to thrust the issue of climate change into international awareness. As countries promise to reduce their contributions to global emissions, the environment should be something we all now consider and incorporate into our daily lives. We should be more aware of how our energy choices impact the environment, and in turn, our health. Contradicting this mantra, however, the U.S. continues to promote and extract domestic oil and gas, even when the market is flooded with this product.
Why? Because the collective “we” demands it.
Americans want cheap energy. We want to be able to heat our homes and cook our meals without breaking the bank. We see sleek ads promoting domestic oil and natural gas as the ultimate solution to ending our reliance on foreign-produced energy resources. What we do not see are the impacts this growth in unconventional drilling has on people and the environment.
As a visitor flying in to southwestern Pennsylvania, for example, you might see a drilling rig and some equipment on a well pad. You might even see this well flaring from the highway. What you won’t see, unless you live near this industry, are the impacts caused by dense unconventional drilling over a longer timeframe.
Part of the issue with unconventional drilling is its magnitude and scope, with approximately 1.7 million active oil and gas wells in the U.S. Yes, money can be made by some townships, landowners, and local businesses. Yes, there can be benefits for mineral rights owners who sign well-reviewed leases. When the process fails, however, there can also be serious problems:
And finally, in October 2015, a massive leak was discovered at a natural gas storage well in California. At the time of this article, the leak has not been fixed, releasing natural gas into the atmosphere at a rate similar to the pollution emitted from the operation of 4.5 million cars per day. This situation is just one example where drilling has adversely affected the environment. While often touted as a cleaner fossil fuel option, extracting, storing, and distributing natural gas and other hydrocarbons can unintentionally release methane – the key component of natural gas and a major contributor to climate change.
Climate change, itself, has health implications. Examples include the capacity to:
Likely, many more impacts of unconventional drilling go undiscovered.
Uncertainty and inaction
With the known environmental health and climate change threats surrounding unconventional drilling, the U.S. should be actively moving away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy options.
Unfortunately, a lack of transparency, research gaps, demand for fossil fuels, regulatory conflicts, money, and politics make the path winding and convoluted.
I cannot offer a quick fix to this complicated issue, but here are a few steps people can take:
Between the direct and indirect problems I discussed earlier, large-scale oil and gas operations including unconventional drilling will affect everyone in some way. If we continue to demand that such risky extraction techniques fill our energy gaps, environmental health may be the one to suffer. What we know about this broad issue is concerning. What we don’t is worse.
Samantha Rubright, MPH, CPH serves as The FracTracker Alliance’s Manager of Communications and Partnerships, and is finishing her doctorate in environmental health from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Learn more about oil and gas impacts at www.fractracker.org. You can follow her on Twitter @SamMaloneMPH]]>
People in the Arctic aren’t the only ones: farmers rely on predictable climate to feed their livestock and ensure their harvests are profitable. City infrastructure is carefully built to withstand historical weather extremes. But as climate is changing, it’s making it harder for farmers to earn a consistent living off their land; harder for cities to cope with increased risks of flooding or water shortages, or both; and more difficult for the elderly, young, and poor to survive extreme heat waves and cold snaps.
These problems are worrisome in developed nations, where the frequency of extreme precipitation has increased by 37 percent across the U.S. Midwest in the last 55 years and Farmer’s Insurance temporarily sued the city of Chicago for failing to adequately prepare for the impacts of climate change; when two devastating years of crop losses throughout the U.S. Great Plains (the result of natural drought patterns exacerbated by unnaturally record-breaking heat) were followed by a recommendation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s to reduce crop insurance; and where the impact of a heatwave in 2003, the risks of which had already doubled due to human-induced climate change, resulted in over 70,000 premature deaths across France and northern Europe. In developing nations, however, which lack the safety net of infrastructure, public services, and insurance, such issues can be orders of magnitude more devastating.
Although much of the focus at COP21, and in the days afterwards, has been on the emission reductions needed to achieve the given targets, for developing nations the real issue on the table was climate finance: funds to support climate mitigation and adaptation, which up until now have been vastly inadequate to alleviate the local effects of climate change while enabling such nations to continue to develop.
Equitable financing has always been at the forefront of international climate negotiations. Emissions-heavy countries care more about mitigation and bear a greater historical responsibility. Developing countries produce little emissions but are experiencing the brunt of the impacts. According to a recent report by Oxfam America, the richest 10 percent in the world produce half of the world’s carbon emissions, while half of the poorest are responsible for just 10 percent of emissions. The two sides to the equation are unequal.
The purpose of the financing discussed at COP21 is to assuage these differences. But currently much more money goes toward mitigation than to adaptation. This imbalance becomes particularly troubling when we know that the local effects of climate change are increasing, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and that we are locked into a certain amount of warming even if we stopped producing emissions this very second (if it were only that easy!). According to Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the division between rich and poor is arbitrary, and getting more ambition from countries in equitable ways is difficult. This is one of the reasons why equity became one of the “down-to-the-wire” issues in the Paris climate talks—how to set fair emission reduction targets between developed and developing countries and delegating responsibility for financing. Developed nations have been unwilling to establish more aggressive mitigation goals, while developing countries that have not been as responsible historically (remember, just 10 percent) are concerned that equal emissions targets will inhibit opportunities for economic development.
New financing mechanisms to help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change were proposed in 2009 to try and resolve some of these differences. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord resulted in a pledge of $100 billion by the year 2020 by developed countries to help developing countries deal with climate change. The following year during the COP16 meeting in Cancun, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established to help countries reach this $100 billion goal. The GCF receives funds from governments and the private sector, with $10.2 billion in pledges as of October 2015, signifying that the international community is committed to building resilience to climate change.
The GCF is very important, but it will not take us to our goal. As Meyer put it, “the GCF is one part of the finance architecture but it is not the lion’s share of funds.” The initial capitalization of GCF funds is $10 billion spread out over a number of years. One important guideline contained in the GCF is that 50 percent of its financing will be for adaptation. Right now, only about 15-20 percent of the finance is going to adaptation—far from 50 percent (although it is important to note that many mitigation and adaptation strategies share co-benefits, meaning funding adaptation can often contribute to mitigation, and vice versa). Part of the reason is that private sector funds go much more often to mitigation and green energy technology; it is much harder to get private sector funding for adaptation. Will developed countries meet the commitment they made in Copenhagen in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion from public and private sources in climate finance by 2020?
Many countries do not have time to wait and see. That’s why organizations like Oxfam, whose goals are to end poverty, hunger, and injustice, are moving forward and developing innovative programs and initiatives that are helping to build local capacity and increase resilience to such extremes. In 2010, Oxfam launched the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative to help farmers around the world manage their risks to disasters and secure their livelihoods. In 2014 alone, R4 provided drought insurance to over 26,000 farmers in Ethiopia and Senegal, helping people learn how to become more resilient.
Selas Samson Biru, a 50-year-old farmer in a remote Ethiopian village called Adi Ha, is one of the many farmers who have benefited. Increased climate variability has led to more uncertainty from year-to-year, putting her crops and livelihood in jeopardy. Now equipped with a new tool to manage drought risks, Biru receives payouts for crops she has insured. And when her weather insurance became available, Biru joined other farmers to buy an irrigation pump. This investment has provided more abundant, profitable harvests.
Farmers in drought-stricken parts of Texas similarly find their livelihoods threatened by the growing unpredictability in climate and weather. West Texas is well accustomed to droughts. Farmers here have traditionally relied on playa lakes—surface depressions that fill with water during certain times of year—but playas can no longer sustain farmers through severe droughts. Instead, farmers are implementing new technologies to manage changing risks and stay afloat. Andy Timmons, a grape producer in West Texas, moved away from farming row crops and started growing grapes to diversify his operations – a decision he made as he began losing confidence in the Farm Bill and federal commitments to agriculture, which he says are “going away.” Even though grapes adapt to extreme weather better than row crops, he has to cultivate his vineyard differently every year, testing new irrigation strategies to continue to increase production. To deal with early spring freezes during dry years, he installed wind machines to circulate air and keep it from stagnating so grapes wouldn’t freeze. Timmons had the resources to adapt – but Biru and many other farmers in developing nations don’t.
A successful climate agreement at COP21 and beyond isn’t just about reducing our emissions: it’s about helping people—real people—adapt to the changes we cannot avoid. The $100 billion pledge, including the GCF, is an encouraging start. However, much of the money has only been “announced” and not yet disbursed. Actions at the ground level also seem to be outpacing top-down funding mechanisms. While countries continue working out ways to reach the $100 billion financing goal, stories like Biru’s and Timmons’s remind us of the importance of ground-up grassroots actions that are already helping to build local knowledge and resilience. Are there examples you can share from your community?]]>
First, the concept of legally binding doesn’t exist between sovereign nations. Some nations will make the commitments legally binding within their own states, but there won’t be an international police force to penalize noncompliant states. Second, such commitments would have required the U.S. Senate and similar bodies in other nations to formally ratify the Accord. And as UCS expert Alden Meyer points out, this is unlikely to occur in the current political climate. And third, for the above reasons, the goal in Paris was not to come away with legally binding commitments, but rather for all nations to seriously consider the most they can do, and publicly commit to their best effort—with an emphasis on the word publicly.
One way to think of it is like a potluck dinner, in reverse. At a potluck dinner, each guest brings food to share. No one person brings a complete meal; but once all the food is assembled, there is supposed to be enough for everyone. In preparation for the potluck, each guest reviews their food supplies (and their favourite recipes) to determine what to bring.
In the same way, each country brought their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to Paris. Before setting their INDCs, they reviewed their emissions and reduction options to determine how much action they could agree to, and of what type. For example, India plans to install LED streetlights and leapfrog a traditional distributed grid; the EU will cap and trade carbon; and Bhutan is planning to regrow their forests. In addition to calculating carbon sinks and storage, many developed nations also estimated the amount they could contribute to financing adaptation in developing nations already suffering the impacts of climate change. At a potluck, as at COP, there is also the challenge of assigning the amount of food each guest is to bring. This is particularly challenging when some guests have large appetites and large resources, while others are near starvation and have little to offer.
Once all the INDCs had been assembled and laid on the table last week, it was clear that reductions were insufficient to achieve the global goal of a 2oC target or below. For that reason, various countries such as Canada stepped up their contributions over the course of the negotiations, and a great deal of discussion has focused on the role of land use in carbon sequestration–could it provide the salad course?
There is a catch with voluntary measures, of course. If enough of the “guests” don’t carry through on their promises to bring food, the table will be sparse and the world will collectively miss its goal. At a potluck, there is no formal mechanism for penalizing such guests. No fines or jail time are handed out for failure to participate. There is a price, though: social ostracism. In the same way, even binding limits in international treaties don’t provide much more accountability. If an agreement included a penalty for not meeting one’s targets—payment into a fund, for example, to support nations that would need to spend more on adaptation—how could anyone be forced to pay? Until other nations are willing to implement meaningful sanctions over non-compliance, there’s no big stick to wave. The small stick we’re left with is public shaming.
With shaming as the only current viable recourse for failure to comply with COP targets, why not agree on voluntary commitments, and use those to push for greater ones? Searching through the cupboards one more time to see if there’s a bag of rice or package of cookies left to bring to the potluck is the equivalent of each nation taking another long look at its economy, its transportation and industry, and its resources. What more is capable with existing technology? Could public and private investments be tapped? What separates the low-hanging fruit from the deeper, more costly reductions?
The Conferences of Parties are designed to publicly highlight each nation’s commitments and capabilities. As a public and very high profile forum, it provides a powerful instrument for facilitating change. One country’s reductions, which may have seemed ample and sizeable back home, may suddenly shrink when displayed on a global stage, side-by-side with similar efforts from other economies. No one wants to be the person who dragged out the single-sized tart of last year’s apples from the back of the freezer, while their neighbors brought a fresh-made pie for twelve.
So let’s not be too hasty to claim an accord without binding limits is a failure. Voluntary reduction may still lead to a successful global potluck, if each nation’s contributions are regularly reviewed, sampled, and commented on around the world—as is the plan.
Caleb Crow, sustainability engineer and Ph.D. student in political science at Texas Tech University, contributed to this post.
We sat down with Meyer over breakfast to get his unique and invaluable perspectives on the evolution of past COPs and how they have shaped the path to Paris.
It’s evident from the first exchange that Meyer has a wealth of surprising facts and important insights to share. He has witnessed first-hand many key turning points in the history of international climate negotiations during last 25 years of COP meetings, a long history that provides him with unique insight into the battles fought and impediments faced that still reverberate through the climate negotiations at COP21 today.
Few people probably realize that preliminary negotiations took place in 1990 in Westfield, Virginia, USA—the first and only such talks to be held on U.S. soil. These negotiations began right after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first report in 1990. Meyer was there when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution authorizing the negotiations that led up to the Rio Framework Convention, which were adopted in New York in 1992 just before the first meeting in Rio de Janeiro, known as the Earth Summit.
Meyer describes the Earth Summit as a huge deal in its size and scope. It led to the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity. But tension around the idea of legally binding commitments was already thick in the air.
At the 1992 Earth Summit, many worked hard with the U.S. to persuade then-President George H. W. Bush that climate change was a real threat. Although the science was taken seriously in that agreement—calling for limits on carbon dioxide levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic, or human, interference with the climate system—the text of the treaty was so convoluted that it was difficult to say whether the U.S. was taking any specific measure under the agreement. For example, one section of the text stated a goal of returning emissions to 1990 levels and another section stated it would demonstrate leadership if industrialized countries could achieve that goal by the year 2000. However, in keeping the two sections separate, it prevented the U.S. from being legally obligated to these goals.
There was also an understanding with the U.S. Administration that if there was any amendment in the future that imposed binding emissions obligations on the U.S., this agreement would come back to the Senate for a vote. In fact, this is the origin of the debate today around the terminology “legally binding.” For instance, if an amendment is set to “achieve” a target, this triggers an understanding such that the agreement here in Paris would have to go to a vote in the Senate, which would not likely get anywhere near 67 votes given the current outlook of Republican senators in today’s climate, Meyer points out.
Alden Meyer recalls the first official convening of the COP in Berlin in 1995. This meeting represented the first time there was agreement among countries that not enough progress was being made to implement the goals of the framework treaty and that we needed to negotiate a protocol – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol included binding emissions reductions for developed countries, but not for developing countries like India, China, and Brazil. This rapidly became a source of contention, and the focal point used by opponents. Even TV ads ran in the U.S. criticizing the protocol, saying it wouldn’t work because it was not global. And while Asian countries were being told not to accept binding agreements because it would hurt their economies, the U.S. public was told that the U.S. shouldn’t accept binding commitments because these other countries wouldn’t accept them.
COP6 in 2000, which took place in The Hague in the Netherlands, was the only COP in history to be suspended. Debates between the U.S. and the EU on rules for crediting carbon sinks or using offsets toward the Kyoto targets resulted in a standstill. The session resumed five months later, but disagreements continued. After the resumed session and before the next COP meeting in 2001, Meyer remembers how the U.S. announced it was going to pull out, as George Bush famously stated that the Kyoto Protocol was dead. This announcement angered the rest of the world, and countries rallied to save Kyoto with the Marrakesh Accords in 2001.
At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, several countries opposed the Copenhagen Accord, so the outcome there was that they only took “note” of the accord. In response, the U.S. and other countries launched a big campaign to persuade countries to put forward pledges, which was the antecedent of a new process to develop INDCs – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – ahead of Paris. INDCs are bottom-up, self-differentiated goals among nations. They offer a tangible way for governments to communicate the steps they will take to address climate change. Copenhagen essentially became a stepping-stone in developing a process for setting emissions reductions targets from the ground up.
The U.S. has supported the INDC process ever since it was first proposed. But, according to Meyer, INDC commitments are not ambitious enough. To Meyer, a major element of the COP21 agreement will be setting up top-down assessments of how we are doing collectively, and establishing expectations for countries to “up their game” moving forward into the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond. But because the INDC process is bottom-up and self-determined, getting adequate ambition is very difficult.
Meyer is hopeful, however. Decentralized renewable energy is becoming more cost-effective and efficient. He spoke to a senior negotiator from India earlier in the week here at COP21, who told him that in India the cost of an LED light bulb had dropped from the equivalent of $5 USD to just over $1 per bulb in the last 17 months. India’s goal is to replace all street lighting in the country with LEDs by the year 2019, which, Meyer says, “is more ambitious than any developed country I know of.”
According to Meyer, issues of equity and leadership have always been central at the COP meetings. The division between rich and poor countries remains arbitrary. Non-developed countries were exempted from Kyoto, which meant that rich countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia with much higher per capita GDPs were exempted, compared to some of the poorer industrialized nations like Portugal and Greece. Meyer describes this as a shorthand mechanism for establishing rich and poor, but not one that has been objectively based. The Climate Action Network is working to establish an equity reference framework that sets up principles, criteria, and indicators to make this process more objective. This will include INDCs, finance, and technology support because, as he explains, “everything’s connected.”
“The notion that development and carbon emissions are inextricably linked is one of the biggest problems in this process. It is not true. And now, it is certainly less true than it ever was,” Meyer said.
With the scaling up of renewables in Germany, the U.S., and China, prices continue to go down. By 2020, India, China, and others will be able to do much more than they think they can do now. For this reason, Meyer says, it’s important not to lock the current INDCs in place. Instead, there must be flexibility in the process. Meyer says one of the most important things they are fighting for here in Paris is simply an opportunity that civil society can use to urge all countries to increase the ambition of their first round of INDCs.
“COPs are where you make climate change a priority,” Meyer said. While it is true that no international agreement will force countries like the U.S., China, and Brazil to do anything they didn’t intend to do in the first place, COP meetings are the moments when the world discusses the problems, when civil society rallies around them, the media covers the issues, and they become a political issue.
To Meyer, the focus is not so much on the details of countries’ INDCs, but rather on formulating the process. This process is making a change in domestic policy, because, for the first time, coordination and consulting with ministries and stakeholders will change what they think they can do to tackle the issues. In other words, examining the issues uncovers opportunities they may not have known were there.
But what will it really come down to at the end of the wire for COP21? Meyer says the biggest issues are review, finance, and transparency. The monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) regime for developing countries are crucial. The U.S. cannot accept self-reporting without some type of independent verification. Countries need a flexible review process post-2020 to have all countries increase their INDCs moving forward. This is still being negotiated and, according to Meyer, will be one of the last-minute items to be settled. Adaptation and loss and damages will also have to be a big part of the Paris agreements.
But how to get more ambition from countries in an equitable way remains a big question.
There is a lot of work still to do here in Paris. Reaching a Paris agreement is crucial, because we don’t have time to waste. The rate of emissions reductions we’d need to achieve to get on the 2°C pathway goes up the longer we wait. Meyer believes that, while we may not be able to solve the problem of getting on the 2°C track at Paris, COP21 may be a tipping point and a transformational moment if countries commit to doing more by the end of the decade. At the very least, he believes we can keep the option of the 2°C track open.
Despite the outcomes of past meetings, some successful, some more disappointing, Meyer remains hopeful that “we will leave Paris with something dynamic and energizing, something that preserves some hope in the system.” I think we are all hoping for that!]]>
Despite—or perhaps even in part due to—these pressures, at the beginning of the second week, with an on-time delivery of preliminary draft outcomes, there are positive indications that COP21 may still produce the international treaty the world needs and demands. Despite the recent tragedy and the oft-discussed existential despair of climate scientists, the air here is hopeful. Delegates, scientists, concerned observers, students, and many other visitors to the vibrant Climate Generations Area are full of energy and optimism. There’s a lot to do and see here; and while outside we know the impacts of climate change continue unchecked, inside hope pervades.
The Climate Generations area is constantly abuzz with people, activity, and events. Multiple exhibit areas showcase the climate action work of businesses and organizations from around the world. Conference sessions offer presentations and panel discussions that span topics from oceans, forests, and agriculture to youth and education, highlighting the many ways in which people are getting involved and taking action. Throughout the day, impromptu music, parades, and people in eye-catching costumes relay topical climate messages.
Sustainability is both talked and walked here. The buildings are made of natural materials and 100% electric cars and hybrid busses in combination with public transportation get people to and from the meeting space. Food areas are lined with recycling and composting bins, and tables are stocked with water carafes and drinking fountains to cut down on the use of water bottles. Pedal-powered charging stations for laptops, phones, and other devices let you cycle as you work…or power a blender to make some organic juice!
Here at the beginning of week two, it is clear the spirit of COP21 remains hopeful. During a somber time in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, we are reminded of what the COPs have set out to do since they first began – provide a space for the international community to come together to tackle climate change and limit its impacts, especially to the poorest and most marginalized. COP21 is about the environment, the economy, national security, our health, and our children’s future.
Caleb Crow, sustainability engineer and Ph.D. student in political science at Texas Tech University, contributed to this post.