Experts Expressed Cautious Optimism for New Climate Deal

By Ruojing Liu

Five experts shared concerns and optimism last Monday after the international community’s new landmark COP21 climate change agreement reached in Paris last December.

A panel session held by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Feb. 1 included experts from the political, economic, business and media fields to discuss the future impact of the new COP21 goal – to keep global warming below the 2-degree Celsius threshold.

The agreement, put together at the United Nation’s 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, in Paris last fall limits the increase in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the level before the Industrial Revolution, a threshold considered by many scientists as critical to keep the planet habitable for humans. The plan was regarded as a milestone in the international effort to battle global warming, and the goal an ambitious one.

On March 2015, the U.S. submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) by around 26 to 28 percent below 2005 in 2025. Among all 196 parties at the conference last December, 188 have already submitted their versions of INDC.

However, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s analysis, the reduction pledges would still result in a 2.7 degrees Celsius temperature increase by 2100.

“It seems like a long time from now, but actually isn’t’ so long when you consider the long life of power plants, cement plants, steal plants and other assets that generate (carbon) emissions,” said Paul Bodnar, one of the panelists and senior director for energy and climate change at the White House’s National Security Council.

Some scientists say to constrain climate changing within the 2 degrees Celsius would require the discontuation of fossil fuels between 2050 and the end of the century.

But when fossil fuels like crude oil remain inexpensive compared to other renewable energy sources, that path won’t be easy. Some economists suggest implementing carbon tax and carbon trade to contain overall carbon emissions, which is believed by scientists to be the main reason for global warming.

“When you were to purchase gas, you were to pay for the damage you’re going to do, then that would allow solar, wind and nuclear to play a bigger role in the energy system and bring down emissions,” said Michael Greenstone, professor of economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, at the panel session.

Greenstone also pointed out the potential political obstacles the taxing policy would encounrter. Even when the benefits of a stable climate are equally dispersed across the whole population, traditional fossil-fuel-heavy states like Wyoming and West Virginia would pay more. It would also mean that people with low-incomes would have to pay more for energy.

As developed countries have reached a stable economic status, their energy consumption is also stable. Almost lmost all energy growth in the coming decades is projected to come from today’s developing countries, but Greenstone said it could be hard asking developing countries to buy more expensive energy.

Still, Bodnar said the cost of clean energy is going down dramatically and quickly, particularly solar and wind, and has achieved cost parity in many states in the U.S. with less clean forms of energy. And the key is not for those poor countries to swallow more expensive energy, but for more technological advancements in developed countries to make these renewable energy more affordable.

Yet fossil fuels are at the same time causing horrendous levesl of air pollution that is threatening people’s lives. Greenstone said that could be an incentive for developing countries like China to tackle the problem and produce carbon dioxide benefits.

“Creating citizen demand and ultimately political demand for change is going to be increasingly important component,” said Derek Walker, who was also on the panel and is associate vice president for global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.

CO2 emissions per country from fossil-fuel use and cement production

China leads per country CO2 emissions. (EU EDGAR)

The success of the new climate deal will rely on the two world’s largest GHG producers, China and the United States, which respectively account for about 24 percent and 14 percent of the world’s total emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.

President Obama and President Xi Jinping made two joint announcements in November 2014 and September 2015, laying out each country’s target and resolution in attacking climate change. And the COP21 conference last December was the first time the two countries were not put into separate categories – developed and developing – but on the same level.

Bodnar, who helped coordinate and negotiate these two US-China joint announcements, said China’s pace of clean energy build-up is equal to a gigawatt every week between now and 2030, which means a nuclear power station almost every week, in order to reach peak emissions before if not by 2030.

“The risk is that they will spur so much innovation and market growth in these countries that we will get left behind,” said Bodnar, citing domestic obstacles. “We’re one of very few countries in the world where there isn’t a broad-based consensus across the political spectrum that this is an issue we need to deal with. Here, it’s still part of the political debate … that debate is over in most of the world.”

CO2 emissions per capita from fossil-fuel use and cement production

United States ranks high for per capita CO2 emissions. (EU EDGAR)

Walkerlooked to younger generations to change American’s climate policy, since the debate is almost over among those under 25 in the U.S.

“We are seeing an open-minded and more disposed toward action generation emerging,” Walker said. ‘We need to demonstrate that those millennials have the political influence to push politicians to be in the right place.”

Walker and Bodnar urged the near 200-member audience at the panel discussion to think differently when making energy and political decisions, that it is imperative for everyone to feel that they individually can make a real difference, and not leave the problem soley to government and companies to solve.

“We should feel confident as a nation that this is a good path to be on,” Bodnar said, “ and I hope that’s going to be carried forward into the next administration, a sense of confidence that this can be done, that this is a good thing, that we as a country of innovators, as a country that’s nimble, want to lead this.”

Photo at top: A panel moderated by Financial Times editor Ed Crooks (left) discusses the future of the COP21 agreement on Feb.1, 2016. (Chicago Council on Global Affairs)