UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon nearly cried with joy. On Dec. 12 of last year nearly 200 countries agreed on the urgency to actively address climate change. Of great importance was the fact that the 55 countries that account for two-thirds of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions signed the Conference Of Parties agreement (COP21). This was done through the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change that was adopted to reduce GHGs on a scheduled basis. The agreement will be available for signature from April 22, 2016, to April 21, 2017, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
The goal was to cap global temperature rise at 20C (3.60F) by 2050. The world has already warmed about 0.9C (1.6F). NASA has confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record. The problem is a 20C increase would likely yield runaway feedback effects, such as increasing extinction events, communities at risk from sea level rise, changes in food supplies due to extreme weather, damaging high temperatures, droughts, and others.
Some key COP21 target GHG-reduction goals include:
- U.S. – 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
- European Union – 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
- Russia – 25 to 30 percent by 2030.
- China – 35 to 40 percent by 2030.
President Obama, on Dec. 14, 2015, announced total support of the COP21 agreement. He said the agreement was “the best chance we have to save the one planet we have.”
These reductions, however, do not achieve the scientifically significant 20C goal. Even with these we are likely to hit 1.50C (2.70F) by 2028, and 30C (5.40F) by 2100 because underdeveloped countries will become major emitters. But the importance of COP21 is that it could be a critical step toward a carbon-free economy.
In order to stay below a global warming temperature of 20C the world cannot burn all the fossil fuel on the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve emitted 1,970 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. But the atmosphere cannot take more than about 3,000 gigatons if we are to level out at the 20C goal, according to the Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. This means that the world cannot burn more than another 1,000 gigatons of fossil fuel carbon. Right now we are on an energy path to exceed that.
Then another setback occurs. Recall the 2007 Supreme Court decision that GHG emissions are subject to pollution regulation under the Clean Air Act administered by EPA? On Feb. 9, 2016, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the EPA’s effort under the Clean Power Plan to implement emission cuts from power plants, while a lower court decides if the Plan exceeds the EPA’s authority.
Coal companies and others are spending millions to defeat the Plan. Their claim is: too much too soon.
Why is it too much too soon? The transformation from a carbon-economy to a non-carbon economy is feasible. We have the science, engineering, technology and financial capability to make this change. The Solution Project (thesolutionsproject.org) has assessed what changes would be needed in a set timeline. Energy choices include fossil fuels, bio-fuels, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, wave and tidal and geothermal. In addition would be continued improvements in energy efficiency. This analysis indicates that a 50 percent change to renewables would have to be achieved by 2025, and then a 100 percent change by 2050. By then the U.S. energy mix could be the following:
- Residential, Commercial and Government Rooftop Solar – 15.4 percent
- Solar PV and Concentrated Solar Plants – 32.3 percent
- Onshore Wind – 30.9 percent
- Offshore Wind – 17.5 percent
- Hydroelectric – 3.1 percent
- Geothermal, Tidal and Other Sources – 0.9 percent
This type of plan could generate 2.3 million construction and 2.8 million operations jobs. It could save Americans more than $587 billion in health care costs through reductions in pollution-related illnesses. This could mean a savings of $444 on annual energy bills per person in 2050, and more than $8,000 per person in savings related to energy, health and climate costs.
Why isn’t this happening? Two reasons. The first is politics where special interest groups lobby elected officials to ensure the carbon economy status quo is maintained. The second is negativism: It can’t be done. The expertise exists to do this. The positive economics and quality of life improvements are great. It requires the willingness of Americans becoming involved and improving their lives.
What’s the first step? Get involved, vote, and participate in community decisions to move toward sustainable practices.
Dr. Roger Kuhns is a geologist and environmental scientist who has worked nationally and internationally on mineral resources and geology, hydrology, environmental remediation, community enrichment, and conservation. He heads SustainAudit LLC, advising clients in applying sustainable practices to land use planning and built environments. He is also an author and a musician. A former resident of the Door County, he returns often to speak, perform and teach.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected].