This year saw the release of three notable reports related to climate science. Together, they paint a clear picture:
- Global warming is largely caused by human actions,
- The future climate is likely to be very different without significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,
- Climate change impacts are already occurring, and
- Some future impacts could be catastrophic to communities, businesses and ecosystems.
The draft National Climate Assessment (NCA) was released for public comment in January, and the major conclusions aren’t expected to change when the final report is released in 2014. U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895 with 80 percent of this increase occurring since 1980. The report projects that temperatures will continue to rise, with a 2° to 4°F increase occurring in most areas over the next few decades. According to the report, these changes are contributing to an increased risk of extreme weather, coastal flooding, loss of biodiversity, and negative impacts on public health.
A year ago, the path ahead for climate action at the federal level was murky. Congress clearly had little appetite for climate and energy legislation, and while President Obama had declared that climate change would be a priority in his second term, the details were hazy.
Heading into 2014, there is a clear direction and a credible and comprehensive plan for action. The Climate Action Plan the president announced in June outlines a wide array of steps his administration plans to take using existing authorities to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, expand renewable and other low-carbon energy sources, and strengthen resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts.
Given congressional paralysis, this plan is likely to be the blueprint for U.S. climate action for at least the next three years. The reaction at the United Nations climate conference last month in Warsaw showed that other countries have noticed, and are encouraged to see stronger U.S. action.
A key step in implementing the plan was the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal in September to limit carbon emissions from new power plants. Other elements of the plan that have already seen movement include:
The United States is moving toward meeting all of its energy needs from domestic resources even faster than was predicted just a year ago.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said last year that the U.S. would become the world’s largest oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, by 2017. Its new World Energy Outlook moves that up to 2015. The U.S. is already the world’s top producer of natural gas, a position it reached in 2012 thanks to an expanding supply of shale gas. The IEA sees the United States holding both top spots at least until the early 2030s and being energy self-sufficient by 2035.
This huge shift didn’t happen by accident, and it will have implications for both the economy and the environment.
Take a moment to absorb this shocking statistic: 34 million tons of food in the United States is thrown away every year. Reducing U.S. food waste by just 15 percent would help feed an estimated 25 million Americans, or roughly half of those who don't have access to enough food.
Globally, about one-third of edible food – about 1.3 billion tons – is lost (often due to inadequate transportation and storage) or wasted annually. Reducing food loss and waste would provide enough food to feed 2 billion people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It also would conserve resources, save money, and limit pollution.
Most of us don't think about the tremendous amounts of water, energy and other resources that go into growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting food that might end up in the trash bin. Globally, the estimated carbon footprint of wasted food is equivalent to 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the FAO. That’s more greenhouse gas pollution than produced in a year by any country except China and the United States.
If one is looking for clues from Warsaw as to the future of the U.N. climate change effort, probably the most telling is the phrase “nationally determined.”
Governments have set themselves the goal of a new global climate agreement in 2015. At the annual U.N. climate talks that wrapped up this weekend in Warsaw, they agreed on some of the steps they’ll take to get there.
The decision adopted in Warsaw invites all parties to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions,” and to “communicate them well in advance” of the 2015 meeting, set for December in Paris. It also establishes a loose timeline: by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties “ready to do so.”
This is primarily a procedural decision, a way to move the process forward. The reason it was so difficult to reach was that parties fought incredibly hard either to inject or to avoid substantive framing that would begin to define the shape of the Paris accord.
By the time they were done cramming clauses into the ungainly sentence at the heart of the decision, the parties had managed essentially to preserve the vague but delicate balance they’d struck in launching this latest round of talks two years ago in Durban. The 2015 agreement will be “applicable to all,” but its legal character, and how developed and developing country obligations will be differentiated, remain undefined.