Three lessons from climate leaders

Charting a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be a challenge. Changing the perceptions and habits of employees, customers, and stockholders isn’t easy. But if done effectively, it can bring award-winning results.

Fifteen organizations and two individuals received Climate Leadership Awards for driving climate action and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The awards are given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Center for Corporate Climate Leadership with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), the Association of Climate Change Officers and The Climate Registry.

Awardees came from a wide array of sectors, including finance, manufacturing, retail, technology, higher education and local government. They included C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council members IBM and Johnson Controls, who were honored for achieving aggressive corporate greenhouse gas reduction goals.

At the Climate Leadership Conference in San Diego, three award winners shared key strategies that could help others take action.

Tenants and landlords can both save with energy efficiency upgrades

Talk about a win-win. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and government-backed mortgage provider Freddie Mac recently agreed on a plan that will cut carbon emissions and at the same time make rental housing more affordable.

The plan will make it easier and cheaper for property owners to get loans for energy efficiency upgrades. This is a big deal because studies estimate that increasing the efficiency of U.S. multifamily rental properties could deliver as much as $9 billion in energy savings by 2020. It could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 million metric tons – the equivalent of taking 7.2 million cars off the road or shutting down 10 coal-fired power plants. 

With studies showing that rental properties are generally less efficient per square foot than owner-occupied homes, helping renters and their landlords save energy (and money) is a key step toward reducing overall U.S. energy use. 

The EPA-Freddie Mac initiative, part of the president’s Climate Action Plan, also will make available more data on energy and water use in multifamily properties. Tenants will better understand the energy costs of living in a particular home, letting them make more informed decisions. And owners will have a new incentive to make their properties more efficient, and therefore more appealing to potential renters. Additionally, property owners and tenants alike will be able to see how efficient their properties are compared to others.

EPA and Freddie Mac aren’t the only ones working to address this challenge. C2ES, through the Make an Impact program, has launched a web-based effort to reach out to renters with customized energy efficiency information. (Read about it in this blog.)  

Accounting for scientific uncertainty in a dangerously warming world

Most people at some point develop a “Plan B” – in case their first choice of college doesn’t accept them, or it rains on the day of their planned outdoor party, or the deal for the house they wanted falls apart. The same principle applies for more dire situations, such as a city having plans in hand for an orderly evacuation in case of a large-scale disaster. We hope such an event will never happen, but the mayor had better be prepared in case it does.

In a commentary today in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, three colleagues and I discuss the need for a “Plan B” for climate change: How will we cope with increasingly severe climate impacts if we are unsuccessful in limiting global warming to a chosen target?

In the 2009 Copenhagen climate accord, countries set a goal of limiting global warming to below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times. However, given that the planet has already warmed by 0.8 °C, additional warming is already locked into the system, and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, this “Plan A” has become increasingly difficult and may become impossible to achieve if widespread emissions reductions do not begin within this decade. A maximum warming target is a necessary goal of climate policy, but what if our efforts fall short?

Some voices in the environmental community will feel that asking this question is ceding failure, but I disagree. Instead, it means admitting that we can’t perfectly foresee the future and that we need to be prepared for surprises. This is called risk management and everyone from parents, to mayors, to companies, to the U.S. military uses risk management every day to cope with uncertainty.

Extreme Weather and Resilience: An Ounce of Prevention

A recent Senate hearing highlighted some of the progress U.S. communities are making, and the major challenges they face, in better coping with costly extreme weather events — including those, such as heat waves and coastal flooding, whose risks are heightened by climate change.

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that the “frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot - not just in lives impacted – but in economic costs, as well.” Nearly 130 weather-related events in 2013 caused more than $20 billion in losses in the United States.

Extreme weather is costly, not only to federal, state, and local governments, but also to businesses and individuals.

Much of the Senate testimony echoed key findings in our report, “Weathering the Storm, Building Business Resilience to Climate Change.”  Three key points made at the hearing were:

Stronger action needed to meet U.S. climate pledge

In a recent report to the United Nations, the State Department lays out the United States’ strategy for achieving its goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The strategy is “ambitious,” as the State Department says. But a close read reveals that, in some key respects, it is more a menu of options than a clear blueprint.

The Biennial Report is the first required of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as part of a series of measures aimed at ensuring greater transparency about steps countries are taking to meet their international climate pledges.

The figure below helps visualize the challenge facing the United States. The blue bar on the left represents 100 percent of U.S. emissions in 2005, or 7,195 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. On the right side is the 2020 goal to reduce emissions by 1,223 million metric tons, or 17 percent.