Climate Compass Blog

Before and beyond Paris: Climate action at all levels

Negotiators from more than 190 nations have the opportunity to work out an important and perhaps transformative international climate agreement in December in Paris.

But the work at the negotiating table has been preceded by countless steps taken by communities, states, companies and individuals across the globe to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are altering our climate. And long after the Paris talks have concluded, these actors will be crucial to building sustainable solutions to our climate and energy challenges.

Some of the world’s largest cities have been working to lower emissions by purchasing green power, introducing electric vehicle programs and policies, turning waste into compost and fuel, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Other cities have developed multi-tiered climate commitments through the Compact of Mayors. And many communities are assessing their vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change that we’re already experiencing and will worsen.

States and provinces, too, are in action. Ten states that are home to a quarter of the U.S. population are already reducing power plant emissions through carbon pricing programs. Carbon regulatory programs are also up and running at the provincial level in Canada and China (plus in the European Union). Also, many states have set rules and programs to encourage the use of renewable energy and improve energy efficiency. For example, Arizona has a goal of generating 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025, and the state government in California benchmarks its energy use across buildings and vehicle fleets.

Businesses are also reducing emissions and supporting a strong agreement in Paris. Major companies like Nike, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson have pledged to go to 100 percent renewable energy. Many energy companies are expanding into cleaner forms of power. More than 80 companies signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge issued by the White House. Additionally, in a petition organized by C2ES, 14 energy, technology and manufacturing companies (with $1.1 trillion combined revenues and 1.5 million employees) called for a balanced and durable global climate agreement in Paris.

Individuals, too, are demanding bold action on climate. The People’s Climate March last year in New York City drew more than 300,000. And while a similar march in Paris had to be canceled due to security concerns, it’s clear that globally and in the U.S., most people acknowledge the reality of climate change.

So as negotiators and observers head to Paris for what could be a defining moment, we must also make it a defining opportunity for all of us. We all have a positive and important part to play – whether we’re climate negotiators, city officials, members of local environmental groups, business owners, or students – in creating a smart and sustainable future.

Maryland set to exceed its 2020 climate goal

With negotiators about to start international climate talks, you might have missed a notable climate effort at the state level: A new report from Maryland’s Department of the Environment shows the state is on track to beat its goal of reducing its emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by the year 2020.

Since that goal was set in 2009, Maryland has implemented a range of programs to reduce emissions from the energy sector, transportation, agriculture and buildings. The state also benefitted from changes in energy markets as power generators moved from coal to natural gas, and changes in driving behavior, with Marylanders driving fewer miles than forecast.

Additionally, Maryland participates in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program that has generated revenues the state has used to help thousands of low- and moderate-income families and hundreds of farms improve efficiency and save money on their energy bills.

Maryland isn’t the only state that has set ambitious targets to curb greenhouse gases. According to our research, 18 other states have set targets over the past 15 years. Eight states, Maryland among them, stand out as leaders for setting targets by legislative action or executive order, requiring progress reports and updates of original climate plans, and aggressively pursuing initiatives to achieve the targets.

Why are states acting?

Already, Maryland and other states are experiencing the types of impacts -- excessive heat, droughts, heavy downpours -- expected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. No one individual weather event can be attributed directly to climate change; climate is a pattern of events over time. However, it is clear that the costs to property, crops, and public health from impacts consistent with climate change are already significant.

A series of C2ES briefs explores key climate impacts and estimates how they might affect Maryland’s heat-related mortality, coastal property, labor productivity, energy expenditures, and agricultural output as well as its infrastructure, tourism, ecosystems, water resources and human health beyond heat-related mortality.

Climate scientists tell us that even deeper emissions reductions are necessary in the coming decades to avoid more serious and costly impacts. Recently, the Maryland Climate Change Commission, a government advisory board, unanimously recommended that the state set a new goal to cut its emissions 40 percent by 2030. The recommendation, supported by additional C2ES analysis, is likely to be taken up in the General Assembly next year.

Maryland cannot tackle climate change alone. But by working to reduce emissions today, setting strong reduction targets for the future, and growing a clean energy economy, Maryland is creating a powerful example other states will want to follow.

Attributing extreme weather events to climate change

It is well known that climate change will alter the occurrence of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and severe storms. But weather is unpredictable and naturally variable, so how can we be sure climate change is happening today?

Climate change attribution

Scientists have recently developed tools for so-called event attribution, to say (through the use of statistics) whether a particular extreme weather event is caused by climate change. The fourth annual report on event attribution was just published in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). Researchers around the globe used different methods to assess 28 events that occurred in 2014. They found that some of these events probably would not have happened without climate change.

Why ‘probably’?

Any individual weather event is a part of a chaotic and complex system (yes, those are the technical terms). Because of this, it is theoretically impossible to predict weather over any meaningful timescale. So scientists turn to probabilities.

When your local weather forecaster tells you there’s a 30 percent chance of rain, that number doesn’t come out of a hat. The percentage comes from many weather models run over and over again. A 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow means that for every 100 model simulations of the weather tomorrow, 30 had rain.

To attribute an event to climate change, scientists run climate models many times both with and without the effects of greenhouse gases. They then compare the model results to observations. If the observed event, say a major heat wave, occurred often in the models that included greenhouse gases but only rarely in the models without them, they would conclude that the heat wave can probably be attributed to climate change. There’s still a chance the event would have occurred anyway – but you wouldn’t bet on it. Just like if your local weather forecast called for a 90 percent chance of rain, you’d probably leave home with your umbrella.

2014 events attributable to climate change

The BAMS study was not an exhaustive study of all extreme weather events in 2014, so it is possible that more events can be attributed to climate change than just those listed here. The researchers found that climate change is responsible for:

  • An increased risk of fire in California (though not the 2014 fire season, specifically)
  • The major heat wave that hit Argentina in December 2013
  • Record warmth observed in Europe in 2014 (as measured by the annual average temperature over the region)
  • The 2014 drought in East Africa (drought is caused by many factors – several, but not all, factors in this event were caused by climate change)
  • The broiling spring of 2014 in Korea (spring temperatures in northern China were also higher than average, though the climate change influence was not as strong there)
  • A greater probability of warm surface ocean temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean    
  • The increased frequency of hurricanes near Hawaii, as was seen in 2014
  • Increasing the likelihood of several hot spells across Australia in 2014

The significance of climate change

What’s significant about the BAMS study is not which particular events in 2014 were probably caused by climate change but that any at all were probably caused by climate change.

If greenhouse gases weren’t changing the climate, then the simulations with and without greenhouse gases would give equal probabilities of a particular event. But they don’t.

To say it another way, if greenhouse gases weren’t changing the climate, then the model simulations without greenhouse gases would be just as successful as the others at predicting the observed events. But they’re not.

Extreme weather events have always happened, and always will. But the fact that the natural variability in climate models no longer predicts all extreme events is strong evidence that greenhouse gases are changing the climate right now. And the models tell us that the impacts will only grow in the future.


Will the Paris agreement be a legally binding treaty?

Secretary of State John Kerry caused a bit of a stir with comments this week in the Financial Times suggesting that the Paris climate agreement will not be a legally binding treaty.

It appears Mr. Kerry has stepped somewhat inelegantly into a legal morass that doesn’t translate easily into sound bites.

There’s understandably a great deal of confusion about the finer legal points at issue here, in part because the term “treaty” means different things under international and U.S. law. The bottom line is that the Paris agreement will very likely be a treaty under international law, but probably not a treaty as that term is generally understood in the U.S. context.

To elaborate a bit (for a fuller explanation see an excellent legal analysis authored for us by Arizona State University legal scholar Dan Bodansky):

The negotiating mandate that launched the Paris talks back in 2011 calls for an outcome with legal force. That’s generally interpreted by parties, including the United States, as an agreement in a form that constitutes a treaty under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

(The Vienna Convention defines a treaty as “an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law.” It binds only those states that express their consent to be bound—for example, through a process of ratification or acceptance.)

But not all parts of a legally binding agreement have to be legal obligations. The real legal issue in Paris will be whether countries’ individual targets will be binding. The European Union and others say they should. The United States and others say they should not.

The outcome on that question will be an important factor in whether the Paris agreement will require the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate as a “treaty” under Article II of the Constitution.

The United States has joined many agreements over the years through executive action – in other words, by the president acting alone. (These include the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam war and, just last year, the Minamata Convention on Mercury.)

Whether an agreement can be concluded by the president as an “executive agreement” can depend on a mix of factors, including whether it is within the scope of an existing treaty and whether it is consistent with existing U.S. law.

In this case, the Paris agreement will largely elaborate the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which President George H.W. Bush ratified in 1992 with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Whether the agreement is consistent with, and can be implemented under, existing law will depend on its contents. A legally binding emissions target (or a new binding financial commitment) would go beyond existing law, so arguably would require approval by the Senate or both houses of Congress.

If the targets aren’t binding, what parts of the agreement will be? Likely, a set of procedural commitments that, for instance, obligate a country to formulate and submit a nationally determined contribution, report on its implementation, and periodically update that contribution.

There’s a legitimate debate over whether making targets binding means they’re more likely to be met, or whether it makes countries less likely to participate or offer ambitious targets. It’s an issue that may not be settled until the final hours in Paris.

What isn’t really in contention, though, is whether the agreement will be a legally binding agreement. It almost certainly will be.

Significant progress toward limiting HFCs under the Montreal Protocol

In an important breakthrough, parties to the Montreal Protocol meeting in Dubai have agreed to a path forward aimed at phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of highly potent greenhouse gases. This progress adds to the momentum leading up to the UN climate talks starting later this month in Paris.

HFCs, chemicals widely used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam blowing, were developed in response to limits on ozone-depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol.

The United States and 40 other countries had put forth a range of proposals this year for phasing down HFCs. While these efforts fell short of producing a consensus amendment, extensive discussions throughout the week resulted in a path toward delivering an HFC phasedown amendment at a special, additional meeting of the parties to be held in 2016.

Parties agreed on the fundamental issue that the Montreal Protocol has legal jurisdiction to act and has the experience, expertise, and institutions best suited to tackling the challenge of reducing HFCs. The Dubai meeting also produced a common understanding and a path forward on a range of issues related to how to modify the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to provide financial support to developing countries to comply with controls on HFCs and on the need to exempt uses of HFCs in high ambient temperature conditions where no viable substitutes exist.

As the fastest growing group of greenhouse gases, HFCs represent an important target in global efforts to limit climate change. It’s estimated that limiting HFCs could achieve a 0.5 degree Celsius reduction in the temperature increase due to greenhouse gases by the end of 2100 – a target well within reach of Montreal Protocol parties when they reconvene next year. 

These reductions are critical to global efforts to keep temperature increases under the 2 C goal established under the UN Framework Convention. It’s estimated that national commitments to addressing greenhouse gases made in the lead up to Paris could limit temperature increases to around 2.7 C.  More needs to be done, and HFC reduction under the Montreal Protocol can contribute to filling the gap.

With a final decision coming well past midnight Thursday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy led the United States’ negotiating team in finding a way forward –  overcoming the concerns of India, Saudi Arabia and a small number of other countries about the availability of substitutes to replace HFCs and the adequacy and rules governing financial support.

Representing the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, I presented two papers at side events in Dubai addressing issues of concern to the negotiators. Technological Change in the Production Sector under the Montreal Protocol addressed concerns of developing countries that production of alternatives to HFCs would be limited to a few multinational corporations. A second paper, Patents and the Role of the Multilateral Fund, analyzed whether the Multilateral Fund would pay for intellectual property rights associated with substitutes for HFCs.