Climate Compass Blog

Proud of what we've done, but there's still more to accomplish

When I founded a new nonprofit organization 15 years ago, the United States and the world urgently needed practical solutions to our energy and climate challenges. That need has only grown more urgent.

Earlier today, I announced my plans to step aside as the President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) once my successor is on board. As I look back, I find we have come a long way. That said, any honest assessment of our progress to date in addressing one of this century’s paramount challenges must conclude that we have much, much further to go.

When our organization, then named the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, first launched in 1998, 63 percent of the world’s electricity generation came from fossil fuels. Incredibly, that number is even higher today – 67 percent. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the main driver of climate change, is also higher than it was then – in fact, at its highest level in more than 2 million years.

Scientists around the globe have just reaffirmed with greater certainty than ever that human activity is warming the planet and threatening to irreversibly alter our climate. Climate change is no longer a future possibility. It is a here-and-now reality. It’s leading to more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.

We at C2ES have believed from the start that the most effective, efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spur the innovation needed to achieve a low-carbon economy is to put a price on carbon. It’s a path that a growing number of countries, states, and even cities are taking.

The new coal plant standard

With all the fuss around the EPA’s proposed carbon dioxide standard for new power plants, you would be forgiven for missing the following line: “EPA projects that this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.” That’s right, the standard will likely have little to no effect before the date by which EPA will be required by law to revise it.

Why? As I recently told the National Journal, because the most credible projections have natural gas so inexpensive for the next several years that very few power companies are planning to build new coal plants – compared with the 150 natural gas power plants in the works. Pulling the proposed standard wouldn’t change that reality. In fact, the one coal plant being built today includes carbon capture and storage (CCS), and is expected to meet the tough carbon standard EPA has proposed. A handful of additional coal plants with CCS may move forward in the next several years, as well.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Getting clear on climate facts

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) poised to release its Fifth Assessment of the science underpinning our understanding of climate change, it’s useful to take a step back and recap some of the “big picture” facts.

What is already clear from the science:

  • Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases act to warm the planet.
  • Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere due to emissions from human activities.
  • The Earth has been warming during the past century. The amount and speed of the warming is unusual compared to past records.
  • Humans’ emissions of greenhouse gases are largely responsible for this warming.
  • If emission rates continue, the warming in the 21st century will be much more significant than the warming in the previous century.

Go green when you go back to school

Millions of students, from kindergarten through college, are heading back to class, and the start of a new school year is always accompanied by the need for new stuff.

This is a costly time for families; the National Retail Federation estimates an average of $635 per student is spent on back to school apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics. In addition to looking for what’s chic or cheap, students and parents might also want to consider having a lighter impact on the environment.

Here are some “CliffsNotes “on how to be a little more eco-friendly this fall:

Headwinds for coal

In a significant shift, government-run institutions financing overseas development have taken a series of steps this summer to sharply curtail their investments in coal-fired power plants.

In June, President Obama said that the United States would no longer finance coal plants through the US Export-Import Bank unless they used carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology or there was no other option for the poorest countries to generate electricity. In July, the World Bank announced it would provide financial assistance to new coal projects “only in rare circumstances.” And later last month, the European Investment Bank (EIB) said it would stop funding new and refurbished coal plants unless they emit less than 550g carbon dioxide/kWh (~1,200 lb carbon dioxide/MWh), about half of what the average U.S. coal plant emits.

It makes sense that financial decisions should factor in environmental impacts: Continued investment in an energy source that is only going to lead to increased costs from extreme weather and other climate change impacts makes no sense. As a practical matter, however, these steps by themselves are unlikely to slow the coal plant-building binge in China and India, or make significant reductions in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.