Climate Compass Blog

The Warsaw outcome: A hint of what's to come

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.

Information technology and sustainability

Federal agencies trying to meet tougher sustainability mandates can make significant progress toward their goals by taking advantage of more efficient data storage and other information and communication technologies.

At the NextGov Prime 2013 conference, Scott Renda of the White House Office of Management and Budget and I outlined some of the ways these technologies can lead toward a greener government that saves energy – and money.

Climate change bills in the 113th Congress

The first year of the 113th Congress (2013-2014) draws to a close with no passage of climate-specific legislation, but signs that some in Congress understand the importance of addressing this issue. More bills were introduced that support climate action than oppose it. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals as “bills.”)

Here’s a by-the-numbers look at what Congress has done so far this term explicitly referencing climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide:

  • 131 climate-specific bills have been introduced, surpassing the 113 introduced during the entire 112th Congress (2011-2012), and perhaps on track to match the 263 of the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
  • 81 of the bills (62 percent) support climate action in some way.
  • 31 bills are intended to build resilience to a changing climate, compared with nine introduced in the previous Congress.
  • 30 bills have bipartisan co-sponsorship. Of these, 16 support climate action in some way.
  • 25 bills, five of them bipartisan, would block or hinder the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Two such bills have passed the House, though are unlikely to be passed by the Senate and signed into law.
  • 12 of the bills supporting climate action were written by Republicans, while eight bills opposing climate action were written by Democrats, showing that climate issues don’t always fall neatly along partisan lines.
  • 7 of the 16 bipartisan bills that support climate action promote energy efficiency. The bipartisan Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill is considered to have the best chance of enactment of any energy measure in this Congress.
  • 3 bills would block or hinder federal agencies from using the social cost of carbon in federal rulemaking.
  • 2 bills seek to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.

The opportunities of distributed generation

When the vast majority of Americans turn on the lights, the electricity is coming from a centralized, fossil fuel power plant.

However, there is a big change on the horizon that will alter that - distributed (also called decentralized) generation. This is when power is produced much closer to where it is used, such as with rooftop solar panels or natural gas-fired combined heat and power systems, including fuel cells and microturbines.

Currently, less than 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated outside a centrally located power plant. Expanding distributed generation will bring exciting opportunities to increase efficiency, improve our resilience to extreme weather, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also bring challenges for our existing grid on which we must continue to depend.

These opportunities and challenges were the focus of a discussion I participated in this week at the World Alliance for Decentralized Energy annual conference with WADE Executive Director David Sweet, Duke Energy Chairman James Rogers, and PSEG President Ralph LaRossa.

U.N. climate talks could yield practical hybrid approach

In response to a National Journal question about the efficacy of U.N. global climate talks, I noted that while it is a mistake to put too much faith in the U.N. climate process, it would be a bigger mistake to write it off. Climate change is a global challenge that requires action on multiple fronts. For all its many flaws, no other forum brings together all nations across the full breadth of climate-related issues. And the current round of talks may well deliver genuine progress.

By its nature, the U.N. climate process is inherently neither “top down” nor “bottom up.” The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) contains elements of both. With the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, parties did begin pursuing a more top-down approach. But more recently, the UNFCCC has evolved in a very different direction.

Although few in Washington have paid close attention, agreements reached since the Copenhagen debacle have established a more bottom-up framework that for now exists in parallel with Kyoto.  Within this framework, more than 90 countries, including the United States, China and every other major economy, have pledged voluntary emissions goals for 2020. Parties also have created mechanisms to more closely monitor one another’s efforts.