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It’s easy to feel down about climate change.  The annual pace of emissions of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere reached an all-time high in 2014. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere spent more than a month above 400 parts per million for the first time in 800,000 years. And global temperature will likely be the hottest in recorded history.  Research published in May shows a slow but unstoppable melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Business as usual puts the planet on a path to warm by  4 °C (7.6 °F) by the end of the century, with consequences that are awful for the rich and catastrophic for the poor

Furthermore our global response to climate change remains woefully inadequate.  All signs from last week’s United Nations climate conference in Lima indicate that international climate actions fall far short of what’s needed to avoid a dangerous temperature rise of 2 °C (3.8 °F). An already weak international process of “pledge and review” (in which countries’ pledges of climate actions would be formally reviewed by other countries) was watered down even further to effectively just “pledge.”  And the $10B committed by rich countries to the Green Climate Fund so far amounts to less than what rich countries spend on fossil fuel exploration in just six weeks.

So why, in spite of everything, have events in 2014 made me more optimistic than ever about the prospects for a safe and stable climate?  With apologies to the popular Christmas song Twelve Days of Christmas, let me count the ways…

Twelve states-a-pricing

The gold standard for climate policy is a global economy-wide price on carbon pollution.  That is, either a cap-and-trade system, or its twin solution, a carbon tax. Without an economy-wide price on carbon, efforts to reduce emissions will be needlessly low for some countries, industries, companies, and people, and needlessly expensive for others.  While a global carbon price remains in the cocoon, there is now a price on carbon pollution in twelve US states and Canadian provinces:

  • Nine northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont)
  • California, which is deliberating how to include REDD+ offsets in its cap-and-trade program
  • Quebec – which jointly auctioned carbon pollution permits with California earlier this month
  • British Columbia, which has had a revenue-neutral carbon tax since 2008

Governor Jay Inslee is expected to unveil plans this week to make Washington state lucky number 13.  

Carbon pricing is catching on around the world, from Chile to Mexico to Korea.  China has announced plans to have the world’s largest carbon market in 2016, eclipsing the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme.

Eleven years of slowing (Amazon deforestation)

More than 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from net forest loss, and up to 24-30 percent of potential mitigation can be achieved by halting and reversing tropical deforestation.  One of climate’s biggest success stories in the last decade has taken place in Brazil, which has cut greenhouse gas emissions more than any country on earth by slowing deforestation.  In the nine years from 2004-2012, Brazil slowed the pace of Amazon deforestation by 75 percent while increasing cattle production by 25 percent and soy production by 65 percent.  Brazil-watchers had been worried by an uptick of deforestation in the tenth year, 2013. But deforestation slowed again in the eleventh year, 2014, which may indicate that deforestation rates have stabilized. 

Hopeful signs are emerging from Guyana as well, where the deforestation rate fell by 14 percent in 2014 after several years of growth—a success the government has attributed to the spotlight shined by the monitoring of a pay-for-performance agreement with Norway on the deforestation activities of the informal mining sector.

Ten years-a-waiting

According to a scientific paper by Katherine Ricke and Ken Caldeira published in December, carbon pollution in the atmosphere reaches its peak warming potential after just ten years, as opposed to 40-100 years as previously thought. This means that the damaging effects of climate change will be felt much sooner than previously realized.  That’s bad.  So why do earlier damages make me optimistic?  Because part of what makes climate change such a “wicked problem” is the long lag time between actions and consequences.  This new research dramatically shortens that lag. 70 years is within our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime; ten years is within our own lifetime. More importantly, ten years is within a single political lifetime.  A senator who votes on climate change today will see the benefits of action in her next term.

Nine-in-ten agreeing

The World Value Survey asked nationally representative samples of people from 44 countries how serious a problem they considered climate change.  Nine in ten (89%) responded “very serious” or “somewhat serious.”  This near-unanimous agreement transcended rich and poor.  Even in the United States, where a well-funded disinformation campaign has worked for years to sow doubts about climate change, the number of Americans who respond that climate change is occurring and is human-caused is on the rise.

Eight religious leaders proclaiming

What would the holiday season be without the Pope?  Pope Francis has exercised inspiring moral leadership on the environment.  He has implored political leaders to “take good care of creation” and is said to be preparing an encyclical on climate change. Last week he urged delegates at Lima to work together to find solutions, and he reportedly plans to convene fellow religious leaders on climate ahead of the 2015 climate meeting in Paris.  Imagine the moral force that could be invoked by a joint climate proclamation by leaders of eight world religions.

Seven pay-for-performance agreements

One of the most promising ways to reduce tropical deforestation is through pay-for-performance agreements, in which rich countries pay tropical forest countries for measured and verified performance, funded by public budgets or carbon market offsets.  Pay-for-performance agreements have been in place in Brazil ($1B) since 2008, in Guyana ($250M) since 2009, and Indonesia ($1B) since 2010. 

The latter months of 2014 have seen the ranks of pay-for-performance agreements expand to seven countries, with the recent addition of Peru ($300M), Liberia ($150M), Colombia ($65M), and Ecuador ($65M).  And the donor pool has expanded as well, to include Germany in addition to Norway.  More pay-for-performance agreements increase the “n” from which we can learn how to successfully reduce emissions from deforestation.   It’s important for these agreements to be diverse as well as numerous, which is why I’m looking forward to programs under the Carbon Fund, BioCarbon Fund, California’s Cap-and-Trade System, and Japan’s Joint Crediting Mechanism.  

Six reference levels

The linchpin of any pay-for-performance agreement is the reference level—the benchmark of emissions relative to which reductions are calculated and payments are made.  A reference level is not just a technical calculation; it has financial, environmental, and political implications.  Six forest countries have now officially put forward reference levels to the United Nations. Brazil in June, joined by Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico in December.  Together these countries comprise 38% of tropical forest area and 53% of tropical deforestation. The gauntlet has now been thrown to rich countries to pay for the resulting emission reductions.  Peter Graham of the World Wildlife Fund notes, “This now represents a challenge to donor nations and financial institutions to take full advantage of this opportunity for significant mitigation in the pre-2020 timeframe.”

Five-cent solar

In March of 2014 the City of Austin signed a 25-year agreement to purchase power from two West Texas solar plants for just 5 cents per kilowatt hour—the lowest solar price ever.  The long-falling cost of solar energy has finally become cheaper than average electric prices in 10 states, according to Deutschebank, and by 2016 will be cheaper in 47 states (and in 36 states without tax credits).  Cheap renewable energy fundamentally changes the economic calculus of climate action, turning fossil fuel divestment and anti-pipeline campaigns from righteous sacrifices to shrewd bets.

2014 was also the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put forward a “carbon budget” of how much fossil carbon can still be burnt while avoiding dangerous climate change  (about one trillion tons, implying that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves would need to be left in the ground).   And in one of the few bright spots of the recent Lima climate negotiations, climate negotiators inserted placeholder language in the draft negotiating text aiming for the first time for a total international phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050. 

Four satellites flying

Forest monitoring technology has enabled advances in many aspects of humanity’s response to global climate change, from science, to international negotiations, to national policies, to performance-based finance partnerships.  The recent quantum leap forward in forest monitoring technology means that capacity to monitor forests is no longer the barrier to international finance for forests and climate that it was in the 1990s when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated.  Four of the most important technologies for monitoring the world’s forests include

  • Landsat, thanks to which anyone with a computer can freely download a global map showing areas of forest losses and gains the size of a baseball diamond every year from 2000 to 2012.
  • Modis, which enables bi-weekly alerts of where deforestation is happening, allowing authorities to match illegal clearing to specific landholdings and to enforce forest laws
  • The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), launched in early 2014, which measures greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and enables independent assessment of terrestrial fluxes of carbon to and from the atmosphere
  • Lidar, which will be mounted on the International Space Station in 2018, letting scientists directly monitor losses and gains in forest carbon stocks at a resolution smaller than a baseball diamond

Three hundred thousand marching

September 2014 saw more than 300,000 people take to the streets of New York City to march for a safe and stable climate ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.  People power fueled many of the great social movements of recent history, from civil rights to peace to the fall of apartheid.  Now it may be doing so for climate.  The same week saw:

  • more than twenty-five countries commit to halve deforestation by 2020 and strive to end it by 2030;
  • dozens of major players in the palm oil, soy, paper, and beef industries commit to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020;
  • hundreds of businesses publicly call for a price on carbon pollution;
  • and an announcement by Norway, Germany, and the UK to provide funding for up to 20 pay-for-performance partnerships to reduce deforestation

Two titans handshaking

The biggest surprise of 2014 came in November when President Obama and Premier Xi shook hands on a US-China climate deal.  Together these countries account for more than a third of annual greenhouse gas emissions.  The US pledged to reduce emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while China pledged for its emissions to peak and decline before 2030, and to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. 

Following a commitment by the European Union in October to cut its emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, this accord will put tremendous peer pressure on India, Russia, Australia, and other big polluters.

For a visionary take on how this “G2” alliance could snowball to a safe and stable climate in 20 years, read this “future history” by my former colleagues Lawrence MacDonald and Jing Cao.

One shared sky

September 2014 brought the heartwarming news that, for the first time in decades, the planet’s ozone layer expanded. This is tangible proof that humanity truly can come together to effectively solve global environmental challenges, as it did with the 1989 Montreal Protocol banning ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.  And doing so can cost far less than initially anticipated, once the first steps are taken. 

Decarbonizing our modern economy represents a far greater challenge than eliminating a few refrigerants.  But I’m more optimistic than ever that humanity is equal to the task, thanks to:

Twelve states-a-pricing

Eleven years of slowing

Ten years-a-waiting

Nine-in-ten agreeing

Eight religious leaders proclaiming

Seven pay-for-performance agreements

Six reference levels

Five-cent solar

Four satellites flying

Three hundred thousand marching

Two titans handshaking

One shared sky

 

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.