3 New Years Resolutions That Will End the World's Dependency on Fossil Fuels
1. Take Delivery: Accelerate pre-2020 Compliance with Emission Reduction Pledges
The Paris accord—by contrast with Rio and Kyoto—was a bottom-up exercise in open-source diplomacy. National governments largely were significantly influenced by the leadership of cities, the private sector and community and civic organizations.
But it was still nations that agreed to the text. And the text, as massive commentary has groaned and complained, is not binding. (Neither, in any meaningful sense, were Rio and Kyoto. The U.S. violated Rio which it ratified, and Canada walked from Kyoto. No traffic tickets were issued).
Photo credit: Shutterstock
But the essence of Paris is the belief that nations want to carry out their emission reduction, clean energy and ecosystem protection pledges, because it is in their self-interest. But wanting to accelerate low-carbon development and getting it done are two different things—and the biggest challenge for the climate movement is to dramatically speed up successful implementation of the Paris commitments made by almost 200 nations.
There’s good news. The Chinese government, with the world’s biggest emissions, just announced that it will stop permitting new coal mines. The nation will also increase its wind and solar capacity by 21 percent.
And bad. Both Tanzania and Bangladesh are poised to increase their reliance on coal, although both have huge renewables potentials, because the international financing mechanisms to launch a renewables revolution like China’s are not in place, and seem to have a very low priority among the world’s finance ministries.
Worse, the U.S. has not yet taken essential steps to meets its 26-28 percent emission reduction target. While the Obama Administration has moved aggressively to cut carbon emissions from utilities, and improve efficiency of cars and trucks, three of the key pillars of its Paris pledge remain in limbo:
- In Paris, the White House committed to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 percent. But so far it has not ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate these emissions from existing sources, leaving it to the demonstrably inadequate regulatory systems of the various states. If this loophole is not closed, the U.S. will not meet the methane target—or its Paris pledge.
- President Obama has also promised—and nagged his fellow world leaders—to eliminate subsidies of fossil fuels. Yet the U.S. remains one of the biggest offenders. U.S. tax subsidies for the oil industry are, it is true, in the hands of Congress, and Obama can’t unilaterally repeal them. But he just agreed to permit oil exports, a huge favor to the U.S. industry, without insisting on ending the subsidies as part of the deal. And coal industry subsidies are largely controlled by the Department of the Interior, which could eliminate most of them by simply reforming the procedures by which it leases and collects royalties on coal mined on public land.
- Obama also pledged in Paris that the federal government would purchase huge numbers of hybrid and EV vehicles, so that by 2020 20 percent of its fleet would be run by advanced, low-carbon technologies. But federal purchasing authorities continual to obstruct this transition, and the Post Office is being permitted to buy 180,000 new internal combustion powered vehicles.
Focused, energetic efforts to make sure that the pledges made in Paris are redeemed between now and 2020 are the key to what happens in terms of the essential acceleration of climate progress after 2020. And since the pledges made in Paris will be redeemed in homes and factories and offices and cities around the world, by planning departments, utility regulators, pollution control agencies, purchasing departments, and a host of other businesses, agencies and institutions, this is a perfect bottom up opportunity to build a climate movement locally around each country’s solemn Paris promises.
2. Follow the Money: Target the Fossil Industrial Complex
While reliance on clean energy has been accelerating globally, and will almost certainly continue to flower, the grim reality in the year leading up to the Paris Accord, the world economy burned 5.5 billion tons of coal, only slightly below the record set in 2013. And demand for oil rose to an all time high of 94 million barrels a day. Progress at cutting use of coal and oil is painfully slow.
But now that low carbon energy is, at the margin, competitive with fossil fuels, and headed towards a robust price advantage, it is the politics, not the economics, that keeps carbon ruling the roost. The politics of maintaining subsidies, protecting monopolies and choking off clean energy are the biggest threat to climate progress. This politics is not leveraged by the existence of oil and coal in the ground—but by the entrenched power of the fossil industrial complex, companies that produce, market or provide supply chain resources to fossil fuel consumption. Take down the companies, and the politics becomes vastly easier for emission reductions.
And here, the vulnerabilities look spectacularly different than they did a year ago. Paris itself, of course, was Big Carbon’s deepest defeat. But it was signaled by events like the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Alberta Accords setting a permanent limit on carbon emissions from the tar sands, the announcement of the 200th retirement from the once invincible U.S. coal power fleet, and Shell’s withdrawal from explorations in the Chukchi Sea.
Most spectacular perhaps was the collapse of the global coal industry, with dozens of companies going into bankruptcy and their combined market value in the U.S. falling by more than 90 percent. The economics and stock value of private oil companies hasn’t fallen as far or as fast, but the industry has been forced to slash expenditures on new exploration, and cut payroll. Smaller, independent oil and gas companies in Canada in particular have been forced into or close to bankruptcy. Even the mightiest of the mighty, Saudi Arabia, had to double the cost it charged its own citizens for oil and is running enormous deficits.
Global coal prices are down more than 50 percent since 2011, and oil has fallen even faster, down more than half since 2014. These prices don’t stop the world from burning these fuels—in the short term they encourage it. But they dry up the pool of exorbitant profits that made oil and coal global economic and political juggernauts. The Alberta Accords are the best example—it was the combination of low global oil prices and environmental campaign success in denying the Tar Sands producers pipeline access they needed to cut costs that forced the Canadian oil industry to negotiate with the Government—and that combination can be a model for climate campaigners.
Go after the money, not the carbon.
3. Cheap is Good: Relish our Role as the “low priced spread”
U.S. butter producers used to mock margarine as “the low priced spread.” Margarine still stole most of butter’s market. Renewable energy is rapidly becoming the low-price spread—but neither the media (nor climate campaigners) yet understand how to talk about it—we continue to see polls asking “how much more” would the public pay for clean energy, when it will cost less than continuing dependence on fossil fuels.
This is not yet true in every use or every location—but renewable energy and alternative vehicles get cheaper the more of them we make and use. Oil and coal get more expensive the more of them we burn. So we can be confident that clean energy wins the affordability race—but we haven’t yet figured out how to educate the public, media and policy makers about how to take advantage of that opportunity. We’re not even really comfortable ourselves saying it.
That’s for my next blog.
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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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