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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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