5 Reasons 2015 Was One of the Most Important Years in Decades
2015 was a breakthrough year for our environment—one of the most important in decades.
The nations of the world agreed to a climate deal that finally gives us a chance to turn the corner toward safety. America put in place the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from its largest source, power plants. And the Senate passed sweeping bipartisan legislation that promises to fix our chemical safety system, which has been broken for 40 years.
This is what #climate momentum looks like. What comes next https://t.co/RqYK3IWOs9 https://t.co/c4HnqQo3S2— Fred Krupp (@Fred Krupp)1450890924.0
At Environmental Defense Fund, we’re proud to have played key roles in all of these breakthroughs.
Still, even with all that we accomplished, I expect 2016 to top the year now coming to an end. The twin drivers of progress in the next 12 months will be ambition and accountability—two mutually dependent qualities the environmental movement must have to thrive.
Ambition without accountability is just rhetoric and accountability without ambition is merely record keeping. Together, though, they are what made the recent Paris talks such a success and they are how we’ll ratchet up global action in the year ahead.
1. Paris Set the Tone
For the first time, the world got the message: Climate change is the race of our lives. And leaders responded with action on a global scale. In support of the latest Conference of the Parties or COP21, 187 countries covering almost 99 percent of global emissions submitted commitments to take action on climate.
The agreement reached in Paris doesn’t solve climate change, but it created a framework through which the world can take measurable, verifiable action to see emissions peak, stabilize and eventually decline. And it requires countries to track progress and increase ambition over time, further improving the odds that we can keep warming below catastrophic levels.
In other words, Paris is the starter’s gun.
2. Markets are Ramping Up
The Paris agreement sent a powerful, immediate signal to global markets that the clean energy future is open for business. It’s a message markets are primed to receive: emissions trading systems are already at work in more than 50 places that are home to nearly 1 billion people.
With the Paris framework in place, momentum for bottom-up, decentralized market-based policies will only increase—and at the core of such systems are transparency and integrity.
It’s a principle of economics that as participation grows, activity accelerates. As we reach economies of scale, new investment is drawn in and businesses come to depend on the new market tools.
3. Private Sector is Coming Onboard
The corporate world is ready to play a larger role, too.
More than 100 savvy businesses ran an ad in The Wall Street Journal just before the Paris talks, supporting action to reduce U.S. emissions that achieve or exceed national commitments “and increase ambition in the future.”
By pledging, these companies also invite us to hold them accountable.
4. Clean Energy Investments are Rising
Domestically and internationally, 2015 was a breakthrough year for clean and efficient energy and 2016 should see the amplification of smart policies and investments.
On the domestic front, the U.S. Department of Energy released a new standard to cut emissions from commercial air conditioners and furnaces. It’s expected to save more energy than any other standard the agency has issued so far.
The promise of clean energy is global and another critical piece of the Paris agreement is that it invites the developing world to participate in the rising flow of clean energy investments.
Emerging economies such as China and India are expected to spend $2.7 trillion on renewable energy between 2015 and 2040, far outpacing industrialized nations.
Now all nations, rich and poor, will be able to show that these investments pay off.
5. Market Solutions Grow on Land and at Sea
The “no net loss” habitat standards the Obama administration announced in late 2015 and is set to ramp up in 2016 and call for landscape-scale, market-based solutions that bring net benefits for wildlife on working lands.
At the same time, successes in the U.S. commercial fishing sector are expanding globally. Fishing rights management programs are transforming the industry, increasing prosperity in fishing communities and abundance in fish populations.
These two, ambitious initiatives are built on demonstrable results. Look for more progress in 2016 as they continue to expand.
2016: A Year of Opportunity
While we’re making extraordinary environmental gains, there is, of course, still much to be done.
We need to continue to work with government and industry partners to identify and mitigate methane leaks from the oil and gas sector. We know it can be done at low cost and have tremendous impact.
We also need to ensure that a strong bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act emerges from the House-Senate negotiations and is signed into law. Americans deserve to know their everyday products are safe to use.
The era of delay is over. We must be ambitious and hold our public officials, our business leaders and ourselves accountable. We need smart, flexible solutions that can ratchet up environmental protection over time.
Ambition plus accountability accelerates progress.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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