At the heart of the Paris agreement are 195 voluntary national pledges to reduce climate pollution. These pledges broke through decades of gridlock, but if fulfilled, get us only halfway to climate rescue. By 2020 nations must be ready, roughly, to double this pace of emission reductions—but the pledges they made do not, in a legally binding sense, kick in until that year.
The hidden premise that powered Paris was that countries would not wait until the 2020 deadline, but would act promptly. Why would they act sooner than pledged? Because, the negotiators hoped, these goals are steps countries want to take for their own selfish reasons.
With sufficient velocity by 2020 it would be clear to everyone that faster emission reduction is a good deal all around, indeed inevitable. Rapid decarbonization will be seen in 2020 as vital for countries to remain competitive. It is that premise and that hope which framed President Obama’s climate discussion in his State of the Union message.
It was only a few paragraphs, but he gave climate advocates some powerful language we have long needed—and which emerged only after extended internal debate within the White House.
The President began not with climate but with pocketbooks. “In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills.” Telling the truth that clean energy is now cheaper was something the administration long resisted—first because the data has only recently become clear that this is the truth and second because White House staff feared that even if true, the public was not ready to believe.
Only a few months ago, when Vice-President Biden spoke to a very friendly Renewable Energy Conference in Las Vegas, he hedged: solar power he said, was getting “awfully close to the cost of coal.” In November the White House promised only that “By 2030, climate commitments could make clean energy less costly than even our cheapest fossil resources.”
So to be as direct as Obama was in the State of the Union message is a big shift. Why? Well, the data keeps getting stronger. Recent polling demonstrates that the public is far more ready to believe this than only a few months ago. But I think an important ingredient is that the idea that cheaper = cleaner is at the heart of the Paris agreement that the President just worked so hard to bring home. After all, Paris is voluntary. Countries do have competing priorities and concerns. Only if we are ready to embrace the affordability argument for decarbonization will we get it done in time.
How are we doing?
Remarkably, only a month after the Paris Agreement was ratified, many of the world’s biggest emitters have taken aggressive and substantial steps to redeem their voluntary pledges. The Obama Administration, which just before Paris stopped oil leasing in the Arctic Ocean and blocked the Keystone Pipeline, has slapped a nationwide moratorium on coal leases on public lands. New York State has become the ninth state to go coal free and the number of coal power plants with firm shut-down dates in the U.S. has reached 228.
China quintupled the fee it charges coal users to help support renewable energy development, projecting it would increase its renewable capacity by 21 percent in 2016. (China ended 2015 having installed 40 percent of the world’s total new renewables. At 21 percent a year, China’s renewable capacity will have more than doubled by 2020.) As a result of its growing renewables and greater efficiency, China, the biggest global carbon emitter, cut coal consumption by 5 percent in 2015 for the second year in a row, coal power generation by 4 percent and banned the initiation of new coal mines. And as global oil prices slumped, China quietly ceased passing the reduced cost of crude on to gasoline and diesel users, effectively putting a $40/bl floor under oil prices to ensure that cheap oil did not drive increase consumption and emissions.
India accelerated pending tough new pollution rules for autos by moving the deadline up four years, while in the same month announcing much tougher emission requirements for coal fired power plants. The government in New Delhi even experimented with banning half of the city’s cars from the roads to reduce lethal levels of air pollution.
In Canada, in the wake of the U.S. rejection of Keystone XL and the government of Alberta’s commitment to set a permanent cap on carbon emissions from tar sands producers in the lead up to Paris, the newly elected Liberal Government banned tanker traffic off the Northern Coast of British Columbia, effectively blocking construction of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. Weeks later the government of British Columbia strongly opposed a third pipeline, Kinder-Morgan’s TransCanada route, leaving Tar Sands Producers with no clear route to expand their pipeline to market capacity.
The previously climate skeptical Australian government has now resumed supporting wind energy as part of its national renewables strategy and as a result awarded contracts for its cheapest wind energy ever.
In Europe, Southern European utilities which have continued to shift to renewables (it is sunnier in Spain!) are now outpacing their normally more profitable northern competitors, as they accelerate their wind and solar portfolios. The last British underground coal mine, Kellingsley, closed, even as the Conservative government promised a 2025 end to all coal burning in the UK, making the nation that launched the coal revolution the first to formally renounced it.
Morocco, already viewed as a huge solar power, awarded the cheapest wind power bid every, anywhere, $.03.kwh and promptly announced that it would invest $40 billion in renewables and obtain 52 percent of its electricity from renewables.
Of course there are counter-currents. Australian officials gave another round of permits to a massive coal extraction projects in the Galillee Basin. Countries in South East Asia are still teeing up massive number of coal plants, even though their citizens are resisting—and Japan and Korea still seem willing to finance them. British Prime Minister Cameron, while pledging a coal phase-out, is also stalling on his country’s commitment to renewables.
But the forward momentum is at meaningful, perhaps astonishing scale for a single month. Clearly many of them were in the works before Paris, but there is no hint that 200 nations went to Paris, made their pledges and then forgot them. Obviously most of the record breaking 329 billion invested in clean energy in 2015 was committed well before the shape of the Paris Accord was clear.
What really happened, however, is even more hopeful—Paris commitments reflected a new economic and clean energy reality, they are trailing, not leading indicators. The numbers matter. A new report by the IRENA—International Renewable Energy Agency—concluded that if renewable electricity made up just 36 percent of the global energy mix by 2030 and energy efficiency kept pace with that contribution, the global economy would be on track to meet the 2 degree limit, if not the 1.5 degree pathway really needed. And many of the national efforts described above will get well above 36 percent by 2030—so global leaders are now on pace to rescue the climate.
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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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