Nine Surprisingly Strong Signs of Momentum for Climate Action

Got Science? | May 2015

Pope Francis—here visiting the Philippines during a typhoon— has shown leadership on climate change. Photo: Benhur Arcayan, Malacanang Photo Bureau.

A spate of recent developments suggests momentum is building to address climate change—including some truly unexpected and inspiring signs in the United States and around the world. Of course, huge obstacles remain: Florida Governor Rick Scott would allegedly like to censor any official mention of the subject. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe still seems to think that carrying a snowball onto the floor of the Senate offers some kind of “evidence” that global warming is a hoax. And more worrisome, fossil fuel interests including the Koch brothers and Shell Oil are still spending millions trying to repeal renewable energy standards in states around the country through the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other front groups. But consider the following and see if you don’t agree that, when it comes to climate change, dramatic changes are afoot.


1. California breaks new ground on renewables

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown set aggressive new global warming emissions targets for California that put the nation and the world on notice. His plan calls for California to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s a timetable for steep emissions reductions almost unthinkable just a few years ago. And considering that California is the world’s eighth largest economy, the state’s actions make a big difference. Equally impressive, virtually all the evidence shows that California has profited mightily from its green energy economy so far, attracting an estimated $27 billion of venture capital into California clean tech companies since 2006.


2. Record-breaking coal retirements

In a report issued last month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast “the largest wave of coal retirements in U.S. history.” This is good news for air pollution and the carbon emissions that drive global warming. According to the Bloomberg report, fully 7 percent of U.S. coal energy generation is expected to shut down in 2015, spurred by the onset of a key mercury emissions rule and also by tougher economic competition from other energy sources. The upshot, according to this hard-nosed energy forecast: a “fundamental reduction in coal’s share of the U.S. power mix” and a significant step toward reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.


3. Red states among wind and solar leaders

Despite a lot of partisan talk in Washington, renewables are ramping up in many unexpected places. Consider, for example that, aside from California, North Carolina installed more solar photovoltaic systems last year than any other state in the country, with enough solar installations now to meet the needs of close to 100,000 homes. And Texas –a state practically synonymous with fossil fuel production—installed more wind turbines than any other state in 2014. Employing forward-thinking policy and investment, Texas nearly doubled its wind energy generation between 2009 and 2014 to now generate nearly 10 percent of its electricity from wind power.


4. Seismic shift in global business community

In a notable development, the G20 powers recently launched a joint probe into the global financial risks posed by the potential for fossil fuel companies’ so-called “stranded assets”—investments in costly ventures that may never be viable in light of emerging international climate agreements. G20 nations have asked for an independent assessment of whether fossil fuel companies’ $6 trillion of investment into oil, gas, and coal development since 2007 might be based on false assumptions about demand that could risk the bursting of a so-called “carbon bubble.” Equally notable in the new zeitgeist, Newsweek recently reported that HSBC—the world’s third largest bank—wrote a private note to its clients advising them to divest from fossil fuel companies because of increasing risks they will become “economically non-viable.” Considering that 5 of the top 6 Fortune 100 companies are still in the oil refining business, if that doesn’t mark a sea change in thinking, I don’t know what does.


5. Tea Party loyalists are revolting to back solar solutions

Much to the chagrin of the Koch brothers who helped launch the Tea Party in 2009, a growing number of Tea Party activists are turning on their pro-fossil fuel backers to support solar energy. Last year, Debbie Dooley, one of the Tea Party’s original founding members, went head-to-head with the Koch-backed branch of the Tea Party to successfully persuade Georgia’s utility commission to require Georgia Power to buy more of its energy from solar sources. Now, in Florida, some 85 Tea Party groups are joining a broad bipartisan coalition called Floridians for Solar Choice to support a popular ballot initiative that would amend the state’s constitution to allow individuals and businesses with solar panels to sell the power they generate directly to their tenants or neighbors.


6. Regional emissions reduction plans are exceeding expectations

A new report from the nine states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) highlights the continuing success of the nation’s longest-running carbon market, showing that it really is possible to tackle our climate and energy challenges while delivering huge benefits to consumers.  According to the report, RGGI states have successfully cut emissions by 40 percent since 2005 while their economies have grown by 8 percent. Meanwhile, the $1.4 billion in proceeds from their auctions of emissions credits have been invested in energy efficiency projects that will return more than $2.9 billion in lifetime energy savings to millions of households and businesses. In the year to come, look for other states to wake up to these figures—either by asking to join RGGI or by forging regional carbon trading plans of their own.


7. The Pope is getting involved

Pope Francis is laying the foundation for a substantive campaign to combat global warming and environmental degradation, with an imminent Vatican summit meeting and plans for a potentially influential encyclical on the subject this summer. The development shouldn’t be underestimated as a catalyst for change. As Timothy E. Wirth, vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation recently told the New York Times: “We’ve never seen a pope do anything like this. No single individual has a much global sway as he does. What he is doing will resonate in the government of any country that has a leading Catholic constituency.” In particular, the Pope’s exhortations on the subject are expected to speed climate action in some Latin American countries that have resisted getting involved up to now.


8. China is beating its own ambitious pledge

In an agreement with the United States at the end of last year, China pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 and increase its share of non-fossil fuels to around 20 percent in the same time period. While China has yet to publish the details of its plan, it appears to be moving even faster than its pledge would require. According to the latest figures, China burned less coal in 2014 than it did the previous year, the first such decline in decades. At the same time, China increased its spending on renewable energy by an impressive 33 percent in 2014, investing a total of $83.3 billion. That’s the most a country has ever spent on renewables in a single year.


9. Other nations are making notable strides

While China is a pace setter, it is not alone. All told, global green energy investment jumped nearly 17 percent in 2014 from the previous year, topping an unprecedented $270 billion according to a UN-backed report. Examples of this investment abound. Oil-rich Dubai just announced a $3 billion solar project expansion. Mexico made a  larger-than-anticipated pledge in 2014, to cap its carbon emissions by 2026 and to achieve a 22 percent reduction in global warming emissions by 2030. And other nations continue to break new ground in the race for a low-carbon future. In March, for instance, Costa Rica announced that its state-run electricity company had powered the country exclusively with renewable resources (including hydropower) for a record-breaking 75 consecutive days.

Our world is still powered predominantly by burning fossil fuels and the imminent threats posed by climate impacts continue to grow. But make no mistake: with a growing catalog of developments like these, a cleaner and greener future is seeming more achievable than ever before.