For the past two decades, governments, companies and non-governmental organizations concerned about climate change have looked to comprehensive global and national policy solutions.
While this approach makes sense — given that climate change is a global issue and market-based national or international solutions would be far less expensive solutions than command and control approaches — an ambitious, binding international treaty has yet to materialize. And here in the U.S., climate change legislation doesn’t look likely for the foreseeable future.
Yet despite the lack of consensus at the national or international level, there have been two areas of progress that may provide the seeds for a substantial global effort in the future. Reflecting back on our efforts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) to promote practical policies to address climate change during the 15 years that I led the organization, some of the most positive trends I see are in the areas of policy action at the subnational level and technological innovation to reduce carbon emission.
The Need for a Comprehensive Solution
It’s clear that national and global policies will ultimately be necessary to meet the challenges presented by climate change, and two precedents suggest this is possible.
The first, the Montreal Protocol, was a global treaty originally signed in 1987 that was designed to eliminate the production and use of the substances that had been shown to deplete the earth’s ozone layer. Like climate change, ozone depletion is a global issue — release of the gases anywhere in the world can deplete the ozone layer, allowing harmful UV radiation from the sun to penetrate the atmosphere. One hundred and ninetyseven countries are party to this treaty, which has been remarkably successful. Most of the harmful chemicals have been eliminated and the health of the ozone layer continues to improve.
In the United States, the Acid Rain Program (Title IV of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990) was another precedent considered by climate policy makers. This program established an overall limit on the amount of sulfur dioxide that can be emitted, but allowed individual coal burning power plants (the major sources of sulfur dioxide) to trade their allowances to emit so that compliance could be achieved at the lowest possible cost. The goals of this program have been met at costs far lower than those estimated at the time of passage of the amendments. Again, implementation of this section of the Clean Air Act has been an undeniable success.
Based on these two precedents, the climate change policy community determined that what was needed was a binding international treaty that would set specific limits on the quantity of greenhouse gases an individual country can emit. And in the United States, an enormous effort was also put into designing a cap and trade program modeled on the acid rain program that would decrease the greenhouse gas emissions emitted and allow for the trading of the allowances to emit. Groups like the United States Climate Action Partnership, with membership ranging from GE, Duke Energy, Shell, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change were even able to produce a blueprint for a cap and trade program that served as the underpinning of the Waxman-Markey bill in the House of Representatives.
But neither of these efforts was ultimately successful. A binding international treaty (the Kyoto Protocol) was negotiated in 1997. But without the participation of the United States (which did not ratify the treaty, even though it was the U.S. approach that formed the basis of the agreement), and without a specific target for China (along with other developing countries), the benefits of the agreement — while not insignificant — have not been robust.
And while the Waxman-Markey bill did pass the House of Representatives, no legislation dealing with climate change passed the Senate. Neither a binding international treaty with ambitious targets nor climate change legislation in the United States seem likely for the foreseeable future, due in large measure to government dysfunction, the power of the incumbent industry and a lack of political leadership.
Local Action, Technological Innovation Give Hope
In the absence of strong comprehensive policy, two trends seem positive and may provide the basis for a more a substantial global effort.
The first of these is the devolution of policy to the subnational level. In the United States, this can be seen in the statebased renewable or alternative energy standards or goals (38 states). In China, there are six local and regional cap and trade programs. Many cities around the world have set targets for reducing their emissions (London has a 60 percent reduction target by 2025, New York has an 80 percent reduction target by 2050). And many cities have joined together to learn strategies from one another.
But the more important trend can be found in the global development and deployment of carbon-free or carbon-limited technology. Over the course of the last decade, there has been a steady advance in both the development and deployment of more sophisticated, climate-friendly technologies.
At the same time, there has been a decline in the costs of those technologies. In many parts of the world, renewable energy has become cost-competitive with more traditional, fossil fuel-based energy. As a result, global wind energy generation quadrupled between 2000 and 2006; global solar photovoltaic capacity has grown more in the last four years than in the preceding four decades; and global electric vehicle sales more than doubled between 2011 and 2012.
These trends are likely to continue. Over the next decade, we are almost certain to see both improvements in productivity and efficiency based on the deployment of intelligent machines and the growth of the Industrial Internet. Further development in wind, solar and battery storage technology will enable greater renewable deployment. Many older power plants — particularly in the developed world — will be retired, and replacements will almost certainly come from either renewable technologies or increasingly efficient natural gas facilities. Despite this trend, however, fossil fuels (particularly coal) are still likely to dominate the global energy mix over the next several decades unless policies are put in place to reward or require the use of these new technologies.
The question is whether the policy experiments at the subnational level and the increased availability of low-cost, carbon-free or carbon-limited technologies will be sufficient to spur the national and global policies that are needed to address climate change. Continuing to move forward aggressively in these promising areas will give us the greatest chance of success.
Eileen Claussen was Founder and President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) for 15 years before stepping aside earlier this year. Claussen is a member of the advisory board for GE’s ecomagination. She is former Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and served for three years as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Global Environmental Affairs at the National Security Council. Claussen has also served as Chairman of the United Nations Multilateral Montreal Protocol Fund.