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Progress on the Road to Paris
by Basia Yoffe
THERE HAS BEEN SO MUCH GOOD NEWS on Climate Change in recent months, I could easily write a book about it. World leaders are currently gathering in Lima, Peru for a major round of negotiating sessions before next year's UN Climate Summit in Paris. That summit is charged with creating an international agreement to be implemented in 2020. Hopes for a new global agreement that would reduce carbon emissions are high.
Among the promising developments are the U.S.-China pledge to limit emissions, and a G20 communiqué demanding efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fund clean energy. Knowing this, I am confounded by the number of people I talk to who seem to believe that we will face economic collapse if we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy — or that it is simply too late to do anything about climate change. Both assumptions are untrue.
Not even the breakthrough U.S.-China agreement seems to have generated great optimism; many people instead complain about the part of the agreement that allows China to wait until 2030 to hit its emissions peak. This is not a concern of climate scientists such as Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, or Paul Higgans, director of the American Meteorological Society's Policy Program, or Donald Wuebbles a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois or other scientists interviewed by ThinkProgress. All of them believe an agreement by the two largest carbon emitters to be huge, and that it will pressure other nations to follow suit. They also note that because of China's terrible air pollution, the country has the incentive to invest heavily in non-fossil-fuel energy.
Optimism expressed this way by leading scientists does remove dark clouds that have been hanging over my head. The economic news about climate change is optimistic, too: The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate released a report two months ago that "refutes the idea that we must choose between fighting climate change or growing the world's economy," said the Commission's chair, former President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.
THEIR "NEW CLIMATE ECONOMY" report included the following observations:
1. "The world’s 724 largest cities could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 1.4 billion ton of carbon dioxide equivalent annually by 2030 through better, more efficient transport systems. This is greater than the annual emissions of Japan.... Adopting low-carbon technologies — such as new building technologies and electric buses — across 30 megacities could create more than 2 million jobs, while avoiding 3 billion tons of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and 3 million tons of local air pollution by 2025." The report notes that the Brazilian city of Curitiba "has accommodated a threefold increase in population since the 1960s while achieving per capita greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent lower and gasoline consumption 30 percent lower than the national average," while in Sweden, "Stockholm reduced emissions by 35% from 1993 to 2010, but grew its economy by 41 percent."
2. Regarding land use: Restoring just 12 percent of the world's degraded lands can feed another 200 million people and raise farmers' incomes by $40 billion a year — and also cut emissions from deforestation.
3. Regarding energy: As the price of solar and wind power falls dramatically, over half of the world's new electricity generation over the next fifteen years will likely be from renewable sources. Phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies, currently pegged at $600 billion per year (compared to $100 billion on renewable energy), could make funds available for poverty reduction.
Dean Baker, the co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explains that in the United States, six years after the Great Recession, many people are unemployed and underemployed. The construction sector, in particular, has had high unemployment — and renewable energy jobs can change that. "[A]nything that spurs additional demand will create jobs," Baker says. "So if we have a regulation that says you have to do X, Y, and Z to reduce emissions, then that will be a net job creator.” One example is the retrofitting of the Empire State Building, which has saved $75 million in energy costs in three years. This is a news story that should have received major headlines but went largely unnoticed.
MEANWHILE, POPE FRANCIS is working on an encyclical dealing with climate change that is expected to be released early next year, and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, announced that the Vatican is considering calling a meeting of religious leaders to foster global awareness about climate change and the social inequalities it is already causing. He said that "2015 could be a decisive year in history," with the UN having "a unique opportunity" to establish a sustainable course for the global economy in the Paris climate negotiations.
It is no coincidence that the U.S.-China agreement was struck after the People's Climate March and other actions worldwide on September 21st. The voices of the people can inspire political will. So I urge readers to stand up for our children and youth, who are themselves standing up and need our support. Use Project Vote Smart to reach your elected representatives and call them regularly (a great thing to do as a ritual before shabbes). Contact Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator David Vitter of the Environmental and Public Works Committee — both of them Catholics — and them to follow the forthcoming teachings of Pope Francis.
Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. Each of us can improve on our practices in environmental preservation, and each improvement helps create a better world for future generations — really.
Many before us have made sacrifices to enable us to lead the lives we lead. Do something to pay forward that debt. STAND UP.
Basia Yoffe, a member of our editorial board, is a Jewish environmental activist in upstate New York who edits Jewish Currents' "Notes from a Small Planet."