Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Best Three Years in Climate History: Believe It or Not, It’s True

Carl Pope

Yes, the world fell far behind in controlling emissions and there’s much to be done. But there’s progress and hope.

How is climate progress faring? Hurricanes from Asia to the Carolinas, fires in California and Spain, floods in southern India and heat waves in Europe are sobering reminders of how much is at stake and how far we have to go. But how fast are we moving?

We’re awash in conflicting assessments. It’s the third anniversary1 of the U.S.-China agreement that laid the groundwork for the historic Paris climate accords. Last week saw the Global Climate Action Summit, a San Francisco gathering of bottom-up climate leaders, and this week we had the more nation-state-flavored One Planet Summit convened by French President Emmanuel Macron and Michael Bloomberg in New York.

It’s time for a report card.

Our grade depends on when you begin. In the U.S.-China Joint Statement1 three years ago, the world’s two largest carbon emitters pledged themselves “to a successful climate agreement in Paris” and to “mid-century strategies for the transition to low-carbon economies [and] the below 2 degree [Celsius] global temperature goal.” At Paris, the U.S. and China joined other nations to offer short-term emission reductions commitments. How are we doing since that pledge?

America’s Pledge, a catalyzing and analyzing platform (I am its vice chair), last week released “Fulfilling America’s Pledge2,” the first comprehensive report on the U.S. potential for meeting its Paris goal of reducing 2025 emissions by 24 to 26 percent from current levels. The report concluded that existing commitments will get us two-thirds of the way; increased momentum by companies, cities and states would leave the U.S. just short of meeting its goal by 2025.

Strikingly, this progress is possible even though the current administration in Washington has totally abandoned multilateral climate diplomacy. The report also found that continued bottom-up climate leadership would put the U.S. on a trajectory of deep “decarbonization” by 2050 – even without federal leadership between now and 2020.

So, the United States is basically on track, if accelerated engagement by the real economy continues. What about China, the world’s largest emitter? Here the news is even better. China has pledged that its emissions would peak by 2030. One study has concluded that this peak may already have occurred, more than a decade early3 – although other observers think that the real peak is still some years ahead. China clearly met its 2020 goal4 for cutting carbon intensity in 2017, three years ahead of schedule. It achieved its reforestation goal five years early. It’s on track to meet its Paris renewable energy pledge.

The No. 3 key climate player is India. From 2020 to 2040, 27 percent of global energy growth will be created by that one country (About 19 percent will come from China.). India is overall solidly on track to meet its Paris pledges5. Indeed, it’s likely to exceed them by far, given that India has met its renewable target 12 years ahead of schedule.

So three years into the Paris agreement, the three key players are either on track or moving faster than promised. So why is so much recent coverage of climate progress much less positive? Why did Brad Plumer of the New York Times dismiss bottom-up climate progress6 in the U.S., writing that the “groundswell hasn’t been nearly enough to counteract the effects of the Trump administration’s retreat on climate policy”? Why does a Rhodium group analysis7 cited by Plumer report that the U.S. will only make half its goal – no more than it is has already done? Why was Yale professor Angel Hsu “shocked to find that the numbers were so low8 when she looked for measures of progress?

Three misperceptions skew the conversation. The most important of these is the time factor. The three years since Paris have shown remarkable progress, but the world has not, and could not have, made up for the last 18 years – the period between Kyoto to Paris – during which the ‘who-is-going-to-pay-the-bill?’ conversation drowned out the new reality that for most countries a transition away from fossil fuels will be a huge economic bonus, not a sacrifice.

The second distortion is a focus on yesterday’s key climate players, the world’s most affluent Western nations, which, the U.S. aside, are indeed falling behind on their pledges9. They need to catch up. More importantly, they need to give up their stranglehold on the flow of finances that emerging markets need to leapfrog fossil fuel technology. But their response – or their failure to respond to date – to the climate finance challenge is far more consequential than the exact year in which the last diesel car is sold in Italy.

Finally, it is indeed far easier to measure the past than the future. Both the Rhodium report and the Yale study look only at where we are, our current position, not how much faster we are moving than three years ago, i.e., our momentum. Conventional economic models used to forecast emissions are heavily biased in favor of yesterday’s economics and today’s policy. They are almost useless when it comes to projecting tomorrow’s technology and political environment. Rhodium’s end of June report, for example, focuses on “current policy,” but since that date, dozens of important changes in state and local policy continue to tilt the U.S. emission trajectory steadily downwards. Yale’s analysis looked only at explicit, formal climate commitments – ignoring the fact that most decarbonization happens simply because wind and solar are cheaper than fossil fuels.

Behind these biases is a common flaw – the concept that climate progress is still about shared sacrifice. One analysis captured this precisely, lamenting: “Here’s what subnational and non-state actors can’t do: Make others take action.” That’s true. Behind it lies the notion that someone can. But history from Kyoto to Paris has demonstrated that if climate solutions are resisted by the real economy, neither the global community nor national governments will force them to comply.

Fulfilling America’s Pledge2” marks the first comprehensive effort to measure the future – inadequately, and only for the United States. But it shows not only that deep decarbonization is possible, and profitable, but identifies the pathways, actors and timetables that can get us there. The last three years, have been the best in a century for the future of the climate – President Trump notwithstanding. We need to double down on what is working.

Carl Pope is veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, and current principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies and serves as Senior Climate Advisor to former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Carl served on the Boards of the California League of Conservation Voters, Public Voice, National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, Public Interest Economics Inc, and Zero Population Growth.

Carl is also the author of the books: Sahib, An American Misadventure in India and Hazardous Waste in American and co-author with Michael Bloomberg of Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet



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