Many years from now, the historic international Paris climate agreement could easily be seen as the moment the conversation changed.
“One of the cool things coming out of Paris was the idea of moving from a ‘woe-is-me’ narrative to talking about the possibilities,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network. “This change of attitudes is where I think the momentum is. We are in motion.’’
The Paris accord seems to have turned climate change “from an insurmountable problem to an opportunity,” agreed Richard Kauffman, chairman of energy and finance for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose administration has been at the forefront of climate change mitigation. “People in Paris witnessed a hinge of history taking place. There is a broad range of actors committed to change, and we can see the ways in which change can be made.”
On Friday — Earth Day — representatives from about 150 countries gather at the United Nations in New York to sign the historic agreement, which was adopted in December after years of negotiations and controversy. It is expected to be an important dividing line between “before” and “after.”
“I think Paris will be seen as the tipping point where the drive for de-carbonization picked up momentum and hopefully became unstoppable,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and an international climate change policy expert. “The direction of travel is clear. The only question is the pace.”
Paris has sent a signal strongly encouraging governments, companies, and others to engage in climate action, making it easier and more acceptable to move away from the consumption and investment in fossil fuels toward supporting clean energy.
“Some of what is happening is new, some is not new, but when you put it all together, it is staggering,” said Seth Schultz, director of research for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of cities working to combat climate change. “People have been working on a lot of this stuff for years and years, but Paris is acting as a catalyst and accelerant. It has legitimized efforts and emboldened political leaders. Being able to take action on a climate agenda with the backdrop of 193 countries agreeing provides a legitimacy that is hard to argue against.”
Among other things, the growth in demand for coal has been dropping. Several countries are suspending coal production, or have announced their intention to go coal-free, including China, as have several U.S. states, Oregon and New York among them. President Obama announced in January that he would end most new coal leasing on public lands, and the following month proposed a $10 per barrel oil tax to support clean transportation, although the latter initiative likely will receive little support from a hostile Republican-controlled Congress.
Countries, companies, academic institutions, and others have begun divesting from fossil fuels, and turning to clean energy, a movement that sped up last year, and has continued to quicken since Paris. J.P. Morgan, for example, has decided against further financing coal mining projects, and the Rockefeller Family Fund — with a long and profitable history of fossil fuel investments — announced last month that it was getting out. Moreover, in its statement, the Rockefeller Fund singled out ExxonMobil for its “morally reprehensible conduct” in misleading the public about the effects of climate change, saying it could no longer associate with a company that showed such “apparent contempt” for the public interest.
Rogers noted that valuation procedures often now include reviewing a company’s environmental impact, including its investment in clean energy. “One of the things I have seen post-Paris is: ‘we had better look at resources a company might rely on to get where it’s got to go,’ including long-term environmental impacts,” she said. “They are not brushing them aside anymore. I think divestment [from fossil fuels] is a really important moral compass: if you care about this stuff, you shouldn’t put your money in it. But the reality is that now it also looks like a bad investment. These companies are getting out [of fossil fuels] because it’s bad for business.”
Along with companies, 17 U.S. states have recognized the value of clean energy, recently pledging to increase the pace on renewables. These include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. The bipartisan group of governors agreed to speed up efforts to create a green economy by encouraging renewables, building better electricity grids that include solar and wind power, cutting emissions from transport, and providing incentives for electric cars or those that run on alternative fuels, such as hydrogen or natural gas.
New York has been especially aggressive on climate action under the Cuomo Administration, rivaling perhaps only California’s long environmentally-friendly history. Last year, for example, the state banned fracking, or high-volume hydraulic fracturing, a drilling process that extracts natural gas but poses potential adverse effects to health and the environment. In January, in his State of the State address, Cuomo proposed a $15 million solar technology training program for New York’s state universities and community colleges, and recommended installing solar in more than 150,000 homes and businesses. He also pointed to the state’s requirement that 50 percent of New York’s energy come from renewables by 2030, and announced that the state would eliminate all use of coal by 2020. And earlier this week, the state announced it plans to give select cities and towns $11 million to boost green energy use and prepare for the effects of climate change.
“This all comes from the governor’s increasing interest in these issues,” said Kauffman, the state’s energy chief, pointing out that New Yorkers have become personally sensitive to climate change as a result of their experience of extreme weather events, including Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “We have had lots of weather-related emergencies across the state, thousands of cold, wet, miserable New Yorkers in the dark, storm after storm,” he said, adding that Cuomo felt very strongly “that we have to change the system. Paris certainly has raised the issue, and I think we now see interest from many companies interested in procuring more clean energy.”
To be sure, while climate mitigation actions and trends have gathered force since Paris, many began earlier and helped drive its outcome. Kauffman recalled that the work of numerous so-called “sub-nationals,” that is, cities, states, businesses, and other non-governmental groups, acting ahead of Paris against climate change, almost certainly had an impact on the Paris accords. The conference provided “an opportunity to share with other sub-national actors from around the world what we are doing, and to learn what other countries have done as well,” he said. “Those conversations have continued since Paris.”
“Paris accelerated some of the trends that were evident going in.”
Other factors have also been at work, among them the cheap price of natural gas in many markets and the plummeting cost of solar and wind, which makes the switch away from coal to clean energy more attractive and economically feasible.
Last year the world spent a record high of $329 billion investing in renewable energy, with more than half coming from developing countries where energy consumption is expected to burgeon in the coming years.
Moreover, 40 countries have adopted or are planning carbon pricing, and 28 countries are undertaking energy subsidy reforms, helped by lower oil prices, according to the C40 organization. Also, more than 1,000 major companies and investors have indicated they support the carbon pricing approach, according to C40. Moreover, issuance of “green bonds” for sustainable infrastructure has tripled to $37 billion during the past year, C40 said.
“Everybody was out in front of this before the Paris conference, which drove the process,” Rogers said. “I agree that post-Paris the action is accelerating, but I’m not sure whether the force was the Paris agreement, or the Paris agreement was the result of the forces that had already gathered behind it. My belief is that all of these things are working together.” Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed.
“Paris accelerated some of the trends that were evident going in,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do. Nevertheless, Paris was a game-changer. Clearly you can see the drumbeat of continued announcements and actions, as Paris definitely put the imprimatur on the movement to de-carbonize the economy.
“I do think that 50 years from now, people will look back at Paris as the time the world got its act together to take the needed actions,” he added. “The nice thing is that virtuous action feeds on itself. The more investments shift, the cheaper [renewable energy] will get, and that will become the new perception and reality of where the world is going.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.