Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Today Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama are planning to jointly announce long-awaited details of China's plan to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. The plan, which will commence in 2017, will make China the world's biggest market for carbon cap-and-trade, a system that sets a cap on the amount of CO2 that major polluters like power plants and factories can emit, then allows those entities to sell off excess credits (if they pollute less than the limit) or buy extra ones (if they pollute more than the limit).
The idea of a system like this is that it uses the market—rather than simply a government mandate—to force cuts in the emissions that cause climate change. Want to pollute? Fine, but it's going to cost you. If you clean up, you can make cash selling credits to your dirtier neighbors. A similar type of policy, a carbon tax, imposes a different kind of financial incentive in the form of a fee paid to the government for every unit of CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the rationale behind both systems is the same: Because corporate polluters now have to pay a financial price price for their emissions, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption both go down, clean energy goes up, and the climate is saved.
Many environmental economists agree that some kind of carbon price—either cap-and-trade or a tax—is the most efficient and effective way to quickly curb fossil fuel consumption, and thus give us a chance at staving off global warming. Democrats in Congress attempted to enact a national cap-and-trade program in the US in 2009; it passed the House but was killed by the Senate Republicans. Since then, a national carbon pricing system has been a non-starter in Washington. But there are plenty of other examples of successful systems elsewhere that should make us optimistic about China's new plan.
The Northeast United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade market that includes nine states in the Northeast, set up in 2008. The program is widely considered a success and is expected to reduce the region's power-sector emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. This year, the price of credits has been riding high, a sign that the market is working to create a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. The most recent auction of credits, in September, generated in $152.7 million for the states—revenue that is re-invested in clean energy programs and electric bill assistance for low-income households.
British Columbia: This Canadian province's carbon tax, first enacted in 2008, is one of the most successful carbon pricing plans anywhere. Gasoline consumption is way down, and the government has raised billions that it has returned to citizens in the form of tax cuts for low-income households and small businesses. The program "made climate action real to people," one Canadian environmentalist told my former colleague Chris Mooney.
Australia: For a country that is notoriously reliant on coal, Australia had been on the progressive side of climate politics after it passed a national carbon tax in 2012. The tax was scrapped just two years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed it for a sluggish economic recovery and high energy prices. But the repeal actually yielded an unexpected insight into the success of the program: In the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis. In other words, the tax had worked effectively to drive down emissions.
Europe: Of course, carbon pricing systems aren't without their flaws, and the European Trading Scheme has provided a good example of the risks. The system has often been plagued by a too-high cap, meaning the market becomes flooded with credits, the price drops, and polluters have little incentive to change. This month, regulators passed a package of reforms meant to restrict the number of credits and bolster the market. But even with the low price, the ETS has been effective enough to keep the EU on track to meet its stated climate goals.
Even with these good examples to draw from, there are still challenges ahead for China. How will the government allocate credits among different polluters? Will the polluters actually trade with one another? How effectively will the government be able to monitor emissions, to ensure that the credits actually match real pollution?
But at the very least, Republicans in the US just lost one their favorite excuses for climate inaction: That China, the world's biggest emitter, is doing nothing.
Days after Volkswagen admitted that half a million cars it sold in the United States contained software enabling them to evade clean air laws, top Environmental Protection Agency officials say they are planning to toughen emissions testing for all automakers. The EPA now plans to examine vehicles for so-called defeat devices.
In a letter released this morning, the EPA said federal regulations allow the agency to "test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device." The EPA said it planned to begin conducting these additional procedures when vehicles undergo emissions and fuel economy testing, and it warned that the new procedures "may add time to the confirmatory test process and…additional mileage may be accumulated."
"We are stepping up our testing," Janet McCabe, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, told reporters. "We take seriously our responsibility to oversee the enforcement of clean air regulations. The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."
"The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."
Last Friday, the EPA issued a citation to Volkswagen for equipping nearly 500,000 diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 with software that can detect when the car is undergoing federal testing for smog-forming emissions. During the test, the cars meet the standard; under normal driving conditions, emissions are up to 40 times higher. Similar devices were installed on some 11 million VW cars worldwide, producing illegal air pollution that may contribute to thousands of deaths. The resulting scandal devastated VW's share value and forced the ouster of its CEO.
The EPA is currently investigating the full extent of the illegal software program and could ultimately deliver up to $18 billion in fines. Today's announcement doesn't affect that investigation. Officials said no recall has been announced and that if one is eventually called for, VW drivers will hear about it directly from the company.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy said the agency is concerned that other automakers could have similar devices that have gone undetected. Even if they don't, VW is responsible for a new raft of regulatory headaches for all companies that want to sell cars in the United States.
Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation, wouldn't say exactly how his agency would sniff out defeat devices. But it would add additional time and rigor to the testing process, he said.
"We're not going to tell them what the test is," he said. "They don't need to know."
A boy with his goat in Bangladesh, one of the countries where the rural poor are most vulnerable to climate change.
As the United Nations convenes in New York this week for its 70th General Assembly, one of the most prominent items on the schedule is to formally sign off on its brand-new Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs, which have been in the works for a few years, are basically a to-do list for all the world's governments from now until 2030. They're also a seemingly impenetrable pile of diplo-jargon.
"If you were to pick up the document, your first reaction could be that it's a lot of 'blah blah blah,'" said Peter Hazlewood, director of development at the World Resources Institute.
Still, the SDGs could have a significant impact on the allocation of resources to fight climate change and other environmental issues over the next decade. Here's what you need to know.
Replacing the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs are a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals, enacted in 2000. There were eight specific MDGs, all targeted at different aspects of extreme poverty: Reduce the child mortality rate by two-thirds, vastly expand access to clean drinking water, turn the tide against HIV/AIDS, etc. Of course, the goals aren't legally binding. Instead, the point was to give developed-country governments and international financial institutions such as the World Bank a target to shoot at when they make decisions about how to spend aid dollars or invest in certain projects. It's a way of saying: "We agree that these are the world's top priorities right now."
The "we" in that sentence was pretty controversial, since—according to lore, at least—the goals were drawn up behind closed doors in the UN basement by a group of elite diplomats. For that reason, it took years for a critical mass of governments to actually rally behind the MDGs and start to implement them. And even then, the they were sometimes criticized for being too narrow and not sufficiently focused on the root causes of poverty.
"Goals such as 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere,' may seem so broad that they will be easy to ignore," Michael Specter wrote.
As of the end of this year, the MDGs will have reached their expiration date. How well did we do on meeting them? So-so. Global poverty and childhood mortality have been greatly reduced; for example, between 1990 and 2015 the portion of people in developing countries living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 50 percent to 14 percent. Still, obviously, global poverty has not been eradicated. The UN's own recent assessment found many goals were un-met, especially with respect to gender equality and conflict refugee issues.
And even in the best scenario, it's far from clear how much impact the MDGs actually had on any of the issues they sought to address. During the same time period, for example, China was developing rapidly and opening up to international trade, which had a huge impact on lifting its citizens out of poverty—quite separately from anything the UN was doing. But it's safe to say that the MDGs loomed over budget conversations at agencies like USAID, and in that way had a tangible impact on how the US and other rich governments spent money on aid.
The MDGs "were far from perfect, and you cannot attribute all progress to them," Hazlewood said. "But you can make a strong case that they had a galvanizing effect."
So what are the Sustainable Development Goals? This time around, while still including poverty, the focus has swung much more toward environmental issues, including climate change adaptation. Here are the 17 goals:
End poverty in all its forms everywhere
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
If that seems like a lot, well, it is. While the MDGs were too narrow, the SDGs could very well be too broad. As Michael Specter pointed out in the New Yorker, "goals such as 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere,' may seem so broad that they will be easy to ignore." UK Prime Minister David Cameron said as much last year, warning that with so many goals, "there's a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust." Even just reading the list seems overwhelming; imagine being a head of state trying to implement it in your sprawling national bureaucracy.
And they're not cheap: By some estimates, they could cost more than $7 trillion a year to implement, and there's still no clear consensus on where exactly that money will come from. It would likely be a mix of private-sector investment; aid from the UN and developed countries; and increased spending by developing countries.
Council on Foreign Relations
At the same time, the goals' breadth could be a strength, as less affluent countries become more involved in implementing them—as opposed to only being on the receiving end of aid dollars. They could provide an impetus for developing countries to get more serious about things under their control, like empowering women, or conserving natural resources, or making urban planning decisions with an eye toward climate impacts. At the very least, the goals provide ammunition for diplomatic peer-pressure: No country wants to look lackadaisical compared to the one next door, or act in direct contravention of the goals, lest they scare off donors or investors. And it could be a way for US agencies to justify increased spending on climate adaptation.
"These are universal goals," Hazlewood said. "It's not just about what the US should be doing with countries in Africa; it's about what every country in the world needs to do."
What's next? Of course, the UN can't compel any country to do any of these things. So the goals won't matter unless individual national governments take them seriously. Unlike the old MDGs, the SDGs were developed over several years with maximum transparency, involving a huge, diverse cast of governments, NGOs, and private companies. The rationale for that strategy was to increase everyone's stake in the goals, so that when they come into effect, countries will swiftly incorporate them into national policy decisions—in other words, take them off the page and into practice. We'll have to wait and see if that will really happen.
"With the MDGs it took years to get any kind of traction and for countries to take them seriously," Hazlewood said. "But this time we can get the process off to a better start."
In the run-up to Pope Francis' address to Congress today, there was a lot of speculation about how his climate change message would play in a chamber where action on climate often goes to die. Most of the pontiff's positions on global warming are not popular with Republican members of Congress—especially the fact that it exists, and that humans are causing it.
We got a bit of a preview during the pope's speech yesterday at the White House, where he laid out his typically forceful message on the need to fight global warming. He even favorably mentioned President Barack Obama's new restrictions on power plant emissions:
Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. (Applause.) Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation. (Applause.) When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. (Applause.)
But a draft of the pope's speech to Congress this morning lays out a considerably softer message on climate. He cites his landmark encyclical on climate, Laudato Si, but he doesn't use the phrase "climate change" at all:
It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good" (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home" (ibid., 3). "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all" (ibid., 14).
In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to "redirect our steps" (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a "culture of care" (ibid., 231) and "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature" (ibid., 139). "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology" (ibid., 112); "to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power" (ibid., 78); and to put technology "at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral" (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America's outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.
The message today is much softer, much less direct. Perhaps Pope Francis didn't want to tread too heavily on the message in a room that wouldn't be receptive to it.