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.
Just a few weeks after a national poll found that most Americans want the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, the White House announced billions of dollars in new funding for clean energy innovations. Is solar paint the wave of the future? Will Republicans in Congress succeed in derailing the president's agenda for the climate summit in Paris? Zoe Schlanger of Climate Desk partner Newsweek and I visited the set of MSNBC's Greenhouse program this morning to discuss.
A major two-week summit on climate change opened on Monday in Paris, and President Barack Obama was there to urge world leaders to push for a strong international agreement to slow global warming.
In his speech (video above), the president also offered a rebuke to the terrorists behind the November 13 attacks in the French capital that left 130 people dead.
The summit, he said, is "an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children."
Obama acknowledged America's unique responsibility for ensuring success at the talks, which are designed to produce an unprecedented agreement between nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It's the first time nations have tried to reach that goal since the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, crumbled over disagreements between the United States, China, and developing nations.
In his second term, Obama has sought to make action on climate change a central part of his legacy; a strong agreement in Paris would be a vital component to that. "I've come here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and the second-largest emitter," Obama said, "to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."
Prior to the speech, Obama met privately with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders have worked closely over the last year to advance a joint climate agenda. Xi also gave a speech, in which he said it was "very important for China and the United States to be firmly committed to the right direction of building a new model of major country relations."
Obama's remarks come a day after the White House announced a sweeping initiative to double public-sector investment in clean energy research and development from $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020. That new program, known as Mission Innovation, also includes more than a dozen major private-sector investors, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Finance for clean energy and for climate change adaptation is likely to be a major issue at the talks, as vulnerable nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere urge the United States and other major emitters to pony up more cash. At the last major climate summit in Copenhagen, countries agreed to raise $100 billion per year for a UN-administered climate adaptation fund. That goal is only about two-thirds met.
In July, British tabloid the Daily Mail came out with a screaming headline: "EXCLUSIVE: Video shows Hillary Clinton boarding private jet just hours after launching global-warming push." Clinton's strategy to slash carbon dioxide emissions, the Mail gleefully reported, didn't preclude her from traveling on an aircraft that burns hundreds of gallons of jet fuel every hour.
Air travel by environmentalists has long been an easy punching bag for conservative pundits—and private jets like Clinton's probably deserve some sneering. But for those of us who have to make do with commercial airliners, flying is becoming much easier to defend. Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher at the University of Michigan, has found that from 1970 to 2010, the amount of energy consumed per mile, per passenger, on an average domestic flight dropped 74 percent. From 1968 to 2014, the fuel efficiency of new airplanes improved 45 percent, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
For this good news, we can thank airlines' obsession with fuel, which accounts for roughly one-third of their expenses. At Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, there's a rule of thumb: A 1 percent improvement in efficiency adds up to $1 million in fuel savings over the course of a single-aisle plane's 25-year life span.
On Monday, roughly 40,000 heads of state, diplomats, scientists, activists, policy experts, and journalists will descend on an airport in the northern Paris suburbs for the biggest meeting on climate change since at least 2009—or maybe ever. The summit is organized by the United Nations and is primarily aimed at producing an agreement that will serve as the world's blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of global warming. This is a major milestone in the climate change saga, and it has been in the works for years. Here's what you need to know:
What's going on at this summit, exactly? At the heart of the summit are the core negotiations, which are off-limits to the public and journalists. Like any high-stakes diplomatic summit, representatives of national governments will sit in a big room and parse through pages of text, word by word. The final document will actually be a jigsaw puzzle of two separate pieces. The most important part is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are commitments made individually by each country about how they plan to reduce their carbon footprints. The United States, for example, has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Nearly every country on Earth has submitted an INDC, together covering about 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (You can explore them in detail here.) The video above, from Climate Desk partner Grist, has a good rundown of how this all really works.
The Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we'll see just how far that success can go.
The INDCs will be plugged in to a core agreement, the final text of which will be hammered out during the negotiations. It will likely include language about how wealthy nations should help pay for poor nations' efforts to adapt to climate change; how countries should revise and strengthen their commitments over time; and how countries can critically evaluate each other's commitments. While the INDCs are unlikely to be legally binding (that is, a country could change its commitment without international repercussions), certain elements of the core agreement may be binding. There's some disagreement between the United States and Europe over what the exact legal status of this document will be. A formal treaty would need the approval of the Republican-controlled US Senate, which is almost certainly impossible. It's more likely that President Barack Obama will sign off on the document as an "executive agreement," which doesn't need to go through Congress.
Meanwhile, outside the negotiating room, thousands of business leaders, state and local officials, activists, scientists, and others will carry out a dizzying array of side events, press conferences, workshops, etc. It's basically going to be a giant party for the world's climate nerds.
But what about the terrorist attacks in Paris? Of course, all of this will be happening while the French capital is still reeling from the bombings and shootings that left 129 dead on November 13. Shortly after the attacks, French officials affirmed that the summit would still happen. But it will be tightly controlled, with loads of additional security measures. As my colleague James West has reported, many of the major rallies and marches that activists had planned will be canceled at the behest of French authorities. So the festive aspects of the summit are likely to be toned way down, with attention focused just on the formal events needed to complete the agreement. The summit could also direct a lot of attention to the links between climate change, terrorism, and national security.
Is this actually going to stop climate change? Short answer, no. The latest estimate is that the INDCs on the table will limit global warming to about 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As I wrote in October, "That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course." No one expects that this summit will be the end of the battle to stop climate change. As technology improves and countries get more confident in their ability to curb greenhouses gases, they'll be able to step up their action over time. That's why it's essential for the agreement to include a requirement for countries to do so. In any case, even if the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels right now, warming from existing greenhouse gas emissions would continue for decades, so adaptation is also a crucial part of the agreement.
It's basically going to be a giant party for the world's climate nerds
Some environmentalists have criticized that incremental approach as not urgent enough, given the scale of the problem. They could be right. But the fact is that right now, there's no international agreement at all. The Paris talks will lay an essential groundwork for solving this problem over the next couple of decades. And there's a pretty good chance the talks will be successful. At the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, negotiations crumbled because officials couldn't agree on a set of global greenhouse gas limits that would hold most countries to the same standard despite differences in their resources and needs. That's why, this time around, the approach is bottom-up: Because countries have already worked out their INDCs, there's no ambiguity about what they're willing to do and no need to agree on every detail.
Meanwhile, the mere existence of the talks has already spurred a wave of new investment in clean energy, new commitments from cities and states around the globe, and other actions that aren't part of the core agreement.And the international peer pressure around the INDCs has already made it clear that simply ignoring climate change isn't a realistic geopolitical option, even for countries like Russia or the oil-producing Gulf states. That's a significant change from what would be happening in the absence of the talks. In other words, it's safe to say that the Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we have the opportunity to see how far that success can go.
So everything is peaches and cream? Not quite. There are some big remaining questions about how much money the United States and other wealthy countries will commit to help island nations, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and other places that are highly vulnerable to global warming. The international community is still far short of its goal of raising $100 billion annually by 2020 to fund adaptation. The legal status of the agreement remains unclear. We don't know whether countries can agree on a long-term target date (say, 2100) to fully cease all greenhouse gas emissions. And it's unclear how much tension there will be between juggernauts such as the United States, China, and the 43-country-strong negotiating bloc of highly vulnerable developing nations.
At Climate Desk, we'll have an eye on all these questions, and more—both from the ground in Paris and from our newsrooms in the United States. So stay tuned.
A worker installs solar panels on November 17 in Yantai, Shandong Province, in China.
When world leaders convene on Monday in Paris for two weeks of high-stakes climate negotiations, one of the top items on the agenda will be how developing nations should prepare for and help to slow global warming. Opponents to President Barack Obama's climate agenda, such asGOP presidential contender Marco Rubio, like to argue that anything the United States does to curb greenhouse gas emissions will be pointless because countries like India and China aren't doing the same.
But new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that this argument is just hot air: For the first time ever, over the last year the majority of global investment in clean energy projects was spent in developing countries. In fact, clean energy investment in China alone outpaced that in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined, BNEF found. Across 55 major non-OECD countries, including India, Brazil, China, and Kenya, clean energy investment reached $126 billion in 2014, a record high and 39 percent higher than 2013 levels.
The chart below shows how that level of investment is opening up a market for wind, solar, and other clean energy projects in non-OECD countries that is now larger than the market in the traditional strongholds of the United States and Europe. In other words, the very countries Rubio likes to malign as laggards are actually leading the charge.
That trend is likely to continue for decades to come, BNEF found. Check out their projection for growth through 2040:
These numbers add up to a big deal for the climate, because they show that countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that still lack reliable electricity for millions of people are solving that problem, and growing their economies, without relying on dirty fossil fuels. China, to be clear, is still the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it doesn't plan to peak its emissions until 2030. But its early commitment to clean energy means it can continue its rapid rate of growth with far less pollution than it would produce otherwise.
The BNEF report is just themost recent good sign for the clean energy business. Big corporations in the United States are signing contracts for a record amount of clean energy for their data centers, warehouses, and other facilities. And the Paris talks are likely to send a jolt through the industry, as countries around the world redouble their commitments to get more of their power from renewable sources.
Stay tuned for more news on this front as the talks unfold over the coming weeks.