A coal stacker. Photo: Bernard S. Jansen, Wikimedia Commons
Researching and writing about climate change is often a discouraging pursuit. A subset of conservatives still outright deny that global warming is a problem. Their point of view also happens to be well-funded. And even among those who acknowledge climate change's existence, not nearly enough people take it as seriously as they should, judging by opinion polling.
The international climate talks, which this year saw an important summit meeting in Warsaw, plod on, still suffering from a long-running tension: Rich and poor nations do not see a common path to reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is a classic game-theory problem: No one wants to be the first to restrict economic growth (a direct corollary of carbon-dioxide reductions) unless he or she knows other countries will not free ride. As such, no binding mechanism yet exists that includes universal participation. Rich nations say the developing world should shoulder more of the burden, as they are joining the ranks of the largest emitters; the developing world responds that, on a per capita basis, they are still laggards, and the rich should take the lead, since they enjoyed decades of growth unbounded by environmental restrictions.
In the meantime, climate scientists believe our carbon budget -- the amount of emissions that can be added into the atmosphere before the concentration causes warming above the widely-acknowledged-to-be-safe limit of 2 degrees Celsius -- runs out in 2044. After that point, as this great Grist explainer makes clear, we would have to completely cease carbon pollution to keep under the 2 degree limit.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. The old axiom "politics is the art of the possible" still holds. This year has seen some promising trends on energy and the environment. Thus, to finish out the year, here are the top positive stories and trends from 2013:
Back in 2007, the Supreme Court gave the Environmental Protection Agency an important club against pollution, ruling that the agency has the authority to regulate CO2 (and other greenhouse-gas) emissions as pollution. After the failure of the Waxman-Markey Bill in 2009, it was clear the executive branch would have to be the main avenue for climate-change action.
This year, the EPA issued an important rule governing the construction of new power plants. Going forward, new coal and natural-gas power plants will have to show they can keep under a threshold for pounds of emitted carbon dioxide per megawatt hour in order to receive permits from the EPA. Though few coal plants are in the planning phase, this is an important precedent. It lays down a marker for ensuring the greening of America's energy mix, especially as the EPA plans for rules governing existing power plants.
Conservatives often blast the Obama administration's "War on Coal," but coal is the dirtiest of our major energy sources. Its gradual decline within the United States is a welcome development, both for the cleanliness of our air and for our climate change goals.
Remember when I talked about the universal-action problem embedded in efforts to tackle climate change? While it is critical for the United States to aggressively put itself on a path to a low- or even zero-carbon energy future, we're not the only power in town.
The decisions made in the developing world will have a crucial impact. That is why it is encouraging that China -- whose economy is the largest carbon emitter in the world, and where in one year a quarter of a million people have died prematurely due to pollution -- seems to be taking the issue so seriously.
While not sacrificing its commitment to economic growth, China is developing strategies to greatly expand its use of clean energy. While 2013 saw a decline in investment from $13.8 billion to $13.1 billion, in absolute terms China's outlays still dwarf those of the United States, Japan, Germany, and France.
Beijing introduced pilot programs for emissions-trading schemes at the provincial level for Guangdong and the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen. Additionally, it released an ambitious strategy for adaptation, aimed at increasing its resiliency in the face of future climate-related disasters.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, some states are not content to wait for the federal government to take decisive action. This year saw the launch of California's cap-and-trade program for reducing emissions. Under the program, companies in California have to buy allowances to cover their annual pollution. So far, the allowances have been consistently selling out, an indication of price stability, which will help the private sector in planning future emissions reductions strategies. The program also survived a court challenge this year, so we can see how the program does as it is expanded over the course of time.
This analysis from The Energy Collective's Lucian Bifera sums up the initial optimism about California's program pretty well:
California's cap-and-trade program is driving real emission reductions while expanding its clean energy market. At the same time, the state's programs are serving as models to be emulated by other states, provinces, and nations. Although one year is not enough time to deem cap and trade a success in California, we can certainly say it is off to a promising start.
Finally, in a bottom-line sense, 2013 has been a boom year for non-hydroelectric renewable energy. The price of installed solar and wind power has been declining for a long time, but the progress made in 2013 is worth celebrating.
In the Midwest, for example, wind power is directly competitive on a price comparison basis with natural gas, itself historically inexpensive. The news for solar is similarly, um, bright, with price parity in some markets, according to Elias Hinckley. The average price per watt is $0.70, down from $1.18 in 2010.
Such progress is supported by actions taken at the federal and state levels. President Obama issued an executive order this month calling on the federal government to triple its sourcing of electricity generation from renewable sources by 2020. Twenty-nine states also have renewable portfolio standards, which set targets for their power utilities for how much in-state electricity is generated from renewables. California, for example, has an ambitious standard for 33 percent renewable by 2020. The California Public Utilities Commission uses its regulatory authority to enforce this standard by reviewing and approving the plans and contracts of its utilities, including determining the standards for what counts as eligible renewable energy. While many states, especially in the South, have no such standard, and other states only do voluntarily (Colorado and Indiana, for example, only have renewable portfolio "goals"), it is still a remarkable commitment
All in all, there is much to be optimistic about heading in 2014. None of this has happened by accident. It has taken people and governments a long time to realize how crucial a green path is. We can only hope that this progress and momentum builds on itself, and the 2014 Year in Review is even more laudatory.
Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation.