Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2014
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Breaking the Cycle of Climate Inaction

Jonathan Foley

This article was originally published in ENSIA, 1 October 2013

It’s time to move beyond the old debates and endless gridlock, and find pragmatic, new leverage points to tackle climate change. Illustration by Glen Lowry.

It feels like déjà vu all over again.

In case you haven’t heard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is releasing another set of reports, outlining the latest scientific findings on the state of our climate system. In perhaps the least surprising announcement in scientific history, the IPCC has found that, yes, the climate is still warming, and yes, we’re still largely to blame for it. We already knew that, of course, but now we know it with much more certainty.

Predictably, there have been some very noisy reactions to the report. On one side, professional “climate skeptics” are at it again, trying to muddy the waters around climate science. Their goal isn’t to actually resolve any scientific debate, of course, but rather to stall action. The more doubt and confusion they create, the less likely it is that political leaders will act to address climate change. On the other side, some notable “climate alarmists” are going far beyond the actual scientific consensus, making it sound like a climate Armageddon is immediately upon us. Lost in all the noise is any sensible discussion of what the latest research actually says.

And, even more predictably, political leadership at the national and international level is mostly paralyzed and unwilling to act. In the United States, for example, President Obama is tightly constrained in what he can do to address climate change. (Though, to his credit, he has taken considerable action through executive orders and agency regulatory powers.) He faces an extremely hostile Congress, and any sweeping legislative efforts are simply dead on arrival. Similar challenges face many other countries as well. On the international stage, tackling climate change has largely become bogged down in endless negotiations and debates within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the prospects of having a comprehensive international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions seem more elusive than ever.

We cannot afford to waste more time in a state of denial, saying that maybe this time our national leaders will wake up and take the problem seriously.

So here we are again. The scientists are more certain than ever that climate change is happening. The skeptics and alarmists are as loud as ever, dividing us and distracting the world from any sensible discussion about climate change. And federal and international policy making is ground to a halt.

So how can we get unstuck, and break this cycle of inaction?  

Getting Unstuck

One reason we’re so stuck is that most of the climate solutions being proposed are beyond the capabilities and vision of national political leadership.

We’re talking about the wholesale transformation of the world’s economy and energy systems through negotiated carbon prices, new tax regimes, international cap-and-trade agreements, and a worldwide shift towards new technologies. Such sweeping measures — which face stiff opposition from certain industries and would require political will and cooperation not seen for decades — are, sadly, very likely to fail right now. Let’s face it: Politicians in Washington can’t even pass a routine budget bill, and the United Nations can’t pass a resolution condemning Syria for gassing its own civilians. If national and international leaders can’t take care of basic matters of state, then what hope do we have that they can address a complex global problem, requiring unprecedented cooperation and decades of concerted effort?

And hoping for a quick turnaround isn’t likely to work. Frankly, we cannot afford to waste more time in a state of denial, saying that maybe this time our national leaders will wake up and take the problem seriously. We need to look for leadership and solutions elsewhere.

More importantly, we need to match our climate solutions to situations where leadership is still effective. We need to find targeted, strategic opportunities to reduce emissions, matching solutions to effective leadership.

But just where are those targeted opportunities?

Finding Planet Levers

In the search for effective climate solutions, we need to look for what I call planet levers: Places where relatively focused efforts, targeted the right way, can translate into big outcomes. Just like a real lever, the trick is to apply the right amount of force in just the right place, with little opposition.

It’s pretty simple: Almost everybody uses (or wants to use) fossil fuels, but many fewer people clear tropical forests, grow a particular crop or manufacture exotic chemicals.

In the search for planet levers to address climate change, we should look for ways to significantly cut emissions that don’t require grand policy solutions, such as carbon taxes or global cap-and-trade schemes, or the approval of the U.S. Congress or the United Nations. We need practical solutions to substantially cut emissions that work with a handful of nimble actors — including a few key nations, states, cities and companies — to get started.

Toward that end, focusing on energy efficiency, advanced energy research and deploying much more renewable energy, especially through cities and states, makes a lot of sense right now. No one can seriously be opposed to energy efficiency measures. Likewise, investing in long-term energy technology gains is likely to pay off handsomely. And deploying more renewables makes sense in many situations — at least as a part of the overall energy mix. Plus most cities, and at least some states, still have functioning governments that can make long-term decisions about their energy futures. For the moment, that’s where I think many of the best levers to address climate change in the U.S. are going to be. And many NGOs and foundations that focus on climate change are shifting their strategies accordingly.

Focusing on cities presents a particularly good set of levers to address climate change. Cities represent a nexus point of critical infrastructure — for electricity, communications, heating and cooling, and transportation — that are already in desperate need of improvement, and shifting them toward low-carbon “climate smart” technologies is a natural progression. Done right, most of these investments would improve the health, economic vitality, efficiency and livability of cities. Most important, most cities largely avoid the partisan gridlock of our national (and some state) governments, making them an excellent place for making progress.

We also need to look beyond the energy sector for climate solutions. Yes, roughly 60 to 65 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from burning fossil fuels. But that means the other 35 to 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from other activities, which presents enormous opportunities for alternative climate actions. For the most part, these opportunities have been overlooked.

Most of non-energy emissions stem from land use (especially deforestation in the tropics), agricultural practices (especially the release of methane from cattle production and rice fields, and the release of nitrous oxide from heavily fertilized fields), emissions from landfills and wastewater, and some exotic industrial and chemical processes. Another potentially important greenhouse warming agent (and an immediate health concern) is “black carbon,” or soot, which comes mainly from burning dirty biomass fuels in developing countries.

Recent studies show that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by roughly 75 percent in the last five years. … This was a planet lever that worked.

One of the most interesting things about these non-energy emissions is that they tend to be tightly focused within particular sectors of the global economy, often linked to just a handful of countries, industries and commodities. Unlike energy emissions, these emissions are produced by relatively small parts of society. It’s pretty simple: Almost everybody uses (or wants to use) fossil fuels, but many fewer people clear tropical forests, grow a particular crop or manufacture exotic chemicals. And changes by just a few corporations, nonprofits and countries can make a huge difference in these emissions.

With that in mind, consider the following planet levers to address climate change:

Tropical Deforestation. Tropical deforestation releases roughly 10 to 17 percent of global CO2 emissions, depending on which study you read. That’s roughly comparable to the entire global transportation sector — including every car, truck, bus, plane and ship in the world — which emits roughly 15 percent.

Between 2000 and 2010 nearly half of all deforestation emissions were likely coming from just two countries: Brazil and Indonesia. And within those two countries, most of their deforestation emissions were linked to only four commodities — beef and soybeans in Brazil, and palm oil and timber in Indonesia. That’s amazing: Deforestation emissions from only two countries and four commodities are comparable to a major share of the world’s transportation emissions!

And that means it’s possible to do something about these emissions relatively quickly. In fact, Brazil has dramatically cut its deforestation rates, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, in the past few years. Recent studies show that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by roughly 75 percent in the past five years, thanks to industry efforts to curb deforestation and grow crops elsewhere, widespread consumer pressure to produce deforestation-free agricultural products, and better enforcement of existing forest laws. This was a planet lever that worked. Now more attention needs to be focused on deforestation in Indonesia, and global palm oil and timber markets.

Agricultural Emissions. Methane emissions from agriculture are also tightly connected to just a few commodities and a few key regions. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 75 percent of agricultural methane emissions come from livestock, and about 20 percent from rice fields. And roughly half of all of the rice emissions come from China and India alone. This presents tremendous opportunities to reduce emissions through targeted changes in agricultural policy and practice, and present great opportunities for China and India to lower their emissions while still growing their economy.

Likewise, nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture mainly occur in a few crops and a few concentrated regions. Current research suggests that the lion’s share of these emissions come from just a few countries (mostly China, India, the U.S. and parts of Western Europe) and from just a few large commodity crops (including corn, wheat, rice and a few others). Changes in fertilizer practices in a few crops and a few countries could make a huge difference, not only to climate change, but also to water quality, air quality and human health. Cooperative efforts focused on a few targeted commodities and countries (especially China, India and the U.S.) could make great progress here.

“Minor” Greenhouse Agents. Similarly, several other, lesser known greenhouse warming agents, including hydrofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, SF6 and black carbon, are mostly produced in concentrated sectors of the economy, often in just a few locations. (For example, HFCs are considered “super greenhouse gases,” and are used in refrigeration and cooling systems, and some other industrial applications.) All of these “minor” greenhouse agents represent strategic opportunities to tackle climate change right now, with targeted efforts in a few countries and a few industries. In fact, the White House has been quietly working with China, India and the European Union on reducing emissions of several of these gases, including HFCs. While these gases are relatively small contributors to climate change, phasing them out is achievable in the near term.

Not Easy, But Possible

Climate solutions based on these planet levers could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions with pragmatic, targeted actions that move beyond old debates and the current political paralysis. None of them requires the U.S. Congress or all 193 members of the U.N. to make a decision. They don’t require a wholesale transformation of the entire global economy. They won’t encounter the full-fledged resistance of the fossil fuel industry. Instead, they focus on three or four regions at a time, with perhaps a handful of industries working in cooperation with nonprofit groups and local governments, to make tremendous progress on targeted emissions reduction. And most of these solutions would pay tremendous economic and health benefits that go far beyond their impact on climate change.

Taken together, the planet levers laid out here give us many opportunities to get serious about climate change without getting bogged down by the distraction of old climate debates or standing by and waiting for politicians.

This approach is not necessarily going to be easy, but at least it is possible.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that efforts to change national and international carbon and energy policy — whether through a cap-and-trade scheme, a carbon tax or massive investments in renewable energy — is a total waste of time. Not at all. It just means that these policy levers are largely stuck at the moment, and we need to start making progress in lowering emissions, wherever and whenever we can, right now. Ultimately, we will still need big changes in national and international energy policy and technology, and I wholeheartedly support efforts to accomplish that. But, in the meantime, we need to diversify our approach, get more strategic and put something in the win column.

Taken together, the planet levers laid out here give us many opportunities to get serious about climate change without getting bogged down by the distraction of old climate debates or standing by and waiting for politicians in Washington, D.C., or the United Nations to show leadership on climate change.

Hopefully, in time, more of our national and international political leaders will develop a backbone and some vision, but sensible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions exist right now and can be matched to places where good decision making — cities, states, key corporations and targeted sectors in a handful of key countries — still exists. Let’s try pulling these planet levers, and get serious about addressing the issue of climate change.

Once we do, I have a hunch we’ll wonder why we didn’t start on this road a long, long time ago.


Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.

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