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Erica Stephan

Communications Officer Climate Change Washington

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Monday 15 December, 2008

High-hanging fruit

Climate wonks like to talk about "ten-dollar bills on the ground" and "low-hanging fruit." We mean that there are so many financial gains to be had from energy efficiency, that a big chunk of the climate problem can be solved without costing a penny. And we've talked about this a lot in the past ten years out of frustration that even the easy part wasn't getting done in the face of a global crisis.

But now - long overdue - developed countries are starting to get serious, and there is a lot of missed opportunity and delay to make up for, fast. The agreement that the EU reached last week on climate change commits Britain - pending a vote next week - to cut its emissions to just over two-thirds of what they were in 1990, with only 12 years to do it.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars are great. They'll get us part of the way. But to cut emissions by a third, we are going to have to pour money into green energy research, let some inefficient industries shut down, consume less, and yes, start somehow signalling to people the true cost of airplane travel. It doesn't mean a less prosperous economy, but it will mean a different one. We have to start climbing toward that high-hanging fruit, ready or not...

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Monday 01 December, 2008

80% by 2050: an emerging climate consensus?

Last Wednesday the long-awaited UK Climate Change Bill became law of the land, making Britain the first country in the world to adopt binding domestic legislation committing to long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This is a welcome show of leadership to the rest of the world

The bill has an ambitious target of 80% reductions by 2050 from 1990 levels - the strictest in Europe. To prevent emissions reductions from being pushed to the end of that period, the bill includes a carbon budgeting system that caps emissions over five-year periods. There is also a 2012 deadline by which the Government must either include international aviation and shipping emissions in the bill or provide a strong rationale why not.

A less commented-upon aspect of the Climate Change Bill is the power granted to the government to implement emissions caps for non-energy-intensive businesses such as shops and offices. Unlike in the U.S., British government agencies often write up detailed legislative rules even in advance of the enabling legislation. This was the case with the Carbon Reduction Commitment, or CRC. The legislation was drafted following a year-long consultation process with businesses, who were able to have their concerns specifically addressed.  For example, a "league table," or competitive ranking, was introduced into the system so that the best-performing businesses will receive additional financial and PR rewards. In fact, representatives from Boots (a pharmacy chain), John Lewis (a department store chain), and the Royal Mail visited Washington in August to express their joy at being regulated - as a result of the large financial savings from energy efficiency that they have already realized. 

In another early Christmas gift to climate activists, President-elect Barack Obama recently announced that he would push for the same 80% by 2050 target in the U.S. He also pledged $15 billion per year to "catalyze private sector investment" and said - pointedly - that while his team would not attend the Kyoto negotiations this year, "Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations."

I am thrilled that Obama is making such a bold commitment, so early on. Conventional enviro wisdom has been that climate change will be pushed back on the new administration's agenda in the face of economic headwinds. But the strength of the President-elect's address suggests that climate change may end up being a first 100 days priority after all, especially if Congress can find a way to tie it to a "green jobs" economic recovery package. There are solid arguments that government investment in infrastructure projects can help drive the economy forward in the medium term. I'll be listening to see how well they are made. 

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Thursday 23 October, 2008

UK leads world in climate change initiatives

I want to draw your attention to UK's Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband's announcement regarding new climate change policies. Simply put, the UK will commit to cut its emissions 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. The Secretary explicitly rejected the idea that the financial crisis should cause the world to pull back on climate change action, saying that those who advise this "misunderstand the relationship between the economic and environmental tasks we face."

Aside from committing to dramatically cut emissions, Mr. Miliband is also planning to introduce a 'feed-in tariff' for small renewable energy projects. For those not familiar with electricity lingo, feed-in tariffs are used to help renewable sources of electricity overcome the economic hurdles of entering into the competitive, fossil-fuel intensive electricity market. Germany has implemented a similar policy that has sparked a renewed interest in solar power, making German consumers some of the top purchasers of solar panels in the world.

I think this type of bold action sends a strong signal to other countries, particularly industrialised countries, that the UK is serious about its commitment to a low carbon economy. The question is, will others follow?

Being an optimist, I want to believe the answer is yes. There seems to be more and more crucial public support for action. EU environment ministers are so far standing firm on their commitment to a 20 percent reduction by 2020. However, given the current world-wide economic downturn, aggressive climate change policies may fall by the way side to addressing retirement accounts, the stock market, housing and jobs.

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Wednesday 08 October, 2008

Making climate change local

The furor over the financial markets bailout in Washington this week has overshadowed two major developments in an entirely new market for the U.S. Government-sponsored carbon dioxide trading began yesterday in New York as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative got officially underway. On the other side of the country the Western Climate Initiative issued its policy recommendations on Monday after more than a year of negotiations.

These two cap-and-trade schemes include 17 U.S. states and 4 Canadian provinces between them and are an encouraging sign of U.S. action on climate change. Even without an overarching federal regulation, states and major cities are beginning to move forward. This can be seen in higher California standards for vehicles and appliances; a massive wind power project in Texas; a Climate Action Plan for the city of Chicago that aims at a higher percent reduction in emissions by 2020 than the EU-ETS; and citywide green building standards springing up everywhere.

Climate change is the issue that taught environmentalists to love federalism after years of embracing top-down regulation as the only solution. What's happening now with the states isn't enough to solve the problem by itself, but it is encouraging that the enormous energy and passion at the grassroots has found a way to translate into policy.

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