When Sir Nicholas Stern published his UK government-commissioned “Review on the economics of climate change” six years ago, his work wasn’t exactly met with great enthusiasm by his fellow economists. Most of them dismissed the predictions – 75 percent chance of 2-3 degrees Celsius warming with current trends, reducing economic output by 3 percent, with worst-case scenarios permanently amputating global consumption by 20 percent – as too alarmist. A few took the opportunity to dismiss the “scientific consensus” on the issue (it was 2006, remember?). Even William Nordhaus, one of the most climate-aware among the profession, argued that the discount rates (how much more we value our present consumption over our future consumption) used in the Review were too low.

Number 1 on his list? Newly designated President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim has vowed to make climate change a priority (photo: Bloomberg)

Six years and a few climate catastrophes later, the tone of the conversation has radically changed. Stern’s description of climate change as “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen” has penetrated minds across the globe – even those usually impervious to environmental preservation imperatives. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which took place in Davos, Switzerland a week ago, is the latest illustration of this evolution (disclaimer : I did not physically attend the Forum. Membership fees are  around $45,000…) The preliminary “Global Risks Report”, which is published in preparation of the Forum every year and usually sets the tone of the meeting, was particularly adamant on this point: the climate bill is growing larger by the minute, and it’s still uncertain how we’ll be able to pay for it.

Read the rest of this entry

activism, Climate Change, Davos, Economists, ecosystem services, externalities, Global Risks 2013, market mechanisms, Nicholas Stern, World Economic Forum
Standing in front of the Capitol, President Obama focused on climate change and energy as critical issues for his second term in office. (Photo Credit: Reese Rogers)

President Obama’s decision to make climate change and energy a centerpiece of his Inaugural Address has taken political analysts and partisans on both sides of the issue by surprise. Of the half dozen specific issues raised in the speech, only the economy, foreign affairs, and the social safety net had as many words devoted to them.

Why would a President who has recently made only glancing reference to climate change double-down on one of the most contentious issues of his first Administration?  A second failure on climate would go down as a signature feature of the Obama legacy—and not a positive one.

Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s clarion call on climate change just days before the 2012 election were undoubtedly part of the reason for the President’s decision.  But the speech itself provides a deeper explanation.  With his young daughters standing a few feet away, Obama declared that failure to respond to the threat of climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”  No President has ever faced an issue whose consequences will last so long.  Historians a century now could see it as his most tragic legacy.

Read the rest of this entry

Climate Change, energy, energy policy, inauguration, President Obama, renewable energy, United States

The DR’s National Energy Commission leads by example using Net Metering to reduce monthly bills. This solution also provides surplus renewable energy to the grid, reducing the country’s total amount of fossil fuel-based energy.

Since October 2012, the energy sector in the Dominican Republic has been in the spotlight as a result of President Danilo Medina’s efforts to deal with the country’s larger fiscal crisis. Over the years, decisions made within the sector have led to an unsustainable level of debt, poorly maintained infrastructure, and a reliance on fossil fuels that, in 2010, cost the government US$2.6 billion.

With all of this attention, the opportunity exists to overhaul the floundering electricity sector and bring it in line with the country’s vision of a sustainable future. The Dominican Republic has a stated goal of obtaining 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. And at the recent United Nations climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Mr. Omar Ramirez, Executive Vice-President of the Dominican National Council for Climate Change and the Clean Development Mechanism (CNCCMDL), said the country will reduce its carbon emissions 25 percent from 2012 levels by 2030.

These are ambitious targets for a country that relies on fossil fuels for more than 90 percent of its primary energy. But they can be achieved if decision makers seize this moment and embrace new thinking. It will not be enough to just add more generating capacity to the mix. Real reform will come when subsidies not longer hide the true cost of fossil fuel use, when renewable energy promotion is prioritized, and when energy sector agencies are structured in a way that provides transparency and accountability and is in line with stated long-term energy goals.

Read the rest of this entry

Caribbean, Climate Change, developing countries, Dominican Republic, electricity, emissions reductions, energy policy, energy security, renewable energy, sustainable development

Renewable energy development is critical to climate adaptation efforts for numerous reasons, including its minimal use of increasingly scarce water resources. (Source: ClimateTechWiki).

For countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change—especially developing countries—the lack of urgency in the recently ended United Nations climate talks failed to reflect the reality back home. In many of these places, the effects of climate change are already taking their toll on social and economic development, not to mention human lives. So it’s no surprise that throughout the halls and meeting rooms of the 18th Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, the most vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that—for them—adaptation, not mitigation, is the number-one priority.

The impacts of climate change are mounting. Shifting rainfall patterns are already affecting Kenya’s agricultural sector, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are necessitating rebuilding in numerous Caribbean countries. But unfortunately, both adaptation and energy, a critical area for development, are consistently shortchanged in climate negotiations. Of the “fast-start financing” provided by Germany in 2010 and 2011, only 28 percent was allocated for adaptation projects, while mitigation received 48 percent of the funds (the rest went to REDD+ and multipurpose activities).

Meanwhile, the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the emission reduction opportunities that the sector presents, hardly made it into the recent discussions. When renewable energy is brought up, it is most often in the context of mitigation, highlighting how a shift away from fossil fuel-fired power generation can reduce emissions and slow further climate change.

Read the rest of this entry

adaptation, Climate Change, developing countries, development, energy, renewable energy, UNFCCC

I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.

Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).

In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.

Read the rest of this entry

China, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, energy policy, France, Germany, green transition, Italy, nuclear, renewable energy, solar power, United States, wind power

This article was originally published in Outreach Magazine. The original can be found here.

The latest UN climate negotiations are underway in Doha, Qatar but the talks need a stronger focus on energy's role in climate change. (Source: UNFCCC)

More than half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels for energy supply. Even excluding traditional biomass, fossil fuel combustion accounts for 90 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Against this background, it is surprising how limited a role energy is playing in the ongoing climate negotiations. And yet this discussion could be instrumental in refocusing the debate about what is necessary and what is possible in both the areas of climate mitigation and adaptation—bringing it back down from the current inscrutable spheres of negotiation tracks, subsidiary bodies, parallel sessions, ad-hoc working groups, and special meetings (which, let’s be frank, nobody outside the negotiators understands anymore).

First, a focus on energy shows how far we are from solving the climate crisis. Energy-related CO2 emissions grew 3.2 percent in 2011 to more than 31 gigatons—despite the economic crisis. We know that if we don’t want to lose track of the 2-degree Celsius threshold of maximum warming that would hopefully avoid major disasters, energy emissions must decline by at least one third to 20 gigatons in 2035, despite expectations that energy demand might double in the same time frame.

Read the rest of this entry

Climate Change, COP18, Doha, emissions reductions, energy, UNFCCC

Once an extreme weather event such as Hurricane Sandy is over, various estimates of damage costs start pouring in. Cost comparisons with various past catastrophes are ubiquitous in the media. But these costs are mostly of the tangible nature, such as costs incurred from physical property damages. Many intangible costs, such as loss of life and psychological impacts, are neglected in national accounting estimates.

Flooding in Haiti from Hurricane Sandy - Developing countries and low-income communities are often more at risk to the impacts of extreme weather events, yet current damage accounting does not reflect this fact. (Source: Flickr.com, User: United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti)

The result is widespread under-reporting of the range of damages caused to those populations that are most affected by extreme weather events. Historically, most extreme weather hotspots have been in low-income developing countries, where people often live in sub-standard dwellings located on marginal, low-lying plots of land, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hurricanes and floods. Even in industrialized countries, studies show that low-income groups have tended to be the most sensitive to the impacts of extreme weather events and face the slowest recovery of basic amenities and repopulation of affected areas.

To ensure environmental justice for these poor and vulnerable communities, a more accurate measure of the costs of extreme weather events is necessary.

Read the rest of this entry

climate, Climate Change, cost metrics, environmental justice, extreme weather, Hurricane Sandy, true cost

The controversial Businessweek cover in the aftermath of Sandy. (Source: Bloomberg Businessweek)

For the past several years, nearly all major news outlets and most high-profile politicians in the United States have been silent on the issue of human-caused climate change. Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, initial reporting on the catastrophe failed to mention climate change, at least directly. But it’s clear that this attitude needs to change. Fast.

As Sandy roared toward the Northeast, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News all devoted time and space to covering the effects of the storm surge. They reported on its severity, emphasized where more aid was needed, and brought into sharp relief the human dimension of a more-than-human catastrophe. Reporters brought stories of devastation and heartache to the rest of the country (and the world) and gave readers and viewers tips on how they can assist the affected and support those who, in many cases, lost everything.

Several commentators, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, noted that extreme weather events are becoming more common, but they failed to mention the links to climate change directly. Limited and ambiguous references to climate change—one of the most pressing issues that humanity has ever faced—has long been the state of political discourse in the United States.

Read the rest of this entry

climate, Climate Change, communication, Hurricane Sandy, systemic causation, United States

By now, the heartbreaking photos of neighborhoods swept to sea and a climbing death toll have reminded us all of the immeasurable pain and tragedy our environment can incur. We think of the millions of people who continue to be affected by the storm, the tens of thousands who have lost all that they own, and the hundreds who have lost their lives.

Widespread damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen via CNET)

Sandy also tells us a lot about ourselves. From a pessimistic standpoint, it shows human failure: our failure to listen to those who understand far better than most of us do the impact of human behavior on the atmosphere, our climate system, and the ecosystems that surround us. While it is true that no singular weather event can be directly linked to human-caused global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – since its establishment in 1988 arguably the most thorough and meticulous scientific undertaking in human history – has reported with increasing confidence that weather extremes will become more frequent, more widespread, and more intense with rising greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s assessments, and those of many other leading scientific bodies, have led prominent commentators—among them Nobel laureates, prime ministers, presidents, secretary-generals, and even movie stars—to call out global warming as this century’s greatest threat. But Sandy demonstrates in dramatic fashion our inability to take more profound steps to tackle global challenges, despite our knowledge that we endanger ourselves if we don’t. Sandy reveals our refusal to take responsibility for our actions and our skepticism that real change (of natural systems as well as of our own behavior) is possible.

Read the rest of this entry

climate, Climate Change, extreme weather, Hurricane Sandy, United States

Figures for the first half of 2012 show a remarkable shift in U.S. energy trends. Coal-fired power generation has plummeted to 20 percent below last year’s level and 31 percent below the peak reached in 2007.  Far from being the fossil fuel of the future (according to many industry leaders and even some environmentalists) American coal may now be in an irreversible downward spiral.

Coal’s decline has two main causes.  Electricity use has virtually leveled off in the United States since the great recession began in 2008, leaving many U.S. utilities with excess generating capacity and more latitude to choose which of their power plants will operate.  Meanwhile, the rapid decline in U.S. natural gas prices this year—averaging the equivalent of $13 per barrel of oil—has allowed utilities to fire up some of their newer and more efficient gas plants while idling many of their coal plants.

Read the rest of this entry

Climate Change, coal, electricity, emissions reductions, natural gas, United States