As the world becomes increasing aware of how human activity contributes to global warming, more countries are putting forth efforts to end harmful practices, such as reliance on fossil fuels. While such actions are certainly useful, a new study published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences suggests that proactively regreening the planet could be just as impactful.
According to the international team of scientists behind the study, natural climate solutions such as protecting peatlands that store carbon and improving how we manage soils and grasslands could be enough to meet 37 percent of the action needed by 2030 as mandated by the 2015 Paris agreement.
In fact, they say regreening the planet through such efforts would have the same effect on atmospheric carbon levels as if the entire world stopped burning oil.
It Ain’t Easy Being Green
The amount that forests offset our carbon emissions is often underestimated. In the U.S. alone, researchers estimate that trees remove an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that’s equal to between 11 and 13 percent of fossil fuel emissions. Yet, in the past 25 years alone, we’ve destroyed 10 percent of the planet’s wilderness. Obviously, continued deforestation will affect the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere by trees.
Fortunately, various efforts to end this kind of activity, protect our plant life, and promote the growth of new forests are in the works. Governments are imposing strict rules to prevent deforestation, and new technology is being used to foster reforestation efforts – one such project uses drones to plant trees at a rate of 100,000 per day, far beyond what could be accomplished by hand.
Some nations are thinking outside the box and building vertical forests, covering skyscrapers with carbon-absorbing greenery. China has begun construction on an entire “forest city” that is expected to absorb nearly 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants every year while producing 900 tons of oxygen.
However, this might all be too little, too late. Recent research has shown that extreme weather events like El Niño can have a dramatic impact on the planet’s capacity to reduce levels of carbon dioxide, and climate change is increasing the number of such natural events. Additionally, illegal logging is chipping away at the Amazon rainforest at a faster rate year-on-year, and experts maintain that our current conservation programs won’t do enough to save these environments.
The writing is on the wall – if the Earth is going to continue to be an appropriate habitat for human life, addressing the emissions we release into the atmosphere won’t be enough. We need to make a concerted effort at regreening the planet so it can soak up more carbon dioxide, too.
On September 14, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new rules intended to dramatically reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The new mandates will force building owners to upgrade their buildings on an accelerated schedule, with serious penalties for failure to comply.
Fossil fuels used for hot water and heat in buildings are New York City’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 42 percent of the city’s total emissions. The new mandates require all owners of buildings over 25,000 square feet to meet fossil fuel caps over the next 12 to 17 years.
For most, this will mean improvements to hot water heaters, roofs and windows, boilers, and heat distribution systems. For the worst-performing 14,500 buildings, however, the rules will trigger efficiency upgrades and fossil fuel equipment replacement. These worst-performing buildings currently produce about one-quarter of the City’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
When President Trump announced that the U.S. would exit the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio promised that New York City would stick to the treaty and increase its own efforts to reach the 2050 target of an 80 percent reduction in emissions. These mandates are one step in keeping that promise, a point de Blasio noted when announcing them:
Time is not on our side. New York will continue to step up and make critical changes to help protect our city and prevent the worst effects of climate change. We must shed our buildings’ reliance on fossil fuels here and now. To do this, we are mandating upgrades to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings, helping us continue to honor the goals of the Paris Agreement. No matter what happens in Washington, we will not shirk our responsibility to act on climate in our own backyard.
Big Goals, Bigger Impact
Meeting these new mandates will help in the worldwide effort to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change and hold global temperature increases to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
NYC’s most dramatic emissions reductions are expected to take place in the coming decade, and by 2035, these new targets will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent citywide — that’s equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road. This will be the single biggest action ever taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The benefits of these mandates extend beyond the environment. The air pollution that results from fossil fuel usage can cause bronchitis, asthma, and premature death, especially among seniors and children. The city’s targets will improve air quality enough by 2035 to prevent 40 premature deaths and 100 emergency room visits, all asthma-related, annually.
The city’s residents will also benefit from energy cost savings of up to $300 million annually, and enacting the new mandates will create 17,000 green building retrofitting jobs. Building tenants will enjoy more comfortable and consistent indoors temperatures, as well.
Worldwide, higher greenhouse emissions are closely linked to urban areas. If all U.S. cities with populations over 50,000 followed the Paris plans for C40 cities, they would achieve 36 percent of the total emissions reductions the U.S. would need to meet its original Paris pledge. Since buildings are responsible for most of the emissions in these large cities, programs like New York’s could have a tremendous impact nationwide.
More than 300 companies worldwide have joined the Science Based Targets initiative, the aim of which is to set emissions reduction targets. More than 90 new companies have joined the initiative this year. Science Based Targets aims to demonstrate the private sector’s commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement’s climate change goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius during this century, and doing so as part of a global, aligned effort.
As Climate Week approaches, a new influx of high-end apparel companies have announced their commitment to setting science-based targets, including EILEEN FISHER, Gap Inc., GUESS, Levi Strauss & Co., NIKE, Inc., and VF Corporation. More than 90 percent of apparel brands’ emissions arise in the value chain, and apparel companies share many suppliers. Therefore, strategies for reducing supply chain emissions can improve collaboration and create efficiencies across the industry.
Thus far, the estimated market value of the companies that have joined the Science Based Targets initiative is $6.5 trillion — roughly equivalent to the value of the NASDAQ stock exchange. These businesses are responsible for 750 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, about as much as 158 million cars during that same timeframe. The companies represent 35 countries and a tremendous variety of industries, including apparel, banking, chemicals, consumer goods, hospitality, manufacturing, power, retail, and technology. Other new businesses committed to set science-based targets include CVS Health, Cummins, Epsom, Merck, Mahindra Sanyo, Olam, Veolia Environnement, Telefónica, and Wyndham Worldwide Corporation.
So far, the U.S. is leading the charge with 50 companies that have committed to set science-based targets — more than any other nation. The estimated total value of the U.S. businesses participating in the Science Based Targets initiative is $2 trillion, and the companies are responsible for 166 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.
The Earth is at a critical point in its evolution. When it comes to climate change we seem to be at a point of no return, or at least the point where markers normally signifying a “tipping point” is the very best we can hope for. According to a study recently published in Nature Climate Change, it is unlikely that the Earth will warm by less than 2 °C (3.6 °F) by the year 2100.
Those two degrees are a significant milestone in terms of warming on a global scale. Back in 1977, an economist from Yale University proposed that a rise of 2 °C stand as a threshold in the measurement of global climate change. As CNN’s Ashley Strickland puts it, passing that threshold will change life on Earth as we know it. “Rising seas, mass extinctions, super droughts, increased wildfires, intense hurricanes, decreased crops and fresh water and the melting of the Arctic are expected.” The Paris Climate Agreement adopted this threshold when drafting the accords and set 1.5 °C as the goal.
The reality may be even worse: the study shows that temperatures have a 90 percent chance of increasing by 2.0 — bringing the rise to to 4.9 °C. “Our analysis is compatible with previous estimates, but it finds that the most optimistic projections are unlikely to happen,”says lead author Adrian Raftery, a Universtiy of Washington professor of statistics and sociology. “We’re closer to the margin than we think.”
Death by the causes and effects of global temperatures rising are also set to spike. The World Health Organization estimates that 12.6 million deaths can be attributed to pollution alone. They also predict that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will be responsible for adding 250,000 more deaths around the world.
The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords will not increase optimism. Still, states and individuals are picking up the slack left by the federal government. So, while there is little hope of avoiding the 2 °C threshold, there is hope that we can come together to mitigate future damage.
As part of a $3.9 billion initiative (£3 billion) to improve air quality, the U.K. government has announced a ban of new diesel and petrol cars in 2040. Of this amount, $330 million (£255 million) has been awarded to local councils to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. The government says that the sum will be generated by taxing diesel vehicles — although more precise details will be announced later this year.
Although the move to ban cars will not occur for about a quarter of a century, the Department for Environment, Farming, and Rural Affairs has expedited other aspects of the process by cutting the time for councils to make their self-determined plans of action from 18 months down to eight.
Should councils not meet their targets, more extreme measures could be implemented, such as restricting the use of diesel vehicles at peak times and charging diesel drivers for coming into certain towns.
As well as cutting down emissions and pollution, aspects of the bill promote greener infrastructure. For example, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill allows the government to make it mandatory to have charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service stations.
The International Movement
The U.K. has a serious problem with emissions from the use of fossil fuels and the damage this causes: 40,000 premature deaths a year are linked to emissions, and the country is above limits set by the EU — meaning that 40 million people are living in areas with illegal levels of pollution. The measures will hopefully help the country rectify these failings.
The move reflects a wider international trend, in part instigated by the Paris Agreement, of setting deadlines for banning pollutant technologies in light of a growing awareness that climate changeneeds to be dealt with immediately or it may become too severe to deal with at all.
Yesterday, Lamar Smith, the U.S. Representative for Texas’s 21st congressional district and Chair of the House Committee on Science, published an opinion piece on The Daily Signal touting the “benefits” of climate change. In the political arena, global warming is a contentious issue. It is also an issue that could have a dramatic impact on humanity’s future (and the future of many other species). With this in mind, here, we examine how the Representative’s statements align with what science actually has to say.
Does it Benefit Life on Earth?
One of the most notable statements made by Representative Smith is that higher carbon levels are good because it will benefit plant life: “A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth. This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food. Studies indicate that crops would utilize water more efficiently, requiring less water. And colder areas along the farm belt will experience longer growing seasons.”
Representative Smith continues by further discussing the impact that carbon will have on crops in particular: “While crops typically suffer from high heat and lack of rainfall, carbon enrichment helps produce more resilient food crops, such as maize, soybeans, wheat, and rice. In fact, atmospheric carbon dioxide is so important for plant health that greenhouses often use a carbon dioxide generator to increase production.”
Representative Smith’s claims do not align with what peer review evidence reveals about resilient food crops.
According to the most up-to-date scientific studies, the increased temperatures that are associated with carbon ultimately increase the dryness of Earth’s soil, which depletes the nutrients that plants need to survive. And as micronutrients dwindle in major crops worldwide, research indicates that food production will ultimately decrease.
The most recent research also shows that the net effects of climate change will lead to increases in crop pests and increased vulnerability to these pests—things that are not beneficial for food production.
Representative Smith’s claims also do not align with what peer review evidence reveals about resilient food crops. Such crops are mostly grown in hotter areas, such as Africa. Research on the effects of climate change on agricultural yields in Africa shows the following changes: up to 72% of the current yield projected to decline for maize, rice, and soybeans; up to 45% yield reductions are expected for millet and sorghum. Consequently, any benefits would be limited to higher latitudes, such as those of the United States, Canada, and Europe, but even in these locations, the benefits would be time-limited.
Representative Smith also asserts that, contrary to some assertions, the world will not become a desert as a result of increased temperatures, but will grow greener: “Besides food production, another benefit of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the lush vegetation that results. The world’s vegetated areas are becoming 25-50 percent greener, according to satellite images. Seventy percent of this greening is due to a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
Long-term research shows that plants with overly high supplies of CO2 face limited availability of other nutrients. This means that, despite a brief burst of “greening” upon initial exposure to increased atmospheric C02, effects caused by the “nitrogen plateau” soon outweigh any benefit. This is one reason why scientific evidence reveals that planting trees is not enough to fight our emissions problem—carbon decreases nutrient supplies and plants wither; planting new vegetation cannot alleviate this problem.
Next, Representative Smith asserts that climate change increases species diversity: “Greater vegetation assists in controlling water runoff, provides more habitats for many animal species, and even aids in climate stabilization, as more vegetation absorbs more carbon dioxide. When plant diversity increases, these vegetated areas can better eliminate carbon from the atmosphere.”
However, according to science, climate change is hurting species globally. Recent research asserts that changes caused to ecosystems as a result of global warming are harmful disruptions. Studies indicate that only two groups of mammals (rodents and insect-eaters) may benefit. This is due to their fast breeding rates coupled with their ability to adapt to many habitats (most species do not have this ability).
Does it Benefit the Economy?
Representative Smith then turns to our oceans and how climate change will improve the economy, asserting: “As the Earth warms, we are seeing beneficial changes to the Earth’s geography. For instance, Arctic sea ice is decreasing. This development will create new commercial shipping lanes that provide faster, more convenient, and less costly routes between ports in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America. This will increase international trade and strengthen the world economy.”
According to scientists, a decrease in Arctic sea ice is not beneficial. More than 20,000 scientists have so far indicated that the loss of Arctic sea ice is a major problem for both habitats and plant and animal life. Arctic habitats are being destroyed; native cultures are dying; the presence of increased ships is polluting waters and increasing the risk of oil spills; and sea temperatures are rising faster than before, which kills species (this happens because heat from the Sun is absorbed rather than reflected).
Representative Smith proceeds by turning to human society, asserting: “Fossil fuels have helped raise the standard of living for billions of people. Furthermore, research has shown that regions that have enjoyed a major reduction in poverty achieved these gains by expanding the use of fossil fuels for energy sources.”
While industrialization may increase the standard of living for many, according to science, these same gains can be acquired by powering society with cleaner sources of energy. Furthermore, fossil fuels do not benefit all humans. They are proven killers. The pollution they cause is responsible for numerous childhood deaths worldwide and contributes to 1.2 million premature deaths in China alone.
Representative Smith continues by emphasizing the need for cheap energy: “For nations to progress, they need access to affordable energy. Fossil fuels provide the energy necessary to develop affordable food, safe drinking water, and reliable housing for those who have never had it before.”
According to studies, renewables are more affordable in context. Solar energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many areas. And China and India have both created health crises in urban areas by their overuse of fossil fuels. This results in a dramatic increase in healthcare spending.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hidden costs of fossil fuels include: fatalities and disease; environmental destruction and associated crop loss caused by mining, and habitat loss; contamination of drinking water from oil pipelines, strip mining, and oil and gas drilling; sea pollution and loss of species diversity from offshore drilling; among other costs.
Following this, Representative Smith focuses on job creation: “Studies indicate that in the U.S. alone, the natural gas industry is responsible for millions of jobs and has increased the wealth of Americans by an average of $1,337. Economic growth, as well as greater food production and increased vegetation, are just some of the benefits that can result from our changing climate.”
More people are employed in the solar industry than in oil, coal, and gas combined — about twice as many.
According to statisticians, more people are employed in the solar industry than in oil, coal, and gas combined — about twice as many — and those people are not at health risk, unlike their peers in fossil fuels. Solar is creating jobs 17 times faster than the rest of the US economy.
The Paris Accord is the next point raised: “The Obama administration planned to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on policies that would have a negligible impact on the environment. The Clean Power Plan would have reduced global temperatures by only three one-hundredths of 1 degree Celsius. If we stop over-reacting to climate change hysteria, we can allocate those funds to benefit Americans in such areas as educational opportunities, health care, and technological innovation.”
However, as an MIT analysis of the Accord notes, “the temperature reduction is much larger, on the order of 1 degree Celsius….though much more is needed if the world is to achieve its goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less.” According to NASA and other scientists, even half of one degree at a planetary scale is enormously significant.
Likewise, a 2016 study published by the European Geosciences Union examined the difference between a global temperature increase of 1.5 degree Celsius vs. a 2.0 C by the end of the century. It found that: heatwaves would last about a third longer; sea levels would rise higher; rainstorms would be around a third more intense; tropical coral reefs at risk of severe degradation would be greater, and while at 1.5 C some might recover, at 2 C they would be permanently gone; water loss in the Mediterranean area almost doubles; losses in wheat and maize harvests in the tropics double; and any carbon increase advantage in crops, Smith’s favorite “benefit,” disappears at 2 C rather than 1.5 C.
Representative Smith continues along these same lines, highlighting the impact on jobs and the economy: “Bad deals like the Paris Agreement would cost the U.S. billions of dollars, a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and have no discernible impact on global temperatures. Instead of succumbing to fear tactics and exaggerated predictions, we should instead invest in research and technology that can help us better understand the effects of climate change.”
Researchers estimate that the GDP of the US between 2016 and 2099 will actually be 36% lower if climate trends continue. And many major US companies — including Apple, Gap, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips— support the Paris accord. It is logical to infer that, as these leaders of industry support the cause, there is no great threat to jobs in, at least, these sectors. Moreover, turning to clean energy (as noted above) creates many new jobs.
In short, according to science, is dangerous to add CO2 to the atmosphere. Research shows that any positive impact that climate change has on agriculture is realized only in the very short term, and the benefits are overwhelmed by the negative effects. Increased atmospheric CO2 will increase the size of deserts and shrink the range available to other plants. It will increase plant damage from insects, and water and soil fertility requirements will become unfulfillable. Increased CO2 levels are beneficial inside small enclosed spaces like greenhouses, not on a planet-wide basis.
Le Journal du Dimanche, a weekly French newspaper, has reported that French President Emmanuel Macron has been holding talks with U.S. President Donald Trump concerning the U.S.’s possible re-entrance into the Paris Agreement.
Macron reportedly told the paper that “[Trump] told me that he would try to find a solution in the coming months,” and that the two “spoke in detail about the things that could make him come back to the Paris accord.” In addition, Macron claims that the most notable point of the discussion was “the link that exists between global warming and terrorism.”
Trump himself has remained opaque about the discussion. Politico report that he said “we will talk about [the Paris Agreement] over the coming period of time. And if it happens, that will be wonderful, and if it doesn’t, that will be OK, too. But we’ll see what happens.”
However, France, Germany, and Italy made their position clear when they issued a joint statement upon Trump’s reneging from the agreement. In essence, the statement said that the deal cannot and will not be changed to suit the president’s wishes by asserting that:
“We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies, and economies.”
Despite Trump’s federal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June, numerous states and institutions have released statements and implemented measures to uphold the landmark climate deal.
As part of the Paris Agreement, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot has announced a series of measures to make France a carbon neutral and more sustainable country by 2050. Most prominent among the goals are his plan to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles in the country by 2040, ceasing the use of coal to produce energy by 2022, and reducing the country’s nuclear usage from 75 percent to 50 percent.
In addition, Hulot intends to start a campaign against unsustainably sourced goods by no longer importing palm oil and soya farmed in ways that contribute to deforestation. ClientEarth CEO James Thornton established France as a progenitor that could start a wider trend, telling the Independent:
“This is a huge statement of intent from the French government and an example of how we’re likely to see exponential change in the coming years as governments grapple with the necessary changes we have to make for air quality and our climate.”
A Planet is Saved by Degrees
France is one of many European countries that have recently announced plans to reduce emissions and change the lifestyles of their citizens to become more environmentally friendly. Recently, Norway made waves when they announced that they would ban the use of oil to heat homes by 2020. Sweden, taking a similar road as France, has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2045.
Changes are not just being made on a national level, though: industry leaders are also announcing gambits to be more green. Most notably, Volvo just announced they will only produce electric vehicles from 2019 onwards. Tesla, meanwhile, is continuing its crusade to bring electric cars to the masses with the Model 3 — the first models of which are already in production.
A common argument against climate change is that a single country or industry’s contribution is but one “drop in the ocean.” But the ocean is made of drops, and it is only through country by country and company by company changes that we’ll fight to save our planet from the damage we’re responsible for.
In 2020, Norway will become the first country in the world to ban the use of oil and paraffin to heat buildings. Vidar Helgesenlaid, the nation’s Environment Minister, laid it out clearly in a statement: “Those using fossil oil for heating must find other options by 2020.”
The nation recommends citizens look into alternatives such as heat pumps, hydroelectricity, or even special stoves that burn wood chips. Eventually, the legislation could expand to include limitations on using natural gas to heat buildings.
Marius Holm, head of ZERO, a foundation that promotes emissions cuts, shared his enthusiasm about the ban in a statement, saying, “This is a very important climate measure that significantly cuts emissions, sending a powerful signal that we are moving from fossil to renewable energy.”
The Scandinavian Climate Change Charge
The ban marks a radical change in policy for Norway. Despite ratifying the Paris Agreement, the nation showed a 3.3 percent increase in emissions last year compared to 1990, and it was the 15th largest oil exporter worldwide based on 2016 statistics. This new policy could potentially decrease the country’s emissions by 340,000 tons per year.
Perhaps more importantly, Norway’s ban could set a precedent that encourages other countries to decrease their own emissions by targeting the building sector, which accounts for 39 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States. This could make a huge difference in our climate situation when combined with pledges to limit the energy consumption of the transport sector.
Yesterday, June 15, the Swedish government passed a proposal intended to make the country carbon neutral by 2045. The legislation was approved by a 254 to 41 majority (86 percent) and will take effect on January 1, 2018. The drafters of the proposal call it the “most important climate reform in Sweden’s history.”
The law is divided into three key areas:
A climate act that forces the government to provide an environment report every year and to draw up a targeted plan every four years, as well as compels it to base policy on the legislation’s climate goals
Climate goals that include a minimum 63 percent decrease in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030 and at least a 75 percent decrease by 2040, as well as complete carbon neutrality by 2045
The establishment of a Climate Policy Council that will carry out an “independent assessment of how the overall policy presented by the Government is compatible with the climate goals”
As part of the Paris Climate Agreement, Sweden originally planned to be carbon neutral by 2050. By bringing this target forward by five years, it becomes the first nation to set a significantly higher standard for itself since the 2015 adoption of the agreement.
Sweden’s signing of the Paris Climate Agreement meant that the country agreed to efforts to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). To meet that goal, 50 percent of the world’s energy must come from renewable sources by 2060, according to a study by the University of Maryland. Sweden’s new legislation of becoming a completely carbon neutral nation by 2045 is taking that to the next level.
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised up to $15 million toward the U.S.’s share of the Paris climate accord financial commitment. The businessman, who is also an envoy to the UN on climate change, says lack of cooperation from the federal government will not stop the U.S. from meeting its carbon reduction goals, and pledges to support the UN’s climate change work using his Bloomberg Philanthropies foundation.
“Americans are not walking away from the Paris climate agreement,” Bloomberg said in a press release. “Just the opposite — we are forging ahead. Mayors, governors, and business leaders from both political parties are signing onto a statement of support that we will submit to the UN, and together, we will reach the emission reduction goals the U.S. made in Paris in 2015. As a sign of our commitment, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in partnership with others, will make up the approximately $15 million in funding that the U.N.’s Climate Secretariat stands to lose from Washington. Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up — and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.”
According to the statement, the $15 million will assist other countries in implementing their Paris accord commitments.
Bloomberg is in good company, joining many Americans who have spoken out against the U.S. withdrawal. Governors of four states, along with numerous of mayors, heads of corporations, and university presidents are pledging to meet Paris accord climate change goals. The coalition plans to ask the UN to accept their own document as if they were a national government.
“We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” Bloomberg told The New York Times. If they do, they will have a significant impact on carbon emissions and climate change. Major cities have both the most to offer climate change programs and the most to lose if global warming is not abated; more than 90% of urban areas are coastal, and these are the places that can cut down on pollution by implementing green transit plans and capping emissions.
“One man cannot destroy our progress,” former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a video statement. “One man can’t stop our clean energy revolution.”
Some of you might have heard of Burlington, Vermont. It’s a relatively small city that borders Lake Champlain on the state’s western coast. The total population was just a little over 40,000 in 2013. It’s also home to United States senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
But there’s also something that Burlington has that sets it apart from any other city in the entire nation—something that we hope municipalities will use as a model for green initiatives.
Burlington is the country’s first city to completely run on renewable energy. It get its power from a hydroelectric plant a half-mile away, four wind turbines on the nearby Georgia Mountain, and from the McNeil Generating Station which supplies almost half of the city’s electricity through completely sustainable and local lumber. The airport is even coated with solar panels, and residents haven’t seen a raise in electric costs in 8 years. Throw in plans for more EV charging stations, an expansive bike path, and a collection of waste heat to use for downtown buildings, and we’ve really got something to look up (and forward) to.
But all in all, this was no easy feat and the city has quite a bit of history regarding its ascent from inert manufacturing town to global trendsetter in green power. It’s an astounding achievement considering the fact that the United States’ commitment to addressing climate change has never been very certain.
In June 2013, now former President Obama formed the Climate Action Plan, a 21-page document outlining a strategy to cut carbon pollution, along with steps to prepare the country for the man-made continuation of climate change. The document provides some hope in prioritizing the issue for years to come.
The incoming Trump administration has signaled that it intends to chart a new energy policy, which at the moment is unclear; the fate of national clean energy initiatives is therefore uncertain, but of course, in a federal republic, individual states are free to undertake whatever clean energy programs they wish. With temperatures in the country hitting all-time record highs since its initial tracking in 1880, it’s more important than ever to take after Burlington and its commitment to a near future of net-zero energy consumption.
Other Cities Are Leading The Way
Take Las Vegas for example. Local government announced in December last year that they are now 100 percent powered by renewables. They were able to purchase carbon-free electricity from a massive solar array called Boulder Solar 1, which they plan to use in powering 140 buildings, facilities, and streetlights. The transition in energy sources would save the city approximately $5 million per year in spending alone.
Moving halfway across the world, Aarhus is making a remarkable transition of their own. The large municipality in Denmark built the world’s first waste treatment plant that uses wastewater and sewage to create electricity. The Marselisborg Wastewater Treatment Plan was upgraded to generate enough energy to power itself, with extra unspent energy being used to pump clean drinking water for 200,000 residents.
Last year, 68 American cities in both red and blue states joined together and wrote an open letter to then President-elect Trump, asking him to work with them in taking an initiative toward a clean energy future.
These are all examples of what is being done to not only reduce the effects of climate change, but to bring awareness to a ubiquitous problem affecting us all.
So What Can Be Done Now?
Governments all around the world need to take action. We can learn a lot from Burlington’s commitment to creating an efficient clean energy system.
The Paris climate conference in December 2015 gathered 195 countries together to sign the Paris Agreement. This global action plan agreed to have countries find ways to attain worldwide climate-neutrality before 2100.
The next few years are going to be rough on coal producers as nations are slowly shifting away from it as a source of electricity. Solar and wind power is becoming a much cheaper alternative to coal and countries have been making sure that new power plants to be constructed are for renewable sources.
The recent ratification of the Paris agreement has only accelerated this further with six more nations pledging to simply ditch coal in favor of cleaner forms of power generation. These six nations are Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland.
Germany has ratified its Climate Action Plan 2050 which lays out its plan to limit coal power to 50 percent by 2030 and by going coal-free by 2050. The Dutch parliament has approved a similar plan to go coal-free by 2030 through the closure of its 5 remaining coal power plants. Canada has also pledged to phase-out coal by 2030 which translates to the country’s reduction of CO2 emissions by 90 percent. For Austria, a target of 34 percent renewable energy by 2020 and a long-term target of 100 percent self-sufficiency are on the horizon. Finland plans to outright ban the burning of coal by 2030. Finally, France has a more aggressive timeline for the shift from coal by phasing it out by 2023.
Economic and Environmental Reasons
All these nations stand to gain a lot by phasing-out coal. Not only do these countries get cleaner air by the reduction of greenhouse gases which cause respiratory diseases, they could also save a lot of money by eliminating the need to purchase coal. Finland, for example, imports its coal from other countries. By banning coal, these countries can be more self-sufficient in their power generation.
Government policies may be one of the primary reasons for the gradual phase-out of coal but private companies are also a big part of this change. Companies like Tesla and Solar City take a big risk by providing cleaner energy to consumers but in the process, they are bringing renewables to the mainstream and showing the world that not only are renewables cleaner, they could also be more profitable.