Watch out for Political Fallout from the Paris Climate Accord

Monday, December 14, 2015

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) along with leaders of 194 other countries. The treaty’s objective was to “Stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Few knew that at that time, dangerous interference was well already underway.

Over the last 23 years, climate scientists have examined vast quantities of data covering multiple lines of evidence including surface and atmospheric temperatures, concentrations of climate pollution, heat waves and floods, ice sheets and glaciers, and the condition of forests and reefs. The consensus conclusion is that global warming is unequivocal, and a majority of the warming is due to human interference. I have contributed to two of the five sets of UNFCCC reports that have been published since 1992.

This past week, the Obama administration negotiated the first global accord that commits 195 countries to diverge from their “business-as-usual” emissions of greenhouse gases. Thus, the “book ends” of these two important climate treaties (in 1992 and 2015) were agreed to by a Republican administration and then by a Democratic one. The climate challenge faced by the U.S. (and the world) is not partisan; it affects everyone in every state of the Union.

But when the U.S. climate negotiators return from Paris, the partisan bickering is going to intensify. Because the U.S. fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants is our nation’s single largest source of climate-destabilizing pollution and one of the largest sources in the world, politicians are going to fight or support the Administration’s first climate policy aimed at decarbonizing U.S. power plants – the Clean Power Plan. Critics are going to argue that the U.S. cannot afford to take such actions. 

But strong evidence suggests that the Clean Power Plan will save thousands of lives each year, prevent tens of thousands of asthma attacks annually, and help ensure hundreds of thousands of Americans do not miss work and school due to harmful air pollution. The monetary value of these public health and climate benefits is in the billions. While there are costs associated with reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, they are far outweighed by their benefits. Research by Georgia Tech’s Climate and Energy Policy Lab documents that the cheapest approach to reducing CO2 emissions is to consume less energy by using it more efficiently.

By “energy efficiency,” I don’t mean taking cold showers and drinking warm beer. It means getting more energy services out of the energy you consume – with LEDs instead of incandescent bulbs, smart appliances that run when electricity is cheapest, 3-D additive manufacturing, and the transformation of manufacturing plants into power generators by using their large concentrations of waste heat. These “negawatts” that can be saved are the cleanest and cheapest energy resource in the U.S., and especially right here in the South. Let’s get behind the Clean Power Plan and show that saving the planet via the Paris Accord can be good for the health of the U.S. economy, its citizens, and its ecosystem.

Marilyn Brown is the Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her fifth book was published last month, “Green Savings: How Policies and Markets Drive Energy Efficiency.”