The Paris Climate Agreement:  Meeting the challenges while creating new opportunities

2013-11-08 11.01.20How important is the agreement world leaders reached in Paris and how are we to assess the significance of the Paris climate accord?

An overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that emissions of greenhouse gases, if left unabated, will result is systemic changes in the global climate system, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and an increase in the frequency and severity of storm events and drought.

The Paris Agreement marks a pivotal point in human history, the time when the world community unequivocally rejected further inaction, recognizing “that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.”

In President Obama’s assessment: “We met the moment.”

The Paris Agreement is a remarkable achievement – 195 countries setting aside economic, political, and ideological differences and achieving consensus on issues that are dauntingly complex, demand long-term commitments, and require, fundamentally, a transformation of the way energy is generated, managed and consumed across the globe.

It is an unmistakable and powerful message to energy markets expressing a clear preference for clean energy solutions that will accelerate innovation, expand clean energy technology markets, and enable the rapid growth and deployment zero carbon energy solutions.

Meeting emissions reductions necessary to provide the world with a reasonable chance of keeping temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) essentially means that all electricity must be produced by carbon free sources by 2050.

The good news is that strategies for transitioning to a global clean energy economy are now mainstream, when only a few years ago the notion that we could end or dependence on fossil fuels was broadly considered naïve.  Goals that were aspirational then are being surpassed today.

In the last two years, renewable energy resources represented more than 60 percent of all new electric generating capacity installed worldwide.  Swift and dramatic cost reductions for carbon free energy technologies like wind and solar are making clean energy the lower cost option in markets across the world.

Capital investment is being redirected to clean energy technologies at the same time Wall Street and international banks are pulling the plug on future investment in coal plants.  Growing preferences by business and industry for clean energy will only accelerate the transition.  Global leaders like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Intel and many others have 100 percent zero carbon energy goals and are making investment decisions based, in part, on the availability of clean energy.

To achieve the ambitious targets transportation will also have to be electrified and electric drivetrains must replace internal combustion engines over time.   Toyota recently announced its intention to essentially eliminate the production of gasoline powered cars by 2050.  And just days before the Paris agreement, Ford Motor Company announced a $4.5 billion investment in electric vehicles.

For Michigan, it is an opportunity to leverage our strength in advanced manufacturing, engineering and materials science, not only by the automotive industry in designing next generation vehicles, but by companies like Michigan-based Dow, Dow Corning, and Masco who lead in developing energy efficient building solutions.  And the Paris agreement should be good news for Freeland-based Hemlock Semiconductor, the largest producer of polycrystalline silicon – the base material for solar cells – in the world.

The Paris agreement also has the potential to initiate a cascade of collateral benefits.  The International Energy Agency estimates that a transition to clean energy would result in avoided fossil fuel expenditures, saving a net $71 trillion over the next 35 years.  It also means reducing the environmental and health impacts associated with the extraction of fossil fuels.

Finally, the Paris agreement should elevate the national discourse to focus more on measures enabling the attainment of energy and climate goals and less on the politics of climate change. In the best case, the agreement provides the opportunity for citizens, public officials and community leaders to become better educated on the systemic and multi-facet effects of climate change while further marginalizing climate denialism, relegating debate over acceptance of climate science to the small corners of uninformed conversation.

In all, as a first step, it’s a giant leap forward.