Cancun climate talks inspire and disappoint, near-term opportunities at hand

Guest Blog | December 15, 2010 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

This post was co-authored by SACE’s Board Chair, John Noel; Anne Blair, SACE’s Diesel and Bioenergy Program Manager; and Jennifer Rennicks, SACE’s Federal Policy Director.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 16th U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP16) icop16logon Cancun as a speaker at a SACE-sponsored symposium entitled “Win Win Strategies for Reducing Emissions of Black Carbon and Short Term Greenhouse Gases.”  We co-sponsored this symposium with The Climate Institute and Environmental and Energy Study Institute ( EESI), which just conducted a briefing on the importance of black carbon for both climate and health implications.

One year ago this week, during the previous round of U.N. climate talks, we published a blogpost on black carbon and how this small particle was causing big problems, particularly in polar regions. Despite how critical the black carbon piece is in the overall climate equation, the issue largely got lost amidst negotiations this year that ranged from setting emissions reduction targets to preserving tropical forests to creating a Green Climate Fund.

While in Cancun, I listened to more than 50 speakers, including Ted Turner, Sir Richard Branson, Lord Nicolas Stern as well as executives from Shell, Coca-Cola, 3M, Siemens, and Phillips. As a result of these speakers and dozens of private conversations I held with government officials and NGOs from around the world, I found reason for optimism and sadness.

On the positive side: businesses are actively implementing solutions. Coca-Cola is removing the environmentally damaging gases (HFCs, which are collectively responsible for about 10% of climate change worldwide) from its 10 million vending machines and improving their efficiency at the same time. They have also convinced 400 large retailers to join these efforts.

Phillips, Danfoss and Siemens are retrofitting buildings and reducing their energy consumption. The Carbon War Room has developed a grading system for transport ships to help Walmart and other large retailers know which freighters to avoid based on their environmental impacts. Visionary leadership from American companies is essential, but to truly solve the climate problem we will need everyone to share that commitment.

bettingoncleanenergyThe Chinese have become very aggressive in curbing carbon dioxide (CO2):  they are taxing coal, putting caps on excess power consumption, and have become the world’s largest manufacturer and installer of renewable, clean energy.

These talks solidified a movement to protect forests from slash and burn practices and to preserve large, intact areas to protect biodiversity and indigenous peoples’ lands while enabling forest sequestration for CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  Fortunately, the U.S. is leading this effort, emphasizing forest dependence levels are constantly underestimated.

But there was the sadness for me at these talks, as well.

There is a green revolution happening, and America is missing in action. As one British leader said to me, “Politicians of every stripe in Europe are working to protect the planet and we have completely written off the Americans.”

It is troubling to me that we live in a time when China boldly leads – although the U.S. could have and should have – while the world snickers about the paralysis of the U.S. Senate, a once-great institution that is no longer capable of action on perhaps the greatest single issue of our time.

Time after time, leaders of many countries spoke in Cancun to stress the urgency of and seriousness of our situation: our planet is in the throes of escalating warming primarily due to our failure to act on solid science.  Time after time, these leaders ended their remarks with  “for the sake of our children, we must solve this quickly.”

There is still time for the current Congress to take small but critical steps to begin shifting our country into a sustainable energy economy.  Congressional leaders may still consider measures like the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act re-authorization (DERA) and an extension of the Treasury Grants Program for renewable energy projects.  It is our hope that important initiatives like these will be continued to add momentum to new programs already coming on line.

One such program was announced yesterday: a $5 million award to SACE from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the creation of a new program called “Clean Trucks Make Cents” (CTMC). The award, which SACE received through EPA’s SmartWay Clean Finance Program, will be used to guarantee loans for the purchase or lease of pre-2007 tractor-trailer trucks that have been retrofit with pollution control devices and idling reduction technology. The program will help truckers and businesses who are in the market for used big rigs to buy cleaner-running, more-efficient trucks.

These programs will help us reduce global warming pollutant and get us on a path that can begin to lessen the pressures on the planet.  These are important measures for public health and the environment and we hope that Congress will ensure that such measures are passed by year’s end.  Every delay, every day we take is costing us.  And yet even these programs will not be enough.  We need a serious commitment from our leaders and we hope that members of Congress will accept the science and steer us in a new path in the new year.

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