While every year is crucial when it comes to reducing the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases polluting our atmosphere, 2015 is looking to be a super year and a possible turning point in which a few big decisions could make all the difference.
Here are five big things to watch in 2015:
1. Paris UN Climate Conference
Let's start at the end of 2015, when global leaders are expected to show up in Paris, France, in early December to negotiate a new global agreement on global warming pollution reductions. A preview of what is to come was on display in Lima, Peru, in early December when environment ministers and their delegations cobbled together the draft of what will be negotiated in Paris. The major sticking points in the negotiations were the same as they have been for a while now.
The first big issue is the commitment of funding from developed nations, such as the U.S., Canada and the EU, to less-developed nations such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Philippines, to help build renewable energy sources and avoid the use of coal and other carbon-intensive fossil fuels as their economies grow. While the goal is $100 billion in financial commitments, developed countries have so far only put up $10 billion.
The second big issue on the negotiating table is the level of cuts to carbon emissions and by when they will be reached. Some countries want to commit to a shorter time period, like 2020, while others want a longer one. Any good project manager knows that clear, measurable objectives are the key to success. So nailing the percentage of carbon reductions countries will commit to, and by when, is crucial to success at the December 2015 Paris climate talks.
But prior to these talks, there are some other big moments on the horizon that will likely play a role in deciding whether the Paris talks are the final note in a year-long crescendo or if it will all fall flat.
2. Keystone XL Pipeline
U.S. President Obama has a big decision to make on the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015. If approved, Keystone XL would mean a massive expansion of the oilsands in Alberta, Canada. The big issue here is that the oilsands are very carbon-intensive to produce. A typical barrel of oilsands oil produces three to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than a regular barrel of oil.
President Obama has been saying and doing all the right things when it comes to climate change lately, penning a greenhouse gas reduction deal with China and his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposing new regulations for coal plants that would see sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, Obama's recent positive moves on climate will be for naught if the president goes ahead and approves the Keystone XL pipeline project. For what it's worth, I would bet good money that Keystone XL is rejected.
3. U.S. Congress of Denial
While the rest of the world deals with important issues like the fate of the human race and major disruption of the global atmosphere, the U.S. Congress, which is now completely controlled by the Republicans, is still grappling with understanding (or denying) the basic science. In the most recent elections, the Democratic party lost control of the U.S. Senate, and with that we'll see a comeback of the climate deniers running key committees. Most notably, Senator James Inhofe will most likely again be chairing the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee. Watch Inhofe, who claims climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated,” call all sorts of hearings around the issue of climate change and embolden like-minded conspiracy theorists and deniers-for-hire.
With 2015 being such an important year, the U.S. Senate will be a circus act with consequences when it comes to the issue of climate change.
4. Big Coal's Last Stand
There is a shake-up underway in the coal industry and while I don't think this most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels is going away any time soon, 2015 will be a decisive year in which coal will either rise from the ashes or continue a course to extinction.
In June 2014, President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a set of proposed new regulations that would see the U.S. coal sector reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030. Barring any new game-changing technology, these new regulations effectively stop the construction of any new coal-fired power plants in the United States. This also means coal companies just lost a big customer, and will have to look elsewhere to expand their market.
Unfortunately for Big Coal, one of the other big markets for their product, China, is also having second thoughts about expanding its use of coal for energy production. There have been rumblings for quite some time now that coal consumption in China has peaked, and it appears that may in fact be the reality.
With China dealing with civil unrest and bad international headlines over air quality issues, the country recently penned a joint greenhouse gas reduction agreement with the United States and also announced in September that it would soon ban the import of coal with high sulfur and ash content.
All of this is hurting the coal industry big time and you need look no further than Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world. In September, Peabody was dropped from the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index and the company has seen its stock price slide from a high of $72 per share four years ago, to today trading around $7.74. In reaction, Peabody has started an over-the-top new PR campaign called “Advanced Energy for Life” with the intent of softening the bad image of their dirty product and framing it as the savior for developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Big coal is wheezing on its own fumes, and unless it successfully finds new markets for its products, 2015 will likely be the start of a death spiral.
5. Down Under and the Great White North
With a collective population of roughly 58 million, Canada and Australia are relatively small countries, but when it comes to the issues of energy and climate change, they play an outsized role on the global stage.
Canada, with its tar sands deposits, has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world. Australia is the fourth largest coal producer in the world, with much of it exported to the Asian and South Asian markets. Both countries also have leaders bent on making their countries into energy superpowers, climate be damned.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in his eighth year of power, with a federal election to be called by October 2015 at the latest. There remains a real chance that Harper could be re-elected, bringing with it another four years of inaction on climate change and cheerleading for the expansion of export pipelines and the tar sands. If that isn't bad enough, if he wins another term in office, watch Harper completely regress (if that is possible) on his country's commitments at the UN negotiating table in Paris in December.
In his second year of power, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbot is making Stephen Harper look like a lightweight when it comes to punching holes in efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Since taking office, Abbott has, among other things, scrapped Australia's carbon tax and shut down his country's climate commission. At the same time, Abbott has been clear on where he stands on fossil fuels, recently proclaiming that “coal is good for humanity.”
This summer, Harper and Abbott stood together and announced they had formed a pact to fight action on climate change and invited the leaders of the United Kingdom, India and New Zealand to join them. None followed, and nothing more has been heard of the Abbott/Harper pro-carbon coalition. What Harper and Abbott are doing may be political suicide. We are no longer in the heyday of climate denial and pro-oil pacts, and the electorate may punish Harper in the 2015 Canadian election for his outright disdain for the issue of climate change.
If the electorate does punish Harper in 2015, Abbott will no doubt be watching and who knows what he will do in response. But what I do know is that the best way to get to a politician is either money or the threat of losing votes.
When I first started working on climate issues, 2015 seemed so distant. At one point, I naively even thought that by 2015 we would have finally dealt with climate change once and for all. But it turns out that when dealing with an issue as big as climate change, there is no “once and for all” solution. Instead, climate change is an issue that will be dealt with through peak moments of big change and flat-lines of political morass.
If we play our cards right, 2015 could be a big, great peak year for climate.
Image credit: Abac077 on Flickr.