WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2015 -- Wrapping up his two days at the Paris climate summit Tuesday, President Obama expressed confidence that a meaningful global agreement will be signed when the meeting ends on Dec. 11 and that the accord will provide the market signals needed to create a “low-carbon global economy.”
Obama also said that even if he’s followed in office by a Republican, he expects the next U.S. president to accept the clear international consensus on the need to tackle the tough but solvable challenge of climate change. Asserting that “not just 99.5 percent of scientists and experts, but 99 percent of world leaders” consider climate change an urgent challenge, Obama said that while Republicans may find it hard to support his initiatives, “people should be confident” that the U.S. will comply with the commitments made at the Paris summit.
In his opening address to the Paris meeting, Obama said the record-setting attendance of 151 heads of state shows that “our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it.” He said the measure of success in reversing climate change will be “suffering that is averted, and a planet that’s preserved.”
Similarly warning that the Paris summit’s outcome “will decide the future of our planet,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called for “a substantial decarbonization of our economies in the 21st century.”
Obama said one basis for optimism is that the U.S. has moved far faster than anyone had expected to lower the cost and increase deployment of clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. He pointed to dramatic renewable energy advances in the U.S. since 2008, including costs reduced by 60 percent for large-scale solar and over 40 percent for wind and for battery storage. He also noted that wind energy production has tripled and solar has increased more than twenty-fold in that period. One result is that there are “parts of America where these clean power sources are finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power,” he said.
“America is on track to reach the emissions targets that I set six years ago in Copenhagen,” Obama said, promising that “we will reduce our carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. And that’s why, last year, I set a new target: America will reduce our emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 10 years from now.” He said a climate agreement in Paris will show “businesses and investors that the global economy is on a firm path towards a low-carbon future,” and “unleash the creative power of our best scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs to deploy clean energy technologies and the new jobs and new opportunities that they create all around the world.”
Obama said another reason for optimism is that Microsoft founder Bill Gates joined him and French President François Hollande in Paris to announce their Mission Innovation initiative which includes pledges from 20 countries to double their funding for clean energy research within five years.
As part of the initiative, Gates called for moving “to sources of energy that are affordable and reliable, and don’t produce any carbon.” He also released his Energy Innovation research paper which states that:
· “More than 80 percent of the energy we use today comes from fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases and drive climate change.”
· “Scientists generally agree that to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius – essentially the least bad option – the world’s biggest carbon emitters need to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and all countries need to essentially eliminate them by the end of the century.”
· “Although using energy more efficiently can help, the only way to dramatically reduce or eliminate global carbon emissions is to switch to sources that do not emit carbon.”
To support the plan to accelerate clean energy research in major countries including the U.S., China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, Gates and other large investors have launched their own private-sector Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Members include 28 significant private capital investors committed to funding clean energy and early-stage innovations.
Gates makes the point that major increases in both government and private sector investment in clean energy are urgently needed because the energy industry invests far too little in research and development (R&D). He notes that while the U.S. pharmaceutical industry invests 20 percent of its revenues in R&D and IT and semiconductor companies invest 15 percent, the U.S. energy industry has been investing 0.23 percent of revenues in R&D.
Gates points to a similar shortfall for federal R&D spending: the U.S. government budgets $70 billion or 11 percent of total U.S. defense sector spending for defense R&D, $31 billion or 1.1 percent of total health care spending on health care R&D, but only $5.3 billion or 0.4 percent of total energy sector spending for energy R&D.
In contrast to Obama’s optimism, Senate Environment Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., insists that the only Paris outcome will be “a nonbinding political commitment and no means of enforcement, accountability or longevity.” In a CNN opinion piece this week, Inhofe concluded that “The President not only lacks support from his own country, but he has no way to follow through on any of his promises. In the President’s efforts to finalize domestic plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases, he has deliberately ignored concerns of environmentalists, states, job creators, U.S. courts and Congress.”
But if Obama is right, the demonstrated benefits from clean energy may be enough to overcome resistance from Inhofe and others who still dismiss climate change as a “hoax” and insist that fossil fuels should remain the world’s primary energy sources.
At the Paris meeting, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a former welder, said the industrial revolution “gave us unprecedented wealth and growth. But it was also the starting point for an economy built on coal and other fossil fuels, and for unsustainable global warming.” Predicting that Sweden will become fossil-fuel free, he said switching to renewable energy is “not only a matter of climate-altruism” but also “in our best economic interests.”
Inhofe charges that switching from fossil fuels to renewables “would make everyday life exceptionally challenging and more expensive.” But reflecting the consensus view at the Paris conference, Löfven predicted that the first countries to commercialize “the new emission-reducing products and innovations that the world is asking for” will be rewarded with economic growth driven by new jobs and new export revenues.