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The Paris Climate Accord: Too Little Too Late or an Important First Step?

by Larry J. Schweiger
After 21 painful years of negotiations following the sabotaged Kyoto Climate Agreement, 191 countries finally found agreement on a new strategy to confront climate change and agreed to the Paris Climate Accord last December. Since then, the Paris Accord has been ratified by 82 nations with sufficient emissions to trigger the early launch of the Accord. It finally took effect on November 4th. 

The goals of the Accord are to reduce greenhouse emissions, help countries adapt to wrenching changes brought about by a warming climate and finance projects in developing nations that repair damage wrought by climate change. The explicit goal is for all nations to work together to hold global average temperature increases to well below 3.6 °F (2 °C) above pre-industrial levels in an effort to avoid the vast damages caused by dangerous climate change. 

President-elect Trump has vowed to pull the United States out of this historic agreement, and rescind the Clean Power Plan that requires coal-fired power plants to cut carbon pollution. That would be a tragedy for our country and our families. It would also be a huge lost opportunity to capitalize on the economic advantages of leading the transition to safe, clean energy.

Pennsylvania has a significant responsibility to cut carbon pollution. As the third largest carbon emitter in the nation, Pennsylvania produces about 2 days of the year’s worldwide total emissions. But Pennsylvania has much to gain from aggressively pursuing efforts to cut carbon emissions by committing to an ambitious effort to clean up our energy production by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Pennsylvania already has 66,000 people working in clean energy industries – more than those employed in the coal and gas industries combined. With the right mix of state policies including strengthening our renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, giving renewable energy full access to the electricity grid, and fairly paying homeowners for the excess power they generate from rooftop solar power plants, we could significantly increase the jobs and the economic impact of clean energy.

But right now, that’s not the path our misdirected state legislature is taking. Under the influence of the shale gas and coal interests, the legislature has repeatedly tied the hands of the Wolf administration and the DEP to work on a rational climate plan or increase our renewable energy standards. They have attempted to significantly weaken our successful energy conservation program.

Pennsylvania clearly risks heading down a blind alley by investing in the wrong energy path promising enormous risks and stranded fossil fuel assets. There are 32 additional gas-powered plants proposed for Pennsylvania in various stages of consideration, development, and construction. The planning assumption going into these new plants is not based on growing urgency for constraining carbon emissions but is based solely on sufficient recoverable gas reserves and traditional capitalization considerations over the expected lifetime of new gas combustion turbines up to about 60 years. These assets along with the new pipelines, compressor stations and other gas appurtenances will not be viable in short order as we approach climate tipping points.

The stakes could not be higher. Thirty-one highly respected American scientific organizations recently came together to warn Congress: “If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gasses must be dramatically reduced. In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable.” The well-known former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Jim Hansen has gone so far as to warn, “2 degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster”.

The Paris Accord is an important first step to move 191 nations in the direction of addressing our common future to avoid a long and growing list of catastrophic climate consequences. The Clean Power Plan offers a specific way forward, and Pennsylvania is in an enviable position to capitalize on the new economic development that a transition to clean energy offers. Working together we can and we must do our part as responsible stewards. To walk away from this vital work is both immoral and stupid.

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