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December 10, 2015 | The American Question, and What Might Happen After COP 21

Something’s different about COP21. We can all feel it in the air — the sheer number of people, the various art installations dotting the city, the businesses and local governments that are here to show their support, and the romantic beauty of Paris also doesn’t hurt. People are finally having conversations about the relationship between the science and the human rights impacts of climate change, and the private sector is getting involved to drive innovative solutions in a warming world. While the final Paris agreement may not be ground-breaking, it will undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.

And yet, there’s still a big unanswered question; a giant, lumbering elephant in the room. Even if the Paris agreement sets ambitious global goals for limiting global warming and reducing carbon emissions, it won’t make much of a difference without the cooperation of the two biggest carbon emitters: China and the United States. As an American, I will focus this article on the U.S., but it is important to note that China just released its new climate action plan, saying that emissions will peak around 2030, and hopefully soon.

The United States does have many environmental actions to be proud of in its history. We have many government agencies, including the EPA and NOAA, that were established in the 1970s and continue to work on many different issues today. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were also established in the '70s and in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act. In 1990, we created two cap-and-trade systems, one for NOx and one for SO2. But no matter what your political beliefs, we can all agree that the Congressional stalemate that the Republicans have created, which has prevented the United States from making much progress on climate change and many other issues during the majority of Barack Obama’s presidency, is also one for the history books.

After the final Paris agreement is released at the end of this week, the U.S. will not be able to start working towards keeping global warming below 2 °C until the document is ratified by the U.S. Senate. And there is a collective sense of fear that the Republicans will not allow the document to pass, nullifying the extraordinary amount of work that has been put into this conference over the last two weeks.

And while we are waiting in limbo to see what the agreement will look like and what will happen when it is placed before the U.S. Senate, there are some reasons to be hopeful when it comes to U.S. participation in global carbon emissions reductions. Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has rolled out a comprehensive Clean Power Plan that targets power plants, since the electricity sector produces 31% of total emissions in the United States, and gives states ultimate jurisdiction to decide how to manage those emissions reductions. “We’ve got a very secure legal framework,” David Doniger, Director of the NRDC’s Climate & Clean Air Program, said Wednesday, Dec. 9, in a panel I watched. “We’ve got a lot we can do under the law we have.”

It’s also important to recognize that in the U.S., each state has an enormous amount of power. Because of this, they need to lead the way through an energy transition towards a sustainable future, regardless of what is happening at the federal level. There are so many areas of work that states can tackle, including transportation, energy efficiency, cap-and-trade, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), and finance.

California is one state that is truly leading the way for the rest of the country and the world. I had the chance to see Matt Rodriguez, director of the California Environmental Protection Agency, speak during COP21, and he said that California has a goal of 33% renewables by 2020 and 50% renewables by 2030, a cap-and-trade system that covers 85% of California’s emissions and generates $2.5 billion in revenue every year, and a low carbon fuel standard. The state is also promoting urban centers to reduce commuting needs, improving energy efficiency, and working on increasing the number of electric vehicles on the road.

Finally, there is so much room for innovation in tackling the climate crisis, and the private sector is already playing an active role in not only the conversation but the technological side of the solution. “The smart money is going to be focusing on where the systems are heading,” said Dave Hawkins, Director of Climate Programs at the NRDC. And he’s right. Businesses are recognizing that investing in sustainable technologies just makes sense — economically, socially, culturally, and environmentally. We will see what happens in the coming weeks and months regarding the U.S. role in the aftermath of COP21, but there’s a lot to be hopeful for.

 

Emma Hutchinson is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Emma is a junior at Stanford University, where she is studying environmental science and economics.