If it’s melted, it’s ruined. It’s true for ice cream, and it’s true for the planet.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Climate change is real. It’s frustrating how this statement, in certain circles, can still be seen as controversial. (Climate-change denial has seemed especially loud this insane election season.) Unfortunately, despite worldwide scientific consensus, most countries have been slow to act. Still, there was a sense that our leaders really wanted to get something done at COP21 in Paris. And the amazing thing? They did! On December 12, 2015, more than 190 countries forged an agreement to fight climate change and end the fossil-fuel era.
The planet scored a big victory that day, and representatives are gathering right now in New York City to officially sign the Paris Agreement. There will be a lot of speeches and congratulatory handshakes, which makes this the perfect moment to check in on what the US and other countries have actually been doing to implement COP21’s ambitious, but desperately needed, carbon-cutting goals.
1. United States
Going into COP21, the United States had some big wins on its environmental scorecard—President Obama tightened fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, while Shell Oil abandoned its efforts to drill in the Arctic. Today, the Clean Power Plan is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate efforts. This landmark plan to control greenhouse gas emissions calls for a 32% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, and is the foundation of the emissions reduction commitment made by the US at COP21 in Paris. Back in February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to temporarily bar the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Clean Power Plan’s requirements, but many experts believe that the plan will ultimately be upheld.
China has begun a massive push to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel, partially spurred on by the atrocious air quality issues that their burning has caused. At COP21, China pledged to put an end to the growth of its greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. What’s interesting, though, is that some researchers say that, due to a sharp downturn in coal consumption (and a similarly steep downturn in the economy), China’s emissions may have already peaked in 2014. This has led to calls for China to offer a more ambitious target. China has also agreed to institute a national emission trading system in 2017, covering key industries including power generation, iron, and steel, among other sectors.
The recent election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to be a climate game-changer for Canada. Long known for its environmental leadership, Canada backslid under its previous administration, which emphasized a “drill, baby, drill” economy. Prime Minister Trudeau has a more progressive, climate-focused agenda. He and President Obama just issued a “joint statement on climate, energy, and Arctic leadership” that aims, among other things, to cooperatively protect the Arctic, reduce greenhouse gases (methane, in particular), and dramatically improve the efficiency of the aviation industry.
4. European Union
Europe has often been in the vanguard of environmental and climate-change efforts. With Belgium and Scotland closing down their last remaining coal-fueled power plants last month, over a quarter of EU nations have now quit coal entirely. And the rest of the EU is on board to follow suit by the end of 2025. But it’s not all good news out of the EU, as many are saying that commitment to reducing emissions has begun to wane at precisely the worst time. Post-Paris, the European Commission has declared that its previous agreements and emissions targets require no updating, despite growing concern from critics that even stronger action is required to meet COP21 goals.
India’s growing population (currently 1.2 billion) and developing economy has cemented the nation as a central player in climate negotiations. In Paris, India pledged to essentially overhaul its economy, reducing carbon emissions substantially while ramping up its use of renewable resources, in addition to other steps. While this type of ambition was not brought to the table by all countries (we’re looking at you, Australia), the challenge, as it will be for most countries, is finding a way to achieve these goals while continuing to raise the standard of living for its citizens. For India, raising the money to make it happen could prove a steep hill to climb.
The Australian government continues to drag its feet when it comes to enacting any meaningful climate-change legislation. In fact, it seems that Australia has put its economy in reverse. Despite the departure of notorious climate action laggard Tony Abbott, the government has still managed to slash jobs and funding in climate research, and has approved expanding its already climate-busting coal mines and export facilities in Queensland. This is despite the fact that few places, increasingly including their own country, in the world are seeing more extreme and disastrous weather as a result of the changes in the climate. Polls show that citizens want action, and groups like 350.org are mobilizing them in hope that their leaders will listen.
After the Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down many of its nuclear power plants. Now, hungry for electricity, the Japanese government has abandoned its opposition to building new coal-fired power plants. Coal may be a cheap energy source, but it’s also one of the dirtiest. And just like you wouldn’t want a cheap-but-dirty ice cream spoon, the savings simply aren’t worth the long-term damage. The question for Japan is whether they’ll choose the path of the clean energy economy of the future or the dirty fossil fuels of the past.
8. The world
There’s good news! The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that greenhouse gas emissions have stayed flat for two straight years. The IEA has been monitoring emissions for 40 years, and never before have they stayed level during a period of economic growth. This is an incredibly important milestone that shows that we can break the link between economic growth and rising greenhouse gas emissions. The bad news is that we continue to see record-breaking global temperatures, and there’s no end in sight. However, if the nations of the world come together and make good on their COP21 pledges, we may still be able to avoid the worst effects of climate change. On this day, and every day, we have to keep the pressure on!