Wil Burns: New Study – Commitment Accounting of CO2 Emissions

The socio-economic inertia of carbon intensive infrastructure is a major obstacle to decarbonizing the world.

Global Environmental Politics

This post was written by Dr. Wil Burns.  Dr. Burns is Scholar in Residence at the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program and serves as Co-Executive Director of the Washington Geoengineering Consortium, an initiative of the GEP program.  This post originally appeared on another blog of the GEP program, Teaching Climate/Energy Law & Policy.

Socolow_photo_7.7.14 Dr. Robert H. Socolow

A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters assesses the potential impacts of cumulative emissions from existing fossil fuel plants built in the past few years (2010-2012). During this period, an average of 89 gigawatts of new coal generating capacity was added annually, with natural gas trends soaring at a similar pace during this time.
The study by Steven J. Davis and Robert H. Socolow, sought to quantify what they characterized as “an important component of socio-economic inertia,” which they denominated “committed emissions,” or the projected emissions from existing fossil fuel-burning infrastructure…

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Forget 2012: Why 2015 Will Decide Our Fate

I bet even the Mayans didn’t see this coming when they predicted that the world would end in 2012. Turns out we are not off the hook yet, with an even more legitimate danger staring us in the face. Right now a bunch of suits at the UN are deciding how much climate change we are going to get.

No, really. Their hands are on the global thermostat. And only WE can hold them accountable for how far they crank it up.

Let me explain: Not many people know that each year 195 national governments meet to hash out the details of a global agreement to stop man-made climate change. It’s called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and this is the take home message: they’re not doing so hot. This forum was supposed to reach an agreement in 2009 to limit catastrophic climate change by creating tangible reduction pledges of greenhouse gas emissions from all member nations. The negotiations came to a standstill when no greenhouse gas (GHG) heavy-hitters, such as the USA or China, stepped up with ambitious reduction commitments fearing economic whiplash if they acted without comparable promises from other countries. When the GHG giants did not commit to significant reductions, no one else did either. Since then we’ve seen Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented drought in California , and biblical flooding in Arizona, among a growing list of climate impacts. At the same time, the most well supported research on global climate change concluded global warming has moved firmly into the present and our window to act is closing.

A new deadline of 2015 was set in 2011 to recover from the failure in 2009 and to create an all-inclusive global agreement that will put the brakes on the gluttonous amount of carbon we are belching into the air.

frustrated US delegate

Frustrated delegate from the United States at Conference of the Parties (COP) 19 in Warsaw, Poland. The final international agreement on global warming is hinging on the contributions proposed by the United States, China, and India. Only one of these key players has to step up with ambitious emission reduction goals to provide the assurance for the rest of the world to set similarly ambitious targets. Photo credit: Spencer R Schecht.

We’ve seen this kind of climate belly flop before with the deteriorating Kyoto Protocol and the meltdown at the Copenhagen negotiations. One clue as to why we keep hearing this broken record may lie in that no single entity, government, nor set of individuals are held responsible if these negotiations fail. Though collective failure has big consequences, it’s still nobody’s fault. Nobody, except for us; we the people of planet earth.

If 2015 doesn’t produce a robust agreement with ambitious greenhouse gas reduction pledges from the world’s biggest economies, we are back at where we are right now: the pollutants that warm our world will continue to flow freely into our air and we are left to prepare for uncharted territory.

Which is where we come in; you and I can each take ACTION to limit the worst of climate change. The UNFCCC is composed of governments and our government is composed “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We as the people ARE powerful. We have the power to hold our representatives accountable for doing their job of ensuring a safe and just world. And our power grows with our capacity to cooperate. I’m not just talking switching out our light bulbs and recycling, either (but we should continue to do that too).

Here are 3 levels of action you can take:

1- You did it! You read this article, I hope now you know something you didn’t know before. Stay educated on the issue, there are lots of great resources out there that can keep you in the know. Follow updates on this important process on Twitter @SpencerSchecht. Stay educated, my friends, with these great resources:

·      350.org

·      Adopt a Negotiator Project

·      Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

·      Grist

2- Join the party and take a trip to New York City September 21 to show the UN that they have the eyes of the world upon them. As nations convene for a day of preliminary talks on the agreement, the largest climate march in history will be taking place. Civil participation is an empowering and significant privilege that can produce real change, as it did during the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to just everywhere”; The People’s Climate March is our opportunity to stand together for justice. To let this injustice persist threatens justice everywhere. Take to the streets in a grand show that we are more invested in real change than clicking like on Facebook. Read up, be heard, experience it for yourself.

3- Activate your power in this democracy– Citizens Climate Lobby is equipping people with tools and training to develop relationships with their politicians and urge them for action on global warming. With more meetings with Congress each year than any other volunteer based environmental organization, CCL is giving the people back their democracy. Let us not forget our government is participatory, so let’s participate.

CCL 2014 Capitol Steps

The author and 600 Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers at the Capitol Steps in Washington DC. We have the power to push those making the decisions to act on climate change. Photo credit: Erica Flock.

Keep up to date, find your voice, and decide for yourself where you fit in. There are a variety of ways to do your part while enjoying the experience of discovering your power as a free citizen. And indeed, freedom plus cooperation has produced some of the greatest successes in history. We as citizens have the power to push our representatives to be leaders at these meetings. Our nation’s influence is unparalleled, and our influence on our nation is imperative.

Those in suits have their hands on the global thermostat, but we can decide to join the cavalry to rescue our collective future.

Contact the author:


Facebook: Spencer R Schecht

Twitter: @SpencerSchecht

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Why I Believe in ‘Fake it Til you Make it’

Right now you are probably not what you want to be. Not because you are a failure or aren’t talented enough, but because you have aspirations and goals, and that’s good. We want bigger and better things in our lives. It’s just part of the human condition, we all want to BE MORE.


So how do we get to where we want to be? By faking it, of course. I do not mean to imply malicious posturing for the sake of indiscriminate personal gain. Productive faking is pushing your limits, reaching farther outside what you think you are capable of to a place of possibility. The kind of faking I speak of is imagination, improvisation, playfulness, a certain joy in creation.


Let me explain: you want to be a better writer? Or a better pianist or a better tennis player or whatever. You practice incessantly and prepare and the time comes to step up. But you aren’t Steinbeck or Mozart. Yet! You are only you, in this moment, possibly bereft of the skill and experience to achieve what you want, but still you “fake it”, you go for it, you try. And through faking it you acquire skill and experience.


See, “fake it til you make it” doesn’t mean you are trying to be someone you’re not. It is the courage to participate as more than you think you are capable of. It is divine collaboration in this world. Don’t get all hung up on the negative connotations of the word “fake”. Fake cheese sucks. So do fake people. But you are never a fake person for paying for your experience in the currency of courage. This payment is in exchange for personal development. It is diving into the discomfort zone without knowing who you will be when you resurface.


We fake it when we are uncomfortable at a party and continue with the small talk. We fake it when we go all out on the soccer field, running like hell and flailing around trying to make a play. But that small talk may evolve into real talk and you may stumble into a meaningful conversation. You may realize you are a better soccer player than you thought, that your stamina is damn good.


And hey, maybe you won’t succeed in either of these instances. Maybe you will fall flat on your face and make a fool out of yourself. But this hardly means we have failed. It is always possible to derive positive meaning from a perceived failure. Failures shape us as much as successes. They are tools for growth if we recognize them as such. You can always feel accomplishment from not achieving what your faking meant to in this way.


Remember what Emerson said, “Adhere to your own act, congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” We need not compromise authenticity in a “fake it til you make it” paradigm. One is honoring the infinite potential of life and experimenting with the cosmic toolbox of experience.


So I say fake it. Fake the hell out of it. When one system of faking fails you, try out a different one. It is our life mission to reveal our own character to ourselves. How can we reveal this if we never take a leap from our comfort zone into the unknown? To fake it a little bit?


 To BE MORE we must TRY MORE.


We may awake one day and find we no longer have to fake it; we’ve actually made it.



Alphabet Soup: The Significance of the UNFCCC and the COPs

The 1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was at the time the largest convening of nations in history. Better known as “Earth Summit”, this event galvanized the need for unprecedented transnational cooperation to ensure a healthy global environment and sustainable development as humanity fumbled into the 21st Century. 


A supremely important treaty to emerge from this meeting was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that stated the intention to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Basically world leaders agreed we should work cooperatively towards stopping destructive climate change. Exactly what should be done by who and when was the subject of discussions at the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) as member nations wrestled with the problems of decoupling economic prosperity with high carbon emissions.


Possibly the most famous proposal manufactured through the UNFCCC process was the Kyoto Protocol. Agreed upon in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol required emissions reductions by the world’s most developed nations who were at the time the leading CO2 culprits. The US Senate did not like the idea of the world dictating to the USA how much carbon it was allowed to emit and the US never signed the agreement. With the US out, the Kyoto Protocol has had minimal success in spurring its intended results.


The conversation is now more important that ever. Questions abound as to whether the Kyoto Protocol should be modified to be more inclusive for member nations such as the US or if we should graduate to a separate system. A major roadblock with keeping the KP alive is the once third world economies of China, India, and Brazil are undergoing monstrous growth and therefore have become monstrous emitters. Under the KP guidelines as they are now these countries would be immune to the binding commitments the US couldn’t stomach almost a decade ago. Another argument submits major polluters from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution such as the US and the EU should finance developing countries mitigation efforts so they could in effect “leap frog” over the high carbon development the first world utilized to raise its standards of living. Furthermore, all of this needs to keep to the paramount objective of leveling off greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Currently the 19th iteration of the COP is taking place in Warsaw, Poland where I am an observing delegate from American University. Countries are cautious to make bold commitments in the fear that hard action on climate change would mean jeopardizing economic development. Developing countries argue they are raising their populations out of poverty and need carbon intensive infrastructure to do so. Developed nations, arguably with the most responsibility and capability to act submit taking steps when no one else will is unfair to their prosperity.


The deadline was set in 2011 so by the year 2015 a new UNFCCC agreement will be reached that will take effect in 2020. Whether it is improved upon or altogether scrapped, the Kyoto Protocol as is no longer accommodates for the state of the global economic landscape and what that means for distributing responsibility fairly. Will countries be held to blanket commitments such as under the KP or will each country decide domestically what actions are appropriate for themselves? Who will provide the funds to the poorest countries and to what projects? What happens if we fail to act in time and climate change begins irreversibly altering weather patterns, livelihoods, and coastlines? We are living through a tremendously transformative period where for the first time countries are attempting to answer these questions and to cooperate in redefining the fundamentals of economic prosperity to safeguard the global environment from irreversible damage. 

Transatlantic Cooperation on Energy Security and Climate Change

On Thursday October 3rd, I attended the Emerging Leaders in Energy & Environmental Policy (ELEEP) conference titled “Transatlantic Cooperation on Energy Security and Climate Change” in DC hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Ecologic Institute. There were three sets of panels of ambassadors, former diplomats, and energy-climate experts. Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, was a scheduled panelist but was a no show because of the government shutdown. Among several jokes from the panelist that they had passed the threshold of being considered “emerging”, the afternoon was descriptive conversation of the current and future landscape of US-European energy and climate actions. I will deconstruct the key points of the conference into 5 take home messages.


Transitioning to a low-carbon economy is the primary challenge of international relations

Energy energy energy. How it is acquired, what sources we extract it from, and how it is used, are the underpinnings of international affairs as the world progresses through the 21st Century. Energy availability has driven what economies will grow and exert their influence and will continue to do so. We are now keenly aware of the relationship between traditional fossil fuel use and climate change. Transitioning away from a dominance of these fuels to a low-carbon world economy holds great importance for economic growth, sustainable development, and the degree of anthropogenic climate change in the coming decades.


The US is doing what it can with a paralyzed Congress

Although federal climate legislation failed in 2009, that same year President Obama made the ambitious pledge in Copenhagen promising a 17% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2005 levels. With Congress incapable of effective decision-making at this time, responsibility has fallen on federal agencies and the states to make this happen. Not evidenced by popular media, they have taken to the challenge and the US has seen promising cuts to emissions over the last few years.

Gradually more stringent automobile efficiency standards are reducing emissions from the transportation sector while the EPA is forging new standards for fossil fuel fired power stations. Individual states (such as California’s ambitious renewables and energy efficiency standards) and states acting in groups (such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI) are approaching carbon emission reductions on regional scales. States can take regionally and municipally appropriate actions that energize their local economy while contributing to aggregate US reductions. For instance, Texas is the largest wind producer of energy in the US. Who knew? In this way, states have lessons for economies over seas and the US overall. Facilitating the sharing of best practices and removing barriers to cooperation among states and countries plays a critical role in a low carbon transition.

A reoccurring topic of the conference was America’s shale gas boom. Contentious fracking throughout the country has created an energy revolution in the US (we are “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” as one Congressional staffer phrased it during a separate meeting). For all of its environmental misgivings, hydraulic fracturing is providing a domestic source of natural gas that when burned creates significantly less GHGs than oil or coal. The accelerated extraction and use of fracked gas has been a major contributor to the steady reduction in overall US GHG emissions. Is shale gas a transition fuel or a destination fuel? A question to be considered along with the heavy environmental cost of extracting this gas, it has for the time being provided a less carbon intensive source of energy and has set an example that quick, economical transitions to lower carbon fuels are possible.


This may be the last decade of American–European influence as we know it

Emerging economies may be a misnomer. Emerging superpowers may be more accurate. India and China are on track to surpass the United States and Europe as global trendsetters in the next decade as their economies expand and they lift their populations out of poverty. What examples will the Euro-American superpowers of the 20th Century set in this remaining window of global influence? The decisions of the next decade are pivotal in defining where the world is heading this next century.


Putting a price on carbon is a good idea 

It was described as “crazy” that the US has not paid more consideration to implementing a tax on carbon emissions. Put simply, tax the unhealthy, climate change inducing pollutant instead of, for example, income. Here we would be paying for the “social cost” of carbon. 

The idea is that we do not pay the full price of carbon emissions when we buy electricity or gas. We pay the health bills associated with dirty air and water, we pay in the form of lost habitats and landscapes as fossil fuel extraction levels whole mountains and ecosystems, we pay to rebuild entire shorelines after devastating hurricanes pound our communities. Therefore, to put a price on carbon that equates to these values incentivizes a transition in the economy, industry, and individual lifestyles.

For this to work the tax needs to be sufficiently high. The estimated price of the social cost of carbon is around $40 per ton. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme prices carbon at around €4 (about $5.40) per ton, too small to take a sizeable chunk out of emissions and begin to effect industry decisions. Furthermore, a price on carbon needs to have a global structure to level the playing field. Industries that will be heavily taxed in one country for their emissions will have the incentive to relocate to deregulated countries if there is not a global carbon pricing structure.

For these reasons, compounded by ideological disputes and the Congressional paralysis mentioned above, a carbon tax in the US is not likely anytime soon. To hear the proposals of how one activist group is working to overcome these obstacles and respond to the challenges of implementing a US carbon tax, check out Citizens Climate Lobby (http://citizensclimatelobby.org).


Optimism is necessary for there is hope

Climate change has taken on an aura of doom and gloom pessimism. “We are screwed anyway so what’s the point in doing anything about it?” is a common defeatist argument. And it is easy to see the issue this way if taken at face value.

The failure of advocating for climate change mitigation and adaption is to focus on the bad news; sea level rise, more intense and frequent extreme weather events, ecosystem disruption. These are complex problems and short horizons are partially to blame. But when we view climate change as an opportunity rather than a monumental challenge, we flip the script.

The world has advantages to gain from acting to mitigate and adapt to climate change. New industries need human power to scale up new technologies with the promise of replacing fossil fuels. In fact Ikea has begun selling Photovoltaic (solar) panels in the UK. Developing climate resilient infrastructure builds better, more efficient, more livable communities. The more than one billion in poverty throughout the world are staged to benefit significantly from climate and energy financing and the principles of equity they are predicated upon. Climate change is creating jobs and hope for people all over the world.

As one panelist pointed out as the conference was reaching its conclusion, the world teetered anxiously on the verge of major disaster throughout the Cold War. Few predicted its end would come in the form of a fizzle rather than a fight. We should not be over burdened by climate change. The world shares responsibility, but also shares in its benefits. There is space for optimism and this should be the point of departure in climate change dialogues.



In Defiance

In nature we confront the bare reality that there is no place for man. He must, by deeds of great force, carve out his own among the trees and the bugs.

In nature we hear the ever fainter call of the wild, yet a more visceral siren calls us to take up the hammer and the spade. It is the siren of civilization. A call from within beckoning for us to claim a place called home. The forests must give way to cities. It is endowed in the soul of all persons this lust for a home, a place of comfort.

“Take that, nature!”, we have said. “We refuse to be exiles from The Garden any longer. Here is our New Garden, and we’ve built our own trees from your obsolete wooden towers. This is ours, this is home.”

It is a terrific act of defiance, and a basic right of passage for all peoples. The unceasing tedium of great natural beauty must be interrupted by a dwelling for man. Hungry for company, a place of our own, we defied nature.

A Note on Curiosity

I wrote this piece a few months ago, the week the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars. Allowing for the premier hype to die down, posting this now may be a good time to remind people of the tremendous feat this is. Enjoy.


“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” – Carl Sagan

There are many topics to be currently concerned with in world news, however, one easily swept up in the tide is taking place on quite a different world.

On August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, touched down on the surface of Mars (the landing itself is a spectacle to be marveled, involving a rocket powered sky crane and can be viewed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiEoGUHEobo). As a culture we have become desensitized to these events so allow me to break it down for you: we sent a nuclear powered chemistry lab on wheels to carry out experiments on Mars for the first time in the history of the solar system. We have not figured out efficient means to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined like we did with the moon. So we sent a monstrosity of technology there to do the science and beam back the data.

Do not allow yourself to be underwhelmed by this information. In a time when the news partitions its time between who got killed where and which politiciquin (politician + mannequin) has uttered the most out of touch nonsense, we are reminded that humanity is beautiful. We are reminded that we still have our heads tilted skyward, infinitely curious about the infinite. Is this a 2 billion dollar waste of money for an RC car on Mars? Hardly, this is a 2 billion dollar dive into the expanse of awesomeness we so often forget pervades us in all directions.

Today be proud to be human. Curiosity reminds us we are still awe inspiring creatures, capable of achieving the outer limits of our collective imagination.

Be proud to be curious. This is not simply science in space, Curiosity is art. It is the essence of the human spirit to explore, discover, learn. 

Be speechless, be humbled, be inspired. 
Be curious.


Since writing this Curiosity has helped confirm that water did in fact once flow on the Martian surface. The Costco like variety of scientific instruments on board has helped paint a picture of the composition of the Martian atmosphere and the rover’s surrounding geology. The machine has been drilling into Martian rock, giving scientists information for the first time on what lies below the surface of our favorite solar neighbor (actually my favorite may be Saturn, just because it looks pretty). 

Curiosity’s mission is slated to last only two years but may go beyond depending on how much energy it uses up in that time. However, the data being sent back to our blue planet will be mined for decades, possibly even centuries to come. Scientists are particularly adept at piecing together master jigsaw puzzles from a few shredded pieces of the whole. From the data Curiosity is supplying us we will learn more about the red planet than we ever could observing it through telescopes.

Pretty cool, huh?