State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Climate Talks Struggle While California Forges Ahead

This past weekend, the U.N. climate negotiators pulled an all-nighter in Poland and did just enough to keep the Paris climate accord from collapsing. Meanwhile, back in California, its Air Resource Board mandated a move toward an all-electric public bus fleet. The contrast is illuminating and provides a clear indication of how the climate crisis will actually be addressed. The agenda setting and consciousness raising will continue to take place in international discussions such as COP24, but the real action will take place at the state, local and organizational level. To paraphrase Rene Dubos, we will need to continue to think globally, but realistically, all the action will be local.

In his story on the COP24 process, Brad Plumer of the New York Times reported that:

“Diplomats from nearly 200 countries reached a deal on Saturday to keep the Paris climate agreement alive by adopting a detailed set of rules to implement the pact. The deal, struck after an all-night bargaining session, will ultimately require every country in the world to follow a uniform set of standards for measuring their planet-warming emissions and tracking their climate policies. And it calls on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020.”

But many nations are struggling to meet the commitments they made in Paris back in 2015, and the centrality of energy in modern life has made efforts to control fossil fuel consumption politically dangerous. It is not surprising that one of the issues that has generated the “yellow vest” protests in France was the reaction to a proposed fuel tax increase. The negative response to this carbon tax was not particularly aimed at climate policy, but simply the inability of workers to keep up with the growing cost of living. I continue to maintain that the best strategy to reduce fossil fuel use is not to raise the cost of fossil fuels, but lower the cost of renewable energy.

As Plumer noted:

“Some experts at the talks argued that the march of cheaper, cleaner energy technologies would do far more to break the deadlock around climate policy than any complicated treaties could… Even some of the exhausted politicians in the thick of this week’s climate negotiations were ready to acknowledge the limits of diplomacy.”

No kidding. While the talks in Poland may have been discouraging and often disgusting, California continues its march toward decarbonization. Russia, America and Saudi Arabia continue to have the nerve to promote fossil fuels, but the rest of the world is moving toward renewable energy. Public bus fleets are large scale capital expenditures with regular vehicle replacement schedules controlled by governments, and they make an attractive target for a selective ban of the internal combustion engine. California’s new policy will be implemented gradually. According to Hiroko Tabuci of the New York Times:

“California on Friday became the first state to mandate a full shift to electric buses on public transit routes, flexing its muscle as the nation’s leading environmental regulator and bringing battery-powered, heavy-duty vehicles a step closer to the mainstream. Starting in 2029, mass transit agencies in California will only be allowed to buy buses that are fully electric under a rule adopted by the state’s powerful clean air agency. The agency, the California Air Resources Board, said it expected that municipal bus fleets would be fully electric by 2040. It estimated that the rule would cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases by 19 million metric tons from 2020 to 2050, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.”

California has about 12,000 public buses and very few electric buses are in use today. By 2023 a quarter of the new buses will need to be electric, and by 2029 that percentage grows to 50 percent. It took three years of discussions with stakeholders before the state issued the new rule requiring either electric or fuel cell buses to replace buses running on diesel fuel or natural gas. The natural gas industry fought the rule, but the Air Resource Board passed it over their objections.

There are already electric buses on the market and over the next five years they will become more reliable and technologically advanced. They are also less expensive to run and maintain than those powered by fossil fuels. According to a piece by Sebastian Blanco in Forbes Magazine this past summer:

“Currently, there are around 300 electric passenger buses operating in the U.S., according to Reuters. The average cost for a big electric bus is around $750,000, a bit more than the $435,000 average cost for diesel. Running costs, though, are much lower for e-buses. Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Los Angeles County told TechCrunch that it saves an average of $46,000 per bus per year for electric versus diesel. For communities that want to uses electric buses without the upfront cost, there are leasing options courtesy of the maker of most of the electric buses in the U.S., BYD and its financial partner Generate Capital.”

The growing market for these vehicles will encourage private investment in their development and the certainty of the market in California should reduce the risk of this investment. The lessons learned from bus electrification can be applied to efforts to electrify cars and trucks as well.

There are also broader lessons for climate policy from the events of the past week. The first is that efforts to control climate change will only succeed if nations and consumers are not punished for consuming fossil fuels. The second lesson is that new technologies will be required to transition away from fossil fuels. California could not have acted if a durable, road tested electric bus had not yet hit the market. The third lesson is that a lower cost technology will be more easily adopted than one that costs more. Hopefully the capital cost of electric buses will come down, but even at today’s prices lower operating costs mean that by the time the new buses are retired, their total cost of use will be lower than diesel buses.

The fourth lesson for climate policy is the most important one. The complexity of joint action in Paris or Poland can be discouraging. The climate denying of the Trump Administration is disheartening. But the long term, on the ground action that will decarbonize the economy will be made by millions of decisions like the one taken last week by California’s Air Resources Board. These decisions will be based on enlightened forward-thinking values along with pragmatic efforts to develop and implement new technologies. The vehicles, batteries, solar cells, smart grids and other energy technologies that we need are coming. Fossil fuels will lose the competition in the marketplace and then the diplomats can toast their success at a fancy conference.

The climate crisis is widely understood throughout the world. It is real and urgent, but so too are the daily needs of over seven billion people. Those everyday needs create the political pressure that every regime must respond to if they are to retain power. Climate change competes with personal safety, national security, health, education, housing, food, transport and many other policy priorities.  Decarbonization will not be achieved by a single magical global treaty or an equally magical new technology. It will require many national, state and local policies, many organizational behaviors, many new technologies and a step by step slog through the mud. I believe we will get from here to there, and it will be places like California that will show us the way to do it.

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