On April 22nd, at the United Nations in New York, leaders the world over will sign the Paris agreement on reducing the threat of climate change.  This is a high-water mark for political commitment to this disastrous problem, so it is fair to ask: Will it make a difference? 

The climate problem is almost too large to comprehend: It threatens vast segments of modern civilization, with the changes likely to be more dangerous and of a larger scale than is generally understood.  And its principal source, in burning hydrocarbons, is embedded in every aspect of the modern economy. 


Because of the ubiquitous nature of the source of climate change, and the varied and frightening, but uncertain consequences, many opinion-makers, policymakers, and citizens feel paralyzed:  Can nuclear power solve the problem?  Is a carbon cap the right idea?  Conserving forests in South America? What about carbon capture?  Solar and wind?  Will national policy or individual behavior change be more effective?  And how does the Paris treaty fit into this puzzle?

A handful of insights, grounded in math, can clarify the situation and point out a straightforward path to a reasonable, low-carbon future. 

It is worth noting at the outset that both the stakes and the opportunities in climate change have risen markedly over the last few years, and this combination of threat and opportunity argues for an immediate push on the few reforms that can make a big difference.  

How have the stakes gone up?  First, the insidious mathematics of carbon accumulation show that lost time creates essentially irreversible damage, and the carbon we emit now creates further damage every year for well over a thousand years.  The only way to deal with this imperative is to pursue strategies that deliver large tons, early.  There is no reasonable long-term future unless we play the short term well.  Waiting for miracles is a surefire recipe for losing.

Second, failing to stem concentrations of CO2 soon will begin to unleash runaway feedback loops—often called tipping points—wherein nature accelerates the damage already started by humans.  One of these tipping points is perhaps already upon us.  A recent paper by Hansen et al. argues that ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica could dramatically accelerate, making most coastal cities uninhabitable in a matter of decades to a few hundred years.  Other tipping points are likely near as well: for example, methane released from thawing arctic tundra, which will accelerate whatever damage humans cause, could conceivably push the system beyond any human capacity to control.  Only early action can prevent this runaway feedback. 

And third, the effects of climate change are themselves non-linear—as weather extremes begin to dominate the world.  Add it up and it becomes clear that climate action in the next 15 years is crucial.

Against those fearsome trends, recent technological developments make solutions available and affordable.  The plummeting costs of solar, wind, advanced lighting, new manufacturing techniques, and more mean that clean energy can finally graduate from the boutiques to the mainstream.  Political commitments in some jurisdictions have proven that this rapid transformation is possible—with a number of states and countries reaching renewables penetrations well north of 20 percent in less than a decade, and on a path to 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050.  The California and New York grids, for example, will have 50 percent renewables by 2030; add in existing nuclear and hydro, and their electricity systems will both be more than 65 percent decarbonized in just the next 15 years.  The challenge, then, is to accelerate the new technologies, and that requires turning the nascent political commitments in Paris into unstoppable change.

How is this to be done?  The first thing to do is focus on the key countries.  Eighty percent of carbon emissions come from the largest 20 carbon emitting countries, with China and the United States holding the top posts.  If these countries have downward trending carbon emissions in the next five to ten years (earlier for the richer countries, later for the poorer), then we can land at a decent climate future.  Failure in these countries means global failure.

The second requirement is to be sober about where and how carbon reductions can be had, and that points us to four sectors—power plants, buildings, factories, and vehicles.  A low-carbon economy requires electricity from renewable resources, near-zero energy buildings, vastly different manufacturing processes, and a super-efficient transportation sector.  The effectiveness of every treaty, every financial instrument, and every policy should be measured by how well it translates into on-the-ground change in these four realms. 

It turns out that in each sector, there are only a small number of policies that make a difference.  Selecting the right policies and ensuring they are properly designed and implemented is imperative.

Performance standards are the outstanding winners.  For example, a good building code is the only policy that has delivered large-scale, sustained energy efficiency in building shells—with two caveats: the code must be well-designed, and it must be properly enforced.  The best building codes ratchet up every few years.  This continuous improvement turns out to be a key feature for sound policy design across the energy field, as it inspires new technologies and new practices.  California’s building code has gone through a dozen increments in the 30 years since it was adopted, and new buildings now use about 80 percent less energy than those built before the code.  Zero-net energy is now in sight.  

Energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, getting predictably and steadily tighter over time, have also delivered massive energy and consumer savings, and they are far from fully exploited. 

Fuel efficiency standards for cars have doubled the fuel efficiency of car fleets, and are in the process of doubling again.  That is heroic.  These standards, too, should have continuous improvement so that auto manufacturers can see the value of R&D and of developing new technologies—in motors, transmissions, lightweighting, aerodynamic drag reduction, and so forth. 

Electric utilities can be transformed with renewable portfolio standards, which require generators to bring an ever-increasing fraction of renewable energy to the grid.  If accompanied by a price-finding mechanism, like a bid system, this approach is extremely efficient.  Similarly, public utilities commissions should change utilities’ incentives to devote funds to customer energy efficiency whenever it is cheaper than supplying additional power.

Standards work best when they are complemented by a price signal—such as a gas tax or a carbon tax.  Pricing carbon is no magic bullet: some sectors, such as buildings, are largely indifferent to prices, since those who design and build buildings never pay the utility bills.  But a price signal is always helpful, and in some instances, dispositive.  It would be wise to put a modest, but steadily increasing, price on carbon, and then to use those funds either to offset a tax that is burdensome to the economy, or to drive down the price of low-carbon alternatives.

Finally, countries need to get serious about research and development, which has a fantastic payoff, especially over the long run.  Virtually every major energy technology in use today has either been borne from, or significantly advanced by, smart federal R&D.  But we are starving the future: We spend less than one-half of one percent of our energy bill on R&D, compared to about 10 percent for information technology, and 15 percent for pharmaceuticals.  We cheat ourselves of future options with these tiny commitments to new technology. 

These policies, properly designed, in the biggest 20 nations, will land the world on a reasonable climate future.  Decarbonizing the utility, buildings, manufacturing, and transportation industries in the top 20 countries is, in physical fact, the only way to do that. 

So it will be reasonable to grade progress on Paris, and on the treaty-signing this week, by the extent to which the biggest countries have employed these effective policies.  Each of these policies has proven effective somewhere, though no major jurisdiction has used them all. 

Great progress can be made on climate change if, and only if, the major countries adopt smart energy policy, quickly.  This is the job we need done.  And it is to this standard to which we should hold our political leaders—and the Paris agreement.

Harvey is CEO Energy Innovation LLC