Why Columbus needs to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050

This article appeared in the July 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

On June 1, Donald Trump stunned the world by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Reaction was sharp and swift. Twelve states, more than 200 colleges and universities, and more than 1,000 businesses (including two dozen Fortune 500 companies) have pledged to honor the goals of the Paris accord whether Trump is on board or not.

Also committing to the Paris goal of reducing carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 are almost 300 cities in the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, including Athens, Bexley, Cleveland, Columbus, Gambier, Lakewood and Toledo in Ohio.

Of those, 30 cities – including Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Madison, Wis. Rochester, Minn. and most recently Pittsburgh — have gone further by committing to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2050 or earlier.

Sierra Club Central Ohio Group urges the city of Columbus to join its peer cities in committing to 100 percent renewable energy. Science tells us that climate change is real, caused by human activity and poses an imminent threat to civilization and all life on earth. We have the solutions, but the window of opportunity to implement them is starting to close. We must act now.

Columbus has taken several positive steps to address climate change. Initiatives include:

  • The GreenSpot program that encourages businesses to save energy, reduce waste and promote green transportation.
  • The Columbus Region Energy Fund to help businesses and nonprofits improve energy efficiency.
  • The Green Fleet Action Plan to reduce the carbon footprint of city vehicles and maintenance.
  • Blueprint Columbus, which uses green solutions to mitigate stormwater runoff.
  • Branch Out Columbus, the goal of which is to plant 300,000 trees by 2020.

Columbus has also received a Smart Cities grant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through modernizing the grid, promoting electric vehicles and boosting the charging infrastructure. And on June 9, Mayor Ginther signed on to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda.

All of these things are great steps forward, and we want to recognize the good things the city is doing. But it is not enough. Columbus can’t just enact green programs; we need to become a national leader on climate.

The Paris Agreement that the city has now signed has a stated goal of holding global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius and no more than 2 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists have said is the highest we can go and still have a chance of an inhabitable climate.

However, if you add up all the pledges that every country has made under the Paris Agreement, that doesn’t get us to 1.5 degrees. It gets us to about 3 degrees Celsius, which is better than 5 degrees if we do nothing, but not good enough.

We have to do more than what the United States pledged under the Paris Agreement. Science is telling us that we must reduce emissions to zero by 2050.

In other words, we must transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Some may think transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is impossible. But that is not the case. Consider these facts:

  • $58.6 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2016.
  • Enough solar energy reaches the Earth every hour to fill the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.
  • The cost of solar power has fallen from $79 per watt in 1976 to 41 cents per watt in 2016 – a staggering drop of 99.2 percent.
  • Wind generates enough energy to supply worldwide electricity consumption 40 times over.
  • The cost of wind power has fallen from 55 cents per kilowatt hour in 1980 to 2.5 cents in 2013 – a drop of over 95 percent.
  • The current fastest-growing job in the United States is wind turbine service technician.
  • The cost of lithium ion battery storage has fallen from $1500 per kilowatt hour in 2006 to $273 in 2016, a drop of 80 percent.
  • Renewables accounted for 90 percent of new electricity generation in 2015.

So the solutions are at hand, and adopting a target of 100 percent renewable energy community wide is within our reach.

100 percent renewable energy would also improve the health and well-being of the people of Columbus. According to the Columbus Department of Public Health, climate change will bring more extreme heat, which results in poorer air quality. This increases the number of people diagnosed with asthma and at risk of asthma attack.

Stronger, more frequent and more severe storms will increase chances of injury and death in a natural disaster. Warmer temperatures and flooding also increase the risk of diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and even Dengue fever.

Hardest hit will be the most vulnerable populations: the poor, very old and very young; those with mental or physical handicaps; and those with chronic health conditions. In other words, the people suffering most from infant mortality in our community will also be most affected by climate change. We must keep that from happening.

Finally, it is our duty to act. Although climate change is an international issue, we unfortunately have a federal government that has abdicated its responsibility to solve this problem.

In that vacuum, cities must step up. Cities account for 76 percent of carbon emissions from energy use. More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, with more than two-thirds projected by 2050. Columbus is now the largest city in Ohio with almost 1 million people, but is projected to have up to 3 million by 2050.

All of these reasons are why 30 cities have passed legislation committing to 100 percent renewable energy. In addition, 90 mayors have pledged to support a vision of 100 percent clean and renewable energy in their cities, towns, and communities and across the country.

Columbus is well-positioned to join these forward-thinking cities. Besides the green programs we already have, the city is also home to several businesses that have a 100 percent renewable energy policy, such as Ikea, Anheuser-Busch and BMW Financial Services. A 100 percent green portfolio would attract more future-oriented businesses to locate here.

As a community, we can come together and deal with the climate crisis. The Department of Defense calls climate change a national security threat, but within this crisis is also an opportunity: to make our city stronger, healthier and more vibrant than ever before.

For all these reasons, we urge city leaders in Columbus to commit to getting 100 percent of our community’s energy from clean, non-polluting and renewable sources by 2050 or sooner.

Monday, December 14 – Postscript and Analysis

I’ve now had a few more days to gather news and analysis about the Paris Agreement, and experts and commentators have had a few more days to supply it.  In general most commentators seem pretty happy with the agreement. They acknowledge that it does not do everything that is needed, but they see it as the start of a new era in which we will transition to a new clean energy economy.  There are exceptions to this assessment though; James Hansen called the Paris Agreement a “fraud” and some of my social media friends expressed disappointment.  But these voices, at least from my vantage point, are the minority.

Here is some additional news and analysis:

The New York Times –  Climate Accord is a Healing Step, if not a Cure, by Justin Gillis

The Guardian – The Paris agreement signals that deniers have lost the climate wars, by Dana Nuccitelli

The Conversation – Five things you need to know about the Paris climate deal, by Simon Lewis

The Economist – The Paris agreement marks an unprecedented political recognition of the risks of climate change

EurActive.com – Coal lobby chief: COP21 means ‘we will be hated like slave traders’

Salon – “It’s up to us”: Paris was in a celebratory mood at the end of the climate summit, but activists know it’s not a time to rest

Thomas Friedman – Paris Climate Accord is a Big, Big Deal

Meanwhile, discussion and debate about the Paris Agreement continued across the internet, including on my own Facebook page.  Here is what one friend posted:

Many of us still don’t understand the level of enthusiasm for this agreement. Do you have a point-by-point analysis that explains this? I’m interested in things like the deadline for carbon emission neutrality and that there are no concrete limits to global emissions.

I am certainly not an expert, but I took this inquiry seriously and wrote the following lengthy response:

First on the agreement itself. You are right that it is not specific about some things, such as the carbon emission neutrality (it sets a goal of being carbon neutral sometime after 2050 but before 2100) and limits to each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (it says pledges should reflect the “highest possible ambition” and countries should lower emissions “as soon as possible”). And none of this is legally binding.

I am sure you know the background to the Paris climate conference, but Brad Plumer at Vox has a good history here.

Basically, the tactic of trying to get countries to sign onto specific and legally binding targets for lowering carbon emissions has been tried for the last 20 years and has not worked. Kyoto failed because it required only developed nations to sign on, and Copenhagen failed because no one wanted the targets to be legally binding.

So this year, the world community tried a different approach of seeking voluntary commitments from every country. The momentum started in November 2014 when Obama forged an agreement with China setting meaningful targets for both countries to lower emissions. Since then, over the past year, almost every other country in the world has announced its own targets. This meant that once the climate conference rolled around in December, most of the work had already been done, and it was up to negotiators to craft an agreement with for how those pledges would be carried out over time and how wealthy countries would help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change and establish renewable energy industries for their citizens.

Also, as I am sure you know, all these pledges put together do not get us to the 2 degrees C limit of warming that past climate conferences have identified at the upper limit — much less to the 1.5C limit that many scientists have said is the most we can warm the planet without destabilizing the climate. Right now adding up all national pledges would get us to probably 2.6C, which is too high.

All that makes the agreement seem pretty weak, right? So here are some reasons why I think this agreement is historic.

— It is the first time a climate agreement covers all nations – not just developed nations. That means 195 nations had to agree to it — including the U.S., China, India, Saudi Arabia, and all the little island states. All of them are covered, and all agreed to it by consensus. So everyone has a stake in the outcome.

— The agreement includes a mechanism to review pledges and emissions every five years and ramp them up. This is crucial. No one expected the Paris Agreement to get emissions down to 2C, but the review mechanism allows countries to ramp up commitments over time. A lot of this is human psychology. Once an economy gets started down a certain path — toward renewable energy for example — people will find that it’s easier than they think — and ramping up commitments will look easier five or 10 years from now than if we tried to envision that while we are still stuck inside the fossil fuel infrastructure. We have a lot of work to do, but this agreement basically gives us the shove that we need to get started, and once we get started, momentum will help us keep going.

— Transparency requirements. Countries have to follow strong reporting requirements so that other countries can see what they are doing to lower emissions and if they are staying on track. There was a lot of resistance to this in the climate negotiations — China in particular didn’t want other countries poking around in its business. But Kerry and Obama got them and others to commit. Transparency will help ensure that peer pressure stays on all countries because everyone else will be watching.

No there are not penalties if a country reneges on its commitment, but really, even if it was legally binding, what could be done anyway? No one is going to send in an army to force a country to ramp up renewables. Legally binding or not, it is going to be done through peer pressure, with naming and shaming if a country doesn’t follow through. Such tactics are actually pretty powerful. Studies in social psychology show, for example, that the most powerful message to get someone to recycle is not that it helps the environment or that it saves money, but that everyone else is doing it. People generally want to stay within established norms, and that applies to countries on the world stage as well.

Also, with the deniers in Congress, there is no way we could have made the targets for lowering emissions legally binding. If we had tried, the agreement would have had to go before Congress for ratification, and it would have failed. That would not have helped anyone. Even committing a certain amount of money to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations deploy renewables could have required it go to Congress, since Congress has the power under our consitution to allocate funds. So Obama and Kerry had to be very careful about how this was written so as to avoid sending the agreement to Congress to be killed.

Momentum really seems to be the name of the game here. Momentum started as every country over the past year started making its climate commitments. Then when we got to the conference itself, several unexpected things happened:

— First, more than 100 nations went on record as supporting a warming limit of not just 2C but 1.5C — even many developed economies such as the United States. This means these leaders understand the severity of climate change and what it means for the island nations that are being swallowed by sea level rise. Elizabeth May put it this way at a briefing with the Sierra Club: The difference between 1.5 and 2C is the difference between the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melting, the survival of island nations, and whether or not we destabilize the climate.

A target of 1.5C – at least in theory – is a huge commitment. We have already raised temperatures almost a degree since the Industrial Revolution, and we have almost a half degree locked in due to the long half-life of carbon. Leaders may not have thought all of that through when they publicly bought into a limit of 1.5, but they did so because it is the right thing to do. It will mean almost immediate transiton from fossil fuels to renewables — but there is evidence that people are ready to make that switch.

— Second, a group of over 1000 mayors from five continents signed onto an agreement to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in their communities by 2050. This is huge because cities and local areas are where the rubber meets the road. This is the arena where the most actual lowering of carbon emissions can take place. The level of cities is small enough to be manageable but large enough to make a difference, especially when so many of them are moving in the same direction. And to have so many city leaders ready to go carbon neutral by 2050 is huge. It goes way beyond the requirements of the Paris Agreement, and it shows how, in the words of Francois Holland the agreement is a floor, not a ceiling.

— Finally three different groups of international investors announced major investments in research, development, and deployment of clean energy in both developed and developing nations (Mission Innovation, Breakthrough Energy Coalition, International Solar Alliance). Again this goes beyond the requirements of the agreement – yet it would not be happening if the agreement did not exist. Such major funding will itself have spin-off effects, with innovations spurring more innovation as companies and industries do not want to be left behind. It is crucial that business and industry as well as government be on board with the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and these announcements shows that they are, even though they are not covered by the Paris Agreement.

One other point about this agreement. In past climate conferences, the deniers were always working hard to undermine it with front groups and lies. Just before Copenhagen was when they launched Climategate after hacking into climate scientists’ emails, which helped derail that treaty. This year, however, they were not effective. Lamar Smith has been harassing NOAA scientists in an effort to get their emails for a replay of Climategate, but it hasn’t worked. The Heartland Institute held a press conference in Paris featuring the usual cast of characters, and no one showed up. Basically, the world ignored the deniers and moved on. The deniers have become irrelevant.

For all these reasons, I feel like the Paris Agreement is larger than its individual parts. Although it doesn’t say so in the text, the agreement has basically signalled to the world that the era of fossil fuels is over. It is hard to overstate how significant this is. Many commentators said the real importance of the agreement is in signalling markets and investors to move away from fossil fuels and into renewables. And the crazy thing is how fast this is happening.

Just today I have been hit with three different news stories showing these changes in action. First NPR had a story about how business at the Tar Sands has slowed down so much that it’s likely most of the oil will stay in the ground. The reporter used that phrase at least three times. Second, Ford announced a major investment in a new line of electric vehicles. They would not be doing that if they didn’t think this is the way the world is moving, and they wanted to get on board quickly.

Finally, in my home state of Ohio, AEP, a major utility powered mostly by coal, announced an agreement with the Sierra Club by which they will phase out most (possibly all) of their coal plants in the state, and instead will invest in wind and solar, creating a lot of jobs, especially in the poor Appalachian part of the state. This is a 180 degree turn for this company, which once literally bought out all the residents of a town so that they would not have to clean up the pollution from their nearby coal plant.

Basically, I think the Paris Agreement represents a turning point in history. Is it enough by itself to solve climate change? No it is not, and not single document could be. But it has completely changed the circumstances and momentum of the debate. It gives us a huge tool to use in getting government and industry on board, holding them accountable for their current commitments, and demanding that they do more. Just the support from so many nations for 1.5C gives us a major bargaing chip.

No, activists cannot simply disband and go home. We have to see this through and hold them to their commitments. But I think the atmosphere in which we will be working has now completely changed, and that even if the Paris Agreement itself is not specific about numbers and timelines, other things that governments and industries have said as a result of negotiating this agreement are much more specific, and that we now have the tools needed to hold them to their word and make the new economy happen.

Saturday, December 12 – We have an agreement

Today was my travel day back to the United States. It was also the day that the final draft of the Paris Agreement was to be released — and the day thousands of climate activists had vowed to flood the streets of Paris in defiance of a ban on demonstrations by the French government — both happening around noon.  With my flight from Paris to New York leaving at 10:30 a.m., I was in the air for nine hours, plus an additional six hours due to changes in time zone – putting me out of communication for a crucial 15 hours.

Lots of legroom in business class

Lots of legroom in business class

Fortunately I was able to upgrade to business class for the long flight, which meant I could actually sleep a few hours after staying up very late packing,  But by the time I landed in New York at 8 p.m. Paris time, 2 p.m. local time, I was desperate for information.  My friends on social media were only too happy to supply it.  The negotiators at COP21 had reached an agreement — by most accounts a good one.  The French government at the last minute had issued a permit to climate activists.  My feed was flooded with stories and analysis about the historic Paris Agreement, my email was overflowing with reactions from NGO groups, and my friends were posting photos and videos from the day’s events.


The photos and videos from the demonstrations organized by 350.org and others are amazing, and remind me of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.  I am so glad that the French government finally came to its senses and allowed people to express themselves.  Perhaps they had no choice, as literally tens of thousands of activists were in the streets, and there would be no way to arrest even a small percentage.  Perhaps this chain of events shows people like Naomi Klein know more about activism than I do.  When she urged people to take to the streets in mass numbers, they did, and they won.  I was now sorry that I couldn’t get an extra day at Place to B, but then I’m also glad to be home.

My Paris flight landed 45 minutes late in New York, giving me only half an hour to go through customs, collect my luggage and recheck it, get to the other side of the airport, go back through security, and find my gate.  I got there two minutes before the plane was to take off, but it was already gone.  It took me awhile to rouse up someone at an American Airlines counter to rebook me, and when I did they were incredibly rude.  Air travel has become extremely stressful and unpleasant.  On the other hand, the three-hour wait for the next flight gave me time to get a good dinner and catch up on all the COP 21 news and reactions.  Here is some of what I found.

Paris Agreement

UNFCCC – Final agreement

UNFCCC – Press release

Video – Fabius bangs gavel on COP21

President Obama – Video statement

White House  – Press release

Ban Ki Moon – Statement

Saturday actions

350.org – Video

350.org – Photos

Citizens Voice – Video

Greenpeace – Video

Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben – Facebook live

News stories 

The New York Times – Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris, by Coral Davenport

The Washington Post – 196 countries approve history climate agreement, by Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney

Politico – The one word that almost sank the climate talks, by Andrew Restuccia

Think Progress – In Historic Paris Climate Deal, World Unanimously Agrees To Not Burn Most Fossil Fuels, by Joe Romm

Mother Jones – Breaking: World Leaders Just Agreed to a Landmark Deal to Fight Global Warming, by Tim McDonnell and James West

Guardian – Paris climate deal: nearly 200 nations sign in end of fossil fuel era, by Suzanne Goldenberg et al

Al Jazeera – World leaders make history with climate deal in Paris

BBC – COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris

Carbon Brief – Analysis: The Final Paris climate deal


Sierra Club – Sierra Club on the Paris Climate Agreement: “A Turning Point For Humanity”

Citizens Climate Lobby – With Paris agreement adopted, climate action begins in earnest

James Hansen – James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’

Bill McKibben – World leaders adopt 1.5 C goal — and we’re damn well going to hold them to it

Climate Action Network –  Civil society responds as final Paris Climate Agreement released

International Council for Science – Top scientists weigh in on current draft of Paris climate agreement

The Conversation – Historic Paris climate pact reached: Experts react

After 22 hours of travel, I am happy to be home.

After 22 hours of travel, I am happy to be home.