Countries Acting At Home to Address Global Warming: The Key Fight Ahead

Empy plenary hall on Saturday morning in Doha; waiting for agreement to be reached.

Last year global emissions of carbon pollution rose to record levels, with declines in some key countries but with rising emissions elsewhere offsetting those declines. These are depressing statistics, especially in light of the significant signs of global warming that are already emerging. Some new actions are emerging that will hopefully reduce this growing pollution and set the stage for even stronger action in the very near future. This movement will be supported by progress at the climate negotiations, but real progress will only occur if we win the fights in the capitals, boardrooms, and courtrooms of the key countries.

Some of these battles have been won this year, but more confronts us. Here are some examples of actions by key countries and why it is critical that we succeed on these efforts in the next few years.


Since 2009 we’ve seen two important shifts. First, most countries aren’t just talking about what they might be able to do in the future to reduce emissions – they are beginning to act on those possible actions. Second, the list of countries with specific commitments has increased in recent years – it isn’t only the main players that have come forward (the Dominican Republic – a poor country – has recently joined the effort).

Here are some examples.

The U.S. has finalized standards for the global warming pollution from new passenger vehicles that will double the efficiency from today’s levels. The U.S. has proposed new rules for the carbon pollution from power plants and finalized standards for volatile organic compounds that will also reduce methane emissions from new natural gas facilities. More than three million citizens have submitted comments in support of the power plant rules and called for action on existing power plants—the most in the history of any environmental rule in the U.S. In addition, the U.S. government has finalized important standards for major appliances that will significantly reduce how much energy they use (e.g., clothes washing machines and microwaves). Right now there are no national standards for America’s biggest climate polluters—the 1500 existing power plants which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution, so NRDC recently released a report showing how the Obama Administration can use the Clean Air Act to take a big bite out of these emissions – 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Finalizing power plant standards and rejecting Keystone XL are critical global warming decisions in the coming months. 

India is making major strides in its efforts to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and increase its production and use of clean, sustainable energy. The country is already a global leader in wind energy – with the world's fifth largest wind energy production. And its installed solar power jumped to more than 1 GW in 2012, from just 17 MW in 2010 thanks to its ambitious National Solar Mission. India is preparing to double the amount of clean energy by 2017. And they are beginning to put in place critical policies to tap into the huge energy efficiency potential that is available. India recently launched the Perform, Achieve and Trade program—an energy efficiency cap-and-trade scheme—for energy intensive industries that has the potential to reduce 25 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions annually by 2015. The State of Andhra Pradesh recently took a historic step towards this potential by adopting the Energy Conservation Building Code by early 2013. More than a third of the states in India are now taking action towards setting building standards that would help improve the energy intensity of its buildings. Continuing this kind of action will be essential to help reduce India’s global warming pollution.

Mexico has adopted a national law which formalizes the country’s target to reduce its emissions 30 percent below business-as-usual emissions by 2020 and 50 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.  And they have recently announced new vehicle efficiency standards which will significantly reduce the carbon pollution from cars and trucks sold in Mexico (unfortunately some of the car companies are suing to block this new standard from going into effect).  Even greater action will have to be taken by President Peña Nieto as he’ll have to finalize the new vehicle standard and take even greater steps to deploy renewable energy and improve energy efficiency. Taking action on vehicles will save Mexican consumers money and reduce pollution so this should be a no-brainer.

The South Korean Government approved a mandatory carbon trading program for its biggest polluters. The legislation is set to go into effect in 2015 and would cap the carbon pollution from power plants, steel plants, ship makers, and large universities.  The government recently outlined the final details for implementing this law. Some Korean industry has fought this effort. 

South Africa announced that it will introduce a rising price on carbon pollution from major sources starting in 2013.  The proposal is to implement the carbon tax at a level of $16 per ton in 2013, with annual increases of 10 percent through 2019.  Final details could come soon, but some South African industry has been fighting to kill or weaken the measure. In addition, South Africa – a coal-dominated electricity country – is starting to get serious about renewable energy. They recently approved the final details for adding 1425 MW of new renewable energy projects – estimated at $5.4 billion in new investments. A further 1040 MW of renewable energy projects have also been approved (final financial agreement are expected early next year).

Brazil has continued to reduce its deforestation emissions towards their commitment to cut deforestation 80 percent by 2020—a commitment they made in Copenhagen and subsequently enshrined in domestic law.  New data for 2012 found that there was a decrease of deforestation to 1,798 square miles – down 27% from last year. This amounts to a 75% cut in the deforestation rate from the average that occurred from 1996-2005. More work lies ahead as some signs have raised red flags of late.

Europe has proposed new rules for the emissions from passenger vehicles and a phase-down of the “super greenhouse gases”. Recent analysis has shown that with these measures will reduce its emissions 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This is leading many to call for Europe to increase its ambition to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. 

China is continuing to strengthen policies begun in the previous Five Year Plan to help it meet its energy and climate intensity targets. In 2011, it reduced its energy intensity by a little over 2 percent compared to 2010. Key among these efforts are its policies to improve the efficiency of its heavy industry and power sector (the largest coal-consuming sectors) and to shift its economy towards less energy-intensive high technology manufacturing and service sectors, to improve the efficiency of its buildings and appliances (including beginning a phase-out of incandescent lights), and to encourage the use of fuel efficient vehicles and public transportation. China has also become a leader in renewable energy manufacturing and, increasingly, deployment. In 2011, it installed 16 GW of wind power, the most in the world, and it implemented a solar PV feed-in tariff to add to its existing windpower and biomass power feed-in tariffs. China is increasingly looking to expand its distributed energy sources, including distributed PV, with the State Grid corporation recently announcing a policy to support free connection to the grid for distributed rooftop PV projects under 6 MW in size. China is also experimenting with market mechanisms to supplement its low-carbon policies, with provincial and city carbon trading pilots set to begin as early as next year. As it goes forward grappling with the pollution from coal is a key challenge that confronts China with policies like a coal cap being actively debated.

Clean, sustainable energy technologies like wind and solar power are on the rise in Chile. After all, Chile made a commitment to cut its global warming pollution 20 percent below business as usual levels in 2020. As my colleague pointed out, a strengthened energy policy will be critical to further ramp up the development of these resources, including Chile’s vast geothermal reserves.  Rescinding its 20 percent by 2020 renewables target sends the wrong signal. They’ll also need to find new ways to unleash energy efficiency. 


Current actions aren’t sufficient, but they provide an important foundation for more. This kind of action is extremely important for international efforts to address global warming since an international agreement without action at home doesn’t solve the problem. But it is also important in setting the stage for a strong international agreement in 2015. Here is why:

  • Action reduces actual emissions (promises without action don’t). This is obvious, but sometimes we get so focused on what each country has pledged and we forget to focus on what is happening on the ground in key countries.
  • Action makes it easier to take more action in the future (creating a positive reinforcement for more action). As countries implement changes on the ground they will likely find that: (a) it isn’t as painful as some people predicted (their economy won’t collapse); (b) there will be a lot of benefits of acting (e.g., job creation, reduced dependence on imported oil, and saved lives from reduced air pollution); and (c) it will become easier to take even greater action in the future (e.g., they’ll find additional win-win opportunities , tightening the policy over time will be easier, etc.).
  • Can’t have a new global agreement in 2015 if countries aren’t prepared at home. If we get to 2015 and countries haven’t laid the groundwork at home with real action to reduce emissions, then no amount of negotiating the framework of the agreement will matter. We’ll have all the architecture in place for an agreement, but it won’t be accepted as countries won’t be ready to implement it.

As one key commentator rightly pointed out:

“The battle is being waged in energy and finance ministries around the world, and in the boardrooms of energy companies and their bankers. It is the battle between a high-carbon and a low-carbon energy future. And the outcome is unclear.”

It is a battle that must be won. Failure is definitely not an option. So let’s roll-up our sleeves and get it done.


This post benefited greatly from NRDC experts that are constantly focused on on-the-ground actions in China, India, and Latin America.

Related Issues
Climate Change

Related Blogs