What to Watch for in 2016

The new year offers some interesting environmental subplots.

pulpitis/iStockPhoto: pulpitis/iStockSolar panels on a hillside in Ladakh, India

Around this time last year, we predicted that 2015 would be the Year of the Climate. We don’t like to brag, but we pretty much nailed it. President Obama officially rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in November, largely because the conduit was designed to flood Gulf Coast refineries with Canadian tar sands crude—the world’s most greenhouse gas–intensive fossil fuel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the Clean Power Plan in August, the most ambitious climate change regulation in U.S. history. And during the last month of 2015, diplomats gathered in Paris and finally struck a meaningful agreement to address climate change on an international scale. Phew.

The upcoming year doesn’t have a big, unifying issue, but there are still a few major events and initiatives to look out for, none of which is bigger than . . .

The 2016 Presidential Election

The environment was peripheral to the 2012 election. President Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, said so little about climate change that the League of Conservation Voters had to beg moderator Jim Lehrer to mention the subject during one of the debates. Things got so bad that Audubon magazine asked, “Has the environment become a non-issue in the 2012 presidential race?”

Times have changed. The Clean Power Plan polls incredibly well. Even in states suing to stop the plan, 61 percent of voters support it. Swing-state Democrats see clean, renewable energy as a signature issue on which to base a campaign. The message is reaching the very top of the party. Two months ago, nine major Democratic pollsters circulated a memo arguing that there is a “national consensus on climate change and clean energy.” The polls show that climate denial is now a fringe view.

One of the most fascinating elements of the 2016 campaign will be how candidates confront this new reality. Pretending climate change is a scientific conspiracy might play well in a few primary states, but it won’t work in the general election. How many climate questions will they face in the debate? How detailed will their plans to fight it be? How will former deniers pivot away from their now untenable statements?

The outcome will be incredibly significant. This past year of the Obama administration has proved the importance of a pro-environment president in an age of anti-environment legislators. President Obama signed on to the Paris climate agreement over the objections of an angry (but ultimately feckless) Congress. He promulgated the Clean Power Plan. He has protected vast swaths of land through executive order, and is now preparing to publish rules on methane emissions. Obama also tightened automotive fuel-efficiency standards during his time as president. Many of those initiatives could go up in smoke if the White House falls to a less conservation-minded successor.

Whither Fuel-Efficiency Standards?

Speaking of automotive fuel efficiency standards, two big items are on the agenda this year. First, the EPA is preparing to tighten the rules for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that it promulgated in 2011. Those were the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for trucks and tractor-trailers, which previously had only to minimize soot and smog-forming pollutants. The updates will solidify the idea that trucks, and not just cars, should limit fuel consumption. (What a crazy idea.)

Clouds are gathering over fuel efficiency standards for cars, though. Five years ago, the administration announced an historic agreement with automakers to nearly double the fuel efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. Executives from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and a host of other big carmakers proudly stood with President Obama, soaking up the praise for their spirit of cooperation and innovation.

Now they want out. You see, gas cost nearly $4 per gallon when the standards were adopted. Automakers figured they would have to make fuel-efficient cars in order for business to thrive, so why not garner some praise from Washington along the way? Now gas is cheap, and automakers want to go back to making gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, which offer higher profit margins. They’re making noises in the media, asking for delays in the efficiency standards they proudly agreed to. European automakers have already made their postponement request official. The shortsightedness of automakers is truly eye-opening. Let’s see if the administration takes a longer view.

Sealing Methane Leaks

On October 23, 2015 (if not before), the Aliso Canyon gas well in Porter Ranch, California, ruptured. More than 77,000 metric tons of methane have since escaped into the atmosphere. Methane is so potent a greenhouse gas—more than 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide—that the leak is now California’s single largest contributor to climate change.

The disaster’s timing is uncanny. Just as the EPA prepares to finalize rules limiting methane leaks from natural gas wells, the canyon provided the most dramatic reminder possible of why such rules are needed.

The agency attributes nearly 30 percent of all methane emissions in 2012 to oil and gas production. The new regulations aim to curb the projected rise in those emissions by striking at the source.

The Rise of Solar in the Developing World

One of the biggest obstacles to the development of renewable energy in the United States is our existing energy infrastructure. By building more than 500 coal-fired power plants and hundreds of natural gas plants, the country established a fossil fuel inertia along with an entrenched set of interests that oppose investment in new, fossil-free technologies.

Many developing countries, however, still have a clean slate. More than 250 million people in India, for example, lack access to electricity. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Indonesia or Brazil, waiting for their grid to be built. Why not make it renewable?

India is trying to do just that. Last year, it committed to producing 175 gigawatts of renewable power by 2022—nearly the amount of solar capacity currently installed worldwide. At the Paris climate conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an initiative to secure $1 trillion in funds for solar research and infrastructure by 2030. There won’t be a make-or-break moment for the solar movement in India (or elsewhere in the developing world) in 2016, but this is nonetheless a critical year. With the winds of a positive Paris conference at its back, this is renewable energy’s best chance yet to show that investors are smart to take it seriously. Keep an eye on the business pages to see how solar ventures fare this year.

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The Year of the Climate title has already been claimed, but there’s no shame in 2016’s being the year we consolidate our wins on environmental issues. Let’s just hope it’s not the year of the backslide.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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