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Will 2015 Be the Year of the Climate?

Next year, we could determine the future of our civilization.

Some years are linked inextricably to landmark events. 1215: The Magna Carta. 1492: Columbus sails the ocean blue. 1776: the Declaration of Independence. 1964: The Civil Rights Act. The environment doesn’t really have a landmark year—yet. How many people know when the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act was passed? (Bonus points if you knew it was 1970 and 1973, respectively.)

Could 2015 finally be the year, and could climate change be the reason? Most politicians around the globe now accept the reality of climate change (except for a few non-scientists in the U.S. Congress). There are many opportunities, big and small, to make progress next year. Here are just a few of them, in roughly chronological order. Let’s hope 2015 becomes the Year of the Climate. (Trademark!)

Keystone XL Pipeline Decision

What It’s About: The proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension would enable producers of Canadian tar sands oil—a relatively low-quality crude—to ship their product cheaply to refineries along the Gulf coast. The project requires State Department approval because one segment of the expansion would cross the U.S.-Canada border. The Obama administration has so far withheld that approval, and the president remains unconvinced that the project offers much benefit to the United States. KXL’s route is also tied up in the Nebraska Supreme Court.

When to Look for It: President Obama has said he will not make a decision until the Nebraska case is settled. (Read Ted Genoways’ explanation of the lawsuit here.) That ruling is expected in the next month or so (though it could take longer). If the Nebraska Supreme Court overturns the law that led to the KXL route’s approval, the president might have more than a year to think the decision over as TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, tries to secure another route. If TransCanada wins in Nebraska, pressure will build on President Obama to make a call. (It’s also possible the court will issue some form of mixed decision, further prolonging the process.) Republicans in Congress are going to start building that pressure soon—incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says a bill to approve KXL will be the first thing the new Senate votes on, forcing an early confrontation with the White House.

Why It Matters: A completed KXL would increase the extraction of fossil fuel combustion, which would add more carbon to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Pipeline advocates dispute this fact, but the math is clear: Tar sands are the most carbon-intensive form of fossil fuel. New extraction projects are not economical at current low oil prices, especially if the product has to make a pricier journey over railways to Gulf refineries. All in all, we can’t seriously deal with climate change while simultaneously approving projects that are certain to increase fossil fuel combustion for decades.

International Carbon-Reduction Commitments

What It’s About: Following a last-minute deal reached earlier this month at United Nations climate talks in Lima, Peru, all the world’s countries must submit a plan in 2015 to reduce carbon emissions over the next 10 years. For the first time, national climate change negotiators have agreed to a minimum set of requirements for these commitments. Governments can no longer fudge the numbers the way countries like Indonesia and South Africa did at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, promising reductions against an unspecified baseline.

When to Look for It: The plans will begin trickling in over the next few months (and some have already been made public). All the commitments are supposed to be in by mid-2015, but a number of countries are certain to miss the deadline. A full set of carbon pledges by the middle of August would be a pleasant surprise.

Why It Matters: The Lima conference proved that countries are capable of agreeing to a set of principles to address climate change. They have shown much less appetite for committing to actual carbon reductions—the sort of thing that might actually prevent runaway warming over the next century. Once scientists have a full set of commitments (from all 196 participating nations), they can feed the information into models to predict whether the collective reductions will make a substantial impact. If they don’t, we’ll see another round of (hopefully more aggressive) commitments at next year's U.N. climate conference in Paris or shortly after.

Paris Climate Change Summit

What It’s About: The United Nations–sponsored summit will bring together government representatives, professional environmentalists, citizen activists, representatives from energy companies…pretty much anyone who cares about carbon policy and the climate. The summit goes by several names, like COP21 (because it’s the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) or CMP11 (for the 11th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol)—but you should stick with Paris 2015.

When to Look for It: The summit runs from November 30 to December 11, but past conferences have run long as negotiators scrambled to produce an agreement (see: Lima).

Why It Matters: Let’s see, where to start…. As President Obama said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” The Paris conference may be our last chance to have any effect. The Kyoto Protocol failed, and the last climate change conference collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009, with negotiators apparently willing to destroy humanity’s future rather than accept small limitations on their energy options in 10 or 15 years. The 2014 Lima meeting was a modest—a very, very modest—success, but it will all go to waste if Paris is a repeat of Copenhagen.

U.S. Carbon Pollution Standards

What It’s About: In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Two years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the gas endangers human health. (Duh.) Those two decisions set the stage for last June’s proposed EPA rule, which would reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Two months later, 12 coal-producing states sued the administration to block the proposed regulation, characterizing them as part of a “war on coal.” (Can the government declare war on a rock? If so, I’d like to declare war on pebbles, which are always getting in my shoe.)

When to Look for It: The EPA plans to finalize the standards in June 2015, and states will be required to submit plans to comply with the rules by June 30, 2016. The lawsuit will likely take longer to work its way through the courts.

Why It Matters: Power plants account for 38 percent of national carbon emissions, and they’re easier to regulate than cars or cows, in part because there aren’t that many of them. (There are about 3,400 fossil fuel-powered plants in total.) The EPA regulation is projected to save 5.3 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2030—an extremely significant cut. The entire U.S. economy currently emits around 6.5 billion metric tons per year, so implementing the new rules would be roughly equivalent to shutting off the pollution output of the entire U.S. economy for one year every decade.

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So, it looks like things are definitely heating up for the climate in 2015. I mean, not heating up (hopefully). But will it go down in human history as the year that helped eventually prolong human history? Keep checking in with Earthwire to find out (shameless plug).


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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