Is climate change dead?

Peter Garforth says brush off carbon-risk targets and align strategies.

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Recent weather has been causing headlines that inevitably raise the visibility of possible man-made climate change. It is timely to check in to see where we are in the climate change debate. One of the biggest unknowns for the corporate energy manager is to ensure energy management programs have flexibility to maximize opportunities and minimize risks around climate change.

Recent sustained cold weather across the United States and Canada raised the apparently paradoxical question as to how this deep freeze relates to global warming. Sustained drought in California is attracting national attention given the state’s importance as a major food supplier. North America is not alone. This winter has seen the worst flooding for decades in the United Kingdom. Northern Europe has experienced one of the warmest winters on record — the flip side of the American deep freeze. Globally, 2013 tied for the fourth warmest year in history, and nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the past decade.

The duration and frequency of this extreme weather raises the possibility that we could be looking at new norms. Science indicates this is likely to be the case. Overall warming is increasing and deepening drought areas. Accelerated polar melting appears to be weakening the gulfstream, causing the unusual winter freezing and warming patterns. Whatever the cause, perception of changing weather patterns is causing governments to realign resources and policy toward mitigation. This takes on many guises depending on region and weather patterns. It may be with the expansion of designated flood zones affecting insurance and construction permitting. Pricing and compulsory conservation measures to reduce water use are more common. Investment in distributed energy systems and hardened infrastructure are likely to be encouraged.

The energy manager’s role must now include staying current on legislative and incentive programs related to mitigation and adjusting investment programs accordingly. Energy management plans should also focus on what the company can do to mitigate the effects of extreme weather. Vulnerable electrical, fuel storage, and other thermal infrastructure should be upgraded to meet the changing weather risks. The site itself may need improved flood protection. Water conservation and reuse may become as important as energy efficiency in the future. Since managing water and energy efficiently require most of the same approaches, combining these responsibilities is logical.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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The other side of the climate change discussion is the national and international efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to slow down, and ultimately reverse, the human impact on the climate. Two decades of efforts to get an effective global agreement have had limited regulatory impacts. This has been partly due to heated debate over the reality of human impacts, along with failure to anticipate the rapid growth of China and others as major emitters in the global negotiations. However, this process has greatly increased the quantity and quality of the climate data and overall confidence in understanding the effects of fossil fuel use on the climate.

The last major scientific report from late 2013 pretty much unequivocally linked human activity to climate change. While unlikely to change some of the debate, the combination of actual weather and scientific reports increases the possibility of revived international negotiations. The recently announced understanding between the world’s two largest emitters, China and the United States, to commit jointly to efficiency efforts and shared technology is a typical indicator. The third largest emitter, the European Union, remains committed to reduction despite slight weakening of their 2020 targets.

The past couple of years have seen the U.S. emissions dropping faster than many expected. This is partly caused by the shift from coal to natural gas. New vehicle efficiency standards and changes in consumers’ behaviors also had an impact. Last but not least, improved efficiency of homes and buildings is beginning to show up in the national numbers. Where there are carbon taxes or carbon trading — the northeast states, California, and British Columbia — most observers agree there is no obvious economic downside, and there may well be significant social and economic benefits. Even in Germany, the impact of aggressive energy and climate strategy is hotly debated politically, but no one seriously believes the majority of the plan is at risk. This is as much for the national competitive edges in terms of exportable skills and technology as it is to meet environmental goals.

The bottom line is, far from being dead, the relationship between energy efficiency, extreme weather risk mitigation, possible climate legislation, and new energy technologies is very much alive. It may even be kicking a little harder in the coming years than has been the case for the last few. The corporate energy manager needs to brush off the carbon-risk targets and make sure strategies are aligned with the wider market.

Read Peter Garforth's monthly column, Energy Expert.

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