Mission: Reduce emissions

Jan. 4, 2016
Peter Garforth explores the factors influencing a shift in opinion in favor of emissions reduction commitments.


As I write this column, the leaders of more than 190 countries are in Paris negotiating an agreement aimed at cutting emissions to a level predicted to limit average global temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If a workable agreement emerges, there will be far-reaching impacts on how energy managers tackle their daily work.

The key word is “if.” Similar conferences in the past have been hyped as tipping points, only to end with face-saving final communiques that have had minimal impact on the steady increase of emissions, predominantly from deforestation and the increasing use of fossil fuel needed to support the world’s growing economies. There are signs that this time around, things might be different.

Across the globe, a majority of people now see climate change as a “very serious problem,” according to a recent Pew Research poll. The same poll reports that a much higher percentage, 78%, believe their country “should limit emissions through international agreements.” The fear of drought and severe floods and storms are top concerns. These and similar findings suggest that public resistance to energy policies designed to result in lower emissions might be less than it has been assumed to be in the past.

Further, major businesses with household names – Coca Cola and Walmart among them – are committing to emission reductions of 15% to 50% within the next 10 to 20 years, with many aiming at net zero by 2050. Top corporations are in Paris telling negotiators that much of business would support aggressive emissions reduction targets.

In the past, statements from big business could be taken with a large grain of salt. They all too often proved to reflect “greenwashing” for PR purposes. But it’s increasingly common today to see businesses investing substantially in efficiency and clean and renewable supplies and pursuing more-rigorous tracking and reporting of results.

The reasons for the shift in the business sector are many.  However, they all boil down to a perception that, with these measures in place, the company’s business will have fewer risks and more competitive opportunities.

A major part of this groundswell from business is not from a sudden belief in all things environmental. Rather, it is from the growing realization that efficient facilities have lower operating and maintenance costs, with fewer production interruptions. Their understanding of the competitive economics and reduced risk from clean and renewable energy supply is accelerating large renewable and onsite power deals from companies like BMW, Apple, and Google.

City leaders, too, are recognizing the need to manage energy and other urban challenges at the community level. Coalitions of cities are meeting to set targets, share experiences, and lobby national governments. More than 70% of all energy is used in cities, and cities are the front line in dealing with extreme weather and rising sea levels. This makes city leaders highly influential on climate policy.

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It’s no secret that a huge political divide exists in the U.S. when it comes to climate change. The same Pew Poll reported that 20% of Republicans see climate change as a serious problem, versus 68% of Democrats who do. In spite of this, we’re seeing more legislators in Republican-leaning districts aggressively supporting policies friendly to efficiency and renewable energy supplies. In the past it was corn-based ethanol in Iowa; today, increasingly, it’s wind farming and facility retrofits in many central and Southern states. Local employment and the growing competiveness of alternatives are winning the day.

There is one other groundswell that may affect the outcome in Paris, and it is arguably the most important. In March, the International Energy Agency surprised everyone by reporting that 2014 greenhouse emissions were about the same as 2013 after decades of steady increase. One interpretation is that the cumulative effects of efficiency and renewable investments are finally slowing emissions’ growth. Another view is that high oil prices had a short-term effect and that emissions will rise again with cheaper oil prices. Whatever proves to be the case, a picture of stabilizing emissions and growing economies is no longer beyond belief.

For the politician in Paris, this is an almost unprecedented alignment of public opinion, business lobbying, city leaders, and metadata trends. It wouldn’t be that controversial to commit to game-changing agreements. But will they? (Editor's note: They did.)

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