Global climate agreement will impact Michigan

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 6, 2016

PARIS — On Dec. 12, 195 countries from across the globe signed off on a pact, known as the Paris Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and try to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Each nation made its own pledge and was left to decide to bring down emissions internally.

The agreement also will see countries reconvene every five years to update their goals, become more ambitious over time, and require transparent review processes. President Barack Obama set the U.S.’s goal of reducing emissions by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, and according to Avik Basu, a research specialist with the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment, a lot of that is to come from his announced Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce pollution from power plants.

“(The Clean Power Plan) is going to utilize the (Environmental Protection Agency)’s regulatory powers through executive action to limit the use of coal power, etc., so we can get those emissions down,” Basu said.

Basu was part of a delegation from the university that attended the climate conference, known as COP21. He said that businesses, schools and other groups came as observers to provide information and input for a final agreement.

“Primarily (the reason we went) was to make the process more transparent, to bring back the information that we received and the events that we saw, and bring that information back to Ann Arbor,” Basu said. “We’re planning to do a symposium on Jan. 21 to tell people in the university and Ann Arbor and beyond what the COP was like.”

Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said that for the U.S., some of these adjustments are going to come on the federal level, with pressure on states — both from the federal government and from private businesses — to address emissions.

“This is not just by itself a market shift, but it feeds on certain pressures,” Hoffman said. “Look at the auto sector — there’s tremendous movement of lightweighting and meeting (fuel) efficiency standards. The whole utility sector is in flux, and we’ll see how that plays out. Food companies — like Nestle, General Mills, Cargill — this does impact their operations.”

According to the EPA, power plants make up the vast majority of Michigan’s greenhouse gas emissions — about 63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014. Metals, the next-largest emitter by sector, accounted for 7.8 million metric tons. Hoffman said this is because several major manufacturers recognized that action on global warming was going to come at some point following the 1997 Kyoto Agreement — never ratified by the U.S. — and took steps early.

“Companies I’ve talked to all looked at climate policies as inevitable, so they’ve been preparing for some time,” Hoffman said. “Dow Chemical has been preparing; so have furniture companies, appliance companies like Whirlpool, and auto companies, with Ford leading the way.”

Power generation remains a sticking point, however. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, half of Michigan’s power in 2014 came from coal — 4,455 gigawatt hours — with another 30 percent from nuclear power, about 2,000 gigawatt hours. Natural gas-fired power plants generated 1,764 gigawatt hours of power, and another 500 gigawatt hours came from renewable energy sources.

Hoffman said that while some people may find it “heretical” to suggest, he does not see a way for Michigan to make up that gap in energy production managed by fossil fuels without using nuclear energy.

“I personally feel that we can talk about a target, an end goal, on what we want emission levels to be — ideally lower — and when we want to get there, in 2050 or ’60, and you have to say tactically how to get there,” Hoffman said. “I don’t see how you can get there without considering nuclear.”

He added that this has sparked renewed debate and consideration of nuclear energy, including where to build, who is going to finance the extremely high costs of nuclear plants, and where the waste will be stored.

Basu said the agreement also aspires to limit the temperature growth target to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a much more ambitious goal given current emission levels. He said island nations that are watching their shorelines disappear from rising sea levels were pushing for that limit.

Due to the number of countries and people involved in the agreement, Basu said it was difficult for specifics to get drawn into the final draft — particularly in terms of penalties for not complying, compensation for nations wracked with damages from sea level rise, and financing — but it was a good first step for future talks.

“This was the largest international negotiation that’s ever been done — 195 different countries in the first week, 150 heads of state in one place at the same time,” Basu said. “It provided a very diverse set of ideas as to how those problems may be tackled, because a diverse range of solutions is necessary, not just one or two.”

Basu added that the university’s delegation of students and faculty came away with a greater understanding of how these negotiations are handled on an international scale.