I am an optimist at heart. I believe one has to be when working in the field of climate change, where we are constantly bombarded by articles on increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, threatening predictions of super-storms and sea-level rise, deforestation, and reports on shortages of water and arable land for food production. The issue of climate change itself feels at times both pressingly urgent yet dauntingly out of reach.
That is why, in honor of Earth Day this month, I would like to step aside from the usual rhetoric for a moment to highlight a few of the positive trends in climate change over the past year.
Perhaps most noteworthy, the International Energy Agency recently reported preliminary data showing that carbon emissions from the energy sector stayed flat in 2014. Meanwhile, the world economy grew by 3 percent last year, which means this is the first time in 40 years that a slowdown in carbon emissions was not tied to an economic downturn. This is remarkably hopeful. It proves that reducing or stabilizing carbon emissions while increasing economic output is possible, that a low-carbon economy is possible. Of course, we have to remember that the world emitted 32 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in 2014, an amount that is still too large if we are to slow global warming trends to a safe level. However, the fact that the rate has stayed flat last year is very positive news.
Also exciting, a study released last month led by researchers from Australia and the Netherlands, found that net vegetation cover globally has increased since 2003 by the equivalent of almost 4 billion tons of carbon. This is due primarily to the natural regrowth of savannahs in Australia and Africa and forests in Russia, and also large-scale reforestation programs in China. Tropical deforestation remains a major problem, however, particularly in Indonesia and other countries in SE Asia and the Amazon, where the clearing and degradation of forests also causes irreparable damage to communities and biodiversity. But it is nice to remember that through both natural and planned efforts, as in the case of vegetation cover increase, the environment has a tendency to heal itself when given the chance.
On a national level, in late March the United States submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In December this year, countries from around the world will come together in Paris to negotiate a new global climate deal. Releasing INDCs publicly to outline national commitments to reduce emissions is an important step in this process. The United States is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and as such has taken a leadership role by committing to reduce its emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2025. The United States, the European Union, Mexico and others, by releasing their INDCs, are helping to build momentum and encourage other countries to do the same. A great tool published by the World Resources Institute allows you to track and learn more about national INDCs as they are released over the course of this year.
One of the most important shifts I have seen recently is the increasing recognition of the interconnectedness between climate change and other critical issues such as health, education, economic development and advancing the rights of women & girls. At the Clinton Foundation we embrace the climate system across our programs. In Haiti, for example, a new hospital is being built with Clinton Foundation support that uses a solar microgrid system to provide reliable and inexpensive energy. This allows the hospital to perform its core mission of savings lives while cutting down on costs and reducing emissions. Increasingly, climate change is being treated less as a separate issue, and more as part of the system in which we all live. That is why, in the lead up to Earth Day, the Clinton Foundation will be featuring stories from across our different initiatives that highlight how we are addressing climate change while working to solve other pressing issues.
By no means am I suggesting that we have solved our climate crisis. Far from it. There is still much work to be done across our climate system to encourage cleaner sources of energy, greater efficiency in buildings and transportation, healthier forests and oceans, and perhaps most importantly, behavioral changes and a shift toward more long-term planning. However, taken together, I see the positive trends mentioned above as a sign that we are headed in the right direction; that solutions for a better planet are possible. And that is worth celebrating this Earth Day.
In recognition of Earth Day, the Clinton Foundation is showing how climate change and sustainability are at the root of many pressing global issues. Our Earth Day 2015 series will feature different voices across our initiatives, to highlight the ways in which the Earth can be used as a valuable resource to advance progress within our focus areas on an individual, community, and global level.