As we begin the New Year I am filled with hope for real and concrete progress to protect the incredible place we call home. The past year has provided a strong foundation that we can build upon to reduce climate pollution and to protect western rivers and landscapes. Here’s what I mean:
Coming out of the climate agreements negotiated by 195 countries in Paris that concluded in December, many of the world’s nations are expected to take their first steps to address climate change. For the U.S. and most developed nations, this means cutting carbon emissions. For developing nations, the accord calls for financial incentives that will help them leapfrog carbon intensive development. Importantly, the agreement endeavors to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (scientists argue we must keep warming to under 2 degrees Celsius to stop climate change’s most devastating impacts).
Certainly, some advocates have argued that the agreement didn’t do enough. To be truthful, I would have liked to see stronger commitments to cut carbon pollution more quickly as well. But I think the agreement provides reason for hope. I say this for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that earlier in 2015 the EPA issued the Clean Power Plan, mandating carbon pollution reductions from U.S. power plants of about 33%. Clearly that’s not enough to address the U.S. share, but it does send a very strong message to the rest of the world that the U.S. is prepared to take action. In issuing the new standards earlier this year on coal-fired power plants, the Obama administration and EPA have taken our nation’s first real steps to address the carbon pollution that we know is leading to climate change. The rules have some other compelling attributes, including cleaning up air quality in communities across the country, substantial reductions in asthma attacks and other negative health impacts of dirty air, and saving consumers money.
The Paris Agreement, coupled with the Clean Power Plan, sends a strong message to power providers but also offers some predictability (which utilities want) and sets the stage for a carbon restrained, if not a carbon free, future.
I’m also optimistic because we now know that clean energy sources such as wind and solar can compete with coal on a cost basis, and that they are getting cheaper every day. This is a big part of the reason that in 2014, far more clean, renewable energy than fossil fuel-based energy was added to the electric grid in the United States. We will soon see the 2015 numbers, but this trend is projected to continue. In 2015 major utilities in our western region stated clearly that clean, renewable wind energy is now predictably their lowest-cost source for energy generation. And several solar projects are beating coal and gas on a head-to-head basis, leading to new projects that will come on line in 2016.
My hope goes beyond recent action on climate change. The end of 2015 provided some expectation that we will begin to face up to some of the severe challenges to the health of our western rivers. In Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper signed the state’s first water plan. This year presents the first opportunity to take action that forwards the plan’s goals of conservation, reuse and water sharing. 2015 also saw Governor Sandoval in Nevada addressing the region’s water challenges as he convened a drought forum to develop solutions for Nevada. While it is still unclear what the ultimate impact of the current El Nino weather system (which can bring above average precipitation to the Colorado River Basin) will mean to the West and our water supply, it seems like it is finally sinking in that we shouldn’t rely on the weather when it comes to water. We need to take action throughout the Colorado River states to ensure that we have the water we need to serve 40 million people that rely on the River. But we also must ensure that our rivers not only sustain life in our cities, but also can continue to provide the thrilling opportunities to raft and fish, and the habitat to sustain abundant wildlife – just a few of the things that make the West so spectacular.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of challenges.
- The nations of the world need to respond to the Paris agreement in the spirit with which it was crafted. Individual countries (and our states here in the West) need to respond by developing aggressive plans to reduce carbon pollution.
- Our western states similarly need to take smart steps to protect and restore our rivers, as we plan for population and economic growth. This includes conservation, reuse, recycling, sharing water between urban and agriculture users, and smart storage solutions.
- There are several ill-advised – okay, let’s be honest – flat out stupid plans to develop oil shale and tar sands throughout wilderness-quality lands in northeastern Utah that are still on the table. These plans need to be stopped.
We’ll take on these and other issues, like protection of Great Salt Lake and other iconic landscapes in the West, while working to find smart solutions on the climate, clean energy and river- and water-related efforts described above by building on the many successes of 2015.
Six days in to 2016, and yes, I am truly excited and hopeful about the prospects for making even more progress to protect the many places that we care about here in the West.