Sunburst: January 2021

SunBurst Column

26 January 2021


A New Decade for Action

At 11:49 AM, U.S. Eastern Standard Time in Washington, DC, on 20 January many of us felt as if we were emerging from a long dark tunnel into a bright, sunny day. Joseph R. Biden had just been inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, and moments before, Kamala Harris had taken the oath of office for Vice President. Within hours, using Executive Orders, President Biden put the U.S. back into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He also ordered an immediate halt to any further development of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry dirty tar sands oil reserves from Alberta, Canada to the huge oil refinery complexes near Houston, Texas. These are two significant steps fulfilled a campaign pledge to help stem the harmful and accelerating impacts we are experiencing from human climate change caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. I will get back to these two key steps he took later.


Also, and very significant, President Biden signed critically important Executive Orders designed to attack head-on the intensifying spread of the Coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing in the U.S. These orders focus on more rapid and efficient vaccine distribution, mask-wearing mandates, and stimulus packages to assist the people, the businesses, and the institutions most harmed by the economic consequences of COVID-19.


The new President’s actions during his first days in office are not only significant, they are certainly beyond symbolic. Just a few days prior to the inauguration the Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record, and that global mean temperatures have reached 1.25°C above preindustrial levels. This is just 0.25°C below the level the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns will result in significant human and ecological damage due to climate change.


To stay within the 1.5°C aspirational target set by the Paris Agreement, countries must set far more ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets, as laid out in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), than the actions they had pledged at the time the Agreement was signed. Experts now recognize that the world will need to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector as early as 2030, rather than the 2050 time frame stipulated in the 2017 IPCC Assessment. To achieve this, all nations, and in particular those that are currently the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, must accelerate their ambitions for reducing their carbon emissions. These new ambitious NDCs must be submitted at the upcoming 26th Conference of the Parties that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland on 1-12 November 2021. This underscores the importance of the U.S., currently the world’s largest emitter, re-entering the Paris Agreement. President Biden has already prepared an ambitious clean energy plan that will form the basis of the NDCs the U.S. will submit at COP-26 -- a major step that was almost completely missing from the Trump administration.


Biden’s halting of construction on the Keystone XL pipeline is very relevant here as well. At the International Renewable Energy Agency’s Public Private Dialogue, held online on 14 January, Kingsfill Bond of the Carbon Tracker Initiative reported on the vulnerability of the fossil fuel energy system to changing market conditions in response to climate change mitigation. We have already passed the time of peak demands for fossil fuels. Even demand for oil used in transport has, already passed its peak in 2019, thanks in part to the reduced demands resulting from the pandemic (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic demand for oil had not expected to peak until 2028). The passage of these peaks posesserious economic dilemmas for the fossil fuel industry since more and more of their assets will be “stranded” in future years due to the lack of demand for their use. The decision to halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline plays right into this dilemma...demand for oil is expected to continue to drop even after the pandemic, so the costs of building out expensive infrastructure (expensive both economically and to the environment) may never be recovered by the declining revenues. This was a critical message coming out of this Dialogue: we must cease now any investments in major infrastructure projects that are built on the premise of a long-term continuing demand for fossil fuel resources.


Nevertheless, the halting of the remaining portions of the pipeline will create problems of its own: not only will there be stranded assets, there will also be stranded jobs, which will have severe negative impacts on communities benefitting from the construction and operation of the pipeline. The energy transformation must proceed in a way that is just and equitable for all, meaning that actions aimed at new job creation and worker retraining must be taken in concurrence with those actions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  


The alarming new global warming statistics combined with debates over new fossil-related infrastructure projects make the 2020’s a “Decade of Action”. This term was mentioned, for example, at the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA’s) Coalition for Action Strategy Meeting, an online event that took place on 25 January with strong ISES participation. More and more, renewable energy stakeholders are calling on governments to take more immediate and aggressive actions, including those with pandemic-relief investments, and set much earlier net zero carbon emission targets, ideally within this decade. This accelerated energy transformation must be accompanied by all of the appropriate social justice measures to ensure no groups are left painfully behind.


Besides IRENA’s Coalition for Action, other key organizations with whom ISES is closely aligned, such as REN21, various IEA Technology Collaboration Agreements, and the CleanTech Business Club, all represent a collective voice for urgent action to stem the climate crisis. Renewables are key to this action, and ISES is well-positioned to be an important voice in the messages that need to go to policymakers around the world.


I wish all of you a healthy and productive New Year and look forward to our continued collaborations. 

This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President