Damaging air emissions are a major concern for our hugely relied upon but also hugely polluting industries. Governments have stepped up regulations in the past decade; however, the widely lauded (but also criticized) international Paris Agreement to control our world’s temperature took the blow of US withdrawal in June 2017. A year down the line, is Trump’s pullout really indicative of what industry wants, and how will the shock be absorbed by other polluting economies?
Since the year 2000 the planet has been around 3°C warmer than the long-term average since recordkeeping began in 1880, and in recent years the increase has continued – 2016 was the warmest year on record. In this video visualization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US, the annual change in Earth’s surface temperature is really quite striking:
The primary long-term goal of the agreement is to keep the increase in global average temperature at a constant of no more than 2°C above what it was in pre-industrial times (although, negotiators point out that this is insufficient and 1.5°C is a better target). There is no doubt that our planet is heating up, so a year post-announcement from President Trump, let’s take a look at the state of affairs.
The limited role of governments in the Paris Agreement
Although it was a controversial move of President Trump to pull out of an accord lauded by many, the Paris Agreement is not without its criticisms.
In contrast to most environment laws, the Paris Agreement has a ‘bottom up’ structure. This allows for voluntary and nationally set targets, and goals are politically encouraged rather than being legally binding unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. However, reporting on and reviewing progress against these goals is required, which is something that Environmental Management software assists with.
Due to this limited role of governments in enforcing its goals, the withdrawal of the incumbent US administration, some argue, may not make too much of a difference. The responsibility to maintain average temperatures below target lies mostly with private sector asset owners – and critics of the agreement say that without far-reaching penalties such as an across the board tax on CO2 emissions, we will still not avoid the worst effects of global warming as industries in high polluters such as China, the US and India have little incentive to change its ways. But – doesn’t the private sector have a conscience, with or without government interference?
The Clean Air Act continues despite other policy rollbacks
The agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016 after enough countries producing enough of the world’s greenhouse gases ratified it (55 countries producing at least 55% of the world’s GHG emissions). The US and China together produce almost 40% of global emissions, so on June 2, 2017 when President Trump announced the US would be pulling out of the agreement, alarm bells started ringing throughout the remaining signatories. (However, it is worth pointing out that under the conditions for withdrawal, the US cannot officially leave the agreement until November 2019, three years after it came into force in the US on November 4, 2016.)
Of course, US air emissions regulations are not limited to the Paris Agreement; the Clean Air Act of 1990 is still intact, and the EPA sets national air quality standards for ‘the criteria pollutants’, but others are being repealed under the Trump administration. In January 2018 the EPA announced it would no longer be enforcing the control policy known as “once in, always in,” that meant that once a plant was subject to the most stringent regulations, it always would be. These facilities can now relax controls, and several environmental groups are not happy about it: Patrice Simms, a lead on the lawsuit brought by Earthjustice against the EPA, explains that when the EPA began regulating, industries didn’t want it to set limits – they asked that they only be required to use the best technology available at the time. Many years later this top of the range technology has been proven to work, so now industries want the EPA to set limits, which would mean emissions can potentially rise again.
Industry may be the problem, but it’s also the solution
Aside from the US and the Paris Agreement, other countries are making strong signals of their commitment to cleaner air; the UK and Canada, two of the United States’ closest allies, are leading a global alliance of 20 countries in phasing out coal energy production, whilst a collection of nations have also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. Its goals can only be achieved with cooperation from industry, and even companies with coal mining roots are on board with the alliance, such as Dutch multinational Royal DSM:
“Royal DSM started off as a coal mining company, transformed to a chemical company, to become the innovative, science-based company – thriving in health, nutrition and materials – that we are today. DSM reduces its environmental footprint of its own operations, enables a low-carbon economy through its solutions for customers, and advocates key leadership initiatives like this statement. Already since the Paris climate conference (COP21) in 2015, DSM has advocated the need to reform fossil fuel subsidies, and to put a meaningful price on carbon. An accelerated phase-out of coal by this group of governments by 2030 will only serve as a necessary complementary policy." – Feike Sijbesma, CEO Royal DSM and co-chair of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition
Because industry is a large part of the problem (let’s not forget our responsibility as consumers), it should equally be a large part of the solution. Although there are instances such as Patrice Simms suggests, industries are made up of people who share the same concerns as civilians about where our world is heading. Shareholder pressure is a big driver in pursuing sustainable practice which when combined with activists and regulations can generate the momentum needed to help companies into action. As Scott Lockhart, head of operational excellence and risk management at IHS explains, “operational excellence is synonymous with sustainability.”
Environmental improvement vs. economic growth
Despite what conclusions can be drawn from industries’ alleged opposition to regulations, environmental and economic goals do not have to compete: this has been successfully demonstrated by the last few decades of US industry expansion with simultaneous air quality improvements. It can be difficult to measure the success of regulations, but the EPA claims that for every dollar spent reducing emissions there are benefits worth $9 to public health, the environment, productivity and consumer savings.
And over the past 30-40 years progress has been made: whilst US Gross Domestic Product grew 153% from 1980 to 2015, CO2 emissions only increased by 18% and Aggregate Emissions (including six common pollutants) actually decreased by 65%. The evidence is there for industries that growth can coexist with cleaner air. It would be hard to argue that regulations don’t play a part in bringing that to the private sector’s attention.
We are also seeing an annual increase in spending on Environmental & Sustainability Management software pretty much across the world. Independent analyst firm Verdantix predicted that global budgets would grow by an average of 5.4% in 2018, with Sustainability Management the second top of the list of EHS activities with an increase in spend (Global EHS Leaders Survey 2017, Verdantix). However, the report did note a lack of new regulatory action on air emissions in recent years as perhaps limiting the planned spend; 23% of respondents planned to increase spend on Air Emissions Management this year.
Does stringent regulation equal a reduction in air pollution?
When assessing the list of countries with the lowest air pollution vs. countries with the highest air pollution, it is apparent that the lowest are mostly developed economies such as New Zealand, Canada, Finland and the US, and the highest are mostly developing nations such as Egypt, Bangladesh, Cameroon and India.
Countries with the lowest air pollution
- New Zealand
- United States
Countries with the highest air pollution
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
It is also true that developed nations are far more likely to enforce strict air emissions regulations than their counterparts; however, it is unlikely that regulations alone are driving the trend. Despite Trump announcing the US will pull out of the Paris Agreement, a coalition of thousands of CEOs, mayors and governors across the US declared “We Are Still In.” America’s Pledge is a bipartisan initiative that claims it represents more than 130M Americans and $6.2TN of annual output from the country. As pointed out by the hosts of the UN climate change conference COP23, Fiji, the coalition is a “perfect example” of how the Paris Agreement extends beyond government action.
So what is happening without US commitment to Paris?
What remains to be seen over the next decade is whether the companies signed up to such pledges put their money where their mouth is, and whether others follow suit. Since President Trump’s announcement, the US has added 9 gigawatts of renewable electricity to its capacity which is enough to power over 2 million homes, and coal power is being phased out at a higher rate now than between 2009 – 2011. Some US states will even be taxing carbon dioxide emissions by the end of 2018 (effectively a carbon tax), but the ramifications of US withdrawal may continue to develop over the coming months.
The most celebrated aspect of the Paris Agreement is its success in uniting a diverse set of countries over a common issue. There are 194 countries signed up, including all the other major polluters of the world (China, Canada, EU member states, India…), those who initially held back, Syria and Nicaragua, and the dozens in between. In order to see the two most dominant world powers, the United States and China, work together with the common denominator of climate change, many countries had extended their commitments to the absolute limits in order to comply. And now with the absence of one of those powers, a few are trying to pull back on some of the agreements made; not to mention China’s newly expressed discontent with the provision that rich and poor countries alike must take actions to cut emissions. Stay tuned for further developments.
Tracking air emissions data is required for sustainability
Paris Agreement or not, Environmental Specialists in industries are tasked with monitoring and reporting on their organization’s air emissions. Tracking carbon footprint gives companies the information they need in order to identify where the majority of harmful emissions are coming from: in 2006 Walmart set out to quantify its greenhouse gas emissions of its trucking fleet, supersize stores and stocked products. The company identified that the supply chain accounted for up to 95% of its emissions and vowed to reduce them by 20 million metric tons by 2015. By increasing the energy efficiency of household items such as lightbulbs and reducing the volume of food waste during processing in transportation and in stores, Walmart met and surpassed its ambitious goal.
In the US, the EPA sets air quality standards for six of the most common pollutants, also known as the ‘criteria pollutants’:
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- Ozone (O3)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Particulate matter (PM)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Lead (Pb)
Achieving these standards takes a combination of regulatory and voluntary programs; neither alone will likely be enough to keep Earth’s temperatures manageable. Cleaning up on air emissions is also becoming a public relations exercise as consumers pressure producers into doing their bit for the planet we share, and we are increasingly seeing shareholders request environmental data reports alongside financial reports. Working towards the Paris Agreement’s goal is an ideology that needs to be instilled throughout the world; we are currently operating in a reactive state, trying to reverse years of damage, but by GHG accounting and tracking metrics related to the EPA’s criteria pollutants (which are similar the world over) Environmental Specialists can get to work on making their organizations proactive. This dataset is immense, but Environmental Management Software has become highly advanced in letting practitioners drill into their data to get meaningful insights.
It is a great shame that the US government has stepped back from the Paris Agreement for now, but US enterprises that stick to its principles of sustainability with their worldwide peers will be the ones that live to tell the tale.
About the Paris Agreement
The Accord de Paris was adopted by consensus in December 2015 after being negotiated by 196 parties at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Paris. The primary long-term goal of the agreement is to keep the increase in global average temperature at a constant of no more than 2°C above what it was in pre-industrial times.