Carbon policy—Think globally, act locally

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Why is it so difficult to enact policies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions? ASU researchers explain some of the challenges.

By Allie Nicodemo

July 31, 2015

In November 2014, the United States and China announced an agreement on efforts to address climate change. The U.S. vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Meanwhile, China will reach peak emissions by 2030 and work to grow its renewable energy sector, gradually replacing the need for fossil fuels.

Since the two countries together account for a third of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the world, their statement of cooperation gives hope for mitigating climate change. But why did it take so long for the two biggest carbon emitters to agree on a policy for reduction?

“It’s politically difficult to get all these agreements in place because it’s expensive and people don’t want to change,” says Martin Pasqualetti, a professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, resources that propel our entire global economy. Pasqualetti says that as a result, there are significant obstacles to establishing corrective measures for climate change. First, you’ve got to convince people that there is a problem and that it’s serious enough to demand action. Second, someone has to take a leadership role.

“In China, they look around and say, ‘we’re not going to do anything if the United States doesn’t do anything,’ and the United States says, ‘well, it’s really, really expensive to do anything, so we’re going to put this off and let somebody else deal with it,” Pasqualetti says. This unwillingness to take leadership has made global climate change policies difficult to implement.

Is it really essential for countries to cooperate on a global level to reduce CO2 emissions? Dan Sarewitz, co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, says no.

“The initial assumption that this had to be done through international agreement actually set us back a long time,” Sarewitz says. “There are an infinite number of approaches and there’s no one-size-fits-all. The assumption that you had to have global governance was the original sin of climate policy.”

Plus, climate policy is not as simple as mandating that every country around the world reduce its emissions. Many of the high CO2 emitters are developing countries trying to raise their standards of living. The U.S. has been industrialized for centuries, gaining wealth and burning fossil fuels all along. Is it fair to ask other countries not to have the same advantages, now that we need to worry about climate change?

“How do you get the billions of people in the world who are trying to lift themselves up to do it in a carbon neutral or low carbon way?” Pasqualetti asks.

One solution is to help them develop renewable fuels, such as solar and wind technology. Researchers at ASU are doing just that through a program called VOCTEC, or Vocational Training and Education for Clean Energy. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), VOCTEC has already helped train 460 professionals in 19 different countries to implement and sustain renewable energy systems.

ASU is also setting an example of how to decarbonize with its own use of solar energy. With all the solar arrays on campus, Pasqualetti says that ASU produces enough electricity every 30 minutes to power his home for a whole year.

In addition, Pasqualetti and ASU professor Kris Mayes co-direct the Energy Policy Innovation Council (EPIC) at ASU. Researchers at EPIC are helping the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality develop a tool to reduce carbon emissions in the state. This is important because the EPA’s current draft of the Clean Power Plan requires Arizona to curb its CO2 output by over 50 percent. The final rule, due out at the end of August, may back off that degree of reduction, but Arizona will still be required to make substantial cuts in carbon emissions.

While large, sweeping policies are difficult to achieve, Sarewitz says there are other effective ways to reduce carbon emissions.

“What we really want is a bunch of experiments going on in a bunch of places, where places find their own solutions and things that work. I think you need a shared understanding that it’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean you need shared governance.”

Learn more about ASU research and expertise on carbon and climate.

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.