On May 10, I popped out of my 10-person tent in rural Highland, Va., kilometers from the West Virginia border. Outside, 30 bikes were neatly stacked along a nearby driveway and, one by one, students were waking up. It was the first day of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Resistance Ride, a cycling tour across Virginia and along the route of Dominion’s proposed natural gas pipeline. Hailing from six different universities, we were all members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, a statewide student network with a goal of halting new fossil fuel infrastructure in our state.
Now — beginning today — crucial intergovernmental negotiations will take place in Paris, France. The aim: the first universal agreement on climate change. Beginning in 1992, the year I was born, this 23-year effort to coordinate the international response to climate change has mirrored a near doubling of global greenhouse gas emissions. There are high hopes going into Paris for an agreement to turn around this trend of ever increasing emissions and rein in climate warming.
The base of the Paris agreement is simple: Every country must produce a domestic plan to act on climate change. To date, 166 countries have put forward these commitments, but added together, these commitments fall far below the needed level of action to stave of the worst impacts of climate change.
Virginia is more than a drop in the bucket within this global effort. Compared to all the world’s countries, Virginia, as a state, would fall 39th in a ranking of country greenhouse gas emissions. And if we link up with five neighbor states to the south, we would fall in between Japan and Germany as the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Though the politics of the Paris negotiations may not make dinnertime conversation throughout Virginia, the energy production of our state has global significance.
One of the top issues going into Paris is what negotiators call, “the long-term goal.” This is to say, the few words of the agreement that paint a picture of what the 195 countries agree the world should look like on the time-scale of 40 years to the end of the century.
At the last round of negotiations, the United States proposed a goal of “decarbonization by the end of the century.” This matches the goal stated by the Group of Seven major economies earlier this year, as well as the “Conclusions of the Chairs” statement from top U.N. officials, calling on the Paris agreement to signal a “shift towards 100% clean energy systems.”
Decarbonization, as a process, means that as a society we are committing to decrease the level of carbon emissions in our activities until it is ultimately brought to zero. Science is telling us that this needs to happen rapidly, starting now, and faster than we have ever seen emissions reduced in history. Emissions from fossil energy must go first and be phased out by mid-century, followed by a phaseout of all greenhouse gases well before the end of the century.
What then, does a commitment to decarbonization mean for Virginia? Foremost, it means that investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is a lost cause. New infrastructure at the scale of multistate pipelines and new refineries has a payoff period of 20-30 years, and effectively locks in future carbon emissions. Constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure is saying yes to consumption today and handing off the climate challenge to my generation and to generations not yet born.
While world leaders unite in Paris to strike a global deal on climate change, political leaders in Virginia will be busy prepping for the approaching legislative session to start in January. We can expect a slew of climate-focused legislation, including the fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Virginia’s own plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the national Clean Power Plan.
The transition away from fossil fuels is urgent and already underway. Virginia must take advantage of the global momentum to step forward as a leader in a transition to a clean and sustainable society — or be left behind as a laggard.