5 ways 2016 will be a make or break year for climate change

5 ways 2016 will be a make or break year for climate change

climate change action in 2016
The next year will be hugely important to address the precarious state of the fight against climate change.

A funny thing happened last month in Paris. For at least a few days, the political hand-wringing and general evasiveness that tend to characterize official remarks on climate change temporarily went away.

Instead of "debating" whether or not global temperatures are going up, prominent figures like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke candidly about the jarring economic and national security threats posed by continued inaction on climate issues.

But that was in Paris, within the confines of the rather wonky United Nations COP21 climate summit.

In just one example of deeply contradictory developments elsewhere, lawmakers back on Capitol Hill were also finalizing a budget deal including a provision to lift a 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports.

The mixed messages over the last few weeks alone — not to mention many other less-than-stellar environmental developments in recent years (hello, fracking) — raise one big question for 2016: which way from here on climate change?

Here are five key areas to watch in the year ahead.

1. The fight over the future of fossil fuels

Renewable energy and increasingly ambitious carbon reduction goals may be making more headlines of late, but the future of the intricately related fossil fuel sector remains much murkier.

Trillions of dollars in oil and gas subsidies were conspicuously absent from conversation at COP21, though once-esoteric concepts like stranded assets and carbon pricing are gaining currency in both government and business circles.

Meanwhile, investors and car owners everywhere are wondering what will happen after a recent build up in oil supply that has caused prices to plummet, no doubt leaving providers scrambling for a way to recoup revenue.

2. Green greed and the private sector

With corporate luminaries like Apple CEO Tim Cook now speaking openly about their anxiety over the long-term price prospectus for fossil fuels, how many more businesses will follow the lead of Apple, Walmart, Google and the dozens of other companies now inking long-term clean energy contracts?

The shift toward clean energy for explicitly financial reasons has reinvigorated the conversation around "green greed" — a term that belies the increasingly important role of corporations in funding and adopting low-carbon technologies, even if governments aren't necessarily cracking down on fossil fuel alternatives.

3. Problematic politics

In addition to highly fragmented state and local energy laws, there is the nagging fact that climate change is still often used as a conservative political dog whistle in the U.S. in particular.

Though the Obama administration killed the Keystone XL oil pipeline projected and gave the green light on the Clean Power Plan, Congress has fought tooth and nail on issues like the end of the U.S. oil export ban. With the 2016 Presidential race looming large and Republican primary candidates leaning hard right, how climate ultimately figures into the campaign is a big question.

One potentially positive omen: the recent extension of the energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for wind and solar projects through 2020.

4. Fundraising for a low-carbon future

When it comes to renewable energy, the slew of purchase options coming online despite highly fragmented regional regulatory variations is good news for both businesses and governments looking to hit emissions reductions goals. Still, high barriers to entry remain due in large part to the price point of utility-scale renewable energy projects.

Recognizing this funding short fall, Wall Street banks and institutional investors are now joining cash-rich corporations in the realm of clean energy finance.

In addition to keeping an eye on how those dollars are divided, other capital-intensive sustainability priorities, like climate mitigation funding and resilient infrastructure projects, are likely to emerge as financial focal points in the conversation around climate change.

5. Keeping corporate bad actors in check

Arguably the two biggest environmental news stories of 2015 weren't good news stories. Within a few months last year, it was revealed that auto giant Volkswagen AG had rigged emissions tests for millions of diesel-powered cars, and that oil giant Exxon Mobil suppressed internal climate science for decades.

While it's easy to write off these glaring examples of misconduct as a few extreme cases, they do raise much more broadly-applicable issues around enforcement of environmental rules and standards for corporate reporting.