A bad week for coal and bad news on ocean warming


The Weekly Climate Review for Nov. 2, 2018:

This was not a good week for coal.

Last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report basically said the world must all but stop burning coal by 2050 to save the planet from ruin. This week, Carbon Tracker, the U.N. climate chief and a host of other newsmakers added insult to injury.

Carbon Tracker, the London-based financial think tank, released research Monday showing how “owners of coal power units in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines risk losing up to $60 billion in stranded value” because of plummeting renewable energy costs. “Keep pouring money into coal-fired plants and it won’t be just the fuel that’s getting burned,” Bloomberg News said in introducing the findings. “Thanks to the dramatic fall in the cost of renewable energy, phasing out coal power by 2040 will likely prove to be the lowest-cost option for these Southeast Asian nations,” said Matt Gray, head of power and utilities at Carbon Tracker. And Southeast Asia was meant to be the final saving grace for the world’s coal miners.

On Tuesday, Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, called coal a “public health emergency” as well as a climate menace. “It makes the whole challenge that we are facing on climate change or greenhouse gases personal,” she told Climate Home News at the World Health Organization’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health. “It brings it down to my personal experience, it brings it down to the lungs of my children, it brings it down to the brain development of my child. It so happens that sources of greenhouse gases are the same sources of local pollutants.”

Even though Angela Merkel—once known as the “climate chancellor”—announced this week she would step down as Germany’s leader in 2021, her ruling coalition on Wednesday finally approved a plan for solar and wind auctions to speed the goal of nearly doubling the country’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. A government-appointed commission is scheduled to announce a coal exit date for Germany by the end of the year.

Across the Atlantic, the Indiana utility NIPSCO formally submitted a plan Wednesday aimed at replacing all of the company’s coal-fired power generation with renewables by 2028—two years ahead of the IPCC’s deadline for decisive decarbonization efforts. “Of late, what we’re seeing is that our customer needs have really changed, and the energy market has really changed,” said NIPSCO President Violet Sistovaris. “All indications are that the energy market is going to continue to change for the next decade and beyond.”

At the other end of the planet, Australia’s coal export industry has already “peaked” and begun a “terminal long-term decline,” according to a report released Thursday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). The authors, IEEFA analysts Tim Buckley and Simon Nicholas, argue that coal exports from the Australian port of Newcastle, the world’s busiest coal exporter, peaked in 2016 and have been waning ever since. “The magnitude and speed of change in energy sector technology is staggering,” Nicholas said. “Major global investors, corporates and financial institutions are turning away from thermal coal investment at an accelerating rate.”

Also on Thursday, U.S. grid operator PJM Interconnection—serving 65 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia—unveiled a much-anticipated analysis of fuel security in the wake of accelerating retirements of coal and nuclear plants. “The findings underscore that PJM is reliable today,” said President and CEO Andrew Ott. As for five years from now and beyond, “we will continue to look for opportunities to address resilience through the competitive wholesale electricity markets,” he said. In other words, the proposed federal bailout of uneconomic coal and nuclear plants under consideration by the Trump administration is not needed to secure the nation’s electricity supply. “We think government intervention is unnecessary,” Ott said. “It would be inefficient and more costly.”

On top of all the above, Tom Butler, CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals, touted a carbon tax ahead of the International Mining and Resources Conference on Tuesday in Melbourne. “Our materials will be critical to enabling the decarbonization of the planet,” said Butler, whose constituency includes mining of all kinds. If the world is to hold global warming to the 2°C above pre-industrial times promised under the Paris Agreement, he said, “we’ll need around 20 million tons more copper and around ten times the amount of lithium—for batteries—that is currently mined to supply demand, and that isn’t including electric vehicles.”

Those American coal executives who have been pushing U.S. President Donald Trump to resuscitate their former status quo could not have been happy this week.

Climate context

This week’s climatic news suggests that the IPCC’s shocking forecast may have underestimated the world’s peril.

A study published Wednesday in Nature found the world’s oceans are warming faster than the IPCC’s alarming estimates, making the task of curbing climate change and its fallout far more challenging. “The fact that the ocean holds so much heat that can be transferred back to the atmosphere makes it harder for us to keep the earth[‘s] surface temperature below a certain target in the future,” said lead author Laure Resplandy, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton University. In addition, “a warmer ocean will hold less oxygen, and that has implications for marine ecosystems” she said. “There is also sea level—if you warm the ocean more, you will have more thermal expansion and, therefore, more sea level rise.”

Humans have now modified more than 77 percent of Earth’s wilderness areas outside of Antarctica, which provide natural “buffers” against climate change, according to research featured Wednesday in Nature. “We’re on a threshold where whole systems could collapse, and the consequences of that would be catastrophic,” said co-author James Allan, a postdoctoral research fellow in biological sciences at Australia’s University of Queensland. “Wild areas provide a lot of life support systems for the planet.”

Humans also have annihilated 60 percent of the planet’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970 and appear poised to wipe out many of the rest if we continue on our current path, warns a report released this week by WWF. “While climate change is a growing threat, the main drivers of biodiversity decline continue to be the over exploitation of species, agriculture and land conversion,” the report says. Of course, agriculture and land conversion are also drivers of climate change.

“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff,” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK. If there was a 60-percent decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done. … This is far more than just… losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is. This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’—it is our life-support system.”

Meanwhile, only 16 countries have targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in line with fulfilling their pledges under the Paris Agreement, according to a study released Monday by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the World Resources Institute.

Surprises

In a surprising attack ad this week, the coal-friendly National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) assailed Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell—who wants Republican Carlos Curbelo’s Florida seat in the U.S. House of Representatives—for allegedly taking “dirty coal money.” Curbelo is an unusual Republican in that he believes in human-caused climate change and favors a carbon tax. But when Vox looked into who might be funding the ad, it found NRCC’s largest donors included Chase Koch, son of billionaire Charles Koch, and Koch Agronomic Services, a Kansas-based multinational involved in oil and gas exploration and pipelines. Mucarsel-Powell’s supposed “coal money” apparently refers to $2,700 from billionaire climate hawk Tom Steyer, whose former hedge fund invested in coal-fired power plants before he resigned and dedicated himself to curbing climate change.

In what must have come as a surprise to natural gas companies in California, a new report from S&P Global Market Intelligence warned they will face credit downgrades as the state works toward achieving its pledge—now a law—to use only renewable energy by 2045. “We believe that over the long term, with the growth of renewable energy, these utilities face a significant threat to their market position, finances and credit stability,” said S&P analyst Michael Ferguson.

In other surprising midterm election news, Reuters reportedthat the United Mine Workers of America—best know for representing U.S. coal miners—gave nearly 84 percent of its campaign donations this year to Democrats in national races. That marks about a 20-percent increase over 2016, when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promised to bring coal mining back to its glory days. “The ‘war on coal’ narrative is basically over,” said Simon Haeder, a political scientist at West Virginia University. “Now the things that people are concerned about are health care and pensions.”

United States

The Trump administration appears to be increasingly out of step with Americans on climate change and clean energy.

New survey data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show majorities of Americans in counties across the country worry about global warming and support mandatory use of renewable energy by utilities as well as “strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” Support for clean energy probably defies the usual partisan divide because it’s not necessarily “about climate change per se,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program. “Maybe you support renewable energy because it’s cheaper, because it’s cleaner, or because it’s better for human health,” he said. “Maybe you support it because it lessens our dependence on fossil fuels and aids our push for energy independence.”

In America’s heartland, results from the 20th annual Arkansas Poll released on Thursday show increasing numbers of Arkansans think climate change poses a “serious threat” to their “way of life” in their lifetimes. In fact, that total jumped by more than 50 percent over past year, from 30 to 47 percent. (Trump won nearly 61 percent of the Arkansas vote in 2016.)

Results from a new survey of Americans living in coal-reliant states released on Monday by Consumer Reports found that 81 percent “agree that reducing pollution from power plants is a worthwhile goal,” and 76 percent “agree that increasing renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, is a worthwhile goal.” Shannon Baker-Branstetter, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, noted that the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan “takes us in the opposite direction” of where a majority of Americans want the country to go. Consumer Reports said it planned to submit its survey results to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Environment and energy agencies in 14 states sent a letterTuesday to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in support of keeping the basic provisions of the Clean Power Plan in place. “We represent environmental and energy agencies from 14 states that comprise more than 120 million people and more than 42 percent of the U.S. economy,” they wrote. “As leaders of states’ environmental and energy agencies, we play a critical role in protecting our residents’ health and the environment in collaboration with the federal government. … Taking steps now to achieve meaningful CO2 reductions is critical to reducing dangerous disruptions to the climate and to address the climate change effects our states and residents are already experiencing.” In what could be a veiled legal threat, they also noted that the Clean Power Plan “will fulfill EPA’s statutory obligations under the Clean Air Act.”

Although President Trump and his surrogates haven’t said much about coal lately, the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture sent a letter Thursday notifying the Senate and House appropriations committees that they intend to promote the burning of “forest” biomass as a “renewable” and “carbon-neutral” energy source. The move brought applause from the American Forest and Paper Association and condemnation from scientists. “When biomass from forests is burned for electricity, it immediately emits CO2 to the atmosphere in amounts equivalent to, and often greater than, fossil fuels,” scores of scientists wrote in a letter to the EPA’s Wheeler. “If trees are harvested for use in bioenergy production and then regrown, the combination of the regrowth and displaced fossil fuels can eventually pay off the carbon debt, but that ‘payback period’ typically ranges from decades to hundreds of years.” Nine environmental groups chimed in to say that using biomass to generate power increases carbon emissions “in nearly every scenario.”

At the same time, the Trump administration was flooded with nearly 100,000 comments on its proposed rollback of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, including opposition from 21 state attorneys general, major automakers and one oil industry giant. In its comments, Royal Dutch Shell said U.S. policy should be “consistent with the aim of the Paris Agreement” and, therefore, the company “does not support” the rollback. “To date, efficiency standards have demonstrated the greatest impact on CO2 abatement in transport relative to other policies,” Shell said, adding that it also opposes the EPA’s threat of rescinding California’s legal right to set tougher standards.

Over at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management (FEMA), it turns out that flood maps created by the agency designated 200 homes in Mexico Beach, Florida, at minimal risk from flooding, thereby exempting residents from mandatory flood insurance. Hurricane Michael obliterated much of Mexico Beach on October 10, and many of those uninsured residents now have no means to rebuild. “We know that storms are getting more intense now, especially in the last ten years,” said Larry Larson, an engineer and senior policy adviser to the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “What FEMA does not yet do, and flood maps do not yet do, is reflect what they expect future conditions to be.” If climate change isn’t taken into account, Larson said, “the day you issue the maps, they’re obsolete.”

China

There was some puzzling news out of China this week.

In March, China’s central government made much ado about taking responsibilities for climate action out of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s economic planning agency, and placing them in the newly-renamed Ministry for Ecological Environment (MEE). On Thursday of this week, the China Daily reported that the “department” of Director General of Climate Change Li Gao had been transferred out of the NDRC and into the MEE to “better coordinate and collectively promote the country’s efforts to control greenhouse gases and other pollutants.” The article did not say why Li’s office had not moved back in March.

The MEE announced Monday that another 1.18 million residences would switch out coal-based heating for natural gas or electricity this winter in 11 cities in the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan—a “key battlefield” in China’s war against air pollution.

On Wednesday, however, MEE spokesperson Liu Youbin told reporters at a briefing that the country’s war on air pollution was becoming more difficult. “When making this winter plan, we have to make sure it is feasible and achievable and it cannot be too forward-looking,” Liu said. “It will get harder and harder in the future to reduce pollution.” He also said, “It is biased and not accurate to say China will relax pollution-cutting measures,” referring to environmental groups’ warnings last week about the country “backsliding” into increased coal consumption.

Climate chief Li Gao admitted at the briefing that coal-fired power generation had increased, although the percentage of coal power in China’s energy mix continues to decrease. “Coal-fired power does have appeal to local governments if [they are] not considering external conditions, so it will take time to tackle this problem,” Li said. “It’s normal to see some volatility on coal use in some years, but our core policy is not changing, and that volatility will not stop us reaching the targets.”

China added 15.73 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity from January to September of this year, which was 9.54 gigawatts less than additions in the first nine months of 2017, the China Electricity Council (CEC) revealed in a report released on Thursday. At the same time, the country added 59.25 gigawatts of new non-fossil fuel capacity, including 34.52 gigawatts of solar energy. China’s total power generation capacity should reach around 1,900 gigawatts this year, with coal power making up about 1,010 gigawatts, the CEC said. Still, the changing energy mix and tight supplies of coal and natural gas could lead to power shortfalls during peak periods, officials warned.

In other news about China’s war on air pollution, the State Administration for Market Regulation announced Wednesday that it would work with the MEE to create a system for recalling vehicles that don’t meet emissions standards. The country had 310 million vehicles on the road last year and expects to add another 100 million in the next five years. The MEE attributes 45 percent of Beijing’s smog to tailpipe emissions. Regulators say they took more than 20 million high-polluting vehicles off the road last year, but enforcement was been complicated by fraudulent vehicle testing and other means of cheating.

India

Although India is home to 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, the country’s most senior health and environment officials declined invitations to the World Health Organization’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health this week, the HuffPost reported.

“India has lots of good policies, but the implementation always remains a question,” said Sunil Dahiya, a clean air campaigner with Greenpeace India. “We have a draft National Clean Air Programme, but it doesn’t have any time-bound targets.”

The smog grew so thick this week that New Delhi activated emergency air pollution measures on Thursday, authorizing criminal prosecution of polluters. India’s environment minister blamed the foul conditions on the Delhi government and surrounding states failing to do their jobs.

The deteriorating air quality triggered travel warnings abroad, which brought a corresponding spate of canceled flight, hotel and tour reservations. “As the news about the smog is catching up, we see a growing disinclination towards bookings for Delhi,” said Balu Ramachandran, a vice president at the Mumbai-based online travel agency Cleartrip. “While business and solo travelers are keeping up with their travel commitments, the share of the family segment has decreased by 8 percent in the overall inbound bookings to the capital.”

On the clean energy front, the government-run Solar Energy Corporation of India postponed for the fifth time its first major hybrid tender for developing 1.2 gigawatts of solar and wind at a single site. Developers said they stayed away because the ceiling on rates for power generated by the project was too low to ensure profitability.

At the same time, the Ministry of Power helped public-private power trader PTC India secure power purchase agreements for 1.9 gigawatts of electricity from coal-fired plants.

Looking forward

Next Tuesday’s midterm elections will be, in part, a referendum on Donald Trump and his policies, including those directly and indirectly related to climate change.

The Vote Climate US PAC created a climate change voter’s guide for U.S. House and Senate races, ranking what candidates have said and promise to do about global warming and its impacts. “We all know that there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on the issue, but to me what was stunning was the extent of the divide between the parties,” Vote Climate President Karyn Strickler told Vox. “What this demonstrates is that climate politics are overwhelmingly driven by party.”

If any race is driven by climate concerns over party, it is likely to be the U.S. Senate contest between Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. “Forget about a blue wave,” said The Washington Post. “Scott is dealing with red tide—a gigantic outbreak of toxic algae that has bedeviled this part of the Gulf Coast for more than a year. Although polls had earlier shown Scott locked in a dead heat with incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, the governor is behind. His environmental record threatens to cost Republicans what had been seen as a prime opportunity to pad the GOP majority in the U.S. Senate.”

Washington state’s Initiative 1631 on whether to impose a carbon “fee” on industrial emitters is probably the most significant ballot measure to watch. “If it passed, it would be the first time voters in the U.S. approve a price on carbon,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “That would be unprecedented, and it would be huge.”

Looking past the midterms, POLITICO reported that President Trump could see as many as six of his Cabinet members leave, including fossil fuel hawk Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, who is now facing legal scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice for cozy dealings with someone in the oil-and-gas industry.

China has taken this month’s rotation in the presidency of the United Nations Security Council, which Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu promised to use for “strengthening multilateralism,” which could include some nudging of the Trump administration on the Paris Agreement.

Further out, many eyes will be trained on Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro. “We may face an unprecedented environmental disaster in the next four years,” said Paulo Artaxo, a Brazilian scientist who is part of the IPCC. “The main concern is the Amazon. According to Bolsonaro’s statements we can conclude that illegal settlements and deforestation will accelerate.”