The global climate summit got off to an awkward start this week in Katowice, Poland, a southern city built on mining nearby coal deposits.
“There is no plan today to fully give up on coal,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said Monday in astonishing remarks at the opening ceremony of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference. “Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them.” It was an especially provocative message given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded the world must quit coal by 2050 to save itself from climatic mayhem.
“We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said, telling the 14,000 delegates representing more than 190 countries what they were expecting to hear. “It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation. Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”
Tuesday brought the first official day of business, with Michał Kurtyka, Poland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry of Environment, presiding. Tuesday also marked the Feast of Saint Barbara, patron saint of miners. “Please, don’t worry,” Duda said when he visited a mine in Brzeszcze to celebrate the occasion. “As long as I am the president, I won’t allow anyone to murder Polish mining. You are a strategic industry that is the foundation of our economy.”
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the Polish trade union Solidarity joined the Illinois-based Heartland Institute to “express skepticism of the assertions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the world stands at the edge of a climate catastrophe” and insist “there is no scientific consensus on the main causes and consequences of climate change.” Therefore, they said, “neither organization opposes the goal of clean air nor supports the elimination of coal from the world’s energy portfolio.”
But coal wasn’t the only point of contention to surface in the summit’s early hours. Brazil’s lead negotiator J. Antonio Marcondes released a statement Tuesday calling for rich countries to produce the $100 billion a year they promised to developing countries for fighting climate change starting in 2020. “If developed economies put off their climate payments any longer, the Paris Agreement temperature goals will slip out of reach, with tragic consequences for people and planet,” he said.
Rubbing salt in the wound of climate inequality, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced Tuesday that the world’s “advanced economies” had increased their planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, reversing a five-year decline. “Based on the latest available energy data, energy-related CO2 emissions in North America, the European Union and other advanced economies in [the] Asia Pacific grew, as higher oil and gas use more than offset declining coal consumption,” the intergovernmental organization said in a press release. “As a result, the IEA expects CO2 emissions in these economies to increase by around 0.5 percent in 2018. Although the growth in emissions is lower than the 2.4-percent rise in economic growth, it is particularly worrisome for global efforts to meet the Paris Agreement.”
And then there was the phenomenon that the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), an Irish think tank, dubbbed the “Trump Effect.” One White House official claimed U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for the Paris Agreement gave some G20 countries permission to balk at their own climate commitments during last week’s leaders’ summit in Argentina. “I think our message was resonating in the room, because that was the last issue to close and there were other countries who are thinking long and hard about whether they still wanted to remain committed to that paradigm,” the official told Climatewire. Still, in the end, only the United States refused to endorse the Paris-friendly language in the G20 communiqué.
The IIEA released a report Monday analyzing the Trump Effect as a “countervailing” force in the rapid global decarbonization called for in the Paris Agreement. “…[T]he Trump Effect has applied a brake via three distinct channels,” the report says. Firstly, rollbacks of federal climate regulations “have increased the attractiveness of fossil fuel investments globally.” Secondly, “the pending U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has created moral and political cover for others to follow suit.” Finally, the “goodwill at international negotiations has been damaged.” The authors concluded that, “at a time when greater speed of decarbonization is essential, the Trump Effect has clearly applied a brake.”
“The Paris Agreement was designed to be particularly flexible, and I think it will continue to trundle forward until at least November 2020,” the report’s author Joseph Curtain, a senior fellow at the IIEA, told CNN. “Nobody at [the climate summit] will say this, but everybody will be hoping for a different outcome in the November 2020 U.S. elections. I think the agreement will survive until the end of the first period of the Trump presidency, and hopefully then there will be the energy to pick up the pieces and drive the process forward.”
While negotiators in Katowice struggled to prevent backsliding on the world’s commitment to slow climate change, evidence of cascading climatic impacts from business-as-usual continued to mount.
Authors of research published Wednesday in Nature likened the current rate of global warming to a “speeding freight train” driven by rising industrial carbon emissions. Global growth in energy use continues to surpass decarbonization, concluded another study released Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters. “We thought oil use had peaked in the U.S. and Europe 15 years ago,” said lead author Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University. “The cheap gasoline prices, bigger cars and people driving more miles are boosting oil use at rates that none of us expected.”
The world’s collective carbon emissions look likely to increase by 2.7 percent this year, following three years of no increase, according to research published Wednesday in Earth System Science Data by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions.
“For those of us that work in this space, seeing the rates of emissions accelerate is deeply dismaying, and it confirms the very clear lack of systemic action and change that we’re seeing across many lines of state, national and global organization,” Sarah Myhre, a research associate at the University of Washington who was not involved in the aforementioned publications, told The New York Times. “We’re continuing to buck-pass this problem to our kids and our future selves.”
As a consequence of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, the melting of Greenland’s huge northern ice sheet is “off the charts,” according to a paper published Wednesday in Nature that shows run-off now is 50 percent greater than in preindustrial times. “Greenland ice is melting more in recent decades than at any point in at least the last four centuries, and probably more than at any time in the last seven to eight millennia,” said lead author Luke Trusel, an assistant professor of geology at Rowan University. “We demonstrate that Greenland ice is more sensitive to warming today than in the past… . Warming means more today than it did even just a few decades ago.” More melting means more sea level rise.
A report released this week by the World Health Organization (WHO) “calls for countries to account for health in all cost-benefit analyses of climate change mitigation” because the world’s health is already suffering. “There are words not included in the documents at [the climate summit]: asthma, lung cancer, stroke, heart disease. They need to be incorporated in all the decision-making processes,” said María Neira, WHO’s director for public and environmental health. “Morally, delaying the [clean energy] transition is being responsible for millions of deaths every year. [World leaders] need to ask themselves how many deaths are [they] willing to accept.”
In a surprisingly bold move, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy on Tuesday became the first major U.S. utility to publicly commit to producing only carbon-free electricity by 2050—in line with dramatic decarbonization prescribed by the IPCC. Xcel, with 3.6 million customers in eight states, pledged to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and to completely decarbonize its power generation over the following 20 years. “We’re accelerating our carbon-reduction goals because we’re encouraged by advances in technology, motivated by customers who are asking for it and committed to working with partners to make it happen,” President and CEO Ben Fowke said in a statement. The transition will focus on renewable energy, battery storage and, perhaps, carbon capture technology, he said.
Royal Dutch Shell announced Monday that it would become the first oil giant to tie executive pay to three- to five-year targets for reducing the company’s carbon emissions—with the ultimate aim of cutting its emissions 50 percent by 2050—although the change in compensation will not be voted on by shareholders until 2020. Shell announced in December 2016 that it would tie 10 percent of executives’ bonuses to reductions in the company’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In a surprise reversal, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced Tuesday that the French government would suspend a new carbon tax on gasoline that triggered violent demonstrations by “yellow vest” protesters in the streets of Paris. President Emmanuel Macron imposed the tax to speed the country’s transition to electric vehicles and to help finance decarbonization of its economy, but protesters bridled at paying to slow climate change when many cannot pay their monthly bills. “No tax is worth putting in danger the unity of the nation,” Philippe said in announcing the suspension just as climate talks began in Poland.
President Trump immediately took to Twitter to underscore Macron’s loss of face. “I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protesters in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump tweeted. “The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters.”
“Is it a death knell for the carbon tax or pricing carbon? I don’t think so. It is just a call for being a little bit more careful about how you design the damn thing,” Gary Yohe, a professor of economics and environmental studies at Wesleyan University, told the Associated Press. “The mistake of the Macron government was not to marry the increase in fuel taxes with other sufficiently compelling initiatives promising to enhance the welfare and incomes of the ‘yellow vests,'” said Barry Eichengreen, a professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s surely not a coincidence that the Trump administration chose this first week of the global climate summit in Poland to announce that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to quash an Obama-era rule requiring new coal-fired power plants use carbon capture technology.
Of course, no new coal-fired power plants are likely to be built in the United States. The old ones are being shuttered at record rates as cleaner, cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources supplant them, and America consumed less coal in 2018 than at any time since 1979, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) report released Tuesday. The report includes a footnote that stipulates no construction of new coal-fired power plants is expected.
In what looked like further contempt for the decarbonization under discussion in Katowice, the Trump administration on Thursday announced plans to limit federal protections for the sage grouse in order to open 9 million acres of public lands to fossil fuel extraction. “With this single action, the administration is saying: This landscape doesn’t matter. This species doesn’t matter. Oil and gas matter,” said Bobby McEnaney, senior deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The EPA is expected to announce plans next week—the final week of this year’s global climate talks—to weaken Obama-era protections for clean water, The New York Times reported. The proposed changes would “limit the scope of the Clean Water Act, exempting many oil companies, industrial facilities and developers from programs that aim to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands from degradation,” according to the NRDC.
At the same time, the EPA’s proposed rollback of the Obama administration’s fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks came under attack again this week. An analysis published in today’s edition of Science asserts that the agency’s rationale for weakening the standards contains “fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies [and] is misleading… .” The authors said they found “no economic justification” for the EPA’s move. “It appears federal officials cherry-picked data to support a predetermined conclusion…, and it was done in a very sloppy…, almost embarrassing, dishonest way,” said lead author Antonio Bento, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Southern California.
A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Thursday found two-thirds of American voters are concerned about the findings of the Fourth National Climate Assessment surreptitiously released by the White House on the day after Thanksgiving. In addition, 58 percent agreed with the scientific consensus that human activity is accelerating climate change. The findings suggest that the generous media coverage of the report spurred by the Trump administration’s attempt to bury it on Black Friday may have attracted more public interest, if only briefly. “Public attention on the latest federal climate change report is being superseded by the Russia probe and border tensions,” said Tyler Sinclair, a vice president at Morning Consult. “Over half of Americans (53 percent) say they have heard a lot or some about the climate change report. The comparable figure for Michael Cohen’s guilty plea is 71 percent, and nearly eight in 10 have heard about [Customs and Boarder Patrol] agents using tear gas to stop Central American migrants.”
Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, apparently stole the show Monday at Senator Bernie Sanders’ livestreamed town hall meeting on climate change in Washington, DC. She denounced Trump as “plain wrong” on climate change and reiterated her call for a Green New Deal. “It’s not just possible that we will create jobs and economic activity by transitioning to renewable energy but it is inevitable,” she said. “It’s inevitable that we can use the transition to 100-percent renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social and racial justice in the United States of America. … This is going to be the great society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation. That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, showed some climate chutzpah Wednesday when he withdrew his support for Trump’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Manchin was the lone Democrat to advance the nomination of Bernard McNamee, an advocate of bailing out failing coal-fired power plants, to the full Senate for a vote. “After viewing video footage… where Bernard McNamee outright denies the impact that humans are having on our climate, I can no longer support his nomination to be a FERC commissioner,” said coal-friendly Manchin, who is now in line to become the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Climate change is real, humans have made a significant impact, and we have the responsibility and capability to address it urgently.” Senate Republicans nonetheless approved McNamee’s appointment 50-49, without Manchin’s vote.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat with reported presidential aspirations, wants Senate Democrats to deny Manchin the top minority-party seat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “At this moment, it is simply intolerable and unacceptable for the U.S. Senate to have a senator who is unalterably opposed to the cap-and-trade system and other measures that we worked so hard to advance as climate policy against climate denial,” Inslee toldThe Hill.
While nearly all Republicans in Congress remain opposed to climate change mitigation, Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska is all for adapting to a soon-to-be ice-free Arctic. “If this trend continues, the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free during the summer months within the next 20 years,” he said Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. “It therefore behooves our federal government… to fully focus on preparing for this new eventuality.”
Meanwhile, California became the first state to require that all new homes be solar-powered starting in 2020. The California Building Standards Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to add the requirement to the state building code. “These provisions really are historic and will be a beacon of light for the rest of the country,” said Kent Sasaki, one of the six assenting commissioners and a structural engineer. “[This is] the beginning of substantial improvement in how we produce energy and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.”
While the U.S. delegation in Katowice was promoting unrestrained use of fossil fuels, China’s contingent launched an international climate change film festival on Thursday “to show its firm commitment to tackling the pressing issue,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.
“In confronting climate change, China, whether domestically or globally, has been playing a leading role,” He Jiankun, vice chairman of China’s National Experts Panel on Climate Change, was quoted as saying in Katowice on Tuesday by the state-run Global Times. “China’s efforts have also been recognized and praised by others.”
But Agence France Presse poured some cold water on China’s star status in Poland with a story Thursday about the country’s continuing propensity to export dirty energy capacity. “China is a world leader in terms of embracing the policy and investment needs to progressively decarbonize its economy,” Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies in Australasia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), was quoted as saying. “But internationally, China continues to invest in a range of coal projects in direct contradiction to its domestic energy strategy.” A quarter of coal plants planned or under construction outside China are financed by state-owned Chinese lenders, according to research by IEEFA. “China has to choose whether it will offload abroad what it is trying to leave behind at home or secure a far bigger market share over the next few decades in clean energy,” said Renato Redentor Constantino, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.
At home, China continues a game of whack-a-mole with regard to emissions from coal-fired power plants and other air-polluting industries. Officials in 82 Chinese cities issued warnings about heavy air pollution as climate negotiators arrived in Poland. Three regions of China—the rust-belt province of Liaoning and the coal mining regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang—failed to meet their targets for reducing energy consumption last year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said in a notice posted on Wednesday.
“I think those in the international community who really understand the situation in China must acknowledge that in no foreseeable future will China be able to survive without coal,” Robert Li, a senior vice president and investment strategist at Beijing-based China Asset Management, said this week at the Investment & Pensions Europe conference in Dublin.
While coal continues to be an intractable problem for China at home and abroad, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the country is way out front in the race to convert itself and the world to electric buses and other commercial vehicles. “China is the only one in the race; it’s all Chinese manufacturers,” said Sandra Retzer, head of sustainable mobility at the German Agency for International Cooperation, which is working with the China’s government on decarbonizing transportation. Chinese manufacturers produced 358,000 electric buses from 2014 to 2017, which is equal to half the country’s bus fleet or 99 percent of all electric buses operating globally, according to Automotive Foresight, an industry research firm based in Shanghai.
India, the world’s third highest carbon emitter, is still way behind China in first place and the United States in second. However, its emissions are expected to rise more than 6 percent this year.
Planting more forests will be India’s primary tool for reducing its contribution to climate change, according to the annual report it delivered at the climate summit in Poland. “It’s a good strategy which will help India adapt to climate change. But, there are certain concerns with its implementation,” said Murli Dhar, director for sustainable agriculture at WWF India. “First is that the [start-up] period of these plantations is a minimum of four years. Secondly, India should do a trade-off analysis of how farm forestry will impact food security.”
India appears to be between a rock and a hard place when it comes to decarbonizing its power sector. Electricity production from April through September—the first half of the country’s current fiscal year—was up 6.2 percent over the same period a year ago, according to an IEEFA analysis published Monday. While coal generated the lion’s share of that power, the IEEFA estimates coal-fired power plants have $100 billion in distressed loans “clogging the Indian banking system.”
Carbon Tracker found as much as 62 percent of India’s coal-fired capacity now costs more to run than building new solar and wind capacity, but closing uneconomic power plants could result in losses of some $76 billion. “Even if the government suddenly wants to stop running 62 percent of the coal capacity, they have to get involved in so many renegotiations of contracts. And how do the banks which invested in these plants recover their money?” said Manu Aggarwal, a program associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi think tank.
India’s Economic Times reported Monday that the state of Gujarat addressed the problem of uneconomic coal plants by ordering its power distribution company to raise tariffs for electricity from three plants with a combined 10 gigawatts of capacity to help them shoulder a price hike in the Indonesian coal on which they run.
At the same time, India’s record-low tariffs for solar power are continuing to spook potential developers and investors. “…[A] few headwinds have taken some of the momentum out of the renewable sector,” the IEEFA said in its Monday analysis. “Grid integration of variable renewable energy is an increasing challenge. … Some of the other issues affecting the renewable industry include increasing access difficulties, a 25-percent solar module import duty, goods and services tax (GST) uncertainties, the depreciation of the currency, higher interest rates and policy uncertainty.”
In other climate-related news, India’s National Green Tribunal fined the government of New Delhi $3.5-million for failing to enforce regulations aimed at curbing the capital’s life-threatening smog. Agence France Presse reported that the U.S. embassy there recorded lung-damaging airborne particulates on Tuesday that were almost 12 times higher than the safety limit set by the World Health Organization. Air pollution took 1.24 million lives in India in 2017, according to research published Thursday in Lancet Planetary Health.
By next Friday, climate negotiators in Poland must come to terms with rules for implementing the Paris Agreement, how to monitor implementation progress or lack thereof, and how to wrest money from rich nations to help developing nations pay for their part.
All new drafts for how to proceed were scheduled to be in circulation by today, ahead of minister-level officials arriving to enter the fray on Saturday. “Divisions deepened at the U.N. climate talks…, pitting rich nations against poor ones, oil exporters against vulnerable island nations, and those governments prepared to act on global warming against those who want to wait and see,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday.
“Financial aid for poor countries—and how it is counted, publicly reported and locked in for the future—is one of the biggest sticking points in global climate change negotiations,” Climate Home News reported. If China—the world’s second-largest economy—insists that it’s still a developing country and the United States—the world’s largest economy—keeps it purse strings tied, then settling the issue of climate aid is going to be tricky if not impossible. And that could be a deal-breaker for the developing world.
The New York Times reported Friday about worries that the ongoing rift between China and the United States over trade and multilateralism could taint the summit’s outcome. “The U.S. is asking a lot, but there’s nothing that the U.S. can give. That’s the fundamental challenge,” said Li Shuo, a senior policy advisor for Greenpeace Asia. “We are basically designing, in Katowice, a whole set of rules that will bind China but that will not cover the United States. It creates a fundamental sense of unfairness in the Chinese mind.”
On Monday, the U.S. government will hold a side event in Katowice to pitch fossil fuels and nuclear power. The event aims to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as the use of emission-free nuclear energy,” the State Department said in a statement. “These job-creating innovations have contributed to reducing U.S. emissions while also growing our economy and providing reliable and affordable access to energy. Fossil fuels will continue to be used across the globe for decades to come.”
in just over three weeks, a new session of the U.S. Congress will begin, with Democrats clearly emboldened to counter the Trump Effect on climate action. “Now that Democrats will soon control one branch of Congress, President Trump is again signaling that infrastructure could be an area of compromise,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, wrote Thursday in The Washington Post. “We agree, but if the president wanted to earn Democratic support in the Senate, any infrastructure bill would have to include policies and funding that help transition our country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the United States already faces from climate change. … It’s impossible to overstate the urgency with which America needs to confront climate change.”