The Energy 202: The silver lining in the dire new climate report

THE LIGHTBULB

Here’s the bad news: Global emissions of carbon dioxide hit another record in 2019. The world appears to be doing far too little to forestall dangerous warming that could kill nearly all the world’s coral reefs and send sea levels soaring. 

That conclusion, from a new analysis of carbon emissions emitted by fossil fuels and industry around the world from the Global Carbon Project, leaves little room for optimism. At a time when the world needs to be drastically slashing emissions, it will have released a total of 36.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide before the end of the year, representing a .6 percent increase from 2018.

But there is a silver lining. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels actually fell in some developed countries — including the United States.

The report tells a tale of two worlds — one of countries with slow-growing populations where alternatives to coal are beginning to cut emissions, and another of growing nations using ever more energy.

The split shows there are ways to maintain healthy economies while slashing emissions. But the analysis also makes clear that massive changes aimed at reducing greenhouse gases are still nowhere in sight as world leaders gather in Madrid for an annual climate change conference.

“We’re not in the same position we were five or 10 years ago,” Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia and a co-author of the findings published Tuesday, told The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis. “We have demonstrated that making these investments [in renewable energy] do pay off, that emissions can go down.”

Here in the United States, emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and the manufacturing of cement will fall 1.7 percent this year after rising in 2018. Emissions from those sources in the European Union are expected to decline at a similar rate.

Driving that reduction is the replacement of coal-fired power plants with cheaper electricity from natural gas and, to a lesser extent, wind and solar power. In the United Kingdom alone, for example, coal burning went from generating 42 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2012 to producing only 5 percent of it 2018.

But in the rest of the world, especially in China and India, annual emissions from fossil fuels grew over the past year. In India, they have ticked up by 1.8 percent. In China, they have increased by 2.6 percent. 

Like in the United States, natural gas use is growing in China and India as prices for the fossil fuel fall in Asia. But those Asian nations, unlike the United States, are still building scores more coal plants to meet the energy needs of their growing economies.

And emissions from those two countries will only continue to rise, the researchers found, as emerging middle-class consumers there buy more cars and travel more by air.

But importantly, there are still stark inequalities when it comes to per capita consumption of fossil fuels, the report found. The average American is responsible for releasing 16.6 tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 — more than twice what the average person in China emitted.

The question of which nations should shoulder the most responsibility for reducing emissions has always weighed on international climate negotiations. 

Should it be already developed nations, such as the United States, which for decades have burned billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air? Or developing nations, such as China, which with its massive population is currently the biggest carbon emitter?

The negotiators of the Paris climate agreement in 2015 settled on targeting China’s emissions to peak around 2030. Under President Trump, the United States has pulled out of the Paris accord, though that decision won’t take effect until 2020.

Read more about the new report from Mooney and Dennis here:

POWER PLAYS

— “Climate change is very important to me”: That’s what the president said when asked at a NATO summit about whether he thinks about global warming, depsite having previously called the issue a “hoax.” 

  • Trump goes on: “And, you know, I’ve done many environmental impact statements over my life, and I believe very strongly in very, very crystal clear, clean water and clean air. That’s a big part of climate change.”
  • It’s not the first time Trump appeared to conflate the idea of manmade climate change and polluted air: There’s a chance Trump isn’t sure what climate change actually is, what it constitutes and what drives it, writes The Post’s Philip Bump. “First of all, Trump’s suggestion that clean air and clean water are ‘a big part of climate change’ is accurate only with a remarkably generous interpretation of his comments,” he writes. “…As we’ve noted before, Trump instead conflates ‘climate change’ with ‘environmentalism’ broadly and embraces a distinctly 1970s-era argument for what environmentalism entails. Clean air and water were indeed focal points of the early environmental movement, leading to legislation like the Clean Air Act, which vastly reduced air pollutants like smog and particulate matter, no doubt saving millions of lives. But over the past 50 years — in part because of that success — the threat posed by warming temperatures has become a much more urgent concern.”
  • A contradictory message from Pence: Trump’s comments come on the same day Vice President Pence seemed to mock House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats for attending the COP25 in Madrid, suggesting that doing so was not part of their jobs.
  • Thunberg docks after cross-Atlantic journey: Speaking of Madrid, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived at a port in Lisbon after taking a catamaran across the Atlantic to make it to the U.N. climate summit taking place in Madrid. “Thunberg said she would spend a few days in Lisbon before making her way to Madrid, where the COP25 climate summit is currently underway, where she would work to ensure the ‘voices of future generations’ are heard,” Reuters reports. She told reporters as she disembarked from the vessel: “People are underestimating the force of angry kids … They’re angry and frustrated.”

— Can an oil and gas company become a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases? The Spanish company Repsol announced it will try to do so by 2050 and said it would “continue to search for oil and natural gas but that it would focus on places that provided value over volumes, while it pushes ahead with renewable-energy and biofuels investments,” The Post’s Steven Mufson reports.

  • What Repsol says it wants to do: In addition to its own emissions, the company will also count emissions from automobiles and power plants that use the company’s products toward its targets, which one energy analyst told The Post made the goal “truly precedent-setting.”
  • How to get there: “Repsol said that it can achieve 70 percent of its emissions reduction using existing technology. But the last decade of improvement will have to rely on new technology or on agriculture and reforestation projects,” Mufson adds.

— Private weather company wants to tackle information disparity in Africa: Boston-based weather company ClimaCell is “spinning off a nonprofit arm that will seek to close the gap in weather and climate information between developing nations and the industrialized world,” The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports. “The company will seek to build capacity for weather monitoring and forecasting in African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, including through partnerships with national meteorological agencies. They’ll also seek to make sure data is accessible and useful for people on the ground, including farmers whose livelihoods depend on accurate weather information.”

— EPA wants to hasten industry pollution permit process: The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a new rule to speed up how the agency grants pollution permits to industries following an appeals process. “Under the new proposal, the timeline for [EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board] to make its decision on appeals will be shortened to 60 days,” the Hill reports. “The new process would allow parties to challenge the permits through an EAB hearing or an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) but if there is no unanimous consent between the two groups, the industry permit becomes automatically final.”

— The latest on BLM’s controversial relocation: The Bureau of Land Management is set to lose most of its Washington-based employees amid the planned relocation to its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. and other state offices across the West. “That could include dozens of employees in the departments that handle public lands planning, compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, management of hazardous materials, and oil and gas development on the 245 million acres BLM manages,” E&E News reports. “What’s more, some employees have agreed to move, but only in an effort to buy more time while they look for different positions in the D.C. metropolitan area, sources said. Employees who agree to move have 120 days ‘to report to your new duty station,’ according to the relocation notice letters.” The agency said employees have until next week to accept the relocation, but most have not yet notified BLM of their decision.

— SCOTUS considers case about Montana Superfund site: The Supreme Court appeared doubtful that landowners on Superfund cleanup sites can use state courts to get more compensation from companies than what’s approved by the EPA, The Post’s Robert Barnes reports. Nearly 100 homeowners near the Anaconda valley Superfund cleanup site in Montana went to state court to try to convince a jury that the company Atlantic Richfield should pay more to reduce the arsenic level in the ground.

— Man, it’s a hot one: The past decade is likely to be the hottest on record, according to an annual report from the World Meteorological Organization. The assessment “underscored the stakes at two weeks of talks aimed at shoring up the 2015 Paris Agreement to avert catastrophic global warming,” Reuters reports. “The report said the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere hit a record level of 407.8 parts per million in 2018 and continued to rise in 2019. Opening the climate summit on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned that 400 parts per million had once been considered an ‘unthinkable’ tipping point.”

— How Trump’s tariffs affect the U.S. solar industry: The Trump administration’s tariffs on imported solar panels will result in 62,000 fewer solar industry jobs than would otherwise have been created between 2017 and 2021, according to a new industry study. The report from industry trade group, the U.S. Solar Industries Association, found the losses are equal to $19 million and 10.5 gigawatts of missed installations, which could power about 1.8 million homes, Reuters reports.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds hearings to examine an original bill to create a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force.
  • The House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests, and public lands holds a legislative hearing.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Want to see how polluted the most polluted air in the world looks like? The New York Times published a visualization of the harmful microscopic particles, comparing pollution in various cities to the areas of the world with the worst pollution. There’s also an augmented reality visualization in the New York Times app.

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