November 30 2021
November 30 2021
The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has concluded in Glasgow with an agreement that makes at best modest progress addressing the problem. The New York Times notes that many issues remain unresolved (Yale Climate Connections calls these shortfalls "yawning gaps" and other "crevasses"). Under the Paris Accord, the parties were to arrive in Glasgow with updated pledges for reducing carbon emissions. While they did so, an investigation by the Washington Post documented that many countries are under-reporting their actual emissions, possibly as much as 23% in total. This suggests that efforts to reduce emissions have not been as successful as described—and we already know that, even if original targets had been met, they were not ambitious enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer notes that the nations’ actual policies lag even further behind their pledges. While the new pledges might keep global average temperature increases by 2100 to 2.4°C, policies are still at a level closer to 2.7°C, well beyond the more protective 1.5°C.
This has made many claim that the COP is just a waste of time. Greta Thunberg called the meetings "blah, blah, blah," and indigenous leaders were disappointed (although the concept of a "just transition" for less developed nations was an important part of the meeting). There is not, however, an alternative to COP to achieve the global transition, and as Meyer states, there’s more to COP than the math:
On the one hand, COPs abound in hype, in theatrics, in self-imposed deadlines and weighty declarations. It is fitting that Leonardo DiCaprio goes to them. On the other hand, the point of COP, under the Paris program, is to push global climate action forward through hype, theatrics, made-up deadlines, and weighty declarations, and by being the kind of thing that Leonardo DiCaprio would show up to. The “name and shame” mechanism at the heart of Paris requires the world to talk about climate change, and nothing gets the world talking like having a big multi-week event aimed at getting the world talking. In that sense, reaching a deal at Glasgow is tremendously important, because what really matters is the sheer fact that a deal has happened at all. If the delegates can agree to something, it shows that momentum is continuing, that the world still wants to decarbonize, that the Paris Agreement is barreling forward as it was before. And it shows that the world is still paying attention to those — whether they be skeptical lawmakers in Washington or covetous technocrats in Beijing — who aim to stop the forward moment and immiserate the world."
As Dave Roberts notes, "the UNFCCC process — it can’t really do anything. It can only illuminate what is being done."
There were some positive developments. First, remember that a decade ago the world was on track for a 4-6°C increase by 2100, which is now unlikely. Second, the U.S. and China agreed to work toward emissions reductions, although their joint statement is rather vague. The two countries, who are the world’s largest emitters, agreed to "enhanced climate actions" and to “raise ambition in the 2020s,” including steps to "boost clean energy, combat deforestation and curb emissions of methane." Third, the U.S. and more than 100 other countries formally adopted a pledge to cut nearly a third of their annual emissions of methane, a commitment that could prevent 0.2°C of warming (this is based on an earlier agreement). Unfortunately, some of the world’s top emitters of methane were not adopters of the pledge, including China, Russia and India. Finally, the U.S. is one of 130 countries pledging to end deforestation by 2030 (a pledge that has been made before with minimal impact — AP reports that deforestation is at an all-time high in Brazil). An op-ed in the Hill notes that the U.S. can start by halting the destruction of old-growth forests within its own borders.
While these are real changes, and there are a few others, the world continues on an unsustainable path. This doesn’t make the meeting a failure. Bill McKibben notes in the Guardian that he views COP meetings as "scoreboards rather than contests. They reflect how much of an effect civil society has managed to have over the nations engaged in the negotiations, and the strength of civil society relative to the power of the fossil fuel industry and its friends in the financial community." McKibben seeks continued growth in global activism, as "the idea that the world’s governments will simply do what needs to be done is just a fairytale."
An op-ed in the New York Times describes how Facebook remains a major source of climate misinformation, despite the company’s claims to the contrary. The author wants the company (along with Google and other tech giants) to use their platforms to amplify facts and suppress lies. Meanwhile, images from satellites demonstrate global-scale changes that are unambiguous evidence of our warming planet.
Guardian Magazine reports on a recent study of whales’ role in the carbon cycle. In particular, whales stimulate phytoplankton production by their nitrogen-rich excretions near the ocean surface (the article has an excellent diagram of global whale migrations). As phytoplankton grow and reproduce they absorb carbon dioxide just like other plants. In addition, when whales die the carbon in their carcasses is sequestered as it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. If whale populations expanded from the estimated 1.3 million today to their pre-whaling number of 4 to 5 million—it could add significantly to the amount of phytoplankton in the oceans. Analysis suggests that even a 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees.
The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case that could result in a great restriction of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Scientific American describes the case, which although quite technical, gets at the heart of whether EPA can move to decarbonize the electric-power sector, rather than just establish emissions standards for specific types of facilities. The Court could decide that "any rule with major economic consequences requires explicit unmistakable delegation of power from Congress with clear limiting principles to prevent abuse.” An opponent of EPA action states, "EPA cannot use [existing authority] to force one facility to shut down in favor of a different type of facility (which may not even exist yet) that EPA likes more." Proponents argue that carbon emissions are a threat to public health and safety, and the courts have held that EPA has broad authority to take regulatory action in such a situation.
As wind power expands, a new industry in rising in the United States. This is happening on land in states such as Texas, Iowa and Kansas, and now offshore as well. The Press of Atlantic City reports that a new community-college facility will be opening in the South Jersey area to train people for jobs in the offshore-wind industry. The state of New Jersey is funding construction of the facility as a way to support citizens seeking employment and further expanding this new industry.
Utility Dive summarizes the growing market for EVs around the world. China is in the position to benefit enormously from this growth because of the country’s previous investments in the supply chain for the lithium batteries being used in these vehicles. An op-ed in the New York Times notes that China’s investment in its electric-vehicle sector during the past decade amounted to more than $100 billion. It now possesses about 90% of global capacity to process raw lithium, about 70% for cobalt and 40% for nickel. China also has almost all the manganese- and graphite-refining capacity. In the U.S., while there was some investment in capacity, directed government investment in alternative energy technologies was derailed politically by the default of Solyndra. We now appear to be a decade behind in creating the manufacturing infrastructure to support EV production. In addition, the largest proposed lithium mine in the U.S. faces resistance from local communities, as described by Inside Climate News.
An article in Yale Climate Connections describes the challenges facing California agriculture due to climate change. The state’s agricultural sector, which produces 11% of the nation’s crops by value, faces challenges from drought, fire, floods and rising temperatures. The latter impact is especially important in the winter, as perennial fruit and nut crops need cool winter hours to regenerate their productive capacity (known as "chill hours"). Farmers are responding by changing the mix of crops, retiring some land and moving away from inefficient irrigation techniques. The great diversity of crops in California will help the sector maintain its productivity as it adapts to a changing climate.
An interesting article in Gizmodo suggests that now is the time to drain Lake Powell. There are important ecological and political arguments for a policy of letting the Colorado River "fill Lake Mead first," by allowing water to bypass the Glen Canyon Dam. If this happens, it would be the most remarkable river-restoration effort every attempted, and Mother Nature has already started it. For the first time since Lake Powell started filling, sections of the flooded canyon lands are reappearing. Lake Powell is approaching "dead pool" level, at which point it will no longer be possible to generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam (a problem facing other major dams around the world).
In The Baffler, Dead Pools: The Dehydration of Arizona provides an excellent analysis of the realities facing drought-stricken Arizona. The article, both sobering and astonishing, combines the history of water developments with the projections of population growth and concludes that anything done now is too little, too late. The allocation of water from the Colorado was always based on a drastic overestimate of actual flows and, after over-pumping groundwater for decades, there is just not enough water to go around in Arizona as the first-ever cuts of Colorado River deliveries begin (an op-ed in the Washington Post suggests that Arizonans need to accept that they live in the desert, something they’ve never done). The Los Angeles Times reports that a new round of negotiations regarding Colorado River diversions among California, Arizona and Nevada are underway, as projections suggest further cuts in diversions are going to be needed in the coming years.
Other states should not feel smug — similar overdrafts of groundwater are underway in California’s Central Valley and the Plains states. The Washington Post describes the challenges facing the Klamath River basin due to drought (the upper Klamath basin has been known as the "Everglades of the West"). Again, in this basin there is simply not enough water to support all of the historical uses, and it is a great challenge for all concerned to find a solution in this new climate.
Katharine Hayhoe, a well known climate-change communicator and the new Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, has an excellent short summary of the climate problem and its solutions.