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Our Chance to Avert Climate Catastrophe May Have Gone Up in Smoke

Environment Policy Brief #131 | By: Todd J. Broadman | October 5, 2021

Header photo taken from: The Independent

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Photo taken from: Climate Central

Policy Summary

80% of the world’s energy comes from coal, oil and natural gas; carbon sources which account for 89% of human-derived CO₂ emissions. These daily emissions have accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere to produce a global climate crisis; a recent U.N Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report forecasts global average temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Accordingly, the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has warned, “the world is on a catastrophic pathway.”

The U.N. report underscores the need for all the world’s CO₂ emitters to not only meet, but go beyond their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As specified in the 2015 Paris Agreement, The U.N. is charged with calculating the total impact of these NDC plans every five yers– and 86 countries have recently submitted NDC revisions. Based upon these revisions and current promises from big emitters like China and India, the globe is on course – not for a decrease – but for a 16% CO₂ increase by 2030. China has not submitted their required NDCs to the U.N. and they are the world’s biggest emitter; their position is that they will reach net zero emissions by 2060. Some countries, most notably Brazil, Mexico and Russia, have actually revised their pledges downwards with weaker emissions targets.

The overwhelming bulk (some 80%) of the 89% of human-derived CO₂ emissions come from the G20 nations.

For the U.S.’s part, President Biden has warned, in the midst of touring areas devastated by fires and floods, that America faces a “code red” moment (echoing the language of the U.N.’s IPC report). The U.S. has pledged to cut its emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade. On his inauguration day, Biden signed executive orders to rejoin the Paris Agreement and to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. As well, he directed the Department of the Interior to pause new oil and gas leases on public land. His “whole of government” approach to combating the crisis has an “all-star climate team” charging the effort.

Photo taken from: Fox Business

In spite of this encouraging rhetoric though, his administration has defended Trump-approved oil-and-gas lease grants in Wyoming, a drilling project in Alaska, and chosen not to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. 2,100 new oil and gas permits have been issued since Biden took office – setting a pace that would exceed Trump. Two days after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report, his administration asked that OPEC ramp up its oil production. Plans have been announced to auction off 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for drilling.

“We literally have no time to waste,” Biden said, and yet many of the clean energy initiatives in the bipartisan infrastructure bill have been removed in a compromise effort for its passage. New climate provisions have been added and time will tell if they will remain given the number of Democratic centrists pushing against them. On September 29th, Canadian oil company Enbridge announced that its Line 3 running across Minnesota, carrying oil from Alberta’s tar sands (a heavier crude that consumes more energy and generates more carbon dioxide in the refining process than lighter oil) is now “substantially complete.”

Crystal Cavalier, Biden’s campaign director for tribal engagement in North Carolina said, “Biden campaigned on  helping tribes with climate justice. He’s not standing up.” In this instance, the administration chose not to revoke Enbridge’s federal permits.

Policy Analysis

To date, global temperatures have risen about 1 degree C since the late 19th century. Although Britain and the EU are close, no major emitters have a climate pledge in keeping with targets. The challenge for Biden and all G20 leaders as put forth by U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa, is: “Leaders must engage in a frank discussion driven not just by the very legitimate desire to protect national interest, but also by the equally commanding goal of contributing to the welfare of humanity.” Biden chose to appoint John Kerry as special envoy for climate. While he attempts to gain commitments, climate activists like Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, demand an accounting: “whatever our so-called leaders are doing, they’re doing it wrong.”

Her admonitions are based upon the IPC report which concludes that even the existing pledges, if implemented as promised, will fall far short of what’s needed to limit global temperature rise to levels that would avert the worst impacts of warming.

 In effect, the US and Russia who sit on half of the world’s coal, must leave 97% of it in the ground. This while Australia has pledged to keep producing and exporting coal beyond 2030. The Middle East must commit to not extracting two-thirds of their reserves – what to speak of the required moratorium on extracting carbon from under the Arctic.

Photo taken from: Bloomberg.com

Given that the Paris Agreement commitments and any associated new pledges are not enforceable, and that even major emitters are submitting numbers that are unlikely to avert temperature consequences, the “catastrophic pathway” that General António Guterres has described will likely unfold. 

Complex environmental systems do not respond to politically negotiated pollution caps. The impacts from climate disasters and food shortages will continue to displace large numbers of people and accelerate species extinction. Alongside the hope for limiting climate change, governments must plan responses for an increasing pattern of more intense and larger-scale emergencies.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

https://www.ipcc.ch/  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

https://climateanalytics.org/   Synthesize and advance scientific knowledge in the area of climate change and on this basis provide support and capacity building to stakeholders.

https://yaleclimateconnections.org/  aims to help citizens and institutions understand how the changing climate is already affecting our lives.

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