Global Warming

The recent pledges made by governments to limit carbon emissions will not be sufficient to meet the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, claims a new report. Instead, those nonbinding commitments will result in a rise in the average global temperature to a potentially catastrophic 2.4 degrees Celsius.

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent network of scientists that tracks the commitments made on cutting emissions, released its findings Monday, just weeks after U.S. President Biden convened a climate summit with world leaders.

The report notes that more robust targets made at the summit “have improved the Climate Action Tracker’s warming estimate by 0.2°C,” but that the net result would still mean the world is poised to blow past the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold set in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“While all of these developments are welcome, warming based on the targets and pledges, even under the most optimistic assumptions, is still well above the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C temperature limit,” the report states.

Despite the initial commitments made by world leaders in the Paris climate accord, temperatures have already risen by more than 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to a report released last month by the UN World Meteorological Organization, a finding that led UN Secretary-General António Guterres to declare, “We are on the verge of the abyss.”

While keeping the average rise of surface temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible, the CAT said doing so will require a massive, unified effort from world governments that would transform life as we know it.

“Of great concern are the persisting plans of some governments to build new infrastructure not compatible with Paris goals, such as new coal-fired power plants, increasing uptake of natural gas as a source of electricity and that there are large inefficient personal vehicles in some countries,” said the report.

Rising temperatures have already had a profound impact on life on Earth, scientists say. A 2020 study conducted by the University of Arizona, for instance, found that at the current rate of temperature rise, one-third of all plants and animals on the planet will be at risk of mass extinction in the next 50 years.

In its 2018 report, the IPCC warned that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would result in drastic sea-level rise, threatening coastlines and island nations, and an increase in the number of deadly heat waves. At 2 degrees of Celsius warming, 99 percent of the world’s coral reefs would die off, an estimated 13 percent of ecosystems on land would be imperiled and an ice-free Arctic would become a reality within two decades.

Global Update: Climate Summit Momentum

CAT said:

Climate action announcements at U.S. President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, together with those announced since September last year, have improved the CAT’s warming estimate by 0.2°C. End of century warming from these Paris Agreement pledges and targets is now estimated to be 2.4°C.

Assuming full implementation of the net zero targets by the U.S., China and other countries that have announced or are considering such targets, but have not yet submitted them to the UNFCCC, global warming by 2100 could be as low as 2.0°C (‘Optimistic Targets’ scenario). 131 countries, covering 73% of global GHG emissions, have adopted or are considering net zero targets (up by four since CAT’s last assessment). However, it is the updated 2030 NDC targets, rather than these four additional countries, that contribute the most to the drop in projected warming compared to our last estimate, highlighting the importance of stronger near-term targets.

While all of these developments are welcome, warming based on the targets and pledges, even under the most optimistic assumptions, is still well above the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C temperature limit.

The emissions gap in 2030 between Paris pledges and targets and pathways compatible with 1.5°C has narrowed by around 11-14% (2.6-3.9 GtCO2e).

The largest contributions came from the U.S., the EU27, China and Japan.

This emissions gap needs to be closed with further NDC target updates this year. NDC updates need to continue in advance of the COP in Glasgow. Those countries that have not improved their targets need to rethink: Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

All targets have yet to be supported by ambitious policies. Our temperature estimate of all adopted national policies (‘current policies’ scenario) is 2.9°C.

Projected warming from Paris pledges drops to 2.4 degrees after U.S. Summit

In an analysis, CAT said:

While the number of countries adopting or considering net zero targets has risen to 131 countries, covering 73% of global GHG emissions, it is the updated 2030 Paris Agreement 2030 targets, rather than the additional countries, that contribute the most to the drop in projected warming compared with the CAT’s 2.1˚C “optimistic scenario” in the CAT December update.

The biggest contributors to the drop in projected warming are the U.S., the EU27, China and Japan although China and Japan did not yet formally submit a new 2030 target to the UN. Canada announced a new target, South Africa has an increased target under public consultation, Argentina has announced a further strengthening of the target it submitted last December, and the UK has announced a stronger 2035 target.

While the leaders of India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all spoke at the US summit, none announced stronger NDCs. South Korea, New Zealand, Bhutan and Bangladesh all committed to submitting stronger NDC’s this year. Australia made a vague commitment to reaching net zero at an unspecified date, but did not update its 2030 target. Brazil brought forward its climate neutrality goal, but has changed its baseline, making its 2030 target weaker.

Just over 40% of the countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement, representing about half-global emissions and about a third of the global population, have submitted updated NDCs. The CAT’s final calculations on the 2030 emissions gap between Paris pledges and a 1.5˚C pathway show it has been narrowed by 11-14%.

“The wave towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions is unstoppable. The long-term intentions are good. But only if all governments flip into emergency mode and propose and implement more short-term action, global emissions can still be halved in the next 10 years as required by the Paris Agreement,” said Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, the second CAT partner.

The CAT set out the key measures that governments need to take to get emissions onto a 1.5˚C pathway.

While the renewable electricity and electric vehicle sectors show much promise, and the technology is there, the development of new technologies for the industry and buildings sectors is too slow.

Contrary to the Paris Agreement are the persisting plans of some governments to build new infrastructure such as new coal-fired power plants, increasing uptake of natural gas as a source of electricity and a trend towards larger, less efficient personal vehicles in some countries.

Cleaner ‘Bridge’ Fuels are Killing Up to 46,000 Americans Per Year, Study Shows

A HuffPost report said on May 5, 2021:

Burning natural gas and wood instead of coal was supposed to be a bridge to a safer future, where heat and electricity came from sources that did not generate as much pollution.

But new research suggests the alternative fuels are less of a bridge and more of a staircase.

A new Harvard University study found that, in at least 19 states plus Washington, D.C., burning gas now kills more people than coal because of exposure to a deadly type of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 that lingers in the air and lodges in lung tissue.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found 47,000 to 69,000 premature deaths each year that could be attributed to emissions from things like buildings, power generators and industrial boilers. Of that, fumes from gas, wood and biomass were responsible for between 29,000 and 46,000 deaths.

“If you swap out one combustion fuel for another, that’s not a pathway toward a healthy energy system,” said Harvard research scientist Jonathan Buonocore, paper’s lead author. “This is showing that even with the transition from coal to gas, there are remaining impacts.”

The findings do highlight the benefits of eliminating coal. In 2008, when coal produced nearly half the nation’s electricity, emissions from the power sector caused between 59,000 and 66,000 premature deaths. By 2017, that fell to 10,000 to 12,000 deaths.

Along with fewer deaths came drops in U.S. output of climate-changing carbon, since gas produces roughly half the CO2 of coal. But other recent studies have cast doubt over those climate benefits.

U.S. output of carbon dioxide, the primary gas causing climate change, fell 10% between 2000 to 2018 as the electricity sector’s emissions dropped 23%, mostly thanks to coal plants retiring. But if the new fleet of gas plants built over the past decade last as long and are fired up as often as the coal units they replaced, the projected emissions for the U.S. power sector over those generators’ lifespan will decrease climate-changing pollutants by just 12%, a study published last year in the journal AGU Advances found.

Add to that the higher-end estimates of how much methane, a potent heat-trapping gas and the main ingredient in natural gas, leaks during production and burning, and even those reductions are effectively eliminated, the study indicated. In response to growing climate concerns and cheaper renewables, utilities are now publicly considering phasing out gas plants before their expiration dates.

The new Harvard research shows the extent of the health risks associated not just with replacing coal-fired power plants with gas units, but continuing to use gas or other burning fuels for heating, cooking and industrial purposes.

“We have historically tended to focus on very large point sources [of pollution] like power plants and factories,” Buonocore said. “What this shows is that to continue to improve air pollution, we should be shifting focus over to buildings and smaller industry.”

If you swap out one combustion fuel for another, that’s not a pathway toward a healthy energy system. Harvard research scientist Jonathan Buonocore

The study comes as emissions from buildings take center stage in the climate policy fight. As more cities opt to ban gas hookups in new or renovated buildings, at least a dozen states are considering legislation to preempt such restrictions and protect gas utilities against what they see as an existential threat to the industry. The nonprofit that sets building codes around the country, meanwhile, eliminated city governments’ right to vote on model energy codes in what was widely seen as a bid to slow the transition to nonfossil heating and cooking systems.

The fine particulate matter spewed into the air by everything from gas stoves to power plants to automobiles takes a disproportionate toll on nonwhite Americans, who are exposed to 2.4 times more pollution on average than their white counterparts, according to a study published last week in the journal Science Advances.

“While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal does, its usage still results in significant co-product emissions and corresponding public health impacts,” said Eric Daniel Fournier, the research director at the University of California, Los Angeles’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, who was not involved in the study. “As gas comes to represent a larger fraction of the county’s primary fuel portfolio, it will naturally come to be responsible for a larger proportion of the health impacts from stationary sources, of which electricity production is a major contributor.”

C. Arden Pope III, an economist at Brigham Young University who studies the effects of fine particulate matter pollution, said the new analysis shows the “uncertainties regarding the exact impacts of transitioning away from coal.”

“These results help quantify the substantial health and economic benefits that come from reducing air pollution from coal combustion,” he said. “They also remind us that there are additional benefits that can come from efforts to reduce air pollution from traffic and other sources.”

Buonocore and his co-authors pulled the most recent nine years of emissions data available from the Environmental Protection Agency and compared them to state-level data from the Energy Information Administration. The researchers then ran the numbers through three reduced complexity models, which simplify projections by making assumptions about weather conditions and what chemical reactions will occur when pollutants enter the atmosphere.

Those models do not capture the full picture of people getting sick and dying from coal-related pollution, which includes mining residue, toxic ash waste and nitrogen dioxide emissions. But the results “confirmed recent patterns: We observed that decreasing impacts from coal and increasing impacts from gas and biomass are likely to continue,” said Parichehr Salimifard, a postdoctoral fellow at Havard and co-author of the study.

“This study highlights the gap there’s been in our climate planning,” Salimifard said. “Because we’ve been focusing on gas emissions, there’s been a blindness to other air pollutants that are hazardous to health.”


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