Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
World leaders have a pretty comprehensive plan to fight climate change, according to a United Nations report released Friday—even if it doesn't go as far as many of them had hoped.
In just over a month, representatives from most of the countries on Earth will gather in Paris in an attempt to finalize an international agreement to limit global warming and adapt to its impacts. The video above is a snappy explainer of what's at stake at this meeting, but suffice it to say the proposed deal is split into two keys parts. First is the core agreement, parts of which may be legally binding, that comprises broad, non-specific guidelines for all countries. It calls on countries to take steps such as transparently reporting greenhouse gas emissions and committing to ramp up climate action over the next few decades.
But the real meat-and-potatoes is in the second part, the "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs). The INDCs are what sets the Paris talks apart from past attempts at a global climate agreement in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Those summits either left out major polluters (the US dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol; China and India were exempted) or fell apart completely (Copenhagen), in large part because they were built around universal greenhouse gas reduction targets that not everyone could agree to.
The UN process is like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities.
This time around, the UN process is more like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities; those are the INDCs. The US, for example, has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. So far, according to the World Resources Institute, 126 plans have been submitted, covering about 86 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. (The European Union submitted one joint plan for all its members.) Those contributions are likely to limit global warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.
Now, we have a bit more insight into how countries are planning to make this happen. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the group that is overseeing the Paris talks, combed through all the INDCs to look for trends. Its report is a bit convoluted and repetitive; I don't recommend it to any but the nerdiest climate nerds. But I pulled out a few of the charts as an overview of what global action on climate change really looks like.
Types of targets: Most of the INDCs contain specific emission reduction targets. (Not all do; some countries, such as the small island nations, have such small or nonexistent emissions that it wouldn't make sense to promise to reduce them.) The most common way to state these targets is to promise that emissions at X future date will be lower than they would be with no action. Indonesia, for example, has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. The US commitment fits in the second category, an "absolute" target where emissions actually begin to go down. Others specify a date at which emissions will "peak," or set a goal for emissions per unit of GDP or energy production ("intensity").
Greenhouse gases: The commitments cover a broad range of greenhouse gases (most cover more than one), but carbon dioxide is the most common enemy. That's no surprise, as it's by far the most common.
Economic sectors: In different countries, different economic sectors are more or less responsible for climate pollution. In the US, the number-one source of emissions is coal-fired power plants; thus, President Barack Obama's plans focus on the power sector. In Indonesia, by contrast, deforestation is the biggest problem. Most plans cover more than one sector, but the most common is energy.
How to fix it: This section finds that implementing renewable energy is the most common way countries are planning to meet their targets. More interesting is the tiny role played by carbon capture, use, and storage, down at the bottom of the chart. This refers to technology that "captures" greenhouse gas emissions on their way out of power plants, or directly from the atmosphere, and buries or re-purposes them. Support for carbon capture—also known as "clean coal"—is popular with policymakers who don't want to curb coal use (including GOP presidential contender John Kasich), even though it remains costly and unproven at scale.
How to adapt: Many countries' INDCs also contain information about how they plan to adapt to climate change. Water use, agriculture, and public health appear to be the biggest areas of focus.
A terrible, no-good, very bad summary: The most important question is clearly how all this adds up to reducing the world's greenhouse gas footprint and averting the worst threats posed by climate change. But the chart that addresses this question (below) is…not great. I'm including it so you have some sense of one big drawback of the Paris approach—without universal emissions targets, it's a lot harder to specify what the cumulative effect of these plans will really be. In short, here's what this chart shows: The gray line is global greenhouse gas emissions up to today. The orange line is how emissions will grow over the next couple decades if we do nothing. The three blue lines show how quickly we would need to reduce emissions to keep global warming to 2 degrees C; the longer we wait to take action, the steeper the cuts have to be. The yellow rectangles show a snapshot of where the INDCs leave us.
So, we're better off than before, but we're not out of danger. That's why it's essential for the core agreement to include requirements that countries adopt even more aggressive goals in the future; that's one of the key things that will be debated in Paris. In other words, the Paris meeting is just one key battle in a war that's far from over, Jennifer Morgan, director of the WRI's global climate program, said in a statement.
"Despite the unprecedented level of effort, this report finds that current commitments are not yet sufficient to meet what the world needs. Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible."
Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have risen 99 percent faster than those in the rest of the ocean.
Those impacts can also devastate vital US industries, as a peer-reviewed study published today in Nature illustrates. The research found that warming waters are to blame for a recent collapse of the cod fishery in New England. Although a smaller industry than major commercial fish like salmon and mackerel, cod, commonly used for fish sticks and other processed foods, is a multimillion-dollar business in New England.
But the fish have become increasingly rare. Last year, federal regulators slapped tight limits on cod fishing after they discovered that the population was at only 4 percent of the level needed to be sustainable. That was the lowest point in a nosedive that has played out over the last decade. In 2014, the commercial catch of cod in New England—about 5 million pounds—was 67 percent less than it was in 2004; the net value of the fishery was correspondingly cut by more than half, to about $9.3 million.
Researchers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute wanted to know whether climate change played a role in that collapse. Indeed, they found that sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have risen 99 percent faster than those in the rest of the ocean, increasing especially quickly over the same decade-long decline of the cod fishery. The correlation is clear when you look at the two trend lines side by side, as in this chart from the study:
Pershing, et al
Higher temperatures make it harder for the fish to metabolize food, leaving them with less energy, especially at their prime reproductive age of about four years. That leads to fewer fish being born. Those that are born may have a harder time finding food, as the plankton they survive on move into deeper water in search of cooler temperatures. Deep water is home to more cod predators.
These problems have all been compounded by a lack of climate-savvy policy by fishing officials, the study found. Because the officials have largely overlooked the impact of ocean warming, they've consistently set quotas for commercial fishers far too high, giving the cod population no opportunity to rebound even in cooler years. In other words, overfishing has been rampant even when the overall catch comes in below the legally prescribed limit.
For that reason, the key solution that the researchers advocate is better integration of climate modeling in decisions about where, when, and how cod fishing should be allowed. In Canada, extreme limitations on cod fishing seem to have been remarkably successful in revitalizing the population. Still, those management choices aren't getting any easier to make, as warming continues to rise; the only true fix for New England's fishing industry is to slow the warming. Bear that in mind the next time you hear a politician complain about job-killing climate action policies.
The 30-second spot is part of a six-figure TV and digital ad buy from NextGen Climate, the advocacy group run by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. At the beginning of the primary season, Steyer promised to focus his group's energy on holding Republican presidential candidates accountable for their lack of climate action, and to pursue a campaign to "disqualify" any candidate who doesn't accept mainstream climate science.
"America has never been a country of quitters," the ad states, over bucolic b-roll of farmers, veterans, and small town Main Streets. "We don't ignore threats like climate change."
Then the scene changes to wind farms and solar panels, as the narrator promises that American-made clean energy will produce jobs, innovation, and energy independence. At the end, it advocates a specific goal of getting half the country's power from renewable sources by 2030. (We're at about 7 percent now.)
Steyer is clearly right that clean energy is a major 21st-century growth industry. Solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the country, and employment in that sector already outnumbers coal miners two-to-one. Nearly $40 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2014, 7 percent higher than the previous year. Earlier this month, California adopted the same ambitious target that Steyer is calling for: The state's power companies will be required to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.
But the message hasn't yet gotten through to most of the Republican presidential candidates. Marco Rubio's energy plan is basically the exact opposite of what Steyer wants. Jeb Bush wants to eliminate all energy subsidies, including those for renewables. Other candidates have variously denied the existence of climate change, championed fossil fuels, and taken pot shots at President Barack Obama's climate agenda.
The one exception, believe it or not, is Ben Carson, who—despite engaging in climate change skepticism—recently said he wants "more than 50 percent" clean energy. Maybe tonight we'll learn more about how exactly he plans to get us there.
Thick haze from forest fires shrouds the city of Palangkaraya in Indonesia on Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, Indonesian President Joko Widodo cut short a visit to the United States and headed home to oversee efforts to extinguish a rash of epic wildfires that have engulfed his country.
Joko was in Washington, DC, for a photo op with President Barack Obama, to talk about climate change, and to promote Indonesia as a choice venue for foreign investors. His trip was also supposed to include a stopover in San Francisco for meetings with tech industry executives. But Joko's decision to return to Indonesia early underscores the challenges his country faces in stopping the worst deforestation on Earth—deforestation that is playing a critical role in global climate change.
There's more to global warming than pollution from cars and power plants. In the United States, coal-fired power plants are the No. 1 source of carbon dioxide emissions, followed by tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. That's why the Obama administration has focused its climate policies on those sources; Obama's signature plan aims to reduce power-sector emissions by one-third by 2030. Those policies get some natural help from the ecosystem, as trees and soil soak up carbon out of the atmosphere. In the United States, thanks to forest conservation and climate-friendly farming practices, land use (a term climate wonks use to describe emissions that come from the land rather than from man-made infrastructure and vehicles) actually offsets about 13 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the rest of the economy.
We can't stop climate change without saving Indonesia's rainforests
But on a global scale, land use is a source of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a sink. The biggest culprit is deforestation: Living trees store carbon; dead trees release it back into the atmosphere as they decompose. Emissions from crop soil, fertilizer, and livestock also play a major role. Overall, land use accounts for about one-quarter of the world's total greenhouse gas footprint.
In Indonesia, the situation is even more dire. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), land use represents 61 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. That means deforestation causes far more climate pollution than all of the country's cars and power plants combined.
In fact, Indonesia has the world's highest rate of deforestation, even higher than Brazil, which contains most of the Amazon rainforest. From 2000 to 2012, according to research published in Nature, Indonesia lost more than 23,000 square miles of forest to logging, agriculture, and other uses. That's roughly the size of West Virginia. In 2010, the government attempted to put the brakes on deforestation by exchanging a two-year moratorium on new logging permits for $1 billion in aid from Norway and the United States. But according to Susan Minnemeyer, a forest analyst at the WRI, that policy appears to have had the "perverse impact of accelerating [deforestation], because those with permits felt that they had to take action quickly or they would no longer be able to."
This all adds up to global-scale pollution: Indonesia is the world's fifth-ranking greenhouse gas emitter, coming in just behind Russia and India. In other words, we can't stop climate change without saving Indonesia's rainforests.
Indonesia is in the middle of a public health crisis from forest fire haze. The problem isn't just deforestation, but how that deforestation is happening. In Indonesia, forests are often cleared out with fire. This can be done legally with a permit, but it's often carried out illegally as well. This year, forest fires are also being fueled by El Niño-related weather patterns. The combination of El Niño and intentional deforestation has proven incredibly dangerous: The country has experienced nearly 100,000 fires so far this year, the worst since the last major El Niño in 1997. Fire activity typically ramps up in September and October, the end of the dry season, and over the last couple of weeks the conflagrations have grown to crisis proportions—hence Joko's hasty return. The fires are so big they can be seen from space.
The greenhouse impact from those fires is staggering: On several days over the last month, emissions from Indonesian forest fires have exceeded all emissions from the US economy:
World Resources Institute
To make matters worse, more than half of those fires occur on land made of peat, the thick, soil-like material made from decomposed plant matter. Peat is packed with carbon, and fires that occur on peatland can have a global warming impact 200 times greater than fires on normal soil, according to the WRI. Last week, Joko said the government would stop issuing new permits for commercial development on peatland, but that won't stop the fires that are already burning.
Climate pollution is just part of the problem. Firefighting costs are pushing $50 million per week. The impact of this fire season on Indonesia's economy could reach $14 billion. And the thick blanket of haze that is stretching from the country across Southeast Asia has caused at least 10 deaths from haze-related illness and 500,000 cases of acute respiratory illness.
Your snacks and makeup are part of the problem. Of course, Indonesians aren't just chopping and burning down trees for fun. Besides logging, one of the main uses for cleared land is to plant African oil palm, the fruits of which are used to produce palm oil. Palm oil is the world's most popular form of vegetable oil, and half of it comes from Indonesia. It's also found in about half the processed food you encounter in a grocery store (as well as many cosmetics).
"There has been very weak enforcement of Indonesia's environmental laws."
Palm oil has some advantages over other oils: It's cheap to produce and doesn't contain trans fats, and the trees yield far more oil in the same land area—using fewer chemical fertilizers—than soybeans or sunflowers. According to the World Bank, the increase in global demand for cooking oil by 2020 could be met with palm oil using one-seventh the land area that would be required to fill that demand using soybeans. For that reason, it could actually have many environmental advantages over other types of oil.
Unfortunately, much palm oil production now happens in highly vulnerable ecosystems, often in the former habitats of endangered animals such as tigers and orangutans. Pressure is growing on Indonesia's palm oil producers to stop deforestation and stay out of sensitive areas. A handful of major US food processors, including Nestlé and PepsiCo, have adopted commitments to rid their supply chains of palm oil linked to deforestation, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. But that report also that found many fast-food chains are lagging behind. Last year, an Indonesian court ordered the first-ever major fine—$30 million—for a palm oil company found to have cleared forest in protected orangutan habitat.
Indonesia's climate test. For the international climate negotiations coming up soon in Paris, Indonesia has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. That won't be possible without curbing forest fires and deforestation. So for Indonesia, getting a grip on palm oil producers will be even more important than going after power plants, as Obama is doing. Joko has been moving in the right direction, Minnemeyer said, but it's unclear how his promises will hold up.
"Across the board, there has been very weak enforcement of Indonesia's environmental laws," she said. If they're going to meet their climate target, "the fires are going to be a key part."
This year, the world's governments are expected to hand out tax breaks and subsidies to the oil, gas, and coal industries to the tune of $233 billion. But the free ride for fossil fuels goes beyond that. That's because fossil fuel companies don't have to pay for the huge amount of damage caused by pollution from their products. Instead, we all do.
Recent research by the International Monetary Fund finds that the hidden economic and environmental costs of fossil fuel consumption—"externalities" in econspeak—add up to nearly $5 trillion a year, or 33 percent more than the federal budget.
About three-quarters of that comes from air pollution—for example, medical expenses incurred by people sickened by smog. The rest comes from climate change-related impacts: The costs of wildfires, floods, droughts, etc. The remedy, researchers say, is to increase taxes on fossil fuel energy so that we use less of it, and so that the biggest consumers will shoulder more of the social costs. That would make a gallon of gas more expensive—but potentially save tens of thousands of lives.