Bearing Witness to Climate Change November 2021

As part of COP26 UN Climate Summit, more than three dozen countries announced they would phase out the use of coal for power generation. Nearly two dozen nations added their names with new pledges. Unfortunately, the largest coal users and exporters, China, US, and Australia, were not part of the agreement. Scientists warn that to limit global warming, industrialized countries would need to replace nearly all of their coal, oil, and natural gas power plants with renewables by 2035.

The US, along with 20 other countries, did agree to end financing for new international fossil fuel projects. This could result in $18B of investment being diverted to renewables. But again China, along with Japan and South Korea, abstained from participating.

At the climate summit, more than 100 world leaders also pledged to end deforestation by 2030. Noteworthy was that the agreement included countries with huge forests that serve as carbon sinks such as those in Russia, Brazil, Canada, and Indonesia. Altogether, the agreement covers more than 85% of the globe’s forests. Up until now, forests across the world were being reduced to make way for agriculture, forestry, and consumer products.

Over 100 top leaders from around the world attended the summit. President Biden and others who were present chastised Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping for not being there, saying “it just is a gigantic issue and they walked away.” Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil was also a no-show.  President Biden declared that “America is back” and apologized for the previous administration withdrawing the US from the fight against climate change.

India’s Prime Minister Modi was present, thankfully so, and made a surprise announcement committing his county to become net-zero by 2070. Though this is 10 years later than China’s last pledge, and 20 years past those of the US and most of Europe, India is the world’s third largest emitter of GHG. Modi also said India would expand low-carbon sources of energy by 500 GW. It’s a start at least.

Dozens of other world leaders made equally important statements and warnings. UN Secretary General Guterres reiterated that we are on the verge of the abyss with the goals to limit global warming now on life support and the alarm bells are deafening. US Climate Envoy John Kerry said government policies that subsidize fossil fuels as the “definition of insanity.” During the conference Kerry called for the phasing out of coal-powered plants while others argued that they should be eliminated asap with a few countries, like India, objecting that the coal goal was unreasonable and that they should just be phased down, not all together eliminated. The fact that it is the 26th meeting and we are still debating on whether fossil fuels can be phased out is insane if not obscene.

Pope Francis spoke to climate protesters outside the Vatican by saying “Let us pray so that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” are heard by summit participants. The British minister chairing the climate talks said the summit remains “our last, best hope to keep 1.5 within reach.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.”

A draft of the final summit report had many rapidly evolving components. Rules for trading carbon credits and standards for measuring a country’s actual GHG emissions are two of the most notable issues. It is feared that many countries are underreporting their emissions or intentionally greenwashing them using accounting tricks for how much their emissions may be captured by land and forests. The gap is said to be as much as 15% of the estimated total worldwide emissions of over 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalents. A new generation of satellites will soon be in orbit that can more accurately measure actual GHG emissions to hold countries accountable to their commitments and bring in a regime of radical transparency.

Not all climate activists were happy with the progress at COP26, some complaining that the climate crisis demands more and faster action. Greta Thunberg led a demonstration of 25,000 in Glasgow and proclaimed that ““it is not a secret that COP26 is a failure.” An Indigenous activist from New Zealand said it was time for others to “get in line or get out of the way.” Global columnist Tom Friedman wrote that the climate summit has him very energized but also very afraid. He reminded readers that the global supply of renewables is expected to grow by 35 GW in the next two years but the global power demand will grow by nearly three times that amount.

Former President Obama spoke to the conference as its end neared. As typical for Obama, he evoked enthusiasm and hope that his generation will rise to the occasion to protect the Earth for future generations, quoting that “cynicism is the recourse of cowards.” But he tempered that by saying “we are nowhere near where we need to be.”

Despite the absence of China’s leader, or perhaps because of it, the US and China issued a joint declaration as the conference drew to a close that both parties would take enhanced climate actions to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Goal. China and the US are #1 and #2 in GHG emitters, though the argument could be made that the US may be #1 since it outsourced its emissions to China for manufacturing so many products consumed in the US. It is encouraging to see two adversaries so dependent upon each other put their differences aside to address an existential threat to the planet.

The conference went into overtime to reach agreement on terms that should be no-brainers by now. Participants agreed that nations must reduce their emissions by nearly half in the next decade and that fossil fuel usage must be phased down (but not out) quickly. Yes, that is huge progress compared to undelivered meek promises of previous summits. But the reductions from the summit are still insufficient for keeping the planet from warming past the 2015 Paris Accord goals. Some say there is a less than 20% chance of meeting those goals.

The latest Global Carbon Budget report was issued during the middle of the UN COP26 Climate Summit. Researchers from over 70 institutions across five continents are warning that the amount of carbon we can safely burn before overrunning temperature limits is down to less than 11 years. GHG emissions were projected to increase by 5% this year as the economy recovers from the pandemic. They are now near their last peak which was reported in 2019, erasing the one-year decline. Scientists are worried that the curve is not bending downward yet and we are still years away from hitting peak emissions. It has been said that for the next 20 years we will need to reduce emissions each year by the same amount that they fell during the pandemic lockdown, some 1.4 billion tons. God help us.

Regardless of the summit’s results, citizens and their elected representatives across the globe are likely very clueless about all the changes that will be required to their personal consumption and their national economies. The transition to a low-carbon economy will not be painless, and the chances that some populist power-hungry autocrat will rally others behind them to subvert if not revolt against climate goals is very real. Much of the world could not even get their own citizens to take a vaccine to save their lives from a here and now pandemic that has already killed millions.

More than 90 counties have now signed the Global Methane Pledge which mandates a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030. The Biden Administration unveiled new rules to curb methane emissions in the US which are due largely to oil and gas operations. Methane is the second largest contributor to global warming as it is 80 times more potent as a heat trapping gas than CO2. The good news is that it dissipates much faster out of the atmosphere than carbon, often in a few decades compared to a century.

Financial entities, like university endowments and pension funds, worth over $40T have said they would divest their portfolios of investments in dirty energy. As energy prices soar across part of the world, these divestitures are being blamed for causing an artificial scarcity which has driven up commodity prices.  Some argue that if we fail to develop green energy sources, and create the power grids to distribute them, a premature rush to divest and reduce investments in legacy fuels could indeed cause severe disruptions.

Economists estimate that the world will need $4 trillion a year to transition to a decarbonized global economy. While that number appears huge, compared to historic investments in infrastructure, wars, space exploration, public housing, and health care it is not that large as a percent of GDP. And compared to the alternative costs of inaction, it is even smaller.

Developing nations of the world say that they need over $1 trillion in support to help fund renewable energy sources and offset the effects of global warming, rising sea levels, extreme weather and population migration. Previously, developed nations had promised $100B a year from 2020 through 2035, but have already fallen way short a year into the term.

Is nuclear power becoming a more attractive technology to bridge the economy to net-zero, especially now that we are running out of time? Some policy makers think so, and they make a good case. While there are legitimate safety concerns about nuclear plants and storage of waste, there is little argument that nuclear plants are a low-carbon fuel source. This is especially so when you consider the total lifecycle costs including materials, construction, environmental land use, and mining of nuclear fuels compared to not only coal and gas, but also wind and solar. Nuclear power champions cite a new generation of Small Modular Reactors that could power a few thousand homes at a cost and risk far less than large scale reactors in service to date.

As the permafrost thaws due to global warming, archaeologists are finding treasures in the subsoil that were buried hundreds of years ago. This is not good news because the melting of the permafrost is thought to be one of the major tipping points that once crossed will be irreversible.

The cost of property insurance is rising in many parts of the US due largely to a changing climate with far more extreme weather events. Re-insurance underwriters are forecasting anywhere from 30-60% increase in insured losses around the world due to natural disasters over the next two decades.  As costs rise along with involuntary non-renewals of policies, some businesses and households are moving to safer locales as they are priced out of their existing locations.

More research is calling into question whether hydrogen will be the dream clean energy source of the future that the fossil fuel industry is promoting it to be. One study found that blue hydrogen created by the burning of natural gas has a greater GHG footprint than just burning gas directly. This is thought to be due to fugitive emissions of methane gasses.

Bill Gates has selected a site in the top US coal-producing state, Wyoming, for the location of his TerraPower Natrium nuclear power demonstrator plant.  The facility will be based on a sodium-cooled fast reactor with molten salt energy storage that is said to be safer and less costly than conventional nuclear plants. It will produce just under 350 MW of electricity.

Researchers at the University of California are projecting that the number of wildfires in their state will continue to increase in the next two decades by 20% or more and that burn areas will become larger.   The increase is due to hotter temperatures and greater droughts.

Federal agencies in the US are contemplating a future with large-scale relocation and migration of urban areas that become more inhospitable, risky and costly to live in due to climate change. These include most coastal states where extreme weather events are already wreaking havoc.  Other parts of the country including the central Midwest Heartland, Great Lakes, and Rust Belt regions may become more attractive destinations.

The Climeworks Orca carbon direct air capture (DAC) and sequestration plant in Iceland is now in operation pulling about 4,000 metric tons of CO2 out of the air each year.  After extracting the carbon, it is combined with water and then pumped deep underground into rock formations where it will eventually turn to stone. How ironic that deep underground is where extraction of most fossil fuel-based carbon emissions started their journey. Estimates are that it costs over $500 per ton to remove carbon in this manner, far higher than costs being considered on the price of carbon trading which vary from $50-$200 per ton. And for every ton of carbon removed a DAC plant will emit about 10 tons in the process. Scientists say that this is a start as a demonstrator project, but we need to find a way to remove over 10 billion tons of CO2 by mid-century.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making good on his commitment to ban gasoline cars by 2030. This month he announced legislation requiring EV charging points or stations be installed in all new homes and buildings beginning in 2022, a big bold move. This will create nearly 150,000 new stations across the country each year.

President Biden’s White House is moving its plans along by establishing a new energy office to coordinate climate change policy and the energy transition strategy across the federal government. And unlike the previous administration, Biden is appointing senior professionals who actually have experience in the areas for which they are responsible.

An “eco-awakening” study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund has found that internet searches by consumers for sustainable products rose by over 70% between 2016 and 2020.

Another poll shows that concern about climate change is growing in the US, but only for Democrats where 95% agree it is serious. For Republicans, a party that is becoming increasingly anti-science, it is sadly going downward with only 40% saying it is a serious problem. As a result, the average of 67% of Americans thinking it is a problem is ever so misleading as there is no longer any such thing as an average American who sees the same facts and news.

Featured image is from the United Nations COP26 website at


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