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September 9, 2016
 
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Landmark China-U.S. climate breakthrough elicits tepid response

The usual suspects applauded, but The Washington Post placed news of China and the United States ratifying the Paris Agreement last Saturday far from the front page, which typified much of the world’s response to the landmark move. Possible reasons for the collective global yawn were spelled out in the week's headlines.

Perhaps the lack of awe was caused by the phenomenon Barack Obama described in an exclusive New York Times interview en route to his final tour of Asia as U.S. president this week. “What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event,” he said. “It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.” How can that compete with the immediacy of the fraught race for the White House or the kerfuffle over the lack of stairs for Obama to descend from Air Force One upon his arrival in Beijing?

Maybe the Obama administration—as one GOP lawmaker accused—wanted to downplay what was arguably the biggest climate policy news since the advent of the Paris Agreement in December. “Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said Tuesday that Obama's decision to formally join the Paris Agreement in China on Saturday... was an attempt to hide the news,” the Washington Examiner reported.

Or maybe the world was feeling some of the skepticism expressed by China’s state-run media. “So far, there are indeed some thorny issues in carrying out the Paris deal. For instance, disputes between the Democrats and the Republicans have made it hard to implement the agreement in the U.S. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry said the climate issue is the major part of their political legacy. Even so, it is uncertain whether the nation can fulfill the agreement,” Wen Jaijun, a research fellow at Renmin University, wrote in a Global Times op-ed.

Perhaps the G20 stuck a pin in the announcement's balloon with the decision to avoid setting a deadline for its stated intention to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, through which the group pays out as much as $5.3 trillion annually.

In the end, the grand gesture by China’s President Xi Jinping and President Obama may not have looked like a game-changer, even if it means the Paris Agreement comes into force years ahead of schedule. “The biggest impact of an early entry into force is probably symbolic, but in a very important way,” Duncan Marsh, international climate policy director for the Nature Conservancy, told Bloomberg BNA. “It carries forward momentum from Paris and it sends a signal to... businesses that this is the time to invest in clean energy.” Indeed, energy and mining analysts at Wood Mackenzie on Tuesday issued a prediction that trade in coal for power generation could fall 40 percent in the next 20 years because of China and the U.S. ratifying the U.N. climate pact.

Climate context

Climate change is heating up the world's oceans so much and so fast that it's disrupting marine life from plankton to whales, according to a report by 80 scientists in 12 countries released Monday by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). "Ocean warming may well turn out to be the greatest hidden challenge of our generation," says the 460-page report. "The speed of change in the ocean, such as the poleward range shifts in marine systems, is happening between 1.5 and 5 times faster than on land. Such range shifts are potentially irreversible."

Meanwhile, sea level rise has already progressed "to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes" along the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, overwhelming drainage systems, stopping traffic, flooding basements, damaging cars, killing lawns and polluting wells with salt, reported The New York Times. “Once impacts become noticeable, they’re going to be upon you quickly,” said William Sweet, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It’s not a hundred years off. It’s now.”

NOAA researchers on Wednesday pinned climate change with blame for the two feet of rain in 48 hours that swamped Louisiana with deadly flood waters last month. Such torrential downpours are now at least 40 percent more likely, they found. “But it’s probably much closer to a doubling of the probability," said Heidi Cullen, chief scientist for Climate Central, which coordinated the study.

Surprises

There was a surprising bit of good climatic news this week in a study that shows scientists may have over estimated the damage to plants from drought brought by global warming. It turns out increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere triggers plants to halve the water taken up by their roots. "A number of studies assume that plant water needs are constant, when what we know about plants growing in lots of carbon dioxide suggests the opposite," said senior author Abigail Swann, a researcher at the University of Washington. She does not, however, think this means the world will fare better as droughts increase in number and intensity.

On the political front, Reuters revealed surprisingly blatant duplicity among U.S. companies that espouse public support for President Obama's climate actions in an examination of public records of donations made to political action committees during the 2016 election cycle by "30 of the biggest publicly-traded U.S. companies that signed Obama’s 'American Business Act on Climate Change Pledge' in 2015." The news agency found "25 of the 30 companies are funding campaigns of lawmakers featured on a 'climate deniers' list that was put together by Organizing For Action," which advocates the president's agenda. Top contributors included Google, AT&T, GE and Verizon.

The offbeat surprise of the week came from Morocco, which aims to have 600 “green" mosques by March 2019, equipped with LED lighting, solar water heaters and rooftop solar arrays. “We want to raise awareness, and mosques are important centers of social life in Morocco," said Jan-Christophe Kuntze, who heads the project. "They are a place where people exchange views about all kinds of issues including, hopefully, why renewables and energy efficiency might be a good idea.”

Eerie silence 

PoliticusUSA reported Saturday that Republicans suffered a "meltdown" over Labor Day weekend after President Obama committed the United States to the Paris Agreement. When Congress headed back to work on Tuesday, however, Capital Hill was mostly mute on the issue.

The usual critics sniped briefly. The Senate's chief climate-change denier Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma shared some angry words. “History already shows that this Paris Agreement will fail,” he said. “This latest announcement is the president attempting to once again give the international community the appearance that he can go around Congress in order to achieve his unpopular and widely rejected climate agenda for his legacy.” Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said "this questionable unilateral action by the president can and should be struck down as soon as possible." Representative Lamar Smith offered that "the president's costly environmental regulations would only reduce global temperatures by just three one-hundredths of a degree Celsius and sea level rise by the thickness of three sheets of paper. It is all pain and no gain." But that was about the extent of the GOP's public pushback. “I don’t think anyone’s going to talk about [a response] until they decide to do it, and that will be after the election,” said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted her approval of Obama's move but also tweeted, "We can't stop there," reminding her followers of this missive from GOP rival Donald Trump in 2014: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.” Trump resisted tweeting a newsworthy retort.

Meanwhile, the oil-and-gas industry continued to give more campaign contributions to Clinton than Trump, according to The Wall Street Journal. After decades of consistent outsized support for the GOP's pick, the industry's executives and employees have given Clinton almost double their donations to Trump.

On Thursday, Chelsea Clinton cited climate change when asked by reporters why undecided voters should favor her mother. "She's the only person running for president who recognizes climate change is real, who has a plan to address it and also realizes it's a real opportunity to create jobs in our country," the former first daughter said.

Tricky coal cuts

China's official media gave little play to ratification of the Paris Agreement, highlighting instead a tree-planting project to offset carbon emissions from the week's G20 summit in Hangzhou and the government's new "green financing" thrust. "Green growth is now part of China's development strategy, and the demands for green financing keep growing as China enters a critical period for economic restructuring," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen Yulu, deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, as saying.

In the end, China's coal consumption generated far more noteworthy headlines than either the Xi-Obama announcement or the G20's climate dealings.

"...[T]he Chinese electricity sector is rapidly diversifying away from excessive reliance on coal," Tim Buckley of the Institute of Energy Economic and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) wrote in summarizing the results of crunching a "trove of data" from state-run coal giant Shenhua Energy Company. The IEEFA estimated the average coal-fired power plant in China operated at just 46.4 percent of capacity in the first half of 2016—a record-low rate of use that underscores the country's "massive" overcapacity. "The stranded asset potential in China’s coal fired-power plants [poses] a major financial risk, on top of the financial distress of much of the Chinese coal mining sector at a time the government is closing 500 [million tons] of coal mine capacity and retrenching 1.2 million coal mine workers," Buckley wrote.

In news that seemed contradictory to China's repeated mandates for capacity cuts, Platts reported Thursday that the government is likely to "relax" its 276-day annual operating limit for coal mines "to cool escalating spot prices for domestic thermal coal." The country's "coal miners agreed to coordinate production to help stabilize prices, with producers increasing output when the market is tight and cutting production when there is oversupply," Bloomberg said. The move comes after sharp decreases in the country's coal output led to spikes in imports and prices, according to industry analysts.

China's coal production capacity fell by 150 million tons in the first eight months of the year—60 percent of its 2016 targeted capacity cuts, state media reported today, citing the National Development and Reform Commission.

Pressure, politics build

China's officials news media did not mince words with India this week. It's "high time" Indians "show they mean business when it comes to limiting the effects of climate change,” the state-run Global Times said on Monday. “China has gone through a similar development stage to India and it still has made significant commitment towards curbing global warming. India has [strived] to become a world power and to have a bigger say in international affairs, hence, it needs to shoulder its due responsibilities and take actions, regardless of the difficulties, to help save the planet."

But India resisted the pressure brought by China and the U.S before and during the G20 summit. “I felt we were not quite ready yet in terms of the domestic actions that are required for us to ratify or at least commit to ratify within 2016,” said Aravind Panagariya, India’s lead negotiator at the summit. “There is no deadline to my mind, but we will make submissions of progress."

On Thursday, Agence France Presse reported Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pledged to ratify the Paris Agreement this year after meeting with President Obama in Laos. However, the Indo-Asian News Service said later in the day that India had made no such decision, quoting a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs. India is "dithering" on ratification because it "decided to use ratification of the agreement as a bargaining chip as it attempts to enter the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG)," India Climate Dialogue reported on Friday. "Indian officials are justifying the move by saying the country cannot meet its Paris commitments without using nuclear power. It is a debatable contention. But be that as it may, it was clear to observers in India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not announce ratification of the Paris agreement at a summit hosted by China, the country that stymied India’s recent attempt to enter the NSG."

On Monday, Greenpeace India questioned the country's continued support for the "obsolete" and "dying" coal industry. "The prime minister has committed the country to ambitious renewable energy targets..., and we should be focusing energy on how to meet these. That is future-friendly thinking, not this blinkered approach to continuing the coal glut at all costs," Greenpeace spokesman Sunil Dahiya told reporters during a seminar on coal hosted by the power ministry. "According to Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal, we are already coal- and power-surplus. The government must, therefore, [channel] their efforts into developing India's renewable energy potential instead of furthering new coal-based power. This is the only way to ensure a clean and constant supply of power without damaging public health and destroying forests, community livelihoods and wildlife. This is also critical in order to meet India's commitments on combating global climate change."

Later in the week, coal secretary Anil Swarup declared at the 6th Coal Summit in New Delhi that India's demand for the fossil fuel will continue to grow despite its push for massive growth in renewable energy capacity. “Our per capita power consumption is comparable to what was the case in the late 19th century or in early 20th century in the U.S.," he said. "This offers an opportunity for growth" for coal.

Looking forward

Although Brazil reportedly was set to ratify the Paris Agreement ahead of China and the U.S. on August 29, that did not happen. Climate News Network now reports the country's new president will do the honors next week.

On Thursday, members of the European Parliament urged all E.U. member countries to speed ratification of the global climate pact so the bloc can be part of the vanguard bringing it into force. “It is unthinkable that the Paris Agreement might enter into force without the E.U. as a signatory, considering the E.U. leadership on the fight against climate change...," said Giovanni La Via, chairman of the parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. "For this reason, we urge... the individual member states to take the necessary steps to complete their... national ratification process prior to the next climate conference in Marrakesh, enabling it to enter into force.”

While the rush to ratify the Paris Agreement picks up pace, look for increases in global temperatures to do the same. Forecasters on Thursday cancelled their official watch for the La Niña weather pattern that often follows an El Niño like the one that recently ended. As Mashable put it, there now "will not be a natural brake placed on the planet's increasing fever, fed by human-caused global warming."

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