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When Even the Conservative IEA Sounds an Alarm on Climate, the World Must Listen

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says governmental emission reduction pledges fall well short of what is required.

Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland, on May 19, 2021.

Like a carousel of bad news coming from all four corners of the globe, the year thus far has borne witness to a litany of extreme weather events and stark research findings with one grim overarching message: The world is still failing miserably to adequately respond to the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis.

In the Arctic, the rate of sea ice loss is currently tracking just below that for 2012 and 2020, the two worst years for ice loss, as per the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s records. Indeed, the record melting rate of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is in line with worst-case scenarios as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the climate science arm of the United Nations (UN).

In the Amazon, regarded as the globe’s largest carbon sink, the frantic rate of deforestation and wildfire damage has resulted in a terrifyingly paradoxical scenario: Parts of the rainforest now release more carbon than they store, according to a recent study in Nature.

In Germany, floods the likes of which experts say have not been witnessed for between 500 to 1,000 years, coupled with wildfires across southern Europe fueled by tinder-dry conditions, prompted a top UN climate official to exhort major global leaders to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The link between extreme weather events and impacts from anthropogenic climate change is a through line threading a string of recent weather-related headlines here in the U.S. as well.

Experts say the June heat wave that gripped the Pacific Northwest — with a death toll nearing the 200 mark — would have been “virtually impossible” in pre-industrial times. The ongoing mega-drought burning up the western U.S. is behind historic low water levels at Lake Mead — one of the region’s key water resources — while the broader Colorado River system, which provides water to 40 million people, is running so dry that officials are soon expected to declare an unprecedented water shortage on the lower portion of the river, triggering water usage cuts. The drought has already prompted tribal communities in Colorado to massively scale back their agricultural output.

On the flip side of the precipitation coin, flood damage caused by unusually punishing rain events is costing the U.S. an additional $2.5 billion annually, according to a recent study.

Amid an onslaught of pre-apocalyptic events, major nations have been eager to tout their green bona fides as they inject vast wallets of stimulus monies to keep their economies oiled through a pandemic. At the same time, however, expert analyses of these recovery plans show they’re often weighted heavily in favor of fossil fuel-driven projects.

More broadly, the International Energy Agency (IEA) — a policy adviser to its 29 member countries — warned earlier this year how governmental emission reduction pledges fall “well short” of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide releases to net zero by 2050 — a key benchmark in the fight to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5°C) above pre-industrial levels.

“Climate is a train wreck happening in slow motion,” says Ted Parson, co-director of the Dan and Rae Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, who described the IEA’s warnings as something of a canary in the coal mine.

“The IEA is a highly respected, very mainstream and rather conservative analytic organization,” Parson says, explaining that for many years, this rather gun-shy organization hedged short of pushing for a rapid and aggressive transformation away from fossil fuel-driven energy production. “So then comes this report which is astonishing.”

We Could Reach 1.5°C by 2030

The planet is already nearly 1.3°C hotter over pre-industrial levels, and the IPCC is clear on what happens if Earth warms by just another 0.2 degrees Celsius, with vulnerable regions especially susceptible to “high multiple interrelated climate risks.” Above a 2°C temperature increase, the impacts become noticeably worse for everyone, with some 61 million more people living in urban centers exposed to severe drought as compared to the 1.5°C benchmark, substantially higher sea level rises and major hits to global crop production, among a slew of other grisly predictions.

Recent projections have shown we’re likely to reach an increase of 1.5°C as soon as 2030. Without immediate and massive emissions reductions, we could reach the 2°C threshold window in just 15 years. And key signs offer little encouragement into the immediate future.

After a pandemic-driven lull in greenhouse gas emissions, releases of heat-trapping chemicals aren’t just rebounding back fast; in nations like China, they are on track to exceed pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, according to a recent IEA forecast, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase by 1.5 billion tons this year, the second-largest increase in history. All this, while we are nearing (or have already crossed) critical climate-related tipping points associated with things like ocean acidification and coral reef destruction.

Senior figures from such institutions as the World Bank have portrayed the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to press the reset button on global efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Following the refrain of “build back better,” governmental officials were expected to unfurl various stimulus packages touting the chance to pivot away from fossil fuels in order to more comprehensively “green” their economies.

But the reality of the situation doesn’t exactly square with the promises. According to a Guardian analysis at the end of 2020, only a handful of major countries had earmarked significant stimulus funds for green investments, with the E.U. — headed by France and Germany — leading the way. China and the U.S. trailed at the more miserly end of the spectrum.

According to Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, some six months later, the broad complexion of the recovery looks grim for climate action. “Sadly, on all fronts, we have not seen governments take the kinds of transformative measures that are needed to make a climate-aligned recovery,” she told Truthout. “For the most part, we’re reverting back to our ‘business-as-usual’ ways of producing and consuming energy.”

Other indicators suggest that things aren’t poised to change any time soon. China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan are scheduled to build some 600 new coal power plants — what would work out to be 75 percent of current coal capacity — even though the vast majority of them are forecasted to be financial money pits.

In the U.S., natural gas production is forecasted to rise this year, even as demand falls.

“All over the world, fossil fuel companies continue to hold a very strong political sway over policy making,” says Cleetus. Perhaps the most visceral indicator of this toxic relationship can be seen in the way the G20 countries — which includes the U.S., France and Germany — have funneled some $3.3 trillion towards fossil fuel subsidies since the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2015, according to a new report by BloombergNEF and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Upcoming Climate Events

Amid all these escalating climate threats, experts point to a few signs of encouragement around the globe — with heavy caveats attached.

The electric vehicle market, for example, is set to increase between now and 2030 by a compounded annual growth rate of more than 25 percent. But the shift to electric vehicles is largely driven by voluntary pledges among car manufacturers. Indeed, President Biden’s new executive order surrounding tightened tailpipe emissions includes a promise among key automakers to make 40 to 50 percent of their new car sales electric vehicles by 2030. Instead, skeptics would rather see firm commitments hard-baked into governmental policy.

China’s carbon-trading scheme is seen as a golden opportunity to rein in the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but critics describe it as more of a Band-Aid than a fix, given that China has not put in place a firm cap on emissions, among other problems with the system.

Here on U.S. shores, climate experts have been watching closely the ongoing negotiations surrounding the proposed infrastructure packages slogging their way through Capitol Hill. The current roughly $1 trillion bipartisan deal allots some $550 billion in new infrastructure spending, including for electric vehicles and modernizing the power grid. A dual “human infrastructure” proposal also portions out some climate-related spending.

But these plans have garnered criticism from corners of the climate movement. In the infrastructure plan’s negotiation process, spending on key elements like transit funding and vehicle electrification were slashed. On the other hand, spending on the expansion of highways — a possible major stumbling-block toward climate goals — remained largely unchanged. Indeed, lobbyists for ExxonMobil were caught on video bragging about their efforts — ultimately successful — to weaken the proposals to protect their investments.

“For electric cars and buses and appliances to have the impact needed, the power system must also be clean,” wrote Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in an email. He added that, “the package’s expected significant investments in clean power infrastructure are a good start, but far short of what’s needed.”

Some key global developments are on the horizon. At the end of October, the U.K. will host COP26, the latest UN Climate Change Conference. Before then, the IPCC is poised to release its first major global warming assessment since 2013. A new report claims that some of the climate models that the IPCC uses show rates of warming that are implausibly fast. But even if some of the worst impacts can’t be stopped, we must not simply look away, advocates say.

“We’re already the proverbial frog boiling in the pot,” Cleetus says. “Every day we need to get up and fight for the world to be a better place and hold the policy makers’ feet to the fire. There is no time to be on auto-pilot.”

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