U.N. Climate Conference Convened in Poland Against a Backdrop of Dire Warnings of Runaway Climate Change

By Brent Probinsky

During the year 2018, the nations of the world were on track to emit a record 37.1 gigatons of dangerous green house gases, equal in weight to 100,000 Empire State Buildings.  Since the 2015 Paris Accord, when 200 countries promised to drastically cut emissions, just the opposite has occurred. Dangerous green houses gas emissions have increased at an alarming rate – more than any climate scientist predicted.  Against the backdrop of the UN Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland during December of 2018, three new major climate studies have documented drastic increases in carbon emissions that dangerously heat the globe.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, made public in October, 2018, predicts that by 2040 – much sooner than previously predicted – average global temperatures will increase to dangerous levels. There will be massive food shortages due to drastically changed weather patterns including drought, increased wild fires, not only in the western U.S. but also in the eastern states.  Millions of climate refugees around the world will flee from coastal flooding.  By 2100 with “business as usual,” and no significant reductions of carbon emissions, global average atmospheric temperatures will increase by a perilous 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The congressionally mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report completed every four years by 13 federal agencies, was released the day after Thanksgiving, 2018.  It found that no area of the country will be spared the impacts of drastic climate change – from the southwest where periods of drought will limit fresh water for farming and drinking water and reduce hydro electric power production – to Alaska that is warming twice as fast as the other states. Most notably was the study’s prediction of disruption of U.S. trade, manufacturing and a crumbling infrastructure caused by climate change.  Factories will become less productive and supply chains, for manufacturing and exports will be disrupted.  Agricultural production will be sharply reduced. Range land for livestock will be plagued by drought, heavy downpours, extreme heat and declining livestock health. Overall, there will be a 10% loss of economic productivity by the end of the century, more than experienced in 1930’s during the Great Depression. The Global Carbon Project, comprised of 100 scientists that represent more than 50 academic and research institutions, just published its latest report in December, 2018.  It predicts that for year, 2018, there will have been an increase of 2.7% of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, a sharp increase over 2017 that saw a 1.7 % rise.  Before 2017 there was a three-year plateau of carbon emissions. The planet’s hottest 17 years on on record have all been since 2000. The recent sharp rise in carbon emissions is a result of increased use worldwide of passenger cars, trucks and air transport and especially from coal fired electric generating power plants. Transportation runs on crude oil refined into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel and contributes 15 % to worldwide carbon emissions.  By far, coal is the biggest source of carbon and the dirtiest and most widely burned fossil fuel, contributing 42 % of global carbon emissions.  It is the preferred fuel for power generating plants worldwide and the energy grids in many countries are designed for coal power plants. China is the biggest emitter of carbon from coal and accounts for 80 % of its electricity generation.  China’s spectacular economic growth in recent decades has depended on the proliferation of new coal burning power plants. It now has to import coal to keep up with demand for electric power for factories, homes, steel and cement plants. While China is developing more renewable energy and is now the leader in the production of photovoltaic cells, two thirds of the world’s supply, China is building scores of coal fired power plants in many areas of the world, notably Southeast Asia, including Vietnam,  a region that is experiencing rapid economic growth. 
The largest importer of coal is India that plans to deliver electricity to more than 300 million new users. In India, 58% of electricity is generated from coal.  In the U.S. that has the largest coal deposits in the world, 31% of power plants are fueled by coal, but the trend is sharply downward with 200 coal fired power plants closing since 2000 and coal mining jobs plummeting. Coal fired power plants in the U.S. are being rapidly replaced  by natural gas that emits about half the amount of carbon as coal.  Poland, the host of the  2018 Climate Conference, has vast coal deposits and is a major producer of coal-generated electricity.  Worldwide, China produces 27% of today’s global green house gas emissions. The U.S. is second with 15% (though it has only 4% of the world’s population), the European Union’s 28 countries contribute 10% and India, 7 percent.  China’s emissions will increase 4.7 percent in 2018, the U.S. by 2.5 %, and India, 6.3 percent and all others will increase an average of 1.8 percent.  The European Union will remarkably emit 0.7% less green house gases in 2018. On a per capita basis, the U.S. emits far more carbon, 20 tons per person annually, than any other nation and twice as much as the Chinese who emit 4 tons per person.  Four tons per person is also the world average emission amount per capita per year.
 Donald Trump announced just after his inauguration, that the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, the only country on the planet to do so. The Paris Accords set a goal to limit a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Though withdrawal from the Accords is a tedious process that would take until 2020, it sends the wrong message at the wrong time to both the developed and developing world. It creates an opening where countries will place national interests of economic development above a commitment to reduce global green house gases. At the meeting in Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are following the lead of the U.S. to question the goals of the Climate Conference and place national interests, short-term growth, at the expense of limiting global emissions. The countries participating in the Climate Conference were expected to “welcome” the October report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that found that it would be necessary to limit increased average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change this century. To accomplish that, carbon emissions will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030.  Instead, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, insisted that the countries attending the Climate Conference, merely “take note” of the IPCC report, an unfriendly phrase in the lexicon of diplomacy. The U.S. delegation to the two-week Conference was headed by Wells Griffith, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Alabama and who unabashedly promoted the fossil fuel industry at the Conference and in particular, coal.  He spoke to attendees and said, “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”  Dozens of audience members loudly protested and mocked Griffith’s comments. The U.S. agenda, based on Trump’s domestic policy to promote fossil fuels and contempt for international institutions is awkwardly at odds with the goals of the conference.    The likelihood of meeting the goals of the IPPC Report to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, a “carbon budget” will have to be strictly followed. Seventy four percent of the  world’s reserves of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, will have to remain in the ground. Whether the objectives of a majority of the  developed and developing nations attending the Climate Conference in Poland, can agree upon and adhere to a framework for reaching those objectives, remains to be seen. 


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