The climate change challenge has jostled for position and attention over the past two years with multiple national and global crises – in particular, the Covid-19 pandemic. For all of the pandemic’s agony and disruption, its impacts have also led to a micro-reprieve in the planetary pileup of greenhouse gasses. What happens next?
It’ll soon be time for nations to make good on the noble emission-cut pledges that blossomed from the fraught political soil of 2021. This year will show how nimbly the world’s largest emitters, particularly the United States and China, can use legislation, executive action, technology, and whatever other carrots and sticks are needed to get serious emission cuts rolling.
Based on the most recent report from the Global Carbon Atlas, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by roughly 5.4% from 2019 to 2020 as the pandemic took hold and economic activity plummeted. Even after an estimated rise of 4.9% in 2021, global emissions remained slightly below their 2019 peak.
Like grounding all airplanes worldwide for two years
Similarly, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions climbed by 6.2% in 2021 but remained 5% below their 2019 levels, according to estimates released by the Rhodium Group in January.
Though temporary, the pandemic-induced global emissions dip represents around two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that otherwise would have entered the atmosphere had emissions held steady. That’s roughly comparable to the effect of grounding every airplane on the planet for two years.
Authors of one study estimated that the pandemic and its economic after-effects could end up reducing year-2030 emissions by around 7% compared to a theoretical world never tormented by Covid.
Many of the world’s largest economies now are leaning toward vaccines and mask orders in place of full-stop shutdowns, thus blunting the economic hit from the pandemic. And many experts foresee the chance that the Omicron variant could be followed by a relatively stable period, perhaps even morphing into a long-awaited Covid transition from pandemic to endemic mode.
With this in mind, it’s worth taking a look at other trends now surging and re-surging as the world hurtles toward the goal – hugely ambitious, yet widely embraced since a key 2018 IPCC report – of bringing down global emissions by roughly half from their 2010 values by 2030. Such a drop, IPCC asserts, would preserve a two-thirds chance of limiting long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) beyond preindustrial values. (Note that almost one-third of the time since that report’s late-2018 release to 2030 has already passed.)
Much more needs still to happen – and soon
Make no mistake: the hardest work still lies ahead. Some two dozen nations, including the U.S., increased their emission-cut pledges ahead of the United Nations summit in Glasgow in November 2021. Much of the beefed-up ambition has been for various forms of “net zero” pledges, typically aimed at mid-century. The website zerotracker.net shows that 85% of the world’s population, 88% of emissions, and 90% of GDP now are influenced by some form of national-scale net-zero pledge.
A smaller set of nations has pledged to cut emissions roughly in half by 2030, based on various starting-point years each nation chooses. For the U.S., that year is 2005. The Rhodium Group report pegs U.S. emissions as having dropped by 17.4% from 2005 to 2021. The drop can be attributed largely to a shift from coal toward natural gas along with the growth of renewables and efficiency measures.
Much more will have to happen in short order to keep those nation-by-nation pledges for 2030 at least somewhat plausible. And even the pledges by themselves aren’t enough to reach the global goal. As noted by Climate Action Tracker in November, “Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate.”
Here are a few of the national and global factors that emission watchers should keep in mind as the global economy begins to shake off the pandemic.
The fate of Build Back Better’s climate components
Although some of its strongest regulatory elements got dropped along the way, the $550 billion in climate-related initiatives in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislative proposal would still be the most ambitious set of climate legislation in U.S. history.
Now that the sweeping BBB bill passed by the House is seen as a nonstarter in the Senate, momentum is building around reconfiguring the climate components as a stand-alone bill that could gain enough support in the evenly split Senate to pass. President Biden called out this potential in a January 19 press conference.
“Whether something can be salvaged and passed from the climate provisions of the Build Back Better bill is the number-one question in U.S. climate policy this year,” atmospheric scientist Daniel Cohan of Rice University in Houston told Yale Climate Connections in a phone interview. Cohan is author of the forthcoming book “Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future,” to be published by Yale University Press.
Among other things, the BBB’s enhanced tax credits of up to $12,500 for new electric vehicles would help propel EV sales. They’d also dovetail with provisions in the recent $1.2-billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to move toward a half million U.S. charging stations.
“It takes a long time for the fleet to turn over,” said Cohan. “We wouldn’t really see the decline in gasoline use right away, but we’ll be getting on a trajectory toward faster adoption of clean vehicles. That will really determine what emissions look like in the 2030s.”
The state of China’s economy
China, which manufactures and exports goods for the U.S. and many other markets, is now by far the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. China generated about 30% of global emissions in 2020, the U.S. 14%, and India 7%.
Put another way: even if China were to successfully keep its emissions flat from 2020 through 2030, the rest of the world would have to achieve cuts of more than 70% in order to produce a worldwide cut of 50% for this decade.
Multiple analysts are predicting that China’s breakneck economic growth in recent decades will sag to around 5% in 2022. That would mark the country’s slowest growth year since 1990, not counting the pandemic-slowed rise of 2.2% in 2020.
“I think the speed of economic recovery from Covid (and of additional variants should they emerge) and what happens with China’s apparent economic slowdown will be the biggest determinants of 2022 emissions relative to 2021,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, in an email.
Looking further out, “state-owned enterprises are where the rubber meets the road in terms of China’s climate aspirations,” said Michael Davidson (University of California, San Diego), in an email. Davidson studies emerging electricity markets and the deployment of renewables.
China’s state-owned enterprises are strengthening their near-term targets for low-carbon deployment, according to Davidson, and they’re evaluating plans to become carbon-neutral by 2060 or earlier. “I am watching for clues about how rapidly they will transition and how they will deal with stranded assets and workers,” Davidson added.
The growth of renewables, and the dance between coal and natural gas
Renewable energy continues to boom, growing by roughly 8% a year and providing 28% of the world’s electricity in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). However, the expanding slice of renewables is part of a consumption pie that also continues to grow. In 2021, the world’s electricity demand jumped by 6%, and emissions from electricity production hit a record high.
The ever-improving economics of wind and solar energy, plus the worldwide expansion of natural gas, gave coal a gut punch in the late 2010s. The blow wasn’t fatal – at least not yet – as coal had a startling rebound in 2021. The increase in coal use outpaced renewables for the first time in eight years, the IEA reported, and coal in 2021 provided 36% of global electricity generation.
Coal’s resurgence was largely in response to skyrocketing demand, especially in the latter half of 2021. The pinch was notably sharp in China. As temperature extremes pushed up demand, the nation’s distinct mix of central planning, price controls, and regional energy markets complicated the response, as analyzed by Davidson in the journal Foreign Affairs. Rolling blackouts affected millions in at least 20 provinces during the fall, and coal production was ramped up in response.
In its Coal 2021 report, released in December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted coal to again decline in favor of natural gas and renewables across much of the world. However, the report stresses that China and India – which use twice as much coal as the rest of the world combined – are exceptions: Both remain on track to increase their coal use over the next several years.
Globally, the IEA predicted coal demand will hit a new record in 2022 and hold roughly steady till at least 2024. That could throw a sooty wrench into efforts to cut near-term carbon emissions.
New U.S. regulations on fuel economy
Back-and-forth policies continue to buffet automakers as they work to comply with U.S. regulations. After fuel economy rules were strengthened in the Obama administration, then weakened under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a short-term restrengthening on December 30: a fleetwide target per manufacturer of 40 mpg by 2026, replacing the former 32 mpg. Regulations beyond 2026 are expected to be announced later this year.
Fuel-economy measures remain vital given that transportation is the nation’s single largest emissions sector. “For at least this decade, the majority of cars and trucks sold will be fueled by gasoline or diesel,” said Cohan.
California’s recent Advanced Clean Trucks rule requires that 30% to 50% of all medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in the state by 2030 be zero-emission, increasing to 40% to 75% by 2035. This approach might get national traction, according to Cohan: “You could get a critical mass of states adopting clean trucks that could be critical to reducing diesel emissions.”
The next annual Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 27, is set for November 7-18 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. One reason that COP 26, held last November in Glasgow, was so high-profile is that it kicked off the first global “stocktake” of the Paris Agreement. As adopted in 2015, the agreement calls for the world’s nations to update their voluntary emission reduction goals (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) every five years, starting in 2020. That deadline got delayed a year by the pandemic.
The U.S. midterm elections
Even though there’s no presidential race in 2022, federal and state elections on November 8 could have a big impact on U.S. emissions later this decade, depending on how the votes shape the composition of state leaders and of legislators in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Many cities and states have set bold goals for clean energy, especially in the wake of a “blue wave” that put a number of state houses into Democratic hands in 2018. Almost half of U.S. states (24) now have greenhouse gas emission targets embedded in law or executive policy, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“No states had committed to 100% clean electricity before [Donald] Trump’s election,” Cohan said. “In the Trump years, we had an unprecedented spike in ambition of states moving towards clean energy goals.
“If there’s a red wave in 2022, we could see some states move in the opposite direction,” he said.
Geopolitical wild cards and the flatness fallacy
Tensions mounted quickly in January as Russia deployed some 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. If an armed conflict were to erupt, it could play obvious havoc with energy supplies and prices and in turn on the global energy mix. Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of both oil and natural gas, and one of Europe’s main sources.
The complexities of decarbonization are especially stark in Germany, where the nation’s last remaining nuclear plant is slated to close by year’s end. Renewables have grown by leaps and bounds in Germany, yet with the demise of nuclear power, fossil fuel use may actually increase in the short term, noted a study by the German Institute for Economic Research cited by Clean Energy Wire in December. “The winter months of 2022 are likely going to provide a ‘real life’ stress test for Europe’s and Germany’s energy supply, as gas and power prices are soaring,” noted Clean Energy Wire.
Davidson foresees potential in the coming year for strains between the U.S. and China to affect clean-energy deployment and trade. “As the U.S. tries to decouple its supply chains from China, this will raise costs for consumers and could create other ripples globally,” Davidson said.
“On the other hand, enhanced industrial policy in both countries can lead to more product development and competition to supply the world’s low-carbon technologies,” he continued.. “Which factor will dominate is still unclear.”
Apart from geopolitical question marks, the biggest hazard over the next couple of years might just be a misleading sense of satisfaction among the public and politicians at keeping emissions flat. It’s quite possible that 2019 will end up marking a global peak in fossil-fuel emissions, assuming that 2022 and 2023 come in near or just short of levels in 2019.
The problem in that case: Simply flattening the curve won’t be enough to meet the 2030 goal. Each year in steady-state mode would vastly increase pressure over the subsequent years of the decade.
IEA executive director Fatih Birol warned in a January commentary that global investments in clean energy need to triple by 2030 to preserve a viable pathway to 1.5 C. “Much stronger investment in low-carbon energy technologies including renewables, energy efficiency, and nuclear power is the way out of this impasse,” said Birol.
“But this needs to happen quickly or global energy markets will face a turbulent and volatile period ahead,” Birol cautioned.
Bob Henson, a meteorologist and science writer based in Colorado, is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.”