Written By:

The Chronicle

By Alice Loyd (through December 31, 2015)


The much-anticipated 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21), was held in Paris, France, from November 30 to December 12, 2015, with 196 nations participating. The adopted version of the Paris Agreement will become legally binding if joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions, when these parties commit through their own legal systems. The agreement set the goal of limiting the average global warming by 2100 to less than 2oC, which is 3.6oF, as compared to pre-industrial levels. More ambitiously, it urged parties to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC, and called for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century.

These numbers represent aspirations rather than emissions-reduction pledges made by governments to date. Looking at the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that nations registered with the United Nations (UN) prior to and during the Paris meeting—targets they hope to reach by 2030, analysts have assessed the impact. Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has been calculating temperature estimates from climate action pledges since 2009. Its post-summit analysis sees the pledges achieving 2.7oC by 2100 rather than the desired 1.5oC or 2oC. climateactiontracker Other sources have calculated an increase of up to 3.7oC based on the published commitments. Considering that the pledges are non-binding, and that the arrangement leaves the door open for free trade pacts like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to overrule climate legislation, Paris may best be seen as the moment when climate first took world center stage. The vision was announced. Now comes the work. gaiafoundation

The language of the Paris Agreement commits developed nations to provide financial resources to developing countries to “enhance the implementation of their policies…with respect to both mitigation and adaptation.” These nations are to meet prior to 2025 to set ”a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year.” unfccc.int The floor figure is a meagre starting point, considering the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the transformation to a fossil-free world will require $670 billion to be spent in developing nations by 2020. newint.org The figure is also paltry compared with the estimated $5,300 billion per year that governments spend on direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels. newint.org

The Paris Agreement does not address energy production. The agreement fails to mention renewables and doesn’t commit major emitters to reduce amounts of fossil fuel extraction. However, outside of the negotiations it is increasingly understood that “leave it in the ground” is a necessity, not just a slogan. The IEA has stated, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2oC goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed.” iea.org

Not even carbon capture will allow fossil fuel consumption, though, according to new research published in the journal Nature. “Trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas, and much potential shale gas cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2oC safety limit agreed by the world’s nations.” The new study by a team at University College London is the first to reveal which fuels from which countries would have to be abandoned. It also shows that technology to capture and bury carbon emissions, touted by some as a way to continue substantial fossil fuel use in power stations, makes surprisingly little difference to the amount of coal, oil and gas deemed unburnable. The analysis finds 82% of coal reserves must be left underground—forcing the United States, Australia, and Russia to abandon 90% of coal reserves, and China and India to leave 66% of reserves unburned. While the prospects for natural gas are better, the study nevertheless concludes 50% of global reserves must remain unburned.

The researchers assumed cost effective climate policies would use the cheapest fossil fuels first. For example, the model predicts that significant cheap-to-produce conventional oil would be burned, but that the carbon limit would be reached before more expensive tar sands oil could be used. The Middle East would have to leave 260 billion barrels of oil in the ground, an amount equivalent to Saudi Arabia’s entire oil reserve. The research finds no climate-friendly scenario in which any oil or gas is drilled in the Arctic. theguardian.com

In Paris developing nations persistently raised the issue of historic obligation concerning global warming emissions. The bulk of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere were put there by the United States and the European Union. These early-industrializers used up most of the world’s carbon budget, leaving non-industrialized countries behind—in poverty and now dealing with fierce climate-change consequences. One widely published set of figures measures future carbon emissions by fair share. It uses a formula developed by Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey working for the Sustainable Development Commission that was set up in 2001 to advise the Labor government in Britain. To achieve the emissions reductions necessary to maintain 2oC, the United States would need to drop from 770 grams of emitted carbon dioxide per US dollar to only 40 grams by 2050. If we were serious about equality and wanted all the planet’s nine billion people to enjoy prosperity similar to US citizens today, then our efficiency would need to improve to 14 grams of carbon dioxide per US dollar. Going further, if we pursued an equal world where on average US citizens still get a little richer by 2050, then we would have to improve efficiency to the point where only six grams of carbon dioxide are needed for each US dollar. This is 130 times more efficient than today. mnn.com

Countries have agreed to come back to the table to revise their INDCs and “increase their ambition” every five years, beginning in 2020, with the aim of revising policies if needed to keep on target. The hope is that in these next five years developed nations will make enough progress in reducing emissions that the world is not by then already locked into a scenario above 2oC.

Perhaps climate events of 2015 will influence climate policy. At the end of October, Cyclone Chapala brought winds up to 80 miles per hour and rainfall 2 to 7 times the yearly average in just two days over parts of south coastal Yemen. Chapala was the strongest tropical cyclone on record so far south in the Arabian Sea. weather.com Vast areas of the Central Valley of California are sinking due to four years of record drought and two years of heat that prompted farmers to drill deeper wells, which shrank water tables still further. This area produces about forty per cent of the fruits and vegetables sold in US supermarkets. cbsnews.com In November researchers announced that Greenland’s Zachariae Glacier has begun a rapid retreat into a deep underwater basin. The glacier contains a foot and a half (0.5 meters) of potential sea level rise and has lost fully 95 percent of the ice shelf that was helping to stabilize it. washingtonpost.com At least 29 million people in southern Africa face food insecurity due to the worst drought in a generation. In Ethiopia, more than 10 million people are in need of emergency food aid due to ongoing, prolonged drought. Pakistan this summer suffered its deadliest heat wave ever recorded, with at least 2,000 lives lost. In India, a heat wave killed at least 2,500 people. Temperatures in Iran felt like 160oF during this summer’s heat wave. Over 1.2 million people in the Philippines were impacted by mega-typhoon Lando in October. commondreams.org

And at the end of December for the first time since recordkeeping began, temperatures at the North Pole rose above freezing. Average temperature in that region at this time of year is minus 28oC (minus 18.4oF). Because the North Pole is over the Arctic Ocean, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses satellite readings rather than land-based temperature gauges. esrl.noaa.gov

The unprecedented warmth at the top of the globe reflects interaction between high CO2 in the atmosphere and high sea temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (known as the Niño 3.4 region). Because the Pacific is so vast, an El Niño can have large ripple effects on weather around the world, especially during the winter months. With both global air temperature and sea surface temperatures in the Niño 3.4 region the highest ever, unusually harsh El Niño weather events are inevitable. vox.com The storm system that arose generated deadly tornadoes in the US Southeast over Christmas. The system then burst into the Eastern North Atlantic, where it became Storm Frank. Frank drew “large amounts of warm air north from the tropics across the north Atlantic,” according to the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, with the result that rains unusually heavy and winds up to 85 mph afflicted much of the British Isles. telegraph.co.uk and accuweather.com

Over Iceland the storm system gained power due to the pressure gradient between a strong low pressure system (928 mb) in that location and the very strong high pressure system (1046 mb) over Europe. The pressure gradient squeezed warm air all the way into the Arctic Circle on December 30. accuweather.com (Atmospheric pressure is commonly measured in millibars [mb]. Standard atmospheric pressure at sea level is 1,013 millibars.) dictionary.reference.com

In order for this huge, hot storm to reach Iceland as it did on December 30, it had to blast a hole through the Jet Stream, the atmospheric “river” that brings temperate weather to Europe. theatlantic.com Yet El Niño should typically reinforce the Jet Stream, explained the climate writer Robert Scribbler. He wrote on December 29, “[T]he far northward propagation of warm air into the Barents and High Arctic along with the extreme strength of the predicted storm are both likely new features of an overall altered pattern. What we witness here are both climates and weather features changing before our eyes in the form of what to us may seem a freak event—but what is actually part of a dangerous transition period away from the stable climates of the Holocene.” robertscribbler.com


Most Americans no longer are middle class. A Pew Research Center study in December reports that more people are now either in upper-income or lower-income brackets. According to the report, “Fully 49 percent of the nation’s aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29 percent in 1970. The share that went to middle-income households was 43 percent in 2014, far less than in 1970.” As NPR commentator Michel Martin quipped about the disappearance of the middle class, “Perhaps that is why the politics of the moment sound so extreme.… [T]he ends of the spectrum cannot hear each other except when they shout.” npr.org

Because so many millennials are making less than $10,000 a year, 720,000 young adults control about twice the income of the 14 million millennials in the bottom 20 percent. Said another way, while a baby boomer would have to make $90,000 to be in the top 10 percent of earners among peers, a millennial shoots to the top making $60,000–a typical starting wage for an engineering or computer science major. newsobserver.com. Millennials are young adults in the United States born between 1980 and 2000 (though definitions of the term vary).

Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty is a report from the World Bank published in November. As many as 100 million people could slide into extreme poverty because of rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions, says the report. The bank’s most recent estimate puts the number of people living in extreme poverty in 2015 at 702 million, or 9.6% of the world’s population. Extreme poverty has long been defined as living on or below $1.25 a day, but the World Bank’s adjustment in 2012 set the poverty line at $1.90 a day. The Bank said the change reflects new data on differences across countries in the cost of living, while preserving the real purchasing power of the previous yardstick. This follows the adoption in 2001 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which included the eradication of extreme poverty. Replacing the MDGs are the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals to combat poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030—with ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere a key target. theguardian.com


On November 6, two dams at a mine in Brazil collapsed, sending 15.8 billion gallons of waste-laden water and sludge though downstream towns in the state of Minas Gerais, about 250 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. The company was in the process of raising the dam wall, which authorities said was cheaper than replacing it. Mudflow thick with toxic mining waste engulfed and devastated Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu, two districts in the state of Minas Gerais, and contaminated the river, which was a primary source of clean water and food in the region. Over the next several weeks the flood of sludge travelled more than 300 miles to reach the Atlantic, according to Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama. Ibama called it the country’s “worst environmental catastrophe in history,” and said thousands of hectares of land and water in the region have been affected. aljazeera.com and thinkprogress.org 

On December 7 officials in Beijing declared a three-day red alert due to thick smog blanketing the city. It was the first time they have raised the alarm to its highest level since an emergency air-pollution response system was announced in 2013. On December 18 a second, four-day red alert was issued. The alerts called for schools to close, car traffic to be halved, and 2,100 factories to suspend or reduce production. Counts of PM2.5—harmful microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs—were 172 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the US embassy, which issues independent readings. The reading is nearly seven times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure of 25 over a 24-hour period. The main source of smog in the capita, however, comes from coal-burning factories in surrounding provinces, not from activity in the city itself, and cities in those provinces did not take the same drastic emergency measures. In Anyang, Henan Province, the air quality index read 999 on December 10, three times worse than in Beijing and at the top of the scale. Handan, in Hebei Province, was at 822. By United States standards, anything above 300 is “hazardous,” meaning people should stay indoors. nytimes.com and nytimes.com/2015/12/10

Wood may become a viable alternative to concrete and steel for mid-to-high rise buildings. Some building projects in New York City and Portland, Oregon, will be constructed with an environmentally sustainable, cost-competitive building material called mass timber. Each was awarded $1.5M from the Tall Wood Building prize of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a competition that intends to mitigate climate change and support jobs in rural America. In addition to these benefits of wood, says Amir Shahrokhi, project director at SHoP Architecture, one of the firms engaged in the 10-story residential condo in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood, “Spaces that utilize wood in a significant way have been shown to have considerable psychological benefits for the inhabitants, from reduced hearts rates and stress levels to improved productivity.” Mass timber is an umbrella term for large, solid chunks of panelized wood: cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail laminated timber (NLT) and glue laminated timber (glulam). CLT has been called “plywood on steroids.” Similar to panels of precast concrete, CLT is lighter, quieter in construction, and more environmentally benign. Concrete is responsible for about five per cent of global CO2 emissions. For every ton of cement made, one ton of CO2 is produced. The USDA’s objective in offering the Tall Wood Building competition is to create America’s first modern mass timber building reaching 80 feet or higher. theguardian.com and rethinkwood.com

The young are leading a campaign to use the courts to enforce climate change action by governments. Hallie Turner, a 13-year-old middle-schooler who took North Carolina to court over climate change, was undismayed on November 25 when a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled against her effort to overturn a December 2014 decision by the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission. She commented, “It’s an issue that I’m always going to continue trying to make a difference in. There’s lots of next steps that can be taken.” charlotteobserver.com Eight youth petitioners in Seattle, Washington received a better response on November 18 to their request that the Washington Department of Ecology write a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come. In that case Judge Hollis R. Hill declared, “[The youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.” ourchildrenstrust.org In New Zealand Sarah Thomson, 24, has filed judicial review proceedings against the Minister of Climate Change Issues, claiming he has failed his ministerial duties by not setting adequate emission targets. Ms. Thomson, who recently completed law studies at Waikato University, says emission targets need to reflect the scientific consensus on climate change. Prime Minister John Key has dismissed the legal action as “a joke.” 3news.co.nz