Reducing large-scale emissions to overcome climate variability

| Updated: July 17, 2022 22:03:26

Reducing large-scale emissions to overcome climate variability

The US Supreme Court on 30 June seriously affected efforts aimed at combating climate action in parts of the world including the United States suffering from climate variability. This took place, as observed by climatologist Ella Nielson "by handcuffing the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate planet-warming emissions from the country's power plants, just as scientists warn the world is running out of time to get the climate crisis under control". This is being seen by CNN as "a major loss for not only the Biden administration's climate goals, but it also calls into question the future of federal-level climate action and puts even more pressure on Congress to act to reduce emissions". This is seen by strategic analysts as a decision that could create more challenges for the US in being able to implement efforts to control the climate crisis emerging from climate change and its deadly impacts resulting from planet-warming emissions from power plants, which are a huge contributor to the climate crisis.

US Climate Change Envoy John Kerry feels that the Court decision will hinder the United States from meeting the goals it submitted to the United Nations on slashing greenhouse gas emissions. He has, however, promised that the Biden Administration will try to meet these goals. 

The seriousness of this evolving issue can be best understood through a careful review of the extreme weather events that are taking place throughout the world over the past few months. Acute weather events - from scorching heat waves to unusually heavy downpours - have caused widespread upheavals across the globe, with thousands of people killed and millions more displaced. In the last three months, monsoon rains have unleashed disastrous flooding in Bangladesh, and brutal heat waves have scorched parts of South Asia and Europe. Meanwhile, prolonged drought has left millions on the brink of famine in East Africa. Much of this, scientists say, is due to climate change.

Last month a group of climate scientists published an interesting study in the journal Environmental Research: Climate. The researchers scrutinised the role climate change has played in individual weather events over the past two decades and reiterated earlier warnings of how the intensity of global warming will change our world.  They have been able to agree on certain aspects but have not found least common denominators pertaining to how climate change influences wildfires and drought.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a probability that heat waves are contributing towards general deterioration. Ben Clarke, an environmental scientist at the University of Oxford has noted in this context that in general, a heat wave that previously had a 1 in 10 chance of occurring is now nearly three times as likely, and peaking at temperatures around 1 degree celsius higher than it would have been without climate change. Reference has been made in this context not only to the April heat wave that saw the mercury climb above 50C (122 Fahrenheit) in India and Pakistan but also to the heat waves that affected the Northern Hemisphere in June -- from Europe to the United States. 

Similarly, attention has been drawn to rainfall and extreme flooding in certain parts of the world. Reference has been made to the recent extensive flooding in China following heavy rains. Attention has also been drawn to the flood-triggering deluge that has hit parts of North- East India and Bangladesh. Overall, episodes of heavy rainfall are becoming more common and more intense. That is because warmer air holds more moisture and that leads to storm clouds becoming "heavier" before they eventually break down as rain.

Heatwaves and drought conditions are also worsening wildfires, particularly mega fires -- those that burn more than 100,000 acres. Fire raged across the US state of New Mexico in April, after a controlled burn set under "much drier conditions than recognised" got out of control, according to the US Forest Service. The fires burned 341,000 acres.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also indicated that around 25 per cent of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions around the globe and in the US come from the process of generating electricity.  It has also been noted that coal, considered as the dirtiest fossil fuel, powers about 20 per cent of US electricity. Researchers have since concluded that in the USA, emissions from power production increased for the first time since 2014, an increase that was mainly driven by coal use.

Scientists have become increasingly vocal in their warnings that to move forward on the climate crisis, emissions need to not only be reduced but the world also needs to develop ways to remove the greenhouse gas that has been generated into the atmosphere over the past decades.

In this context climatologists are reiterating that to avoid the worst consequences, the world must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. They have also observed that it has already passed 1.1 degrees. Consequently, it is vital that efforts are made to keep the vast majority of the Earth's remaining fossil fuel stores in the ground.

Environmentalists are accordingly upset with the US Supreme Court for their observation that the Clean Air Act does not give EPA broad authority to regulate planet-warming emissions from power plants. The Agency still has options to regulate emissions, but the Court thinks that the law does not empower the Agency to put a limit on emissions and force power plants to move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.

Some analysts in the media have taken this opportunity to recall the Clean Power Plan-- an Obama-era rule that set a goal for each State in the USA to limit carbon emissions, while letting those States determine how to meet those goals. In many cases, ditching coal and natural gas in favor of solar and wind was the most economically viable solution. After the Supreme Court's views came to the forefront, some environmental attorneys have reiterated that shifting from fossil fuels to renewables was the most effective, efficient and low-cost way of reducing greenhouse emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. They feel that the Court through its latest measure against the EPA is removing the most effective tool for controlling greenhouse gas pollution from existing power plants.

On the other hand CNN has reported that some jurists have observed that the Supreme Court has reduced the EPA authority by invoking the Major Questions Doctrine -- a ruling that will also impact the federal government's authority to regulate other areas of climate policy, as well as regulation of the internet and worker safety. In this regard some among them have said that the biggest issues should be decided by Congress itself, not agencies like the EPA.

The world is now carefully monitoring how the Biden Administration will craft a regulatory process for power plant emissions that will fit within the confines of the Supreme Court's opinion. The EPA while reviewing the Court's opinion intends to move forward with a rule dealing with power plant emissions. The EPA has publicly committed that such a rule would be ready by March 2024. This evolving dynamic has also led the EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan to state - "We will move forward to provide certainty and transparency for the energy sector, which will support the industry's ongoing efforts to grow our clean energy economy." The EPA will apparently also create a strategy to combat other environmental pollutants coming from coal-fired power plants- including cutting emission of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and coal ash waste. It is believed that such a measure will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

One has to note here that during the above changes being brought into the US environmental paradigm, there has also been serious discussion among G7 Member States during their latest meeting.

Environmental groups have warned that some European nations need to keep climate action on track and not risk undermining their green goals by scrambling to secure new sources of natural gas to make up for shortfalls in supplies from Russia. This came about when Ministers from the world's wealthiest democracies wrangled over how to keep climate change goals on track as they met in Berlin in the last week of May this year. This had been convened because of surging energy costs and fuel supply worries sparked by the war in Ukraine. The meeting of the Energy, Climate and Environment Ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) countries also carefully reviewed their commitment to contain global warming at1.5 degrees Celsius and thereby protect biodiversity.

This issue of global warming and the effect of climate change on vulnerable nations have drawn particular attention of Germany among the G7 members. Robert Habeck, Germany's Energy and Climate Minister has underlined that the G7 can lead the way on ending the use of coal, a heavily polluting fossil fuel that is responsible for a large chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions. He has also suggested interestingly that the "the G-7 can perhaps take a certain pioneering role to end the use of coal for electricity and also in decarbonising the transport system." This issue along with the relevant connotations were taken forward subsequently to the G7 leaders' Summit in Elmau, Germany.

It is understood that it will also feature in the meeting of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies later this year. Environmental activists believe that getting G20 countries to agree on the ambitious targets set by some of the most advanced economies within the G7  will be the key, as countries such as China, India and Indonesia remain heavily reliant on coal.

 One can only hope that this evolving scenario will eventually also lead to agreements on boosting financial aid for poor countries to cope with climate change, additional funds for biodiversity, protecting oceans and reducing plastic pollution.

Though Bangladesh is outside the ambit of these evolving discussions, our Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has recently correctly reaffirmed Bangladesh's commitment to achieve all targets relevant to Sustainable Development Goal-14 -- conservation and sustainable use of marine resources for sustainable development -- all directly and indirectly related to the climate change matrix. He also attached importance to marine science for eradicating poverty, contributing to food security and  helping to predict and respond to natural and anthropogenic events.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. [email protected]

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