New scramble for coal a reminder of how hard it is to go green

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Steam billows from a nuclear power plant next to utility lines in Doel, Belgium. Weeks before leaders gather for a U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, scientific reports are warning that more needs to be done to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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It’s ironic, to say the least. Just weeks before a global climate summit where governments will be asked to pledge ever lower carbon emissions, demand for fossil fuels is surging.

That’s partly because the economic rebound from COVID-19 lockdowns is stronger than expected, partly because of cold weather in China, partly because winds have not been blowing hard enough in Europe to power wind farms.

Why We Wrote This

On the eve of a climate summit where governments will be asked to pledge lower carbon emissions, demand for fossil fuels has spiked. That could shift the focus from targets to action.

But the sudden spike in demand for coal and natural gas certainly raises the stakes for the most important climate change conference since the 2015 Paris Agreement, taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. It also serves as a stark reminder of just how far the world’s developed economies remain from kicking their carbon habit.

It may also have the salutary effect of shifting the summit’s focus away from announcing targets and commitments, toward the nuts-and-bolts business of actually meeting them.

That would please Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, who complained recently that governments’ promises of greener policies were just “blah, blah, blah.”

“This is all we hear from our so-called leaders,” she said. “Words that sound great, but so far have led to no action.”

In the blue corner, the world’s accelerating drive to stem carbon emissions and turn back global warming. In the red corner, a sudden spike this month in global demand for fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.

There’s a heavyweight fight going on over energy priorities, and it has dramatically raised the stakes for the most important international climate change conference since the Paris Agreement of 2015, due to open in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of the month.

But it has also done something else, which could fundamentally change the debate over climate change: It has provided a stark reminder of just how far the world’s developed economies remain from kicking their carbon habit.

Why We Wrote This

On the eve of a climate summit where governments will be asked to pledge lower carbon emissions, demand for fossil fuels has spiked. That could shift the focus from targets to action.

And it is shifting the focus away from the fine words of targets and commitments toward the nuts-and-bolts business of actually meeting them amid real-world economic pressures and technological constraints.

As ever, it was Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose climate activism has spurred a worldwide youth movement, who put it most succinctly. Promises of greener policies from the United States, Britain, and a number of other governments were “blah, blah, blah,” she declared last month.

“This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words that sound great, but so far have led to no action,” she told a youth climate conference convened as part of the run-up to Glasgow.

None of this reduces the importance of the declared goals of the Glasgow summit – significantly tighter commitments to emissions cuts by the advanced economies along with billions of dollars to help poorer countries go greener. Without that, climate experts reaffirmed last month, there’s simply no prospect of meeting the Paris aim of leveling off global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius – 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – above pre-industrial levels. 

Yet even amid final preparations for the summit, Britain, mainland European nations, and China were all scrambling for increased supplies of fossil fuels to keep industries running, lights turned on, and homes heated. 

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File
Smoke and steam rise from chimneys at a Chinese coal-fired power plant. A recent report by Climate Action Tracker says China, the world's top carbon emitter, has taken “highly insufficient” measures to meet global warming targets agreed in 2015.

Why now? The pandemic has played a part. When COVID-19 forced economies to slow or shut down, demand for energy fell, and production and supply along with it. Now, the economic rebound has been far stronger than forecast.

Climate, ironically, is also partly responsible.

In China, last year’s unexpectedly cold winter hiked demand for fuel. To meet that demand, the government depleted its supplies of natural gas, because the Chinese authorities had begun to wean their country off the highest-emitting fuel of all, coal.

In Europe, despite new investment in wind power, uncommonly calm weather conditions in the North Sea have stilled turbines, limiting their ability to take up the slack.

Nuclear power might have helped in the past. Yet many countries have shied away from approving new reactors since the 2011 reactor accident in Fukushima, Japan. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has cut its nuclear power generation by 75% since 2011 and will eliminate it entirely next year.

China has brought its huge financial heft to an international bidding war for tight natural gas supplies. But it still has had to impose power restrictions as winter again begins to bite, and the government is ordering coal suppliers to ramp up production again. It may even have to ease its trade sanctions on Australia – imposed in retaliation against the Australians’ call for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 – and resume coal imports from there.

Before all of this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, the key cheerleaders for a breakthrough agreement in Glasgow, had been pressing for additional commitments to move away from coal. That’s still their hope – but against a real-world background where even ambitious new pledges will be viewed more skeptically.

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks as she joins students holding a Fridays for Future climate strike. She has dismissed government pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions as "blah, blah, blah" and called for concrete action.

“We can still turn this around,” Ms. Thunberg said, but only with “drastic annual emission cuts, unlike anything the world has ever seen.”

That scale of action seems far beyond what Glasgow is likely to accomplish, especially amid the current energy crunch. Mr. Kerry, in an otherwise upbeat take this week on what to expect, said the aim was to use the conference to create a “critical mass” of new emissions commitments that would keep the 1.5 degrees C target “in reach.”

But Ms. Thunberg’s impatience was echoed by one of the expected speakers in Glasgow, Britain’s Prince Charles, a longtime advocate of green causes.

Echoing her words, the heir to the British throne told the BBC it was a good thing that representatives of nearly 200 countries would be meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss how to combat climate change.

“But they just talk,” he added. “The problem is to get action.” 

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