Next week, thousands of ministers and diplomats from across the world will descend on an event campus in Glasgow, Scotland for the most important climate conference in recent years–and perhaps the most significant international meeting of our lifetimes.
From Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, they’ll be bringing forward countries’ first updated plans to cut emissions since the Paris accords six years ago, and finalizing the so-called “Paris Rulebook” that will govern how the agreement’s ambitious emissions reductions will actually be implemented around the world. The conference’s organizers have laid out several goals for the event, among them eliminating the world’s coal power plants, replacing gasoline vehicles with electric models and reaching an agreement for wealthy nations to provide $100 billion annually in financing to support the climate transition in the developing world.
It’s hard to overstate the urgency behind those negotiations. Delayed from 2020 due to the global pandemic, COP26 follows a year in which, from massive wildfires in Siberia and unprecedented flooding in Germany and Belgium, to famine in Madagascar and record-shattering heat in the American West, it’s become abundantly clear that climate change has contributed to increasingly frequent and severe weather events. It’s also set against the backdrop of the most recent scientific report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in August of this year, which laid out the current state of the worlds’ climate and the consequences of inaction in its starkest-ever terms.
Some progress has been made in recent years, but the world is still far off-track to achieve the emissions reductions goals of the Paris Accords, with countries’ current commitments still likely to produce a devastating level of global heating in coming decades–if nations follow through on them at all. But as countries hammer out their differences in Glasgow’s meeting halls, it’s anyone’s guess if they will reach an agreement to zero out the world’s emissions in coming decades. A recent European energy crisis, COVID-19 logistical headaches and crucial absences by some world leaders have put the success of negotiations in doubt, while some observers worry that the world’s rich nations will continue to hold back crucial financial support for less advanced economies, which have contributed far less to creating the current climate crisis.
From outside the negotiating room, it can be difficult to cut through the jargon and see what’s actually at stake in these talks. Our reporters have put together a list showing where the world stands on the crucial goals of COP26, what we need to achieve and what stands in the way.
Finalize the Paris rulebook
Negotiators want to finalize the only outstanding part of the Paris Agreement: Article 6. It would create a global carbon market–in which a country or business could pay for projects that reduce emissions elsewhere and then count those reductions in their own targets (often known as “offsetting”). The hope is that a carbon market would drive funds to the places where emissions can be cut most efficiently, making it cheaper to achieve global climate goals. But without robust rules, a market system could allow for emissions reductions to be counted twice or allow countries to sell credits for emissions cut long ago or projects that would have happened anyway. Many activists say that if countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia succeed in pushing through lax rules, it would slow climate action and reward polluters.–Ciara Nugent
Dramatically increase investments in renewable energy
Renewable energy costs have fallen dramatically in recent years, and in much of the world building new solar or wind power infrastructure is cheaper than coal or natural gas. But the world isn’t building those new power plants nearly fast enough to bring down emissions in line with the targets of the Paris Accords, especially in the developing world, where borrowing costs necessary to build such projects can be many times higher than in wealthy nations.
China leads the world in clean energy investment, followed by the U.S., Germany, Japan and the U.K. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable energy investment needs to triple over the next decade in order to zero out emissions by 2050, with 70% of those funds to be spent in the developing world.–Alejandro de la Garza
Improve collaboration between the public and private sectors
Though the center of COP26 is negotiations between countries, governments know policy alone can’t solve climate change. Weaning the global economy off fossil fuels is impossible without collaboration from businesses and civil society. COP organizers want to encourage more climate action from the public–through public-facing events— and crucially from the private sector. There are promising signs: a fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies have already committed to net-zero targets, though campaigners warn that many lack firm plans to reach those targets. Business leaders will be pushing for governments to introduce new policies that help them do more –such as subsidies and investments for clean technologies, or carbon pricing systems that reward those who cut emissions fastest.–Ciara Nugent
Expand electric vehicle adoption
Electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming more common around the world, but they aren’t taking over from their polluting, gasoline-powered predecessors fast enough.
The world’s roadways had about 10 million EVs as of the end of 2020, and the IEA predicts the next ten years will see a massive expansion to 145 million zero-emissions vehicles (7% of the world’s market) by 2030, thanks in part to falling costs and improved charging infrastructure. But that number will have to be much higher–230 million vehicles, or 12% of all the world’s cars and trucks in 2030–to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.–Alejandro de la Garza
Halt deforestation and improve protections for ecosystems
Forests are disappearing around the world, though they’re not being logged as fast as they were a few decades ago. The world lost 7.8 million hectares of forest per year between 1990 and 2000, compared to 4.7 million hectares per year from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, but the cumulative loss since 1990 still adds up to an area the size of Libya: 178 million hectares, and accounts for the second-largest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions after burning fossil fuels.
The COP26 organizers are pushing to reverse that deforestation trend by 2030, a plan which could include pooling government funding to protect vital forests like the Congo Basin.–Alejandro de la Garza
Commit to putting an end to coal
Coal is one of the dirtiest energy sources in use, accounting for 30% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Yet it still generates 38% of the world’s electricity. COP26 organizers have set a goal to “consign coal to history,” and U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres is urging rich nations to commit to phase out coal power by 2030 and developing nations by 2040, saying that doing so would be “the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.” Moving away from coal may prove harder for some countries than others.–Aryn Baker
Develop more robust resilience plans
Even if nations can somehow agree on greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5?C by the end of the century, the droughts, heatwaves and extreme weather we have witnessed over the past year will remain part of the new normal. Without an agreement, they will only get worse. As a result, cities will have to prepare for a future of climatic extremes. Yet nearly half the world’s major cities lack plans to keep their populations safe from climate threats. According to environmental-impact monitoring charity CDP, only 88 cities out of 850 made it onto the organization’s 2020 A List for environmental action and climate change resilience. —Aryn Baker
Scaling up climate finance
Providing assistance to countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, often who have done little to contribute to the current levels of carbon emissions, was a cornerstone of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The plan, first developed at the 2009 COP in Copenhagen, was ambitious–to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources–but also vague.
Data from the OECD show that climate finance only reached $80 billion in 2019 and a recent report from Oxfam examined the levels of funding already pledged and said that the $100 billion target is unlikely to be met, even by 2025. It might be even worse than that: there are disputes about how much money has actually been pledged and a report last year commissioned by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres found that donors were over-reporting climate-funding by $3-$4 billion each. Ahead of COP26, a number of countries, including the U.S., made additional climate finance pledges but there is still a large shortfall. The issue of climate finance and the gap in funding provided has caused a lack of trust from developing countries which could impact the ability to reach agreements at COP26. –Jennifer Duggan
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Moderna Says New Vaccine for Omicron Variant May Be Ready in Early 2022
Bloomberg — Moderna Inc. Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said he suspects the new omicron coronavirus variant may elude current vaccines, and if so, a reformulated shot could be available early in the new year.”We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,” Burton said Sunday on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”
“If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities,” he said. “The remarkable thing about the mRNA vaccines, the Moderna platform, is that we can move very fast,” he said.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech company mobilized “hundreds” of staff early on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., after news of the omicron variant spread.
Protection should still exist, depending on how long ago a person was vaccinated, and for now the best advice is to take one of the current Covid-19 vaccines, Burton said.
“If people are on the fence, and you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated,” he said. “This is a dangerous looking virus, but I think we have many tools in our armamentarium now to fight it.”
The emergence of the omicron strain has seen countries rush to clamp down on travel from southern Africa. Fears that it could exacerbate a winter Covid surge in the northern hemisphere and undermine a global economic recovery sent a wave of risk aversion across global markets Friday that continued Sunday when the Middle East opened for the week.
Moderna said in a release on Friday that it was working rapidly to test the current vaccine against the omicron variant, and studying two booster candidates.
“Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern,” the company said. “The company has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to advance new candidates to clinical testing in 60 to 90 days.”
(C) 2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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Europe’s Energy Crisis Is About to Get Worse As Winter Arrives
Bloomberg — Energy prices in Europe are repeatedly breaking records even before winter really kicks in, and one of the most damaging cost crunches in history is about to get worse as the temperature starts to drop.A super price spike in the U.K. last month forced some industrial companies to cut production and seek state aid, a harbinger for what could play out widely in Europe just as it contends with a resurgence of the coronavirus. For governments, it could mean tension with neighboring countries by moving to protect supplies. For households, it could mean being asked to use less energy or even plan for rolling blackouts.
The trouble is that any fix is unlikely to come from the supply side any time soon, with exporters Russia piping only what it has to and Qatar saying it’s producing what it can. The energy industry is instead faced with relying on “demand destruction,” said Fabian Roenningen, an analyst at Rysted Energy.
“We have seen it over the last couple of months already, and in many industries, it will most likely continue and even increase,” he said from Oslo. “It’s just not profitable to operate for a lot of the players in the current market conditions.”
The outlook adds to the sense of foreboding in Europe. The region is back at the epicenter of the pandemic again with Covid-19 cases surging and fears about a new variant identified in South Africa swirling the globe. Restrictions are being tightened in some countries, while household budgets are being squeezed by rampant inflation. On top of that, freezing weather could mean the lights going out. A return to lockdown like in Austria would help curb power demand, though few governments want to do that.
France, Europe’s second biggest economy, is particularly at risk. The possibility of a chill in January and February is causing concern for the nation’s grid operator. Availability at nuclear stations, the workhorse of the French power system, is low after the pandemic delayed the maintenance of some reactors, according to a report on Nov. 22.
Power prices there are the highest since 2012 as a cold blast creeps into France and is expected to take hold by Monday when workday demand starts to rise.
Last winter, the grid operator appealed to households to use less energy at peak times and activated some demand reduction contracts with manufacturers when things got really tight. The next step would be to reduce voltage across the network and then rolling blackouts of two hours per region as a last resort. All that would come ahead of a presidential election.
“If there’s a deep cold snap and there’s no wind, things could become tight given the lesser availability of nuclear plants and the recent closure of dispatchable generation assets using coal,” said Nicolas Goldberg, a senior manager in charge of energy at Colombus Consulting in Paris. “If it’s getting really cold and there’s no wind, it may become a problem.”
France is also a key exporter of electricity to neighboring countries, meaning that the effects of a crisis would reverberate in Germany, Spain, Italy and Britain. Maximum demand is expected to be 80.7 gigawatts on Monday, still some way off the record 102 gigawatts from February 2012.
The situation is already so dire this early in the winter season because of a blistering rally in natural gas prices. Stores of the fuel, used to heat homes and to generate electricity, are lower than usual and are being depleted quickly. Analysts have warned that gas stores could drop to zero this winter if cold weather boosts demand.
Rolling blackouts are a possibility, warned Jeremy Weir, chief executive officer of Trafigura Group, a Swiss commodity trading house on Nov. 16.
“If the weather gets cold in Europe there’s not going to be an easy supply solution, it’s going to need a demand solution,” said Adam Lewis, partner at trading house Hartree Partners LP.
On the supply side, what Russia does next will be key. President Vladimir Putin signaled he would help Europe with more supplies to stabilize the market, but while shipments have recovered after a slump at the start of November, they are low compared with last year. How much gas Russia sends to Europe in December remains an even bigger mystery.
The long-awaited start of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany from Russia would ease the continent’s energy crunch. The project is finished, but has run into regulatory hurdles and it’s unclear when flows will start.
Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, says it’s already producing gas at full capacity. The Gulf nation, which has low production costs thanks to an abundance of easy-to-extract fuel, has ordered six more LNG ships from South Korea on top of four tankers purchased from China in October.
If things get really bad, countries could resort to curbing sales of natural gas to other regions. An even more extreme scenario could see them halt flows of gas and power to one another, sparking political acrimony and hitting economies.
The European Union has what it calls solidarity principles that are supposed to prevent any state blocking exports of power or gas and leaving another member short, especially when it comes to supplies for households.
The solidarity, though, has never been tested in a wide-scale crisis and grid operators say that they’re allowed to stop or alter power flows through inter-country cables if they have security of supply issues. When the nicknamed “Beast from the East” hit at the end of February 2018, it was quite late into the heating season. This year, it’s likely that a less severe weather event could have a similar impact.
“It shows how exposed Europe’s power system is to the volatility in commodity prices,” said Roenningen in Oslo. “In the short term, there’s not a lot that can be done.”
(Updates with demand forecast in 10th paragraph.)
-With assistance from Francois De Beaupuy and Will Mathis.
To contact the author of this story:
Rachel Morison in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
(C) 2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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How Germany’s New Government Plans to Be the Greenest One Yet
Among environmentalists, hopes have been running high for Germany’s new government. At elections this September, growing concern about climate change, boosted by the worst floods to hit the country in 500 years, helped the German Greens double their parliamentary seats.
Though the Greens’ performance wasn’t enough to win them the chancellorship, it gave them significant clout in coalition negotiations, which they promised to use to push through parts of their radical climate action program.
They have delivered–partly. On Wednesday the party unveiled a three-way coalition agreement with economic liberals the Free Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, whose leader, Olaf Scholz, will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. The deal contains a raft of measures to slash Germany’s greenhouse emissions, which remain high compared to many European neighbours because of its heavily industrial economy and greater reliance on coal.
The measures include a commitment to massively expand renewable energies, turning over 2% of national territory to the cause; a target to phase out coal by 2030, eight years earlier than previously planned; and a plan to weaponize foreign policy to drive shifts on climate abroad.
The Greens won the right to appoint the foreign minister, which will be party co-leader and former chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock, and the head of a “super ministry” for the economy and climate protection, which will be her co-leader Robert Habeck. They will also get to pick the ministers for agriculture and environmental conservation. “We are in charge of all key energy and climate ministries,” says Sven Giegold, a Green member of the European parliament, who was on the party’s core coalition negotiating team, “and we have a whole roadmap for a post-fossil future based on renewable energy.”
But some climate campaigners said they were frustrated by a lack of clarity on the timeline for Germany’s promised phase-out of fossil fuels. For example, many had hoped the agreement would set an end date for the use of natural gas, a fossil fuel that Germany and other European countries are increasingly using as a “bridge fuel” to reduce reliance on more-polluting coal and oil in the short-term. The European Environmental Bureau, a network of activist groups and NGOs, called the gas commitments “highly disappointing” and “a missed chance for Germany to give clear indications” to energy markets.
Gielgold says the new government is focused on ramping up renewables and their supporting technologies as fast as possible so that they can replace fossil fuels, rather than on the exact dates those fuels will leave the mix in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. “Honestly, it’s not the phasing out, but the phasing in, which will inspire others to act,” he said.
Here are the four key points in the German coalition’s plan on climate, and how they could affect the rest of the world:
Expanding renewable power
The coalition pledged to make the expansion of renewable energies “a central project” of its government. By 2030, the agreement says, 80% of Germany’s power generation will come from renewables–up from around 40% today. Experts say the target is comparable to the U.K.’s goal of reaching net zero on electricity generation by 2035, and the U.S.’ of hitting “100% carbon pollution-free electricity” by 2035.
To achieve it, the government plans to increase Germany’s solar capacity five-fold to 200GW, and off-shore wind more than four-fold to 40GW by 2030, with a mandate to accelerate designation of land for onshore wind power. The agreement also calls for a costly overhaul of Germany’s electricity grid geared towards solar, wind, and hydrogen.
Germany’s renewables push could be decisive for the rest of the E.U., restoring faltering cooperation on offshore wind and pressuring others to ramp up national spending in line with the bloc’s climate goals, according to Lisa Fischer, an energy transition expert at European climate think tank E3. “[The Greens] have sort of gone on the offensive: focusing on getting real ambition on renewables deployment, and perhaps they haven’t used their energy on putting in negative criteria on gas and coal as much,” Fischer says. “And the ambition level there is great. I do think it’s a game changer for Europe.”
Phasing out coal
Germany is the world’s fourth largest consumer of coal and has lagged far behind its western European neighbours on phasing it out, due to its large reserves of lignite coal, which it has historically relied upon to ensure its energy independence. Coal made up more than a quarter of German power production in the first half of 2021
The agreement says Germany will bring forward its coal exit from the 2038 date the previous government had set. “Ideally, this will be achieved by 2030,” it reads. Though some campaigners were frustrated by the lack of a firm commitment, energy experts say the worsening economic case for coal in Europe–due to E.U. regulations and market shifts– makes it likely the 2030 date will be met.
The accelerated timeline on coal will help pile pressure on Eastern and Central European countries who are aiming for later dates. Germany has historically wielded economic and political influence over those countries, but its message on coal has been muddled by its domestic reliance. “A 2030 German coal exit leaves nowhere to hide for Poland, Czechia and Bulgaria,” climate non-profit Ember said in a statement. “Those left behind will face high electricity prices, an uncompetitive economy, and increasing pressure to act.”
Cutting reliance on natural gas
Germany, like much of the rest of Europe, is highly reliant on natural gas for heating, a sector which makes up 12% of the E.U.’s carbon dioxide emissions. Countries face a costly drive to retrofit buildings to use renewable-powered electricity, or other renewable technologies, for heat.
The coalition agreement says that “all newly installed heating systems must be operated with 65% renewable energy by 2025”, but it is unclear how fast buildings will be expected to replace their systems. Meanwhile, an existing plan to build hydrogen-ready gas power plants, combined with the lack of an end date for natural gas use, leaves the door open to gas remaining part of electricity production for years to come.
Campaigners hope the German government will strengthen its gas targets next year, as part of a promised raft of new climate legislation, and as it participates in a long-awaited E.U. review of subsidies and taxes for the fuel.
Putting climate at the center of government
Some of the brightest lights in the coalition agreement come not from policies, but from the way that climate is positioned in the structure of the German government, with Green-leadership of “the traditionally important parts of German decision-making, like agriculture, foreign policy and the economy,” Fischer says.
In an interview with TIME before the September election, Baerbock said that her priority in coalition negotiations would be overhauling the current “totally stupid” situation where “every ministry does what they want and the environment ministry does the environment.” As foreign minister, Baerbock has pledged to align trade and aid with climate goals, and to use Germany’s leadership of the G7 in 2022 to encourage other wealthy countries to accelerate their investment in clean energy infrastructure.
But perhaps the most important ministry remains out of Green control. The Greens lost the battle to appoint the finance minister–one of the fiercest of the coalition negotiations–to the Free Democrats, whose leader Christian Linder will now take the post.
An influential industry lobby group said on Tuesday that the next government would need to spend some 860 billion euros by 2030 to trigger the emissions reductions it is calling for across the economy. It may be hard to extract that much from fiscal hawks the Free Democrats. Giegold, though, says that the consensus-based nature of German politics gives him confidence that the other two parties will stump up the money to meet their commitments. “Normally in Germany, we are dull, gray, and boring,” he says. “And that means we stick to what we have agreed.”
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