It will take awhile for the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference to rustle through Montana, but it will get here.
“I keep thinking how much easier this would have been 20 years ago,” said Steve Running, a retired University of Montana forestry professor whose work on the International Panel on Climate Change helped “lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change” when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Global conditions have deteriorated in the past two decades as regional economies and power consumption have shot upward. Montana doesn’t have a seat at the talks, but its coal, wind, water and forest resources were all under discussion.
Also known as COP26, the international gathering in Glasgow, Scotland raised hopes for global action to counteract global warming, reduce sea level rise and catastrophic weather events, protect biodiversity and agriculture, and head off the risk that millions of people will become planetary refugees because of depleted water and soil resources.
The Glasgow conference officially ended on Friday, but participants went into overtime to reach a Saturday deal. Parsing the results could take weeks. Its main objective was getting every government to commit to eliminating carbon pollution by 2050.
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Underneath that nested a long list of steps to reach that goal. They included promises to protect natural habitats throughout the globe, pledges that rich countries would provide $100 billion a year to finance climate improvements, and commitments that everyone involved keep working together. That last one, while seemingly redundant, may have driven the agreement to come back in 2022 and nail down more specific goals than were made at Glasgow.
Running’s colleague Susan Joy Hassol, a contributor to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, suggested “minding the gap” — tracking what world leaders called for and what they were actually willing to sign. She identified three areas: The “ambition gap,” where no one actually pledged a national response that would keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C; the “implementation gap,” where no one has national policies in place to make good on their COP26 pledges; and the “production gap,” where no one has concrete plans to phase out fossil fuel use.
China leads the world in fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions, releasing a projected 11.1 gigatons in 2021. The United States follows at 5.1 gigatons this year. The European Union contributes 2.8 gigatons, India 2.7 gigatons, and the rest of the world’s nations a combined 14.8 gigatons.
The 2020 pandemic put a 5.4% dip in the otherwise steady upward trend of global CO2 emissions. 2021’s resumption of economic activity is forecast to erase that. The resulting 36.4 gigatons of CO2 released this year is 53% more than what we put out in 1990, according to the Global Carbon Project.
But U.S. trend lines have been heading in good directions. Some changes can happen in people’s homes, and many already have. For example, Running pointed to the adoption of LED lighting, electric cars and wind and solar energy production in the private sector. They’ve contributed to significant reductions in America’s carbon emissions, driven by market demands more than government mandates.
“The public and corporations are ahead of governments,” Running said. “The governments tend to be the anchors holding everything back.
“Those IPCC annual assessments are the only thing we write that politicians pay attention to,” Running said. Researchers produce massive amounts of new studies documenting global warming impacts and forecasting new threats, “but what politicians quote are the IPCC reports.”
The conference started off with a 137-nation declaration to end forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Much of that was aimed at tropical countries that cut native forests and replace them with soy, palm cocoa and cattle operations. That won’t have much impact on the United States or Montana.
The Rocky Mountain West lies more on the receiving end of climate change, Running said. That’s because hotter, drier summers increase the risk of wildfire and the massive amounts of carbon going up in smoke. That may open potential for forestry work removing hazardous fuels, if something productive can be found for the resulting wood waste.
In Montana, some research projects attempted to reframe that by burning wood in multi-outcome operations. A hog-fuel (waste wood) furnace can produce small amounts of electricity, along with biochar for soil improvement and heat for homes and buildings and CO2 for greenhouses.
“No single use was viable for those projects,” Running said. “You had to have all four income streams to make it work.”
One of the more head-scratching climate-change responses has been the European Union’s effort to reduce carbon emissions by burning wood pellets — mainly imported from the United States. The 1992 Kyoto Protocol considered burning woody biomass “carbon neutral” and a renewable energy source, which has encouraged pellet production across North America as well as Russia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Much of that industry is government-subsidized.
However, research shows pellet burning is actually more polluting than coal, and the decades needed to regrow the burned trees makes the carbon-neutral math collapse. The United States is the largest exporter, sending about 7.25 million tons across the Atlantic in 2020. Cutting that back or eliminating the subsidies could have a big impact on the U.S. forestry sector in the Southeast, where most of the pellets are produced.
Friday’s negotiations at COP26 showed just how sticky the dependence on oil, gas and coal remains. A big problem was whether the words “fossil fuels” would appear in the document — for the first time ever in a global climate agreement.
Beyond that, many observers noted the final deal appeared to feature commitments to slash fossil fuel emissions while expanding fossil fuel use. China has doubled its coal imports recently, and Korea and Japan have increased their purchases as well.
Confusingly, the China Global Television Network reported last week that the Chinese government was “working to increase coal, oil and gas production … to ensure winter heating and power supply” while “speeding up its exploration of ‘green heating’ to ease its dependence on coal.”
Although the state-run media outlet was specific about the country’s coal production (11.5 million tons daily), it had no details about the alternatives other than “the use of biomass energy, local natural energy and other ways to achieve green heating.”
The United States produces about 2 million tons of coal a day, burning about 775 million tons a year. Worldwide, burning coal releases about 15 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. It also provides about 27% of the world’s energy, including 38% of its electricity.
Equally confusing was the agreement announced last week that Poland and 190 other countries had signed a “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement” agreeing to phase out coal power from major economies by the 2030s. Just hours after the news broke, Poland’s negotiators clarified they did not consider themselves a major economy and wouldn’t be off coal before 2049.
But Running said this is where the posturing and podium-thumping at a COP meeting has impact.
“This is where countries persuade other countries about where being a good global citizen matters,” Running said. “China and India have dozens, maybe hundreds of new coal plants on the drawing boards. This may encourage them to throttle them back.”
COP meetings also send strong signals to the world’s financial markets about what sectors will or won’t bring returns on investments. On Nov. 3, a coalition of banks, insurers and investors worth $130 trillion agreed to create an investment to combat climate change. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen pledged to support the international market fund by raising $500 million a year for clean-tech and coal transition investments.
“Americans should expect provisions to support greater adoption for electric vehicles, since very soon we would expect fossil fuel vehicles to start phasing out,” said Eleftheria Kontou, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Illinois.
“We would expect more investments for climate justice and improving conditions for transportation of minority and low-income communities that have been disproportionately hit by adverse emissions exposure.”
Places like Montana have numerous opportunities to benefit from the COP26 agreements. Eliminating sources of atmospheric carbon and reducing global warming can produce jobs and income.
For example, as Hassol put it, “Methane is the new black.” The byproduct of livestock operations, leaking oil wells and garbage landfills, methane does 86 times more damage to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And it has more immediate human health risks by increasing ozone pollution, aggravating a variety of heart and respiratory diseases.
New sensing technology has made it easy to pinpoint sources of methane by aircraft, allowing repair crews to find leaking wells or other fixable points. Combined with the restoration work needed on open-pit mines and construction of new wind and solar energy production sources, confronting climate change could bring an economic boost to the state.
Landowners can annually earn between $4,000 and $8,000 a wind turbine, and retain most of the use of their land. As the international financing markets start looking for investments that offset more polluting industries, Montana stands to benefit.
“We could be a really big energy exporter,” Running said. “We could have tons more wind power, and it’s only limited by transmission lines. We don’t want coal workers to lose their jobs. There’s so much remediation and reclamation work needed on the open-pit coal mines and abandoned gas wells. There’s plenty of employment for those things, and they’d be helping the cause rather than hurting it.”