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Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change Or Keep Burning Coal? You Can’t Have Both.


Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

An aerial view at an opencast coal mine in Wales in November 2021

At the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, diplomats put down on paper, for the first time, the collective need to accelerate phasing out coal and fossil fuels subsidies to meet their climate goals in a draft statement released Wednesday.

Countries can either keep using coal at current levels or limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target of the Paris climate agreement. It’s impossible to do both. But this scientific reality has been an elephant in the room of high-level international climate negotiations for years — until now.

“It’s significant,” Helen Mountford, a vice president at World Resources Institute, told reporters. “We’ve never had a text like that before.”

Still, this new declaration isn’t final, has no timeline or other details, and comes along with some murky country-specific pledges. This incongruity on coal captures the central tension playing out at the high-profile climate talks in Glasgow: the glaring gaps between what countries must do to halt the worsening climate crisis, what countries say they will do in the future, and what they are actually doing now.

“We’ll see if that text sticks,” Mountford later said. “We’re hoping it will. It’s a really important and concrete action that countries can take to actually deliver on their commitments.”

Outside the climate negotiations, protesters pushed for the language to stay in. According to the Washington Post, they chanted: “‘Fossil fuels’ on paper now” and “Keep it in the text.”

Even United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed frustration with the negotiations on Thursday, saying that country-level “promises ring hollow when the fossil fuel industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF. Or when countries are still building coal plants.”

With current climate policies in place, the world is on track to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to preindustrial levels. Even the most up-to-date tallies of current pledges for future climate action put the world on track to heat up 1.8 degrees Celsius. This means that even if all the countries actually deliver on their most ambitious promises — a big if — we’ll still overshoot the key Paris goal by 0.3 degrees. This may seem like a minor difference, but the science is abundantly clear that every tenth of a degree is disastrous for humanity: more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires; more sea level rise; and, ultimately, more suffering.

The science is also clear that coal is just awful for the climate. Coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source, responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions tied to global fossil fuel use

That’s why a growing number of officials are saying that ditching coal is among the most important steps to take for tackling climate change. Just last week, for example, Canadian environment and climate change minister Steven Guilbeault said in Glasgow: “Ending emissions of coal power is one of the single most important steps we must take to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement and the 1.5 degree target.”


Christoph Soeder / Getty Images

António Guterres, UN secretary-general, speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Climate modeling results published last month by the International Energy Agency show that there’s no way to limit future global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone to 1.5 degrees Celsius, without a reduction in current coal use.

IEA’s most aggressive scenario for cutting emissions lays out a road map of how to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieve “net-zero” emissions (when the balance of carbon going into the atmosphere equals what’s coming out, via carbon capture, plant life, and other sources of removal). Called the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 or NZE scenario, it involves the halting of new coal plants and reducing emissions from the about 2,100 gigawatts of currently operating power plants globally.

“It’s entirely gone from the power sector,” IEA modeler Daniel Crow said about coal in that scenario. “Unabated coal is entirely gone.”

A very small amount of coal would remain, likely relying on carbon capture and storage technology to pull resulting carbon emissions directly out of the atmosphere.


Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

Railway carriages loaded with coal are seen at a railway station in the town of Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, Nov. 8, 2021

IEA executive director Fatih Birol took this message to Glasgow at an event organized by the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an organization launched in 2017 devoted to ending coal use. So far, 165 countries, regions, cities, and businesses have signed on. That includes the 28 new members announced at the ongoing climate conference.

In many cases, participating countries have outlined phase-out deadlines: Ukraine committed to ending coal use by 2035, Croatia set a deadline of 2033, and Estonia is already coal-free.

“For our part in the UK, we’ve reduced the use of coal for electricity down to be incredibly less than 2% of our total usage,” said Greg Hands, cochair of the alliance and a UK minister, at the event. “And it will be gone from our energy mix entirely by 2024.”

But in a sign of how messy the international politics on coal are, a separate but overlapping coalition to end coal launched the same day in Glasgow. This second group signed the new “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement,” committing to, among other things, “end all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally” and “phase out coal power in economies in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world.”

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment minister who helped launch the Powering Past Coal Alliance, called out the second coalition for lowering the bar on climate action: Powering Past Coal requires all countries to phase out coal before 2040.

Enough with new initiatives – especially ones that weaken price of entry & do nothing to reduce emissions. Countries need to do the work & implement the commitments they’ve made (like is doing). No more ribbons for showing up. Only when you finish the race: 1.5 degrees. #COP26 https://t.co/fLZIpIwXWJ


Twitter: @cathmckenna / Via twitter

One of the most significant signatories of the new statement was Poland, a country that heavily relies on coal. Poland boasted one of the 25 largest GDPs in 2020. This led many to deduce Poland, a major economy, was seeking to stop coal use in the 2030s. But country officials quickly pushed back, saying the country was planning to phase out coal in the 2040s, possibly as late as 2049.

South Korea, another major coal consumer, also signed the statement last week, seemingly committing to ditch coal by the end of the next decade. The country’s trade minister has since walked back the commitment, issuing a statement saying: “We support accelerating the transition to clean power, but we never agreed to a date for the transition away from coal.”

Neither the US nor China, two of the world’s leading producers of coal, signed on to either coalition. As members of the Group of 20, or G20, these countries had already agreed this year to stop financing coal projects overseas.

Then, this week, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, told Bloomberg in an interview: “By 2030 in the United States, we won’t have coal.” The next day he, on behalf of the US, announced with China that both countries had mutually agreed to up their climate ambition and reiterated their commitments to stop helping international coal projects. While China agreed to “make best efforts to accelerate” a coal phase down, no date was given. The future of coal in the US was not mentioned at all.


UNFCCC

John Kerry at COP26 on Nov. 2, 2021

Even if more politicians are only beginning to state the obvious about coal’s future in a warmer world, the shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel is already underway.

Take the US. According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, about 348 coal plants in the US have already retired or announced retirements in the past decade. That leaves about 182 currently operating plants around the country.

“That’s a ton of progress in 10 years,” Cherelle Blazer, a Sierra Club senior director, told BuzzFeed News. “As far as I know, there aren’t any plans for new coal plants.”

Seth Feaster, an energy data analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, offered even more context for America’s move away from coal. “Only 10 years ago was the peak of how much power we could generate from coal,” he explained. “In other words, between 2011 and 2020, we retired almost a third of all the coal capacity.”

Another third is set to retire in the coming decade, Feaster added, leaving the US with about two-thirds of its peak coal capacity by 2030 — and he expects this rapid decline will continue to accelerate.

This all happened despite the election of Donald Trump, who ran for US president on the promise to end the “war on coal” and whose administration then aggressively rolled back coal rules.

So does that put Kerry’s recently stated goal of no more coal in the US by 2030 within reach? Eh, not quite. Even Feaster said that’s a “still fairly optimistic goal.”

Complicating matters is the fate of US President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate legislation at the center of his Build Back Better plan. The single most obstructive person to getting those new climate policies over the finish line is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose personal fortune is built on coal. Now there are discussions about whether tax incentives he’s pushing to be included for technologies that capture carbon pollution will keep coal plants running longer.

The shuttering of coal plants across the US has pushed the country’s climate emissions downward. But in coal’s wake, natural gas helped fill the gap. So as coal-related emissions went down, natural gas emissions went up. This type of energy switch won’t halt the climate crisis.

“These countries that are planning to move away from coal should be very, very careful not to get themselves into locking emissions by switching to another fossil fuel — gas — and focus on changing this to renewable energy,” warned María José de Villafranca, a climate policy analyst at NewClimate Institute, this week.

Read more here BuzzFeed News

Capitol Police officers have quit, morale is low and the sweeping reforms seen as necessary to prevent another attack remain elusive

The mere shock of the event, and the criticism that followed, has pushed the US Capitol Police Department to make some quick changes — rank-and-file officers now get daily intelligence alerts on their cell phones. New tactical gear like helmets, batons and goggles have been purchased. And two former department leaders have been hired as security consultants to streamline improvements.
But the sweeping reforms that are widely seen as necessary to prevent a similar attack remain elusive, especially an operational and cultural overhaul of the department that some believe will take years to achieve, if it can happen at all.
“They need a radical restructure. They need to decouple it from any political structure whatsoever,” said Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee who negotiated the bipartisan agreement for an independent commission that was blocked by Republican leaders.
“They’ve definitely made strides in the right direction,” Katko said. “But they’re nowhere near where they should be.”
Morale remains low among Capitol Police officers, who say they’re stuck working longer hours amid dwindling ranks. More than 75 officers have left since January 6, at a rate of about three per week, according to union leaders.
“We’re losing guys left and right,” said one officer, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the US Capitol Police. “The young guys don’t want to be here and the old guys who are eligible are just rolling out.”
As a result, the department has already exceeded its overtime projections for the fiscal year, which doesn’t end for another three months, according to a Senate aide.
Capitol Police still lacks a permanent leader following Chief Steve Sund’s resignation after January 6. And political fighting in Congress has stymied efforts to give the department millions of dollars in new funding — and establish an independent commission to investigate what led to the attack.
Last week House Democrats voted over the objections of all but two House Republicans to create a new Select Committee, which will examine Capitol security failures in addition to the circumstances leading up to the attack. It’s unclear though what, if any changes that will lead to.
Meanwhile, threats against lawmakers are up significantly in 2021, and over the past few weeks, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have issued warnings of the potential for summer violence tied to conspiracy theories that Trump will return to the presidency in August. There have also been reports that the fencing surrounding the Capitol may come down as early as July 8.
At a recent roll call meeting for rank-and-file officers, the department’s new intelligence director was asked what preparations were being made in response to the conspiracy theories being shared online — and whether they could prompt pro-Trump supporters to once again descend on the Capitol. According to one source who described the meeting, the response was that nothing was being done yet, but the situation was being monitored — which the person said felt like status quo.
“What are we going to do different once the fence comes down?” said another officer. “We haven’t made any changes to prepare for it — zero — that’s what I’m worried about.”
A Capitol Police spokesperson declined to grant interviews with Capitol Police leadership for this article and did not answer specific questions submitted by CNN. Instead, the department pointed to a statement released Tuesday morning about the changes that have been made following January 6.
Capitol Police said it has beefed up training for riots and other scenarios, provided additional protections for lawmakers outside of Washington and is in the process of setting up field offices in California and Florida. It also says it’s ramped up critical incident response planning, purchased new equipment for officers and improved communication with rank-and-file officers related to intelligence.
“Throughout the last six months, the United States Capitol Police has been working around the clock with our congressional stakeholders to support our officers, enhance security around the Capitol Complex, and pivot towards an intelligence-based protective agency,” wrote acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman.

Politics has held up funding

The same political debate that has tainted most discussions of the January 6 attack has also mired down additional funding for Capitol Police. House Democrats passed a $ 2 billion supplemental funding bill for Capitol security over the objections of Republicans — who raised issues with some of the line items, like a rapid response force coming from the National Guard.
In the Senate, the bill has languished, and lawmakers may slide it into the annual congressional spending process, where new spending decisions can often be kicked months into a fiscal year before a deal is reached.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who chairs the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee that funds Capitol Police, released a fiscal 2022 spending bill that would give Capitol Police an $ 88 million funding boost compared to the current budget, though it’s $ 15 million below the administration’s budget request, which would allow for the hiring of new officers and civilian officials for Capitol Police.
But that funding could still be months from being approved.
“There’s so much we need to do comprehensively, and it takes time, but most of it starts in the bill,” Ryan said in an interview. “I’m not happy about where we are. We’ve got to be moving a lot quicker.”

Changes on the margins

Meanwhile, Capitol Police leaders have tried to implement operational and cultural changes. For example, one Capitol security official said there’s been an effort to better use intelligence to drive operations.
The department has also increased communication with law enforcement partners, according to a congressional source familiar with the USCP, and it is now working with private vendors to obtain open-source social media information to track threats, the source said.
Officers who spoke to CNN say they now receive daily email updates on their cell phones, for instance, including about demonstrations planned and intelligence. Some, however, have questioned how useful the updates have been.
“We’re inundated with updates now,” one officer said.
There have also been some extra training sessions, officers say, including how to hand-cuff people hit by a taser. One officer told CNN most of his training occurs online. Another officer described walk-throughs for Senate and House chamber evacuations.
Capitol Police said Tuesday that its Civil Disturbance Unit, which was on the frontlines on January 6, has increased training for riots and less-than-lethal exercises, conducted a joint exercise with the National Guard, and sent CDU officials to train in Seattle and Virginia Beach.
Terry Gainer, a former US Capitol Police chief and Senate sergeant at arms, said that while intelligence sharing with rank-and-file officers is a positive sign, there’s a lot more that needs to be done to help a police force still struggling with the physical and psychological trauma of January 6.
“When you’re still working long hours and there’s a lot of change going on and people are wondering ‘When are we going to get a new chief? Is there going to be some independent commission? Are some of the members going to stop pretending this didn’t happen?’ All of that weighs heavy,” said Gainer, who is also a CNN contributor.

Fixing the command structure

The Capitol Police Board has spent the past few months searching for a new chief. A selection could come as soon as this month, said the congressional source. Until then, the department will continue to be led by Pittman, who replaced Sund as acting chief after he resigned January 7.
Not long after Pittman took over, officers’ frustrations spilled into public view as members of the Capitol Police force issued an overwhelming vote of no confidence in their leadership in February.
Capitol Police union leader Gus Papathanasiou told CNN he was hopeful that a new police chief will “change things around,” but he echoed the frustrations of officers that not enough has been done.
“I think it’s just the same as it was on January 5, if not worse,” he said.
Katko, the Republican congressman, said he wants to see the structure of Capitol Police leadership changed altogether. The Capitol Police chief reports to a police board that includes Congressionally appointed House and Senate sergeants at arms and the Architect of the Capitol.
The police board’s response as the January 6 riot unfolded fell under particular scrutiny, as the Capitol Police chief could not unilaterally request assistance from the National Guard.
“If it’s a police force, you’ve got to have a command structure that’s commensurate with law enforcement and security,” Katko said. “I think it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen at any law enforcement agency anywhere. We’re asking them to do extraordinary things with zero guidance.”
Senate Rules Committee leaders Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, introduced legislation in June to expand the chief’s authority to request National Guard assistance in an emergency and to compel the Capitol Police Board to appear together in front of Congress — something that hasn’t happened since 1945.

Dealing with online threats

Capitol security officials say that even with additional threats toward lawmakers, the notion Capitol Police would be surprised again on the scale of January 6 remains remote. However, officers said they’d like to see more credence given to the threats that have swirled on far-right channels online.
One Capitol security official stressed that a rise in Internet threats — which can ebb and flow in a single afternoon based on a media interaction or a viral trigger — shouldn’t prompt Capitol Police to leap into overdrive.
The official said Capitol security leaders are watching August closely to see if anything builds into any kind of activity, though cutting through the noise remains a challenge.
“We have to be careful about assuming a tremendous rise of threats communicated via internet equates to a comparable rise in the threat,” the official said. “It’s hard for me to imagine being taken by surprise by another mob the size of the one January 6.”

Author: Whitney Wild, Jeremy Herb, Zachary Cohen, Jamie Gangel and Katie Bo Williams, CNN
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