Top Climate Stories to Watch in 2017

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Top Climate Stories to Watch in 2017

(Photo collage: NOAA)

2016 was something of a mixed bag for the global climate. On the one hand, renewable energy use has never been higher — but on the other hand, 2016 brought with it news of record fossil fuel consumption, as well.

Meanwhile, the Paris Climate Agreement went into force on November 4, far sooner than anyone ever expected, signaling a new era of international climate action — but just a few days later, the U.S., the second-largest emitter in the world, elected a new president who has called global warming a hoax and pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as possible.

Needless to say, 2017 is likely to be a pivotal year in the fight to halt global climate change and all of its impacts. Here, in no particular order, are some of the top stories to keep an eye on in the new year.

1. Will Trump withdraw U.S. from Paris Climate Agreement and kill clean energy funding?

More than 90 countries had ratified the Paris Climate Agreement when it entered into force on November 4, 2016. Just 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions needed to formally adopt the pact in order to trigger its entry into force, and that threshold was reached far quicker than anyone anticipated.

When Donald Trump was elected to the presidency a few days later, Mongabay contributor Justin Catanoso reported from the UN climate talks in Marrakesh, Morocco that delegates were “aghast and shaken, with emotions ranging from defiance to wishful encouragement.”

All 195 countries party to the Paris Agreement are obligated to achieve their voluntary pledges to reduce carbon emissions and abide by all provisions of the agreement for three years before they can seek to withdraw. The withdrawal process itself is likely to take another year. But news quickly broke that Trump’s transition team was already seeking ways to bypass the four-year procedure for exiting the pact.

The whole world will, of course, be watching closely to see whether or not Trump makes good on this pledge and his other anti-climate action stances, such as his proposal to end all federal funding for clean energy development and climate science research. The fact that Trump has chosen Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is perhaps a sign that he does indeed intend to follow through.

Pruitt is a close ally of the fossil fuel industry and a staunch climate denier with ties to the Koch Brothers. The confirmation process for Pruitt is shaping up to be quite contentious, and is well worth watching as an indication of how U.S. climate action will fare in 2017, as well.

2. How will countries and others respond to a climate-denying US administration?

Responding to the election of Trump and the news that he was seeking a speedy exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, said in a statement that “The bright light of hope the Paris Agreement shone on the bleak and discouraging landscape of climate change has been dimmed but not extinguished.”

Numerous other responses were forthcoming. For instance, a letter signed by nearly 400 companies and investors urged Trump not to withdraw the U.S. from the Agreement and to continue “investment in the low carbon economy at home and abroad” specifically because they see climate action as good for business.

As Justin Catonoso reported for Mongabay, the U.S. could face a serious backlash above and beyond the loss of standing on the world stage that would result from a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. That backlash might take the form of faltering trade agreements, failed military cooperation, economic sanctions, or even a carbon tax levied on the U.S. for not reaching its emissions-reduction pledges.

One thing that’s clear is that, at this point, no one country can put climate action back in the bottle, so to speak. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made this point during the UN climate talks in Marrakesh: “This is bigger than one person, one president. We have to figure out how we’re going to stop this [Trump’s plan]… No one has the right to make decisions that affect billions of people based solely on ideology or without proper input.”

The rest of the world, especially China, India, and the European Union, plans to continue rapidly decarbonizing their economies with 21st-century technologies, no matter what route the U.S. takes. China is widely expected to step into the power vacuum created by Trump’s failure to carry on in the climate leadership role adopted by the Obama Administration, according to Catonoso, who added that withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement “could have far-reaching negative implications for future US foreign policy, and for the US economy.”

3. China, the world’s largest emitter, and coal consumption.

In order to be a world leader on climate action, China will have to get its own house in order. And that will mean aggressively phasing out the use of coal more than anything else.

As of July 2016, China had 895 gigawatts of existing coal capacity, another 205 gigawatts under construction, and plans for a further 405 gigawatts, according to a report by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative. The report also found that the country’s 895 gigawatts of installed coal capacity was being utilized less than half the time — meaning China could be planning to spend nearly half a trillion dollars on coal-fired power plants that it doesn’t even need.

“China’s coal power investments have reached an important juncture: keep pouring capital into increasingly unviable projects and put the financial system under additional pressure from the risk of large-scale defaults, or stop investing and promote efficiency,” the Carbon Tracker Initiative said. If China completes all of the coal-fired projects that are currently in the works or in the planning stage, the country would blow through its carbon budget for limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius by 2036, the group added.

Two years ago, the U.S. and China — the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet — signed a joint agreement to combat climate change in which China pledged to generate 20 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2030 and to hit peak emissions that same year (some experts have estimated that China has already hit peak emissions, but the data is inconclusive). The joint leadership shown by the two countries is widely believed to have been a significant factor in making the Paris Climate Agreement possible in December 2015.

Of course, it made sense for China to take such a strong public stance regarding its future use of coal. Air pollution from burning coal is so bad that it caused 366,000 premature deaths in China in 2013 alone, researchers have found.

If China, a country with a rapidly growing middle class that is heavily reliant on coal for energy production, is to meet its emissions-reduction targets, that would have huge implications for major coal producers in Australia and the U.S. as well as for the global coal industry as a whole. If it doesn’t meet those goals, particularly because of not phasing coal out of its energy mix aggressively enough, that could have a serious impact on its ability to lead the rest of the world towards a sustainable, low-carbon future.

4. Will Arctic Sea ice continue to decline, opening up the fabled Northwest Passage once and for all?

In almost every summer since 2007, the southern route of the Northwest Passage, which connects the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has been nearly ice-free. In 2016, the luxury cruiseliner Crystal Serenity became the largest passenger vessel to ever travel through the route, which was considered nearly impassable just over a century ago.

As Mongabay staff writer John Cannon reported earlier this month, higher-than-normal water and air temperatures coupled with shifts in wind patterns led to record-low sea ice extents in both the Arctic and the Antarctic in November 2016. “It looks like a triple whammy – a warm ocean, a warm atmosphere, and a wind pattern all working against the ice in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Dropping temperatures in the months leading up to winter usually lead to increases in Arctic Sea ice, a process that typically starts in September and peaks in March. But at one point in mid-November, the extent of Arctic sea ice had actually shrunk by about 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles). In some places, air temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the November averages recorded between 1981 and 2010. As a result, Arctic Sea ice extent was just 9.08 million square kilometers (3.51 million square miles), 18 percent lower than the November average. That made November the seventh month of 2016 with record-low levels of Arctic Sea ice.

We won’t really begin to know what 2017 will bring for the Arctic until late March, when the melt season returns. But it doesn’t look good: For the second year in a row, scientists forecasted ice-melting December temperatures for some parts of the Arctic.

5. Renewable energy getting cheaper and cheaper vis a vis fossil fuels.

As Bloomberg reported earlier this month, “A transformation is happening in global energy markets that’s worth noting as 2016 comes to an end: Solar power, for the first time, is becoming the cheapest form of new electricity.”

In mid-2015, the world hit an important turning point, entering an era in which we’re building more capacity for clean energy each year than for coal and natural gas combined. It’s now predicted that the world could reach peak fossil-fuel use for electricity generation within the next decade.

Coal and natural gas — and the CO2 they emit when burned for energy — are likely to continue playing key roles in the global energy mix for years to come, however. According to a report that came out in June, in fact, global consumption of fossil fuels is at an all-time high. Even though consumption of renewables is also at a record-high level, 2015 was still the sixth year in a row that a new record for total global emissions was set.

We can probably expect lots of confusing and contradictory stats to emerge in 2017 as the global energy mix continues to experience drastic growth and changes. For instance, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that, after declining by 2.6 percent in 2015, energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. will have declined by another 1.3 percent in 2016 but will increase by 0.9 percent in 2017.

Still, there are undeniable signs that a clean energy economy is fast approaching. Look for wind and solar to continue getting cheaper and supplying an ever-larger share of the world’s energy needs in the new year.

6. Climate change, forests, and REDD+.

According to some estimates, deforestation is responsible for as much as one-fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions — more than all of the world’s planes, trains, and automobiles combined.

That means that curbing deforestation is not only good for forests and the people and wildlife that depend on them (which is pretty much everybody and every creature on Earth), but it’s also good for combating climate change.

In acknowledgement of this reality, the nearly 200 countries that adopted the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015 included the UN’s mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, known as REDD+, as a standalone article in the pact.

In 2015 alone, governments and companies from around the world committed a record $888 million in new funding to projects aimed at keeping forests and other carbon-absorbing landscapes intact, through REDD+ initiatives and other mechanisms such as carbon markets. This is an encouraging sign that large-scale financial flows might be starting to materialize for forest protection efforts.

Nonetheless, late 2016 brought news that deforestation in Brazil had jumped 29 percent over 2015 levels. That means that, even though destruction of the Brazilian Amazon continues to occur at historically low rates, deforestation is at the highest level recorded since 2008. (We also learned in late 2016 that Brazil was planning to restore 22 million hectares (about 54 million acres) of land in what the World Resources Institute called “the largest restoration commitment ever made by a single nation.”)

Deforestation is a large and complex issue, so it’s no surprise that there should be setbacks even as the world is making great strides in dealing with the issue. For example, agricultural commodities like beef, palm oil, pulp & paper, and soy have become an increasingly important driver of tropical deforestation, which is why hundreds of companies have now made “Zero Deforestation Commitments” in order to root out the deforestation in their supply chains. But according to recent analyses, even many of the companies that have made these pledges are underestimating the extent to which they are exposed to the risk of their operations contributing to deforestation, and are therefore unlikely to achieve their time-bound targets for severing their ties to forest destruction.

The good news is that many tropical countries are committed to only promoting sustainable production of agricultural commodities, and we’re pouring more resources than ever into understanding exactly which forest conservation strategies are most effective.

7. Ongoing global coral reef bleaching event and other climate impacts on Earth’s oceans.

2016 saw a lot of action to protect Earth’s oceans and its inhabitants. In August 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama expanded the world’s largest protected area, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, which provides important habitat for monk seals, sea turtles, sharks, and several other species of at-risk marine wildlife. Then, in October, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international organization that represents 24 countries and the European Union, one-upped Obama by establishing a larger, 1.55-million-square-kilometer (598,000-square-mile) marine protected area in the Ross Sea, off Antarctica.

More than 3.6 million square kilometers or 1.39 million square miles were protected in 2016, bringing the total amount of protected ocean to five percent — which still represents just half the amount called for by the Convention of Biological Diversity.

There’s no way to protect marine biodiversity from the impacts of climate change, however. Thankfully, an obituary for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that went viral this year was inaccurate — but, as Mongabay staff writer Shreya Dasgupta reported at the end of November, scientists have confirmed that the Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst coral bleaching event on record due to higher than normal water temperatures in 2015 and 2016.

It’s not just the Great Barrier Reef, either — a global coral reef bleaching disaster that started in 2015 is ongoing today, and corals around the world have been effected.

Meanwhile, an octopus was found in the parking garage of a seaside condo complex in Florida in November after flooding associated with unusually high tides carried it up through the garage’s drainage pipes. As University of California, Santa Barbara scientists Douglas McCauley and Caroline Jablonicky wrote for Mongabay, “Projections for sea level rise suggest this may be just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Climate change is causing ocean waters to expand and melting land ice is adding more volume to the oceans, which are projected to rise about two feet by the end of this century. Much more alarming than marine wildlife in parking garages is the potential for trillions of dollars in damage that sea level rise may cause to coastal communities if climate change goes unchecked.”

Amidst all of the climate change-induced pressures on marine wildlife, mankind is about to start mining the seabed in search of copper, gold, manganese, nickel, and other minerals. Canadian company Nautilus Minerals is hoping to open the world’s first deep sea mine off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Bismarck Sea in early 2018.

8. Citizen-led climate action.

While major protests in the U.S. against the Keystone XL tarsands pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline have targeted specific infrastructure projects that would lock us into decades of continued fossil fuel use, they have also shown the power of a united climate movement to effect real policy changes.

The global divestment movement is another example of citizen-led climate action that is making a real impact. As of December 2016, investment funds worth more than $5 trillion have now committed to divesting their fossil fuel assets. As ThinkProgress reports, “while the push for divestment began originally as a grassroots campaign on college campuses, the movement has gone mainstream, with 80 percent of the divested funds coming from commercial investment funds or pensions.” Even a number of cities, from Sydney, Australia to Washington, D.C. are getting in on the divestment action.

As the divestment movement and opposition to projects like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline continue to grow, it will make it more and more expensive for oil, gas, and coal companies to finance new development projects — and stigmatize their product in the process.

Mike Gaworecki

 

Mike Gaworecki is based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org, Huffington Post, and more. Mike started writing for Mongabay as a contributor on forests issues and joined the staff in September 2015.

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