BRUSSELS – As negotiators at United Nations climate talks in Poland this week hammer out a rulebook to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, some of the biggest boosters of the 2015 Paris accord are undermining efforts back home to curb global warming.
China is ramping up coal-fired electricity generation despite pledges to cut emissions, according to clean-energy advocates. Canadian provinces are challenging federal carbon-price rules and adopting local policies that go against national emissions goals. And the European Union is bickering over how much carbon dioxide cars should be allowed to emit and subsidies to coal-fired power plants that threaten its climate targets.
Since President Trump’s June 2017 decision to withdraw the US from the Paris accord, China, Canada, and the EU have sought to fill the leadership vacuum and uphold the deal to fight climate change.
Their efforts gained urgency in Oct when a UN-led scientific body warned that the world has 12 years to meaningfully curb global warming or face irreversible environmental changes. High-profile natural disasters this year increased the sense of urgency for many.
“We have all seen that the implications of not getting climate change under control are profound and costly,” EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said recently. “Business, as usual, is not an option.”
In the US, the Trump administration is rolling back Obama administration climate policies, and in Aug overturned an effort to reduce emissions from existing power plants, though 10 states led by California representing more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product launched a campaign to help the US reach the accord’s goal for reduced emissions.
China, Canada, and the EU showed support for the Paris accord by unveiling ambitious agendas ahead of the UN talks in Katowice, in the heart of Polish coal country. China launched the world’s biggest carbon market last year and is working to expand it. Canada last week signaled more ambitious emissions-reduction targets. New EU regulations are lifting the bloc’s target for a renewable-energy generation.
Yet all three economies face corporate lobbying, local economic concerns and political blowback eroding climate ambition.
China’s coal consumption declined from 2014 through 2016 as its economic growth slowed and shifted to services, and due to environmental and health concerns. Last year the trend reversed amid state-backed loans to juice the economy and a surge in provincial permits. China is now on track to add coal-fired power equal to almost the total US capacity, according to Coalswarm, an advocacy group for clean-energy that tracks plants worldwide. That would push coal-fired production in China up to and over Beijing’s existing cap of 1,100 gigawatts. Its current production is already equivalent to half of the world’s total coal-fired generation and nearly quadruple that of the US.
China’s CO2 emissions resumed their rise in 2015 after leveling off in 2013-2014, according to research by Climate Action Tracker, a website that follows efforts to curb global warming. Last year China accounted for one-quarter of global CO2 production.
Coal’s relatively low cost and difficulties transitioning to clean-energy sources have frustrated Beijing’s efforts, said Li Shou, Greenpeace’s senior global policy adviser in East Asia.
“The continued building up of coal-powered plants in the country is definitely not in line with China’s climate targets and ambitions,” he said.
China’s foreign and environmental ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the government’s top economic planning agency.
In recent statements and state media interviews, senior officials with all three agencies reiterated that China will meet its Paris agreement commitments. As to the expansion of coal-fired generating capacity, the official People’s Daily quoted a senior Environmental Protection Ministry official as saying the trend is to replace quantity with quality so as to reduce carbon emissions.
In Canada, Saskatchewan and Ontario have filed suit against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s push to toughen emission controls with a national carbon price on pollution. Ontario’s recently elected conservative premier is also reversing his liberal predecessor’s policies, challenging PM Trudeau.
Canada has missed every target to curb greenhouse-gas releases it set out since 1992 and is on track to miss its 2020 target, said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network in Canada.
Mr. Trudeau told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview that aired Sunday that Canada would meet climate targets with help from the planned carbon tax. Lawyers representing the government argue that the provincial challenge to Ottawa’s carbon-pricing measure won’t stand because emissions are a matter of national concern, under parliament’s jurisdiction.
EU governments and the European Parliament on Monday failed for a fourth time to compromise on regulation to reduce car CO2 emissions. Negotiations have foundered over opposition from German automakers, divisions among the bloc’s 28 members and a parliament push to more strenuously curb polluting vehicles.
“The EU is arguing for greater ambition in Katowice and here we are, cutting ambition on CO2 emissions from cars,” said an EU diplomat involved in the negotiations, who supports larger reductions.
EU members heavily reliant on coal-powered energy also oppose European Parliament efforts to end subsidies to the most polluting plants by 2025, seeking delay of one decade.
In a sign of how incendiary the issue has become, nationwide riots in France began as a protest against a carbon tax on fuel.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-led scientific body known as IPCC, set a 12-year deadline to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Signatories to the Paris accord, every country in the world except Syria, pledged to keep global warming since the industrial revolution at “well below” two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Failure to meet that goal would be catastrophic, the IPCC said. The report’s authors called for “rapid and far-reaching” changes to almost every facet of society.
Negotiators from across the world aim this week to agree on a rulebook to govern the Paris accord. Disputes over funding transitions in developing countries will persist, though observers say the debates now matter less than action.
“Ultimately, what matters is what everyone does when they leave Katowice and go home,” Abreu said.