July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3
President Biden hosted a climate summit on Earth Day in April 2021 during which several world leaders pledged to reduce their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions to prevent average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Biden pledged that the US would reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Leaders of developing countries called on the industrial countries to do more to slow climate change, arguing that the past emissions of industrial countries are responsible for most global warming today. Developing countries want at least $100 billion in aid to help them to reduce emissions and to cope with the effects of climate change. They want the COP26 meeting to assess progress in meeting climate change targets scheduled for Glasgow in November 2021 to endorse climate change aid.
Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions and remains the major source of energy to produce electricity. China and India account for two-thirds of global coal consumption, and both countries continue to build coal-fired power plants. The emissions from these new coal-fired plants in China and India are offsetting the reductions in emissions from the closure of coal-fired power plants in the US and Europe.
Instead of coal, many fast-growing developing countries are building gas-fired power plants, so that natural gas now generates a quarter of the world’s energy. Gas provides a third of US energy and a fifth of Europe’s energy, but some environmentalists want countries to move directly from coal to solar and wind, skipping natural gas because burning gas releases methane.
The US wants to generate all electricity from carbon-free sources such as solar, wind or nuclear power by 2035, up from 40 percent in 2020. Chinese firms produce most of the world’s solar panels using polysilicon from Xinjiang that enables solar panels to absorb energy from sunlight.
Many NGOs accuse the Chinese government of turning minorities including Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang into forced laborers. They want to restrict trade in Chinese-made solar panels. The US blocked imports of silica-based products made by Hoshine Silicon Industry Company in June 2021.
US efforts to promote wind and solar have run into local opposition. Wind turbines are noisy and kill birds, and plans to put turbines in the waters off of some of the 90,000 miles of US coastline have been slowed by the Jones Act, which requires ships that carry turbines from US ports to sea to be built in the US and manned by Americans. The Jones Act was suspended for the 2021 Alaska cruising season, allowing ships built abroad and staffed by foreigners to travel between Seattle and Alaska without stopping in Canada. US shipping firms and unions oppose a repeal of the Jones Act to speed the deployment of offshore wind turbines.
Europe has 5,400 offshore wind turbines, compared with seven in the US. Offshore wind energy can be generated for $50 per megawatt, which is more than the cost of land-based wind and solar electricity, but offshore energy can be economically viable because of short transmission distances to cities. The US had 55,000 wind turbines on land in 41 states in 2020.
Re-insurer Swiss Re in April 2021 estimated that rising temperatures could reduce global GDP, projected to be $164 trillion in 2050, by up to $23 trillion due to falling crop yields, more disease, and damage to coastal cities from rising seas. Swiss Re says that keeping the increase in average global temperatures at less than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels would lower the reduction in global GDP from 14 to five percent in 2050.
The resumption of tourism triggered protests in places with fragile environments such as Venice, which was closed to cruise ships between March 2020 and June 2021. Most residents of Venice’s main island depend on tourism, but many believe that large cruise ships that transit the deep-water Canale della Giudecca and dock in at Marittima on the island accelerate environmental damage in the lagoon. Three-fourths of visitors to Venice are day trippers who sleep on ships or on the mainland and account for less than 20 percent of tourism spending, which is one reason why some local businesses want to ban cruise ships.
Egypt in July 2021 protested the filling of reservoir behind Ethiopia’s $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Water flows into the Nile from tributaries in 10 countries, and downstream Egypt is assured by treaties of receiving at least 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile river, while downstream Sudan is promised 18.5 billion cubic meters; the GERD reservoir near the border with Sudan can hold 74 billion cubic meters.
There are 1.2 billion people in the 30+ rich countries, and 6.6 billion in the 170+ poorer countries. Some 1.1 billion vaccine shots had been given by May 2021, mostly in rich countries, prompting calls for drug companies to waive their patents to enable poor countries to produce and administer vaccines without paying royalties. Drug companies resisted patent waivers, emphasizing that many poor countries lack the raw materials or facilities to make vaccines safely.