The Paris Accord Promised a Climate Solution. Here’s Where We Are Now.

Delegates at the United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, last week.

Delegates at the United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, last week.

World leaders struck an agreement three years ago in Paris to avert the worst effects of climate change, accepting not only that greenhouse gases were dangerously heating the planet, but also that every single country needed to do its part to curtail emissions.

Now, emissions are rising in the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies. Other countries are backsliding on their commitments. The world as a whole is not meeting its targets under the Paris pact. As diplomats meet in Katowice, Poland, this week to bring the deal into effect, the world’s 7.6 billion people face mounting risks from more severe and more frequent floods, droughts and wildfires.

The Paris Agreement, it seems, is only as good as the willingness of national leaders to keep their word.

“We have the ways,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said this week in Katowice. “What we need is the political will to move forward.”

Champions of the accord point out that the diplomatic process is alive and well and that all of the world’s 195 countries are still in the deal, including the United States, which can exit only at the end of 2020. The science is sharper than before on the dangers of unchecked emissions, and a great many countries, including the poorest, are pushing for more ambitious targets.

The Katowice talks are facing a Saturday deadline, and Mr. Guterres has visited twice to push diplomats to bridge their still-large differences on the details of a “rule book” that will allow countries to implement the Paris Agreement.

“To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change,” Mr. Guterres said. “It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”

How did we get here?

Things started to change with the election of Donald J. Trump. Less than six months after taking office, he announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. At home, his administration has pushed to overturn pollution regulations, making it far less likely that the United States will meet its Paris pledge to cut emissions sharply by 2025.

In August, an effort in Australia to transition away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, resulted in the ouster of the prime minister. The man who succeeded him, Scott Morrison, endeared himself to the industry by bringing a lump of coal into Parliament.

In November, Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro, who had pledged to promote agribusiness interests in the Amazon forest, the world’s largest carbon sink.

In Poland, the host country of the latest United Nations talks, the right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, opened the negotiations by saying flatly that his country did not intend to abandon coal.

Other leaders face their own domestic difficulties. Emissions in China have grown for the past two years, signaling the difficulties of shifting the country away from its coal-dependent industrial economyGermany is having a hard time moving away from lignite because of political opposition in the country’s coal-rich east. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, faces unrest at home over layer cake of taxes that working-class people say burdens them unfairly.

All the while, the science has become clearer. A United States government report issued last month concluded that if significant steps were not taken to rein in global warming, it would put a huge dent in the American economy by century’s end.

And an exhaustive report issued weeks before by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, compiled by hundreds of scientists from around the world convened by the United Nations, said emissions would have to decline significantly by 2030 for the world to avoid a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires.

“The I.P.C.C. has sounded many alarms, and the world just keeps smashing the alarm and keeps on sleeping,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, on the sidelines of the talks in Katowice.

The world as a whole is not on track to meet the broad goal it set for itself in Paris: to keep the increase in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, over preindustrial levels. Under the agreement, each country put forward a voluntary pledge to curtail its own emissions.

So far, those voluntary pledges have not been sufficient. New data made public in Poland this week by the group Climate Action Tracker estimated that current climate policies put the world on pace for somewhere around 3.3 degrees Celsius.

“If we are serious about the Paris Agreement, we need to see different numbers,” Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, told the delegates in Katowice this week. He noted that global emissions had risen in 2018.

The negotiations in Katowice are aimed at setting out the rules by which countries will regularly update their emissions-reductions pledges and assess one another’s progress. But even those technical discussions about the rule book have been bogged down by intense political differences.

“We are in a planetary emergency and the longer we waste time in the negotiating room not acknowledging this fact, we do so at the cost of our people and our communities,” a statement from a bloc of poor countries, led by Ethiopia, urged on Thursday.

For its part, even though the United States has said it intends to withdraw from the Paris deal, the country has still sent a delegation to the negotiations. “These global energy and environmental policies will have an impact on U.S. interests, and we want to make sure we protect those so they’re not hamstringing economic growth, innovation, entrepreneurship in the U.S.,” said Wells Griffith, Mr. Trump’s international energy and climate adviser.

The Trump administration pointedly refused to embrace the United Nations’ scientific report, siding with three other major oil- and gas-producing countries — Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — to block a resolution in Poland to “welcome” the report.

An installation promoting coal at the conference.CreditKarolina Jonderko for The New York Times

An installation promoting coal at the conference.CreditKarolina Jonderko for The New York Times

To be sure, the Paris pact, and the growing scientific clarity about global warming, has spurred countries and businesses to reorient themselves. From shipping to fast food to insurance, companies are setting their own targets to reduce carbon footprints. Solar and wind energy is expanding rapidly. Within the United States, a number of cities and states have dissented from the Trump administration’s planned exit and created their own local plans to green their economies.

Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate chief who led the Paris negotiations to their conclusion in December 2015, argued that the pact had set into motion a fundamental transformation of the global economy away from fossil fuels. It would be naïve, she said, to not expect pushback.

“Not to fall into Pollyanna land here, one has to recognize that of course there are huge, huge very powerful, very well endowed vested forces that are very threatened by this,” Ms. Figueres said in a podcast streamed on her website. “Let’s not get paralyzed by that,” she said.

Organic food worse for the climate

The crops per hectare are significantly lower in organic farming, which, according to the study, leads to much greater indirect carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

The crops per hectare are significantly lower in organic farming, which, according to the study, leads to much greater indirect carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

Organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required. This is the finding of a new international study involving Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, published in the journal Nature.

The researchers developed a new method for assessing the climate impact from land-use, and used this, along with other methods, to compare organic and conventional food production. The results show that organic food can result in much greater emissions.

“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent,” says Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers, and one of those responsible for the study.

The reason why organic food is so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare are much lower, primarily because fertilisers are not used. To produce the same amount of organic food, you therefore need a much bigger area of land.

The ground-breaking aspect of the new study is the conclusion that this difference in land usage results in organic food causing a much larger climate impact.

“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” explains Stefan Wirsenius. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”

Even organic meat and dairy products are – from a climate point of view – worse than their conventionally produced equivalents, claims Stefan Wirsenius.

“Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feeds, it also requires more land than conventional production. This means that the findings on organic wheat and peas in principle also apply to meat and milk products. We have not done any specific calculations on meat and milk, however, and have no concrete examples of this in the article,” he explains.

A new metric: Carbon Opportunity Cost
The researchers used a new metric, which they call “Carbon Opportunity Cost”, to evaluate the effect of greater land-use contributing to higher carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. This metric takes into account the amount of carbon that is stored in forests, and thus released as carbon dioxide as an effect of deforestation. The study is among the first in the world to make use of this metric.

“The fact that more land use leads to greater climate impact has not often been taken into account in earlier comparisons between organic and conventional food,” says Stefan Wirsenius. “This is a big oversight, because, as our study shows, this effect can be many times bigger than the greenhouse gas effects, which are normally included. It is also serious because today in Sweden, we have political goals to increase production of organic food. If those goals are implemented, the climate influence from Swedish food production will probably increase a lot.”

So why have earlier studies not taken into account land-use and its relationship to carbon dioxide emissions?

“There are surely many reasons. An important explanation, I think, is simply an earlier lack of good, easily applicable methods for measuring the effect. Our new method of measurement allows us to make broad environmental comparisons, with relative ease,” says Stefan Wirsenius.

The results of the study are published in the article “Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change” in the journal Nature. The article is written by Timothy Searchinger, Princeton University, Stefan Wirsenius, Chalmers University of Technology, Tim Beringer, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, and Patrice Dumas, Cired.

She trolled Trump, but can she lead a green wave across Europe?

In February last year, a week after Donald Trump had signed an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by seven men, Isabella Lövin posted a photograph of herself on Twitter signing a climate change bill alongside seven other women.

Former deputy PM Isabella Lövin and fellow Green Gustav Fridolin on their way to the People’s Climate March in Stockholm in September

Former deputy PM Isabella Lövin and fellow Green Gustav Fridolin on their way to the People’s Climate March in Stockholm in September

Sweden’s then deputy prime minister remained enigmatic as the picture went viral and she was asked whether she had been “trolling” the US president. “It is up to the observer to interpret the photo,” she was quoted as saying. “We are a feminist government, which shows in this photo.”

The image made headlines around the world and, nearly two years on, is still what Lövin is best known for internationally. But the Swedish Green party leader and minister for international development is no mere social media politician. During her party’s historic first period in government she relentlessly pushed through an exhausting list of more than 50 policies, including a flight tax, the so-called Swedish Proposal, which tripled the price of EU emissions credits, and the carbon law she was signing in the picture that went viral.

 

Lövin is one of the leading figures in what she says is a resurgence in environmentally conscious politics across the continent. “There is a green wave going on in Europe, in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, and in Finland as well,” she says. “I’m convinced that green parties offer a positive vision, and also the willingness to take on the huge challenges that we see in the world right now.”

The slogan on her Twitter profile, “The climate can’t wait”, sums up the Lövin approach.

“We’ve been very focused on results, and many of these issues have beenfundamental, long-term policies,” she says, sitting in her office in Sweden’s foreign ministry.

Isabella Lovin, left, then the deputy PM, with female colleagues signing a climate change bill

Isabella Lovin, left, then the deputy PM, with female colleagues signing a climate change bill

“To work seriously on changing policies and setting long-term targets, and forming majorities and doing agreements with other parties, those things don’t pay off very easily in PR strategies.”

It’s the same single-mindedness she as shown ever since bursting into public life 10 years ago following the 2007 publication of Silent Seas – The Fish Race to the Bottom, a rigorously researched, dramatic exposé of the crisis in global fisheries.

“It totally changed my life,” she says of the book, published when she was 44. “But what really changed my life was the decision to write the book. I felt such a huge anxiety and anger about what we’re doing to our planet, and specifically when I understood the issue of overfishing – because we’re actually destroying our oceans with our eyes open.” I decided … I will try to write about this topic, and then at least I’ve tried’.”

The book was a sensation, winning Sweden’s two main journalism prizes, and launching a process which saw Lövin sent to Brussels as an MEP by the Green party with a single mission: to push through reform of fisheries policies. When I ask if she succeeded, she laughs. “Quite modestly I have to say ‘yes’. I was there for five years and we managed to get a majority in the European parliament to ban shark finning, overfishing and discarding fish, and to bring in a new common fisheries policy that sets the target that we must have sustainable fish stocks by 2020.”

There’s a section in the book when she considers rescuing a dogfish, still alive at a fish auction, and releasing it into the sea. But she bristles when I ask if she sees herself as an eco-warrior. “No, no, no. Never. For me, it was extremely important to really do the research and see the facts,” she says.

“I see the environmental challenges that we have now, they are existential. It’s that serious. It’s not just being like an image, that you’re an eco-warrior or whatever. This is really happening now.”

That is why, when the Swedish Green party formed a coalition with the Social Democrats in 2014, Lövin took the next step and joined the national government, first as minister for international development cooperation, then, when her colleague Åsa Romson resigned, as deputy prime minister and climate minister. “It was tough for me personally,” she says. “But I felt if I don’t do this, I might regret for the rest of my life I didn’t try to do something about the problems I saw.”

Government has also been a bruising experience for the party, particularly at the end of 2015 and the start of 2016, when a dramatic tightening of immigration policy was followed by a failure to stop Vattenfall, the state power company,selling, rather than shutting down, its German coal mines. “One of the mistakes we made … was maybe to say that we would succeed in certain issues where it wasn’t possible, and that has haunted us,” she says, of the coal debacle.

As a result, the party lost roughly half of its 20,000 members, and then, in September’s election, a third of its seats. The party says, however, it always knew that power would come at a heavy price, and had aimed only to stay above the 4% threshold needed to keep its place in parliament.

“It’s been a long-term strategy for the Swedish Greens to come into government and really take responsibility,” says Lövin. “We managed to do that and not be destroyed in the process.”

The Greens may yet have a role in the future Swedish government. Coalition talks have failed to lead anywhere and, last week, Annie Lööf, the leader of the minority Centre party, failed to form a government, the second such doomed attempt. Lövin believes her party is now in a strong position and could find a place in coalitions dominated by the centre-right Alliance bloc or the Social Democrats, whose leader, Stefan Löfven, was on Friday announced as the next person to be put forward to parliament as prime minister.

“It’s difficult to exclude any possibility at this point,” she says. “The Green party has been mentioned now as a very interesting partner for the more liberal rightwing parties, and of course we’re also included in what most people think would be a Social Democratic or more centre government.”

While some other party leaders have spent the last two months locked in coalition talks, Lövin has instead been busy serving as a minister in the transitional government, leading preparations for next month’s Katowice Climate Change Conference.

“I hope to be there,” she says. “I’m very concerned, actually, because with the Paris Agreement, everyone was very happy that we got to get an agreement, but now the logic of the climate negotiations is back to where it was before Paris, with the poor counties, including China and India, blaming the richer countries for what’s happening.”

Lövin’s press secretary then chips in to warn her that it’s time for her next appointment, but she has one more thing she wants to say. “I think one of the most important things for all democracies around the world to contemplate is how we are going to develop and protect democracy when voters are so impatient and learn their news from social media, which can be very biased.”

A viral tweet such as hers may get through to hundreds of thousands of people with a simple message about how wrong it is for a White House full of men to sign orders that affect women’s bodies and lives. It cannot, however, communicate more complicated, nuanced information.

“The understanding of long processes, which is, very necessary if you are going to have a democracy, not a dictatorship, is very low,” she says.

“I think just staying on very superficial messages and going with a populist movement is totally the opposite of what a green party should be.”

Purple photosynthetic bacteria ‘batteries’ turn sewage into clean energy

You’ve flushed something valuable down the toilet today.

Organic compounds in household sewage and industrial wastewater are a rich potential source of energy, bioplastics and even proteins for animal feed — but with no efficient extraction method, treatment plants discard them as contaminants. Now researchers have found an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective solution.

Wastewater treatment plant.

Wastewater treatment plant.

Published in Frontiers in Energy Research, their study is the first to show that purple phototrophic bacteria — which can store energy from light –, when supplied with an electric current, can recover near to 100% of the carbon from any type of organic waste while generating hydrogen gas for electricity production.

“One of the most important problems of current wastewater treatment plants is high carbon emissions,” says co-author Dr Daniel Puyol of King Juan Carlos University, Spain. “Our light-based biorefinery process could provide a means to harvest green energy from wastewater, with zero carbon footprint.”

Purple photosynthetic bacteria

When it comes to photosynthesis, green hogs the limelight. But as chlorophyll retreats from autumn foliage, it leaves behind its yellow, orange and red cousins. In fact, photosynthetic pigments come in all sorts of colors — and all sorts of organisms.

Cue purple phototrophic bacteria. They capture energy from sunlight using a variety of pigments, which turn them shades of orange, red or brown — as well as purple. But it is the versatility of their metabolism, not their color, which makes them so interesting to scientists.

Purple photosynthetic bacteria

Purple photosynthetic bacteria

“Purple phototrophic bacteria make an ideal tool for resource recovery from organic waste, thanks to their highly diverse metabolism,” explains Puyol.

The bacteria can use organic molecules and nitrogen gas — instead of CO2 and H2O — to provide carbon, electrons, and nitrogen for photosynthesis. This means that they grow faster than alternative phototrophic bacteria and algae, and can generate hydrogen gas, proteins or a type of biodegradable polyester as byproducts of metabolism.

Tuning metabolic output with electricity

Which metabolic product predominates depends on the bacteria’s environmental conditions — like light intensity, temperature, and the types of organics and nutrients available.

“Our group manipulates these conditions to tune the metabolism of purple bacteria to different applications, depending on the organic waste source and market requirements,” says co-author Professor Abraham Esteve-Núñez of University of Alcalá, Spain.

“But what is unique about our approach is the use of an external electric current to optimize the productive output of purple bacteria.”

This concept, known as a “bioelectrochemical system,” works because the diverse metabolic pathways in purple bacteria are connected by a common currency: electrons. For example, a supply of electrons is required for capturing light energy, while turning nitrogen into ammonia releases excess electrons, which must be dissipated. By optimizing electron flow within the bacteria, an electric current — provided via positive and negative electrodes, as in a battery — can delimit these processes and maximize the rate of synthesis.

Maximum biofuel, minimum carbon footprint

In their latest study, the group analyzed the optimum conditions for maximizing hydrogen production by a mixture of purple phototrophic bacteria species. They also tested the effect of a negative current — that is, electrons supplied by metal electrodes in the growth medium — on the metabolic behavior of the bacteria.

Their first key finding was that the nutrient blend that fed the highest rate of hydrogen production also minimized the production of CO2.

“This demonstrates that purple bacteria can be used to recover valuable biofuel from organics typically found in wastewater — malic acid and sodium glutamate — with a low carbon footprint,” reports Esteve-Núñez.

Even more striking were the results using electrodes, which demonstrated for the first time that purple bacteria are capable of using electrons from a negative electrode or “cathode” to capture CO2 via photosynthesis.

“Recordings from our bioelectrochemical system showed a clear interaction between the purple bacteria and the electrodes: negative polarization of the electrode caused a detectable consumption of electrons, associated with a reduction in carbon dioxide production.

“This indicates that the purple bacteria were using electrons from the cathode to capture more carbon from organic compounds via photosynthesis, so less is released as CO2.”

Towards bioelectrochemical systems for hydrogen production

According to the authors, this was the first reported use of mixed cultures of purple bacteria in a bioelectrochemical system — and the first demonstration of any phototroph shifting metabolism due to interaction with a cathode.

Capturing excess CO2 produced by purple bacteria could be useful not only for reducing carbon emissions but also for refining biogas from organic waste for use as fuel.

However, Puyol admits that the group’s true goal lies further ahead.

“One of the original aims of the study was to increase biohydrogen production by donating electrons from the cathode to purple bacteria metabolism. However, it seems that the PPB bacteria prefer to use these electrons for fixing CO2 instead of creating H2.

“We recently obtained funding to pursue this aim with further research and will work on this for the following years. Stay tuned for more metabolic tuning.”