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U.N. chief says Paris agreement goal ‘is on life support’

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! The newsletter is coming to you this week from The Washington Post's newsroom, where we've returned after roughly two years of working from home. Send tips for decorating our desks — and tips for climate coverage — to maxine.joselow@washpost.com. But first:

U.N. chief warns that Paris agreement goal ‘is on life support’

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres is warning today that the more ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris agreement — to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — is slipping out of reach, The Washington Post's Brady Dennis reports this morning.

“The 1.5-degree goal is on life support. It is in intensive care,” Guterres told attendees of the Economist Sustainability Summit in prerecorded remarks.

“We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe,” he continued. “Our planet has already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees — and we see the devastating consequences everywhere.”

The sobering comments come after world leaders from nearly 200 nations converged at a U.N. climate summit last year in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26. Negotiators emerged from two weeks of high-profile talks with a deal that pushes countries to strengthen their near-term climate targets and move away from fossil fuels.

But in the lead-up to the next U.N. climate conference, known as COP27 and set to be hosted by Egypt in November, the world remains perilously off track from meeting even the less ambitious goal of the Paris agreement — to limit the Earth's warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s.

“According to present national commitments, global emissions are set to increase by almost 14 percent in the 2020s,” Guterres said, adding, “If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”

The Ukraine crisis

Guterres's speech was also notable for its emphasis on the climate implications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has roiled global energy markets.

He warned that as Europe and its allies seek to curtail their reliance on Russian oil and gas, they must continue to prioritize the transition to clean energy instead of locking in new fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come.

“As major economies pursue an 'all-of-the-above' strategy to replace Russian fossil fuels, short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5 degrees,” Guterres said. “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use.”

Since the United States and the European Union took steps to dramatically scale back imports of Russian oil and gas, the Biden administration has sought to shore up Europe’s energy supply. The Energy Department last week approved the expansion of two liquefied natural gas export projects, prompting an outcry from some climate activists.

Climate finance

Guterres also called on wealthy countries to finally deliver on their promise to provide $100 billion annually to help poor nations green their economies and adapt to mounting climate disasters.

Amid record inflation, massive debt and the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, many poor countries have little capacity to adapt to unavoidable climate impacts — known as “loss and damage” in international climate diplomacy.

“Wealthier countries must finally make good on the $100 billion climate finance commitment — in 2022 — to developing countries,” Guterres said, adding, “It is the right thing to do.”

The ‘recovery room’

Guterres's speech came after the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sweeping report that warned that humanity has a “brief and rapidly closing window” to avoid a hotter, deadlier future.

While the report found that some climate impacts are already baked in, it stressed that humanity still has time to act to stave off more suffering in the future.

Guterres echoed that message, saying the world can still take steps to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. In particular, he said public officials and the private sector must accelerate the phaseout of coal. Governments must strengthen their national climate plans. And the world must figure out how to cut emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as shipping, aviation, steel and cement.

“That’s how we will move the 1.5 degree goal from life support to the recovery room,” he said.

On the Hill

Rep. Don Young, who brought more drilling to Alaska, dies at 88

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the longest-serving member of the House and former chairman of the House Natural Resources and Transportation committees, died on Friday at 88, The Post’s Harrison Smith reports.

Young was reelected to a 25th term in the House in November. Known for his salty language and gruff demeanor, Young helped bring billions of dollars in federal funding to Alaska in an era before a ban on earmarks. His time in Congress was also characterized by a push to loosen restrictions on logging, drilling, fishing and mining in the state. 

Soon into the start of his congressional career in 1973, Young joined other Republicans in authorizing the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which transports oil for 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez, kick-starting his nearly four-decade effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. His efforts made him an enemy to environmentalists, whom he ridiculed as a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots.”

International climate

Europe’s phaseout of Russian energy could mean opportunity for African countries

European nations are taking a keener interest in Africa’s abundant natural gas as they look to curb their dependence on Russian energy amid the Ukraine crisis, Lesley Wroughton reports for The Post.

Tim McPhie, a spokesman for the European Commission, confirmed that African energy officials will meet with the commission starting on Tuesday in Brussels. “When it comes to finding alternative gas suppliers, the E.U. is in discussion with a very wide range of potential exporters — including a number of countries in Africa,” McPhie said.

Africa, which has some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, could replace much of the 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas that Europe imported from Russia last year. But the move would raise questions about how Europe will accomplish its climate targets.

“The E.U. has a clear objective to diversify our gas suppliers in the short term, while retaining our focus on boosting renewables and phasing out fossil fuels to meet our climate goals,” McPhie said. “At present, [liquefied natural gas] offers the fastest option to diversify our gas supplies.”

Agency alert

Postal Service inspector general finds benefits of electric vehicle fleet, contradicting DeJoy

U.S. Postal Service Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb on Thursday released a report on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s decision to replace an aging fleet with mostly gas-powered delivery trucks, poking holes in many of his arguments for not purchasing electric vehicles. 

“We identified several clear benefits of adopting electric vehicles into the postal delivery fleet, including improved sustainability and environmental impacts,” the report said. “Electric vehicles are generally more mechanically reliable than gas-powered vehicles and would require less maintenance.” 

The report concedes that electric vehicles have a higher upfront cost than gas-powered trucks and require the installation of expensive charging infrastructure. But once rolled out, electric vehicles are “likely to be more affordable to own than gasoline-powered vehicles in certain cases, even in the absence of any financial incentives,” the report said.  

Last week, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) urged the USPS inspector general to open an investigation into the contract for gas-powered trucks, but this report is separate from that request. The inspector general “will be doing additional work in response to that request,” the report says.

“The USPS’ own white paper shows what we’ve already known — the long term cost benefits of EVs will save the USPS money,” Huffman said in a statement to The Climate 202. “With the agency in the midst of a downward financial spiral and handicapped by a dilapidated, dangerous fleet of gas guzzlers, it’s clear the best solution is to transition to an electrical fleet.” 

Extreme events

Texas officials worry extreme drought could worsen raging wildfire

The Eastland Complex fire — made up of three smaller wildfires in Central Texas — has incinerated more than 45,000 acres of land since igniting on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing a deputy sheriff who was helping residents evacuate, Jack Douglas and Jacob Bogage report for The Post.

The blaze could worsen as huge swaths of Texas suffer from extreme drought conditions, officials say. Temperatures averaged 5 to 12 degrees above normal in December, experts at Texas A&M University found. That worsened the state’s drought and set the stage for a longer and more catastrophic fire season. 

On the Hill this week

On Monday: The Senate Judiciary Committee will kick off hearings on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court  — a process that is expected to last through Thursday. 

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing to examine the nation’s strategy for promoting energy security while facilitating investment and innovation in climate solutions. 

In the coming weeks: We can expect several hearings in both chambers with oil executives testifying about high gas prices despite record profits for the industry. 

  • On Friday, the House Natural Resources Committee requested testimony from executives from EOG Resources, Devon Energy and Occidental Petroleum for a planned April 5 hearing.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee is also planning a hearing on surging gas prices and seeking testimony from ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods.

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