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Climate goals face major headwinds, two reports say

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! This has absolutely nothing to do with climate change, but we're really enjoying the Twitter account “cats being weird little guys.” But first:

Two reports show major headwinds facing U.S., global climate goals

More than 70 countries have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while President Biden has vowed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But two big reports released Thursday underscore the steep challenges facing Biden and other world leaders as they seek to slash planet-warming emissions in the crucial coming decades.

The first study, conducted by the independent research firm Rhodium Group, finds that the United States is on track to reduce emissions 24 percent to 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — significantly short of Biden's target — absent additional policy action.

The second study, issued by the financial data powerhouse S&P Global, concludes that a looming shortage of copper — a critical mineral used in most green technologies — imperils global efforts to zero-out emissions by midcentury.

Taken together, the reports paint a sobering picture of the difficulties of deep decarbonization. They also stretch more than 100 pages and include dozens of charts and data points. 

We read both analyses in their entirety so you don't have to. Here's what to know about their main findings:

America has a ‘big gap to make up’

On its current trajectory, the United States is set to reduce emissions 24 to 35 percent by 2030 and 26 to 41 percent by 2035, according to the Rhodium report.

“Those reductions are not sufficient under current policy to meet the U.S. stated climate target,” Ben King, an associate director at Rhodium and co-author of the analysis, told The Climate 202. “So there's still a big gap to make up.”

Rhodium conducts the same analysis of America's emissions pathway, dubbed “Taking Stock,” every year. The estimates in this year's report represent a rosier outlook than last year, when the firm forecast a 17 to 30 percent emissions reduction by 2030.

However, the shift is largely attributable to slower macroeconomic growth projections and higher fossil fuel prices amid the war in Ukraine — not large policy changes.

In the policy arena, the report notes that there has been some movement in the past year, including the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law and the enactment of new tailpipe emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

But “uncertainty reigns,” the study says, when it comes to Democrats' long-stalled budget reconciliation bill and the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of power plants following a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Other sector-specific findings include:

  • The industrial sector is expected to overtake the transportation sector as the nation's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the early 2030s.
  • Emissions from the power sector will probably continue to decline, but the price of natural gas and renewable energy will have a major impact on the 2035 outcome.
  • Gas mileage improvements and more electric vehicle sales will drive declines in transportation sector emissions.
Copper shortage may short-circuit net-zero goals

Meanwhile, the S&P Global study highlights that global net-zero goals are heavily dependent on the supply of copper, which is essential to electric vehicle batteries, offshore wind turbines, solar cells and other green technologies.

The report looks at two scenarios: a “rocky road” scenario in which current trends continue, and a “high ambition” scenario in which copper mines increase their output and countries ramp up their recycling of copper from discarded equipment.

  • Under the “rocky road” scenario, the study predicts annual copper shortfalls of nearly 10 million metric tons in 2035.
  • Even under the “high ambition” scenario, it projects a deficit of nearly 1.6 million metric tons in 2035.

“People talk a lot about lithium and cobalt, but copper is the metal of electrification,” Dan Yergin, vice chairman of S&P Global and a co-author of the study, told The Climate 202. “And even under an optimistic scenario, we see a significant shortfall."

The looming copper shortage imperils not only governments' climate pledges, but also automakers' commitments to selling more electric vehicles, the study says. The average EV uses roughly 2½ times more copper than an existing internal combustion engine car, according to the analysis.

“EVs are definitely the big drivers of the copper demand increase in the clean-energy transition,” Olivier Beaufils, director of energy transition consulting for S&P Global Commodity Insights and another co-author of the study, told The Climate 202. 

On the Hill

Manchin sounds the alarm — again — on spending package amid inflation

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday warned that the budget reconciliation bill “needs to be scrubbed much better,” potentially dealing a blow to the climate provisions that remain on the table, Alexander Bolton reports for the Hill. 

The warning came after a new report showed that inflation — a key issue for the elusive senator — hit 9.1 percent in June, reaching the highest measure in 40 years and a new pandemic-era peak.

Manchin told reporters Wednesday that prescription drug pricing reform could be the only new spending in the reconciliation bill, although he didn't rule out other spending, as long as it doesn't worsen inflation, Burgess Everett and Anthony Adragna report for Politico's Congress Minutes.

“We know what we can pass is basically the drug pricing. … Is there any more we can do? I don't know,” he said. “But I am very, very cautious and I am going to make sure I have every input on scrubbing everything humanly possible that could be considered inflammatory.”

Sen. Cotton criticizes BlackRock over climate action

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday sent a letter to Larry Fink, the chief executive of the financial firm BlackRock, criticizing the company’s involvement in Climate Action 100+, saying that by calling on top emitters to address climate change, the investor-led group is pressuring fossil fuel companies to drill for less oil and gas.

“Your anti-drilling coercion threatens our national security, hurts Americans struggling to buy a tank of gas, and appears to violate antitrust laws,” he wrote in the letter. “By ‘collaborating’ with other investors, you and your fellow CA100+ investor participants appear to be acting like a climate cartel.” 

Cotton’s letter asks Fink to provide a list of companies and investor participants that BlackRock has engaged with as part of the initiative by July 20.

BlackRock declined to comment on Cotton's letter. But in a previous response to a letter from the Texas comptroller, the firm wrote: "Our investment decisions are governed strictly by our fiduciary duty to clients, and that duty requires us to prioritize our clients’ financial interests above any commitments or pledges not required by law."

Pressure points

Biden’s Saudi trip is unlikely to bring down oil prices

The Biden administration is insisting that the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia on Friday is about much more than just energy — but oil is bound to come up, Ben Lefebvre reports for Politico.

Biden's op-ed in The Washington Post last week justifying his decision to visit the kingdom, despite his earlier vows to make it a “pariah” for its human rights violations, contained few references to energy. But he is desperately searching for more oil, and Saudi Arabia — which holds some of the world’s largest oil reserves — could help settle the global market and lower prices at the gasoline pump.

However, experts said a hard push by the president would probably fail to get the kingdom to bolster oil production because it may have limited spare capacity. Instead, the best that could come of talks with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would be modest agreements to invest in more production. 

The visit comes after the OPEC nations decided in June to slightly increase oil production sooner than originally planned, succumbing to calls from Biden.

Extreme events

These trees have survived 1,000 years. Can they survive climate change?

Bristlecone pines have survived for more than 1,000 years in one of the harshest environments on Earth, but by 2018 hundreds of the trees were found dead and dying in Death Valley National Park, The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports. 

According to a study published this spring, the West’s worst drought in 1,200 years is critically weakening the trees, a sign that climate change is proving too much for the ancient trees to bear. The warming temperatures have caused an explosion of bark beetles, which the bristlecones were previously thought to be immune from, undermining the trees' capacity to defend themselves against other hazards.

With the trees' decline, a record of the past is also at risk. Bristlecone tree rings have helped scientists for centuries by revealing a history of the Earth’s climate and capturing the interactions between greenhouse gases and altered ecosystems. 

But researchers remain hopeful that the prehistoric species can survive, given their documented tenacity. The researchers plan to collect acorns and cuttings from the tree that can be used to regrow the species in botanic gardens and arboretums.

“We have a second chance to prevent a species extinction,” said Wes Knapp, the chief botanist for the conservation nonprofit NatureServe. “That’s really rare, to have a second chance in nature."

Extreme heat scorching Western Europe could set all-time record in U.K.

Severe heat warnings are expected to expand across the United Kingdom late this weekend into early next week as temperatures reach all-time highs between 90 and 95 degrees, in some areas possibly hitting triple digits, Matthew Cappucci and Karla Adam report for The Post. The heat wave marks the second time in recent weeks that climate change has helped hike temperatures in the region. 

The extreme heat could bring temperatures roughly 18 degrees above normal for mid-July in London, nearly topping the 2019 record of 101.7 degrees. The excessive temperatures are not expected to fall at nighttime either, increasing the danger posed by the heatwave to vulnerable populations living in homes without air conditioning. 

Since the 1970s, the U.K. has reached 95 degrees on a single day nine times — four of which were in the past decade. Climate scientists say human-caused global warming is linked to an increase in the frequency and intensity of such abnormal hot spells in Western Europe. 

In the atmosphere

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