By Justin Guay and Lauri Myllyvirta
Increasing coal burning in Europe caused 2,000 additional premature deaths, with exports from the U.S. accounting for two thirds of that increase.
Coal-fired power plants are silent killers. Hour after hour, these plants fill the air with toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium and tiny sulphate and nitrate particles that go deep into people's lungs and bloodstream. These emissions caused 22,000 premature deaths in the European Union (EU) in 2010, through strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and other diseases, as estimated in a new report from Greenpeace, based on research by the University of Stuttgart.
The EU has seen a problematic short term rise in coal burn over the past three years (though the long term trend is down). New statistics from BP place the increase at 11 percent with imports increasing a whopping 26 percent. One of the biggest sources of those deadly coal imports was the U.S., whose exports to the EU almost doubled. In fact, the U.S. accounted for 65 percent of Europe's increased coal consumption. Which means, according to Greenpeace modeling results, 65 percent of the 2,000 premature deaths in the EU were caused by U.S. coal exporters. Not exactly an export to be proud of.
Leaving U.S. culpability in this increased mortality aside for now, what's up with the clean, green EU? It turns out a number of factors are conspiring to improve coal's short-term fortunes: a plummeting carbon dioxide price, lack of political leadership and some national factors, particularly in the United Kingdom. This has combined with lower prices for imported coal, driven largely by the U.S. dumping its surplus output on the seaborne market (because as Mayor Bloomberg rightfully points out, the U.S. coal industry is a dead man walking) to increase coal burn.
But what has not been behind this rise is the building of new coal power stations, or fossil fuels covering for Germany’s nuclear closures. Very few new coal plants have come online, and fossil fuel fired generation as a whole has dropped as renewable generation has grown rapidly.
The problem is with ongoing economic turmoil, Europe's decision-makers have decided to pamper dirty industries in false hopes of protecting jobs rather than pushing forward with a clean energy economy to put Europeans back to work. The biggest culprit here is the UK, where utilities have run their old coal power plants at full steam before the country's upcoming carbon tax and air pollution regulation force the plants to retire. The good news is that these factors will reverse in the near future: air pollution norms and UK's carbon tax will kick in, renewable energy growth will start eating into coal output and decision-makers will face increasing pressure to start leading on climate again.
But what of those amoral U.S. coal exporters? The ones peddling death and disease to our friends in Europe? The situation feels eerily reminiscent of tobacco companies seeking "growth" markets outside U.S. borders as the country collectively awoke to the industry's real impact. As U.S. decision-makers weigh the costs and benefits of dramatically increasing this deadly export it’s worth asking ourselves is this an export we can justify? Thanks to this new report from Greenpeace we can conclusively give you 2,000 reasons it's not.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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