Three major developments in 2022 may shift the world's climate trajectory
Brazil's election, the projection of a peak in fossil-fuel use and U.S. climate action all seemed unimaginable just months ago
By Michael Birnbaum
Updated November 1, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EDT|Published November 1, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Sunday's victory by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil's presidential election represents the latest in a year of unexpected developments that are leading to better international prospects to combat climate change, reducing the odds that global warming will exceed the worst forecasts of recent years.
Lula has promised to end the era of aggressive deforestation that has marked the tenure of Brazil's current president, Jair Bolsonaro. The election follows Europe's crisis-driven investment in renewable energy and landmark climate legislation in the United States.
The combined force of the three global developments could lead to an accelerated departure from fossil fuels, cheaper renewable energy and revived efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is a major global defense against greenhouse gas emissions, but it has been further ravaged by deforestation in recent years.
The developments change the backdrop for United Nations climate talks that begin next week in Egypt, where nations are expected to struggle to make progress on their global climate commitments.
The new momentum would not necessarily be disrupted if Democrats lose control of Congress following the midterm elections next week and are replaced by Republicans who take a sharply different approach to climate issues. The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law in August, was structured to create tax credits and incentives that have an impact no matter who controls Washington.
Global warming is still a major threat to humanity, with the window all but closed to limit average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even current levels of warming are having dire effects on people around the world. Nations are falling short on their pledges to reduce emissions. And Europe's acceleration on renewable energy is driven by a tragedy, the war in Ukraine, that has cost thousands of lives and forced millions to flee their homes.
But as grim as the broader context remains, efforts to combat climate change have all taken a leap in recent months, as developments that were once thought unlikely are now reality.
"When you look at the underlying trends, you've got to be encouraged," said Claire Healy, the director of the Washington office of E3G, a London-headquartered climate policy think tank. "The real economy underneath all of this is moving in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than what the science says is needed."
Lula made climate efforts a centerpiece of his effort to defeat Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who has led Brazil since 2019.
Speaking to supporters at a victory speech in São Paulo on Sunday, Lula spotlighted putting an end to deforestation as one of a handful of priorities as he returns to the presidency after a 12-year hiatus. When he was first in office, from 2003 until 2010, he was largely successful at curbing deforestation. In the years since, scientists estimate, the Amazon rainforest has become a net emitter of carbon dioxide, rather than an absorber of global carbon emissions, because it was being cleared by loggers and farmers at such a rapid pace.
"The planet needs the Amazon alive. A standing tree is worth more than tons of wood illegally harvested by those who think only of easy profit at the expense of the deterioration of life on Earth," Lula told his supporters.
Brazilian climate advocates said they expected a major policy change.
"We all have great expectations because it was key to get rid of Bolsonaro to have any chance," said Adriana Ramos, an adviser at the Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian civil society group that works on Indigenous rights and environmental issues. "All the scientists were saying that if we keep the same dynamic in the Amazon, we would be missing the opportunity of avoiding the tipping point" at which it becomes impossible to coax the rainforest into recovery.
Lula's efforts to shift on climate issues won't be easy or immediate: 49.1 percent of voters opted for his opponent, and the state governors in the Amazon are also split between loyalists to Lula and Bolsonaro, adding to the challenge of carrying out policies on the ground.
Under Lula, Brazil will also probably reengage in international climate negotiations as a global leader among industrialized developing nations such as China and India, a role it had largely abandoned during the Bolsonaro years, analysts said. The shift in Brazil's domestic climate policies might be positive on its own, they said, but the change probably will be amplified because it will encourage other countries to move alongside Brasília.
"Just like last year, where we saw the U.S. start to reengage, I think we'll start to see trust built up," said John Verdieck, director of international climate policy at the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization.
In the United States and Europe, twin developments are forging some optimism among climate advocates. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, this summer devotes $369 billion in investments, tax credits and other funding for climate efforts, an infusion of cash that backers say will reshape the American economy and bring down global prices for renewable energy.
"The IRA, it's an incredibly powerful tool. Frankly speaking, in the U.S. political context, one couldn't have imagined a better tool, more suited for the U.S. economy and transition than going straight at making technology the cornerstone for us," said Jennifer Layke, global director of the energy program at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based climate research center.
And in Europe, the war in Ukraine has come at a dreadful human cost amid the worst fighting in Europe since World War II. But the disruption to Europe's energy dependence on the Kremlin has also forced an effort to accelerate renewable energy such as solar and wind power, even as Europe also burns more coal and constructs more natural gas infrastructure in the short term.
Some climate experts worry that the global jump in fossil fuel prices will lead to efforts to boost production that will outlast the current supply crunch, dealing a setback to efforts to reduce emissions.
"What we have seen over the last two decades is that even the rapid deployment of renewables hasn't led to declines of emissions," said Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, based in Germany. "The question is, what are the instruments to reduce gas and oil imports."
But with Europe also speeding its efforts to reduce long-term demand for fossil fuel, one influential international agency declared for the first time last week that a peak was in sight for fossil fuels.
The developments in the United States and Europe - along with an increase in renewable targets in China and India - led the International Energy Agency to predict that global demand for every kind of fossil fuel would peak by the middle of the next decade. Global coal use will start declining within the next few years, gas will plateau by 2030, and oil demand will level off by the mid-2030s, the agency forecast in its World Energy Outlook.
"Even with current policies, fossil fuels will peak. For first time since the industrial revolution," the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said in an interview. "This is not a climate scenario. It is policy context. Years and years, it has increased, those fossil fuels around the world. We see a peak."
Not every expert is as confident: Some say that a peak depends on Europe following through with commitments it has made but not yet delivered, and that its current rush for fossil fuels is leading it in the opposite direction.
"What we see in terms of statements is all green and fine," said Georg Zachmann, senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic research institute, who has been tracking European energy policy during the Ukraine crisis. "But we are entering a time of much tougher choices, and for Europe in particular, where money is going to get very scarce. High interest rates will not benefit renewable infrastructure," whose high costs come upfront, unlike that of fossil fuels. "The tough choices are ahead," he said.
As climate advocates and policymakers prepare for two weeks of negotiations in Egypt this month, some of them say that the changes are impressive - and that it is not enough.
"Even for renewables and electric vehicles, it's not yet at the pace that we need it to go, at least to be within a 1.5 degree envelope," said David Waskow, the international climate action director at the World Resources Institute. "So, a heck of a lot of progress. And, still, it has to go deeper and faster."
Steven Mufson and Evan Halper contributed to this report.
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