Kentucky has just 12 years to drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to do its part to save the planet from the worst impacts of climate change, according to a new report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change.
Monday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says humankind is already living in a warming world and the planet is on track to be 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than pre-industrial levels around 2040, according to the report.
Rising global temperatures contribute to Kentucky’s weather variability increasing the risk of droughts, heat waves, extreme storms and heavy rainfall.
Climate change in the coming decades is likely to reduce the state’s crop yields and forest productivity, threaten aquatic ecosystems, increase flood risks and ground-level ozone, according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency report.
But the consequences of surpassing 2.7 degrees of warming are worse than previously understood, according to the report.
The U.N. report finds that 3.6 degrees of warming presents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to humankind and the planet.
It’s the difference between losing 70 to 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs and losing virtually all of the world’s reefs. It’s the difference between the likelihood of losing all of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice once per century versus losing it once per decade, according to the report.
Less than one degree of difference would compound impacts on sea-level rise, ocean acidification, biodiversity, food security, water supply and economic growth. Vulnerable communities across the planet will suffer the worst repercussions.
“This is going to be something that’s going to last for dozens of generations. So it makes it particularly important to begin acting quickly, to start taking action quickly, to protect the quality of life, the economic growth and the health that future generations will be able to enjoy,” said Jonathan Gilligan, a climate change researcher at Vanderbilt University.
To reverse course, human-caused carbon dioxide emissions need to decrease about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” by 2050, according to the report. Net zero means any remaining greenhouse gas emissions would need to be offset by reforestation or carbon capture technology.
Kentucky has just 12 years to make unprecedented changes to all aspects of society to meet the goals outlined in the report, but there are a number of hurdles the state would have to overcome.
By 2050, the report recommends coal-fired electricity make up just one to seven percent of the world’s energy mix.
But last year, 79 percent of Kentucky’s electricity came from coal — the fourth-largest share of any state, according to the Energy Information Administration. Another 13 percent came from natural gas.
Coal will likely remain the predominant source for electricity well through 2035 if current trends hold, according to 2016 projections from Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Kentucky continues to be the fifth-largest coal producer in the country.
Burning coal for energy emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per unit than any other energy source, according to the EIA. It also produces a number of other harmful air pollutants and by-products that can leach into groundwater, rivers and streams.
But giving up coal means losing an abundant and reliable fuel source.
Kentucky Coal Association President Tyler White said investing in Kentucky’s current coal-fired power plants is the best way to maintain resilient and affordable energy for the state and the country.
“Thanks to technology powered by abundant and affordable energy, we enjoy the safest climate in history of humanity. Climate-related deaths have decreased by 98 percent over the last century,” White said in a statement.
White’s statistic appears in a 2011 study from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. In 2016, Reason Foundation Senior Fellow Julian Morris wrote that global warming may create “net benefits for humanity.”
Gilligan, a Nashville-based climate researcher, said it’s true that coal has improved our quality of life, powering technologies like air conditioning and advances in medicine. But the science remains clear: climate change represents an urgent threat to humanity.
The latest IPCC report includes more than 91 authors from 44 countries and cites over 6,000 references.
“We are just at the beginning of what’s going to be a tremendous change in the climate that is unprecedented in human history,” Gilligan said.
Planning For Climate Change
In 2016, Gov. Matt Bevin laid off the state’s assistant secretary for climate policy. That role was designed to implement the Obama-era federal climate change policies. The Clean Power Plan was replaced by President Donald Trump earlier this year.
There currently is not a single position or group within the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet that is focused on understanding and preventing the cumulative risks of climate change, said spokesman John Mura.
However, certain divisions do take climate risks into consideration, he said. For example, the cabinet’s Division of Water is updating drought and flood risk assessments and mitigation plans.
“As stewards of Kentucky’s land, air and water, we deal every day with the effects of a variable and changing climate,” Mura said. “They can be heavy rainfalls in eastern Kentucky that bring mountain slides, flooding in urban areas, or periods of drought that foster wildfires, or the extremely hot temperatures that contribute to increases of ozone.”
Louisville, however remains one of a number of cities around the country that supports the Paris Climate Agreement even after the U.S. announced its withdrawal.
The Louisville Office of Sustainability is working on plans to reduce greenhouse gases. Mayor Greg Fischer has also signed a global covenant with about 7,500 mayors around the country to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“We will continue to look for opportunities to tackle this growing challenge. And we all play a role: From an individual turning the lights off when they leave the room, to a neighborhood association volunteering for a tree planting event, and a company investing in a culture of sustainability for the workplace, we can all help create a healthier planet,” said spokeswoman Jean Porter.
Metro Council President David James recently sponsored a resolution to support 100 percent renewable energy for the city by 2030, and the entire community by 2035.
Porter did not respond to a question about the mayor’s thoughts on the resolution.
Louisville receives nearly all of its electricity from coal and natural gas. It’s provided by Louisville Gas & Electric, which operates nine power plants for nearly 1.3 million customers.
Liz Pratt, a spokeswoman for the company said the company is “dedicated to protecting the environment” while providing safe, reliable service for customers, according to a statement.
LG&E power plants include Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville where a WFPL News analysis found monitoring wells that contained up to 40 times more arsenic than federal drinking water standards.
Coal ash at Cane Run Generating Station in Louisville blew onto nearby communities for years until LG&E closed the plant in 2015 and replaced it with a natural gas power plant. Scientists are just beginning to research the heath impacts of the coal ash exposure on nearby communities.
Pratt did not answer whether the utility believes in human-caused climate change. However, Pratt said the company’s emissions have decreased because of the retirement of 800 megawatts of coal-fired generation between 2013 and 2015. Another 272 megawatts are expected to close in early 2019.
“Together, with our parent company, PPL Corporation, we’ve committed to a goal to help cut the corporation’s carbon dioxide emissions 70 percent from 2010 levels by 2050 as we work to advance a cleaner energy future,” Pratt said.
Local utilities are also choosing to reduce their reliance on coal as cheaper alternatives like natural gas become more available, said Chris Heimgartner, general manager of Henderson Municipal Power & Light. Many utilities will end up reducing their carbon footprint because of changes in energy infrastructure, he said.
“Just like any other kind of free market economy, Kentucky is going to make that decision piecemeal,” he said.
Chances For Success
Ultimately, Gilligan does not think piecemeal efforts in Kentucky and across the country are enough to meet the climate deadlines set out in the IPCC report.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying either, he said.
“Stopping the warming at some temperature and keeping it from going well above that will always mean less suffering and less harm,” Gilligan said.