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Fossil-Fuel Use Could Peak in Just a Few Years. Still, Major Challenges Loom.

WASHINGTON — Clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles are advancing so rapidly that the global use of fossil fuels is now expected to peak by the mid-2020s and then start declining, the world’s leading energy agency said Tuesday.

But there’s a catch: The transition away from coal, oil and natural gas still isn’t happening fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the agency said, at least not unless governments take much stronger action to reduce their planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions over the next few years.

The International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook, a 386-page report that forecasts global energy trends to 2050, comes just weeks before world leaders gather for a major United Nations climate summit in Glasgow to discuss how to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels and prevent the planet from overheating.

“The world has made a remarkable amount of progress on clean energy over the past decade,” Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, said in an interview. “But there’s still so much more that needs to happen.”

The new report finds that the world has made significant strides in the fight against climate change. Wind and solar power are now the cheapest source of new electricity in most markets and growing briskly. Sales of electric vehicles worldwide hit records last year. Across the globe, approvals for new coal-fired power plants, a major source of emissions, have slowed dramatically in recent years, as governments and banks have increasingly refused to finance them.

Governments are also stepping up their policies to curb emissions. The European Union has been increasing the price it charges large polluters to emit carbon dioxide. India has ratcheted up efficiency standards for new air-conditioners. China has said it would stop financing new coal plants overseas.

As a result, the International Energy Agency now projects that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide will reach a peak by the mid-2020s and then drop slowly in the decades thereafter. Global coal use is expected to fall between now and 2050, despite an uptick this year driven by increased industrial activity in China, while global oil demand is expected to enter into permanent decline by the 2030s, as people switch to electricity to fuel their cars.

That alone would be a remarkable shift. Ever since World War II, global carbon dioxide emissions have been on a seemingly inexorable upward trajectory, with only temporary dips during recessions, as the world relied on ever greater quantities of fossil fuels to power homes, cars and factories. A turning point is now in sight, the report says.

Even so, this shift is still nowhere near enough to avert some of the most perilous consequences of climate change, the agency warned.

Current energy policies will still put the world on track to heat up roughly 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 compared to preindustrial levels, the report found. Last month, the United Nations warned that such an outcome would be “catastrophic,” noting that countries are already suffering much higher risks of deadly heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires after just 1.1 degrees Celsius of global warming to date.

Many world leaders hope to limit average global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid some of the most dire and irreversible risks from climate change, such as widespread crop failures or ecosystem collapse.

To meet that goal, it won’t be enough for global emissions to simply peak and then decline gently in the decades ahead, as they are currently on track to do, the International Energy Agency said. Instead, the world’s nations would have to move much faster to slash emissions nearly in half this decade and stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by around 2050.

Earlier this year, the agency laid out a detailed road map for what such an effort might look like. By 2030, for instance, electric vehicles would have to make up more than half of new car sales globally, up from just 5 percent today. By 2035, wealthy countries would have to shut down virtually all fossil-fuel power plants in favor of cleaner technologies like wind, solar or nuclear power. By 2040, all of the world’s remaining coal plants would have to be retired or retrofitted with technology to capture and bury their carbon emissions.

Nations would need to triple their investment in clean energy over the next decade, to roughly $4 trillion per year, the agency said. Most of that increased spending would need to flow to developing countries, which have been responsible for the bulk of emissions growth in recent years but have often struggled to gain access to financing.

“So far only about 20 percent of clean energy investments are going to emerging countries,” said Mr. Birol. “That needs to change. This is a race that no one wins unless everyone finishes the race.”

The report noted that many countries are contemplating more forceful action, at least on paper. More than 50 countries, including China and the United States as well as the European Union, have now announced targets to get to “net zero” — that is, to reach the point where they are no longer adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — over the next few decades.

If every country followed through on that promise, the world could potentially limit total global warming to around 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2100, the report found. But even this outcome is far from assured, since most of the nations pledging to go net zero have not yet enacted policies to achieve those goals.

The new report also warns that the transition to a cleaner energy economy could prove bumpy without careful planning. Over the past six years, global investment in new oil and natural gas development has sagged, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. But if the world doesn’t invest heavily enough in clean energy alternatives to replace those sources, many countries could find themselves in an energy crunch, as Europe is currently experiencing this fall.

“This needs to happen quickly,” the report said, “or global energy markets will face a turbulent and volatile period ahead.”

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Will New Covid Treatments Be as Elusive for Poor Countries as Vaccines?

“It’s not a coincidence that Merck has experience from H.I.V. — internally, with their leadership and culture, they know that if they don’t address the access challenges, they will be slammed,” said Dr. Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Generic manufacturing it not in itself a guarantee of global access. Half of all the coronavirus infections reported in low- and middle-income nations in the first six months of 2021 occurred in 32 countries excluded from the Merck license. Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru are not included. Nor are China and Russia.

Generic production licenses for restricted territories can leave middle-income countries that have frail public health systems paying prices nearly as high as rich ones. Merck says it will use World Bank income data from these countries to calculate what it charges for the drug in each.

Merck is also in negotiations with the Medicines Patent Pool, a United Nations-backed nonprofit that works to make medical treatment and technologies accessible. Charles Gore, director of the organization, said he hopes Merck will agree to a licensing agreement that could permit companies in an even wider range of places to make the drug, while Merck sells its own product in rich nations. Such a deal, he said, would set an important precedent for other companies.

If Merck, or Pfizer or other drug makers do not ensure widespread availability of Covid treatments, they could face widespread use of compulsory licensing, in which governments override intellectual property restrictions to allow manufacture of medications, often in emergency situations. While Merck will earn a royalty on the drugs sold by the generic makers, and likely also on any deals reached through the patent pool, under compulsory licensing the company has no say in the price of the drug or the amount of the royalty.

Unitaid, the Geneva-based global health agency, said $3.5 billion in new funding from rich nations was needed to make therapeutics accessible, the bulk of it for antivirals in low-income countries.

“We need a global effort. We need donors to step up with funds to make sure treatments reach everyone,” Janet Ginnard, the director of strategy, said.

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Russian Film Crew Wraps Space Station Shoot and Returns to Earth

A Russian actress and a film director landed safely on Earth early Sunday after spending 12 days aboard the International Space Station shooting scenes for the first feature-length drama made with scenes shot in space.

Yulia Peresild, the actress, and Klim Shipenko, a film director, launched to space with a Russian astronaut on Oct. 5 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. They used the orbital laboratory as one of the main sets for their movie, “The Challenge,” a drama in which Ms. Peresild plays a surgeon embarking on an emergency mission to save the life of an ailing cosmonaut.

The 12-day journey, backed by Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, was the latest act in a race among spacefaring countries to generate public excitement about human spaceflight and demonstrate that destinations like the space station aren’t exclusive to government astronauts. The mission also adds another superlative to Russia’s spaceflight record over the United States: beating Hollywood to orbit.

Ms. Peresild, Mr. Shipenko and Oleg Novitsky, a Russian astronaut who’s been on the station since April and played the role of the film’s ailing cosmonaut, bid farewell to the station’s crew of seven on Saturday. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft that carried them back to Earth undocked at 9:14 p.m. Eastern time. The crew’s trip home took about three hours before landing at 10:35 a.m. local time in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Region.

In live footage streamed by Russia’s space agency, helicopters from search and rescue teams circled the area where the astronauts were to set down, and mission controllers urged the crew to “get ready” and brace themselves for landing. Under a large parachute, the capsule touched down, sending up a cloud of dust.

“They landed vertically, awesome guys,” said a mission controller from Russia, suggesting the capsule had not landed in a way that could add some difficulty to the crew’s exit.

The Russian space agency said that the crew felt well ahead of their exit from the Soyuz, and would undergo a 10-day rehabilitation to help recover from the effects of living in the microgravity environment of low-earth orbit.

The filming began as the movie crew arrived in space. Mr. Shipenko filmed scenes using hand-held cameras inside the capsule of another Soyuz module as it approached the station. When it docked, Pyotr Dubrov, one of the space station’s Russian astronauts, was waiting behind a large digital cinema camera as the crew emerged from their capsule and floated into the station for the first time. And on Saturday, the filming continued as the crew exited the station and boarded their capsule. Few details about the plot of “The Challenge” have been announced.

But drama on the station turned real on Friday when it was tilted out of its position in orbit during a test of the thrusters on the capsule that ferried the film crew home to Earth. Mr. Novitsky had been testing out the engines, Roscosmos said, but they fired longer than expected, according to a NASA statement. The station, which is the size of a football field, was tilted 57 degrees out of position, according to Russian mission control officials quoted by Interfax, a Russian news agency.

The incident sprang Russian and NASA officials into action, and they corrected the station’s positioning within 30 minutes. It was the second such emergency since July, when Russia’s new Nauka module erroneously fired its thrusters, shifting the station one and a half revolutions — about 540 degrees — before it came to a stop upside down.

Whatever caused the problems with the spacecraft’s thruster on Friday did not recur as the film crew and Mr. Novitsky departed the station Saturday night.

“The Soyuz is in good shape, was declared ready to support undocking and landing this evening, and everything is in order for the departure,” said Rob Navias, a NASA spokesman, during a livestream of the process.

Russia’s space agency announced its intention last year to send an actress to the space station shortly after plans emerged that Tom Cruise would trek to space as part of an action-adventure film directed by Doug Liman. Jim Bridenstine, who served as NASA’s administrator under President Donald Trump, confirmed the plans on Twitter at the time, but no updates on the film project have emerged since that time. Other entertainment projects centered on the International Space Station may occur in the years to come, including a Discovery Channel reality TV competition called “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?”

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Democrats Weigh Carbon Tax After Manchin Rejects Key Climate Provision

WASHINGTON — Some House and Senate Democrats, smarting from a move by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, to kill a major element of President Biden’s climate plan, are switching to Plan B: a tax on carbon dioxide pollution.

A carbon tax, in which polluting industries would pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit, is seen by economists as the most effective way to cut the fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet.

The almost certain demise of the clean electricity program at the heart of Mr. Biden’s agenda — which comes as scientists say forceful policies are needed to avert climate change’s most devastating impacts — has prompted outrage among many Democrats and has led several to say now is the moment for a carbon tax.

“I’ve had a carbon pricing bill in my desk for the last three years just waiting for the time,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“What has been striking is the number of senators who’ve come to me about this since early fall — after Louisiana got clobbered with storms, the East Coast flooding, the Bootleg wildfires here in my own state,” said Mr. Wyden, speaking by telephone on Saturday from Oregon. “Now there are a number of senators, key moderate senators, who’ve said they’re open to this. And a lot of House folks who have said they would support it if the Senate sends it over.”

But a carbon tax can be politically explosive. Industries could pass along their higher costs, leaving President Biden and fellow Democrats vulnerable to claims that they are raising taxes on the middle class, at a moment when inflation and energy prices are rising. Environmental justice advocates say a carbon tax permits companies to continue polluting, albeit at a higher cost, which disproportionately harms low-income communities. And it is unclear if Mr. Manchin, whose vote is crucial to Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda, would support a carbon tax.

As a result, the White House is scrambling to come up with alternatives to replace the $150 billion clean electricity program that had been the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda until just days ago, when Mr. Manchin indicated he strongly opposed it. That program would have rewarded utilities that stopped burning fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar and nuclear energy, and penalized those that did not. It was intended to push the nation’s electricity sector to generate 80 percent of its power from clean energy sources by 2030, from 40 percent now.

As they seek alternatives, White House officials are also weighing a voluntary version of a cap-and-trade program, which would create a market for polluters to buy and sell allowances for a certain amount of emissions. They are also considering adding to the $300 billion in clean energy tax incentives and credits that remain in the bill, while looking for ways to salvage some parts of the clean electricity program.

A White House official said on Saturday that staff members were still engaging with members of Congress and had not yet agreed to a final version of climate provisions.

The cut to the climate change program could be among the first consequential decisions in what will very likely be a painful process for Democrats as they pare their ambitious $3.5 trillion domestic policy package. Mr. Manchin and another Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they cannot support that spending level. Over the next two weeks, the White House will negotiate with Democrats over cuts to dozens of programs, as lawmakers try to whittle the original bill to about $2 trillion.

Mr. Biden suggested on Friday that one of his agenda’s signature items — two years of free community college — was also on the chopping block, and progressive lawmakers worried about whether plans to provide paid family leave and expand Medicare to include vision, dental and hearing benefits could survive.

Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have set a deadline of Oct. 31 for a deal that would enable Democrats to pass the bill with their razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress.

In recent days, as White House officials were trying to forge a deal, Mr. Manchin told them he would not support any legislation that includes a clean electricity program. Mr. Manchin, whose state is a major coal producer and who has financial ties to the coal industry, has said that abandoning fossil fuels will harm the country’s energy independence and would make climate change worse.

Once his opposition to the clean electricity program became public on Friday, several fellow Democrats expressed outrage.

“We have a moral obligation and a governing mandate to pass policy that addresses climate change,” the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote on Twitter. “Inaction is not an option.” For weeks, progressive Democrats have been holding rallies chanting, “No climate, no deal!” to pressure the White House to include strong climate provisions. Several of those rallies focused on the importance of the clean electricity program.

Congress “cannot afford to gut” the climate provisions in the bill, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter. “This issue is bigger than ideology. It is a moral imperative for humanity and our planet’s future to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions,” she wrote. “There are many ways to do it, but we can’t afford to give up.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, has been involved with the “No climate, no deal” rallies. “Listen, my state is burning up. We’re losing our snowpack, the ocean’s acidifying, affecting our shellfish,” he said on Saturday. “This is a code red.”

Mr. Merkley said he would not vote for a reconciliation package that did not have “significant climate provisions,” but he said he was open to any option that cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030 and produced carbon-free electricity by 2035.

He suggested additional wind and solar subsidies or proposals to speed up the transition to clean energy vehicles.

“The Biden team is going to have to lay out how they’re going to meet those two goals,” he said, “because that’s the way we stay on track.”

The clean electricity program opposed by Mr. Manchin was notable because it would include both incentives and penalties. Payment to electric utilities to switch to clean energy was the carrot; a penalty for companies that did not replace fossil fuels with clean energy was the stick. A carbon tax might provide a similar inducement, when paired with tax incentives, analysts said.

“If you were to replace the clean electricity program with a price on carbon, I think that would go a long way. It would put back a lot of the stick elements that were removed,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and policy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and climate research organization.

Mr. Wyden’s staff, which is drafting the carbon tax language, is considering a domestic carbon tax that could start at $15 to $18 per ton, and that would increase over time, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak on the record.

The tax would be applied directly to coal mining companies, large natural gas processing plants and oil refiners, based on the emissions associated with their products, with one exception: Oil refiners would very likely be charged for producing diesel fuel and petrochemicals, but not gasoline — a way to shield most American drivers at the pump.

An important part of the policy, Mr. Wyden said, will be to use the revenue for tax rebates or checks for poor and working-class Americans — particularly those employed in the fossil fuel industry. “You’ve got to show workers and families, when there’s an economy in transition, that they will get their money back,” he said. “They will be made whole.”

Emily Cochrane, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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