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Once a Leading Polluter, the U.K. Is Now Trying to Lead on Climate Change

LONDON — As Britain prepares to host a landmark climate summit in Glasgow this week, the milestones of its own evolution to a more climate-friendly economy are on vivid display along the railroad line from London to Scotland.

Near Gainsborough, a river town 150 miles north of the capital, one of Britain’s last coal-fired power plants still spews carbon dioxide and other gases into the air. Another 150 miles north, off the coast of the seaside port of Blyth, the slender blades of five turbines in an offshore wind farm turn lazily in the breeze.

The two plants, both owned by the French utility giant EDF, illustrate how far Britain has come. The coal station, restarted recently to cover a shortfall in electricity, is slated to be taken out of operation next year, while the company plans to install experimental floating turbines in the waters off Blyth.

“We’re talking about a huge transition,” said Paul Spence, the director of strategy and corporate affairs at EDF, referring to Britain’s goal of being a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. “A lot of things need to happen to keep the lights on.”

climate meeting, known as COP26, it has a credible claim to being a global leader in climate policy. The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Britain became the first country to legally mandate reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions through the Climate Change Act in 2008. Its high-tech windmills and superannuated smokestacks are only the most visible evidence of a three-decade campaign.

Having built the world’s largest offshore wind industry, Britain has reduced emissions by 44 percent from 1990 levels. Its target to cut them by at least 68 percent by 2030 is one of the most ambitious of any major economy, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis of the policies of countries.

If Britain achieves that target, which is far from clear, it would be one of a handful of countries doing enough to fulfill the key goal of the Paris Agreement: limiting the long-term rise in the planet’s temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

showdown with striking coal miners in 1984. By crushing the union and slashing subsidies for the coal industry, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated Britain’s search for alternative energy sources, namely natural gas.

“She got rid of the coal miners for a combination of political and economic reasons,” said Tom Burke, the chairman of E3G, an environmental think tank, and a former government adviser. “But it gave the U.K. a degree of freedom of action that wasn’t available to other countries.”

she said to the United Nations.

Mrs. Thatcher planted the seed for a bipartisan cause, as Conservative and Labour governments sought to burnish their green credentials. British diplomats played key roles in brokering climate deals in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto, Japan. Britain installed climate attachés in its embassies around the world.

In 2006, a British government adviser, Nicholas Stern, produced a seminal study of the economic effects of climate change, which framed the debate before the 2009 summit in Copenhagen and set the stage for the Climate Act, passed under a Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown.

When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, they viewed climate policy as a way to appeal to younger voters, many of whom viewed the Tories as a tightfisted party in thrall to business interests. Parliament created a climate change committee, which prodded the government to adopt policies that would help Britain meet its goals. Several of its policies were mimicked by fellow European Union members. “We basically ran the E.U. on climate policy,” Mr. Burke said.

Then came the Brexit vote in 2016, and “we lost our most important tool for influencing other countries, which was the E.U,” he said.

Mr. Johnson, who once scoffed that wind farms would “barely pull the skin off a rice pudding,” now speaks about climate change with the zeal of the converted. Allies say he has been convinced of the need for action by his third wife, Carrie Johnson, who campaigns against plastic pollution.

But critics say Mr. Johnson’s bracing words are belied by his actions. The Climate Action Tracker, while praising Britain’s ambitions, criticized its financial commitment to achieving them, calling it “highly insufficient.”

“It’s accurate to say that this is a betrayal of a national commitment by the current government,” Mr. Burke said.

Mr. Johnson’s pro-Brexit government, he said, depends on support from the libertarian wing of the Tory party, which opposes far-reaching climate initiatives, while his anti-business messaging hinders partnerships with the private sector.

For private companies, the government’s messaging has been muddled. EDF said it would like to build more onshore wind farms, but local resistance and lack of incentives has made it less attractive. And the government has struggled to line up financing for a new generation of nuclear plants.

“We’re only a quarter of the way toward the decarbonized energy system that the prime minister set as a goal for 2035,” said Mr. Spence, of EDF. “We need all the answers, faster than we’ve ever done them before, if we’re going to get anywhere close to a 1.5-degree world.”

For all of Britain’s agenda-setting, there is also a sense among activists and experts that there is only so much a midsize country can do to solve a planetary problem. Its total emissions account for barely 1 percent of the world’s total. China accounts for nearly 30 percent, and the United States for 14 percent.

“Imagine if these policies had been picked up in 1997 by the United States,” said David King, a former climate envoy and scientific adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The world would be a very different place.”

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A Brexit-Weary Britain Finds Itself in a New Crisis With Brexit Overtones

LONDON — Few things are more likely to set teeth on edge in Downing Street than the tentative winner of an inconclusive German election declaring that Brexit is the reason Britons are lining up at gas stations like it’s 1974.

But there was Olaf Scholz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, telling reporters on Monday that the freedom of movement guaranteed by the European Union would have alleviated the shortage of truck drivers in Britain that is preventing oil companies from supplying gas stations across the country.

“We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” Mr. Scholz said, when asked about the crisis in Britain. “Now they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

For ordinary people, Mr. Scholz’s critique might also seem like old news. Britain is no longer debating Brexit. Nearly everyone is exhausted by the issue and the country, like the rest of the world, has instead been consumed by the pandemic.

began to run out of gasoline, sparking a panic and serpentine lines of motorists looking for a fill up.

While it would be wrong to blame a crisis with global ramifications solely on Brexit, there are Brexit-specific causes that are indisputable: Of the estimated shortfall of 100,000 truck drivers, about 20,000 are non-British drivers who left the country during the pandemic and have not returned in part because of more stringent, post-Brexit visa requirements to work in the country, which took effect this year.

reversed course last weekend and offered 5,000 three-month visas to foreign drivers to try to replenish the ranks (while also putting military drivers on standby to drive fuel trucks, a move he hasn’t yet taken.)

“You have business models based on your ability to hire workers from other countries,” said David Henig, an expert on trade policy for the European Center for International Political Economy, a research institute. “You’ve suddenly reduced your labor market down to an eighth of the size it previously was. There’s a Brexit effect on business models that simply haven’t had time to adjust.”

after Britain’s successful rollout of coronavirus vaccines. Some attributed the government’s ability to secure vaccines and obtain swift approval of them to its independence from the bureaucracy in Brussels.

party’s leaders have failed to find their voices. It is reminiscent of earlier debates, where the party’s deep divisions on Brexit hampered its ability to confront the government.

“I’ve been amazed by the reluctance of Labour to go after them,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London. “You can allude to Brexit without saying Brexit. You can say it’s because of the Tories’ rubbish trade deal.”

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More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Fight Over Energy’s Future

The nation is facing once in a generation choices about how energy ought to be delivered to homes, businesses and electric cars — decisions that could shape the course of climate change and determine how the United States copes with wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather linked to global warming.

On one side, large electric utilities and President Biden want to build thousands of miles of power lines to move electricity created by distant wind turbines and solar farms to cities and suburbs. On the other, some environmental organizations and community groups are pushing for greater investment in rooftop solar panels, batteries and local wind turbines.

There is an intense policy struggle taking place in Washington and state capitals about the choices that lawmakers, energy businesses and individuals make in the next few years, which could lock in an energy system that lasts for decades. The divide between those who want more power lines and those calling for a more decentralized energy system has split the renewable energy industry and the environmental movement. And it has created partnerships of convenience between fossil fuel companies and local groups fighting power lines.

At issue is how quickly the country can move to cleaner energy and how much electricity rates will increase.

senators from both parties agreed to in June. That deal includes the creation of a Grid Development Authority to speed up approvals for transmission lines.

Most energy experts agree that the United States must improve its aging electric grids, especially after millions of Texans spent days freezing this winter when the state’s electricity system faltered.

“The choices we make today will set us on a path that, if history is a barometer, could last for 50 to 100 years,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University. “At stake is literally the health and economic well-being of every American.”

The option supported by Mr. Biden and some large energy companies would replace coal and natural gas power plants with large wind and solar farms hundreds of miles from cities, requiring lots of new power lines. Such integration would strengthen the control that the utility industry and Wall Street have over the grid.

batteries installed at homes, businesses and municipal buildings.

Those batteries kicked in up to 6 percent of the state grid’s power supply during the crisis, helping to make up for idled natural gas and nuclear power plants. Rooftop solar panels generated an additional 4 percent of the state’s electricity.

become more common in recent years.

Some environmentalists argue that greater use of rooftop solar and batteries is becoming more essential because of climate change.

After its gear ignited several large wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power on hot and windy days to prevent fires. The company emerged from bankruptcy last year after amassing $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires caused by its equipment, including transmission lines.

Elizabeth Ellenburg, an 87-year-old cancer survivor in Napa, Calif., bought solar panels and a battery from Sunrun in 2019 to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment and appliances running during PG&E’s power shut-offs, a plan that she said has worked well.

“Usually, when PG&E goes out it’s not 24 hours — it’s days,” said Ms. Ellenburg, a retired nurse. “I need to have the ability to use medical equipment. To live in my own home, I needed power other than the power company.”

working to improve its equipment. “Our focus is to make both our distribution and transmission system more resilient and fireproof,” said Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s chief risk officer.

But spending on fire prevention by California utilities has raised electricity rates, and consumer groups say building more power lines will drive them even higher.

Average residential electricity rates nationally have increased by about 14 percent over the last decade even though average household energy use rose just over 1 percent.

2019 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research arm of the Energy Department, found that greater use of rooftop solar can reduce the need for new transmission lines, displace expensive power plants and save the energy that is lost when electricity is moved long distances. The study also found that rooftop systems can put pressure on utilities to improve or expand neighborhood wires and equipment.

Texas was paralyzed for more than four days by a deep freeze that shut down power plants and disabled natural gas pipelines. People used cars and grills and even burned furniture to keep warm; at least 150 died.

One reason for the failure was that the state has kept the grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas largely disconnected from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. That prevented the state from importing power and makes Texas a case for the interconnected power system that Mr. Biden wants.

Consider Marfa, an artsy town in the Chihuahuan Desert. Residents struggled to stay warm as the ground was blanketed with snow and freezing rain. Yet 75 miles to the west, the lights were on in Van Horn, Texas. That town is served by El Paso Electric, a utility attached to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a grid that ties together 14 states, two Canadian provinces and a Mexican state.

$1.4 million, compared with about $1 million to Donald J. Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In Washington, developers of large solar and wind projects are pushing for a more connected grid while utilities want more federal funding for new transmission lines. Advocates for rooftop solar panels and batteries are lobbying Congress for more federal incentives.

Separately, there are pitched battles going on in state capitals over how much utilities must pay homeowners for the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. Utilities in California, Florida and elsewhere want lawmakers to reduce those rates. Homeowners with solar panels and renewable energy groups are fighting those efforts.

Despite Mr. Biden’s support, the utility industry could struggle to add power lines.

Many Americans resist transmission lines for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Powerful economic interests are also at play. In Maine, for instance, a campaign is underway to stop a 145-mile line that will bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.

New England has phased out coal but still uses natural gas. Lawmakers are hoping to change that with the help of the $1 billion line, called the New England Clean Energy Connect.

This spring, workmen cleared trees and installed steel poles in the forests of western Maine. First proposed a decade ago, the project was supposed to cut through New Hampshire until the state rejected it. Federal and state regulators have signed off on the Maine route, which is sponsored by Central Maine Power and HydroQuebec.

But the project is mired in lawsuits, and Maine residents could block it through a November ballot measure.

set a record in May, and some scientists believe recent heat waves were made worse by climate change.

“Transmission projects take upward of 10 years from conception to completion,” said Douglas D. Giuffre, a power expert at IHS Markit. “So if we’re looking at decarbonization of the power sector by 2035, then this all needs to happen very rapidly.”

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Tasked to Fight Climate Change, a Secretive U.N. Agency Does the Opposite

LONDON — During a contentious meeting over proposed climate regulations last fall, a Saudi diplomat to the obscure but powerful International Maritime Organization switched on his microphone to make an angry complaint: One of his colleagues was revealing the proceedings on Twitter as they happened.

It was a breach of the secrecy at the heart of the I.M.O., a clubby United Nations agency on the banks of the Thames that regulates international shipping and is charged with reducing emissions in an industry that burns an oil so thick it might otherwise be turned into asphalt. Shipping produces as much carbon dioxide as all of America’s coal plants combined.

Internal documents, recordings and dozens of interviews reveal what has gone on for years behind closed doors: The organization has repeatedly delayed and watered down climate regulations, even as emissions from commercial shipping continue to rise, a trend that threatens to undermine the goals of the 2016 Paris climate accord.

One reason for the lack of progress is that the I.M.O. is a regulatory body that is run in concert with the industry it regulates. Shipbuilders, oil companies, miners, chemical manufacturers and others with huge financial stakes in commercial shipping are among the delegates appointed by many member nations. They sometimes even speak on behalf of governments, knowing that public records are sparse, and that even when the organization allows journalists into its meetings, it typically prohibits them from quoting people by name.

Homes are washing away. Much of the nation could become unlivable in the coming decade.

was almost denied a seat. International Registries, which represented the Marshall Islands on the I.M.O., initially refused to yield to the foreign minister, Mr. Woodroofe recalled.

United Nations climate meetings, countries are typically represented by senior politicians and delegations of government officials. At the maritime organization’s environmental committee, however, one in four delegates comes from industry, according to separate analyses by The New York Times and the nonprofit group Influence Map.

Representatives of the Brazilian mining company Vale, one of the industry’s heaviest carbon polluters and a major sea-based exporter, sit as government advisers. So does the French oil giant Total, along with many shipowner associations. These arrangements allow companies to influence policy and speak on behalf of governments.

Connections can be hard to spot. Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho sat on the Brazilian delegation in 2017 and 2018 as a University of Sao Paulo scientist. But he also worked at a Vale-funded research organization and, during his second year, was a paid Vale consultant. In an interview, he described his role as mutually beneficial: Brazilian officials relied on his expertise, and Vale covered his costs.

“Sometimes you cannot tell the difference. Is this actually the position of a nation or the position of the industry?” said David Paul, a Marshallese senator who attended an I.M.O. meeting in 2018.

Hundreds of other industry representatives are accredited observers and can speak at meetings. Their numbers far exceed those of the approved environmental groups. The agency rejected an accreditation request by the Environmental Defense Fund in 2018.

Industry officials and the maritime organization say such arrangements give a voice to the experts. “If you don’t involve the people who are actually going to have to deliver, then you’re going to get a poor outcome,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping.

openly opposed strict emissions regulation as a hindrance to economic growth. And an informal bloc of countries and industry groups helped drag out the goal-setting process for three years.

Documents show that China, Brazil and India, in particular, threw up repeated roadblocks: In 2015, it was too soon to consider a strategy. In 2016, it was premature to discuss setting targets. In 2017, they lacked the data to discuss long-term goals.

a Cook Islands diplomat.

The I.M.O. almost never puts environmental policies to a vote, favoring instead an informal consensus-building. That effectively gives vocal opponents blocking power, and even some of the agency’s defenders acknowledge that it favors minimally acceptable steps over decisive action.

So, when delegates finally set goals in 2018, Mr. de Brum’s ambition had been whittled away.

The Marshall Islands suggested a target of zero emissions “by the second half of the century” — meaning by 2050. Industry representatives offered a slightly different goal: Decarbonization should occur “within” the second half of the century, a one-word difference that amounted to a 50-year extension.

Soon, though, the delegates agreed, without a vote, to eliminate zero-emissions targets entirely.

What remained were two key goals:

First, the industry would try to improve fuel efficiency by at least 40 percent. This was largely a mirage. The target was set so low that, by some calculations, it was reached nearly the moment it was announced.

Second, the agency aimed to cut emissions at least in half by 2050. But even this watered-down goal is proving unreachable. The agency’s own data say emissions may rise by 30 percent.

When delegates met last October — five years after Mr. de Brum’s speech — the organization had not taken any action. Proposals like speed limits had been debated and rejected.

What remained was what several delegates called the “refrigerator rating” — a score that, like those on American appliances, identified the clean and dirty ships.

European delegates insisted that, for the system to work, low-scoring ships must eventually be prohibited from sailing.

China and its allies wanted no such consequence.

So Sveinung Oftedal of Norway, the group’s chairman, told France and China to meet separately and compromise.

Delegates worked across time zones, meeting over teleconferences because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shipping industry officials said they weighed in through the night.

The Marshallese were locked out.

“We’re always being told ‘We hear you,’” Mr. Ishoda said. “But when it comes to the details of the conversation, we’re told ‘We don’t need you to contribute.’”

Ultimately, France ceded to nearly all of China’s requests, records show. The dirtiest ships would not be grounded. Shipowners would file plans saying they intended to improve, would not be required to actually improve.

German delegates were so upset that they threatened to oppose the deal, likely triggering a cascade of defections, according to three people involved in the talks. But European Union officials rallied countries behind the compromise, arguing that Europe could not be seen as standing in the way of even limited progress.

“At I.M.O., that is as always the choice,” said Damien Chevallier, the French negotiator. “We have the choice to have nothing, or just to have a first step.”

All of this happened in secret. The I.M.O.’s summary of the meeting called it a “major step forward.” Natasha Brown, a spokeswoman, said it would empower customers and advocacy groups. “We know from consumer goods that the rating system works,” she said.

But the regulation includes another caveat: The I.M.O. will not publish the scores, letting shipping companies decide whether to say how dirty their ships are.

Ms. Kabua, the Marshallese minister, is under no illusions that reclaiming the diplomatic seat will lead to a climate breakthrough.

But if it works, she said, it might inspire other countries with private registries to do the same. Countries could speak for themselves rather than through a corporate filter.

Regardless of the outcome, the political winds are shifting. The European Union is moving to include shipping in its emissions-trading system. The United States, after years of being minor players at the agency, is re-engaging under President Biden and recently suggested it may tackle shipping emissions itself.

Both would be huge blows to the I.M.O., which has long insisted that it alone regulate shipping.

Suddenly, industry officials say they are eager to consider things like fuel taxes or carbon.

“There’s much more of a sense of momentum and crisis,” said Mr. Platten, the industry representative. “You can argue about, ‘Are we late to it,’ and all the rest. But it is palpable.”

Behind closed doors, though, resistance remains. At a climate meeting last winter, recordings show that the mere suggestion that shipping should become sustainable sparked an angry response.

“Such statements show a lack of respect for the industry,” said Kostas G. Gkonis, the director of the trade group Intercargo.

And just last week, delegates met in secret to debate what should constitute a passing grade under the new rating system. Under pressure from China, Brazil and others, the delegates set the bar so low that emissions can continue to rise — at roughly the same pace as if there had been no regulation at all.

Delegates agreed to revisit the issue in five years.

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Shell Must Reduce Emissions, Dutch Court Rules

A Dutch court ruled Wednesday that Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, must accelerate its efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to tackle climate change.

The District Court in The Hague ruled that Shell was “obliged” to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions of its activities by 45 percent at the end of 2030 compared with 2019. Shell is based in The Hague but is a global producer and supplier of oil and natural gas and other energy.

Shell has already adopted targets for emissions reduction, but the court requirements are likely to represent a substantial acceleration of the process of reducing emissions-producing fuels like oil and gas.

The ruling applies only in the Netherlands. Still, the defeat of an oil giant in a case brought by Milieudefensie, an environmental group, and other activists appeared to represent a kind of breakthrough in terms of a court’s willingness to dictate to a major business what it must do globally to protect the climate.

on the court website.

“But the court believes that the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests,” she added.

The court appeared to have accepted the environmentalists’ argument that not taking drastic measures on climate change would put lives in jeopardy.

“Severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life. And the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights,” Ms. Honée said.

A Shell spokesman said that the company expected “to appeal today’s disappointing court decision.”

The company said that it already had an extensive program to deal with climate change including billions of dollars of investment in low carbon energy including hydrogen, renewables like wind and solar and electric vehicle charging.

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South Korean Leader to Meet With White House

WASHINGTON — The United States is calling on South Korea to set more ambitious climate targets, an issue that will be a part of discussions when President Moon Jae-in meets with President Biden on Friday at the White House.

Last month John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy, traveled to South Korea and, according to officials in both countries, surprised members of Mr. Moon’s government by suggesting the country take “corresponding efforts” to the United States in reducing planet-warming emissions. That would nearly double South Korea’s current target of cutting carbon 24.4 percent below 2017 levels by the end of the decade.

South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide, is important to the Biden administration’s effort to show that other industrialized countries are acting vigorously against climate change.

international climate change summit that Mr. Biden hosted last month, promised to end funding of overseas coal plants.

At the same time, Korea has seven coal plants under construction, according to the Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based group that follows fossil fuel projects. And, a new study by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found that unless the government enacted aggressive new policies, the country would “fall embarrassingly short” in meeting its current targets.

In a letter last week to Mr. Moon, former Vice President Al Gore urged him to set a target of at least 50 percent to “help protect the future of our planet.” More ambitious goals, Mr. Gore said, “would have a ripple effect on the climate policies of countries around the world.”

As a highly industrialized country that is heavily dependent on coal and imports virtually all of its oil and gas, South Korea faces serious challenges in meeting the United States’ and environmental groups’ expectations.

Won Hee-ryong, the governor of Jeju Province in South Korea, said he believed the government must improve its target, but he called hitting 50 percent “challenging.” Speaking Wednesday at a forum sponsored by World Resources Institute, Mr. Won said a more reasonable goal might be around 37 percent.

“It may be difficult for Korea to commit to an emissions target as ambitious as the United States, given that our emissions peaked only three years ago,” he said.

A senior administration official, speaking at a background briefing for reporters, said Mr. Biden intended to discuss with Mr. Moon ways both nations could eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from their power sectors and other parts of the economy, saying there would be “more to report” after the Friday meeting.

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Climate Is High on Agenda as Korean Leader Heads to White House

WASHINGTON — The United States is calling on South Korea to set more ambitious climate targets, an issue that will be a part of discussions when President Moon Jae-in meets with President Biden on Friday at the White House.

Last month John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy, traveled to South Korea and, according to officials in both countries, surprised members of Mr. Moon’s government by suggesting the country take “corresponding efforts” to the United States in reducing planet-warming emissions. That would nearly double South Korea’s current target of cutting carbon 24.4 percent below 2017 levels by the end of the decade.

South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide, is important to the Biden administration’s effort to show that other industrialized countries are acting vigorously against climate change.

international climate change summit that Mr. Biden hosted last month, promised to end funding of overseas coal plants.

At the same time, Korea has seven coal plants under construction, according to the Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based group that follows fossil fuel projects. And, a new study by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found that, unless the government enacted aggressive new policies, the country would “fall embarrassingly short” in meeting its current targets.

In a letter last week to Mr. Moon, former Vice President Al Gore urged him to set a target of at least 50 percent to “help protect the future of our planet.” More ambitious goals, Mr. Gore said, “would have a ripple effect on the climate policies of countries around the world.”

As a highly industrialized country that is heavily dependent on coal and imports virtually all of its oil and gas, South Korea faces serious challenges in meeting the United States’ and environmental groups’ expectations.

Won Hee-ryong, the governor of Jeju Province in South Korea, said he believed the government must improve its target, but he called hitting 50 percent “challenging.” Speaking Wednesday at a forum sponsored by World Resources Institute, Mr. Won said a more reasonable goal might be around 37 percent.

“It may be difficult for Korea to commit to an emissions target as ambitious as the United States, given that our emissions peaked only three years ago,” he said.

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What if Space Junk and Climate Change Become the Same Problem?

It’s easy to compare the space junk problem to climate change. Human activities leave too many dead satellites and fragments of machinery discarded in Earth orbit. If left unchecked, space junk could pose significant problems for future generations — rendering access to space increasingly difficult, or at worst, impossible.

Yet the two may come to be linked. Our planet’s atmosphere naturally pulls orbiting debris downward and incinerates it in the thicker lower atmosphere, but increasing carbon dioxide levels are lowering the density of the upper atmosphere, which may diminish this effect. A study presented last month at the European Conference on Space Debris says that the problem has been underestimated, and that the amount of space junk in orbit could, in a worst-case scenario, increase 50 times by 2100.

“The numbers took us by surprise,” said Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert from the University of Southampton in England and a co-author on the paper, which will be submitted for peer review in the coming months. “There is genuine cause for alarm.”

Our atmosphere is a useful ally in clearing up space junk. Collisions with its molecules cause drag, pulling objects back into the atmosphere. Below 300 miles above the surface, most objects will naturally decay into the thicker lower atmosphere and burn up in less than 10 years.

rerelease infrared radiation after absorbing it from the sun, which is then trapped by the thick atmosphere as heat. But above 60 miles where the atmosphere is thinner, the opposite is true. “There’s nothing to recapture that energy,” said Matthew Brown, also from the University of Southampton and the paper’s lead author. “So it gets lost into space.”

21 percent of its density because of rising carbon dioxide levels. By 2100, if carbon dioxide levels double their current levels — in line with the worst-case scenario assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that number could rise to 80 percent.

For space junk, the implications are stark. More than 2,500 objects larger than four inches in size currently orbit at or below an altitude of 250 miles. In the worst-case scenario, increased orbital lifetimes of up to 40 years would mean fewer items are dragged into the lower atmosphere. Objects at this altitude would proliferate by 50 times to about 125,000.

Even in a best-case scenario, where carbon dioxide levels stabilize or even reverse, the amount of space junk would still be expected to double. Mr. Brown thinks a more probable outcome is somewhere in between, perhaps a 10 or 20 times increase.

major factor in atmospheric density changes.

The findings may also pose challenges for regulators and satellite operators, especially SpaceX, Amazon and other companies seeking to build megaconstellations of thousands of satellites to beam internet service down to the ground from low Earth orbit.

Just last month, for example, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a request from SpaceX to decrease the orbits of nearly 3,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation, reasoning that atmospheric drag would naturally sweep up dead satellites and debris in a reasonable amount of time.

Debris Assessment Software to predict lifetimes of satellites in low Earth orbit. “We do not know at this time if there are any plans to change that program to address the changes in atmospheric composition predicted in the paper,” he said. “The F.C.C. periodically reviews its rules and regulations and updates them consistent with developments in the marketplace and in scientific knowledge.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Lewis said that he suspected that some of the modeling, however, relies on outdated data, and that more needed to be done to actively remove satellites and debris from orbit rather than relying on the passive atmospheric effect. “Operators have to make this aspect of the mission a priority,” he said.

Even a moderate increase in lifetimes for large constellations could pose significant problems. “If SpaceX’s spacecraft re-enter passively in 10 or 15 years, would you argue that’s good enough?” Dr. Lewis said. “Given the fact that it’s a large constellation, lots of people would say probably not.”

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