Attendees view a display at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland.

At Poland Climate Meeting, Coal Takes Center Stage

Delegates from around the globe arrived in Poland this week for the United Nations’ 24th annual conference on climate change. While the goal of the meeting is to develop rules to limit the increase in global temperature to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius — as outlined by the Paris climate agreement in 2015 — nods to the host country’s commitment to coal, an industry that sits in direct opposition to that objective, were inescapable.

Attendees view a display at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland.

Visual: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“There is no plan today to fully give up on coal,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said at the conference on Monday. “Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them.”

For a country that still relies on the fossil fuel to produce 80 percent of its energy, that may well be the case. But Duda’s statement comes as countries around the globe aim to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and zero them out by 2050.

According to an October report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that’s what’s needed to keep warming 1.5 degrees below pre-industrial levels, avoiding catastrophic flooding, drought, and extreme heat.

Today however, scientists say we’re so far off track, projecting a record rise in global emissions for 2018. Such an increase, estimated at 2.7 percent, would put this year’s fossil fuel emissions at 37.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. As the world’s second largest emitter, much of that comes from China, which experienced a 5 percent increase in emissions this year.

Officials there acknowledged the failure of some large industrial areas to meet their targets, but said the country “expect[s] to see more ambitions in [the] central government’s plans and actions.”

Still, with the United States — the world’s second largest polluter — pledging to withdraw from the Paris agreement by 2020, Poland argued that smaller countries shouldn’t be expected to pick up the slack. Though President Duda said he recognized the need to switch towards more renewable energy, following a welcome to attendees by the Polish Coal Miners Band, his defense of the industry was staunch.

“I’m not going to argue with scientists how much human activity affects natural environment, including climate,” he said. “Please, don’t worry. As long as I am the president, I won’t allow anyone to murder the Polish mining. You are a strategic industry that is the foundation of our economy.”

Also in the news:

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that a recall of raw beef products from an Arizona processor is now being expanded to include 12 million pounds of meat. The recall began in October after inspectors from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service linked salmonella-contaminated beef to a rising incidence of illness. More than 240 cases have now been found in 25 states. Although the cause of the bacterial contamination at the JBS Tolleson plant has not been confirmed, public health researchers have identified the strain as Salmonella newport, which infects both cattle and humans and is known to be multi-drug resistant. Salmonella food poisoning sickens more than a million people in the U.S. each year, and while most experience no lasting effects, populations with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable. The USDA, which has provided images for the labels of products in question, asks consumers to check their freezers and throw out previously purchased meat if the labels come from a problem batch. (NPR)

• The medical community has made great strides with uterine transplants over the past few years, with at least 11 babies born using organs from living donors since 2013. But in the first reported case of its kind, a baby in Brazil was born last year thanks to a uterus taken from a deceased donor. The procedure, noted in a case study published in The Lancet on Tuesday, involved transplanting the uterus of a 45-year-old woman who died of a stroke into a 32-year-old woman who was born without the organ. Within 37 days, the patient began menstruating, and seven months after the transplant, her own egg was implanted in the womb. The woman delivered a six-pound girl via cesarean section in December of 2017 and the uterus was removed. “We talk about lifesaving transplants. This is a life-giving transplant, a new category,” Dr. Allan D. Kirk, chief surgeon at Duke University Health System, told The New York Times. Kirk was not involved in the research, but emphasized that the success of such a transplant from a deceased donor could open up possibilities for many more patients. (New York Times)

• NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe finally arrived at the asteroid Bennu on Monday after traveling more than 1.25 billion miles to reach it, a journey that took 27 months. The probe’s main goal is to collect a sample of asteroid material and bring it back to Earth for analysis. OSIRIS-REx — short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — will estimate Bennu’s mass and measure its shape during the next four weeks. Then, it will enter the asteroid’s orbit, getting as close as one mile above the surface. While in orbit, OSIRIS-REx will collect data that will help scientists determine the best place to gather a sample of material in July 2020. The probe will extend an arm that will touch down for only five seconds to capture grains from the asteroid’s surface. OSIRIS-REx will then leave Bennu in 2021 and return to Earth in September 2023 with its sample safely secured in a capsule. Through this mission, scientists hope to learn more about asteroid trajectories, the early solar system, and the role that carbon-containing asteroids like Bennu may have had in the origins of life. “The exploration of Bennu has just begun, and we have a lifetime of adventure ahead of us,” said Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and principal investigator of the mission. (Space)

• Plan S, an ambitious effort by European funding agencies to tear down academic publishing paywalls, now has a powerful new ally: China. Chinese officials surprised publishers at an open-access meeting in Berlin when they announced that China’s National Science Library, National Science and Technology Library, and Natural Science Foundation would support the controversial plan, Nature reports. The plan will require any research funded by one of its 16 participating agencies to be published in an open access journal, starting in 2020. Critics have assailed it as a risky move that could prevent grant recipients from publishing in high-impact journals, but proponents see it as necessary to rein in exorbitant subscription fees. China’s announcement caps a winning week for the plan’s proponents: Days earlier, some 1,700 scientists signaled their support of the plan in an open letter, stating they believe it will maximize “the reach of our scholarship and its value to the research community and public.” In an indication of just how deeply split the academic community remains, however, a letter denouncing Plan S has also been signed by more than 1,500 scientists. (Nature)  

• Prenatal exposure to chemicals commonly found in personal care products may lead to earlier puberty in girls, according to a study published this week in the journal Human Reproduction. The chemicals — phthalates, parabens, and phenols — are used in a range of products including perfumes, soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and toothpaste. While their hormone-disrupting attributes have been shown previously in animal studies, researchers now have new evidence of the chemicals’ interference in human development. A team led by Kim Harley of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley followed 338 children from birth through adolescence, after testing their mothers’ urine during and pregnancy while documenting their potential chemical exposure. They then watched for signs of puberty in the children every nine months between ages 9 and 13. They discovered that for every doubling in concentration of indictors of the chemical triclosan in the mother’s urine, a daughter began her period one month earlier. Half of the girls in the study started growing pubic hair when they were at least 9.2 years old and then began menstruating a year later. In boys, the researchers only found a link between earlier genital development and propyl paraben. They note, however, that more research must be done before concluding the chemicals affect human health. (Reuters)

• And finally: Scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed a quick and inexpensive blood-based test that could transform routine screenings for cancer. The researchers believe they’ve identified a universal DNA marker that is common across all types of cancer and can be detected by the naked eye using, of all things, a solution of gold and water. Healthy DNA and cancerous DNA, they found, behave differently in water and bind differently to metal surfaces, changing the color of the solution accordingly. “We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics,” said Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry and the lead researcher, “but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker for cancer.” Indeed, clinical trials have not yet been performed and the researchers are uncertain if the marker is present in a broad range of cancer types. The 10-minute test would also only act as an initial check and would require further examination by doctors to determine the exact type. (The Guardian)