Analysis

Daily Briefing | Pope Francis criticizes "lack of courage" in climate debate

  • 16 Jan 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Pope Francis | Shutterstock

Pope Francis criticises 'lack of courage' in climate talks 
Pope Francis has criticised climate negotiators for a "lack of courage" at last month's talks in Lima, saying he hopes the delegates in Paris will make bigger strides. The Pontiff also made it clear he believes that man is primarily responsible for climate change. The Guardian reports him as saying, : "I don't know if it is all (man's fault) but the majority is, for the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature".       RTCC 

Climate and energy news

What is the future direction of oil prices? 
Most analysts think the oil price won't dip much below it's current level of $50 a barrel. Not Anatole Kaletsky, who says it could go as low as $20 - with low oil prices becoming the new normal for the industry. Reuters reports that oil prices are expected to stay around the current level until there is a cut in supply, which doesn't look like happening soon. Meanwhile UCL professor Paul Ekins says the low oil price could erode some of the economic benefits that come with decarbonisation of the UK economy over the next 15 years, but it would not negate them altogether, BusinessGreen reports.      Guardian 

Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists 
The Guardian reports on new research which finds the earth has now crossed four of nine planetary boundaries, meaning humanity is now 'eating away at our own life support systems'. Degrading land and freshwater systems, emitting greenhouse gases and releasing vast amounts of agricultural chemicals into the environment is raising the risk of inadvertently driving the Earth into a much less hospitable state, reports the Daily MailReuters also covered the story. Carbon Brief wrote up the new research, here.      The Guardian 

Hinkley Point nuclear agreement expected in March 
EDF expects to sign an investment agreement with its Chinese partners by the end of March. The deal will help it procurement the needed £24.5 billion for the project. "In principle, everyone's on board," said Song Xudan, chief executive for EDF in China. "But these are huge contracts and we have to go through them line by line."     Financial Times 

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Scientists issue stark warning as Earth passes into ‘danger zone’

  • 15 Jan 2015, 19:00
  • Robert McSweeney, Rosamund Pearce & Roz Pidcock

Human activity over the past century and a half has pushed the Earth into critical mode, say scientists. New research published today finds four out of nine 'planetary boundaries' have now been crossed. Biodiversity loss, fertiliser use, climate change and land use have all exceeded the point at which the risk of sliding into a "much less hospitable" world becomes high.

Passing any one of the nine critical boundaries risks disrupting the complex and delicate interactions that exist on Earth between the land, ocean, atmosphere, ice sheets and people, says the team of 18 researchers.

An early warning

The concept of planetary boundaries is to identify how much humans can develop and use the Earth's resources while staying safely within limits of what the planet can take.

In 2009, a collaboration of several top research institutions identified a set of nine processes that regulate the land, ocean and atmosphere systems on Earth. For each process they identified a boundary beyond which humans would cause "unacceptable environmental change".

You can see the boundaries in the figure below, which also shows the current status of each one.

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UK emissions fall to 25 year low as a surge in coal use ends

  • 15 Jan 2015, 14:15
  • Simon Evans

Ferrybridge coal plant | Shutterstock

There was a 10 per cent reduction in UK carbon dioxide emissions in the twelve months to October 2014 compared to the previous year, new government data shows.

The majority of the 49 million tonne reduction came from reduced energy emissions as a three year surge in UK coal use came to an end, with renewables and gas picking up the slack in power supplies.

The reduction saw total UK carbon dioxide emissions fall to their lowest level in the past quarter-century, to 28 per cent below 1990 levels (the dark grey line on the chart below).

UK carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. Graph by Carbon Brief using emissions data from the Department for Energy and Climate Change

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UK coal use to fall to lowest level since industrial revolution

  • 15 Jan 2015, 11:00
  • Simon Evans

Colliery museum | Shutterstock

UK coal use is likely to soon fall back to levels last seen during the industrial revolution, Carbon Brief analysis of official figures suggests.

The UK used 49 million tonnes of coal in 2014 according to Carbon Brief estimates. That's more than a 20 per cent reduction compared to the previous year, and the joint lowest coal use in records going back to the 1850s. Only 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, had equally low coal consumption.

There are several reasons to expect coal use to continue falling this year, suggesting a clear historic low is in store for 2015.

Getting out of coal as quickly as possible is necessary in developed countries, to prevent dangerous global warming. To assess UK progress we've looked back at its changing relationship with coal, and what that means for the climate.

Historic coal use

Coal use grew rapidly during the 19th century as the industrial revolution took off and the UK's population increased. A coal-hungry nation used the fuel to produce town gas for lighting from the 1810's, and to power the explosion in rail travel from the 1840s.

The 1880s saw the dawn of today's centralised electricity generation model, with a plant containing a coal-fired generator called Edison's Jumbo opening at Holborn Viaduct in London in 1882.

You can see the impact of all these changes in the steep rise in 19th-century coal use on the timeline below.

Uk -coal -use -timeline -6

Credit: Rosamund Pearce/Carbon Brief using figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change and Carbon Brief calculations based on European electricity use data.

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Daily Briefing | Oil projects worth billions put on hold

  • 15 Jan 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Oil projects worth billions put on hold 
Billions of dollars of spending on oil and petrochemicals projects has been scrapped or put on hold, with Royal Dutch Shell and UK-based Premier Oil announcing the first big cost-cutting moves of 2015 after a brutal slide in crude prices. The Financial Times reports on Premier Oil's decision to delay development of its contentious $2 billion Sea Lion project off the Falkland Islands, and The Telegraph says that a $6.5 billion petrochemicals project in Qatar won't progress at current prices. Elsewhere, Reuters reports that Africa-focused oil and gas explorer Tullow Oil has written off $2.3 billion in relation to exploration work, and that Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro will today meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin as he ends his tour aimed at trying to persuade big oil producers to cut output and stop the price rout. Amidst all the turmoil, airlines looking to lock in huge savings are preparing to hedge more jet fuel as they bet a slide in crude oil to six-year lows may peter out near $40 a barrel says Reuters.      Financial Times 

Climate and energy news

Labour plots huge wind turbine increase 
Thousands more wind turbines will be built in the countryside if Labour wins the next election, the party has "secretly promised" the industry. Labour has publicly declared that it is neutral on the question of how to meet Britain's legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, The Times says, senior Labour figures have assured onshore wind farm companies that there will be a substantial increase in the number of turbines.      The Times 

BP to announce North Sea job cuts amid oil slump 
BP is expected to announce a swathe of job cuts in its North Sea operations as early as today in the latest sign of falling oil prices hitting Britain's petroleum industry. The company, which employs 4,000 staff in the North Sea, is expected to brief employees in Aberdeen today about the cuts. The announcement follows news that UK drilling in the North Sea hit a 15-year low last year, reports Reuters. The Financial Times also has the story.       The Telegraph 

Is global warming real? US Senate could decide on Friday 
The US Senate is set to reveal whether it accepts the scientific consensus on climate change. Independent US senator Bernie Sanders has proposed Senators make the decision during a debate over the future of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, scheduled for Friday. The amendment filed by Sanders asks lawmakers to acknowledge that "climate change is real; climate change is caused by human activities; climate change has already caused devastating problems".      Responding to Climate Change 

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Global sea levels rising faster than previously thought, study shows

  • 14 Jan 2015, 18:00
  • Robert McSweeney

Sea level rise | Shutterstock

Scientists have a good idea of the different factors that contribute to sea level rise. But historical measurements of sea level change from the twentieth century don't seem to match up to sum of all these individual factors.

A new paper, published in Nature, offers an explanation to this puzzle. The study finds that the amount of sea level rise during the last century is lower than scientists previously thought.

But the implication of this finding is that the acceleration in sea level rise seen in recent decades is more rapid than scientists thought, the study says. And the researchers say that melting ice sheets are the reason.

Balancing the books

Several different components contribute to rising sea levels rise, including water expanding as it warms, melting glaciers and ice sheets, and changes to how much water is stored on land.

Scientists calculate global sea levels in two ways: by taking direct measurements of sea levels, and by using models and observations to estimate the contribution of each of these components and then adding them together.

But this has presented scientists with a problem: the figures from the two methods don't quite match for the twentieth century. In the latest  Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), observed sea level rise is estimated at 1.5mm per year from 1900 to 1990, but only 1mm per year when researchers calculate it by adding together the individual contributions.

Scientists have sought the answer to this  enigma, and the new paper offers an answer. It says that there is no discrepancy, because historical observed measurements were overestimating sea level rise for much of the last century.

By eliminating the difference between the two types of measurements, lead author Dr Carling Hay at Harvard University tells Carbon Brief, they are able to close the sea level budget:

"To put it another way: the books are balanced."

 

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Daily Briefing | South Korea launches Asia's first carbon market

  • 14 Jan 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Skyline in South Korea | Shutterstock

South Korea launches Asia's first national carbon market 
Asia's first national carbon market began trading in South Korea this week, reports RTCC, which says it is the world's second largest after the EU's. The first permits to change hands were priced at US$7-8 per tonne, similar to the EU price. Meanwhile Canadian province Ontario announced plans to join other parts of the country in pricing carbon. The move means more than 80 per cent of Canada's economy could soon be covered by pricing, despite opposition from prime minister Stephen Harper.     RTCC 

Climate and energy news

E.On to cut gas prices by 3.5% 
UK energy supplier E.On's decision to cut gas prices by 3.5 per cent comes ahead of a parliamentary vote today in which the Labour party will try to hand new powers to regulator Ofgem, allowing it to force end-user price cuts when wholesale prices fall. Chancellor George Osborne's recent threat of "action" if price falls are not passed on is derided by energy secretary Ed Davey in a separate article for the Financial Times. Another article for the paper says governments should focus on securing sufficient energy supplies rather than attacking prices.     BBC News 

The best and worst places to live as our planet warms up 
The UK and Scandinavia are among the regions best prepared to cope with the impacts of climate change, according to a map released by scientists and described by the Mail Online. The maps rank 192 countries by their 'vulnerability' and 'readiness', with areas of sub-Saharan Africa expected to be hardest hit.      Mail Online 

US energy: Off the grid 
The way electricity is generated and used is changing in the US, reports the Financial Times. Utility business models based on centralised generation are being threatened as more and more homes and businesses go 'off-grid' by generating much of their own power, the article says. It reflects on how much has changed since Thomas Edison built the world's first commercial centralised power plant in lower Manhattan in 1882.      Financial Times 

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How small volcanic eruptions may have slowed surface temperature rise

  • 13 Jan 2015, 13:07
  • Robert McSweeney

Tungurahua eruption | Shutterstock

Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported on new research that suggests small volcanic eruptions have a bigger effect on the climate system than scientists previously thought.

The new study, just published in Geophysical Research Letters, shows the impact of 20th and 21st century volcanic eruptions can be detected in a number of climate variables, including sea surface temperature, rainfall, tropospheric temperatures and atmospheric water vapour.

This reinforces the findings of a paper Carbon Brief covered in November last year. Both studies could help explain why recent warming at the Earth's surface has been slower than in previous decades. Here's a repost of the original article we wrote back in November.

A cataclysmic event

In June 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, sending a cloud of ash, dust and sulphur dioxide 35 kilometers into the atmosphere.

That sulphur dioxide combined with oxygen and water to form sulphuric acid aerosols. These particles reflected sunlight and encouraged clouds to form, cooling parts of the world by up to 0.4°C for two years after the eruption.

Volcanic eruptions are rated from zero to eight on a scale of explosivity, measured by the amount of ash and debris they produce. The Pinatubo eruption was rated as a six, or 'colossal'.

While the world hasn't seen such a huge volcanic eruption since, on average there is one small eruption somewhere in the world every week. A new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, finds that these smaller eruptions may together have a bigger impact on global climate than previously thought.

Pinatubo _ash _plume _910612

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Five innovations that could cut the cost of offshore wind

  • 13 Jan 2015, 11:20
  • Simon Evans

Offshore | Shutterstock

Offshore windfarms have a growing role in cutting UK carbon emissions, but they're expensive. We've selected five innovations that could help cut costs, from a new Royal Society journal special issue exploring the cutting edge of wind power.

Cost-cutting innovations are important because a growing share of the UK's electricity is generated by offshore windfarms. The UK has 4,042 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, more than any other country in the world.

These windfarms supplied 3.6 per cent of the UK's electricity in the 12 months to October 2014, a tripling in three years. The amount of electricity we get from offshore wind is expected to at least double by 2020.

Offshore windfarms are attractive to politicians because they're typically built out of sight, plus the wind blows harder and more consistently out at sea. The snag is that they're expensive, nearly twice as costly as onshore windfarms per unit of electricity generated and 50 per cent more costly than nuclear power, according to a recent EU study.

The expense is largely down to the difficulty of installing and maintaining large wind turbines able to withstand the elements.

This week the Royal Society has published a special journal issue devoted to offshore innovation. It has 16 papers covering everything from designing better turbines using computers and miniature models to cutting the cost of installation and maintenance through remote sensing. Here are five ideas from the special issue that caught our eye.

Screw-in turbine foundations

Ever-larger offshore wind turbine designs pose a big engineering challenge. They typically have to be secured in deeper waters, against larger waves and able to withstand heavier loads from their bigger sails. This strains the limits of standard 'single pile' foundations.

Developers are starting to use a range of new foundation designs, from tripods to floating platforms. But one of the Royal Society papers suggests a novel option: helical piles. Instead of driving a single hollow steel tube foundation into the ground with a pile driver, helical piles are essentially giant screws that would be screwed into the sea floor.

There are already used on land for some applications and offer several advantages, the paper argues. They can also be 'unscrewed' when the turbine reaches the end of its life, easing decommissioning.

The paper says they're stronger and suitable for a wider range of soils. Screw-in piles would also bypass concerns over the noise impacts on whales and dolphins caused by pile-driving traditional foundations.

The only problem? Screwing the piles in without spinning the installation boat round and round. One answer may be to screw two helical piles in at one, in opposite directions.

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Expert views: How low oil prices affect the UK's climate and energy policy

  • 13 Jan 2015, 09:40
  • Mat Hope

Oil pumps | Shutterstock

The oil price has dropped to $45 per barrel, its lowest point for six years. Some commentators are concerned the price drop could scare off investment in low carbon energy. Others say long-term policy goals should ensure the UK continues to curb energy sector emissions.

Carbon Brief asked a range of experts what the low oil price that could mean for the UK's efforts to decarbonise the energy sector. In particular, Carbon Brief asked them to address three issues:

  • Whether low oil prices will affect the amount of gas the UK uses, and if this has a knock-on effect on the UK's energy mix.

  • Whether the falling oil price necessitates further government efforts to cut emissions, or if the UK's plans are somehow insulated.

  • How low they expected the oil price to go, and whether it requires the government to rethink the UK's energy policy.

Here's what they had to say.

Justin Dargin, energy and middle east scholar, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, University of Oxford:

"Oil prices will have a definite impact on natural gas prices because gas prices generally are linked to oil prices, therefore when oil prices decrease or increase, gas export contracts typically follow suit."

"The falling oil prices do, to a certain extent, make an increase in oil consumption more likely. However, the political will in the U.K. and across Europe to reduce emissions is a long range strategic policy, and therefore, is somewhat insulated from the fluctuations in the international oil price.

"At the same time, renewable energy investment is likely to decline, so the government could develop some incentives to promote more research and development in renewable energy, as well as its use in power generation and other sectors."

"There does not have to be a radical rethink of British energy policy. The extremely low price environment that we are in the moment is unlikely to extend into the long term. But, if it does, then the British government would be able to take advantage of the low oil linked natural gas prices and import more natural gas for use in the transportation and power generation sectors."

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