Briefing: What impact will cheap gas have on UK climate policy?

  • 11 Feb 2015, 15:00
  • Simon Evans

Gas | Shutterstock

UK energy bills are starting to fall after a decade of rising prices. Energy firms have cut prices since the start of 2015 because of falling wholesale gas markets.

This directly benefits energy-bill payers and begins to ease the political pressure that has built up on energy bills over the past three years. But what does it mean for UK climate policy?

Carbon Brief takes you through the arguments around cheap gas, cold homes, energy bills and the green levies that pay for efficiency measures and support for low-carbon energy.

The end of rising prices?

Energy bills have risen steadily over the past decade. That's mainly the fault of the rising price of gas. This sets electricity prices because gas-fired power stations are usually the marginal (most expensive) form of electricity generation.

The average direct debit customer in England and Wales paid £1,290 in 2014 for their gas and electricity combined, more than twice the amount a decade earlier. Prices rose by a third between 2010 and 2014 alone, as the chart below shows.

The cash price of the average energy bill has rocketed in the past decade. Source: Department for Energy and Climate Change domestic energy bills data.

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Aerosols dampen pace of Arctic warming for now, say scientists

  • 11 Feb 2015, 11:00
  • Robert McSweeney

Arctic sea landscape | Shutterstock

As the Earth warms under increasing greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures have risen more quickly in the Arctic than the rest of the world. But particles emitted as fossil fuels are burned mask a lot of that warming. Without them, the temperature rise in the Arctic would be more than double what we've seen in the past century, a new study finds.

But it's no good news story, those same particles are responsible for causing air pollution in cities across the world.

And with air pollution set to fall while greenhouse gases continue to rise, we could soon see a faster rate of warming in the Arctic, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

Twice as fast

Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing more than twice as fast as the global average. This is known as Arctic amplification. A primary cause is diminishing Arctic sea ice: as the ice melts, energy from the sun that would have been reflected away is instead absorbed by the ocean.

A new study, just published in Nature Climate Change, works out the specific contributions from different influences on temperatures in the Arctic, including natural factors.

Humans can affect the climate in contrasting ways. The planet warms as extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap more heat. But at the same time, other tiny particles and gases known as aerosols are having an overall cooling effect.

The particles have a direct effect on temperature by scattering sunlight, and an indirect effect by stimulating clouds to form, preventing sunlight reaching Earth's surface.

Some sources of aerosols are natural, such as volcanoes and chemicals released by tiny sea creatures. However, since the industrial revolution, humans have been emitting more and more aerosols through vehicle exhausts and burning fossil fuels and wood.

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Daily Briefing | Panel urges research on geoengineering as a tool against climate change

  • 11 Feb 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Panel Urges Research on Geoengineering as a Tool Against Climate Change
The US National Academy of Sciences has backed further research into geoengineering technologies that attempt to counter climate change, but says cutting emissions remains by far the best way to tackle warming. The work has garnered wide and varied coverage from The GuardianThe Washington Postand Bloomberg among others. The report is called "anti-geoengineering" by Climate Progress while Grist says scientists are nervous about what Ars Technica calls "hacking the planet". More coverage comes from Scientific American, the Dot Earth blogNature and a Guardian comment. Climate scientist and report author Raymond Pierrehumbert says geonengineering remains "howlingly barking mad".     New York Times 

Climate and energy news

UN scheme blamed for Brazil steel emissions spike 
Carbon emissions from Brazil's steel industry have doubled as a result of UN-backed measures to cut reliance on coal, RTCC reports. A report published in Nature Climate Change found coal use fell but emissions increased, because of growing reliance on Brazil's native forests for charcoal. These are not considered carbon neutral, as unlike plantations they do not necessarily regrow. Reuters also has the story.     RTCC 

Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines 
A loophole in the Feed-in Tariff subsidy scheme for small wind power projects is boosting the spread of larger turbines and could cost consumers more than £400 million, according to thinktank the Institute of Public Policy Research. Firms are deliberately under-powering larger more efficient turbines in order to get higher subsidy payments intended for smaller schemes, the IPPR says. The Mail and The Times have the story. The wind industry says the loophole critics are wide of the mark in an article at BusinessGreen.     Financial Times 

UK spent 300 times more on fossil fuels than clean energy despite green pledge 
UK Export Finance (UKEF), a small government department, has given £1.13 billion in support for fossil fuel energy investments overseas over the course of the current parliament, the Guardian reports. This compares to £0.04 billion for green energy, breaking a government pledge that UKEF would be a "champion" for green energy firms "instead of" fossil firms.     The Guardian 

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IEA: New normal for oil as cheap prices fail to ignite demand

  • 11 Feb 2015, 07:30
  • Simon Evans

Oil pumps | Shutterstock

The global oil market is entering a new phase where cheap oil is failing to ignite growth in demand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says.

Demand growth will remain sluggish because of fuel switching, more fuel-efficient cars, reduced oil subsidies and structural changes in the global economy, according to the IEA's Medium-Term Oil Market Report, published today.


Market dynamics suggest oil demand should increase strongly in response to falling oil prices, which have halved since last summer. But the IEA argues oil markets are entering a "business-as-unusual" phase, where the usual rules of supply and demand have changed.

The IEA says:

"The recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth… Projections of oil-demand growth have been revised downwards, rather than upwards, since the price drop."

This phase will see oil demand continue to grow at 1.2 per cent per year to 2020, well below the near-two per cent rate of growth before the global financial crisis. There a range of reasons for this shift.

The IEA says:

"Changing technologies and tightening environmental constraints are combining to create a 'new age' of lower oil demand growth and diminishing oil intensity, where less oil is required to produce a comparable amount of economic output."

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Scientists dismiss claims of "fiddling" global temperature data

  • 10 Feb 2015, 17:30
  • Roz Pidcock

This January, we saw the usual flurry of announcements by the world's major meteorological agencies as they raced to release their official figures for global surface temperature in 2014.

No sooner had the dust settled on the news that 2014 was the  warmest year on record than climate skeptic columnist Christopher Booker had a  series of articles in The Sunday Telegraph claiming scientists were "fiddling" the data.

Suggesting this tampering reveals "the biggest science scandal ever", Booker's  says:

"[O]fficial temperature records … were systematically "adjusted" to show the Earth as having warmed much more than the actual data justified".

This isn't a new claim. It's  not uncommon in some parts of the media to see articles  popping up questioning the reliability of the global temperature data record. Booker himself wrote a very similar one  last summer. But scientists have shown many times that this argument holds no water.

Taking Earth's temperature

Global temperature may be a simple enough concept, but it's not as easy as you might think. You can read more about what goes into taking Earth's temperature in our Carbon Brief explainer,  here.

Scientists piecing together global temperature have to deal with a number of issues. One of the main ones is a lack of data in remote parts of the world, such as the  Arctic.

But checks are made on a more basic level, too. There are millions of instruments across the world measuring temperature and scientists have to check they're doing it reliably.

Prof Tim Osborn from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the group that co-produces the HadCRUT4 surface temperature record with the UK Met Office, tells Carbon Brief:

"Temperature records from weather stations suffer from all sorts of artificial artefacts, whether from moving a city centre weather station to more rural site, from the encroachment of urban sprawl around a weather station, or from changing the time of day when readings are taken."

It's also important if a station is moved, explains Steven Mosher on the  And Then there's Physics blog.

"A measurement is taken at a time and place. If you change the place or location, then basic principles suggest that you need to examine or control for changes in the location."

Mosher is part of the Berkeley Earth (BEST) team, a project established in 2010 to address concerns about potential biases from issues such as data selection, data adjustment and station quality. The BEST scientists reanalysed the global temperature record, finding that these issues "did not unduly bias the record".

It's clear when a change of instrument or location has caused an error because a station will show very different temperature from its surroundings, explains Dr Kevin Cowtan from the University of York in the video below. Cowtan co-wrote a  paper last year which attempted to  reconstruct missing Arctic data in the HadCRUT4 dataset using satellite data.

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Daily Briefing | EU energy consumption drops to 1990 levels

  • 10 Feb 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

EU flags | Shutterstock

EU energy consumption drops to 1990 levels 
EU energy use is down to levels last seen in the early 1990s - having fallen more than 9 per cent from its peak in 2006. The steady and sustained reduction in energy use will fuel hopes that energy efficient policies and technologies are proving effective, BusinessGreen reports. But the new figures also show that Europe remainsheavily dependent on imports.     BusinessGreen 

Climate and energy news

Man-Made Air Pollution Reduces Central America Rainfall 
Air pollution tied to industrialisation in the northern hemisphere almost certainly reduced rainfall over central America, a new study has found. The findings derive from research in a cave in Belize but suggest that growing air pollution in China and India also may cause further disruption.     Scientific American 

EU to exert 'maximum pressure' in seeking emissions cuts 
European Union will exert "maximum pressure" to extract pledges by June from major economies to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a document seen by Reuters. The talks in December are hosted by EU nation France, giving the EU particular reason to crave a successful result.     Reuters 

US eyes climate cooperation with Iran at security summit 
Climate change is bringing the US and Iran together as they seek to end an impasse over development of nuclear weapons, RTCC reports. Amid talks on Ukraine crisis and Iran's nuclear programme, the US Secretary of State John Kerry hinted the countries could collaborate on climate change, a core concern of the US security strategy.     RTCC 

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Seven charts showing how the EU's energy use is being transformed

  • 10 Feb 2015, 08:00
  • Simon Evans

Polish coal plant | Shutterstock

EU energy use has fallen again, according to the latest official data published. Energy use is now nearly 10 per cent below a 2006 peak and has returned to levels last seen a quarter century ago in the early 1990s.

The sources of the EU's energy have changed dramatically too, the data shows, with coal and oil use now below 1990 levels. Meanwhile, energy from renewables has surged, with output nearly tripling between 1990 and 2013.

EU energy use is in the midst of a massive transformation as the region works to tackle climate change while replacing ageing energy infrastructure and attempting to minimise costs. Here are seven charts that show what's going on.

Falling EU energy use

Energy use in the EU fell to 1,666 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2013, according to the latest data from Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical body. This is about the same amount of energy as was used back in 1990, a quarter of a century ago. The fall reverses a long-rising trend in energy use, as the chart below shows.

EU energy use. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014; chart by Carbon Brief

Back in 1990, the EU accounted for 21 per cent of global energy use. By 2013, that share had fallen to 13 per cent as EU energy flatlined while the rest of the world surged ahead. The EU's energy use has been eclipsed by China, whose share has climbed from eight per cent to 22 per cent over the same time period.

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US flooding on the rise in a changing climate, study shows

  • 09 Feb 2015, 16:05
  • Robert McSweeney

The central US is experiencing flooding more often now than it was 50 years ago, new research shows. The study across 14 states finds rivers over much of the region are breaching their banks more frequently, leading to a greater number of floods.

The researchers attribute the increase in flooding to rising temperatures in the region and more days with heavy rainfall.

Serious flooding

In recent decades, the central US has been hit by a number of serious and widespread floods. Flooding in the spring of 1993 and summer of 2008 affected as many as ten states, for example. The disaster saw hundreds of counties declared Presidential Disaster Areas, giving them access to emergency relief funding.

Scientists have since been trying to work out whether floods are getting worse or if what we're seeing in this part of the US is down to natural variability.

To investigate changes in river flooding, scientists look at historical records of river flow and the maximum amount of water they can hold before overflowing. The flow, or 'discharge', of a river is measured by instruments at different points along its course.

Studies in the past have found the maximum flow through rivers hasn't changed much over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But a new study, published in Nature Climate Change, finds that rivers are hitting these high flows more often.

More frequent peaks

The researchers analysed records of river flows from 774 instrument stations across the central US, from North Dakota to West Virginia. They counted how many times each river hit a point where there was so much water flowing through it that it was likely to cause a flood.

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Pachauri: IPCC should take official role in assessing country pledges to curb climate change

  • 09 Feb 2015, 15:45
  • Roz Pidcock

The outgoing chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Dr Rajendra Pachauri, has a new vision for the organisation's future.

Traditionally focused on collating the science underpinning climate change, Pachauri's proposals would seem to take the IPCC in a distinctly more political direction.

Suggesting the panel "moves forward with the times and responds to changing expectations", Pachauri wants the IPCC to take an official role in assessing countries' pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and in totting up whether they add up to enough to meet global climate change targets.

Stepping down

Pachauri has chaired the IPCC for the past 13 years, overseeing the publication of two  major assessment reports. Published every five or six years, the job of these reports is to pull all the latest scientific evidence on how and why the climate is changing into one definitive tome.

With the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) completed last October, the IPCC is in self-reflection mode. This is standard practice after every major report, but this time is perhaps the last formal opportunity for Pachauri to make his thoughts known before stepping down as Chair later this year.

The IPCC has posted  several documents on its website, containing a number of proposals due for consideration when the panel meets at the end of the month in Nairobi, Kenya. One such document is the Chairman's own " Vision Paper on the Future of the IPCC".

Screenshot 2015-02-09 15.43.01

The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)

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Daily Briefing | Quarter of electorate say their vote hinges on parties' stance on climate change, finds poll

  • 09 Feb 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Person casting a ballot | Shutterstock

Poll: Quarter of electorate say their vote hinges on parties' stance on climate change 
More than a quarter of British adults would switch political allegiances in May if their party of choice ditched their commitments to tackling climate change, according to a new poll. The survey of more than 2,000 people also shows younger Conservative Party supporters are significantly more concerned about the future of the climate than the older generation of Tories.     BusinessGreen 

Climate and energy news

Hinkley Point is stalled by costs fallout 
The building of Britain's first nuclear reactor in a generation has been delayed until months after the general election because its Chinese backers have demanded that the French government protect them if it goes bust. The fallout threatens to delay the £16 billion Hinkley Point scheme's start date of 2023 and further undermines confidence in Britain's faltering nuclear renaissance, says The Times.     The Times  

France says climate talks crucial for world security 
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius launched a round of global climate talks in Geneva on Sunday and warned that world security, as well as the environment, depended on their success. The week-long meeting is the first in a series that is hoped to culminate in a globally binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Paris in December. Meanwhile, the president of the UN's climate negotiations has urged countries to drop historic differences and work as "one team" as they plan for a global emissions cutting deal, reports RTCC, who also take a look at the two men, Daniel Reifsnyder and Ahmed Djoghlaf, who will chair the negotiations.     Reuters 

Cuadrilla secures Environment Agency approval for fracking site 
The Environment Agency has awarded environmental permits for proposed shale gas drilling at Roseacre Wood near Elswick in Lancashire. The Agency, which is tasked with policing the UK's fracking industry, said it has carried out a thorough assessment of Cuadrilla's applications, completed two periods of extensive public consultation, and is now satisfied that people and the environment can be protected.       BusinessGreen 

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