The year in UK climate politics

  • 24 Dec 2014, 09:35
  • Mat Hope

Floods under bridge | Shutterstock

The UK got submerged, an environment secretary was purged, and UKIP emerged. Climate change was on the fringes of many important moments this year, even if it remained in the background of mainstream politics. We revisit this year's five most significant climate politics stories.

Linking floods and climate change

At the end of 2013 through the first two months of 2014, Britain was engulfed in exceptionally wet weather, with flood warnings issued across many parts of the UK.

Initially, despite some  scientific evidence linking climate change to increased risk of flooding,  nobody seemed willing to make the connection.  Six weeks after the floods first hit the UK, David Cameron became on of the first to discuss the link when he was quoted saying  he "strongly suspects" the floods were related to climate change.

Cameron's statement was followed by a report from the Met Office  spelling out the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. The Met Office's chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo said "all the available evidence suggests there is a link to climate change", though the full reportmade clear just how difficult it is to unravel the link between weather and climate.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson, the politician charged with shoring up the UK's flood defences,  remained conspicuously silent on the subject. Paterson's widely criticised management of the crisis was just the start of an annus horribilis for the climate skeptic environment secretary, although on the floods he may deserve some slack - he was recovering from a detached retina at the time.

The floods may yet have a long term impact on the government's environmental policy. The relentless rain pushed reliance on the Thames Barrier, London's principal flood defence, to  unprecedented levels, prompting London mayor Boris Johnson to call for a  review of whether it remains up to the job.  

Exmouth flooding.jpg
Waves batter the sea walls in Exmouth, Devon in January 2014. Credit:  Shutterstock

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Daily Briefing | Companies' greenhouse gas emissions rise

  • 23 Dec 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Didcot power station | Shutterstock 

Scrapping carbon tax helped women, says Tony Abbott 
Australia's prime minister, Tony Abbott, also has a job moonlighting as the country's women's minister. His biggest achievement in that role this year? Scrapping the carbon tax, as women are more focused on the household budget, he claims. Abbott told Network Nine news yesterday: "It's very important to do the right thing by families and households. As many of us know, women are particularly focused on the household budget and the repeal of the carbon tax means a $550 a year benefit for the average family."

Climate and energy news

Top firms' greenhouse gas emissions rise, despite call for cuts 
Greenhouse gas emissions by the world's top 500 companies rose 3.1 per cent from 2010 to 2013, a new study shows. The top 500 firms accounts for 13.8 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions and 28 per cent of gross domestic product in 2013, according to the report by Thomson Reuters and BSD Consulting. The top corporate greenhouse gas emitters last year were PetroChina Co Ltd, China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, and steel maker ArcelorMittal, the report says. 

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Pacific winds change the speed of global warming, says new study

  • 22 Dec 2014, 16:00
  • Robert McSweeney

Coral reef | Shutterstock

The strength of the trade winds that cross the Pacific can affect how quickly the planet warns, new research suggests.  By analysing the chemical makeup of corals in the tropical Pacific, researchers have found that changing wind patterns affected how quickly the Earth warmed during the last century.

The study adds "another piece of evidence" that strong Pacific winds are contributing to the recent slowdown in global surface temperature rise, says an accompanying News and Views.

Trade winds over the ocean

The trade winds are the typical east-to-west winds that blow across the tropics, which you can see in the diagram below. They are driven by warm air rising along the equator and the rotation of the Earth.

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Daily Briefing | Large solar and tidal projects planned for the UK

  • 22 Dec 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Tidal pool | Shutterstock

Green light for world's largest planned tidal energy project in Scotland 
PA reports: "Construction of the largest planned tidal energy project in the world is expected to begin off the Scottish coast next month, developers have announced ... The project has the potential to power nearly 175,000 homes through a network of 269 turbines on the seabed at Ness of Quoys in Caithness, north-east Scotland." The capacity of the scheme is around 400MW. 

Climate and energy news

Power auction keeps lights on for 2018-19 
The UK's first power capacity market auction took place last week: "competition between participants in the reverse [capacity market] auction has driven down costs below expected levels", Ed Davey has said. The expected total cost will be £1bn, the Financial Times reports, or around £11.40 per household, according to the Telegraph. The scheme is supposed to ensure that power generators provide capacity when required to prevent shortfalls, rather than only providing power as is convenient to them. The Guardian highlights that the money bid will mostly be paid to the large power generating companies.
Financial Times 

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Capacity market secures some new gas while providing stay of execution to old coal

  • 19 Dec 2014, 08:20
  • Mat Hope

Didcot power station | Andrew Smith

  • Government agrees to pay companies £19.40 per kilowatt to keep fossil fuel power plants available
  • Only five per cent of projects included in capacity market are new builds
  • Coal and biomass plants account for 20 per cent of the capacity made available under the market
  • Scheme expected to add £11 to consumer bills, of which only 54 pence goes towards building new, less carbon intensive, capacity

A new government policy designed to ensure the UK's future energy supply appears to have successfully incentivised companies to build over two gigawatts of new gas power, to sit alongside nine gigawatts of coal and biomass power. It should ensure the UK will have at least 48.6 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations available in 2018.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change today released the  results of its first capacity market auction. It guarantees new gas plants will get paid £19.40 for each kilowatt of power capacity companies make available at the flick of a switch. The auction's biggest winner was gas power, with around 25 gigawatts of new and existing gas power plants receiving contracts.

But only five per cent of the capacity that secured contracts will be newly built, leading to concerns that the UK could be locked into using high carbon power sources during the 2020s.

While some have emphasised the lower than expected price as good for consumers, it may also have a knock-on effect on the UK's decarbonisation plans. We take a look at the auction's result, and what it may mean for the UK's future energy mix.

The capacity market

The government introduced the capacity market to try and ensure there is always enough power generating capacity available to meet demand, even when intermittent renewables are generating less electricity. The capacity market offers companies a set price if they promise to keep a particular amount of generation available, should it be needed.

To agree the price, this week the government conducted a 'descending auction'. The auction took place over four days, with the government and companies eventually settling on a price of £19.40 per kilowatt yesterday afternoon.



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Daily Briefing | North Sea oilfields "near collapse" after price nosedive

  • 19 Dec 2014, 00:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

North Sea oil rig | Shutterstock

North Sea oilfields 'near collapse' after price nosedive 
The North Sea oil industry is "close to collapse", an expert has warned, as a slump in prices piles pressure on drillers to cut back investing in the region. The chairman of the independent explorers' association Brindex, told the BBC that it is "almost impossible to make money" with the oil price below $60 per barrel. "It's a huge crisis. This has happened before, and the industry adapts, but the adaptation is one of slashing people, slashing projects and reducing costs," he said. Meanwhile, oil prices dropping by 45 per cent is cause for concern in Aberdeen, reports the Financial Times, whose economy relies heavily on oil.     The Telegraph 

Climate and energy news

Chevron suspends Arctic drill plans 'indefinitely' 
Business Green reports: "With the oil price nearly halving since June, American oil giant Chevron has ditched its plans to explore in the Arctic - much to the relief of environmental groups... Chevron wrote to Canada's National Energy Board on Wednesday confirming it had walked away from plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea, citing 'the level of economic uncertainty in the industry'."     Business Green 

Climate change could cut world food output 18 percent by 2050 
Reuters reports: "Global warming could cause an 18 percent drop in world food production by 2050, but investments in irrigation and infrastructure, and moving food output to different regions, could reduce the loss, a study published on Thursday said." Careful adaptation will be required to limit the effects on agriculture, but it's going to be difficult to know exactly where to focus adaptation efforts, the study authors say.      Reuters 

Oil steady below $60, heads for 4th weekly decline as glut persists 
Reuters reports: "Brent crude held below $60 a barrel, near a 5-1/2-year low, on Friday as a global oversupply of oil showed little sign of receding, even as companies cut upstream investments next year. Oil prices were on track for a fourth straight week of declines after OPEC members last month decided against cutting production in response to a drop of nearly 50 percent in prices since late June."      Reuters 

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First look at new NASA satellite map reveals global carbon dioxide hotspots

  • 18 Dec 2014, 20:10
  • Roz Pidcock

NASA space scientists today unveiled a new satellite map showing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere right across the globe.

The map is the first two months of data from the new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission, launched in July this year.

The team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Colorado State University and California Institute of Technology presented their findings at AGU conference in San Francisco today.


The map shows an average global concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) with hotspots of high carbon dioxide in the Southern Hemisphere above southern Africa and Brazil. The scientists attribute this to springtime burning of savannas and forests to clear land for farming. 

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What do squirrels, beavers and reindeer have to do with methane emissions?

  • 18 Dec 2014, 15:44
  • Robert McSweeney

Arctic squirrel | Shutterstock

It's not just humans that are causing climate change. Squirrels and beavers have both been implicated in recent days as research reveals their contribution to the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Obviously the Internet loves a good rodent story. But could it really be the case that these toothy animals are paving the way to climate catastrophe?

It's unlikely, an expert tells us, but that's not to say they should be overlooked.

Global methane emissions

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, around 25 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. About a fifth of the global warming linked to human activity is as a result of methane emissions, scientists estimate.

The sources of methane emissions are shown in the figure below. Total emissions from human activities, such as farming livestock and burning fossil fuels, are similar to natural sources, the largest of which is from decomposing vegetation in wetlands.

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UK energy statistics: Gas power increases, renewables cover nuclear shortfall and power consumption falls

  • 18 Dec 2014, 11:45
  • Mat Hope

Tilbury power station | Shutterstock

The price of fossil fuels remains the main driver determining the UK's energy mix,  new government statistics show, despite renewables increasingly covering large power station outages.

We take a look at the Department of Energy and Climate Change's latest  quarterly energy trends statistics.

More gas power

The UK's gas generation increased significantly from July through September compared to the three months before, as gas prices continued to fall. At the same time, a slight increase in renewable generation helped to cover a power gap left by the unexpected closure of two nuclear power plants  in August.

Both factors significantly altered the face of the UK's electricity generation in the third quarter of 2014.

Gas accounted for 38 per cent of the UK's electricity generation in the third quarter, eight per cent more than in the previous three months, and 12 per cent more than at the same point a year ago. That meant companies burned a lot more gas than in the previous quarter - about another million tonnes of oil equivalent.

electricity mix q3 2013 vs 2014.png
Source: Data from the  Department of Energy and Climate Change. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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Insights from a global survey of climate change opinion

  • 18 Dec 2014, 10:55
  • Robert McSweeney & Rosamund Pearce

People say they are more likely to recycle or cut back on energy use at home compared to other actions to reduce their impact on the environment, new survey data suggests.

And disagreeing that humans cause climate change doesn't necessarily prevent people making environmentally-friendly lifestyle changes.

We recently reported on a survey carried out for Chatham House examining public opinion about climate change and meat and dairy consumption. But the survey of thousands of people in 12 countries didn't just ask questions about eating habits. Chatham House has kindly allowed us to delve a little deeper into their data.

Who agrees that humans contribute to climate change?

The study asked people about their views on climate change and the actions they might be prepared to take to reduce their impact on the environment. Across the 12 countries, 83 per cent of people surveyed say they agree that humans contribute to climate change. Just seven per cent disagree. For the UK specifically, 78 per cent of respondents agree, putting the UK towards the bottom of the list in terms of national levels of agreement.

Climateopinion 1st6

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