Will more floods change the debate about climate change?

  • 20 Nov 2014, 12:15
  • Leo Barasi

Road flood | Shutterstock

It's nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.

Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have  linked some of these with climate change, and the  IPCC concludes places like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.

Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.

But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?

To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.

High-water mark of public concern

In terms of public opinion, last year's floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.

Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It's hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.

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UN report says energy efficiency integral to bridging emissions gap

  • 19 Nov 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

Houses | Shutterstock

There's a disjoint between the emissions cuts countries say they're going to make and what needs to be done to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to the latest annual update to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP)  Emissions Gap report.

To close the gap and limit climate change, the world is going to have to get a lot better at using energy smartly, it says.

Each year UNEP takes a different aspect of the world's energy economy to examine, in order to show how emissions could be curtailed. This year, it's the turn of energy efficiency. So what's the calculus on how using energy more intelligently could get us closer to two degrees?

Emissions gap

The impetus for this report is simple. Unless global emissions peak and decline in short order, the world will pass a point where global warming can be limited to two degrees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent report calculated the  remaining amount of carbon dioxide humans can emit and still have a likely chance of limiting global warming to less than two degrees. It comes to about another 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

In 2012, global emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane were around 54 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. To meet that "carbon budget", UNEP calculates global emissions must be no higher than 44 gigatonnes in 2020, and 42 gigatonnes in 2030.

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Tackling climate while maximising oil extraction: UK-Canada meeting glosses the paradox

  • 19 Nov 2014, 14:25
  • Simon Evans

Alberta oil sands | Shutterstock

Ministers from the UK and Canada came together for a roundtable meeting on energy security on Tuesday to discuss issues including exports from the Canadian oil sands, oil sector regulation and carbon capture and storage.

The Canada Europe Energy Summit was held in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's opulent Locarno Suite. It was sponsored by energy firms including the UK's Centrica, owner of British Gas, and was attended by chief executives and chairmen of oil and gas players from Europe and North America, as well as Carbon Brief.

Attendees were met by banner-waving activists protesting against Canadian oil sands production. This prompted some delegates to reflect fondly on the annual event's more exotic 2011 protest, when a pair of underwear-clad protesters stood on the table and smeared each other with oil.

Themes at the meeting included frustration at "disinformation" spread by environmental groups and a push from Canada for its oil sands to be seen as a stable "baseload" source of oil, able to feed growing demand in a world of growing political instability.

Tackling climate change while maximising oil extraction

The importance of tackling climate change was noted by the UK's energy minister Matt Hancock and Canadian deputy minister for natural resources Bob Hamilton. Both also emphasised their intention to maximise the exploitation of domestic fossil fuel resources.

While it is economically rational for individual countries like the UK or Canada to try to maximise the economic benefits of their natural resources, about 80 per cent of known global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we want a good chance of limiting warming to two degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Fossil fuels are needed today and they will still be needed for some years to come, but sooner or later we will have to stop extracting them. If everyone takes the UK-Canada approach and attempts to maximise exploitation of fossil reserves, then presumably all the climate targets in the world aren't going to prevent dangerous warming.

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Seven charts showing why we need China's help to stop dangerous warming

  • 18 Nov 2014, 10:04
  • Simon Evans

Last week the US and China agreed a  landmark deal on tackling climate change. It's an important symbolic move by the world's top two emitters, but more importantly it matters because the world is unlikely to avoid dangerous climate change without help from China.

The deal was announced on the same day as the International Energy Agency published its World Energy Outlook 2014 (WEO). This is one of the most respected set of global energy projections and at over 700 pages it's one of the weightiest too.

We've extracted insights from the WEO to show why what China does is so important for the climate and why even its ambitious plans are expected to be insufficient if we want to limit warming to two degrees.

How China became the world's biggest emitter

China overtook the US to become the world's largest emitter in 2006. China's energy-related carbon emissions increased by 261 per cent between 1990 and 2012. This astonishing near-tripling in Chinese emissions is in contrast to the US, where with four per cent growth emissions were basically flat.

While Chinese emissions were tripling, global emissions increased by 51 per cent from 21 gigatonnes (below left) to 32 gigatonnes in 2012 (below right).

This shift means China's share of global energy emissions increased from 11 per cent in 1990 (purple chunk, below left) to 26 per cent in 2012 (below right) while the US share shrank from 23 to 16 per cent (blue chunks).

As of 2012, the world's two largest emitters were responsible for 42 per cent of energy-related emissions. That's why their  climate agreement is such a big deal.

The area of the circles is proportional to global energy-related emissions in gigatonnes. Source: data from the World Energy Outlook 2014, graphic by Carbon Brief.

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Germany debates programme to save 2020 climate target

  • 17 Nov 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Germany solar | Shutterstock

Germany plans to its cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. But three years of increasing emissions have raised questions about whether Germany can stick to its target.

The country's  environment minister is adamant that Germany will not relax decarbonisation targets. Today the energy and economics minister dismissed reports the target would be weakened.

The government is set to agree a new Climate Action Programme next month, designed to get the country's emissions back on track. But  a leaked draft shows a number of key issues are yet to be resolved.

The Energiewende's emissions gap

In 2010, Germany embarked on an ambitious programme to decarbonise its energy sector, known as  the Energiewende or 'energy transition'. The Energiewende set a  series of 2050 targets to guide Germany's climate and energy policy for the next 40 years.

To assess the Energiewende's progress, the government also set shorter-term targets. A goal to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels is just one of these.

But Germany's greenhouse gas emissions have been rising for the last three years, bringing this interim goal into question.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 16.36.51.png
Source:  Clean Energy Wir e


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Are countries contributing their fair share to the UN’s climate adaptation fund?

  • 14 Nov 2014, 13:10
  • Mat Hope

Credit: UNFCCC

President Obama is poised to pledge  around $3 billion to help the world's most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. That sounds like a lot. But is the US set to pay its fair share?

The US's contribution will be the largest yet to the UNFCCC's Green Climate Fund (GCF). Such pledges are seen as critical in the run-up to next year's international negotiations to formulate a new global climate deal. Negotiators hope Obama's promise will encourage other countries to make similarly bold contributions.

We take a look at who's pledged what so far, and whether countries are offering their fair share.

Green climate fund

The GCF was established at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. But it has been struggling for funds.

World leaders have promised to eventually contribute $100 billion a year to the GCF by 2020. The GCF originally aimed to get countries to pledge $15 billion by the end of this year. It  lowered the target to $10 billion this September.

The GCF is politically important. It is the most high profile mechanism that allows developed countries to transfer funds to more vulnerable states. Many of the nations set to receive funds from the GCF have said they can't commit to cutting emissions unless developed economies honor their promise to contribute to the fund.

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A detailed look at the US and China’s historic climate deal

  • 13 Nov 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope
  • The US and China both make new pledges to cut emissions.
  • The pledges are not enough to prevent temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
  • Negotiators say the agreement is vital to policymakers' chances of agreeing a new climate deal in 2015.

The US and China yesterday agreed new climate targets. The deal is being hailed as  "historic" and "a  watershed moment for climate politics". Some have questioned whether the targets are ambitious enough to help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change, however. Here's our guide.

China's emissions to peak in 2030

China has pledged to ensure emissions peak in 2030. It has also promised to aim to produce 20 per cent of its energy from low carbon sources by the same date.

No one knows how high the country's emission peak will be and it's unclear how much carbon dioxide China will be emitting when 2030 comes around.

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Can we use gas as a 'bridging fuel' to a low carbon world?

  • 13 Nov 2014, 11:48
  • Christian Hunt

Credit:  Richard Humphrey

Gas can be a bridge fuel, displacing coal and helping to reduce carbon emissions, a  new report concludes. But only for the next twenty years, and only if the world sorts out carbon capture and storage (CCS) and sees a dramatic cut in coal use.

Limiting climate change means the world is eventually going to need to get energy from power sources that are essentially zero carbon. That means renewables, nuclear power, and perhaps CCS power plants. If CCS can be used in conjunction with burning wood, effectively drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, so much the better.

But in the short term, why not begin with an easier task and replace coal power with gas, saving carbon emissions in the process? Effectively using gas as a 'bridge' to a low carbon energy system.

The problem is it's tricky to know exactly what a 'gas bridge' would look like. For instance, how much gas can the world burn, and for how long? A new report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) crunches some numbers to try and answer those questions, and offers some insight into exactly how gas could help the world bridge to a low carbon future.

Gas as a bridge fuel

It might seem odd that climate policy could lead to increased use of fossil fuels. But, say UKERC, putting a price on carbon would initially push gas use up, not down.

The UKERC report uses economic modelling to look at the effect of introducing a carbon tax on the world's energy mix. As gas produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal, pricing carbon would make gas cheaper than coal, pushing gas use up at coal's expense.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.11.20.png
How gas use rises with various carbon prices: the black line is with no carbon tax, the yellow line corresponds with a two degree target, UKERC says.

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Why the government adds green levies to household energy bills

  • 07 Nov 2014, 11:40
  • Mat Hope

Gas bill | Shutterstock

The government expects household energy bills to increase significantly over the next 15 years. But its energy and climate policies will help curb the rise, it argues, making households better-off than they otherwise would be.

It's become a familiar refrain from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The media  has something of an obsession with whether the government's efforts to decarbonise the UK's energy sector  add to people's bills. Perhaps because of this, DECC appears to have stepped up its efforts to persuade us that its policies are beneficial to consumers.

Yesterday, it  updated its estimates of how the government's policies impact household energy bills. We take a look at what DECC expects to happen, and the assumptions behind its projections.

Bills in 2020

DECC expects an average household energy bill in 2020 will be £50 lower than today in real terms.

But its projections go further than this. DECC also says it expects households will pay £92 less in 2020 than they would if the government doesn't implement any climate or energy policies, such as subsidising low carbon energy projects or installing smart meters.

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How can climate negotiators avoid Paris 2015 being a rerun of Copenhagen 2009?

  • 05 Nov 2014, 10:25
  • Mat Hope

Climate march | Shutterstock

World leaders have a self-imposed deadline to agree a new global climate deal by the end of 2015.

The last time politicians met under such a spotlight was in Copenhagen in 2009, and the headlines following it were heavy with adjectives like  "failure" "setback" and  "disaster". So the next 13 months are being touted as crucial preparation for next year's crunch talks in Paris.

This week, representatives from business, government and civil society mulled over past mistakes and future obstacles at international affairs thinktank Chatham House's annual climate change conference - a kind of high-level get-together for climate.

Carbon Brief was there, and while the conference was held under the famous Chatham House Rule meaning we can't say who said what, we can give you an idea of what the attendees say needs to be done to get to an agreement in Paris.


Outside the conference,  protesters waved banners complaining about Shell's sponsorship of the event. That was presumably music to the ears of those inside the room, who were talking up the need for more public engagement on climate change in the build up to 2015.

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