Climate showdown: Has the US, UK or Germany done more to cut emissions?

  • 10 Apr 2015, 16:10
  • Simon Evans

The UK and Germany like to think of themselves as climate leaders. But how does their progress in cutting carbon stack up against the US, which has famously failed to pass climate laws?

Over the past two weeks the results came in, with each country publishing carbon dioxide emissions figures for 2014. Carbon Brief slices up the data to find out who's winning the climate showdown.

Climate rule

In the UK, government ministers like to boast about the nation's progress. Carbon emissions were down 9.7% in 2014, a record fall for a growing UK economy. The UK must be doing something right because other countries are modelling their efforts on the UK's legally binding Climate Change Act, which the UK's three main political leaders recently promised to uphold.

The US, by contrast, has tried and failed many times to pass climate legislation. That's why the Obama administration is trying to use and extend existing laws to force through emissions-cutting regulation. Despite this modest record on climate rules, it's common to hear it claimed that the US is leading the way on cutting emissions because of shale gas.

Meanwhile, Germany's Energiewende, its generational push away from nuclear towards an energy-efficient and largely renewable economy, is frequently either lauded or derided in UK media as an example of how (or how not) to decarbonise.

Emissions records

The UK, US and Germany all published official carbon dioxide emissions estimates for 2014 at the end of March.

Carbon Brief already took a detailed look at the UK data, which showed a 9.7% drop in carbon emissions compared to 2013. The US data shows 2014 carbon emissions increased by 1% compared to a year earlier, while Germany's fell by 4.8%.

Read more

Forest degradation as bad for climate as deforestation, says report

  • 08 Apr 2015, 17:40
  • Sophie Yeo

Deforestation | Shutterstock

Degradation of tropical forests could be as severe a problem as full-scale deforestation when it comes to their carbon emissions.

While not as widely recognised within policymaking circles, the steady deterioration of forests across places such as the Amazon and Borneo could be responsible for 6-14% of all human-caused emissions.

This is the finding of a new review into the state of the world's tropical forests, conducted by the International Sustainability Unit, a charity backed by Prince Charles.

The problem demands a re-evaluation of forest policy, which leans towards stemming deforestation as the key to curbing tropical forest emissions, says the report.

Carbon Brief looks at the role of forests in curbing climate change.

High emissions

Tropical deforestation is a major driver of climate change. In areas such as the Amazon, forest ecosystems absorb and store carbon, and cutting them down emits between 2.9 and 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide* every year, or around 8% of the global total, the report says.

But deforestation is only part of the story. In addition to this, the degradation of tropical forests releases between 2.2 to 5.39 gigatonnes into the atmosphere, or around 6-14% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

This means that total combined emissions from tropical forests comes to between 5.1 and 8.36 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or between 14 to 21% of all human-caused emissions (green area, below).

In comparison, 31.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted every year by fossil fuels and cement production (grey area, below).

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 At 17.16.38

Percentage of annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and forests. Data from ISU report.



Read more

Ambiguous Russian climate pledge mystifies many

  • 01 Apr 2015, 18:00
  • Sophie Yeo & Simon Evans

Russia submitted a pledge to limit its emissions to the UN yesterday, simultaneously surprising and confusing many in the world of climate change.

Few had expected Vladimir Putin's government to meet the UN's loose 31 March deadline for "intended nationally determined contributions" - the series of national pledges that will, in part, form the basis of an international climate change agreement in Paris later this year.

Delivering its pledge just hours after the US, the Russian Federation left many baffled with its vaguely worded targets.

"Limiting anthropogenic greenhouse gases in Russia to 70-75% of 1990 levels by the year 2030 might be a long term indicator," the unofficial translation of the submission says - in other words, a 25-30% reduction on 1990 levels.

But there are caveats. Unlike other countries that have pledged, Russia says its final decision is contingent upon the outcome of the UN climate negotiations, along with the INDCs of other major emitters.

It also says that its target include accounting as generously as possible for carbon dioxide absorbed by its vast boreal forests.

Furthermore, it points to Russia's legally binding 2020 target, committing the country to limiting its emissions to 25-30% below 1990 levels - exactly the same limitation pledged in its new 2030 target.

Carbon Brief unravels some of the knots of Russian climate change policy.

Read more

Paris 2015: Tracking country climate pledges

  • 31 Mar 2015, 18:10
  • Carbon Brief staff

Updated 18 May with Canada's INDC.

31 March marked the loose deadline for countries to submit their pledges to the UN on how far they intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

These promises, known as "intended nationally determined contributions", or INDCs, will determine the success of the deal that the UN hopes to sign off in Paris in December this year.

While only five countries plus the EU made the deadline, more than a hundred others are expected to filter in throughout the coming eight months.

Carbon Brief is tracking the pledges made by each country. We'll update this post as each INDC comes in.

To find out exactly what an INDC is and why it matters, read our explainer here.

Read more

Explainer: What are 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions'?

  • 31 Mar 2015, 12:32
  • Sophie Yeo

UN talks | Flickr

The UN is a world of many acronyms, but there is one in particular that is likely to dominate climate policy over the next eight months: INDC.

It stands for "intended nationally determined contribution". This is the phrase that countries are using to describe the climate pledges that they will make ahead of the UN negotiations in Paris later this year.

The success of the UN's new climate agreement will, to a significant degree, depend on the ambition of these pledges, which will determine the rate of action to tackle climate change after 2020.

Carbon Brief takes a look at what makes an INDC, what happens between now and Paris, and why it matters.


Read more

Carbon capture and storage: Can the UK hit climate goals without killing off heavy industry?

  • 27 Mar 2015, 10:00
  • Simon Evans

Credit: Tata Steel

The UK should develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters incorporating industrial sites as well as power plants, says the thinktank Green Alliance.

This would increase the amount of carbon captured nine-fold while cutting costs per tonne by two thirds, but it won't happen without new financial incentives, says the 25 March  report. Meanwhile new government roadmaps show heavy industry needs CCS to make significant emissions reductions.

The Green Alliance report is the latest in a long line to highlight the pressing need for CCS to cut carbon cost-effectively, while noting a long history of false starts and proposing a fresh approach to energising the sector.

Carbon Brief takes a look at why industrial CCS is considered essential to decarbonise sectors such as steel and cement, and why meeting UK carbon targets will cost more without it.

The case for industrial CCS

The attraction of CCS, and the reason it is opposed by some, is that it seems to offer the chance to keep burning fossil fuels while reducing emissions.

In December, David Cameron told MPs that CCS was "absolutely crucial if we are going to decarbonise effectively". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says avoiding dangerous warming will cost twice as much without CCS.

UK decarbonisation would also be about twice as expensive without CCS, says a 17 March report from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

However, research published in January shows CCS doesn't actually make much difference to the total amount of fossil fuel that can be burnt, within a budget that gives a likely chance of limiting warming to less than two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.

This adds to arguments that CCS shouldn't be used to decarbonise coal- and gas-fired power stations on a large scale, since other low-carbon electricity sources are available. It's a different story for heavy industry, however, where CCS is one of the few ways to radically cut carbon in line with UK and EU targets to reduce emissions by 80% or more by 2050.

The new Green Alliance report says CCS is "the only currently feasible technology" to cut emissions of many energy intensive industries, yet the UK's current approach focuses only on cutting the cost of power sector CCS.

Read more

Electric vehicle batteries 'already cheaper than 2020 projections'

  • 23 Mar 2015, 17:00
  • Simon Evans

The cost of electric vehicle battery packs is falling so rapidly they are probably already cheaper than expected for 2020, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change.

Electric vehicles remain more expensive than combustion-engine equivalents, largely because of battery costs. In 2013 the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated cost-parity could be reached in 2020, with battery costs reaching $300 per kilowatt hour of capacity.

But market-leading firms were probably already producing cheaper batteries last year, says today's new research. It says its figures are "two to four times lower than many recent peer-reviewed papers have suggested".

High costs, falling

Even though the EU electric vehicle market grew by 37% year on year in 2014, it still made up less than 1% of total sales. High cost is a major reason why electric vehicles have failed to break through, alongside range and a lack of recharging infrastructure.

The new research is based on a review of 85 cost estimates in peer-reviewed research, agency estimates, consultancy and industry reports, news reports covering the views of industry representatives and experts and finally estimates from leading manufacturers.

It says industry-wide costs have fallen from above $1,000 per kilowatt hour in 2007 down to around $410 in 2014, a 14% annual reduction (blue marks, below). Costs for market-leading firms have fallen by 8% per year, reaching $300 per kilowatt hour in 2014 (green marks).

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 At 14.22.10

Cost estimates and future projections for electric vehicle battery packs, measured in $US per kilowatt hour of capacity. Each mark on the chart represents a documented estimate reviewed by the study. Source: Nykvist et al. (2015).

Read more

Are the UK's emissions really falling or has it outsourced them to China?

  • 19 Mar 2015, 18:00
  • Simon Evans

Government claims to be leading the world on emissions reductions have been challenged by new research, the BBC reports today.

The BBC says UK emissions are rising, not falling, once pollution in imported goods from the likes of China are included. In fact, UK emissions including imports are below 1990 levels, while a larger share of the UK's imported emissions come from Europe than from China.

Carbon Brief explores the new research on the UK's imported emissions, and considers the implications for global climate politics.

Consumption versus production

Traditional emissions accounting only considers the greenhouse gases generated within a country's own borders. In other words, emissions produced in the UK are allocated to the UK. On this measure, UK emissions have fallen dramatically to around 25% below 1990 levels.

But this impressive record is illusory, the BBC report says, because of emissions embedded in imported goods. This is not a new idea. For instance, this 2012 Guardian article reports MPs' claims that the UK has "merely outsourced emissions to China".

Consumption-based accounting attempts to acknowledge this issue, adding up its impact on the UK's total climate footprint. It adds emissions embedded in imports to the UK's footprint by tracking global trade from the point of purchase of goods and services back to their origin.

If someone in the UK buys an Audi or an iPhone, then the UK is handed responsibility for the emissions needed to make them. Using this method, new research from the University of Leeds finds the UK's record looks less impressive, with emissions in 2012 just 7% below 1990 levels.

Imports mostly not from China

The UK's imported emissions have increased over the past two decades so that they now make up around half of the UK's climate footprint, as the chart below shows. The UK's production emissions have fallen fast (dark blue area), but imports have offset much of the gain (lighter blues, purples and grey area).

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 At 14.49.32

Source: University of Leeds Sustainability Research Institute. Graph by Carbon Brief.

Read more

Why is a disaster risk reduction deal important for climate change?

  • 18 Mar 2015, 18:00
  • Sophie Yeo

Disasters | Shutterstock

In Japan today, representatives from 186 governments signed a new UN framework on disaster risk reduction.

It is the first in a triad of 2015 agreements that will determine how the world deals with development in the face of climate change, inequality and rising urbanisation. This is likely to include the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals in September, followed by a new climate change agreement in December.

Carbon Brief explains why today's deal is important for climate change, and how it fits in with the two deals expected later this year. 

The deal signed today replaces the Hyogo Framework for Action, the UN's previous disaster risk reduction deal, which expires this year.

Since this agreement was signed in 2005, disasters have killed more than 700,000 people, and made 23 million homeless, and caused total economic losses of more than $1.3 trillion, the new treaty points out.

Not all disasters relate to climate change, though. For instance, some are attributable to, say, earthquakes and volcanic activity. However, a new UN report calculates that 87% of disasters are caused by hazards of the air and oceans, including cyclones, floods, heat waves and storm surges.


Read more

More coal plants are being cancelled than built

  • 16 Mar 2015, 13:00
  • Sophie Yeo

Coal trucks | Shutterstock

The global coal boom has started to slow, a new  report says, as more plans for new power plants are now being shelved than completed.

The number of cancelled coal projects across the world has outstripped those completed at a rate of two to one since 2010, according to Sierra Club and CoalSwarm - two campaign groups that have tracked the progress of 3,900 intended plants since 1 January 2010.

The findings update a 2012 report by the World Resources Institute, which estimated that 1,199 new coal-fired power plants, with a total capacity of 1,401 gigawatts, were in the pipeline for construction.

New figures suggest that, by 2014, this had shrunk by 23% to a proposed 1,083 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 At 10.57.25

Comparison of 2012 WRI figures and 2014 Global Coal Plant Tracker. Source: Boom and Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline

The report puts this down to citizen opposition, competition from renewables, new policy initiatives and political scandals putting a freeze on the highly polluting projects.

Read more