Experts unconvinced latest reforms will save the European carbon market

  • 29 Jan 2014, 12:00
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Karlis Dambrans

Policymakers have long asserted that making polluters pay is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But with Europe's carbon market floundering, the EU is having to rethink how to go about setting a carbon price.

Carbon pricing only works as a climate change policy if the cost of emitting carbon dioxide is high enough to make companies change their behaviour.

But the European carbon price has rarely been high enough to make that happen, and has plummeted in recent years. That means polluters have had little incentive to reduce their emissions.

With that in mind, the European Commission last week announced the next in a series of reforms it hopes will boost the carbon price and save the carbon market. But is it too little, too late?

Plummeting price

A year ago, the European carbon price hit a  record low of €2.81, damaging the effectiveness of the scheme.

Companies buy credits to emit through a mechanism called the emissions trading scheme. If a company emits less than the number of credits it holds, it can sell them - setting a carbon price. In theory, the higher the carbon price, the more companies will do to reduce emissions.

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Decoding Obama’s climate and energy rhetoric in 2014's state of the union address - in three charts

  • 29 Jan 2014, 03:35
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Army

President Obama has promised the US government will undertake a "year of action", and that includes tackling climate change.

For the last couple of years, the president has used his annual state of the union address to nudge climate change up the government's agenda. His latest speech on tuesday evening was no different.

We break down the key climate and energy messages from President Obama's sixth state of the union address - from facing climate facts, to addressing "carbon pollution".

Climate change is still on the agenda

President Obama doesn't always mention climate change in his state of the union addresses.

The term was absent from his 2011 speech, with some commentators accusing the president of  running scared over an issue that had become  ideologically tinged.

This year - as with the last two addresses - he did mention it, however.

We searched for the term 'climate' and its variations (such as 'climatic') across Obama's last six state of the union addresses. The results show Obama has used the early addresses of his second four-year term to promote climate action, in contrast to a dip at the end of his first term:

Obama climate line chart
This year, the president equalled his past record of mentioning climate change 3 times.

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Why more political rifts could be good for international climate negotiations

  • 24 Jan 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Mateusz Włodarczyk

International climate change negotiations are often rather combative events, with countries grouping together to push their agendas. But what was once a contest between a few key players now involves increasingly fragmented groups, according to one expert.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, however.

Countries are increasingly abandoning old political divisions in favour of new groups, Farhana Yamin, an Associate Fellow at international affairs thinktank Chatham House told policymakers yesterday. She argues that by establishing new alliances focussed around policy issues, countries can find fresh common ground, and improve the prospects for a new global deal.

Old and new groups

In the early days of negotiations aimed at forging an agreement between countries to tackle climate change, nations used to group together in a few easy to identify groups. But Yamin says the groups the have multiplied in recent years, as more countries find their voices in the negotiations.

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What the papers say: The EU’s 2030 target

  • 23 Jan 2014, 15:00
  • Ros Donald and Mat Hope

Credit: Roland Unger

The EU aims to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent and increase the amount of energy it gets from renewables to 27 percent by 2030.  No strong storyline emerged from the media: news coverage of yesterday's announcement ran the gamut: informative, positive, negative, outraged - and occasionally incorrect. 

The gory details 

We  summed up the announcement. It breaks down to a pledge to reduce EU-wide emissions by 40 per cent on 1990 levels. It also contains a target to get 27 per cent of the EU's energy from renewable sources by 2030 - though in a change from the 2020 package, the new target doesn't require countries to take on individual targets. Though how the EU will reach the 27 per cent mark without individual targets is  a question yet to be answered

You know what they say: If you like climate targets, don't watch them being made. The  Guardian gives readers a glimpse at the EU sausage-making apparatus, reporting that negotiations to reach the agreement ground on until the eleventh hour. The source of the conflict was the UK's opposition to a new renewable energy target, the paper reports: 

" Ed Davey, the UK's energy and climate change secretary, bitterly opposed the renewable energy target, but was overruled as big member states including Germany, France and Italy backed it." 

The BBC also lays out the details of the package, and the  FT provides a useful Q&A. 

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Thousands left vulnerable as flood funding shortfall has knock-on effect on flood insurance scheme

  • 22 Jan 2014, 14:00
  • Ros Donald

The government claims it's sending a lifeline to those at risk from flooding with greater spending and an insurance scheme. But a new report suggests that a failure to increase spending has left 250,000 homes at risk - with no allowance in the insurance scheme to cover them. So what's going wrong with the government's flood planning?

Flooding is one of the biggest  natural threats in the UK, and it's set to become even more of a problem in the future. Climate change is predicted to  raise the risk of flooding through heavier rainfall and sea level rise, while the  ongoing development of floodplains means that when it does flood there's more to lose. 

The government claims it's spending more than ever on defending the UK from floods. But in a  policy note out today government advisor the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says that's misleading. In fact, spending will be lower this year than it has been over the previous four years. 

What's more, a new insurance scheme designed to spread the cost of flood risk also looks set to fall short. The scheme assumes there will be no future increase in the number of at-risk homes - because flood defences will be so effective. 

But given the fact that long-term spending makes no provision for increased flooding, this is something of a circular argument. Arguably, neither scheme will protect those who will become vulnerable in the future. 

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Can EU member states be trusted to fulfil 2030 climate promises without a country-specific renewable energy target?

  • 22 Jan 2014, 09:00
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Yukiko Matsuoka

UPDATE, 22/01/14, 11.10: The European Commission has just announced it will be backing a climate target to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. It has also recommended a binding target to get 27 per cent of the EU's energy from renewable sources by 2030. This target is not country specific, however. The text below has been amended in light of the announcement.

The European Commission has today decided it's time for member states to make up their own minds about how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But does the decision place too much faith in countries' desire to decarbonise their economies?

Months of internal squabbling came to a head today as the European Commission published a White Paper outlining its position on the EU's 2030 climate and energy targets. The commission recommended a target to reduce EU emissions by between  40 per cent by 2030 - the upper end of what was expected.

It also backed an EU-wide target to get 27 per cent  of the region's energy from renewable sources in 2030 - roughly in line with what the commision  expects to happen if countries continue to implement decarbonisation policies.

The renewable energy target does not obligate individual member states to ramp up generation to that extent, however. That makes it slightly weaker than the EU's previous goal.

Act of faith

Today's decision represents a significant change in approach from when the EU originally agreed its climate goals.

European policymakers agreed three targets in 2007, dubbed the 20-20-20 goals. Those targets required members states to reduce emissions by 20 per cent, get 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources, and increase energy efficiency by 20 per cent, all by 2020.

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Could renewable energy trading solve the EU’s 2030 ambition problem?

  • 20 Jan 2014, 16:30
  • Ros Donald

High gas prices and crippling economic problems have left European countries unwilling to renew binding requirements to increase renewable energy generation in 2020. But critics say the likely alternative - an overall target with no country-specific requirements - offers no incentive for countries to up their game. Could a platform for trading renewable-sourced energy rekindle member states' enthusiasm for country-level targets?

Mapping 2030

EU-wide renewables targets come under its 2020 package of climate and energy pledges. Member states have agreed to a 20 per cent reduction in emissions on 1990 levels, a 20 per cent increase in the amount of energy generated by renewables (split up on a country-by-country basis), and a 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency - all by 2020.

Policymakers have committed to extending the measures to 2030 by the end of next year. On Wednesday, the commission will  announce its agreed combination of targets with a new white paper. And although this is expected to include a binding promise to reduce emissions by  40 per cent, another binding, country-level renewables target looks less likely.

While countries like Germany and Denmark want to see the target extended, the UK and Poland argue renewables shouldn't be privileged over other low carbon technologies such as nuclear power.

Current energy trends are working against those who want to see a 2030 target. For example, reporting after an EU energy conference, Channel 4 news anchor  Jon Snow recounts country delegates' enthusiasm for developing nuclear power, shale gas and even highly-polluting coal in response to rising gas prices in the EU - and equal appetite for scrapping renewable energy targets.

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Increasing transparency and protecting the poor: Making fairer climate policy

  • 17 Jan 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Bob Embleton

Communities aren't getting a fair share of the benefits of tackling climate change, according to a group of academics.

While governments may be trying to spread responsibility for cutting emissions, current policies are disadvantaging some of society's most vulnerable groups, they argue.

So what can be done? A group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists sponsored by the Economics and Social Research Council gathered in Milton Keynes yesterday to explore how policymakers could make climate policy fairer.

1. Increasing accountability

While policymakers may somewhat vaguely claim climate policies will benefit local communities, they don't always follow through on their promises, one of the academics found.

Countries signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which allowed richer nations to fund climate policies in developing nations through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM is meant to help developing countries grow in a way that minimises greenhouse gas emissions, and provides other benefits for local communities.

As such, the South African government is helping Ghanaian farmers develop more  environmentally friendly fertiliser, while the UK funds a hydroelectric plant in Peru. Those projects - and many others - are all implemented in the name of combating climate change.

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Behind 2013's energy bill headlines, in five charts

  • 15 Jan 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

Credit: W Warby

Towards the end of 2013, you could barely open a newspaper without reading about energy price hikes: the number of stories containing the words "household energy bills" doubled in 2013 compared to the previous year. We look back at some of the key themes behind the headlines.

Energy bills

Energy companies' decisions to raise prices once again in 2013 unleashed a torrent of media stories as politicians fell over themselves to propose market reforms.

From the end of October - when SSE announced the first price rise - to the end of the year, we found over 170 articles looking at household energy bills in six of the UK's most-read daily newspapers. That's more than four stories per day across the papers for two months, on average.

Media stories, energy price hikes bar chart

The Daily Telegraph was responsible for the largest share of the articles we found - publishing 45 energy bills stories across 41 days. The Times and Guardian were close behind, publishing 38 and 34 stories respectively. The Daily Mail published the fewest stories of all the papers we analysed: 17 articles.

But how were journalist filling such a wealth of column inches? We did a quick word search to try and find out.

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New fracking incentives may not be enough to win communities’ support

  • 13 Jan 2014, 15:25
  • Mat Hope

The government is  eager to get the UK's shale gas industry going, and this morning announced improved financial incentives for local authorities willing to permit fracking. But local governments' initial responses are lukewarm.

The UK's fledgling shale gas industry has faced opposition from environmental campaigners and community groups in recent months. But Prime Minister, David Cameron, hopes the government's  latest community benefit plans will be enough to assuage fears about an industry he says is central to the government's "long term economic plan".

More money for communities

The government had already announced that communities are to benefit  financially from any shale gas wells in the local area. But it's not just Joe Public the government has to persuade: local councils have to sign off any plans before energy companies move in and start drilling. Today's announcement was designed to get the planners on board.

Cameron announced that local authorities would receive  100 per cent of the business rates - a tax levied on any non-domestic properties - from shale gas wells. Normally, the local council only receives 50 per cent, with the other half going to the treasury.

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