As the year draws to a close, Carbon Brief takes a look at 2016’s top climate and energy stories through the medium of numbers. Here is our Top 16 for 2016.
In November, Donald J Trump beat Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Carbon Brief collected reactions from climate scientists on everything from the future of the Clean Power Plan to a potential US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The consensus view was one of pessimism. However, Trump’s hostility to action on climate change was in stark contrast to the views expressed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Carbon Brief reviewed the actor’s feature-length documentary, Before the Flood, picking out the seven key scenes from the movie.
DiCaprio created somewhat of a Twitter storm earlier in the year, too, after mentioning climate change in his Oscar acceptance speech for The Revenant. A map capturing two million tweets over a six-week period, created by Right Relevance for Carbon Brief, showed the Hollywood star’s supersized influence on the climate change conversation online.
A few months prior, the UK’s EU referendum in June was the first of a series of seismic events to shake the world order in 2016. Carbon Brief posed 94 questions on climate and energy, raised by the Brexit vote.
Plans to phase out coal by 2025 did eventually appear, though they clash somewhat with plans to keep the lights on via the capacity market. New wide-ranging EU proposals on energy would exclude coal from such schemes – if the UK remains part of them.
It has been a politically tumultuous year in the UK, resulting in a new prime minister and the demise of the government department responsible for tackling climate change. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) lasted just eight years before it was axed in a dramatic reshuffle, with its responsibilities folded into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
There were some who wondered whether this represented a downgrading of climate change as an issue by Theresa May, who took over from David Cameron. The former home secretary had mainly remained silent on the subject before she took office, but Carbon Brief managed to unearth some of the few statements that she’s made, including declaring that she was “thrilled” that the Climate Change Act had passed into law in 2008.
It may not have been as exciting as COP21, where the world finally signed the Paris Agreement, but COP22 in Marrakech crowned a busy year of climate action at the UN. It was, for instance, the first big UN climate meeting following the agreement’s entry into force, after 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions ratified the deal (in total, 118 parties have now ratified). Even the EU managed to speed through the complicated ratification process, with MEPs voting in favour 610 to 38.
Separately, the UN also agreed a long-awaited deal for tackling international aviation emissions (see below), and another for a staggered reduction in the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from 2019. The UN also agreed a new secretary-general — Antonio Guterres beat 11 other candidates for the top job, and will take over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January 2017.
One topic dominating climate discussions throughout 2016 has been the goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C above preindustrial levels, a surprise inclusion in the Paris Agreement.
Carbon Brief’s analysis shows there are just over four years’ worth of current emissions left before it becomes unlikely that we can meet the 1.5C target without relying on “negative emissions” technologies (see below) to such CO2 out of the air. Carbon Brief attended a meeting of more than 200 climate science and policy researchers, economists and social scientists at Oxford University in September to discuss how ‘feasible’ a 1.5C goal is in reality.
This is one of the big questions to be tackled in a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due in 2018. Carbon Brief spoke to the co-chairs of the three working groups (Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Dr Debra Roberts and Prof Jim Skea) about the 1.5C goal, as well as to a number of climate and energy researchers about the much-anticipated report.
With negative emissions becoming such a talking point, Carbon Brief explained 10 options on the table for how to achieve them and asked experts which they thought was most likely to deliver. As part of our mini-series on negative emissions, we also featured a potted history of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), the technology thought to hold most promise, as well as a guest post by the Met Office’s Prof Jason Lowe and an analysis of how much the UK is relying on BECCS to meet its own climate targets.
The referendum on EU membership wasn’t the only event to raise uncertainty around UK climate policy in 2016. Carbon Brief had a host of unanswered questions about the Levy Control Framework, the UK government’s £7.6bn cap for low-carbon subsidies. Many were echoed in a National Audit Office report in October – and we still don’t know whether the cap will continue into the 2020s.
Despite these doubts, the direction of travel for UK energy is clear. Energy UK, the National Infrastructure Commission and National Grid all said this year that the energy sector is in the midst of a “revolution”, as renewables, batteries and smart grids enter the mix. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn launched his own plans to push things faster with a 65% renewable energy target for 2030.
Perfectly illustrating the beginnings of this energy revolution, Carbon Brief broke the news that UK solar panels generated more power during the six months from April and September than all of the country’s coal plants combined.
The milestone happened partly because UK coal generation fell by two thirds compared to 2015, as the UK’s £18/tCO2 carbon price floor made its presence felt and several plants closed. The tax was extended by one year in the chancellor’s Autumn statement, but not beyond.
Coal use also dropped at a global level, falling 1.8% year on year. The reduction was down to a hugely significant shift in China, where coal use is falling and is thought to have peaked, even as its coal capacity increases. Carbon Brief mapped the global coal trade to show what’s at stake.
The coal cut saw global emissions stall for the third year in a row, with coal CO2 cuts balanced by rising emissions from gas and oil. Even though there are now more than one million electric cars on the road, oil use is increasing and, with it, the oil trade.
This year, Carbon Brief mapped the electricity system in Germany and published a history of the country’s Energiewende. It is one of 35 countries decoupling growth from emissions, a feat being repeated by 33 states in the US. In the UK, a growing economy was accompanied by emissions at their lowest levels since the 1920s.
With 2016 looking set to top 2015 as the new warmest year on record, one topic for scientists to chew over has been how much of a contribution the recent strong El Niño event has made to global temperatures.
But as the influence of El Niño on global temperature tends to be much bigger in the year after an event, scientists expected a larger contribution in 2016. Speaking to Carbon Brief in January, Prof Adam Scaife from the UK’s Met Office estimated that El Niño would add approximately 0.2C to global temperature this year – a figure the Met Office reiterated this week.
In August, the journal Geographical Review published a fascinating study explaining how researchers constructed a record of monthly Arctic sea ice extent going all the way back to 1850. Florence Fetterer, one of the paper’s authors, wrote a guest article for Carbon Brief, describing how the team compiled the new record by digitising data collected from a range of unusual sources – such as whaling ship logbooks, aerial surveys and observations by naval oceanographers.
2016 has been quite exceptional for the Arctic, which saw record low sea ice cover for six months of the year – with December’s data still to come. After a record low winter peak in March, scientists suggested that conditions were ripe for a record-breaking annual minimum. But a relatively cool and stormy late June and July slowed ice melt and meant the summer ended as the joint-second smallest extent on record. However, unusually warm conditions in the last few months have hindered ice growth as the Arctic moves into winter, resulting in November setting new low records for both ice extent and volume.
The shrinking sea ice in the Arctic prompted some other interesting research this year, such as how shipping routes may open up in future and the possibility of predicting the first ice-free Arctic summer.
Tackling climate change requires investment. Trillions of dollars will be required to take the global economy to where it needs to be, with money spent on new low carbon infrastructure, adaptation, and energy to both reduce emissions and avoid some of the worst predicted impacts.
However, the world is still falling short of raising the revenue required. A report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) found that climate change adaptation could cost $500bn per year by 2020 — Carbon Brief mapped some projects that are already being carried out. Another study found that £223bn is currently being spent around the world, equivalent to 0.38% of global GDP.
After decades in the climate policy wilderness, 2016 is arguably the year that aviation took up its seat at the global effort sharing table. In October, 191 countries struck a deal in Montreal to constrain aviation emissions at 2020 levels, offsetting growth thereafter.
Turning attention to the UK, Carbon Brief’s analysis found the recommendation by the government’s independent advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, to cap UK aviation emissions at no more than 2005 levels is enough to consume half (52%) of the UK’s allowable carbon budget to stay below 1.5C. With the government approving a new runway at Heathrow in October, it’s hard to see how that goal can realistically stay within reach.
This was also the year that the UK decided to build what could be the most expensive object on Earth: the Hinkley C nuclear plant. For the mammoth sum of £24.5bn, the reactor is meant to provide around 8% of the UK’s electricity demand.
Zero national newspapers had supported the deal, which came five years after the nuclear accident in Fukushima. But that didn’t matter. After years of delay, Theresa May approved the plant in September, meaning Hinkley will become an addition to the 667 nuclear power plants that have been built or are under construction around the world.
7.1 trillion tonnes
In early August, a low pressure weather system swept inland from the Gulf of Mexico and dumped 7.1 trillion tonnes of rain onto Louisiana. The subsequent flooding in and around the state claimed 13 lives and damaged more than 60,000 homes, leading the Red Cross to declare it the worst natural disaster in the US since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
A quick-fire analysis found that climate change had made such an event twice as likely than it was before the influence of human activity took hold.
The US wasn’t alone in being on the receiving end of extreme weather this year. In May and June, torrential rain hit northern Europe, causing widespread flooding in France and Germany, in particular. A similar rapid attribution study found that a warming climate made the exceptionally wet weather in and around Paris 80-90% more likely. The findings for Germany were less conclusive, the researchers noted.
There were also a flurry of studies about past extreme events, finding that the UK’s winter wet in 2013-14 was made 43% more likely by climate change and that around half of the deaths in London and Paris during the 2003 summer heatwave can be attributed to our warming climate.
Finally, this year saw Carbon Brief’s second annual quiz night. Twenty-five brave teams stepped up – including two teams playing remotely in Leeds and Copenhagen – to put themselves through two gruelling hours of quizzing.
Emerging victorious with 79 points was Friends of the Earth, seeing off the challenge from the likes of the CCC, WWF, UKERC, UCL’s polar scientists, ClientEarth and four teams from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
And if you’re looking for distractions in final few days of work before the Christmas break, you’ll be pleased to know that we published the full quiz online. There’s also an interactive taster of 10 questions for those with less time to kill.