Today's climate and energy headlines:
- A nearly 50% decline in bumblebee habitat in North America is tied to climate change, scientists say
- Poorer households may get help on energy bills
- World misses symbolic February deadline to ratchet up climate action before COP26
- Opec’s advisers call for significantly deeper oil supply cuts
- The COP26 climate conference can still be a success. Here's how
- The only way to hit net zero by 2050 is to stop flying
- Bernie Sanders could hurt the US economy with this executive order
- Satellite‐based estimates reveal widespread forest degradation in the Amazon
- Algal lipids reveal unprecedented warming rates in alpine areas of SW Europe during the industrial period
A new study warns that bumblebee populations in North America and Europe “have plummeted as a result of extreme temperatures”, the Washington Post reports. It continues: “The number of areas populated by bumblebees has fallen 46% in North America and 17% in Europe, and the new research found that regions with sharp bee declines also experienced strong variations in climate – and especially higher temperatures and worse heatwaves.” The researchers examined 66 bumblebee species using data collected over a 115-year period (1900-2015), notes the Independent. Bumblebee populations have been hardest hit in warming southern regions, such as Spain and Mexico, where some species already live near the edge of their temperature range, reports InsideClimate News. The findings suggest that the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in any given place has declined by 30% in the course of a single human generation, says the Press Association. The researchers say the rates of decline appear to be “consistent with a mass extinction”, the PA adds. “The scale of this decline is really worrying,” lead author Peter Soroye tells the New York Times. “This group of organisms is such a critical pollinator in wild landscapes and agricultural regions.” BBC News, Bloomberg, the Times, Daily Telegraph and MailOnline all have the story, while Carbon Brief covers the study in detail, including speaking to the authors and other scientists not involved in the work. In related news, the Independent also reports that the invasion of the Asian hornet into Europe has spread to northern Germany, “posing major threat to European bees”.
Households struggling with energy bills may get help from a government review of clean technology funding, reports BBC News. At the moment, “an annual levy is imposed on gas and electricity bills to fund renewables such as offshore wind”, the article says, adding that this amounts to around “£186 of a typical energy bill”. [Note: the levy is only on electricity, not on gas as well; the levy also covers energy-efficiency funding and fuel-poverty support; and data from the energy regulator Ofgem suggests environmental and social costs added £134 to a typical bill in 2018.] This cost “falls disproportionately on the poorest in society”, BBC News says, and one option is to “shift the cost onto taxpayers to avoid anger at climate policies”. A spokesperson confirmed that the government is “definitely considering the way that costs are distributed”. They added: “The Treasury is looking at the costs of transition to net-zero emissions by 2050…This will include how costs may be distributed across different groups to create a fair balance of contributions.” BBC News also reports that “energy bills are to fall for millions of British households this April after the regulator lowered price caps”. The caps were introduced to protect customers on poor value default or standard variable tariffs, says the outlet, adding: “Ofgem has reduced the default price cap and pre-payment meter cap by £17, which the regulator said would lower bills for about 15 million households.” The Financial Times also has the story.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the spike in heating demand during “Beast from the East” cold snap in 2018 “caused greenhouse gas emissions to rise by 2.5m tonnes…or half of the total emissions of Albania”. It adds: “Official figures showed the emissions from homes and public buildings rose sharply as a result of a Siberian weather system, in part because many still rely on gas heating and subpar insulation.”
Almost all countries are set to miss a symbolic 9 February deadline to strengthen plans to fight climate change under the Paris Agreement, Climate Home News reports, “even though the United Nations says action in 2020 is vital to avert runaway global warming”. It continues: “A little-noticed paragraph 25 in the 2015 UN decision implementing the Paris Agreement says that such climate action plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are meant to be submitted to the UN ‘at least nine to 12 months in advance of the relevant session’ of the COP.” This Sunday marks that nine-month deadline, and just two countries – Surinam and the Marshall Islands – have so far provided enhanced NDCs, CHN says. It adds: “The two account for about 0.01% of world greenhouse gas emissions.” Asked about the lack of action, a COP26 spokesperson said: “We encourage all parties to submit ambitious NDCs in good time before COP26 this November…We are delighted that the Marshall Islands and Surinam have already submitted their NDCs and look forward to the rest of our international partners doing so in the coming months.”
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has called on Australia to work with other countries to bring down carbon pollution as it works towards the “challenge” of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
An advisory body to Opec and its oil-producing allies has recommended that they deepen their supply cuts in response to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on economic growth and crude consumption, reports the Financial Times. It continues: “The technical committee, which includes representatives from Saudi Arabia and Russia, met for three days in Vienna and concluded on Thursday that producers should make supply curbs of 2.7m barrels a day (b/d) for the first half of 2020.” The wider Opec+ alliance of oil-producing nations had already agreed to cut production by 1.7m b/d for three months from January, the FT notes, while Saudi Arabia then pledged additional cuts of 400,000 b/d.
Meanwhile, the FT reports that “Norway’s $1tn oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has removed Drax from its investment blacklist” as the UK power company switches from coal to “sustainable biomass”. The decision to invest in Drax again – after divesting in 2016 – is “one of the clearest signs yet that some big investors are rewarding companies they think are making sufficient progress on moving away from the most polluting of fossil fuels”, the paper says.
In other extraction news, the New York Times reports that the Trump administration yesterday “finalised plans to allow mining and energy drilling on nearly a million acres of land in southern Utah that had once been protected as part of a major national monument”. The decision “will allow oil, gas and coal companies to complete the legal process for leasing mines and wells on land that had once been part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established by President Bill Clinton”, the paper adds. The move “comes despite pending lawsuits from conservation, tribal and palaeontology groups”, says the Guardian. The FT also has a news feature on how “US natural gas utilities are rallying against an emergent threat to their historically stable business as communities worried about climate change block new pipelines and gas connections for homes.” Finally, the FT covers the news that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro “has risked another environmental furore after his government said it would present a bill to open indigenous lands to commercial mining and hydroelectric projects”.
Writing in the Guardian, former Labour leader and former climate change secretary Ed Miliband says that the “events of the past few days have proved beyond doubt that we cannot leave [COP26] to the government alone.” This is “a massive moment”, says Miliband, “and the government has so far simply been unable to get to grips with the importance and the complexity of these negotiations”. However, “it’s not just the government that needs to step up”, he argues: “Success or failure will in part depend on how much it is made to care about the issue. That depends on all of us. If the government thinks it can slink out of Glasgow without too much notice being taken, it may well decide other priorities are more important. We cannot let that happen.” Miliband sets out the steps needed to ensure success of the climate talks, including: putting pressure on the government “to act here at home”; “a strong alliance with the EU”; “mobilising public and private finance for developing countries”; and pushing “coalitions of states, cities, businesses and civil society” around the path to net-zero. Miliband concludes: “The only way we will get change on this issue is showing government that there is a big political coalition that believes this really matters. Positive momentum from Glasgow is essential. We all need to step up. We all need to own it.”
Elsewhere, writing for the ConservativeHome website, Rachel Wolf – education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and co-author of the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto – says the UK’s net-zero challenge is “staggering…much, much bigger then Brexit. And yet the public debate is, relatively, non-existent”. Wolf argues that the “public have no idea what [net-zero] really means, or how it might change their life”. She continues: “They frequently mix it up with other government commitments like plastics. They care about the environment, but no one has begun to explain the changes in their lifestyle that might be required to reach net zero in the next 30 years. They already think they pay a lot of tax, and are currently unprepared to pay lots more for the environment. Unless we get this right – and develop solutions that can mitigate the cost – the situation is ripe for a new UKIP-style party to whip up hostility (as the gilets jaunes in France show).”
The only way the UK can get to net-zero emission aviation by 2050 is by having a substantial period of no aviation at all,” writes Prof Julian Allwood, professor of engineering and the environment at Cambridge university, in a piece for the Financial Times. Allwood – lead author on the “Absolute zero” report that was covered by BBC News yesterday – looks at the “three ways to deliver net-zero aviation: invent new electric aircraft, change the fuels of existing aircraft or take the emissions out of the atmosphere”. The technology for electric planes is “in its infancy”, says Allwood, and “commercial long-haul electric flights will not be operating at any significant scale by 2050”. Similarly, alternative fuels, such as hydrogen or synthetic kerosene, need to be produced by renewable electricity in order to be net-zero, Allwood says, but “there is unlikely to be spare clean power to make aviation fuel” in the next few decades. And in an absence of “meaningful negative emissions technologies”, a “commitment to net-zero aviation by 2050 is really a commitment to zero aviation”, Allwood writes, concluding: “Rather than hope new technology will magically rescue us, we should stop planning to increase fossil-fuel flights and commit to halving them within 10 years with an eye toward phasing them out entirely by 2050.”
A Washington Post editorial scrutinises the list of possible executive actions put out by potential Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders. It picks out one that “would simultaneously harm the US economy and help the dictatorships of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela”. This is “his reported plan to declare climate change a national emergency and, using that as legal authority, reinstate the ban on US crude oil exports that Congress and President Barack Obama lifted on a bipartisan basis at the end of 2015.” The ban was adopted in the mid-1970s to combat the “firm control of world oil markets” that Opec held, says the Post, but “in today’s world…Opec has been weakened by its own divisions and by the emergence of the US as the world’s largest producer. Much US crude is ill-suited, chemically, for US refineries but works well abroad; eliminating exports, now approaching three million barrels per day, would eliminate these efficiency benefits. It would also cost billions of dollars; crude oil sales abroad earned $65.3bn in 2019”. The editorial argues that “banning exports is not the way to combat climate change. Other oil suppliers would immediately rush to fill the void – among them the aforementioned Russian, Saudi and Venezuelan state companies, whose revenues fund repression, foreign intervention and bureaucracy”. Instead, the Post says, “the next administration should work urgently to promote a transition to a non-fossil-fuel future – most saliently, by working with Congress to put a rising price on carbon fuels”.
Forest disturbances cause ecological damage and carbon emissions, and occur in the Amazon in the form of deforestation, degradation from the extraction of forest resources and destruction from natural events. The crucial role of the Amazon rainforest in the hydrologic cycle has even led to the speculation of a disturbance ‘tipping point’ leading to a collapse of the tropical ecosystem. This study uses Landsat data to map deforestation, degradation and natural disturbance in the Amazon from 1995 to 2017. It finds that degradation and natural disturbance, largely during periods of severe drought, have affected as much of the forest area in the Amazon as deforestation from 1995 to 2017. Consequently, an estimated 17% of the original forest area has been disturbed as of 2017. Their results suggest that the area of disturbed forest in the Amazon is 44‐60% more than previously realised, indicating an unaccounted for source of carbon emissions and pervasive damage to forest ecosystems.
Alpine ecosystems of the southern Iberian Peninsula are among the most vulnerable and the first to respond to modern climate change in southwestern Europe. While major environmental shifts have occurred over the past 1,500 years in these alpine ecosystems, only changes in the recent centuries have led to abrupt environmental responses. This study created an algal lipid-derived temperature proxy, extending alpine temperature reconstructions to 1500 years before present. The results highlight the enhanced effect of greenhouse gases on alpine temperatures during the last 200 years and the long-term modulating role of solar forcing. The warming rate during the 20th century was double that of the last stages of the Little Ice Age. As a consequence, temperature exceeded the preindustrial record in the 1950s, and it has been one of the major forcing processes of the recent enhanced change in these alpine ecosystems from southern Iberia since then.
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