Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Alok Sharma to be president of UN climate conference
- Earth just had hottest January since records began, data shows
- Rajendra Pachauri, Indian climate change authority who led IPCC, dies at 79
- RBS will stop lending to energy firms without climate crisis plan
- The Guardian view on the reshuffle: Johnson’s cabinet of courtiers
- The Times view on BP and climate change: Beyond Carbon
- A crisis right now: San Francisco and Manila face rising seas
- Evapotranspiration depletes groundwater under warming over the contiguous United States
- A sustainable wood biorefinery for low–carbon footprint chemicals production
In yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle, prime minister Boris Johnson named Alok Sharma as minister for business, energy and industrial strategy and president of this year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, reports BBC News. Sharma, who was previously the international development secretary, is a “little known minister”, BBC News says, and as president of the COP26 in November will be “at the centre of some very difficult international negotiations”. Politico notes that when Claire O’Neill was sacked as COP president, “the government’s narrative was all about putting a ‘big hitter’ into the job who would need no introduction to world leaders”. However, “that’s not quite the description that springs to mind for Alok Sharma”, says Politico, which describes him as “a man who needs an introduction”. Sharma’s role heading up the business department, which leads on cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, “means he will be well-placed to drive domestic action as well as the UK’s international role”, says the Press Association. The Guardian notes that Sharma “showed little interest in the climate emergency before taking over as secretary for international development last July” and “has used the term ‘climate’ only six times in parliament, and on only two of those occasions did he have anything substantive to say about the crisis”. Analysis by the paper shows Sharma “voted only twice in favour of climate protection in 13 votes on the issue”. Climate Home News adds that Sharma “has limited experience in climate diplomacy”, and DeSmog UK takes a close look at his voting record, affiliations and political donations. However, another Guardian piece says that Sharma “has used his role at DfID to promote action on the climate crisis, by assisting developing countries to improve their resilience to the impacts of extreme weather, and tackling issues such as deforestation and clean energy”. A third Guardian piece looks what faces the new COP26 president, pointing out that “arguably, the task facing Sharma is even harder than negotiating the 2015 Paris accord – at least the French government could rely on Barack Obama’s support, and a US-China agreement was fundamental to the success of Paris”.
Meanwhile, BusinessGreen reports that farming, fisheries and food minister George Eustice has been named environment secretary in the reshuffle, taking over from Theresa Villiers. DeSmog UK points out that Eustice has “a patchy voting record on climate action”. Another BusinessGreen piece reports that Rishi Sunak has been made chancellor of the exchequer after Sajid Javid stepped down. Javid’s surprise resignation comes “just weeks ahead of what has been touted as one of the greenest budgets in history”, says BusinessGreen, which adds: “Recent reports have suggested the Treasury is considering new incentives for green building upgrades, increased energy efficiency funding, extended grants for plug in vehicles, and support for new nuclear plants and industrial carbon capture projects alongside this week’s confirmation of new funding for electric buses and cycling infrastructure.” DeSmog UK has mapped the links between Boris Johnson’s new cabinet and “a lobbying network pushing to weaken the UK’s environmental regulations”.
Last month was the hottest January on record over the world’s land and ocean surfaces, with average temperatures exceeding anything in the 141 years of data held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reports the Guardian. Average global surface temperature last month was 2.5F (or 1.14C) above the 20th-century average, the paper says – marginally surpassing the previous January record, set in 2016. The four warmest Januaries on record have occurred since 2016, while the 10 warmest Januaries have taken place since 2002, notes the Evening Standard. NOAA “reported record-warm temperatures across diverse regions, including Scandinavia, Asia, the Indian Ocean, the central and western Pacific, the Atlantic and Central and South America”, says the Hill, with record cold temperatures “not recorded in any land or ocean areas”. Contributing to this year’s warming has been a strong weather phenomenon, called the “Arctic oscillation”, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt tells BuzzFeed News, but” the overwhelming reason why we are breaking so many heat records is because we are warming up in the long term and the trends in winter are the strongest”. The MailOnline, Bloomberg, CNN, ABC News and CBS News all have the story.
Meanwhile, a temperature of more than 20C (68F) had been recorded for the first time in Antarctica, says the Daily Telegraph. It continues: “The temperature recorded by Brazilian scientists at Seymour Island on 9 February was almost a full degree higher than the previous record at Signy Island in January 1982.” The new record “means Seymour Island was – briefly, at least – hotter than Madrid on Sunday, where the mercury reached no higher than 12C”, says the Sun. It follows another temperature record, says the Guardian: “On 6 February an Argentinian research station at Esperanza measured 18.3C, which was the highest reading on the continental Antarctic peninsula.” The paper adds: “These records will need to be confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, but they are consistent with a broader trend on the peninsula and nearby islands, which have warmed by almost 3C since the pre-industrial era – one of the fastest rates on the planet.” The Washington Post, which has reviewed the new data, says it “came from a research station that has been in place for 12 years, used mainly for monitoring the layer of permanently frozen soil known as permafrost” and “the temperature sensor is located in a flat and open area, without obstacles”. The MailOnline also has the story.
Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian engineer and economist who led the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for more than a decade, died yesterday aged 79, reports the Washington Post. It continues: “His death was announced by the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a New Delhi research organisation he had led for more than 30 years. Additional details were not immediately available, but Dr. Pachauri had a heart ailment and had been hospitalised in New Delhi.” Pachauri chaired the IPCC from 2002 to 2015, says the Guardian: “The IPCC and the former US vice-president Al Gore were awarded the 2007 Nobel for their efforts to expand knowledge about anthropogenic climate change and lay the foundations for counteracting it.” TERI’s chairman, Nitin Desai, tells the paper that Pachauri’s leadership “laid the ground for climate change conversations today”. Pachauri had stepped down from the IPCC after an employee at his research firm accused him of sexual harassment, notes the Guardian. The Post adds that “Pachauri’s death came after years of court proceedings in India, where he was accused in 2015 of sexually harassing a female employee at TERI. He denied the harassment charges, even as two additional women alleged similar misconduct against them”.
The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) will stop lending to energy companies that fail to align with the Paris Agreement goals by 2021 as part of a corporate overhaul that will result in the bank being renamed NatWest, its biggest brand, the Guardian says. It continues: “As part of a fresh strategy unveiled by the new chief executive, Alison Rose, the bank will stop lending and offering underwriting services to major oil and gas producers that do not have credible transition plan to help limit global heating to below 2C.” The group will also “stop lending and offering underwriting services to companies with more than 15% of their activities related to coal unless they have similar plans prepared”, the paper says, adding that “RBS also pledged to fully phase out coal financing by 2030”.
Commenting on yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle, a Guardian editorial says “the new cabinet appointments mostly reward middle-ranking ministers who owe their advancement solely to Mr Johnson’s patronage”. The paper warns of a “potentially dire consequence” of giving “a task as important as chairing the vital COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow” to the “inexperienced new business secretary, Alok Sharma”. Times columnist Philip Collins makes a similar point, noting that the new appointments to the Cabinet “are not exactly indicative of a Tory party flush with talent”. The Daily Telegraph says “Johnson is not cracking the whip just for the sake of it; he wants to build a team that will work from the same script”. And with the government “desperate to associate itself with the green movement…in came a new environment secretary, George Eustice”, it argues.
“BP’s announcement that it intends to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 marks an important moment in the global effort to tackle climate change,” says a Times editorial. While “it is easy to be cynical about what the oil giant’s pledge amounts to in practice” – particularly the lack of “any immediate milestones” – “BP has still gone further than any other leading oil company”, the paper says. It continues: “And there are good reasons to hope that it is serious. That is because the pressure on BP to take action is no longer coming solely from climate activists such as the Extinction Rebellion protesters and Greta Thunberg but the company’s own shareholders…It is this shift in investor attitudes, and the pressure that they in turn exert on companies, that offers the best chance that the world can make the transition to a low-carbon economy.” An editorial in the Financial Times describes BP’s net-zero announcement as “a radical departure”. Bernard Looney, BP’s new chief executive, “deserves credit for his ambition”, the FT says: “Yet while targets are welcome, the scale of the challenge requires more action. BP gave few details about how it plans to make the promised cuts.” BP’s decision “reflects an inescapable truth”, the FT says: “‘Big Oil’, often seen as the villain in the climate change debate, faces an existential crisis. Climate change has moved to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.” Ben Geman, energy reporter at Axios, says “BP’s new emissions pledge could create more pressure on US-based giants Exxon and Chevron”. And in a piece on how “Wall Street is trying to catch up on climate change”, Gillian Tett – chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large, US of the Financial Times – says BP “startled investors earlier this week by pledging to be carbon neutral in 2050”.
In an interactive piece for the New York Times, global climate reporter Somini Sengupta and photographer Chang W. Lee take an in-depth look at the risks posed to San Francisco and Manila from rising sea levels. They write: “Two sprawling metropolitan areas offer a glimpse of the future. One rich, one poor, they sit on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean: the San Francisco Bay Area (population seven million) and metropolitan Manila (almost 14 million). Their history, their wealth, and the political and personal choices they make today will shape how they fare as the water inevitably comes to their doorsteps.” In both places, “how you face the rising sea depends mostly on the accident of your birth: Whether you were born rich or poor, in a wealthy country or a struggling one, whether you have insurance or not, whether your property is worth millions or is little more than a tin roof”, they note. “And, in both places, climate change has magnified years of short-sighted decisions. Manila allowed groundwater to be pumped out so fast that the land sagged and turned into a bowl just as the sea was rising. The Bay Area allowed people to build right at the water’s edge, putting homes, highways, even airports at risk of catastrophic flooding.” The two cities now “face tough choices”, they write: “They could adapt to the rising tide, which could mean moving people out of harm’s way. Or, they could try to force the water to adapt to their needs by raising their defences. For leaders, politically tough decisions lie ahead. What do they save on the water’s edge, what do they forsake and how do they reimagine their coastal cities in an age of climate disruptions?”
A warmer climate increases evaporation, but this response depends on water availability. Existing earth system models represent soil moisture but simplify groundwater connections. This study applies an integrated surface-groundwater hydrologic model to evaluate the sensitivity of shallow groundwater to warming across the majority of the US. They show that as warming shifts the balance between water supply and demand, shallow groundwater storage can buffer plant water stress; but only where shallow groundwater connections are present, and not indefinitely. As warming persists, storage can be depleted and connections lost. The authors show a clear reduction in subsurface water storage under a warming climate and intensified aridification of north America.
Profitability and sustainability of future biorefineries are dependent on efficient feedstock utilisation. This paper describes a new type of biorefinery that converts 78% of birch wood into xylochemicals. It produces both bioethanol and lignin oil, as well as phenol and propylene, important hydrocarbons for plastic production. Residual products can also be used in printing ink. The authors suggest the biorefinery will be economically competitive, and life-cycle assessment estimates a lower CO2 footprint relative to fossil-based production.
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