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TODAY'S CLIMATE AND ENERGY HEADLINES
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Every weekday morning, in time for your morning coffee, Carbon Brief sends out a free email known as the “Daily Briefing” to thousands of subscribers around the world. The email is a digest of the past 24 hours of media coverage related to climate change and energy, as well as our pick of the key studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
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Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Atlantic Ocean current at weakest state in ‘over a millennium’
- COP26 in Glasgow: Bishops told to prepare for papal visit
- SUVs and extra traffic cancelling out electric car gains in Britain
- British Gas owner bolsters net-zero goals as it posts another annual loss
- Senate approves Biden's pick Granholm to head Energy Department
- Cumbrian campaigners warn minister of legal action over coal mine
- Australia’s emissions hit lowest level since 1995 despite spike from recovering economy
- Texas is a rich state in a rich country, and look what happened
- Defining El Niño indices in a warming climate
- Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation weakest in last millennium
New research suggests that the Atlantic Ocean current that plays a major role in the world’s weather is at its weakest state in over a millennium, reports the Independent. The paper continues: “The research combines various lines of evidence to create a ‘consistent picture’ of how the ocean current system, which is known as the ‘Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation’ (AMOC), has changed over the past 1,600 years. Sometimes called the Atlantic’s ‘conveyer belt’, the AMOC is a vast ocean current system that moves warm, salty water from the tropics to regions further north, such as the UK.” The new study, published in Nature Geoscience, builds on a 2018 paper by many of the same authors, which found that the AMOC had weakened by around 15% since the mid 20th century. (See Carbon Brief‘s coverage at the time.) Dr Levke Caesar – lead author of both studies – explains to the Independent that the research’s main advance is that it combines several different types of climate “proxy data” – natural records that can be used to study the world’s past climate. Caesar says: “The major difference is that we didn’t look at just one or two proxies – we compiled a total of 11 proxies and found that they tell a consistent story of how the AMOC evolved over the last 1600 years.“ This makes the earlier conclusions on a weakening AMOC “considerably stronger”, co-author Prof Stefan Rahmstorf tells the Washington Post. The findings are also “worrying”, Rahmstorf tells the Financial Times: “If this continues, we might be closing in slowly to a tipping point, where this circulation could destabilise altogether.” (For more on tipping points, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth explainer and accompanying guest post specifically on AMOC.) The Times adds: “Climate scientists had predicted that rising global temperatures could affect ocean currents. One of the drivers of the system is water density, which is affected by temperature and salinity. More localised precipitation and more glacial melt in the Arctic means more fresh water entering the sea, so changing that balance.” Dr Andrew Meijers, the deputy science leader of polar oceans at British Antarctic Survey, who was not involved in the study, tells the Guardian: “The AMOC has a profound influence on global climate, particularly in North America and Europe, so this evidence of an ongoing weakening of the circulation is critical new evidence for the interpretation of future projections of regional and global climate.“ The Daily Telegraph, Sky News and Inside Climate News also cover the study.
The Times reports that the Pope is considering making his first visit to Scotland for the climate summit in Glasgow in November, with discussions taking place “at the highest level”. The paper continues: “The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland is understood to have been told to prepare for the possibility of a papal visit at the time of the COP26 climate gathering. His political visits, such as to address the European parliament in Strasbourg, have tended to be flying one-day trips, but Catholic bishops in Scotland have said that they ‘would warmly welcome his presence, however briefly, in this country’.” The fight against climate change is a topic “that is close to the Pope’s heart”, the paper says, noting that his famous Laudato Si’ encyclical in n2015 warned of a “disturbing warming of the climatic system”. (See Carbon Brief in-depth coverage at the time, which included pieces on the key statements, the science behind the encyclical and the media reaction.) The paper adds: “The Pope has dispatched his senior diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to previous COP meetings, but it is understood that the Vatican is considering whether a personal visit from the pontiff would send a stronger signal.”
In other COP26 news, BusinessGreen reports that Sainsbury’s has announced that it is to be the ‘principal supermarket partner’ of the summit. The retailer joins a growing band of commercial partners for the event, “including media powerhouse Sky, banking giant NatWest, and leading energy firms National Grid, SSE, and ScottishPower”, the outlet notes.
Meanwhile, Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor who is now a COP26 advisor to the UK government, has “sparked concern among green advocates”, reports Bloomberg due to claiming that the “half-trillion-dollar asset manager where he works [has] zeroed out pollution across its portfolio”. The new outlet continues: “[Carney] is a vice chair at Brookfield Asset Management Inc., Canada’s largest alternative asset manager. In a 10 February interview with Bloomberg Live, Carney said Brookfield had fully neutralised emissions from its holdings…’Brookfield is in a position today where we are net zero,‘ Carney said, referring to all of the company’s assets. ‘The reason we’re net zero is that we have this enormous renewables business,’ he added, noting ‘all the avoided emissions that come with that’ had compensated for the planet-warming toll of other investments…Carney’s comments drew criticism from experts who say his position misrepresents what’s required to cut an investor’s climate impact. ‘Most large asset managers have a renewable energy fund,’ said Ben Caldecott, director of the University of Oxford’s Sustainable Finance Program. ‘Simply having one does not make you net zero.’”
Carbon emissions from passenger cars across the UK have fallen by just 1% since 2011, despite a steep rise in the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles, reports the Guardian. The National Audit Office (NAO) says the popularity of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and an increase in road traffic are among factors that have cancelled out expected reductions from low-emission car sales, the paper explains, adding: “Its report concludes that the government has a long way to go to achieve its target for almost all cars to emit no carbon by 2050.” The NAO warns that “substantial growth” is required to meet the government’s target of having zero emissions cars accounting for 100% of new sales from 2035, reports Sky News. The spending watchdog also warned that the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV) had “not yet focused sufficiently on charge point availability for people who do not have a driveway”, the outlet adds: “The NAO report said that between 2017-18 and 2019-20, OZEV allocated £8.5m to help local authorities install on-street residential charge points, but uptake has been slow. Local authorities said the OZEV scheme had been designed ‘without sufficient consultation’ and as a result it was ‘difficult to bid for funding’.” The report says that, as of September 2020, just 0.5% of the UK’s cars were electric, and “ultra-low emissions cars” accounted for 8% of the market, notes the Independent. NAO head Gareth Davies says: “The number of ultra-low emission cars on UK roads has increased, but meeting the government’s ambitious targets to phase out new petrol and diesel cars in less than a decade still requires a major transition for consumers, car makers and those responsible for charging infrastructure,” reports BusinessGreen. The Sun says the NAO’s “shock research” shows that “just 700 public electric car charging points have been built with Government cash in a decade despite the PM’s huge green push”. The paper’s editorial warns that there “remains a dire shortage of public charging points”, but “charging is far from the only snag”. It continues: “The Sun is all for cleaner air and electric vehicles. But compared with a petrol or diesel they have a derisory mileage range, take far longer to refuel and are half the car at twice the price.” The paper says its readers might choose to “buy another fossil fuel car in 2029 and drive it for 20 years”. Separately, the Daily Express reports that “top Tory” MP Philip Dunne has “urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to bring in tax incentives to make ultra-low emission cars, such as electric or hybrid ones, more affordable”.
In other UK news, the i newspaper reports that Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee “has warned not enough is being done to prevent households and businesses suffering devastating flooding – and said the issue will only get worse as the impacts of climate change intensify”. BusinessGreen reports that a group of NGOs and thinktanks – including Greenpeace, the Green Finance Institute (GFI), the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and WWF – has urged the government to ramp up UK solar power capacity to 40GW by the end of the decade. And BusinessGreen also reports that a coalition of environmental groups has written to the prime minister to argue that international aviation and shipping emissions should be included in the UK’s national climate goals.
Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, has announced it is bringing forward its net-zero emissions target by five years to 2045, reports Sky News, while also revealing a financial loss for 2020. The financial results dominate the news coverage, with Reuters reporting that the firm “posted a £362m loss from continuing operations for 2020 and paused its dividend”. The Guardian notes: “The supplier’s full-year earnings tumbled by more than a third to £80m last year after the coronavirus pandemic caused many of its business customers to shut their offices, while homes used less gas and electricity over the warm and bright summer months.” The Financial Times says that the pandemic added “to [Centrica’s] woes” and included booking “a £644m impairment against its oil and gas joint venture, which it is trying to sell, after commodity prices slid in the first half of the year”. The paper adds: “This was in addition to other exceptional charges including £274m to cover its most recent restructuring efforts, which included the loss of 5,000 jobs last year, and £525m related to outages at several nuclear power plants in Britain, in which Centrica owns a 20% stake.” Centrica shares “slid another 3p to 50p today”, reports the Evening Standard, adding that “five years ago they were closer to 240p”. The Times notes: “Centrica has lost 75% of its value in the past five years as British Gas lost customers to cheaper rivals and had its profits squeezed by the government’s price cap on energy bills, which forced it to cut prices for millions of households on standard tariffs from the start of 2019.” Patrick Hosking, financial editor at the Times, writes that Centrica needs to position itself “as one of the winners from the shift over the decades from natural gas to electric, hydrogen or heat pumps or whatever else we finally use to heat our homes. That’s by no means a certainty, given its past record”.
The US Senate has approved former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), reports Reuters. The 100-member Senate backed Granholm by 64 to 35, the newswire says, which included “several Republicans from states that produce fossil fuels”. The outlet adds: “Granholm wants to boost jobs in manufacturing of electric vehicles (EVs) and wind and solar power, and is likely to play a big role in Biden’s goal to put the country on a path of decarbonising the economy by 2050. She said during Senate hearings that critical minerals, used in batteries for EVs and to support the electric grid, in wind turbines and solar panels, can be mined responsibly in the US.” Pressed by Republicans on fossil fuels, Granholm said it is a “good thing” that the US is the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer, reports the Hill, and expressed support for still-developing carbon capture and storage technology to produce those fuels in a cleaner manner. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding DOE, said in a statement she could think of no one better to lead the agency, reports Politico. She said: “Governor Granholm has spent her career – both inside and outside of public office – as a steadfast advocate for clean energy, and I have no doubt she will bring the same passion to this new role.“ Granholm “will be the second woman to lead the Department of Energy, after Hazel R O’Leary, who served under president Bill Clinton”, notes the New York Times.
Elsewhere, E&E News reports that “top energy and environment Republicans” from the House of Representatives “met privately in Utah last weekend to try to find ways to ‘reclaim the narrative’ from Democrats on combating climate change and promoting conservation”. The Financial Times reports that Congresswoman Debra Haaland – President Biden’s pick for interior secretary – has “calmed nerves in the oil sector” during her “grilling from the Senate’s energy committee”. And BBC News reports on how “ one of Wales’ most talented young sports stars has been advising the new US president on halting climate change”.
A Cumbrian campaign group has given notice to the communities secretary that it intends to seek a legal challenge of his decision to allow a new deep coal mine in the county, the Guardian reports. The paper continues: “Legal representatives acting on behalf of the South Lakeland Action on Climate Change (SLACC) group have written to Robert Jenrick’s office to notify him of the group’s intention to contest his ‘ongoing refusal’ to call in the mining plans. The pre-action protocol letter states that, if the secretary of state does not respond to the group’s arguments by 4 March, the campaigners will file for judicial review proceedings.” The threat of legal action adds to growing national pressure on Jenrick from both within and outside the government to call in the mining plans, the paper adds.
Meanwhile, the Guardian also reports that the UK government is under growing pressure to halt a proposed expansion of Leeds Bradford airport. The paper explains: “The expansion plans, which would support an increase in passengers from four to seven million people a year by 2030, were given conditional approval by Leeds city council earlier this month despite widespread opposition from local MPs, residents and environmental groups.” Now, the same lawyers who are taking on the government over the Cumbria coal mine have written to Robert Jenrick on behalf of campaigners asking him to “call in” the decision, the paper says. It adds that “the ‘call in’ process would allow the national and international ramifications of granting permission for both the airport to be considered”. Energy Monitor has a piece on “why airports could become stranded assets”. And the Guardian also reports on “landmark first estimates” from aircraft manufacturer Airbus that show that planes sold by the company in 2019 and 2020 “will produce well over 1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide during their lifetimes”.
Elsewhere, in other coal news, Climate Home News reports that Bangladesh plans to scrap nine new coal projects “as the cost of imported coal rises and overseas investors slash finance for polluting fossil fuels”. And the Financial Times reports that Vanguard, the world’s second-largest asset manager, “tops [a] list of world’s largest coal investors”. According to a new assessment, the firm “controls holdings worth $86bn in companies that produce or burn thermal coal”, the paper notes, adding that it “has pledged to support the Paris agreement but it has not joined Climate Action 100+, a coalition of 545 institutional investors that supports cuts in carbon emissions and improvements in climate disclosures”. City AM notes that Blackrock comes in a close second with $84bn. Between them, Vanguard and Blackrock “are responsible for 17% of the total institutional investment in the world’s coal industry”, says HuffPost.
New data from the Australian government show that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped 4.4% in the 12 months to September last year, reports the Sydney Morning Herald, falling to the lowest levels in the country since 1995. Reduced domestic flights and fewer car journeys because of work-from-home directions during the Covid pandemic “fuelled a 10.2% decrease in emissions from Australian transport in the year to September”, the paper says, adding: “Pollution levels within the electricity sector fell 4% courtesy of the continued rapid uptake in renewables such as rooftop solar and wind.” Overall, the figures from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources put Australia’s emissions 19% below 2005 levels, which is the baseline year for its 26-28% target by 2030 under the Paris agreement, the paper notes.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports renewable energy zones and dispatchable energy storage have been listed as “high priority initiatives” by Infrastructure Australia – the country’s independent infrastructure advisor – for the first time. The paper adds: “The energy initiatives are among 44 new infrastructure proposals on the priority list, released on Friday, which together represent a $59bn pipeline of potential investments.” And the Guardian also covers a new report from scientists working across Australia and Antarctica that describes 19 ecosystems “that are collapsing due to the impact of humans and warned urgent action is required to prevent their complete loss”. The report “details the degradation of coral reefs, arid outback deserts, tropical savanna, the waterways of the Murray-Darling Basin, mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and forests stretching from the rainforests of the far north to Gondwana-era conifers in Tasmania”, the paper says.
The fallout continues from the extreme cold and power blackouts that hit Texas last week. In the New York Times, columnist Ezra Klein writes that “this was not the worst weather imaginable and this was not the worst outcome imaginable”. And yet, he says, “this is what it looks like when we face a rare-but-predictable stretch of extreme weather, in a rich state in a rich country”. He continues: “It is not just our energy infrastructure that is unprepared for climate change. It is our political infrastructure. It is our social infrastructure. It is our psyches. There’s long been a hope that repeated climate crises will force Republicans to enlist in the fight to stop, or slow, climate change. How can you ignore the crisis when it is your constituents who are frozen, your home that is underwater? But what we saw in Texas is the darker timeline – a doom loop of climate polarisation, where climate crises lead, paradoxically, to a politics that’s more desperate for fossil fuels, more dismissive of international or even interstate cooperation.”
A feature in the Economist says “with most of the state shut down for a week, the disaster will probably become the costliest in Texas’s history, eclipsing the toll of even the worst hurricanes”. The outlet asks whether the crisis will “prompt a broader reckoning about the limits of Texas’s anti-government, low-regulation philosophy?”. Answering its own question, it says: “Despite the reasons to think it should, that is unlikely.” The are three reasons for this, the outlets says: “First is the flow of people and businesses to Texas, which has no state income tax. Failing at something as essential as heating and electricity may tarnish its image in the short term, but it is not likely to be a permanent setback…A second reason to doubt that bigger change will come is that there is no effective opposition to usher it in…[And] a third factor is the political ambition of Texas’s current leaders and their desire to differentiate themselves from the Biden administration.”
Elsewhere, Dan Gearino – clean energy reporter at Inside Climate News – looks at the “right and wrong lessons from the Texas crisis”. Larry Zulch – CEO of Invinity Energy Systems plc – writes in City AM that “Texas was a cascade failure of energy infrastructure, not renewables”. And the Financial Times reports that the head of the country’s top independent power producer has said that Texas was let down by its natural gas delivery system. (For more, see Carbon Brief‘s piece covering the media reaction throughout the – literal and figurative – storm.)
In a new study, researchers propose a “simple and elegant adjustment” to the commonly used Niño3.4 index for observing and forecasting El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. Global warming “has caused warm El Niño events to seem bigger than they are, while cold La Niña events seem smaller”, the authors argue. They suggest defining “a relative Niño3.4 index as the difference between the original SST [sea surface temperature] anomaly and the anomaly over all tropical oceans”. The authors show that their index “is better in line with effects on rainfall and would be more useful for preparedness for El Niño and La Niña in a changing climate and for ENSO research”.
In a “brief communication” paper, a group of researchers assess the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) – “one of Earth’s major ocean circulation systems”. The team compares “a variety of published proxy records to reconstruct the evolution of the AMOC since about AD400”. The findings show that “after a long and relatively stable period, there was an initial weakening starting in the 19th century, followed by a second, more rapid, decline in the mid-20th century, leading to the weakest state of the AMOC occurring in recent decades”.