Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Atmospheric CO2 levels rise sharply despite Covid-19 lockdowns
- Trump gives US agencies power to fast-track big infrastructure projects
- Airlines and carmakers benefit from UK Covid relief scheme
- Climate computing power 'needs more cash'
- UK refuses Vattenfall extension to Thanet offshore wind farm
- The world must seize this opportunity to meet the climate challenge
- Keeping the world focused on climate change is a nonstop job
- China green finance
- Climate solutions: A special report
- Psychological obstacles to the efficacy of environmental footprint tools
- Global heat uptake by inland waters
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen strongly to a new peak this year, reports the Guardian, despite the impact of the global effects of the coronavirus crisis. According to readings from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 417.2 parts per million (ppm) in May, 2.4ppm higher than the peak of 414.8ppm in 2019, the paper says. May is the annual peak for the world’s CO2 emissions, which are now at levels not experienced by the atmosphere in several million years, notes Reuters. The continuing rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere “may sound surprising in light of recent findings that the coronavirus pandemic, and the associated lockdowns, had led to a steep drop in global greenhouse gas”, the Washington Post says. However, the press release from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography notes that “CO2 emissions reductions on the order of 20-30% would need to be sustained for six to 12 months in order for the increase in atmospheric CO2 to slow in a detectable way”, the Post says. Ralph Keeling, who directs Scripps’ CO2 monitoring program, and whose late father, Charles David Keeling, began measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958, tells the paper that “the buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up”. The UK Met Office forecasts concentrations at the end of 2020 to be up 2.48ppm on 2019 levels, says the New Scientist – a small difference to the 2.8 ppm expected before the virus outbreak. Richard Betts from the UK Met Office tells the outlet that “it’s certainly not large enough to affect the climate”. (Betts and Keeling were among the scientists who wrote a recent Carbon Brief guest post on the limited impact of the lockdowns on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.) The Hill, New York Times, Financial Times and Bloomberg all have similar coverage.
US president Donald Trump yesterday signed an executive order that gives federal agencies emergency powers to fast-track major energy and other infrastructure projects by overriding environmental permitting requirements, Reuters reports. The newswire continues: “The White House said the order was a way to help the economy rebound from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and improve infrastructure. It calls for public works and highway projects as well as energy projects like pipelines and terminals to be expedited. It instructs the Interior, Agriculture and Defense Departments to accelerate projects on federal lands.” According to the Hill, Trump wrote in the order: “From the beginning of my administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays…The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.” By declaring an economic emergency, the president is able to “invoke a section of federal law allowing ‘action with significant environmental impact’ without observing normal requirements imposed by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act”, says the Washington Post, adding: “These laws require agencies to solicit public input on proposed projects and analyse in detail how federal decisions could harm the environment.” But, Axios notes, “some experts suggest the move is more bark than bite and legal challenges are expected regardless”.
Also yesterday, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed overhaul to the Clean Air Act by changing the cost-benefit analysis process, reports Reuters, which says the move “would affect the stringency of future regulations”. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new proposed cost-benefit analysis would focus on weighing only the economic impact of a proposed rule without taking into account possible benefits such as public health to justify expanding regulations, as has previously been done, the newswire notes. Wheeler added that the agency would calculate “co-benefits” separately and publish it for the public, but that calculation cannot be used to underpin the rule. The EPA said its latest measure would provide consistency and accused the Obama administration of faulty accounting that inflated benefits while underestimating costs, reports the Hill. Wheeler said the change “corrects another dishonest accounting method the previous administration used to justify costly, ineffective regulations”. Critics say the move will make it tougher to enact limits on dangerous and climate-changing emissions in the future, says the Daily Telegraph. In related news, Reuters reports that US senators yesterday introduced a “rare” bipartisan bill that would “direct the Agriculture Department to help farmers, ranchers and landowners use carbon dioxide-absorbing practices to generate carbon credits, a rare collaboration on climate change”. The newswire adds: “The proposed Growing Climate Solutions Act directs the USDA to create a program that would help the agriculture sector gain access to revenue from greenhouse gas offset credit markets.”
Elsewhere in the US, the Financial Times reports that a “bipartisan group of US senators have introduced a bill that would expand sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which has been the subject of international controversy since it was first announced in 2015”. The FT continues: “The bill, titled Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Clarification Act, follows existing legislation passed through the US Congress last year that punished companies involved in both Nord Stream 2, a pipeline from Russia to Germany, and Turk Stream, a Russian pipeline that crosses the Black Sea to Turkey…US lawmakers and administration officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that the gas pipeline weakens Europe’s energy security by increasing the dependence of western European countries like Germany on Russia for oil and gas, as well as reducing the flow of gas through Ukraine and depriving the US of income.” In other pipeline news, Reuters reports that regulators in Illinois yesterday unanimously rejected a request by environmental groups to delay a decision on whether to approve expanding the capacity of an existing crude oil pipeline that runs from North Dakota to Illinois. And Reuters also reports that Ecuador “has declared force majeure on oil exploration and production activities after its main crude pipeline halted operations due to soil erosion in the Amazon region”.
Airlines, carmakers and oilfield engineers have benefited from the government’s economic rescue plans, reports the Guardian, despite ministers’ assurances on a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis. The paper continues: “British Airways, EasyJet, Wizz Air and Ryanair are among the 53 companies revealed on Thursday afternoon as beneficiaries from the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility. These companies alone have taken £1.8bn in lending from the scheme so far. Other companies include carmakers Honda, Nissan and Toyota, borrowing more than £1bn among them, alongside engine-maker Rolls-Royce, which is taking a £300m bailout. Baker Hughes and Schlumberger, both oilfield services companies, are taking £600m and £150m respectively.” The Bank has not yet disclosed any analysis of the carbon intensity of the companies that have taken up the government funding available, the paper adds. Meanwhile, the Guardian also reports that a transport thinktank says that international flights taking off from the UK should be taken into account in the government’s calculations on reaching net-zero emissions as part of a “green” recovery for the airline industry.
BBC News reports that a “top climate scientist has called for more investment in climate computing to explain the UK’s recent topsy turvy weather”. It continues: “Prof Tim Palmer from Oxford University said there were still too many unknowns in climate forecasting. And in the month the SpaceX launch grabbed headlines, he said just one of the firm’s billions could transform climate modelling.” With UK weather bringing the wettest February on record swiftly followed by one of the driest Mays, Palmer tells BBC News: “It would be really valuable for us to have more knowledge of how climate change is affecting weather patterns like this. Was climate change implicated in the recent weird weather? We don’t know.” He adds that “it is very frustrating to see space get quite so much attention when we can’t be sure what will happen to the climate on Earth. If only we could secure one of their billions for computer modelling that would be a big help”. Carbon Brief has published articles by Met Office staff on the record-breaking weather in February and in spring. Carbon Brief also has an in-depth explainer on how climate models work.
The UK government has turned down an application by Swedish energy company Vattenfall to build an extension to its Thanet offshore wind farm, Reuters reports. Vattenfall applied to build an offshore wind power station of up to 340 megawatts as an extension to the existing Thanet offshore wind farm in waters next to the entrance to the Thames estuary in Kent, the newswire explains, but the application was rejected because of potential navigational risks. The decision can be challenged by judicial review, Reuters adds, if a claim is made within six weeks. Meanwhile, Vattenfall has had more success in the Netherlands, receiving the green light to build “one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms and the biggest without government subsidies”, reports Bloomberg. The outlet adds: “The 1,500-megawatt Hollandse Kust Zuid wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands combines two projects that it won tenders for in 2018 and 2019. The utility’s decision to proceed is a signal that major renewable power projects can be built without state aid.”
In a comment piece for the Guardian, a group of current and former central bankers – including Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey and his predecessor Mark Carney – write that the coronavirus pandemic “offers us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our economy in order to withstand the next shock coming our way: climate breakdown”. Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement “requires a whole economy transition: every business, bank and financial institution will need to adapt”, they write, adding: “The pandemic has shown that we can change our ways of working, living and travelling, but it has also shown that making these adjustments at the height of a crisis brings enormous costs. To address climate breakdown, we can instead take decisions now that reduce emissions in a less disruptive manner. That requires us to be strategic. To build back better.” But “this will only happen if financial decisions, including those made by businesses, investors, banks and governments, take the climate crisis into account”, they say: “The economic recovery plans being developed today offer the chance to build a sustainable, competitive new economy.”
In an interview with Bloomberg’s Akshat Rathi, UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa discusses the delay to the COP26 climate talks, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on climate action and why the Paris agreement is still the best way to conduct climate diplomacy. On the COP postponement, Espinosa says the delay “is 12 extra months to prepare the conference, but it is not 12 months to relax”. She adds: “One of the big challenges is how to bring the conversation of climate change into the conversation of recovering from the pandemic. If we get it right, I really believe that this is one of those historic moments when humanity can change the direction in which it was going. The exhaustive use of resources and unlimited consumption is not sustainable. Our model needs to be reassessed and reoriented. The recovery from the pandemic and addressing climate change are not opposite things. They actually can and should be addressed together.”
In a special report, the Financial Times has a series of articles on China’s green bond market. It is “becoming too big for international investors to ignore”, the FT says, “but questions remain over standards and disclosure. Can China take meaningful steps towards aligning itself with global green finance guidelines?”. The six articles cover the harmonisation of Chinese and global green bond standards, why China’s carbon trading scheme is struggling “to take off”, how China’s Belt and Road initiative can take the “green route”, why global investors “worry they might inadvertently buy green debt that does not meet international standards”, how Chinese stock exchanges are set to bolster their environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting guidelines to attract foreign interest, and how Beijing’s 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games is an opportunity for China to “showcase sporting prowess and environmental credentials”.
As part of its ongoing special report on climate solutions, the New York Times has published five new features. These include articles on floating windmills and how warming waters are creating a new fishery for the jumbo flying squid. There are also three articles relating to the coronavirus pandemic, covering how “green business is good business” for the UK, how fewer cars on the road has meant cleaner air, but not necessarily fewer traffic deaths, and an interview with Daniel C. Esty – professor of environmental law and policy at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Yale Law School – about a new book he edited called “A better planet: Forty big ideas for a sustainable future”.
Environmental footprint tools serve the purpose of guiding consumer behavior and making people aware of the relation between their resource consumption and the environmental impact of those choices. However, recent research shows that consumers tend to misjudge the environmental impact of labeled products and choices, in particular when these products are combined with other products and choices. For example, people intuitively think that the carbon footprint for red meat combined with a side dish labeled “eco-friendly” is lower than for the red meat alone, as if the low carbon footprint side dish somehow compensates for the environmental burden of the main course. The reason for these psychological effects of environmental footprint labeling seems to be that people seek an average when they attempt to process complex stimuli that comprise both environmentally friendlier and more environmentally harmful components.
Human‐induced emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases cause energy accumulation in the Earth system. Oceans trap most of this excess energy, buffering the warming of the atmosphere. However, the fraction of excess energy stored in lakes, reservoirs and rivers is currently unknown, despite the high heat capacity of water. This paper quantifies the human‐induced heat storage, and show that it amounts up to 3.6% of the energy stored on land, while covering 2.58% of the land surface. The increase in heat storage from 1900 to 2020 is dominated by warming of lakes. The thermal heat contained in the water stored in man‐made reservoirs is about ten times larger. The study highlights the importance of inland waters – next to oceans, ice and land – for buffering atmospheric warming, especially on regional scale.
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