Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Biden returns US to Paris climate accord hours after becoming president
- Scott Morrison backs coal wealth for decades to come
- UK risks longer dependency on fossil fuels without nuclear
- Biden’s Keystone pipeline kill
- Self-reliance in critical minerals important in green revolution
- Is wetter better? Exploring agriculturally-relevant rainfall characteristics over four decades in the Sahel
- Effect of climate variability on healthcare expenditure of food crop farmers in Southwest, Nigeria
There is global coverage of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president, with much of the coverage focusing on his immediate actions to tackle climate change. The Guardian reports that within hours of being sworn in as president, Biden moved to reinstate his nation to the Paris Agreement as part of a “cavalcade of executive orders aimed at tackling the climate crisis”. The new president’s executive action will see the US, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, “rejoin the international effort curb the dangerous heating of the planet” after a 30-day notice period, the newspaper reports. It adds that the moves came after an inauguration speech in which Biden said the nation needed to respond to a “climate in crisis”. He also spoke of “a cry for survival…from the planet itself…A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear now”, Associated Press reports, in a piece that says Biden’s arrival put the US “back into fight to slow global warming”. BuzzFeed News says that, after former president Donald Trump’s decision to relinquish the country’s role as a climate leader, re-joining the agreement “symbolises that the country is more committed than ever to tackling the climate crisis”. According to BBC News, signing back up to the Paris Agreement is “not mere symbolism – it is an act cloaked in powerful, political significance”. It notes that the US will have to “follow the rules” again and come forward this year with a new target for cutting emissions by 2030, which should be an improvement on its previous goal established around the time of the agreement back in 2015. Climate Home News reports that Biden has already committed to put the US on track for net-zero emissions by 2050, decarbonise the power sector by 2035 and direct 40% of clean energy spending toward disadvantaged communities. There are also expectations Biden will convene an international climate summit in the spring to help accelerate emissions cuts from other nations, according to the Guardian. The Independent has two “in fact” explainer pieces laying out Biden’s plans to fight climate change and the significance of him signing back up to the Paris Agreement.
Biden also ordered federal agencies to start “reviewing and reinstating” more than 100 environmental regulations that were weakened or rolled back by former president Donald Trump, the New York Times reports. Among Biden’s immediate actions was the cancellation of the construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported oil from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast, the newspaper notes. According to Reuters, the move “dash[ed]” the Canadian government’s hopes of salvaging the $8bn project long supported by the nation’s “struggling” oil sector. The new US president had “long pledged” to scrap the project amid opposition from US landowners, Native American tribes and environmentalists, the newswire notes. The New York Times says Biden’s decision tests Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “balancing act” of climate action and support for the energy industry in Alberta and other western provinces.
Associated Press notes that, while Biden ordered a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “there was no immediate word on when Biden would make good on another climate campaign pledge, one banning new oil and gas leasing on federal land”. The Hill notes that the temporary ban on Arctic leasing came just one day after the Trump administration issued leases from its first sale. Energy Monitor says that while the Trump administration was “eager” to export US shale gas from fracking to the world, it “remains to be seen” whether Biden will “decide climate action should triumph over short-term economic interests”.
The Guardian quotes climate experts “cheering” the inauguration of the new US president. It notes that Biden’s plans may not all pass through Congress easily “given the Democrats’ slender Senate majority, but even partial success could rescue the global green recovery” from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Washington Post notes that Democrats took control of the US Senate “by the thinnest possible margin” as vice president Kamala Harris swore in three new Democratic senators, bringing Republicans and Democrats to a 50-50 split over which she can play the role of tiebreaker, giving her party a one-vote advantage. The piece notes there is pressure on Democrats to use their power to abandon the “filibuster” – the rule that requires 60 senators to agree to end debate and proceed to a final vote – and make it easier to pass Biden’s agenda, including climate legislation.
The Hill reports on comments by French president Emmanuel Macron, who congratulated Biden and Harris and welcomed them back to the Paris Agreement. There is also a variety of international coverage of Biden’s inauguration and his commitment to climate action, including in the Japan Times and the Times of India. Reuters looks at “how world leaders are reacting to Joe Biden’s inauguration”. With John Kerry set to be “the global face of Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda”, Politico has a piece asking “what the world wants” from Kerry.
Finally, Vox reports on a new study conducted by Yale University and George Mason University that has found widespread support for climate-friendly energy policies among registered Republicans and Democrats. It finds that 53% of registered voters think global warming should be a high priority for government while 66% feel the same about clean energy sources.
Australian prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared that coal mining will continue to generate wealth for his nations for decades, “fending off calls to phase out fossil fuels and toughen action on climate change”, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. However, he also ruled out government subsidies for coal mines and said mining workers knew that “things change over time” without elaborating on what this meant, the newspaper adds. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the world’s biggest mining company BHP will “slash the value” of its Australian thermal coal assets by up to $1.25bn “as it seeks to divest the business and focus on more environmentally friendly commodities”. The piece says that the Australian coal industry has been hit by China’s decision to ban imports owing to a diplomatic dispute over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, adding that analysts suspect it will be difficult for BHP to find a buyer for its coal assets due to growing investor concerns about fossil fuels. At the same time, the Guardian reports that a coal-seam gas company in the Australian state of Queensland has proposed drilling hundreds of new wells in an area the local government “previously declared off-limits after one of the state’s worst environmental contamination disasters”.
Another article in the Guardian considers the new US president Joe Biden and what his arrival means for Australia. “Climate will be an area that will be tricky for the Australian government to navigate, given it has so far resisted calls to formally commit to net zero emissions by 2050,” it notes.
The UK risks “prolonging its dependency” on fossil fuel power if it does not invest further in new nuclear reactors to counter the variability of renewables, according to a report by centre-right thinktank, the Centre for Policy Studies, which has been covered by the Financial Times. The article notes that the study was funded by France’s EDF Energy, the operator of all the UK’s nuclear power stations and the developer of the only new plant, Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The analysis showed “a big swing” in the contribution from wind and solar, with the technologies meeting less than a fifth of Britain’s daily electricity demand on 82 occasions last year, the newspaper says.
However, the report is the subject of a scathing critique in the Times by the newspaper’s chief business commentator Alistair Osborne: “Apparently the Centre for Policy Studies is ‘Britain’s leading centre-right think tank’. But who knew it was changing its name to the Centre for the Promotion of Sizewell C?” He adds that “given the report’s general drift, you’d think all 58 pages had been penned by France’s EDF” and says the the key problem remains that new financing methods for nuclear being proposed still leave “consumers on the hook for construction cost overruns”.
In more UK policy news, the Times reports that motoring organisation the RAC has called for VAT on electric cars to be abolished, “after research showed that high upfront costs stopped many motorists switching from petrol and diesel vehicles”.
Another Times article looks at Johnson Matthey setting out its plans to “capitalise on the emerging market for green hydrogen” by producing electrolyser components at its Swindon plant.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal focuses on the “blizzard of executive orders” signed by US president Joe Biden on his first day in office – and particularly on his order to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The newspaper calls the decision “a slap at Canada” which “sends a message to investors that playing by US rules provides no immunity from arbitrary political whim”. According to the editorial, neither this decision nor Biden’s move to re-join the Paris Agreement will “matter to the climate”.
Other political commentary takes a much more positive stance on Biden’s early climate actions. A comment piece for Climate Home News by Anne L Kelly, vice president of government affairs at the sustainability NGO Ceres, says the Biden-Harris administration offers a chance to “rebuild democracy and climate action”. Kelly writes: “Joe Biden’s understanding of the interwoven crises of Covid-19, racial injustice, economic insecurity and a warming world positions him well to address these challenges.”. In particular, she welcomes the signing of executive orders to immediately address climate change and the assembly of a “dream team” to tackle these issues. A piece by columnist Ross Douthat in the New York Times titled “the Biden opportunity” notes that after the chaos of the Trump administration “taking office at a low point means that the new president might be able to claim progress without superhuman effort”. He notes: “The more ideologically ambitious goals that Biden set in his speech – defeating systemic racism, rolling back climate change – are misty and aspirational enough that for a time he can win plaudits from his party’s activists just by making some basic not-Trump moves on policy, without committing too fully to anything too polarising or ambitious.” An editorial in the Los Angeles Times says that “America can breathe a sigh of relief – for a day” and says that climate is the only foreign policy issue touched on by Biden in his inaugural speech.
Writing in the Times Red Box, Conservative MP Alexander Stafford emphasises the need for important minerals, such as cobalt and lithium, to make batteries used in electric cars and in new communications technologies, as well as support the UK’s “green revolution”. “We must take urgent action to secure the UK’s supply of critical minerals for years to come by building close trading ties and bolstering our domestic minerals industry,” he writes, noting that “it is no exaggeration to say that Britain finds itself in the middle of a new geopolitical game”. Stafford says that with the majority of these minerals coming from China, “it is clear that the UK must not entrust China with such a key role in the future of our green society”. He says the solution is to work with allies to develop capacity elsewhere while also “bolstering our critical minerals industry at home”, pointing to Cornwall and a potential source of lithium.
Studies have reported an upward trend in annual rainfall in the Sahel since the drought of the 1970s and early ‘80s, a new paper says, “yet farmers have questioned improvements in conditions for agriculture”. Using high-resolution daily rainfall data spanning 1981–2017, the researchers re-examine the extent of rainfall increase, focusing particularly on rainy season duration and occurrence of prolonged dry spells during vulnerable crop growth stages. The study finds that “rainfall conditions for agriculture have improved overall only in scattered areas across the Sahel since the 1980s, and increased annual rainfall is only weakly, if at all, associated with changes in the agriculturally-relevant intraseasonal rainfall characteristics”.
New research explores the role that climate variability plays in healthcare expenditure in arable farmers in Nigeria. Using questionnaires and personal interviews, the researchers find that farmers had perceived increases in “heavy rainfall, storms, floods, cases of ailments/diseases and pollutant concentration and [a] decrease in food production”. To combat the effects of climate change on health, the main adaptation strategies used include “creating sanitation programmes, planting of shade trees and use of medicine/herbs”, the study notes.
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