Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Biden unveils diverse team tasked with ambitious climate agenda
- 2021 forecast to be one of Earth’s hottest years despite La Niña, says Met Office
- Windfarms in Great Britain break record for clean power generation
- Australia forecasts drop in coal output under pressure from Chinese curbs
- Shell to write down assets again, taking cuts to more than $22bn
- The law of averages cannot apply to our pursuit of a net-zero future
- The carbon sink of tropical seasonal forests in southeastern Brazil can be under threat
- The US coal sector between shale gas and renewables: Last resort coal exports?
There is continuing coverage of US president-elect Joe Biden’s new “climate team”, which he formally introduced at an event on Saturday. Reuters says the “history-making group…will seek to advance an ambitious climate agenda that reverses many Trump administration policies”. The newswire continues: “Michael Regan would become the first Black man to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if confirmed by the Senate, and US Representative Deb Haaland, as interior secretary, would be the first Native American Cabinet member…Biden, who served as vice president to president Barack Obama, tapped Obama’s EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, to fill a new role as national climate adviser. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm will be Biden’s energy secretary if confirmed.” Bloomberg says that Biden described his climate team as “brilliant and qualified”, adding that climate change is “the existential threat of our time”. The news outlet continues: “With Republicans set to hold at least 50 seats in the Senate, likely dooming the chances for sweeping climate and environmental legislation, Biden will be relying heavily on the officials to advance his clean-energy agenda through federal regulation.” The New York Times says that Biden “faces a monumental rebuilding effort after four years in which the Trump administration reversed more than 100 environmental regulations, mocked climate science and championed the production of the fossil fuels chiefly responsible for warming the planet”.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times says that former US secretary of state John Kerry, Biden’s pick as his special presidential envoy on climate change, now has to fulfil a “role in which he will be subordinate to [the incoming secretary of state] Mr [Antony] Blinken. The FT adds: “Mr Blinken’s seniority to his erstwhile boss could create an unusual power dynamic: if the relationship were to become fraught, it would threaten to undermine Mr Biden’s effort to put climate change at the forefront of his foreign policy agenda and combat what he has described as ‘one of the most pressing threats of our time’…By putting climate change at the forefront of his foreign policy, Mr Biden has set the stage for Mr Kerry to wield outsize influence in areas beyond his remit.” And a Financial Times “big read” looks at how, “elected on a promise of a $2tn green energy plan, the US president-elect’s ambitions could be curtailed by political reality”. It continues: “ The most plausible energy compromise is a stimulus bill laced with green investment to boost jobs, say political analysts. New infrastructure such as electric car charging points, solar installations and more transmission lines – critical to any increase in clean electricity generation capacity – could win support in Republican states, say analysts.” The Wall Street Journal has a comment piece by a climate sceptic attacking Biden’s climate agenda.
The Independent covers a new forecast from the UK’s Met Office saying that 2021 is “likely to be one of the hottest on Earth despite the cooling influence of La Niña”. The outlet continues: “La Niña is a periodic natural weather phenomenon that can have a dampening effect on global temperatures. Though 2021 is a La Niña year, the ‘overwhelming’ influence of human-caused global heating means it is still likely to be one of the hottest on Earth, scientists have said. The analysis concludes that global temperatures are likely to be between 0.91C and 1.15C above pre-industrial levels in 2021, with a central estimate of 1.03C. This means next year is likely to be the seventh in a row where global temperatures are around 1C or more above pre-industrial levels.” BBC News also covers the Met Office forecast saying that “2021 will be a little cooler around the world”. It quotes Prof Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office, saying that “it will be far warmer than other past La Niña years such as 2011 and 2000 due to global warming”.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that “Harvard University scientists plan to fly a test balloon above Sweden next year to help advance research into dimming sunlight to cool the Earth, alarming environmentalists opposed to solar geoengineering”.
Blustery winter weather on Friday helped Great Britain’s windfarms set a record for clean power generation, which made up more than 40% of its electricity, reports the Guardian. The newspaper adds: “Wind turbines generated 17.3GW on Friday afternoon, according to figures from the electricity system operator, narrowly beating the previous record set in early January this year. High wind speeds across the country helped wind power’s share of the electricity mix remain above 40% through Saturday. Coal and gas plants made up less than a fifth of electricity generated.” Bloomberg says: “The record production is a glimpse of the future as the UK seeks to push $27bn of investment to quadruple offshore wind capacity to help the country eliminate its carbon footprint by the middle of the century. It’s also a welcome respite for grid managers, who had to fire up natural gas plants during the relatively windless conditions prevailing since the start of November.”
In other UK news, the Guardian reports that the “government faces a legal challenge over its plan to expand Heathrow airport, with lawyers and environmentalists demanding it review its policy in line with its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050”. It adds: “The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organisation with a focus on public interest cases including environmentalism and tackling poverty, argues that the government must update its plan for a third runway to take into account the emissions pledge it made following the approval for the airport expansion in June 2018…The challenge follows a supreme court decision last week that the airport’s expansion was not unlawful through a failure to treat the 2015 Paris agreement as government policy. The court’s ruling, however, confined its reasoning to the legal regime of the time of the framework’s publication. It did not consider the effects of the government’s subsequent, legally binding pledge.” BBC News also has a news feature on how “ministers are facing a fusillade of legal challenges on airports, energy and roads”.
The Daily Telegraph says that “energy supplier Scottish Power has set up a new division to produce and sell low-carbon hydrogen amid surging interest in the clean-burning gas”. It continues: “ScottishPower will solely produce so-called green hydrogen, which is made through electrolysis using renewable power such as that produced by wind.” (See Carbon Brief’s new detailed Q&A on hydrogen.) A separate Daily Telegraph article focuses on how the UK’s steel industry is “bemoaning” the “missed opportunity” in last week’s energy white paper to reform electricity prices.
Finally, an article in the Sunday Times reports on how Scottish Greens are calling for next year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to embrace virtual attendance on a scale “never before seen”.
The Australian government has said that the nation’s coal producers may have to start cutting output if China maintains limits on imports from them, reports Reuters. The newswire adds: “China is the second-biggest buyer of Australia’s thermal coal burned in power plants and metallurgical coal used to make steel. But Australia’s coal exports have been hit by delays at Chinese ports and prices have fallen amid a growing row between the two countries, after Australia called for an enquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic…Chinese media on Monday reported that China’s top economic planner had granted approval to power plants to import coal without clearance restrictions, except from Australia.” The Financial Times has a news feature on the impact within China of the ban on coal imports from Australia: “Factories across China are falling silent and office workers are being forced to climb the stairs of high-rise buildings as a ban on Australian coal worsens a power shortage that is hitting everything from street lights to lifts.” It continues: “In recent weeks, more than a dozen Chinese cities have imposed restrictions on electricity use as growing demand for energy owing to the country’s post-coronavirus economic recovery collides head on with a shortage of thermal coal. The shortage underscores the dilemma Chinese authorities face in balancing their muscular approach to international diplomacy with the needs of the economy. Chinese energy and industrial groups have said the problem is partly due to an embargo on Australian coal imports, which many power plants in the country depend on, as tensions between Beijing and Canberra simmer.” ABC News in Australia says that “the Office of Australia’s Chief Economist is now forecasting a decline in the total value of our global coal exports of nearly $20bn in 2020-21, which would follow a decline of $14.6bn in 2019-20…It is also warning that intentions by governments across Europe and Asia to cut emissions in coming decades do not bode well for Australia’s coal exporters in the long-term”.
In other Australian news, the Guardian reports that a “centre-right thinktank with links to former Liberal ministers Robert Hill and Christopher Pyne has said the Morrison government should commit to halving emissions from coal-fired electricity this decade”. Meanwhile, another Guardian story notes that the Australian Energy Market Commission has said “electricity for consumers will be cheaper in 2023 as new generation capacity enters the power grid, including 1,667MW of solar and 2,580MW of wind”.
Reuters reports that Royal Dutch Shell has said today that it “will write down the value of oil and gas assets by $3.5bn to $4.5bn following a string of impairments this year as it adjusts to a weaker outlook”. Bloomberg also covers the news, saying: “The Anglo-Dutch major, alongside its peers, is coming to the end of a tumultuous year. Its finances have been pummelled as the coronavirus pandemic decimated oil and gas demand, and fuel sales volumes remain weak. The latest figures show the pain is not yet over for the company.”
Writing in the Times, Paul Johnson, who is both the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and also a member of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, argues that a net-zero future is “necessary”. He continues: “It is also challenging. We are kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise…Given the present need to get the economy going again, this is not a bad time to be planning some big investments. Nevertheless, the costs are real. I don’t say all that to scare you. It’s genuinely doable. And in the long run the overall costs could turn out to be remarkably low…we need to decide who will pay. As we move towards electric cars, the exchequer will lose more than £30bn a year in fuel tax revenues; that will need to be made up. A carbon tax, the instrument for tackling climate change most beloved of economists, will hit the budgets of the poor; if we go down that route, we will need proper compensation.”
Meanwhile, in the Evening Standard, Martha Gill asks whether “the group of anti-elitist, anti-regulation votes that helped Johnson to power [will] swallow a green Brexit”? She wonders how long the UK can avoid a climate change “culture war”: “That we have avoided it so far may well be down to a peculiar national quirk by which – via the National Trust and aristocrats rebranding as stewards of the land – we associate environmentalism with grand old houses and large country estates. There is certainly a stubborn green streak in the Tory party which has resisted entering this culture war, even as the party flirts with populism. (Although it wouldn’t preclude a Farage-style figure emerging on their right flank). But it might also be because we haven’t quite got to the tricky bit yet. Fuel duty has been frozen for a decade, too politically expensive to tamper with (despite costing the Exchequer some £100bn). Raise that, and ask everyone in the country to refit their boiler and swap their car, and we’ll soon see just how green this Brexit will be.”
Some areas of Brazil’s non-Amazon tropical forests “have already moved from carbon sinks to carbon sources”, a new study warns. The researchers explore the changes in carbon sources and sinks in 32 sites in southeastern Brazil’s tropical forests from 1987-2020. Results show a long-term decrease in the carbon sink, due to a 3.4% increase in carbon losses and a 2.6% reduction in carbon gains per year. The driest and warmest sites are experiencing the most severe carbon sink decline, the researchers say.
Ambitious global climate policy “would make the US coal sector collapse in the 2030s”, a new study suggests. The actual rate of US coal sector decline has “exceeded many model scenarios”, the authors say, and their forecasts indicate “considerably lower near-term coal use for power generation in the US”. While “allowing new export terminals along the US west coast could ease cuts in US production”, the researchers note, “exports are a highly uncertain strategy because the US could be strongly affected by changes in global demand”.
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