Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Carbon tax plan gets binned by Boris Johnson amid fear it would spark a rise in food prices
- Environment groups call for public inquiry into Cumbrian coal mine
- Global heating to blame for threat of deadly flood in Peru, study finds
- Shell makes $20bn loss as Covid crisis downgrades assets
- Climate veteran Xie Zhenhua returns as China's special envoy
- Rich countries must update financial vows to tackle climate crisis, says UN
- COP26 dream team: The people setting the climate agenda on seven key issues
- Drivers of change in US residential energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission, 1990-2015
The UK Government has “killed off” the idea of a carbon tax that “could have seen huge price rises for meat, cheese and gas”, reports the Daily Mail. Following reporting yesterday by the Times of a Whitehall memo on carbon pricing – which Channel 4 News “confirmed” – a government source tells the Mail that ministers would not be proceeding after prime minister Boris Johnson blocked the idea. The source adds: “We have absolutely no intention of putting a carbon tax on meat or other food products.” Yesterday morning, the prime minister’s official spokesman declined to rule out the policy – as reported by the Independent – but “at 6pm the plan was ditched”, the Mail says. The Sun has a similar story, reporting that a senior No 10 official told the paper last night: “This is categorically not going to happen…We will not be imposing a meat tax on the great British banger or anything else.” Elsewhere, the Daily Telegraph reports on criticism of the proposed tax by the National Farmers Union (NFU), which warned that it would put British farmers at a “competitive disadvantage” compared to other countries. The NFU deputy president told the paper: “A carbon tax will not have the desired effect if it is implemented in the UK alone. It is essential that any tax is internationally recognised, otherwise UK farmers will be put at a competitive disadvantage, outpriced by food imports with a higher carbon footprint.”
In related news, Bloomberg reports that, “according to two people familiar with the matter”, Boris Johnson is considering using the UK’s G7 presidency this year to try and forge an alliance on carbon border taxes. The outlet says that Johnson “wants to expand carbon pricing at home”, but “also wants to get G7 countries to discuss so-called carbon border adjustments – penalties on imported goods that are produced in countries with weaker climate laws, according to the people”. It adds: “The idea is to protect industries in countries that have higher carbon prices while prodding other regions to move ahead with similar climate action. But it is controversial. A decade ago, the European Union was forced to backtrack on a plan to include international flights in its carbon market, after the proposals caused an uproar and threats of retaliation from Brazil to the US, Russia and China.” It notes that “the UK’s presidency is still in early stages and proposals are yet to be agreed. A text would likely allow for an agreement in principle, rather than a binding commitment.”
Dozens of environmental groups have written to Boris Johnson calling for a public inquiry into plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria, reports BBC News. The letter, signed by groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, says it is “mystifying” that the government has not stopped the mine from going ahead, and that the UK’s credibility as host of the COP26 climate summit later this year “is at stake”, the outlet explains, adding: “The signatories acknowledge that whilst ‘new jobs need to be created’, the government should ‘lead the way with low-carbon technologies, rather than looking to the polluting industries of the past’.” Elsewhere, the Guardian reports on the “local divisions” over the proposed mine that are pitting “climate protection against job creation”.
Commenting on the planned mine, a Financial Times editorial says it is “becoming a symbol of the UK government’s inability to match ambitious words on climate change with action”. The decision to allow the country’s first new deep coal mine for decades is “entirely at odds” with the UK’s net-zero plans and Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, the paper says. It “also risks undermining Britain’s international standing as host of the UN COP26 climate summit”, the article adds. “It is time for ministers to get involved,” the paper argues: “Robert Jenrick, the communities minister, could have challenged the decision by Cumbria county council to approve the Copeland colliery, but decided against. Mr Jenrick has defended the move, saying he would not block it as it was a “local” issue. Yet this is not how other large energy infrastructure assets are treated. Nuclear power plants and onshore wind farms are all approved at national level. The same approach should apply in this case.” Prime minister Boris Johnson “would do well to emulate Joe Biden’s approach”, the paper says: “It is early days but the US president has focused on embedding climate policy across his administration. If Mr Johnson wants to show true global leadership on climate, he needs to ensure Britain’s actions match his rhetoric.”
Over in the Times, environment editor Ben Webster says the coal mine “may be a necessary evil” because it would “produce coking coal to make steel, not thermal coal for power stations”. He writes: “The distinction is important because there are many much less polluting alternatives to burning coal to produce electricity but, at present, no commercially viable ways of forging virgin steel without coking coal.” Focusing on the British steel industry in a piece for the Times Red Box, MPs Jessica Morden (Labour) and Holly Mumby-Croft (Conservative) call on the government to “take steps to address” the “uneven field” that sees “electricity costs for domestic steelmakers far outweigh those of steelmakers outside Britain”. In the Independent, chief business commentator James Moore describes the planned mine is “precisely the wrong way” to go about “levelling up” economic development across the UK, and “the government knows it”. He continues: “This explains its attempts to wash its hands of the affair by describing it as ‘a local planning matter’, a statement that amounts to a steaming pile of environmentally friendly fertiliser procured from the rear end of a horse. Ditto the hints that the coking coal that will be produced will be needed for domestic steel production: the vast majority of its output is destined for Europe.” Also in the Independent, associate editor Sean O’Grady says “the new coal mine is deeply embarrassing”, adding that it is “a powerful symbol of Britain’s global environmental leadership, or lack of it. Stopping its development would set a fine example to the world, and demonstrate how a democratic country can take tough decisions.”
New research finds that human-caused climate change is directly responsible for the threat of a devastating flood in Peru that is the subject of a lawsuit against the German energy company RWE, the Guardian reports. The study establishes links between carbon emissions and the risk of a dangerous outburst flood from Lake Palcacocha, high in the Peruvian Andes, which has expanded as the Palcaraju glacier has retreated. The paper explains: “In 2017, judges in Hamm, Germany, made legal history by accepting a case brought by farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya against RWE, Germany largest electricity provider, asking for $20,000 (£14,660) for the costs of preventing damage from a potential outburst flood from the lake. The judges are currently examining the evidence.” The lawyer representing Lliuya tells the paper that she expected the study “to provide evidence of cause and effect that can be used in court worldwide”. She adds: “Given that the court in Germany has already approved that, legally, there is responsibility for major emitters, this would have a bearing everywhere.” The new study says it is “more than 99% certain that human-caused warming is melting the Palcaraju Glacier and increasing the threat”, reports Inside Climate News. RWE, Germany’s biggest electricity producer, has repeatedly dismissed Lliuya’s complaint as unfounded, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “saying a single emitter could not be held responsible for global warming”. Forbes also has the story, while the study authors have written a Carbon Brief guest post about their research.
At the same time, Reuters reports that RWE has filed a lawsuit to seek compensation from the Dutch government for the planned shutdown of its coal-fired power plant as part of the country’s phase-out of the fuel. Politico reports that “green groups said the RWE case was the first time a coal operator had sued a European country over climate policy”.
There is continuing coverage of Royal Dutch Shell’s financial results for 2020, which were published yesterday morning. The Guardian says the company “plunged to a loss of almost $20bn (£14.7bn) last year after the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global oil market stripped about $22bn from the value of its oil and gas assets”. The paper continues: “The oil company was forced to write down its assets after a slump in oil and gas market prices, leading the company to a loss of $19.9bn compared with a profit of $15.3bn the year before. The adjusted financial result – which excludes the heavy hit to the value of its assets – fell by more than 80% to a profit of $4.8bn for the year, the company’s weakest full-year profits in at least two decades.” Despite the 2020 results the oil giant said that it would raise its dividend this quarter, reports the Times, “helping to send shares up by about 1% in early trading”. The 4% increase in the dividend will be “the second slight increase since Shell slashed its dividend by two-thirds in the first quarter of 2020, says Reuters – adding that the cut had been the company’s first since the second world war. The Evening Standard reports that Shell CEO Ben van Beurden described 2020 as an “extraordinary year”, but said the company was ending the year “with a stronger balance sheet, ready to accelerate our strategy and make the future of energy”. The Daily Telegraph also has the story.
BBC News business correspondent Dominic O’Connell says Shell’s results will “quickly be forgotten”, noting that “they are largely accounting rather than cash losses, the result of a giant write-down in the future value of the company’s oil fields and prospects”. However, Bloomberg notes that Shell’s results add “to the evidence from its peers that much of the industry is still living beyond its means, even after deep cuts to dividends and spending”. And Washington Post energy reporter Will Englund writes that “a promise by the Biden administration to get serious about climate change and growing confidence in a future of all-electric vehicles have started to raise questions about just how viable these companies will be”. Ben Marlow, the Daily Telegraph‘s chief city commentator, asks how the losses “square with Shell’s grand plan to move away from dirty fossil fuels towards green energy and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050?” The answer, he says, “is that it may take a miracle, as investors seem to have recognised – Shell’s share price is still roughly a third below pre-pandemic levels”. Nevertheless, Axios reports that oil prices hit a 12-month high this week. The Financial Times “Energy Source” column explains that this is down to rising demand and the group of oil producing countries “showing unusual discipline” in complying with its output cuts.
Elsewhere in oil news, the Times reports that BP has signed a “strategic co-operation” agreement on carbon management and sustainability with the Russian oil company Rosneft – of which it own 20%. The paper continues: “They plan to ‘jointly evaluate new projects envisaging the use of renewables and opportunities for carbon capture, utilisation and storage, as well as developments for hydrogen’ and will look at opportunities for ‘natural forest sinks’, or planting trees.” Environmental campaign NGO Greenpeace described the plan as “nowhere near enough and BP knows it”, the paper notes. Bloomberg also has the story. Finally, DeSmog covers a new report that “warns that pipeline construction projects worldwide have put $1tn worth of pipeline investment at risk of being rendered obsolete by the energy transition away from fossil fuels”.
China has reinstated Xie Zhenhua, “one of its most respected climate experts and broker of the Paris Agreement”, as climate envoy, reports Climate Home News. The outlet continues: “The move is widely seen as a response to US president Joe Biden’s appointment of John Kerry as his special presidential climate envoy and a signal of Beijing’s willingness to engage with Washington on climate. Xie is a veteran climate negotiator well known on the international stage and with a deep understanding of the Chinese government’s inner workings.” Xie and Kerry “developed a strong and personal relationship” through the talks in previous years, the outlet explains, and the two “have been in contact in recent days and discussed energy and climate policy”. The piece adds: “While Xie’s appointment has not been publicly announced, sources say officials at the environment ministry have confirmed the move.”
Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, has urged rich countries to step up with fresh financial commitments to help the developing world tackle climate change, reports the Guardian. Speaking at a virtual lecture held by the London School of Economics on Wednesday, Espinosa said: “Promises made must be promises kept. The pledges must be honoured and updated. The obligations to support the efforts of developing countries cannot and will not be ignored – it is in the self-interest of the developed countries to fulfil these commitments.” Espinosa also promised to “leave no voice behind” at COP26, by ensuring all sections of global society and all countries were involved, the Guardian notes. She said: “Inclusive multilateralism is our way forward…Everyone has a role to play, everyone must be involved.”
Looking ahead to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, Climate Home News senior reporter Chloé Farand has a rundown of the people who are “setting the agenda on seven key issues”. One of those issues is private finance, writes Farand, with US climate envoy John Kerry “tipped to appoint ‘a senior business person’ to mobilise ambition from the private sector and hold companies accountable to their climate pledges”. Another issue is adaptation and resilience, says Farand, where “Malawi is emerging as a key ally for the UK”. She continues: “It is a member of the Adaptation Action Coalition launched by prime minister Boris Johnson last month to ensure political commitments for adaptation are turned into on-the-ground support. Nancy Tembo, minister of forestry and natural resources, has called for more integrated approaches to adaptation programmes in developing nations and is working closely with the UK government ahead of COP26.” The other key issues include the shift away from fossil fuels, debt relief, public finance, nature-based solutions and carbon markets and offsets.
New research unpacks the drivers behind trends in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from residential energy use in the US, which peaked in 2005 and have since decreased at an average annual rate of 2% per year. Growing shares of newer homes, and reductions in intensity of energy use per capita, household, or floor area have produced moderate primary energy and GHG emission reductions, the study says, but improved generation efficiency and decarbonisation of electricity supply have brought about far bigger primary energy and GHG emission reductions. The authors add: “Continued decline of residential emissions from electrification of residential energy and decarbonisation of electricity supply can be expected, but not fast enough to limit climate change to 1.5 warming.”
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