Today's climate and energy headlines:
- China's 2020 coal output rises to highest since 2015, undermining climate pledges
- Shift to renewable energy eases key environmental burdens, EU says
- Biden indicates plans to cancel Keystone XL pipeline permit on first day in office, sources confirm
- Carbon capture is vital to meeting climate goals, scientists tell green critics
- Global methane emissions equaled Europe’s carbon footprint in 2020
- France’s Total quits powerful US oil lobby over climate policy
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s plans for the presidency
- Big Meat: Facing up to the demands for sustainability
- Upper limits on the extent of seafloor anoxia during the PETM from uranium isotopes
- Temporal changes in global soil respiration since 1987
- Anthropogenic intensification of short-duration rainfall extremes
News data published today by China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows that “China’s coal output rose last year to its highest since 2015, despite Beijing’s climate change pledge to reduce consumption of the dirty fossil fuel and months of disruption at major coal mining hubs”, reports Reuters. The newswire adds: “The world’s biggest coal miner and consumer produced 3.84bn tonnes of coal in 2020…China’s coal output dropped after reaching a peak of 3.97bn tonnes in 2013, as Beijing axed excessive mining capacity and promoted clean energy consumption. But production is rising amid surging industrial demand and an unofficial restriction on coal imports aimed at shoring up the domestic mining industry. For December alone, coal output was 351.89m tonnes, up 3.2% from the same month last year, and up from 347.27m tonnes in November.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that “China is considering accepting some stranded Australian coal cargoes, an effort that would help ease a logjam of vessels that have stacked up off its coast for months”. It adds: “The shipments that could be cleared are those that arrived before a ban on Australian coal went into effect, said a person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private. Deliberations are at an initial stage and any decision would need the approval of more senior Chinese leaders, the person said. The broader prohibition on Australian coal remains in place, and ideally the cargoes would be resold to buyers in other countries, the person said.” However, the Sydney Morning Herald says that “the Chinese government has rejected pleas from its own steel industry to lift bans on Australian coal cargoes, keeping dozens of ships holding 8m tonnes of the commodity stranded at sea”. It continues: “More than 70 vessels carrying Australian coal have been unable to unload in China since October, coinciding with a souring of diplomatic and trade tensions between Canberra and Beijing.” The South China Morning Post notes how “China has begun importing coal from Colombia and South Africa, underscoring its reluctance to buy from Australia amid a diplomatic spat”. It adds: “But questions have been raised about whether China can do without Australian coal and how it will diversify its supply in the years ahead.”
In other China news, the Times carries a news feature about “Nio, the ‘Chinese Tesla’ that has electrified the markets”. It continues: “Nio, based in Shanghai and a relatively small company by revenues, making about 200 cars a day, has lofty goals, not least helping to tackle climate change by shifting the world away from internal combustion engines. However, it has emerged, with a New York listing, as one of the most popularly traded stocks in Britain, boosted by the commonly expressed prediction that the company is going to be ‘the next Tesla’.” Reuters reports how Chinese environmental groups have “slammed” a plan to dam key lake on Yangtze river.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) says in a new study that Europe’s shift from fossil fuel-based electricity to renewable sources has reduced environmental problems while also cutting the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, reports Reuters. The newswire adds that the EEA says the EU’s switch from fossil fuel-based power production to sources such as wind and solar since 2005 has “significantly decreased” emissions, while also yielding “clear improvements” in key environmental problems, including soil acidification and eutrophication. Bloomberg also covers the EEA’s study, saying: “Europe needs to double the share of electricity produced from renewable sources by the end of the decade to be in with a chance of meeting a stricter emissions-reduction target that would put the region’s economy on track to climate-neutrality…Higher carbon prices in the EU Emissions Trading System would help make renewable power sources more competitive, the EEA said.”
CBC News in Canada reports that “sources” have confirmed that US president-elect Joe Biden has “indicated plans to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit via executive action on his first day in office”. The news outlet adds: “A purported briefing note from the Biden transition team mentioning the plan was widely circulated over the weekend after being shared by the incoming president’s team with US stakeholders. The words “Rescind Keystone XL pipeline permit” appear on a list of executive actions supposedly scheduled for Day 1 of Biden’s presidency. The list shown to stakeholders is a lengthier version of a list already reported in the media based on a memo released publicly over the weekend by Biden’s chief of staff Ronald Klain. That publicly reported memo from Klain did not mention Keystone XL, but cautioned that the memo was not a complete list of planned actions.“ Many publications have reported Klain’s memo about the Day 1 executive actions, including the Associated Press which says “Biden will end Trump’s restriction on immigration to the US from some Muslim-majority countries, move to rejoin the Paris climate accord and mandate mask-wearing on federal property and during interstate travel”.
The Observer reports that “engineers and geologists have strongly criticised [UK] green groups who last week claimed that carbon capture and storage schemes – for reducing fossil fuel emissions – are costly mistakes”. The newspaper continues: “The scientists insisted that such schemes are vital weapons in the battle against global heating and warn that failure to set up ways to trap carbon dioxide and store it underground would make it almost impossible to hold net emissions to below zero by 2050.” It quotes Prof Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University: “Carbon capture and storage is going to be the only effective way we have in the short term to prevent our steel industry, cement manufacture and many other processes from continuing to pour emissions into the atmosphere.” But the Observer notes that “campaigners at Global Witness and Friends of the Earth Scotland said last week that a reliance on CCS was not a reliable way to decarbonise the energy system, and published a paper last Monday from the Tyndall Manchester climate change research centre that they said proved that CCS has a ‘history of over-promising and under-delivering’”. Separately, Bloomberg carries a feature about how “too many companies are banking on carbon capture to reach net-zero”.
In other UK news, the Sunday Telegraph reports that Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business secretary, has “signalled” that “oil and gas producers who refuse to commit to reducing their carbon emissions to ‘net-zero’ will be excluded from North Sea drilling licences”. The newspaper adds: “Kwasi Kwarteng said a ‘quid pro quo’ with the sector meant it would only get government support if it took ‘decarbonisation very seriously indeed’. Oil and gas producers in the UK have been under growing pressure to cut their methane and carbon dioxide emissions, which accounted for 4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.” The Mail on Sunday says the “Treasury says it has ‘no plans’ to lower VAT on energy bills, despite promises to scrap the tax after Brexit”. ITV News reports that “some customers of Octopus Energy will be incentivised to put their cars on to charge, or switch on their washing machines, as they see wind speeds picking up outside their window, as the supplier introduces a new tariff”. Meanwhile, the i newspaper carries some case studies showing how some “homeowners are struggling” to access the energy efficiency scheme known as the “green homes grant”.
New data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that methane emissions fell last year as oil and gas production declined, but they were still equivalent to the European Union’s total CO2 emissions, reports Bloomberg. Oil and gas operations emitted just over 70m metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere in 2020, according to the IEA’s annual Methane Tracker report released on Monday, but they were 10% lower than the estimate for 2019 amid production cuts and the introduction of new methane regulations. Methane emissions are the second-largest cause of global warming after CO2, explains Bloomberg, adding: “Agriculture remains the largest source of human-caused methane emissions, while the energy sector comes next.” (For more on methane, see Carbon Brief’s piece on the Global Methane Budget from last year.)
The Financial Times reports that the “French energy company Total has become the first oil major to end its membership of the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s powerful Washington lobby group, citing its stance on climate change and support for politicians who opposed the Paris agreement”. The newspapers adds: “The move exposes a growing rift between US and European oil supermajors on climate policy, and comes just days before Joe Biden enters the White House with a pledge to rejoin the Paris climate pact, clamp down on oil industry pollution, and launch a clean-energy supply revolution. Total also cited the API’s opposition to electric vehicle subsidies and its support last year for the Trump administration’s rollbacks of regulations to limit emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.” DeSmog UK also carries the story, saying: “Last year, the French oil company, along with BP and Royal Dutch Shell, cut ties with another oil industry lobby group, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents oil refiners. BP also withdrew from the Western States Petroleum Association and the Western Energy Alliance, two other powerful lobby groups in the western United States. However, Total is the first oil major to quit API. The decision highlights the growing divergence between European oil majors, who have announced decisions to begin transitioning towards cleaner energy, and their American counterparts, who appear determined to continue to increase oil and gas production.”
An editorial in the Observer looks ahead to Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden as the next US president. It says that Biden’s battle is “not only for America’s future – it’s for Europe’s and the world’s, too”. It continues: “Myriad challenges abroad are no less daunting than those at home. Many cling desperately to his promise to recommit America to fighting the global climate crisis. Rejoining the Paris agreement is a welcome step. Setting long-term carbon-neutral targets is another. But the US, like China and other big economies, must go further, faster. Will he make the leap? Does he have the clout? It’s far from clear.” In Wired magazine, contributing editor Clive Thompson says Biden should enact an “Operation Warp Speed” for climate change: “The US government should throw its muscle behind ramping up a mammoth, rapid rollout of all forms of renewable energy. That includes the ones we already know how to build – like solar and wind – but also experimental emerging sources like geothermal and small nuclear, and cutting-edge forms of energy storage or transmission…For the past 40 years, the US has spent 37% more on R&D for fossil fuels than for renewables. A Climate Warp Speed campaign should invert that ratio. Hell, 10x it! More crucially, the government should become a bulk buyer of renewable energy.” The New York Post carries an op-ed by climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg who says Biden will “burn billions” on his climate plans.
Separately, the Evening Standard, associate editor Julian Glover looks at the importance of hosting COP26 to the UK: “One reason to hope things might be better this time is that the climate crisis now feels real. Global average temperatures are up. So is extreme weather. Politicians are under pressure…We are also (blame Trump and Brexit) heading into an era of trade tariffs and tougher borders. So we should use them to do good. Free-traders won’t like it but what about a carbon tax on our most carbon-heavy imports – starting with things like concrete and steel? It would be popular. It would encourage quick falls in emissions. It might even raise money. COP26 could be the moment we take back control of our climate.”
In Australia, the Age has an op-ed by Jono La Nauze, CEO of Environment Victoria, who argues that “as the conversation over summer turns once again to the future of our energy system, we should view any claims that coal power stations will stay open for decades with healthy scepticism…Now it’s time for an open and honest conversation about retiring power stations and how government can support the Latrobe Valley through this difficult but necessary transition.” In the Guardian, Greg Jericho – who writes on economics for Guardian Australia – says that “Coalition MPs’ unfounded claims about the US Capitol attack and Covid treatments pale next to the granddaddy of misinformation – climate change denial”.
The Financial Times has a “big read” by commodities correspondent Emiko Terazono on how “consumers and investors are looking at the environmental damage the [meat industry] industry has done and calling for change”. Terazono writes: “As the effects of the earth’s warming temperatures become more pronounced, climate change campaigners and investors are responding to a growing demand for environmental improvements. As part of that they are broadening their approach from the damage caused by fossil fuels to other industries, especially the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the meat and dairy industries.” Institutional investors are also taking notice, she adds: “As with the oil and gas sector, the debate is turning to risks caused by climate change with livestock rearing and processing assets becoming less viable as the earth warms up.”
Elsewhere, in City AM, Peter Harrison, the CEO of asset managers Schroders writes: “By 2050 we may find the effects of the pandemic will be dwarfed by the consequences of unchecked global warming. The future actions of companies is critical to solving this crisis, yet too little is known of their long-term plans. Asset managers, such as Schroders, are in constant dialogue with the companies in which they invest, but a step change is needed. This week, Schroders has written to the UK’s largest companies asking them to publish detailed and fully costed transition plans on climate change. The detail is crucial. We want to see exactly how each company will play its part as the UK economy re-orientates towards the government’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” And in the Financial Times’s Alphaville column, global economy reporter Claire Jones says that central banks are spouting “hot air” over climate change.
New research shows that around 56m years ago, natural warming of 5C led to low oxygen levels – “anoxia” – in only 2% of the global seafloor. This indicates that the ancient ocean had a greater resilience to anoxia than previously thought, the authors say. However, the authors note that these levels of anoxia led to the extinctions of marine life in parts of the ocean, and is around 10 times higher than present-day anoxia levels. To estimate ancient ocean oxygen levels, the researchers analysed the isotopic composition of uranium in ocean sediments, which tracks oxygen concentrations.
A new study on soil respiration (the release of carbon from soil) finds that rates increased between 1987 and 1999, but remained unchanged between 2000 and 2016. Soil respiration is “stimulated by climate warming”, but according to the paper, the “magnitude and dynamics of such stimulations” is still highly uncertain. The steady rate of soil respiration from the year 2000 is due to “complex temporal variations of temperature anomalies and soil carbon stocks”, the researchers say. However, they warn that soil respiration rates could have risen since 2015, as the Earth has seen record-breaking warm years since then.
A review article on rainfall extremes finds that in some regions, the increase in “short-duration extreme rainfall intensities” is stronger than expected from the temperature-induced rise in atmospheric moisture alone. Researchers find that both increasing atmospheric moisture and small-scale feedbacks in convective clouds can influence short-term rainfall, and that future extreme rainfall intensification will likely be affected by “temperature stratification and large-scale atmospheric circulation”. The authors note that long-term rainfall changes lasting over a day are intensifying ”at a rate consistent with the increase in atmospheric moisture”.
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