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Daily Briefing

27.05.2021
Today's climate and energy headlines
DAILY BRIEFING Climate activists hail breakthrough victories over Exxon and Shell
Climate activists hail breakthrough victories over Exxon and Shell

News.

Climate activists hail breakthrough victories over Exxon and Shell
Financial Times Read Article

Separate decisions on Wednesday saw “Big Oil…suffer[ing] a climate backlash”, the Financial Times reports, after a Dutch district court ruled Shell must cut its emissions 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels, Exxon was defeated by activist shareholders on the election of two new members to its 12-strong board and a large majority of Chevron shareholders voted for a “substantial” reduction in the firm’s “scope 3” emissions from the use of its products. The paper continues: “Campaigners hailed the day as a breakthrough moment in the oil industry’s history, as the urgency of the climate crisis arrived at the door of some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers.” It quotes the head of oil and gas at Ceres, an investor climate action nonprofit, saying: “This will be seen in retrospect as the day when everything changed for Big Oil.” The paper also reports “analysts” saying the Shell ruling “could set a precedent for similar cases against the world’s biggest corporate polluters”, but adds that Shell plans to appeal the decision. Reuters covers the Shell ruling and says it “could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world”. Significantly, it quotes the judge in the case saying the 45% reduction relates to absolute emissions from “the Shell group and the suppliers and customers of the group”. The newswire adds that Shell had earlier this year set out plans to reduce the “carbon intensity” of its products by 45% by 2035, from 2016 levels. It notes: “The court ordered Shell to reduce its absolute levels of carbon emissions, while Shell’s intensity-based targets could allow the company to grow its output in theory.” Coverage from the Wall Street Journal and Deutsche Welle links the target imposed on Shell by the court – a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, relative to 2019 levels – with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report, which found global CO2 emissions should fall to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5C. Bloomberg reports the story and notes that Shell’s emissions, including those of its customers, amounted to 1.7bn tonnes of CO2 in 2019, adding that this is “around the same as Russia, the world’s fourth-largest polluter”. The Guardian story says the “unprecedented” Shell ruling is a “landmark”, which will have “wide implications for the energy industry and other polluting multinationals”. It quotes the judge saying her ruling may “curb the potential growth of the Shell group”, but adding: “The interest served with the reduction obligation outweighs the Shell group’s commercial interests.” The paper continues: “Shell had argued that there was no legal basis for the case and that governments alone are responsible for meeting Paris targets. The court found that ‘since 2012 there has been broad international consensus about the need for non-state action, because states cannot tackle the climate issue on their own’.” According to Associated Press, the ruling found Shell’s existing climate goals are “not concrete enough”. The New York Times quotes the court finding that Shell’s plans “largely amount to rather intangible, undefined and non-binding plans for the long term”. Politico quotes one reaction to the ruling in its headline, saying the verdict is “mind-blowing”. It adds: “Wednesday’s verdict marks the first time a Dutch court has imposed emission reduction requirements on a company; until now such verdicts – issued in cases in the Netherlands, France and Germany – had aimed at getting governments to boost their climate efforts.” Climate Home News notes that Shell had faced a “growing revolt among its shareholders over its emission reduction plan at its annual general meeting last week”, adding that the company’s plans to expand oil and gas production until 2025 is “at odds with the International Energy Agency’s first comprehensive scenario aligned with limiting global heating to 1.5C”. The outlet adds that the Shell case was “built…on a precedent set by the ‘Urgenda case’, a landmark climate lawsuit taken to the top of the Dutch court system in 2019”. The Times, the IndependentAgence France-Presse via France 24Sky NewsCNNCNBCArgus Media, the HillDeSmogBusinessGreen and a second Financial Times article all cover the Shell ruling. The three oil major stories are also covered by the Financial Times podcast.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on the shareholder votes at Exxon and Chevron, saying the US oil giants had “suffered shareholder rebellions from climate activists and disgruntled institutional investors over their failure to set a strategy for a low-carbon future”. It continues: “Exxon failed to defend its board against a coup launched by dissident hedge fund activists at Engine No. 1 which successfully replaced two Exxon board members with its own candidates to help drive the oil company towards a greener strategy.” The Guardian continues by saying that the Chevron vote was organised by Dutch campaign group Follow This and aimed to “force the group to cut its carbon emissions”, following successful moves to secure backing for similar resolutions at the board meetings of rival oil firms ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66. The New York Times calls the Exxon vote a “stunning defeat” for “Big Oil”. The Financial Times also reports on the Exxon vote, saying “shareholders on Wednesday voted to change the supermajor’s board, delivering a historic rebuke to management, as changes sweeping though the global oil sector reached the top of its most famous company”. It adds that ahead of the shareholder vote, Engine No. 1 had “urged [Exxon to] cut capital spending and focus ‘on accelerating rather than deferring the energy transition’ to cleaner energy”. Bloomberg covers the Chevron shareholder defeat and carries a post-vote interview with the firm’s chief executive Mike Wirth, in which he “says [the] company can boost returns [and] cut carbon at [the] same time”. The Hill also reports on the Exxon vote, with a second article from the publication covering the Chevron vote.

Chance of temporarily reaching 1.5C in warming is rising, WMO says
Financial Times Read Article

There is 40% chance that the world will temporarily reach the 1.5C warming limit within the next five years, the Financial Times reports, picking up new analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It adds that the 1.5C limit “relates to the consistent increase in temperatures over the long term, rather than heating in an individual year”. The paper says the analysis, led by the UK Met Office, “predicted the rise in the average global temperature by 1.5C since pre-industrial times was likely in at least one of the next five years, and could rise by as much as 1.8C”. It says the 40% chance of temporarily reaching 1.5C within five years was “roughly doubled compared to last year’s predictions” but adds that this is largely as a result of a shift to using a new timeseries for global temperatures, which includes “better monitoring data for the Arctic”. The new WMO analysis led by the Met Office updates numbers published last year and described by Prof Richard Betts, Met Office head of climate impacts, in a Carbon Brief guest post. This found a 24% chance of temporarily reaching 1.5C within five years. BBC News reports the latest WMO findings and quotes Dr Joeri Rogelj, director of research at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, saying: “The Paris targets refer to global warming – that is, the temperature increase of our planet once we smooth out year-to-year variations. A single year hitting 1.5C therefore doesn’t mean the Paris limits are breached, but is nevertheless very bad news.” Rogelj coauthored a 2017 Carbon Brief guest post on this point, which said the Paris temperature goals “should be understood as changes in long-term global averages attributed to human activity, which exclude natural variability”. It added: “This means 1.5C might be breached in individual years well before the global long-term 1.5C temperature limit has definitively been crossed.” The Associated Press via the Washington Post runs under the headline: “Forecast: 40% chance Earth to be hotter than Paris goal soon.” The Daily Mail covers the story under the print headline: “Are we just five years from tipping point on climate?” The Times runs the story under the print headline: “Climate change limit ‘breached by 2026’.” Other publications covering the story include Sky NewsBloombergNPREvening Standard, the Independent and the Hindustan Times.

China’s crypto mining crackdown followed deadly coal accidents
Bloomberg Read Article

Bloomberg reports that the recent crackdown on cryptocurrency mining in China was partially triggered by the activity’s use of coal. A source told the outlet that the surge in electricity consumption by crypto miners and operators was “a key factor” behind the increasing demand for coal in certain parts of China, leading to “illicit” coal extraction and major accidents. Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd and Alistair Ritchie writing in China Dialogue say China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) – due to start trading by the end of June – needs “high-level” political support to succeed. The state that such support can help ensure that the ETS would assist China to achieve its climate goals. [More on these two topics in this week’s Carbon Brief China Briefing, which will go out later today. Subscribe for free here.]

In Chinese media, China National Radio reports that the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the state economic planner, has instructed all regions to increase data centres’ energy efficiency and reduce their energy consumption. Separately, the NDRC also said it would “carry on” implementing an existing macro-control mechanism to ensure energy prices reflect the nation’s “carbon-neutrality” goal, state news agency Xinhua reports.

Elsewhere, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) says that the sea levels along China’s coastal areas are rising at a rate of about 3.4mm per year, reports Shanghai-based outlet, the Paper. In an annual ecological report, the MEE states that over the past 10 years China’s coastal sea levels have remained “high”, compared to a 40-year average. Finally, state-run ECNS highlights China’s announcement to donate solar power systems to 5,000 households. A “supplies delivery ceremony” was held on Monday in Shenzhen City, the report says.

Nissan in advanced talks to build battery gigafactory in UK
Financial Times Read Article

A frontpage story in the Financial Times reports that carmaker Nissan is in “advanced” talks with the UK government over plans to build a battery “gigafactory”. The paper says the Nissan proposal would make the UK its “largest electric car production hub outside Japan”, but adds that the firm “wants significant financial support worth at least tens of millions of pounds from the government for the project”. It reports: “The new factory at Nissan’s existing Sunderland site would be run by Nissan’s Chinese battery supplier Envision AESC, and support the production of 200,000 battery cars a year as well as thousands of jobs, according to three people briefed on the private discussions.” The paper says: “Talks began in earnest after Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU, and a possible announcement is scheduled for the summer, ahead of Britain hosting the COP26 climate summit this year.” It adds that the proposed factory would open a first phase “towards the end of 2024” with the capacity to make 6 gigawatt hours (GWh) of battery capacity per year, rising to 18-20GWh once all phases are complete. This is lower than the 35GWh capacity of rival carmaker Tesla’s site in Nevada, the FT notes. Publications picking up the FT’s Nissan story include BBC News, the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Guardian.

In related news from the UK, BusinessGreen reports on calls for the government to give carmakers annual sales targets for electric vehicles, via a zero emission vehicle mandate, on the way to the country’s 2030 ban on sales of combustion engine cars. Meanwhile, the Hill and the Financial Times report that Ford has said it would raise investment in electric vehicles to $30bn and that 40% of its global sales would be electric by 2030, including 100% of sales in countries such as the UK. The FT says Ford shares rose 7% on the news.

Comment.

Oil majors’ defeats reflect impatience for climate action
Justin Jacobs and Anjli Raval, Financial Times Read Article

A handful of comment and analysis pieces have already weighed in on yesterday’s oil stories, with a piece in the Financial Times saying: “Big Oil has been rocked by a climate reckoning.” It adds: “International oil companies have laid out detailed plans to drive down carbon emissions. But stunning boardroom and courtroom defeats this week showed how powerful forces in society want faster change.” The analysis article quotes a researcher saying of the Shell ruling: “The court is basically saying that not only Shell, but the energy industry and corporate polluters worldwide will have to reduce oil and gas extractions, and reduce CO2 emissions.” Politico looks at the oil developments under the headline: “‘Powerful signal’: In a single day, Big Oil suffers historic blows on climate.” An editorial in the Wall Street Journal takes a different tack, saying: “The usual suspects are casting Exxon Mobil’s partial defeat in a proxy shareholder battle on Wednesday as a Waterloo for fossil fuels. Sorry – the vote is a reflection of the enormous political pressure and financial leverage of government pension funds, proxy advisers and asset managers like BlackRock that want to be seen as virtuous to the progressives who are now in power.” The paper adds: “This wasn’t a revolt by retail investors against fossil fuels. It was a progressive political coup.” It concludes: “Exxon won’t benefit if it exits its legacy business and dives head-long into renewable development where it has no expertise. Fossil fuels aren’t going away, and Exxon won’t prosper if it acts like they will.” For Bloomberg columnist Liam Denning, however, Exxon’s “proxy loss is also its strategic gain”. He adds: “The oil major’s defeat to an activist shareholder will help reinforce financial discipline and inject new thinking on how to invest for a low-carbon future.” In his weekly New Yorker column, veteran climate activist Bill McKibben says the decisions yesterday were “crushing blows to three of the world’s largest oil companies”, making it “Big Oil’s bad, bad day”. In its coverage of the Shell case, BBC News environment analyst Roger Harrabin says the verdict “is a massive win for environmental campaigners, and other industrial giants will be scrambling to figure out how it could affect them”. For Sky News, business presenter Ian King writes that it is “too soon to say whether [the] court ruling will force Shell to slash carbon emissions”, given, he says, that it is only legally binding in the Netherlands. King adds that it “could still set a precedent”.

We know net-zero is the destination – now let’s get moving
Nigel Topping, Financial Times Read Article

The Financial Times carries a comment on corporate net-zero targets by Nigel Topping, UN high-level champion for climate action for this year’s UK presidency of the COP26 climate summit, in which he argues: “Corporate climate pledges need backing with concrete plans and robust targets.” Topping adds: “Commitments must therefore come with a road map based on what the science says is needed, signposted with interim targets and regular progress reports. And the science says we first need to halve global greenhouse gas emissions between 2020 and 2030, while also conserving and regenerating nature.” The piece is part of a Financial Times special report trailed on the paper’s frontpage, launching its inaugural listing of firms that it describes as “Europe’s Climate Leaders”. The 300 firms are “those that achieved the greatest reduction in their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity between 2014 and 2019”, explains an article introducing the listings. The figures only account for emissions directly produced by each firm and those from supplying it with energy, the piece adds. It concludes that the data shows: “Companies have made big strides in cutting their emissions intensity, but much more remains to be done.” The special report includes articles on whether companies can live up to their climate pledges, on firms attempting to “grapple” with the “scope 3” emissions due to customers’ use of their products, and on the Science Based Targets campaign launched in 2015, which the FT says has “become the gold standard for judging corporate climate pledges”.

UK: Boris should be worried about Steve Baker, not Dominic Cummings
James Kirkup, The Spectator Read Article

An article for the Spectator by James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation thinktank, arguing that the current focus in Westminster on former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings is misplaced: “[W]hat could well be a bigger political challenge for [prime minister] Boris Johnson is being somewhat overlooked. That challenge is called Steve Baker [the self-styled “Brexit hardman” Conservative MP and now trustee of climate sceptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation].“ Kirkup continues: “Baker has now launched his long-whispered campaign over net-zero and the policies it entails…Why is this a big deal? Well, Baker has a fair track record of disrupting official plans. He drove the European Research Group that helped give Britain a much harder Brexit than it might have done. He’s clearly aiming here at the segment of public opinion that underpinned the Leave vote: cost-of-living voters who are open to claims that things are being imposed on them by what Baker calls ‘elite policymakers’.” But Kirkup argues: “Steve Baker won his last war, but it’s far from certain that he’ll win this one. A big reason to doubt him is that he’s betting against the power of markets to deliver innovation, which is rarely a good wager to make. A decade ago, Tories sceptical about David Cameron’s green agenda said that renewable electricity generation would never be economically viable, complaining that bill-payers were subsidising useless windmills. Since then, the cost of generating power from wind has fallen by more than 70%. The cost of solar generation is down around 90%.” Kirkup concludes: “This is a positive, market-driven story, one that Boris Johnson and his team shouldn’t struggle to tell…A new generation of Conservatives know that decarbonisation can mean jobs and wealth for voters.”

‘Dig coal to save the climate’: the folly of Cumbria’s plans for a new coalmine
Prof Rebecca Willis, The Guardian Read Article

A Guardian “long read” on plans to develop a new coalmine in Cumbria in northwest England, by Prof Rebecca Willis, says: “Supporters of a new coalmine have argued that it will reduce global warming and create green jobs. How could such absurd claims have gained any credibility?” Willis explores the background to the controversy, writing: “behind the row over the mine lies a complex story about the politics of post-industrial communities, and about the UK’s deeply ambiguous climate strategy”. She describes how the proposed mine’s developers claim it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding transporting coal from overseas and adds: “Talking to local politicians, I have heard these claims about emissions repeated many times.” She continues: “It is staggering that the mine and its supporters are able to make these claims…The scientific evidence is straightforward. Just last week, the International Energy Agency, established more than four decades ago to ensure reliable supplies of fossil fuels, declared that if climate goals are to be reached, no new coalmines could be built. It also said that there was enough coal in existing mines to cover the steel sector’s transition from coal to new methods of production. We need to be closing down mines. Opening new mines causes climate change. It’s not complicated.” Willis writes: “But if the evidence is straightforward, UK law is ambiguous. Planning law says that climate change must be taken into account, but doesn’t give clear guidance on how this should be done.” She concludes by arguing for two changes: “There are two obvious changes that could be made to avoid similar messes in future. The first would be to make sure that there is a clear link between national climate targets and what happens on the ground…The second lesson from the coalmine saga is that in ex-industrial areas like west Cumbria, the need for good jobs is paramount. It wasn’t that west Cumbria wanted a mine – it wanted jobs, and the coalmine just happened to come along.”

Science.

Crowdsourced air temperatures contrast satellite measures of the urban heat island and its mechanisms
Science Advances Read Article

New research compares measurements over Europe of “surface urban heat island” (SUHI) from satellites with “canopy urban heat island” (CUHI) from crowdsourced citizen weather stations. Focusing on the 2019 heatwave, the researchers find that “satellites produce a sixfold overestimate of UHI relative to station measurements…with SUHI exceeding CUHI in 96% of cities during daytime and in 80% at night”. The results “support urban greening as an effective UHI mitigation strategy and caution against relying on satellite data for urban heat risk assessments”, the authors conclude.

The key role of production efficiency changes in livestock methane emission mitigation
AGU Advances Read Article

Global methane emission intensity (per kg of protein) for most types of livestock shows a decreasing trend over the past two decades, a new study suggests. This is due to “an increasing protein-production efficiency”, the researchers say. If this efficiency trend continues, it has a “larger mitigation potential” for methane emissions than demand-side efforts to “promote balanced, healthy, and environmentally sustainable diets”, the study finds. The research also identifies “major countries that have the largest mitigation potential through increasing production efficiency”.

Climate-induced reversal of tree growth patterns at a tropical treeline
Science Advances Read Article

A new study investigates how trees in a high-elevation forest in central Mexico have responded to climate change depending on their position. Analysing cores from trees along the western canyons of the Iztaccihuatl volcano, the researchers quantified shifting tree growth and resource use over the past 143 years. Trees on south-facing slopes (SFS) grew faster than those on north-facing slopes (NFS) until the mid-20th century, the authors say, “when this pattern reversed notably with marked growth rate declines on SFS and increases on NFS”. Their analysis suggests that “this reversal is linked to interactions between CO2 stimulation of photosynthesis and water or nitrogen limitation”.

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Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.