Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Climate change: US megadrought 'already under way'
- Bank of England 'failing climate' with Covid-19 stimulus programme
- Shell unveils plans to become net-zero carbon company by 2050
- Low demand for power causes problems for National Grid
- Trump administration weakens mercury rule for coal plants
- Which world do we want after Covid-19?
- Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought
- Nonstate governance of solar geoengineering research
A drought, equal to the worst to have hit the western US in recorded history, is already under way, reports BBC News. It continues: “Researchers say the megadrought is a naturally occurring event that started in the year 2000 and is still ongoing. Climate change, though, is having a major impact with rising temperatures making the drought more severe.” While the term “megadrought” has no strict definition, says the New York Times, “it is generally considered to be a severe dry period persisting for several decades or longer”. Examining 1,600 tree ring records, the researchers reconstructed drought conditions in the southwest US back to 800AD, finding four such events, the paper explains. The current drought “is more severe than three of the ancient ones”, the researchers say. The earlier droughts “were caused by natural climate cycles that shifted the path of snow and rainstorms”, says InsideClimate News: “But human-caused global warming is responsible for about 47% of the severity of the 21st century drought by sucking moisture out of the soil and plants, the study found.” Lead author Park Williams tells the i newspaper that “we now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts”. Co-author Benjamin Cook tells the Washington Post: “I think the important lesson that comes out of this is that climate change is not a future problem…Climate change is a problem today. The more we look, the more we find this event was worse because of climate change.” The Economist, Mashable and MailOnline also have the story.
The Bank of England has been accused of failing to live up to its tough talk on the climate crisis, reports the Guardian, after it revealed it would buy debt from oil companies as part of its coronavirus stimulus programme. The paper continues: “The oil firms BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total are among the companies whose subsidiaries’ debts are eligible for the Bank’s bond purchases, according to an indicative list published on its website this week.” The bond purchases, known as quantitative easing (QE), are being made to stimulate the broader economy during the pandemic lockdown, the Guardian adds. Campaign group Positive Money says the purchases of oil company bonds broke the promises of Andrew Bailey, the new Bank of England governor, who last month told MPs there was a “very strong argument” for excluding fossil fuel companies from the purchases. Executive director Fran Boait tells the Guardian that “corporate QE is another subsidy for multinational companies and is not necessary to save the economy or save lives…There is no need for our response to the coronavirus crisis to harm our response to the climate crisis.”
In other oil company news, Bloomberg reports that the Trump administration is considering paying US oil producers to leave crude in the ground to help alleviate a glut that has caused prices to plummet and pushed some drillers into bankruptcy. The plan would see companies paid to leave as much as 365m barrels untapped by considering it part of the nation’s emergency stockpile, says the Hill, which adds: “Such a plan would be unprecedented and likely to face resistance from Congress.” In China, Reuters reports that oil processing hit a 15-month low in March “as state refiners maintained deep cuts in production levels as the coronavirus pandemic undercut fuel demand”. The Financial Times notes that ConocoPhillips “has slashed its spending plans and announced the biggest oil output cuts yet by a US energy producer as the sector retreats in the face of historic demand losses and plummeting prices”. And Axios reports that US jet fuel demand has fallen to its lowest level in a record going back 30 years. Oil prices rose by 3% “after President Donald Trump laid out guidelines on reviving a US economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic”, reports Reuters. However, another Reuters piece reports that the next Bank of Canada governor has warned that “even if the oil price war can be resolved, the collapse in global demand as a result of the pandemic suggests oil prices could be weaker for at least a few years”. Reuters reports that a joint statement from Russia and Saudi Arabia yesterday said the pair were ready to take measures with other oil producing nations on the oil market if necessary and were committed to the global oil cuts deal. Yet the Financial Times says “Russia’s oil producers are at odds over their roles in the world’s largest crude reduction agreement, throwing into doubt Moscow’s promise to slash output”. It adds: “Suppliers are wrangling over how to share out the country’s pledged reductions, according to three people with knowledge of the talks, with companies seeking to protect their own projects and avoid expensive shutdowns.”
Commenting on the oil price crash, an Economist editorial says: “For years the oil industry has faced the possibility that demand might fall, as governments moved to limit climate change. That threatened to heap chaos on oil producers, as capital dried up and companies battled for their share of a dwindling market. A peak in demand may still be years away. But oil producers should see Covid-19’s turmoil for what it is: not an aberration, but a sign of what is to come.” And writing in the Asia Times, Michael Grubb – a professor of energy and climate change – says that oil prices “could wax and wane but will not rise above $30-40 a barrel for any sustained period ever again”.
There is further coverage of the details set out by Shell of its net-zero plans, first reported by Bloomberg and Reuters yesterday. The Guardian reports that the company intends “to become a net zero-carbon company by 2050 or sooner by selling more green energy to help reduce the carbon intensity of its business”. It continues: “Shell’s target relies on the oil and gas company shifting its business towards selling clean energy products such as renewable energy and biofuels, and working alongside its ‘net-zero’ customers to also help offset the carbon impact too. The oil giant said it plans to work with its customers, such as major airlines, to share the burden of offsetting the carbon from fossil fuel products which may still be in use by 2050, such as jet fuels.” The Financial Times says Shell will adopt the new measures “despite huge financial pressures from the coronavirus pandemic and oil price collapse”. Ben van Beurden, chief executive, acknowledged the “extraordinary times” due to the impact of the pandemic, the FT reports. He said: “Even at this time of immediate challenge, we must also maintain the focus on the long term…Shell now needs to go further with our own ambitions, which is why we aim to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050 or sooner. Society, and our customers, expect nothing less.” BusinessGreen carries an excerpt of van Beurden’s speech at Shell’s “Responsible Investor Day” yesterday. This included outlining Shell’s “specific scenario looking at what Europe might need to do to decarbonise energy in the next 30 years”. The scenario has nine areas for action, van Beurden explained, such as ensuring “that renewables like wind and solar produce around three-quarters of that power” and the EU improving “its energy efficiency by 45% compared to today”. The Times, i newspaper, Evening Standard, AFP and Axios also have the story, while the Financial Times reports that Shell will push ahead with a planned A$10bn ($6.4bn) gas project in Australia, which will bring up to 90bn cubic feet per year of new gas to the market at peak production.
Elsewhere, Reuters reports that Europe’s top oil and gas companies “have committed themselves to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets which vary in scope and detail, making them hard for investors to compare”. The outlet delves into the topic with a series of graphics.
The National Grid has warned that record low demand for electricity during Britain’s coronavirus lockdown could lead to wind farms and power plants being turned off in order to avoid overloading the electricity grid, the Guardian reports. It continues: “The energy system operator has forecast that the lockdown could cut demand for electricity 20% below normal levels, potentially leading to an oversupply of electricity at times. British households are using more electricity than usual through the lockdown, but overall demand for power is far lower since schools, offices, factories and restaurants were forced to close last month.” A National Grid report notes that “if the summer demand for electricity continues to remain lower than normally experienced due to Covid-19 measures remaining in place, we would expect to take more action to balance the power system”, reports the Times. Such measures might include paying large wind farms to switch off and paying hydroelectric plants to use surplus electricity by moving water back to their top lakes, the paper adds.
The Trump administration yesterday withdrew the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that forced US coal-fired power plants to cut emissions of mercury and other pollutants, reports Reuters. According to “three sources familiar with the matter”, the outlet says that “the move would leave the so-called Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in place for now, but could pave the way for lawsuits from companies opposed to it and prevent similar regulations from being implemented in the future”. The New York Times says the change comes down to a “new method of calculating the costs and benefits of curbing mercury pollution”. It explains: “By reducing the health benefit of regulations on paper, while raising their economic costs, the new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant that the fossil fuel industry has deemed too costly to control.” The changes mean the government would not be able to count collateral benefits – such as reducing soot and smog – when it sets limits on air pollutants, adds the Washington Post. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters yesterday that the organisation was “put[ting] in place an honest accounting mechanism”, adding that “99% of the benefits” from the mercury rule came from a reduction in soot: “One would not say it is even rational, never mind appropriate, to impose billions in economic cost in return for a few dollars in health benefits.” Former EPA administrator Carol M Browner tells the paper: “It’s a disgraceful decision coming on the heels of other poor decisions on air quality at a time we can least afford it.” But, Axios notes, “the move won’t remove the rule outright and you can expect legal challenges regardless. Also, its impact on the ground with actual coal plants will be minimal, given virtually all of them have already complied with the original 2012 rule”. Wheeler did pledge to defend the MATS standard in court, saying “we defend all of our rulemakings”, notes the Hill. Meanwhile, the Hill also reports that environmental groups are suing the EPA over a March memo signalling that the agency would not seek penalties against companies that do not monitor their pollution during the coronavirus outbreak.
EurActiv has a translation of an article by Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission with responsibility for climate change, and Bertrand Piccard, chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, which was originally published in the French newspaper L’Opinion. Writing on what a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic might look like, Timmermans and Piccard ask whether we “desperately fight to get back to what we had previously or try to reach a much better situation?”. They suggest “aiming for qualitative growth, with a circular, sustainable and highly competitive economy”. This can be achieved by “replacing old and polluting infrastructure with a modern, clean and efficient one, across all sectors – water, energy, construction, mobility, agriculture and industrial processes to name but a few”. Rather than using financial stimulus packages to support “business as usual” that lock in “obsolete economic models, and investing in assets that will soon be stranded”, Timmermans and Piccard argue that a green deal would “help us to create the biggest industrial market of the century, as it has become today more profitable to protect the environment than to destroy it”.
Also commenting on parallels between Covid-19 and climate change, former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney writes in the Economist that the “economy must yield to human values” in the aftermath of the pandemic. He says: “The great test of whether this new hierarchy of values will prevail is climate change. After all, climate change is an issue that (i) involves the entire world, from which no one will be able to self-isolate; (ii) is predicted by science to be the central risk tomorrow; and (iii) we can only address if we act in advance and in solidarity.” In an interview in the Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron says that the “very profound, brutal choices” made during the Covid-19 crisis show what could be done to tackle climate change. He says: “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”
An editorial in the Irish Times says there can be “no return to normal” after the pandemic. Citing Carbon Brief analysis indirectly, the paper notes that “indications suggest global CO2 will be cut by 5% this year – more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war”. It continues: “Covid-19 comes with immense social and human costs even if its effect is only temporary. But the climate crisis has already caused more deaths than the worst predictions for coronavirus and is probably permanent. As a result, any stimulus packages should “be directed towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport”, the editorial says. Focusing on air pollution, Times columnist Iain Martin strikes a similar tone. He writes: “It surely makes sense to view the aftermath of this crisis as an opportunity to ensure we have permanently cleaner air…So why not, after the first phase of the crisis is over, speed up these efforts [to cut pollution] as part of a growth recovery plan? Bring forward the deadlines and increase incentives to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.” A piece in the Guardian by three academics argues that the “pandemic shows we must transform the global food system”.
Writing in the Bangladesh newspaper the Daily Star, Saleemul Huq – director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development and a former IPCC author – asks whether Covid-19 will affect how international climate negotiations are carried out. Huq suggests that “the meeting of representatives from nearly two hundred governments at the annual COP [Conference of the Parties] of the UNFCCC should itself be streamlined to focus on the essential elements while actions to effectively implement the Paris Agreement”. Huq “question[s] the need for tens of thousands of people to congregate in a different city every year at the COP”. Instead, he suggests, “it may well be worth exploring how more of the negotiations could be held virtually, while ensuring that access for the poorest and most vulnerable countries is not compromised”.
Finally on Covid-19, E&E News science reporter Scott Waldman looks at how climate sceptics have turned towards attacking modelling of the coronavirus. A group of “federal lawmakers, climate science deniers and conservative pundits with close White House connections” have “increased their attacks recently on the data modelling behind the novel coronavirus response”, says Waldman. They claim, “despite scientific evidence to the contrary” that “the flaws also prove the limits of climate change forecasts”, Waldman says.
The current severe and persistent drought in southwestern North America is comparable to medieval megadroughts, and climate change plays a large role, say the authors. The study used hydrological modelling and new 1200-year tree-ring reconstructions of summer soil moisture to demonstrate that the 2000–2018 drought was the second driest 19-year period since the year 800, exceeded only by a late-1500s megadrought. The megadrought-like trajectory of 2000–2018 soil moisture was driven by natural variability superimposed on drying due to anthropogenic warming. Anthropogenic trends in temperature, relative humidity, and precipitation estimated from 31 climate models account for 47% of the 2000–2018 drought severity, pushing an otherwise moderate drought onto a trajectory comparable to the worst megadroughts since 800 CE.
As climate change’s risks have grown and limits to primary responses become evident, solar geoengineering has risen in prominence as a potential response, note the authors. Widespread calls for expanded research have raised objections, based on anticipated links to potential future deployment and potentially harmful interactions with other climate responses. This article analyses the potential for non-state actors to provide governance functions needed to enable, control, and legitimate near-term, small-scale solar geoengineering research. The authors describe six types of non-state actors in terms of their capacity, knowledge, and interests relevant to governing solar geoengineering research: researchers themselves, the universities or other institutions that employ them, funders, academic publishers, professional societies, and advocacy nongovernmental organisations. They conclude that suitably configured collaborations among these can meet the additional governance needs of near-term solar geoengineering research.
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