Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Climate crisis: 2020 was joint hottest year ever recorded
- CO2 levels to breach 50% rise from pre-industrial era in 2021 – Met Office
- US disaster costs doubled in 2020, reflecting costs of climate change
- How the Georgia election results just raised Biden’s climate ambitions
- Why UK pledge to become ‘Saudi Arabia’ of wind power rings hollow
- Climate impacts of Covid‐19 induced emission changes
Last year was likely the joint warmest on record, reports the Guardian, tied with 2016. Temperature data released by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) shows that the global average surface temperature in 2020 was 1.25C higher than in the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900, the paper explains: “Only 2016 matched the heat in 2020, but that year saw a natural El Niño climate event which boosts temperatures. Without that it is likely 2020 would have been the outright hottest year.” In fact, a La Niña event developed in the second half of the year, notes the New York Times, which is “essentially the opposite of” El Niño and is “marked by surface cooling across much of the equatorial Pacific Ocean”. Dr Zeke Hausfather – Carbon Brief’s climate science contributor – tells the paper that the largest effect of La Niña on global temperatures tends to come several months after conditions peak in the Pacific. He says: “So while certainly La Niña had some cooling effect in the last few months, it’s likely going to have a bigger impact on 2021 temperatures.” In addition to 2020 tying the record, all of the last six years are among the hottest ever, Dr Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at C3S, tells the paper. She adds: “It’s a reminder that temperatures are changing and will continue to change if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions.” The past 12 months also saw a new record for Europe, around 0.4C warmer than 2019, notes BBC News. The C3S data comes ahead of other climate agencies – such as NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Berkeley Earth – which are due to publish their figures on 14 January, notes the Washington Post: “They are expected to rank the year as either the first or second-warmest on record, due to slightly different ways of measuring global temperatures.” The Independent and New Scientist also have the story.
In related news, the Guardian reports that the last decade was the hottest on record for Australia – with temperatures almost 1C above average and one third of a degree warmer than the previous decade. The data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology show that 2020 was the country’s fourth warmest year on record, notes the Sydney Morning Herald. It adds: “Only 2019, which was Australia’s hottest and driest year, 2013 and 2005, were warmer.” Bureau chief Andrew Watkins tells the paper that “it’s strange that we almost shrug our shoulders”, adding that “it’s a significant record” given 2020 included a La Niña event in the Pacific from September onwards, which tends to drive cooler-than-average conditions.
The UK Met Office forecasts that human activity this year will push CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to levels 50% higher than they were before the industrial revolution, reports Reuters. The Met Office’s annual forecast indicates that emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation will see CO2 continue to accumulate in the atmosphere in 2021, the newswire says, “with concentrations expected to exceed 417 parts per million (ppm) for several weeks from April to June for the first time”. That record level “would be 50% higher than the concentration of 278ppm at the dawn of the industrial era in the late 18th century”, it says, adding: “The annual peak is likely to be followed by a cyclical fall as plants growing in the northern hemisphere summer absorb CO2. From September onwards, CO2 levels will resume rising, with the average annual concentration of the greenhouse gas seen at around 416.3ppm.” Met Office climate scientist Prof Richard Betts tells the Independent that the rise in CO2 levels “is accelerating”. He says: “It wasn’t until 1986 that CO2 levels were around 25% higher, compared to the pre-industrial. So that took about 200 years to happen. And now we’ve done the next 25% in a little over 30 years.“ . The Times reports the comments of Dr Heather Graven from Imperial College London, who describes the 50% increase as “another grim milestone in the unrelenting rise of atmospheric CO2 concentration”. And the i newspaper notes that the Met Office says the temporary dip in emissions last year because of the pandemic has not reduced the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Betts tells the paper: “Although the Covid-19 pandemic meant that less CO2 was emitted worldwide in 2020 than in previous years, that still added to the ongoing build-up in the atmosphere.” Last year, Carbon Brief published a guest post by Betts and colleagues on the limited impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on atmospheric CO2.
Hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters across the US caused $95bn in damage last year, reports the New York Times, “almost double the amount in 2019 and the third-highest losses since 2010”. The estimates from German reinsurer Munich Re are “the latest signal of the growing cost of climate change”, the paper says: “They reflect a year marked by a record number of named Atlantic storms, as well as the largest wildfires ever recorded in California. Those losses occurred during a year that was one of the warmest on record, a trend that makes extreme rainfall, wildfires, droughts and other environmental catastrophes more frequent and intense.” Topping the list of costly events was Hurricane Laura, the paper reports, “which caused $13bn in damage when it struck southwestern Louisiana in late August”. The paper adds: “Laura was one of the year’s record number of 30 named storms in 2020; 12 of those storms made landfall, another record. The storms caused $43bn in losses, almost half the total for all US disasters last year.” The global figure for natural disaster damages in 2020 is $210bn, reports Reuters, increasing from $166bn the previous year. The newswire notes that “floods in China were the most costly individual loss at $17bn, but only 2% of the damage was insured”.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Kenya’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement warns that the country needs $62bn (£46bn) to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the next 10 years. See Carbon Brief’s new analysis of the NDSs, including Kenya’s, published before UN’s end-of-2020 deadline.
There is continued reaction to the Democrats taking control of the US senate after winning two run-off elections in the state of Georgia. In the Washington Post, reporters Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson write that “the prospects for president-elect Joe Biden to pursue more aggressive policies to tackle climate change and other major environmental problems have expanded overnight”. They continue: “Even the thinnest Democratic majorities will enable Biden to press for much more generous federal support for renewable energy, environmentally friendly infrastructure, expanded tax breaks for electric vehicles and stricter energy-efficiency standards. Democratic control of Congress will make it easier for Biden to reverse some of President Trump’s rollbacks of environmental protections and to win confirmation for political appointees across the US government who can shift policy toward a greener future.” Timothy Gardner and Valerie Volcovici at Reuters caution that the “paper-thin majority” in the Senate “likely puts sweeping global warming legislation beyond reach”. For example, “Biden’s vision for a $2tn climate plan, including broad limits on greenhouse gas emissions or federal mandates for clean energy, may be harder to achieve through legislation”. They explain: “Most bills require 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to pass. And a handful of moderate or pro-fossil fuel Democrats – including Senator Joe Manchin of coal state West Virginia – could hamper any efforts to shoehorn sweeping climate measures into budget reconciliation bills that require a simple majority.” BusinessGreen editor James Murray notes that Manchin “has long been a vocal opponent of cap-and-trade legislation, or any measures that could be seen as a threat to the state’s coal industry, and he is set to chair the influential Senate energy and national resources committee”. Nevertheless, “far more green spending can now be expected with Democrats controlling the floors of the Senate and House than if Republicans had managed to retain a majority in the Senate”, says the Financial Times “Energy Source” column. It adds: “Biden has said that he saw December’s $900bn omnibus stimulus bill as a ‘down payment’ on the recovery and wants more spending in his first days of office to propel the economy out of the Covid crisis. The Democrats’ pair of victories in Georgia makes bigger sums far more likely.”
Elsewhere, Politico senior climate correspondent Karl Mathiesen says that the Republicans loss of the Senate “swept aside a political obstacle to serious international cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions”. He adds: “Biden has pledged to return to the Paris deal immediately after he takes office. For the EU, that sweetens the return of a longed-for ally in its quest to commit China to big emissions cuts this decade.” And BusinessGreen reports on a new poll in the UK on which 60% of respondents predicted a “Biden effect”, with “60% thinking the incoming US President’s promise to focus on tackling the climate emergency will be good for the environment”. The Independent’s Louise Boyle and New York Times reporters Jim Tankersley and Michael D Shear also look at the implications of the changing balance of power in the Senate.
In a Financial Times news feature, energy correspondent Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh and north east correspondent Chris Tighe discuss why, “despite being a world leader in offshore wind farms, Britain is yet to enjoy a manufacturing and jobs boom”. They write: “The UK’s waters are home to more offshore wind farms than anywhere else in the world, but this concentration has not translated into the jobs and manufacturing boom envisaged in the years since the first one came on stream 20 years ago…In his last year in office in 2010, then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown said the UK’s leading position in offshore wind meant the sector could support up to 70,000 jobs by 2020. But, in reality, direct employment and supply chain jobs stand at an estimated 11,000.” The article explores some of the reasons why UK-based suppliers are “living off the crumbs of the major orders”, as the chair of one firm puts it. For example, the piece explains, “developers said government subsidy auctions for offshore wind, which tend to prioritise the lowest costs to consumers, lead to big contracts going overseas as this makes tenders to supply the kit extremely price sensitive often to the detriment of UK-based companies”. And developers “also pointed to under-investment in key infrastructure over the last two decades, which has left UK manufacturers struggling to compete with the more modern and efficient facilities elsewhere in Europe and Asia”, the piece notes.
A drop in aerosol emissions during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 led to “reductions in total anthropogenic aerosol cooling”, a new study says. The researchers use estimates of emissions changes for 2020 in two climate models to simulate the impacts of the Covid‐19 economic changes. They find that “reductions in aerosol and precursor emissions, chiefly soot or Black Carbon (BC) and sulfate (SO4)” reduced human-caused aerosol cooling, “creating a small net warming effect on the Earth in spring 2020”.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.