Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Constitutional court strikes down German climate law
- Shell reports more than £2bn Q1 profit as fossil fuel demand returns
- Ørsted says offshore UK wind farms need urgent repairs
- US: Biden is pledging steep carbon cuts – but isn’t explaining how he got there
- Cobalt price jump underscores reliance on metal for electric vehicle batteries
- China: 2022 Asian Games to be supplied by '100% green electricity'
- A new deal for the young: saving the environment
- Glaciers matter — we must save them to save ourselves, homes and livelihoods
- Carbon loss from forest degradation exceeds that from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon
Germany’s top court has demanded changes to the country’s climate law, reports the Financial Times, saying it places too much of a burden on future generations to reduce carbon emissions. In what the paper describes as a “key victory for young climate campaigners”, the court said the law “violate[s] the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young” because it “irreversibly offload[s] major emission reduction burdens on to periods after 2030”. The measures the government had set out for the post-2030 period were “not sufficient to ensure that the necessary transition to climate neutrality is achieved in time”, the court added. In 2019, Germany committed to cutting emissions by 55% by 2030, and has a long-term goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, says Politico. The government will now have to revise the law by the end of the next year, says BBC News. The case had been brought by “young environmental activists, backed by Fridays for Future along with Greenpeace, Germany’s Friends of the Earth (BUND) and other NGOs”, says the Guardian. The paper carries the reaction of one activist who said: “Climate protection is not nice to have; climate protection is our basic right and that’s official now. This is a huge win for the climate movement, it changes a lot.” The ruling “could have political repercussions” ahead of the election in September that will choose a new Parliament and a successor to chancellor Angela Merkel, reports the New York Times. It explains: “During her four terms in office, Ms Merkel sought to highlight the importance of combating climate change, but her governments’ policies often fell short of activists’ demands. The 2019 law was the product of wrangling between Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and their partners in government, the centre-left Social Democrats, who seized the opportunity of the ruling for positioning themselves ahead of the upcoming campaign.” The paper notes that it is “the Greens, an opposition party, that could benefit most from the ruling given its popularity among young people. The party has seen its support explode recently, with polls showing it in a neck-and-neck race for the lead alongside of the conservatives”. Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said the decision made clear the need to “focus on shorter-term mitigation and emission reductions”, reports the Associated Press. And Clean Energy Wire has gathered other reaction to the ruling.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that German economy minister Peter Altmaier has said that Germany will need natural gas from Russia as a bridging technology as it moves to cleaner energy, but that the country will “build up jointly with Russia for big commercial scale” on hydrogen.
Royal Dutch Shell has reported a better than expected profit of $3.2bn (£2.3bn) for the first quarter of this year, reports the Guardian, bringing in “eight times more than the final quarter of 2020, as global demand for fossil fuels returns”. The paper continues: “The Anglo-Dutch company said rising oil and gas market prices helped its quarterly adjusted earnings rise sharply from $393m at the end of last year, and climb well above its $2.9bn profit for the first quarter last year. The result was better than equity analysts and investors had expected after Shell warned that the winter storm that battered Texas earlier this year would take a $200m toll on the company after impacting its refinery operations.” (For more on the storm, see Carbon Brief‘s media reaction piece.) As a result of the improvement in trading, Shell confirmed it would increase its quarterly dividend by 4%, says CityAM. This is “the second increase since its slashed its payout by two-thirds at the start of last year due to the coronavirus pandemic”, notes Reuters, which adds that Shell has warned there was still “significant uncertainty” over the outlook for demand in the second quarter. The Times reports the comments of chief executive Ben van Beurden, who said the company had made “a strong start to 2021, generating over $8bn of cash in the quarter” and was “ideally positioned to benefit from recovering demand”. And a second piece in the Times reports that Shell told investors yesterday that it could soon be ready to start share buybacks after the boost in profits. The Financial Times also reports on the first quarter results from French group Total, whose “adjusted net income of $3bn was up 69% on the same period last year”. However, the Financial Times Lex column warns that, while “oil stocks have all rallied sharply in price this year…truthfully, business as usual is not a realistic scenario for the energy sector”.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times also reports that the Methodist Church has sold its investments in Shell over its “inadequate” response to climate change, weeks before a shareholder vote on the company’s energy transition plans. Epworth Investment Management, which is owned by the Methodist Church and oversees its investments, told the paper that it had sold almost £21m in shares because Shell’s plans were not aligned with the 2015 Paris accord. Epworth chief executive David Palmer told the FT that “the patience of the Church has run out”.
The Danish wind power firm Ørsted has warned that as many as 10 of its giant offshore wind farms around the UK and Europe will need urgent repairs because their subsea cables have been eroded by rocks on the seabed, the Guardian reports. It continues: “The renewables firm…told investors it might need to spend up to DKK3bn (£350m) over the next two years to repair the cables. Ørsted has found that the rocks placed at the base of the wind turbine foundations to prevent the erosion of the seabed were responsible for wearing down the cable protection system which, in a worst-case scenario, could cause the cables to fail.” The company’s chief financial officer Marianne Wiinholt said that the company had discovered the issue “a very short time ago” after a cable failed at the Race Bank wind farm off the Norfolk coast, which was opened in 2018, reports the Times. Wiinholt explained: “When we investigated the cause, we found that more cables were damaged and that the damage is caused by the fact that the cable protection system…is placed on top of rocks and, with the movement in the sea, this cable protection system gets damaged.“ Some projects will be easy to fix, says Bloomberg – “the company can just dump more rocks on top of the cables to make them stay in place”. However, it adds, “in other cases, Ørsted will have to repair or replace the cables. That’s the pricey option that will make up the bulk of the cost.”
Elsewhere, BusinessGreen reports on a new analysis by Global Wind Energy Association, which forecasts that 470GW of onshore and offshore wind capacity will come online globally between 2021 and 2025 – “a surge that will create millions of jobs across the industry’s entire value chain”. The Brussels-based industry association says the majority of these jobs “will be in high growth wind markets, such as China, the US, India, Germany, the UK, Brazil, France, Sweden, Spain, South Africa and Taiwan”. Finally, the Times reports that critics have warned a planning inquiry of a “wall of turbines” if plans for new wind farms go ahead off the coast of Sunderland. The paper continues: “Thirteen turbines would be built five miles south of Strathy, between a 33-turbine wind farm and the site of an approved scheme for 39 more. Another 23 are being considered between Strathy and Armadale. Objections at the inquiry were led on its third day by Wildland, the conservation company bankrolled by the billionaire landowner Anders Povlsen.”
Politico reports that, despite White House officials saying the new US target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030 was based on a rigorous analysis, “nearly a week later, no one outside the administration seems to have seen it”. Several Republican, Democratic and committee offices on Capitol Hill have told the outlet that they have not been briefed by the Biden administration nor have they received any detailed explanation of how the White House plans to achieve the new target. This has “raised some suspicions that the goal to eliminate more than half the nation’s emissions may be more of a political aspiration than a meticulously detailed strategy”, the outlet says. It notes that Republican lawmakers sought to pull information on the administration’s aims from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael Regan at a budget hearing yesterday, but he declined to detail specific measures, responding that while EPA fed emissions data to the White House to develop the target, the effort would be “a government-wide approach” that is “not squarely on the shoulders of EPA and EPA’s regulatory authority”. However, “Biden’s defenders suggest there’s good political reason for the White House not to reveal its arithmetic”, Politico says: “Giving such details would open the administration up to political scrutiny about whether its models are realistic, hamstringing its broader policy actions to down greenhouse gases.” One Democratic congressional aide told the outlet: “If you put out an analysis, you’re immediately debating the analysis rather than policies to reduce emissions…I will guarantee you they are not assuming we ban red meat or air travel, so I guess in that sense it would answer some issues that are out there.” In related comment, Stephanie Feldstein – population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity – writes in the Washington Post that “lowering meat consumption should be in the president’s climate agenda. In return, Americans would get more delicious plant-based foods and a more sustainable future”. And Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff writes that social media may be “full of furious Republicans shouting at Biden to ‘get out of my kitchen’”, but “eating habits are already changing, if not fast enough for climate scientists then faster than angry burger warriors suggest”.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Biden told reporters during a visit to Georgia yesterday that he planned to continue talks with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito about infrastructure and jobs, but would not accept a proposal that funded only a fraction of his $2.3tn package. And the Hill reports that Biden’s pick for the No 2 spot fielded a question on his previous work for fossil fuel companies during his confirmation hearing yesterday as progressives look to press him on the issue. Tommy Beaudreau, an energy lawyer and a former Obama administration official, said that he accepts the criticism of the past work, adding that it “comes with holding these roles”, the outlet reports. However, he added that he was “a little bewildered” by some of the criticism because of “what I believe was a very strong track record during the Obama administration on conservation”, as well as what he described as his “tough but…fair-minded” reputation as a regulator.
The price of cobalt has jumped 40% so far this year on persistent demand from electric vehicle (EV) makers, reports the Financial Times, “underlining the challenge in reducing reliance on the rare metal to make batteries for longer-range cars”. Prices hit their highest level since January 2019 in March – at $25 a pound – and currently hover around $21, the paper explains. It adds that analysts indicate “they expect cobalt prices to reach $28.50 a pound this year, and rise to $40 in 2024 as alternatives are expected to remain scarce”. Electric carmakers including Tesla and Volkswagen have pledged over the coming years to reduce their use of cobalt, the paper says, “which is largely dependent on mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, deterred by human rights abuses in the supply chain and by the high price”. However, despite the increase in EV demand “the supply side is not reacting right now”, one Bank of America analyst tells the FT, adding: “So I forecast really big deficits potentially, which begs the question, where will the cobalt come from?” (For more on cobalt, see Carbon Brief‘s explainer on the metals that are key to a low-carbon future.)
In related news, the Financial Times also reports that the rollout of Volkswagen’s flagship electric cars has been unaffected by the semiconductor shortages roiling the industry, “easing investor concerns that bottlenecks would leave the company unable to meet strict EU emissions targets”.
And a further Financial Times article reports that the price of copper has traded above $10,000 for the first time in a decade as “the rebound from the coronavirus pandemic unleashes a surge of demand from China and the developed world that could not be matched by supply”. Copper is “used in everything from household appliances to electric vehicles and wind turbines”, the paper notes, adding: “As the most cost-effective conductive metal, it is expected to play a crucial role in the shift away from hydrocarbons to more sustainable sources of energy, including solar and wind.”
The organisers of the 2022 Asian Games – to be hosted in China’s Hangzhou – will run the multi-sports event with “100% green electricity”, reports Beijing’s state broadcaster CCTV. The channel says that 43 stadiums and the Asian Games Village will be supplied by renewable energy transferred from across the country from now till the end of the games next September. People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official paper, adds that 595 gigawatt hours of “clean energy” would be generated during the period. The article says that the move could save 73,100 tonnes of standard coal and lead to a 507,500-tonne reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Meanwhile, state-run Economic Information Daily has a piece titled: “Launch of world’s largest carbon market draws near, multiple parties accelerate preparation.” The article says that all preparation works for China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) would be finished by the end of May. It adds that the first batch of electricity companies covered by the market – set to go live by the end of June – had completed their “account-opening evaluation”. Li Gao, director-general of the Department of Climate Change in China’s Environment Ministry (MEE), recently said that the building of the national ETS was in a “critical stage”, according to state-affiliated China Urban Energy Weekly.
Elsewhere, China has included “carbon emission administrator” into the “national occupational sequence” – meaning it is now an approved occupation – reports Jiemian News. The state-affiliated publication describes the position as an employee who “engages in the monitoring, statistical accounting, verification, trading and consulting of greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO2, in enterprises and state institutions”. Official outlet China Energy News reports that associations representing six key industries – including petroleum, aviation, iron and steel – have started “cultivating” candidates to fill those roles.
“No generation should face a future blighted by a chaotic climate and environmental devastation, yet today’s young people do,” says the Financial Times in a robust editorial, which is trailed on its frontpage. Young people “have been left to pick up the environmental bill” from the “Great Acceleration” – a postwar explosion in human activity that has seen nature resource extraction “triple”, the paper says. It continues: “[Young people] live in a world of poisoned rivers, dirty air, razed forests and acidifying oceans polluted by plastic…Greenhouse gas emissions are on course to warm temperatures enough to make today’s melting ice sheets and extreme weather look like the opening act to a climate tragedy of unthinkable proportions.” However, “all is by no means lost”, the article says, noting that “global investment in renewables and other clean technologies has reached record levels” and “countries and companies alike are racing to set net-zero emission targets”. Yet, it says, “this is encouraging but inadequate”. The paper argues that “the pace and scale of action to cut emissions must be radically accelerated”, adding: “Since burning fossil fuels for energy is the single biggest source of man-made emissions, and the cost of green alternatives is falling fast, action should start here. A fast phaseout of coal and fossil fuel subsidies is needed, along with carbon pricing, carbon border taxes, supercharged green finance, funding for negative emissions technologies, and forest protection.” The paper also calls for an end to food waste and for “surging meat consumption to fall”. The editorial concludes: “Young people deserve a new deal for the environment, delivered at a pace never attempted before. If that seems unimaginable, so does their future without it.”
Broadcaster and adventurer Ben Fogle uses a piece in the Sun to comment on new research – widely reported yesterday – showing that glacier melt around the world has accelerated over the past two decades. Fogle – the United Nations “patron of the wilderness” – writes: “As a nation with no glaciers, it may seem unconcerning. But imagine if you live in the Asian mountain ranges where the food security of billions relies on the glacial-fed Mekong and Yangtze rivers.” The news “should be troubling to us all”, he continues: “Glaciers matter. Some of them took centuries to develop, yet they can vanish in just a few years. Glaciers are indicators of climate change. They are our early warning system. And they provide drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectric power. We need them.” Fogle encourages his readers to “change your consumer habits to need over want”, adding: “We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We need to find ways to meet our climate targets and stop the melt.” He concludes: “Land, homes and livelihoods will be lost here and across the planet. We must save our glaciers to save ourselves.” In related news, the Guardian reports on “figures compiled exclusively” for the paper, which show “a 10th of the world’s mountain glacier ice will have melted by the middle of this century even if humanity meets the goals of the Paris climate agreement”.
Aboveground biomass (AGB) and forest area affect the carbon cycle, climate and biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon. This study looks at changes in AGB and forest area by analysing satellite data. It finds that forest area loss was larger in 2019 than 2015, due in part to a loosening of forest protection policies. However, AGB was three times smaller in 2019 than 2015, it notes. Forest degradation (73%) contributed three times more to the gross AGB loss than deforestation (27%), the paper says, which indicates that forest degradation has become the largest process driving carbon loss and should become a higher policy priority.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.