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TODAY'S CLIMATE AND ENERGY HEADLINES
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Today's climate and energy headlines:
- COP26: Russia's Vladimir Putin will not attend climate summit
- COP26: Document leak reveals nations lobbying to change key climate report
- UK meat tax and frequent-flyer levy proposals briefly published then deleted
- Energy crisis exposes EU tensions with few solutions for leaders
- Alok Sharma hints that significant COP26 deal can be done without China
- US Democrats scramble to hammer out climate legislation ahead of Glasgow talks
- Charting the UK’s path to net-zero
- COP26 will fail unless rich nations keep their promises to the vulnerable – we cannot afford to be divided
- How a small blog became a thorn in the side of corporate climate denial
- Direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics
The Kremlin announced yesterday that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will not attend the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, BBC News reports. No reason was given for the decision not to attend, the outlet explains, but a Kremlin spokesperson said that climate change was one of Russia’s “most important priorities”. BBC News environment correspondent Matt McGrath notes, within the same article, that the decision “will undoubtedly be a disappointment for the UK which had hoped that Putin would be open to making progress on a number of issues, including deforestation”. The New York Times notes that Putin told an energy conference in Moscow last week that he was reluctant to attend COP26 because of the risk of spreading coronavirus. Reuters reports that Putin will take part remotely, with a spokesperson saying they “need to work out in what format it will be possible (for Putin) to speak via video conference, at what moment”. However, the Independent claims that “absent leaders will be unable to join by Zoom”.
The Daily Telegraph and Reuters carry the response from Downing Street to Putin’s decision. A spokesperson said: “The prime minister has said before that we would obviously strongly encourage leaders to attend given this is a very critical moment in terms of tackling climate change…The prime minister is looking forward to meeting all leaders who have confirmed their attendance, which I believe is over 120 so far. We obviously expect all countries to be represented at a senior level, given that we’re asking for meaningful pledges towards tackling this issue.” The spokesperson “was unable to say who No 10 was expecting to represent Russia in Mr Putin’s absence”, notes another Independent article. Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Alok Sharma, president-designate for COP26, said “we want absolutely every single world leader to be there, but individual world leaders will have individual constraints”, reports Reuters. He added: “It is better to do things in person. In the case of Russia… they will be sending a delegation.” Reuters also has a “factbox” showing who is going to the climate summit in Glasgow and who’s not, and the Press Association has a similar piece. The Guardian reports that “a third of Pacific small island states and territories do not plan to send any government figures” to COP26 because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, Climate Home News reports that a group of emerging economies have issued a “strong rebuke” to the UK for calling on all countries to cut their emissions to net-zero by the middle of the century. In a statement ahead of COP26, ministers from the group of 24 “like-minded” nations – which includes China, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia – accused rich nations of failing to address their historical responsibility for causing climate change and shifting the burden on developing economies, the outlet explains. (For more on historical responsibility, see Carbon Brief‘s recent article, published as part of a week-long series on climate justice.) The statement argues that the “this new ‘goal’ which is being advanced runs counter to the Paris Agreement and is anti-equity and against climate justice”. The countries instead say that developed countries should “aim for their full decarbonisation within this decade” to allow developing countries more time to grow their economies and meet energy demands. And Reuters reports that “the Group of 20 rich countries [G20] are divided over phasing out coal and committing to limit global warming to 1.5C as they prepare for a crucial summit in Rome next week, sources familiar with the negotiations said”.
In other COP news, Ed Miliband – Labour’s shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy – told an Independent event on Tuesday that the summit should act as a “large embarrassment mechanism” for the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. He said: “It’s basically a way to put world leaders on the spot and to make them account for what they’re doing. It’s a forcing mechanism.” BusinessGreen takes a look at the now-finalised “presidency programme” at the summit, which the government says are designed to ‘put a spotlight on how all parts of society and the global economy drives ambitious climate action’. And the New Scientist has an “essential guide” to the COP.
Leaked documents from the review process of the ongoing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 3 report reveal that “Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels”, reports BBC News. The “cache of comments and the latest draft of the report were released to Greenpeace UK’s team of investigative journalists, Unearthed, which passed it on to BBC News”, the outlet explains. It continues: “The leak shows a number of countries and organisations arguing that the world does not need to reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as the current draft of the report recommends. An adviser to the Saudi oil ministry demands ‘phrases like ‘the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…’ should be eliminated from the report’. One senior Australian government official rejects the conclusion that closing coal-fired power plants is necessary, even though ending the use of coal is one of the stated objectives the COP26 conference.” Other comments show “Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest producers of beef products and animal feed crops in the world, argu[ing] strongly against evidence in the draft report that reducing meat consumption is necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions”, the outlet adds. The IPCC tells BBC News that “our processes are designed to guard against lobbying – from all quarters”, adding: “The review process is (and always has been) absolutely fundamental to the IPCC’s work and is a major source of the strength and credibility of our reports.” Prof Corinne le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, who has contributed to three IPCC assessment reports, tells the outlet that “there is absolutely no pressure on scientists to accept the comments…If the comments are lobbying, if they’re not justified by the science, they will not be integrated in the IPCC reports”. And Prof Simon Lewis of University College London and the University of Leeds tells Unearthed: “Like most scientists I’m uncomfortable with leaks of draft reports, as in an ideal world the scientists writing these reports should be able to do their job in peace. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and with emissions still increasing, the stakes couldn’t be higher.” At the time of writing, the article is the “most read” on the BBC News website and is leading news bulletins.
A blueprint to change public behaviour to cut carbon emissions – which includes levies on high-carbon food and a reduction in frequent flying – was published by the government alongside its net-zero strategy on Tuesday (see Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A) before being withdrawn within a few hours, the Guardian reports. The document – produced by the government’s behavioural insights team, or “nudge unit” – says tackling climate change requires “significant behavioural change”, including reducing flying and eating ruminant meat, the paper explains. The report also suggests promoting domestic tourism and portrays business travel as an “immoral indulgence”, reports BBC News. After being withdrawn from the government’s website, a spokesperson said that it was a research paper and not official policy, reports the Daily Telegraph. They added: “We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way. For that reason, our net-zero strategy published yesterday contained no such plans.” Taking a typically measured tone, the Sun says that ministers “drew up secret plans to look at how to clobber Brits with meat taxes – while publicly telling the nation it would never happen”.
Meanwhile, there is continued coverage of the deluge of climate policy documents published by the government on Tuesday (see yesterday’s Carbon Brief Daily Briefing for more details). The i newspaper says “fresh splits have emerged within the Cabinet” over how to fund the net-zero transition. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng “renewed hostilities with chancellor Rishi Sunak after he appeared to reject key elements of the Treasury’s assessment of the financial effect of decarbonising the economy”, the outlet explains: “But Mr Kwarteng dismissed suggestions that new green levies would need to be imposed on the public, and insisted he did not ‘accept’ that the brunt of the cost of the switch to electric vehicles would be borne by lower-income households. He also described as ‘unhelpful’ briefings against him earlier this month by Treasury sources.”
The i newspaper also reports that campaigners have warned that plans to offer homeowners £5,000 to replace their gas boiler with a heat pump could leave the 13m renters living in the UK at the mercy of their landlord to make the change, with concerns that the costs may be passed on in rent hikes. (See Carbon Brief‘s in-depth Q&A for more on the government’s heat and buildings strategy.) The Daily Telegraph reports on polling that shows that 27% of the UK public “oppose [a] ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2030”. (The paper does not say the percentage that support it.) The i newspaper looks at the government’s newly announced £620m investment in electric vehicle (EV) grants, and the Financial Times Alphaville column notes: As with all industrial policy, there will be both positive and negative second-order effects. For instance, more EVs means potentially more stress on the grid at peak charging times, which could induce more investment in greener electrical capacity, leading to further decarbonisation. Or, it could simply lead to blackouts. (Place your bets!)”
In other UK news, the Financial Times reports on how mini nuclear reactors are vying for a “key role in UK’s push to hit climate targets”. The Guardian reports that Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has said that devolving the Crown Estate to Wales could boost the country’s aspirations to become a world leader in renewable energy. And the Press Association reports that Ian Blackford – leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster – has criticised the UK Government for not just holding back carbon capture and storage in Scotland but also for proving to be an “active barrier” to renewable energy opportunities.
Rising energy prices are “exacerbating divisions in the European Union as national leaders brace for heated talks about how to protect the most vulnerable and avoid a backlash against the bloc’s ambitious climate change plan”, reports Bloomberg. The spike in power and gas prices is “the first topic for EU leaders in their two-day summit” starting today in Brussels, the outlet explains, “but the bloc’s ability to act is extremely limited”. Most countries “have already cut taxes or approved subsidies to help households and companies, and there are few remaining tools that are technically possible and politically palatable”, it continues. According to the most recent version of the summit communique seen by Bloomberg, EU leaders are set to give the green light to immediate rescue plans by national governments and will pledge to “swiftly consider medium- and long-term measures that would ensure energy at a price that is affordable for households and companies”. However, “that won’t do anything to alleviate the current crisis and, behind the scenes, leaders will spar over whether nuclear energy and gas should be treated as green, the best way to reduce emissions and whether to change the way the electricity market is regulated”, Bloomberg says: “So, while the EU wants to lead the global fight against climate change and set an example for other major emitters such as the US and China, this summit will underline how far apart EU nations are in agreeing on their own energy transition.” (The Financial Times reports that “Brussels will delay long-awaited proposals on how to classify nuclear power and natural gas under the EU’s landmark labelling system for green finance”.) Reuters says that “countries including Spain, Italy and Greece want the EU to respond with regulatory changes. They propose joint gas buying among EU countries to form strategic reserves, and decoupling European electricity prices from the cost of gas-fuelled generation”. However, “others, including Germany and Belgium, are wary of overhauling regulations in response to a short-term crisis”. Yesterday, Germany’s federal network agency “curbed the permitted return on new infrastructure for power and gas networks in the years to 2029 to protect consumers from higher energy bills”, reports Reuters.
Russian actions concerning gas supply have made advocates of the EU’s plan to tackle climate change look “ridiculous”, according to the leader of Poland’s ruling party, reports Reuters. Poland has called for the bloc to cancel or delay parts of its “Fit for 55” plan to tackle climate change, the newswire explains. In an interview, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said that “energy prices have hit many EU countries with such force that their citizens will simply not agree to further increases in the name of some unproved theory”. The newswire notes that “Kaczynski did not specify exactly which Russian actions he was referring to”. At the same time, Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned that the gas crisis could yet bite Russia, should soaring prices feed into inflation, Reuters reports. Putin told senior government officials that “we are not interested in an endless increase in energy prices, including for gas”, adding that higher gas prices could also cause fertiliser prices to spike, which, in turn, would add to already higher food costs. Reuters also reports that “Gazprom’s domestic storage is almost full, giving the Russian state gas giant leeway to increase exports this winter”. However, one of the world’s biggest producers of fertiliser has also warned that the energy crisis could escalate into a world food crisis as fertiliser production is cut back, reports the Guardian.
In the UK, the head of Scottish Power has urged UK ministers to urgently review the energy price cap, warning that persistently high wholesale gas prices could trigger an “absolute massacre” in the retail market that could claim another 20 suppliers, reports the Financial Times. Keith Anderson said the regulator Ofgem and the government must look at changing the UK’s price cap, which protects at least 15m households, earlier than its next scheduled review in April so suppliers can pass on spikes in their costs sooner, the FT explains: “He predicted the industry as a whole could be left nursing losses of up £5bn by May next year as suppliers are forced to buy energy for households nearing the end of their fixed-price deals.” Anderson “wants the government to restructure the price cap by introducing a lower tariff to protect fuel-poor or vulnerable customers, and to change the rules so that other customers who can pay will gradually face higher bills that reflect the true cost of energy”, says the Times. Anderson also criticised the “fixation about trying to create more and more competition and get more and more companies into the energy sector”, which has “ended up with a raft of small, not particularly well-run organisations coming into the retail sector”, reports BBC News. (Scottish Power is one of the UK’s biggest energy companies.) Anderson warned that the gas crisis will keep driving energy bills higher until 2023, notes the Guardian.
Finally, Reuters reports that a “top bureaucrat in the federal oil ministry” has warned that high prices threaten India’s goal to boost the use of gas in its energy mix as some industries are looking at switching back to coal.
City AM reports that Alok Sharma, president-designate for COP26, “has hinted that a significant deal could be done at the climate change summit without China as fears grow the world’s biggest emitter will not come to the negotiating table”. According to the outlet, Sharma told a parliamentary committee that he had asked Xi’s team to provide more details on their plans to go net-zero by 2060. It added that Sharma said he heard that “they’ll be coming forward and publishing sector by sector analysis of where they’re going in terms of emissions reductions”. Evening Standard says that Xi, “who has not left China since the beginning of the pandemic and who did not attend the UN General Assembly last month, does not look set to come”.
Meanwhile, Xinmin Evening News reports that the Shanghai municipal government issued “implementation opinions” on Tuesday to accelerate turning the city into an “international green financial hub”. The document instructed that Shanghai should “basically establish itself as a globally influential centre for carbon trading, pricing and innovation”, the newspaper says. Meanwhile, prof Zhang Xiliang – director of the Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy at Tsinghua University and one of the designers of China’s national emissions trading scheme – explained to China Environment News the key points, principles and future direction of the carbon market.
Elsewhere, National Business Daily reports that the development of the “new energy” vehicle (NEV) industry is “accelerating” in China. Citing the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said at a press conference on Tuesday that the domestic production and sales of NEVs had both surpassed 2.1m in the first nine months of 2021, which “further enhanced [China’s] world-leading position” in the field, the outlet says. Finally, China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) – which was launched on 16 July – had seen more than 18m tonnes of carbon emission allowance traded by Monday, according to statistics reported by Shanghai Securities News. The cumulative turnover had reached 845m yuan ($132m), the publication said.
Finally, Reuters reports that BP has signed a sales and purchase agreement with a unit of China’s Shenzhen Gas Group Co to supply piped natural gas for 10 years starting in 2023.
Congressional Democrats and the White House yesterday “scrambled…to find agreement on measures to tackle climate change as part of President Joe Biden’s centrepiece spending legislation” ahead of COP26, reports Reuters. It continues: “Democrats have negotiated for weeks over a spending bill on social and climate programs that, among other things, will invest in cleaner energy. But West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, whose support is vital to passing the bill in the US Senate, opposes certain proposals, such as a plan to reward utilities that invest in renewable fuels and penalise those that do not. Instead, Democrats are considering a flurry of options, including boosting production tax credits for nuclear power and enhancing credits for carbon sequestration projects, according to three congressional sources involved in the discussions.” Biden told lawmakers on Tuesday that he wants agreements on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the wider spending bill ahead of the UN talks, the newswire explains. A source tells the outlet that Biden “was very clear that is the deadline he cares most about, is having something to take to Glasgow”, adding that Biden believed Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, another centrist Democrat, could agree to a spending bill in the range of $1.75tn to $1.9tn, down from $3.5tn. The Hill also covers the evolving story, while the Financial Times ESG investing column says “Washington gridlock spells trouble for COP26”.
Elsewhere, several outlets focus on Machin’s opposition to key elements of Biden’s plans. The New York Times says: “The most powerful part of President Biden’s climate agenda – a programme to rapidly replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy – has been dropped from the budget bill pending in Congress, after Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia, told the White House that he strongly opposes the programme. Mr Manchin’s vote is crucial to passage of the broader budget bill, which Democrats are trying to push through with razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress.” The paper’s “The Daily” podcast looks at “how a single senator derailed Biden’s climate plan”. Vox says the alternatives to the clean electricity programme “won’t be enough”. The Guardian notes that “in the current electoral cycle, Manchin has received more in political donations from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, more than double the second largest recipient”. Michelle Cottle – a member of the New York Times editorial board – writes that “it’s not as though Mr Manchin’s conservative outlier status is new”.
Meanwhile, Kathy Castor – Florida congresswoman and chair of the select committee on the climate crisis – tells the Guardian that “it’s clear that investing in clean electricity is one of the most effective ways to unlock emission reductions and create good-paying jobs across our economy, which is why we’ve fought to include a robust Clean Electricity Performance Program in the Build Back Better Act”.
The UK government’s strategy to reach net-zero is “bold in places while lacking in others”, says a Financial Times editorial, but overall it “represents among the most detailed and impressive blueprints unveiled by any government to reduce its emissions”. The strategy “implicitly relies on technological progress – such as electric cars – allowing Britons to maintain their lifestyles without having to make much in the way of sacrifices”, the paper notes. Ultimately, the strategy is a “creature of political compromise” between “the fiscally conservative Treasury and the more ambitious business department”, the editorial says. It notes that the Treasury’s argument that borrowing to fund the transition would be fiscally unsustainable and unfair to future generations “echo[es] criticism from the conservative fringes of the potential costs of the net-zero commitment”. The paper instead argues that “borrowing to fund some of the transition, however, is sensible”, adding: “The spending is a one-off investment, rather than an ongoing commitment like the health service. Future generations stand to gain the most, both in terms of avoiding climate change but also in the savings from energy efficiency.”
In other reaction to the net-zero strategy, BBC News environment analyst Roger Harrabin describes it as “a remarkable achievement”, but says that “huge uncertainties remain”. Harrabin notes, for example, that funding to replace gas boilers with heat pumps “is far too low to make a difference – just 30,000 boilers a year for three years, a trifling number that’s not remotely high enough to kick-start an entire industry”. Times columnist Iain Martin says that “what is most striking” about the strategy is the lack of “a serious plan for energy security and national resilience. There are mentions of security but they are worryingly vague.” Writing in the Guardian, Rebecca Newsom – head of politics at Greenpeace UK – warns that the “lack of genuine action on fairness in the government’s net zero plan is enough to make one wonder whether [chancellor Rishi] Sunak is serious about tackling the problem, or whether he’s signalling his own ambivalence to the decarbonisation agenda”. She adds: “When it comes to delivering the climate transition fairly, the government is starting to say the right things but is failing to put enough money where its mouth is. This plays into the hands of climate delayers, who are focusing increasingly on concerns around fairness to pressure the government to do less overall on climate.” (In related news, Reuters reports on research from financial services provider Legal & General, which suggests only higher income households are likely to be able to afford new green technologies unless costs are shared.) Finally, in a piece for the Conversation, Prof Aled Jones from Anglia Ruskin University presents three charts that “betray the Treasury’s short-sighted appraisal of the net-zero strategy”.
Writing in the Independent, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown says the success of COP26 “depends on the world’s richest countries honouring an as yet unrealised, 12-year-old promise to transfer upwards of $100bn (£73bn) per year to coastal states and low-income countries to help them to adapt and be resilient to climate change”. Instead of countries “agreeing an equitable sharing of the burden, we have treated the business of raising $100bn like organising a whip-round at a charity fundraiser”, he continues: “In no year since 2009 has the fund ever yielded more than $40bn of the promised $100bn. It is only when multilateral bank disbursements and private funding – mainly in loans for renewable energy projects – are added that the annual sum finally reached $80bn in 2019, still well below what was promised.” Of the 23 developed countries responsible for providing international climate finance, only Germany, Norway and Sweden “have been paying their fair share”, Brown says: “France and Japan came close in 2018, but even now the contributions from Australia, Canada, Greece, New Zealand, Portugal and the US have been meagre.” He adds: “Until developed countries outline a credible path to making good their promise, vulnerable countries will not trust any pledges made on future emissions reductions and they could decide to bring COP26 down. So it is imperative that in the days between now and the start of COP26 the $100bn a year is finally achieved.”
Also writing about climate finance, Jocelyn Timperley – a freelance climate journalist based in Costa Rica – has a news feature in Nature on “the broken $100bn promise of climate finance – and how to fix it”. While a Nature editorial focuses on how “young people will be key to climate justice at COP26”. The journal writes: “As world leaders prepare to travel to Glasgow…they would be wise to listen to the science-led youth movements, and to an emerging generation of young climate scientists.” And China Dialogue has a piece looking at whether climate finance “is flowing”.
In other COP-related comment, Anne McElvoy – senior editor of the Economist – writes in the Evening Standard that the “COP26 summit runs the risk of becoming an Eco-Hamlet with very few visiting princes”. A leader column in the Hindu says the success of COP26 “hinges, to a great extent, on the conclusion of carbon markets discussions”. (See Carbon Brief‘s explainer for more details.) Alister Doyle and James Murray have a joint BusinessGreen piece on whether COP26 is “on track to deliver on its goals”. Ed King from the European Climate Foundation (which funds Carbon Brief) also has a piece in BusinessGreen, which picks out “three key issues set to dominate discussions”. And Bloomberg has an interactive feature on “how to stop 30 years of failing to cut emissions”.
Vice columnist Tristan Kennedy has a feature on the website DeSmog, which “has become a world-leader in rectifying environmental shithousery”. The website “punches well above its weight in terms of breaking stories and digging out scoops”, writes Kennedy: “In recent years, it has grown to become a persistent thorn in the side of the climate denial industry, exposing the toxic web of front organisations, PR companies and lobby groups that fossil fuel companies (among others) pay to do their dirty work in spreading disinformation about the climate crisis.” Kennedy looks at some of DeSmog’s successes, including revelations that “the Conservative Party received £420,000 in donations from companies with an interest in North Sea extraction in the run-up to a crucial government review earlier this year”. He also speaks to Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, who tells him that “DeSmog perform an essential service in holding companies, government and other organisations to account”. She adds that “their investigations are in-depth and high quality, their revelations impactful, their writers skilled, and their attitude invincible”.
Meanwhile, DeSmog reports on a new study that finds French oil giant Total knew that its fossil fuel extraction could contribute to global warming as early as 1971 but stayed silent about it until 1988.
Microplastics in the atmosphere have a “small” cooling effect on the planet, a new study says. The researchers “present calculations of the optical properties and direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics”, excluding how the interact with clouds. They note that “shortwave effects dominate” and estimate that the effective radiative forcing (ERF) of microplastics is approximately -0.75 milliwatts per square metre, which compares to a total ERF from aerosol–radiation interactions of -0.71 watts per square metre. The authors note that “plastic production has increased rapidly over the past 70 years” and that “without serious attempts to overhaul plastic production and waste-management practices, the abundance and ERF of airborne microplastics will continue to increase”.