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Daily Briefing

17.05.2021
Today's climate and energy headlines
DAILY BRIEFING COP26 UN climate conference to go ahead in person in Glasgow
COP26 UN climate conference to go ahead in person in Glasgow

News.

COP26 UN climate conference to go ahead in person in Glasgow

Several outlets report the confirmation by COP26 president Alok Sharma that the pivotal climate conference, scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November, will be a “physical COP”. However, the Times explains that “special measures will be needed to ensure that the thousands of delegates from more than 190 countries do not spread coronavirus, according to the minister leading the event”. It quotes Sharma saying: “What is very clear to me is that people want to see a physical COP, and this is particularly important for developing countries who want to sit at the same table. They want to sit face to face with the big nations, the big emitters, as part of these negotiations. We have to remember that this is a conference, a summit, like no other. It’s not just a bunch of speeches that are given. This is 197 parties coming together for negotiation. When you have a negotiation, there will be times when people want to break off and have discussions on the side. And that’s why people want to see a physical event.” The Guardian says that the “UK government is considering how to use Covid-19 vaccines and testing to try to ensure vital UN climate talks this year go ahead in person”. It adds: “The Guardian understands that some within government have argued a virtual COP could be safer and less susceptible to last-minute changes or even potential cancellation if the Covid-19 pandemic worsens this autumn.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that John Kerry, the US special climate envoy, has said that Pope Francis has the “moral authority to sway public opinion over global warming and might attend COP26”.

The Times Read Article
John Kerry: US climate envoy criticised for optimism on clean tech

BBC News reports that US climate envoy John Kerry has been “ridiculed for saying technologies that don’t yet exist will play a huge role in stabilising the climate”. The news outlet continues: “Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said the US was leading the world on climate change – and rapidly phasing out coal-fired power stations. But he rejected a suggestion that Americans need to change their consumption patterns by, say, eating less meat. He said: ‘You don’t have to give up quality of life to achieve some of the things we want to achieve. I’m told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make (to get to near zero emissions) by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have.’ But his faith in unknown technologies has left some leading engineers aghast.” [Last year, the International Energy Agency set out the state of technology readiness for reaching climate goals, finding many needed after 2030 were currently at the demonstration or early prototype stage.] The Guardian adds: “When asked by Marr if the US would support an end to all coal-fired power stations if called for by the UK at COP26, Kerry said Joe Biden had set a goal of making the US power sector carbon-free by 2035, but he could not speak for the president on specific proposals.”

Meanwhile, AFP via France24 reports that US secretary of state Antony Blinken has left the US “for a trip focused on the future of the Arctic, a source of growing tension with China and a test of the strained US relationship with Russia ahead of an expected Biden-Putin summit meeting”. It continues: “The Arctic…has in recent years become the site of geopolitical competition between the countries that form the Arctic Council (the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland). As global warming makes the region more accessible and less forbidding, interest in the Arctic’s natural resources, its navigation routes and its strategic position has grown.”

In other US news, the Wall Street Journal has a news feature on how “central banks [are jumping] into [the] climate-change policy fray”. It adds: “The banks that are deepest into the issue are trying to limit climate change by steering their financial systems away from fossil fuels. Their regulations could hit US companies operating overseas.” The Financial Times reports that “the US west coast state of California is moving into a summer drought that threatens to spark another season of wildfires, as climate change pushes up seasonal temperatures across the nation.”. Another Wall Street Journal news feature looks at the prospects for natural gas in the US: “a decade after the fracking boom took off, the fuel faces disruption by a new combination on the electric grid: renewable energy and electricity storage”.

BBC News Read Article
Merkel rejects bringing forward Germany’s exit from coal

German chancellor Angela Merkel has “rejected demands to bring forward an exit date for ending coal generation in Germany”, Reuters reports. It quotes her saying at an event on Saturday that she did not want to “unravel this again after one year”, referring to Germany’s coal exit deal. The newswire notes Merkel’s comments come despite recently having agreed to more ambitious climate goals, adding: “Climate activists say that without an earlier coal phaseout [the new targets] cannot be achieved.” Bloomberg reports that Merkel has called on other EU countries to match Germany’s new, more ambitious targets. It quotes her speaking at the same event saying: “As a long-term industrial nation, we are a role model and we cannot expect anything from other countries if we don’t find solutions ourselves.”

Elsewhere in the EU, Climate Home News reports that the Spanish parliament has approved a new climate law aiming to cut emissions 23% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. The website says the law “bans all new coal, gas and oil exploration and production permits with immediate effect” and would end production from existing sites by the end of 2042. The bill, approved last Thursday according to EurActiv with Agence-France Presse, has an overall goal of net-zero by 2050 and would ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040.

Meanwhile, Reuters carries analysis under the headline: “Gas faces existential crisis in climate wary Europe.” It reports EU climate chief Frans Timmermans saying there will only be a “marginal role for fossil gas” on the road to 2050. It adds: “Gas projects worth some €30bn were cancelled, delayed or indefinitely postponed last year as they struggled to find funding.” Another Reuters article reports on BP lobbying for the EU to support natural gas in “a move that exposes divergent views among investors and reflects a wider European dispute about the role of the fossil fuel”.

Finally, the Financial Times reports that Russian firms are “counting the cost” of the EU’s proposed carbon border tax. It says companies from Russia “stand to be among the biggest losers” if the tax is implemented, as the country is “Europe’s biggest supplier of carbon-intensive goods worth nearly €10bn in 2019”. The paper adds: “The tax would initially target a limited number of imports including iron, steel, cement and fertilisers, EU officials told the Financial Times, and would be based on the equivalent carbon price paid in Europe.”

Reuters Read Article
Britain to treble tree planting by 2024 to fight climate change

Reuters reports that George Eustice, the UK environment secretary, is set to announce tomorrow that woodland creation rates across the UK will treble by May 2024, with around 7,000 hectares of woodlands planted per year. The newswire adds: “The statement gave no other details of the plan and did not say how many trees would be planted or where, and did not say how much the planting scheme would cost or how it would be funded. It also did not give a comparison figure for how many hectares of woodland had been planted previously.” The i newspaper adds that “campaigners have warned the goal for England is less than a quarter of the government’s UK-wide target to plant 30,000 hectares a year (75,000 acres) by 2024 and fails to rise to meet the nature and climate crises”. The news outlet adds: “The low target has also raised questions about how much of the overall 30,000 hectares goal will need to be met by non-native commercial conifer plantations in Scotland, which campaigners say do not deliver benefits for wildlife or the public.” The Daily Telegraph says that a “flagship part of the new tree strategy will include creating wetlands next to rivers”.

Separately, the Times reports that yesterday Prince Charles, joined by the Queen, “planted the tree to mark the launch today of the Queen’s Green Canopy, an initiative to celebrate his mother’s 70 years on the throne”. The newspaper continues: “Three million saplings will be given away by the Woodland Trust to schools and community groups, available on a first come, first served basis. The initiative, which reflects the Queen’s well-documented love of trees, follows a global project launched in 2015, the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, which aims to create a global network of forests second only in size to the Amazon rainforest.” An editorial in the Times welcomes the initiative: “The project will lead to a greener and more pleasant land, brightening up Britain’s streets and woodlands with a richer array of forestry and foliage. Yet it is also an environmental imperative.” (See Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on the UK’s tree-planting plans.)

Meanwhile, the Independent reports that campaigners have warned that “bizarre loopholes” in the UK’s ban on burning peatlands could risk embarrassing the government as it prepares for COP26, adding: “In a bid to address damage to bogs, the government this year announced a ban on peatland burning in certain protected sites. However, campaign groups say that exemptions to the ban mean that it only applies to 9% of England’s peatlands.” The Sunday Times says that the “sale of peat-based compost is set to be banned [by the government] after years of delays. It continues: “Environmentalists have long warned that digging up peatlands for use in gardens is devastating for wildlife and a huge source of carbon emissions. Yet despite a voluntary plan to phase out peat before 2020, the majority of compost sold in garden centres is still peat-based. On Tuesday, George Eustice, the environment secretary, will announce a new consultation, to be held by the end of the year, on banning its sale.”

Reuters Read Article
UK carbon trading system likely to lead to government intervention, traders warn

The Financial Times reports that traders are warning that the “UK’s effort to put a price on carbon pollution through a new trading system that launches this week is likely to lead to government intervention to reduce the cost to companies within months”. It adds: “Pent-up demand and the UK’s strict emission targets are expected to lead to a sustained rally in the price of carbon credits on the UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) when it goes live on Wednesday…Because there is no domestic carbon price, the government has used the established EU emissions trading scheme…The government last week set the threshold at £44.74 a tonne, or about €52 a tonne, based on EU prices between May 2019 and December 2020. But this is below the current cost of EU allowances, which hit a record of €55 a tonne last week, after a strong, sustained rally this year prompted by governments upping their climate commitments. When the UK left the EU system five months ago the price was closer to €30 a tonne. Carbon traders and analysts said UK prices were likely to rise sharply when trading began – driven by strong demand and the limited number of allowances initially set to be auctioned – to close to or above that of the EU market.” The Daily Telegraph has a news feature about the UK’s new carbon trading scheme under the headline: “Polluting companies pushed to clean up their act.”

In other UK news, the Times reveals that EDF is “having to keep Sizewell B in Suffolk offline for three months longer than planned”. This is to deal with safety issues caused by steel components “in the heart of Britain’s most modern nuclear power station are wearing out more quickly than expected, forcing EDF to carry out lengthy unscheduled repairs”. The newspaper adds: “The outage at the plant, capable of producing enough electricity for 2.5m homes or about 3% of Britain’s needs, will further restrict low-carbon nuclear power supplies amid prolonged shutdowns at older reactors.”

The Daily Telegraph quotes Lord Bamford, the “75-year-old billionaire and car enthusiast who chairs JCB” (and leading Conservative Party donor) saying that “hydrogen is at risk of being overlooked in the rush to go electric for cars”. A news feature in the Sunday Times says that “as drivers go green, painful questions are piling up for [UK] car-makers”: “Part of the future lies in battery factories. Efforts to woo the likes of Panasonic to establish gigafactories in the UK, able to build tens of thousands of electric car batteries a year, have dragged on for years. Yet on the Continent, carmakers, governments and investors are spending heavily on gigafactories from Sweden to Germany to Poland – aware that without them, their car plants face extinction.” Sky News also reports that the “UK [is] playing ‘catch up’ in [the] global race to source metals for green tech”.

Meanwhile, the Times reports that “homes could be kept warm with giant ‘heat batteries’ developed by a British start-up that has won backing from the government and external investors”. It continues: “Caldera, based in Hampshire, uses cheap off-peak power and electrical elements to heat a huge highly-insulated block of material called Warmstone, made from recycled metals and aggregate. A coil of water pipes pass through the block, heating up water that can then be used in a conventional central heating system with radiators and a hot water tank.” The Daily Express covers criticism by Philip Dunne MP, who chairs the all-party Environmental Audit Committee, about how the “£1.5bn green housing scheme collapsed in just six months due to rushing”. He says that the Green Homes Grant was also “overly bureaucratic”. The newspaper adds that the construction industry has now called on the government to replace it with a “long-term scheme worth £9.2bn – six times as much – to slash the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions”. Relatedly, Conservative Home carries the views of Andrew Selous MP, who looks ahead to the government’s imminent heat and buildings strategy: “It’s crucial we decarbonise heat in a way that doesn’t punish people, especially those who will struggle to switch away from gas boilers straightaway. However, with the right policy package, the heat and buildings strategy can bring tangible improvements and economic opportunities to people across the country.” The Financial Times‘s Lex column also looks at “greener heating” and argues: “Both electric heat pumps and hydrogen boilers have fierce advocates. But neither option makes sense for all buildings – and some city blocks will be best served by district heating which supplies warmth from a central source. One size will not fit all. But a focus on top-notch insulation and directing heat to where it is needed is a good first step.” [The government’s Climate Change Committee has said electrification will be the “primary” means of decarbonising building heat in the UK. See Carbon Brief’s hydrogen Q&A for more].

Financial Times Read Article
China uses Uyghur forced labour to make solar panels, says report

Research by the UK’s Sheffield Hallam University claims, reports BBC News, that the “global production of solar panels is using forced labour from China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province”. The investigation adds that Xinjiang produces about 45% of the world’s supply of the key component, polysilicon. BBC News adds: “It says the material is obtained under a massive system of coercion, a claim denied by the Chinese authorities.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reports that China’s top-level environmental inspection team, the CEEIT, has held “844 officials and cadres accountable for various issues” found during the latest round of national investigation. In the report syndicated from state-run People’s Daily, Xinhua says members of the CEEIT probed eight provinces between 6 April and 9 May. (See Carbon Brief’s Q&A about the significance of these inspections.)

Separately, various outlets on the China mainland report on a series of blackouts in Taiwan last Thursday. State-run haiwai.net says that Taiwan experienced “large-scale” power cuts. Nationalist tabloid the Global Times cites Chinese web users who claim that Taiwan has “an electricity shortage”. It also runs pictures and a video showing streets without traffic lights, staff working in offices without lights and a press conference held in darkness. Eknower, a social media energy news account, states that the island has a “weak” electricity system. It adds that Taiwan must connect its power system to the regional grid to solve the issue. (According to Taipei-based Central News Agency, the outages were caused by a grid malfunction at an electricity plant, not a power shortage on the island. It reports that the blackouts affected around 4m customers.) Meanwhile, a column on financial website Economic Observer, explains why China must solve “a few key obstacles” facing its climate financing to help hit its emissions targets.

In international media, Nikkei Asia reports that Japan and the US will begin discussing “concrete” measures to “pressure” China to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Tokyo-based publication says the two nations plan to raise the issues at the G7 summit and the COP26. Singapore’s Channel News Asia carries a column saying that global warming could be “significantly” reduced if China meets its climate targets. Finally, an article in the Detroit News examines how China’s burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) industry would affect American automakers.

BBC News Read Article
Australian grid used the least coal on record last summer as renewables shone

The Sydney Morning Herald quotes new figures from the Australian Energy Regulator showing that “coal-fired power consumption in Australia hit a record low during the first three months of 2021 and gas generation crashed to the lowest level in 15 years, as renewable energy and falling prices continue to shake up the market”. The newspapers says the new figures “shed light on the impact of the clean energy transition sweeping the country’s main power grid and the existential challenges engulfing fossil-fuel generators”. The Guardian reports that “Australia’s first ‘hydrogen valley’ would be created in New South Wales and run entirely on renewable energy under a $2bn proposal supported by local and global energy companies”.

The Sydney Morning Herald Read Article

Comment.

We’re not ready for the next big climate disasters

Writing in the New York Times, David G Victor, Sadie Frank and Eric Gesick argue that the US must get “better at managing climate disasters as they become more numerous”. They continue: “Over decades, our spending on infrastructure and disaster relief has become fine-tuned to political expedience rather than the geophysical realities of the climate. We build roads and protect houses in vulnerable places; we subsidise insurance for homes prone to flooding and for years avoided updating insurance maps that would let the federal government set rates that reflect real danger. When communities are flattened by nature, the nation helps pay for rebuilding – often rebuilding the same infrastructure in the same place, a target for the next disaster. Flatten, flood, scorch – rebuild and repeat…Geophysics will never set the agenda in Washington, but a smart political strategy can give it a stronger voice – and not a moment too soon as the planet warms.”

Also in the New York Times, columnist Eugene Robinson says that “in the reality-based Biden era, our government is once again in the business of honest – and honestly reported – climate research”. He adds: “It will not be easy to wean the US economy from coal, oil and natural gas – even though the potential economic benefits of the change are becoming increasingly clear. But under President Biden, we will try. And we will proceed with our eyes and ears open, for a change.”

Finally, in a joint letter to the Guardian, Caroline Lucas MP, Clive Lewis MP, Colin Hines and Richard Murphy write that a “green recovery bond will enable the government to fund its climate pledges”. They continue: “Green recovery bonds would not only be popular with older savers, offer good quality jobs for younger generations, and turbocharge the levelling up agenda by creating employment nationwide – they would also show that the government is finally getting serious about delivering on its climate targets in advance of COP26.”

David G Victor, Sadie Frank and Eric Gesick, The New York Times Read Article

Science.

Climate change risks pushing one-third of global food production outside the safe climatic space

Under a very high emission scenario (SSP5–8.5), 31% of food crops and 34% of livestock production could be pushed outside the “safe climatic space” by 2081–2100, according to new research. The authors define a “safe climatic space” accounting for aridity, temperature and precipitation to determine how climate change will impact 27 food crops and seven types of livestock. The authors find that limiting warming to 1.5-2C would reduce the risk to food systems “considerably”, pushing only 8% of food crops and 5% of livestock production out of the safe climatic space. They add that 20% of the world’s crop production and 18% of livestock production under threat are located in countries with “low resilience to adapt to changes”.

One Earth Read Article
Toward practical stratospheric aerosol albedo modification: Solar-powered lofting

New research suggests that a “solar-powered lofting” – a “novel” delivery method for stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) that involves injecting material at lower altitudes and allowing solar energy to lift it to higher levels – “could make SAI viable at present”. SAI is a method of solar geoengineering that involves introducing small particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight. The authors use global model simulations to quantify the impact of their novel solar-powered lofting method on stratospheric temperatures. They find that 10 micrograms per cubic metre of black carbon aerosol is “sufficient to quickly loft climate intervention material well into the stratosphere”, adding that solar-powered lofting is more energy efficient and disperses material faster than direct stratospheric injection.

Science Advances Read Article

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Expert analysis directly to your inbox.

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.