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Daily Briefing

19.03.2020
Today's climate and energy headlines
DAILY BRIEFING Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads
Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads

News.

Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads

BBC News reports on “significant drops” in levels of air pollution and CO2 over some cities and regions, where the coronavirus pandemic response has affected work and travel. It says researchers in New York found levels of carbon monoxide, which mainly comes from car exhausts, had dropped by nearly 50% and concentrations of CO2 over the city had also fallen “sharply”, by 5-10%. But the piece, which also cites Carbon Brief analysis showing a significant temporary reduction in CO2 emissions from China, notes: “[T]here are warnings levels could rise rapidly after the pandemic.” It adds: “Back in the 2008-09, after the global financial crash, carbon emissions shot up by 5% as a result of stimulus spending that boosted fossil fuel use.” BBC News quotes two climate scientists discussing how government stimulus measures might affect emissions in the future and whether bailouts might come with conditions. NBC News carries a similar piece.

Bloomberg reports on the “risk that countries and companies will revert back to what they know works” as they look for ways to stimulate the economy: “Shovel-ready coal or fossil-fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated.” The Hill reports that a group of eight Democratic senators are calling for any possible government aid to airlines to come with requirements around environmental action. The New York Times also reports on the proposal for conditions on airline bailouts, pointing to the 2009 rescue package given to the US car industry, in return for stricter fuel economy standards.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the North Sea oil and gas industry is “call[ing] for government cash” in the face of falling oil prices. It adds: “Oil and gas companies have already been struggling to attract investors because of the shift away from fossil fuel, including the British government’s aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.” The Financial Times also has the story, noting the sector is expected to “slash their capital investment budgets by up to 30% this year”. Another Financial Times story says oil prices are at their lowest level in 17 years “as demand plunges”. It adds: “Eurasia Group, a consultancy, has warned that global oil demand could fall by as much as a quarter this spring, with international air travel effectively shut down and millions of employees no longer commuting to work.” The Times reports that oil prices have fallen to their lowest level since 2003 and “could even turn negative” if storage runs out. Reuters reports that major oil firms are looking to store jet fuel “at sea” while the pandemic disrupts flights. Reuters reports that gas prices in the US have fallen to a 24-year low as the pandemic cuts the outlook for global demand. Axios reports on the “industry pain” for oil and gas firms, with various companies announcing moves to cut exploration budgets and staff. It adds that analysts Rystad Energy now expect global oil demand to drop by 2.8% this year. Reuters reports that oil refiners worldwide are “slowing output and contemplating extensive maintenance due to travel restrictions”.

The Wall Street Journal reports early data showing electricity demand has fallen by 18% in northern Italy following the imposition of strict pandemic controls, with figures also “beginning to weaken in parts of the US hardest hit by the coronavirus”. Reuters reports that European electricity price futures have hit “two-year lows” as a result of plunging oil, coal and gas prices, as well as drops in the price of emitting carbon. A second Reuters piece says prices on the EU Emissions Trading System have fallen to 16-month lows after the pandemic “was expected to shrink emissions from industry and aviation”. Reuters also reports that the UK’s National Grid has “plans in place to keep the lights on throughout the coronavirus outbreak”.

BBC News Read Article
COP26: Boris Johnson urged to resist calls to postpone climate talks

British ministers and officials have privately discussed the possibility of postponing November’s COP26 UN climate summit in response to the escalating covid-19 pandemic, the Guardian reports, in an article that quotes several climate experts urging prime minister Boris Johnson not to delay. The article says a number of pre-COP meetings are “already in doubt”, but notes: “The UNFCCC also said there was no immediate move to postpone the [COP26] talks. Any decision would have to be taken by the COP Bureau, made up of elected representatives from various countries, and would also involve the Chilean government, which technically will preside over the process until the UK officially takes on the presidency in November.” The Daily Mirror reports the comments of former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, now a UN climate change envoy, saying: “In terms of policy development – and there are few areas of policy development more important than addressing climate change – we will do everything we can to continue to advance the objectives of COP26, and not just the objective but the legislation of the United Kingdom which is to transition to a net-zero economy by 2050.” Reuters reports the comments of Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation [which funds Carbon Brief], who it describes as “a former French diplomat who was instrumental in brokering the 2015 [Paris] accord”. She told an online press briefing that governments must not let the pandemic derail climate action, Reuters says, quoting her saying: “The climate crisis hasn’t gone away.” Meanwhile, Climate Home News reports that the coronavirus pandemic is “threatening developing countries’ plans to step up climate action this year as meetings are being postponed and resources are needed to combat the pandemic”. It says developing countries’ plans to submit enhanced climate pledges this year, under the Paris Agreement “ratchet mechanism”, could be delayed due to cancelled meetings and workshops designed to support their efforts. Another Climate Home News story reports that coronavirus has reached Liberia after an observer to the UN’s Green Climate Fund was diagnosed with the virus on their return from the fund’s board meeting in Geneva last week. It adds: “The GCF’s board meeting was held in Switzerland after some members objected to hold the session online, one delegate said.” Separately, EurActiv reports that the EU has “admitted” that its Green Deal is facing delays due to the coronavirus crisis.

The Guardian Read Article
The environmental impact of China's coronavirus shutdown

China’s greenhouse gas emissions grew by another 2.6% last year, Axios reports, based on new analysis from US research firm the Rhodium Group. But it says: “One complicated dimension of the unfolding coronavirus tragedy is what it ultimately means for carbon emissions in China, by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter…Analysts are keeping their eyes peeled for signs of what the Chinese government’s economic stimulus measures will look like.” Reuters also reports the Rhodium analysis, quoting the firm saying: “If Beijing responds with a large property and construction-heavy stimulus package, the resulting increase in cement and steel production could increase carbon intensity.” Separately, Bloomberg reports that China may postpone new, stricter air pollution standards for cars, in a move designed to “provide relief for automakers battling an unprecedented slump in the world’s largest car market, according to people familiar with the matter”. The newswire adds: “The move shows how pressure is rising for countries to sacrifice longer-term environmental goals to salvage their economies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.” A comment by Reuters columnist Clyde Russell asks if iron ore, steel and steelmaking coal are “having a Wile E Coyote moment”, with prices “sharing something that is increasingly at odds with virtually every other commodity”. He says markets “appear to be taking a risky bet that Beijing’s yet-to-be-announced stimulus measures will be enough to offset a looming global recession as the coronavirus spreads across the world”.

Axios Read Article

Comment.

Governments need to make good use of this pandemic

In the Financial Times, columnist Simon Kuper writes: “By the time this horror ends, it might have changed our way of life. Already, the coronavirus has achieved something that government policies and moral awakening couldn’t: it is pushing us into green living. The nature of work, commuting and shopping changed this month. If that transformation sticks, then one day we’ll have happier and more productive societies, and we’ll look back on December 2019 as the all-time peak in global carbon emissions.” He speculates about whether the spread of home working in response to the pandemic might show offices to be “an outdated way to organise work” and whether it might “help stop the decades-long rise in business travel”. Kuper concludes: “Governments need to make good use of the current pandemic. Many states are preparing a fiscal stimulus. Donald Trump wants to bestow much of it on the carbon emitters that could go bust in the incipient recession: airlines, cruise ships, oil producers and his beloved hotel industry (which lives off travellers’ emissions). Forward-looking governments will instead prioritise green industries, while helping workers who lose their fossil-fuel jobs.” In the Times, David Aaronovitch questions the idea that the coronavirus pandemic will change the world towards “a retreat to the local and familiar”, asking “why would the young settle for that”? He argues: “They won’t party less, they’ll party harder. They won’t become communitarians, they will relish their chance to be dancing cosmopolitans once again. Because if this pandemic will have taught them anything it is that, as with climate change, they and their peers live in an interdependent world.” Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, veteran climate activist Bill McKibben writes: “[F]or me, one frustration of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s temporarily interrupting the movement-building that is necessary to beat the fossil-fuel industry.”

Simon Kuper, Financial Times Read Article
On the side of facts

In a column for Columbia Journalism Review, veteran science journalist Michael Specter recalls the experiences that led him to realise that “preposterous statements should not share equal space with facts”. He recounts a 1990 lunch at which Al Gore, then a junior senator, had criticised his reporting for the Washington Post, in which he had included caveats around the risks of climate change in the future while reporting that the 1980s had been the hottest decade on record, including six of the 10 warmest years. Specter’s piece also raises – and then answers – the question: “Since we are plunging rapidly toward the abyss, is activism, rather than journalism, the way to make the strongest case? Maybe, but journalists should do their job and focus on helping the public see and understand the world in front of them.” He concludes: “How bad will things get before we take action, as a society, to mitigate climate change? It will get worse – perhaps much worse. One day, though, I believe, the public will value facts again. So let’s not abandon our principles at this dreadful, crucial moment.”

Michael Specter, Columbia Journalism Review Read Article
Climate change: the right needs a good story to tell

Writing for the Times Red Box, Prof Rebecca Willis reflects on the need for conservative politicians to find a “narrative about climate strategy that fits with their aspirations for the country”. Willis notes: “In the US and Australia, the right’s answer is often simple, and devastating: oppose all climate action. In the UK, thankfully, we have a more nuanced problem.” This, she argues, is that: “Individual policies will founder unless it is clear how they fit into a wider vision.” She goes on to suggest potential right-wing narratives for climate policy of “market-shaping”, “devolution” and “aspiration”.

Rebecca Willis, The Times Read Article

Science.

Past warming trend constrains future warming in CMIP6 models

A new paper aims to constrain projections of future warming in the sixth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) by using observations of current warming. The “observationally constrained” CMIP6 median warming in “high emissions” (RCP8.5) and “ambitious mitigation” (RCP2.6) scenarios is around 16% and 14% lower by 2050, respectively, compared to the raw CMIP6 median, the study says, and around 14% and 8% lower by 2090. The authors conclude: “Observationally constrained CMIP6 warming is consistent with previous assessments based on CMIP5 models, and in an ambitious mitigation scenario, the likely range is consistent with reaching the Paris Agreement target.”

Science Advances Read Article
Attitudes towards climate change migrants

Using an online survey in Germany, a new study investigates “for the very first time” to what extent citizens in industrialised societies are willing to accept climate change migrants. The findings “show that climate change migrants receive high support levels comparable with those enjoyed by political refugees (migrants who need special protection) and that contrast with attitudes towards economic migrants (who are often not seen as in need of special protection)”. The researchers also note that “people are more likely to accept justifications for taking climate change migrants when they realise that the expected number of migrants is relatively low”.

Climatic Change Read Article
Verification of extreme event attribution: Using out-of-sample observations to assess changes in probabilities of unprecedented events

Previously published attribution studies, which estimate the likely contribution of human-caused climate change to extreme weather events, “frequently underestimate” the influence of global warming, new research suggests. Presenting a framework for independent verification of attribution studies, the author says the underestimation “is particularly pronounced for hot and wet events, with greater uncertainty for dry events”. The discrepancies are most explained by increases in climate forcing between the “attribution period” – 1961-2005 – and the “verification period” – 2006-17, the author says. This suggests that “21st-century global warming has substantially increased the probability of unprecedented hot and wet events”, the study concludes.

Science Advances Read Article

THE BRIEF

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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.