Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Coronavirus causes largest US greenhouse gas emissions drop since second war two: report
- Officials ousted from White House after papers casting doubt on climate science
- BlackRock holds $85bn in coal despite pledge to sell fossil fuel shares
- Scientists decry death by 1,000 cuts for world's insects
- Forests almost twice the size of UK destroyed in global hotspots – WWF report
- The electric car future is finally taking off
- 'Star Wars without Darth Vader' - why the UN climate science story names no villains
- Insects and recent climate change
US emissions fell 10.3% in 2020, the largest drop in the post-second world war era, as the economy was “crippled” by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report published by research organisation the Rhodium Group and covered by Reuters. While the fall means that the US would outperform its pledge made under the Copenhagen climate accord, the piece notes it does not mean the nation will achieve its more ambitious emissions pledge under the Paris agreement, which president-elect Joe Biden intends to rejoin once he takes office next week. It quotes the report which says “without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well”. The New York Times quotes Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, who says “as vaccines become more prevalent, and depending on how quickly people feel comfortable enough to drive and fly again, we’d expect emissions to rebound unless there are major policy changes put in place”. The report says 2020 “tells us little” about 2021 and beyond, noting that a sharp rebound in emissions occurred after the financial crisis of 2008-9 caused a similar initial drop. BBC News reports that US transport has seen the biggest drop under Covid-19 with emissions down almost 15% over 2010, while power emissions also dropped considerably due to a decline in the use of coal. The news outlet notes that “after decades of dominance, coal in 2020 was the third largest source of power, behind natural gas and nuclear”. Renewables now supply 18% of power, just behind coal which supplies 20%, it adds. The Financial Times has a chart showing that US emissions have sunk below 1990 levels.
Two officials have been dismissed by the White House after publishing papers claiming to be from the administration and promoting climate scepticism, the Hill reports. It notes that the individuals in question were David Legates, who served as the head of the US Global Change Research Program, and Ryan Maue, a senior official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Hill adds that the papers were published by a non-governmental website for a group called the Centre for Environmental Research and Earth Science. The New York Times says the website hosting these “largely discredited scientific reports” is associated with the climate sceptic astrophysicist Wei-Hock Soon, “whose work downplaying the risks of greenhouse gas emissions was funded by the fossil fuel industry”. In its piece, headlined “a late burst of climate denial extends the era of Trump disinformation”, the newspaper calls Legates “a climate denialist installed last year by the Trump administration to oversee scientific work on climate change”. It adds that, according to other officials, the actions had been taken without the knowledge of the director of the White House science office, Kelvin Droegemeier, who despite also being a Trump appointee “has been widely regarded as a respected scientist who acknowledges that warming is occurring and is caused by human activity”. The newspaper also notes that both men have not been fired but have been been reassigned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) where they were prior to the White House.
Separately, a piece in Scientific American features an interview with climate scientist Michael Mann and focuses on the gradual replacement of climate deniers with a new group he terms “the inactivists”. He says: “The plutocrats who are tied to the fossil fuel industry are engaging in a new climate war – this time to prevent meaningful action.”. InsideClimate News looks at how the Trump administration has impacted the Arctic Council by promoting an agenda of climate denial. “Talk of global warming was out, and relations among the eight countries that make up the council, once a highly collaborative group and a steady force for climate action, became dysfunctional,” it states.
Finally, Politico reports that “in a surprise move”, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is unveiling a climate rule that will “effectively prohibit the future regulation of greenhouse gases from any stationary industry other than power plants”. It states that the rule could “hamstring” much of incoming president Joe Biden’s climate agenda, for example, by stopping his EPA from setting carbon limits on fossil fuel sites. According to experts quoted in the piece, there are questions “about whether the Trump administration violated laws requiring it to take public comment on rulemakings in its haste to finish the rule before Biden takes office”. The Wall Street Journal also reports on the move, noting that it “may not have staying power” owing to Biden’s plans to “freeze and potentially undo any new regulations, such as this one, that are still pending when it takes power next week”. Finally, a piece in the New York Times on the new next chairman of the Senate banking committee, Sherrod Brown, describes his “sweeping” agenda as including “an emphasis on global warming”.
BlackRock still holds investments worth $85bn in coal companies, a year after it pledged to sell most of its shares in producers of the fossil fuel, the Guardian reports. According to the newspaper, the world’s largest asset manager is making use of a “loophole” which means it is still allowed to hold shares in companies earning less than a quarter of their revenues from coal. As a result, two campaign groups, Reclaim Finance and Urgewald, have found that it still has shares in some of the “world’s biggest coalminers and polluters”, including Adani, BHP, Glencore and RWE. BusinessGreen notes that, according to analysis by the campaigners, the existing policy by BlackRock only applies to just 17% of coal companies. It quotes a company spokesperson who said the company had been taking various climate actions including “initiatives geared at helping clients navigate climate risks”.
Separately, the Financial Times has a story about the Indian government planning to lay a new rail track through wildlife sanctuary to transport fossil fuels and turn a “tourist magnet into [a] coal hub”.
The world’s insects are undergoing “death by a thousand cuts,” according to a group of top experts reported by the Associated Press. A special package of 12 studies has been released, led by University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who says climate change, insecticides, herbicides, light pollution, invasive species and changes in agriculture and land use are causing Earth to lose around 1% to 2% of its insects each year, according to the news outlet. The Guardian notes that the research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows a complex situation “with some insect populations increasing, such as those whose range is expanding as global heating curbs cold winter temperatures”. However, it notes that “scientists are especially concerned that the climate crisis may be causing serious damage in the tropics”.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on a statement in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science by an international group of scientists who warn the planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals”. According to the piece, the paper states that delay between destruction of the natural world and the impacts means people do not recognise its scale, and that “climate-induced mass migrations, more pandemics and conflicts over resources will be inevitable”.
Forests covering an area nearly twice the size of the UK were destroyed across 24 “deforestation fronts” in just 13 years, according to a new report from WWF covered by the Press Association. In total, the analysis found that 43m hectares (166,000 square miles) of forests and habitat had been destroyed in those areas, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, between 2004 and 2017. The article notes that the deforestation is “driven by demand for land for livestock and to grow crops such as soy, which is used in animal feed in the UK, as well as road building, mining and land speculation”. It also adds that the charity makes clear the link between deforestation and climate change. The Guardian notes that Australia is “the only developed nation” on the global list of deforestation hotspots.
After Norway last week became the first country in the world where the sale of electric cars overtook those powered by petrol, diesel and hybrid engines, an editorial in the Financial Times looks at the policy lessons its success offers other nations. “Early and generous government support as far back as 1990 in the form of a temporary exemption from the country’s vehicle purchase tax proved an important first step” for the Nordic nation. Other important factors the editorial points to include lower road taxes, the removal of charges for toll roads and an extensive charging infrastructure that was begun with government money, which in turn prompted private investment. It does, however, note that Norway’s abundance of fossil fuel resources “may have helped to cushion the loss of tax revenues”. Nevertheless, with the UK also targeting a phaseout of petrol and diesel car sales, the newspaper says that the expansion of charging infrastructure in particular must be adopted. Ultimately, the editorial notes that the goal must be for electric vehicles to become commercial in their own right. “For now, the optimism contained in forecasts that global EV sales will grow 50% or more this year appears well-founded,” it states, pointing to “the remarkable stock market run of Tesla” which shows “investors are betting electric cars are here to stay, irrespective of which company ultimately inherits the electric future”.
A feature in Climate Home News explains that as a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presenting an official summary of climate science is about to “hit the inboxes of government experts”, this final review will have “little space given to the obstructive role of fossil fuel lobbying”. This is “a problem”, according to sociologist Robert Brulle, who has long studied institutions that promote climate denial, the piece notes. It quotes Brulle saying that this is like “trying to tell the story of Star Wars, but omitting Darth Vader”. Brulle has said that he declined an invitation to contribute to the working group three (WG3) report, due to his understanding that “institutionalised efforts to obstruct climate action was a peripheral concern”. He tells the specialist website that he hopes the final version would nevertheless reflect his feedback. The significance of obstruction efforts should be reflected in the summary for policymakers and not “buried in an obscure part of the report,” he said. The article has input from various experts discussing Brulle’s assertions.
The journal PNAS has published a series of 12 papers exploring the loss of insect biodiversity as part of a special feature on “the global decline of insects in the anthropocene”. The 56 authors evaluate threats to insect biodiversity across three main dimensions of declines – insect biomass, abundance and species numbers. An introductory piece highlights that “there are more than a million described species of insects and even the most modest estimates calculate that another 4.5 to 7m remain unnamed”, but states that many insect populations are now decreasing by 1-2% a year. This paper focuses on “how insects are responding to recent climate change” and summarises “the literature on long-term monitoring of insect populations in the context of climatic fluctuations”.