Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Democrats win control of US Senate, boosting prospect of climate action
- Whitehaven coal mine: Government refuses to call in plans
- Trump auction of oil leases in Arctic refuge attracts barely any bidders
- UK's beef herds could be key to sustainable farming, says report
- Global climate action needs trusted finance data
- Poleward and weakened westerlies during Pliocene warmth
The Democratic party has won control of the US Senate, reports Climate Home News, “removing a huge potential roadblock to president-elect Joe Biden’s green investment plans”. With the Democrats winning the two run-off elections to become senators for the state of Georgia, both parties will have 50 senators each, the outlet explains, meaning Democratic vice-president Kamala Harris will have the casting vote on any tied votes. The newly elected senators “support Biden’s green spending plans, re-joining the Paris Agreement and reversing Trump’s cuts to environmental protections”, the outlet notes. It adds: “There are now enough Democratic senators to pass tax and spending bills, although they fall short of the 60 seats to filibuster-proof broader legislation.” For example, “the Senate also has power over the budgets of agencies like the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and could reverse funding cuts under Democratic control”. The new balance of power would “also make it easier for Mr Biden’s cabinet appointees to win confirmation”, explains the New York Times, “as well as for Democrats to increase the budgets of federal agencies and pump money into clean energy research and development”. The paper adds: “It also would greatly increase the likelihood that Congress would incorporate portions of Mr Biden’s $2tn climate plan into new economic stimulus legislation as well as an infrastructure package.” However, the paper notes, the tight margin in the Senate means “Democrats would still be forced to compromise with Republicans and would be limited in their ability to pass sweeping new laws”.
Axios also has a first look at the energy policy implications of a Democrat majority in the Senate. A Los Angeles Times editorial notes that Biden’s preference is to compromise “in any case”, adding: “Assuming Republicans are willing to reciprocate, there is potential common ground on priorities including additional stimulus, counteracting the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration and efforts to deal with climate change.” A Wall Street Journal editorial blames the run-off losses on President Trump’s “post-election tantrums”. It concludes: “We hope Republicans keep Mr Trump’s contribution to these defeats in mind over the next two years as their taxes and energy costs rise.”
In related news, E&E News reports that Biden’s transition team says the Trump administration has done more damage than anticipated to the government’s ability to address climate change. It continues: “Potentially lowering expectations for the incoming president’s early climate efforts, Biden officials say their agency review teams have found deeper budget cuts, wider staff losses and more systematic elimination of climate programs and research than they realised.” The New York Times reports that an “early Biden climate test” is already emerging. Yesterday, “two influential organisations that advocate for stronger measures to withstand natural disasters…filed a petition with the federal government urging more stringent building standards for homes and infrastructure along rivers and coasts”, the paper says. It explains: “Those changes would better protect millions of Americans as climate change worsens, and they reflect the sort of policy changes that experts say the US must adopt to cope with the effects of global warming. But they would also make homes more expensive to build, risking the anger of local governments and home builders.” The petition could be hard for Biden to ignore, the paper says, because the president of one of the organisations is Gina McCarthy, “whom Mr. Biden has selected to coordinate domestic climate policy across the federal government”. And, finally, in a piece for the Financial Times, Laura Tyson – distinguished professor of the graduate school at the University of California Berkeley – and Robert Herz – former chair of the Financial Accounting Standards Board – argue that Biden “must take a global lead on climate risk disclosure”.
Plans for the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years can progress after the government decided not to intervene, BBC News reports. It continues: “Cumbria County Council approved the £165m West Cumbria Mining plan in Whitehaven in October. The government could have called in the plans for an inquiry, but has chosen not to do so.” A council spokesperson said that they “will now work with the developer to formalise the legal planning obligations”, which would “need to be finalised before the council can formally give the development permission”, the outlet reports. The Financial Times notes that “although the coking coal from the site will be used by the steel industry – rather than for producing energy – the decision is still controversial”. Environmental campaigners have attacked the government’s decision, the outlet says. Doug Parr, policy director for Greenpeace, tells the paper: “How can the government expect to claim global leadership as it hosts international climate talks later this year after giving this the green light?” Tim Farron, an MP in the region and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for environment and communities issues, had previously written to communities secretary Robert Jenrick, urging him to call in the plan, reports the Press Association. Speaking about the decision, Farron said: “This decision is a complete disaster for our children’s future – an almighty backwards step in the fight against climate change.“ In a letter confirming he would not intervene to stall or block the project, Jenrick said the government was “committed to give more power to councils to make their own decisions on planning issues”, reports BusinessGreen. The outlet adds: “The mine would extract about 3m tonnes of coal annually, mainly from under the seabed, and the firm has promised to close the mine before 2049, arguing this would make it compatible with the UK’s net-zero goal.”
In other coal news, the Guardian reports that Australian coal shipments to China are still at a “standstill” following “unresolved political and trade tensions”. The paper explains that ships typically set off for China in December, so that they arrive for the resetting of coal import quotas at the beginning of a new calendar year. However, “with about 50 ships carrying Australian coal still stranded off the Chinese coast as of last month… traders did not appear ready to risk experiencing further delays”, the paper says.
The Trump administration’s attempt to auction off part of a long-protected Arctic refuge to oil drillers “brought almost zero interest from oil companies”, reports the Guardian, “forcing the state of Alaska into the awkward position of leasing the lands itself”. The paper continues: “The coastal plain of the Arctic national wildlife refuge was up for sale to drillers as part of the Trump administration’s plan to pay for Republicans’ tax cuts with oil revenue. Conservatives argued the leases could bring in $900m, half for the federal government and half for the state. But the lease sales fell dramatically short of that amount – with the high bids totalling about $14m on 11 tracts of land that cover about 600,000 acres of the 1.6m-acre coastal plain.” The Financial Times explains that “a mere three bidders” put forward offers, with “the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the agency responsible for driving the state’s economic growth, accounting for the bulk of the bids”. Bloomberg notes that the body “has never spearheaded an oil exploration project”. One policy analyst tells the Hill that a state bidding on federal leases within their own state “has never happened before”. They add: “It’s very odd because the state of Alaska will get 50% of the revenue from lease sales. Basically they will be paying to not make any money on those lease sales.” Neither of the two companies that made offers were major oil producers, notes the New York Times. The Washington Post suggests that “lacklustre oil prices and an increasing number of banks saying they would not finance Arctic energy projects” contributed to the dearth of interest. BBC News adds that “while estimates suggest around 11bn barrels of oil lie under the refuge, it has no roads or other infrastructure, making it a very expensive place to drill for oil”.
A new report suggests the UK’s beef herd could be at the heart of a sustainable farming system that tackles climate change and wildlife decline while producing sufficient healthy food, the Guardian reports. However, the report says, production and consumption of other meat, milk and eggs would have to fall by half, and large forests of new trees would have to be planted, the Guardian explains. The analysis, published by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission charity (FFCC), produces a scenario that would see “no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers in use in 2050 and almost 10% of today’s farmland freed-up for nature” and “net greenhouse gas emissions…fall by about 75%”, the paper notes. It adds: “Experts welcomed the report, but said it presented just one plausible agroecological scenario and that others with even lower livestock numbers would result in greater environmental benefits.” The report is “good news for red meat lovers”, i newspaper says: “While chicken and pork consumption should fall significantly, beef consumption only needs to fall by a quarter and there is no need to cut the consumption of lamb and mutton from today’s levels, the FFCC said”. While beef and lamb are the meats with the highest carbon footprints, “the FFCC argues grass-fed sheep and cattle have a viable place in a UK farming system. That is because their poo provides natural fertilisers for the soil, helping wean farmers off high carbon synthetic fertilisers”, the paper explains. It adds that the report suggests “more farmland should be used to grow the vegetables, nuts, beans, grains and pulses that will make up the bulk of Britain’s climate-friendly diets of the future, while production of cereals to feed pigs and chickens should be slashed”. Last year, Carbon Brief published an in-depth interactive on the impact of meat and dairy as part of a week-long series on food and climate.
An editorial in the journal Nature says “an agreed system for measuring funding of green projects in poorer nations will be vital to achieving action on climate change in 2021”. The article warns that “arguments” over how climate finance from developed to developing countries is calculated “are casting a shadow over the next United Nations climate conference (COP26)”. There has “been little progress in resolving disagreements over public climate-finance provision”, Nature says, with different groups and reports producing differing estimates of climate-specific assistance provided by developed countries. To agree on new accounting rules, “both developed and developing countries should consider taking advice from a trusted third party that already has a role in setting data standards, but is not involved in international diplomacy”, the article suggests: “That could be the UN Statistical Commission or the International Organization for Standardization.” Nature concludes: “The COP26 meeting is less than a year away. Widely seen as the world’s last chance to take meaningful, unified action on climate change, it must succeed. That means developed and developing countries must agree on more-ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and ensure that the poorest countries, and those most vulnerable to climate change, receive support as they develop their economies in a more sustainable manner and prepare for the inevitable effects of global warming. The $100bn pledge is a fraction of what is needed. Ultimately, investments around the world must shift to support sustainable development. If global leaders can accomplish that, Earth might yet have a chance.”
A new study uses reconstructions of past climate to investigate how mid-latitude westerly winds could change in response to human-caused warming. The research focuses on the Pliocene epoch, “in which atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) was about 350 to 450 parts per million and temperatures were about 2 to 4C higher than today”. The findings suggest that, “if the Pliocene is predictive of future warming…continued poleward movement and weakening of the present-day westerlies in both hemispheres can be expected”.