Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Global warming led to 2020 tie for the hottest year on record
- Biden swells the ranks of his White House climate team
- ‘It is upon us’: The world is not adapting swiftly enough for climate crisis impacts, UN warns
- A fossil fuel demand peak is fast approaching, but will it come soon enough?
- Government defends Cumbria coal mine green light
- Climate change remains the greatest crisis of our crisis-filled era
- Emergency deployment of direct air capture as a response to the climate crisis
- Summer Arctic sea ice decline during 1850-2017 and the amplified Arctic warming during the recent decades
New data from multiple organisations puts 2020 as the joint warmest year on record, reports Bloomberg. It continues: “In five major temperature datasets updated on Thursday, 2020 finished in a statistical tie with 2016 as the hottest year on record, coming in about 1.2C hotter than the 19th century. Four of the five research centres showed 2020 slightly cooler than 2016, but within the uncertainty window. The year 2019 is a very close third.” Ahira Sánchez-Lugo from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – one of the scientific groups reporting new data – tells Bloomberg that “there are some regions that are warming a lot faster” than the global average. She adds that “a small change in the global temperature average can lead to big changes when it comes to extreme weather. We’re already seeing that”. The new data also shows that the period 2011-20 was the hottest decade on record and that the six warmest years have all occurred since 2015, reports the Independent. World Meteorological Organization secretary-general Prof Petteri Taalas notes that it was “remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, reports BBC News. He added: “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature.” Carbon Brief’s climate science contributor Dr Zeke Hausfather tells the Guardian that “it suggests that we’ve added an equivalent of a permanent El Niño event worth of global warming in just the last five years”. UN secretary general António Guterres described the news as “yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, reports Reuters, adding: “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.” The Associated Press notes that 2021 is likely to be among the Top 5 hottest years, but “probably not a record breaker because of natural temporary cooling in parts of the Pacific called La Niña”. Both the New York Times and Washington Post have visualised how rising temperatures affected different parts of the world in 2020. The Press Association, Axios, BuzzFeed News, Metro, Evening Standard, Sun, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and Yale Climate Connections all have the story, plus Carbon Brief has a detailed breakdown of how the world warmed last year.
President-elect Joe Biden yesterday added more than a half-dozen climate staff members to his White House team, reports the Washington Post, “drawing from the ranks of green groups, environmental justice advocates and former Democratic administration officials”. The paper continues: “The new hires include David J Hayes, who served as Interior deputy secretary under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Cecilia Martinez, a prominent environmental justice advocate based in Minneapolis who advised the transition team; and Stef Feldman, a top Biden campaign aide who helped craft his climate plan.” The additions make the incoming White House team the “most robust climate-focused group assembled in the West Wing”, the paper says. E&E News runs through the details of all the new staff, which also includes Maggie Thomas as chief of staff for the Office of Domestic Climate Policy. Thomas “was one of the major forces behind the climate-policy arms race among the 2020 Democratic candidates for president”, the outlet explains, “first as deputy climate director for Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s campaign and then as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s climate policy adviser”. The outlet adds: “Most of the new hires will build out the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, which is directed by Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, her deputy. Those staffers will help coordinate climate policy across the federal government, a transition official said, while the agencies use their statutory authorities to write regulations, grants and loans.” Axios also has the story.
Elsewhere, the Hill reports that the Trump administration is finalising a rule that will reduce the amount of money paid by oil and gas companies to the federal government for drilling on public lands and in public waters. It explains: “The rule will make changes to the way that these royalties are calculated and, according to the administration, is expected to result in an annual decrease of $28.9m in royalty collections.” In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency “finalised a surprise measure to bar future greenhouse gas regulation at oil refineries, manufacturing plants or other facilities beyond coal-fired power plants”, reports Inside Climate News. The outlet describes the moves as Trump’s appointees taking “their final shots at staving off future climate action”. The Biden administration “will be able to easily reverse the last-minute rule finalised by the EPA”, the outlet notes, “because it comes so late and it so clearly runs afoul of the requirements for public notice and comment”.
Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute “laid down battle lines with the incoming Biden administration” during their annual “State of American Energy” event yesterday, reports the Financial Times “Energy Source” column. In his speech, API president Mike Sommers “made clear that there will be many more areas of conflict than co-operation”, the column says. Sommers criticised Biden’s proposed restrictions on drilling on federal land, argued that the US would need “many more miles” of oil and gas pipelines in the years to come, and “painted California as a cautionary tale to make a case against deploying clean energy mandates to achieve emissions targets”, the column says. Inside Climate News describes the speech as “a point-by-point rebuttal of policies promised by Biden”, which foreshadows “the looming fights they are likely to face as they try to enact a new agenda phasing out fossil fuels”.
Finally, Politico reports that the Commerce Department yesterday “effectively banned exports to China’s state-owned oil company, adding the company that owns significant energy assets in the US to its blacklist of foreign entities it says threaten US national security”. And the Financial Times “Trade Secrets” column “looks at an EU initiative that might either be a source of tension or co-operation with the US: its plans for a carbon border tax”.
The UN has warned that countries must adapt more quickly to the impacts of climate change or face growing risks of heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather, the Independent reports. The UN Environment Programme’s fifth Adaptation Gap report finds that, “while the vast majority of nations have bolstered their plans for the effects of global warming, there remains a vast funding gap for developing countries, many of which are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of global heating”, the paper explains. “The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, adding: “Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest – even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals.” The report warns that only about $30bn (£22bn) is provided each year in development aid, to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change, says the Guardian. This is “less than half of the $70bn currently estimated to be needed”, the paper adds, while “those costs are set to increase further, to between $140bn and $300bn by the end of the decade”. The paper notes that “while private companies are often willing to provide funding for some projects to reduce emissions…projects that help people adapt to the impact of climate change, such as early warning systems, flood barriers or storm drains, are often more difficult to finance”. The UN also recommends prioritising nature-based solutions, such as tree planting, peatland restoration and mangrove protection, reports BusinessGreen. The report says these represent a low cost means of both mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and helping to reduce climate-related risks, the outlet explains.
New projections from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company suggest the impact of the coronavirus on the fossil fuel industry will bring forward the expected peak in global demand for oil and gas, reports BusinessGreen. In its Global Energy Perspective report, the firm says it expects global oil demand to peak in 2029, with gas demand peaking in 2037, the outlet says, while “it also predicts that demand for coal worldwide has already peaked”. The outlet continues: “The report points to a ‘profound reduction in energy demand’ as a result of the pandemic as a key driver behind the recent shift in demand projections, estimating it could take between one and four years for demand to recover, with electricity and gas demand set to rebound far more quickly than for oil.” McKinsey also expects hydrogen demand to grow rapidly in the coming decades, BusinessGreen adds, “with green hydrogen produced from renewable energy via a process known as electrolysis accounting for most of this increase”. (For more on hydrogen, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth explainer.) However, notes the Financial Times “Energy Source” column, the “gloomy takeaway” from the report is that while “the energy transition is accelerating…the rise of renewables and peaking of fossil fuels will not happen fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change”.
The UK government’s chief planning officer has defended its recent decision to allow a new coal mine in Cumbria, reports BBC News. At a conference organised by the countryside charity CPRE, Joanna Averley was asked why, given the UK’s policies on cutting carbon, planning secretary Robert Jenrick had not exercised his powers to overrule Cumbria Council’s approval of the mine, the outlet explains. She replied: “The secretary of state has to make a judgement based on whether the impacts of the scheme are more than local. And in this case, the decision was that this was a decision for local determination, and the application was approved by the local authority…a decision for local democracy.“ Averley insisted the planning department was playing its part in tackling climate change, says the Independent.
In other UK news, a Guardian “exclusive” reveals that the UK’s new business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, accepted substantial donations from fossil fuel investors and advisers as part of his 2019 general election campaign. The paper explains: “Kwarteng received £16,000 from companies and individuals with a direct interest in fossil fuels, and a further £4,500 from companies that advise on or facilitate trading in fossil fuels.”
“As the nation deals with the tragic drama of president Trump’s final days in office, and the world reels under a now-year-long assault by a virus, the Earth continues to evolve into a dangerously inhospitable environment. And it is our collective fault,” begins an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. Commenting on 2020 being the joint-warmest year on record, the paper warns that the world is doing “hardly much of anything at levels sufficient to address the problem”. The article criticises the Trump administration’s “abject opposition to efforts to reduce our production and use of fossil fuels”, but also notes that “other nations have been slow to act as well”. The paper says this is “something we hope will change with president-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to once again make the US a global leader”. It adds: “It’s difficult to say whether the broad contours of Biden’s climate plan will get us where we need to be, especially since aggressive spending and investment will require the cooperation of Congress. Even though Trump will be gone shortly, his coterie of climate-change deniers remain in the House and Senate, and we can expect Republicans who spent the last four years embracing deficit spending like New Deal Democrats to suddenly become worried about the nation’s overdrawn checking account.”
New research models the effects of a wartime-like “crash deployment” of direct air capture (DAC) as a policy response to climate change, calculating funding, net CO2 removal, and climate impacts. Such a programme, with investment of 1.2–1.9% of global GDP annually, removes 2.2–2.3GtCO2 per year in 2050, 13–20GtCO2 per year in 2075, and 570–840GtCO2 cumulatively over 2025–2100, the study says. Compared to a future in which policy efforts to control emissions follow current trends (SSP2-4.5), DAC “substantially hastens the onset of net-zero CO2 emissions (to 2085–2095) and peak warming (to 2090–2095)”, the authors say, “yet warming still reaches 2.4–2.5C in 2100”. Such massive CO2 removals hinge on near-term investment to boost the future capacity for upscaling, the study notes.
This paper analyses the 168-year trend of summer (July-September) sea ice area (SIA) variations in six Arctic regions, during the period from 1850-2017. SIA has been significantly decreasing in most Arctic regions since 1850, the study notes, and “the rate of retreat for the period of 1948-2017 accelerated multi-fold”. In the four decades since 1979, most Arctic regions experienced the fastest rate of reduction, the study finds. The drivers are found to be “combined global warming and the regional Arctic warming exerted simultaneously by the Arctic Oscillation (AO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) during the last several decades”.
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