Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Government has no climate change plan – MPs
- China to cut energy intensity, but no consumption cap in new five-year plan
- Deb Haaland interior secretary nomination advanced by senate energy panel
- Food waste: Amount thrown away totals 900m tonnes
- The Guardian view on climate and the budget: Sunak fails the green test
- The lessons of Fukushima: Nuclear power must be well regulated, not ditched
- Comparison of greenhouse gas fluxes from tropical forests and oil palm plantations on mineral soil
- Emerging dominance of summer rainfall driving High Arctic terrestrial-aquatic connectivity
The UK government has been hit by a “double whammy” of reports from MPs criticising its performance on climate change, reports BBC News. It continues: “The influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says ministers have ‘no plan’ to meet climate change targets, two years after setting them in law. And the business committee says the vital UN climate conference scheduled for Glasgow in November will fail unless its goals are made clear.” The latter says the government has provided no details so far about how success at the conference will be measured, BBC News says, and stresses that “more focus needs to be given to the overriding necessity to agree deliverable policies that keep global temperature rises to as close to 1.5C as possible”. The PAC report warns that the government has still not outlined how it intended to achieve the net-zero target, lacked a joined-up system for monitoring progress and was not doing enough to ensure that new investments were made with climate goals in mind, explains the Financial Times. The Sun reports the comments of PAC chair and Labour MP Meg Hillier, who says: “Government has set itself a huge test – but there is little sign that it understands how to get there…And almost two years later, it still has no plan…We must see a clear path plotted, with interim goals set and reached.“ The committee also says that the government had not yet engaged with the public on the substantial, individual behaviour – as well as structural economic changes that achieving net-zero will require, says Sky News. In response, a government spokesperson rejected the charge that there was no plan to reach net-zero, reports the Guardian. The spokesperson said: “It is nonsense to say the government does not have a plan when we have been leading the world in tackling climate change.” The Independent also has the story. At the same time, the Sun reports on “bombshell emails” from 2019 released under a freedom-of-information (FOI) request, which show that the public “were misled about the cost of the government’s net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050”. In the emails, “Treasury civil servants admitted to then-chancellor Philip Hammond that the cost of going green would likely be £20bn a year more than the £50bn figure they were told to champion publicly”, the paper explains. The FOI request was made by the climate-sceptic lobby group called the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Meanwhile, there is a “growing backlash” to the lack of green measures in the budget, reports the Times. It explains: “Critics said that the budget had failed to deliver policies that would drive significant progress toward Britain’s net-zero emissions target…It froze fuel duty, awarded only limited funds to a handful of energy and green innovation projects and was silent on the government’s green homes grant scheme.” Representatives of the property industry tell the paper that the government “missed a trick by ignoring calls to zero-rate VAT on repairs and maintenance of residential buildings”, which “could have been the most impactful tax change to support the improvement of both the energy efficiency and health and safety standards of our homes”. The Independent reports that the planned “new national infrastructure bank is so small that it will have no effect on growth, the government’s economics watchdog has said”. It explains: “In calculations released alongside the budget, the Office for Budget (OBR) responsibility said it had ‘not adjusted our economy forecast’ in light of the bank’s creation because of the bank’s small size and expected limited impact.” The Guardian notes that Labour has said the bank was much smaller than similar banks in Germany and other countries. BBC News lists “green” measures first among “four things missing from Rishi Sunkak”.
In other UK government news, Sky News reports that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is “axing a star-studded committee of business leaders appointed to advise on the government’s progress in delivering its industrial strategy just two-and-a-half years ago”. Kwarteng notified the 16 members of the Industrial Strategy Council on Wednesday that their services were no longer required, the outlet explains: “He said the government had ‘decided to mark a departure from the Industrial Strategy brand’, implying that the department he runs – Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – is likely to face yet another renaming in the coming months. The Guardian also has the story, while Politico reports that Kwarteng’s predecessor at BEIS, Alok Sharma – now president of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November – “oversaw a multimillion pound UK government loan for a new budget airline without conducting an environmental impact assessment”. The Guardian also reports that the government “is facing a growing rebellion over cuts to aid spending and senior Conservatives say it is likely to be defeated if it asks MPs to vote on the issue”. And the Financial Times reports that Lord Randall, the environment adviser to former prime minister Theresa May, has “asked the government watchdog to examine a potential conflict of interest involving the head of climate change at power group Drax, who is also a member of the UK’s prestigious climate advisory committee”.
Elsewhere in the UK, the Guardian reports that leading climate scientists are among more than 200 academics who have written to the government calling on it to halt the expansion of Leeds Bradford airport. The Press Association reports that the “carbon stored in the UK’s offshore exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been fully mapped for the first time to help tackle climate change”. BBC News and the Daily Mail report on a new map from the National Trust that shows the threats climate change may have on the UK’s stately homes and landscapes. The Daily Telegraph reports that electric car ownership in the UK has jumped by more than 50% over the last year, while reporting separately that sales of new cars in February “plunged to levels not seen since 1959”. And, finally, the Guardian is among other outlets to report that the court of justice of the EU has said the UK has “systematically and persistently” broken legal limits on air pollution for a decade. The paper notes that “levels of nitrogen dioxide, mostly from diesel vehicles, remain illegally high in 75% of urban areas”.
China will cut its energy intensity – a ratio that measures how much is used to drive economic growth – by around 3% in 2021 in a push to meet climate goals, reports Reuters – but it “stopped short of setting a cap on energy use” in its new five-year development plan. The newswire continues: “Premier Li Keqiang said in his government work report, delivered to parliament on Friday, that an ‘action plan’ would be drawn up this year to meet the 2030 target, and he also promised to improve the country’s energy mix and ease the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Over the 2021-25 period, China will also aim to cut energy intensity by 13.5% and carbon intensity – a ratio measuring how much carbon is emitted in growing the economy – by 18%.” In response, Li Shuo – senior advisor for Greenpeace in Beijing – tells the outlet that China had to do more if it is to keep up its previous pace of decarbonisation as its economy rebounds from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The latest five-year plan – the 14th since 1953 – “forms the cornerstone of economic governance for the one-party state”, explains the Guardian, and “sets out social and environmental aspirations as well as GDP and industrial targets”. The Financial Times says that “despite high expectations, Li confirmed little other than that a plan to achieve peak emissions by 2030 would be completed this year”. The paper also notes that the target for a 18% carbon intensity cut is “the same level as in the last five-year plan”. The plan also includes a “modest five-year growth target” for its nuclear power generation capacity, says Reuters, “and promised quicker development of alternative energy sources as it seeks to cut its carbon footprint, but left its coal industry largely untouched”. Bloomberg says that “China gives nuclear power a fresh push in drive to go green”. The plan also includes proposals to construct a “Polar Silk Road”, says Reuters, and actively participate in the development of Arctic and Antarctic regions. The newswire adds: “The plan said China would ‘participate in pragmatic cooperation in the North Pole’ and ‘raise its ability to participate in the protection and utilisation of the South Pole’. China has been eyeing lucrative mineral resources as well as potential new shipping routes in Arctic regions, as ice caps recede as a result of rising temperatures.” The South China Morning Post has more details about expectations ahead of the plan.
Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post also reports that proposals from tech industry leaders at the country’s two most important political meetings – known as the “two sessions” – included “suggestions for optimising data centres, power-hungry facilities that are an important resource for tech companies but a headache for environmental groups”. According to news outlet China Times (in Chinese), Wu Gang, the boss of a Chinese tech company specialising in wind power, suggested that the country establish “100 green cities, 1,000 green districts and 10,000 green villages” to help it reach its carbon neutral goal. Wu proposed the idea as an “exemplary project” for the government’s emission-reduction pledge. Similarly, another two session attendee Yu Dehui urges authorities to launch a “specialised action plan” to speed up establishing a low-carbon production cycle for China’s aluminium industry, reports Shanghai-based news site The Paper. Ma Huateng, chairman of Chinese tech giant Tencent, claims that Beijing’s plan to tackle climate change would help tech companies innovate and accelerate the low-carbon technology transformation from the market end, reports financial news website nbd.com.cn. Ma, a two sessions representative, is quoted saying: “To push forward carbon neutrality is a positive representation of technology firms carrying out their social responsibilities.” A piece in SupChina – a New York-based, China-focused news outlet – looks at whether China’s shift to green development will be enough to peak emissions this decade.
Elsewhere in China, the South China Morning Post reports that the National Energy Administration (NEA) has proposed “a new regulatory regime that will reduce its subsidy load, which has been mounting for years, but will also make wind and solar less profitable for developers”. The outlet also reports that a spokesperson for the Chinese legislature has said that China and the US can coexist as major global powers, but they must learn to respect each other and not go down the wrong path of confrontation and rivalry. The outlet continues: “Speaking at a late-night press conference ahead of the National People’s Congress opening session, Zhang Yesui said the two countries could work together in areas such as climate change and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.” On a similar note, Bloomberg reports that US administration officials – including climate envoy John Kerry and secretary of state Antony Blinken – “have signalled they want to shield climate diplomacy [with China] from the more turbulent aspects of the bilateral relationship”. Writing in the Independent, former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer says that “China is winning the global race to invent and manufacture the technology and tools for the future”, but it’s “not too late” for the US. He adds: “America can catch up to our competitors by investing in these solutions at a larger scale than ever before in conjunction with never before seen levels of bold, real, and immediate commitment from American business to go all-in on a clean energy future.” Steven Stashwick – an editor at the US Naval War College and a reserve naval officer – writes in Foreign Policy that the US “doesn’t have to make sacrifices to get China’s climate cooperation”. And, finally, a column penned by the former governor of the People’s Bank of China stresses the importance for China to set clear goals for its total annual carbon emissions. Writing for financial magazine Caijing, Zhou Xiaochuan says: “To realise the ‘30·60’ carbon objectives, the relevant total volumes would need to be clarified further.”
The Senate energy committee voted along near party lines to advance Deb Haaland nomination as interior secretary, reports Bloomberg, despite objections from Republicans about her past opposition to fossil fuels. Republicans warned that entrusting federal land to Haaland could mean forfeiting its energy potential, the outlet explains. The panel voted 11-9 to approve Haaland’s nomination, with Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski siding with Democrats to support the nomination, reports the Hill. Murkowski said she had “struggled” with the vote for Haaland, one of the most progressive members of the House and who has previously protested pipeline development, says Politico. It adds: “Murkowski met with Haaland twice to discuss Alaska’s dependence on the oil and gas industry, which has suffered as the industry shifts its focus to the lower 48 states.” The Guardian notes that Republican senators cited a study by the American Petroleum Institute – which projects job losses from a ban on federal oil and gas extraction – in their criticisms of Haaland. The paper adds that “all Republicans on the committee have received significant campaign contributions from oil and gas political action committees and employees, and some are personally invested in the industry”. Haaland’s nomination will now go to the full Senate, says CBS News, which notes that “her nomination has also received support from Republican senator Susan Collins and energy committee chair Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat, all but guaranteeing her confirmation”.
Meanwhile, a number of announcements have been made at the US “CERAWeek” annual energy conference. The Guardian reports that energy secretary Jennifer Granholm has announced that the government is reviving a loan program that will make $40bn in guarantees available for a variety of clean-energy projects – including wind, solar and hydro power, advanced vehicles, geothermal and even nuclear. The scheme “helped launch the country’s first utility-scale wind and solar farms as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to create green jobs, the paper says, “but largely went dormant under Donald Trump”. In her “headline” speech, national climate advisor Gina McCarthy said that rebuilding the US economy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in a rapid transition to clean energy, reports Reuters: “McCarthy stressed that investment in clean energy and vehicles is more of a focus for the Biden administration than regulation and said the auto and utility sectors, who she has been meeting with, acknowledge a transition is already happening.” And Reuters reports that company and government officials urged US utilities to invest in so-called “make-ready” infrastructure to promote electric vehicle use, which includes wiring parking lots to support vehicle charging.
The recent extreme cold storm and power blackouts in Texas has been a frequent topic at the conference, with experts saying the state will need to “winterise” its electric generation plants or consider connecting its grid with other parts of the country to help avoid another incident, reports Reuters. Other speakers at the conference suggested starting a capacity market that pays generators to keep plants available, reports another Reuters piece. The newswire also reports that the Texas electricity market faces “insurmountable distress” as more gas and service bills come due. The Financial Times says the state’s power market watchdog has recommended unwinding $16bn of wholesale electricity trades made at the height of a winter storm last month – an unprecedented move that could alleviate financial distress for companies. (For more on the recent crisis in Texas, see Carbon Brief‘s in-depth media reaction piece.)
Elsewhere in the US, in an “exclusive”, Reuters reports that the White House is adding transport and manufacturing specialists to its senior ranks as president Joe Biden prepares to lobby for a US infrastructure bill that “would create millions of jobs for an economy reeling from the novel coronavirus pandemic while also shoring up the country’s resilience to climate change”.
New figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggest that more than 900m tonnes of food is thrown away every year around the world, BBC News reports. The UNEP Food Waste Index shows that 17% of the food available to consumers – in shops, households and restaurants – goes directly into the bin, the outlet explains, adding: “Some 60% of that waste is in the home.” On average, food waste amounts to 121kg of food thrown out per person every year, reports the i newspaper. The Guardian says that food waste and loss causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. It adds: “If food waste was a country, it would have the third highest emissions after only the US and China.” Bloomberg notes that the non-profit group Project Drawdown – which estimates the potential contribution of different mitigation actions – “ranks cutting food waste ahead of moving to electric cars and switching to plant-based diets”. BusinessGreen reports that comments of Inger Andersen, executive director at the UNEP, who says: “If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, [then] businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste.” (Last year, Carbon Brief published a guest post on food waste as part of a week-long series on food and climate change.)
An editorial in the Guardian for the second day in a row concerns the UK’s budget, this time focusing on the “hugely disappointing” decision by chancellor Rishi Sunak not to “make the environment a big theme of this pandemic budget”. It continues: “The UK is far from alone in failing to deliver the green recovery that climate experts are united in believing is necessary…But having previously been a global leader on climate policy, the UK under Boris Johnson now risks sabotaging itself. Mr Sunak’s failure to prioritise green measures, which did not even merit a mention in his glossy pre-budget video, is the worst possible sequel to the government’s shambolic recent record.” The “shoddy implementation” of the recent £1.5bn green homes scheme “is a prime example”, the paper says, while “the row over a planned new coal mine in Cumbria is another own goal, as is the plan to expand Leeds Bradford airport”. While a Treasury review due in May means “there remains scope for further announcements”, the paper criticises Sunak for “lacking in vision”, noting that the “UK lags behind other countries on electric vehicle charging and cycling infrastructure”. The editorial concludes: “The truth is that ideology is the biggest blockage, when the situation demands state intervention on a massive scale. Unless this Brexiter government can admit that the free market on its own cannot fix the climate crisis, any more than it could fix the coronavirus pandemic, the UK will continue to fail.”
It has been 10 years since the Fukushima disaster in Japan, but the lesson “is not to eschew nuclear power, it is to use it wisely”, says an editorial in the Economist. While talk of a “nuclear renaissance” to fight climate change fell silent in the aftermath of the crisis, the Economist says this reaction “though understandable, was wrong”. Nuclear power “has a lot of drawbacks”, the editorial says, but “two things must be remembered”. One is that “well-regulated nuclear power is safe” and the second is that “the climate is in crisis, and nuclear plants can supply some of the vast amounts of emissions-free electricity the world needs if it is to cope”. The piece continues: “Despite this, safe and productive nuclear plants are being closed across the rich world. Those closures and the retirement of older sites mean that advanced economies could lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040… If new fossil-fuel infrastructure fills the gap, it will last for decades. If renewables do so, the opportunity cost will be measured in gigatonnes of carbon. Renewables replacing nuclear capacity would almost always be better deployed to replace fossil-fuel capacity.” The Economist has an accompanying feature on how “instead of spurring reform, the nuclear accident bred disillusionment”.
In Southeast Asia, oil palm plantations have largely replaced large areas that used to be covered by tropical forests. However, the precise effect of this change in land use on greenhouse gas emissions and sinks remains highly uncertain. This study examines the differences in N2O, CH4, and CO2 fluxes and soil carbon respiration rates from both logged forests, oil palm plantations, and untouched areas. The authors focus on N2O fluxes and find that they are largest in oil palm plantations, roughly three times larger than in logged forests. They find that N2O emissions have increased from around 7.6m tonnes per year in 1973 to 11.4m tonnes in 2015 due to the increasing area of forest converted to oil palm plantations over the last 40 years.
Hydrological transformations due to climate change are causing Arctic rivers and streams to shift from being snowmelt-dominated to a combination of snowmelt and rainfall-dominated, a new study says, representing a fundamental change to many systems. Increased late summer rainfall enhances the amount of material dissolved in rivers and streams, the researchers say. To overcome the watersheds’ buffering capacity for transferring particulate material, rainfall events had to increase by an order of magnitude, the study says, “indicating the landscape is primed for accelerated change when future rainfall magnitudes and consequent pluvial responses exceed the current buffering capacity of the terrestrial-aquatic continuum”.
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