Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Government intervenes in plan for Cumbria coal mine after climate backlash
- John Kerry warns EU against carbon border tax
- Shell's 2020 carbon emissions fall on the back of fuel sales drop
- China’s dirty recovery will make curbing climate change tougher
- Record-breaking October rainfall will be 10 times more likely by 2100, says Met Office
- If Johnson thinks he can charm his way to success at COP26, he's sorely mistaken
- Carbon and beyond: The biogeochemistry of climate in a rapidly changing Amazon
In an exclusive frontpage story, the Independent reports that the UK government is “calling in” the decision over plans for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. In a letter seen by the news outlet, Robert Jenrick – the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government – has decided to intervene in plans for the mine following “increased controversy” surrounding the application. The letter, from a planning decision officer for the ministry, says that Jenrick plans to hold a public inquiry over the mine. He adds his decision to intervene comes in light of “further developments”, including a recent report from the UK’s independent climate advisers, the paper explains. The letter says: “The secretary of state recognises that proponents and opponents take different positions on that matter, and considers that this should be explored during a public inquiry. Furthermore controversy about the application has increased.” In response, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said that “the saga of this mine is a symptom of a government that isn’t serious about its climate ambition…The government must now block the mine and focus instead on real solutions to secure the long-term future of UK steel, and create low-carbon jobs in Cumbria and across the country.” Workington MP Mark Jenkinson told a Conservative MPs’ Whatsapp group that Jenrick has “bowed to climate terrorists” and said the decision was a “kick in the teeth”, reports the Sun. Robert Goodwill – MP for Scarborough and Whitby and a former minister – added that the UK would be forced to buy steel “from those lovely Chinese people instead”, the paper says. Another – unnamed – northern MP tells Politico that they were “bitterly disappointed” at the move, adding that amid “sensational, damning headlines…the coking coal floats in on fossil-fuelled ships from afar to the UK and Europe, to satisfy the undeniable ever-increasing need for steel.” BBC News environment analyst Roger Harrabin says the pressure on the government was “too much”, adding: “The government could still decide to approve the mine, but given the amount of anger it’s caused that seems unlikely – at least until after the UN climate conference.” And Sky News climate change correspondent Lisa Holland describes the decision as “an embarrassing u-turn for the government and sends a clear signal that it has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk on the climate”. The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Guardian all pick up on the story, while BusinessGreen reports on new analysis – published this morning by local group Cumbria Action for Sustainability – which estimates that around 9,000 green jobs could be created in Cumbria over the next 15 years under the right investment environment.
Elsewhere in the UK, the Times reports that utility company Drax has won subsides worth £230m to support the building of three new gas-fired power stations under the UK’s latest electricity capacity auction. The company, which aims to be carbon-negative by 2030, said it would now consider selling the projects, the paper explains: “Last month Drax scrapped plans to build Europe’s largest gas-fired power plant, a 3.6 gigawatt project at Selby in North Yorkshire. However, it retained options to build four 299 megawatt gas plants at other sites in Britain and yesterday it said that it had won subsidies to help to build three of them.” The open cycle gas turbine projects are “designed to fire up at short notice and are usually used to balance the grid rather than generate around the clock”, notes Bloomberg. Drax has said the capital cost for each project is about £80-90m with a build time of some two years, “putting the total value of the agreements below the development costs”, Reuters says. Elsewhere, Bloomberg reports that the UK’s power generation mix “will see a dramatic shift from 2024 as output from its nuclear units is forecast to fade out sooner than anticipated”. It explains: “Electricite de France SA failed to secure agreements for half of its nuclear fleet in a government-led auction to keep capacity available in 2024-25 this week. While some of the units are expected to close by 2024 several aren’t and their future looks uncertain. The future capacity has been crowded out by cables that import power from Europe.”
And in other UK news, the Financial Times reports that Ofgem, the energy market regulator, has warned it could slash allowed returns for companies that own local electricity networks by more than a third from 2023. It adds: “Ofgem on Thursday published plans to cut baseline annual rates of return to 4.4% for five years from 2023, down from about 7% under the current regime…The move would hit companies…which own local distribution networks that transport electricity from the high voltage national transmission grid to homes and businesses.” BusinessGreen reports that plans to decarbonise the biggest car plant in the UK “took a major leap forward” as Nissan announced its intention to build a 20MW solar farm at its Sunderland factory that will significantly reduce the operation’s reliance on fossil fuels. And, finally, the Independent reports that British billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Chris Hohn has called on companies to be held more accountable for their role in climate change, which he described as the “single biggest challenge for future generations”.
US climate envoy John Kerry has warned the EU that a carbon border tax adjustment should be a “last resort”, reports the Financial Times. At the end of a four-day trip that aimed to build a transatlantic climate alliance ahead of the UN climate talks in November, Kerry told the paper he was “concerned” about Brussels’ forthcoming plans for a carbon border adjustment mechanism and urged the EU to wait until after the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow to move forward. He said a border tax “does have serious implications for economies, and for relationships, and trade…I think it is something that’s more of a last resort, when you’ve exhausted the possibilities of getting emission reductions and joining in some kind of compact by which everybody is bearing the burden.” The mechanism “is the centrepiece of the EU’s green push, with a draft proposal expected in June”, the paper notes, adding that “the EU has been urging the US to follow its lead in areas such as carbon pricing and the new green ‘taxonomy’, which creates green standards and definitions. However, Kerry suggested the US was more likely to forge its own path in these areas, telling the paper that, on taxonomy: “Obviously, the US has strong feelings about not having excessive regulation…I think we will safeguard that.” Meanwhile, EurActiv reports that, on Wednesday, the European Parliament “overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of a carbon border charge that would shield EU companies against cheaper imports from countries with weaker climate policies”. The outlet adds: “The non-binding vote was an early step in a long path to setting up the carbon border levy, which faces a very difficult ratification with opinions widely diverged among the bloc’s 27 member states.”
Meanwhile, Reuters covers a new report from Climate Action Tracker (CAT) that says the US needs to set a target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 57% and 63% below 2005 levels by 2030 in order to achieve the Biden administration’s longer-term goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The report analysed “Biden’s plans to decarbonise the electricity sector, commercial buildings and new vehicle fleet and found that in order for the US to do its share to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C – the goal of the Paris Agreement – it needs to cut at least 57% of its emissions by the end of the decade”. Such a target would be substantially tougher than the halving of emissions by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, “that many US civil society groups have espoused”, notes the Guardian.
Elsewhere in the US, the Hill reports that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has said that Biden’s temporary moratorium on leasing federal lands and waters for oil and gas drilling is expected to have “no effects” on domestic production until 2022. The Financial Times “Energy Source” column notes that the move could have a knock-on effect of making “Texas oil more competitive”. It says: “The administration’s efforts to restrict drilling on federal lands will disproportionately hit neighbouring New Mexico’s section of the Permian and send jobs and production fleeing into Texas.” And an editorial in the Wall Street Journal notes that Democratic Senators from New Mexico have “urged the Biden Administration to resume leasing”.
Finally, Bloomberg says that Biden’s new $1.9tn American Rescue Plan is “the sixth pandemic stimulus package in roughly 12 months to put off significant action on clean energy and climate change mitigation, yet another sign of what many advocates now conclude is an opportunity wasted”. It adds: “The White House and Democratic leadership in Congress have said that low-carbon energy policy is still very much on the agenda, but that they’re aiming to load much of that into an infrastructure bill the Biden administration will put forward next.” And Energy Monitor delves into the question of whether there will be a “second act” for the US nuclear power industry.
Royal Dutch Shell, owner of the world’s largest fuel retail network, said yesterday that its total greenhouse gas emissions dropped 16% in 2020 as oil and gas sales fell sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic, reports Reuters. In its annual report, Shell said that total emissions from its oil wells to forecourt fuel sales fell to 1.38bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent last year, from 1.65bn in 2019, the newswire explains. It adds: “Net carbon intensity, the main measure the Anglo-Dutch focuses on in its energy transition strategy, dropped last year to 75 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoules, a 4% reduction from 2019, Shell said.”
At the same time, Shell announced Andrew Mackenzie – a former CEO of mining company and BP veteran – as its next chairman who “will help lead the energy company through a major shift away from oil and gas to low-carbon energy”, reports Reuters. Mackenzie “will succeed Chad Holliday after the oil major’s annual meeting in May as it embarks on a strategic shift to lower-carbon energy”, says the Times. It notes that Mackenzie “began his career in academia, studying geology at the University of St Andrew’s and then gaining a PhD in chemistry from the University of Bristol, where his research attracted the attention of oil companies”. Bloomberg describes Mackenzie as a “fossil-fuel man through-and-through” and notes that he is “credited for being ahead of the curve on climate change and gender issues in the natural resources industry”. Mackenzie said he was becoming chairman at “a pivotal time for the industry and wider society”, reports the Financial Times, and that he would work closely with chief executive Ben van Beurden to “profitably accelerate Shell’s transition into a net-zero emissions energy business”. The Wall Street Journal also has the story, while Reuters reports that van Beurden’s pay package “dropped by 42% to $7m in 2020” after the Covid pandemic “pushed the energy company to a historic dividend cut following a collapse in profits”.
Meanwhile, a Reuters exclusive reports that BP’s trading arm made nearly $4bn in 2020 – “almost equalling the record trading profit in 2019 despite the collapse in oil demand caused by the pandemic”. The newswire explains that “trading revenue for majors such as BP and rival Royal Dutch/Shell shielded them from the full impact of the worst recession to hit the modern energy industry, helping finance their shift towards a new business model in a lower carbon economy”.
In oil-related comment, Merryn Somerset Webb – editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek investment magazine – writes in the Financial Times that divesting from oil companies achieves “nothing good” because “when you sell the shares, someone else buys them and the business just carries on”. She explains that “if you care about the planet I’d say there is a case to be made for holding not fewer but more fossil fuel and mining stocks. Better they are in the right than the wrong hands”.
China’s economy “roared back from the pandemic on a plume of greenhouse gas emissions”, reports Bloomberg, “raising questions over how the nation will balance new growth targets with its climate change goals”. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), CO2 emissions rose 4% in the second half of 2020, “largely as a result of a heavy-industry led recovery that saw steel and cement production surge and a jump in the nation’s consumption of fossil fuels”, the outlet says. [Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at CREA, calculated the 4% reduction in his recent analysis for Carbon Brief.] Ma Jun, director at the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, tells the outlet: “It shows that some regions haven’t really made enough effort to reduce emissions. Energy-intensive, highly polluting projects are still being approved and constructed.”
Elsewhere, Zhou Dadi, former director of the Energy Research Institute (ERI) of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said that more provinces and cities should peak their carbon emission during the 14th five-year plan period (2021-2025), reports 21st Century Business Herald (in Chinese). Speaking at a conference organised by Tsinghua University, Zhou suggested the move could help China achieve its national emission peak target, but would need a joint effort from all aspects of society. Separately, Hu Jiqiang, a deputy of China’s National People’s Congress, has called for the government to speed up establishing the “Law on Promotion of Low-carbon Development” to facilitate the nation’s energy transition. Hu made the comments in an interview with state-affiliated International Financial News (in Chinese). Meanwhile, Ali Houssam El Din Mahmoud Elhefny, former Egyptian ambassador to China, tells Chinese state media that he is “full of confidence” in China’s capabilities of fulfilling its environmental promises. Speaking to Guangming Daily (in Chinese), a broadsheet run by China’s Communist Party, Elhefny stresses China’s “continuous adherence” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Paris Agreement. He says when China designs a plan, it can always complete it well and on time. Another state-run tabloid newspaper, Global Times, picks up a Xinhua report on a climate scientist’s optimism about China’s role in global climate actions. Prof Tim Flannery at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies says: “I have no doubt in the coming decade [China] can produce cleaner air, cleaner energy, and create greater prosperity.” And, finally, China Global Television Network – the English-language arm of China’s state broadcaster – reports that a scheduled meeting between top diplomats from China and the US is expected to be the first high-level in-person meeting between China and the Biden administration. Joseph Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics at East China Normal University, tells the outlet that the two countries will engage tentatively on climate change, adding he’s optimistic for more cooperation from both sides.
Carbon Brief has just published an in-depth Q&A about what China’s new five-year plan might mean for climate change.
New Met Office analysis shows that the kind of record breaking rainfall seen in the UK last October is three times as likely now as it would have been without climate change, reports the i newspaper. Focusing on the record rainfall of 3 October, when 31.7mm of rain fell across the UK, on average, the Met Office says that would have been a 1-in-300 year event without a warming climate, the paper explains: “However, because of the effects of climate change, they estimate that it is now a 1-in-100 year event. And they say that by 2100, under a ‘medium emissions scenario’, that level of extreme daily rainfall could be seen every 30 years – 10 times as frequent as it would have been without climate change.” Met Office scientist Dr Nikos Christidis said: “We are also now starting to see how more frequent extreme rainfall events are already impacting the UK, showing that human induced climate change is already having an impact on the weather we experience.“ Reuters also has the story.
Meanwhile, the Independent reports on new research, published in Science, showing how climate change is altering the flow of rivers across the world. Drawing on data from more than 7,000 sites across the world, the study analyses flow changes between 1971 and 2010, the paper explains. The findings indicate “increasing river flows in some regions, such as northern Europe, and decreasing river flows in others, such as southern Europe, southern Australia and parts of southern Asia”, the paper says. Bloomberg also covers the study.
While COP26 is “both the biggest and the most important summit Britain has ever hosted…there is no guarantee that the conference will end in success, and warning signs abound that it might end in failure” warns Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott. One of the many diplomatic challenges is that “relations between the UK and China are at a low ebb”, he says, adding that “Beijing doesn’t seem eager to make life easier for Boris Johnson in the run-up to Glasgow”. Commenting on the draft of China’s latest five-year plan, Elliott says: “For China’s leaders, there is a trade-off between action to tackle the climate crisis and the desire to boost the incomes of its lowest-paid citizens by growing the economy.” But the UK is having to make similar “hard choices”, says Elliott, noting that the government’s latest budget “was an opportunity for the government to let the rest of the world know that it was serious about speeding up the UK’s progress to net-zero”, but contained “a few modest announcements”. Elliott warns that if prime minister Boris Johnson “thinks he can busk his way to success by turning on the charm at the last minute, he is sorely mistaken. International conferences fail because insufficient progress has been made in the months leading up to them. If the hard bargaining is left to the conference itself, then it’s far too late”.
On a similar note, in a piece for Climate Home News, journalist Isabelle Gerretsen picks out “five ways the UK is failing to walk the talk on a green recovery ahead of COP26”. And BusinessGreen deputy editor Michael Holder asks whether the UK can “get its messaging straight on net-zero?”. And also in UK comment, Prof Adam Tooze – a professor of history at Columbia University – has a piece in the Guardian on the green new deal and Labour’s “retreat from radicalism”.
In COP-related news, Climate Home News reports that climate diplomats in developing countries and civil society groups have warned that slow vaccine rollouts in poorer nations threaten the inclusivity of negotiations at COP26.
A new review paper finds that the warming effects from “non-CO2 agents” in the Amazon Basin “largely offsets – and most likely exceeds – the climate service provided by atmospheric CO2 uptake”. The paper notes that analysis of the Amazon often misses “significant biophysical climate feedbacks”, such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide and black carbon, and their responses to land use change, fires, storms and rising temperatures. The study concludes: “Given the large contribution of less-recognised agents (eg, Amazonian trees alone emit ~3.5% of all global CH4), a continuing focus on a single metric (ie, C uptake and storage) is incompatible with genuine efforts to understand and manage the biogeochemistry of climate in a rapidly changing Amazon basin.”
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