Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Government to merge Foreign Office and DfID, heralding potential climate aid shake-up
- Global oil demand could hit record growth rate next year, IEA warns
- PG&E pleads guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in California wildfire
- National Grid secures £580m loan for UK-Denmark power link
- It is critical to design our Covid-19 recovery for green challenges
- How much do people around the world care about climate change? We surveyed 80,000 people in 40 countries to find out
- Shifting economic activity to services has limited potential to reduce global environmental impacts...
The UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID) is to merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), BusinessGreen reports, in a “controversial shake-up that could have major ramifications for overseas support for climate-hit regions and the UK’s diplomatic efforts ahead of the crucial COP26 summit”. In parliament yesterday afternoon, prime minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of a new “Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office”, the outlet continues, which he said would “unite our aid and our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort”. Enhancing integration between diplomatic goals and development spend could boost the UK’s climate efforts, Johnson argued: “The overriding aim is to bring this country’s strengths and expertise to bear on the world’s biggest problems, seizing the opportunities of Britain’s presidency of the G7 next year, and the UN climate change conference, COP26, which we will host on Glasgow.” At present DfID is responsible for the UK’s £15bn annual foreign aid budget, notes BusinessGreen: “As such the Department plays a significant role in supporting climate adaptation and mitigation projects in vulnerable countries, while also driving sustainable development and showcasing the UK’s clean technology expertise.” Johnson pledged to maintain overseas aid spending at the statutory commitment of 0.7% of GDP, reports the Guardian. But “the blending of the two departments will inevitably require greater linkage between the UK’s aid, security and commercial interests”, the paper suggests. The new department is expected to be formed in the autumn, well before the government has completed its integrated foreign and defence security review, the paper notes, adding that the department will be led by foreign secretary Dominic Raab. The UK has the third biggest aid budget in the world, says Climate Home News: “Last year, the government committed to double its contribution to international climate finance to $11.6bn between 2021 and 2026.” (Carbon Brief has previously mapped how UK foreign aid is spent on climate change.) The New Statesman looks at why the decision has been taken. DfID was spun out of the Foreign Office by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, says the Financial Times, and “putting the two departments back together has been a long-term ambition of Johnson”. Blair – along with former prime ministers David Cameron and Gordon Brown – all expressed their disagreement with the merger, says another FT piece. It continues: “In a rare intervention from a former Tory premier, David Cameron responded on Twitter that it was ‘a mistake’ resulting in ‘less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas’. His sentiment was echoed by former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Mr Blair said he was ‘utterly dismayed’ by the ‘wrong and regressive move’, while Mr Brown said it was ‘sad’ the government was ‘abolishing one of the UK’s great international assets’.” Oxfam chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said the move was “scarcely believable” at a time when the world was focused on fighting coronavirus, reports BBC News. The Guardian has more of the reaction from charities. In the Independent, Amanda Khozi Mukwashi – chief executive of Christian Aid – describes the decision as “an act of political vandalism”, adding: “It certainly feels like a slap in the face of all those who have been raising their voices about systemic economic and social injustice. As Covid-19 has shown, and as we know through our work at Christian Aid, it is black and brown people who are most affected by poverty, lack of healthcare and the climate crisis.” The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour says the merger “signals a change of priorities” and with “FCO spending focused on middle-income trading partners, the world’s poorest countries may end up with less”. And taking a different view in the Daily Telegraph, commentator Leo McKinstry welcomes the move “as a blow against politically correct self-indulgence and institutional extravagance”. Aid “hampers growth by encouraging welfare dependency”, he adds.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says global oil demand could climb at its fastest rate in the history of the market next year, and may reach pre-crisis levels within years without new green policies, the Guardian reports. The IEA’s latest monthly oil report forecasts that the world’s daily oil demand may climb by 5.7m barrels per day (b/d) next year to an average of 97m b/d in 2021, the paper says. It adds: “Global oil demand could return to pre-crisis levels as soon as 2022 if governments avoid a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak and restart the aviation industry, without putting in place new plans to accelerate clean energy investment.” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, said claims that the world had already reached peak oil were “overhyped”, and warned that it may fail to materialise unless governments accelerated clean energy investment as part of a green economic recovery plan. He added: “I want to repeat, video conferencing alone will not solve our energy and climate challenges. We need [the] right government policies…A change in lifestyle will not bring us a peak and a decline in oil demand.” The record rebound will likely follow the largest drop in demand on record, the IEA says, with 2020 expected to see a 8.1m b/d fall, notes the Financial Times. The IEA said the “dire” situation of the aviation sector was largely to blame, noting that passenger traffic this year was expected to be almost 55% lower than in 2019, the FT adds. The Times says that the plunge in demand has led to a steep collapse in oil prices – from more than $65 a barrel at the start of the year to less than $20 a barrel in April. It adds: “Prices have recovered – to about $40 a barrel yesterday – after leading producers in the Opec cartel and allies including Russia (together known as Opec+) agreed to curbs on their output.” Oil prices rose 3% this morning on the back of the IEA report and a “surge” on Wall Street, says Reuters. Yet massive build-ups in stocks in recent months are set to keep profit margins for refining crude into petroleum products like road and aviation fuels subdued, says another Reuters piece. Nonetheless, the IEA also notes that “while the oil market remains fragile, the recent modest recovery in prices suggests that the first half of 2020 is ending on a more optimistic note”, reports Axios. Birol told CNBC that a modest oil market recovery was being driven by three factors: China’s strong exit from lockdown measures; a “very good” compliance among Opec+ members; and the decline of production in the US, Canada and other G20 countries. Meanwhile, BusinessGreen reports that thinktank Carbon Tracker has warned the “clock is ticking” towards yet more major write-downs across the oil and gas sector, after yesterday’s news that oil giant BP will slash up to $17.5bn off the value of its oil-and-gas assets.
In gas news, Reuters reports that Russia’s Gazprom is in talks with Poland’s top gas company PGNiG to retroactively raise the cost of gas supplied to the country since 2017. The newswire continues: “Gazprom Export did not say what grounds it had for raising prices, but it is not uncommon for it to change contract prices retroactively if spot prices have changed significantly or there have been other developments in the market. The two companies have separately been locked in a dispute over pricing, which led to an international arbitration court ruling in March that Gazprom must pay state-run PGNiG about $1.5bn by 1 July. If Gazprom Export reaches agreement with PGNiG to raise prices retroactively that could reduce the bill it owes the Polish company.” The Financial Times says efforts by Poland to diversify its gas supply away from Russia have “come at a price”: “On 26 May, westward flows of natural gas via the Europol pipeline, one of the main transit routes for Russian gas to Europe via Poland, came to a complete halt for a day only to restart at much more volatile levels. This followed the expiration of a long-term transit contract between Russia and Poland nine days earlier. Since then, Gazprom has been free to book capacity at regular auctions under EU rules rather than being tied down by a less flexible contract arrangement with Poland.” In related pipeline news, Axios reports on a US Supreme Court ruling on Monday that “removes a key hurdle for two natural gas pipelines and could have ripple effects for future projects”. In a 7-2 ruling, “the court said the US Forest Service has the power to grant the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline right of way under the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Another pipeline proposed in the same area, the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, has faced similar challenges”, the outlet says. And Reuters reports that permit requests have been submitted to Denmark’s energy agency to allow pipe-laying vessels with anchors to complete the final roughly 120km stretch of the gas pipeline in Danish waters. Work on the project stopped in December as pipe-laying firm Swiss-Dutch Allseas suspended work due to US sanctions targeting companies providing vessels laying Nord Stream 2 pipes, the newswire says. Finally, the Hill reports that a federal appeals court has upheld the suspension of the last two remaining oil and gas leases near Glacier National Park in Montana, and Reuters reports that head of the Texas regulatory commission says the state could tighten some rules for the controversial practice of natural gas flaring as early as this autumn.
California-based utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from a devastating 2018 wildfire in northern California touched off by the utility company’s power lines, Reuters reports. It continues: “The guilty plea, part of an agreement with prosecutors in Butte County, is intended to end all criminal proceedings against PG&E from the Camp Fire, which broke out on 8 November, 2018, and destroyed much of the town of Paradise.” The indictment served earlier this year names the company, not a specific individual, says Reuters. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey tells the Wall Street Journal that the negligence went back decades, making it difficult to serve charges to specific individuals. The Hill says: “PG&E is now one of a few companies to ever plead guilty to manslaughter charges as state prosecutors sought to hold them accountable for their role in the deadliest wildfire in California history.” People who lost family and property in the fire are expected to testify to the county from today, says Axios, before the judge imposes a sentence on the utility. Bloomberg Law notes that “the sentencing is a legal formality”, adding: “The utility already has agreed to settle claims from insurers, individual fire victims and local government agencies for more than $25bn. It also received a $1.9bn penalty from the California Public Utilities Commission. The criminal case is the company’s last unfinished business as it races to exit from bankruptcy in the wake of a series of wildfires in recent years.”
Meanwhile, in the UK, the National Trust is urging people not to take a barbecue or light a campfire when they visit the coast and countryside following a spate of wildfires that have damaged flora and fauna, reports the Guardian.
The UK National Grid has secured a $734m (£580m) loan to help finance the development of the $2bn (£1.59bn) power link it is building between Britain and Denmark, reports Reuters. It continues: “Once completed in 2023 the 1,400 megawatt interconnector, called Viking Link, is expected to be able to supply renewable energy to around 1.4m households. The multi-export credit agency covered green loan is made up of $488m (£388m) from SACE Export Credit and $255m (£202m) from Euler Hermes Export Credit, National Grid said.”
In the Financial Times, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon writes that, as “world leaders are committing unprecedented funds to recovery packages” to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, “their choices will shape our economies and societies for decades, and determine whether we breathe clean air, create a sustainable low-carbon future and possibly even survive as a species”. The opportunities are there for governments, he says: “They can structure bailouts to wean the sectors they save off fossil fuels. They can prioritise green jobs, renewable energy and clean technology. These measures would pay for themselves many times over.” Governments “must seize” the opportunities coming this year, he says: “On 7 September, the UN is organising the first International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. And attention is turning to the COP26 summit in 2021, which feels like our last chance. Governments must seize these opportunities to put clean air and climate justice at the heart of recovery plans, in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement.”
Prof Walter Russell Mead – an academic and Wall Street Journal “Global View” columnist – writes for the paper that “the global climate-change movement faces a choice: Learn the lessons of the pandemic or fail”. Mead focuses on the “much smaller rush hour” that has emerged in the US amid coronavirus. While a campaign to “cut the commute” globally won’t solve the climate problem, he says, “it’s a start”. And, he notes, “it points to the path the climate movement must travel if it hopes to succeed. The pandemic has taught the world that the human capacity for sacrifice, even in the face of grave danger, has limits. This is an inconvenient truth that the climate movement cannot afford to ignore”.
In the Daily Telegraph, international business editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard comments on BP’s decision to write down the value of its oil and gas assets. He says: “Bernard Looney, BP’s new chief executive, can see the writing on the wall and is wisely trying to turn his company into a green energy conglomerate before it ceases to be a company.” He adds: “Mr Looney is writing down £14bn, half linked to ‘exploration intangible assets’. This means ditching marginal fields, starting with Canadian oil sands and the Gulf of Mexico. They are worthless under post-Covid and post-Paris assumptions. He has cut BP’s long-range oil and gas forecast, betting that the pandemic will accelerate the green switch and lead to a permanently diminished fossil pie.”
Also in the Daily Telegraph, Nicola Lovett – chief executive of energy and services provider ENGIE UK & Ireland – writes that “the way in which we consume energy going forward, and how quickly we will be able to reduce our demand for it, is ready for an abrupt rethink”. She says: “One unforeseen but welcome side effect of the lockdown is the glimpse of green it has afforded, with lower carbon emissions significantly reducing pollution levels, improving air quality, and slowing the pace of global warming. However, the long-term goal posts on climate change remain unchanged. As we rebuild, we must harness the learnings from Covid-19, putting zero carbon at the heart of the economic recovery to ensure an even greater global crisis is avoided.” Lovett suggests “the Government should make energy management a climate commitment, met with a programme of retrofitting offices, public buildings and local authority homes to standards that significantly improve efficiency. This would help the climate, provide jobs and deliver much needed savings on running costs”.
Finally on the green recovery, Vox staff writer Umair Irfan takes a closer look at “how South Korea, France, and Italy are using the Covid-19 response to fight climate change”, and Bloomberg reporter Akshat Rathi says that “Germany shows the world how to green the stimulus”. Carbon Brief has launched a new interactive tracker of the measures proposed, agreed and implemented by major economies around the world.
Writing in the Conversation, University of Oxford researchers Simge Andı and James Painter discuss the results of the Digital News Reports annual survey, which was completed by more than 80,000 people. The findings show that “climate change matters to most people”, Andı and Painter say, and “in the vast majority of countries, fewer than 3% said climate change was not serious at all”. Almost seven in 10 people say climate change is “a very, or extremely serious, problem”, the pair write, but the results show notable country differences: “Lack of concern is far higher in the US (12%) as well as in Sweden (9%), Greta Thunberg’s home country. Despite disastrous bush fires at the time of our fieldwork, 8% of respondents in Australia report that climate change is not serious at all. These groups with low levels of concern tend to be right wing and older.” Four of the five countries showing the highest levels of concern (85-90%) were from the global south, Andı and Painter say: “namely Chile, Kenya, South Africa and the Philippines. However, in countries with lower levels of internet penetration, our online survey samples over-represent people who are more affluent and educated.” They also note: “Perhaps surprisingly, the five countries with the lowest levels of concern are all in Western Europe. In Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, only around half (or less) think that climate change is a serious problem.”
Sustainable development policies often involve a switch from an economy based on primary and secondary sector employment to an economy based on tertiary sector employment – but this may not be better for the environment, a new study finds. Primary sector jobs are those that produce raw materials, such as farming, mining and fishing; the secondary sector involves the processing of raw materials, including through food and textile manufacturing, while the tertiary sector involves the production of services rather than goods. It is often assumed that the tertiary sector has the smallest carbon footprint, the study says. However, it finds that when the household emissions of tertiary sector workers are considered, the carbon footprint of all three sectors converge.
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