Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Green Brexit plans thrown into turmoil as government deal endures crushing defeat
- Immediate fossil fuel phaseout could arrest climate change – study
- Brazil downgrades climate diplomacy in Bolsonaro shake-up
- The Green New Deal’s first test: what counts as clean energy?
- Are we living through climate change’s worst-case scenario?
- Glaciers Are retreating. Millions rely on their water.
- Current fossil fuel infrastructure does not yet commit us to 1.5C warming
The multiple ramifications of last night’s historic huge defeat in the House of Commons for the UK government’s Brexit plan are still in a state of extreme flux. But BusinessGreen focuses on the likely impact for environmental policy: “The vote means the withdrawal agreement – with its specific ‘non-regression’ commitments to maintain UK environmental protections and policies post-Brexit, establish a new green watchdog, and continue to work closely with the EU on climate change and other environmental issues – is now thrown into limbo…the future of the government’s green Brexit vision is now as uncertain as that of its wider Brexit plan.”
Separately, BusinessGreen reports that “renewables are on course to overtake fossil fuels for the first time as the UK’s primary electricity source as early as 2020”, according to a new market forecast by EnAppSys. BusinessGreen adds: “If current trends continue, the market analyst predicts growing renewable power sources such as wind and solar will generate 121.3TWh or electricity over the calendar year of 2020, pushing ahead of declining coal and gas-fired power sources with a forecasted 105.6TWh of generation.” The article also cites Carbon Brief’s recent analysis which showed that last year renewables accounted for a third of all power generation in the UK.
There is widespread coverage of a new study published in Nature Communications which, reports the Guardian, concludes that “climate change could be kept in check if a phaseout of all fossil fuel infrastructure were to begin immediately”. The Guardian adds: “The study found that if all fossil fuel infrastructure – power plants, factories, vehicles, ships and planes – from now on are replaced by zero-carbon alternatives at the end of their useful lives, there is a 64% chance of staying under 1.5C.” The newspaper quotes the reaction of Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics: “This study confirms that all new energy infrastructure must be sustainable from now on if we are to avoid locking in commitments to emissions that would lead to the world exceeding the goals of the Paris Agreement.” The Guardian also explains some of the assumptions and caveats underpinning the paper’s modelling: “The lifespan for power plants was set at 40 years, cars an average of 15 years and planes 26 years. The work also assumes a rapid end to beef and dairy consumption, which is responsible for significant global emissions…The analysis did not include the possibility of tipping points such as the sudden release of huge volumes of methane from permafrost, which could spark runaway global warming. The scientists accept their scenario is at the extreme end of ambition, but said it was important to know that meeting the 1.5C target was still physically possible and dependent on the choices made now and in the coming years.” The Press Association quotes a number of scientists reacting to the study: “Experts described the findings as ‘insightful’ and ‘welcome’ and said they offered a reason to be optimistic about the future, but only if immediate action is taken.” It adds that a “big question mark hangs over the future of commercial [fossil-fuelled] air travel”, which the study says must “become history” within four decades. “Currently there is no practical alternative to kerosene aviation fuel, despite experiments involving solar powered flight and hydrogen.” In the Conversation, Dr Chris Smith, the paper’s lead author, concludes his explanatory post: “We must do our best to avoid fossil fuel lock in and bring forward alternative technologies as quickly as possible.”
The new Brazilian government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro, has demoted climate diplomacy as part of a foreign ministry shake-up, reports Climate Home News. It says: “The word ‘climate’ has been erased from the organisational chart. The role of deputy secretary for environmental matters has been axed and its portfolio subsumed by the secretariat for ‘national sovereignty and citizenship affairs’. Staff previously responsible for UN climate negotiations are still there, a source told Climate Home News, but ‘climate change’ is no longer part of the description of their department’s functions. Instead it refers to ‘protection of the atmosphere’.” Climate Home News adds that the move reflects foreign minister Ernesto Araújo’s scepticism toward climate change science and the international response, which he has tried to portray as a left-wing plot.
There is continuing discussion in the US media about the so-called Green New Deal (see Carbon Brief’s recent explainer), which is being promoted by an increasing number of Democrats. David Roberts in Vox says it has “captured the public imagination, emerging from obscurity to become the talk of the town in a matter of weeks”. But he cautions supporters not to get distracted – yet – by a battle over what should and should not be deemed “clean energy”: “There are two schools of thought about where that carbon-free power will come from.” Simply, he says, those two blocks are the environmentalists who want all the carbon-free power to come from renewables and a second “school of thought”, represented by a “number of academic energy analysts” and “a vociferous bloc of nuclear power enthusiasts” who do not think renewables can do it alone: “They predict we can get to 50%, maybe 80% renewables, but after that, it will start getting very expensive.” Roberts says environmentalists who oppose nuclear need to be play it smart: “If environmentalists believe that renewable energy will triumph in the end, they lose nothing by allowing the GND to simply target ‘carbon-free energy’. In practice, that will prove to be renewables, right? So what’s the problem?” A feature in Politico begins: “It’s hard to recall a Washington idea that has rocketed to prominence as quickly as the Green New Deal…The details are still up in the air, but a massive climate investment is suddenly emerging as tentpole of Democratic politics.” But it says that “determining the substantive details of a Green New Deal is already exposing political divisions”. It looks back to 2009 when Barack Obama tried – and failed – to get his own climate deal through Congress. Yale Climate Connections has published “six things to know” about the Green New Deal, which include: “Most Americans support the underlying goals of the deal, but politics get in the way.” In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer argues that the Democrats are “shockingly unprepared to fight climate change”. He explains: “A glance around the infrastructure of the Democratic establishment reveals that little of this planning work is actually getting done. There is no consensus about whether a carbon tax is a good idea. There is no ideal policy embraced by Democrats in lieu of a carbon price. There is, as far as I could find, no thinktank putting a bill together or thinking through legislative language. I could barely find professional Democrats planning how a future offensive on the issue would look.”
Meanwhile, E&E News reports that “progressive groups are looking to drive the conversation about climate change as the Democratic presidential primaries spool up, and so far, they’ve had a few successes”. It adds: “Senator Elizabeth Warren signed the ‘No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge’ over the weekend. At least three other potential 2020 candidates — Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard and Senator Bernie Sanders — have also sworn off fossil fuel campaign dollars.” Separately, the Hill reports that, according to a new study, “some states’ emissions would be higher under [the proposed] Trump climate rule”. The Guardian has a feature on how “Trump’s war on science” is “putting politics above evidence”. And the New York Times shows “how the [US government] shutdown is delaying climate data and undercutting scientists”.
A feature in the Atlantic looks at the rise in global emissions in 2018 and raises the “bleak question” of whether the world is currently on the “worst case” scenario of RCP 8.5, which scientists say, if followed under the end of the century, could see average global temperatures rise by around 5C. “God help us if 8.5 turns out to be the right scenario,” says Prof Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. The Atlantic also quotes Carbon Brief’s Zeke Hausfather, who last year wrote a lengthy explainer on the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, which have helped to update the RCPs, or Representative Concentration Pathways, used by climate scientists to explore various possible futures. Hausfather says: “There may be good reasons to be skeptical of RCP 8.5’s late-century values, but observations to-date don’t really give us grounds to exclude it.” However, RCP8.5 assumes that the global coal industry will eventually become seven times bigger than it is today. Hausfather says: “It’s tough to claim…that is a business-as-usual world. It’s certainly a possible world, but we also live in a world today where solar is increasingly cheaper than coal.”
A team of New York Times journalists have published a new interactive feature following a trip to Kazakhstan to see the effects of climate change on mountain glaciers. In particular, they focus on the Tuyuksu, “one of the longest-studied glaciers anywhere”. It adds: “The Tuyuksu, which is about a mile and a half long, is getting shorter as well as thinner. When the research station was built in 1957 it was just a few hundred yards from the Tuyuksu’s leading edge, or tongue. Now, reaching the ice requires scrambling on foot for the better part of an hour over piles of boulders and till left as the glacier retreated.” The feature allows readers to see the retreating ice from a variety of vantage points.
An “immediate phase out” of carbon-intensive power plants, services and transport could give the world a 64% chance of keeping global warming to below 1.5C, a study finds. This “phase out” would involve would not require power plants and planes to be immediately decommissioned – but rather retired at the end of their lifetimes and replaced with “zero-carbon alternatives”, the authors say. The findings hinge on a set of assumptions. These include an end to global deforestation, meat production and the construction of new carbon-intensive power plants and transport after 2018.
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.