Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Hitachi shelves new Welsh nuclear plant
- Does Hitachi decision mean the end of UK's nuclear ambitions?
- US State Department says may ask Trump to scrap another Obama climate order
- The UK needs a more realistic energy strategy
- Jeremy Grantham’s $1bn plan to fight climate change
- Davos climate obsessions contain clues for policymaking
- How to think about the costs of climate change
- Aerosol-driven droplet concentrations dominate coverage and water of oceanic low level clouds
- The effect of Arctic sea ice loss on the Hadley circulation
Japanese firm Hitachi has shelved plans for a £20bn new nuclear plant at Wyfla on the island of Anglesey in Wales, reports the Financial Times and many others. [Several other outlets describe it as costing £16bn.] The firm will write off £2.1bn of work in progress, the FT adds. The paper says the decision leaves the UK’s programme of new nuclear plants “hanging by a thread after Toshiba quit a similar project at Moorside in Cumbria last year”. It also leaves a large hole in UK plans for low-carbon energy, the paper says, quoting shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. Hitachi will also suspend work on a second new nuclear site at Oldbury in Gloucestershire, reports BBC News, which quotes the firm saying it was suspending the Wylfa scheme: “from the viewpoint of its economic rationality as a private enterprise”. The Guardian quotes business secretary Greg Clark, who went to Parliament to tell MPs why the deal had stalled, why the government continues to see a role for nuclear in the UK’s future energy mix and what alternative funding models are being explored. Clark said: “The challenge of financing new nuclear is one of falling costs and greater abundance of alternative technologies, so that it is being outcompeted.” The government had offered what Clark described as a “generous package of support” for Wylfa, reports Building magazine. This included taking a one-third equity stake in the scheme, providing all of its debt financing and offering a fixed price of £75 per megawatt hour for the electricity it would have generated, Building adds. Clark told MPs he could not have justified a higher price for Wylfa’s power “given the declining cost of other energy options”, reports the Daily Telegraph. Clark’s statement to parliament pointed to the costs of offshore wind as being close to subsidy free. Hitachi had been in talks with the UK government for several years, says Sky News. It quotes Duncan Hawthorn, chief executive of Hitachi’s Horizon subsidiary in the UK saying: “We will take steps to reduce our presence [at Wylfa] but keep the option to resume development in future.” But Hitachi chief executive has said the firm could seek to withdraw completely from the project, reports Reuters. It adds that the firm’s shares have risen 13% since Japanese media first reported the possible suspension of the Wylfa scheme. Another BBC News piece quotes Welsh secretary Alun Cairns saying Wylfa will only be delayed by “potentially a small number of years” and that he is “confident” it will ultimately get built. ITV News carries a quote from the GMB Union saying the Wylfa decision raises the prospect of a UK “energy crisis”. The Sun reports the news under a headline based on the GMB quote. It also quotes Nuclear Industry Association head Tom Greatrex saying a failure to build new nuclear plants could leave the UK exposed to the vagaries of international gas markets: “If we don’t replace [retiring nuclear plants], we will become more reliant on gas where prices go up and down, depending on trading in international markets.” The Mirror and others point to the 9,000 jobs that would have been created during Wylfa’s construction as now being at risk. The Press Association, Evening Standard, Times, MailOnline, NorthWales Live, CNN, City AM and many others all carry the news.
Many outlets also carry several pieces of analysis looking at the implications of Hitachi’s decision to shelve the Wylfa new nuclear plant. The government is looking into a “regulated asset base” financing approach for new nuclear, explains the Guardian, adding that critics fear this would “load the risk of nuclear plant construction…on[to] citizens”. The Wylfa pullout has thrown UK nuclear policy into “disarray”, says the Financial Times. It notes: “[The] falling cost of renewables adds to pressure for [a] rethink of [UK] energy strategy.” BBC News has a “reality check” under the headline: “Climate change: Is nuclear power the answer?” It looks at alternatives including reducing demand, “factory-built small modular reactors”, offshore wind and carbon capture and storage. A second Guardian analysis looks at the alternatives to new nuclear, pointing to offshore wind and gas. Bloomberg quotes a spokesperson for UK prime minister Theresa May saying: “Nuclear is an important part of our [energy] mix…We’ll be setting out more details of our approach to new nuclear in the energy white paper which is due to be published in the summer.” ITV News looks at why Hitachi passed on the project, while BBC News asks “why is the government cooling on nuclear?”. BBC News has another piece explaining what Wylfa is and why it is important. Reuters reports that the Hitachi pullout strengthens the hand of French nuclear firm EDF and its Chinese partners in talks with the UK government over financing a new plant at Sizewell in Suffolk.
The US State Department may recommend president Donald Trump revokes an Obama-era order directing federal agencies to factor climate change into international development programmes, Reuters reports. A report released yesterday by the General Accountability Office (GAO) says its foreign assistance and budget bureaus “will begin working with stakeholders to consider whether to recommend that the secretary (Mike Pompeo) ask the president to rescind” Obama’s 2014 executive order. The State Department said “it does not oppose” the GAO’s recommendation, but if Trump reverses the order, it would not be required to improve the guidance, notes Reuters.
“New nuclear plants may not be worth the cost,” says the Financial Times in one of several editorials in UK newspapers addressing the Wylfa news. The FT says the decision “all but sounds the death knell for the UK’s 2013 energy strategy” and calls for a “comprehensive, independent and strategic review” that considers the falling cost of renewables. For the Times editorial, the news leaves Britain with a “headache”. It adds: “Pressing ahead without new nuclear capacity is plausible, but not without a considerable expansion of renewable energy and its storage capabilities.” The Guardian editorial says current UK energy policies “don’t add up”. It adds: “The challenge for all those in the UK who see this as good rather than inconvenient news – because cheap, green energy that doesn’t create toxic waste is what the planet needs – is to explain how demand will be met when existing nuclear power stations have been wound down, at times when there is no sun or wind, until we have the technology we need to store electricity.” The Daily Mail editorial (not yet online) calls the news around Wylfa “deeply worrying”, noting nuclear plants supply a fifth of UK electricity yet will mostly retire by 2025. “With coal being phased out, no new gas-fired stations under way and fracking unpopular, how on earth will [government] fill this vast energy shortfall,” it asks, saying the UK could become “dangerously dependent” on nuclear plants built by China or gas from Russia. [The UK currently gets much less than 1% of its gas directly from Russia.] Several papers also carry comment pieces on the news, including a piece in the Financial Times by Prof Nick Butler which says “international business has begun to distrust the UK as a place to invest”. The Times has a comment from environment correspondent Ben Webster under the headline: “Nuclear collapse is a blow to carbon targets but wind will keep the lights on.” It says the collapse of Wylfa is unlikely to mean the lights going out because other sources, “such as gas plants and wind farms”, can be built more quickly than nuclear. The Guardian carries a comment by Nils Pratley under the headline: “The government is not quite ready to drop its obsession with nuclear.”
Ben Steverman at Bloomberg Businessweek has an in-depth profile of “legendary investor, co-founder of [investment management firm] Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo” Jeremy Grantham. “Terrifying an audience is one of Jeremy Grantham’s specialties,” says Steverman, although “these days, the topic of Grantham’s warnings is not financial markets but the environment”. “At universities and investor conferences, gardening clubs and local environmental groups, he gives a talk titled ‘Race of Our Lives’ – the one between the Earth’s rapidly warming temperature and the human beings coming up with ways to fight and adapt to climate change,” notes Steverman. Grantham plans to put 98% of his net worth, or about $1bn, to help humans win the race, says Steverman, and “while the donations fund a variety of climate research and policy projects, Grantham focuses his presentations on overpopulation”, which “makes some people uneasy”. On capitalism – another favoured topic – Grantham says it “does a million things better than any other system”, but fails completely on long-term threats such as climate change. “You must not expect unnecessary good behaviour from capitalists,” Grantham says. The answer, he adds, is strong regulations: “I’m sorry, libertarians, it is the only way.”
“The environment has replaced the economy and finance on the global elite’s worry list,” writes Gillian Tett in the Financial Times, discussing the World Economic Forum in Davos. She adds: “Climate issues account for three of the five risks deemed most likely to materialise in 2019 — and four of the top five risks that could cause the most damage…What is more striking is how this worry list has changed since the WEF started its survey. A decade ago, what worried Davosians was the economy and the financial system.” DeSmog UK also covers the climate focus at Davos.
“Many of the central economic questions of the decades ahead are, at their core, going to be climate questions,” writes Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for the New York Times Upshot newsletter. He adds that the climate change economic questions will depend on “just how extreme the weather will be, and how to value the future versus the present”. Irwin then runs through a series of questions on the economics of climate change including “how permanent will the costs be”, explaining that certain costs – such as investing in cleaner electricity grids – come with associated positive benefits in the long term, whereas others do not.
Lack of reliable estimates of aerosols that serve as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) over oceans has severely limited our ability to quantify their effects on cloud properties. These aerosols tend to contribute to cooling by reflecting solar radiation – a key uncertainty in climate models. This study develops a new approach for ascribing cloud properties to CCN and isolating the aerosol effects from meteorological effects. They find that CCN explains three-quarters of the variability in clouds radiative cooling effect, mainly through affecting low-level cloud cover. This reveals a much greater sensitivity of cloud radiative forcing to CCN than previously reported, which means too much cooling if incorporated in present climate models. This suggests that there might be unknown compensating aerosol warming effects, possibly through taller clouds.
The climate’s response to human emissions is exacerbated by climate feedbacks. One of the robust responses to increased greenhouse gases is the melting of Arctic sea ice, which is found to have large effects on the hydrological circulation in the atmosphere. This paper examines the effect of Arctic sea ice loss on the tropical circulation. They find that under Arctic sea ice loss, the oceans transfer the Arctic signal to the tropics, and contract the tropical circulation. This contraction opposes the projected widening of the tropical circulation, and thus shows that Arctic sea ice loss acts as a negative internal feedback in the response of the tropical circulation to increased greenhouse gases.
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