Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Johnson backs cut in air passenger duty to aid UK domestic flights
- US envoy promotes climate alignment with Europe
- US urged to cut 50% of emissions by 2030 to spur other countries to action
- Shu Yinbiao: China's electricity industry needs to do more
- Century-old Australian coal plant makes way for giant battery
- China is falling short on its climate pledge
- The government will regret tearing up its industrial strategy
- Global impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the surface concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and ozone
- Global changes in 20‐year, 50‐year and 100‐year river floods
UK prime minister Boris Johnson intends to authorise a cut in air passenger duty, a levy paid by airlines for domestic flights, to provide the industry with a boost after the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Financial Times. The proposal will form part of a wider “union connectivity review” of national transport links which will also include funding for train lines and motorways, it adds. The newspaper cites “critics” who say the air duty cut “further undermines ministers’ commitment to a target of net-zero carbon by 2050”. It compares support by the UK government for its domestic air industry with France and Germany, both of which have taken steps to ensure long-distance rail travel is prioritised over domestic aviation. The Times reports that the drop in domestic flights is viewed as “undermining the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda” and says Johnson will announce today a consultation into proposals to cut air passenger duty from £13 to £7 per flight. It quotes Doug Parr from Greenpeace UK who described the plan as “nonsensical”, adding: “The government needs to face up to the unavoidable reality that the aviation industry has to be smaller than it was before the pandemic.“ The Guardian notes that, unlike international flights, domestic aviation emissions are included in national carbon budgets. It quotes a government spokesperson who says the government would “continue to decarbonise domestic aviation as part of our ambition to reach net zero, including through mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels”.
The i newspaper reports that the North and the Midlands will be hit the hardest by the government’s decision to scale back its “green homes grant”, resulting in a loss of nearly 48,000 jobs. The “exclusive” story is based on analysis by the Trades Union Congress and the newspaper describes the findings as “a blow for the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda” as the organisation’s general secretary describes affected areas as already at the “sharp end of industrial decline”. Meanwhile, according to the Press Association, via the Guardian, the government has announced new rules to ensure appliances such as fridges, washing machines and TVs are cheaper to run and last longer. These will include requirements to make spare parts available to consumers, with the intention of extending their lifetimes and cutting emissions from the manufacture of new goods, it notes.
In more UK news, the Guardian reports that pension funds worth £870bn, including those of the Church of England, Lloyds and the National Grid, have committed to cutting their portfolios’ emissions to net-zero by 2050 or earlier.
US climate envoy John Kerry has stated on a trip to Brussels that the EU and the US need to align to tackle climate change, EurActiv reports. Speaking at a joint press conference with EU climate commissioner, Frans Timmermans, Kerry said: “We have no better partners than our friends here in Europe in the EU. It is important for us to align ourselves now, which is what we will discuss today, because no one country can resolve this crisis. It will take every country.” While neither leader specified what was meant by “align”, EurActiv says some climate activists have urged them to work together to pressure China to increase its climate ambition and, perhaps, on some form of carbon pricing or levy. It adds that the EU is planning to put forward a carbon border adjustment mechanism proposal in June which would benefit from US support to avoid international backlash. Reuters reports that Kerry described the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow as the “last, best opportunity that we have”. According to Bloomberg, the US climate envoy suggested that a renewed alliance between the US and EU on climate could shift the dynamics of crucial global talks. Analysis by climate correspondent Daisy Dunne in the Independent examines what Kerry’s three-day European tour says about US climate ambitions. A piece in Politico looks specifically at what this transatlantic alliance could do to encourage China to cut its emissions.
Separately, an “exclusive” in the Wall Street Journal reports that the US and China are to co-chair a G20 study group focusing on climate-related financial risks, a “confidence-building exercise” that could show “whether the world’s two largest economies can work together on shared priorities despite deep disagreements and a badly strained bilateral relationship”. The Financial Times reports that “Washington and Beijing are hammering out the details of the first high-level meeting between the rival powers since president Joe Biden took office, according to four people familiar with the talks”. It adds that the meeting could take place in Alaska.
Back in Europe, Climate Home News reports that draft EU “sustainable finance taxonomy” – which aim to set a standard for sustainable investment by listing which activities can be considered “sustainable”– is under fire for being both too strict and not strict enough by lawmakers from different states. The piece notes that in the European Parliament it looks like “a classic left-right divide” with right-wing groups warning the draft rules risk penalising whole sectors of the economy and left-wing groups saying they do not go far enough to spur green investments. Finally, Bloomberg reports that nine EU member states have called for a date to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars so that the bloc can achieve its carbon neutrality goal.
The Guardian reports that a “motley selection” of environmental groups and leaders have said the US must set an emissions target that is no lower than a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The US must set a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement and the newspaper states that president Joe Biden’s administration is expected to unveil the new target at a climate meeting with other major economies on Earth Day, 22 April. The existing US NDC is to cut emissions by up to 28% by 2025, on 2005 levels, and the 50% target is described in the Guardian piece by Nat Keohane, vice-president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), as “ambitious but also feasible”. Other groups and individuals to support the target include the Union of Concerned Scientists, World Resources Institute, National Resources Defense Council, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington and Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, the newspaper notes.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Senate Republicans have taken steps to delay the confirmation of Biden’s Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland, citing her longstanding opposition to oil and gas development. At the same time, the Interior department is beginning a comprehensive study of whether and how the government sells drilling rights on federal land and waters, another Bloomberg piece states. The Guardian has a piece on a study being cited by Wyoming representative Liz Cheney that allegedly proves Biden’s policies “would destroy state economies”. It says the numbers “came from an analysis that is the brainchild of the oil and gas industry”. The Guardian also has an investigative feature under the headline, “Republicans’ new favourite study trashes Biden’s climate plans – but who’s behind it?”
Separately, an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner authored by an array of Republican politicians, including house minority leader Kevin McCarthy, is titled, “Put conservatives back into conservation”. They say their solutions are “simple yet effective” with an emphasis on trees as the “most economical carbon sequestration mechanism we have”. The piece cites a study on the carbon sequestration potential of trees that received significant backlash from the scientific community when it was published in 2019.
Shu Yinbiao, who runs one of China’s largest state-owned power companies, tells China Electric Power News (in Chinese) that the nation’s electricity industry must make a “bigger contribution” towards its emissions goals. The chairman of Huaneng Group calls the industry “the main force” of China’s decarbonisation. Separately, various political advisers at China’s “two sessions” meeting in Beijing are urging people to pay attention to the impact of climate change on the Tibet Plateau. They highlighted the area’s rapidly rising temperatures to Science and Technology Daily (in Chinese). Meanwhile, China’s former deputy foreign minister He Yafei tells National Business Daily (in Chinese) he expects China to take “a leading role” in tackling climate change and other significant issues in the future global governance system. Guo Kai, a deputy director general of the People’s Bank of China, compares Bill Gate’s new climate book to a “suspense book that involves him and does not have an ending”. Guo makes the comments in his book review published through China Finance 40 Forum (in Chinese).
In UK media, the Financial Times reports that China’s latest economic five-year plan published last week brought “few strong measures to bear” on president Xi Jinping’s climate commitments. It adds that environmentalists “hold out hope for stronger goals in sectoral plans and China’s climate change five-year plan set to be released later this year”. Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post says the nation intends to build more nuclear waste facilities as it speeds up development of its nuclear industry “in a bid to meet ambitious climate targets”.
Finally, China Daily reports that He Jiankun, vice-chairman of China’s National Committee of Experts on Climate Change, says global warming is more profound and severe a threat to the planet than the Covid-19 pandemic. And the Guardian reports that “China’s appetite for meat fades as vegan revolution takes hold”.
A 100-year-old coal-fired plant in Australia will be closed early and partly replaced with a giant storage battery “to achieve a faster transition to clean power that’s leaving ageing fossil fuel sites uncompetitive”, Bloomberg reports. According to electricity provider EnergyAustralia, the Yallourn site which supplies about 20% of electricity demand in Victoria state, will shut four years early by mid-2028 rather than 2032, the news website reports. The company will install a battery “larger than anything currently in operation globally” in the same region by 2026, it adds. Reuters reports that, according to experts, coal plants which currently provide 55% of the nation’s electricity are set to become “increasingly financially strapped due to an influx of wind and solar farms which have driven down power prices”. The Guardian notes that there had been several outages at the ageing coal generator in recent years and there was “a widespread expectation that at least one coal plant would shut early”.
Meanwhile, China Dialogue has a piece looking at the “unexpected victory” last year by local activists against the Kenyan government, when they succeeded in protecting the heritage region of Lamu against plans to build the country’s first coal-fired power plant nearby. With three Chinese state-owned enterprises behind the project, the article notes that Chinese companies “must become better at responding to local environmental concerns, or face an increase in legal action”.
Finally, Montel reports that in the UK, power company Drax has ended commercial generation at its two remaining 645 megawatt (MW) coal-fired units, leaving the country with just 4.6 GW of coal capacity. A spokesperson said this was in line with their commitment to halt coal-fired power generation in March, as announced in February last year”, it notes.
Following China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the nation’s latest five-year economic plan which was expected to “put flesh on the bones of its commitment” has turned out to be “disappointingly short on substance”, an editorial in the Financial Times states. While China set a goal for non-fossil fuels to reach 20% of its energy mix by 2025, up from 15% in 2020, “that is a relatively conservative aim after China nearly doubled wind and solar power installations last year”, it continues, adding: “A commitment to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP was set at 18%, unchanged from the last five-year plan”. The newspaper says that “Beijing’s failure to set more aggressive goals may reflect resistance from some provinces and industries that insist coal and polluting technologies are vital to ensure growth and energy security”. It says there is now a lot riding on the nation’s first five-year climate change plan, which is expected later this year, and notes that there is likely to be growing international pressure, for example from the US. This will be particularly evident as momentum growing in the EU and US to implement some form of carbon border taxes targeted at imports from countries with less stringent climate action, the editorial says. “Failure by China to make tougher commitments raises the risk that Washington and EU capitals will conclude firmer action on trade is the only way to ensure progress,” it concludes.
The Financial Times also carries a new Martin Wolf column under the headline, “Humanity is a cuckoo in the planetary nest”. He says: “It has fallen to our generation to take responsibility for the planet as a whole. There is no question that much of the response must be well-directed technological change, since no conceivable political process, least of all a democratic one, will meet these challenges by reversing two centuries of increased energy use. Humanity will not go back to its premodern existence, where life was nasty, brutish and short for almost all. But, given where we are now, in terms of our impact on the biosphere, we will also have to change our behaviour, at least over the short to medium run.”
Writing for the Times Red Box, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband reflects on the government’s industrial strategy, which he describes as the government identifying how to build resilience and success in sectors “which are critical to our national future, by setting a clear mission and through a combination of public and private investment”. Miliband says that the new business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has decided “based on a dogmatic opposition to a role for government, to trash that legacy” by reversing plans for an industrial strategy white paper and getting rid of the industrial strategy council that brought businesses and unions together. This will have repercussions for climate action, he says: “We see some governments around the world rising to the challenge of the climate emergency with industrial policies and investment to create jobs, support businesses, and help industries decarbonise, thus increasing their long-term security and competitiveness”. He says an “ambitious green stimulus” was needed in the budget, but did not arrive. “Aerospace, steel, hydrogen, carbon capture — all need the support of government to make the green transition alongside the ingenuity and dynamism of the private sector,” he adds.
Nitrogen dioxide levels dropped 18% below their “business as usual” level from February to June 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, according to new research. The study uses a machine learning algorithm to assess changes in nitrogen dioxide and ozone levels in 45 countries from January to June 2020. It finds that reductions in nitrogen dioxide levels ranged from 60% in severely affected cities, such as Wuhan and Milan, to little noticeable change in those such as Rio de Janeiro and Taipei. However, the response of surface ozone is more complicated according to the study – although levels increased by up to 50% in some locations, little change in surface ozone levels was observed on a global scale.
Since the 1970s, once in 20-year and 50-year river floods have become less frequent in arid, tropical, polar, and cold climate zones and more frequent in temperate climates, according to a new study. The team uses the historical record of river flow to produce the first global picture of the magnitude of floods that would typically occur every 20, 50, and 100 years, how frequently floods of this magnitude occurred in the 1970s, and their flood risks. The frequency of 20-year floods decreased by 12-33% on average since the 1970s, the study finds, noting that the changes are clearest in north eastern Brazil, eastern Europe, parts of western US and parts of northern China.