Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Key climate talks are headed for trouble after G7 wrangling
- ‘The next pandemic’: drought is a hidden global crisis, UN says
- Nuclear energy: Fusion plant backed by Jeff Bezos to be built in UK
- Wind turbine clash adds to UK-EU post-Brexit tensions
- China's giant Wudongde hydro project put into full operation
- Rolls-Royce outlines plans for net-zero emissions by 2050
- Time to make energy poverty in Africa a thing of the past
- Decolonise climate adaptation research
- Transition to marine ice cliff instability controlled by ice thickness gradients and velocity
- The impact of climate change on the productivity of conservation agriculture
- Cleaner burning aviation fuels can reduce contrail cloudiness
Diplomats and ministers working toward the COP26 UN climate talks in Glasgow later this year “worry that the summit’s chances of success may be in jeopardy”, reports Bloomberg. One “senior British figure” tells the outlets that the summit is likely to disappoint. The article describes “behind-the-scenes arguing among Group of Seven (G7) delegates” in Cornwall last weekend where “progress was blocked by last-minute nerves, political tensions and a shortfall of funding”. It says: “US president Joe Biden and Italian prime minister Mario Draghi were among those who fell short as other leaders in the group pushed for more ambitious goals, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing private talks.” On a deal for ending domestic coal in G7 nations, “officials expected it would be particularly hard for Japan to commit”, but it “seemed that all seven nations would be able to agree to the landmark pledge”, Bloomberg says. However, “at the 11th hour…Biden’s officials became nervous about the impact on domestic politics and the White House refused to sign off on the plan, which then had to be left out of the final summit communique”. (Separately, Reuters reports that Japan will tighten its rules on support for exports of new coal power plants, in line with a pact by the G7 to halt new government backing for “unabated coal power” by the end of 2021.) It was also the US “that blocked a G7 initiative to make the majority of new passenger car sales zero-emission vehicles by 2030, an aim British leader Boris Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel were ready to back”, Bloomberg notes. The outlet says that “the big concern for the COP organisers now is that governments aren’t making fast enough progress to be able to deliver on their key goals”. It adds: “Many of the preparatory talks between governments are taking place virtually, and that makes building trust and ensuring meetings are productive much harder, according to one person involved. Cajoling all the nations involved in COP talks poses a much tougher challenge to UK leadership than bringing the close, rich allies of the G7 into line.”
Taking a similarly pessimistic tone, the Financial Times reports that “tensions over climate finance threaten to derail this year’s COP26 summit after weeks of preliminary UN deliberations yielded little agreement over how to proceed with core principles of the Paris climate accord”. It continues: “During three weeks of tense negotiations at the UN Climate Change intersessional meetings, which concluded on Thursday, an undercurrent of discontent over climate finance stymied a number of discussions on topics such as carbon markets and transparency.” UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said there had been a lack of progress, conceding that “I cannot say that there was really any breakthrough in the consultations that took place here”, the paper says. She said that the promised $100bn of climate finance to support developing countries is “absolutely crucial” for the success of the negotiations, adding that “everyone mentioned this as one very important point”. A senior climate diplomat tells Climate Home News that talks on carbon markets, transparency and aligning countries’ climate plans to cover a common time period of 5 or 10 years all reached “stalemate”. On the carbon market rules, for example, “the contentious issues of double counting, the transfer of old credits in the new system and allocating a share of proceeds from the market to adaptation finance remain with no compromise in sight”, the outlet says. To push progress forward, Alok Sharma, the UK official who will preside over COP26, plans to bring ministers from more than 40 countries together in London in late July, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation. BBC News says that “exhausted delegates” achieved “little progress on key issues”. Quamrul Chowdhury, a climate negotiator from Bangladesh, tells the news outlet: “Even the low hanging fruits couldn’t be harvested.”
Elsewhere, Reuters reports that the Vatican will host a major gathering of world religious leaders and scientists in early October – ahead of COP26 – to take a common stand at “a key moment in the history of humanity”. The conference – called “Faith and Science: Towards COP26” – is being organised by the UK and Italy and will bring together some 40 leaders from the world’s major religions and 10 scientists and issue a joint appeal for COP26, the newswire says.
The United Nations has warned that drought is a hidden global crisis that risks becoming “the next pandemic” if countries do not take urgent action on water and land management and tackling climate change, the Guardian reports. In a special report, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) estimates that at least 1.5 billion people have been directly affected by drought this century, the paper explains, and the economic cost over roughly that time has been estimated at $124bn (£89bn). Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, told a press briefing: “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic and there is no vaccine to cure it. Most of the world will be living with water stress in the next few years. Demand will outstrip supply during certain periods. Drought is a major factor in land degradation and the decline of yields for major crops,“ the paper reports. The report says global warming has now intensified droughts in southern Europe and western Africa, reports Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Mizutori warned that the number of victims is set to “grow dramatically” unless the world acts. The Hill also has the story.
Meanwhile, there is continuing coverage of the heat and drought hitting the western US. Reuters reports that the drought has grown “more severe across major parts of the US farm belt this week, threatening recently planted corn, soybean and spring wheat crops in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas”. The New York Times says that much of the southwest US “is in the throes of a megadrought” and has a feature on how “global warming, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, has been heating up and drying out the American West for years”. It says: “Now the region is broiling under a combination of a drought that is the worst in two decades and a record-breaking heatwave.” The Washington Post reports that the heatwave “is unprecedented in its timing, intensity and scope”. The Guardian adds: “From California to Montana, a staggering 40 million people are experiencing temperatures of 100F (38C) or hotter this week, and 50 million were under excessive heat warnings and heat advisories.” Vox says that the region has “all the ingredients for another terrible wildfire season”.
Reuters reports that Texas and California urged consumers to conserve energy this week to reduce stress on the grid and avoid outages as homes and businesses crank up air conditioners to escape a scorching heat”. The Hill says that California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is asking residents to turn their thermostats to 78F (26C) , turn off unnecessary lights, not to use major appliances, unplug unused appliances and use fans to cool off between the hours of 5pm and 10pm. The Hill also reports that a “crucial hydroelectric plant in California is expected to shut down for the first time in 50 years as water levels in the area continue to decrease”. And Bloomberg reports that “big batteries intended to save California from blackouts haven’t been added in time to stave off the threat of outages as the state struggles to meet power demand”.
A company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is set to build a large-scale nuclear fusion demonstration plant in Oxfordshire, reports BBC News. The outlet continues: “Canada’s General Fusion is one of the leading private firms aiming to turn the promise of fusion into a commercially viable energy source. The new facility will be built at Culham, home to the UK’s national fusion research programme. It won’t generate power, but will be 70% the size of a commercial reactor.” Rather than splitting atoms as in traditional fission reactors, “fusion plants seek to bind them together at temperatures 10 times hotter than the sun”, explains Bloomberg, adding: “Doing so releases huge quantities of carbon-free energy with no atomic waste.” The Independent says the development will cost about $400m (£232.5m) and “is subsidised by British taxpayers, though the government has declined to say how much it is putting in”. The company’s investors include Bezos and Shopify founder Tobias Lütke, notes the Daily Telegraph. The Times reports the comments of science minister Amanda Solloway, who said the plant was a “huge boost for our plans to develop a fusion industry in the UK. Fusion energy has great potential as a source of limitless, low-carbon energy and the announcement is a clear vote of confidence in the region and the UK’s status as a global science superpower”. City AM says that construction is anticipated to begin in 2022, with operations beginning approximately three years later.
In an “exclusive”, the Guardian reports that “a new front has opened up in the post-Brexit tensions between Boris Johnson and the EU over Brussels’ concerns that the British wind turbine industry is being favoured for government contracts worth billions of pounds”. The paper continues: “With the support of the governments of France and Spain, the European Commission has privately warned UK officials that the government’s procurement policy could be in breach of the trade deal signed on Christmas Eve.” The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, is “preparing to sign off on hugely valuable renewable energy contracts in the coming months as the government seeks to fulfil the prime minister’s promise that offshore windfarms will generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK within a decade”, the paper explains. However, “it is understood the EU is alarmed by the government’s public backing of an industry target of 60% of supply chains using UK-manufactured goods or domestically supplied services, and a revised questionnaire for those bidding for contracts”, the paper says.
Reuters reports that a massive hydropower plant in China called Wudongde started generating power from the last of its series of 12 generators on Wednesday. The progress means that the dam on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, described by Reuters as “costly and controversial”, has been fully completed, the newswire writes. Xinhua reports that Wudongde is the fourth-largest hydropower plant in China and the seventh-largest in the world. The Chinese state news agency notes that Wudongde has a dozen 850-megawatt (MW) hydro-generators.
Meanwhile, Zhou Dadi, a member of China’s National Committee of Experts on Climate Change, has told 21st Century Business Herald that China has the opportunity to be a frontrunner of “low-carbon” technologies in the world. Zhou tells the Chinese financial publication that the global energy transition has brought “unprecedented” opportunities for renewable energy, which is “reliant on” technologies rather than natural resources. In addition, state-run China Daily reports that China should use its “experiences and advantages in capital and talent” to “foster green, sustainable growth” in Central Asian nations.
Elsewhere, the International Energy Net reports that China’s first “5G smart refinery” has been opened by the Changqing Petrochemical Company. The facility in northern China’s Shaanxi province is covered by 5G signals throughout and uses the technology in all aspects of its operation, the website says. Finally, both the Washington Post and CNBC focus on how cryptocurrency miners are leaving China and likely moving to the US amid intensifying government crackdowns partially to curb energy use.
In other China news, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that “senior scientists have ridiculed a decision by the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] to end a highly productive climate research partnership with China, saying it was disingenuous to claim there were any national security risks”. And Reuters reports that eight employees at a China Gas Holdings unit have been detained by local police following a fatal gas pipeline explosion on Sunday. Finally, China Dialogue has an analysis piece on how “China’s Southern Grid facilitate more clean energy consumption”.
Rolls-Royce, which makes engines for aircraft and ships, has outlined plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through investing more in decarbonising technologies and using more sustainable aviation fuel, reports Reuters. The company has outlined plans for all its new products to be compatible with net-zero targets by 2030, en route to achieving net-zero by 2050 at the latest, the newswire explains. It adds: “To ensure it reaches that target, the company said it will lift its research and development spending on low carbon and net-zero technologies to 75% of its total budget by 2025 from about 50% now.” Rolls-Royce is “pinning its hopes on synthetic fuels”, says the Guardian: “[It] plans to gain regulatory approval by 2023 for using synthetic fuels in all engine models that are currently in production…That would mean two-thirds of existing planes using Rolls-Royce engines could be adapted with minor engineering changes.” However, the paper adds, the company “has so far been unable to commit to a science-based target – the gold standard – for reducing its carbon emissions, because of uncertainty over how the supply of synthetic fuel will grow”. Chief executive Warren East said that the switch was both a “societal imperative” and “one of the greatest commercial and technological opportunities of our time”, reports City AM. But he added that the sectors in which Rolls-Royce works were “among those where achieving net zero carbon is hardest”.
Meanwhile, the i newspaper reports that the low-cost airline easyJet has been criticised by environmental groups for putting 12 new UK domestic routes on sale today. Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said that “easyJet claim to take sustainability seriously”, but the announcement “shows they will not prioritise our planet’s health over their profits until they are forced to do so by law”, the paper explains. An easyJet spokesperson said “as with all our flights, we offset all of the carbon emissions from the fuel used for [the new routes]”, the Guardian reports. They added that the company was also using more efficient aircraft and “supporting the development of radical new technologies to achieve zero-emission flying in the future, which we are committed to transitioning to as soon as they are available”, the paper says.
And, finally, the Times reports on new research (see “New climate science” section below) on how fuels that reduce the contrails left by aircraft in the sky could cut the aviation industry’s contribution to global warming.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Frans Timmermans – the European Commission’s executive vice-president for the European Green Deal – and Fatih Birol – executive director of the International Energy Agency – say that their organisations are “invit[ing other partners to join us in putting energy access at the centre of cooperation with Africa”. They write: “Technological progress and an unprecedented drop in the cost of renewables can now deliver the cheapest electricity humanity has ever seen. In the past 20 years, the massive global expansion of electricity access was mainly driven by coal plants. But it no longer makes sense to invest in coal. Africa is the world’s premium location to harness solar energy and is already demonstrating that a cleaner path is possible.” However, “despite technological progress, the world is not on track to deliver on our global commitment to universal energy access by 2030”, they say, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has “caused significant setbacks” and that “last year, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity grew – for the first time in seven years”. They argue that “all governments and relevant international organisations must urgently renew our commitment to end energy poverty by 2030, including at the upcoming UN High-level Dialogue on Energy. And we must back that commitment up with stronger action”.
“Climate-forced population displacement is among the greatest human rights issues of our time,” says an editorial in the journal Science, and it presents “unprecedented challenges to communities and the governments responsible for protecting them”. Sea level rise, heat, drought and wildfires “will cause people to move, losing homes and places they love, often with no ability to return”, the article says. It warns that Indigenous Peoples “face the loss of lands and connections to ancestral, cultural, and spiritual heritage”, despite having “done the least to cause this crisis”. The editorial argues that “to ensure that their right to self-determination is protected and the horrific legacy of government-forced relocations is not repeated, communities must lead and define research on climate-forced displacement and managed retreat that involves them and the lands upon which they dwell and subsist”.
The article forms part of a special journal issue on climate-induced relocation. This includes a review paper, which summarises the state of the research on managed retreat, a feature on how some tidal wetlands can keep pace with sea level rise, and then a series of “policy forum” articles on different themes.
New research suggests a process called “marine ice-cliff collapse” – which “could lead to catastrophic retreat of sections of West Antarctica on decadal-to-century time scales” – is controlled by ice thickness gradients. Using ice sheet models and parameters representative of some of Greenland and Antarctica’s most notorious glaciers, scientists showed that the difference between ice thickness upstream of the glacier and at its edge was the main factor in whether a given glacier would fail. They also found that “small resistive forces” – such as calved icebergs crowding the glacial outlet – “can slow down or arrest retreat” and reduce the potential for catastrophic collapse. An accompanying perspective in Science writes that the work “offers exciting avenues for better understanding ice-cliff behaviour.” (For more on marine ice-cliff instability, see Carbon Brief’s recent guest post.)
Conservation agriculture – a set of farming practises including low soil tillage and leaving crop residues on fields – may become more productive in a warming climate, according to a new paper. Using a machine-learning model trained on experimental results from more than 400 scientific papers and four different climate models, researchers analysed the potential for yield gains using conservation versus conventional farming techniques in the 2050s. While the results vary based on crop type, geographical location and specific farming practises, they find that conservation agriculture will be “capable of ensuring a long-term, sustainable agricultural production” in certain areas.
A switch to more sustainable airline fuel could make “meaningful reductions in aviation’s climate impact”, according to a new study. Over two airborne field campaigns, scientists measured the exhaust and examined the characteristics of contrails of a standard passenger aircraft burning both conventional aviation fuel and a low-aromatic “sustainable” aviation fuel. They find that switching to the low-aromatic fuel reduces the amount of soot pollution by 50-70% and lowers the number of ice particles contained in the contrails. Because lower contrail content causes “less energy deposition in the atmosphere”, this could lead to decreased warming, the authors write.
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