Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Key UN climate talks delayed until November 2021
- EU pledges coronavirus recovery plan will not harm climate goals
- Biggest UK solar plant approved
- US crude imports surge as Saudi oil ‘armada’ arrives
- Climate change hastens decline of old forests
- Australia's greenhouse gas emissions fall slightly as new clean energy comes online
- The world wasn't ready for a Green New Deal in 2009. Today, it may be
- Abrupt changes in Great Britain vegetation carbon projected under climate change
- Rising methane emissions from boreal lakes due to increasing ice-free days
The UN has confirmed that the climate talks postponed as the result of the coronavirus pandemic will now take place in the UK in November 2021, a year later than scheduled, the Press Association reports. The newswire continues: “The United Nations ‘COP26’ summit had been due to take place in Glasgow in November 2020 hosted by the UK, partnered by Italy, but was delayed as a result of the global coronavirus crisis.” As widely expected from media reports earlier this week, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UK government have announced a new date of 1-12 November, says PA. BBC News quotes a statement released by COP26 president Alok Sharma: “While we rightly focus on fighting the immediate crisis of the coronavirus, we must not lose sight of the huge challenges of climate change.” Sharma adds: “With the new dates for COP26 now agreed we are working with our international partners on an ambitious roadmap for global climate action between now and November 2021.” In a short video recorded for the UN Financing for Development virtual meeting, UK prime minister Boris Johnson emphasises the importance of international cooperation for tackling major crises, and calls for a “fairer, greener and more resilient global economy” after the pandemic, reports BusinessGreen. Johnson adds: “The UK will take this forward by hosting the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next year.” In addition to Glasgow being the host city, a warm-up summit will take place in Italy, notes Reuters. The Guardian and City AM also have the story.
Senior officials have pledged that the European Union’s recovery plan will “do no harm” to the bloc’s landmark goals to tackle climate change, reports the Guardian. Following the unveiling of a €750bn (£671bn) recovery plan to pull EU economies out of the deep economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the European commission announced further details of green spending yesterday. Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said the EU needed to ensure it was not putting money into the industries of the past, the Guardian reports. “For many regions and companies including those relying on coal production and carbon-intensive industrial processes, this economic crisis has raised an existential question,” he told journalists. “Do we rebuild what we have before, or do we seize the opportunity to restructure and create different and new jobs?” Answering his own question, he said: “In all the actions we are going to take, we apply the ‘do no harm’ principle so you can’t have investment that takes us in a different direction.” Timmermans also acknowledged that “in some areas of the transition the use of natural gas will probably be necessary to shift away from coal to sustainable energy”, notes Reuters. Commenting on the recovery package, Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington says it “sets a high standard for other nations, using the rebuilding of coronavirus-ravaged economies to tackle the even greater threat of the climate emergency, in principle at least”. The package puts down a “marker for the world”, says Carrington, in a time when “under Donald Trump, the US is slashing green protections while the biggest polluter, China, is sending mixed messages by backing coal power stations as part of its recovery”. He adds: “The UK, host of the next critical UN summit, has been all but silent.” (Although, Reuters reports today that “China has excluded ‘clean coal’ from a list of projects eligible for green bonds, according to long-awaited new draft guidelines published by the central bank.)
The UK government has approved the country’s biggest solar farm, which will stretch across 900 acres on the north Kent coast, reports BBC News. The scheme, which will supply power to 91,000 homes, could include one of the world’s largest energy storage systems, the outlet adds. The project has been opposed by some local people and environmental groups, who say it is industrialising the countryside and may harm an adjacent wildlife site, BBC News says. It adds: “The energy secretary Alok Sharma said the decision was taken after careful consideration – but said the project would be a world leader in solar and power storage.” The subsidy-free scheme – called the Cleve Hill Solar Park – will see 800,000 solar panels erected on farmland roughly three miles west of Whitstable, says BusinessGreen. British firm Hive Energy is jointly developing the project alongside German company Wirsol, it adds: “Hive Energy said it was ‘delighted’ with the decision, claiming the solar park – plans for which were first announced in 2017 – would help reduce the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels and lower CO2 emissions by 68,000 tonnes a year.” The Times says the 350-megawatt farm “is five times bigger than the largest current solar farm, Shotwick in north Wales”. In a comment piece for BusinessGreen, Chris Hewett – chief executive of the Solar Trade Association – says the approval “is further evidence of how renewable energy’s role in powering Britain is growing”. Hewett adds: “Cleve Hill is a very exciting project, but this will not herald an era of mega solar parks in the UK – land and grid constraints will dictate what is possible. Gigawatt solar parks belong in deserts and are likely to stay there.”
In other UK power news, the Times reports that the National Grid paid out around £50m over the bank holiday weekend to “pay surplus wind and solar farms to switch off and take a series of other measures to prevent blackouts”.
US oil imports surged last week, reports the Financial Times, “with almost half of the extra crude arriving from Saudi Arabia, as foreign producers took market share from the struggling American shale patch”. It continues: “The federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Thursday that Saudi supplies to the US jumped by almost 1m barrels a day during the week ending May 22, to 1.6m b/d, while commercial imports from all countries soared to 7.2m b/d, almost 40% more than the week before.” The ships “were launched by the kingdom before it called a halt to the price war on 12 April and agreed new production cuts with Russia”, notes the FT: “Those supply curbs are scheduled to begin in May — but the scale of the kingdom’s original assault on the US shale patch is now becoming clear.” In other oil news, Reuters reports that oil prices edged lower this morning “after US inventory data showed lacklustre fuel demand in the world’s largest oil consumer while worsening US-China tensions weighed on global financial markets”. Bloomberg reports that “China is already lagging behind its promise to buy $52bn worth of US oil, gas and other energy products”. Reuters also reports that “the volume of crude stored on ships in Asia has come off the peaks seen earlier this month on a recovery in demand in China and India” and, in a separate piece, says “a flurry of tentative bookings to export US crude oil from the Gulf Coast suggests demand is edging up after the coronavirus slammed energy consumption worldwide”. And Reuters also reports that a US appeals court in California yesterday “declined to suspend a lower court’s ruling that canceled a national environmental permit, in a decision likely to delay pipeline projects, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline”.
The EIA has also released new findings that show “renewable energy consumption in the US topped coal consumption in 2019, the first time this has occurred in more than 130 years”, reports the Hill. The outlet continues: “Last year, coal consumption fell 15% while renewable consumption increased by 1% compared to 2018. The year 2019 was the sixth consecutive year in which coal consumption dropped.” The Wall Street Journal adds: “The inflection point mainly reflects a steep drop in the use of coal as source of electricity, as well as steady growth in wind and solar power, trends driven by economic as well as environmental factors.”
Finally, in other energy news, Bloomberg reports that an open letter from “dozens of investors, business leaders, researchers and climate policy advocates” says the International Energy Agency (IEA) marginalises key climate goals in its research. The letter, addressed to IEA executive director Fatih Birol, says: “In light of the IEA’s considerable impact on global energy decision-making,…the tools you provide will shape countless investments and decisions that may either lock in a high carbon future to devastating effect or, conversely, accelerate the transition to a resilient clean energy economy.” The letter calls on the IEA to “to make central an energy-use scenario that shows how quickly emissions must fall to see the Paris Agreement’s more aggressive target of limiting global heating to 1.5C”, says Bloomberg.
New research finds that forests are becoming younger and trees are becoming shorter because of climate change and the harvesting of timber, reports the Times. It continues: “The area of old growth forest which has been standing for more than 140 years has fallen by a third globally since 1900 to less than 25m sq km, the researchers discovered. Over the same period the amount of young forest less than 140 years old has doubled to at least 12m sq km.” The rapid decline in old forest around the world is damaging wildlife because older trees and woods host a greater variety of species, the Times notes. The research, published in the journal Science, finds that climate change is accelerating the decline of old forest because rising temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, droughts, storms and explosions in insect populations that kill trees, the Times says, adding: “Rising CO2 levels mean trees grow faster and more quickly reach a size at which they are vulnerable to environmental impacts such as high winds and droughts.” Co-author Tom Pugh tells the Guardian that “our study reviews mounting evidence that climate change is accelerating tree mortality, increasingly pushing the world’s forests towards being both younger and shorter”.
Elsewhere, the i newspaper reports on new research that shows “hundreds of patches of heavy vegetation are likely to appear across the British countryside in the coming decades as even mild climate change could have a highly localised effect on the landscape”. The paper adds: “Small areas of barren land would also form in many parts of the country at the same time even if the changes were mild, according to researchers.”
Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions fell slightly last year, according to official data released today, as new clean energy plants came online and the drought continued to limit farming output, the Guardian reports. It continues: “Emissions were down 0.9% compared with 2018, but were still higher than the previous two years…The biggest chunk of the reduction last year was in electricity, which fell 2.9%. It was largely the result of record renewable energy investment in 2018, driven in part by the national renewable energy target.” However, “increasing emissions from liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plants largely offset declines in the power and farm sectors”, says Reuters. Overall, total emissions for the 2019 calendar year fell by 5m tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) from the previous year to 532.5MtCO2e, the outlet notes, adding: “The total is 13.7% below 2005 levels, putting Australia halfway towards meeting its Paris Accord commitment to cut emissions by between 26% and 28% from 2005 levels by 2030.” The Sydney Morning Herald says “Australia’s greenhouse gas output continues to flatline, falling short of the downward trajectory required to meet the conditions of the Paris climate agreement”. In related news, the Guardian reports on new analysis that suggests “a dramatic expansion of renewable energy over the next five years could establish Australia as a home for new zero-emissions industries, cut electricity costs and create more than 100,000 jobs in the electricity industry alone”. And an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald discusses the bushfire royal commission – the federal inquiry that is “tallying the cost of the horrific bushfire season of 2019-20”. The paper says: “The experts giving evidence at the royal commission are laying out in devastating detail the cost to Australia of last summer’s bushfires. The government must listen and use the commission’s findings in August to implement policy that ensures we never pay that cost again.”
While “governments are creating, borrowing and spending money like never before in peacetime, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”, Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott says they have the “opportunity to reshape their economies in a way that would be consistent with preventing catastrophic increases in global temperatures”. He continues: “The world has been here before, though, and there is no guarantee that an opportunity proffered will be an opportunity taken. One was certainly missed at the back end of the 2000s, when the banks nearly went bust. Supporters of a Green New Deal (of whom I was one) said governments should avert the possibility of a second Great Depression by investing in decarbonisation of their economies and programmes that would put people back to work by making their homes energy-efficient.” Government intervention this time around has “been a case of money is no object”, says Elliot: “The UK is on course to borrow £300bn this year at dirt cheap interest rates. The Bank of England is creating money through its quantitative easing programme.” And while “the argument that a Green New Deal is unaffordable is still knocking around”, it is “much less powerful than it was a decade ago”, he says: “Ministers can decide whether they want to do more than respond to the immediate crisis and they certainly have the power to shape the recovery by making demands of the companies they are supporting, if they choose to use it.”
On a similar theme, Sarah Bloom Raskin – former member of the board of governors of the US Federal Reserve System and a former deputy Treasury secretary – writes in the New York Times that concessions to the fossil-fuel industry in response to the pandemic “are a risky investment in the past”. She says: “The Fed is ignoring clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis by taking action that will lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment.”
Past abrupt ‘regime shifts’ have been observed in a range of ecosystems. Large‐scale abrupt shifts are projected for some terrestrial ecosystems under climate change, particularly in tropical and high‐latitude regions. However, there is less focus on the potential for abrupt shifts in temperate terrestrial ecosystems. This study shows that numerous climate‐driven abrupt shifts in vegetation carbon are projected in a high‐resolution model of Great Britain. In two future scenarios, the effects of climate and CO2 combined are isolated from the effects of climate change alone. Depending on the scenario, 0.5%–1.5% of Great Britain’s land area shows abrupt shifts in vegetation carbon. Abrupt ecosystem shifts are associated with increases in vegetation carbon show the greatest potential for early warning signals.
Lakes account for about 10% of the boreal landscape and are responsible for approximately 30% of biogenic methane emissions that have been found to increase under changing climate. However, the quantification of this climate-sensitive methane source is fraught with large uncertainty under warming climate conditions. Only a few studies have addressed the mechanism of climate impact on the increase of northern lake methane emissions. This study uses a large observational dataset of lake methane concentrations in Finland to constrain methane emissions. They found that the total current diffusive emission from Finnish lakes will increase by 26%–59% by the end of this century depending on different warming scenarios. They found that while warming lake water and sediment temperature plays an important role, the climate impact on ice-on periods is a key indicator of future emissions. These boreal lakes will remain a significant methane source under the warming climate this century.
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