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Briefing date 18.03.2024
Low uptake of heat pumps slowing efforts to decarbonise Britain’s homes

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Climate and energy news.

Low uptake of heat pumps slowing efforts to decarbonise Britain’s homes
Financial Times Read Article

The UK government’s spending watchdog has warned that the low uptake of heat pumps owing to their high costs, policy uncertainty and lack of consumer awareness is slowing efforts to decarbonise, reports the Financial Times. In a report, the National Audit Office (NAO) says that moving households away from fossil fuels for heating is one of the “biggest challenges” the government faces, the newspaper continues, noting that domestic boilers accounted for about 18% of the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2021. The NAO says that efforts to hit the government’s heat-pump target of a 10-fold increase in annual installations to roughly 600,000 per year by 2028 is going slowly as “costs remain high and public awareness remains low”, the article reports. The FT adds: “It said the high upfront costs of installing heat pumps were falling more slowly than anticipated, while take-up of the grant to offset the cost of replacing a boiler with a heat pump had fallen well short of its target.” The report was finalised “shortly before the government revealed last week that it would delay by a year a scheme requiring heating installers to fit more low-carbon heat pumps – which is expected to make the targets even harder to reach”, says the Guardian. The NAO also draws attention to the government’s indecision on hydrogen heating, says BBC News. The outlet notes that the government cancelled a number of trials designed to gather more information on the feasibility of the technology last year, adding: “The NAO has recommended the government makes a decision on whether hydrogen will be part of the UK’s energy home heating system before 2026.” The Daily Telegraph, which puts the story on its frontpage, leads with the report’s finding that “government’s assumptions about levels of consumer demand [for heat pumps] are optimistic”. The Sun puts the report’s findings succinctly: “Costs are high, most people do not know what the pumps are or why they should care.” It quotes NAO chief Gareth Davies, who says the government needs to “engage every household” in order to decarbonise heating, adding: “The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) progress in making households aware and encouraging them to switch to low-carbon alternatives has been slower than expected.” Reuters quotes the response from a DESNZ spokesperson, who says that “by helping rather than forcing families to install heat pumps, with a 50% bigger heat pump grant, we have boosted applications by nearly 40%”. The i newspaper, Independent, BusinessGreen and Daily Mail all have the story, while a Sun editorial says it “has warned against forcing homeowners to replace perfectly good gas boilers with heat pumps” for years, adding: “No government, Tory or Labour, will achieve net-zero against voters’ will. And they just won’t pay more for less.”

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times reports on the “net-zero vision” for the National Grid, which will be published tomorrow. The newspaper says: “Britain’s power network will need £60bn investment in new offshore wind farms if it is to hit the government’s target to decarbonise the electricity system by 2035…It intends to connect up to 86 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2035, which on a windy day is enough to meet peak demand. It says 20,000 jobs will be created annually, of which 90% will be outside the south-east of England.” The Scottish edition of the Times reports that the comments of a “leading academic” that any attempt to reduce aviation connections to Scotland to help meet net-zero targets will produce a “pronounced negative shock” to the economy. 

In other UK news, England has experienced its wettest 18 months since records began in 1836, the Financial Times reports, “leaving farmers struggling to plant crops in waterlogged fields and transport networks disrupted by flooding”. The newspaper quotes Prof Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, who says such records are “a consequence of our warming world”, adding: “As the world continues to warm in the future we would expect to see more rain falling on these islands.” The Sunday Times looks at “who can see the bright side of our soggy spring?” It says that in much of the UK, “there was double the expected rainfall” this winter, which has “delighted ducks, cinemas and roofers”. 

US: Biden set to crack down on auto emissions to accelerate EV sales
Bloomberg Read Article

The Biden administration is preparing to roll out the toughest-ever limits on pollution from the nation’s cars and light trucks, reports Bloomberg. It explains: “Emissions limits set to be finalised by the Environmental Protection Agency within days would propel electric vehicle sales well beyond current levels. The EPA has projected that to meet proposed mandates, electric models would need to make up roughly two-thirds of car and light truck sales in 2032 – up from less than a 10th last year.” The measure sets limits on “smog-forming pollution, soot and carbon dioxide emissions”, the newswire says, and is seen as “one of the most consequential climate regulations being imposed by President Joe Biden. The regulation “requires a delicate balancing act for Biden”, the article explains: “US carmakers warned the initial proposal wasn’t achievable – with EV penetration dependent on the installation of charging stations and other factors beyond the industry’s control.” According to “people familiar with the matter”, Bloomberg says that “the EPA plans to adopt standards requiring less stringent year-over-year emission reductions in the near term, while essentially reaching the same 2032 target”. An editorial in the Washington Post urges the Biden administration to “open space in its rules to encourage the purchase of plug-in hybrids” as well as EVs. 

Meanwhile, Bloomberg also reports that US coal-fired power plants could be forced to shut down two years earlier than previously planned under a Biden administration rule to cut pollution from the electricity sector. Again citing “people familiar with the matter”, the outlet says the “potential change being seriously considered now by administration officials would accelerate the required retirement date for coal plants that opt against installing carbon-removal technology at the sites”. This would be a tougher approach than the one the EPA outlined in an initial proposal last year “that would generally give companies until 2040 to shutter the sites”, it adds. The power plant rule – “a marquee part of Biden’s climate agenda” – is “on track to be finalised next month”, the outlet says, but “is not settled and is still being debated internally”.

At the same time, the New York Times reports that a federal court on Friday temporarily halted new rules from the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) – only approved this month – that require public companies to disclose more about the business risks they face from climate change. The emergency stay granted by Fifth Circuit judges on Friday came in a case brought by two fracking companies, Liberty Energy and Nomad Proppant Services, the newspaper explains. In their petition, the two companies said that “there is no clear authority for the SEC to effectively regulate the controversial issue of climate change”, the article reports, and claimed the rules violated the First Amendment, which protects free speech, by “effectively mandating discussions about climate change”. The Hill says that “the pause does not necessarily mean that their case will ultimately succeed or that the rule will be overturned – but, it is an indication that the judges are at least somewhat receptive to the arguments of its opponents”.

In other US news, the New York Times asks why US fossil fuel subsidies “are impossible to kill”. Inside Climate News reports on how “clean energy tax breaks could fuel a US wood burning boom”. And the Associated Press reports on the official opening of the first US commercial-scale offshore wind farm, which it describes as “a long-awaited moment that helps pave the way for a succession of large wind farms”. 

Germany’s emissions declined at a record pace in 2023
Der Spiegel Read Article

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 10% in 2023, or 76m tonnes (Mt), marking the sharpest decrease since 1990, reports Der Spiegel. These projections, detailed in a report by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), indicate that Germany is approaching its climate targets, which aim for a 65% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, notes the outlet. With an expected reduction of nearly 64%, according to the UBA, Germany is “on track” to achieve its 2030 climate goals. The Associated Press adds that the agency points to Germany’s “very successful expansion of renewable energies”, but “cautioned that progress in cutting emissions is not satisfactory across the board”. It notes that more needs to be done in the transport sector. In addition, Reuters reports that when asked if the drop in emissions was due to a weaker economy rather than a sustainable decline, German economy and climate action minister Robert Habeck said that, while 2023 had been an exceptional year and the government expected a “complete economic recovery”, further planned measures would help to maintain progress. Bloomberg also covers the story. 

Meanwhile, Die Zeit reports that Habeck will participate in a German-Canadian hydrogen partnership meeting in Hamburg today, along with Canadian officials and Hamburg’s senator for economic affairs. The outlet details that the conference aims to connect Canadian project developers with potential German traders and consumers. It adds that hydrogen exports from Canada to Germany are planned to commence next year, aligning with the transition to a “climate-neutral economy” and the importance of “green” hydrogen from renewable sources. Finally, Reuters reports that the UK’s largest electricity provider, Octopus Energy, has stated it will invest in German renewables developer Lintas Green Energy, taking a 50% stake, “to speed up the company’s growth across the country”.

Scientists divided over whether record heat is acceleration of climate crisis
The Guardian Read Article

Record temperatures so far this year on land and at sea “have prompted scientists to question whether these anomalies are in line with predicted global heating patterns or if they represent a concerning acceleration of climate breakdown”, the Guardian reports. It continues: “Heat above the oceans remains persistently, freakishly high, despite a weakening of El Niño, which has been one of the major drivers of record global temperatures over the past year. Scientists are divided about the extraordinary temperatures of marine air. Some stress that current trends are within climate model projections of how the world will warm as a result of human burning of fossil fuels and forests. Others are perplexed and worried by the speed of change because the seas are the Earth’s great heat moderator and absorb more than 90% of anthropogenic warming.” The article quotes WMO secretary general, Celeste Saulo: “The January 2024 sea surface temperature was by far the highest on record for January. This is worrying and can not be explained by El Niño alone.” The outlet also quotes Carbon Brief’s climate science contributor Dr Zeke Hausfather, who says that global temperatures were “quite high”, but still well within the projections of climate models: “We don’t have any strong evidence yet from observations that suggests the world is warming faster than anticipated given human emissions.” New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the different factors potentially contributing to “a startling rise in sea-surface temperatures”. She quotes Dr Gavin Schmidt, the director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who says: “The other thing that this could all be is, we are starting to see shifts in how the system responds…All of these statistics that we’re talking about, they’re taken from the prior data. But nothing in the prior data looked like 2023. Does that mean that the prior data are no longer predictive because the system has changed? I can’t rule that out, and that would obviously be very concerning.” Finally, the Financial Times “climate graphic of the week” shows how the world’s oceans “set heat records for more than 365 days in a row”. 

China expands emissions trading scheme to include aluminium industry
Caixin Read Article

China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) is “set to expand to cover the electrolytic aluminium sector”, says Chinese outlet Caixin. It adds that “preparations are underway for the imminent inclusion of the sector”, according to one official. Carbon markets newspaper reports that the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has released two draft guidelines for comment on greenhouse gas emissions accounting, reporting and verification for the aluminium smelting industry. Shanghai Securities News reports that the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) released a work plan to “accelerate promotion of energy conservation and carbon reduction in the construction sector”, which calls for “the proportion of electricity consumption in building energy use” to exceed 55% by 2025. Bloomberg covers China’s nuclear energy development, saying that China is “able to build reactors at a fraction of the cost of…France and the US” due in part to “low lending rates from supportive state-owned banks” and “smart construction strategies”.

Meanwhile, the state-supporting newspaper Global Times reports that the Yalong River Hydropower-Wind-Photovoltaic Integrated Base, which is the world’s “largest…renewable energy base”, has cumulatively generated more than 1,000 terawatt-hours. reports that construction has begun on a 100 megawatt wind power project featuring 185m-tall turbines, which demonstrates China’s “leading” innovation capabilities. Communist party-affiliated newspaper People’s Daily reports that China has achieved a “breakthrough” in developing “liquid hydrogen storage and supply systems” for heavy-duty vehicles. Shanghai Securities News reports that Chinese shipbuilder COSCO has signed contracts to build methanol dual-fuel ships that will save “approximately 360,000 tonnes” of greenhouse gas emissions per year. 

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quotes Huang Yiping, a former central bank adviser and dean of Peking University’s national school of development, saying that China should be wary of its state-led industrial policy triggering a “common wave of trade protectionism against Chinese products”, which may be “detrimental” to its development. SCMP also carries a commentary by Zhou Xiaoming, a senior fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) and a former deputy representative of China’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. He writes that the US and EU are not “capable of seeing the global benefits of China’s overcapacity” because they are “blind[ed]” by “their egoistic interests”.

South Sudan shutters all schools as it prepares for an extreme heatwave
Associated Press Read Article

South Sudan’s government is closing down all schools from today as the country prepares for a wave of extreme heat expected to last two weeks, the Associated Press reports. In a statement issued on Saturday, the country’s health and education ministries advised parents to keep all children indoors as temperatures are expected to soar to 45C, the newswire explains: “They warned that any school found open during that time would have its registration withdrawn, but didn’t specify how long the schools would remain shuttered.” The ministries said they “will continue to monitor the situation and inform the public accordingly”, it adds. The article notes that the latest country briefing from the World Food Program said South Sudan “continues to face a dire humanitarian crisis” due to violence, economic instability, climate change and an influx of people fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Sudan.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that parts of Johannesburg – South Africa’s largest city – “have been without running water for almost a fortnight, a reminder to voters of the parlous state of the country’s infrastructure just two months out from a general election”. The Financial Times also reports that the World Bank’s fund to support the planet’s poorest nations – the International Development Association (IDA) – “is seeking a record financing haul to tackle mounting debt and climate crises”.

Frozen fuel duty will cost UK Treasury £15bn by 2029, warns watchdog
Financial Times Read Article

The UK’s fiscal watchdog has warned that the country will lose £15bn in motoring tax revenues by 2029, reports the Financial Times, “underscoring the need to raise or replace the fuel duty after consecutive Conservative governments have frozen the politically sensitive levy”. It continues: “Forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) show that if the next chancellor extends the freeze on petrol duty – as [chancellor] Jeremy Hunt did earlier this month with Labour’s support – it will halve the fiscal ‘headroom’ assumed in this month’s spring budget. The share of gross government receipts from fuel duty has plunged by almost 50% since ministers first held the levy at 52.95 pence a litre in 2011, according to Financial Times calculations.” Including the cost of a 5p cut on fuel duty introduced in the 2022 budget and extended by Hunt this month, the fuel duty freeze “has cost £90bn in lost revenues since 2011, according to the OBR”, the FT notes: This trend is “set to continue” with the increasing uptake of electric vehicles, which do not pay fuel duty, the newspaper notes: “The latest OBR forecasts show fuel duty declining permanently after a peak of £24.7bn in the fiscal year ending in 2025 if [fuel duty] remains unchanged for the next five years. That is equal to a loss of £15bn in revenue from 2024 to 2029, compared to if the rate was not frozen.” 

In related comment, Bloomberg columnist David Fickling warns that electric vehicles “look like being the next front” in a series of trade wars that “will only slow the path to net-zero”. He writes: “China’s shift from one of the world’s biggest car importers to among its biggest exporters has troubled its trading partners. Most of the export drive to date has come from conventional automobiles, but China’s innovative technological edge in EVs has put electric models in the spotlight.” And William Sitwell, the Daily Telegraph’s restaurant critic, writes that “the electric car promises a great deal”, but he “can think of almost no one who owns such a vehicle” around his countryside home in west Somerset.

Nato chief says climate change undermines global security
Agence France-Presse Read Article

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has stressed the need to tackle global warming and called climate change a “crisis multiplier” with implications for global security, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP). In a press conference in Baku yesterday alongside Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, Stoltenberg praised Azerbaijan for its “important role in delivering gas to key Nato allies”, but also noted that “the challenge is that the world needs energy, but at the same time we need to fight global warming”, the article says. He added: “We need to reconcile the need for energy and environment…climate change matters for security, matters for Nato…Climate change is a crisis multiplier, and we see the effects of climate change all over the world.” With Baku set to host the COP29 climate summit later this year, Aliyev said that while his country is a “pan-European gas supplier” it has an ambitious green transition agenda, the article notes. He added that Azerbaijan’s selection as a host of COP29 was a “sign of recognition of our efforts on green transition”.

In related comment, Ozayr Patel, climate and environment editor of Africa’s Mail & Guardian writes on COP29 president designate Mukhtar Babayev, who “seems to be working hard to try to change people’s perceptions of their duty to the environment”.

Climate and energy comment.

‘We don’t know where the money is going’: the ‘carbon cowboys’ making millions from credit schemes
Patrick Greenfield and Nyasha Chingono, The Guardian Read Article

In a feature for the Guardian, biodiversity and environment reporter Patrick Greenfield and Nyasha Chingono, a Zimbabwe-based freelance reporter, report on “carbon cowboys” – the groups “snapping up and enrolling large tracts of land in the developing world” for nature-based carbon markets. The article focuses on a series of carbon-offsetting schemes in the districts surrounding Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. Most people “have little idea their villages were at the centre of a multimillion-dollar carbon boom”, the article says: “These communities fall within the vast, lucrative Kariba conservation project, encompassing an area almost the size of Puerto Rico. It is among the largest in a portfolio of forest offsetting schemes approved by Verra, the world’s largest certifier. Since 2011, this project alone has generated revenue of more than €100m (£85m) from selling carbon credits equivalent to Kenya’s 2022 national emissions to western companies.” While proponents say these schemes “are a quick way of transferring billions of dollars of climate and biodiversity finance to the developing world through company net-zero pledges”, more than a decade on from the project’s inception, “many local people say the projects and infrastructure they anticipated never emerged”, the article says. In preparing the article, the Guardian reviewed project documents, approached district council officials, contacted the companies involved and “sent a reporter to Kariba to interview people and look for evidence of projects”. The article concludes that “while there was evidence some funds had been distributed to communities in the area, we found that only a fraction of the project’s revenue reached ground level”. For companies that traded in Kariba’s carbon credits, however, “there is little doubt of the financial benefits generated by the project”, it says: “During the pandemic, prices for forest carbon credits rose dramatically, from less than $1 a tonne to more than $30 a tonne (78p to £23.30) for some schemes. In the process, projects like Kariba were transformed from struggling conservation schemes into financial assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The credits have been traded by a growing number of carbon desks at investment banks and oil companies at lucrative premiums.” Experts tell the Guardian that Kariba is a “textbook example” of “wider issues within the market, where forest-preservation projects often benefit international traders over local communities”. In response, “Verra said it could not comment on many of the issues raised about Kariba while it is under review, but says it is an outlier”, the article notes. [For more on carbon offsets, see Carbon Brief’s week-long special series from last year.]

New climate research.

Historical impacts of grazing on carbon stocks and climate mitigation opportunities
Nature Climate Change Read Article

Over the past 60 years, livestock grazing has reduced soil carbon stocks by 46 gigatonnes of carbon at a depth of one metre, a new study finds. The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 1,473 soil carbon observations from studies on grazing. They find that global variations in soil carbon are caused by a combination of “grazing intensity” and environmental factors. Implementing “grazing management” strategies on 21m square kilometres of land – mainly through decreasing grazing intensity on 75% of lands and increasing it on the rest – could add 63 gigatonnes of carbon to the vegetation and soil, they add.

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