Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Mauritius oil spill: Wrecked MV Wakashio breaks up
- One of England's last coalmines to close near Durham
- 'Canary in the coal mine': Greenland ice has shrunk beyond return, study finds
- Hitachi seeks to resurrect Welsh nuclear plant plans
- Lights dim and worries mount as a heatwave roasts California
- The Guardian view on record-breaking weather: the heat is on
- Biden gambles on placing climate change at heart of US energy policy
- What climate alarm has already achieved
- Between a bog and a hard place: a global review of climate change effects on coastal freshwater wetlands
- Projected changes in the annual range of precipitation under stabilised 1.5C and 2.0C warming futures
A Japanese cargo ship that has leaked hundreds of tonnes of fuel oil off the Mauritius coast has broken apart, BBC News reports. It continues: “The MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef on 25 July with 4,000 tonnes of the fuel, causing an ecological emergency. Most of the fuel had already been pumped out, officials said, but on Saturday the ship’s condition worsened.” About 90 tonnes of the fuel were believed to be still on board when the vessel split, the outlet notes. The spill has blackened the pristine shoreline of the Mahebourg Lagoon, near Pointe d’Esny in southwestern Mauritius, says the Financial Times, which describes the event as “the worst ecological disaster in the Indian Ocean island’s history”. The ship held no cargo when it ran aground and was only carrying the fuel it needed for its journey, the FT says. However, “the proximity of the Mauritian spill to the island’s coastline means its delicate coastal ecosystem may struggle to recover”. An environmental consultant tells the paper that “the mangroves are heavily impacted, this will be a major challenge to address”. The weather is expected to deteriorate over the next few days with waves of up to 4.5 metres, Reuters says, which could impede cleanup efforts. Another Reuters piece notes that India has sent technical equipment and a team of specialists to Mauritius to help local authorities deal with the spill, and a third Reuters piece looks into the legal implications of who holds the responsibility for the cleanup. Writing in the Guardian, Alex Lenferna – a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org – says that the “oil is spilling into a beautiful lagoon off the coast of Pointe d’Esny – an area of international ecological importance. It’s home to stunning marine ecosystems and ecological preserves like Ile aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island filled with endemic birds, plants and animals”. These corals were “already threatened by coral bleaching, caused by the warming and acidification of the ocean”, Lenferna adds. Meanwhile, a piece by BBC Reality Check looks at whether major oil spills are becoming less frequent, noting that: “In the 1970s, there were about 80 spills a year of more than seven tonnes. This has fallen to an average of just six per year over the past decade despite a large increase in the number of tankers now transporting oil.” This is “down to tighter regulation and improvements in safety standards”, an expert tells the outlet. However, information on small spills – which account for more than 80% of all oil spills at sea – is difficult to gather and often incomplete, the outlet adds. At the same time, Reuters reports that the Trump Administration on Friday approved US oil producer ConocoPhillips’ plan for drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a wilderness area along the state’s North Slope oil fields. And Reuters also reports that French energy group Total has launched the third phase of development for the Mero deep offshore oil project off the coast of Brazil.
In other oil news, the Guardian reports that the world’s largest listed oil companies have collectively wiped almost $90bn from the value of their oil and gas assets in the last nine months. It adds: “Analysis by the climate finance thinktank Carbon Tracker shows that in the last three month alone, companies including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total, Chevron, Repsol, Eni and Equinor have reported downgrades on the value of their assets totalling almost $55bn.” Reuters reports that the price of Brent crude oil ended below $45 a barrel on Friday as a result of continued concerns around slow demand and rising supply. (Prices rose a little again this morning, says Reuters.) In his column, Reuters market analyst John Kemp writes that “crude oil traders have become progressively less bullish about the outlook for prices in recent weeks as concern over the lingering Covid-19 epidemic and its impact on the economy have trumped output cuts by [oil] producers”. Elsewhere, Bloomberg reports that “more European producers are saying energy resources worth billions of dollars now might never be pumped out of the ground”, and Reuters reports that “Oklahoma oil and gas producer Chaparral Energy Inc filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sunday, the latest US energy sector casualty in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic crushes oil prices to unsustainable levels”. Finally in related energy news, the Times reports that “Royal Dutch Shell hopes to boost the profits it makes from offshore wind farms by using surplus electricity to produce hydrogen and to charge batteries at sea”.
Today will see the closure of one of England’s last remaining coalmines in Bradley near Durham, reports the Guardian. The owner of the surface mine, the Banks Group, said Bradley will extract its last coal, two months after its sister site at Shotton in Northumberland ended its own coal production, the paper explains. The firm, which continues to operate mines in Scotland and the south of Wales, applied for permission to extend the life of its last mine in England until 2021 but the application was turned down earlier this summer. The closure leaves Hartington mine in Derbyshire as the last surface mine in England still using its remaining coal reserves, says the i newspaper. It adds: A spokesman for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said there is no revised date for the Hartington shutdown ‘immediately available’.“ In coal news elsewhere, the Guardian reports that a decision on a coal seam gas development at Narrabri, in north-west New South Wales, has been delayed after the company behind it lodged a last-minute submission suggesting it will have greater economic benefits than previously claimed.
In other UK fossil-fuel news, the Daily Telegraph reports that renewable biogas made from cow manure has been injected into the National Grid in a UK first, which will create enough energy to power ten homes for a year.
Greenland’s ice sheet may have passed a “point of no return”, reports Reuters, with ice loss likely to continue “no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions”. It continues: “Scientists studied data on 234 glaciers across the Arctic territory spanning 34 years through 2018 and found that annual snowfall was no longer enough to replenish glaciers of the snow and ice being lost to summertime melting. A study co-author tells CNN that “the ice sheet is now in this new dynamic state, where even if we went back to a climate that was more like what we had 20 or 30 years ago, we would still be pretty quickly losing mass”. The study, published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment, also found that the ice sheet “is retreating in rapid bursts”, adds CNN, “leading to a sudden and unpredictable rise in sea levels, making it difficult to prepare for the effects”. Before 2000, the ice sheet would have about the same chance to gain or lose mass each year, the lead author tells InsideClimate News, but in the current climate, the ice sheet will gain mass only once every 100 years. She adds that “even if we were to go back to the old amounts of snow we were adding, at this new elevated rate of melting, we would expect it to stay out of balance for some time”. Greenland currently contributes 280bn tonnes of melting ice into the ocean each year, making it the largest physical source of rising ocean levels, Axios notes. The Daily Express, Forbes and MailOnline also have the story. For more on a potential “tipping point” in Greenland ice sheet mass loss, see Carbon Brief’s detailed explainer.
Hitachi is talking to the UK government about resurrecting plans for a nuclear power plant in north Wales, which were frozen at the start of last year, reports the Financial Times. The paper continues: “Horizon Nuclear Power, a UK-based subsidiary of Hitachi, has been holding ‘detailed conversations’ with the government in recent weeks to persuade ministers that the proposed Wylfa Newydd plant on Anglesey could be quickly re-mobilised if they can produce a new financing model for large nuclear power stations in Britain.” Hitachi suspended the £20bn Wylfa project at the start of 2019 after failing to reach an agreement over financing, the FT says, but the company “maintained a skeleton staff at Horizon and continued to pursue planning permission for Wylfa after the government launched a review into a ‘regulated asset base’ funding model, which would see consumers pay upfront through their energy bills for a new plant and significantly reduce the construction risk for developers”. Bloomberg also has the story, while Financial Times city editor Jonathan Ford comments on why UK “green” power projects need a high “power density”. Renewables, such as the planned solar farm at Cleve Hill in Kent, “have their place in decarbonisation”, writes Ford, while “the only other zero-carbon technology to hand, nuclear, faces its own political challenges”. But, he concludes, “in planning how to decarbonise, policymakers should think about whole-system outcomes. They need power technologies in the mix that are scalable and dense”.
A heatwave rolling through the US southwest has “forced intermittent power shut-offs in California”, reports the New York Times, “a state already struggling with wildfires and a recent surge in coronavirus cases, raising fears that the rising temperatures could turn deadly”. It continues: “Californians used so much electricity to try and stay cool Friday night that the agency that oversees much of the state’s power grid declared an emergency and, for the first time in 19 years, shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers for several hours to avoid a damaging overload.” In addition, “dry, hot conditions are also fuelling wildfires in Southern California”, the paper says, “where the Lake Fire has burned through 14,700 acres of land north of Los Angeles and destroyed 21 buildings, including sheds and garages”. The fires have caused hundreds of people to evacuate, says Reuters. Axios has photos of the fires. Forecasters said the heatwave could rival 2006, when Los Angeles County recorded its all-time highest temperature of 119F (48.3C) in Woodland Hills on 22 July, notes the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post reports that temperatures in Death Valley surged to a searing 130F (54.4C) on Sunday afternoon, “possibly setting a world record for the highest temperature ever observed during the month of August”.
The recent spell of record-breaking hot weather in the UK “offers further proof that our weather is changing”, a Guardian editorial says. Climate change and global heating are not predictions, but facts of life that we must deal with now, the paper says: “Yet despite warnings stretching back decades, the UK remains ill-equipped and underprepared for such changes.” The editorial comments on the fatal train derailment near Stonehaven last week: “While the causes of the disaster remain to be determined by investigators, Network Rail and Scotland’s transport secretary, Michael Matheson, have both pointed to torrential rain and landslips as probable factors. Inspections of dozens of sites with similar trackside slopes have already been ordered.” (A Guardian news article reports that the first official account of the crash have confirmed that it was caused by a landslip.) The paper says there is “still no sign of the comprehensive action plan that is needed to boost the UK’s resilience to the threat of climate chaos”. The editorial concludes: “With flash floods expected over the weekend, the need for climate leadership has never been clearer, to shield us from the storms ahead.” Meanwhile, another piece in the Guardian speaks to UK government advisers and leading infrastructure experts who warns that “ministers must do much more to protect the UK’s infrastructure from extreme weather”. Nada Farhoud – the Daily Mirror’s environment editor – writes that “it’s important to remember that hot periods like this will become more frequent if we simply carry on as we are”. She adds: “Experiencing such high temperatures so close together, while not unheard of, is a signal that climate change is happening here…Unless cuts are made to emissions, high temperatures will worryingly become more regular.” Bloomberg Green columnist Gernot Wagner explains why “even relatively small changes in global average temperatures are such a big deal” for the severity of heatwaves. And finally, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams says that discussions around air-conditioning during the heatwave shows “how much the UK’s climate has changed already”.
In a Financial Times “The Big Read”, US energy editor Derek Brower looks at the “root-and-branch overhaul of the American energy system that will put climate change at its heart” – promised by Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden should he win power. Brower explains: “The plan, which will be aired again at the Democratic party convention this week, earmarks $2tn in spending over the next four years to use climate policy to drag the economy out of its pandemic-era recession. But Mr Biden’s plans for the energy sector would reach into everything from Middle East geopolitics to the global race with China over clean tech and is likely to prove unpopular among parts of the US electorate – dependent on oil and gas for jobs – in an election year.” If elected, Biden “is promising net-zero emissions by 2050 and to electrify the US’s transportation sector, installing a vast network of new car charging points, upgrading the grid and deploying utility-scale battery storage across the US”, says Brower. He notes: “Critics say it will destroy the country’s world-beating oil and gas industry – a claim that has forced Biden supporters in shale heartlands to insist local economies will be secured. The plan, they say, will resurrect American manufacturing and the country’s leadership – and, by including elements of the Green New Deal supported by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, satisfies the Democratic party’s leftwing without scaring its middle.” Brewer also has a separate FT opinion piece on why “America will find it hard to break its frack habit”. In related comment, former climate diplomat Thom Woodroofe explains in the Australian Financial Review why Biden’s “demands for all major economies to make big cuts in their emissions will complicate Australia’s relationship with the US if he wins the US election”. And Woodroofe also has a piece for the Hill on how Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris “now has the potential to become the most consequential US vice president since Al Gore in the global fight against climate change”. Finally, a news piece in Axios reports that polling suggests climate change “isn’t top of mind for the electorate in the 2020 presidential race”, but “also signals how the topic is likely to surface in the months ahead”.
In a New York Magazine’s Intelligencer long read, journalist David Wallace-Wells explores the “normalisation of climate alarm”. This is a good thing, he writes: “Because even as we fail to make time to reckon explicitly with the present tense of the climate crisis, intuitions about it, and the future it portends for us, that alarm has grown much more central to political and social discourse, in America and elsewhere.” He continues: “Even when we don’t make time for news about locust plagues or fires in the Amazon, foreboding about the climate crisis has come to shape the country’s political, social, and emotional relationship to its own future much more profoundly than ever before. Our politics and policy can’t help but reflect those priorities now, even when we aren’t debating them directly. We are now alarmed enough about climate change, collectively, that even when we aren’t particularly freaking out about it, we still find ourselves drifting rapidly, as in a very fast stream, toward dramatic action.” Wallace-Wells notes that “for years, some climate activists have warned about the risks of using fear as a PR tool, suggesting that fatalism could set in more quickly than action, depriving the world of the collective opportunity for action”. However, he argues: “I am sure that there are some people on the planet who’ve gone from engaged to disengaged over the last few years, but the angle of change strikes me as tilting very much in the opposite direction – making more people care about this issue, and intensifying the concern of those who do care.”
The world’s freshwater coastal wetlands are significantly threatened by sea level rise, a scientific review finds. However, very little research has been conducted into the other ways in which climate change is likely to affect freshwater wetlands, when compared to saltwater wetlands such as mangroves, the review says. The authors say: “From this research, we know that sea level rise will lead to reduced productivity, reduced regeneration, and increased mortality in coastal freshwater wetlands vegetation but little is known regarding the effects of other climate change drivers.”
Limiting global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels rather than 1.5C would stem increases in wet and dry extremes across the world, a new study says. The research finds that the range of annual rainfall levels seen across the world be 3.9% higher under 1.5C and 5.3% higher under 2C, when compared to present levels. The authors say: “The increase is associated with enhanced precipitation during the wet season.”
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