Today's climate and energy headlines:
- MPs attack ‘lack of knowledge’ over UK nuclear power clean-up
- SSE, Equinor to invest $8bn in Britain's Dogger Bank giant wind project
- Climate crisis making autumn leaves fall earlier, study finds
- Electric cars only greener than petrol after 50,000 miles
- Total fire ban in parts of SA as heatwave descends on south-east Australia
- Sony warns it could move factories over Japanese energy policy
- Biden's challenge: Restoring the US as a leader against global warming
- Abrupt shift to hotter and drier climate over inner East Asia beyond the tipping point
- Movements shaping climate futures: A systematic mapping of protests against fossil fuel and low-carbon energy projects
MPs have warned there is a “perpetual” lack of knowledge in government about the state of the UK’s 17 earliest nuclear power sites, reports the Financial Times, which are expected to cost taxpayers about £130bn to clean up over the next 120 years. The report from the House of Commons’ public accounts committee warns this lack of knowledge about the retired facilities – which include Sellafield in Cumbria and 12 early nuclear power sites known as the “Magnox” stations – has already wasted hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer money and “continues to be a major barrier to making progress” with the clean-up, the FT reports. Decommissioning of the earliest nuclear power reactors and research facilities has been a “long-running and torturous saga in Britain”, the paper says, adding: “The spending watchdog called for ‘clearer discipline’ in managing the 17 sites, which were all built before privatisation of the electricity system in the 1990s and are the responsibility of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.” The Times reports the comments of Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chairman of the committee, who said that “incredibly, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority [NDA] still doesn’t know even where we’re currently at, in terms of state and safety of the UK’s disused nuclear sites”. A spokesperson for the NDA responded that it did “not accept the committee’s suggestions that we may not understand the safety of our sites”, the paper adds. Also in the Times, chief business commentator Alistair Osbourne asks whether “before Boris [Johnson] presses the go button on more nukes, including Rolls-Royce’s modular type, shouldn’t there be a debate about the waste?”. He continues: “The government’s big idea is to bribe some local authority into housing a nice toxic dump, prettily dressed up as a ‘geological disposal facility’. Copeland in Cumbria is the closest to volunteering. But a deal is a long way off and the plan’s been vetoed before by Cumbria county council. And, who knows, the locals might prefer a new sports centre or arts venue. Still, maybe Boris can persuade them it’s all so amazingly green. So green it glows in the dark.” The Guardian also has the story.
British energy company SSE and Norwegian oil company Equinor have agreed to invest £6bn ($8.03bn) to construct the first two phases of the Dogger Bank offshore wind power project, Reuters reports. The project – which will eventually become the world’s largest offshore wind farm – involves construction of 2.4 gigawatts of capacity in the British part of the North Sea, the newswires explains, and will be financed by a group of 29 banks and three credit export agencies. The outlet adds: “The first phase, of 1.2 GW, is expected to start operations in 2023, with the second following about a year later. Each phase will generate around six terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity annually. A third phase is planned for completion by 2026, by which time Dogger Bank would produce enough electricity to supply 5% of British demand, equivalent to powering 6m British homes each year.” Dogger Bank will be the first to feature the 13MW GE Haliade-X, the largest wind turbine in the world, reports the i newspaper: “One rotation of this giant turbine generates enough electricity to power a standard British home for two days.” Equinor’s executive vice president of new energy solutions, Pål Eitrheim said the “extensive interest from lenders underpins the attractiveness of UK offshore wind assets and confidence in SSE and Equinor”, reports BusinessGreen. The Financial Times Lex column says the “oil company bosses are belatedly embracing renewables to appear cutting edge”. It adds: “Financial dynamics have moved in favour of Dogger Bank since the project began. Efficiency has risen. Turbines have tripled in size in the past decade to nearly 9MW. Capacity utilisation has climbed from about a third to sometimes more than half. Compared with competing energy sources, costs have dropped 28%, says the International Renewable Energy Agency.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the National Grid expects tighter power margins for the next few days owing to variable renewables generation, colder temperatures and higher demand. The Guardian notes that three of the UK’s remaining coal power plants – operating at Drax, West Burton, and Ratcliffe – were called on to supply 6% of electricity yesterday morning. The paper adds: “The coal plants are likely to keep running over the next few days, alongside a fleet of gas-fired power plants, before breezy weather returns to help meet the rising demand for electricity from renewable energy sources.”
New research suggests that climate change is making trees drop their leaves earlier, reports the Guardian, “confounding the idea that warmer temperatures delay the onset of autumn”. The newspaper continues: “The finding is important because trees draw huge amounts of CO2 from the air and therefore play a key role in managing the climate. The rising temperatures also mean that spring is arriving earlier and, overall, the growing season for trees in the planet’s temperate zones is getting longer. However, the earlier autumns mean that significantly less carbon can be stored in trees than previously thought, providing less of a brake on global heating.” Study author Prof Thomas Crowther tells the paper: “For decades we’ve assumed that growing seasons are increasing and that the autumn leaf-off is getting later…However, this research suggests that as tree productivity gets higher, the leaves actually fall earlier.” The new findings indicate that society cannot rely on existing forests to prevent climate change, co-author Dr Constantin Zohner tells InsideClimate News. He adds: “If we want to increase forests as a way to capture carbon, we need to plant new trees, or restore forests…Trees want to help us, but there are limits.” The i newspaper and the Conversation also cover the study.
Meanwhile, the Times reports that “milder winters are boosting populations of some songbirds” in the UK. Data from the “environment department” show that “goldfinches, wrens, blackcaps and nuthatches are among the species that have increased substantially since 2013”, the paper explains. It adds: “While songbirds can still be ‘knocked back’ by a harsh winter, such as in 2017-18, the report suggests small-bodied birds that live all year round in the UK have generally benefited from warmer average temperatures in winter.” But, the paper, notes, “the overall trend for wild birds is still down”.
New research suggests that electric cars have to travel as far as 50,000 miles to match the carbon footprint of a petrol model because of the energy consumed during the production process, the Times reports. The study, commissioned by vehicle and technology companies including Honda, McLaren, Aston Martin and Bosch, says that making an electric car generates high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly because of its battery and other environmentally expensive materials, the paper explains. Using the Volvo Polestar 2 electric car as a case study, the research finds that motorists will have to drive the electric car for 48,500 miles before its carbon footprint is below that of a conventional vehicle, the Times says, although this “dips to 31,000 miles when all of a car’s electricity comes from renewable sources”. Commenting on the report, Matt Western MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groups for Motor and Electric Vehicles, welcomed the new 2030 phase-out date for petrol and diesel cars, but said it was an inadequate move, reports the Daily Telegraph. He said: “We need to address the decarbonisation of both vehicle and fuel to have any real hope of meeting our CO2 reduction ambitions.“ The Daily Mail carries the story on page three in its print edition.
Carbon Brief published a factcheck on electric vehicles last year, which shows that a Nissan Leaf pays back the emissions from battery production after less than two years of driving – and emits three times less CO2 in its lifetime than the average new conventional car.
In other transport news, BusinessGreen reports on a “major” new study from the European Union’s aviation regulator that shows the aviation sector’s climate impact is three times bigger than the effect of its CO2 emissions alone. Climate Home News says: “The study endorses findings published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, showing that non-CO2 emissions from planes such as of oxides of nitrogen (NOx), soot particles, sulphate aerosols, and water vapour at high altitude together drive significant global heating.” (The authors of that study wrote a Carbon Brief guest post about their findings.) And, finally, the Guardian reports that a UK government commission has said a sustainable network of additional rail stations, rapid bus routes and cycle corridors should be built in south-east Wales to replace the scrapped M4 motorway extension.
A total fire ban has been declared in districts across South Australia, reports the Guardian, as the south and east coasts of the country brace for a heatwave. The paper continues: “Temperatures are expected to soar to 40C and higher in some South Australian regional centres, with an extreme bushfire risk declared for the Adelaide Hills. The Country Fire Service has issued severe bushfire ratings for six other districts on Friday, while a severe heatwave has been declared for the north-west pastoral region.” Reuters reports that Australia’s weather bureau “attributed a slight weakening in the current La Nina weather phenomenon as one of the reasons for intense spring heat this year, as scant rainfall in November led to a rise in temperatures in the inland regions”. It adds that “last summer’s bush fires, which prime minister Scott Morrison called Australia’s ‘black summer’, killed 33 people and billions of native animals.” (See Carbon Brief’s media reaction wrap-up piece for more details.) The Guardian also reports that the “New South Wales government is planning a review of forestry operations in bushfire-hit coastal regions as tensions mount between the environment regulator and Forestry Corporation”. And the New York Times reports on the impacts that the recent wildfires in California are having on children’s health.
Electronics firm Sony has warned the Japanese government it may have to shift manufacturing out of the country unless rules on renewable energy are relaxed, reports the Financial Times, as it tries to meet the green energy promises of customers such as Apple. The paper continues: “The comments from chief executive Kenichiro Yoshida underscore the pressures Japanese businesses are under to erase the carbon footprint of their manufacturing facilities as Apple, Facebook and other technology groups seek to shift their global supply chains to 100% renewable power.” While Japan recently pledged to become carbon neural by 2050, the government “has yet to outline specific steps to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, which increased sharply after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011”, the FT says. At the same time, Reuters reports that “Japan’s ruling party will urge the government to lay out a big, decade-long spending programme to promote green investment”. A draft seen by the newswire urges the government to create a fund with a size “comparable to global standards” that supports companies investing in green technology. The draft adds that “by deploying all policy means available, the public and private sectors must work together to achieve zero carbon emission in 2050,“, and calls for deregulation and tax breaks to promote green investment. The proposal, subject to change after further deliberations within the party, is set to be finalised later today, the outlet notes. For more on Japan’s energy policy, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth country profile.
“The election of Joe Biden as president signals a return to sanity in the federal government’s approach to climate change,” says an editorial in the LA Times. He’s “off to a good start” with the appointment of John F Kerry as a special climate diplomat, the paper says, but “any measure of success will require more than a change in administrations”. A change in public will is also needed, the editorial says, “because limiting the worst consequences of global warming will be expensive and require sacrifices as we fundamentally alter how we produce and consume energy”. There is a “long list” of “necessary steps for the new president to take to protect the environment and confront climate change”, the paper says. One of these steps is to “resurrect the Environmental Protection Agency as a regulator rather than an agent in undoing necessary protections, broadly restoring the government’s role in protecting public health from the dangerous excesses of polluters”. But, the editorial concludes, “the most significant role Biden can play as president is to try to resurrect the US as a serious world leader in combating climate change, and to propel us down an irreversible path toward a safer and more sustainable future”. It says: “That will require some cheerleading and cajoling, but also serious science-framed vision and a significant level of political will. The vast majority of Americans already recognise the reality the world faces. Leading the way forward will be Biden’s most important challenge, and it could be his most significant legacy.”
New research uses tree rings in East Asia to reconstruct heatwaves and soil moisture over the past 260 years, revealing a shift towards a hotter, drier climate over the region. The paper concludes that the heatwave-drought concurrences that have been observed over inner East Asia over the past two decades were “unprecedented”, and that the trend clearly exceeds the natural variability range. Extreme episodes of hotter and drier climate are caused by a positive feedback loop between low soil moisture levels and surface warming, and the authors warn that if this warming and drying trend crosses a tipping point, the changes could be irreversible for the East Asian climate system.
A new “topical review” paper maps out 649 cases of protest movements to fossil fuel and low carbon energy projects across the globe. The paper finds that in over a quarter of the cases analysed, projects encountering place-based social resistance are cancelled, suspended or delayed. However, repression and violence were present in almost all activities, with 10% involving “assasination of activists”. Amongst low carbon energy projects, the study finds that hydropower projects result in the highest number of conflicts with concerns over social and environmental damages. The paper concludes with a caution that “decarbonisation of the economy is by no means inherently environmentally innocuous or socially inclusive”.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.