Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Oil markets slump amid coronavirus chaos
- Great Barrier Reef watchers anxiously await evidence of coral bleaching from aerial surveys
- Study: Seeding atmosphere with sulphur dioxide may reduce global warming
- Floods and coal clashes spotlight climate threat to financial sector
- Fewer oaks, more conifers: Britain’s forests must change to meet climate targets
- Energy storage boom stalls in Europe
- The myth of silver linings
- Halving warming with stratospheric aerosol geoengineering moderates policy-relevant climate hazards
- Global solar technology optimisation for factory rooftop emissions mitigation
As the Covid-19 crisis deepens around the world, many news outlets focus on the impact on the global energy sector. Reuters says that, with markets experiencing falls again this morning, “oil prices have fallen for four straight weeks and have given up about 60% since the start of the year”. It adds: “Prices of everything from coal to copper have also been hit by the crisis, while markets in bonds and stocks enter rarely charted territory…Many oil companies have rushed to cut spending and some producers have already begun putting employees on furlough.” The Financial Times says that “at least 10% of global oil production could become uneconomic if crude prices hold at 17-year lows, piling pressure on energy companies to lower production or ‘shut-in’ projects as they battle to survive”. It continues: “Should Brent crude remain around the $25 a barrel level, revenue from 10m barrels a day of global supply will not cover the cost of production and payments to governments, according to a report from consultancy Wood Mackenzie.” Associated Press, via the New York Times, reports that “the lobbying arm of the US coal industry is asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty relief, tax cuts and other breaks to help companies ride out the financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic”. The Wall Street Journal says that “bankruptcy looms for many…in the US shale patch” and that the “coronavirus and oil-price plunge [is burying the] shale…big bet”. Bloomberg reports on the “carnage” in the airline sector: “Airlines across the globe, estimated to be facing more than $100bn in lost revenue this year, are being forced to make unprecedented groundings and furloughing staff. Though large carriers should have adequate liquidity to ride out the crisis through June, smaller and less liquid operators may collapse without more support from shareholders and governments, according to Moody’s Investors Service.” A separate Bloomberg article says that “the world is close to running out of space to store all the fuel that jets are no longer burning” It adds: “Only about 20% of land-based storage for the product remains – about 50m barrels.”
The Washington Post says that, in light of the coronavirus crisis, “US lawmakers have been urged to reshape the economy toward lower carbon emissions that scientists say are critical if the world is going to effectively combat climate change”. It adds: “Environmental groups, climate scientists, solar and wind and battery industries, and others are saying that this moment, catastrophic as it appears to be for the economy, could offer a chance to incentivise fundamental shifts through a combination of direct spending, new tax credits for renewable energy, electric vehicles or appliances, and tough conditions for reviving fossil fuel firms or fuel-gobbling airlines.” Another Bloomberg article note that “coronavirus and climate change could stretch Fema [US Federal Emergency Management Agency] past its limit”, adding that “staffing shortfalls at the US disaster-response agency could impair its ability to tackle a pandemic on top of extreme weather events”. It quotes one official saying: “We have to hope we don’t get a hurricane, we don’t get a tsunami somewhere. Let’s hope we don’t have the flooding in the Midwest.”
The Observer covers a new reports from UN World Water Development which warns that poor water infrastructure is a greater risk than coronavirus and that climate change means more areas of the world will see stress on their water supplies. CNBC focuses on how “the pandemic’s unintended climate impact offers a glimpse into how countries and corporations are equipped to handle the slower-moving but destructive climate change crisis”. But it warns: “So far, researchers warn that the world is ill-prepared.” Finally, the Times of Israel notes how the “coronavirus [has] kick[ed] global warming off the public agenda”.
The Guardian reports that the full impact of coral bleaching across the Great Barrier Reef “will become clearer this week as aerial surveys of hundreds of reefs are completed in the bottom two thirds of the world’s biggest reef system”. It adds: “An aerial survey carried out last week over almost 500 individual reefs between the Torres Strait and Cairns revealed some severe bleaching of corals closer to shore, but almost none on outer reefs…Scientists fear those corals could be found to have been badly bleached, as they are less used to higher temperatures and had escaped major impacts in 2016 and 2017…In February, average sea surface temperatures on the reef were 1.25C above normal and the highest on record going back to 1900.” Last year, Carbon Brief published an interactive feature about the Great Barrier Reef and climate change.
A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters has concluded, reports UPI, that “seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur dioxide could reduce climate change – but only if applied sparingly”. UPI adds: “Simulations indicate that a layer of aerosol particles applied to the earth’s upper atmosphere by aircraft could reduce average global temperatures, at what researchers call a reasonable cost of several billion dollars per year…Questions remain, though, regarding region-by-region changes in temperature and water availability, as well as how effective it could be – researchers say it is just one tool that would need to be used to combat temperature rise on Earth. The also study suggests that an excess of “solar bioengineering” could have a destructive effect.“ Axios quotes the lead author Peter Irvine at University College London: “When used at the right dose and alongside reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, stratospheric aerosol geoengineering could be useful for managing the impacts of climate change.” In 2018, Carbon Brief published an in-depth explainer on solar geoengineering.
The Financial Times covers a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute which concludes that “banks have been quick to capitalise on rising demand for sustainable financial products, such as green bonds, but slower to account for the danger of stranded assets and mispriced risk on their balance sheets”. McKinsey Global says that the real estate and mortgage markets are “an area of particular concern”. The FT adds: “With increased flood risk and property devaluations comes the danger of mortgage defaults. Many homeowners have no flood insurance and will be exposed. Extreme weather and flooding can also affect people’s livelihoods and ability to get to work and pay their debts.”
Meanwhile, E&E News, via Scientific American, reports on new research which shows that “small levels of global warming can increase the likelihood of extreme events”, which has “prompting scientists to question how accurately disasters in the recent past can be used to predict extreme events today”. It adds: “A study published…in Science Advances suggests that some research attributing climate change to individual disasters has underestimated the probability of certain extremes in the last decade. That’s especially true of unprecedented hot and wet events. That’s because researchers were basing their analyses on a historical study period extending only up to the year 2005, said author Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. As it turns out, the warming that’s occurred since then has had a big impact on global extreme events.”
The Observer has a news feature about the UK’s tree-planting ambitions. It says that “a leading expert is…arguing that if the UK is serious about offsetting its CO2 emissions it must plant tens of millions of trees from imported species on open land”. It adds: “John Healey, professor of forest sciences at Bangor University, says that relying on indigenous species such as oak and beech will make it impossible for the government to hit its climate goals. Britain will have no choice, he says, but to engage with the commercial sector in large-scale planting of imported conifers, despite fears of the impact on habitats and wildlife. Such a move risks incurring public anger.” Prof Healey is quoted as saying: “People and politicians have got to face up to the fact that the vast majority of this tree planting, if it’s to occur at the scale they have talked about, is going to have to come from commercial investments, and forest and environmental policy has got to avoid getting in the way of that unnecessarily.” Last week, Carbon Brief published as in-depth Q&A about the tree planting in the UK, with a section examining the options regarding the choice of species.
The Guardian reports that Europe’s energy storage boom “stalled last year due to a slowdown in large-scale schemes designed to store clean electricity from major renewable energy projects, according to the European Association for Storage of Energy (Ease)”. It adds: “A new study by consultants Delta-EE for Ease found that the European market grew by a total of 1 gigawatts per hour in 2019, a significant slowdown compared with 2018, when the energy storage market exceeded expectations to grow by 1.47GWh…The global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus is likely to delay policies supporting clean energy technologies as well as hit the supply chain which could see the rate of battery installations fall by 4% globally, according to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.”
Separately, the Observer has a feature, which asks: “Is hydrogen the solution to net-zero home heating?” It begins by saying that “a switch from natural gas to hydrogen, one of three proposals for greener energy, has experts divided”. It continues: “ Technological and practical hurdles exist because there is no blueprint for such a conversion: there is nowhere in the world that supplies pure hydrogen to homes and businesses. The UK would have to pioneer everything…Whole streets would be converted at a time…The truth is that all options for us to decarbonise our heating systems will require significant disruption and cost. And while government continues to deliberate, the clock ticks towards 2050.”
There is a wide range of comment focused on how the coronavirus crisis might interact with efforts to tackle climate change. James Murray, editor of BusinessGreen, writes: “Right now, as the worst pandemic in over a century sweeps the globe stretching health systems and economies to breaking point, there are no silver linings. Indeed, the search for them, while instinctively understandable and psychologically comforting, could prove to be counterproductive…Falling emissions driven by economic distress are rarely sustainable, and easily reversible. Enforced systems change, imposed without public consent, will never last. More important still, the biggest threat to a net-zero transition that is fast winning the economic argument remains a culture war backlash against accelerating decarbonisation…The green business movement and wider climate community can win a culture war, but there is no need to give your opponent ammunition. Stop it. It is true that in the longer term, once the crisis has passed, as it eventually must, some silver linings may materialise. But it is critical to remember this is no more than a possibility. It is in no way inevitable.” An editorial in the Sun says to “look on the bright side”, continuing: “Venice canals are the clearest they’ve been in 60 years. Emissions of the planet-heating gas CO2 are falling sharply. And since Chinese energy producers cut down on burning fossil fuels, the country looks set to avoid thousands of deaths from air pollution.” The historian Antony Beevor, writing in the Mail on Sunday, says: “Are we facing a ‘perfect storm’ with medical, environmental and economic crises coming together? The extreme weather effects manifested during the past 12 months, from accelerated glacier melt, savage storms and the catastrophic fires in Australia, indicate a tipping point which cannot be ignored even when we are preoccupied by Covid-19. To make a serious dent in reducing carbon emissions worldwide, do we need to move towards a regime of energy-rationing – almost a form of ‘war socialism’?” And writing on Swiss bank Lombard Odier’s website, Dimitri Zenghelis from the University of Cambridge says this crisis “presents an opportunity to stimulate the economy by putting capital to good use in financing a necessary and cost-effective green transition while stimulating the economy”.
Bill McKibben in the New Yorker says: “In an ideal world, we’d use this moment to quickly enact a Green New Deal, employing all the suddenly unemployed Americans in building out our renewable-energy system and laying the high-speed rail tracks that would help curtail the need for short-haul aviation”. He lists five principles for “just” Covid-19 relief and stimulus, before concluding: “Our goal can’t be simply a return to the status-quo ante, because that old normal was driving a climate crisis that will eventually prove every bit as destructive as a pandemic. With just a little courage from Democratic legislators, we could actually be building a world that is safer on every front.” In the Financial Times, Nick Butler argues “recapturing attention will not be easy but it will be necessary”, adding: “Two practical approaches would match the mood of the moment and help restore lost momentum. The first is to accept the urgent need for international co-ordination of policy in key areas…The second thing to do is to shift the focus from the setting of goals for 2050 to what can be done over the next decade – 2050 is beyond the horizon of any government, while 2030 is within measurable sight.” In Grist, senior staff writer Yvette Cabrera says: “As we fight this pandemic, we should remember that the greater battle against global warming is still ahead, and that the same environmental degradation that may have led us to this outbreak is poised to lead to a more extreme public health crisis as climate change accelerates.” Jennifer Wallace, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge, in the New Statesman argues that “to contend with the climate crisis, humanity must look to the dramas of ancient Greece”. On the RealClimate blog, Nasa’s Dr Gavin Schmidt writes: “Luck drives the specific potency of the virus, it’s incubation period and lethality, but societal decisions determined the preparation (or lack thereof), the health care system design or capacity (or lack thereof), and governmental responses (adequate or not). Indeed, every possible future can only be reached by a specific track of what is (the science) and what we do about it (the policy). That is no different with climate as it is with pandemics. There is no possible future in which no-one made any decisions.” Richard Black, the director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) writes for BusinessGreen that “when Covid-19 is sorted, climate change will still be there”, but he says there is “no easy decision” about whether to postpone COP26 in Glasgow, continue as normal or “go virtual”.
Meanwhile, some publications carry the views of climate sceptics. In the Sunday Times, Jeremy Clarkson says: “Friends of the Earth are delighted, saying that this shows ‘many of us can live and work in completely different ways’. Of course, we could explain to our idiotic green friends that thousands and thousands of people are dying. But let us not forget that eco-ists have been calling for a Thanos-level cut in the world’s population for years. In 2018, their spiritual leader, Sir Attenborough, said ‘our population growth has to come to an end’. So, a virus that kills 10% or 20% of us? That’s something the greens would welcome. Especially if it’s essentially a cull of the old and the sick. This coronavirus business, then, is their idea of a wet dream.” In the Sunday Telegraph, Tom Welch notes how the virus “leaves many contemporary obsessions looking extraordinarily decadent”. He lists plastic bag bans and reusable cups, as well as “all the faddish projects that, until just a few weeks ago, were animating our politics”, such as the UK’s HS2 rail project. In the Toronto Sun, columnist Lorrie Goldstein claims the the world “gambled on the wrong threat – climate change”.
Halving the amount of global warming by releasing aerosols into the stratosphere in order to reflect away sunlight could also moderate other climate hazards associated with rainfall, a new study finds. Releasing reflective aerosols is one proposed method of “solar geoengineering”, an umbrella term for a group of hypothetical technologies that would reflect away sunlight in order to lower warming. Using models, the authors find that carrying out aerosol release globally would lead to 1.3% of the world’s land area seeing an exacerbation of a change in water availability.
Using a mixture of rooftop solar panels to generate electricity for the purpose of heating factories could help the industrial sector to slash its greenhouse gas emissions, a study finds. The industrial sector currently consumes around 32% of the world’s final energy demand, most in the form of heat, according to the authors. “Another interesting finding of this study was that greenhouse gas emissions mitigation potential stems largely from where the solar collectors were manufactured,” the authors say.
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