Today's climate and energy headlines:
- The Senate’s stimulus bill is full of disappointments for climate advocates
- Global coal plant development fell for 4th year running in 2019 – research
- Wildflowers moving north as climate changes, citizen survey shows
- Dakota Access pipeline: court strikes down permits in victory for Standing Rock Sioux
- Why we won't avoid a climate catastrophe
- Flooding will get worse if we continue to invest in fossil fuel companies
- Is it time to postpone the 2020 climate summit?
- Forests: Carbon sequestration, biomass energy, or both?
- Warmer climate projections in EC-Earth3-Veg: the role of changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations from CMIP5 to CMIP6
The US senate has approved a $2tn rescue package in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Bloomberg reports, saying that whatever climate advocates had been hoping to see “the bill agreed to by the Senate in the wee hours of Wednesday morning wasn’t it”. It continues: “The wind and solar industry asked for extension of tax credits and other supportive provisions. They were cut out entirely.” The piece notes that further stimulus measures will come, quoting one expert saying: “We did it in 2009. We can do it again now and clean energy really needs to be a part of that.” The Hill says the package moved ahead “free of controversial efforts to bolster the oil industry or measures to reduce the carbon footprint of the airline industry that threatened to spark protests on both sides of the aisle”. According to Reuters, the bill includes a “big rescue” package for airlines, worth $58bn, half in the form of grants. A Reuters piece published ahead of the vote sets out what was in the $2tn stimulus package, including $25bn in grants for airlines and $4bn for cargo carriers, as well as support for other large businesses. It says: “The US government could get stock or other equity in return.” The Washington Post says the bill would provide $114bn “to prop up faltering transportation networks”, including airports, railways and city transit agencies. Axios looks at how the bill will affect the energy sector, saying that it omits a $3bn Trump administration request to buy roughly 77m barrels of oil, a plan that it says Democrats called a “bailout” for the oil industry. Reuters cites “sources” saying that the US Department for Energy will look to get around this move by buying oil out of its existing budget. Another Reuters piece published before the bill was adopted reports on failed efforts by the wind and solar industry to include tax credit changes in the stimulus measures.
The New York Times reports that the pandemic has failed to slow the Trump administration’s plans to roll back environmental regulations, including a measure to weaken car efficiency standards.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the Polish government has said the coronavirus pandemic will make it more difficult for the country to meet its EU climate goals for 2020. It adds that Poland is the only country yet to commit to the bloc’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Poland’s climate ministry is quoted as telling the newswire: “As a consequence of this crisis our economies will be weaker, companies will not have enough funds to invest, completion of some important energy projects may be delayed or even suspended.” Reuters adds: “Poland has already said the EU should scrap its emissions trading scheme or exempt Poland from the scheme. Some diplomats in Brussels have signalled the need to rethink climate plans because of the economic turmoil.” Bloomberg reports that an EU auction of carbon permits for airlines has failed, the second such failure in a week as energy demand, demand for permits and prices continue to slide.
In other news related to the pandemic, Reuters reports that Canadian oil companies are asking the government for loans and grants “to help them survive the twin shocks of Covid-19 spread and a crude price war”. It notes: “Aiding oil companies would be the wrong move in light of climate change, and workers should get the support instead, dozens of environment, health and other groups said in a joint letter to [Canadian prime minister Justin] Trudeau on Monday.”
There are multiple reports of oil and other energy firms cutting spending plans for the year in response to events. Reuters reports that Italian energy group Eni will cut its capital spending plans by a quarter this year, adding that the changes “would mainly hit its core business of looking for oil and gas”. Axios reports that Norwegian oil firm Equinor “is the latest oil giant to cut back amid coronavirus price decline”. Another Axios piece says oil demand could fall by as much as 20% over the next few weeks due to the pandemic, citing the chief executive of oil trader Vitol. The Financial Times reports that Indian oil firm Vedanta is, nevertheless, “press[ing] on with plan[s] to double oil production”. A Reuters feature explores “10 signs the oil industry is bent out of shape”. And the Financial Times reports US efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to “end [the] oil price war”. It notes that the kingdom is due to host a virtual gathering of G20 leaders today, to discuss “a co-ordinated global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its human and economic implications”. Bloomberg also reports that the pandemic is “starting to hit usually safe utility earnings” as a result of falling electricity demand.
Several publications report that air pollution levels are falling as a result of lockdown measures designed to tackle the pandemic. The Independent says satellite data shows nitrogen dioxide emissions, which come from vehicles and industry, have dropped over European cities. MailOnline has a similar report, with a second story saying air pollution has halved in London, Rome and Milan. Axios reports that mobile tracking data “shows just how much travel has dropped off” in countries including the US.
A number of comment pieces continue to opine on the coronavirus pandemic response and climate change. In the Washington Post, Spain’s minister of foreign affairs Arancha González Laya says: “We live in a world of dazzling new technologies, yet our global governance mechanisms are blatantly outdated. We have been unable to manage some of the greatest challenges of our time, such as climate change or the rise of inequality, in an effective manner. Our primary responsibility right now is to the health and well-being of our citizens. This is what the Spanish government is focused on. However, if we are to prevent new crises like this one, work should start right now to build a better-governed world.” In the Miami Herald, Susan Steinhauser says climate change “requires the same global urgency as the coronavirus pandemic”. For Vox, David Roberts sets out what a “just and sustainable response to coronavirus” would look like. And writing in BusinessGreen, Ben Caldecott “reflects on how a fixation on short-run cost optimisation has resulted in economic systems and business models that are not sufficiently resilient to shocks”. S&P Global reports: “As climate focus wavers, advocates eye Covid-19 stimulus to boost green growth.”
Finally, BBC News and the Guardian report on calls for those in self-isolation to help digitise historical rainfall data in a bid to improve records that are used in climate change modelling. Bloomberg reports that the pandemic has failed to disrupt satellite missions “essential to tracking environmental changes”. And Axios reports that Bill Gates fears the pandemic will slow innovation efforts needed to tackle climate change.
The global capacity of coal-fired power stations under construction or in earlier phases of development fell for the fourth year in a row in 2019, Reuters reports, picking up Global Energy Monitor’s (GEM’s) annual report on the sector. Compared to a year earlier, there was a 16% fall in this coal pipeline in 2019, it says. Referring indirectly to Carbon Brief analysis published in February, Reuters adds that coal use needs to fall by around 80% by 2030 if global warming is to be limited to 1.5C. The newswire notes that, according to GEM, a total of 13 gigawatts (GW) of capacity under construction has been delayed so far this year due to the coronavirus. The Times of India also reports the GEM findings, picking out the news that: “On the brighter side, a staggering 47.4 gigawatts (GW) [of] coal-fired projects at different stages were cancelled in [India] last year. On the darker side, 8.8GW of new coal-fired capacity has entered the under-construction phase, all of which is reliant on significant public funding.” The Sydney Morning Herald also has the story. Carbon Brief has updated its map of the world’s coal-fired power stations, which is based on GEM’s Global Coal Plant Tracker database.
Wildflowers in the UK, including wild orchids, are moving northwards as temperatures rise, the Press Association reports. The findings “already show the impact of a warming world on the UK’s plants”. They come from the National Plant Monitoring Scheme, the newswire says, based on data from 15,000 surveys by “volunteer citizen scientists”. The Times says wild orchids have moved “hundreds of miles northwards in response to climate change”. The Daily Telegraph says that while some species are moving northwards, “scientists warn droughts threaten plants in the south”. It adds: “[T]he results from the monitoring scheme also show a rise in species able to cope with drought.” The Independent and MailOnline also have the story.
Several outlets report the news that the Dakota Access pipeline in the US has, as the Guardian puts it, “been thrown into question after a federal court on Wednesday struck down its permits and ordered a comprehensive environmental review”. The Guardian adds: “The US army corps of engineers was ordered to conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS), after the Washington DC court ruled that existing permits violated the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa).” It explains that the 1,200 mile pipeline, which is designed to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois, was completed in June 2017 after it received expedited permission from the Trump administration. The New York Times describes the ruling as a “significant victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe”. It continues; “The ruling by US District Judge James E Boasberg found that the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment are likely to be highly controversial” and that the federal government had not done an adequate job of studying the risks of a major spill or whether the pipeline’s leak detection system was adequate.” The Hill, InsideClimate News, Reuters and DeSmog also have the story, with the latter noting that the judge has indicated he will now move to consider whether to shut down current flows of oil while the environmental review takes place.
Writing for National Geographic as part of a special issue marking the upcoming 50th “Earth Day” on 22 April, Elizabeth Kolbert sets out a pessimistic view on the world’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change. She notes how even as the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, a news anchor in the US was reporting on the risk from the rising greenhouse effect. Since then, Kolbert notes, global oil consumption has doubled. While she says that “[i]nventions I can’t begin to imagine are doubtless on the way,” Kolbert adds that this will not be enough, because “climate change is a special kind of problem” requiring global emissions to fall to zero. She continues: “[T]he tremendous boom in wind and solar that’s under way has not reduced our use of fossil fuels, because we keep demanding more and more energy. Even as the impacts of climate change become increasingly vivid, global emissions continue to rise.” Offering an optimistic take on the prospects for tackling climate, Emma Marris writes in the same National Geographic special issue about how air quality has improved since Earth Day 1970, soon after which the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed. She writes: “What gives me hope? We already have the knowledge and technology we need to feed a larger population, provide energy for all, begin to reverse climate change, and prevent most extinctions. The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets…Just as in 1970, the electric crackle of cultural change is once again in the air. I believe we will build a good 2070.” Separately, National Geographic editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg explains why the Earth Day special chose to explore two “starkly different futures for the Earth in 50 years”, set out by Kolbert and Marris and marked by a “verdant Earth” on the magazine’s front cover and a “browner Earth” on the back cover. Goldberg writes: “It’s impossible to know who is right. The stories in this issue reflect divergent realities. When I read about the young people taking charge of the environmental movement, I feel buoyed. Then I see Pete Muller’s photos of a scarred landscape we will never get back.” Other pieces in the National Geographic special issue include a timeline showing “50 years of progress – and setbacks – since the first Earth Day”, a graphic on “which cities will feel the brunt of climate change” and a photo feature introducing young environmental activists from around the world.
Writing in the Times Red Box, Conservative MP David Warburton writes about the recent UK floods, including those in his Somerset constituency in 2014-15. “Teams of scientists then trawled through the data which showed – somewhat unsurprisingly – that these devastating floods were made more likely by our continued greenhouse gas emissions.” He adds that “recent data shows that global heating has already contributed to a 40% increase in extreme rainfall in the UK” and continues: “It’s clear that the impact of climate change has not just arrived on our doorstep, but intends to make itself a permanent guest. This is why the Conservative government has enshrined the principle of net-zero carbon emissions before 2050 in law.” Reflecting on the move by MPs to shift 5% of their pension fund investments into “building solar and wind farms across the world”, Warburton says: “As public awareness and pressure grows, there is an increasingly urgent case that we should invest only in companies whose plans align with the principle of keeping global heating below 1.5C.”
A comment for Inter Press Service News Agency by Felix Dodds and Michael Strauss discusses the question of this year’s COP26 UN climate summit, due to be held in Glasgow in November, but now in doubt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “The agenda of COP26 is deep and urgent,” the authors write, pointing to matters including country commitments to raise ambition the global commitment to provide $100bn of climate finance each year by 2020. Given this urgency, they say “it would seem more necessary than ever to follow through with the November COP26 schedule”. But they add: “And yet. The world faces a sudden major pandemic that will impact all countries and affect all citizens. Millions will likely become ill and thousands will likely die. The focus of all countries is on containing the COVID 19 virus – as it should be.” They conclude: “Many respected voices currently arguing against a postponement are understandably concerned that any delay will take the pressure off governments to keep building on their commitments. It’s a valid fear. The answer is to not take the pressure off governments. Yes, postpone the meeting, but instead of a full COP in November in Glasgow, the parties can schedule an additional special high-level Preparatory Meeting, on those same days in November, in Bonn where the UNFCCC is housed…The full COP26 in Glasgow can then be rescheduled in 2021. While it might be possible to schedule it for Spring of 2021, the more realistic and likely option would be to simply move the current sequence of 2020 meetings ‘June in Bonn. October Rome’ to the same calendar in 2021.”
The expanded use of wood for bioenergy as a form of climate change mitigation “will result in net carbon benefits”, a new study says. The research “clarifies [the] controversy” around bioenergy, the authors say, and “illustrates the impacts of woody biomass demand on forest harvests, prices, timber management investments and intensity, forest area, and the resulting carbon balance under different climate mitigation policies”. Increased bioenergy demand “increases forest carbon stocks thanks to afforestation activities and more intensive management relative to a no-bioenergy case”, the study finds. The authors conclude: “Incentivising both wood-based bioenergy and forest sequestration could increase carbon sequestration and conserve natural forests simultaneously.”
Climate projections in the sixth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) are generally warmer than in CMIP5 partly because of “changes in the forcing datasets” that set out future concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs), new research suggests. Assessing the EC-Earth3-Veg climate model with moderate (SSP2-4.5) and very high (SSP5-8.5) scenarios of future emissions, the study shows that “50% or more of the temperature increase from CMIP5 to CMIP6 at the end of the century is due to changes in the prescribed GHG concentrations”. The authors note that “the implication is that CMIP5 and CMIP6 projections for the 21st century are difficult to compare with each other not only as models differ but also as the forcing conditions are not equal”. Carbon Brief published an in-depth explainer on CMIP6 in December last year.
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