Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Trump's Paris withdrawal was 'reckless' – John Kerry
- Biden administration suspends federal oil and gas permitting
- Legal bid to stop UK building Europe's biggest gas power plant fails
- The Times view on Boris Johnson’s big moment at the COP26 summit: Climate Test
- Defences in demand as climate change makes Britain even wetter
- Global maps of twenty-first century forest carbon fluxes
John Kerry – US president Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate change – has said the US will now push for rapid action after four years of “reckless behaviour” under Donald Trump, reports BBC News. Speaking remotely at a meeting in Italy of the B20 – a forum for business leaders to advise G-20 nations – Kerry said: “We know with pain and some embarrassment that, for the last four years, the leader of our country chose to pull out of the [Paris] Agreement and, frankly, engage in reckless behaviour, with respect to the future of people all over the world.” Having re-applied to join the Paris Agreement, the US will now move forward with “humility and ambition” in global negotiations, Kerry said. With the COP26 climate summit coming up in Glasgow in November, Kerry warned that failure is “simply not an option”, reports Bloomberg, adding: “We really have the world’s last, most important opportunity to come together to raise ambition and to take the next step from Paris.” He warned that a “wholesale transformation of the global economy” if the world is to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, reports the Guardian. But “very few are on a trajectory of the steep reductions needed to meet even current goals”, he noted. Kerry tweeted that Biden has “restor[ed] America’s credibility and commitment” by moving to rejoin the Paris deal, reports the Press Association and that the move set “a floor, not a ceiling, for our climate leadership. Working together, the world must and will raise ambition.” The Independent and Hill also have the story.
At the same time, Reuters reports that Kerry spoke to COP26 president Alok Sharma yesterday. A UK statement said “the pair agreed that their respective officials should work together closely” and that “they looked forward to speaking regularly in the run up to G7 and COP26, and to meeting in person at the soonest possibility.”
The Biden administration has temporarily suspended oil and gas leasing and permitting on federal lands and waters while it evaluates the legal and policy implications of the programme, reports Reuters. The newswire describes the move as the “first step” in delivering on Biden’s campaign promise to ban all new federal drilling permits. It adds: “Federal leases account for close to 25% of the nation’s crude oil output, making them a big contributor to energy supply but also to America’s greenhouse gas emissions.” The order, signed by acting secretary Scott de la Vega on Wednesday, bars the department from pushing ahead with any new leasing or drilling permits for 60 days, reports the Hill, and also blocks any new major mining actions. In addition, Bloomberg reports that a separate order from Biden is poised to suspend the sale of oil and gas leases on federal land, which “accounts for about a tenth of US supplies”. The outlet continues: “The moratorium, which would also freeze coal leasing, is set to be unveiled along with a raft of other climate policies next week…The move would block the sale of new mining and drilling rights across some 700m acres of federal land. It could also block offshore oil and gas leasing, though details are still being developed.”
Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson described the US rejoining the Paris Agreement as “hugely positive news”, reports the Evening Standard. In a tweet, Johnson said: “In the year we host COP26 in Glasgow, I look forward to working with our US partners to do all we can to safeguard our planet.” A source tells the paper that Downing Street is “very excited” about the Biden Administration’s words on climate change, predicting the US will “be a crucial voice” at the COP. Other leaders, including European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, also welcomed the US back to the accord, reports the Press Association. However, Guterres also warned that “there is a very long way to go”, adding: “The climate crisis continues to worsen and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5C and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.” The Wall Street Journal notes that “reasserting global leadership – and meeting the US’s commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – promises to be challenging”. And Pete Betts – former lead climate negotiator for the UK and EU – tells the Independent that it is unlikely that Biden will be able to immediately supply the UN with a more ambitious climate plan. He says: “There are different views on how long it will take them to put their own commitment together…But it will probably take some months.” The Independent also reports that Biden’s presidency “turns up the heat on Australia” to set climate targets. The Independent, New York Times and Wall Street Journal all have explainers on the agreement, while the Financial Times has a piece on what the US decision means for climate policy.
Not everyone was pleased with Biden’s decisions on his first day, which included rejecting a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and placing a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, notes Inside Climate News. The Washington Post reports that Republicans in Congress “voiced displeasure at both cancelling the pipeline and reentering the Paris accord”. Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Taube – a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, and speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper – says that scrapping the pipeline “starts Biden and Canada on the wrong foot”. (Taube has previously written a piece for the paper on why Canadians should “root for another Trump term”.) DeSmog has an article looking at the wider implications of Keystone’s cancellation.
In other decisions made by Biden during his first days in office, the New York Times reports that Biden has settled on April 22 — Earth Day — as the date he will convene a summit of world leaders to discuss climate change. The paper adds: “The Climate Leaders’ Summit will be conducted largely online given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Administration officials felt that holding it virtually was preferable to potentially postponing it, two people familiar with the planning process said.” Reuters reports that Richard Glick, a Democrat, has been selected to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “where he could eventually lead the panel to consider lowering barriers for emerging clean energy technologies”. And Bloomberg reports that Biden will name Dan Utech, who worked on climate change and energy issues during the Obama years, as the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of staff. Writing in Washington Post, Ben Adler – senior editor at City & State NY – says that “every Cabinet job is about climate change now”. And the New York Times has a piece looking at what Pete Buttigieg – President Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Transportation – could do to help tackle climate change. E&E News has all the actions on climate that Biden took on Day One.
A legal bid challenging the UK government’s approval of a new gas-fired power plant has failed in the court of appeal, the Guardian reports. The challenge was brought after ministers overruled climate change objections from the planning authority, the paper explains: “The plant is being developed by Drax in North Yorkshire and would be the biggest gas power station in Europe. It could account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to lawyers for ClientEarth, which brought the judicial review.” In 2019, the planning inspectorate recommended that ministers refuse permission for the 3.6GW gas plant because it would “undermine” the government’s commitment to cutting emissions, the paper says: “However, Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy at the time of the planning application, rejected the advice and gave the project the go-ahead in October 2019.” A Drax spokesperson told the paper that the gas plant was not certain to go ahead because it depended on Drax’s investment decisions and on securing a capacity market contract from the government, which is a payment for ensuring the security of electricity supply.
In other oil and gas news, Bloomberg analysis suggests that Saudi Aramco understates its carbon footprint by as much as 50%. The outlet explains: “The Saudi oil giant excludes emissions generated from many of its refineries and petrochemical plants in its overall carbon disclosures, according to a review of public filings by Bloomberg Green. Including all such facilities might nearly double Aramco’s self-reported carbon footprint, adding as much as 55m metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent to its annual tally – or about the emissions produced by Portugal.” And EurActiv reports that the president of the European Investment Bank (EIB) has said “to put it mildly, gas is over”. At a press conference on the EIB’s annual results, Dr Werner Hoyer said: “This is a serious departure from the past, but without the end to the use of unabated fossil fuels, we will not be able to reach the climate targets.“
“As the COP26 host, Boris Johnson’s goal in Glasgow should be to deliver a deal that not only sets out ambitious targets but requires every country to show the workings of the progress it reports and sets out consequences for non-compliance,” says a Times editorial. The piece actually focuses more on the US and newly inaugurated US president Joe Biden, noting that “Biden may dearly love to lead the world in climate action, but will find himself playing catch-up just to meet the targets the US pledged in Paris in 2015”. Barack Obama had committed the US to cutting “its planet-warming emissions across the economy by about 28% from 2005 levels by 2025”, the Times says, noting that “five years later the US is only halfway to that goal”. The paper adds: “Mr Biden is expected to commit to reducing US emissions to between 40 and 50% of 2005 levels by 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 if his plans survive future political shifts.” An editorial in the Evening Standard covers similar ground, noting that “Boris Johnson views climate change as a key plank in his quest to repair relations with the new US administration”. It adds: “For the first time, we have the biggest emitters on Earth largely aligned to combat catastrophic climate change. A new US president returned the country to the Paris Climate Agreement on his first afternoon in power. The EU remains committed to tough action and China, the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, last year committed to carbon neutrality before 2060 – Beijing’s first such goal.” The editorial concludes that “we finally have the world’s most important leaders marching in the same direction. We must keep the pressure up”.
In other reaction to Biden’s first moves on climate change, Prof Daniel Schrag – who served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2017 – explains in the Boston Globe why decarbonising the energy sector will be key for the US meeting more ambitious climate targets. However, Reuters columnist John Kemp warns that history suggests that “administrations leave little imprint at macro-level on the energy system, implying both the hopes and expectations of supporters, and the anxieties of opponents, are probably exaggerated”. He explains: The energy system…consists of trillions of dollars of very long-lived assets. In most cases, assets have useful lives lasting from five years to 50 years or more before they need to be replaced, so significant turnover at the system level is very slow. The resulting inertia ensures changes occur over decades, far exceeding the four- or eight-year term of any one administration.“ The Financial Times “Energy Source” column notes that former president Donald Trump “did not derail a long-running decline in US carbon emissions from the energy sector as many had feared”. It adds: “The pandemic pushed emissions to new lows in 2020, but that is likely to be unsustainable.” And, finally, Axios notes that “falling solar prices give Biden a head start” on cutting emissions from the energy sector, and it also has a piece on the “starting place for Biden’s electric vehicle charging push”.
An “analysis” piece on the flooding in the UK at the moment, Times environment editor Ben Webster notes that “six of the UK’s 10 wettest years on record have occurred since 1998”. He continues: “The amount of rain from extremely wet days rose by 17% between the periods 1961-90 and 2008-17. Scientists generally agree that winters will become wetter as global warming increases, but they are less sure about whether there has been a significant increase in flooding in the UK.” Webster notes that “a Met Office study in 2015 found that an extended period of extreme winter rainfall in the UK – similar to that in the winter of 2013-14, when more than 10,000 homes were flooded – is now about seven times more likely owing to human-induced climate change”. But planning decisions also play a role, Prof Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, tells Webster: “We have changed the environment to put ourselves in harm’s way by building on floodplains and at-risk coastlines.” An editorial in the Daily Express argues that the recent extreme weather “is a sharp reminder that, unchecked, climate change will bring ruin to neighbourhoods across the UK”. It also says that “every effort must be made to ensure the country is resilient and ready for more storms”. In the Daily Mirror – which is one of many papers that feature UK flooding on its frontpage – environment editor Nada Farhoud reports that “it is clear extreme rainfall is already more intense, thanks to a warming atmosphere, which can absorb more moisture”. And finally, BBC News reports that the Essex Climate Action Commission has warned that number of homes at “significant” risk of flooding in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk could double to 75,000.
In related news, radio and TV broadcaster Jonathan Overend writes in the Guardian that the increase in extreme weather is already impacting sport around the world. The paper also reports the comments of Australian former rugby union star David Pocock that “we’re cooked” if the professional sporting world does not act on its moral obligation to combat climate change.
New research introduces a “geospatial monitoring framework” to map and track changes to changes in forest carbon. The researchers use ground and Earth observation data to “map annual forest-related greenhouse gas emissions and removals globally at a spatial resolution of 30 m over the years 2001-19”. The data suggests that global forests were a net carbon sink of 7.6Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, the authors say, which reflects a balance between gross carbon removals (15.6GtCO2e) and gross emissions from deforestation and other disturbances (8.1GtCO2e).
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