Today's climate and energy headlines:
- UK road travel falls to 1955 levels as Covid-19 lockdown takes hold
- Oil prices slide 7% after producers' meeting is postponed
- North Atlantic's capacity to absorb CO2 overestimated, study suggests
- Petrol SUV owners face tax rise to boost feeble electric car sales
- Could a better, fairer and low-carbon society to take shape when the coronavirus lockdown ends?
- Global rangeland production systems and livelihoods at threat under climate change and variability
- Warming enhances carbon dioxide and methane fluxes from Red Sea seagrass (Halophila stipulacea) sediments
The Guardian reports that the coronavirus outbreak has “brought Britain to a near standstill, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, to levels not seen since 1955”. It adds: “All forms of travel have plunged in urban areas. Walking, cycling and car and van journeys are all down by about three-quarters, while bus numbers have fallen by 60%. The number of large lorries has declined by just 40% as essential supplies continue to be transported…The empty streets have already resulted in big drops in air pollution, which is likely to reduce early deaths from lung and heart conditions…Some experts suggest that people who have learned how to work effectively from home may continue to do so for a day or two a week after the Covid-19 crisis is over. This could help tackle the climate emergency, because the transport sector is the biggest emitter and the only one to have increased its emissions in recent years. Others, however, say emissions could rise again if the coronavirus lockdown causes lasting financial damage to public transport services.” Similarly, Axios notes that “the amount of gasoline American drivers are consuming dropped to levels not seen in more than 25 years, government data shows”. It continues: “When most of us are staying home and not driving, this is one of the most predictable – but nonetheless still staggering – upshots of the unfolding coronavirus crisis.” Clean Energy Wire reports that Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce is using the criss to argue that “the introduction of Germany’s national CO2 price in the transport and heating sector should be delayed by two years in order to take pressure of businesses trying to stay afloat amid the economic lockdown”.
In other Covid-19-related news, the Guardian says that “thousands of British homes will be paid to use electricity during the day for the first time, as wind and solar projects produce a surge in clean energy during the coronavirus lockdown”. It adds: “On Sunday morning, windfarms contributed almost 40% of the UK’s electricity, while solar power made up almost a fifth of the power system. Fossil fuels made up less than 15% of electricity, of which only 1.1% came from coal plants. Meanwhile, the country’s energy demand has fallen by around 10% due to the shutdown of pubs, restaurants, companies and factories across the country, leading to the lowest electricity market prices in 10 years. Households on a new breed of home energy tariff will even be paid to use electricity during the day on Sunday, because sunny weather and a brisk breeze will help generate ample clean electricity to meet the UK’s lower energy needs.”
Oil prices have once again fallen sharply today as uncertainty about global supply and demand for the fossil fuel continuing to affect the markets. Reuters says the falls are “reflecting fears of oversupply after Saudi Arabia and Russia postponed to Thursday a meeting about a potential pact to cut production”, adding: “Late last week, prices had surged, with both US and Brent contracts posting their largest weekly percentage gains on record due to hopes that OPEC [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] and its allies would strike a global deal to cut crude supply worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has cut demand and a month-long price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has left the market awash in crude. During the month, prices have plummeted as the market has waited for a plan to cut production from OPEC and its allies. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia sent a signal that a production cut deal may be ahead, potentially muting the price decline. US President Donald Trump said he will put pressure on Saudi Arabia and its allies for such a deal.” The Financial Times notes that “crude demand has fallen by roughly a third because of the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest drop in history, with the loss of more than 30m barrels of day of global demand threatening to quickly overwhelm the industry’s ability to store it”.
The Guardian reports on a new study which suggests that the North Atlantic may be a “weaker climate ally” than previously believed, because the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 has been overestimated. The newspaper adds: “A first-ever winter and spring sampling of plankton in the western North Atlantic showed cell sizes were considerably smaller than scientists assumed, which means the carbon they absorb does not sink as deep or as fast, nor does it stay in the depths for as long. This discovery is likely to force a negative revision of global climate calculations, say the authors of the Nasa-backed study, though it is unclear by how much.”
Meanwhile, Graham Readfearn has a feature in the Guardian where he speaks to scientists to assess “how much” of the Great Barrier Reef, which is experiencing yet another bleaching event, can be saved and what the best ways to do so might be: “What seems clear is that without some human intervention, the magic of the world’s greatest coral reef system will be lost.” And in a comment for the Daily Mirror, environment editor Nada Farhoud argues that “we finally have some hope” about the world’s oceans: “Thanks to the recovery of humpback whales, elephant seals and other marine species, scientists say the glory of the world’s seas could be restored within a generation…Scientists say there is now the knowledge to not only create an ocean renaissance for wildlife by 2050, but also bolster the services that the world’s people rely on, from food to coastal protection to climate stability.”
The Times reports that motorists driving big sports utility vehicles (SUVs) in the UK “face growing tax bills after a decision to calculate rates using tough new emissions tests”. It adds: “Changes to vehicle excise duty introduced this week will lead to some 4×4 owners paying as much as £1,285 more. There has been a boom in the sale of large SUVs over recent years, and owners of cars such as the Audi Q5 or Jaguar F-Pace will be hit particularly hard. There will also be new incentives to ditch combustion engine vehicles in favour of electric cars. From Monday [today], the ‘benefit-in-kind’ car tax will be scrapped for electric vehicles, potentially saving company car drivers thousands of pounds a year. The move follows concerns that continuing high sales of SUVs and the slow uptake of electric cars is hindering the government’s drive to cut emissions.” MailOnline also covers the story, while BBC News reports that new car registrations in the UK may have dropped by more than 40%, largely because of the coronavirus. This would be the “lowest level seen in March for more than two decades”, it adds.
Meanwhile, the Observer reports that “the controversial practice of setting heather-covered moorland on fire – often carried out by gamekeepers to create more attractive habitats for grouse – is now banned on more than 30 major tracts of land in northern England”. It adds: “The ban is a blow to grouse shoots, which burn older heather to make way for younger, more nutritious plants for grouse to feed on, but environmental groups say the practice harms the environment. Research by the University of Leeds has found that burning grouse moors degrades peatland habitat, releases climate-altering gases, reduces biodiversity and increases flood risk.”
There is continuing commentary reacting to the Covid-19 crisis assessing what it might mean for action on climate change. Dr Stuart Capstick of Cardiff University argues in WalesOnline: “The coronavirus pandemic can appear relevant to climate action for two linked reasons. First, because it reveals how quickly and urgently changes to our lives and societies can occur; and second, because the lockdowns and restrictions around the world are leading directly to lower emissions from many activities. We should be very careful in drawing conclusions or extrapolating to the future, however…Is there an argument then for saying that the profound changes that have arrived in our lives represent in some ways a ‘good thing’? The answer to this question is an unequivocal, categorical no. We cannot disregard or misrepresent the circumstances that underpin these events.” In the Independent, Eli Mitchell-Larson, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, and Kaya Axelsson, vice president of the Oxford Student Union, write that these “two crises are borne of the same human failing: our inability to act now to forestall future consequences”. They continue: “Both require a swift, comprehensive response, but their severity and duration vary widely…Where the impacts of Covid-19 are rapid and easily identifiable, climate damage is gradual and multifaceted. Many scientists have criticised governments’ Covid-19 responses as slow or inadequate. But the response to climate change has been even more negligent by comparison, the damage more permanent…Don’t let the lessons of coronavirus go unheeded. We could have made modest investments to avert a pandemic years ago – we didn’t. We can avoid the more severe impacts of climate change if we start decarbonising now, and our response to the pandemic is an important place to start.” In the Intercept, economist Charles Komanoff and author Christopher Ketcham write: “Is it cruel to point approvingly to the steep reduction in carbon emissions now unfolding, given the skyrocketing deaths, lost livelihoods, and widespread privation? And won’t the reductions be negated as the virus is tamed and emissions come roaring back? No and no.” And BusinessGreen reporter Cecilia Keating observes that “many green businesses and campaigners will be hoping that any further support packages can both tackle short term financial stresses and more closely align with the UK’s long term climate goals”.
Meanwhile, an editorial in the Financial Times says the “oil price shock is nothing to celebrate”, adding: “There are growing signs of an acknowledgement of the need for co-ordinated cuts but markets will need clarity before prices stabilise. An extended period of volatility may accelerate debate about the merits of a shift away from oil to cleaner fuels. But in the meantime, it is hardly what a struggling global economy needs.” In the Guardian, veteran climate campaigner Bill McKibben says that “Big Oil is using the coronavirus pandemic to push through the Keystone XL pipeline”. In the Sun, columnist Trevor Kavanagh argues that: “We need reliable supply lines for food, medication, energy, science. We must revive fracking, rely less on imported fuel — and shake up the bureaucratic ‘Blob’ whose culpable negligence has left us exposed to catastrophe. But unless we act decisively now to save our economy and our kids’ future, we will have nothing left in the kitty to fight the next catastrophe.” And the Times reports on a LinkedIn post by BP’s new chief executive Bernard Looney in which he says: “Recently I have been asked whether the pandemic – combined with the breakdown in the OPEC+ alliance – means that we are going to abandon or water down our ambition to ‘get to net zero by 2050 or sooner and to help the world do the same’. The answer is no. In fact the current crisis has reinforced my belief in reimagining energy and reinventing BP. Climate change and the drive for the world to get to net zero have not gone away…People talk about ‘the art of the possible’, the current crisis is redefining “possible” day by day. We should reflect on that next time someone says that tackling climate change is too difficult, or too costly.”
Around three quarters of the world’s rangelands could see declines in production if future global warming is extremely high, a study finds. The research also finds half of global rangeland areas are projected to experience both a decrease in mean levels of vegetation and an increase in inter-annual variability, trends both potentially harmful for livestock production. These regions include the Sahel, Australia, Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Together, these areas support 376 million people and 174m ruminant animals, the authors says.
Warming temperatures could cause red seagrass meadows to release more CO2 and methane, a study finds. In experiments, the researchers found that exposing red seagrass to temperatures up to 2C higher than in its normal range caused the plants to produce more of the greenhouse gases. The authors say: “These results add to previous research identifying Red Sea seagrass meadows as a significant source of methane, while also indicating that sub-lethal warming may lead to increased emissions of greenhouse gases from seagrass meadows, providing a feedback mechanism that may contribute to further enhancing global warming.”
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