Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Urgent action on methane emissions could shave 0.3C off global temperatures by 2045, UN report says
- World must go beyond 'hot air' at COP26 climate summit – UK's Johnson
- China's emissions surpass all developed nations combined
- Using hydrogen fuel risks locking in reliance on fossil fuels, researchers warn
- Cumbria Council announces it is 'neutral' on fate of controversial Whitehaven coal mine
- Britain threatens to cut France out of future electricity links
- Biden’s drilling halt on federal land will benefit Middle East, says Wyoming governor
- Australia’s Macquarie announces plan to exit coal by 2024
- How to spot the difference between a real climate policy and greenwashing guff
- Increasing risk of glacial lake outburst floods from future Third Pole deglaciation
- Prolonged Siberian heat of 2020 almost impossible without human influence
A new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that rapid action on methane emissions could take 0.3C off global temperatures by 2045, the Independent says. The report warns that “atmospheric concentrations of methane are at their highest level since records began about 40 years ago”, the outlet explains, but “through a combination of measures targeted at agriculture, fossil fuel production and the waste industry, methane emissions could be slashed by 45% by the end of the decade”. The reports says this would “be necessary to help meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C by the end of the century”, the outlet adds. UNEP notes that such “rapid and significant reductions” in emissions “are possible using existing technologies and a very low cost”, says BBC News. Measures could include “plugging leaks in pipelines, stopping venting of natural gas during energy drilling, capturing gas from landfills and reducing methane from belching livestock and other agricultural sources, which is the biggest challenge”, the Associated Press notes. According to the report, a 45% cut would “each year prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73bn hours of lost labour from extreme heat, and 26m tonnes of crop losses globally”, says the Times, which adds: “The authors estimate that the monetised benefits of each tonne of methane kept out of the atmosphere come to more than £3,000.” (The Financial Times explains that methane “contributes to the creation of ozone, which inhibits crop growth.”) Lead author Prof Drew Shindell tells the Guardian: “We’re seeing so many aspects of climate change manifest themselves in the real world faster than our projections…We don’t have a lot we can do about that, other than this powerful lever on near-term climate of reducing methane. We should do this for the wellbeing of everybody on the planet over the next 20 to 30 years.” The Hill and BusinessGreen also have the story. (Last year, Carbon Brief reported on the record high methane concentrations in the atmosphere, as recorded in the Global Methane Budget.)
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said that world leaders need to come up with much more than “hot air” at the COP26 climate talks in November to tackle climate change, Reuters reports. Speaking to the UN’s Petersberg Climate Dialogue virtual summit, Johnson said: “If all that emerges from COP26 is more hot air, then we have absolutely no chance of keeping our planet cool…It must be a summit of agreement, of action, of deeds, not words. For that to happen, over the next six months, we must be relentless in our ambition and determination, laying the foundations on which success will be built.“ Johnson said he would push leaders at a Group of Seven (G7) summit he will chair in June to make firm climate commitments, the newswire adds. It reports him saying: “I’ll be seeking commitments from the G7 members to use their voices and their votes, wherever and whenever possible to support the transition to net-zero, kickstart a green industrial revolution, and build economies that withstand whatever our changing climate throws at us.” Johnson also urged wealthier countries to provide a “substantial pile of cash” to support climate vulnerable nations, in order to help boost the chances of positive talks, reports BusinessGreen. Johnson said meeting the collective $100bn-per-year climate finance target [due to have been met in 2020] was “long overdue” and that he would “not hesitate to bend the ear of my fellow leaders” on the need for them to step up to the plate, the outlet adds. It says Johnson added: “Developed nations cannot stop climate change on their own, but if we want others to leapfrog the dirty technology that did so much for us, then we have a moral and a practical obligation to help them do so.” However, Politico reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel “brushed off personal entreaties” from Johnson, insisting that Germany already offers “a fair amount and a fair contribution”. The outlet explains: “Johnson had phoned Merkel on Wednesday to implore her to follow the UK in setting a new national target for contributions to climate finance. However, Germany is already giving more than the UK, which in 2019 promised to double its giving to £11.6bn for the period from 2020 to 2025 – amounting to less than half of Germany’s current annual public contribution.” Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, tells the Independent that “the prime minister is absolutely right to prioritise pushing G7 members to ramp up their international climate finance commitments to meet promises made on this issue over a decade ago…But despite his call for leaders to put their money where their mouth is, Boris Johnson has undermined his own message through the decision to cut international aid”. At the same summit, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres reiterated that success at COP26 “rests on achieving a breakthrough on adaptation and finance”, reports the i newspaper. Guterres also called on international lending agencies such as multilateral development banks to stop financing major fossil fuel projects, reports Bloomberg, quoting him saying: “We can no longer afford big fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere…Such investments simply deepen our predicament. They are not even cost-effective.” Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that at the G7 meeting Australia was “again called upon to commit to a 2050 net-zero target and increase its near-term emissions reduction goals”. The paper adds: “A UK government official with direct knowledge of the talks in London said one of the reasons Australia was included in the so-called G7 Plus meeting was so climate could be addressed, and that pressure was brought to bear on Australia to increase its climate action.”
China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions exceeded those of all developed countries combined in 2019, reports Axios. The outlet cites new analysis from the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider based in New York. China surpassed the developed world in GHG emissions for the first time in 2019, a director at Rhodium tells Axios. The Asian nation is now responsible for more than 27% of the total global emissions, says US news network CNBC, which also covers the study. Its report stresses that the findings came after the leaders summit on climate hosted by President Biden, “during which Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated a pledge to make sure the nation’s emissions peak by 2030”. The US remains the second-largest emitter at 11%, reports the Washington Post, while “India’s share came third at 6.6%, edging the 27 nations in the European Union, which account for 6.4%”. E&E News and the Hill also have the story.
Meanwhile, Chinese scientist and entrepreneur Robin Zeng Yuqun, who owns 25% of a company that makes batteries for electric vehicles (EV), has become the richest man in Hong Kong, various media outlets report. 52-year-old Zeng’s real-time net worth stood at $34.5bn as of Wednesday, reports South China Morning Post citing Forbes. The Hong Kong-based newspaper states that “a boom in EVs has helped Zeng’s net worth grow more than 2.5 times since March 2020”. Zeng’s surging fortune reflects “intense investor interest in the energy storage technologies amid China’s newfound push to go green”, writes mainland-based financial news outlet Caixin. Another Chinese financial outlet Time-Weekly has a feature about Zeng and “the £100bn new energy empire behind him”. National Business Daily also carries the news, focusing on the growing investment poured into China’s “new energy” battery industry – due to the soaring popularity of EVs there. Zeng dethroned Hong Kong’s long-term top billionaire, Li Ka-Shing.
Elsewhere, Yang Kun, party secretary of China Electricity Council, said the acceleration of China’s economic growth, urbanisation and electrification process would push the “inelastic demand” for electricity over the next five years and beyond, reports news portal Sina. Yang proposed a “linkage mechanism” between the electricity and carbon markets to connect electricity prices with carbon prices, the report says. Finally, state-run Xinhua reports that the central government has released new rules to regulate iron and steel projects and further curb the “excessive production capacity” of the country’s iron and steel industry.
New research warns that using hydrogen-based fuels for cars and home heating risks locking in a dependency on fossil fuels, the Guardian reports. The study – led by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany – finds that, while fuels produced from hydrogen can be used as straight replacements for oil and gas and can be low-carbon, “using the electricity directly to power cars and warm houses was far more efficient”, the paper explains. It continues: “The research…calculated that producing and burning hydrogen-based fuels in home gas boilers required six to 14 times more electricity than heat pumps providing the same warmth. This is because energy is wasted in creating the hydrogen, then the e-fuel, then in burning it. For cars, using e-fuels requires five times more electricity than is needed for battery-powered cars.” Lead author Falko Ueckerdt tells the paper that “hydrogen-based fuels can be a great clean energy carrier, yet their costs and associated risks are also great…If we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up burning further oil and gas”. The i newspaper also covers the study, which is published in Nature Climate Change. And writing for Energy Monitor, Jan Rosenow – from the Regulatory Assistance Project, a global team of energy experts – says that hydrogen is not a “get out of jail free” for the gas industry. For more on hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels, see Carbon Brief‘s in-depth Q&A.
Cumbria County Council has announced it is “neutral” on the fate of a new coal mine proposed in Whitehaven, reports the i newspaper, in a move that is “likely to further diminish the chances that the project will ever get built”. The council originally granted
In other UK news, BBC News reports that “multi-billion pound plans for roads and railways in the UK are being reviewed, as travel patterns shift in response to the Covid pandemic”. The outlet continues: “The BBC has learned that civil servants are studying plans to see which are still viable…The government has been approached for comment. It hasn’t revealed details of any schemes that might potentially be cut.”
The UK is set to review its energy links with France after threats to cut off Jersey’s power supply in a row over fishing rights, reports the Daily Telegraph. It continues: “A senior Whitehall source described France’s actions as ‘outrageous’ and said the UK would have to take a more cautious view of France as an energy partner. It is understood that Britain could seek to route future giant undersea power cable projects towards the Netherlands, which it now views as a more reliable partner than France.” The paper adds that the development “could jeopardise a controversial project led by Tory donor Alexander Temerko to build a £1.1bn power cable between Hampshire and Le Havre that his company Aquind said will be able to provide enough electricity for about 5m homes”. There are also plans for new links to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, the paper notes, which could mean “imports will be able to supply a quarter of [the UK’s] electricity by 2024”. A Daily Telegraph editorial argues that the row shows that the UK “needs to develop greater resilience to external shocks via a sensible degree of self-sufficiency”. The UK “should seek to diversify supply chains”, the paper says, adding that “it is very much in the spirit of free trade to shop around for a better deal”. The Daily Mail reports the comments of Tony Lodge – a research fellow at the right-leaning thinktank, Centre for Policy Studies – who tells the paper that the UK risks becoming an “import junkie” by depending too heavily on the Continent for its electricity needs. The Financial Times “Brexit Briefing” says that “this kind of muscle-flexing is perhaps to be expected” as the UK and Europe establish a new relationship after Brexit. The article looks at carbon trading, which is says is “an example of where strategic co-operation is surely both necessary and to the advantages of both sides”. Post-Brexit the UK has created its own version of the EU’s Emission Trading System, the paper explains, but “industry experts say creating a linkage between the EU and UK schemes is vitally important because it will harmonise prices across the EU, [and limit] the risk of carbon price distortions that would do nothing to facilitate the shared commitment to achieving net-zero”.
The leader of one of America’s biggest fossil fuel-producing states has warned that the Biden administration’s limits on new oil and gas drilling on federal land will push investment offshore and only benefit Middle Eastern countries, the Financial Times reports. In an interview with the paper, Wyoming governor Mark Gordon said the US interior department’s moratorium on issuing new permits to drill on public land under its control would “send capital elsewhere”, including to private land in jurisdictions with less environmental oversight such as Texas. He added: “Ultimately, who benefits from that is going to be the Middle East.” The paper explains: “His comments reflect a brewing backlash against president Joe Biden’s actions to cut carbon from energy supplies in states where fossil fuel production supports the economy, with the federal drilling moratorium drawing fire even from Democrats. State-level opposition could undercut White House aims. Analysts disagree on how the pause on federal leases will affect energy supplies, with some saying that overall US oil production may be little changed as operators work through stockpiled drilling permits or migrate to privately held acreage.” The FT’s Energy Source column looks at Wyoming’s situation in more detail, noting that “coal, oil and gas combined account for about half of the income that goes into Wyoming’s budget”.
Elsewhere in the US, the Hill reports that energy secretary Jennifer Granholm backed wind and solar energy as likely to give the biggest “bang for your buck” as part of the Biden administration’s bid to decarbonise the power sector. E&E News looks into vice president Kamala Harris’s recent comments on climate change being a driver of migration from Central America. The New York Times reports that climate experts have warned that the Biden administration has yet to take steps that would turn his pledge to “build back better” into reality. In related comment, former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer writes in the Independent that “Biden’s climate goal is a ‘moonshot’ and we won’t get there without the private sector”, and the New York Times has a piece on Biden’s “infrastructure moonshot” and looks at whether the US can “still achieve its highest ambitions”.
The Australian investment bank Macquarie has signalled that it will stop financing coal projects by 2024, reports the Financial Times, in what the paper describes as “a symbolic move that coincided with a bitter political debate in Australia over banks’ withdrawal from the sector”. The bank said earlier today that it expected its lending exposure to coal to “run off” within three years as it outlined a climate policy to align its financing activities with global commitments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the FT says, adding that Macquarie “will continue to fund oil and gas developments”. The bank’s exposure to coal “fell to just A$100m (US$77.8m) in the financial year that ended in March, about half of what it was the previous year”, the paper notes. Last year, three of Australia’s Big Four banks signalled their intention to stop coal financing, the paper explains, “resulting in a scramble to source alternative funds for projects”. As a result, “Australia’s parliament is conducting an inquiry into the financial sector’s treatment of export industries after Keith Pitt, Australia’s minister for resources, accused banks and pension funds of ‘corporate activism’, the paper explains. In its “revamped climate policy”, Macquarie is also intending to use “its multibillion-dollar clout to pressure heavy emitters into accelerating plans to reach net-zero targets”, says the Sydney Morning Herald.
“So it’s goodbye climate deniers, hello – and you’ll pardon me for being blunt here – climate bullshitters.” So begins a piece by Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington on discerning real climate policy from “vague, distant promises of ineffective action”. A “good rule of thumb”, says Carrington, “is whether the proposal actually cuts emissions, by a significant amount, and soon, and whether the proposer is in fact making the climate emergency worse elsewhere”. The UK, for example, has a “world-beating” target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, Carrington says, but “the problem is some actual UK policies are pushing emissions up, not down: massive road building, a scrapped home energy efficiency programme and slashed electric car incentives, new oil and gas exploration, a failure to halt airport expansions and block a new coal mine (instead, the government belatedly ordered a public inquiry)”. Meanwhile, companies “are, if anything, even better bullshitters than governments”, Carrington writes, adding that “fossil fuel giants are masters” and “aviation companies are also prime purveyors of green guff”. So, “what to make of it all?‘ concludes Carrington: “Don’t think there is no real climate action: renewable energy and electric cars are accelerating rapidly. And companies’ pledges can sometimes be impressive…But until every government and corporate decision has to pass the bullshit test – does it really cut carbon now – then we are kidding ourselves if we think we are treating the climate crisis like the emergency it is.”
In related comment, an editorial in the Economist warns that targeting “net-zero” while allowing for “negative emissions” to offset the CO2 produced is “a gateway to endless fudge”. It says: “These net-zero goals do not commit a country to a specific level of emissions, but to developing ‘negative emissions’ on a scale that will cover whatever it does end up emitting. This makes what is actually being called for in terms of reduction between 2030 and 2050, or in some cases 2060, impossible to assess. It thus makes the fairness of requiring that effort from future generations impossible to judge.” While “blanket doubt is unreasonable”, net-zero thinking “is troublesome”, the outlet says, concluding that voters and activists “should insist that governments show how they will create negative emissions in just and robust ways – so, no afforestation on poor people’s land simply because you can and no double counting or leaky carbon reservoirs”.
Elsewhere in UK comment, Dr Tamsin Edwards – a senior lecturer in physical geography at King’s College London – writes in the Guardian that “sea levels are going to rise, no matter what. This is certain. But new research I helped produce shows how much we could limit the damage”. (See Carbon Brief‘s coverage of Edwards’ study.) Joss Garman, UK director of the European Climate Foundation [which funds Carbon Brief], uses his newsletter to comment on the news – reported this week in the Times – that the UK’s environment ministry has no strategy to cut emissions in the sectors it is responsible for, as part of the nation’s goal to reach net-zero by 2050. Garman writes: “What’s clear is if [the environment ministry] botches its new climate plan, the repercussions could include higher food prices, loss of precious wildlife, missing the net-zero target, or a perverse situation whereby emissions do fall within the UK’s borders but go up in other countries.” Finally, the second Guardian podcast in a special series marking 200 years of the paper looks at “climate coverage over the years, how our understanding of the science has changed and how our attitudes and politics have shifted”.
The risk of flooding in the Himalayas due to “outbursts” from glacial lakes may nearly triple by 2100, according to a new study. Using satellite imagery, researchers identified existing glacial lakes and quantified their flood risks; then, by running climate models under several emissions scenarios, they quantified potential future changes in this risk. Current flood risk is highest in the eastern Himalayas, but the emergence of new glacial lakes as the planet warms will increase the imperilled area, including introducing risk in regions that span international borders. Glacial flooding poses a “severe threat” to communities living in the Himalayas, the authors say, and the new work underscores the “urgent need for forward-looking, collaborative, long-term approaches to mitigate future impacts”.
A new study shows that the record-breaking Siberian heatwave of early 2020 would have been “practically impossible” without human-driven climate change. Researchers used climate models and historical datasets to analyse the probability that the extreme Arctic temperatures would have occurred in a world without anthropogenic warming. Extending the analysis into the future showed that the relative risk of similar events would “dramatically” increase by 2050. Widespread impacts of the high temperatures – including severe wildfires and thawing permafrost – have been “potentially linked directly or in part to the extreme heat”, the authors write, but “the impacts also depend strongly on exposure and vulnerability”. The paper is based on a rapid attribution study conducted shortly after the heatwave, which Carbon Brief covered at the time.