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Daily Briefing

24.01.2020
Today's climate and energy headlines
DAILY BRIEFING US Treasury secretary Mnuchin launches attack on Greta Thunberg
US Treasury secretary Mnuchin launches attack on Greta Thunberg

News.

US Treasury secretary Mnuchin launches attack on Greta Thunberg
Financial Times Read Article

US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin criticised Greta Thunberg yesterday, challenging the economic impact of the climate activist’s call for investors to divest completely from fossil fuels, reports the Financial Times. “Who is she? The chief economist?” Mnuchin asked a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us.” Mnuchin said many economies were moving towards more efficient and cleaner forms of energy without pressure from investors, the FT reports. “For people that call for divestment, there are significant economic issues; issues with jobs,” he said. Mnuchin later told CNBC he did not believe there were just a few years left to prevent a climate catastrophe, reports Reuters. “There are a lot of other important issues” threatening civilisation, he said, citing health and nuclear proliferation. “The youth needs to understand: climate is one issue that needs to be put in contexts with lots of other things.” Thunberg responded by tweeting: “My gap year ends in August, but it doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realise that our remaining 1.5C carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up,” reports the Hill. She included a video of a Carbon Brief chart showing how quickly emissions need to fall to meet the 1.5C limit. The Washington Post spoke to economist Gernot Wagner at New York University, who told the paper that Thunberg did not need to go much further than Economics 101 to make her case. And Vox asks Mnuchin and other Republican Party policymakers: “Why don’t you listen to what economists have to say about climate change, if you think Thunberg’s ideas are too economically destructive?” An Axios piece on the media coverage of Davos concludes that “Thunberg’s presence at Davos was great for the conference’s optics. But Trump (and his daughter) effortlessly topped the conference hierarchy”.
Meanwhile, elsewhere at the World Economic Forum, the Guardian reports that “hopes of using Davos to forge a new international consensus to tackle poverty and the climate crisis have been thwarted by the decision of the World Bank president, David Malpass, to boycott the event”. The paper continues: “To the surprise of the other multilateral institutions, Malpass turned down his invitation to attend despite being in Europe this week for the UK government’s Africa investment summit in London.” Another Axios piece says that “Big Oil often takes centre stage, but big finance is having its climate moment this year, between the 2020 presidential elections and events at Davos”. Bloomberg notes that “it took 50 years for climate change to top the Davos agenda”.

Australian bushfires to contribute to huge annual increase in global CO2
The Guardian Read Article

Australia’s bushfires are expected to contribute up to 2% of what scientists forecast will be one of the largest annual increases in atmospheric CO2 on record, the Guardian reports. The UK Met Office projects that atmospheric CO2 will average 414.2 parts per million (ppm) for 2020, peaking at 417ppm in May, the Guardian adds, adding that this year will likely see “a 2.74ppm increase above the 2019 average”. The paper notes: “Emissions from bushfires are usually considered to be climate neutral in carbon accounting, based on the assumption that forest regrowth absorbs a similar amount of CO2 as was released. But scientists increasingly warn this is likely to be optimistic as many burned areas never recovered to their pre-fire state.” Bloomberg says that estimates suggest the bushfires “will release about 900m metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – about the same emitted by all commercial aircraft in 2018”. A Met Office statement says: “A forecast of the atmospheric concentration of CO2e shows that 2020 will witness one of the largest annual rises in concentration since measurements began at Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, 1958,” reports Reuters. The Evening Standard notes that “levels are set to remain above 410ppm throughout the year for the first time.

Revealed: UK financing millions of tonnes of carbon emissions overseas
Unearthed Read Article

An investigation by Greenpeace’s Unearthed in conjunction with BBC’s Newsnight programme reveals that “a little-known UK government agency is helping to finance projects overseas that will emit 69m tonnes of greenhouse gases per year”. The UK Export Finance (UKEF), which offers loans and financial guarantees to UK companies involved in major projects around the world, is supporting “overseas fossil fuel projects it is supporting will emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 17 coal plants”, Unearthed says. It continues: “According to figures collated by Unearthed, the government could be on the hook for up to £6bn invested in fossil fuel projects around the world. UKEF has helped to fund schemes from oil wells off the coast of Brazil to oil refineries in Bahrain and Oman.” A UKEF source “defended its investments in the oil and gas sector by saying that they had helped to sustain UK jobs in a time of low oil prices”, says Unearthed. “They added that the industry is vital to the UK’s economy and energy. In the last three months, UKEF has provided £230m of support for a windfarm off the coast of Taiwan and £47.6m for two solar plants in Spain, the spokesperson added.” The investigation also uncovered evidence that “the government has explored the possibility of UKEF supporting a vast coal-powered mine in Mongolia”, Unearthed says. BBC News also has its own write-up of the story. The Independent notes that “This [69m tonnes] figure – which is said to be a ‘worst case scenario’ – is equivalent to the amount emitted by a country the size of Portugal”. The Guardian leads with another angle, saying: “More than 90% of the £2bn in energy deals struck at this week’s UK-Africa investment summit were for fossil fuels, despite a government commitment to ‘support African countries in their transition to cleaner energy’.”

David Attenborough to appear at citizens' climate assembly
The Guardian Read Article

Sir David Attenborough will address members of the public who are taking part in the UK’s first climate assembly this weekend, reports the Guardian. It continues: “The TV presenter and naturalist will appear in Birmingham, where the 110 members are meeting to address how to reduce emissions to zero by 2050, to thank them for taking part.” The assembly, which was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mail-out to 30,000 people chosen at random, will will meet for four weekends this spring, the paper says, noting: “On the third weekend it will begin making decisions about ways to meet the net-zero target.” Sir David Attenborough has urged politicians and the public to “listen closely” to their recommendations, says the Press Association. Speaking ahead of his appearance at the assembly, Sir David said: “These people have been picked to represent our population as a whole, they come from all walks of life, and together they will deliberate carefully on behalf of us all.“

Elsewhere, the Press Association also reports that “almost three-quarters of special natural areas cared for by the National Trust are under threat from climate change”. The Daily Telegraph reports that the RSPB says Britain’s smallest birds have been boosted by the mild winter this year. The Daily Telegraph also reports that the government “has been warned” that “burning wood from forests for energy could be worse for the climate than coal”. It continues: “The Committee on Climate Change [CCC] called for subsidies to support the expansion of forest cover across the UK as part of its plan to meet its legally binding net zero target…It said some of the forests could be used ‘sustainably for combustion and carbon sequestration in the energy sector’.” However, Duncan Brack, an energy specialist at thinktank Chatham House, told the paper that while “expanding forest cover is undoubtedly a good thing, if you’re leaving them standing”, cutting down forests for renewable energy was “almost certainly counterproductive”. In a related Daily Telegraph comment piece, journalist, farmer and self-confessed “lukewarm climate change believer” James Blackett writes: “We have planted a large number of trees over the years on our farm. But looking at them standing alongside our fields, I can’t be sure that they are growing any more organic matter each year than the grass.” Carbon Brief has an in-depth summary of the CCC’s report on the UK’s land and farming sector.

Doomsday Clock is 100 seconds to midnight, the symbolic hour of the apocalypse
The Washington Post Read Article

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving its “Doomsday Clock” up by 20 seconds to 100 seconds to midnight, reports the Washington Post. It is the first time the clock – a metaphor for the end of the world – has passed the two-minute mark in more than 70 years of existence, the paper notes. The group says the change is due to the dual threats of nuclear war and climate change, reports MailOnline. Bulletin president Rachel Bronson said in a statement that “we are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes…We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay”, reports CNN. Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson said “the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats”, reports the Guardian. Robinson added that countries that do not aim to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and instead exploit fossil fuels are issuing “a death sentence for humanity”. The HillSky NewsAxios and Time also have the story, while the Independent carries a comment piece from former secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, who says the advancing clock highlights that “the climate crisis poses an equally grave existential challenge to humanity” as the threat of nuclear war. He adds: “The devastating fires in Australia only the latest example of the risks posed to human health and safety by global warming and extreme weather events.”

Comment.

Big business says it will tackle climate change, but not how or when
David Gelles and Somini Sengupta, The New York Times Read Article

“Business titans who for decades brushed off warnings about climate change arrived at the annual World Economic Forum this week ready to show their newfound enthusiasm for the cause,” say New York Times reporters David Gelles and Somini Sengupta. However, while “finance leaders and company chiefs conspicuously rallied around a consensus that accelerating global temperatures pose a significant risk to society – and to business”, what was missing was “a clear answer to the question of what exactly they would do about it and how quickly”, they write. The new climate pledges “were the latest in a string of climate-related announcements in recent weeks”, yet “few companies and investors provided details at Davos on how they would rapidly transition away from an economy based on fossil fuels. Just a fraction of global businesses currently disclose the financial risks posed by climate change. Even fewer have set their own targets and timetables to do what the science demands: Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade.” New York Times contributing opinion writer Tim Yu puts it pithily: “Woke capitalism, in short, was the dominant motif at Davos 2020.”

Writing in the Financial Times, Jean-Marc Ollagnier – group chief executive of the resources operating group at the professional services company Accenture – says that the World Economic Forum “is a fresh opportunity for businesses to take the lead in developing a new energy system”. While Gillian Tett – chair of the editorial board and US editor-at-large of the FT – says that the repeated mentions of a carbon tax at this week’s World Economic Forum “shows a rising level of interest”. Talking about a carbon tax now “helps make clear to companies the looming costs to them if governments get serious about climate change”, says Tett, adding: “Discussing carbon prices now has a second benefit: it helps us think about the financial transfers which could or should be used to help specific populations or entire countries adjust to a climate shock. When economists outline schemes for carbon taxes, they usually assume that the cash taken in will be redistributed. Setting a price would make it easier to model future economic scenarios and help politicians communicate the looming choices to voters long before a carbon tax system is actually put in place.”

Also in the FT, “undercover economist” Tim Harford has a piece explaining how climate change is “the most pressing example today” of a “prisoner’s dilemma” – “the most famous problem in game theory”. He adds: “Every nation and every individual benefits if others restrain their pollution, but we all prefer not to have to restrain our own.” And in a fourth FT piece, columnist John Dizard looks at how “infrastructure funds have become a way around decarbonisation targets”.

Prince Charles sees climate change urgency – unlike Trump
Editorial, The Daily Mirror Read Article

Commenting on Prince Charles’ climate change speech at Davos, a Daily Mirror editorial says that while some will see it as “another example of meddling…this is an issue close to his heart and he speaks with the authority of someone who has long championed the need for greater environmental protections”. It continues: “Unlike Donald Trump, who refuses to accept the danger of global warming, the Prince of Wales put forward a serious plan to tackle the greatest challenge of our lifetime. He balanced his call for higher taxes on polluters with an appeal to business to do more to limit the impact of climate change.” The paper concludes: “Prince Charles gets the need to act. Now we need the politicians to get it too.” Sun executive editor Dan Wootton is less impressed: “The time has come for this man to step up and save the monarchy, not continue with his overtly political passion projects.” After “blatantly political statements” from Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, “our future king was doing the same thing”, says Wootton: “Whenever will he learn? His family is currently in the midst of its biggest crisis since Princess Diana’s death.” Times columnist David Aaronovitch picks up on the “Trump v Thunberg battle” at Davos, writing that it provides “an exemplar of how polarisation may be driving us mad”. And, finally, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph says that the new coronavirus in China is “a reminder that amid all the current doom-mongering about climate change, this is not the greatest threat to humanity which has, after all, survived ice ages and warmer weather in the past”.

Science.

Distorted Pacific–North American teleconnection at the Last Glacial Maximum
Climate of the Past Read Article

The Pacific–North American (PNA) teleconnection is one of the most important climate modes today and it enables climate variations in the tropical Pacific to influence North America. This paper shows that the PNA teleconnection was largely distorted or broken during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) in climate models. The distorted PNA is caused by a split in the westerly jet stream, which is ultimately forced by the large, thick Laurentide ice sheet that was present at the LGM. The distorted PNA suggests that climate variability in the tropical Pacific, notably El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), would have little direct impact on North American climate during the LGM.

An investigation of the ocean’s role in Atlantic Multidecadal Variability
Journal of Climate Read Article

Better understanding Atlantic Multidecadal Variability (AMV) will aid regional and global climate predictions. Though ocean dynamics have long been invoked to explain the AMV, recent studies have cast doubt on its influence. This paper evaluates the necessity of ocean dynamics for the AMV using an observationally-based idealized model that isolates the contribution of atmospheric forcing to the AMV. By demonstrating that this model underestimates the observed sea surface temperature variability in the extratropical North Atlantic, the authors infer that ocean dynamics contributes significantly to the AMV in this region. Ocean heat transport convergence is needed to explain the sea surface temperature variability.

THE BRIEF

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THE BRIEF

Expert analysis directly to your inbox.

Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.