Today's climate and energy headlines:
- White House says Texas winter storm likely due to climate change
- £1.5bn green homes grant faces axe after a year
- Cumbria coal mine: Tory MPs urge council to give plans the green light
- World must ‘transform relationship with nature’ to tackle environmental crises, says UN
- Daimler rules out ‘premature’ end to combustion engine sales
- Facebook announces UK trial to tackle climate misinformation
- How America can rid itself of both carbon and blackouts
- Boris Johnson’s great climate change challenge
- Bill Gates: My green manifesto
- A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago
- Global urban reforestation can be an important natural climate solution
The White House issued a statement yesterday saying that the winter storm in Texas and nearby states was the type of extreme weather event triggered by climate change, Reuters reports. It also rejected claims by Texas officials that renewable power was responsible for the power outages across their state, with White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki noting that the Texas power grid operator had said wind and solar failures were the “least significant factor in the blackout”, according to the newswire. It adds that president Joe Biden has spoken with Republican Texas governor Greg Abbott and offered additional help to Texas. Axios reports that as of Thursday, according to Abbott, nearly 2m homes across Texas had their power restored, although 325,000 Texans still remain without electricity. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez asked consumers on Thursday to use less electricity as a measure to help overcome shortages of fossil gas imported from Texas. The previous day, the newswire notes that Abbott said no gas should be supplied out of the state before 21 February as it struggles to provide its own power, “although it was unclear if he would be able to enforce the ban”. The top official from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot) tells the Texas Tribune that the state was “seconds and minutes” away from catastrophic blackouts lasting months when operators made the decision to cut the power and begin rolling blackouts. Meanwhile, Vox has a piece stating that scientists are “divided over whether climate change is fuelling extreme cold events”. The piece quotes an array of scientists and examines the mechanisms by which, counterintuitively, rising global temperatures could lead to sudden bouts of cold temperatures in places like Texas. More on this discussion can be found in Carbon Brief’s media analysis of the winter storm. Finally, Reuters reports that the US Senate energy committee plans to hold a hearing to examine grid reliability in the wake of events in Texas this week.
The New York Times reports that the “abnormally cold weather walloping Texas” provided a “grim backdrop” to comments made by top Federal Reserve official Lael Brainard, who has warned that banks and other lenders need to prepare for climate change and regulators must play a role in ensuring that they do. “Such disruptions also matter for the financial system. They pose risks to insurers, can disrupt the payment system and make otherwise reasonable financial bets dicey,” the newspaper notes.
Separately, the Financial Times has a piece looking at the battlegrounds in the US over expanding power lines, which it says “would allow wider deployment of solar and wind power” but “has always sparked pushback”.
According to the Times, UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s “flagship” £1.5bn green homes grant scheme is “likely to be scrapped less than a year after it was launched in a blow for the government’s net-zero strategy”. The move comes after news that the scheme was facing significant delays and calls from environment groups not to cut funding. “It represents a setback for the prime minister’s commitment on cutting emissions to net-zero by 2050. Ministers had already reduced the level of funding for next year to £320m, citing concerns over the lack of take-up. That additional funding is now expected to be scrapped entirely,” the newspaper states. A government spokesperson quoted in the piece claims there has been reluctance by people to welcome tradespeople into their homes due to Covid-19.
Meanwhile, BBC News reports that the UK is set to launch a “high-risk” science agency named Aria with the mission of searching for “groundbreaking discoveries”. It quotes business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng who said the new agency would “drive forward the technologies of tomorrow” by “stripping back unnecessary red tape”, citing climate change among the “set of challenges” facing the world that need to be addressed.
More than 40 Conservative MPs are calling for the UK’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years to be given the go-ahead, reports BBC News. Cumbria County Council had originally backed the scheme in Whitehaven, West Cumbria, but is now reviewing its decision over concerns about climate change, the outlet explains. In a letter to the council’s Labour leader, the MPs argue that the mine would fall “within the government agendas for net-zero carbon emission by 2050” and that blocking the project would pose “a serious risk to Cumbria’s economic growth”. BBC News environment analyst Roger Harrabin says that “the government’s independent advisory committee on climate change strongly opposes the mine, warning that any jobs it creates will be temporary, and that approving the project will undermine the PM’s global leadership on the climate”. Harrabin also has an explainer about the coal mine “controversy”. The Independent notes that “the application is likely to be considered at a council planning meeting in April, but a final decision is not expected until after the local council elections in May”.
Meanwhile, the Times reports that “approval for a huge wind farm off the coast of Norfolk has been overturned by the High Court after a crowdfunded legal challenge concerning onshore infrastructure”. The paper continues: “Vattenfall’s Norfolk Vanguard project was granted planning consent by the government in July and would entail up to 158 turbines about 30 miles offshore, generating enough electricity to power 2m homes…Residents objected to the visual impact of the substation, together with another planned for a second proposed Vattenfall wind farm, Norfolk Boreas.” A local resident brought a legal challenge arguing that the business secretary had wrongly failed to take into account the “cumulative impact” of the two projects. The High Court found in favour of the challenge yesterday and ruled that permission for Vanguard should be quashed, the paper explains. A spokesman for the business department said that it was “disappointed by the outcome” but they “will be considering the judgment carefully before deciding next steps”, reports BBC News. Finally, the Economist has a piece on the “NIMBY problem” facing solar farms in the UK.
A new UN Environment Programme report warns that the world must transform its relationship with nature to tackle the combined issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, reports the Independent. The paper continues: “The three crises are inextricably linked and so must be fought together, the report said, with the economic recovery from the Covid pandemic providing an ‘unmissable opportunity’ to face up to the challenge.” In the report’s forward, UN chief Antonio Guterres writes: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth…On the contrary, making peace with nature, securing its health and building on the critical and undervalued benefits that it provides are key to a prosperous and sustainable future for all,” the paper says. The report argues that societies and economies must be transformed by policies such as replacing GDP as an economic measure with one that reflects the true value of nature, notes the Guardian. The paper adds: “Carbon emissions need to be taxed, and trillions of dollars of ‘perverse’ subsidies for fossil fuels and destructive farming must be diverted to green energy and food production, the report says. As well as systemic changes, people in rich nations can act too, it says, by cutting meat consumption and wasting less energy and water.” Sky News and Al Jazeera also have the story.
After a wave of car manufacturers coming forward with plans to switch to electric vehicles, the Financial Times reports that Daimler’s chief executive has said they will not “prematurely” phase out sales of combustion engine vehicles. The piece notes that while Daimler’s Mercedes brand “has committed to having a carbon neutral fleet by 2039, the company has not named a date by which it will stop selling cars with pipe-tail emissions”. The newspaper said that, according to Daimler, its petrol and diesel models are a “cash machine” that can help to fund its electric models. It notes that the company has already announced it would split into two, listing its truck arm separately so that Mercedes could “benefit from investors’ appetite for electric car pioneers, such as Tesla”. Meanwhile, a piece in the Guardian quotes an electric vehicle industry representative who says Australia risks being left in a “parallel world” as other nations and major companies shift away from combustion engines.
An opinion piece by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times says there is “one big problem” with electric cars, namely that they are “still cars”. He notes that electric vehicles will still dominate space in American cities and lead to many fatalities. “EVs represent a very American answer to climate change: To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel.” Another opinion column in Energy Monitor by senior correspondent Justin Gerdes states that US president Joe Biden should push carmakers “even further” on EVs and require “that every new car sold in the US by 2035 is a zero-emission vehicle”. Yet another opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph warns that while major car manufacturers are all shifting towards EVs, they increasingly “find themselves in a subordinate position to [their] technology suppliers” as they move towards a future where “software expertise is more important than oil changes”.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the Sun, which is campaigning for fuel duty to remain “frozen”, reports that car fuel costs have “soared by £4 a tank since December as the average pump price nears 122p”, with the newspaper claiming this has “heaped pressure” on chancellor Rishi Sunak not to increase fuel duty at his upcoming Budget. There is an accompanying opinion piece by fuel-duty lobbyist and pro-motoring campaigner Howard Cox, the founder of FairFuel UK, who says that over the past ten years the UK’s fuel duty freeze “has benefitted everyone” and that British motorists remain “the most highly taxed in the world”.
In a small trial limited to the UK, Facebook has said it will start labelling misinformation about climate change, the Guardian reports. It stated that labels will be attached to certain posts, directing users to Facebook’s Climate Science Information Center, “a repository of factchecked claims about the environment”, the newspaper reports. Among the “common myths” being fact-checked will be the “claim that polar bear populations are not suffering due to global heating” and “the widespread belief that excess carbon emissions help plant life”, the article notes. The Hill reports that the effort will be guided by climate experts from George Mason University, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the University of Cambridge. While the labelling trial is restricted to the UK, the news website notes that the information centre itself is available in France, Germany and the US and is being expanded to Belgium, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa and Taiwan.
A cover story for the Economist examines the on-going situation in Texas, where a major winter storm has led to mass blackouts and triggered a debate about the state’s power supply and the role of renewables. “The problem is not, as some argue, that Texas has too many renewables. Gas-fired plants and a nuclear reactor were hit, as well as wind turbines,” it states. In fact, it continues, Texas has too little capacity and a poorly connected grid, demonstrating that “America needs both a cleaner grid and a more reliable one”. With plans to overhaul the US energy system set to come before Congress in the next few months and president Joe Biden wanting a decarbonised power system by 2035, the Economist says “what is about to unfold in Washington will set the course in America for the next decade – and quite possibly beyond”. Though Biden will be unlikely to attract any Republican votes, it says “an ambitious climate-oriented infrastructure bill looks like Mr Biden’s best chance of getting new policy on climate through the Senate”. Failing to do so will “make America less competitive in the new clean-energy economy” and mean the US is “deprived of global influence over climate”, it adds. “There will never be a better chance for Mr Biden to show real ambition. If the blackouts in Texas are any guide, it would not just be the world that would thank him, but Americans, too.” There is an accompanying “briefing” on “Joe Biden’s climate-friendly energy revolution”, which examines in greater detail what will be required to tackle US emissions.
Elsewhere, there is extensive continuing coverage in the opinion pages of the Texas winter storm and efforts by Republican politicians to frame the resulting blackouts as a failure of renewables. A piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times says the misinformation circulating is evidence of “post-truth politics [meeting] energy policy, while Helaine Olen in the Washington Post says Texas is making a case for a green new deal. “What’s happening in Texas this week is exactly what we can expect to happen more often as the accelerating pace of climate change continues to collide with the US’s deteriorating infrastructure and continuing Republican inaction, intransigence and excuse-making. It’s leaving us all out in the cold,” she says. A piece in the New York Times by Dr Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems professor at Princeton University, sets out a plan to “future-proof” the Texas grid. An editorial in the Guardian says it “remains astonishing that the richest country in the world cannot guarantee its residents such basic services such as reliable power, clean water and decent sanitation”. It adds: “People in developing countries will bear the brunt of the climate emergency. But those in wealthier nations are not immune”.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal has published its fourth editorial this week concerning the blackouts in Texas. In the face of evidence from the state’s own grid operators and energy experts, it states the “left’s denialism that the failure of wind power played a starring role in Texas’s catastrophic power outage has been remarkable” and points to the Biden administration “deploying diesel generators to the state” to help out.
A piece by political editor of the Spectator magazine James Forsyth in the Times sets out how the UK can “use its presidency of two vital summits this year to push for international agreement on carbon emissions”. He sets out how the nation should push for multilateral climate solutions “to stop countries from adopting their own unilateral solutions”, something that will be a key test of the UK’s ability to “help shape the new global architecture”. “Two of Johnson’s big ambitions for his premiership are to put flesh on the bones of the idea of “global Britain” and to make progress on the environment. Using Britain’s convening power to help forge an international approach on carbon emissions would tick both of these boxes.,” he writes. A piece in the Independent argues that amidst the row over the Cumbria coal mine it is “disingenuous to claim that the UK is a ‘climate leader’”.
Meanwhile, the Economist has a piece titled “how Britain decarbonised faster than any other rich country” which also looks at what will be needed to cut emissions further now that much of the power sector has been decarbonised.
In yet another day of coverage for Bill Gates and his plans for tackling climate change, the Financial Times has a piece written by the billionaire philanthropist himself offering “four bold ideas to help business take on the climate crisis”: “Avoiding a climate disaster requires a different way of doing business, the courage to take on risks that many CEOs are not used to taking — and that investors are not used to rewarding,” he writes, noting that “it took me years to come to this point of view.” The first idea is mobilising capital to reduce what he terms “green premiums” – the additional costs of moving to a green alternative. The other means by which Gates says companies can help is by changing the products it buys, expanding research and development and helping to shape public policies. Another piece in the Financial Times questions Gates’s “techno-optimism” and says “it is ironic that such a famous technologist, synonymous with the productive capabilities of software, is now betting so heavily on hardware”.
A new study examines if the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field could have an effect on the climate. The authors use a precisely dated tree ring proxy from around 41,000 years ago – a period when the Laschamps geomagnetic reversal occurred – that was recently recovered from a swamp kauri tree in New Zealand. The record reveals a substantial increase in the “carbon-14” content of the atmosphere culminating during the period of weakening magnetic field strength preceding the polarity switch. The authors modelled the consequences of this event and concluded that the geomagnetic field minimum caused substantial changes in atmospheric ozone concentration that drove synchronous global climate and environmental shifts.
The climate mitigation potential of urban nature-based solutions is often seen as insignificant and overlooked. Given the rising interest and capacities in cities for such projects, a new study says that the potential of urban forests for climate mitigation “needs to be better understood”. The researchers modelled the global potential and limits of urban reforestation worldwide, finding that around 11m hectares of land (17.6% of all city areas) are suitable for reforestation, which would offset around 82 MtCO2e per year. Among the cities analysed, 1,189 are potentially able to offset >25% of their city carbon emissions through reforestation, the study says.
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