FtF News #68 - 16th September 2020

Everything is on fire - is this business as usual now?

Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.

After mentioning personal choices last week, I came across this article from The Atlantic, highlighting the importance of seemingly performative personal changes in altering social norms and helping others take action. On a similar theme, Carbon Brief dived into the climate impact of meat and dairy, as well as how different diets compare. It’s a long read, but if you’ve been pondering the impact of your food choices, it’s well worth the time.

Google has announced that it has completely eliminated its entire historical carbon footprint. It’s hard to know how seriously to take this - it certainly makes a good headline, but has relied on offsets to make up the numbers necessary. Facebook also announced that it will become entirely supported by renewable energy this year, as the various tech players try to one-up one another. 

State of the world

Climate research and findings, weather events and studies

Western media has been dominated this week by apocalyptic images from the western US, with wildfires racing across California, Oregon and Washington state. Much of the west coast has been coated in dense smoke and ash, with day turning to an eerie orange twilight for many. The area burned so far this year is around 30 years ahead of projections from just two years ago, and the fire season still has months to go. To top it off, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center confirmed that La Niña conditions have now formed. The cyclical phenomenon results from a cooling of the Pacific Ocean’s surface, and could hold off rains on the US west coast, prolonging wildfires, as well as intensify the Atlantic hurricane season.

The US is not the only part of the world ablaze currently. A number of fires have been burning across Greece, including near the capital, Athens. A huge fire ripped through an asylum seeker’s camp on the island of Lesbos, destroying the tents of nearly 12,000 people. The controversial camp has been notorious for years for dreadful conditions, purportedly to dissuade more migrants from seeking asylum in the EU. Authorities expressed regret at the fire, but largely placed the blame on the camp occupants rather than the wider camp conditions.

The latest UN update on climate disruption puts the world at a 1 in 4 chance of passing 1.5°C of warming in the next five years. For a more visual depiction of this year’s heat, Bloomberg released a guide to the state of the environment in 2020, with some truly alarming graphics.

If the heat wasn’t bad enough, a new report by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London shows that animal communities shrunk on average by 68% from 1970 to 2016. The tropical Americas saw declines of up to 94%, whilst animal populations in and around freshwater dropped 84%. The report places the blame firmly at our collective feet - the causes are all human, with around half from changing land and sea use, and the rest a combination of overfishing, hunting, invasive species, pollution and climate change.

Planet positives

Moving towards a greener and more equitable world

Electric dreams

Once again European EVs are making the news. The latest car sales show sales down globally, but more interesting is the split between EVs and combustion engined vehicles in different regions across the world. North America saw a drop of over 30% in both types of car, whereas China saw a 30% decline in EVs, but an increase in combustion vehicles - likely due to changing vehicle subsidies, which massively dictate sales in the country. However, in Europe, whilst combustion vehicle sales fell by over 55%, EV sales are up by 45%.

In other EV news, Uber is playing catch-up with it’s rival Lyft, and has announced a carbon neutrality target of 2040, with all rides by that date emissions free. It’s to spend $800m in the next five years to help drivers switch. It’s a good start, but given the company’s tendency to play fast and loose, it may just be hot air.

Power to the People

The UK’s citizen’s assembly on climate change has released its findings, after running a series of workshops over the early part of this year. There’s a lot to pick through in the results (Carbon Brief have an excellent run-down, as always), but the long and the short of it is that people in the UK want more climate action, though not at the expense of additional inequality. In particular, the idea of a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic proved popular. It remains to be seen whether the government will implement any of the assembly’s recommendations, as there is no binding resolution to do so.

Adverse circumstances

Events that move the needle in the wrong direction

It’s just business…

I’ve written about the oil industry and plastic a few times in this newsletter, most recently two weeks ago with the news that the industry was lobbying trade negotiations between the US and Kenya. This week saw the release of a deep dive on just how thoroughly the oil industry sold the concept of recycling plastic. Recycling plastic has long been a nightmare both on the consumer and on the recycler sides of the business, but the oil industry knew all along - it was sold as a publicity stunt to shift the blame on plastic waste, and avoid responsibility for their actions.

The tyre industry has also been up to similar stunts, albeit with less universal success. A growing body of evidence has highlighted the particulate pollution from tyres, in particular microplastics, which end up absolutely everywhere (including the Mariana Trench and in rain). The EU is already considering standards to enforce harder-wearing tyres, but the tyre industry has been lobbying furiously, and publishing numerous studies of their own attempting to discount the earlier findings.

Environmental Unravelling

India’s government is pushing hard to ease its environmental laws in the name of boosting the economy. In echoes of the US, the government is claiming removing environmental regulations will enhance recovery. This is sadly just the latest in a series of attempts to water down the laws, though previous endeavours were firmly struck down by courts and tribunals. The Union Carbide disaster, which prompted many of the current laws, remains fresh in the minds of many.

Long Reads

Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics

I thought I’d bring back a section from the old newsletter format this week for a special appearance, as a couple of interesting articles came up that might be of interest.

Grist dived this week into the complex world of biofuels - a controversial solution to reduce the impact of a number of hard-to-decarbonise industries, like shipping and aviation. There are a lot of competing factors defining whether biofuels make sense, and the answers will be different for every country, and will depend a lot on how fast different industries clean up their emissions.

I’ve mentioned the dominance of the Chinese solar industry a few times in the newsletter. Bloomberg took a look at Longi, one of the new giants of the solar industry, who make 1 in 4 solar wafers globally, and are planning to scale up yet further.  The solar industry in China is a rapidly changing one, with dominant players one year going bankrupt the next, but the immense scale and intense competition is one of the key drivers in bringing solar prices down so fast in the past decade.


That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thank you for reading, and if you liked it, why not share it with a friend? If you’ve any thoughts, feedback or suggestions, I’d love to hear them - you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com.

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

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