Fires, floods, heat, cold – the climate crisis is really starting to show its hand
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
The UK heatwave has fortunately broken as of this past weekend, which is a great relief – I’m certainly looking forward to being able to sleep soundly again! However, it appears the rest of the world is still struggling with extreme weather. Given the sheer number of stories this week, I’m left wondering whether the weather is worse this week, or there are just more people paying attention after the events of the past few weeks. It’s not the cheeriest of reading, but if recent events in the US and Europe make more people aware of the impacts of extreme weather globally, maybe there’s still some positive amidst the calamity.
State of the world
Climate research and findings, weather events and studies
This week has been another wild one for weather across the world. London flooded again this week, though fortunately the impacts were relatively minor. The true scale of the floods in Henan became clear – a year’s worth of rain fell in Zhengzhou in just 3 days, with 20cm falling in just an hour. At least 25 were killed and an estimated 1.2m people were affected. There have also been floods in Western Uganda, with hundreds of households evacuated, and in Turkey, where entire houses were swept away by floodwater. Heavy rain has continued in Maharashtra, India, with 113 now killed by landslides and flooding across the state.
Meanwhile south-west Iran has seen protests over water shortages, with both police and protestors killed in the skirmishes. Iran is suffering both from a record drought and hot summer as well as mismanagement of existing water resources, with over extraction of groundwater an issue. Over in the US, the drought continues to strengthen in the west, with the Great Salt Lake in Utah now at a record low, months before the normal annual low point.
Onto our next classical element – fire. Wildfires have continued to rage in the US, with the Bootleg fire now so large it’s generating its own weather, with smoke visible from 100 miles away. It has now burned 618sq miles, and is only partially contained. The smoke from the various fires has drifted across the US, even blanketing cities on the east coast with smog and haze. Over in Europe, Sardinia is ablaze, with around 400 people evacuated as fires consumed 10,000 acres of the island.
Heat has continued to make headlines, with both Turkey and Algeria topping 49°C – both all-time records for Turkey and for the entire of Africa respectively. Finland has finally seen the end of a heatwave that saw 31 consecutive days with maximum temperatures over 25°C – another record. Back in the US, Texas is bracing for the next heatwave, with high heat and humidity likely to sweep over central states over the next week.
Speaking of heat, new research suggests that injuries due to extreme heat are far higher than official records, and disproportionately affect the poorest workers. The study correlated temperature records and injuries rather than looking for injuries where heat was recorded as a symptom, and found that alongside heatstroke, high temperatures increase rates of falling, being struck by vehicles or mishandling equipment. The researchers found an extra 20,000 injuries per year were caused by extreme heat, just in California.
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
Every little helps
According to the IEA, fossil fuel consumption subsidies fell by 40% last year, to $180bn, an all-time record low. Whilst eliminating such subsidies entirely is the dream, this is nevertheless a huge drop and should be celebrated as such. However, the agency does warn that at least some of the decrease is likely to rebound as economies recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
Climate action… pays?
PG&E, the now notorious California utility company, has reversed direction on a previous decision, and announced that it will be burying some 10,000 miles of power distribution cables. Overhead cables have been linked to a number of massive wildfires, including the Paradise fire that killed 84 and led to PG&E declaring bankruptcy. The company previously said it was too expensive to bury the cables, but this week changed its mind, saying that the vast $20bn cost is actually cheaper than leaving things as they are. More and more studies are showing that the costs of climate change will vastly exceed the costs to tackle it, so it’s good to see that showing up in at least one major decision. May many more follow suit!
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
Leaders fiddle as the world burns
The leaders of the G-20 group of nations met last week in Naples. One key objective for the meeting was to forge an agreement on several key environmental topics, including a phase-out of coal and an overall level of warming to aim for. Unfortunately, the meeting ended with no resolution, with members fracturing over the goals. Whilst disagreement was perhaps inevitable given the diverse membership of the group, it does not bode well for COP26, which is now only around 100 days away. The G-20 accounts for around 80% of global emissions, so an agreement between members would go a long way towards securing worldwide buy-in.
On a similar theme, the IEA predicts a rapid bounce-back in emissions, with levels likely to breach pre-pandemic thresholds by 2023, and ‘no clear peak in sight’. One area they highlight is global electricity demand, which will likely climb in 2021-22, with renewables taking up 55-60% of that amount. This is huge progress, but that still leaves a considerable requirement for new fossil fuel electricity generation, which will probably lead to coal generation increasing (albeit slightly) in the next two years, cancelling out falls in 2020 and reaching a new all-time high in 2022.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
With the recent spate of extreme weather events striking the developed world, one question that many are asking is – will this spur more action? Developing nations have been reckoning with the impacts of climate change for years, and their calls for more assistance from richer countries have largely fallen on deaf ears. However, recent events have brought home to many that the climate crisis affects us all. Hopefully it will spur more serious action.
Wine is possibly not the industry you’d think of first when asked about the impacts of the California wildfires. However, the state’s Napa Valley, heart of the Cali wine business, is struggling with everything from water shortages, grapes cooking on the vine, smoke damage, and more recently, an inability to get insurance. Whilst this may sound like it calls for the world’s tiniest violin, it is worth watching – the wine industry is extremely profitable, and can throw money at many issues. If the wine industry can’t solve it, it doesn’t bode well for other less affluent sectors.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
Jeff Bezos’ space flight got almost as much coverage from major US morning TV shows as climate change did in the entirety of 2020.
China financed no coal projects in its Belt and Road scheme in the first half of 2021 – the first time since its launch in 2013.
A startup has come up with a way to convert livestock manure into fertiliser using nitrogen from the air.