The FtF centennial arrives, glaciers are melting, and forestry is complicated
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
Well, we’ve finally made it to 100 issues of FtF! It seems an eternity since I hatched an idea for a climate newsletter back in early 2019, and a lot has happened in the meantime. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, learning about the climate crisis and what role I could play in helping address it. I’m still not fully there yet, but I’m grateful that I can continue to work on climate-related projects full time – it’s a massive privilege for me to be able to do this. Thanks to everyone that’s read and shared FtF along the way, especially those who’ve followed along from the very beginning – your support has meant a lot, and kept me plugging away at this each week!
The environment around climate change (pun intended) has changed a lot in these past couple of years, and whilst there’s still so much to be done, it does feel like the world is waking up to the importance of this challenge, and that we might still make a better world at the end of all this. After all, isn’t that what we’re all here for?
State of the world
Climate research and findings, weather events and studies
The world’s glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate, according to a new study. Globally, glaciers have lost almost 270bn tonnes of ice since 2000, enough to cover the whole of Ireland with 3m of water per year. What’s more, that rate is increasing by around 17% per decade. Glacial melting is now apparently severe enough that it has caused a measurable shift in the Earth’s axis of rotation since the 1990s. Pre-1995, the poles were drifting south, but in the years since, they’ve moved east, and sped up 17-fold.
A new study of the Brazilian Amazon suggests that it may already have flipped to become a net carbon source, emitting nearly 20% more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbed in the past decade. A key finding of the analysis was that degradation of forests was a more significant source of CO2 than outright deforestation, releasing triple the emissions of direct burning or clearing of forest.
COVID-19 lockdowns have provided a unique opportunity for study of the impacts of pollution in a number of parts of the world. In South Asia, it appears that reduced soot and other pollution due to lockdowns may have delayed snowmelt in the Indus River basin – a system that supplies water for over 300m people. Soot darkens snow, causing it to warm faster, but this year’s snow melt was noticeably slower, potentially allowing for better water management.
A key question around emissions of greenhouse gases is: what will happen when we stop emitting? Many sources have suggested that a certain amount of warming is ‘locked in’, that the world will keep warming for some time after we hit net-zero, but a thorough examination of the science suggests that this is not the case. Once CO2 emissions stop, further warming will essentially stop immediately (although it won’t decline for some time). However, there are lots of other factors to consider, including how we deal with other emissions, such as aerosols and methane, which each have different effects and complicate the outcome.
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
This week saw a smattering of positive policy changes, with Washington state passing a cap-and-trade bill after a decade of failed attempts. The bill aims to cut pollution by 95% by 2050 versus 1990 levels, and also establishes a regulatory program to reduce air pollution in the most unhealthy areas. Over in Europe, Denmark has announced plans to spend 60% of their share of the EU crisis fund on climate measures, a massive increase on the minimum 37% level required.
The LEAF Coalition, a partnership between Britain, Norway, the US and a number of leading multinationals, has announced plans to raise $1bn for countries to protect their forests. Forest protection is vital in the battle against climate change, but implementation is key here – previous schemes have struggled with complex and arbitrary calculations that are ripe for gaming by developers (see this week’s Adverse circumstances for more!).
Food for thought
Epicurious, a major food and recipe site, has announced it won’t run any more recipes involving beef in a bid to nudge behaviours to change. It actually made the change over a year ago, and called the move ‘not anti-beef but pro-planet’. In a similar move, high end New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park has announced it will offer no seafood or meat on its menu when it reopens, in a change to its pre-pandemic direction. Whilst these individual moves may be small, it feels like there’s a gradual shifting in attitudes towards meat, where avoiding meat is becoming less unusual and a growing part of the public consciousness.
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
I’ve often alluded to the complexity of measuring carbon drawdown and the value of carbon offsets, but two stories this week brought that home in a big way. The first is an investigation into California’s forestry offset scheme, which allows projects to gain carbon credits for protecting and improving forests versus a carbon baseline. However, due to simplifications in how the scheme was put together, it has been extensively gamed by project developers, resulting in 20-39m ‘ghost’ credits – credits for non-existent carbon drawdown that were then used by polluters to justify emitting yet more greenhouse gases.
A similar Greenpeace investigation looks at projects supported by major airlines, who claim the forestry protection programs make them carbon neutral. Again, much like in California, the schemes are impossible to fully verify, and much of the accounting that calculates the carbon benefit is arbitrary. The airlines are also using the projects as a way to avoid taking action to tackle their significant environmental impact – basically, they’re taking the easy route out.
These projects are not all bad, however – often they provide forest owners with a financial incentive to protect and improve forests, something that has real, meaningful benefits for both the environment and local communities. However, the process of quantifying, commodifying and marketing these benefits as ‘offsets’ is on very shaky ground. It’s a case of a positive outcome not entirely justifying the means and mechanism by which it came to pass. A better solution is not immediately apparent, but forestry offset schemes right now seem deeply flawed.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
Australia is a land of climate contrast – on the one hand, the country is dropping coal power and scaling up rooftop solar at record rates, but on the other, it has a strongly anti-environmental policy record and is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters. Grist dives deep into how, despite government rhetoric, Australia is falling ever further behind in climate action, and uses creative carbon accounting to cover the shortfall. Unfortunately, nothing much is likely to change until serious pressure is put on the government to step up and act.
Lithium-ion batteries are rapidly turning into one of the cornerstone technologies of global decarbonisation, powering cars, vans, trucks as well as, increasingly, grid-scale energy storage (not to mention all of our personal devices!). However, the nuances of how batteries work, how the technology has progressed, and what may lie ahead are complex, and bear deeper examination. This Bloomberg piece summarises the salient points well for those desiring a more thorough understanding of the topic.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
Germany’s supreme constitutional court has ruled that the government’s climate measures are insufficient, in a historic win for environmental groups.
Hawaii has declared a climate emergency, the first US state to do so.
Amsterdam is to ban adverts for cheap flights and diesel cars from the city’s metro system, as part of a wider scheme to discourage the use of fossil fuels.