FtF News #141 – 23rd February 2022
Climate inequality, techies buying out coal plants, and a French nuclear revival
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
I know I harp on about the topic, but yet another study this week has driven home the extreme inequality driving the climate crisis. The headline figure is that raising hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty (to the heady heights of $1.90 per day) would impact global emissions by less than 1%. However, as part of this finding, the study broke down impacts by country and by wealth bracket, finding that the average footprint of someone in the top 1% of emitters was 75 times that of someone in just the bottom half.
To emphasise it further, more than a million people in sub-Saharan countries emit less than 0.1 tonne of carbon a year, whilst around 500,000 of the richest people globally emit hundreds of tonnes each per year (and this is likely an underestimate, considering how good such folks are at concealing their wealth and spending). However, on the flip side, that also means by targeting that small minority it should be possible to make a severe dent on emissions at a global level. I’m not sure how, but I’d love to hear ideas if anyone has some!
Once again, this week’s issue was ably assisted by Syuan Ruei Chang, who contributed a number of the articles and stories featured this week.
State of the world
Climate research and findings, weather events and studies
It’s been a wild weather week once again, even stretching to the normally mild shores of the UK. Storm Eunice swept across much of Northern Europe, cutting power to hundreds of thousands and killing 12 across the continent. The UK saw a new provisional wind speed record of 122mph on Friday at the peak of the storm.
Brazil has also seen storms – the town of Petrópolis received 10.2” of rain in 24 hours – the highest daily rainfall in over half a century. The rain brought flash floods and landslides, with at least 117 people killed, and as many again still missing as rescue efforts continue. The rains haven’t slowed deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which has reached the highest ever recorded January level – five times that seen last year (itself a record high). Meanwhile, down in Argentina the drought there has sparked a major wildfire, burning more than 600,000 hectares in the province of Corrientes, including some of the Ibera National Park and a significant amount of vital farmland.
Drought is also peaking in the Horn of Africa, with the UN FAO warning that 13m people face severe hunger amidst the driest conditions since 1981. More than 1.5m livestock are estimated to have been killed by the drought across the region, and cereal production is also majorly impacted, with this being the third failed rainy season in a row.
A report released by the NOAA has warned that the US could face 1-2 feet of sea level rise by 2050 – the equivalent of a century of ‘normal’ rise. This will increase the likelihood of coastal flooding even without storms or other rain, and what were once major flood events will occur multiple times a year in just a decade or two.
Finally, a study has concluded that corn-based ethanol is potentially more damaging to the planet than gasoline, in a blow to biofuel manufacturers. Previous studies have concluded that the fuel was better for the planet, and prompted moves to mix it with gasoline in a number of countries including the US. However, this latest research suggests that impacts from land use change were majorly underestimated, tipping the balance against the biofuel, suggesting that it is at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline.
A picture tells a thousand words…
(Above) The drought in the US is now the worst in 1,200 years, with no sign that it will abate any time soon.
On a similar theme, a drought in Spain has pushed a reservoir to just 15% of its normal capacity, allowing people to walk through a ‘ghost village’ last exposed before the reservoir was filled in 1992.
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
Funding the Future
This week has seen a selection of moves by various countries to fund or support green(er) initiatives. First up is France, where President Macron unveiled a major new push on lower-carbon power. His talk of nuclear power expansion took most of the headlines – the country plans up to 14 new reactors along with funding for small modular plants, at a cost of at least €50bn. However, nuclear is expensive, and timelines are long, so in many ways the more interesting parts of the proposal are those focused on renewables, with a pledge to create at least 50 offshore wind farms whilst also doubling onshore wind capacity. Solar capacity will also increase ten-fold, pushing generation capacity to over 100GW by 2030. Magnifique!
Meanwhile, India has set out significant plans for green hydrogen production, planning to produce a total of 5m tonnes of the fuel by 2030. This will be achieved by setting up manufacturing zones for green hydrogen and ammonia, along with waiving transmissions charges and ensuring priority grid access. This adds to the momentum building behind the fuel, which remains nascent globally, but which promises to provide much needed decarbonisation for tricky sectors from steel to aviation.
Curbing coal down under
Australia’s largest coal-fired power station is now to close 7 years ahead of schedule, after its operator said it is increasingly unable to compete with the ‘influx of renewables’. The 2.88GW plant currently provides around 25% of New South Wales’ energy, but is to close in 2025 and replaced by a large-scale battery facility.
Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes has teamed up with asset manager Brookfield to make an $8bn bid for AGL energy – Australia’s biggest polluter, which runs a number of major coal plants. They plan to rapidly transition the company away from the fuel towards renewables. Their initial bid was rebuffed, but they are reformulating for another attempt soon. This feels like a really awesome use of some of the vast wealth generated from the tech industry, and might even turn a profit to boot!
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
Strong words but weak action
The most comprehensive study to date on the actions of major oil firms has found that accusations of greenwashing are indeed well-founded. The research looked at ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, and found that whilst mentions of climate-centric terms snowballed in recent years, it wasn’t backed up by concrete action, with all still basing their business models on a fossil fuel-dependent world. Less than 1% of the oil majors’ capex went into low-carbon technology between 2010-18, with the researchers stating:
“We find no evidence to suggest any major has entered the renewables market at a scale that would indicate a shift away from fossil fuels.”
On a similar theme, a new UN pact that aims to limit plastic production is facing major pushback from big oil firms, who increasingly see plastics and chemicals as a lifeline as direct oil and gas consumption becomes more and more unsustainable. The firms are warning governments away from caps on plastic production, instead trying to focus attention on waste collection, recycling and waste-to-fuel technologies. However, the pact may still make it through, given support from surprising quarters – Coca-Cola has emerged in support of the treaty.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
Bloomberg this week explored the Global Warming Potential (GWP), a long-running but controversial technique used to equate different forms of warming into a single metric. It was designed to simplify conversations about the impacts of methane, carbon dioxide and more, but now companies are exploiting the mechanism as a loophole by obfuscating, for example, the high short-term impact of methane emissions. As a result, some experts are suggesting restrictions on how the metric is used.
Our second story this week comes close to home for me – an exploration of the controversy surrounding a Clean Air Zone scheme planned for Manchester, which would see high daily fees applied to drivers of diesel vans and trucks to discourage their use. Unfortunately, this has an outsize impact on small business owners, many of whom care about the environment, but find themselves opposing the measure as it will price them out of their livelihoods. It shows the huge importance of making sure measures like this are fair and involving stakeholders from the get-go.
Finally, we move to Romania, and a look at the illegal logging tearing up the country’s massive tracts of old-growth forest. Romania has one of the largest old-growth forests left worldwide, and contains nearly 70% of Europe’s remaining virgin forest, but since the fall of communism has seen vast amounts of illegal logging, accompanied by shocking violence against those who report on it. Major companies like Ikea continue to use the wood produced whilst distancing themselves from what goes on on the ground, claiming in the absence of concrete proof otherwise that their products are sustainable.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
Japan is to start testing its first fuel-cell train next month as part of a strategy to replace existing diesel units by 2030.
The UK could need as much as 24GW long-term energy storage to properly integrate renewables, but this could massively reduce dependence on natural gas.
A study has found that if every car in the UK were electric, UK emissions would be 12% lower (in other words, we need more than just EVs to decarbonise transport).
Greenpeace has found that the UK is continuing to ship pesticides banned domestically to other countries, despite the EU moving to shut down its own trade.