FtF News #145 – 30th March 2022
Fighting climate doom, the massive cooling power of forests, and how India might decarbonise
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
A theme I’ve returned to again and again here is the struggle between optimism and negativity when it comes to the climate crisis. Week after week, more news pours in that things are getting worse, that the world is warming more. In the face of this seemingly relentless onslaught, it’s easy to slip into ‘doomism’ – believing that it’s hopeless, that nothing can be done.
However, if we give up, then we give up on so much, from those who will be hit hardest, to the chance for a better, more equitable world. Not to mention that there is no single tipping point – 1.5°C is better than 1.6°C, but that too is better than 1.7°C. It was great to see this NYT article this week looking at the growing movement of young people pushing back against ‘doomism’, with education, climate wins and much more, encouraging others to get stuck in regardless of the wider situation.
“Underneath doomerism and ‘hopeium’ is the question of ‘Are we going to win?’ That’s premature at this point. We need to ask ourselves if we’re going to try.”
– Mary Annaïse Heglar
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
The US is once again feeling the force of climate-induced weather this week – New Orleans was hit by a multi-vortex tornado storm system, not unusual for the US as a whole, but rare for the city, which normally faces hurricanes. Over in Texas, nearly 200 different wildfires induced by the massive drought have ripped through 108,000 acres, with firefighters still working to get a handle on the blazes.
Meanwhile, the Antarctic heatwave I mentioned last week was accompanied by a similar heat spike in the Arctic, with some areas seeing 30°C above normal. The Arctic ice has now reached its maximum extent for the year on the exact day that the Antarctic reached its minimum, which dipped below 2m square km for the first time ever. While Arctic ice has been clearly been trending downwards for years, Antarctic ice trends have been less obviously impacted by climate change, but this may be about to change. The week also saw the complete collapse of the Antarctic Conger ice sheet, an area of sea ice around the size of Hong Kong, though the exact reason for the change is not certain as yet.
A new paper has attempted to quantify why cost estimates for climate action always trend towards the pessimistic. The authors concluded that there’s a disconnect between the cost of mitigating emissions and the many positive effects gained, from avoiding climate catastrophes and the impacts of warming to health benefits from reduced emissions. The reasons for this are varied, but not least because modelling and quantifying these benefits is complex and messy – how much is a human life or biodiversity worth in dollar terms? Nevertheless, the study points to areas that should be considered more when evaluating the cost of policies to reduce emissions.
Another piece of research has looked into the benefits of forests for global warming beyond their carbon drawdown potential. Forests contribute significantly to cooling through a number of mechanisms, from shading to drawing heat up from the ground and emitting aerosol compounds that reflect heat and generate clouds. On a global scale, this adds up to over 0.5°C of cooling, a huge impact. Given all the many other benefits forests give, this study will hopefully help policymakers not treat forests merely as ‘sticks of carbon’.
A picture tells a thousand words…
A dive into how wealth inequality, even more than nationality determines emissions, with the wealthiest among us sharing an outsize responsibility for the climate crisis (above).
The New York Times explored the intersection of art and climate change, and how the complex relationship between the two is evolving rapidly of late.
A chart showing plastic use and recycling rates in Europe versus the rest of the world (spoilers: it’s not good anywhere!).
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
The World Bank has raised $150m by selling the world’s first wildlife bonds. The bonds have been dubbed ‘rhino bonds’ as they’re tied to increasing the population of black rhinos in South Africa. The bonds will pay out returns based on the rate of growth of populations in two reserves, and backers will receive nothing if the populations do not increase. With the popularity of green bonds soaring in recent years, I suspect we’ll see ever more expansion of similar styles of bonds, and as with ESG, there will likely be a whole hodge-podge of approaches, some good, some bad, and some opportunistic cash-grabs. Nevertheless, if done right such bonds could tie the money markets to real positive value.
Speaking of money markets, the SEC has proposed a major rule change that would see all US public companies forced to produce climate disclosures. The SEC has lagged many other major financial institutions with such rules, but that does also mean it has avoided some of the missteps and can learn from their approaches. Notably, the SEC’s rule would push for scope 3 emissions disclosures for some firms. However, the change is still not final, and given it’s the US we’re talking about, heavy pushback is inevitable and nothing should be considered certain until it’s locked in.
For the first time since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, a (narrow) majority of the Japanese population back restarting the country’s nuclear reactors. Public sentiment turned heavily against nuclear power following the catastrophe, but with growing concern about climate change, and now surging electricity prices, it seems the mood is shifting. More than two thirds of the country’s reactors remain offline, but if Japan does decide to embrace nuclear power again, it could have wide-reaching effects – the country is a major importer of LNG, and so any decision could affect gas prices worldwide.
In light of the major changes needed both for decarbonising the globe and more immediately in light of the invasion of Ukraine, a number of pundits have suggested that personal change and sacrifice could prove key to speeding the clean energy transition. Japan is an example of a country that has massively embraced such measures, with a scheme known as ‘setsuden’, where individuals and businesses take measures in times of need to reduce power consumption and avoid major outages and blackouts. However, I suspect that we would need considerably more trust and faith in our governments in the West for anything similar to work here, which doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
Clean air? Not here…
The WHO set new guidelines in September last year, recommending that PM2.5 particulate pollution levels not exceed 5µg per cubic metre. However, recent analysis has found that no country currently meets that standard, and of 6,475 cities in 117 countries, only 222 hit the target. In 93 of the cities, levels were ten times the acceptable level. Overall, South Asia came off worst, with 46 of the 50 most polluted cities, and Bangladesh topping the charts of most polluted countries. However, the organisation responsible for gathering data noted that there is still a major lack of data in many parts of the world, meaning many places, particularly in Africa, have no way of determining their air quality. This was highlighted by the announcement this week of a new UN initiative to put every person on Earth within range of an early weather-warning system in the next five years – an ambitious but sorely needed goal.
New analysis from a group of NGOs has laid out exactly how much money western oil companies have poured into the Russian government. Such figures are rarely revealed by the companies themselves, but the researchers figured out royalties and taxes paid since 2014 (when Russia invaded Crimea). The sums are staggering – Shell paid over $7.85bn, whilst Exxon Mobil coughed up $2.81bn between 2014 and 2021. By far the biggest was BP. Whilst the firm didn’t pay an outsize portion of tax directly, it has a huge stake in the Russian state oil company, Rosneft, and the income linked to that share is put at around $77bn.
This week also saw a report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which analysed the emissions from national oil and gas production versus its economic impact. The analysis concludes that to have a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C, wealthy nations must stop all production by 2034, whilst less well-off countries have until 2050. Basically, rich nations can weather the hit of stopping production, as they have larger and more diversified economies, whilst smaller, poorer economies are much more dependent upon fossil fuels, and dropping them too soon would risk economic and/or political chaos.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
India is a nation in a unique position when it comes to climate change – whilst it is one of the world’s top emitters, it is the only such country with a relatively poor population. As such, it has no clear role models when it comes to decarbonisation, having to balance improving the lot of the average Indian and rolling out vital basics like sanitation and electricity with attempting to limit and ultimately reduce its emissions. India is also, like many other developing nations, struggling to raise the finance to make this huge change, meaning it will likely have to self-fund much of it. However, should India pull off this enormous shift, it will become the role model it has lacked for many other smaller developing nations that face similar pressures and challenges.
The red-crowned crane is a symbol of longevity and loyalty in Japanese culture, but the bird came close to extinction around 50 years ago, with just three dozen left in the country. Since then, grassroots and government-supported efforts have successfully brought their numbers up into the thousands. However, now conservationists need to figure out what to do next – the birds are used to being fed heavily by people, and efforts to rewild them have caused the birds to feed on local farmers’ supplies. This story both shows the power of conservation in restoring species as well as the tricky challenge of ensuring that humans and protected species can live in harmony.
Over the COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK in 2020, many found themselves at a loss, with huge amounts of idle time and little to fill it with. During that period, Dr Ed Hawkins started a project to crowdsource the transcription of over 65,000 rainfall records spanning 3 centuries. The work was completed by 16,000 people in just over two weeks, with the resulting data now incorporated into official Met Office records, which now go all the way back to 1836. It’s a great example of people coming together for a common goal, but also of the power of archive data – we now have records for all manner of historic events, which will allow greater insight into what may come as weather becomes ever more uncertain.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned against nations slowing or abandoning moves away from fossil fuels due to the Ukraine war, suggesting that such policies would be disastrous.
A study has found microplastics in human blood for the first time, highlighting just how far the particles have spread into everything.
The UK government is to commit £1.6bn to expanding the country’s EV charging network ten-fold by 2030, to a total of 300,000 public chargers.
Tesla has opened its first European factory near Berlin, increasing the company’s already impressive EV production capacity.