FtF News #147 – 13th April 2022
The latest IPCC report, promising growth in EVs, and the complexities of paygo solar
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
As promised, this week is all about the latest IPCC report, which dropped in its ~3,000 page glory just before last week’s post. The report really drove home the scale and immediacy of the challenge we face, but in just a day or so it had dropped off the news radar entirely. A week on, and you’d barely know that it existed from a scan of front pages. In a world with a major war in Europe, an energy crisis and ever-escalating cost-of-living struggles in the UK, I guess the ever-approaching climate crisis asteroid barely warrants mention. I don’t know how we bring climate back into focus, but we surely must.
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
As I suspected last week, the climate news cycle has been dominated by the release of the final part of the AR6 IPCC report, focusing on mitigation. There have been a host of quick takes and summaries including the BBC, the New York Times and Grist that are worth checking out if you want an overview, or if you really want to dive deep then Carbon Brief’s 26,000 word in-depth Q&A is incredibly thorough.
In terms of content, none of it is particularly surprising for those who’ve been following climate science for a while, although seeing it stacked up so densely is intense. In short, whilst it is still just about possible to limit warming to 1.5°C, that window is closing fast, and the level of emissions mitigation required is immense. Fossil fuels cannot play a significant part in our future unless we want to commit to huge warming or improbable levels of carbon capture – a technology that is likely to be increasingly relied upon, despite barely existing today.
“...what this report makes abundantly clear is that acting on climate is not being restricted by a lack of scientific knowledge or technological options, but by entrenched power structures and an absence of political will.”
Amy Westervelt, writing in The Guardian this week
However, the report does stress that even to reach 1.5°C, we largely don’t need technical innovations – we have the tools to eliminate huge amounts of our emissions quickly and relatively cheaply – but what’s holding the world back is political will, entrenched interests (hello fossil fuel industry) and a lack of finance. On that last point, finance for mitigation needs to increase 5-6 fold, with much of that sum flowing to developing nations to help them tackle the huge challenge of decarbonising whilst not throwing billions into further poverty.
This IPCC report, despite its staid language, really pulls no punches, and details the role of colonialism in the climate crisis for the first time. It also discusses the role of wealth in emissions, noting the many studies (covered here in various previous posts) that show how the majority of personal emissions come from the wealthiest regardless of country.
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
Sweden is set to become the first country to include consumption-based emissions within its national emissions targets. The country’s political parties have agreed a deal to count emissions from the manufacture of imported products as part of the country’s 2045 net-zero goal. This is particularly key for countries like Sweden and the UK, which have relatively high levels of imported emissions – some estimates say as much as 60% of Sweden’s emissions are embedded within imports.
The EU has announced further details this week on its Circular Economy Action Plan. The initiative was announced in 2020, but this latest update breaks down more concrete details on how the bloc plans to move towards a circular economy. The plan involves four major areas: pushing most physical goods to be more eco-friendly, circular and energy-efficient; tackling fast fashion and textile goods; construction materials; and finally making more sustainability information available to consumers. The exact details are still to be worked out, but the EU’s size and influence as a market means this could well have a ripple effect globally on numerous products and sectors.
Mine’s an EV, please
Electric vehicles continue their inexorable rise, with BNEF estimating that the global EV fleet will surpass 20m vehicles by June this year. For comparison, there were just 1m back in 2016, but towards the end of 2022, nearly that number of new EVs will be purchased each month! The market is still highly concentrated, with China and Europe leading (46% and 34% respectively), whilst North America sits at a distant third with 15%. The rest of the world is just 5% of the total market thus far.
The UK EV fleet is following a similar trend to the world market, with more EVs purchased in March than in the whole of 2019, despite a slump in the wider car market. Industry insiders suggest that EVs could overtake fossil-fuelled equivalents by 2025 if this growth continues. Over in the US, LA has approved plans to electrify the city’s entire 10,000-strong vehicle fleet as part of wider plans to rely entirely on carbon-free energy by 2035.
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
Profits over people
Oil companies continue to rake in vast profits amidst the current energy crisis, with Exxon Mobil likely to report a 7 year high in quarterly profits in Q1 2022, of around $9.8bn – nearly $2.7bn more than just the prior quarter. Meanwhile, in the UK, Shell paid zero tax on its oil and gas production in the North Sea last year, for the fourth year in a row, in fact claiming a $121m payment back from the UK Treasury for decommissioning old platforms. The company paid some $4.5bn in taxes and other fees in Norway last year, suggesting that it’s just playing tax games here in the UK because it can, even as huge numbers of households face a cost-of-living crisis.
Both of these headlines come as NOAA stats show that methane emissions jumped by a record amount last year – the largest amount since the agency started tracking levels around 40 years ago. Given the fossil fuel industry’s outsize role in producing methane emissions, it feels high time they invested some of those returns in tackling emissions rather than stock buybacks and dividends.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
One of the key conclusions finally laid down in this week’s IPCC report was the startling inequity of the climate crisis. Whilst much of the focus is on the differences between nations, even within developed countries like the US, climate impacts fall very differently depending upon background. The Guardian took a look at how rising sea levels are disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities across the US. Many have been historically forced into areas with high climate vulnerability, and are also often ignored by authorities who don’t want to foot the pricey cost of moving entire towns further inland.
Bloomberg covered a couple of excellent and complex topics this week that deserve mention here. Firstly, they dived into the messy attempts of various crypto networks to tackle carbon offsets. Platforms like Toucan aim to buy up the cheapest offsets, removing them from the market, but upon closer inspection, it’s hard to tell whether they’re having a net benefit – many of these offsets were not being purchased anyway, and the new platforms are incentivising new, low-quality ‘offset’ programs to start up to make a quick buck. As usual with offsets, it’s a big messy space with no simple solutions.
Second, they explored the equally messy world of pay-as-you-go (or paygo) solar. Touted as a solution to rapidly roll out renewables to the developing world, it seemed a perfect idea: it makes a profit (meaning big business is a fan) whilst empowering consumers (making charities and other NGOs happy). However, the realities of making profitable businesses serving some of the poorest people in the world turned out to be different, with companies forced into cycles of hyper-growth to try and make a viable business, resulting in dodgy sales tactics and customers left with huge payments and contracts they don’t understand and didn’t agree to.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
Climeworks, the carbon-capture company running the world’s largest DAC plant, has raised $650m to expand its operations and build a plant ten times larger.
Chile is to start rationing water to its capital, Santiago, for the first time in its 491 year history as a 13 year drought continues to intensify.
Pinterest has announced a ban on all climate disinformation, covering both content and adverts, in stark contrast to other major platforms like Twitter and Facebook.