FtF News #152 – 18th May 2022
Wildfires, the link between air pollution and storms, and why you should never trust oil companies
Hello, and welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly rundown of the latest climate news.
I’ve been thinking a lot about incentives with respect to the climate crisis of late. We’re in a time of flux, and this week’s news is no exception – multiple stories are highlighting the exponential growth of renewables, whilst simultaneously oil companies plan projects which could single-handedly wipe out our remaining carbon budget. Huge changes are happening, both good and bad, but in some ways, nothing has changed – everything is still driven by money, whether the falling price of renewables or profit incentives to extract more oil.
It seems to me that until we find some way to shift society’s incentives away from profit (even partially), all we’re doing is applying an expensive band-aid to the problem. And yet, our monetary, market-driven systems are the primary means we have to enact change! Perhaps this is just a tightrope we inevitably have to walk, but the idealist in me wishes there was some other way than what feels like a deal with the devil.
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
Even as parts of India continue to swelter, other parts of the world are bracing for soaring temperatures. Much of the central US faced so-called ‘derecho’ storms following a spike in temperatures across a dozen states last week. Copernicus Climate Change Service is forecasting high temperatures for both the US and much of Europe for the coming summer, with agricultural areas in Europe likely to face drought conditions in many places. Meanwhile, the now year-round US fire season continues, with a blaze ripping through wealthy neighbourhoods in California in the last week. On the opposite side of the world, Siberia has seen 600 fires this year alone, with at least 10 people killed. Globally, wildfire damages are expected to top $200bn this year.
Of course, this is all par for the course as temperatures rise, which they are doing with alarming speed. The UN WMO has warned that there is a 50% chance that the world’s temperatures temporarily reach or exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in just the next five years. The Arctic is also expected to continue its rapid warming, rising around three times more than the global average over the same period.
New research has used satellite imagery and machine learning to catalogue the world’s tidal wetlands over the past 20 years. The study focused on three specific types of tidal wetland, and found that some 4,000 sq km have been lost, partly through direct human activities, but also via indirect actions, such as sea level rise due to climate change. However, the approach could prove a valuable technique to help quantify the world’s stock of so-called ‘blue carbon’.
In a surprising finding, a study from the NOAA has found a link between regionalised air pollution and storm activity. A 50% decrease in pollution particles and droplets in Europe and the US was linked to a 33% increase in Atlantic storm formation in the past few decades, whilst the reverse was seen in the Pacific. The link is thought to be primarily due to aerosols, which provide a cooling effect which limits storm formation. However, that doesn’t mean we should all pollute with abandon – even the impact of more Atlantic storms is vastly outweighed by the health benefits of reduced air pollution!
Moving towards a greener and more equitable world
This week has been a bumper week for all things renewable. First up, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have all set records for renewable power generation in recent months, with Spain in particular topping out at 40% of demand. This is all driven by the huge growth in renewables, with the record for capacity addition broken in 2021 once again, despite a host of supply chain and pricing issues complicating matters. China has been a huge driver of this expansion, and it looks set to continue apace. The province of Shandong is pushing majorly into offshore solar, releasing tenders for the construction of 11.25GW – more than the peak power consumption of New Zealand.
Portugal is also pushing into floating solar, with the Alqueva reservoir hosting what is now Europe’s largest floating solar array, at 5MW. Whilst this is still relatively small compared to the mammoth installations in Asia, the owners of the array are already planning an expansion to a sizeable 70GW at the same site. This capacity might well soon be needed, with the EU drafting a €195bn plan to end dependence on Russian fossil fuels by 2027, which includes a significant ramp up in clean energy targets.
Events that move the needle in the wrong direction
Burn baby, burn
The oil industry continues to act as though the climate crisis doesn’t exist. A major investigation has found nearly 200 so-called ‘carbon bomb’ projects planned or in operation by oil companies, each of which will emit at least 1bn tonnes of CO2 across their lifetime. Collectively, these projects would add up to 18 years of current global emissions, more than wiping out the global carbon budget and taking us soaring past 2°C of warming. The dozen biggest companies are due to spend $103m per day for the rest of the decade on new oil and gas fields. The leader in total spend? The US, of course, and given the current legislative stalemate there, I think it’s safe to say federal-level US climate ambitions are dead.
Another worrying trend amongst the more public oil companies has been the selling off of their dirtiest assets to clean up their books. New research shows that the majority of oil and gas deals are moving assets from companies with net-zero commitments to those without. The latter are not bound by as many restrictions and are out of the public eye, so such deals often result in a net increase in emissions, even as the seller crows about how their footprint has fallen.
Head in the Clouds
This week saw the release of analysis by UK climate charity Possible showing that the aviation industry has met just one of 50 major climate targets it has set in the last 20 years. The sector has a long history of setting targets to show it is taking action, then quietly dropping them when they prove too tricky to actually meet. This finding was reinforced by a report into the UK government’s ‘jet zero’ plan to decarbonise aviation. This claims that the plan relies heavily on unproven or non-existent technology, and is likely to result in the government missing its binding emissions targets. The report warns that cutting flights is the only concrete measure that will reduce aviation emissions to the extent needed, and relying on the industry to self-police is absolutely a no-go.
Interesting deep-dives into climate-related topics
Many both in the US and abroad have been following the news of a potential overturning of Roe v. Wade with concern. Even leaving aside such a change’s direct implications, it has even more ramifications in light of the climate crisis, with air pollution linked to a host of pregnancy related medical conditions. Several states are already enacting punitive rules penalising anyone who appears to have sought an abortion, which, as with so much of the legal system, are brought to bear far more on marginalised groups. These same folks are the ones who are systematically exposed to more severe climate effects, creating a vicious cycle of suffering and criminalisation.
And now for something completely different: whale watching! Humpback whales are a major draw for tourist visitors to the Turks and Caicos Islands. However, with no firm rules on how boats interact with the majestic creatures, local guides worry that a few bad actors are seriously harming the whales. And so they have created a huge crowd-sourced effort to track and map the activity of whales, linking researchers, government and tourists to create systemic evidence to back a change in the law.
Some quick climate news nuggets to sate your appetite
The Indian state of Tamil Nadu has granted nature the same legal status as a human being.
BlackRock has said it won’t be supporting most shareholder resolutions on climate change this year.
Chemical weathering (basically spreading rock dust on fields) could capture up to 45% of the CO2 needed to bring the UK to net-zero by 2050.
Saint Gobain has produced the ‘world’s first’ carbon-neutral flat glass, though it was significantly costlier than their standard output.