DeBriefed 2 February: UK’s ‘slowing’ climate ambition; New top US climate diplomat; Surging methane from wetlands


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An essential guide to the week’s key developments relating to climate change.

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UK’s ‘slowing’ climate ambition

MIXED SIGNALS: The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has warned the perception of the UK’s climate ambition has “suffered from mixed messages” following “new fossil-fuel developments and the prime minister’s speech to soften some net-zero policies”, reported the Press Association. In a report on progress made at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai last year, the advisory body said “decisions to approve a new coal mine and licence new oil and gas production” have contributed to “a perception of slowing UK climate ambition by members of the international community”, the outlet noted.

‘GROSSLY IRRESPONSIBLE’: It comes as the UK this week allocated another 24 licences to major oil companies for the right to drill for fossil fuels in the North Sea, the Guardian reported. According to the North Sea Transition Authority, oil and gas could be produced within the decade under the licences, the outlet noted. The move “angered MPs and environmental campaigners”, who called the move “grossly irresponsible”, it added.

IMF WARNING: Meanwhile, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, has “warned UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt against cutting taxes, arguing the country needs to curb public borrowing and prioritise spending in areas such as health, education and tackling climate change”, reported the Financial Times

  • ENVOY IN EMPLOY: US president Joe Biden has appointed his clean energy adviser John Podesta to succeed John Kerry as the nation’s top climate diplomat, reported the Financial Times. Podesta will take on the role in addition to his current White House job overseeing $370bn in spending on clean energy under the Inflation Reduction Act, noted the New York Times.
  • SOLAR SUCCESS: China’s installed wind and solar capacity is set to overtake coal for the first time this year, according to Reuters. Bloomberg reported that China installed more solar panels in 2023 than any other nation has built in total.
  • ITALY-AFRICA SUMMIT: At a summit of African leaders in Rome, Italy unveiled a plan to use its climate fund to transform into “an energy hub” that creates “a bridge between Europe and Africa”, reported Climate Home News. Observers warned that the plan presents “enormous ambiguities” that leave the door open to fossil-fuel investment.
  • TRACTOR TUMULT: Farmers protesting across Europe have “won their first concession”, reported the Guardian, with the EU announcing a delay in rules for setting aside land for nature. Carbon Brief’s Cropped newsletter has more on how far-right political groups are aiming to capitalise on the outrage.
  • PAKISTAN ELECTION: Ahead of Pakistan’s general election on 8 February, two major political parties have “prominently highlighted the importance of dealing with climate change-related issues in their manifestos”, reported the Press Trust of India.
  • FIGHTING FIRES: More than a hundred firefighters battled a forest fire in the Los Alerces national park in northern Patagonia, reported BBC News. La Nación noted that an “unusual heatwave” has brought temperatures of up to 40C to the region.

2.47 million square kilometres

The “missing” area of Antarctic sea ice in July 2023, relative to the long-term average, according to a Carbon Brief guest post. This is larger than the area of Algeria, the 10th largest country in the world.

  • Melting of a glacier in Switzerland over just two years has left it “irrevocably lost” as a record of past air pollution from ice cores, a Nature Geoscience study reported. 
  • Economic recovery spending in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic “missed many opportunities to advance climate adaptation and resilience” (A&R), according to a Nature Sustainability study. Analysis of around 8,000 government policies across 88 countries found that just 10-11% had “direct A&R benefits”.
  • A study in Earth’s Future warns that extreme heat and thawing permafrost will pose “severe threats” to global rail and road infrastructure as the climate warms.

(For more, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth daily summaries of the top climate news stories on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.)

The US has far more LNG capacity in the pipeline than any other country

The US is already the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) and has more additional capacity “proposed” (dark blue on the chart) than any other nation, according to a new Q&A by Carbon Brief. The article unpacked the implications of the surprise move, made late last week by US president Joe Biden, for a “temporary pause” on the expansion of LNG export terminals.

Surging methane from the world’s wetlands

This week, to mark UN World Wetlands Day, Carbon Brief speaks to a scientist helping uncover how methane emissions from wetlands are rising in a changing climate.  

In 2020 and 2021, the rate at which methane levels in the atmosphere increased hit record highs. 

The rise between 2019 and 2020 was “roughly a doubling” of the annual growth rate, Dr Benjamin Poulter, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, explained to Carbon Brief. This was “unexpected and caught the scientific community by surprise”.

In December 2022, a Nature study by Poulter and colleagues found that “wetlands appear to have played a key role, explaining around 50% of the jump from 2019 to 2020”, he said. Further work – currently undergoing peer-review – has suggested that the world’s wetlands were the main driver behind the growth between 2020 and 2021 as well.

Wetlands are areas of land that are either permanently or seasonally inundated with water. They are found across the world, but predominantly in lush landscapes in the tropics and frozen “permafrost” expanses in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

The near-constant saturation means that decomposing organic matter in the soil releases methane instead of CO2. This methane can diffuse from the water into the atmosphere, be emitted through grass-like plants or abruptly as bubbles. Research has also shown that trees can transport methane from the soil to the atmosphere – or potentially even produce it within their stems.

La Niña’s influence

There appears to be two main reasons why wetlands produced more methane over 2020-22, Poulter explained – a combination of a La Niña event “causing wetlands to expand in the tropics” and climate change “causing warming in all parts of the world, and especially in the high latitudes”.

La Niña is the cold-water counterpart to the natural El Niño climate phenomenon. They are known collectively as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In general, an El Niño event “causes wetland methane emissions to decrease in tropical regions due to drying”, said Poulter, while La Niña causes emissions “to increase as wetlands expand”. There are regional variations that complicate things a little, he added.

In the high latitudes, “ENSO has less of an impact”, explained Poulter, but rapid warming in this region “is likely driving increasing trends in wetland methane emissions” – as well as “changing the seasonal onset of wetland methane production as the permafrost thaws earlier, deeper and freezes later in the year”.

Methane feedback

The overall increase in wetland methane emissions in recent years is “expected from wetland model projections”, noted Poulter. He published a study last year that indicated the rise may be part of an extended climate-wetland methane “feedback” where global warming drives greater wetland methane emissions, which – in turn – drives further warming.

For 2023 and 2024, the methane growth rate is likely to be influenced by “the El Niño phase of ENSO and the record-breaking global air temperatures”, Poulter said. Last year, for example, “droughts in Central America and Amazonia disrupted shipping and livelihoods, and likely led to decreased tropical wetland methane emissions”.

The US Global Monitoring Laboratory is due to release its final atmospheric concentration data for 2023 in April. This will help confirm understanding of wetland methane emissions, Poulter said, and “whether the El Niño-induced drought impacts on tropical wetlands caused the atmospheric growth rate of methane to decrease” last year.

OVERSTATE: In this interactive, a group of Bloomberg journalists investigated how “dozens” of UK wind farms have routinely overestimated how much power they can produce.

BIG OIL: DeSmog uncovered evidence that fossil-fuel companies funded climate research as far back as 1954, further suggesting their long-standing knowledge of global warming.

‘IMPORTANT QUESTIONS’: In a Nature news feature, journalist Gayathri Vaidyanathan looked at the “agonising choices” over how the UN loss-and-damage fund will be allocated.

DeBriefed is edited by Daisy Dunne. Please send any tips or feedback to [email protected]

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