DeBriefed 9 February 2024: EU told to cut emissions 90% by 2040; Labour’s £28bn in context; Can Northern Ireland ‘catch up’ on climate?


Welcome to Carbon Brief’s DeBriefed. 
An essential guide to the week’s key developments relating to climate change.

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EU 2040 aims

ROAD TO 2040: The European Commission has called for a 90% cut in EU emissions by 2040, Carbon Brief reported. The recommendation is designed to bridge the gap between the bloc’s existing short- and long-term emission-cutting goals. EU politicians and institutions will grapple over the details of the proposal before it is put into law.

RENEWABLE RIVALRY: The EU also finalised its “green tech bill”, which is intended to help the bloc “withstand mounting competition from the US and China”, according to Politico. The Net-Zero Industry Act aims to “manufacture 40% of the bloc’s clean-tech needs within the EU”, Bloomberg said. The plan was developed in “direct response to the US Inflation Reduction Act”, the outlet added. 

TO THE STREETS: Meanwhile, amid ongoing farmer protests across Europe, Carbon Brief analysed whether their concerns were related to climate issues. In response to the protests, the European Commission “removed” a reference to non-CO2 agricultural emissions falling by 30%, which had been in a draft of its 2040 plan, Al Jazeera said. The commission also shelved plans to halve pesticide use by the end of this decade, the Guardian reported. 

Chile and California extremes

CHILE FIRES: More than 131 people died after forest fires broke out in Valparaiso, Chile earlier this month, the country’s La Tercera newspaper said. Almost 15,000 homes were damaged and hundreds of people remain missing, BBC News said. The event was Chile’s “worst tragedy” since an earthquake killed hundreds in 2010, El País said. 

INTENSE RAIN: In the US, southern California experienced “record-breaking rainfall” in recent days, leading to flooding and mudslides, NBC News reported. The New York Times looked at the extreme weather in both Chile and California, noting that the “far apart” disasters show the impact of “two powerful forces: Climate change…and the natural weather phenomenon known as El Niño”. 

1.5C ‘breach’

12-MONTH BREACH: New data suggested that global warming exceeded 1.5C across an entire 12-month period “for the first time” from February 2023 to January 2024, according to BBC News. The article noted that this year-long “breach” of 1.5C, as recorded by the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, does not break the Paris Agreement 1.5C limit – as that refers to warming over longer time scales – but it “does bring the world closer to doing so”. (See Carbon Brief’s 2017 guest post on how to interpret the 1.5C limit for more.)

AUSSIE HEAT: In Australia, long-term temperature records show that the country’s climate has warmed by 1.5C since 1910, the Guardian said. The figures were released in the Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement, which noted that 2023 was the country’s joint-eighth warmest year on record. Dr Andrew King, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne, told the newspaper that “we know Australia is already warming above the global average”. 

1.5C SCIENCE: Separately, a study based on a new climate “proxy” dataset claimed ​​that the planet has already exceeded 1.5C of warming, Carbon Brief reported, but a number of scientists challenged this conclusion. The researchers used sea sponge data to create a record of ocean temperatures since 1700, which suggested that global warming is “0.5C higher” than current estimates. This “does not mean that impacts of climate change will occur earlier than expected”, said Prof Richard Betts, a Met Office climate scientist, who was not involved in the study.

  • AMAZON DRILLING: Activists in Ecuador have warned that the country’s newly elected president could be trying to “wriggle out” of a landmark referendum decision to stop oil drilling in a part of the Amazon, according to Climate Home News.
  • AT THE COALFACE: The “vast majority” of the world’s new coal power plants were developed in China last year, Bloomberg reported. This is despite the country’s record action on clean energy. 
  • LNG PAUSE: A top US energy department official defended president Joe Biden’s pause on approving liquified natural gas (LNG) exports at a senate hearing on the decision, Reuters reported. (Read Carbon Brief’s Q&A on how the pause could impact global emissions.)  
  • OIL PROTESTERS: A group of 11 Ugandan climate activists face up to a year in jail after protesting against a $5bn oil pipeline project, the Guardian said. 
  • SCIENTIST ‘VICTORY’: US climate scientist Prof Michael Mann won a long-standing defamation lawsuit against two right-wing bloggers who made derogatory comments about him and his work, the New York Times reported. Mann described it as a “victory for science [and] scientists”. 

The amount of funds needed each year by 2030 to keep global climate goals “within reach”, according to Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, Reuters reported.

  • Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called for a sixth category to be added to a hurricane wind scale to communicate that climate change has intensified tropical storm winds. 
  • Methane emissions have a smaller impact on the ability of mangroves to sequester carbon than previously thought, a study in Nature Climate Change found. 
  • A study in Nature Sustainability assessed the climate, energy, air quality and health impacts of focusing on more compact urban development in China by 2050. Researchers found that this policy would have “considerable environmental and economic benefits”.

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

The UK spent £265bn on energy in 2022 – including more than £100bn on imported oil and gas.

Many UK newspaper frontpages on Friday morning reported that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has announced that he is scrapping his flagship policy to invest £28bn a year in climate action, if elected to power. It comes after months of uncertainty over the pledge. Writing in the Guardian, Starmer, along with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, blamed “damage” caused by the Conservatives “crashing the economy” for the policy change. The move sparked a wave of newspaper editorials, with the Guardian describing it as “wrong, wrong, wrong” and the Daily Mail calling Starmer “Sir Flip flop”. To add context to the £28bn figure, Carbon Brief’s deputy editor Dr Simon Evans noted on Twitter that the UK spent £265bn on energy in 2022. This included more than £100bn on imported oil and gas. 

Northern Ireland’s climate ‘catch-up’ 

This week, Carbon Brief explores how a new government in Northern Ireland might approach tackling climate change.

A new power-sharing government was set up in Northern Ireland last weekend, after the region was effectively run by civil servants for the past two years. 

In a “historic” move, Michelle O’Neill was appointed as Northern Ireland’s first nationalist (pro-Irish unification) first minister, BBC News reported.

Andrew Muir is the new minister for agriculture, environment and rural affairs. The interim chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), Piers Forster, said the CCC “look[s] forward to working with [Muir] on delivery of NI’s ambitious climate targets”.

Although Northern Ireland has a Climate Change Act, including a net-zero target, it has a lot of climate policy to “catch up on” after two years of stagnation, Dr Viviane Gravey, a senior politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, told Carbon Brief. She said: 

“We don’t have our climate plan that was supposed to be published in 2023, we don’t have our environmental strategy that was supposed to be published in July. We don’t even have our statement on environmental principles.” 

These were not able to be put in place “because ministers were not there and civil servants could not just produce policies that have such a big impact”, she added. 

Without these “central pillars”, Gravey said that Northern Ireland is “really not in a position right now to actually deliver on any of [its] targets – because we don’t even know what the targets really are”. 

She added that Muir seemed to be a “very different minister” who “made very clear in a statement that he is really interested in his whole portfolio”. 

In this statement, the minister said he intended to put in place plans that “benefit our climate and environment, while supporting our economically and socially significant agriculture, food and fisheries sectors alongside our important rural communities”. 

The former environment minister, Edwin Poots, who is now the speaker of the Northern Ireland assembly, got into hot water after downplaying climate change in 2020.

Future action

Campaigners and experts recently described Northern Ireland as the “dirty corner of Europe” that may suffer “grave environmental damage because of governance failures”, the Guardian reported. 

Gravey said there is a “glimmer of hope” that the new minister will tackle climate and environmental issues, but “whether he is going to manage to actually deliver on that, who knows”. 

Without action on climate change in Northern Ireland, there is a risk that the region could “hold the UK back” when it comes to meeting its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, she added. 

But the return of power-sharing means there is at least “some chance of getting something done”, she said, adding:  

“The last time we had a government from 2020 [until 2022] was a moment of hope and, finally, we had action on climate change in Northern Ireland. And now the question is: Will we be able to get that energy back?”

EV METALS: Climate Home News reported on how Indonesia’s rapidly growing nickel sector is “infringing the rights of Indigenous peoples”. 

SHIFT KEY: A new podcast on key climate news and the shift away from fossil fuels was launched by Heatmap News executive editor, Robinson Meyer, and energy systems expert Jesse Jenkins. 

SOLAR POWER: Capital & Main, a US news nonprofit, investigated the possibilities and tradeoffs of Hawaii’s renewable energy “revolution”. 

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

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