Sunday, June 16, 2024

DeBriefed 24 May 2024: ‘Surprise’ UK election; Oceans court ruling; China and Russia’s fossil-fuel pact

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

UK election 

SURPRISE: UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced in a “surprise move” that a general election will be held on 4 July, Business Green reported. It quoted him saying that “this election will take place at a time when the world is more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War”, highlighting “national and energy security” as key issues. 

HEAVY DOWNPOUR: On the same day that Sunak made the announcement amid a downpour outside Number 10, a World Weather Attribution study covered by the Press Association found rainfall during storms across the UK and Ireland between October 2023 and March 2024 was made 20% more intense by global warming. The UK’s winters will continue to get wetter in future, according to the study, until the “world reduces emissions to net-zero”.

Oceans court ruling

MARINE PROTECTION: The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the world’s highest court dealing with the oceans, issued a “groundbreaking opinion” on Tuesday ruling that greenhouse gases are a pollutant that could cause “irreversible harm to the marine environment”, the New York Times said. It added that, while “not binding”, the opinion stated that, legally, nations must “take all necessary measures” to cut back emissions to prevent marine pollution.

‘HISTORIC’ VICTORY: Climate Change News reported that the coalition of small island nations responsible for the case called the ruling a “historic” victory. It quoted Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, saying the decision “will inform our future legal and diplomatic work in putting an end to the inaction that has brought us to the brink of an irreversible disaster”.

CLIMATE ‘VICTIMS’: Elsewhere, the Financial Times reported that a first-of-its-kind criminal case has been filed against the fossil-fuel company TotalEnergies and its shareholders by people who have lost family members or suffered harm in weather events made more extreme by climate change. The victims, along with non-profit groups, are accusing the company of criminal wrongdoing, including involuntary manslaughter, the FT said, adding that the company had not responded to its request for comment. 

  • ANTARCTIC RECORD: The Press Association covered a study by the British Antarctic Survey finding record low sea ice levels around Antarctica last year “may have been influenced by climate change”.
  • INDIA HEATWAVE: The Indian capital New Delhi felt like a “furnace” and recorded temperatures “soaring” above 46C on Monday, with high temperatures continuing throughout a crucial week in the country’s elections, the Hindustan Times reported.
  • AUSTRALIAN COAL DEPENDENCE: Utility company Origin Energy will “delay the closure of Australia’s largest coal-fired power station”, Bloomberg reported, due to government concerns that there is not enough renewable energy to replace it.
  • GERMAN BACKSLIDING: Germany approved a “controversial” reform of its climate protection law, eliminating sectoral targets and reducing pressure on sectors such as transportation and buildings to meet them, according to Die Zeit.
  • EASTER ISLAND HERITAGE: The Guardian reported that the faces of Easter Island moai statues are being eroded due to “torrential rain”, quoting one conservator saying “we have much more extreme weather than before”.
  • US OVERCAPACITY CALLS: US treasury secretary Janet Yellen urged the EU and G7 countries to “communicate to China as a group” regarding concerns about clean-energy industry overcapacity, Reuters said.

The percentage of children in Pakistan who will not be in school next week, as heatwaves force closures in the country’s most populous province, according to the Associated Press.

  • A new study in Nature Communications underscored the importance of considering reliability and carbon pricing for the potential role of off-grid solar power in achieving universal household electricity access in Africa.
  • Video gamers are “a worthwhile potential audience” for climate communications, according to a new Climatic Change study, in contrast to “the stereotype of video gamers as disengaged or antisocial” on the topic.
  • New research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that while “most of the Amazon does not show critical slowing down” of recovery from small disturbances, a “predicted increase in droughts could disrupt this balance”.

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

A new Carbon Brief Q&A explored the continuing debate around the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in a world dealing with climate change. Some argue that new gene-editing technologies could help crops deal with extreme weather and boost nutrition, while others cite concerns around production, regulation and patenting of gene-edited crops. Much of current GMO production is concentrated in a small number of countries. The figure above shows that 91% of the land growing genetically modified crops is in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. By contrast, genetically modified crops are not currently widely grown in the EU.

The future of China and Russia’s energy cooperation

This week, Carbon Brief examines energy’s role in Sino-Russian relations and how this could change as China moves towards its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.

Vladimir Putin chose to visit China on 16-17 May, shortly after beginning another term as Russian president. 

Previously “sizeable” Sino-Russian energy cooperation has only grown since Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Russia leapfrogged Saudi Arabia in 2023 to become China’s largest supplier of oil. China is now Russia’s top purchaser of coal and crude oil, as well as a top three purchaser of oil products, liquefied “natural” gas (LNG) and pipeline gas.

‘Concrete plans to enhance cooperation’

The two sides published a joint statement during Putin’s visit, pledging to “consolidate Sino-Russian strategic energy cooperation…to safeguard [our] economic and energy security”.

It named oil, gas, LNG, coal and electricity as primary areas for cooperation, with renewables, hydrogen and the carbon market as “prospective” areas.

Progress on the Power to Siberia 2 gas pipeline negotiations, which could supply China with 50bn cubic metres of gas, was not mentioned.

Economic and geopolitical drivers

“Economic complementarities” have led to “robust” Russian imports of oil and gas to China.

Chinese reliance on substantial oil imports will likely “persist”, although future gas import requirements are more uncertain.

Dr Erica Downs, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told Carbon Brief she does not think it has been “definitively decided in China” what role gas will play in its energy transition, but that this role may be smaller than previously assumed.

She added that Russian oil is attractive to Chinese policymakers, as overland oil pipelines reduce China’s reliance on “vulnerable” sealane routes and Russia’s war with Ukraine allows Chinese buyers to get discounted rates on Russian barrels.

China’s increased oil and gas imports, following western sanctions on Russian oil, provided an “economic lifeline” to Russia in exchange for “securing cheap supplies”, according to the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).  

Imports from a politically aligned partner are “vital” for China’s energy – and, therefore, economic – security, according to Chatham House. 

Not changing with the times

However, this partnership could wane. The UI study argued that China could adopt a “more cautious approach”, depending on geopolitical and economic developments.

Downs told Carbon Brief that, in the near-term, China will remain reliant on oil and gas imports, but that China “has to decide how much…they want to be dependent” on Russia. 

If Chinese demand for fossil fuels falls, she said, “Russia becomes a lot less important to China as an economic partner”, although the political partnership remains useful to both.

Despite “buried” statements on clean energy in Sino-Russian agreements, Downs noted, the two countries are not increasing tangible cooperation on non-fossil fuel energy – in stark contrast to increasing Chinese clean energy cooperation with Saudi Arabia, for example.  She added:

“[Sino-Russian energy cooperation] is really a hydrocarbon story…I’m not really seeing the level of activity that I’m seeing [from] Chinese companies in other parts of the world in the renewable space.”

Watch, read, listen

‘BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY’: A Reuters investigation found that Japan, France, Germany, the US and other wealthy nations have reaped “billions of dollars” from a programme designed to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to extreme weather.

CLIMATE FUNDING: Climate Change News reported that “unsafe housing for cyclone survivors in Malawi, funded by a suspected fraudster”, adds weight to the need to operationalise the UN loss and damage fund. 

HUMAN FOLLY: HARDTalk interviewed UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Prof Jim Skea on whether the world has missed its chance to limit warming to 1.5C. 

Coming up

Pick of the jobs

  • The Climate Museum, special assistant to the director | Salary: $65,000. Location: New York
  • Shetland Islands Council, energy transition communication officer | Salary: £40,062-£41,703. Location: Shetland
  • Climate Action Network UK, co-chairs and board directors | Salary: Expenses. Location: Remote
  • Department for Business and Trade, head of responsible business and ESG policy | Salary: £53,560-£63,481. Location: Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Darlington, Edinburgh, London or Salford

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