Friday, 18 December 2020

Climate change stories to be cheerful about

It has been a very difficult year for several reasons. But it was not all bad. To cheer us up over the holiday, here are my favourite good news stories from 2020 - including coal consumption down, renewables up, beavers for flood management, hope for the survival of coral, help in eating more plant proteins, and changes to our travel behaviour.

The end (of coal and fossil fuels) is nigh(er).

Lloyds is pulling investments from fossil fuel schemes. They will end new investment in coal, tar sands and arctic oil by 2022 - just over a year from now - and phase out existing investments by the middle of the decade. They are also asking members to pull insurance cover over a similar time frame.

Also, in the UK our use of coal for electricity has been declining and this year we were coal-free for almost two months. There is a beautiful infographic here showing the reduction in coal use since 2012 up to mid 2020. 

Listening to the people.

The first UK Climate Assembly completed (despite the Covid 19 epidemic) and gave the thumbs up to a raft of climate friendly policies including phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles, a frequent flyer tax, banning gas boilers, tighter efficiency standards for products, more renewable energy (including both onshore and offshore wind though offshore is preferred. I wrote about it here

Renewables getting cheaper.

Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. The IEA has declared solar to be the cheapest energy source in history. 

We need backup power too. Electric batteries are good for short term storage but for longer periods hydrogen is a better bet - if we can make it from carbon free sources. Stripping the carbon out of methane is never going to be completely clean if only because of upstream leakage - this has become clearer now with satellite tracking of methane sources. However, green hydrogen, made by electrolysis of water using electricity can be completely clean - and it is getting rapidly cheaper and more efficient. Chinese manufacturers seem to be leading the way on this. 

Hope for coral.

Coral cannot tolerate warm water but there are places in the ocean off the coast of Kenya and Tanzania where coral is thriving because the seas are cooled by meltwater from glaciers - at least as long as the glaciers last. That means if we can reverse climate warming quickly enough we should have a reservoir of coral that can repopulate the oceans.

Beavers are welcome hydro engineers.

With climate warming and more extreme weather, floods are an increasing problem but in recent years we have learned that managing flooding by holding water back is usually better than canalising rivers and sending the water out to sea. This can be done very cheaply when we let nature do the work - for example beavers build dams at zero cost to us. There are also benefits for biodiversity from the new habitats above and below the dams. After a five year trial, beavers have been officially declared a net benefit to the environment and this year there are beaver releases in five new locations

Convenience foods for vegans.

It used to be said that a vegan diet is too difficult because you have to cook everything from scratch. Well that is not so true as it used to be. Supermarkets and fast food outlets are rapidly adding vegan and vegetarian lines to their shelves. Greggs now has a 'vegan steak bake'; Tescos has a range of vegan snacks and ready meals such as sausage rolls and 'no lamb samosas'; KFC has a vegan burger, as does Burger King - but not yet MacDonalds.

Advice on sustainable diets

Mind you, some plant based convenience foods are not as nutritious as the meaty models so it is as well to check the protein content. You should expect at least 10g/serving to replace a meat dish. I got this tip from the book 'Sustainable food - without the hot air' which I reviewed in August. It is an excellent source of advice on how to adapt your diet to reduce carbon emissions - what really makes a difference and where you don't have to worry.

Pandemic lasting impacts: more cycling, ...

During the Covid lockdown cycle shops were classified as essential, which is just as well as the reduction in traffic led to a massive cycling boom. Stocks of new bicycles could barely keep up with demand. Across all of Europe, Google reported increasing requests for cycling directions. Many new cyclists said they intended to continue after the lockdown. Councils responded with lots of emergency schemes to make cycling safer. For example here in Cambridge there are schemes in Mill Road, Chesterton Road, and several Park and Ride sites. Hopefully some of these at least will persist.

... and less commuting

Some people like to work in the office and others prefer to work from home. During the lockdown, many companies have developed internal systems to allow home working and found no loss of efficiency. It can save them money too as they need less office space. Now major companies including IT and networking, banking and insurance giants, have said they will allow it forever

Working from home generally reduces emissions, because the extra energy use at home is more than offset by the saved emissions from commuting. However, indirect effects can dilute this benefit, as people who commute less frequently often travel further. So if you elect to work from home, do try to use the time saved for healthier pastimes than driving somewhere else.

The third runway for Heathrow is still not approved.

Do we really need more airport capacity for plane trips? Covid brought the air travel industry to a standstill for a while but the surviving airlines hope for recovery. The Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit to block the runway expansion on the grounds that it was incompatible with climate change targets. But they still need planning permission and that will involve a public enquiry so I am sure that will take a few more years - by which time if demand has not bounced back the business case will be in tatters.

UN Climate Summit takes place remotely

COP 26 in Glasgow has been delayed but climate warming is too important to be left until next year. A virtual climate summit was held earlier this month, organised by the UK, France the UN. China made a surprise commitment to reduce emissions to net zero by 2060 - and considering how conservative they are in their commitments it may happen sooner than that. The UK, and the EU also made substantial improvements to their commitments. In all 45 countries upped their targets. It isn't enough, but momentum is building.

I am sure there are lots more stories I have missed - if you have a favourite please add it in the comments.

In the meantime, let's hope for lots more good news in 2021.

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