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Summer 2020 climate wrap-up

Welcome to Capture’s series of climate news wrap-ups… want to keep up with the greatest challenge of our generation but feel overwhelmed keeping up with everything that’s going on? We’ve got you covered. Corporate, government, science and industry climate news - the most important things that have happened - all in one place.

The lockdown hasn’t helped as much as we hoped..

According to researchers, global CO2 emissions were cut by one-fourth this April, when many countries were under lockdown conditions. By studying mobility data in 123 countries (together responsible for 99% of fossil fuels emissions), researchers estimated a sharp drop in NOX (nitrogen dioxides) and CO2 emissions in April, of respectively 30% and 25%. Even though these drops are consistent, scientists say that the effect on global heating will be ‘negligible’, resulting in cooling of only 0.01C by 2030. That is, assuming that from 2022 mobility and emissions will realign to pre-lockdown levels - and that countries will maintain their current policies and meet their targets from the Paris Agreement.

Although the study makes it clear that rapid changes in people’s behaviour can make important differences, short-term efforts of citizens alone won’t be enough to mitigate climate change. What is needed are lasting and definitive measures to transition to a zero-emission economy. Researchers estimated that a green economic recovery, with measures aimed at reducing fossil fuels investments, can help avoid warming by 0.3C by 2050. It doesn’t seem much in thirty years, right? However, a 0.6C temperature increase is currently expected globally by 2050, so a 0.3 cooling effect would help us make the 1.5C target and mitigate the worse effects of climate change on our society - as Prof. Fosters from the University of Leeds told the Guardian.

Despite pandemics, this year the countries who ratified the Paris Agreement should take the first actions to respond to the global climate emergency. Currently, Europe is leading the global “green-recovery”, having set the largest single climate pledge ever made (Reuters) in July. 550 billion euros, a third of funds recently allocated for the recovery of member states from the pandemics, will be destined to “green” projects over the next seven years. The country aims to reach zero-net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and in the first half of 2020, over a fifth of Europe’s energy was generated by solar panels and wind turbines.

However, according to ISPI, the EU alone cannot lower global emissions, so the European Green Deal must be emulated by its international partners to be successful. China and the US together make more than 40% of emissions and, like other countries - Brazil, India and Australia, for example - are still far from a green recovery.

The USA creeps towards leaving the Paris Agreement

The Trump administration has formally weakened regulations requiring controls on the release of methane from leaks and flares in oil and wells. What’s methane? It’s a greenhouse gas responsible for a quarter (that’s right!) of global warming, produced by cattle, agriculture and industry. The new methane rule would be issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been dismantling Obama’s climate policies since 2017.

The US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on November 4, one day after the planned federal elections. It all seems to be a pretty gloomy scenario so far. However, the news that the California Senator Kamala Harris will be the running mate of Mr Biden gave hope for new positive outcomes for the climate. A few days ago, Ms Harris released the Climate Equity Act; a bill she had previously developed with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The move was a strong signal that the presidential team Biden-Harris would not only prioritise climate but also focus on securing the wellbeing of the most vulnerable communities, often low-income families, disproportionately affected by climate change.

Of course, whether or not the US leaves the Paris agreement very much rests on the elections actually happening on time…

Businesses take things into their own hands

As many governments cower away from climate change, some businesses are stepping-up themselves to fill the gap. bp, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, launched the ambitious plan of reshaping their business to a diversified supplier of clean energy within ten years. The multinational company, which shared its goal to become a net-zero company “by 2050 or sooner” in February, aims at developing 50GW of renewable generating capacity by 2030. The plan includes lowering hydrocarbon production by 40% and cutting emissions associated with carbon production and operations by 2030, while consistently increasing annual low carbon investment by 2025.

“All of this means we aim to be a very different company by 2030,” bp’s CEO Bernard Looney wrote on LinkedIn. “And that’s what the world needs. The next decade is critical in fighting against climate change."

To be fair, bp didn’t have much choice. The strategy was released when the company decided to cut its dividend by 50%, after recording a massive loss in the second quarter, (a change-or-die kind of situation). Like all major companies, bp suffered as lockdown measures to contain the pandemics limited travel and prices fell to their lowest in two decades, as Reuters reports. After their announcement, share prices increased by 6.5%.

Scientists confirm that it is indeed hot

Scientists confirmed what most of us had already noticed: it’s warmer than usual. This month, in several countries, temperatures were higher than normal, with many cities reaching record highs. The UK reached 36.4C on August 7, the hottest August day since 2003. Iraq and Lebanon reported new temperature records of 51.8C in Baghdad and 45.4C in Houche Al Oumara. According to NOAA, parts of Asia, Scandinavia, western Europe, Mexico, the South Atlantic Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean experienced record warm temperatures over the last six months. What could be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth was measured in Death Valley, California on the 16th of August at 54.4C.

Since the 1980s, every decade has been hotter than the previous. The American Meteorological Society reported that the last decade, 2010 to 2019, has been the hottest ever recorded. 2019 has been the second or third warmest year since records began in the 1800s and 2020 is likely to be even worse. Recently published research estimated a death rate for climate change comparable to the current leading causes of death, such as cancer and infectious disease by 2100 if no action is taken.

Climate change - it’s not fair...

What is striking about such results is the evidence that climate change will affect us drastically differently, depending on location and income. People living in countries that are already hot and moderately hot will suffer the majority of deaths. People living on a low income will be much more affected by climate change than others, as they will have fewer resources to adapt. We have seen a sneak peek of the future already, with farmers in Vietnam recently resorting to planting only at night to avoid crippling heat.

Yes - it’s already happening. Rising temperatures have already increased natural phenomena like hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts in exposed areas. Since the start of the Monsoon season in June, South East Asia has been heavily hit by floods. An estimated 17.5 million people have been affected, in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Nepal and South Korea. In South America, fires in the Amazon have increased by 81% compared with August last year, which creates concerns for both the planet in general and for Indigenous people who live in the forest.

Europe and the US aren’t exempt from climate change effects though either. In central Europe, extreme droughts are likely to become much more frequent, impacting crops agriculture and human wellbeing. They could increase sevenfold if no action is taken against global warming. At the same time, a reduction in CO2 emissions could halve their likelihood and shrink the affected land area. In the US, this year’s hurricane season will be “extremely active”, with seven to eleven hurricanes, according to the predictions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is the first time that the agency forecasts up to 25 storms, the higher record being 21 in 2005. “We expect more, stronger, and longer-lived storms than average,” Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center, told the Guardian.

Expecting the worst, researchers continue working on 'adaptations'

Scientists in the UK are trying to enhance photosynthesis to increase the growth of plants with less water. The team, from the University of Essex, used genetic manipulation processes on tobacco plants (don’t ask us why they chose tobacco…). They increased one of its enzymes and introduced a protein from algae and a new enzyme from cyanobacteria. Surprisingly, the plants’ ability to convert light into energy improved and they needed much less water to grow!

Over the next few years, researchers will experiment with soybean, cowpea and rice. Being able to grow food more efficiently would be a lifeline for societies dealing with droughts and overpopulation.

In other research news, there’s been plenty of work recently on electricity storage through super-capacitors, which can store electricity as a static charge in solids. In this study, nano fibres of a conducting plastic have been stored into the porous fired red bricks, which could then power small lights. If it were possible to increase their capacity, super-capacitors could become a low-cost alternative to the lithium-ion batteries. This technology could be useful for storing renewable energy, for example, from solar panels. Still, more research is needed, (the energy density of these power bricks is just 1% of that of lithium batteries). Super-capacitors are very interesting, as they can be charged more times than batteries before their capacity falls…

So, it’s been an eventful August!

It’s clear that we are living in an incredibly important time to make a difference. It could be voting for a candidate who takes climate change seriously, experimenting with a new transportation routine, or shaking up your company with a greener business plan. Innovations are also on their way to help us live more sustainably. If there’s one good thing that lockdown showed us, it’s that we can implement huge lifestyle changes when the challenge really calls for it - let’s take that with us when we go further into 2020!

This article is written by Martina, Capture's guest editor for the summer. Martina is Italian and enjoys nature, modern literature and travelling. She also enjoys eating, is a self-proclaimed 'buona forchetta' and is learning how to cook more vegetarian dishes - feel free to send her your best recipes!


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