Shell can’t afford to wait until 2050 to adapt its business to climate change

By Steffen Böhm, University of Essex

Shell’s recent AGM was tumultuous. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly for the company to report on whether its activities were compatible with promised government action on climate change. The firm’s board reportedly faced a sometimes-hostile barrage of questions about its approach to the environment.

The key question shareholders are asking is this: what if the majority of Shell’s proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to avoid a dangerous global temperature increase of more than 2°C? Shell’s proved reserves are the company’s biggest asset against which it borrows money from banks and attracts investments from shareholders.

Most of the oil and gas majors are struggling to find enough new reserves to keep growing in the future. This is why Shell and all other major players in the industry have to go to more extreme lengths to find the fossil fuels that keep our lights on, cars on the road and their profits growing. Controversial and environmentally very suspect investments into Arctic oil drilling, US shale gas and Canadian tar sands have already tarnished the environmental credentials of Shell.

But Shell needs to find more oil and gas to keep its asset base growing and its profit potential intact. So it agreed to buy UK-based oil and gas exploration group BG Group for a staggering £47bn. To quote recent analysis, this “gives Shell a presence in the productive zone off the coast of Brazil, and will ensure that Shell’s own production is maintained over the medium term, taking away the requirement to make large discoveries to offset natural depletion”.

But now an entirely new threat hangs over Shell’s future viability as a leading fossil fuel company. A high-profile campaign has argued that most of the proven reserves by oil and gas majors are “stranded assets” – something Shell has denied in the past. This would render Shell’s acquisition of BG Group and its investments in the Arctic wasted capital.

[Read more…]

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Pope Francis prepares to deliver a powerful message on climate change

Pacific Standard: Representatives of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, perhaps the best-known and best-funded organization dedicated to denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change, were in Rome recently, respectfully calling on the Holy Father. Their stated goal for the visit—in their own words, including exclamatory punctuation—has been “to inform Pope Francis of the truth about climate science: There is no global-warming crisis!”

The timing of their trip, like that desperate-seeming exclamation point, is telling. At some point over the next two to three months, Pope Francis will be issuing a clerically significant form of papal missive known as an encyclical. For those whose Sunday-school transcripts weren’t good enough to get them into the College of Cardinals, an encyclical is a letter sent by the pope to Catholic bishops instructing them to take immediate action on a matter of church doctrine. Less formally, it can be thought of as a personal message from the pope to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, urging them to focus their spiritual energies on something the Church deems important.

That’s why so many people have been buzzing about what’s coming. As only the second encyclical to be signed by the new pope since he took office in 2013 — and the first that he has authored independently — this encyclical would be newsworthy no matter what it was about. But what makes it doubly so is its subject: climate change, and especially its devastating impact on global ecosystems. With more than a billion Catholics (and quite a few non-Catholics) hanging on his every word, Pope Francis will passionately make the humanitarian and spiritual case for acting on climate change — through, among other things, the conservation of resources, the pursuit of renewable energy, and the reduction of greenhouse gases. [Continue reading…]

ThinkProgress: Citing climate change as a major threat, one of the world’s largest insurance companies has pledged to drop its remaining investment in coal assets while tripling its investment in green technologies.

At a business and climate change conference held this week in Paris, AXA — France’s largest insurer — announced that it would sell €500 million ($559 million) in coal assets by the end of 2015, while increasing its “green investments” in things like renewable energy, green infrastructure, and green bonds to €3 billion ($3.3 billion) by 2020.

During the announcement on Friday, AXA’s chief executive Henri de Castries spoke about the threat that climate change poses to the environment, and the responsibility of insurance companies to deal with those threats. Last year, AXA paid over €1 billion ($1.1 billion) globally in weather-related insurance claims, citing climate change as a “core business issue” already driving an increase in weather-related risks.

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Seattle, environmentalists hope to put freeze on Shell’s Arctic ambitions

Al Jazeera reports: When a giant Royal Dutch Shell rig arrived last Thursday at the Port of Seattle, it was an unwelcome sight for a number of city officials and environmentalists. The 300-foot tall Polar Pioneer is one of two drilling rigs that Shell plans to use to explore for oil off the coast of Alaska this summer.

Earlier this month, the city declared that the port, where Shell has rented space to store its fleet, would need a new permit to house the rigs. The oil giant responded defiantly, hauling the mammoth platform into port without city approval. On late Monday, Seattle issued a notice of violation to the port, Shell and Foss Maritime, the company leasing the space to Shell.

The notice arrived amid several days of protests over the rig. Earlier on Monday, Seattle city councilor Kshama Sawant, a socialist and former Occupy activist, joined a few hundred demonstrators who blocked the gates of the terminal where the rig is moored. “The eyes of the world are on Seattle this week,” said Margo Polley, a city transportation worker who participated in the protest on her day off. “Hopefully we can build this movement, make it huge and stand up to these fossil fuel giants.” [Continue reading…]

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Climate change poses risk to U.S. military bases, says Obama

Reuters: Rising seas, thawing permafrost and longer wildfires caused by warmer global temperatures threaten US military bases and will change the way the US armed services defend the country, President Obama is set to say on Wednesday.

In his commencement address at the United States Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut, the White House said Obama will underscore the risks to national security posed by climate change, one of his top priorities for action in his remaining 19 months in office.

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It’s time to price in the hidden costs of fossil fuels

Nicholas Stern writes: The world is starting to realise that fossil fuels are not cheap. It is increasingly clear that oil, coal and gas have huge hidden costs that are omitted from prices, and they are therefore heavily subsidised.

The latest evidence about how expensive fossil fuels really are has been provided this week by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an organisation that monitors the progress of the world’s economy. It estimates that oil, coal and gas will receive US$5.3tn in subsidies this year around the world. That is the equivalent of 6.3% of global GDP. The IMF correctly argues that the damages and costs caused by fossil fuels, through impacts such as air pollution, congestion, traffic accidents and climate change, should be treated as subsidies if they are not included in the prices paid for oil, coal and gas.

The increase from previous estimates is due to a number of factors, particularly a deepening understanding of the immense costs of air pollution. The unpriced costs of fossil fuels are in addition to, and much greater than, the direct financial support for fossil fuels through, for instance, tax breaks for oil and gas exploration and subsidies for consumers. The IMF points out that coal receives the biggest subsidies worldwide, and has the largest negative impact on human health through the pollution that it causes. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change may put power grid at risk in the West

Climate Central: The ravages of climate change could severely hurt the ability of utilities in the 11 Western states to generate power unless they “climate proof” their power grid using renewables and energy efficiency, something they are not prepared for, according to a new study.

For nearly half of the West’s existing power plants, climate change could reduce their ability to produce electricity by up to 3 percent during an average summer and possibly up to nearly 9 percent during a decade-long drought, according to the study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers at Arizona State University. Coal-fired power plants in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Colorado are especially vulnerable, the study says.

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Study: Americans’ exposure to heat extremes could rise six-fold by mid-century

The Washington Post reports: Vastly more Americans will be exposed to dangerous heat waves in future decades because of a combination of rising temperatures and rapid population growth in the South and West, scientists warned in a study published Monday.

The risk of exposure to extreme heat could be as much as six times higher for the average U.S. citizens by the year 2070, compared with levels experienced in the last century, researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the City University of New York found. The projected change carries significant implications for Americans’ health, as extreme heat kills more people than any other weather-related event, the study’s authors report in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Both population change and climate change matter,” said co-author Brian O’Neill, an NCAR scientist and expert on modeling impacts of climate change. “If you want to know how heat waves will affect health in the future, you have to consider both.” [Continue reading…]

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A new solution: The climate club

William D. Nordhaus reviews Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman: Climate change has become the premier environmental issue facing the globe. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue to grow and accumulate in the atmosphere. The average global temperature in 2014 was the highest recorded over the last century and a half. Most scientists say that climate change is a “very serious problem.” Yet virtually no progress has been made in convincing the general public of its serious nature, nor have significant steps been taken to curb emissions and slow warming. Why has progress been so halting?

The risks of a warming world and potential policies to deal with these risks are the subject of a short book by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman. Wagner is a public policy specialist and lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund and has written widely on energy and climate change. Weitzman is one of the leading economic theorists of our day, having made fundamental contributions to environmental accounting, the relative merits of price and quantity regulation, measurement of species extinction, and in an earlier era the economics of central planning and the Soviet Union.

Their book on climate change is a witty, far-ranging, and literate set of observations, but — unlike many books on climate change — it is always informed by a deep understanding of the complexities of economics and particularly the difficulties of reaching international environmental agreements. While the entire book is worth careful study, its singular contributions are in three areas: the discussions of how nations may “free-ride” on the decisions of others, the ultimate curse on international climate policies; the uncertainties surrounding both climate change and its consequences; and the particular perils of geoengineering to reverse carbon-induced climate change. None of these subjects is well covered in most books on climate change, so I will concentrate on them in this review. [Continue reading…]

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CO2 trend is up, up, up

Climate Central: Any day now, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will reach their annual peak in a cycle driven by the collective inhale and exhale of the world’s plant life. But because of the extra CO2 pumped into the air by human activities, this year’s peak will be higher than last year’s, which was higher than the year before that — a sign of the unabated emissions that are driving the Earth’s temperature ever upward.

The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been measured at the observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano since 1958, producing a record that shows not only the yearly maximum and minimum driven by the spring bloom and fall dieback of plants, but also the steady climb in CO2 levels every year.

The last few years have seen a spate of atmospheric CO2 milestones in the Mauna Loa record: The first measurement of CO2 above 400 parts per million (ppm) in May 2013, the first month entirely above 400 ppm in April of last year, and this year will likely see several months with an average above that level.

While 400 ppm is something of a symbolic threshold, as the amount of extra heat trapped by it versus 399 ppm is minimal, it serves to show how far carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from preindustrial levels of 280 ppm. Studies have estimated that CO2 levels on Earth haven’t been this high in at least 800,000 years. [Continue reading…]

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The new coal frontier

The Guardian reports: Around 27bn tonnes of coal are thought to be locked under the ground of the Galilee Basin in the outback of Queensland. A huge proposed complex of coal mines is planned here, including the world’s largest thermal coal project.

So are railway lines and a massive expansion of the Abbot Point port on the Great Barrier Reef.

What will this mean for the Aboriginal community, the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s climate?

Adrian Burragubba is a strong man. His people, the Wangan and Jagalingou, have called this flat, arid outback in central Queensland home for tens of thousands of years, but now all that is under threat.

When the white man first came here in his great-grandfather’s time, Adrian, 54, a tribal elder and ‘law man’, says they were thought of as ghosts – strange, but welcome enough. But later generations were to bear the brunt of the interlopers’ greed. His grandfather and his father were both removed from the land and put on church-run properties to make way for a gold rush.

“Those places were like concentration camps,” he explains. “They wanted Aboriginal people out of the way, so you couldn’t leave them. The police would take you back if you did.”

Now the rapacious outsiders are back. Massive mining operations are looking to plunder a gigantic new coal frontier in the Galilee Basin. There are 247,000 sq km (95,400 sq miles) of coal: a land mass the size of Britain. [Continue reading…]

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One magical politician won’t stop climate change. It’s up to all of us

Rebecca Solnit writes: Lots of people eagerly study all the polls and reports on how many people believe that climate change is real and urgent. They seem to think there is some critical mass that, through the weight of belief alone, will get us where we want to go. As if when the numbers aren’t high enough, we can’t achieve anything. As if when the numbers are high enough, beautiful transformation will magically happen all by itself or people will vote for wonderful politicians who do the right thing.

But it’s not the belief of the majority or the work of elected officials that will change the world. It will be action, most likely the actions of a minority, as it usually has been. This week’s appalling Obama administration decision to let Shell commence drilling in the Arctic sea says less about that administration, which swings whichever way it’s pushed, than that we didn’t push harder than the oil industry. Which is hard work, but sometimes even a tiny group can do it.

Take San Francisco, population 850,00, which is near the very top for percent of people who believe in climate change, according to a pollster I spoke to recently. I wish that meant that there were 850,000 climate activists in my town, or even 425,000. But I’ve watched for two years (and sometimes joined) the group of people pushing the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest its half billion dollars or so in fossil fuel investments. In April of 2013, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an exhilarating unanimous (but nonbinding) resolution asking the Employee Retirement Board to divest.

Out of the 850,000 San Franciscans, seven or eight dedicated people have kept the divestment initiative alive, while the retirement board balks, stalls and grumbles about how straightforward changes in a modest portion of their portfolio are difficult, impossible, dangerous (even as they lost tens of millions when petroleum and coal stocks crashed). The activists pushing this forward are not one percent of San Franciscans, which would be 8500 people, or .1%, 850, but about .001% of people in the city. [Continue reading…]

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Lukewarmers – the third stage of climate denial, gambling on snake eyes

Dana Nuccitelli writes: It’s the hottest trend in climate denial. Long gone are the days when people can publicly deny that the planet is warming or that humans are responsible without facing widespread mockery. Those who oppose taking serious action to curb global warming have mostly shifted to Stage 3 in the 5 stages of climate denial.

  • Stage 1: Deny the problem exists
  • Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause
  • Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem
  • Stage 4: Deny we can solve it
  • Stage 5: It’s too late

Each of the 5 stages shares one main characteristic – all can be used to argue against efforts and policies to slow global warming. If the planet isn’t warming, or if we’re not causing it, or if it’s not a problem, or if we can’t solve it, or if it’s too late, in each case there’s no reason to implement climate policies. [Continue reading…]

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Offshore wind has the potential to power America

Climate Central: Offshore wind power, a source of renewable energy that Europeans have been investing in for decades, has not yet materialized in the U.S. as debates have swirled about the viability of wind farms off the country’s coastlines.

That, however, may be about to change.

The Block Island Wind Farm is set to break ground in July off the coast of Rhode Island, and with it, the future of offshore wind in the U.S. seems very real. If completed, it will be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., and if it is successful, it could prove that wind power generated by turbines off the coast is a viable enterprise similar to onshore wind farms, which generate about 4 percent of America’s electricity.

That could set the stage for other offshore wind projects all along the East Coast as the federal government expands the waters available for new offshore wind farm development. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for offshore wind to be part of the administration’s goal to generate 20,000 megawatts of renewable power on federally controlled public lands and waters by 2020, a major part of America’s efforts to tackle climate change with low-carbon energy.

The offshore wind power potential in the U.S. is huge, totalling more than 4,000 gigawatts if fully developed — about four times today’s total U.S. electric power generating capacity and enough electricity to power about 800 million homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s something that could benefit the many dense cities lining the East Coast, not far from where new wind farms could be built.

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MIT: ‘Massive’ solar expansion critical for climate

Climate Central: A “massive” global expansion of solar power — possibly enough to supply about a third or more of the world’s electricity — may be necessary by 2050 to reduce the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate, according to a report published by MIT this week.

Solar’s efficiency and abundance make it the clean energy source best suited to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But for it to make a big enough climate difference, the amount of solar power generation capacity on U.S. soil would have to increase from today’s 20 gigawatts to up to 400 gigawatts, or enough to provide power to 80 million homes, Robert Stoner, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative and a co-author of the report, said.

The study says that may not happen in the U.S. unless solar industry-supported funding and incentives are almost completely re-imagined. The solar industry currently supports keeping those incentives in place.

Those changes would include scrapping state renewable power generation standards for utilities and directly subsidizing solar power generation in lieu of tax credits, according to the report, “The Future of Solar Energy.” As new ways of funding solar power are being worked out, new technology needs to be developed for solar energy storage, smarter power grid management and new kinds of solar panels that use more abundant raw materials that would help keep solar panel prices low, the study suggests. [Continue reading…]

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Sea level rise accelerated over the past two decades, research finds

The Guardian reports: Sea level rise sped up over the last two decades rather than slowing down as previously thought, according to new research.

Records from tide gauges and satellites have shown sea level rise slowing slightly over the past 20 years. But as the ice sheets of West Antarctica and Greenland shed ever more water into the ocean, climate models show it should be doing the opposite.

“The thing that was really puzzling us was that the last decade of sea level rise was marginally slower, ever so subtly slower, than the decade before it,” said Dr Christopher Watson from the University of Tasmania who led the new study.

Watson’s team found that the record of sea level rise during the early 1990s was too high. The error gave the illusion of the rate of sea level rise decreasing by 0.058 mm/year 2 between 1993 and 2014 , when in reality it accelerated by between 0.041 and 0.058 mm/year 2 . This brings the records into line with the modelling of the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [Continue reading…]

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The next decade will decide what the world looks like for thousands of decades to come

Bill McKibben writes: The next 10 years will be decisive when it comes to the planet’s future — what we do (or don’t) will play out over geologic time.

It could, if we set our minds to it, be the decade when the planet’s use of fossil fuels peaks and then rapidly declines. We’ve built a movement that, for the moment, is starting to tie down the fossil fuel industry: from the tarsands of Alberta to the (as yet unbuilt) giant new mines of Australia’s Galilee Basin, the big players in coal, gas, and oil are bothered and even bewildered by a new strain of activist. They’re losing on the image front: when the Rockefeller family, the Church of England, and Prince Charles have begun divesting their fossil fuel stocks, you know the tide has turned.

And with it comes the sudden chance to replace that fossil fuel, fast and relatively easily. Out of nowhere the price of solar panels has fallen like an anvil from a skyscraper, dropping 75 percent in the last six years. Renewable energy is suddenly as cheap or cheaper than the bad stuff, even before you figure in the insane monetary cost of global warming. So in Bangladesh they’re solarizing 60,000 huts a month; the whole country may be panelled by 2020.

That rapid change wouldn’t be enough to stop global warming — we’re already seeing drastic changes, as anyone living through California’s drought can attest. We’ll continue to see record-breaking years (like 2014. And like 2015 so far). We’ll have to deal with record flooding. The ocean will grow more acidic. But maybe, if we really ratchet up the transition we’ll avoid a challenge of civilization-scale. [Continue reading…]

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How the California drought is increasing the potential for devastating wildfires

Time reports: California’s four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.

“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.”

In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report. [Continue reading…]

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Global carbon dioxide concentration hit record high in March, scientists say

The Guardian reports: Global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a new record high in March 2015, soaring to surpass 400 parts per million, scientists revealed on Wednesday.

The news came as a reminder that the international community has failed to come up with meaningful solutions to reverse the trend in greenhouse gas emissions that are a direct cause of global warming.

“I, and many other scientists, we are beginning to get worried. Because we see efforts that are not strong enough. We do not see the political will or the leadership to address this issue,” said James Butler, director of the global monitoring division at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The average in atmosphere carbon dioxide concentration observed in March has not been seen by scientists since NOAA monitoring started in 1957.

And scientific evidence suggests that these levels have been unseen for the entire history of human civilization as we know it.

Babylonian, Chinese and western civilizations were able to develop during a time of climate stability marked by carbon dioxide concentration levels of 270 to 280 parts per million, Butler said.

With the dawn of the industrial age, carbon dioxide concentration levels in the atmosphere began to climb, going from 280 parts per million in 1800 to 290 parts per million in 1900. In the last century alone, the rise in concentration is one that would normally be expected to happen over the course of 10,000 or 20,000 years, Butler said – definitely not 100. [Continue reading…]

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