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The year’s worst climate news you haven’t heard about

One of the busiest dealmakers in the global energy industry this year has been a company that didn’t exist 15 months ago. Blue Carbon, set up by a member of Dubai’s royal family last October, has been signing agreements over millions of hectares of land in Africa and elsewhere for carbon-offsetting projects.
Last Updated : 26 December 2023, 04:10 IST
Last Updated : 26 December 2023, 04:10 IST

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By David Fickling

It was a year when the world experienced its hottest 12 months on record. When China connected more new coal plants than ever before. US oil production hit the highest level of any country in history, while shipment volumes for LNG reached an all-time high. The annual United Nations climate meeting in Dubai left fossil fuel producers grinning, and climate campaigners fuming.

There’s been no shortage of bad climate news in 2023 — but worse still is the amount of troubling information that’s been drowned out by the bigger stories. Here are three important issues that have flown below the radar over the past 12 months. 

There’s Gold in Them Forests

One of the busiest dealmakers in the global energy industry this year has been a company that didn’t exist 15 months ago. Blue Carbon, set up by a member of Dubai’s royal family last October, has been signing agreements over millions of hectares of land in Africa and elsewhere for carbon-offsetting projects.

Just as industrial equipment pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a by-product of energy production, vegetation sucks it out as fuel for its own cells. By encouraging more forest growth, polluters can in theory cancel out their environmental debts. In reality, such carbon offsetting is rife with questionable accounting, turning it into a tempting way to avoid the hard work of decarbonisation. 

There’s been a welter of scandals over the past year showing that offsetting projects often overstated their benefits, culminating in a peer-reviewed study finding some 94 per cent of the credits analysed may be bogus. That’s prompted corporate backers in rich countries — including Shell Plc, Nestle SA, easyJet Plc and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. — to pull out. It’s not deterring oil producers.

With early-stage agreements that cover a fifth of Zimbabwe’s land mass and 10 per cent of Liberia, Blue Carbon is starting to resemble a “carbon colonialist,” akin to mid-20th century imperialist oil majors such as Shell and BP Plc. This month, it used the COP28 meeting in its hometown as an opportunity to recruit more governments. It’s helping turn Dubai’s oil wealth into a worryingly potent — and corrupting — tool of climate diplomacy soft power.

Carbon offsetting may be full of greenwashing, but it didn’t collapse in 2023. If anything, it’s just getting started.

Brake in India

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the travails of wind energy in Europe, where high interest rates, rising costs for materials, and supply-chain bottlenecks led to failed power auctions and plunging share prices.

Far less attention has been paid to the growing evidence that India is failing to hit its ambitious targets for clean energy. That may have the bigger impact on global emissions, though. Despite some of the lowest-cost renewable power on the planet, annual connections are stuck around 10GW to 15GW, and solar connections in the nine months through September fell 47 per cent from a year earlier, according to Mercom India Research, a consultancy. The country needs to be adding about 40GW each year to hit its target of 500GW by 2030.

Longstanding roadblocks caused by deficient grid infrastructure and land acquisition, plus the perennial financially distressed condition of state-owned electricity distribution companies, don’t show much sign of being fixed any time soon. If the world is to prevent India’s development putting further upward pressure on global emissions, the country badly needs to achieve its ambition to enjoy the world’s first green industrial revolution. That’s looking increasingly out of reach.

Sinking Hopes

You might think all the greenhouse gases spewed out by human society end up in the sky. Not quite. In fact, about three-fifths of the total is absorbed into oceans, soils, and plants. All the warming we worry about is being caused by the remainder.

These terrestrial and oceanic carbon sinks are vast and little-understood, making every piece of emerging scientific research vital to the question of how much we can afford to emit without causing devastating warming. One prominent 2022 paper in the scientific journal Nature, which found that the sinks appeared to be taking up all the carbon that human activity was emitting, was retracted in September after queries about the statistical techniques used.

Just a few weeks earlier, the journal AGU Advances published further troubling news on the global carbon cycle. Force enough carbon dioxide into a bottle of water with a soda siphon, and at some point the liquid will approach saturation. Something similar may be happening to the world’s seas. Rising CO2 concentration is making the oceans more acidic, and the way water circulates is changing, too. As a result, the seas have been taking up a smaller share of our emissions with each passing decade.

That’s a worrying sign. If the oceans stop working as carbon dumps — or, worse still, start pushing their dissolved CO2 back into the atmosphere — even declining emissions from human activities might not be enough to halt the rise in global temperatures.

Silver Linings

This sounds like an unmitigatedly depressing way to end the year — but there’s been some good news as well, not all of it hitting the headlines. Tomorrow we’ll look at three reasons to be cheerful.

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Published 26 December 2023, 04:10 IST

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