Reporting climate change
LONDON FREELANCE Branch organised an event on reporting climate change on 23 September, with four distinguished speakers giving tips on covering it. Branch Committee member Stuart Smith noted that he had proposed the event before the covid chaos and it'd taken this long to come to fruition. He hoped that after it "you'll have some confidence in reporting on this very complex issue."
The National Union of Journalists passed a motion at its 2021 Delegate Meeting resolving to help UK journalism in particular better report the climate emergency. This was important with the COP26 United Nations climate conference coming up in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.
Our first speaker, Dr Susi Arnott, is a London Freelance Branch member, an accredited carbon literacy trainer and a documentary film-maker. She was "really energised to be on this panel". She is not a climate reporter: she started as a research biologist and 40 years ago moved to film-making. She introduced some themes from the courses she is offering to Branch members and others.
"The science is in," she reminded us: "now it is Code Red - radical change is coming," whether it'll be the radical change of climate chaos or that required to reduce it. We need "deeds not words" from governments on reducing climate chaos, and we have clearly gone beyond the state where we can talk about "tinkering with consumer behaviour". We need to be aware of "the potential benefits of meaningful action".
Her courses are "not a data dump - that'd be daft." Things are "changing day by day" - and Susi aims to "help with interpreting the data - from that on new initiatives to new scientific results". We must of course all bear in mind point 4 of the NUJ Code of Conduct: "A journalist... differentiates between fact and opinion."
Carbon: the basics
Susi gave us a flavour of her introduction to the fundamental science. "The element carbon is the basis of life as we know it." Its small and light atoms can link up with four other atoms of carbon or of other elements, allowing endless combinations, which are the molecules of distinct substances - including carbon dioxide ("CO2").
Plants and algae use solar power to "fix" CO2 out of thin air - they incorporate it into complex molecules, starting with glucose. They thus store that energy and begin the food chains and webs that make up the biosphere. Life as we know it builds with these blocks, as well as breaking them back down to release stored energy again. And in releasing that energy, they release CO2; and so it goes around.
But fossil fuels represent hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis. Burning them emits CO2 on a massive scale. Plants' photosynthesis can't keep up with capturing it. It's a tiny proportion of the atmosphere, but these molecules make an "insulating blanket" in the atmosphere: they ensure that less of the heat from the sun goes back into space and so more stays in the atmosphere and temperatures rise.
Carbon dioxide levels have always changed - for example during ice ages. But "with fossil-fuel-powered consumerism it's getting out of hand and CO2 and temperatures are rising exponentially."
There are other greenhouse gases, too: methane (CH4, nitrous oxide (N2O) and the "F-gases" - compounds containing the element fluorine, used in heating, cooling and refrigeration. "We need to stop emitting all of them now."
But "the climate does not respond to policy statements." It responds to actions - and only to the right actions. On her course "we often have to stop people digressing into long discussions about recycling their plastic."
In meeting this challenge, Susi concluded, "our brain-print is as important as our carbon footprint."
A long and winding road
Our next speaker was environment and sustainability journalist Catherine Early, also a London Freelance Branch member. "I have been writing about climate and energy for 15 years now," she said: "I started on business-to-business publications and went freelance in 2017." She now writes for all the different kinds of business and consumer outlets, including China Dialogue - which is "aimed at increasing understanding between China and the rest of the world on all these issues".
Catherine was at the Paris COP21 conference in 2015 "to see first-hand how this all works". Before then she "had mostly covered it all remotely, which was quite confusing".
Finally, climate change "is high on the United Nations agenda". Earlier that day Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a Prime Minister, had made his "Kermit speech" in which he told the UN General Assembly that "it's easy being green". That General Assembly session "seems one of the last chances to raise the tone for COP26," Catherine noted: it's "interesting seeing what people are saying - and what they're not saying."
The issues have featured heavily in meetings of the G7 group of industrialised countries and the wider G20, hosted by US President Joe Biden. All these are the political lead-up to COP26.
COP conferences have been happening since the early 90s and countries are still talking, and carbon emissions are still going up.
Before the Paris Agreement of 2015 we had the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, under which only developed countries had to reduce emissions - so the aspirations for carbon reductions did not apply to countries such as Brazil and China. The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
China is now the number one carbon emitter, responsible for 25 per cent or so. Politics with China are "really key to success" at COP26 - "if they don't take part the amount of emissions cuts everyone else will have to make will be unrealistic."
The "developed world" is generally aiming to reach "net zero" by 2050 - though what that means is open to debate, as discussed later.
The G20 countries are responsible for approximately 80 per cent of world carbon emissions - and of course have benefited from the economic effects of fossil fuel use. So they so have more responsibility.
And that means contributing to the costs of other countries: "The politics of international climate talks at the moment really hinge on finance." Catherine reminded us. More than 10 years ago the developed countries promised to ramp up contributions to the other countries to reach $100 billion a year in 2020 - to help them pay the costs of cutting carbon emissions and to help them fund work to be more resilient to the effects of the amount of climate change that is unavoidable due to emissions to date.
Again there are arguments: what counts toward this promise? Some countries have offered loans instead of grants. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that payments reached $80 billion by 2019.
The Paris Agreement's hopes for cutting emissions are based on "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs). These need to ramp up every five years. Many developing countries have expressed political will to do this - but only if they get financial help. So finance is important to cutting emissions too. The NDCs that have been submitted so far "are nowhere near enough," Catherine reported, to get to the Paris targets of limiting global heating to 2 degrees and to keep it under 1.5 degrees if at all possible.
Finance is also key to trust in the entire negotiating process. Professor Salemul Huq, Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, has said: "If the $100 billion is not delivered before COP26 then cancel it!"
There has been good news recently. US President Joe Biden at the UN General Assembly announced a doubling of US contributions to $11.4 billion by 2024 - though, Catherine reported, some have said that the US should provide $40 billion a year. Certainly, much has to be done to regain trust in the US after the former President Trump pulled out of the process. Biden and his special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry say "the US is back". The rest of the world: "so prove it."
China has not submitted an updated plan. But two days before the meeting it said it would end financing of new coal plants overseas. We didn't yet have the details - but the policy won't cover the use of coal in China.
There had also been a statement agreed between the US and the European Union on 18 September, promising to reduce methane emissions to 30 per cent per cent below 2020 levels by 2030. As Catherine reminded us, methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas and its effect is 86 times more powerful than that of carbon, but only in the short term, because it breaks down over a decade or two, reacting with ozone to form carbon dioxide and water. So, as Catherine pointed out, cutting levels of methane "has a big near-term effect".
What of other countries? The governments of Australia and of Brazil are "climate sceptics" and won't be helpful. India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had yet to submit any updated proposals. Russia has always been a bit of a puzzle. Its government "hasn't been so keen on climate action, and it has submitted an emissions target that allows more than the current level."
Susi had mentioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report in August. It concluded that climate change is "widespread rapid and intensifying" - and, Catherine observed, "considering the wildfires and floods and heatwaves we have seen this year, not many people are coming out and publicly denying this."
In conclusion: "there is a possibility that emissions reductions can be achieved - if the political will is there."
But all this is tied up with the rest of diplomacy. The US and China have been talking with each other about climate, despite being "quite suspicious of each other" - this has been expressed in argument over the origins of covid-19, for example. France is "really angry" with the US and Australia and the UK over the cancelled submarine deal (and that is also about influence in the Pacific). The developing countries see developed nations as having hogged covid-19 vaccines.
There's more, of course. Catherine recommended these sites:
‘I was shocked - things had changed’
Jess Shankleman is a reporter on energy transition and climate change for Bloomberg. She opened by mentioning to Susi that "I got an A* in physics - and I wish my physics teacher had told me to carry on." Lots of the science and environment journalists she works with have a humanities background too.
She started as a journalist in 2007 and after a spell in the Westminster lobby went back to covering climate change for Bloomberg just before the pandemic: "I was really shocked how much things had changed - so often it had seemed that nothing ever changed in the climate debate. While I was away covering politics they had launched Bloomberg Green, looking at greenwash and trying to look at carbon accounting in the same way we do financial accounting."
Jess recalled the Copenhagen conference in 2009 as "a failure as a COP - but it did agree on that $100 billion a year by 2020." As Catherine had said, "countries haven't met that goal - and as a result there's a lot of anger. Bangladesh and Indonesia say there was a quid pro quo: 'you said you'd give us the money and we'd cut the carbon'."
Carbon offsetting "has become something bigger and bigger. At the US Embassy last week the CEO of Microsoft UK was talking about how wonderful it was."
"The reason this voluntary carbon market exists," Jess noted, "is that attempts to have a global carbon market failed."
But there are problems. A colleague at Bloomberg, Ben Elgin, found that a well-respected carbon offsetting project in the US was claiming credit for a forest that was already a national park and thus was already protected. The key to carbon offset projects is "additionality": proving that the carbon taken up would not have been taken up anyway in the absence of the project. The US Nature Conservancy organisation went on to investigate this project themselves.
Mark Carney, until recently Governor of the Bank of England, and Bill Winters of Standard Chartered Bank have launched a task force to try to fix this. Their plan for scaling voluntary carbon markets is to create labels serving the same function as "fair trade" or "organic" labels on food, certifying high-quality schemes.
This is all, in theory, covered by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, a text which Jess said "slightly makes me want to turn my eyes up into my head". The UN wants to create a global regulated carbon market and there has been "a lot of talk between Brazil and the EU on how to avoid double-counting and so on" - starting with the simple step of proving that you have not claimed credit for the same patch of forest twice.
Bloomberg Green is, Jess says, "trying to integrate climate reporting across the newsroom". For example she wants to make sure that as hundreds of announcements by companies of how wonderfully green they are come in "we are discerning and don't just end up repeating greenwash."
There are three "layers" of the claim to be "carbon-neutral". "Scope 1" covers direct emissions. "Scope 2" includes indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling. And "Scope 3" covers end use of its products and emissions arising from goods and services that it buys - which typically make up 90 per cent of its emissions.
There is "lots of debate about how far out Scope 3 goes". Mining and oil companies in particular try to minimise it. Clearly, an oil company claiming that it is "carbon neutral" because it pays to plant trees that take up the carbon emitted by its offices - ignoring the carbon sales that are its business - is not being entirely honest. "If a company is not covering Scope 3, we tend not to report their announcements," Jess concludes.
Jess recommended some articles:
COP: a series of concentric circles
Richard Black is a former BBC Environment Correspondent and now Senior Associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Stuart asked him: how likely is success at COP26 in Glasgow? Richard wouldn't be betting his house on it. He paid tribute to those such as the Bloomberg team: who are "examining this money side of climate change are ahead of the game".
Richard recalled that in 1989 Margaret Thatcher - the UK Prime Minister with a chemistry degree - was famously the first world leader to call for action on climate change. International negotiations kicked off at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC: PDF), but also, and importantly, the Convention on Biological Diversity (PDF). That is having its own COP - split between virtual and face-to-face sessions in October 2021 and in April 2022 (note).
The UNFCCC set the pattern of governments agreeing to prevent dangerous anthropogenic emissions and accepting that richer nations have a duty to support the others. Since it is merely a "framework convention" it doesn't commit any country to do any thing. The idea all along was that there'd be other treaties that do.
The Kyoto Climate Change Conference in 1997 established the idea that the rich countries would take the lead. Annex 1 of the Kyoto Protocol listed countries that took on cuts and accepted they'd provide climate finance. The Protocol adopted the concept of "Common but Differentiated Responsibility": all countries are responsible, but some are more responsible than others.
There were some strange side-effects. Richard noted that "a lot of the [oil-exporting] Gulf states are categorised as 'poor countries' while former-Soviet states are in the 'rich' bloc." The US notoriously withdrew from the Kyoto process in 2021, under President George W Bush. "The attempt at another all-singing, all-dancing deal at Copenhagen in 2009" did not go well, as Catherine had noted. "Frankly," Richard observed, "after Copenhagen things were a bit of a mess. It was doubtful whether UN processes could work at all."
But COP21 in Paris in 2015 "reinforced faith among many that UN negotiations could actually do something". The Paris Agreement still did not include legally-binding commitments on countries' emission reductions, though. Most parts of this Agreement "were supposed to kick in from 2020 - and that's what makes COP26 so important: with covid it's become the new deadline" for countries to put their money where their mouth was.
Richard observed that we'd been discussing "COP" all along (as if we were inhabitants of the acronym forest). Why "COP"? It's the Conference Of the Parties, that is of the countries that have signed up to - become Parties to - the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent agreements.
"Do politicians go there aiming to save the world? No," Richard believes: they go "to further their national interest. That can mean speeding up some bits of the negotiations and can mean slowing down other bits."
Two key terms in describing the measures they're debating are "mitigation" and "adaptation".
- Mitigation is strictly about reducing the amount of climate change. Essentially: "What are the pledges and targets for reducing carbon emissions?"
- Adaptation is about action needed to reduce the harm done by the amount of climate change that is "locked in" by previous action and inaction: "the UN Convention states that poorer countries should be helped" with this "and should have equal status". This leads to discussion of "Loss and Damage" - as Richard put it, "if the emissions of the rich world have caused losses then the West should pay for it. Understandably the West isn't that keen to take this forward. The poorer countries are very keen to take it forward."
Detailed negotiation at COP26 will include tying up things like finishing the Article 6 rules on carbon trading, as Jess mentioned. The issue of agreeing common time-frames for reporting - for example on countries' progress toward meeting commitments they've made - "sound simple but it isn't".
Richard sees a COP as "a series of concentric circles". At the centre are the 195 government delegations that have to hammer out issues like these. Outside that circle are events sponsored by governments: these are not technically parts of the negotiation but are still important - what is said at them has official sanction. Outside that are "things that scientists and businesses do" and events they put on. And outside that are "all the colourful things that civil society gets up to" - the demonstrations and the cultural events.
"If you go to a COP, you will have to deal with much technical language. Many debates and decisions are known only by their acronyms. Most country delegates are lawyers" and they refer to things by, for example, paragraph numbers in documents spoken of only by their acronyms. You will hear conversations about things called "CT 1.75" and the like.
There is another set of circles within the country delegations, in that they operate as "blocs". There are the G20 and so on - the industrial countries; the "Less-Developed nations"; and the "Small Island Developing States," which include those that are most at risk of flooding.
And the formal proceedings (the "inner circle" above) form a sandwich. Some countries will send government ministers to the opening stages; then the middle involves only negotiators; then ministers show up again for the end stage of the negotiations. It's always interesting to see what country sends who and when.
Richard has covered three COPs for the BBC. He found that "you just give up on ever thinking that you can know everything that's going on. You rely on other informed people to keep up with what you couldn't get to."
And what is the UK's rôle: - it being the host country? "It has to take the lead in brokering an agreement. This is not about every government going in wanting an agreement."
"Brexit has already been an issue," with this, Richard observed, "because logically the UK should have been working with other EU governments. It has been doing that a bit, say with Italy, which is the co-host - but it hasn't been able to go to France or Germany and say 'give us a hand with this'."
So, in that brokering process, "what are the tactics to stop the blockers blocking?" Richard believed that at the level of Alok Sharma, the President of COP26 who will chair the top-level meetings, "they've got it together a bit. But Johnson and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab are... another matter."
The UK "can claim to be a leader in some ways. It was the first country to have a Climate Change Act" (in 2006, amended in 2008). "But the UK is not on target" to meet the emissions reductions called for.
When France hosted the Paris conference its government took the line that "this is a great honour and we look forward to hearing from all the countries and we respect everyone..." as Richard sees it. The UK has so far taken the line that "we're leaders and we're asking you people to do something..."
But "the shit has now hit the fan. If Paris was about rebuilding faith in the very idea of international initiatives, this is about fixing things now."
The President must overcome huge obstacles. (In international negotiations all countries present must be able to accept the final text and any can in effect block a particular part - there is no voting.) As Richard asked: "how is the national interest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia served by plotting a path to net zero carbon emissions?"
At a much more fiddly level, the financial part raises the issue of debt. "It can cost a less-developed nation three or four times what it costs in the UK to borrow money," Richard pointed out, "and covid-19 is making that worse." This issue "can't be solved at COP - but it's the same set of governments that can solve it."
And there are pressing practical issues, for example those connected with covid-19. "If you're coming to COP26 to represent a country in the Pacific you may have to do ten days' quarantine in Australia when you change planes, and another ten days in Glasgow when you arrive, and the same on the way back," Richard observed. "If a delegate tests positive - what? If members of the UK government have a plan they should let us know."
What is required, Richard concluded, are ambition and accountability. There needs to be powerful ambition to get a "clean transition" from the carbon-based economy. And all the countries have to be accountable for delivering on all the promises that they have made so far - "including those on support for adaptation and for loss and damage."
What do journalists get wrong?
Stuart asked the panel: what are the things that journalists most frequently get wrong in reporting climate change?
Susi was most concerned about "the social science" underlying the politics. "There is an assumption in the popular press that people don't want to spend any money on dealing with climate change - but there's also a great deal of anxiety about it."
She referred us to the BBC documentary The people versus climate change. And New Scientist had recently commissioned research with the Policy Institute at King's College London, which found, for example, that in the UK 71 per cent of 18-to-25-year-olds believe "environmental issues are big enough problems that they justify significant changes to people's lifestyles" and, contrary to prejudice, 74 per cent of 56-to-76-year-olds believe the same.
Catherine noted that "debates often get boiled down just to money. Is this because the journalists don't know very much about the other issues?" Are they reverting to money as familiar territory?
"When I was writing about this ten years ago," she recalled, "wind and solar energy were expensive. These costs have come down. There have sometimes been the right signals from government - especially concerning investment in offshore wind."
What has Catherine "shouting at the telly," though, "is people mixing up the cost of heat pumps and the cost of energy efficiency upgrades to their homes - and journalists talking to politicians and not to people in the industry" about such issues.
"People get climate change and air pollution mixed up," Catherine regretted: early in the lockdown articles that discussed in the copy the size of reductions in carbon emissions it might have caused "were illustrated with pictures of some nice blue sky... You can see pollution and you can't see greenhouse gasses - though of course some of the sources are the same, such as cars."
Worse, Catherine has "even had editors give me confused briefs that mix up climate change and air pollution".
What does ‘balance’ look like here?
Stuart asked about balance in reporting.
Jess noted that "at Bloomberg we have to be completely impartial - as did Richard at the BBC.. We're not opinionated journalists." She observed that "it's interesting to hear others' views - if you take a compassionate position and try to understand where other people are coming from." Of course the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia doesn't want to see its economy tanked by compulsory carbon cuts.
Catherine reported that "sometimes as a freelance I'm offered commissions that are basically 'please write: "everyone should do X"...' and... nope."
Richard is "not a big fan of campaigning journalism. A couple of years ago the Guardian launched a campaign calling for divestment from some specific entities." The problem then is: "if a few months later you need to cover a report about whether divestment is effective or not, how can you do that objectively?"
He said that deliberately focusing on the most alarming consequences of climate change can be counter-productive. He recalled "talking with a Conservative MP who's onside with reducing emissions and said that 'you get more impact by slightly underplaying it and letting people go on their own journey - they’ll see for themselves how alarming things are'." He agreed with Cindy who had asked in the session text chat about pieces describing what a world warmed by four degrees would look like: "part of your job is absolutely to inform people of things like that. As with covid, asking 'should you do this policy or that one' is not enough: you need to say "here is the range of outcomes and maybe the range of costs as well."
Who are we writing for?
Stuart asked the panel about their "imaginary reader". He presumed that Bloomberg can rely on a well-informed audience...
Jess retorted that at Bloomberg "we still explain everything. They may be well-educated in finance but they don't necessarily know about climate change." We "can always tell, when we're reading a story, when the journalist doesn't really understand something. They'll just use a piece of jargon in the hope that the reader will understand it."
Richard has recently been talking with sports broadcasters - "because now we have climate impact on sports, and we have stars urging governments to take action faster, you have sports bodies responding to that. Five years ago we would not have seen cricketer Mike Atherton using his weekly column to talk about climate change."
Suzy noted that a lot of people think they were no good at science in school. Perhaps the issue is numbers. People find it hard to grasp such concepts as an "order of magnitude". An increase from 10 tonnes a year to 100 is a one-order-of-magnitude increase, and so are increases from 100 to 1000 and indeed 100,000 to 1,000,000. "I use visual aids - and get people to talk with each other about these things."
Where do stories come from?
Stuart asked the panel where they find interesting stories. "Where do you find your pitches and what are editors interested in?"
Catherine is interested in more than the carbon cycle: "I find myself writing about 'Artificial Intelligence' and machine learning. How is technology helping? I've looked at digitalisation in the renewable energy industry and how satellite technology is helping with conservation."
"Coming up to COP26," she noted, "a lot of people are looking for explainers. A lot of business magazines are interested in COP and also biodiversity - though that still doesn't get enough attention." For her as a freelance who mostly writes features and analysis pieces, story ideas come from all over - sometimes from a straightforward press release, but other times from watching the whole field and noticing a trend in what people are saying.
Jess had interviewed Brian Eno - "the pandemic has meant I can talk with lots more people in more places than I could before. Go out and speak to people. I see a Tweet and think 'why didn't I call them three weeks ago?'"
Catherine "often gets an idea while I'm working on another story".
Richard believed that "we're living near the beginning of one of the most interesting global stories ever - a planned transition away from the fuels that've basically been the basis of how our society has developed - and doing it in 30 years."
He noted a question from Jenny Vaughan in the chat about Tanzania discovering fossil fuels - and what happens if they can't develop them? "Does having fossil fuels make you richer," he asked, and suggested we "look at Nigeria": certainly they don't make everyone in a country richer. "Who's running this in Tanzania? And there's lots of interesting stuff happening with renewables in East Africa. So, from that one idea, a whole slew of possible articles emerges."
Attendee Naomi submitted a list of questions and Jess noted that "some of these are the questions my editors are asking me every day."
On accommodation - since Glasgow hotels seem to be booked out already, Richard noted that travelling from Edinburgh "is reasonable, though there was talk of a rail strike... There are families willing to host activists," though they may be willing to extend the invitation: "look at the COP26 coalition."
On the order of play, Richard noted that the conference "will start with a bang, with political headlines. The middle part is often a bit boring - and then there's the decision. If you're going, probably go for the whole two weeks. There is a big press meeting area, though it'll be crowded... In Paris, we had three press conference rooms and each hosted a press conference every half an hour: I personally got booted off the platform because the next one was due in."
Jess noted that the world leaders' speeches "will probably follow UN summit style, in which they each get three minutes." Catherine confirmed that that was what had happened in Paris - in alphabetical order of country name. Richard noted that most of the proceedings will be in English, but some will be in French or other UN languages and there will be headsets with simultaneous translation.
Can one cover the event remotely? Yes, the panel said, but then you miss the chance to approach delegates to ask "but what's your take on that?" There will be a lot of politicians saying things publicly for their domestic audiences. You want to grab them and ask what they think.
The conference is supposed to finish at 6pm on the last Friday, but it's more likely to go on into Saturday or early Sunday. There will be draft negotiating texts that will be the bases of stories to meet deadlines - if you can get hold of them.
Bloomberg will be doing two briefings a day - and these will be sent out by email.
Jess recalled that "one of the best stories I had was when Trump had just been elected and all the journalists went to hear John Kerry saying what he's been saying for ten years. I went to a briefing by China and got a story that went viral - they were criticising Trump's stance."
The panel further recommends:
11 October 2021
note: The UN Biodivesity Summit kicks off today. It's the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity: the documents are here; the EU statement on it is here; and UK government's aspirations from June are here.
- 4 October 2021 We re-ordered Dr Susi Arnott's explanation of the carbon cycle for greater clarity and fixed a couple of typos.
- 6 October 2021 We corrected a typo in the chemical formula for nitrous oxide.