Blog: Cropped 22 March 2023: Willow project approved; Post-Brexit trade … – Carbon Brief

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


US president Joe Biden has approved a new oil-drilling development in north-west Alaska, raising outcry – and lawsuits – from those who point out that this approval is at odds with Biden’s climate agenda

The UK is also putting its climate agenda at risk in its attempt to join a Pacific trade partnership, says the Climate Change Committee. Under the partnership, the UK will likely be importing higher-carbon beef than it produces at home. It is also set to remove tariffs on Malaysian palm oil, a product with a high deforestation footprint.

As the International Seabed Authority meets, debates continue between those who want to exploit the seafloor for energy-transition-critical minerals and those who are concerned about its environmental and ecological impacts.

Key developments

Willow project approved

NO MORE DRILLING?: US president Joe Biden approved a “mammoth” new ConocoPhillips drilling project in Alaska, Bloomberg reported. At its peak operating capacity, the Washington Post wrote, the Willow site will produce 180,000 barrels of oil each day, which “would lock in an estimated 9.2m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year” for the next 30 years. The development, located in “the remote tundra of Alaska’s northern Arctic”, will consist of new oil pipelines, more than 200 wells, a processing plant, a gravel mine and an airport, the Guardian reported. The paper noted that Biden “has approved nearly 100 more oil and gas drilling leases than Donald Trump had at the same point in his presidency”, despite promising on the campaign trail that there would be “no more drilling on federal lands, period” if he were elected. ConocoPhillips has held the lease rights on the area since the late 1990s. The Guardian pointed out that the Biden administration has “signalled that the company would have probably prevailed in a court challenge if the project was rejected” due to those long-held lease rights.

WON’T DO MUCH: Initially, ConocoPhillips planned to drill in five areas within north-west Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve; this was scaled back to three in the final approval, reported El País. The Spanish outlet added that Biden “has announced additional environmental protection over a vast area of the reserve”. It also noted that Willow’s defenders see the development as a promising source of employment and an “important contribution” to US energy independence. But the Atlantic wrote that “Willow probably won’t do much of anything”, noting that by the time the project comes online, “we’ll have more than enough [renewable energy] to keep the lights on without additional drilling”. 

‘RECKLESSLY IRRESPONSIBLE’: US interior secretary Deb Haaland was reportedly “choked up” during a meeting with “key environmental advocates and Indigenous groups that opposed the project” in the weeks leading up to its approval, CNN wrote. The outlet added that its sources took Haaland’s reaction “as an indication that she was personally not in favour of the project”. Former US vice president Al Gore called approving the project “recklessly irresponsible”, according to the Guardian. He told the newspaper: “We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos.” Analysis by the newsletter HEATED found that 75% of news stories covering the story “framed the project’s importance primarily as [a] political battle with environmentalists, as opposed to a planetary concern”, adding that the climate coverage “was not generally a priority”.

CONCERNED COALITIONS: The move to approve the Willow project was immediately challenged by environmental groups. E&E News reported that “a coalition of environmental and Indigenous groups” had filed a lawsuit alleging that “the federal government failed to consider the project’s indirect and direct climate risks, as well as harm to wildlife”. A separate lawsuit (pdf) was filed by EarthJustice and another coalition of environmental groups. Protesters interrupted an event on US climate leadership, stopping White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi from beginning his remarks, Reuters reported. The newswire added that “Zaidi engaged with the protesters for a few minutes”, highlighting the administration’s efforts on the Inflation Reduction Act. Further protests were planned in the wake of the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis report, reported progressive news outlet Common Dreams

Post-Brexit trade

MEAT IMPORTS: As part of the post-Brexit trade deal with Canada and Mexico, the UK will “import high-carbon beef and low-welfare pork”, reported the Guardian. The outlet pointed out that in Canada, which has 7,400 pig farms, pigs face practices such as castration, mutilation of ears and tails and teeth trimming. Canada also allows for keeping sows in small stalls “that do not give them room to turn around”, according to animal charities – a practice the UK has banned. In Mexico, pigs are also generally reared under intensive conditions. 

CLIMATE COMMITMENT: The Climate Change Committee, which is the official climate advisor to the UK government, warned that importing meat with a higher carbon footprint could cause the UK to go back on its climate commitments, the Guardian wrote. The trade deal, known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), raised concerns among a group of Conservative MPs and peers who oppose meat imports from Canada. However, a government spokesperson told the Guardian that “we will not compromise the UK’s high food safety and animal welfare standards in trade negotiations”. The National Farmers’ Union “warned it would not accept any further imports of beef after trade deals with Australia and New Zealand were accused of undercutting livestock farmers”.

CONTROVERSIAL PALM OIL: Meat is not the only product that will be affected by this partnership, which is currently made up of 11 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico and Malaysia. The UK is planning to cut import tariffs on Malaysian palm oil in order to enter the partnership, the Financial Times reported. Palm oil is recognised as one of the main drivers of deforestation worldwide, and environmental campaigners have been concerned about the move, the paper added. Malaysia has demanded the UK remove palm oil tariffs, which are currently as high as 12%. Doing so “makes it very hard for the UK to call itself a climate leader committed to tackling deforestation and protecting precious habitats of endangered species”, Alex Wijeratna, a senior director at the global advocacy organisation Mighty Earth, told the Financial Times.

CLIMATE RISK: The CPTPP has other environmental implications, said LabourList, an outlet that publishes news about the UK’s opposition Labour Party. The Pacific trade deal includes the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which allows companies to sue governments when they make changes in legislation or regulation that affects a company’s bottom line. “The assessment of these cases is not carried out through the ordinary courts but made by a separate private corporate system of tribunals,” LabourList wrote. Such “secret tribunals” have been used by fossil fuel companies “to challenge climate policy around issues such as coal phase-out and fracking bans”, noted Global Justice Now, a democratic social justice organisation based in the UK. 

Ocean news roundup

DIPLOMATS DEBATE: The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is currently meeting at its headquarters in Jamaica. Occupying “centre stage” is the debate between the need for deep-sea mining to provide critical energy-transition minerals and the need to conserve under-explored ecosystems, said the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. ISA secretary general Michael Lodge “has pushed diplomats to accelerate the start of industrial-scale mining at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean”, according to the New York Times. Some diplomats have alleged that Lodge “stepped out of line” in defiance of his role as a neutral facilitator, while he called this “a bold and unsubstantiated allegation, without facts or evidence”. Lodge has previously “mocked concerns about potential environmental harm” from seabed mining, the New York Times reported.

DEEP-SEA SCRAMBLE: In a column for the New York Times, Dr Diva Amon, a marine biologist, wrote that “mining hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean floor could inflict irreversible damage on ocean health”. Amon, who directs a Trinidad-and-Tobago-based ocean conservation non-profit, noted that approval for mining activity regulations could arrive as early as July of this year. She wrote: “After that, a scramble to mine the deep sea could commence. And once it begins, there will be little hope of reining it in.” Amon called it “deeply worrisome” that those lobbying the ISA for deep-sea mining “don’t appear to prioritise equity in their plans”. 

HIGH SEAS SPOTLIGHT: Several outlets carried further analysis of the agreement of the “High Seas Treaty”. The Guardian wrote: “On paper at least, countries nearly have a complete strategy for action on the three planetary crises of our era: the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and pollution.” It added that the treaty – alongside the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December – has been greeted with “cautious optimism”. The Economist proclaimed that “every part of the sea must flourish if the oceans are to thrive”. It noted that countries have a “long history of making ambitious but unfulfilled promises about biodiversity”, but wrote that at least “proper attention” is now being given to the ocean. The New Yorker ran a comment piece by Dr Jeffrey Marlow, a marine scientist who attended the talks as an observer. Marlow wrote: “The negotiations reminded me of live footage from the deep-sea whale falls and methane seeps that I research: each moment could feel dull, but its contents were profound, and the entire landscape could change in the span of a brief daydream.”

News and views

DROUGHTS IN ARGENTINA: The South American country faces its worst drought in 60 years, putting the country’s crops at risk, Reuters reported. Argentina is the world’s top exporter of processed soy and the third exporter for corn, but the drought “has led to repeated sharp cuts to soybean and corn harvest forecasts”, the newswire wrote. Argentinian farmers have grown 50m tonnes of soy, corn and wheat less than usual, and are “facing losses of $14bn”, Reuters reported. During the first 10 days of March, parts of Argentina registered temperatures of up to 10C above normal. “There is nothing similar that has ever happened in climatic history in Argentina at this scale,” climatologist Maximiliano Herrara told CNN. (Carbon Brief has covered rapid attribution studies examining the role of climate change in Argentina’s record-breaking 2022 heatwave and the 2022 South American drought over the past few months.)

GOING DUTCH: On 15 March, FarmerCitizenMovement (BBB) “landed a major victory” in the Dutch provincial elections, Politico reported. The pro-farmers party defeated Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The outlet pointed out that Rutte’s policies aimed at reducing nitrogen emissions from farms “triggered huge farmers’ protests last summer”. With this result, the rural party will occupy 15 out of 75 seats in the senate, “becoming the largest force in the Parliament’s high chamber” – despite previously having no senate representation, wrote Politico. “The BBB aims to fight government plans to slash nitrogen emissions harmful to biodiversity by dramatically reducing livestock numbers and buying out thousands of farms,” added BBC News

‘SEAWEED-AGEDDON’: A 5,000-mile-wide (more than 8,000 kilometres) “blob” of seaweed is drifting across the Atlantic Ocean towards the coast of Florida, WESH, a Daytona Beach, Florida-based TV station reported. Such patches, made up of a type of algae called sargassum, occur annually, but this is “largest ever seen for this time of year”, the station continued. Local tourism boards are concerned about the “unpleasant smell” that the “seaweed-ageddon” will wreak on the beaches as the seaweed decomposes – if it comes ashore, which is not guaranteed. But Scientific American reported that, in some places, the algae is already coming ashore and its “early arrival is raising concerns about what this summer might bring”.

MASSIVE TREE-PLANTING: Bloomberg reported that Iraq plans to plant 5m trees across the country to alleviate climate change impacts. The initiative, led by prime minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, comes after years of drought impacting more than 7 million people across the country. Iraq has “experienced higher temperatures, persistent drought, an increase in dust storms and a crop area cut by half”, the outlet wrote. Al-Sudani called on Iraq’s allies and the UN to support these efforts and announced that Iraq is looking to host a regional climate conference. Al-Sudani said his country was promoting an “Iraqi vision for climate action”, which includes renewable energy and water treatment projects, as well as reducing industrial gas flaring, Agence France-Presse reported via 

LAND-GRAB CONFLICT: Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua are waiting for a response after making complaints against the “increasingly violent conflict” they have faced from settlers since establishing a Green Climate Fund (GCF) project, Climate Home News reported. The project aims to reduce deforestation and intensive livestock grazing in Nicaragua’s Bosawás and Rio San Juan biosphere reserves, which hold 80% of the country’s forests, the outlet added. Indigenous peoples have reported two attacks against the communities over the past week. Five people have died. Indigenous groups have accused settlers of grabbing land to exploit forestry resources and expand their cattle farms. According to a document obtained by Climate Home News, the project violated GCF procedures and safeguards, such as consultation with Indigenous peoples.

CAMBODIAN COMMUNITIES: Less than 10% of Cambodia’s Indigenous communities have received their communal land titles since 2009, when the government first started issuing them, reported CamboJA News. It added that “Indigenous activists and rights groups [are] bemoaning the notoriously slow process”. The granted titles cover around 39,000 hectares of land. A Tumpuon community leader told the outlet: “The Indigenous peoples are facing the loss of their culture [and] identity.” Without these rights, communities face “threats from illegal land grabs and local corruption”, CamboJA News added. However, it pointed out, “even when they hold titles, communities face a lack of support”.

BBC BACKLASH: The BBC will not broadcast an episode of a new series on British wildlife narrated by Sir David Attenborough over fears of a “rightwing backlash”, the Guardian reported. The episode is the last of a six-episode series; the other episodes will be broadcast in primetime slots, while the sixth will be available only on the BBC iPlayer service. The final episode examines the loss of nature in the UK and its causes. The decision has angered many groups “who fear the corporation has bowed to pressure from lobbying groups,” the outlet pointed out. The BBC’s press office tweeted that these allegations were “totally inaccurate”, saying that the topic of nature loss was “always” planned to be covered in a “separate film” – not a sixth episode. In a separate column in the Guardian, veteran environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean called the BBC “timid” for their decision. Lean added that the sixth episode has been attacked for being funded by wildlife groups, including WWF UK.

Extra reading

New science

Crop switching can enhance environmental sustainability and farmer incomes in China

A new study found that crop-switching – changing where certain crops are grown or introducing crop rotations – can contribute 23-40% towards fulfilling China’s 2030 agricultural sustainability targets. By combining data on crop-specific yields, harvested area, environmental footprint and farmer income, researchers quantified the sustainability of crop production, then optimised modelled crop distribution to meet sustainable agriculture targets. They found that crop-switching has several co-benefits, such as reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 8%, while increasing farmer incomes up to 7.5%. Such a crop strategy could help achieve China’s targets “while improving farmer incomes and maintaining national production on existing croplands”, said the study.

Dancing to a different tune, can we switch from chemical to biological nitrogen fixation for sustainable food security?
PLOS Biology

A new study laid out directions for future research on enabling a wide range of plants to absorb nitrogen from soils and “fix” it into a form they can use. Researchers examined literature on root nodules – a symbiotic relationship between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria – to identify seven “unsolved mysteries”. Solving these mysteries “might help to overcome the barrier of achieving self-fertilising crops”, the authors wrote, which would “empower farmers to maximise their productivity sustainably”. They concluded that “if the field continues to advance at the pace it has in the last two decades, then we hope a solution that delivers secure, sustainable and affordable food will be in reach within the next decade”.

Not just flowering time: a resurrection approach shows floral attraction traits are changing over time
Evolution Letters

A new study found that under a changing climate, plants are modifying some of their traits, such as flowering time and petal size, to attract more pollinators. The researchers investigated the adaptation of the common morning glory by taking seeds collected at different time points and raising them together. They found that over time, the flowers selected towards increased petal sizes and had earlier flowering times. The researchers concluded that many traits “may underlie adaptive responses in plants to the complex and rapid environmental changes associated with contemporary global change and biodiversity declines”. 

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected].

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