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15 Big Climate News Stories of 2015

As the year draws to a close, Carbon Brief takes a look at 2015’s top climate stories through the medium of numbers. Here are our top 15.

1. 1.5 Degrees Celsius Limit

Over the last 12 months, after years of taking the back seat, the idea of a 1.5C limit to global temperatures made steps into the limelight. The UN concluded its review of the 2C vs. 1.5C debate, suggesting that the lower limit would be “preferable.” A study found that the 1.5C target was still technically possible, though difficult. A guest post by Professor Myles Allen looks at the chances and the challenge ahead, while Carbon Brief also captured the views of a broad range of scientists.

The mounting pressure paid off, with the goal recognised in the final UN climate deal. So unexpected was its inclusion that climate scientists were “caught napping,” says Professor Piers Forster, in another guest post which surveys the task ahead of finding pathways towards the lower limit and the specific benefits of this long sought-after goal.

2. 188 Pledges

Over the course of the year, 188 countries submitted their “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, to the UN. These pledges, which outline how nations plan to reduce emissions, form the backbone of the new UN climate deal. Carbon Brief has been tracking these promises of action and the money that they will cost to implement—a grand total of $3.5tn. We have also looked in-depth at the ambiguities and ambition of the major economies, including the EU, the U.S., RussiaCanada, China, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Australia and India.

Infographic: Who has submitted their pledge for the Paris climate conference. Photo credit: Rosamund Pearce / Carbon Brief

Probably the most oft-repeated trope of 2015 was that these INDCs would not alone be enough to limit global temperature rise to below 2C. But according to a report from the UN Environment Program, the INDCs had political significance that can’t be expressed by mere numbers.

 3. 331 Seats

After May’s shock UK general election victory for the Conservatives, winning a narrow majority with 331 seats, we asked experts what it would mean for climate and energy. Their cautious welcome now looks optimistic. Apart from a commitment to phase out coal, there has been little positive policy news and plenty of surprise negatives.

The Tories’ efforts to cut support for renewables, ostensibly so as to deal with a projected overspend in green subsidies, arguably go far beyond their manifesto commitments. After good progress on renewables, the outlook looks gloomy and there are doubts over meeting future UK carbon budgets. Departmental budgets have also been cut.

4. 184 Pages

The release of Pope Francis’ 184-page encyclical in June brought with it a heightened interest in the subject of climate change and not just among the world’s 1.2bn Catholics. The document, called "Laudato Si’" contained strong words from the Pontiff on issues including urbanization, the destruction of nature and carbon markets.

Laudato Si’. Photo credit: Rosamund Pearce / Carbon Brief

The encyclical was covered by media outlets around the world, although an Italian paper faced censure for leaking it early. Carbon Brief investigated the years of scientific consultations that went into the making of the document, including a scientific report from two Pontifical Academies that called for a zero-carbon world. The Vatican wasn’t the only religious institution to get involved in climate change this year. The Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, released soon after, called for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

5. <$50 a barrel

Oil prices have continued to surprise in 2015. After starting around $50 a barrel, prices rose slowly before plumbing new depths as the year end approaches. The International Energy Agency said fuel efficient vehicles and reduced oil subsidies were helping create a “new normal” of sluggish demand despite low prices.

Carbon Brief took an early look at what $50 oil might mean for the global energy mix, as well as climate and energy policy back in the UK, where cheaper gas has also played a part in coal use reaching historic lows.

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6. 1,600,000,000 Tons

In Indonesia, 2015 will be remembered as the year that their forests went up in flame with even more ferocity than usual. Peat fires, resulting largely from illegal “slash and burn” clearance techniques, spread rapidly in dry conditions related to 2015’s strong El Niño and released 1.6bn tons of greenhouse gases. In just six weeks, this bumped Indonesia up from sixth to fourth place in terms of largest emitting countries, putting it ahead of Russia. Carbon Brief looked at the scale of the disaster.

Infographic: How do greenhouse gases from the Indonesian fires compare with the world’s biggest emitting countries? Photo credit: Rosamund Pearce / Carbon Brief

7. ⅓ of Adults

More than a third of the world’s adults have never heard of climate change, according to new analysis of a global survey from 2007-08. In some developed countries, including Japan, U.S. and the UK, almost all adults have heard of climate change—although it turned out to be a different story when the pollsters asked them if it was a threat. Liberia, which came bottom of the list, had an awareness rate of just one fifth.

Photo credit: Nature Publishing Group

8. 1 in 6 Species

Climate change will accelerate the speed at which species become extinct, according to a review of scientific papers released in April. Scientists found that as many as 16 percent or one in six, of plants and animals would be under threat of dying out if global temperatures should rise by 4C. The risks increase exponentially as the planet warms. The study found that South American species have the highest extinction risk at 23 percent, followed by Australia and New Zealand’s at 14 percent.

Predicted extinction rates from climate change by region and group. Photo credit: Rosamund Pearce / Carbon Brief, based on data from Urban

9. 2 Times

Consumption of meat in Europe is twice as high as healthy levels and this is bad for the climate, according to a Chatham House study released in November. Global demand for meat is predicted to rise by 76 percent by the middle of the century, which could put upward pressure on greenhouse gas emissions. But it wasn’t all bad news, with the study’s authors suggesting that government action to nudge people towards sustainable diets would not be as politically toxic as is often assumed.

10. Zero Emissions

This year, the nations of the world collectively agreed to aim for zero or more precisely net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is firmly based in climate science, but its adoption was still unexpected.

Infographic: Timeline for net zero emissions. Photo credit: Rosamund Pearce / Carbon Brief

Over the course of the year, the aim has been expressed in different ways. The G7 called for complete decarbonisation. The Vatican wanted zero carbon. COP21 briefly flirted with emissions neutrality. In the end though, the long-term goal of the final Paris climate deal is a “balance” between greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. That’s zero to you and me.

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 11. 1C of Warming

Scientists have said they expect 2015 to be the first year where the global annual average temperature surpasses 1C above pre-industrial levels. As the halfway point of the 2C limit embedded in international climate policy, this is a significant milestone for the planet. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says we’ve just had the hottest five-year period on record.

Observed global annual average surface temperature, relative to 1850-1900 average (in degrees C), according to HadCRUT4. Photo credit: Met Office

While this year’s El Niño was responsible for boosting 2015 temperatures higher than usual, scientists told Carbon Brief that it’s only a matter of time until temperatures rise beyond 1C more permanently. Indeed, the Met Office has already forecast that 2016 will surpass previous records to become the hottest ever year.

12. 0.6 Percent Fall in Emissions

During the second week of COP21 in Paris, scientists announced that global emissions look set to fall by 0.6 percent this year on the back of reductions in Chinese coal use.

Yearly changes in global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 2011. Photo credit: Jackson et al

After a decade of rapid increases, there’s now growing evidence that emissions have stalled worldwide, while UK emissions are falling through the floor. However, this is unlikely to signal a peak in global emissions just yet, the researchers caution.

The shift could mark a turning point for climate efforts, though even if the stalling of emissions is maintained, the world would remain a long way from its zero-emissions goal.

13. 9 Lowest Ice Extents

The nine lowest September ice extents in the Arctic have all occurred in the last nine years—a sign of the impact that climate change is having on the northernmost part of the planet. This summer, the Arctic saw its fourth lowest summer minimum on record, with ice shrinking to 4.41m square kilometers on the Sept. 11, according to the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Arctic sea ice extent as of Oct. 5 (blue line), along with daily ice extent data for four previous years: 2014 (green), 2013 (orange), 2012 (brown, dotted) and 2011 (purple). Photo credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

14. 341.4mm of Rain

Storm Desmond swept across the UK in early December, bringing a 24-hour record 341.4mm of rain in Cumbria, flooded homes and a renewed debate over the role of climate change in UK flooding. Carbon Brief wrapped up the media response and scientists’ views.

The year also brought record-breaking winds in the form of October’s 200mph Hurricane Patricia, though this caused less damage than March’s 190mph Hurricane Pam. Are these powerful storms linked to global warming? August’s 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina offered a chance for Carbon Brief to reflect on the latest science.

15. 94 Points

To celebrate its fifth birthday and the launch of its new website, Carbon Brief held its inaugural quiz night in the basement of a central London pub. The winning team was DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change) Science, which scored a grand total of 94 out of 125. We published the full quiz online, including questions set by the likes of Christiana Figueres and Amber Rudd, for those who feel like testing their brains.

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Trump's Response to Climate-Related Disasters: Open America's 'Crown Jewels' to Oil Drilling

By Andy Rowell

You would have thought that after being battered by two devastating hurricanes in recent weeks, which experts believe were fueled by warmer seas caused by climate change, even the most die-hard climate denier would think again.

But you would be wrong.

You would have thought that as the cost of rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey mounts, with an estimated bill of $150 billion so far, that politicians would press to move away from a fossil fuel economy.

But you would be wrong again. In fact the opposite is happening.

Instead of pushing for clean technology and to end our oil addiction, the Trump administration is quietly pushing to open up one of America's great last wilderness areas, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil drilling.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—or ANWR for short—has been described as "one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world," and "the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System and one of the most important protected areas on Earth."

Anyone who knows about contemporary American petro-politics will know that the fight over ANWR is not new. It is a 40 year "multi-generational" fight. The naturalist, Peter Matthiessen, once called the battle over ANWR the "longest running, most acrimonious environmental battle in American history."

The oil industry and its allies have long salivated over the prospect of drilling in the refuge's 19.6 million acres. They have long argued that the refuge, home to caribou, polar bears and many endangered species, also houses an estimated 10 billion of barrels of recoverable oil.

There could be more oil, there could be much less, there could be none—no one really knows for sure.

The industry has wanted to drill the refuge for decades, but have been stopped by a determined coalition of environmentalists, First Nations and conservationists.

But for how much longer? When Trump became president he said that opening up ANWR was a top priority. And it seems that despite the recent Hurricanes, Trump is pressing ahead to do this.

As the Washington Post reported at the end of last week: "The Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... with a draft rule that would lay the groundwork for drilling."

Although the Trump administration is pushing for the move, the final say on whether drilling goes ahead lies with Congress.

But in the meantime, officials from the Interior Department—now stuffed full of pro-oil appointees—are quietly modifying a regulation from the 1980's that would allow the industry to undertake seismic surveys.

The Post acquired a leaked memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director, James Kurth, to prepare an assessment and a proposed rule to update regulations which go back to the eighties.

Kurth wrote: "When finalized, the new regulation will allow for applicants to [submit] requests for approval of new exploration plans."

Once the rule is finalized, companies could bid to undertake seismic testing in the refuge.

Environmentalists are naturally outraged. Defenders of Wildlife president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, told the Post: "The administration is very stealthily trying to move forward with drilling on the Arctic's coastal plain ... This is a complete about-face from decades of practice."

"This is a really big deal," adds Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail."

It looks like this battle will go to the courts. It could drag on for years. The stakes are huge. As Robert Mrazek, a former New York congressman and chair emeritus of the Alaska Wilderness League told a recent article in Fortune magazine: "ANWR is an American Serengeti. You can have the oil. Or you can have this pristine place. You can't have both. No compromise."

Sarah James, an ambassador for the Gwich'in First Nations, who lives close to the refuge and who opposes oil development, adds: "If you drill for oil here, you will be drilling into the heart of our people."

Manfred Bortoli

New Agreement Offers Brighter Future for Pacific Bluefin Tuna

By Amanda Nickson

The Pacific bluefin tuna is among the most depleted species on the planet, having been fished down more than 97 percent from its historic, unfished size. For years, this prized fish has been in dire need of strong policies that would reverse that decline, but the two organizations responsible for its management—the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)—failed in their recent efforts, allowing overfishing to continue and further risking the future of the species.

Last week, however, at a joint meeting of the WCPFC Northern Committee and IATTC, Pacific bluefin received a much-needed respite when its primary fishing nations—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and the U.S.—reached agreement with other member states on a long-term plan that would rebuild the population from its current status of 2.6 percent of pre-fishing levels to 20 percent by 2034. This agreement, if properly implemented, would start the species—and the fishing industry that depends on it—on a path toward sustainability.

After decades of inaction, why did these two fisheries management bodies agree to take the needed steps toward rebuilding? Because ignoring the problem became impossible for managers. In the past two years, three nations exceeded their catch limits. Amid increasing calls from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others for a complete fishing moratorium, and in a worst-case scenario, an international trade ban, the government representatives to the WCPFC committee and IATTC finally stepped up to make a change.

Perhaps most significant was the course reversal by Japan. By far the largest fishing nation for, and consumer of, Pacific bluefin, Japan had long resisted proposed rebuilding plans. This year, though, thanks in part to strong international pressure and growing media attention within the country on the plight of the species, the Japanese delegates dropped that opposition and helped make progress that just a few years ago seemed far out of reach.

Despite this commitment, the work to help Pacific bluefin recover has only begun. In the fishing season that ended on June 30, Japanese fishermen exceeded their catch limits by 334 metric tons, and with many reports of illegal fishing in Japan's waters, the real amount could be higher. The U.S., South Korea and Mexico also exceeded limits over the past two years. Rebuilding the species under the new quotas and timeline will be nearly impossible if such overages continue. All countries that fish for Pacific bluefin must pledge to strengthen their domestic controls and monitoring programs to guarantee that the commitments to rebuilding made this year are not squandered in the future.

The decision on Pacific bluefin made at the joint meeting could signal a move toward a greater focus on conservation at regional fisheries management organizations like the WCPFC and IATTC. This action by major fishing nations indicates that concrete action is possible. Fishermen and fleets now hold the key to a sustained recovery, and all countries must work together to uphold the new rules. If they can do that, real change on the water may come sooner than many of us expected.

Hurricane Irma damage in northeast Florida. St. Johns County Fire Rescue

Why Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Won’t Lead to Action on Climate Change

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It's not easy to hold the nation's attention for long, but three solid weeks of record-smashing hurricanes directly affecting multiple states and at least 20 million people will do it.

Clustered disasters hold our attention in ways that singular events cannot—they open our minds to the possibility that these aren't just accidents or natural phenomena to be painfully endured. As such, they can provoke debates over the larger "disaster lessons" we should be learning. And I would argue the combination of Harvey and Irma has triggered such a moment.

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Naomi Klein Warns Europe May Water Down Paris Accord to Win Support from Trump

President Donald Trump on Tuesday is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly. Climate change is expected to be high on the agenda at this year's gathering.

As the world leaders meet, another major storm—Hurricane Maria—is gaining strength in the Caribbean and following a similar path as Hurricane Irma. The current forecast shows Maria could hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm as early as Wednesday. The U.S. Virgin Islands, which were devastated by Irma, also appear to be in line to be hit by Maria.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that the Trump administration is considering staying in the Paris climate agreement, just months after the president vowed to pull out of it. The White House denied the report. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday signaled Trump may back away from the Paris accord, but National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster gave a different message on Fox News Sunday.

We speak with best-selling author Naomi Klein, a senior correspondent for The Intercept. Her most recent book, "No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need," has been longlisted for a National Book Award.

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Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, U.S. military forces hadn't even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilized to fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.

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