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Some of the biggest economies in Europe- Great Britain, Germany and Spain- have recently achieved new records in solar energy generation, in part due to a drop in air pollution as a result of Covid-19 shutdowns, which has resulted in clearer skies and increased production of photovoltaic cells.

Solar Energy in Europe: Statistics

Great Britain’s solar production peaked at 9.68 GW in late April, up from a previous record of 9.55 GW set in May 2019. Germany generated a record-high 32.2 GW of solar power in the same period, accounting for 40% of the country’s electricity needs. 

February became the greenest month on record for UK electricity generation, with average carbon intensity- the CO2 emissions produced per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed- reaching a new low. 

Lockdown measures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have seen a significant reduction in electricity demand across the UK. This change in demand, along with favourable weather conditions (sunny and cool- which allows solar panels to perform at their best) and a decline in air pollution, aided in the solar energy generation record throughout not only the UK, but the rest of Europe. The UK has seen at least a 25% decline in nitrogen oxide levels in recent weeks, but the drop is thought to be more pronounced, up to half, in the most polluted places in the country; air pollution can block solar radiation and make panels dirtier. Substances like sulfur dioxide also result in more cloud cover, reducing the output of solar photovoltaic systems. 

You might also like: Renewable Energy Can Support Economic Growth Post-COVID-19

Chris Hewett, chief executive of the UK’s Solar Trade Association, says, “Ideal weather conditions and lower levels of pollution than normal mean solar is providing record levels of cheap, clean power to the grid.” 

In late March, Spain generated 6.3 GW of solar energy, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s electricity needs. This is the result of last year’s boost in installations, which expanded new capacity by 4.7 GW, making it the largest market in Europe.

In early April, Iberdrola grid-connected the 500 MW Núñez de Balboa project. With this extra capacity, the new record may have already been broken; the statistics for April will be released later this month. 

Records are common at this time of year- panels installed in the previous six months make their first significant contribution to the grid. However, the effect is more pronounced this year.

A study published in Nature last year examined how much air pollution impacted the output of solar assets in China.

The researchers found losses of 11-15% between 1960 and 2015. The study also found that if pollution decreased to the levels seen in 1960, an extra US$1.9 billion of electricity could have been generated in 2016. China is forecasted to have 400 GW of installed solar by 2030; the additional revenue could reach US$6.7 billion a year.

Read the latest environmental news that made the headlines around the world this week on Earth.Org’s Weekly News Roundup.

Nearly one in five of Australia’s big polluters breached government-set emissions limits last year

Data from the Australian government’s Clean Energy Regulator shows that nearly one in five of Australia’s big polluting industrial sites increased greenhouse gas emissions above government-set limits last year.  

Combined, they emitted about 790 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide more than they would have had they stayed within their limit set before the start of the year. Companies in breach of these limits without good reason must either buy carbon credits or pay a penalty to offset those emissions, but they went unpenalised. 

Climate-damaging products should come with smoking-style warnings, experts say

Warnings similar to those found on cigarette packets should appear on high-carbon products, from airline tickets and energy bills to petrol pumps, a group of public health experts writing for the British Medical Journal believe. 

The experts say that the labels would be a cheap but highly effective intervention that would make consumers aware of the impact of their purchases on climate breakdown. High- carbon health labels could show pictures of damaged lungs from air pollution, or highlight severe weather such as flooding and heatwaves. Warnings in other countries could include the increased spread of dengue fever and malaria driven by global heating. 

Great Barrier Reef’s latest bleaching confirmed by marine park authority

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has confirmed the natural landmark has suffered a third mass coral bleaching episode in five years, attributing it to the accumulation of heat, particularly through February. The severity of the damage varied, but some areas that had been spared during mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 had now experienced moderate or severe bleaching. About half of the reef’s shallow water corals bleached and died in 2016 and 2017. 

It noted that reefs in the northern and central parts, including near Cairns and Port Douglas, experienced moderate bleaching, and most corals there should recover. Some pockets of the reef remain unaffected by bleaching. 

Nightingales at Risk Due to Shorter Wings Caused by Climate Crisis

Spanish researchers examining wing sizes of two nightingale populations in central Spain have found that the average wing length relative to their body size has fallen over the past two decades. The study says that natural selection driven by climate change is causing the birds to evolve shorter wings. 

In recent decades, the timing of spring has shifted in central Spain and summer droughts have become longer and more intense, leaving the nightingales a shorter window in which to raise their young. 

Ban wildlife markets to prevent pandemics- UN biodiversity chief

The UN biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets- such as the one in Wuhan, believed to be ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak- to prevent future pandemics.

Mrema said there were clear links between the destruction of nature and the emergence of human diseases, but cautioned against unintended consequences by depriving low-income communities who depend on wildlife of their livelihoods and said that alternatives are needed for these communities.

For more analysis on the loopholes of the ban that can be exploited, see Earth.Org’s article. 

For more environmental news, see Earth.Org

A record number of wildfires in the Amazon are consuming the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Thousands of wildfires are ravaging the Amazon rainforest razing woodlands the size of one and a half football fields every minute of every day. The blazes are so large that plumes of smoke are visible even from space, and have wafted thousands of miles to the Atlantic Coast plunging Brazil’s largest city São Paulo into darkness in the middle of the day.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports that as many as 39,194 fires have been detected in the rainforest so far this year — a 77% increase from the same period in 2018.

Burning the lungs of the planet

The Amazon is the largest, most diverse tropical rainforest on Earth, covering an area of 5.5 million sq km. It accounts for more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests and is home to more than half the world’s species of plants and animals. It absorbs around 2.2 bn tons of carbon dioxide annually and produces about 20% of the planet’s total oxygen.   

But over the last 40 years, it has been increasingly threatened by deforestation and man-made wildfires. This year, the Amazon saw a sharp rise in deforestation with 1345 sq km of the forest — twice the area of Tokyo — being cleared out after Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro allegedly permitted illegal land invasion, logging, and burning.

The deforestation is directly linked to fires in the Amazon as farmers set the forest ablaze to make room for livestock pastures and crop fields while these purposeful burns get out of control.

You might also like: What are Tipping Points in the Climate Crisis?

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso Brazil.

Causes of Amazon Forest Fire

Environmental organisations and conservationists say the new forest fires were caused by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilise the land for agriculture and industries. Brazilian newspapers report that farmers in some regions were organising ‘fire days’ to take advantage of weaker enforcement by the authorities. The blazes have spread rapidly across the forest due to the Amazonian dry season which runs from July to October. 

The fires are now causing devastating loss of Amazonian vegetation, which will reduce rain across South America and other regions of the world. The blazes have been releasing an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 228 megatons so far this year; the highest since 2010. They are also emitting carbon monoxide, which is being carried beyond South America’s coastlines by the heavy wind.

A world engulfed in flames

Brazil has had more than 72,000 fires this year, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018 and more than half of these wildfires were in the Amazon.

But Brazil is not the only country that is currently battling wildfires. At least 54 large blazes have been actively burning across the United States for the last two months. More than 33,000 sq km of forest have gone up in flames in Siberia this month, putting Russia on track for its worst year on record for wildfires. Earlier this week, a wildfire in the Canary Islands, Spain, caused more than 8,000 people to flee while Alaska witnessed an unusually long fire season with multiple wildfires. Denmark had to send firefighters to Greenland, which recorded the highest temperatures in many decades, to tackle wildfires that were approaching human settlements.

July was the 415th consecutive month where temperatures beat the average for all months from 1900 to 1999, an indisputable sign of a warming climate. Global warming has helped wildfires erupted during the dry season to grow bigger across the word. It has also increased the likelihood and frequency of wildfires worldwide. As climate change continues to roll along, the world needs to expect more impending disasters.  

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