Our zero-emission future

Jeffrey D. Sachs writes:

The solution to human-induced climate change is finally in clear view. Thanks to rapid advances in zero-carbon energy technologies, and in sustainable food systems, the world can realistically end greenhouse-gas emissions by mid-century at little or no incremental cost, and with decisive benefits for safety and health. The main obstacle is inertia: politicians continue to favor the fossil-fuel industry and traditional agriculture mainly because they don’t know better or are on the take.

Most global warming, and a huge burden of air pollution, results from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. The other main source of environmental destruction is agriculture, including deforestation, excessive fertilizer use, and methane emissions from livestock. The energy system should shift from heavily polluting fossil fuels to clean, zero-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar power, and the food system should shift from feed grains and livestock to healthier and more nutritious products. This combined energy-and-food transformation would cause net greenhouse-gas emissions to fall to zero by mid-century and then become net negative, as atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by forests and soils.

Reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, followed by negative emissions, would likely secure the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius relative to Earth’s pre-industrial temperature. Alarmingly, warming has already reached 1.1ºC, and the global temperature is rising around 0.2ºC each decade. That’s why the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The shift toward clean energy would prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from air pollution, and the shift to healthy, environmentally sustainable diets could prevent around ten million deaths per year. [Continue reading…]

Investing in renewable energy in order to increase oil production

Jesse Barron writes:

Rex Tillerson stood under a 32-foot pipe organ at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, explaining how the world worked. It was May 2015, in the middle of an oil-price crash, and Exxon Mobil’s earnings had fallen 46 percent compared with the same quarter the year before. But Tillerson, then Exxon’s chief executive, told his shareholders to be confident in the future. Oil and gas furnished billions of people, including the very poor, with cheap, reliable fuel — a fact not easily negated by a weak fiscal quarter. “Our view reflects the reality,” Tillerson said, “that abundant energy enables modern life.”

Later that morning, a Capuchin Franciscan friar rose to speak. A so-called faith-based investor, Michael Crosby belonged to a tight circle of religious leaders who bought stock in public companies in the hope of exerting a moral influence on them. While Tillerson, head of one of the largest oil companies in the world and a power broker in international geopolitics, was accustomed to ignoring protesters, Crosby proved more tactical than most. He submitted a motion to appoint a climate-change expert to Exxon’s board, which gave him the floor for several minutes. Then he laid into Tillerson for having uttered “not one word or syllable” about climate change. He asked why Saudi Arabia invested in solar panels while Exxon spent nothing. “You’re living out of the past,” he told Tillerson.

At Exxon’s annual meetings — as in most rooms where important business happens — people speak in the subdued patter of corporate jargon, language that camouflages the reality it describes. So in the 2,000-seat auditorium, it would have taken a moment to appreciate the gravity of what Crosby was actually describing, which was not a few numbers on a balance sheet but something closer to the fate of the species. Global energy consumption is rocketing upward every year: The Energy Information Administration expects it to climb another 28 percent within a generation. Hydropower, wind and solar contribute about 22 percent of the total, and their share grows yearly. But the net amount of energy generated by hydrocarbons is growing yearly, too. It’s all rising because demand is rising. Global hydrocarbon producers, meanwhile, have so much product in reserve that burning even half of it would leave us with slightly worse than heads-or-tails odds of staying under the two-degree-Celsius threshold that, according to climate models, could bring mass famine, drought, flooding and fires.

From his spot beneath the pipe organ, Tillerson regarded the friar. “Like it or not,” he said, the world would depend on fossil fuels “for the next several decades” — well into the middle of the century. This was Tillerson’s line whenever people asked him about the future of hydrocarbons: Remind them how dependent they are and paint alternatives as childlike fantasies. Tillerson said the motion for a climate-change expert would be defeated. Turning to renewables, he dismissed them as a sucker’s bet. “Quite frankly, Father Crosby,” he said, “we choose not to lose money on purpose.” The crowd at the Symphony Center showered him with applause.

Three years later, an Irishman named Declan Flanagan, chief executive of the renewables company Lincoln Clean Energy, was addressing his own shareholders in Copenhagen when he delivered a cryptic announcement. Lincoln, he said, was going to build a solar farm in the Permian Basin — the heart of West Texas oil country — with funding put up by a “blue-chip counterparty.” Flanagan let this hang for a moment in the room while he breezed through a jargony update on regulatory matters. Finally he returned to the story. “I mentioned the blue-chip counterparty,” he reminded his listeners. “That,” he said in his strong Irish accent, “is Exxon Mobil.”

Between Exxon’s meeting in Dallas and Flanagan’s announcement in Copenhagen, the oil giant had installed a new chief executive — Tillerson having exited for a brief sojourn in Washington — but had not experienced a change of heart. No decision had been made to execute a bootleg turn away from hydrocarbons. Exxon’s executives, like everyone in the energy business, had watched as the cost of renewable power tumbled ever lower in Texas, where a lattice of high-tension power lines carried electricity from the bright, windy plains of the far West and the Panhandle to the thirsty cities below. Far from feeling worried, Exxon saw an opportunity. Fracking is a very electricity-intensive method of extracting hydrocarbons. By using solar energy for just a portion of its operations in Texas, Exxon could save on electricity costs and keep more cash. It could profit by turning renewable power back into the hydrocarbon power it existed to replace.

Exxon’s arrangement in Texas reflects, in miniature, our national state of indecision about the best approach to climate change. Depending on whom you ask, climate change doesn’t exist, or is an engineering problem, or requires global mobilization, or could be solved by simply nudging the free market into action. Absent a coherent strategy, opportunists can step in and benefit in wily ways from the shifting landscape. Tax-supported renewables in Texas take coal plants offline, but they also support oil extraction. Technology advances, but not the system underneath. Faced with this volatile and chaotic situation, the system does what it does best: It searches out profits in the short term. [Continue reading…]

Most U.S. coal power plants would save money by switching to wind or solar

Fast Company reports:

As wind and solar power keep getting cheaper, coal power–which was the cheapest source of electricity for decades–is no longer economical in much of the U.S. A new analysis looked at every coal plant in the country and compared the cost of running those plants to the cost of operating a new wind or solar plant. As of 2018, 74% of existing coal plants cost more to operate than new local wind or solar.

“Our hypothesis was that if we can analyze all the coal plants, with a robust data set of wind and solar data, and cross-reference the two, that we would see coal being significantly at risk for losing on cost to wind and solar,” says Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation, the environmental research firm that did the analysis along with Vibrant Clean Energy, a company that has detailed data about exactly how much wind or solar is in a given location.

By 2025, even as federal renewable energy tax credits are ending, the report found that the number of “at risk” coal plants will grow to 86%. A portion of the coal plants–a third right now, and nearly half by 2025–are classified as “significantly at risk,” meaning they cost at least 25% more to operate than new renewables. (Those costs don’t even include the externalities of operating coal plants, such as the cost of climate change or the healthcare costs of air pollution from smokestacks. Emissions from power plants kill tens of thousands of Americans a year.) [Continue reading…]

White House can’t say whether wind turbines cause cancer but Sen. Grassley calls Trump’s claim ‘idiotic’

 


Des Moines Register reports:

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — a champion of the wind energy tax credit — said President Donald Trump’s comments that wind turbines cause cancer were “idiotic” in a call with reporters Wednesday.

“I’m told that the White House respects my views on a lot of issues,” Grassley said. “(Trump’s) comments on wind energy — not only as a president but when he was a candidate — were, first of all, idiotic, and it didn’t show much respect for Chuck Grassley as the grandfather of the wind energy tax credit.” [Continue reading…]

Jonathan Chait notes:

A power source that does cause many health problems, including cancer, is coal, an extremely dirty fuel Trump loves and has attempted to bolster, with almost no success.

Costa Rica lays out ground-breaking decarbonisation plan

Renew Economy reports:

The Central American nation of Costa Rica has laid out its long-term decarbonisation plans to become one of the world’s first, if not the first, zero-emissions nations.

Costa Rica’s Decarbonization Plan includes both short-term goals out to 2022 which are intended to support the country’s longer-term 2050 goals and also serves as the basis for Costa Rica’s plans to update its Nationally Determined Contributions in line with the Paris Agreement in 2020.

With a population of nearly 5 million people, Costa Rica is already one of the world’s climate action leaders and in October a study revealed that Costa Rica was one of only 16 countries which had set domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets in line with their pledged contributions to the Paris Agreement.

The country also announced plans last year to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021. [Continue reading…]

At last, divestment is hitting the fossil fuel industry where it hurts

Bill McKibben writes:

I remember well the first institution to announce it was divesting from fossil fuel. It was 2012 and I was on the second week of a gruelling tour across the US trying to spark a movement. Our roadshow had been playing to packed houses down the west coast, and we’d crossed the continent to Portland, Maine. As a raucous crowd jammed the biggest theatre in town, a physicist named Stephen Mulkey took the mic. He was at the time president of the tiny Unity College in the state’s rural interior, and he announced that over the weekend its trustees had voted to sell their shares in coal, oil and gas companies. “The time is long overdue for all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in destructive practices,” he said.

Six years later, we have marked the 1,000th divestment in what has become by far the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind. The latest to sell their shares – major French and Australian pension funds, and Brandeis University in Massachusetts – bring the total size of portfolios and endowments in the campaign to just under $8 trillion (£6.4tn).

The list of institutions that have cut their ties with this most destructive of industries encompasses religious institutions large and small (the World Council of Churches, the Unitarians, the Lutherans, the Islamic Society of North America, Japanese Buddhist temples, the diocese of Assisi); philanthropic foundations (even the Rockefeller family, heir to the first great oil fortune, divested its family charities); and colleges and universities from Edinburgh to Sydney to Honolulu are on board, with more joining each week. Forty big Catholic institutions have already divested; now a campaign is urging the Vatican bank itself to follow suit. Ditto with the Nobel Foundation, the world’s great art museums, and every other iconic institution that works for a better world. [Continue reading…]

How Costa Rica is pursuing decarbonization despite global inaction

 

With a Green New Deal, here’s what the world could look like for the next generation

Kate Aronoff reports:

What, exactly, would a Green New Deal entail?

Like its 1930s counterpart, the “Green New Deal” isn’t a specific set of programs so much as an umbrella under which various policies might fit, ranging from technocratic to transformative. The sheer scale of change needed to deal effectively with climate change is massive, as the scientific consensus is making increasingly clear, requiring an economy-wide mobilization of the sort that the United States hasn’t really undertaken since World War II. While the Green New Deal imaginary evokes images of strapping young men pulling up their sleeves to hoist up wind turbines (in the mold of realist Civilian Conservation Corps ads), its actual scope is far broader than the narrow set of activities typically housed under the green jobs umbrella, or even in the original New Deal.

“People talk often about the infrastructure investment that has to happen, and new technology,” Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, told me. “But there’s also an industrial plan that needs to happen to build entirely new industries. It’s sort of like the moonshot. When JFK said America was going to go to the moon, none of the things we needed to get to the moon at that point existed. But we tried and we did it.” The Green New Deal, he added, “touches everything — it’s basically a massive system upgrade for the economy.”

In a broad sense, that’s what policymakers in other countries refer to as industrial policy, whereby the government plays a decisive role in shaping the direction of the economy to accomplish specific aims. That doesn’t mean that the state controls every industry, as in the Soviet system; instead, it would be closer to the kind of economic planning that the U.S. practiced during the economic mobilization around World War II, and that is practiced internally today by many of the world’s biggest corporations. Should Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution pass muster, the select committee will convene policymakers, academics, and representatives from the private sector and civil society to hash out next steps. How widely or narrowly that groups defines a Green New Deal — and whether it’ll ever be given space to meet on Capitol Hill — remains to be seen, as supportive lawmakers huddle in Washington this week to try and gain support for writing it into the rulebook for the next Congress. Ultimately, it will be that committee that fleshes out what a Green New Deal looks like. But the proposal itself, American history, and existing research give us a sense for what all it might look like in practice.

The plan itself — or rather, the plan to make the plan — lays out seven goals, starting with generating 100 percent of power in the U.S. from renewable sources and updating the country’s power grid. [Continue reading…]

Even most Americans in coal-reliant states prefer renewables

CBS News reports:

A large majority of Americans in coal-heavy states favor increasing renewable energy use. Most would also be willing to buy solar panels for their own use, and a plurality would be willing to pay an additional $5 a month to get energy from fully renewable sources, according to a survey from Consumer Reports.

The consumer advocacy group spoke with 1,200 Americans, including 400 residents of coal-reliant states: Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia. Residents of those four states largely agreed with Americans as a whole, the organization found.

Overall, 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Increasing renewable energy (such as solar and wind) is a worthwhile goal.” The response rate from Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia was within the survey’s margin of error, while Ohio had the lowest rate, at 71 percent. (Major coal-producing states such as West Virginia and Wyoming did not have enough respondents to the poll to draw conclusions.)

A majority of respondents also favored solar for themselves. Between 52 and 57 percent said they would be willing to pay for solar panels if they could recoup the investment within five years. [Continue reading…]

Polluting giant turns to green energy to escape EU carbon risk

Blooomberg reports:

Central Europe’s third-largest polluter plans to almost triple its clean-energy capacity as emission costs surge.

Tauron Polska Energia SA is preparing to add at least 700 megawatts of clean, regulated power to “improve” its portfolio after carbon permits almost tripled over the past year, Chief Financial Officer Marek Wadowski said. That’s the equivalent of half a modern nuclear reactor and echoes moves by European utilities from Enel SpA to Vattenfall AB to boost their clean power generation.

“We’re turning in the direction of more renewable sources,” Wadowski said in an interview this week. “The rising cost of CO2 makes the profitability of coal-fired plants significantly less profitable.” [Continue reading…]