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‘Alcarras’ review: In a new Spanish film, solar power threatens a family farm

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 03:15

The film Alcarràs opens with three young children playing in a decrepit sedan abandoned in an open field in the Catalan countryside, the car offering them shelter from the hot summer sun. So when a crew of construction workers comes to tow the junker away, the outraged children run home to share their misfortune with their parents, only to be quickly rebuffed. The adults, after all, have more important matters to deal with, namely the encroachment of a solar panel development on their peach farm. But the themes introduced in that first scene — transition, ownership, and the unintended consequences of “progress” — continue to haunt the characters throughout this strikingly beautiful film.

Alcarràs follows the Solé family, who have been working the same plot of land for generations. The property, however, is technically not theirs: It was gifted to them long ago by word of mouth. Without a legal document to prove their ownership, the peach orchards will be torn down by the end of the summer — and with them the only way of life that the family has ever known.

The film, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlinale and was selected to be Spain’s 2023 Academy Awards submission, has the organic, unhurried quality for which director Carla Simón is known. Like her 2017 debut feature Summer, 1993, it is set in the Catalan region of Spain where she was raised and is powered by a particular sense of local knowledge, an understanding of both the pleasures and anxieties of rural life. 

Played by a cast of non-professional actors, many of them from local farming families themselves, the film’s unvarnished style closely resembles that of a documentary, transporting the audience into the fields right alongside the characters. The result is so compelling you can almost smell the fruit and the yellow earth of the doomed peach orchard. This naturalistic storytelling approach offers a refreshing perspective on small-scale farm life at a time when the internet is brimming with idealized photos of sun-drenched solar developments promising a clean energy future. 

At just around two hours, Alcarràs does not follow a straightforward narrative, which can make some scenes feel redundant, but there is something to appreciate in the way the film’s pacing mirrors agrarian life. At times, it passes slowly, with each day built around the rise and fall of the sun and the unrelenting task of picking the harvest. 

Despite the painful uncertainty of what lies beyond those long days of field work, the film achieves a sort of levity, buoyed by the games of children and small moments of tenderness: the father, Quimet, drunkenly laughing at his sister for claiming to have spotted a UFO, the young cousins putting on a musical number at home, the teenage son and daughter playing a prank on the landowner who plans to tear down the farm. 

The family observes the solar panel development in Alcarràs. Courtesy of Alcarràs

Although Alcarràs is much more about loss and unwelcome change than the actual clean energy transition, Simón reminds us that things aren’t always so rosy for the people living on the front lines of alternative energy development. As the film progresses, solar panels begin to appear on the border of the family farm, contrasting with the lush, green rows of peach trees. In one particularly memorable shot, the grandfather pauses on a night stroll to gaze at the moonlight pooling on the surface of a hulking panel. 

Simón does not linger on the significance of renewable energy as the force of change in the family’s life: Solar is just a new way of making money, of extracting more profit from the land. Nonetheless, the fictional film prompts consideration of how the renewable energy industry’s demand for vast open spaces is destabilizing small-scale farmers in the real world.

The rapid industrialization of agriculture over the past several decades has seen the decline of family farming globally, particularly in countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil. According to the International Labor Organization, the percentage of the global population that works in agriculture declined from 44 to 26 percent between 1991 and 2020, a trend that has coincided with massive demographic shifts to population centers. Today, cities are home to 70 percent of the world’s population, and that share is only expected to grow. 

While it remains to be seen how much the transition to renewable energy will influence these trends, the story in Alcarràs focuses on the challenges associated with life in those shrinking rural communities. It reflects a conflict that is beginning to play out across the globe, as governments incentivize alternative forms of energy. Clean energy production will require far more land than fossil fuels, at least ten times more per unit of power according to one estimate. Since those renewable resources tend to be concentrated in remote areas, rural communities are disproportionately impacted by the growing industry. 

While some farmers have sought to profit from large-scale solar and wind projects, others are beginning to push back. Last spring, for example, residents in rural Ohio protested a proposed solar project which would cover more than 1,800 acres of prime farmland. Small-scale farmers in upstate New York that lease their land from larger landowners have argued that they will be pushed out by energy companies who can afford to pay more per parcel of land. In Chile’s Atacama desert, local farmers are struggling with water shortages precipitated by lithium mining, an industry that will be vital for producing batteries to power electric vehicles.

In Catalonia, the threat of alternative energy is less direct. A recurring theme in Alcarràs is the weekly protests over federal wholesale pricing measures that diminish profits for farmers in the village. It’s an issue that is playing out in real towns; Simón met the man who plays Quimet, Jordi Pujol Dolcet, at one such protest. Consistently low prices are making small-scale agriculture less economically viable, forcing many Catalan farmers to sell their land or pursue other forms of profit. 

While solar panels could offer some of these farmers a new path to eke out a living, Simón’s script makes clear that it is not the livelihood that many of them truly desire. To the characters in the film, the farm that will be razed at the end of the summer is more than a piece of land; it is a broker of their relationships with one another. If the story levies a critique against any system, it’s the engine of capitalism, which incentivizes the endless consumption of resources at the expense of communities at the points of extraction. 

In its best moments, Alcarràs gives viewers a deep sense of what it’s like to inhabit this family’s world in the moment before it changes irreparably, an appreciation for the immensity of what is to be lost. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘Alcarras’ review: In a new Spanish film, solar power threatens a family farm on Jan 19, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

California’s storms are almost over. Its reckoning with flood insurance is about to begin.

Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:45

California has nearly seen the last of the relentless sequence of storms that inundated the state since late December, leading to tens of thousands of evacuations, at least 20 deaths, and an estimated $1 billion in damages

From failed levees in the Central Valley counties of Merced and Sacramento to overflowing rivers along the coast, the rains touched almost every part of the state, with many areas receiving four to six times above average precipitation for the past several weeks. Mudslides closed major roads, thousands of homes were flooded, and trees knocked out power lines, with over 13,000 electric customers yet to regain service as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Meteorologists expect that by Thursday, the last storm, this time a weaker one, will have cleared from the northern and central parts of California. But in the coming weeks, as flood waters recede and the rains’ full impact comes into view, many residents may find themselves facing a second crisis: A widespread lack of flood insurance that will leave thousands of homeowners grappling with the cost of repairing and rebuilding homes. 

“California is a place where the preoccupation about water is about scarcity, not abundance,” said Rebecca Elliott, a professor at the London School of Economics who wrote a book about flood insurance in the United States. “Many, many thousands of Californians will assume that they have flood coverage and find out that they don’t.” 

Standard homeowners insurance does not include flood coverage, even though, according to a recent survey, 47 percent of Americans assume that it does. Just 1.33 percent of California households have standalone policies through the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal-run system that makes up 95 percent of flood coverage in the United States. The share of private flood policies in California is even smaller. Yet as of earlier this month, 90 percent of the state’s population was under flood watch.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, requires homeowners with federally-underwritten mortgages to buy flood insurance if they are in what it designates as “special flood hazard areas.” That’s essentially the 100-year flood plain, or places that have a 1 percent annual chance of flooding. But the maps FEMA uses to delineate these areas are wildly out of date. First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that models flood risk, found there are 5.9 million property owners nationwide who face substantial flood risk outside FEMA’s official hazard areas. 

“I show them the topography maps,” said Nick Ramirez, an insurance agent based in Los Angeles, of his clients who aren’t required by law to purchase flood insurance. “I say, ‘Do you want to protect yourself?’ Some say yes, and some just roll the dice.”

Streets and homes flooded in the Felton Grove neighborhood of Santa Cruz, California, on January 9. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

FEMA’s California maps, most of which were last updated in the 1980s and early 90s, if not before, leave out about 80 percent of the state’s rivers and streams. They also don’t account for the worsening effects of climate change, which include expanded flood risk as the climate system shifts towards hydrological extremes. Part of the reason they haven’t been updated is the expense. Communities have also often resisted expanding the flood zones to avoid costs for homeowners and restrictions on development.

Where FEMA does require mandatory insurance, the policy is underenforced. Flood insurance requirements don’t apply to mortgages that have been paid off or to properties purchased in cash. And experts say it’s common for homeowners to let their policies lapse because mortgage companies don’t check up on them. According to Elliott, the fact that lenders securitize their mortgages may be one reason for why they aren’t paying close attention. “They’re chopping up those mortgages, bundling them, and selling them on,” she said.

In recent years, the number of Californians holding flood insurance policies has been declining in line with a national pattern. Experts attribute this in large part to premium costs, and particularly to an increase in insurance rates that occurred starting October 2021 under FEMA’s new pricing methodology called Risk Rating 2.0.

The National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, has long struggled with debt, the result of worsening climate-fueled disasters paired with static policy premiums. With Risk Rating 2.0, FEMA re-assessed flood risk using independent models and then adjusted pricing to better reflect today’s trends. The idea, according to the agency, was to make insurance more equitable, so that people in flood zones paid more in line with their level of risk, and people outside wouldn’t have to subsidize them. (The new maps did not impact who was required to hold a policy.)

The result, however, has been a precipitous decline in policies. “We had been seeing a nationwide drop in the number of people with flood insurance [for several years],” said Nick VinZant, a senior research analyst at QuoteWizard, an online platform that allows customers to shop for and compare insurance prices. “It really started to drop as soon as FEMA put Risk Rating 2.0 in place.” 

Though the state as a whole paid less under the new program than it had previously, 73 percent of California policyholders saw a price increase, in some cases as substantial as $100 a month. Between March 2021 and August 2022, 11 percent of state policyholders dropped the plan, one of the largest decreases nationwide, according to VinZant. (Nationwide, the program lost 6 percent of policyholders in the same period).

Residents sweep water out of a flooded home on January 11 in Planada, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

FEMA does not provide zip code-level data on policies in force, so it’s difficult to confirm that the places where premiums rose the most are the same places where people dropped the NFIP. But most experts think that’s what happened. “FEMA was very opaque. The numbers they gave were limited, so it’s hard to track,” said Nicholas Pinter, a professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “There is strong suspicion that the increase in premiums has driven an exodus from the program.” 

Another driver of the exodus: the multi-year mega-drought drying up rivers and reservoirs across the Western U.S. Typically, flood insurance policy enrollments increase after a flood and go down during dry years, when people forget about the potential for deluge. “Right now, my phone is ringing off the hook,” said Ramirez.

FEMA is running with the drought explanation. “There are many factors that could influence this drop in policyholders, including the economic impact of the pandemic, inflation, the housing market, affordability, or purchasing flood insurance from the private market,” David Maurstad, deputy associate administrator of resilience for FEMA, told Grist in a statement. “For California in particular, [it may be] due to the several years of drought in the area and the belief that flooding may not impact them.”

Given the increasing frequency of floods and the increasing cost of repair, Elliott believes it’s unrealistic to expect the National Flood Insurance Program to function like a private insurance company, charging enough to cover its risk and break even on its losses, while still being affordable. In California, the average cost of this insurance is $779 per year, though rates vary by region. Research by Pinter and his colleagues shows that besides a small number of waterfront communities like Malibu that have a lot of at-risk properties and high incomes, most of the state’s flood exposure is in low-income areas. 

The national program tries to incentivize more flood-resilient building and planning by offering grants and lower rates to people and communities who take certain steps to protect their homes. But those investments can be costly and the agency has been criticized for not making enough support available and accessible. “We’ve been expecting [the NFIP] to underwrite the American dream of homeownership while also expecting it to signal risk, nudge people away from the water’s edge, and reduce overall exposure to flood risk,” said Elliott. “It has always had a really hard time doing all those things.” She says a better approach would be to think of insurance as just one part of the larger strategy and set of policies protecting people from floods. 

On Saturday, President Biden approved California Governor Gavin Newsom’s request for a major disaster declaration in three counties, following the state’s emergency declaration for 41 of its 58 counties. Merced, Sacramento, and Santa Cruz are now eligible for grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to help cover uninsured property losses, and additional forms of support. More counties may be added as officials continue to assess the damage across the state.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s storms are almost over. Its reckoning with flood insurance is about to begin. on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Thousands of protestors fought the expansion of a German coal mine — in vain

Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:30

A nearly weeklong standoff between German police and climate activists occupying the German village of Lützerath ended Monday with hundreds of protestors evicted from the area. The tiny hamlet of Lützerath is set to be demolished for the expansion of the Garzweiler coal mine, and some activists have occupied the village for as long as two years to prevent development by residing in abandoned homes, building treehouse blockades, and fortifying buildings with dumpsters and camper vans. Roughly 1,000 police officers were sent to address the protests. Organizers say 35,000 people attended; police estimate it was closer to 15,000.

Though the last two activists in Lützerath vacated their self-dug tunnels beneath the village Monday, protests against the mine continued Tuesday in Cologne and Dusseldorf, where activists glued themselves to the cities’ main streets and government buildings, respectively. 

German officials argue that expanding coal production is necessary to maintain energy security, given cuts to Russian gas supplies due to the war in Ukraine. But climate activists argue that the deal goes against Germany’s commitments to reduce carbon emissions.   

The Garzweiler mine covers 14 square miles and has already swallowed towns, historic buildings, and a wind farm. Plans for mining in the area were approved in 1995, and in 2013, German courts ruled that energy firm RWE, which owns the mine, could expand their production area and demolish any towns in its path. The roughly 100 residents of Lützerath have all relocated — the last farmer left after losing efforts to fight an eviction order. 

Germany’s coal production has ramped up in recent years, increasing by nearly 20 million tons between 2020 and 2021 after a decade of declines, and Bloomberg reports that the country has reopened coal-fired power plants, despite plans to phase them out by 2038. 

According to the Associated Press, studies indicate that around 110 million metric tons of coal sit underneath Lützerath, and RWE reports that Garzweiler extracts up to 30 million tons of lignite every year. That the mine produces lignite is a major sticking point for climate activists, given that it’s the “dirtiest” form of coal. 

For critics of the mine, the concern goes beyond the demolition of homes and the challenge to land rights. In an interview with CNN, recently evicted activist Dina Hamida said, “in the end, it’s not about the village, it’s about the coal staying in the ground and we’re going to fight for that as long as it takes.”

Though RWE has legal access to the land, activists say the law is on their side, citing a 2021 ruling that mandated the German government prioritize actions to cut emissions. 

But last October, Germany’s Economy and Climate Ministry, led by the environmentally-minded Greens party, made a deal with RWE to address this issue. The company agreed to phase out all coal mining by 2030 instead of 2038 and prevent the demolition of five other villages and three farmsteads. In exchange, RWE would be allowed to continue expansion over Lützerath and generate coal which, they say, is needed to get the country through the winter.

Activists argue that it could take at least two years to develop coal reserves under Lützerath — much too late to relieve any economic stress from the ongoing war in Ukraine. They also reference research from the German Institute for Economic Research, which suggests that other coalfields could be used instead, albeit at a higher cost to RWE. A study published by the University of Flensburg last month, says that the need for coal from underneath Lützerath was “nonexistent.”

Climate activist Greta Thunberg attended the protests, criticizing the German governments’ actions. 

“It’s very weird to see the German government, including the Green party, make deals and compromise with companies like RWE, with fossil fuel companies, when they should rather be held accountable for all the damage and destruction they have caused,” Thunberg told the AP.

She was later detained by police. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Thousands of protestors fought the expansion of a German coal mine — in vain on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

England finally joins Europe in banning single-use plastic foodware

Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:15

Restaurants and cafes throughout England will soon be barred from using some of the most common single-use plastics — a ban green groups called necessary, insufficient, and long overdue.

The long-anticipated regulation, announced Saturday, makes it illegal for those establishments to sell or distribute certain kinds of polystyrene cups and food packaging, as well as plastic plates, trays, bowls, and cutlery designed to be used once and thrown away. It takes effect in October.  

The new policy is “a really positive step in the right direction … but we’re coming to the party late,” said Steve Hynd, media and policy manager for the British environmental organization City to Sea. The 27 members of the European Union have been subject to a bloc-wide directive since July 2021 banning the items included in England’s new policy, and several have proposed additional legislation to curb plastic waste.

With Scotland implementing its own restrictions on single-use plastic plates and cutlery last year and Wales advancing similar legislation, environmental groups said England was “the only country in Europe” without a ban. Last month they submitted a petition signed by more than 118,000 people urging British policymakers to catch up. 

England uses more than 5 billion single-use plates and cutlery items each year, according to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Most are made of plastic and end up incinerated, in landfills, or tossed aside as litter that leaches hazardous chemicals or breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the food chain. Because they are made primarily from fossil fuels, their production releases planet-warming greenhouse gases and disproportionately exposes marginalized communities to pollution

Thérèse Coffey, England’s environment secretary, said in a statement that the new rules would “continue our vital work to protect the environment for future generations.” She touted previous efforts to reduce plastic waste, including a 2020 ban on straws and drink stirrers made from the material, as well as a tax on single-use grocery bags.

Some environmental advocates have called for England to clarify whether this latest ban includes bioplastics, as the EU’s does. Such products are made from things like corn, sugarcane, agricultural waste, or seaweed. However, they pose many of the same problems as conventional plastics, while raising new ones — the stickiest of which is using land to raise those raw materials rather than food, says, according to Britta Baechler, associate director of ocean plastics research for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.

Beyond that clarification, Hynd said more systemic action is needed to substantiate England’s pledge to eliminate “unavoidable” plastic waste by 2043. He called for a legally binding target to halve single-use plastic production by 2025 and for the expansion of systems that encourage reusable alternatives. A deposit return program, for example, could incentivize reuse by charging customers a deposit when they buy a bottled beverage and refunding it when the bottle is returned. (The U.K. announced it would pursue such a program in 2018, but officials later said it wouldn’t be implemented in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland until at least 2024 — in part because of ongoing economic disruptions from COVID-19.)

Such policies should be seen as an opportunity to create a cleaner U.K., Hynd said. He pictures a future in which it’s possible to walk through a park without seeing plastic littering the landscape or to sit on a beach without watching it wash ashore. Plastic bans, he said, are only part of a “much bigger journey to achieving that vision.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline England finally joins Europe in banning single-use plastic foodware on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The secretive legal weapon that fossil fuel interests use against climate-conscious countries

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:45

For over a decade, debate has raged over the Keystone XL pipeline project, which aimed to transport Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. After approving the project’s initial stages, the Obama administration rejected a permit allowing the pipeline to cross the national border in 2015.

However, the energy company backing the project didn’t take no for an answer: TransCanada soon sued the U.S. for $15 billion dollars — the future expected profits it claimed the pipeline would have earned, in addition to the $3.1 billion it had already invested in the project. The company was able to do so because the North American Free Trade Agreement, the treaty known as NAFTA that the U.S. signed with Canada and Mexico in 1994, included a clause about something called an investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS — a closed-door legal process that’s an often overlooked, but increasingly urgent, hurdle to addressing climate change. ISDS mechanisms are included in many other bilateral and international trade agreements, allowing a country to be sued by investors from other member countries if it takes any subsequent actions that adversely affect those investments.

The threat of this liability has hung over the pipeline conflict ever since: When President Trump signed an executive order in 2017 reversing course and allowing Keystone XL to move forward, TransCanada announced that it would suspend its ISDS case against the U.S. for 30 days — exactly the deadline for the decision on their new permit application. In March of that year, the new permit was approved, and TransCanada dropped its ISDS claim. 

Corporations’ ability to threaten this kind of financial liability is creating growing problems for countries looking to tackle climate change and restrict fossil fuel extraction, says Kyla Tienhaara, the Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment at Queen’s University in Ontario. It’s far from the only recent example: Take Italy, which banned oil drilling within 12 nautical miles of its coast only to be sued by the UK-based oil company Rockhopper, which had hoped to develop a near-shore oilfield at Ombrina Mare, off the coast of Abruzzo. This summer, an international tribunal authorized to adjudicate investor-state disputes ordered the Italian government to compensate the firm $210 million pounds.

Tienhaara and her colleagues recently published a study in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science finding that global efforts to limit new oil and gas developments could generate as much as $340 billion in legal claims from fossil fuel investors seeking to recoup their losses. (To put this in perspective, the Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism established to help developing countries adapt to climate change, has a portfolio valued at $11.3 billion.) Already, fossil fuel industries represent a large and growing number of the plaintiffs in these kinds of disputes: In 2020, around 20 percent of ISDS cases were brought by oil and gas companies. 

These settlements are decided in a private legal process. Unlike public judicial systems, these tribunals are typically run by three arbitrators chosen jointly by the disputing parties. These people tend to be repeatedly selected from a small group of experts in corporate law, and at times they act as lawyers for an investor in one case and arbitrators deciding the case in another, though the cases may be similar or even simultaneous — a practice known as “double hatting.”

Because ISDS systems are written into thousands of different treaties, each with different wording, there’s also no system of precedence. Just because arbitrators decide something in one case doesn’t mean that logic has to be applied to another. Proceedings can be kept confidential, and there is no way to appeal a tribunal’s decision.

Tieenhaara argues that the specter of being sued for making decisions that inhibit the profits of companies and investors has a chilling effect on countries’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealand, for example, recently said that it could not join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, an international consortium of governments working to phase out fossil fuels, because doing so “would have run afoul of investor-state settlements.” Countries in the developing world are even less able to afford the fiscal risk of being on the hook for lost profits.

As of 2017, the average amount awarded in an ISDS case was $504 million. Recently, however, there have been some exorbitant outliers, like a 2019 case in which Pakistan was ordered to pay $5.9 billion to the Australian Tethyan Copper Company for lost future profits after the country denied its lease. (The company had only invested about $150 million in the project to date.) The decision, which came down just one week after the International Monetary Fund approved a loan of almost exactly the $6 billion Pakistan was about to lose, represented the equivalent of 40 percent of the country’s cash reserves in foreign currency. 

The annual United Nations conference COP27 concluded in November with a broad agreement that wealthy, developed countries have a financial obligation to support poorer countries that have contributed relatively little to causing climate change as they adapt to its consequences. Yet those latter countries also bear the majority of the financial risk stemming from potential ISDS claims. Tienhaara recently worked on an analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Policy in December, which found that the developing world faces enormous liabilities if it cancels potential fossil fuel projects. Mozambique, for instance, which has substantial offshore gas reserves, currently has an ISDS risk of $29 billion — nearly twice its annual national income. 

“The system is unbalanced toward investors,” said Lea Di Salvatore, a legal researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, affiliated with Columbia University. Di Salvatore recently analyzed 29 of Mozambique’s gas, coal, and oil projects and found the majority are protected by ISDS clauses. “Are we really expecting Mozambique to take action against TotalEnergies or ExxonMobil, who have all the political and economic power?” Tienhaara added that many other African countries are in a similarly precarious position, forced to choose between climate action and expensive payouts.

There are at least 2,500 investment treaties globally, many written with decades-old policy priorities in mind. Supporters of these international agreements suggest that they provide legal stability that can spur investors to commit to useful projects that might not otherwise find funding — including those critical to renewable energy development. But the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment argued in a December report that investment treaties “are neither effective nor decisive in attracting investment in renewables to developing countries.”

Instead, the authors recommend governments focus on establishing internal regulatory frameworks and strengthening domestic judicial systems to protect investors. Tienhaara believes that states should go further by taking steps to terminate existing treaties and developing binding rules to limit the amount of compensation that can be awarded to investors. 

The Energy Charter Treaty, or ECT, which has been ratified by over 50 primarily European countries, is the international agreement that’s the largest hurdle to enacting policies to combat climate change. Signed in 1993, it explicitly aims to protect the energy investments of its members. Historically, many investor-state disputes resulted in rulings favoring companies based in rich countries. But thanks to the ECT, European countries have recently found themselves on the receiving end of ISDS claims more frequently.

This year, many appeared to reach a breaking point. Poland announced this fall that it would withdraw from the ECT; Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovenia followed. In late November, the Council of the European Union failed to reach an agreement on modifications to the treaty to bring it into alignment with Paris Agreement climate targets that came into force in 2016. Instead, the European Parliament called for a coordinated European Union departure from the treaty altogether. 

Yet these countries may still be on the hook for claims under the ECT for another 20 years. That’s because the treaty, like many agreements with ISDS provisions, includes a “sunset clause” that extends its protections long after a state’s withdrawal. The United States is facing just such an issue currently: Though NAFTA expired in 2020, it included a sunset clause allowing investors to file disputes for three additional years. When the Biden administration canceled the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline once again in 2021, the company behind the pipeline brought back its ISDS claim. A tribunal to settle the matter was recently appointed, and the process is ongoing even as the pipe system the project would have extended gushes tens of thousands of barrels of oil into a creek in Kansas.

Advocates like Tienhaara say the recent signs of movement away from agreements like the ECT are promising, but many ISDS cases stem from countless other bilateral treaties, which likely need to be addressed individually. 

Ultimately, Tienhaara argues that investor certainty should not be prioritized above climate action. “Climate change is a global problem,” she said. “We need to care about everyone, everywhere — and have policies that aren’t just about defending our own interests.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The secretive legal weapon that fossil fuel interests use against climate-conscious countries on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Brazil’s new president faces ‘scorched earth scenario’ left behind by Bolsonaro

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:30

It is the tradition of inaugurations in Brazil for the incoming president to ascend the ramp of the Planalto Palace, the country’s equivalent to the West Wing of the White House, and receive the presidential sash from the outgoing head of state. The gesture is meant to symbolize a peaceful transition of power. In the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which took place on January 1, things were a little different. In a final emulation of his political idol Donald Trump, the outgoing president, Jair Bolsonaro, often referred to as the “Trump of the tropics,” was absent. He had flown to Orlando, Florida, two days earlier for an extended vacation.

Instead, Lula used the moment to send a political message. He chose to walk the ramp with a small group of individuals meant to represent those his government will prioritize. Among them was the 90-year-old Indigenous leader Raoni Metukitire, of the Amazonian Kayapó people. Bolsonaro had attacked Raoni in a 2019 United Nations General Assembly speech, accusing him of being a pawn of foreign governments and NGOs that seek to undermine development in the Brazilian Amazon. Raoni’s presence at the Planalto signaled that Indigenous rights and protection of the environment will be high on Lula’s new presidential agenda.

“Our goal is to reach zero deforestation and zero greenhouse gas emissions in our electrical grid,” Lula said in his inaugural address to Congress, adding that Bolsonaro’s government had “destroyed environmental protections.”

Brazil’s new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands next to Indigenous leader and environmentalist Raoni Metuktire at his inauguration on January 1. Sergio Lima / AFP via Getty Images

The diagnosis is an accurate one. Over four years, Bolsonaro dismantled environmental regulations, much of it through executive action, and gutted federal agencies tasked with enforcing environmental laws. His actions and rhetoric emboldened illegal miners and loggers, who felt they could act with impunity. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest spiked 60 percent during Bolsonaro’s presidency, the highest relative increase since the beginning of measurements by satellite in 1988.

The preservation of the Amazon is crucial to the climate crisis. The rainforest was once the world’s greatest carbon sink, but because of forest clearing fires and degradation caused by rising temperatures, there are large regions of the Amazon today that emit more carbon than they absorb. The situation could get substantially worse. Studies show that if 20 to 25 percent of the Amazon is deforested, the biome would no longer be able to sustain itself. This would trigger an irreversible process of dieback that could turn the forest into a savannah in a matter of decades. Currently, 15 to 17 percent of the Amazon has already vanished.

Lula served two previous terms as president between 2003 and 2011. During this time, in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s tenure, deforestation in the Amazon fell by a historic 67 percent. Marina Silva, a well-known environmental activist and politician in Brazil, led this crackdown as Lula’s Minister of the Environment. Silva will once again hold that office, but environmentalists say this time around the government will have to rebuild Brazilian environmental policy virtually from the ground up if it is to achieve comparable results.

The first step will be to reverse many of the changes Bolsonaro enacted though executive action. This process has already begun. On his first day in office, Lula issued a series of decrees that overturned some of Bolsonaro’s most egregious changes to environmental regulations. He reinstated environmental funding programs, restructured key agencies that had been hollowed out, and reestablished the government’s anti-deforestation plan, which had been discontinued by Bolsonaro. But there is much more work to be done.

“It’s a scorched earth scenario,” said Suely Araújo, referring to the environmental regulatory apparatus that Lula inherited from his predecessor. Araújo is a senior specialist in public policy at Observatório do Clima, a coalition of climate-focused civil society organizations. She spent the last months of 2022 working with Lula’s transition team, prepping the first steps in what is expected to be a long process of recovery. “It will take longer to rebuild these institutions than it did to destroy them.”

Early in his administration, Bolsonaro tried to dissolve the Ministry of the Environment entirely, but was unable to do so due to backlash from civil society and Congress. Instead, his administration’s strategy became to weaken the country’ scientific and environmental institutions from within. Describing this process during a ruling about a slew of changes to environmental policy by Bolsonaro’s government, a Brazilian Supreme Court Justice evoked the image of a termite infestation eating away at environmental protection agencies from the inside out.

Environmentalist and former Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva speaks at a conference in 2019, where she called deforestation under the Bolsonaro administration “out of control.” Silva is stepping back into the role of minister under President Lula. Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Image

Shortly after Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Natalie Unterstell, of the watchdog group Política por Inteiro, began monitoring executive actions that had an impact on deforestation and climate change. “They were pressing buttons that sent shocks through the entire system,” she said.

Unterstell began this monitoring effort alone, keeping an updated spreadsheet, but the process soon became overwhelming due to sheer quantity. She enlisted the help of data scientists and developed an algorithm that would scrape the daily government bulletin, pinpointing the decrees that merited closer attention. In four years, Política Por Inteiro identified 2,189 executive acts that are “relevant to climate and socio-environmental policy.”

2,189 The number of executive actions taken by Jair Bolsonaro and his administration to unravel Brazil’s “climate and socio-environmental policy.”

Many of the early decrees involved institutional reform. Offices and task forces within the executive branch that had climate change or deforestation in the name were simply eliminated. Regulatory agencies were transferred wholesale from the Ministry of the Environment and put under the purview of sectors they were supposed to regulate. The Forestry Service for example, which manages nature reserves, became an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture. The National Water Agency, which regulates water resources and use, was transferred to the Ministry of Regional Development.

Bolsonaro also named loyalists friendly to logging, mining, and agribusiness interests to head key environmental agencies like the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable and Natural Resources, also known as IBAMA, the main agency involved in monitoring and enforcing laws against deforestation.

Three months into his presidency, Bolsonaro issued a decree that froze the Amazon Fund. The fund, which is bankrolled by foreign governments, aims to support Brazil’s efforts to preserve its forest and is a crucial source of financing for IBAMA. The move possibly deprived Brazil of $20 billion in funding for environmental conservation projects, according to a report from the government’s own comptroller.

A critical element of the government’s strategy was to remove civil society and the scientific community from the environmental regulatory process. In 2019, Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment, issued orders that restructured the National Environment Council, or CONAMA, a body that makes key decisions relating to environmental policy in Brazil. CONAMA was traditionally composed of a diverse group of stakeholders, including business interests, scientists, NGOs, Indigenous groups, and federal, state, and local representatives. Salles downsized the council and in doing so cut seats belonging to non-business civil society organizations from 11 to 4, giving them less proportional representation.

“They would bring four or five decisions up for a vote at once, and the councils were weakened so they had the opportunity approve whatever they wanted,” said Unterstell.

The system of environmental fines, which was already inefficient before Bolsonaro took office, suffered significant changes. Operations to curb deforestation began to be executed primarily by the military instead of IBAMA, an agency with decades of expertise in combating environmental crimes and the power to fine illegal deforesters. Even though the military reportedly spent $110 million to monitor roads and rivers in the Amazon region — roughly 10 times the yearly budget for IBAMA — deforestation rates skyrocketed. An investigation by the Climate Policy Initiative and World Wildlife Fund showed environmental fines decreased by almost a third during the Bolsonaro administration when compared to 2015 levels. The government also created a convoluted appeals process which in practice ground the entire system to a halt, resulting in fines being paid at an even lower rate than before. From 2019 through 2021, 98 percent of IBAMA fines went unpaid.

“The message was that if you commit environmental crimes you don’t need to worry because the chances that you will be held accountable are minimal,” said Unterstell.

During the pandemic the pace of deregulation accelerated. In a leaked video of a cabinet meeting in 2020, Salles, the country’s then-environment minister, urged his colleagues to use the global crisis as an opportunity. “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID, and push through and change all the rules and simplify the norms,” he was heard saying in the video.

Aerial view shows a deforested area of Amazon rainforest in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, in 2021. Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Among other significant changes to environmental norms was a directive from IBAMA, then-led by pro-industry Bolsonaro supporters, that loosened proof of origin documentation requirements for exported wood (later struck down by the Supreme Federal Court), and a presidential decree that encouraged mining in Indigenous territory. The government was changing regulations as late as December 2022, weeks after Bolsonaro’s loss in the polls, when IBAMA issued a measure that allowed for logging on Indigenous lands as well.

Lula might have gotten started on Day 1 in reversing many of these environmentally harmful policies, but scientists and environmentalists warn that results will take time. It is one thing to commit changes to paper and another to implement them on the ground.

“There are major trends of illegality that need to be reversed and a whole rebuilding process that has to happen. We won’t be seeing 2012 levels of deforestation in six months or a year,” Araújo told Grist, referring to the year with the lowest deforestation rate since records began in 1988. “The government will face a resistance that was not as strong back in 2003.”

Today’s Amazon is a very different place than the one Lula encountered when he began his first term as president. Brazil as a whole is significantly more polarized and much of the Amazon region is led by governors and mayors who align themselves with Bolsonaro. When Lula won the election in October 2022, Bolsonaro supporters blocked roads and highways to protest what they understood, without evidence, to be a stolen election. Many of these protests occurred in the Amazon’s frontiers of deforestation, such as the town of Novo Progresso in the state of Pará. “Bolsonaro created a bellicosity in the population,” Araújo said.

This tension came to high pitch on January 8, when Bolsonaro supporters, bused into the capital Brasília from all over the country, stormed and vandalized Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, and the presidential offices. Speaking after the events of that day, Lula speculated: “Many who were in Brasília today could have been illegal miners or illegal loggers.”

The Amazon has also become a more violent and lawless place. While homicides in Brazil overall have been declining since 2018, they have been on the rise in the Amazon. If the Brazilian Amazon were a country, it would have the fourth highest homicide rate in the world. Some of this can be attributed to the increasing presence of organized crime groups in the region, who have become involved in illegal mining, logging, and fishing operations and use the region’s waterways as drug trafficking routes. This trend became international news last year with the murders of Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira.

In addition to these challenges, Lula will face fierce opposition in Congress from politicians friendly to agribusiness and mining interests. Having been elected by a thin margin, he has limited political capital to spend. Some are wary that the administration’s commitment to protecting the Amazon will waver over time. Although the rise in deforestation was much more pronounced during the Bolsonaro years, it began under the administration of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor after he left office in 2010.

Still, it is widely expected that deforestation rates will be declining by the end of Lula’s now third term as President of Brazil. “We can be sure of that,” said Araújo. “All it takes is for environmental protection agencies to be allowed to do their job.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Brazil’s new president faces ‘scorched earth scenario’ left behind by Bolsonaro on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

This New York crypto lawsuit aims to settle a key climate law loophole

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:15

The environmental group Earthjustice has filed suit against New York state regulators, arguing that their decision to let a Canadian cryptocurrency mine take over a natural gas power plant violates the state’s climate protection law. 

The lawsuit, filed Friday with the Supreme Court of Albany County, says allowing Digitech to take over the plant near Buffalo would cause greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution to skyrocket. But the suit centers on a separate, yet related issue: settling a key debate over whether the Public Service Commission, a state body that regulates utilities, must consider emissions in its decision making.

Canadian blockchain technology company Digihost filed a petition with the New York Public Service Commission in early 2021 to purchase the Fortistar plant in the town of North Tonawanda. The facility had been operating as a peaker plant, providing electricity on the handful of days each year when demand spiked. It has released between 3,000 and 43,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually since 2016, according to Environmental Protection Agency data analyzed by Earthjustice. But Fortistar estimates that the plant will release more than 300,000 metric tons each year once it begins powering Digihost’s crypto mining facility. Emissions of harmful pollutants like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides will also increase.

“The Public Service Commission can no longer ignore the impacts of its decisions,” said Roger Downs, conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, which is a plaintiff in the suit. “Especially when they run counter to public benefit and endanger the air quality for communities already burdened with a disproportionate amount of pollution.”

Under New York’s Climate and Community Protection Act, which former governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law in 2019, the state must get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent from emissions-free sources by 2050. The law also dictates that state permitting, licensing, and other administrative approvals or appeals, “shall not disproportionately burden disadvantaged communities.” Just how those communities will be identified has yet to be finalized, but a mapping tool that uses criteria under consideration shows that several census tracts near the Fortistar plant could qualify. The area already grapples with a number of environmental burdens, including a high concentration of chemical facilities and industrially zoned land, flood risks, and pollution. 

Crypto operations requires large numbers of computers that suck up an enormous amount of energy. The resulting emissions have made crypto mining a contentious issue in New York. Governor Kathy Hochul cracked down on cryptocurrency mining last year, temporarily banning environmental permits for fossil fuel plants that power crypto operations. But the two-year moratorium does not apply to those that already filed their paperwork — including the Fortistar plant, which filed to renew its air permits last year.

The decision to approve those permits falls to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has a clear mandate to consider the state’s climate law. The agency has already made several high profile decisions to deny permits for fossil fuel plants and even rejected an application to renew the air permit for a similar crypto mining facility, the Greenidge natural gas power plant, because its “continued operations would be inconsistent with the statewide greenhouse gas emission limits established in the Climate Act.”

The Public Service Commission, on the other hand, has contested its role in helping the state meet its emissions goals. Its seven members are appointed by the governor to regulate gas and electric utilities with the goal of ensuring “access to safe, reliable utility service at just and reasonable rates.” When utilities want to raise customer rates to invest in new infrastructure, they must get the commission’s approval. But despite its power over the buildout of natural gas pipelines, power plants, and other long-lived fossil fuel assets, the panel has repeatedly rejected the idea that it must consider emissions in its decision making. 

In approving Digihost’s acquisition of the Fortistar plant, the commission said the emissions question was beyond the purview of the proceeding, which was limited to examining whether the transfer would harm ratepayers. (Commissioners determined it would not.) However, environmental groups point to a section of the law which states, “In considering and issuing permits, licenses, and other administrative approvals and decisions …all state agencies, offices, authorities, and divisions shall consider whether such decisions are inconsistent with or will interfere with the attainment of the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits.”

If the court agrees, the decision would have implications not only for Digihost but for utility regulation going forward: It could force the Public Service Commission to consider how allowing utilities to spend money on fossil fuel projects might hinder the state’s emission reduction goals.  

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This New York crypto lawsuit aims to settle a key climate law loophole on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The deadly link between diarrheal disease and climate change

Fri, 01/13/2023 - 03:30

Diarrhea, both common and preventable, is among the most dangerous threats to young children in the Global South, where clean water and medical care are often scarce. Diarrheal diseases, and the intense dehydration that accompanies them, kill more children under 5 years old than almost anything else — more than half a million children every year — primarily in middle- and low-income countries. Many parts of the globe have made progress against the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea in recent decades — but climate change is threatening to slow those advancements.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the relationship between rising temperatures and diarrheal disease in children under 3 years old. The study’s authors found that weather anomalies called “precipitation shocks” are associated with an increased risk of diarrhea in many parts of the world. These unusually wet or dry periods have grown increasingly common as the planet warms and higher-than-normal temperatures contribute to an atmosphere that oscillates between exceedingly moist and extremely dry, depending on the region. 

Previous studies have shown a correlation between the changing climate and diarrheal disease, but those analyses took place on a small scale, usually looking at a single village or city. This study is among the first to take a bird’s-eye view of the issue by analyzing that link across dozens of countries. 

“We have known for some time now that climate change-related extreme heat and precipitation increases diarrheal diseases,” Amir Sapkota, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland, told Grist. “What’s different and exciting about this study is that now it’s expanding that into 50-some countries.” Sapkota, who has studied the links between climate change and infectious disease in the past, was not involved in this new research.

The study’s authors collected data from interviews with mothers of young children from all over the world between 2000 and 2019. The interviews, conducted by an international development group, included information about where each child was geographically located and whether they had recently experienced symptoms associated with diarrhea. In total, the researchers obtained nationally representative information about some 600,000 children, about 18 percent of whom had experienced diarrhea in the weeks leading up to the interview. They overlaid that information with precipitation and drought data from the same time period. 

“This helped us to find out the associations between droughts, extreme rainfall, and children’s risk of diarrhea,” Anna Dimitrova, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego and the lead author of the study, told Grist.

Dimitrova and her team discovered that children face a heightened risk of diarrhea after extreme weather events in regions of the world where climate change is prompting dry seasons to become drier and wet seasons to become wetter. Zones known as the tropical savanna — Nigeria and Sudan in north-central Africa, for example — which are already prone to bouts of dryness, are becoming even more parched. Areas called the subtropical highlands, including Peru and Bolivia in western South America, experienced the opposite problem — monsoons are dumping even more rain on populations there. In both of these types of regions, the researchers found a strong correlation between these precipitation shocks and diarrhea symptoms in young children. 

The association between changing weather and diarrhea risk in low-income countries is yet another example of the disproportionate burden climate change is placing on the Global South — countries that have contributed relatively little to the bank of greenhouse gas emissions causing temperatures to rise. Climate change can influence the spread of pathogens anywhere. It becomes a critical public health risk when extended dry or wet periods occur in communities that lack essential sanitation infrastructure such as plumbing. 

That infrastructural inequity helps explain why precipitation shocks can lead to an increase in diarrhea in the regions the researchers identified. In low-income countries, many people lack access to clean municipal water and toilets. Open defecation pits are still the norm in parts of the world that lack the resources to build out sanitation systems. And people get their drinking and washing water from open rivers, streams, and ponds. During extreme flooding events, bacteria from excrement can leach into water sources and infect people. More flooding events and longer wet seasons mean more people are potentially exposed to dangerous pathogens that lead to diarrhea. 

An inverse but similarly hazardous pattern occurs during drought: Punishing dry seasons and flash droughts shrink local waterways and drinking water supplies, forcing people to dip into increasingly concentrated pools of water or to get their water from sources they know to be dangerous. A dearth of available water also forces communities to forgo crucial hygiene practices such as handwashing, which help kill bacteria and keep diseases at bay. 

“This is a very concerning trend,” Dimitrova said. “It’s not only the lives lost. Children are also losing a lot of school days, it can affect their performance in school, it can affect their growth and development.” 

The good news is solutions are low-tech and cost effective. Communities with access to piped water may assume that their water is safe because it comes out of a tap, but that’s not always the case, Dimitrova said. Local governments can monitor water quality and alert residents if bacteria pops up. Educating communities about how to make sure their water is safe, either by boiling, testing, or treating it, is another low-cost intervention. And it’s imperative that governments improve access to vaccinations, especially against the rotavirus, a leading cause of diarrhea in children. 

These solutions have already led to a decrease in diarrheal infections since the 1970s and ‘80s, Sapkota said, which means they work. But climate change is limiting that progress. “Although the rate is going down, climate change-driven hazards exacerbate” diarrheal infections, he said. “I think the challenge moving forward is, what are we going to do about it? Climate change is going nowhere, so how do we adapt to this new set of hazards as a society?”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The deadly link between diarrheal disease and climate change on Jan 13, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The world’s oceans broke a heat record … again

Fri, 01/13/2023 - 03:15

The temperature of the planet’s oceans soared to a third consecutive record last year, something oceanographers and climatologists consider a critical indicator of a warming world and an accelerant of extreme weather.

A study published Wednesday in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences found the level of heat contained in the sea reached its highest level since record keeping began in 1958.  Data indicate that the top 2,000 meters gained about 10 zettajoules of heat between 2021 and 2022 — an amount equivalent to about 100 times the world’s electricity generation in 2021. 

The news follows a report, released Tuesday, that found the past eight years were the hottest in recorded history. As dire as that sounds, the oceanic data is more troubling still because marine temperatures are far less variable than atmospheric temperatures and provide a clearer picture of how the world is warming. 

Oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, absorb the majority of the solar energy that reaches Earth as sunlight. The rest is reflected back into space. As increasing emissions trap more and more of it here at home, with about 93 percent remaining in the sea. The epipelagic zone — which runs to a depth of about 200 meters — now stores as much heat as the atmosphere, limiting its ability to help regulate planetary temperatures. Warming seas lead to more frequent, and extreme, hurricanes, typhoons and rainstorms of the sort California is experiencing this month.

All that heat also causes oceans to rise by melting Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and also by causing the molecules within sea water to move ever so slightly apart, increasing their volume. NASA attributes almost 40 percent of global sea level rise to this phenomenon, called thermal expansion, resulting in coastal erosion, flooding, and the loss of wetlands and marshes. 

Rising global temperatures have been somewhat tempered by three successive years of La Niña, a period of lower-than-normal marine surface temperatures. The impending return of El Niño, when the opposite occurs, could lead to further increases. 

“The long-term trends are very clear,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies told the Wall Street Journal in a statement. “They are not due to natural variation. They are not due to the sun. They are not due to volcanoes. They are due to our emissions of greenhouse gasses and as long as we continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, these trends will continue.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world’s oceans broke a heat record … again on Jan 13, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Exxon’s models predicting climate change were spot on — 40 years ago

Thu, 01/12/2023 - 11:18

In the early 1980s, America’s biggest company knew more about climate change than basically anyone else. Rising emissions posed a threat to Exxon’s business — selling fossil fuels — so the oil giant took the lead on understanding what was called the “CO2 problem.”

At the time, Exxon was pouring $900,000 a year into researching the effects of burning fossil fuels. It took an oil tanker, revamped it into a research vessel, then sent it on long journeys around the Atlantic Ocean to measure how the ocean was absorbing rising carbon dioxide emissions. In 1982, the company pivoted to a cheaper approach and directed its scientists to create mathematical models that calculated how rising carbon dioxide levels would change life on Earth in the coming decades. They turned out to be eerily accurate.

A study published in the journal Science on Thursday is the first to systematically measure how those models matched up against the real world. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Potsdam in Germany found that Exxon’s estimates from 1977 to 2003 proved to be just as precise as those from independent academics and government scientists. Between 63 and 83 percent of Exxon’s projections, depending on how they’re measured, accurately predicted how the world would warm in the coming decades. The study could provide fresh support for lawsuits against ExxonMobil by quantifying just how well the company understood the threat of the climate crisis decades ago. 

“It kind of took my breath away when I actually plotted for the first time Exxon’s predictions, and you see them land so tightly around that red curve of reality,” said Geoffrey Supran, a co-author of the study who researched fossil fuel propaganda at Harvard and is now a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami.

The chart below shows how global warming projections modeled by Exxon scientists compared to the actual temperature that ensued.

Grist / Jessie Blaeser

The study comes at a time when oil giants are under pressure to curb carbon pollution and prepare for a future powered by renewables like wind and solar. Activist shareholders have gained seats at oil companies including ExxonMobil, seeking to align their business strategies with the climate crisis. Harvard, Princeton, and other prominent universities are getting rid of investments in fossil fuels. With floods, fires, and smoke growing noticeably worse, a social reckoning is at hand: Young people are turning away from careers in the stigmatized oil and gas industry.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Exxon’s own scientists had warned that continuing to burn fossil fuels would lead to “catastrophic” and “irreversible” consequences. But starting in 1989, Exxon publicly dismissed its own findings. The company’s leadership cast doubt on the credibility of climate science, deriding models and emphasizing how “uncertainty” made them virtually useless. It’s part of a larger story about how many companies — including Shell, coal companies, and utilities — misled the public about climate change while their executives understood and downplayed the dangers of skyrocketing carbon emissions.

Evidence of this deception has become the basis for dozens of lawsuits against fossil fuel giants in recent years, with cities and states seeking to hold companies and governments responsible for damages from climate change. So far, most have failed, with some exceptions that force countries or companies to make deeper cuts to their carbon emissions

Supran suspects that the new quantitative evidence about what Exxon knew — and when — could prove to be compelling evidence in lawsuits. “I imagine that both in court, and then of course in public opinion, simple visuals proving Exxon knew and misled on climate may prove powerful,” Supran said.

The study finds other examples of how Exxon’s scientists foresaw the future. They accurately predicted that the scientific community would become confident that human-caused global warming was underway around the year 2000, the median estimate of nearly a dozen speculative reports Exxon conducted 15 to 20 years earlier. 

Exxon’s researchers also rejected the prospect of an impending ice age, a notion that was popular in news headlines in the 1970s, though not backed by many scientists. They also accurately forecasted how much carbon dioxide could be emitted while keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F).

But Exxon’s public stance remained hostile to any public discussion of that same research. The company’s leadership and marketing team worked to create a cloud of confusion around climate science. In 2001, an ExxonMobil press release argued that there was “no consensus about long-term climate trends and what causes them.” In a 2004 New York Times advertisement, the company stated that “scientific uncertainties continue to limit our ability to make objective, quantitative determinations regarding the human role in recent climate change.” The following year, Lee Raymond, then ExxonMobil’s CEO, blamed sunspots and the wobble of the Earth for global warming during a PBS interview, claiming that scientists didn’t know if humans played a role in changing the climate.

Activists rally outside of the New York State Attorney General’s office to support the state’s investigation into whether Exxon covered up its knowledge about climate change, February 22, 2017. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The latest study focused on Exxon because of its well-documented climate research program — which resulted in the largest public collection of global warming projections from a single company — and because of its long record of challenging climate science. Between 1998 and 2019, Exxon gave more than $37 million to organizations that sought to sow confusion about the scientific consensus around climate change and obstruct efforts by governments to take action.

In response to the study, ExxonMobil spokesperson Todd Spitler said that “those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions.” He cited a ruling from a 2019 court case involving Exxon, in which a judge said that the New York State Attorney General had failed to provide enough evidence that Exxon broke the law by misleading shareholders about climate change. The judge who ruled in Exxon’s favor said at the time that the case was “a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”

Casting doubt on the science was just one prong of Exxon’s approach. Previous research from Supran and Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes has shown that Exxon used subtle rhetoric to shift the blame for climate change from fossil fuel producers to the individuals who used them to power their cars and heat their houses. Another part of Exxon’s strategy was to highlight how climate policies could harm the economy while ignoring the enormous costs of failing to rein in emissions as well as the economic benefits of taking action.

The new study provides a fresh point of comparison in the history of deception from fossil fuel companies, Supran said. “It’s one thing to understand that they vaguely knew something about global warming decades ago, that they were broadly aware of the relationship between fossil fuels and warming, but to realize that they knew as much as anyone, as much as independent scientists did … it’s kind of shocking.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Exxon’s models predicting climate change were spot on — 40 years ago on Jan 12, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

U.S. regulators hinted at a possible ban on gas stoves. The debate boiled over.

Thu, 01/12/2023 - 03:45

Seemingly overnight, the gas stove in nearly one of three homes in the country became an appliance of controversy, bringing possible comparisons to cigarettes on one side and accusations of government overreach on the other. 

The fight started when a commissioner for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, said the agency could soon increase regulations and a potential ban on gas stoves, citing the appliance’s public health risks.

“This is a hidden hazard,” Richard Trumka Jr., commissioner for the CPSC, a federal agency responsible for recalling products like baby swings and bicycles to reduce harm to consumers, told Bloomberg in an interview. “Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.” 

Since that interview, the debate has boiled over. Claims of a “federal gas stove ban” circulated while the Wall Street Journal editorial board and numerous conservative lawmakers hopped into the fray, blaming the Biden Administration for “forcing all buildings to use electricity for everything.”

Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican Congressman representing The northern tip of the state near Oklahoma, said, “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”

Around 40 million homes (or roughly 35 percent of all U.S. houses) use a gas stove to make food. According to 2021 data from the Energy Information Administration, the top five states that use natural gas are Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Florida, respectively.

“To be clear, I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so”

Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chair of the CPSC

The outcry over outlawing the appliance comes on the heels of a study linking use of gas stoves in homes to almost 13 percent of cases of childhood asthma in the country. The study found that these appliances emit pollutants that have been linked to respiratory problems, like asthma, such as benzene, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Released in late December, the study compares the use of a gas stove in the home to risks associated with second-hand smoke exposure. The American Gas Association, a natural gas trade organization, vehemently denounced the study, saying it isn’t sound science. 

“Attempts to generate consumer fears with baseless allegations to justify the banning of natural gas is a misguided agenda that will not improve the environment or the health of consumers and would saddle vulnerable populations with significant costs,” the industry group said in a statement.

However, there is no federal gas stove ban in the works. 

In a statement provided to Grist, Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chair of the CPSC, said the agency is looking for ways to reduce emissions and indoor air quality hazards. The agency is gathering information and will open a period of public comment this spring to inform future decisions, but Hoehn-Saric cleared the air about the ongoing gas stove shellacking.

“But to be clear, I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so,” he said in the statement. 

The gas stove debate continues a trend of concerns and outcry about the plausibility of implementing and achieving a carbon-free energy transition, from trying to get fossil fuels out of your home to struggles finding a place to charge an electric vehicle.

Gas stoves have been studied and shown that they leak methane, a main component in natural gas, which both traps more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and has been responsible for 30 percent of the planet’s warming to date. Studies have also shown that these stoves leak toxic chemicals, contributing to health risks besides asthma, such as anemia, immunity issues, and cancers. 

Environmental justice advocates have pushed for the removal of gas stoves from public housing, citing disproportionate rates of women and children affected by the use of gas appliances for cooking in the home, coupled with studies that point to increased rates of asthma in Black and Latino children as compared to white children.

The heated response to news of a consumer safety update was not surprising to Matt Casale, director of environment campaigns for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on consumer protection, public health, and transportation, because of personal attachment to everyday items.

“There are kitchen table issues and this is literally a kitchen issue. Cooking and food are such an important part of our lives,” Casale told Grist. 

But, Casale said any regulatory update has been years in the making, with studies and research focusing on the health risks and lack of consumer information, such as warning labels on gas stoves, being a priority for consumer groups. 

He said PIRG, just like the federal agency, is not looking for an all-out ban on gas stoves but has suggestions to mitigate health risks from respiratory illnesses, such as mandatory ventilation hoods, emergency shut-offs when high levels of pollutants release, and warning labels on gas stoves.

“It’s like seatbelts in cars. These are core things that we can do to protect ourselves and that’s what the agency is trying to get at and that’s what we’re hoping to see,” Casale said. 

Some communities have already shifted away from natural gas use and gas stoves in homes and businesses. Berkeley, California — home of the “electricity everything” movement — banned natural gas in new buildings starting in 2019, becoming the first city in the country to do so. Since then, large cities like San Francisco and New York City have passed similar bans, with almost 80 other cities across the nation following suit. 

Read Next The fossil fuel origins of ‘gaslighting’

But, these bans and studies have also sparked outrage from industry groups and some conservative lawmakers, causing a wave of preemptive laws that prevent local governments from banning natural gas hookups. When Berkeley announced the natural gas ban, the California Restaurant Association sued the city over the ruling, citing chefs’ training inclining them to cook with gas over electricity. The group lost the suit but has since filed an appeal.

Cooking with an electric induction stove is not a momentous change, according to Michael Godlewski, a professional chef with 20 years of experience. It took him “a day of recalibrating mentally” the times needed for certain dishes in the pan and for the stove to get to the appropriate temperature.

Godlewski, chef/owner of Eat Your Veggies, a Pittsburgh restaurant that focused on vegetables as the main ingredient with meat and protein as an accompaniment, installed electric induction ovens throughout his new restaurant when constructing his recently opened space. 

Godlewski’s kitchen is fully electric, from the four induction burners to the griddle. He said that the concern over the environmental impact was present in his decision-making, but the main decision was employee comfort and health. 

“It gets hot in kitchens, it gets tight,” Godlekwsi told Grist, “and with induction and electric [stoves], we have a relatively cool, comfortable kitchen space where, even when we’re busy, you’re not feeling like you’re getting doused in sweat.”

He said he has been able to cut down on energy usage as induction stoves don’t need to be left on for long periods, like gas stoves, to reach the needed commercial cooking temperatures. 

While he welcomes the electric push, he did voice concern that if there is a ban or strict regulations, assistance to help businesses and families make that transition is needed to purchase electric stoves as well as proper cookware needed for the units.

“Cookware can get expensive too, especially if you’re looking for induction,” Godlewski said. “So that’s an impediment to having people fully embrace that transition. But I think once you work on an induction cooktop, or something like that, you never want to go back.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline U.S. regulators hinted at a possible ban on gas stoves. The debate boiled over. on Jan 12, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Switching to an electric car saves money. Unless you’re poor.

Thu, 01/12/2023 - 03:30

The appeal of electric cars is straightforward: Owners get to save money by skipping trips to the gas station and feel good about doing their part to cut carbon emissions. That’s part of the reason why U.S. sales are currently soaring, with electric vehicles expected to make up 10 percent of the cars and light-duty trucks on roads in 2030. This is good news for the climate, since transportation is the single largest source of emissions in the country.

The decision to switch to an electric-powered vehicle benefits 9 out of 10 U.S. drivers, but the lowest income Americans get left behind, according to the results of a new study from the University of Michigan. 

A group of researchers at the school’s Center for Sustainable Systems analyzed data on income level, gas and electricity costs, and vehicle-specific greenhouse gas emissions for every census tract in the United States. They found that over 90 percent of vehicle-owning households would see reductions in both carbon emissions and the amount they spend on powering their car by switching to an electric vehicle. These benefits are especially pronounced on the West Coast, where some households could cut their annual transportation bills by $600 or more, and slash their annual carbon emissions by more than 4.1 metric tons, the study found.

The pattern does not hold true, however, for those with the lowest incomes, more than half of whom would continue to be burdened by high transportation costs — defined as more than 4 percent of their income — after trading in their gas-guzzler for an electric car. The study found that households that would receive little benefit are concentrated in Midwestern states with coal and natural gas-reliant energy grids, as well as in Alaska and Hawaii, the two states with the highest cost of electricity.

The study’s authors called these disparities a problem of “distributive justice,” a term used to describe the equal distribution of a policy’s benefits and burdens. They say their research is the first to consider how switching to an electric vehicle would impact both emissions and energy costs across different regions of the country. 

“Our results confirm the potential for widespread benefits from EV [electric vehicle] adoption,” said study author Joshua Newell, an urban geographer at the University of Michigan, in a press release. “However, EV ownership in the U.S. has thus far been dominated by households with higher incomes and education levels, leaving the most vulnerable populations behind.”

The potential for an electric vehicle to decrease its owner’s overall carbon footprint and energy expenses depends on many factors, including the car battery’s power source, driving and charging patterns, and local electricity rates. Rural and suburban households tend to spend more of their income on energy because of a lack of public transportation and the need to drive longer distances. 

Take an electric car-owner living in a suburban area of Indiana, where more than half of electricity comes from coal-fired plants. Even though the owner is not releasing greenhouse gasses while driving to work, they are using more power to charge their vehicle, and it’s dirty. Moreover, the average electric bill in Indiana is high relative to the rest of the country — $162 last October compared with the nationwide monthly average of $139 — so charging at home can get expensive. This driver might save some money they would have spent on gas by purchasing an electric car, but the difference might not be enough to convince them to make the switch.

Compare that to somebody buying an electric car in an urban part of California. Since more than 30 percent of the state’s grid is powered by renewables, this owner will be charging their vehicle with cleaner electricity, resulting in a net-decrease in their carbon emissions after ditching their gas-powered car. Electricity bills are right around the national average, but foregoing the costs of filling up the tank in California — where gas runs $4.40 a gallon — more than makes up the difference.

Factoring in income further complicates the picture. While households that make more than 30 to 80 percent of the average median income for a given area would pay a low or moderate amount to power their electric vehicle, those earning less than 30 percent of the average median income would still be stuck with moderate or high costs.  

Newell, the co-author of the study, told Grist that these findings raise all sorts of questions about the best way to get Americans to buy more electric cars. He cited a need to develop programs like California’s Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program, which provides funds for low-income residents to scrap their high-polluting vehicle for a cleaner one. 

The study didn’t account for the cost of buying an electric vehicle, because prices are expected to swing in the coming years. Beyond the cost of the actual car, Newell noted that a lack of public charging stations in rural and low-income areas remains a problem. California, for instance, has one charging station for every 2,848 residents, according to Choose Energy, whereas Alabama has one for every 20,000. One way of addressing that, he said, is to expand and subsidize them. But it all depends on what’s best for that town.  

Given the many variables at play, Newell said efforts to get more Americans to buy electric vehicles need to be crafted at a “regional level.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Switching to an electric car saves money. Unless you’re poor. on Jan 12, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

To get off fossil fuels, America is going to need a lot more electricians

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 03:45

This story was produced in partnership with Post Script Media and Canary Media. You can listen to the podcast version here.

Chanpory Rith, a 42-year-old product designer at the software company Airtable, bought a house in Berkeley, California, with his partner at the end of 2020. The couple wasn’t planning to buy, but when COVID-19 hit and they both began working from their one-bedroom San Francisco apartment, they developed a new hobby: browsing listings on Zillow and Redfin — “real estate porn,” as Rith put it.

Their pandemic fantasizing soon became a pandemic fairy tale: They fell for a five-bedroom, midcentury home in the Berkeley hills with views of San Francisco Bay and put down an offer. “And then came the joys and tribulations of homeownership,” Rith said.

One of those tribulations began with a plan to install solar panels. Rith didn’t consider himself a diehard environmentalist, but he was concerned about climate change and wanted to do his part to help. He didn’t have a car but planned on eventually getting an electric vehicle and also wanted to swap out the house’s natural gas appliances for electric versions. Getting solar panels would be a smart first step, he figured, because it might trim his utility bills. But Rith soon found out that the house’s aging electrical panel would need to be upgraded to support rooftop solar. And he had no idea how hard it would be to find someone to do it.

A woman walks past a home with solar panels installed on the roof in Oakland, California. Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Many of the electricians Rith reached out to didn’t respond. Those who did were booked out for weeks, if not months. He said they were so busy that the conversations felt like interviews — as if he were being evaluated, to suss out whether his house was worth their time. 

“It felt like trying to get your kid into a nice kindergarten, where you have to be interviewed and do a lot of things just to get on the radar of these electricians,” Rith told Grist.

His first-choice contracting company put him on a long waitlist before it would send anyone out to look at the house. Another gave him an exorbitant quote — more than $50,000 to upgrade the electrical panel, along with installing new, grounded outlets to replace the house’s outdated two-prong outlets. Rith wound up putting the project on hold to do some renovations first. 

Andrew Campbell, executive director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy Institute, had a similar experience. Campbell wanted to upgrade the electrical panel on a duplex he owns in Oakland so that he could install electric vehicle chargers for the building’s tenants. But even after finding a company to take the job, a shortage of technicians and the contractor’s overbooked schedule, among other delays, meant it took eight months from the time the first electrician came over until the project was done. 

Andrew Campbell stands near the electrical panel on a duplex he owns in Oakland, California. Emily Pontecorvo / Grist

“I was feeling like, why am I doing this?” Campbell said. “The electricians who should want the project don’t seem to want it. The utility, which is really going to benefit a lot from electrification, they’re making it hard. It just felt like barrier after barrier.” 

You could read Rith and Campbell’s troubles as minor inconveniences, or you could read them as warning signs.

To cut greenhouse gas emissions on pace with the best available science, the United States must prepare for a monumental increase in electricity use. Burning fossil fuels to heat homes and get around isn’t compatible with keeping the planet at a livable temperature. Appliances that can be powered by clean electricity already exist to meet all of these needs. 

The race to “electrify everything” is picking up. President Joe Biden’s signature climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed in August, contains billions of dollars to help Americans electrify their homes, buy electric vehicles, and install solar panels. Meanwhile, cities all over the country, including New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco are requiring that new buildings run only on electricity, after the city of Berkeley, California, pioneered the legislation in 2019. 

President Joe Biden talks with representatives from a Boston electrician apprentice program during a White House demonstration of an electric vehicle charging station on November 2, 2022. Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

The problem is, most houses aren’t wired to handle the load from electric heating, cooking, and clothes dryers, along with solar panels and vehicle chargers. Rewiring America, a nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on electrification, estimates that some 60 to 70 percent of single-family homes will need to upgrade to bigger or more modern electrical panels to accommodate a fully electrified house. 

“It’s going to be the electrification worker, the electricians that are going to see a real surge in demand,” said Panama Bartholomy, executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a national nonprofit working to get fossil fuels out of homes.

But in the Bay Area, arguably the birthplace of the movement to “electrify everything,” homeowners are struggling to find technicians to upgrade their electrical panels or install electric heat pumps, let alone for everyday repairs. Residential electrical contractors are swamped with calls and struggling to find experienced people to hire. The schools tasked with training the next generation of electricians are tight on funds and short on teachers. It’s a story that’s playing out across the country. And what might be inconvenient today could soon hamstring attempts to cut carbon emissions even as these efforts become more urgent. 

Grist / Jessie Blaeser

“It is hard to imagine tens of millions of households in the U.S. individually undertaking the sort of time consuming, expensive process that I experienced,” wrote Andrew Campbell in a blog post chronicling his experience. 

The contractor Campbell ended up working with was Boyes Electric, a small company based in Oakland owned by Borin Reyes. 

Reyes, who’s 28, moved to California from Guatemala when he was 16 and got introduced to electrical work in high school. His dad was a general contractor and would take him out in the field during summer break. On one job, there was an electrical subcontractor who needed an extra set of hands, and Borin started working for him from time to time. He liked the work — but more so he liked the money he was making. After graduating from high school, he saw electrical work as a path to moving out of his parents’ house, so he enrolled in a training program at a now-shuttered for-profit technical school in Oakland to get more experience.

Electrician Borin Reyes holds an electric vehicle charger. Brett Marsh / Grist

After graduating in 2013, Reyes spent several years working for a larger company before starting his own. Today, he loves the job. “You really have to be focused, because of safety,” he said. “You have to be hands-on most of the time and solving problems. That’s one of the things that I like best — solving problems.”

Reyes’ company has always focused on rewiring homes undergoing renovations rather than new construction. But at the beginning of 2022, he added a new specialty when his business partnered with a company called Qmerit, a middleman between electric vehicle dealerships and electricians. Dealerships send new car owners to Qmerit to get help finding qualified technicians to install EV chargers, and Qmerit connects them with local businesses like Boyes Electric.

Electric vehicles make up less than 1 percent of cars on the road, but that’s changing fast as sales soar. The number of electric vehicles registered in the U.S. jumped nearly 43 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the Department of Energy. Government incentives are sure to give the market another boost: The Inflation Reduction Act offers as much as $7,500 in rebates for new EVs and $4,000 for used EVs. In California, Washington state, and New York, you won’t even be able to buy a new model with an internal combustion engine after 2035. The number of public charging stations is also growing, so EV owners don’t necessarily need to install their own charging equipment at home, though many do. It’s convenient, and can also turn a car into a backup power source when the lights go out. 

Read Next Think apartment-hunting is frustrating? Try doing it with an electric car.

Before Boyes Electric partnered with QMerit, Reyes was installing around one EV charger every week; now it’s up to about five each week. “That’s huge for a small business,” he said. Reyes wants the company to expand into solar installations, too — just not yet.

Boyes Electric employs 12 technicians, and these days Reyes spends most of his time in the office taking calls and coordinating jobs. His electricians are usually booked up about three weeks to a month out.

“Customers are literally looking for electricians every single day,” he said. “We’re not taking emergency calls anymore because we don’t have the manpower. All of our current technicians are out on the field, they’re busy trying to get jobs done.”

Reyes would like to hire more electricians, but he said there just aren’t any experienced people looking for work; they’re already hired. “It is a problem finding people right now,” he said. “Most of the electrical companies, you can ask around, all of them are busy.”

Grist / Jessie Blaeser

In 2021, the website Angi, which helps homeowners find services, surveyed 2,400 contractors across different trades. Half reported that they couldn’t fill open positions, and 68 percent said it was a struggle to hire skilled workers. In a recent survey of 661 building contractors by the Associated General Contractors of America, 72 percent reported having open, salaried positions. The number one reason for all the openings: “Available candidates are not qualified to work in the industry.” 

In the past, Reyes recruited workers out of high school and trained them up. But he’s reluctant to do it again. It costs his technicians time, it costs him money, and there’s no guarantee that the people he invests in will stick around because the job market is so competitive. 

The workforce is also aging. Reyes said he knows of a few electricians getting ready for retirement who would like to hand over the business to their kids, but they just aren’t interested.  The way he sees it, younger people are getting lured into the tech industry with the promise of big salaries and just aren’t as interested in getting dirty underneath houses. 

Clayton Ajpuac, a technician for Reyes Electric, works on a light fixture in a house in Oakland, California. Brett Marsh / Grist

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that about 21 percent of electricians will have hit retirement age in the next 10 years. The agency estimates that demand for electricians will grow by 7 percent over the same span and that between retirements and new demand, there will be nearly 80,000 job openings in the field every year. That estimate doesn’t account for all the incentives — rebates for solar panels, electrical panels, heat pumps, stoves, cars, and clothes dryers — contained in the Inflation Reduction Act, nor does it account for the possibility that demand might soar if local governments keep pushing to electrify buildings.

Several contractors and labor experts, when asked why electricians are so hard to find, pointed to the widespread belief that the main path to adulthood runs through a four-year university, and the related decline of vocational education in high schools. According to Pew Research, 39 percent of millennials earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 29 percent of Gen Xers and 24 to 25 percent of boomers. 

Even for those drawn to a career in the trades, there’s another obstacle: The technical schools built to train them are short of money and people, too. 

In the Bay Area, one of the main ways that aspiring electricians can get into the field is by taking classes at Laney College, a community college in Oakland. The school’s electrical technology program is approved by the State of California’s Industrial Relations Board, meaning students at Laney can count their hours toward the requirements to take the state certification exam. More than 380 students have earned an associate degree or certificate in the program over the past five years.

But this past year, Laney’s program almost fell apart after one of its teachers, Forough Hashemi, announced she would be retiring at the end of the spring 2022 semester. Hashemi had been teaching six classes each semester, essentially holding the program together, and to some students, it felt like the fate of the entire program was in question. 

The suns shines on Laney College in Oakland, California, Brett Marsh / Grist

David Pitt, a student at Laney, was worried he wouldn’t be able to finish the required courses. Pitt got interested in becoming an electrician a few years ago while volunteering for a solar company. He enjoyed being outside, working with his hands, and getting away from his computer screen. The volunteering gig soon turned into a paid, part-time job, but all he was really allowed to do was grunt work, like mounting solar panels and running wires. In order to do the interesting stuff — design a system, interpret an electrical panel, actually connect the solar panels to it, and maybe work his way up to owning his own business — he needed to become a certified electrician. So he enrolled part-time in Laney’s electrical program.

Without Hashemi, however, it was unclear whether the school could keep offering the required classes. So Pitt and his classmates, assisted by an adjunct professor, Mark Prudowsky, arranged a meeting with the school’s deans to ask what would happen next. The deans assured them that they would try to replace Hashemi, though they admitted they were having trouble finding anyone interested.

“This is an issue for a lot of trade skills disciplines,” said Alejandria Tomas, the career and technical education dean at Laney, in an interview last summer. By that point, Tomas had already tried emailing every electrical business in the county and felt she had exhausted every resource she had in trying to recruit a new teacher. (Borin Reyes was one of those who turned her down.) 

“Employees usually earn more when they work in the field than teaching, so it’s hard to recruit,” Tomas said. 

Pitt only needed two more classes to finish his required coursework — one on motors and another on lightbulbs. But by the time the fall semester started, Laney had yet to make any full-time hires, and the lightbulbs class wasn’t offered. 

Laney College electrical student David Pitt on his boat in the Oakland marina. Emily Pontecorvo / Grist

Prudowsky blamed the school, the district, and the state for not investing enough in Laney’s electrician program. The lack of funds meant requiring one full-time faculty member to teach up to six classes per semester with up to 40 students in every class. (Hashemi did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)

“If California is even going to come close to meeting its very ambitious goals, it’s going to have to train a whole cohort of electricians and technicians,” Prudowsky said. “And if they keep underfunding these programs and overloading these classrooms and not providing enough resources, it won’t happen.” 

Tomas, the dean, said the school understands the importance of the program and has shielded it from recent budget cuts. The problem, as she saw it, was that it was simply impossible to find more people to teach the courses.

In January, nearly a year after the search began, the school finally hired a new full-time faculty member. According to Prudowsky, however, the big problem — “a very poor understanding of the need to fund and indeed, expand funding for the program” — remained.

Community colleges like Laney are one of a handful of pathways into the profession. Another runs through the unions, which offer free classes and paid experience through their apprenticeship programs. There’s often a higher barrier to entry than simply signing up for classes: In the Bay Area, for instance, an aspiring electrician has to pass an exam and go through an interview process to get accepted. And there are limited openings.  

Labor advocates like Beli Acharya, the executive director of the Construction Trades Workforce Initiative, make the case that California should enact policies that favor union contractors, which would increase demand for apprentices and enable the unions to accept more applicants. Today, according to Acharya, most residential building work is handled by nonunion contractors, though that’s not because union contractors aren’t interested in working on houses. She said they are undercut by cheaper, nonunion companies. 

Acharya’s organization is a nonprofit partner to several building trades unions in the East Bay. It aims to help people who are currently underrepresented in the trades gain access to these careers. Nearly 90 percent of electricians are white, compared with 78 percent of the country’s workforce, and less than 2 percent are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

An apprentice electrician, left, bends an electrical pipe while a supervisor looks on. Women make up less than 2 percent of the country’s electrician workforce. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Our goal is to ensure that as public dollars become available, quality jobs are being produced,” Acharya said. “If we’re really trying to lift up our communities and create quality jobs, there needs to be labor standards put in place so that our community members are actually benefiting from the work that’s going to be developed through all of this construction.” 

The Construction Trades Workforce Initiative is one of several organizations in the Bay Area trying to entice more people into jobs connected to clean energy, like electrical work. Another nonprofit headquartered in Oakland, GRID Alternatives, builds solar projects and trains people to install them. GRID partners with local organizations, like Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program, to introduce former inmates as well as other underrepresented people, to careers in solar. Those admitted to GRID’s training receive “wraparound supportive services” that address barriers they might have to participating, like helping them get driver’s licenses, open bank accounts, or, for those formerly incarcerated, find attorneys.

Trainees attend a GRID Alternatives workshop in the Greater Los Angeles area. Courtesy of GRID

GRID’s program isn’t specifically geared toward producing electricians. But Adewale OgunBadejo, its vice president of workforce development, said that it can act as a gateway into the skilled trades — similar to how David Pitt was inspired to become an electrician after volunteering for a solar company.* “It’s really an introduction into the industry,” he said. “We’re training people to become solar installers, but what you find is that as people progress through their careers, a lot of them do become contractors, a good number do end up starting their own businesses, while others go into the union.”

OgunBadejo said that GRID is also building a network of minority- and women-owned contractors who work on electric vehicle charging infrastructure, home energy storage, and heating systems. The goal is to support these small businesses and help them gain access to funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, so that in turn, they can hire graduates of GRID’s training program.

90% of electricians are white, compared with 78 percent of the country’s workforce

Several experts interviewed for this story stressed their belief that any workforce development program has to be tightly connected to the people already doing this work — the contractors.

“The successful programs are tied directly to employer needs,” said Laure-Jeanne Davignon, the vice president for workforce development at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a clean energy policy nonprofit. “They have a direct line of communication to employers from the design of the program up through job placement.”

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $200 million to states over the next decade to train contractors in energy efficiency upgrades and electrification. Bartholomy, from the Building Decarbonization Coalition, said some of that money could go toward paying a portion of a trainee’s wages, enabling contractors like Borin to take on more trainees. (Some states also offer tax credits to employers who bring on apprentices, but California isn’t one of them.) 

Read Next He wanted to get his home off fossil fuels. There was just one problem.

One challenge with involving contractors, though, is that many of them aren’t convinced of the benefits of switching to electric appliances. Take heat pumps. They transfer heat from the outside air indoors, even on very cold days, to provide space heating, and work in reverse to provide cooling in the summertime. They’re more expensive than a gas furnace up front but can pay off with savings in the long run. Even so, homeowners recount encounters with contractors who tried to persuade them out of buying electric heat pumps, raising doubts with customers about the higher price and whether they work as well as natural gas systems. 

California is trying to change contractors’ minds through a $120 million initiative called TECH Clean California. A big part of it involves training contractors how to install electric heat pumps and water heaters but it also lays out available rebates and other subsidies that would help sell them to customers. The program launched in the middle of 2021, and so far, more than 600 contractors have participated, according to Evan Kamei, a program manager at TECH. Kamei said the initiative is also working to increase cooperation between existing training providers, like community colleges, utilities, and manufacturers.   

Jeff Sturgeon of the National Comfort Institute presents to contractors at the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries trade show in November 2022. TECH Clean California

While education, training opportunities, funding, and stronger collaboration between the networks of companies, schools, and contractors could all help ensure that people interested in becoming electricians get a shot at making it into the field, they still don’t necessarily address one of the biggest obstacles to “electrifying everything” — getting people interested in the trade in the first place. So how can the United States inspire more people like David Pitts and Borin Reyes?

“I think one of the big questions is really, do millennials and Zoomers see a career for themselves in crawl spaces and attics doing this work?” said Bartholomy. “You know, it’s, ‘You should be going to four year college and learning C++ programming, not working in the trades.’“

Asked if he had any ideas for how to get more young people interested in the field, Reyes didn’t skip a beat. “Showing them how much money they can make. That is the key.”

A trainee for Reyes Electric studies a wire during a workshop. Courtesy of Borin Reyes

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for an electrician in the U.S. is about $63,000 compared with an average of $58,000 for all occupations. But there’s a big range. In the Bay Area, the top-paying metropolitan area for electricians in the country, the average is $93,900, with many contractors topping six figures.

Another step is to raise awareness. Davignon’s organization, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, recently won a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop an outreach campaign to advertise careers in renovating houses to be more energy efficient, known as “weatherization.” She said she hopes to raise more money to promote other jobs in clean energy, like electricians. One idea is a twist on the classic U.S. Army recruitment ad along the lines of: Your country needs you to be an energy hero.

“That’s the kind of thing we really need to start to remove the stigma from these trade jobs,” Davignon said. “You know, is the construction job sexy enough for someone or do they also want to be saving the world?”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline To get off fossil fuels, America is going to need a lot more electricians on Jan 11, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

A Massachusetts law protects the right to repair your own car. Automakers are suing.

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 03:30

In 2013, long before there was a national campaign pressuring Big Tech to make it easier for people to fix their smartphones, Massachusetts passed a law explicitly giving consumers the right to repair their cars. Now, that right is under threat. A pending federal lawsuit could decide its fate — and in so doing, transform the auto repair landscape at a time when cars increasingly resemble giant computers.

The lawsuit in question, Alliance for Automotive Innovation v. Maura Healey, concerns a ballot measure Bay State voters overwhelmingly approved in 2020. That so-called Data Access Law requires that automakers grant car owners and independent repair shops access to vehicle “telematics,” data that cars transmit wirelessly to the manufacturer. Proponents of the law say giving owners control over this data will help level the playing field for auto repair as the computerization and electrification of cars create new challenges for independent shops. Not doing so could give manufacturers a competitive advantage over repair, one that consumer advocates fear will lead to fewer options, higher prices, and ultimately, cars getting junked faster. 

That’s a problem not just for drivers’ pocketbooks, but for the climate. Manufacturing cars generates considerable emissions — and will generate even more as automakers continue to scale up electric vehicle manufacturing, which is particularly carbon intensive due the energy required to make the battery. In order to reap the full climate benefits of these vehicles, consumers need to drive them as long as possible. To do so, they need access to convenient, affordable repair options.

While the law was hailed a major victory for the right-to-repair movement when it passed at the ballot box, automakers — represented by an industry group called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — immediately sued the state to block its implementation. The two sides have been duking it out in federal court ever since, with the judge overseeing the case delaying his ruling for more than a year. Nobody knows when a final determination will be made or which side will prevail. But for automakers and the auto repair business alike, the stakes are high.

“We’re at a juncture in the road,” Paul Roberts, founder of securepairs.org and editor of the Fight to Repair newsletter, told Grist. “We’re in the position of seeing independent auto repair go the way of TV and camera repair. Which is, they don’t exist anymore.”

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who took over as governor of the state in January, has defended Massachusetts’ 2020 right-to-repair ballot measure in court. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Today’s independent auto repair industry owes its existence in large part to the auto right-to-repair law that Massachusetts passed in 2013. That law granted independent mechanics access to the same diagnostic and repair information manufacturers provide to their franchised dealerships through a standard in-car port also used for vehicle emissions testing. But it explicitly excluded telematic data.

That’s becoming a problem as cars become more computerized. Today, many auto parts contain chips that monitor their state of health and communicate with the rest of the vehicle; without the ability to wirelessly send commands to those parts, independent auto shops are finding themselves unable to diagnose problems and perform repairs. At the same time, newer cars will often beam data on their state of health directly back to the manufacturer. That manufacturer can then send the vehicle owner updates when it’s time for routine maintenance — along with a suggestion that they go to their nearest franchised dealership to get the job done.

“If my battery’s low, if I need an oil change, if my headlights or taillights are out … this is all diagnostic information that’s being transmitted back to manufacturers,” said Tom Tucker, the senior director for state affairs at the Auto Care Association, which represents the nationwide independent auto repair industry. “They’re then transmitting that information to franchised dealerships, which are then contacting the consumer. That’s great for industry, but it puts independents at a competitive disadvantage.”

The 2020 Data Access Law sought to remove manufacturers’ advantage by requiring that automakers make any mechanical data emanating from a car directly accessible to the owner and independent repair shops through a standard, open-access platform. 

Tucker’s organization, which helped craft the ballot initiative, hoped that automakers and the repair industry would eventually come to a national agreement over telematic data sharing, which is what happened after Massachusetts passed its first auto right-to-repair law in 2013. 

Instead, automakers took the state’s attorney general to court to challenge the validity of the ballot initiative, claiming that making this data more accessible would degrade vehicle cybersecurity. By giving car owners and independent repair shops access to telematics, carmakers claim, the Data Access Law runs afoul of federal safety regulations and the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Carmakers also claim the law conflicts with the Clean Air Act, because it could make it easier for a car owner to disable emissions control systems on an engine. 

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (who took over as governor of the state in January) believes this is a load of malarkey. For the Data Access Law to conflict with federal laws, automakers must prove that there is no possible way both sets of laws can be met — which they haven’t done, Healey argues. In fact, an October 2021 investigation by her office found that one member of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, Subaru, was already using a stopgap measure to comply with the 2020 law — disabling all telematics systems in model year 2022 cars sold in Massachusetts, thereby ensuring that franchised dealerships and the manufacturer don’t have access to any information that independent shops lack. Subaru did so without violating any motor vehicle safety standards or the Clean Air Act. Further investigation revealed that carmaker Kia implemented a similar policy.

The Alliance’s argument that increasing access to telematic data makes hacking more likely rests on the notion that secrecy is the best way to keep systems secure. But many cybersecurity experts believe this premise — known as “security by obscurity” — is fundamentally flawed, says Kit Walsh, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy organization. When data systems data are kept secret from the public, Walsh says, “you don’t get the benefit of people smarter than you looking at them and finding vulnerabilities that you don’t find yourself.” Roberts of securepairs.org agrees, describing security by obscurity as a “false premise.”

“We’re seeing connected vehicle hacks left right and center,” Roberts said, citing a recently discovered bug in Sirius XM telematics systems that allowed hackers to remotely hijack cars from several major brands. “What does that say about [automakers’] process for vetting the security systems? It doesn’t say good things.”

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation and the state of Massachusetts presented their arguments at a trial in July 2021. While U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock was initially expected to issue a decision on the case shortly thereafter, he has repeatedly delayed his ruling for reasons ranging from new evidence to scheduling complications to potentially relevant Supreme Court rulings. Walsh suspects Woodlock is proceeding cautiously in order to “insulate himself for the inevitable appeal” from whichever side loses. Roberts agrees.

“I think he’s very mindful of the fact that this decision is not gonna be the end of the road,” Roberts said.

As the legal battle over car data rages on in Massachusetts, other states are weighing similar measures to safeguard independent auto repair. In Maine, a nearly identical vehicle telematics ballot measure is currently taking shape and tentatively slated to be put before voters later this year. And carmakers are already gearing up to fight it.

In response to a request for comment, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation shared a memo with Grist calling the Maine ballot initiative a “monetizable data grab from national aftermarket parts manufacturers” that creates a “clear cybersecurity risk.” The memo goes on to assert that neither the increased connectivity of cars nor the transition to electric vehicles will undermine the availability of repair data for independents.

Most Teslas lack the emissions testing port that repair professionals are supposed to be able to use to access diagnostic and repair data and instead rely solely on telematics. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

But some mechanics who work on EVs feel differently. That emissions testing port that repair professionals are supposed to be able to use to access diagnostic and repair data? Most Teslas lack it, says Rich Benoit, who co-founded the Tesla-focused repair business Electrified Garage. Even when Teslas do have the port, Benoit says, “there is no useful information whatsoever” an independent mechanic can retrieve from it. “Which is why 99 percent of Teslas go back to Tesla for repair,” Benoit said.

The result, Benoit says, is Tesla owners are often quoted steep prices to replace batteries that might be fixable for much cheaper. Replacing those batteries early significantly reduces the environmental benefits of EVs, since mining the metals inside them generates pollution and carbon emissions. Tesla dismantled its public relations department in 2019 and no longer responds to journalists’ requests for comment.

Benoit sees Tesla’s success in controlling vehicle data and its repair ecosystem as a bellwether of what’s coming for car owners more broadly if the Data Access Law is struck down in court.

“If that’s the case, at this point, all new cars are gonna have to go back to the dealership,” Benoit told Grist. “With dealerships there’s no competition, they set prices, and they can kind of do whatever they want.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A Massachusetts law protects the right to repair your own car. Automakers are suing. on Jan 11, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The past 8 years were the hottest in recorded history

Tue, 01/10/2023 - 13:55

Last year was the fifth-warmest ever recorded in planetary history, scientists announced on Tuesday. The data reflects a wider warming trend driven by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with the past eight years being the warmest on record, and 2016 the hottest yet.

The record heat is hitting some parts of the globe harder than others. This past summer was the hottest ever recorded in Europe, where a series of punishing heat waves claimed more than 20,000 lives. Prolonged heat waves also swept through parts of Pakistan, northern India, and central and eastern China. 

“2022 was yet another year of climate extremes across Europe and globally,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which announced the findings. “These events highlight that we are already experiencing the devastating consequences of our warming world.”

The consequences range from extreme floods that submerged a third of Pakistan last August to the seemingly unending drought that has paralyzed swaths of east Africa, killing more than 7 million livestock and subjecting more than 8.5 million people to dire water shortages since the drought began in October 2020. A study from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute last year found that parts of the Arctic are warming up to seven times faster than the global average, causing sea ice to melt more rapidly than anticipated. Because this ice acts as an “air conditioning unit” for the planet, its depletion could accelerate current rates of warming. 

Meanwhile, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is on the rise, increasing by approximately 2.1 parts per million last year, a rate similar to those of recent years. Atmospheric methane concentrations increased by 12 parts per billion, which is higher than average. Current concentrations of the two gasses are estimated to be the highest on record for the past 2 million years and 800,000 years, respectively, according to the report.

The warmer temperatures highlight the need for efforts to cut carbon emissions. In the United States, the Biden administration passed the country’s first major climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, in August. And yet the country’s carbon pollution keeps climbing: A report by the Rhodium Group on Tuesday found that U.S. emissions increased by just over one percent last year.

The observed warming trends persisted in 2022 despite three consecutive years of La Niña, a climate pattern marked by cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, which tends to suppress warming across the world. La Niña is expected to stick around through the first part of this year, before giving way to El Niño, the weather pattern associated with warmer waters in the Pacific, which cause hotter and drier conditions globally.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of an El Niño in a given year, the absence of a La Niña cooling effect suggests that this year could be even hotter than the last.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The past 8 years were the hottest in recorded history on Jan 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

What the House speaker’s deal with ultraconservatives means for climate

Tue, 01/10/2023 - 03:45

Kevin McCarthy, U.S. representative from California and the leader of the House Republican Conference, has been one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington for more than a decade. But McCarthy spent the first week of the 118th Congress in a severely diminished state.  

Early on Saturday morning, McCarthy was elected speaker of the House after a grueling, historic, and humiliating 15 rounds of voting. For five days, a group of Republican hard-liners blocked his bid for House speaker. The Californian made a series of extraordinary concessions to win support from his ultraconservative colleagues. Matt Gaetz, a hard-right Republican from Florida and one of McCarthy’s toughest holdouts, said he finally gave in because “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.” 

On Monday night, House Republicans voted 220-213 to enshrine some of the concessions into the chamber’s rules. The measure, which dictates how the 118th Congress operates, includes an addendum that enumerates other concessions that McCarthy agreed to. And House lawmakers told the New York Times they were worried that the speaker had agreed to even more handshake agreements that weren’t reflected in the written package. 

The compromises McCarthy made in exchange for the speaker’s gavel could reshape the way the lower chamber operates. Among other concessions, McCarthy agreed to let any member call for a vote to unseat the speaker at any time; to give members of the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative bloc within the House, seats on powerful committees; and to allow lawmakers to propose more amendments on the chamber floor. Some of McCarthy’s compromises may have ramifications, as well, for climate policy. 

“Kevin McCarthy has ceded his speakership and control of the House Republican agenda to the most extreme fringe faction of his party,” Josh Freed, the senior vice president for climate and energy at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way, told Grist. “There’s a real chance that Republicans are going to try to gut really important government investment on everything, including clean energy and climate.”   

Freed is referring to a plank of the deal McCarthy struck with his hard-right colleagues to put a cap on discretionary spending — money approved by Congress and the president every year through the annual appropriations process. Discretionary spending includes all federal expenditures that aren’t funded by their own law. About 30 percent of the government’s overall spending is discretionary, including funding for many climate and environmental programs. New limits on that funding could affect clean energy research overseen by the Department of Energy, limit the Interior Department’s conservation efforts, and restrict disaster recovery distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, among other projects.

Other elements of the deal, such as putting members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus on the House Rules Committee, which plays a pivotal role in influencing how legislation moves through the House, could have an indirect impact on climate policy by affecting the legislation lawmakers even get to vote on. 

Prior to McCarthy’s capitulations to the most extreme wing of his party, there was a slight possibility that Democrats and Republicans could have found common ground on some key measures. McCarthy has his own climate agenda that he’s been honing for a handful of years — a response, in part, to the popularity of progressive Democrats’ Green New Deal. That plan, like other Republican climate policy proposals to date, fails to address the root causes of global warming or to slash emissions in line with scientists’ recommendations. Last summer, McCarthy unveiled a climate strategy that called for increasing domestic production of fossil fuels and exports of natural gas and speeding up the permitting process for big infrastructure projects. 

Streamlining permitting is something members of both parties have said they’ve wanted to accomplish for years. In the last Congress, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin tried to move a bipartisan permitting reform bill forward but wasn’t able to garner enough support. Such a bill would have helped realize the full potential of the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate spending bill passed by Democrats last year, by making it easier to build transmission lines to carry renewable power to customers.

Permitting reform might have been something that was addressed again this Congress, but Freed said McCarthy’s compromises make that prospect even more remote by ceding middle ground to the hard right. “It puts the possibility of legislating on issues like permitting reform, where there otherwise could have been a bipartisan solution that was conceivable, at extreme risk,” he said. 

When it comes to passing climate policy, Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois who has a background in clean energy development and just secured his third term in the House (and used to write for this publication), said it’s a foregone conclusion that a Republican House majority equals a lack of action on climate change. What McCarthy promised ultraconservatives doesn’t affect that equation much, in his view. Many Republican members of the House who are in powerful positions or sit on important committees represent fossil fuel producing regions and take hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.

McCarthy himself hails from Bakersfield, California, a city so steeped in oil that its high-school football team, which McCarthy played on as a teenager, is called “the Drillers.” He received more money from oil and gas interests during the 2022 campaign than any other member of the House — more than $500,000. 

“They are, understandably, hostile to anything that would reduce demand for fossil fuels or reduce the price of fossil fuels,” Casten said. “Progress on climate isn’t going to happen with Republicans in the majority.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline <strong>What the House speaker’s deal with ultraconservatives means for climate</strong> on Jan 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Methane’s life, death, and secret second life

Tue, 01/10/2023 - 03:30

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Imagine you’re flying through our atmosphere in a spaceship the size of an atom. As you cruise through this tiny world, you pass more than 400,000 nitrogen molecules, 100,000 oxygen molecules, 219 carbon dioxide molecules, before you find what you’re looking for: a single molecule of methane. 

Methane is one of the most powerful yet misunderstood greenhouse gasses on Earth.

Despite only making up the tiniest sliver of atmosphere — just 0.0002 percent – this powerful greenhouse gas has been solely responsible for 30 percent of the planet’s warming to date.

To understand the story behind this potent greenhouse gas, we’re going to follow 100 methane molecules throughout their entire existence, from “birth” to “death.”

The math behind our 100 methane molecules

Our goal for this story was to give a simple, clear, and engaging overview of where methane comes from and how it impacts our planet. Rather than bog the explainer down in too many percentages, we decided to follow the path of 100 imaginary molecules of methane, using data from a variety of sources.

We used data from the 2017 Global Methane Budget, which compiles top-down (starting with known emissions and using models to determine likely sources) and bottom-up (starting with known sources and extrapolating their emissions contributions) methane estimates from a number of different sources and regions. We chose to focus on the U.S., but the report includes estimates for a number of different countries or geographical regions. 

We also used data and information from the National Academies of Sciences 2017 report on U.S. methane emissions. This report, written by top U.S. methane experts, includes more detailed data and commentary on the country’s methane sources from the EPA’s 2017 Greenhouse Gas Index.

In order to fit all the methane sources into one comprehensive story, we used a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. For our broad categories (natural sources, agriculture and waste, and fossil fuels), we used U.S. top-down estimates from the 2017 Global Methane Budget. The report presents a number of top-down estimates, so we chose the median value for the decade of 2008-2017. This report includes similar data for a number of countries and regions, so it should be easy to replicate for other countries. 

The 2017 National Academies report includes detailed bottom-up estimates for different U.S. sectors, like manure, natural gas, and landfills. In order to streamline these two data sources, we took these bottom-up estimates and scaled them proportionally to fit in the broader top-down sources. 

While this mixed approach allows us to include multiple types of methane information in one central visual, it does have some limitations. Bottom-up and top-down estimates don’t always perfectly fit together. Bottom-up estimates give us extremely detailed information on methane sources, but can be prone to undercounts, overcounts, or missing unknown sources.

This approach is based on reliable sources, and works as a basic primer for U.S. methane sources — but it’s by no means a definitive source for methane emissions. Methane emissions are always changing, and — hopefully — our ability to track those emissions will keep improving.

Just like CO2, methane’s been on the rise since the industrial revolution. While the rise of CO2 has been almost entirely driven by a single source — the burning of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal — the story is a bit more complicated for methane. Each of our 100 molecules look alike, but they come from dozens of completely different sources, from Earth’s most ancient life forms, to our food, energy, and waste.

Like the rest of the world, methane emissions in the United States generally fall into three main categories: the natural world, agriculture and waste, and fossil fuels. 

The natural world

Across the world, wetlands, tideflats, and hot springs naturally release hundreds of millions of tons of methane into the atmosphere each year. Wetlands are full of plant life. But when those plants get submerged underwater, they are eaten by a type of methane-producing microorganism called archaea

Archaea — as the name implies — are some of the most ancient forms of life on earth. They’ve likely existed for roughly 3.5 billion years! Archaea evolved on a much harsher Earth, full of extreme temperatures and conditions — and very little oxygen in its atmosphere. Today, these ancient microorganisms still thrive all around the world, in similarly inhospitable environments that are boiling hot, acidic, or devoid of oxygen.

Archaea living throughout U.S. wetlands produce nearly all of the country’s naturally-occurring methane. Only a few come from other places like mud volcanoes and hot springs, which vent methane from deep underground. For most of earth’s history, naturally occurring methane was the only source of methane – but in the last few centuries, humans have found countless ways to add more of it to the atmosphere.

Agriculture and waste

The next source of our 100 methane molecules: agriculture and waste. Chickens, pigs, and sheep all produce some methane, but no one produces methane quite like cows. 

Cows love to eat grass, which is actually quite difficult to digest. To get around this challenge,  cows have four stomachs filled with millions of grass-digesting microbes — including archaea, which convert a lot of that grass into methane.

This methane escapes through farts and burps, and even dissolves into the animal’s bloodstream and escapes through its breath.

So, how do scientists measure this? One method is a technique called (I swear this isn’t a fart joke) bottom-up estimation. They start by sticking a cow in a sealed room, and measuring how much methane builds up over the course of a few days. They do this for lots of types of cows, multiply that by the number of cows in the country, and viola: They get a number! While this method is not as precise as actual samples taken from the atmosphere, it gives us detailed information that would otherwise be invisible, like how much methane comes from, say, goats or bison.

So, using bottom-up estimates, we know that around 18 of our 100 methane molecules come from livestock burps — nearly all  from cows.

After farm animals have digested their food and burped all their burps, another 7 methane molecules come from their poop. This is especially true in concentrated animal feeding operations, which have so many animals that farmers rely on giant tanks or pits just to store all the poop. Of course, these dark, sealed-off pits are perfect feasting grounds for methane-producing archaea. As more farms have turned to concentrated manure systems, these methane emissions have been on the rise in recent decades.

The next step of our journey brings us from animal waste to human waste. Most of our trash is stored in big underground landfills — another perfect feasting ground for, you guessed it, archaea. Landfills have also gotten bigger and more concentrated in recent decades. This isn’t great if you happen to live near one, but when it comes to curbing methane emissions, there may actually be a silver lining. That’s because these large, centralized landfills are often required to capture their methane emissions, decreasing the amount that escapes into the atmosphere by roughly a third.

The methane that does escape still accounts for 13 of our 100 molecules. The remaining three molecules come from sources like wastewater, biomass burning, and certain crops like rice.

Fossil Fuels

At last, we’ve reached our final category: fossil fuels, responsible for a quarter of our methane molecules. Fossil fuels come from ancient carbon, buried underground for millions of years. 

Oil and coal deposits are usually full of methane bubbles. And then there’s natural gas, which is just a marketing term for methane. When people extract any of these fossil fuels from the ground, some of it escapes into the atmosphere, sometimes in little leaks and sometimes in big bursts. And as natural gas — aka methane — moves across our country’s massive fossil fuel network, it leaks into the atmosphere at pretty much every step.

Leaks aren’t consistent from location to location, so this is one area where bottom-up estimates fall short.  Instead, scientists rely on another technique, called, well, top-down estimation. Scientists take real measurements of the atmosphere —  collecting air samples from planes or towers; or using sensors on satellites. And on powerful computers, they run weather simulations in reverse, to trace the emissions back to their sources

Top-down estimates are based on actual real-world measurements, but aren’t as detailed  as bottom-up estimates. Neither of them is perfect, but together they can help paint a picture of what our methane emissions actually look like.

What happens to methane in the atmosphere?

Now that they’ve been released into the atmosphere, our 100 methane molecules are busy warming the planet. In these first days in the atmosphere, a ton of methane traps 80 times more heat than a ton of CO2. 

The reason why methane is so much more powerful is kind of surprising. As different greenhouse gasses build up in the atmosphere, each new molecule gets a little less efficient than the last at trapping heat. For example, CO2 was once an even more powerful greenhouse gas, but now there’s so much of it that each new molecule is a little weaker than the last. Methane, on the other hand, is pretty rare! So every new molecule packs a huge warming punch. 

The high atmosphere is an inhospitable place, full of super reactive chemicals, called radicals. In less than a decade, the radicals break down the vast majority of methane, and turn it into carbon dioxide — the other really bad greenhouse gas! This second life as CO2 really matters for our molecules that came from fossil fuels, and makes these emitters especially bad.

Most of our hundred molecules were plants at some point in the recent past. And plants suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. This creates a natural cycle, where CO2 grows a plant, is broken into methane, and then is broken back into CO2, where the process can repeat itself. 

But that’s not the case for fossil fuels. Fossil fuels come from ancient carbon stored in the ground. When fossil fuel methane eventually breaks down, it’s adding new CO2 to our atmosphere, causing our planet to heat up even faster! Because of this, methane from fossil fuels can warm the planet as much as 38 percent more than methane from other sources!.

After methane has broken into CO2, the molecules are slowly absorbed into oceans, fields, and forests over centuries. 

Until at last, roughly a thousand years since the start of our journey, our hundredth molecule is consumed by a flower, bringing our story of the life and death — and second life — of methane to an end.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Methane’s life, death, and secret second life on Jan 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

US emissions rose in 2022. Here’s why that’s not as bad as it sounds.

Tue, 01/10/2023 - 03:15

A new report from the Rhodium Group, a research firm that models greenhouse gas emissions, brings good news and bad news. First, the bad: U.S. emissions increased by just over 1 percent last year, making 2022 the second consecutive year of carbon emissions growth since the American economy began recovering from the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news is that there are signs that the U.S. economy is already starting to kick its addiction to planet-warming emissions, even before the implementation of the landmark clean energy law passed by Congress last year. Although carbon emissions grew in 2022, the 1.3 percent year-over-year growth was far smaller than the 6.2 percent surge in 2021. More significantly, emissions didn’t rise as fast as overall economic output, indicating that the U.S. economy became less carbon-intensive even as it roared back to life after the 2020 lockdowns. 

The main reason for this increasing divergence between economic growth and emissions growth is the decline of coal power, which is by far the most carbon-intensive form of electricity generation. As coal plants across the U.S. have shuttered over the past decade, natural gas plants have largely opened up to replace them. While natural gas is a fossil fuel, burning it produces around half the emissions that burning coal does.

Even more notably, the past two years have seen a dramatic surge in renewable energy. Carbon-free power generation grew 12 percent in 2022, according to Rhodium, driven by the breakneck adoption of solar and wind. This growth came in spite of the fact that new solar deployments actually slowed down in 2022 as the industry grappled with snarls in the supply chain for polysilicon and other critical materials used to make solar panels. An ongoing squabble over tariffs on Chinese solar materials may further hamper the industry.

Even so, the continued rollout of solar and wind facilities helped renewables overtake coal power in 2022, marking a major milestone in the energy transition. Solar, wind, and hydropower combined now account for around 22 percent of U.S. power generation, more than coal at 20 percent or nuclear at 19 percent, according to Rhodium. That hasn’t been the case in more than 60 years, ever since coal first surpassed hydropower.

The new data from Rhodium suggests that, despite the shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the U.S. is on a long-term path toward a cleaner grid. The drop in power-sector emissions last year doesn’t reflect the potential effect of the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate law signed by President Biden last August, which provides extensive new tax credits for renewable energy as well as for electric vehicles and home energy efficiency. The first projects that benefit from the legislation aren’t expected to arrive until late 2023, but the subsidies will only further juice the current trend toward clean energy over the coming decade.

Last year, as the United States emerged from the first wave of the pandemic, emissions grew faster than the economy did, thanks to a temporary resurgence in cheap coal and a huge jump in the number of automobile trips taken nationwide. Carbon pollution from the transportation and building sectors continued to rise this year, according to Rhodium’s data, reflecting the continued dominance of internal-combustion vehicles and gas heat. It was only in the power sector that emissions fell year-over-year.

That’s in keeping with a long-term trend. U.S. emissions have fallen by 15.5 percent since their peak in 2005, largely thanks to the slow death of coal power. It was a market-driven shift toward gas and renewables, rather than any climate-focused public policy, that spurred this reduction, but now the Inflation Reduction Act should help extend these gains to other segments of the economy, pushing the U.S. closer to meeting the goals of the 2016 Paris climate accords, in which the world’s countries collectively pledged to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The report from Rhodium notes that federal policy, “together with additional policies from leading states as well as action from private actors, can put the [Paris] target within reach—but all parties must act quickly.” The report also says that the U.S. may see emissions fall as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act as soon as this year — “if the government can fast-track implementation.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline US emissions rose in 2022. Here’s why that’s not as bad as it sounds. on Jan 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

30×30 is conservation’s flashy new goal. Now countries need to figure out what it actually means.

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 03:45

Last month, right before the holidays, nearly 200 countries announced a breakthrough deal to protect Earth’s plants and animals. Of the 22 targets established at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, one stood out: an agreement to conserve 30 percent of land and seas by the year 2030. 

The goal, commonly known as 30×30, has been around for a few years, slowly gaining traction in environmental circles since it was first proposed in the journal Science Advances in 2019. It draws inspiration from research by famed biologist E.O. Wilson that at least half the planet needs to be conserved in some way to protect 80 percent of species. The formal adoption of 30×30 by nearly all of the world’s governments at COP15 turned it into the official guiding star for the global conservation movement, with some leaders comparing it to the Paris Agreement in terms of significance.

Now, with negotiators at home and a new year underway, countries face the monumental task of figuring out what one of the most ambitious goals in conservation history actually means, in practice.

One of the toughest questions yet to be answered is: What exactly counts towards the 30 percent? Can certain conservation-minded agricultural methods that protect soil and promote a diversity of crops be included, or do only strictly protected areas like national parks count? To what degree will Indigenous territories be considered conserved land? And how will areas that connect fragments and contain the rarest, most species-rich ecosystems be prioritized under the goal? The final language in last month’s global agreement was vague on many of these topics.

“Underneath that [30×30] number is a huge amount of complexity,” said Claire Kremen, a conservation biology professor at the University of British Columbia who researches how to reconcile biodiversity conservation with agriculture. “It all depends on where and how you do this protection and there hasn’t been a lot of clarity on these points.”

The United States, while not technically part of last month’s global pact (the Senate since 1993 has refused to join the biodiversity convention), has been wrestling with these same questions independently. President Biden committed to the 30×30 goal within U.S. borders via executive order during his first week in office. And many states have also committed to the target, including California, Maine, New York, Hawaii, and New Mexico. 

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a national park in northern Alaska. Sean Tevebaugh, National Park Service

Just as negotiators at COP15 struggled to come to an agreement about what types of ecosystems and actions should count towards the global goal, the U.S. government has yet to define what “conserved” land and sea means under 30×30. 

Currently, the U.S. has a variety of different protected area designations that are regulated in different ways. Most federal land, which makes up 27 percent of the country, is managed under some form of conservation, be it national parks and wilderness areas or, more commonly, a “mixed-use” mandate that allows for what the government determines to be sustainable levels of extractive activities like forestry and grazing. Add state parks and private land under conservation easements to the mix, and we’ve easily already met the 30 percent target, says Forrest Fleischman, a professor of environmental policy and forest governance at the University of Minnesota.

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But most 30×30 advocates don’t think that all those lands should count towards the target, whose main goal is to protect biodiversity. While the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Area Database considers more than 31 percent of the country’s land under some form of protection, only 13 percent has strict mandates for biodiversity protection that don’t allow for any extractive activity. 

“There’s habitat value to be found in all sorts of lands,” said Helen O’Shea, an expert on land-use and conservation issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “but the 30×30 effort is about creating a system that’s protected and ecologically representative. A connected system that’s going to link up areas that are solely being looked at for conservation purposes.” 

For others, however, the answer isn’t as simple as just increasing the amount of land under strict protection. “If the goal is to move another 17 percent of the U.S. into something equivalent to a national forest or wilderness area, that seems unrealistic,” said Fleischman, who is part of group of experts working to understand the social implications of 30×30, funded by the Science for Nature and People Partnership

When the 30×30 goal was first announced in the U.S., it received significant pushback from ranching communities and private landowners, who were concerned about impacts to rural economies like grazing and logging. Many also argued that certain productive land uses, especially when planned with biodiversity in mind, are compatible with conservation of species and ecosystems. While the white spotted owl can’t live in logged forests of the Pacific Northwest, for example, open grazing helps to maintain prairie habitats. Some grassland birds also thrive in the early successional forests that grow after timber harvest. 

“It’s a very complicated, site-specific issue,” said Tom Cors, director of U.S. government relations for The Nature Conservancy. “Some places might have adequate ‘protection,’ but they need more management,” he added, referencing the need to conduct more prescribed burning to support ecosystem function in Western forests.

Mixed variety cover crops on a farm near St. John, Washington protect and enrich the soil. VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Globally, the most significant critique of the 30×30 initiative has come from Indigenous peoples, who warn that the protected area conservation model has allowed governments and nonprofit groups to seize control of natural resources and, in many cases, violently remove Indigenous peoples from their lands, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Nepal to Peru. Tribes in the U.S. that have historically been excluded from conservation planning, decision-making, and funding wanted to make sure the country’s 30×30 goal didn’t repeat these patterns.

In an effort to address those concerns, the Biden administration framed its 30×30 pledge as a “collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation,” with topline goals of honoring tribal sovereignty, supporting the priorities of tribal nations, respecting private property rights, and supporting the voluntary efforts of landowners, all with science as a guide. A May 2021 report from the Department of the Interior emphasized the concept of “conservation” rather than “protection,” “recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems.” 

An interagency working group is trying to account for different types of land uses while building the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, a tool to represent the amount and types of lands and waters that are currently conserved or restored. Part of the group’s mandate is to figure out how contributions from farmers, ranchers, and forest owners, as well as the conservation strategies of Tribal Nations, will count toward the 30×30 goal. A December 2021 progress report did not include a number for how much land and water is currently managed for conservation; in an email to Grist, a Department of the Interior, or DOI, spokesperson had no updates on the Atlas timeline. 

Beyond “what actions count,” land managers are also thinking about “which lands and waters should be protected?” towards the 30-percent target. Biodiversity tends to be concentrated in certain areas and ecosystem types, so where land protection happens is important. In its comments on the Atlas, The Nature Conservancy recommended distributing conserved areas among 68 ecoregions of the U.S. — the Central Appalachians, Northern tallgrass prairie, and California central coast, for example — and protecting 30 percent of each.

In the U.S., it’s private lands that contain most of the country’s biodiversity; these also play a role in connecting protected areas, which conservation groups have emphasized as an important priority for the Atlas, as habitat connectivity has been shown to be critical for species’ survival. In addition, the Biden administration wants the tool to promote equity, increasing access to nature in historically marginalized communities, often in urban areas. Yet as the DOI itself notes, “there is no single metric — including a percentage target — that could fully measure progress toward the fulfillment of those interrelated goals [of doing better for people, for fish and wildlife, and for the planet].”

The 30×30 target established at the U.N. biodiversity conference is global, meaning that countries can sign onto it without necessarily committing to conserve 30-percent of land and waters within their borders. Still, many countries have issued their own 30×30 commitments, including Canada, Australia, Costa Rica, and France. The United Kingdom has been criticized for claiming to protect 28 percent of its land when the included national parks and “areas of outstanding natural beauty” fail to address poor farming practices, pollution, and invasive species. In July, Colombia announced that it had already met the target for land and sea.

The final agreement reached at COP15 nodded to the inclusion of working lands and the importance of protecting ecologically-representative and high-biodiversity habitats, without setting clear guidelines. It “recognized and respected” the rights of Indigenous peoples, who steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity on their lands, without establishing their territories as a specific category of conserved area, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations. 

For Fleischman, having a “political slogan” without a clear meaning isn’t necessarily helpful for achieving biodiversity and environmental justice goals. “Advocates say, ‘Look beyond the numeric spatial target at the language which is about finding ways to pursue conservation at a whole landscape level while taking into account social equity issues such as [urban] parks,’” he said. “But if that’s the case, what is the point of saying ‘30 x 30’? ‘Healthy nature everywhere’ might be a better goal.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 30×30 is conservation’s flashy new goal. Now countries need to figure out what it actually means. on Jan 9, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Washington state just started capping carbon emissions. Here’s how it works.

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 03:30

Washington state rang in the New Year with the launch of its most ambitious plan to slash carbon pollution. The new “cap-and-invest” program is designed to follow in the footsteps of California, where a cap-and-trade system began in 2013, while trying to learn from its missteps.

Signed into law by Washington Governor Jay Inslee in 2021, the Climate Commitment Act works by setting a statewide “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions that steadily lowers over time. Washington, like California, is establishing a market for businesses to buy pollution “allowances” that will become increasingly expensive — an incentive to cut emissions and a way to raise money to counter climate change.

The first auction to sell off these allowances is scheduled at the end of February, and if all goes according to plan, Washington’s emissions will drop to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, an even steeper cut than California’s, which aims for an 80 percent reduction by the same year.

“We see the Climate Commitment Act as the new gold standard for climate policy across the nation,” said Kelly Hall, the Washington director for the regional nonprofit Climate Solutions, which helped shape the legislation. “The policy not only ensures that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with what science requires, but that equity and environmental justice are also foundational to the law.”

It’s the most recent example of a blue state putting a price tag on carbon dioxide, a longtime goal of climate advocates that has come with controversy. Last year, Oregon instituted a cap-and-trade system via executive order from former Governor Kate Brown after years of failed bills — including two attempts thwarted by Republican state senators going into hiding to avoid a vote. In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, a collection of almost a dozen states participate in a regional cap-and-trade program that began in 2009.

The federal government, however, has taken a different approach after two decades’ worth of abandoned attempts to make polluters pay for their emissions. Last summer, a Democratic-controlled Congress broke through the deadlock to pass the historic Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to lower emissions through green tax credits intended to speed up the adoption of clean energy and low-carbon technologies.

Proponents of Washington state’s approach say that other states could learn from its equity-focused approach to climate policy, the outcome of years of consultation with green organizations, businesses, labor groups, Native American tribes, and environmental justice advocates. A standard cap-and-trade system can help cut global carbon emissions, but it doesn’t ensure that locals will see benefits. 

Washington is the first state to pair cap-and-trade with a regulatory air quality program to help people in the most polluted areas breathe cleaner air. It also relies on advice from an environmental justice council for implementing the policy and deciding how to spend the revenue.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee speaks at an event in San Francisco announcing a climate partnership between West Coast leaders, October 6, 2022. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Passing a price on carbon took more the state than a decade. After years of failed bills starting in 2009 — and ballot measures that voters rejected twice, once in 2016 and again in 2018 — the legislature finally approved the Climate Commitment Act in the spring of 2021.

It could prove to be a turning point for Washington’s emissions, which in recent years have been heading in the wrong direction. According to the state’s most recent analysis, greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 reached their highest level since 2007: 102 million metric tons, a 7 percent increase from 2018. 

The program will work to cut emissions in tandem with a suite of policies that the state’s Democratic legislature has passed in recent years, including a commitment to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 and a clean fuel standard that just went into effect. Last year, the legislature passed new rules requiring energy-efficient heat pumps in new buildings and set a goal to end the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2030.

In developing its new cap-and-invest system, Washington had the benefit of seeing how California’s played out over the past decade. The state struggled with debates over local air pollution and the unreliability of carbon offsets. 

Where does the money go?

The revenue raised from Washington state’s auctions — projected to be nearly $1 billion a year — will go toward implementing clean energy projects, reducing emissions from buildings and transportation, and adapting to the effects of climate change. Washington is looking to emulate California’s successes by creating an energy efficiency program for homes and offering vouchers for electrifying vans, trucks, and buses to counter rising emissions from those sources. Legislators also plan to use the money to add more electric vehicle charging stations and expand renewable energy projects.

“The investments are what’s going to ensure that we accelerate those emissions reductions so that they’re actually happening sooner rather than later,” Hall said. “They’re also what’s going to ensure that overburdened communities are benefiting.” At least 35 percent of the revenue will be invested in vulnerable communities — similar to California’s updated rules — with an additional 10 percent set aside for projects that directly benefit Native American tribes.

Cleaning the air

You’d think that forcing companies to pay for carbon pollution would mean that people would breathe less dirty air overall, given that they often come from the same sources. But the reality is more complicated. After California’s cap-and-trade system launched in 2013, studies showed that pollution in Black and Latino communities actually increased in the ensuing years. Just implementing a cap-and-trade system wasn’t enough to clean up the air for local residents.

A Shell refinery in Martinez, California, June 20, 2017. Michael Macor / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

To avoid running into the same problem, Washington state took the novel approach of pairing an air quality program with its cap on carbon dioxide. It will monitor and regulate air pollution in the state, locating the communities that are overexposed to air pollution. Once the Department of Ecology nails down what counts as an “overburdened” community, it’ll work to expand an air monitoring network, set air quality goals, and start conducting regular analyses to make sure those targets are being met.

“It’ll start this chain of good things around air quality, which is really positive, but it’s up to [the Department of] Ecology to really get that program running as soon as they can,” said Altinay Karasapan, the regulatory policy manager for Washington at Climate Solutions. 

One motivating factor behind the air quality program was ensuring that smaller sources of pollution won’t be ignored, said David Mendoza, the director of public engagement and policy at the Nature Conservancy in Washington. The cap-and-invest program only covers “permitted” businesses that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. But the air quality program will give the state power to also take action on all levels and sources of pollution, including smaller businesses and “non-permitted” sources such as transportation or wood-burning stoves, Mendoza said.

Read Next: Counting carbon

Another issue plaguing California’s cap-and-trade program is the tricky math around carbon offsets. The idea is that a polluting company can cancel out its CO2 emissions by buying so-called “offsets” that will suck up the same amount of carbon, such as a tree-planting project. The problem is, some of the forests used as offsets in California’s system have gone up in flames, threatening to erase the state’s progress on climate change.

​​To get around some of these issues, Washington is implementing stricter rules around offsets. If a business relies on an offset for compliance, an allowance will also be removed from the pool when it pollutes. In other words, it’s not considered a replacement for reducing emissions. “The way that offsets are designed in our program, offsets have additional emissions reductions benefits above and beyond the cap,” Hall said. In the initial stage of the program, companies are only allowed to use offsets for a small portion of their required emissions reductions, 5 percent.

Over the years, California has also sometimes struggled with having too much wiggle room in its market, Hall said. If you have too big a bank of allowances, companies won’t be required to reduce their emissions further, so Washington’s system allows the state to reset the allowance cap to adjust to shifting conditions and to make sure it meets its emissions goals.

The cap-and-invest system covers 75 percent of statewide emissions, including utilities and fuel suppliers. Sources like agriculture and aviation had to be left out due to existing laws.

One criticism of Washington’s new system is that many large emitters — those designated as industries that are susceptible to fluctuations of global and regional markets, such as paper mills and petroleum refineries — will be able to buy allowances at little or no cost for the next dozen years. The exception was a response to concerns that big polluters might pick up their business and move to another state where they didn’t have to pay for their emissions.

“I think that is a concern,” Mendoza said, referring to how some companies are getting a free pass. “I don’t think it ruins the program though, right? It does decrease the amount of money coming into the program. All those entities are still covered by the declining amount of allowances, so they still have to reduce their emissions.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Washington state just started capping carbon emissions. Here’s how it works. on Jan 9, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

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