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How greed and politics are slowing the switch to renewable energy

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Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist who studies both the science and politics of climate change, explains how greed and politics are slowing the switch to renewable energy.

 The image above is a Photo by Dan Meyers/Unsplash

January 17, 2022

It is (with apologies to Charles Dickens) the best of times; it is the worst of times.

Thanks to fossil fuels, billions of people in 2022 enjoy lives of wealth, comfort, and material possessions unimaginable before the industrial revolution.

But fossil fuels have their dark side. You might think you understand that, but it’s likely fossil fuels are even worse for the world than you think. Let’s start with climate change. Contrary to what you might hear listening to Fox News, the scientific understanding of climate change is good and it is progressing at exactly the rate predicted decades ago by Exxon.

What you probably don’t realize is how massive these changes may be. In the depths of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the Earth was only 6 degrees Celsius colder than it is today. That world—with thousands of feet of ice sitting over much of North America, sea level 300 feet lower, and completely different ecosystems—would be unrecognizable to those living on today’s Earth.

This helps us put predictions of future warming into context. The chart below shows predictions for the twenty-first century, but instead of units of temperature, I have plotted units of ice ages, where one ice age unit equals 6 degrees Celsius. Business-as-usual emissions gives us about 3 degrees Celsius of warming in 2100—about half of one ice-age unit. Given how much the Earth has changed since the last ice age, 3 degrees Celsius of warming may well remake the planet, leading to an Earth in 2100 as unrecognizable to us today as the world of the last ice age.

Warming over the historical period (blue line) and future projections under four scenarios. Warming is expressed in ice age units, equal to the amount of warming since the last ice age (one ice age unit equals 6 degrees Celsius). These model simulations are from CMIP6 models and downloaded from https://github.com/swartn/cmip6-gmst-anoms.

The earth is presently about 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, so we have already warmed about 17 percent of an ice age, and the impacts are clear. For example, there is widespread agreement in the scientific community that climate change contributed to the unprecedented rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and that the massive heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last year could not have occurred without global warming.

But fossil fuels cause even more insidious damage. Billions of people today live in air polluted by fossil fuel combustion. This harms people in surprisingly numerous ways. One fact that stands out: One in five deaths worldwide is due to air pollution, amounting to more than 8 million deaths every year.

But fossil fuels are even worse than that. As commodities whose price is set on the world market, international politics can cause the price to whipsaw. Oil price spikes associated with Middle East conflicts, oil embargoes, and other political events have often been followed by painful economic recessions. In 2020, the price of oil dropped significantly because of the coronavirus pandemic combined with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. This laid waste to the US oil industry, bankrupted oil producers, and increased unemployment.

As a consequence, US foreign policy over the last 70 years has been hyper focused on maintaining stability in the world energy market. This has led the United States, for example, to invade Iraq twice, first in 1990 and then again in 2003, starting wars that cost the United States trillions of dollars; hundreds of thousands of lives of people of many nationalities were lost.

Putting everything together, one conclusion is clear: Fossil fuels are terrible. While many people in 2022 are living much better lives because of fossil fuels, people in 2100 will be much worse off because of them.

The story doesn’t end there. The world needs power. People need it so much, in fact, that as bad as fossil fuels are, people would continue to use them if there were no alternatives. But we do have an alternative: renewable energy. This means primarily wind and solar energy, although other energy sources (e.g., geothermal) will also play a role. Non-renewable energy sources such as nuclear could provide another source of climate-safe energy.

The amount of renewable energy available is almost unfathomable. Human society consumes about 15 terawatts of power. Sunlight falling on the earth provides more than 100,000 terawatts, enough to power 7,000 human civilizations. There are obviously issues with the intermittency of solar and wind. The sun is not always shining everywhere, not at night nor when it is cloudy. Similarly, the wind does not always blow.RELATED:Climate scientist: “It’s already worse than what I imagined”

However, a huge amount of research has gone into how to build a reliable energy system that relies predominantly on intermittent renewable energy. First, wind and solar power tend to be uncorrelated, so a system combining these energy sources will have more consistent power than a system that is solar- or wind-only. Thus, diversifying your energy portfolio solves a lot of the intermittency problems.

Second, we need to be able to transport power. While the sun may not be shining or the wind blowing where you are, the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere. By enhancing our electrical grids, power can be shifted regionally from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, further reducing the impact of intermittency of solar and wind power.

Third, intermittency becomes an even smaller problem if part of the energy mix is dispatchable climate-safe energy. This means power sources that are available at any time and can be dispatched at the request of electric grid operators, including always-on energy sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, nuclear, or natural gas with carbon capture.

Fourth, we need demand response. At times when supply simply cannot keep up with demand, we need to be able to reduce demand. This can be as simple as asking large industrial consumers to reduce their consumption. Or utilities can change consumption patterns by making power cheaper when it’s abundant and more expensive at times when it’s not. Smart appliances in homes can automatically delay running the dishwasher or drying clothes for a few hours until the utility signals that the supply of power is tight; in return for this, consumers get a break on their electricity bill.

Finally, we need energy storage. This could help the grid equalize supply and demand by storing power from wind and solar energy when there is excess supply and releasing it when there is excess demand. The price of batteries has been dropping rapidly and, as discussed below, we already see plans for more storage on the grid. Much research today is focusing on other technologies to store energy, including compressed airhydrogenpumped hydroelectric, and gravity energy.

The upshot of this is that we can largely run our economy on renewable energy. There are some edge cases where decarbonization might be hard (e.g., international airline flights), but this should not stop us from gathering the low-hanging fruit.

This leads me to the other piece of misinformation you’ll often hear: A renewable energy grid will be expensive.

There was a time when that was the case, but today the picture is quite different. Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy.

In response to this, the market is decisively moving away from fossil fuels. In Texas, for example, 95 percent of the energy connections to the electrical grid planned for the next four years are for renewable energy (60 percent solar, 16 percent wind, 18 percent battery).

It’s great news that our electricity system is already switching over to renewable energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. On our present trajectory, we will continue to use fossil fuels well into this century, leading to warming of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, well above the target that the world has agreed upon, 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Given that our present warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius is already causing severe and expensive impacts, 3 degrees Celsius would be a planetary disaster.

The transition has been sluggish because the price of fossil fuels is kept artificially low. Consumers and businesses do not pay the full cost of the climate, health, and other related costs of fossil fuel use. This could be largely solved by making consumers pay the full cost of their energy through a carbon tax or cap and trade system. If society had to pay the full costs of energy, fossil fuels would quickly disappear from the energy market.

The climate problem is therefore quite simple: Fossil fuels are terrible for humanity, and we can switch at relatively low cost to an economy largely powered by renewable energy. So why aren’t we doing that?

The blame, in my view, lies with economists. Not all economists, mind you, but a group of influential thinkers in the mid-20th century who pushed governments towards implementing an extreme view of free markets. They also said that the social responsibility of corporations was to make as much money as possible. One of the most influential of these thinkers, Milton Friedman, called this the Friedman Doctrine. It was immortalized by Oliver Stone in the movie Wall Street, when one of the main characters proudly declares, “Greed is good!”

via GIPHY

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States saw government oversight shrink while corporations became laser-focused on profits. This deregulation effort delivered benefits like cheaper airline tickets for consumers. But the lack of government oversight combined with the imperative to make profits as large as possible also resulted in some terrible outcomes. These include climate change and the skyrocketing price of lifesaving drugs like insulin.

The fundamental problem is that free markets can’t solve environmental problems. Most environmental problems are externalities, or costs imposed on people who are not part of the transaction. Climate change is a classic externality—if you consume a gallon of gas or a kilowatt of electricity, the resulting carbon dioxide causes climate change everywhere, thereby imposing costs on everyone in the world. The costs of this climate change are not paid by the consumer, so this is a hidden subsidy of fossil fuels.

To corporations, externalities are terrific! If the goal of a corporation is to make as much money as possible, then it wants to push as many of the costs onto society as possible, which increases corporate profit. Because externalities benefit corporations, solving problems that arise from them, like climate change, requires government regulation. If the government is unwilling to regulate in some fashion, then climate change will never be fixed.

Following the Friedman Doctrine, corporations work hard to ensure that our government is not able to regulate. They funnel enormous quantities of money into the political process. This includes lobbying for preferred legislation and working to elect candidates who, once in office, return the favor by passing laws that support continued use of fossil fuels. For example, dozens of state legislatures have passed laws that criminalize protest around oil and gas infrastructure. In Texas, recent laws have forced the state’s investment funds to divest from institutions that boycott fossil fuels and prohibited Texas cities from exercising local control over drilling regulations, after the city of Denton banned fracking.

Fossil fuel corporations have also tried to stifle regulation by spending millions of dollars over the last few decades casting doubt on the science of climate change, despite their own researchers accurately assessing the risk. This closely paralleled what tobacco corporations did decades earlier. This shows the true problem with our version of free-market, profit-maximizing economics: Today’s economy does not create wealth that makes everyone better off, but rather generates enormous benefits for corporations while generating few benefits or even net harms for everyone else.

In the end, climate change is not a scientific or technical problem. The scientific community understands how fossil fuels cause climate change, and technology to solve the problem exists. Rather, climate change is a political problem. We need to return to the 1970s, a time when Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly passed legislation forming the EPA. We need to understand that a world in which corporations care only about maximizing profits demands that the government protect the interest of the people.

Andrew Dessler

Andrew Dessler is a climate scientist who studies both the science and politics of climate change. He is a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and… Read More

MENA region’s GDP to surge by over 3x by 2050

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MENA region’s GDP to surge by over 3x by 2050 according to Gulf Capital White Paper as reported by SME10X . In effect, the oil and gas trade revenues allow considerable financial power and a strategic position on the international scene for those exporting countries but also a source of vulnerability for their economies, especially in the aftermath of not only this recent COP26 but to also the ensuing COPs Let us nevertheless look at this prediction of this white paper.

MENA region’s GDP to surge by over 3x by 2050

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A New report quantifies unprecedented growth opportunities across “Ascending Asia” which is set to drive 40 percent of global consumption by 2040.

Gulf Capital has released a white paper, “Bridging West and East Asia: The Investment Case for Ascending Asia”, that outlines the significant future growth of the Asian economies and the growth in the intra-regional trade and investment flows between West Asia, including the GCC, and East Asia.

The study, jointly published by Gulf Capital and Dr Parag Khanna, Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap, reveals that the MENA region is expected to increase its GDP by over 3x by 2050, the ASEAN region is expected to grow by 3.7x, and India by 5x. This turbo-charged growth is in sharp contrast to the projected slower growth of the European and US economies at only 1.5x and 1.8x respectively for the same period.

Within greater Asia, the GCC and Southeast Asia are two ascending regions with rising youth populations where demographic and technological shifts will generate a significant expansion of the services sectors. Across these societies, rising affluence and consumption will drive business expansion, corporate profits, and higher valuations. Longer-term reforms including capital account liberalization and accelerated privatization will unlock fresh investment inflows into new Asian listings.

Dr Karim El Solh, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gulf Capital, said: “The unprecedented growth opportunities presented by the emergence of ‘Ascending Asia’ have never been greater. The strong macro-economic fundamentals, a growing middle class and youth population, increasing GDP per capita, rapid adoption of technology, and growing intra-regional trade and investment flows will only strengthen the case for the Asian economies. We are fortunate to be investing and operating across Ascending Asia from the GCC to the Near East and Southeast Asia, where we have acquired a large number of companies in the past.”

Additionally, East and West Asia’s deepening trade and investment networks indicate that capital, companies, and consumers will increasingly traverse the Indian Ocean and strengthen ties along the new Silk Roads, stitching the region into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

El Solh concluded, “Against the backdrop of the evolving megatrends of deepening trade links, sizable FDI flows, greater political cooperation, and the fastest growing consumer sector, Gulf Capital is ideally poised to capitalize on this once in a generation cross-border opportunity. It is our firm belief that if investors want to capture rapid growth over the next three decades, they need significant exposure to the fastest growing industries across Ascending Asia.”

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UAE must learn from UK’s COP26 when it takes climate leadership

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It should not be any surprise to witness first-hand that the good destiny of the planet appears to be postponed from COP to COP because of the obvious preponderance of petrodollars over any agreement, even at the now well-proven cost of jeopardising the planet’s Climate. The UAE must learn from UK’s COP26 when it takes climate leadership by Jonathan Gornall who rightfully forehears “voices will be raised protesting that handing control of COP28 to the UAE is akin to asking a fox to beef up the security of a chicken coop”.

One of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels will be in charge of negotiations to wean the world from its addiction to fossil fuels

With hindsight, it seems incredible that, until now, ever since COP1 in 1995 the words “coal” and “fossil fuel” have failed to make the cut in the final reports of any of the Conferences of the Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That would be like a report by the World Health Organization on the global response to Covid-19 failing to mention the SARS-CoV-2 virus – unthinkable.

As every schoolchild in the world surely knows, the climate-change catastrophe looming over the planet has been generated by the unfettered burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – since the dawn of the coal-powered Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

The annual failure of COP delegates to acknowledge the fossilized elephant in the room has, of course, been the product not of ignorance, but of the myriad social and economic pressures, experienced by multiple countries at different stages of development.

Forget elephants, the animal present at every COP for the past quarter of a century has been a giant ostrich, with its head buried deep in the ground. At Glasgow, the ostrich was finally allowed to raise its head, albeit only for a brief peak at reality. Even then, attempts to overthrow King Coal were watered down by last-minute interventions from its loyal subjects, China and India.

What the world needs now, more than anything else, is compelling leadership.

One announcement to come out of Glasgow was that COP28 in 2023 would be staged in the United Arab Emirates, home to the UN-created International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This isn’t the first time the COP roadshow has traveled to the Middle East – in 2012 COP18 was held in Doha – but a decade on the climate-change landscape has changed utterly.

Doha was not insignificant. It was one of a series of dull but necessary COPs that paved the way toward the Paris Agreement in 2015, and it was the first time that developing countries signed up to a legal obligation to reduce their emissions.

The Paris Agreement was to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To achieve that, the world needs to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 26 billion metric tons every year between now and 2030. To say that the total emission-reduction pledges scraped together in Glasgow of just over 6 billion tons fell short is to understate the huge gap between ambition and commitment.

It highlights the monumental scale of the challenge for the country presiding over these conferences. That the UK’s COP26 president Alok Sharma was almost in tears as he announced the watered-down deal goes some way to illustrate the personal and institutional commitments required by the host.

The kind of leadership needed to rally the world’s nations and their disparate interests to commit to an agreement often appears beyond possibility. Then there is the task of making sure the outcomes and expectations of any COP event are stuck to.

The UK had to draw deep on its resources and global leadership experience just to make Glasgow happen. With more than 25,000 delegates descending on the city, the policing bill alone was estimated at the equivalent of more than US$300 million.

The pandemic brought big challenges to hosting the event, but it also gave Sharma’s team an extra year to prepare after COP26 was pushed back from 2020. The UK won the bid to host the event in September 2019, but Sharma was only appointed president in January 2020 after Prime Minister Boris Johnson fired his predecessor Claire Perry O’Neill.

The jostling showed the escalating importance placed on the herculean task of cajoling global powers into alignment on saving the planet.

While many have called the COP26 outcomes a failure, Sharma won praise for his balanced leadership that involved building relations with small island states most at risk from rising sea levels while handling tricky meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing.

It is some of these skillsets that the UAE will have to draw upon as it prepares to take the reins in 2023. The Emirates has been entrusted to host the event based on its existing commitments toward the environment and renewable energy, including investing heavily in the new sciences of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), and nuclear energy.

Yet the UAE has more to lose than many countries from the inevitable transition to sustainable fuels, but much more to gain than most in shaping the elements of tomorrow’s energy market – and, thanks to its oil and gas revenues, it has the necessary funds to invest in the future today.

But forging its own path is very different to consensus-building between nations with conflicting interests. What lessons can be learned from previous COP hosts and how the UAE can build on their efforts yet bring its own style of leadership is yet to be seen.

Doubtless many voices will be raised protesting that handing control of COP28 to the UAE is akin to asking a fox to beef up the security of a chicken coop. Fingers will also be pointed at comments this week from the group chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) that “the oil and gas industry will have to invest over $600 billion every year … until 2030 … just to keep up with expected demand.”

But to express alarm at this is to misunderstand the nature of a global energy system undergoing dramatic change.

None of the world’s countries can “simply unplug” abruptly from fossil fuels. The world is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and demand for oil and gas is rocketing – in the process creating the essential wealth in the Persian Gulf region necessary to fund and drive the transition to renewables.

For the UAE and countries such as Saudi Arabia, much of the profit being drawn out of the earth now is being plowed directly into the type of research and development that ultimately will save the planet.

The UAE is working hard to curb its own domestic consumption of fossil fuels. Last month, it announced it was aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – an ambitious target on a par with those of the UK, the US and the European Union.

How? Well, it turns out that oil was not the only economic blessing bestowed on the fossil-fuel-producing countries of the Middle East.

Sunlight is the resource that gives on giving and, in the Gulf, is available for the greatest part of the year. The UAE is already leading the way with domestic solar power plants and investing in solar technology. 

COP28 in 2023 will put one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels in charge of negotiations to wean the world from its addiction to fossil fuels. It will put the UAE under a global spotlight that will require an exemplary level of leadership and diplomacy if the climate negotiations will continue to move forward.

And as the outcome of the UK meeting demonstrated, progress is incremental. 

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Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.

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Op-ed: Solving the climate crisis

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Op-ed: Solving the climate crisis requires more than switching to renewables—everyone needs equal access as suggested in the Environmental Health News of 2 November 2021 is literally nowadays a must if any agreements at the COP26 were to go through and above all last.

Environmental justice policy is the best path to energy equity.

Carolyn E. Ramirez

In 2020, the International Energy Agency named solar the “cheapest electricity in history,” marking a significant victory for solar energy over fossil fuels in affordability.

This economic turning point is the next step in our global energy journey from wood to coal to oil to gas to renewables. Transitioning to 80% renewable electricity generation in the United States would alleviate an estimated 81% of the industry’s emissions. As a chemical engineer researching solar cell materials, the long-sought economic viability of solar energy is exciting to me—and long-awaited. But it only solves one of a laundry list of problems with the U.S. energy infrastructure, and it will not actually protect those most vulnerable to climate change.Stay in the know: sign up for the Agents of Change newsletter

A roundup of the month’s essays, podcast episodes, fellows in the news, exciting updates and more. Delivered to your inbox monthly.Full NameEmail*Submit

Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities bear the brunt of climate change’s negative impacts, as discussed in-depth by the NAACPUnion of Concerned ScientistsNature Conservancy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many more. However, renewable energy technologies like solar cells primarily benefit wealthy and predominantly white communities rather than the aforementioned environmental justice communities. Mandates, like the 2020 law in California, which requires all new homes built in the state to have solar panels, price low-income communities out of such housing due to high upfront costs of renewable technologies.

The pivot in U.S. energy infrastructure must be more than just adopting a few new technologies—we must completely change the system by centering environmental justice. Why? Because for centuries that system has disenfranchised and discriminated against BIPOC and low-income communities.

Racial wealth disparities require more than new tech to bridge gaps

Our capitalistic society exploits energy resources rather than equitably utilizing them. Environmental justice is intrinsically anti-capitalist in the sense that for everyone to have equal and just access to clean air, water, food, and energy, there must be some level of government regulation and oversight of these commodities due to unreliable resource access throughout different parts of the U.S.

Racial and ethnic inequality in energy access largely originates from housing inequality, which remains a paramount issue today. In 1934, the U.S. government established the Federal Housing Administration to administer loans to families looking to buy homes. Approximately 98% of the loans granted between 1934 and 1968 were given to white people, and this practice was known as (legally allowed) redlining, a form of segregation that still plagues cities around the country. White families purchased homes and accrued generational wealth while Black families mainly rented homes. This contributed to the racial wealth gap that today also affects all other BIPOC communities and results in stratification of energy and utility access.

Related: How financial institutions engineered climate injustice and the clean energy colorline

Coupled with this were the discrimination and violence against Black people in the work force. Specifically, Jim Crow era segregation in the early- and mid-1900s made workplace discrimination in the government not only legal but encouraged, making it more difficult for Black people to hold well-paying civil service jobs. The effects of Jim Crow still resound today. The segregation and gap in generational wealth between white and BIPOC families determined what commodities and luxuries families could afford.

Because of this immense inequality, BIPOC households are more likely to suffer from energy poverty, whereby they pay a larger proportion of their income than average on utilities. This disparity stems from a lack of energy efficiency in homes accessible to BIPOC and low-income families. Additionally, BIPOC families have less reliable access to utilities, facing more frequent blackouts and utility shutoffs than white families.

None of these problems are intrinsically connected to the source of energy producing that electricity or heat. They are instead products of a racist, capitalist society that allows white wealth to prosper at the expense of racial equity and justice.

Corporate greed won’t change with a different energy product for sale

A march against climate injustice. (Credit: Friends of the Earth International/flickr)

Oil companies have a history of concentrating their industry and environmental impact in BIPOC and low-income communities. ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies spent decades convincing the public and the government of doubt surrounding anthropogenic climate change to ensure their pockets would stay full. While renewable energy sources like solar and wind could alleviate the harmful emissions and pollution that plague fence-line communities, many other environmental justice issues would remain unless other changes are made.

As a glimpse into this future, one renewable energy giant called NextEra Energy emerged in the last few years rather quietly, gaining significant ground economically and beginning to rival the market capitalization of oil behemoths like ExxonMobil. NextEra began as a utility company in Florida and has since expanded nationwide providing solar and wind to cities and states all over the country. While the growing popularity of a renewable energy company is exciting, their path to success feels eerily familiar.

They grew profits by slowly and quietly using federal tax credits to fund new solar and wind projects and growing in market valuation until they could significantly undercut other renewable energy companies’ prices, becoming the largest renewable energy company in the country. Their board is composed of mostly white and male leadership, and while they support environmental stewardship, none of their company objectives available on their website mention environmental justice.

So, while the country is finally excited about transitioning to renewable energy, rebranding our capitalistic energy industry with shiny solar cells instead of oily black gold will still leave BIPOC and low-income communities with most of the same problems they face today.

We need environmental justice now

The problems of inefficient energy infrastructure in homes, energy poverty, frequent blackouts, and loss of power in natural disasters will continue to disproportionately affect BIPOC and low-income communities regardless of the type of energy fueling their homes. True alleviation of climate change requires many policy initiatives including: household and utility plant weatherization funded at the federal and local levels; government regulation of energy companies to prevent price gouging and provide strong consumer protections; and involvement of stakeholders at all levels of local communities in the implementation of renewable energy.

I recently proposed a series of policies addressing these needs which fit into the Biden administration’s current budget and promise to provide significant financial support to environmental justice communities. We cannot wait any longer to support our most marginalized communities. We need policy action centering environmental, climate, and energy justice, now.

Carolyn E. Ramírez is a Chemical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern University researching new materials for organic solar cells. Follow them on Twitter @CRami77.

Banner photo credit: Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon

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How to know if a country is serious about net zero

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A good question to ask after Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia declared targeting net zero emissions by 2060 would be how. That is How to know if a country is serious about net zero because achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2060 should follow a plan to phase out all usage of fossil fuels.
In any case, here is Fergus Green, Lecturer in Political Theory and Public Policy, University College London thoughts on the current problematics of greenhouse gas emissions. Would we turn a blind eye until 2060? Anyway, would we still be there by then?
The COVID-19 lockdown shed some light on the relationship between emissions and consumption. So why focus on the production side only and not on the biggest emitters of GHG’s?

The above image is for illustration and is of Phys.org.

How to know if a country is serious about net zero: look at its plans for extracting fossil fuels

Fresh emissions targets from Saudi Arabia and Australia – two of the world’s largest fossil-fuel producers – are due to arrive just in time for global climate talks in Glasgow. These would commit the two countries to reducing domestic emissions to net zero by around mid-century – though both are expected to continue exporting fossil fuels for decades to come.

For the leaders of countries and governments that produce fossil fuels, UN climate summits are a public relations boon. They get to talk up their commitments to a green and clean future without being held to account for their disproportionate role in fuelling the problem. It’s hard for experts, let alone the average citizen, to tell fact from fiction.

Because it’s only domestic greenhouse gas emissions that are counted for the purpose of the UN climate negotiations, burning exported fossil fuels counts towards the emissions of the importing country. Accordingly, the role that major fossil fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia (oil and natural gas) and Australia (coal and natural gas) play in stoking global heating is not accurately reflected in the talks.

Unlike some areas of international cooperation, like limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, climate-change summits aim to control something which evades easy calculation. Nuclear weapons and their production facilities are tangible, chunky and relatively few in number. Greenhouse gases are everywhere, invisible and caused by lots of different processes – from cow digestion to steel production.

These gases are also in constant flux. Emissions are produced from ubiquitous sources, but there are also natural systems – especially forests and soil – that suck carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere. These natural removals of carbon are known as sinks. That is why scientists and governments speak of net greenhouse gas emissions: emissions minus removals.

It’s relatively easy to monitor aggregate levels of CO₂ in the global atmosphere. This is why scientists have a clear picture of how badly off-track the world is with tackling the climate crisis. But all this complexity concerning sources and sinks makes it easy for governments and corporations to obfuscate their real contribution to climate change.

For example, countries with lots of uninhabited land, like Australia, have become especially adept at gaming the systems of accounting for net emissions of CO₂. Australia effectively gets credited for large amounts of carbon stored in forests, which make it look like overall emissions have been falling, even though emissions from burning fossil fuels have been growing for decades.

The Australian government claims the country’s natural sinks offset its emissions elsewhere. Norman Allchin/Shutterstock

One sure-fire way of telling whether a government official is hoodwinking you when lauding their government’s climate credentials is to look upstream and see whether they’re producing the coal, oil or gas that ultimately causes about three-quarters of global emissions, and if so, what they’re doing about it.

Extracted fossil fuels are much easier to monitor and verify than greenhouse gas emissions. They come from a relatively small number of sources and are already measured by multiple parties for a range of purposes. Customers need proof that the shipments they receive reflect their contracts with suppliers. Governments collect production information to assess a company’s compliance with licensing requirements, tax liabilities and customs obligations.

Fossil-fuel infrastructure and projects are even easier to monitor. Oil rigs, gas pipelines and coal mines are large, making them easy to see both on the ground and via satellite. These features make it simpler to hold fossil fuel-producing countries to account for their contribution to global heating, compared with the more slippery measure of net emissions.

The fossil fuel production gap

In a new report, the UN Environment Programme and other research institutions found that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the goal of the Paris Agreement. Countries’ fossil-fuel production plans and projections in aggregate even exceed, by close to 10%, the levels of global fossil-fuel production implied by their own climate pledges.

The production gap helps reveal how serious many national net zero pledges really are. SEI et al. The Production Gap: 2021 Report, Author provided

Shockingly, governments are pouring fuel on the fire. G20 countries have directed more than US$300 billion (£218 billion) in new funds towards supporting fossil-fuel production, such as subsidies and tax breaks, since the beginning of the pandemic – about 10% more than they have invested in clean energy.

The report echoes recent calls for greater transparency around fossil-fuel production and the support – financial and otherwise – governments provide at home and abroad. Research by various organisations has provided a better understanding of this, but the information is incomplete, inconsistent and scattered.

Governments could help by disclosing plans, funding and projections for fossil-fuel production, and how they intend to manage a just transition away from coal, oil and gas. Fossil-fuel companies should disclose their spending and infrastructure plans, as well as all the greenhouse gas emissions their product is responsible for, and financial risks to their business from climate change.

Numerous environmental organisations are working to build a global picture of the sources and flows of fossil fuels. So even if governments fail to illuminate the activities of fossil-fuel companies and their role in it, they can still be named and shamed.

Talking only about a country’s net greenhouse gas emissions gives fossil fuel-producing companies and governments a free pass to bullshit their way through the climate negotiations. If we want to force the PR managers to really earn their money, we should turn the conversation to fossil-fuel production.

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