Powering Down

Necessarily ambitious climate targets to meet the Paris Agreement goals earlier must actually be designed to surpass them. As we’ve said often these efforts are results of broad collective action, by governments:

The centerpiece of Leonore Gewessler’s plan is a radical revamp of Austria’s public transportation networks, giving residents nationwide access to buses, trains and subways for a flat yearly fee that works out at 3 euros ($3.38) a day, encouraging citizens to leave their cars at home. Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, is drafting new laws that’ll redistribute billions of euros toward more ecologically-friendly activities in the euro area’s sixth biggest economy.

“That’s the project that is very dear to my heart,” said Gewessler in her first interview in her ministry since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Road traffic remains a “key concern” for Austria to meet its goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2040—a decade earlier than the target set by the European Union.

Note when this is happening – now. Even and especially during the pandemic. The localities we’ve heard about where streets have been restricted to pedestrian-only traffic requires another couple of steps to complete the process. Paired with (cheap!) alternative transportation options, this will seem like another thing we just had to do. (Narrator: Because. It. Is.)

Image via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Green Swan

Whatever the phenomenon is called, the broad effect of the slowdown in the face of the current pandemic demonstrates a version of the combined efforts needed to address climate change:

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show, a transformation partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.

It is a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided nearly half the nation’s electricity. And it comes despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to try to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution rules on coal-burning power plants.

Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led electric utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40 percent in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80 percent. And the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.

Now the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into their deepest crisis yet.

As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings have shut down nationwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, demand for electricity has fallen sharply. And, because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.

We can acknowledge this without cheering or crowing. The U.S. has been dragging our feet on everything climate-related, saying through official policy and propagandistic news sources alike that any reductions in energy use or shifts in methods of production was impossible. Belittling every international effort to spite progress has made us the pariah state envisioned on and indeed championed by the right. And now it is happening anyway, through a combination of forces, some truly awful – others, like coal becoming obsolete, by their very own economic reality. A combination of tactics will be required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, it would be great if one of them didn’t have to be a plague.

Image: painting by Anna Lubchik

Digging in the wrong place, but digging

Many empty water bottles. Shallow DOF.

The use of enzymes to break down lignin in the quest to produce biofuels has a long history lined with small breakthroughs and a lot of futility. But a new study in Nature describes a mutant enzyme that can reduce plastic bottles to chemical building blocks to make new bottles:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance.

Billions of tonnes of plastic waste have polluted the planet, from the Arctic to the deepest ocean trench, and pose a particular risk to sea life. Campaigners say reducing the use of plastic is key, but the company said the strong, lightweight material was very useful and that true recycling was part of the solution.

The new enzyme was revealed in research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. The work began with the screening of 100,000 micro-organisms for promising candidates, including the leaf compost bug, which was first discovered in 2012.

“It had been completely forgotten, but it turned out to be the best,” said Prof Alain Marty at the Université de Toulouse, France, the chief science officer at Carbios.

The scientists analysed the enzyme and introduced mutations to improve its ability to break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. They also made it stable at 72C, close to the perfect temperature for fast degradation.

Bugs doing the heavy lifting has long been an illustrative trope – it is said that life on Earth would grind to halt in days without the constant work of ants. Industrial-scale biological recycling sits on the other end of the teeter-totter with banning all plastics. Only significant inroads into both will help us turn the corner. Promising news. Keep digging.

Not the Same as it Ever Was

Things shutting down, a leadership vacuum and sports leading the way to a quieter next few weeks brings up a lot of possibilities that fall on the interesting/frightening continuum. What will be the new normal that follows this different normal?

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

It seems like a good time to wonder: do you have stuff to Read? Write? Paint? Plant? Play?

Work on other stuff, or just yourself. Rest, and stay healthy. Think about what ‘different’ might be like, how it could be better.

Also possible without needing a pandemic

NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There is evidence that the change is at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus.

At the end of 2019, medical professionals in Wuhan, China, were treating dozens of pneumonia cases that had an unknown source. Days later, researchers confirmed the illnesses were caused by a new coronavirus (COVID-19). By January 23, 2020, Chinese authorities had shut down transportation going into and out of Wuhan, as well as local businesses, in order to reduce the spread of the disease. It was the first of several quarantines set up in the country and around the world.

The maps on this page show concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities. The maps above show NO2 values across China from January 1-20, 2020 (before the quarantine) and February 10-25 (during the quarantine). The data were collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite. A related sensor, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite, has been making similar measurements.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Liu recalls seeing a drop in NO2 over several countries during the economic recession that began in 2008, but the decrease was gradual. Scientists also observed a significant reduction around Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, but the effect was mostly localized around that city, and pollution levels rose again once the Olympics ended.

It doesn’t take a disaster or even an emergency – beyond the one we have already created with the usual emissions levels. Reductions are possible. Disasters and loss are not mandatory, though we do make them inevitable to some extent by doing nothing. Still, these dramatic images should be instructional about what’s possible. It would be interesting to know the near-term implications of these reductions. You know, science.

Tanker blinkers

It is very difficult to report on Climate Change. It even difficult to write about reporting on climate change. For example:

On the NYT Climate and Environment page right now has these as their stories:

Fossil Fuels Are to Blame for Soaring Methane Levels, Study Shows

Bezos Commits $10 Billion to Address Climate Change

Both are serious stories and neither can be taken as straight news as they scream out for flame and snark – not even looking at you, twitter. But it points up the challenges of treating climate developments as new when they have existed for more more than a decade and are only being admitted into polite, gray lady discourse. The very idea that plutocratic climate funds are any kind of answer to anything is almost as ludicrous as the story a little farther down the page about damming the North Sea to combat sea level rise. I’m sure they meant the other ‘damning,’ and perhaps could have used them interchangeably.

This is not [only] a complaint. That these stories are being reported out, written and published is something – it’s just an incomplete something. We probably need to cross reference these stories to get a more accurate picture. True multi-media. Bezos’ billions could go to greenlight feature films of stories about what’s happening. You can’t turn the tanker without starting to turn. The. Tanker.

 

Making money from the Greening

We’re mostly still just trying to do that, as if there’s a first, as if THAT’s the opportunity:

Sustainable investing is one of the hottest trends on Wall Street. Trillions of dollars are rushing in as consulting firms and private foundations spread the gospel. But no one is entirely sure what ESG is beyond the literal (environmental, social and governance) or exactly how to define it. Metrics are self-reported and often hard to measure, tracking everything from carbon emissions to boardroom diversity. Greenwashing is a perennial concern.

Profits, however, are very much measurable. Bloomberg’s fourth annual ranking found that the biggest ESG funds are beating the market. If you do happen to have $1 million to spare and a soft spot for the future of planet Earth, here are some investment ideas for you. How does the intersection of AI, blockchain and climate sound?

We also reported this week on emerging technology such as carbon capture, and less environmentally damaging rocket launches. While not as sexy as spaceships, dirt is also important to the future health of the planet. Global agriculture has come to rely on annual crops and heavy fertilizer use, which inhibit soil’s ability to sequester carbon

So we’ll call it ESG or whatever, and we do. Predictions about how this will affect THAT, about where to place your future-of-energy bets is till going to lead to many near-term flareups and dead-ends. Reckoning with the ultimate dead-end may not be appealing, prospectus-wise, but acknowledging that we’re doing it anyway, that doing it the old way got us right to here, is the thing we will always still need to do until we do it.

Waiting. Adaptability Funds are going to scare the investor class for about one-half of a news cycle.

Conscious Capitalism

We started this blog back in 2008 but okay, here we go:

DAVOS — The powerful momentum of the global sustainability movement, driven by a younger generation, can carry a new era of stakeholder-focused capitalism forward, according to business and financial leaders speaking at the World Economic Forum this week.

At a CNBC panel on “Conscious Capitalism,” anchor Karen Tso talked to two members of the Business Roundtable, Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman and EY chief executive Carmine Di Sibio, who were among the 181 signatories to the organisation’s statement in August, committing to the purpose of a corporation being to serve all stakeholders: customers, employees, communities and suppliers, as well as shareholders.

Di Sibio said the younger generation of employees (and customers) was a huge driver of this shift in emphasis for businesses. He said: “This is about talent, and it’s coming from the bottom up. People want to know you have a plan around sustainability when they join your company. We hire from college campuses all over the world and it’s the number one thing they want to talk about, and they are going to create more and more pressure.”

Friedman agreed: “The young generation who were at school ten years ago at the time of the crash are now moving up through organisations and expecting more of their companies. Regardless of the economic backdrop, the next generation of workers will demand more of their companies. Investment in climate change and social good is not just a bull market phenomenon.

And just when you thought it was safe to go skiing in the Alps with your favorite, enlightened global tech elites, don’t forget to cross check The Evil List.

The thing about GROWTH

Interesting digression from Joel Klotkin about a dilemma that continues to plague us, which is also wrapped tightly around all efforts to de-couple ever-growing returns in economic activity from energy-intensive work and employment:

The global phenomena of low economic growth and rising prices has sparked middle-class-led rebellion—what one Marxist publication describes as “a strike against the rising cost of living.” While the specific issues may vary in each instance, the new protests are motivated by middle- and working-class fears that slow and de-growth conditions will “proletarianize” their once decently comfortable living standards.

Many of the progressive gentry dismiss these movements as primitive populism, producing detestable things like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But the “great revolt” has since expanded to countries with liberal cultures and evolved welfare states, including France, Chile,  even Norway and the Netherlands. In most places these rebellions are led not by perpetually outraged students, laid off workers, or angry immigrants, but by solidly middle-income workers who feel their long-term prospects, and those of their children, are increasingly dismal.

These fears are particularly acute for workers in environmentally inconvenient industries, such as energy, manufacturing, or home-building, who are losing their jobs or have been explicitly targeted for unemployment by the green Left. Those who continue to work in unavoidably energy-intensive industries like agriculture continue to be saddled with ever rising costs for critical commodities like diesel fuel. These energy price rises particularly impact most Europeans who drive to work.

This is obviously not unrelated to the perpetual ‘make the miners into coders’ solution that is stupid on its face (we don’t need that many coders) and insulting by implication (they can just do something else!).

The need for ever-increasing growth needs some re-imagined parameters. Instead of successive generations wanting their kids to earn more and more, what if our dream was for them to work less and less? What else might they do? Do you mean we can’t think of or value anything else beyond work? Is that the actual problem? The idea/reality that it is blasphemy to consider the merits of working a 20-hour week, or that we have trouble imagining these merits says far more about us that we should be comfortable with.

Hmmm. What’s Green?

Image by author.

Squamish Nation not squeamish on blending indigeneity and urban design

Clunky title, but this story on the re-development of one of Canada’s smallest First Nations reserves mixes boldness with vision for Vancouver that is easy to romanticize but more nearly resembles a living model for cities going forward.

Few First Nations reserves in Canada are found so centrally in urban areas, and this unique location has given the Squamish Nation a chance to explode local city-building norms. Construction begins in 2021, and at more than 500 units per acre, Senakw’s density will reach Hong Kong levels – a fact that is only allowed because Senakw exists not on city land, but on reserve land, which is technically federal.

Another striking feature is that only 10% of apartments will include parking, unlike the city’s rules that mandate one parking space per unit. The buildings will also forgo the podium-and-tower design that’s become a hallmark of “Vancouverism” in favour of slender high-rises maximising public space. The buildings could be up to 56 storeys tall, towering above the low-rise neighbourhoods nearby.

But beyond even the serious density considerations, there is the language slight of hand that gets at something far more pernicious:

“In the early history of Vancouver, and colonial cities generally, there is this opposition assumed between the civilization cities are imagined to represent, and the imagined savageness of Indigenous people,” [Stanger-Ross] says. 

The ways that the terms ‘urban areas’, ‘cities’, and even abstractions like ‘density’ have been co-opted as code words for racist politicking is maybe coming full-circle. Hopeful, I know. But good work, First Nations folk. Right racists depend on decent people being too nice, too squeamish, plus the ever-present lack of temerity to call out, punch back, or in this case, build up. Re-take the words, then re-make the savage cities with civilizing force of architecture.