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

[Night on] Earth Day

Let’s just take a look back at this little episode, shall we? Yes, we shall:

A massive deepwater oil spill is nearly as likely today as it was in 2010, experts warn, 10 years after the disastrous explosion of BP’s rig in the Gulf of Mexico that caused an environmental catastrophe.

The blowout killed 11 workers and spewed 4m barrels of petroleum into the ocean for 87 days before it could be capped, devastating marine life and polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline. Thousands were put out of work in oil, fisheries and tourism.

But experts say an incident of similar scale could happen again and has been made more likely by the Trump administration’s decision to loosen Obama-era safety rules. Those standards had grown from an independent commission’s damning findings of corporate and regulatory failures leading up to the spill.

Frances Ulmer, who served on the commission and is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said the government and industry have not made sufficient changes to prevent or respond to another mammoth spill.

Sufficient changes. Just what might those those be? It isn’t me walking to work (I do), or building a solar charging station for the car (we are). Those things are those things and they make my life better as they ease some pollution in my local community. But they’re not going to save anything – only collective action will do that. Governments working together to re-assert control that has been systematically ceded to corporations for the purpose of pillage and profit. Reigning in the unaccountable and including the costs of externalities in the price of everything we can buy are the things that will begin make a difference. The reduced economic activity of the past six weeks should give us a little hint of what is required if we had to cram for the test. If we [all] decided to start studying a little everyday, it would mean different political leaders, building codes, transportation alternatives, land development regulations, and prices than the ones we have today. How many of these are possible in the near term?

There’s an election in November.

Image: A man lays oil-absorbent boom as oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts Cat Island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in 2010.
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

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.

Unsprawling

So the New Green Deal is already getting a lot of attention and push-back – both to the good. It’s at least bold enough in some ways to get noticed, if not bold enough in others. For so long, the conversation has been muted by a sense of futility that is quite self-indulgent. Nonetheless…
Not far enough? Correct:

But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

The Environment

America is a nation of sprawl. More Americans live in suburbs than in cities, and the suburbs that we build are not the gridded, neighborly Mayberrys of our imagination. Rather, the places in which we live are generally dispersed, inefficient, and impossible to navigate without a car. Dead-ending cul-de-sacs and the divided highways that connect them are such deeply engrained parts of the American landscape that it’s easy to forget they were, themselves, the fruits of a massive federal investment program.

Sprawl is made possible by highways. This is expensive—in 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl costs America more than $1 trillion a year in reduced business activity, environmental damage, consumer expenses, and other costs. Leaving aside the emissions from the 1.1 billion trips Americans take per day (87 percent of which are taken in personal vehicles), spreading everything out has eaten up an enormous amount of natural land.

Tell them what they could win, Jonny:

But the good news is that if we do account for land use, we will get much closer to a safe, sustainable, and resilient future. And even though widespread adoption of EVs is still decades away, reforms to our built environment can begin right now. In short, we can fix this. We build more than 1 million new homes a year—we just need to put them in the right places.*

Unsprawling America isn’t as hard as it sounds, because America is suffering from a critical, once-in-a-lifetime housing shortage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year that the U.S. has a national deficit of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. Of course, if we build those homes in transit-accessible places, we can save their occupants time and money. But the scale of housing demand at this moment is such that we could build them in car-centric suburbs, too, and provide a human density that would not just support transit but also reduce the need to travel as shops, jobs, and schools crop up within walking distance.

Walking distance needs to become an old/new catch phrase. Also, as another Slate article proclaims, plane trips CAN be replaced by train trips. Not LA to NYC, and not even NYC to Chicago. But most trips under 500 miles and all trips under 300 miles could be taken out of the equation with an updated modest-speed rail system. 100 miles per hour cuts what is a four-hour drive to three (math!), plus airports are never in city centers – you always have to drive in. Bump up the speed to even 150 mph and, well, a 2 hour trip. Math!

Image via Alon Levy on the twitters.

What does The New Green Deal mean?

On the local level, if you find yourself sitting in traffic day after day, or wonder why you can’t take a train to the airport, you often understand at least the short answers to these questions, even if you personally object to them. In this way, The Way Things Are (also known as Why We Can’t Have Nice Things) seem set in stone. Unchangeable, immutable facts of life, if not singular fibers in a hand-basket to the not-so-good place. I know stuff I can do that is planetarily positive that also makes a huge difference to me personally but not a dent in the broader problem. This dissonance can be paralyzing, and often results in people abandoning even the former, achievable, highly-recommended personal actions.

National-level solutions seem just as if not much more difficult. But are they?

Young activists, who will be forced to live with the ravages of climate change, find this upsetting. So they have proposed a plan of their own. It’s called the Green New Deal (GND) — a term purposefully reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s — and it has become the talk of the town.

the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.

But the policy is only part of the picture. Just as striking are the politics, which seem to have tapped into an enormous, untapped demand for climate ambition.

This is not Pollyanna, but it’s also difficult to criticize anything when nothing else is going on or has worked – especially with ‘nothing’ not being an option.

And while Roberts is certainly correct that this is not new, and the politics of it might sound a little gimmicky, the emphasis on the politics might be the key. Plus, novelty is not what is required – it’s quite well-established which policy changes could work best. It’s the will that has seemed out of reach. The Green New Deal agitation might be just what is needed to get the gears moving. Ambitious enough, broad enough, frightening enough (backed by newly-elected officials) to get the attention of you idling in your car because maybe it comes across like a different story on Nice People’s Radio, much less something more foxxy. It’s backed by our leading new firebrand already – adding to the fright she causes but also lending weight to that fright. Maybe it will give us to a chance to at least ask, “Who Knows?” That would be quite a bit more than we have been doing.

Just Kool it

Famed architect Rem Koolhaas says a lot of smart things in this WAPO sitdown. Here he responds to a question about cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness:

Koolhaas: If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step.

Like many of my friends, I am a car fanatic. So we have been looking very closely at the development of self-driving cars. What we know without hesitation is that self-driving cars will only work at the price of total conformity of every member of society. Such a system of mobility will depend on everyone behaving with no exceptions. As exemplified by self-driving cars, there is a built-in authoritarianism in this managed space of flows we call cyberspace.

More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with such a future.

He also thinks LA is the protype city of the future.

Image: De Rotterdam mixed use towers, next to the Erasmus Bridge, by OMA