Last week may be seen as the pivotal moment when climate change finally got serious.
I’m not talking about the anticipated rise of wildfires, droughts, floods and other natural disasters, although we’re bracing for the worst of what Mother Nature will throw at us this year. I’m not necessarily talking about any breakthroughs in the U.N. process, although those may be forthcoming in the run-up to COP26 in November. And I’m not even talking about the onrush of net-zero commitments by companies, government and others, although they seem to be happening at an almost-daily clip — so much so that they are no longer news.
I’m talking about markets, plain and simple.
Consider these stories from the past week:
“Carbon is now a buzzword on corporate earnings calls,” reported the Financial Times. Corporate execs are uttering the word “carbon” on earnings calls at a “rapidly rising rate, triple over the past three years, to about 1,600 per quarter,” the FT said. It cited data from global finance firm UBS that investing in a portfolio of companies with lower emissions intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of revenue — led to annual returns 1 percentage point higher than the MSCI World index of developed market stocks.
It’s important to recognize key moments and milestones that foretell a potentially positive outcome. Last week was one of those moments.
“Green finance goes mainstream, lining up trillions behind global energy transition,” read a headline this weekend in the Wall Street Journal. Assets in investment funds focused partly on the environment reached almost $2 trillion globally in the first quarter of 2021, it said, more than tripling in three years. Investors are putting $3 billion a day into these funds, and more than $5 billion worth of bonds and loans designed to fund green initiatives are issued — every day.
“Banks always backed fossil fuels over green projects — until this year,” reported Bloomberg. It noted that banks have poured more than $3.6 trillion into fossil fuel projects — almost three times more than total bonds and loans backing green projects since COP21 in 2015. However, data covering nearly 140 financial-service institutions worldwide found at least $203 billion in bonds and loans going to renewable energy projects and other climate-friendly ventures through mid-May, compared with $189 billion for fossil-fuel projects.
Carrots and sticks
So, why is the financial world going gaga over green? Simply put, it boils down to carrots and sticks.
First, the sticks. Obviously, climate. Last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) made official what even casual students of the climate crisis have long known: To have any chance of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, investors must stop funding new oil, gas and coal projects — immediately. Those investors already are well aware that as the impacts of a changing climate grow, the increased volatility and uncertainty will roil markets. They’re aligning a sizable chunk of their investments with that reality.
Within 48 hours of the IEA report, the G7 countries vowed to stop new financing for overseas coal projects and to make “accelerated efforts” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C relative to pre-industrial times, the first time the seven powerful nations have come together with a public statement about 1.5 degrees.
A day later, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that, among other things, “encourages” the Treasury Secretary to assess climate-related financial risk to the stability of the federal government and the stability of the U.S. financial system. It also directed the Labor Secretary to “consider suspending, revising or rescinding any rules from the prior administration that would have barred investment firms from considering environmental, social and governance factors, including climate-related risks, in their investment decisions related to workers’ pensions.”
The fossil-fuel industry just may be seeing the writing on the wall. “The eventual death of oil and thermal coal won’t come from environmentalists or even directly from renewable energy — it will come when big banks decide to stop financing it, rendering it ‘unbankable,'” wrote the influential petroleum industry website OilPrice.com, in response to the report.
The carrots? Simply put, the economics, viability and risk profile of renewables keep getting better and better. A report released last month by the U.K. think tank Carbon Tracker found that with current technology and in a subset of available locations, we can capture at least 6,700 petawatt-hours annually from solar and wind, more than 100 times global energy demand. (For reference, a petawatt-hour is equal to 1 million megawatt-hours.)
As Forbes noted in its coverage of the report: “Renewables could kill off fossil fuel electricity by 2035.”
Wow. Just wow.
Add to all that the seemingly rapid transition to electric vehicles; the growing push to electrify buildings, homes and factories; the increasing viability of alternatives to energy-intensive concrete and steel; and the rise of the circular economy. What a remarkable moment we’re in.
Of course, there’s no end of work to be done. The rise of deforestation, the health of the oceans, the quickening loss of biodiversity, the potentially game-changing climate feedback loops — any one of them could be devastating to human well-being.
All of these have significant business implications. And companies — both customers and suppliers of the products and services connected to these issues — will find themselves in the crosshairs of investors, activists, regulators and other influencers and changemakers. Expect a new wave of campaigns, demonstrations, boycotts, investor pressure and other tools of the trade.
A thought experiment: As the fossil fuel companies turn tail, who will become the next villains?
For now, let’s stop and appreciate where we are and how far we’ve come. Progress all too often feels slow and incremental, largely because it is. But it’s important to recognize key moments and milestones that foretell a potentially positive outcome.
Last week was one of those moments. And from here, there’s simply no turning back.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.
Solar & Wind Power = 99.7% of New US Electricity Capacity in 1st Quarter of 2021
Not including rooftop solar power, solar PV accounted for 36.5% of new US electricity generation capacity in the first quarter of 2021. (Note that we are talking about new power capacity in this article, not electricity generation itself.) Another 63.2% of new US electricity generation capacity came from new wind power plants. Those two combine for 99.7% of new US power capacity. Not that it really matters at such a low percentage, but another 0.1% came from hydropower and 0.2% came from coal power.
In March, 100% of new power capacity came from solar and wind power.
In terms of actual capacity increases, 477 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind were added in March, and 4625 MW were added in January–March.
Despite the high percentage of new power capacity, the 2021 increase in the first quarter was well below the Q1 2020 and Q1 2019 increases (8303 MW and 6084 MW, respectively). In those time periods, though, the percentage of overall power capacity increases were 51% and 47.6%, respectively. So, clearly, a positive shift is underway.
Looking at overall installed power capacity (not just power capacity additions), solar and wind have gone from 11.4% in Q1 2019 to 12.7% in Q1 2020 to 14.8% in Q1 2021. Progress.
As far as all renewables combined, the progression is: 21.6% in Q1 2019, 22.8% in Q1 2020, 24.7% in Q1 2021.
The specific power plant additions across US electricity grids in the month of March were:
- Frontier Windpower II LLC’s 351.8 MW Frontier Windpower Expansion in Kay County, OK is online. The power generated is sold to City of Springfield MO under long-term contract.
- Wapello Solar LLC’s 100.0 MW Wapello Solar Project in Louisa County, IA is online. The power generated is sold to Central Iowa Power Coop. under long-term contract.
- Solar Star Prime 2 LLC’s 7.0 MW Solar Star Prime 2 Project in Richmond County, NY is online.
In actuality, rooftop solar power might have added more US power capacity than the three projects above all combined in March. However, we don’t have data on that yet.
Another other thoughts on these figures?
Shortly, I will be publishing our March and Q1 2021 US electricity generation report. The electricity generation numbers will look much less rosy than the capacity numbers above.
As Predicted, Electric Vehicles Are Getting Cleaner
As electric vehicle (EV) aficionados like to say, the cleaner the grid, the cleaner the EV.
That certainly rings true. Unlike gasoline-fueled vehicles, all-electric vehicles don’t emit tailpipe pollution of any kind, smog-forming or climate change-creating. But given that EVs are charged by electricity, they are indirectly responsible for the pollution from the source of that electricity, as well as the emissions from producing whatever fuels those power plants burn. Regardless, when compared to a gasoline car, whose fuel efficiency and emissions will remain the same for the life of the car, an EV will be accountable for less and less pollution over time as utilities transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewable sources.
A new analysis by UCS Senior Engineer David Reichmuth bears that out. From 2018 to 2019, despite an administration that promised to prop up the coal industry, EVs did indeed get cleaner. And the numbers are all the more impressive when you consider the improvements over the last decade.
EV sales in the United States over the past year, in the midst of a pandemic, also were encouraging. From the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of this year, EV sales jumped nearly 45 percent, and sales from this January through March reached nearly 100,000, a record for one quarter. So far, this year’s sales are outpacing 2020’s total EV sales of 252,548. That said, EV sales were less than 2 percent of all US vehicle sales last year.
Given that the transportation sector is now the top US carbon polluter, responsible for 29 percent of all US carbon emissions, it is imperative to transition from gasoline to electricity as quickly as possible. Now, with a new administration promoting EVs and major automakers rolling out more EV models, are EVs poised take off?
I recently caught up with Reichmuth to find out more about his new analysis and ask his opinion on the short-term and long-term prospects for EVs. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.
EN: Let’s start with your top findings, which — as I already mentioned — show that EVs are getting cleaner.
DR: Yes, that’s right. Driving the average EV is accountable for significantly less carbon pollution than driving a gasoline car, and that difference has become more pronounced as time goes on. Given where EVs have sold to date, their emissions — based on 2019 power plant emissions data — are equivalent to a gasoline car that gets 93 miles per gallon (mpg), which is dramatically better than even the most efficient gasoline hybrid. Last year, when we conducted the same analysis based on 2018 power plant data, EV emissions were equivalent to an 88-mpg gasoline car, so the “climate pollution gap” between gasoline and electric vehicles is continuing to widen.
EN: UCS did its first analysis comparing carbon emissions from EVs and gasoline-powered vehicles back in 2012 based on 2009 power plant data. Now that you’ve looked at carbon emissions based on 2019 data, how have things improved?
DR: There’s a major difference between our first analysis about a decade ago and today. The electricity sector has experienced a massive shift. Coal-fired plants, which generated 45 percent of US electricity in 2009, produced only 23 percent in 2019. Over that same time, grid operators added more solar and wind power. All of these changes mean driving an EV in 2021 is much cleaner than 10 years ago.
EN: Where are the “cleanest” areas of the country to drive an EV?
DR: Upstate New York is the cleanest place to drive an EV. The emissions attributable to an average EV there is the equivalent of driving a 255-mpg gasoline car. California and New England are also among the top clean areas, where driving an EV is comparable to driving a 134-mpg and 122-mpg gasoline car, respectively. Why are these regions so clean? A major reason is their grids get very little electricity from coal.
But there are substantial benefits even in states where the grid hasn’t switched over to cleaner power yet. An average EV in Ohio, for example, is accountable for the same amount of carbon pollution as a 60-mpg gasoline car, about half of the emissions of the average new gasoline car that gets only 31 mpg.
The mpg (miles per gallon) value listed for each region is the combined city/highway fuel economy rating of a gasoline vehicle that would have global warming emissions equivalent to driving an EV. Regional global warming emissions ratings are based on 2019 power plant data in the EPA’s eGRID2019 database (released February 2021). Comparison includes gasoline and electricity fuel production emissions estimates for processes like extraction, transportation, and refining using Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET 2020 model. The 93 mpg US average is a sales-weighted average based on where EVs were sold in 2011 through 2020.
EN: As you point out in your analysis, pickup trucks and other, larger vehicles, no matter how they are powered, are less efficient. Are EV pickup trucks still a good idea?
DR: First off, a more efficient EV will have lower emissions than a less efficient one, so I would encourage people to choose the most efficient vehicle that meets their needs. But, for people who need a larger vehicle, such as a pickup truck, driving an electric version would be considerably less harmful to the climate than driving a gasoline or diesel truck.
For example, the gasoline version of the Ford F-150 pickup truck gets around 20 mpg. While the official efficiency data are not yet available, I estimate that the emissions associated with the recently announced Ford F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup, when driven in California, would be equal to driving an 85-mpg gasoline vehicle. In other words, driving the electric pickup would have less than a quarter of the carbon emissions of a gasoline version of the same vehicle.
EN: To make it easier for consumers to choose EVs, there will need to be a significant investment in charging infrastructure. President Biden has called for installing 500,000 charging stations nationwide by 2030 in his American Jobs Plan. What investments do you think will be needed to support charger deployment?
DR: It is very promising that President Biden’s plan includes such a large investment for electric vehicles, including EV charging infrastructure. Half a million chargers represents a significant down payment on the infrastructure we will need to transition from gasoline to electricity.
As the US EV fleet continues to grow, we will of course need charging stations along highways to support longer trips. But we also must make sure deployment is equitable and chargers are installed in all communities, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. City residents who do not have access to off-street parking with electricity — people who live in apartments, condominiums and multifamily housing — will have to be able to charge their vehicles as well.
EN: What else should the federal government do to promote EVs?
DR: Besides investing in EV charging infrastructure, there are a number of other things the government could do to accelerate the transition from petroleum-fueled transportation.
First, the federal government should set stronger vehicle emissions standards to ensure there will be more EVs on the road and — at the same time — make sure that any gasoline cars sold are as efficient as possible. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we’ll have to switch to electric vehicles. But keep in mind, automakers will still be selling gasoline vehicles over the next decade, so it will be critical to require those vehicles to meet tougher, achievable emissions standards.
Second, the government should strengthen existing EV purchase incentives programs. For example, Congress should update the federal tax credit, which is as much as $7,500 for electric passenger cars and light trucks, and consider allowing consumers to receive the incentive when they purchase the vehicle instead of when they file their taxes the following year. Likewise, expanding purchase incentives to include used EVs would help make EVs a viable option for car buyers shopping in the used car market.
The federal government needs to do more to help US auto manufacturers make the transition to electric vehicles, too. Incentives will be important, but the government also should reward automakers that have strong labor standards, use domestic materials in their EVs, and assemble EVs here at home. Expanding existing federal loan and grant programs and funding new ones that promote domestic EV manufacturing would help make US automakers more competitive as the United States — and the rest of the world — electrify their cars and trucks.
The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan calls for investments in many of these EV incentive programs, and we look forward to seeing it move forward in Congress.
Part of a series on Ask a Scientist.
Colorado Environmental & Equity Legislative Roundup
After months of drafting, negotiating, and rallying around legislation in the Colorado State Capitol, the General Assembly has adjourned. Looking back over the past six months, it’s clear that achieving enforceable and equitable climate action was a top priority not just for NRDC, but for our community partners and elected officials as well.
Our priority bills focused on how to help Colorado center environmental justice and disproportionately impacted communities as well as drive important reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that are already warming our climate, melting our snowpack, and contributing to wildfires and drought. This session was no walk in the park, but at the end of the day, we made real progress. As a result of tireless advocacy from environmental, health, business, and community advocates across the state, legislators passed the following essential policies:
- HB21-1266 defines disproportionately impacted communities, requires engagement of those communities, and creates staffing, task forces, and boards focused on addressing environmental justice. This bill charges polluters for greenhouse gas emissions and uses the funds to invest back into disproportionately impacted communities and supports the climate and environmental justice staffing. It also absorbed parts of our climate bill that faced a veto threat (SB200) including enforceable deadlines, reduction requirements, and rulemakings for the electric, industrial, and oil and gas sectors.
- HB21-1189 regulates three toxins (Benzene, Hydrogen Sulfide, and Hydrogen Cyanide) and four facilities (Suncor, Phillips 66, BF Goodrich, and Sinclair). It also requires covered facilities to conduct and publicly report fenceline monitoring.
- SB21-246 requires investor-owned utilities to file beneficial electrification plans every three years that must include programs targeted to low-income and disproportionately impacted communities with at least 20 percent of the funding going to those households. This is also the first building electrification policy to pass with active labor support in the country.
- HB21-1286 requires owners of certain large buildings to collect and report their building’s energy use annually and meet periodic building performance standards.
- SB21-264 requires gas distribution utilities to file a clean heat plan with the Public Utilities Commission that shows how it plans to meet the targets of a 5% reduction below 2015 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2025 and 20% below 2015 GHG emission levels by 2030.
- SB21-108 adopts rules and penalties related to gas pipeline safety.
- SB21-72 directs the Public Utilities Commission to approve utilities’ applications to build new transmission, creates the Colorado electric transmission authority, and sets out deadlines for electric utilities that own transmission facilities to join a Regional Transmission Organization.
The evolution of SB21-200 and HB21-1266 warrants its own discussion. In mid-January, Governor Polis released his Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which laid out the sector-specific emissions reduction targets needed to hit the economy-wide goals set forth in HB19-1261. Following the report release, climate and environmental justice leaders Senator Faith Winter and Representative Dominique Jackson proposed legislation in line with the Roadmap to help the State make good on its climate promises.
However, a shocking and early veto threat from the Governor meant the bill was bound for an uphill battle. Coloradans across the state took notice and came together to push for the bill, culminating in a broad coalition of more than 100 environmental, racial justice, public health, outdoor recreation, business, youth, and community organizations elevating the need for climate justice. It was this coalition that helped HB21-1266 absorb elements of SB21-200, cross the finish line, and ensure environmental justice and disproportionately impacted communities are centered, not sacrificed, in climate action. It is this larger, more inclusive, and more powerful coalition that will hold the state accountable in future rulemakings, legislative sessions, and implementation.
Growing the Circular Economy: Opportunities for Resource Recycling under China’s Carbon-Neutrality Target
For the first time, RMI has examined the vast potential for resource recycling in China and shown how it can serve as an important component of reaching the nation’s zero-carbon goal. Growing the Circular Economy: Opportunities for Resource Recycling under China’s Carbon-Neutrality Target [PDF] quantifies the market opportunity across nine key segments, from scrap steel and plastics to biomass and EV batteries, finding a ¥2.8 trillion potential market in 2050.
The report provides a qualitative analysis of each of these segments, looking at the current state of the market and addressing issues such as resource availability, existing policy supports, and the potential for greenhouse gas mitigation. It also explores how the development of resource recycling industries can help to shift business ecosystems towards a circular economy with greater efficiency, lower emissions, and reduced waste.
Growing the Circular Economy can serve as a starting point for investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to explore the immense possibilities of the resource recycling in China. The report provides essential information to help form both a quantitative and qualitative basis for thinking about both business and political approaches to this market.
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