Shooting for A Green Recovery
Hello and welcome to an extra Sustainable Futures Report for Wednesday 27th May. There’ll still be one on Friday!
Making the headlines, some politicians, activists and commentators are calling for a green recovery. A changed world as we come out of COVID lockdown. There are endless arguments over what that actually means, how we do it, when we do it and whether we can do it. Meanwhile, some fossil fuel companies are accused of failing to meet targets, some are agitating for targets to be dropped and some politicians are quietly dropping them anyway. The word in the markets is that green investment is a success story and elsewhere the sun is shining on renewables, even if some of them are all at sea. (Oh, all right, it’s a lake.) And then there’s net zero. What does it actually mean, and could BECCS help? And we have a new patron.
(Oh, and there's nothing about cats, although I do mention CAT later.)
Welcome to newest patron Pamela McAllister, over there in Queensland, Australia. I was going to say you’re our first patron in Australia, but in fact that distinction goes to Colin Clarke who’s near Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. Many thanks to Pamela McAllister, Colin Clarke and all other patrons who help to make the Sustainable Futures Report possible. And a special mention to Imogen Littlejohns, my longest-standing patron. Special thanks to you.
What’s in the news?
It’s the Green Recovery. Transform, the journal of IEMA reports that more than one million citizens have joined forces with 100 environmental NGOs to urge the EU to launch the biggest green investment package the world has ever seen in response to the coronavirus crisis. The Green 10 coalition of environmental organisations has launched an appeal urging lawmakers to invest hundreds of billions into home renovations, scaling up renewable energy, restoring natural habitats, boosting public transport and zero-emission mobility, and greening agriculture.
The EU recovery fund can be used to unlock an estimated €1.8 trillion opportunity by 2030 by making better use of materials and reducing waste, according to Patrick Schröder and David McGinty writing on euractiv.com. France and Germany first proposed a €500 billion recovery fund to help eurozone economies affected by the coronavirus, followed by a separate proposal from the so-called ‘frugal four’ – the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden.
While there are some significant differences between the plans, they both refer to the need for a green transition. This unprecedented economic stimulus provides the EU with the opportunity to go even further, and accelerate the shift to a circular economy. This all depends, they say, on
- First, using the green stimulus to ensure progress on the circular economy is not further reversed by the COVID-19 crisis.
- Second, promoting more resilience to safeguard against resource shortages and supply chain risks.
- Third, promoting the EU’s global leadership on the circular economy through international cross-sector cooperation to support a recovery, which is also just and inclusive.
Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?
That’s the title of a paper by Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, Dimitri Zenghelis published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy.
Joseph Stiglitz is a former chief economist at the World Bank and a Nobel Prize-winner; Nicholas Stern is professor of economics and government and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics (LSE), and 2010 Professor of Collège de France. He was author of the Stern Review which urged the then government to act promptly on climate because the cost of inaction would rise year by year. That was in 2006.
The paper says:
The COVID-19 crisis is likely to have dramatic consequences for progress on climate change. Imminent fiscal recovery packages could entrench or partly displace the current fossil-fuel-intensive economic system…
Nicholas Stern is quoted as saying that stimulating new jobs in heavily emitting sectors was short-sighted. “The jobs of the past are insecure jobs,” he said. “[To create future jobs] we need the right kind of finance in the right place at the right scale at the right price.”
Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and now a finance adviser to Boris Johnson for Cop26, the UN climate conference to discuss progress towards the Paris Agreement, called for all companies to disclose their plans to reach net zero emissions. “Every company in every sector, every bank and every insurer, every pension fund, should be expecting to develop and disclose a transition plan to net zero,” he said.
The UK can seize the opportunity as president and host of the crunch UN climate talks to lead the way on an international green recovery, leading economists said, in a briefing to ministers to accompany the Oxford study results.
Many of the projects that could create new jobs in the UK are “shovel-ready”, compliant with social distancing requirements and could be started quickly, said Cameron Hepburn, director of the Smith School of enterprise and the environment at Oxford University and lead author of the study.
He cited energy efficiency programmes to insulate the UK’s draughty housing stock, the building of electric vehicle charging networks, redesigning roads for more cycling, flood protection and planting trees. “These all need large-scale deployment, offer low to moderate skilled work and will have benefits in terms of climate change as well as boosting the economy,” he said.
The Oxford study compared green stimulus projects with traditional stimulus, such as measures taken after the 2008 global financial crisis, and found green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per pound spent by the government, and lead to increased long-term cost savings.
Clean energy infrastructure construction is one example, generating twice as many jobs per pound of government expenditure as fossil fuel projects around the world. Others include expanding broadband so more people can work from home.
“Tackling climate change has the answer to our economic problems,” Prof Hepburn told the Guardian. In their stimulus packages after the 2008 financial crisis, governments largely failed to capitalise on the carbon-cutting potential of their spending, partly because there was a lack of “shovel-ready” initiatives.
Greenpeace is complaining at the news that the British government is apparently giving a major role in the presidency of COP26 to oil major BP, following discussions with Andrea Leadsom, minister for energy. That is the same Andrea Leadsom who has in the past voted against wind power, supported fracking and admitted that when she took office her first question to her officials was, “Is climate change real?”
Ed Miliband, the UK’s shadow business secretary, has called for green recovery plans to include creating a “zero-carbon army of young people” doing work such as planting trees, insulating buildings and working on green technologies.
S&P Global Market Intelligence reports that executives from more than 150 companies around the world that have a combined market capitalisation of more than $2.4 trillion have signed a statement calling on governments to plan a green economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Calling All Governments
"As countries work on economic aid and recovery packages in response to COVID-19, and as they prepare to submit enhanced national climate plans under the Paris Agreement, we are calling on governments to reimagine a better future grounded in bold climate action," said the statement, which was organised by the Science Based Targets initiative. The SBTi is a collaboration between CDP (The Carbon Disclosure Project), World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC).
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has calculated that the green economy contributed a third of the UK’s economic growth in 2010-11, following the financial crisis, while Britain’s traditional economic engines floundered. At the time they said that the choice between “green or growth” was a false one.
Earlier this month the CEOs of some 60 organisations, including Barratt Developments, Good Energy and the RSPB, wrote to the UK prime minister saying, “It is now clearer than ever before that the health of humanity is inextricably bound to the health of our planet. Your government has the opportunity to show global leadership, forging a path out of this crisis by putting a resilient economy, healthy communities, and a thriving natural world at the heart of the relief and recovery effort.”
They called for:
- A more resilient economy
- Increased space for wildlife and people
- Strengthening Nature’s protections
- Building global ambition in the run-up to COP26
And they weren’t alone. The Committee on Climate Change also wrote to the government in a letter headed “Building a resilient recovery from the COVID-19 crisis”. Their key recommendations were that the Government should prioritise actions according to six principles for a resilient recovery. These are:
- Use climate investments to support the economic recovery and jobs.
- Lead a shift towards positive long-term behaviours.
- Tackle the wider ‘resilience deficit’ on climate change.
- Embed fairness as a core principle.
- Ensure the recovery does not ‘lock-in’ greenhouse gas emissions or increased climate risk.
- Strengthen incentives to reduce emissions when considering fiscal changes.
The Lancet Planetary Health warns that we need to inspire climate action without inducing climate despair. Author Christie Nicole Godsmark reports, “Recently, in assisting [such] a class with a climate–health learning activity focusing on solutions, one student commented to another that she just could not see a way out of the present situation.
“Comments such as this can bring the ethical safeguarding responsibility of educators into focus. Should educators be providing support to students who consciously and internally engage with the devastation of the climate and its impacts on health, and so might be susceptible to experiencing solastalgia, ecological grief, eco-anxiety, or pessimism? There appears to be a fine balance for educators between safeguarding the mental health of students who might feel climate despair on the one hand, and inspiring students to take personal climate action on the other by presenting the facts of this unprecedented and existential threat to humanity.”
Of course it’s not just students who are likely to suffer from eco-anxiety, and this may be exacerbated by more fragile mental health due to the COVID lockdown. An issue that we maybe should explore in more detail in a future episode.
Meanwhile Business Green reports that carbon emissions have fallen dramatically as a result of lockdown. As I’ve commented previously, the total annual reduction depends on how long lockdown continues and how far we go back to business as usual afterwards.
Action This Day
We’ve heard myriad voices calling for things to be done better, but this could mean policies at odds with the beliefs of many governments, like a reduction in inequality, a universal basic income, fairer taxes, public infrastructure investment and public management of natural monopolies like water, health and railways.
No amount of earnest entreaties will change anything, unless governments all over the world take action.
On the Fossil Fuel Front…
Australian and Canadian governments are working hard to promote their local fossil fuel industries - something else for a future episode.
We’ve mentioned that BP has been asked by the government to play a role in COP26. Why not, when the company has committed to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and BP’s new chief executive has said that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has deepened his commitment to shrinking the oil giant’s carbon footprint to zero? Well a report from the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) states that BP, along with most other oil companies, is not doing nearly enough to meet its stated target. Quoting other research by TPI, IEMA’s Transform says that the mining industry is not aligned with its own climate goals either.
One solution to this dilemma is of course to move the goal posts. Australia's electricity grid operator wants the power to remotely switch off or constrain the output of new rooftop solar systems, as it finds ways to manage South Australia's world-leading levels of "invisible and uncontrolled" solar output. It complains that the runaway success of solar power poses serious challenges for the security of the grid, because it operates "behind-the-meter", out of control of the authorities. It’s estimated that up to 85 per cent of South Australia's power demand could be met by solar by 2025. There is no coal-fired generation in SA. Apart from wind and solar, the main source of electricity is natural gas - a fossil fuel - with some hydro and some diesel - a dirty fossil fuel - backup. There are two battery storage installations. No doubt balancing the grid will be a challenge, but surely the more urgent challenge is reducing emissions from power generation.
Looking at other regulations, a recent article in The Lancet looks at public reporting of the use of fracking chemicals the USA.
And now some more positive news…
The Rockefeller investment fund divested from fossil fuels five years ago and reports that the strategy was a success. BlackRock, the US investment manager which managed $6.5tn (£5.3tn) in assets at the end of March, found that investments in organisations with with better records on social issues and good governance were more resilient than others during the recent coronavirus market crash. And the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) wrote to the governments of the G20 nations urging a sustainable recovery.
On the renewables front we learn that Britain's largest solar farm is poised to begin development in Kent while Dutch engineers are building the world's biggest sun-seeking solar farm. In Kent 880,000 solar panels will be installed at a cost of £440m to generate 350MW on a site covering 364 hectares (900 acres) of farmland.
In northern Holland 74,000 solar panels will be installed on islands floating in a reservoir. This will enable them to move to track the sun.
Net zero is the holy grail that every country is trying to achieve, or at least promising to achieve. The Lancet reports that New Zealand has been way ahead of the game, but seems to have slowed up in recent years. Instead of looking for reductions from transport and agriculture the government is relying on offsets from forestry. And the article claims that the recent climate legislation does nothing to control methane.
Moving across the ocean, I’ve had a question from another listener in Australia, Carol Dance. She says, “As a layperson, I couldn’t find the answer to my key question, Does Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) emit as much or similar amount of carbon into the atmosphere as natural gas?
“I understand that RNG would reduce fracking and other destructive methods of acquiring fossil gas. That’s fine. But does it still emit destructive gas? Isn’t it basically the same gas with perhaps different proportions of the various hydrocarbons?”
This was my answer:
“Yes, the question of RNG is a vexed one, and I have to speak as a layman too. I think that RNG, which is mainly methane, probably emits as much CO2 as natural gas, which is mainly methane. The supporters of bioenergy are putting their trust in BECCS, which I discussed with James Dyke in “Game Over” on 20th May. The simple argument for bioenergy, from woodchip to waste, is that the organic material that is burnt is replaced by new growth which absorbs an equivalent quantity of CO2 to that which is emitted. There are problems with that, in that growth takes far longer to recover the CO2 than it takes for the emissions to be made and there are emissions involved in constructing the bioenergy plant, harvesting the fuel and transporting it. In theory the process is carbon-neutral, but in practice that can never be the case because of these overheads.
“Along comes BECCS - BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage. If the CO2 from the bioenergy plant is captured then it is physically removed from the atmosphere and there is a reduction in the global total. Organic growth continues and that also removes CO2 from the atmosphere, so even after the plant. harvesting and transport emissions, the operation could be net negative. This all depends on how the RNG is used. If it ends up as road fuel there is no way the CO2 can be captured and stored. On the other hand, if it is all used in one location like a gas turbine for power generation or a hydrogen production plant, then capture and storage should be possible. But as far as I know, no carbon capture is operating successfully at a commercial scale anywhere in the world. I may be wrong. If you know different, please let me know. email@example.com"
Let’s talk about a cat. No, not that cat - that's a very fetching picture - this CAT is the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. I went there once and they have these devices where you wind a handle and it tells you about the exhibit in front of you. Turn it one way and it tells you in English. Turn it the other way and it tells you in Welsh. Fascinating. Anyway, if you’ve never been to visit, you can’t at the moment. But you can visit their website where they’ve developed webinars and online activities and training courses. Worth a look. Find it at cat.org.uk.
And very finally,
There’s a report from McKinsey on the need for a Green recovery. You’ll find a link to the article on the blog. It includes cows in face-masks to control the methane they produce. Presumably they won’t get COVID either. Or should the be COWVID? Sorry, I’ve been doing this too long!
And that’s it!
The reason for two episodes again this week is that I have another interview that you’ll hear on Friday and I’ve had all these stories stacking up. I thought if I put them all together the episode would just be too long. Let me know what you think - should the Sustainable Futures Report be longer, or shorter - or is it just right? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org about this and any other ideas. And don’t forget this blog. You'll find that there are several pages of links to the stories I’ve covered this time. The blog is at www.sustainablefutures.report .
So that’s it.
I’m Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There’s another one on Friday, but I’m not making any promises about next week.
How renewable energy could power Britain's economic recovery
Fossil Fuel industry
Sun Shines on Renewables
Britain's largest solar farm poised to begin development in Kent
Dutch engineers build world's biggest sun-seeking solar farm