The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum

Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.

Candidate Literature

The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.

The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!

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How guilty should the West feel about eWaste in Africa?

It’s easy to see pictures of toxic eWaste dumps outside of Accra, Ghana (like the ones below by Michael Ciaglo) and be led into a rich-world guilt trip (like this one on Gizmodo). These are obviously horrible, toxic working conditions, but what exactly leads to them is much less straightforward than the “West dumps toxic waste on Africa” narrative.  The majority of the electronics being “recycled” here came most recently from Africa (yes, they were imported used goods from the developed world, but if you’re running an internet cafe in Accra, and getting Ghanians reading the Wikipedia… you’re probably not going to buy fancy new stuff.)  Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of western eWaste does apparently end up being recycled within the OECD.  See this article by Adam Minter for an overview (and also his global scrap trade blog: Shanghai Scrap).  And for vastly more detail, the Basel Convention’s reports on African eWaste.

Burning Wire

African Hands and eWaste

Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C

A good seminar by Kevin Anderson (former head of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK), exploring the conflicts between our stated goal of keeping global warming under 2°C, and the actual energy and emissions policies that the developed world adopts:

The same basic information, in a peer-reviewed format Beyond “Dangerous” Climate Change: Emissions Scenarios for a New World, in the Transactions of the Royal Society.  Also in a Nature Commentary (paywall).

The basic point he’s making is, the assumptions that are currently going into climate policy discussions are unrealistic, with respect to what’s required to meet a 2°C goal, even 50% of the time.  They require global emissions peaks in 2015 and eventually negative emissions, in order to be able to accommodate the 3-4% annual emissions declines that the economists (which he likes to call astrologers) say is compatible with continued economic growth.  But a global peak in 2015 is at this point outlandish from China or India or Brazil or South Africa’s point of view.  To give them even a tiny bit of breathing room, and treat our historical emissions even somewhat equitably, the developed world has to peak roughly now, and decline at more like 10% per year for decades, and the developing world has to follow our lead shortly thereafter (maybe 2025).

None of this is compatible with exploitation of any unconventional fuels (tar sands, shale gas, etc.).  And, he argues, it also isn’t likely to be compatible with reliance on market based instruments, given that we need to implement drastically non-marginal changes to the economy.

A profile of Freiburg, Germany

A good short profile of the city of Freiburg, Germany, and their many sustainability initiatives. Freiburg is a little more than double Boulder’s size — both in population and area, so it has a similar average population density. It’s also a university town with a strong tech sector locally. The whole city was re-built post WWII, but they chose to build it along the same lines as the old city, with a dense core, and well defined boundaries. Today about half of daily trips are done by foot or on bike, with another 20% on public transit. They have a local energy efficiency finance program, on top of the national one administered by KfW, and higher building efficiency standards than Germany as a whole. Half their electricity comes from combined heat and power facilities that also provide district heating and hot water. It seems like they’d be a good model city to compare Boulder to, and learn from.

Shades of Green

There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion.  I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why.  Who are the people I’m trying to convince?  What camp do opponents imagine I’m in?  Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.

Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by.  Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources.  Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why.  In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change.  The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people.  The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all.  Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it.  The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.

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Carbon dioxide data is not on the world’s dashboard

CO2 Emissions Since 1820
An interactive data visualization, exploring almost 200 years worth of global CO2 emissions, from Gapminder World.

Hans Rosling, world famous Swedish demographer (how many celebrity statisticians are there?) and creator of the Gapminder data visualization tool, offers some thoughts on the importance of timely and transparent reporting of CO2 emissions.  If you’re not familiar with his eye-opening presentations already, check out his several TED Talks on YouTube, or explore two centuries worth of CO2 emissions data visually.

Rosling wants all kinds of public data not only to be easily available, but woven into stories that engage the public:

It’s like that basic rule in nutrition: Food that is not eaten has no nutritional value. Data which is not understood has no value.

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Enhanced Geothermal Systems promise dispatchable zero carbon power

Icelandic Geothermal Power Plant by Scott Ableman at Flickr

Geothermal energy is the Earth’s own internal heat. It’s a huge potential resource, but so far it’s seen only very limited use. Traditional geothermal power can only work where there are naturally existing hydrothermal systems that bring the heat of the interior to the surface. A new technique called enhanced (or engineered) geothermal systems (EGS) may make geothermal power much more widely available. If it can be scaled up commercially, EGS will enable us to create hydrothermal systems anywhere there’s hot rock not too deeply buried — which includes a large swath of Colorado. This is potentially significant in the context of creating a zero-carbon electrical system because like hydroelectricity, and unlike wind and solar, geothermal power can be dispatchable: you can turn it on and off at will. This makes it a great complement to intermittent renewable power, as it can be used to fill in the gaps then the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining.  It remains to be seen whether it’s technically feasible, and if so at what price, and on what timeline, but it’s certainly worth investigating.

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Passive Passion a short film about Germany’s Passivhaus Building Energy Efficiency Standard

A beautifully finished Passivhaus building in Dresden, Germany.  With all the PV on the roof, this is almost certainly a net positive energy building.
A beautifully finished Passivhaus building in Dresden, Germany. With all the PV and solar-thermal on the roof, this is almost certainly a net positive energy building.

Passive Passion is a good 20 minute long film introduction to the German Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, which reduces building energy use by 80-95% (depending on what existing code you compare it to).  It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a few examples from the tens of thousands of Passivhaus certified buildings in Europe, including single family homes, row houses, apartment buildings, public low income housing, and office buildings.  They talk about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation.  The film also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize the cost effective implementation of these methods. It’s clearly possible.  The examples are out there today.  We just have to decide to do it!  If we’re going to get to carbon zero, someday our buildings will all have to function something like this.

The film can be viewed online thanks to the enlightened self interest of Four Seven Five, a high performance building components supplier in New York.

ALEC attacking renewable energy standards nationwide

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is at it again, trying to roll back state renewable energy standards nationwide.  The argument behind their model bill, entitled the Electricity Freedom Act, is that renewable energy is simply too expensive.  The Skeptical Science blog offers a good short debunking of this claim, based on the cost of electricity in states with aggressive renewable energy goals, and how those costs have changed over the last decade.  And this is before any social cost of carbon or other more traditional pollutants is incorporated into the price of fossil fuel based electricity.

US States with renewable portfolio standards or binding goals.

Their summary:

  • States with a larger proportion of renewable electricity generation do not have detectably higher electric rates.
  • Deploying renewable energy sources has not caused electricity prices to increase in those states any faster than in states which continue to rely on fossil fuels.
  • Although renewable sources receive larger direct government subsidies per unit of electricity generation, fossil fuels receive larger net subsidies, and have received far higher total historical subsidies.
  • When including indirect subsidies such as the social cost of carbon via climate change, fossil fuels are far more heavily subsidized than renewable energy.
  • Therefore, transitioning to renewable energy sources, including with renewable electricity standards, has not caused significant electricity rate increases, and overall will likely save money as compared to continuing to rely on fossil fuels, particularly expensive coal.

But really, go read the entire post for more detail.

Doing the Math on Climate Divestment

I just got back from the 350.org Do The Math event in Boulder.  The touring show is an outgrowth of Bill McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone this summer, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  The argument is elegant and horrifying: if we want to keep global temperature from rising more than 2°C, we can emit at most 565 more gigatons of CO2, ever.  Currently, the global fossil fuel industry’s reserves total nearly 2800 gigatons.  That carbon accounts for a substantial fraction of their overall market value, and at least 80% of it must never be extracted.  Ergo, we must necessarily bankrupt pretty much all of them, and soon.  At our present burn rate, we’ll have used up the 565 Gt allowance in about 15 years, taking us well into that part of the map where, as they say, there be dragons.

I get all of the above, and am enthusiastically in support.  However, I’m confused by the logic of McKibben’s suggested first salvo against the industry.  He is promoting a divestment campaign, along the lines of the one aimed at apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.  In this campaign, institutional investors susceptible to moral or public relations arguments — like pension funds, church congregations and university endowments — are being encouraged to purge their portfolios of fossil fuel related securities.  There seems to be widespread confusion as to what this would mean in a purely financial sense to the targeted companies.  Certainly the audience was confused, but I couldn’t tell what McKibben and the other folks on stage really thought.

So, what would happen if a major swath of the world’s institutional investors dumped their fossil fuel stocks?  Presumably, this would depress the industry’s stock prices, by reducing demand.  But would this actually hurt the companies in any way?  The simple answer is no.  Most people I talked to seemed to think that by selling stock, they’d somehow be taking money away from these companies.  That’s just not how stock works.  The only time you’re buying stock from the company itself, and giving it funding, is at the initial public offering (IPO), or, occasionally, in subsequent public financing rounds, where new shares are issued, diluting existing shares.  Institutional investors owning shares of publicly traded companies are trading with other investors, not the company itself.  You can’t go to a company and say “I want my money back” after they’ve issued the stock.  Sometimes companies that are sitting on a mountain of cash will voluntarily buy back their own stock, but this results in the value of remaining outstanding shares appreciating — you’re sharing ownership of the same business over fewer shareholders.  Buybacks are often used as a tax efficient way to return earnings to investors, since dividends are taxed as income, but share price appreciation is taxed as capital gains, and those taxes can be deferred indefinitely.

The stock price of a company that’s in financial trouble goes down, reflecting that financial trouble.  Artificially depressing that company’s stock price doesn’t induce financial trouble.  What would it do?  It would lower the price to earnings (P/E) ratio, which would increase the dividend rate.  It would make the companies with stable underlying businesses more attractive stock purchases, and in a purely financial world, other less morally encumbered investors would buy up all the dumped shares, probably severely limiting any depression of the stock price.

The fact that climate divestment won’t starve the fossil fuels industry of capital doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea.  So what are the other potential consequences of a successful divestment campaign?

Getting churches, universities, pension funds and other institutional investors to divest would decouple their financial interests from those of the fossil fuels industry.  This might make it easier for divested institutions to take strong political stances on climate change.  At the same time, as an individual, unless you have a lot of money invested, or live in a very efficient house and refuse to drive and fly, you’re more tightly bound to the financial interests of these companies via the prices of the fossil fuels you consume, than by the prices of the stocks of the companies that produce them.

If you’re feeling optimistic, getting institutions you care about (or depend on) to divest from the carbon industry might be seen as self-interested.  If we succeed in keeping 80% of the world’s booked fossil fuel reserves in the ground, then all these companies are the walking dead.  Like the hordes of zombie banks created in the financial collapse a few years ago, in a world that rises to meet the climate challenge, they are already bankrupt — they just don’t know it yet.  If you really believe we’re going to succeed, divesting is clearly the right thing to do financially in the medium to long run.

Probably most importantly, the campaign is aimed at branding fossil fuels as a morally repugnant investment, both explicitly and by analogy with the apartheid divestment movement.  In the case of South Africa, it was successfully argued that companies taking advantage of apartheid were benefiting from a form of legalized slavery, and anybody sharing in those profits was, in some part, morally equivalent to a slaveholder.  In the case of the Carbon Lobby we’re not slaveholders, we’re waging a war on the future.  This is particularly ironic in the case of university endowments, which support the education of young people, who will live further into that war-torn future than the rest of us, and pension funds that ostensibly work to ensure we are supported in our old age, as much as 50 years hence.

Morally repugnant industries are often allowed to operate, but their political influence becomes diminished and expensive.  Unless you’re actually representing a tobacco growing district, it’s tough to stand up publicly these days as a politician and rub shoulders with tobacco companies.  Their veneer of respectability has been peeled away.  This has made advertizing restrictions and smoking bans and hefty sin taxes politically possible.  If fossil fuel extraction were broadly accepted as a repugnant transaction, would it remain politically feasible to continue spending  five times as much on fossil fuel subsidies as we do on climate mitigation?

In the case of the technology driven oil and gas development and exploration, one might hope that a successful re-branding of the carbon industries as repugnant dinosaurs waging a war on the future would make it more difficult for these companies to recruit young technologically savvy talent, at any price.  Will petroleum and coal mining engineers one day feel unable to mention their work, for fear of public shaming?

This shift in our cultural norms about whether releasing geologically sequestered carbon is morally defensible is necessary, I think, but like virtually all climate campaigns it is not alone sufficient.  Especially in the energy-intensive developed economies, shaming and shunning the fossil fuel industry must also involve some amount of self-flagellation today.  It runs the risk of guilt-tripping people whenever they buy gas or fly, or leave the coal-fired lights on in the kitchen overnight.  That guilt can induce people to tune out, if they don’t feel like they have any alternative to their “bad” behavior.

We need to aggressively create those alternatives by creating paths to high-renewable penetration electricity, building cities for people that don’t depend on cars, inter-city high-speed rail that doesn’t suck, re-solarizing our agricultural systems, requiring the highest possible building energy efficiency, and mandating closed-loop zero-waste materials systems whenever they’re possible.  We also need to make sure we brand the fossil fuel industry as other.  We need a Them.  They take hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies every year.  They fund disinformation campaigns on climate.  They spend half a million dollars a day lobbying congress.  They are the problem, preventing necessary change, preventing us from adopting systems that don’t wage war on the future.  This otherness can forestall that feeling of short-term guilt.

This may sound like irresponsible heresy in the face of a tidal wave of consumer green marketing.  However, the vast majority of our emissions and resource utilization are systemically determined, and are not susceptible to significant change through personal choices alone.  Those necessary systemic changes are being blocked in large part by industry lobbying and disinformation.  In that arena of systemic change, which is what matters most, it really is Us vs. Them.