Blog: Climate

December 6, 2010
Climate, Energy Efficiency - climate change, energy efficiency
Solarize Portland has tripled the number of PV installations since 2008.

Community action on resource efficiency is an essential element of achieving a low-carbon, sustainable human relationship with the planet. This November, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting on behalf of the California Sustainability Alliance at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) conference convened by Stanford University, the California Institute for Energy and Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, where I received first-hand accounts of a wide range of exciting ideas and programs being implemented in communities across the United States.

One of these presentations was given by Sue Jamison, Residential Marketing Manager at Energy Trust of Oregon, a non-profit organization funded by Oregon energy consumers to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy across the state. Jamison’s presentation was on Solarize Portland, an innovative, community-driven program launched in 2009 to increase residential solar adoption in Southeast Portland.

Despite Portland’s deserved reputation as an environmentally-minded city, in 2008 the city was lagging in residential PV installations—just 38 were installed that year compared with 168 in San Francisco. In fact, Energy Trust had observed through its own programs that the perceived interest in residential solar did not match up with installations. Through non-profit marketing agency SmartPower, which conducted a study on market barriers in Oregon, Energy Trust found that the main issues for residential customers were upfront costs, the wide range of price quotes from contractors, and the buyer fatigue associated with a complicated, and often protracted, process of picking equipment and getting it installed.

Solarize Portland came into being as a partnership between Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition (SE Uplift) and Energy Trust, with the goal of getting more solar panels on Portland homes by addressing the key barriers identified by SmartPower. So how did this work? Several core elements created a simple, unique, and highly effective program:

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July 15, 2010
Built Environment, Climate, Corporate Sustainability, Water Energy - green business

The California Sustainability Alliance is pleased to share with you an exciting opportunity for cleantech startups, IBM’s SmartCamp Silicon Valley.

The event, to be held on September 8th and 9th, will bring together entrepreneurs, investors, and experienced mentors who want to build a Smarter Planet. Focused on helping society become more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, SmartCamp will provide five selected startups with world-class mentorship and a direct route to seed and venture capital. The winner will receive a three month mentorship with IBM and an invitation to the international SmartCamp finals in Ireland on November 15th. Applications are due before August 8th, at http://ibm.com/ie/smarterplanet/smartcamp.

The Alliance will be participating in the event, and we can’t wait to hear all of your great ideas! In the meantime, tell us – what kind of technologies would you like to see to make our planet smarter? What cleantech startups are you most excited about?

February 2, 2010
Built Environment, Climate - climate change, federal action on climate change, green building

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has for the first time released guidelines for public companies that define the extent of the disclosures they should make relating to the issue of climate change. This is good news for investors, who rely on comprehensive and accurate information to make their investment decisions. Institutional investors, such as pension funds, have been active in lobbying the SEC to tighten the rules about what a company needs to report when it comes to the risks and opportunities relating to climate change. Groups active in the disclosure debate include the Environmental Defense Fund and CERES. In June 2009, the Investor Network on Climate Risk petitioned the SEC to issue guidance outlining climate-related 'material risks' - such as new regulations, physical impacts, new economic and business opportunities and other climate-related trends - that companies should be disclosing to investors. According to the SEC's news release, the interpretative guidance highlights four areas as examples of where climate change may trigger disclosure requirements:

  • Impact of Legislation and Regulation: When assessing potential disclosure obligations, a company should consider whether the impact of certain existing laws and regulations regarding climate change is material. In certain circumstances, a company should also evaluate the potential impact of pending legislation and regulation related to this topic.
  • Impact of International Accords: A company should consider, and disclose when material, the risks or effects on its business of international accords and treaties relating to climate change.
  • Indirect Consequences of Regulation or Business Trends: Legal, technological, political and scientific developments regarding climate change may create new opportunities or risks for companies. For instance, a company may face decreased demand for goods that produce significant greenhouse gas emissions or increased demand for goods that result in lower emissions than competing products. As such, a company should consider, for disclosure purposes, the actual or potential indirect consequences it may face due to climate change related regulatory or business trends.
  • Physical Impacts of Climate Change: Companies should also evaluate for disclosure purposes the actual and potential material impacts of environmental matters on their business.

As the New York Times reports, the new guidelines were welcomed by pension funds and other large institutional money managers:

“We’re glad the S.E.C. is stepping up to the plate to protect investors,” said Anne Stausboll, chief executive of the California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation’s largest public pension fund and one of the parties that petitioned for the guidance. “Ensuring that investors are getting timely, material information on climate-related impacts, including regulatory and physical impacts, is absolutely essential. Investors have a fundamental right to know which companies are well positioned for the future and which are not.”

In the commercial real estate world, the SEC ruling may provide the impetus for public real estate companies to take seriously the measurement and reporting of energy efficiency and other measures of the sustainability of their real estate holdings. Pension funds are likely to lead the way in pushing for such disclosures from real estate companies with which they undertake joint ventures, as well as from the REITs whose shares they own. Is it only a matter of time before the issuance of a “Sustainability Report” is as commonplace for real estate companies as the annual financial report is today?

December 13, 2009
Climate - climate change, GHG emissions, global action on climate change, global warming
Wind turbines in Copenhagen

Copenhagen, December 13, 2009 - I am writing this early Sunday morning as my flight arches across the North Sea and begins a slow descent over the Danish Archipelago. It is clear day and the sun is catching the graceful rotations of hundreds if not thousands of windmills that dot the Danish countryside. I am headed to Copenhagen to attend the climate meetings there this week, and as the plane begins its final approach I am thinking about how my journey from Toronto to Copenhagen really began over twenty years ago.

Climate change first burst on the international agenda in the sweltering summer of 1988. Throughout the 1980’s there had been a growing sense of concern among climatologists (scientists who study the physical and chemical processes in that thin layer of life-giving gas that surrounds our planet) that human activities were altering the atmosphere in potentially dangerous ways. In June of 1988 Canada hosted the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere which brought together climate scientists, energy experts, policy makers and others from around the world to address the problem. I had been working on energy and environment issues for over ten years by then, and the Canadian government asked me if I would organize the energy workshop for the Toronto conference.

Already by 1988 the case for human-induced climate change was strong. The greenhouse effect itself had been understood since the 19th century and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere was clearly on the rise. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion were double the level that the ecosphere could absorb, and the surplus was accumulating in the atmosphere. This in turn was enhancing the natural greenhouse effect, and the result would be an increase in the average global temperature. The theory was sound and well established, but in 1988 the signal – the actual increase in global average temperature – was difficult to detect amidst the natural temperature variations.

If the consequence of climate disruption were not so serious, a “wait and see” attitude might have been justified in 1988, but therein lies one of the central dilemmas of this issue. Increases in greenhouses gases today continue to affect climate for decades and even centuries into the future. Every day we continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions at current rates or higher, we lock into place the long term consequences of those emissions. And the consequences of upsetting the global climate system go far beyond simple warming. It’s not unlike the fever we get when suffering from the ‘flu; the average global temperature increase is a symptom of deeper problems. By the time the global atmosphere is running a fever of even one or two degrees Celsius, it represents a significant destabilization of the planetary climate system and anything that is connected to it. And everything is connected to it, including us.

This is where the “precautionary principle” comes into the picture.The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the environment, then in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. Unless and until such proof can be provided, the action should not be taken. The case of human-induced climate change is clearly such an action. Simply put, we should not risk upsetting the global climate system – the stakes are too high. The precautionary principle was clearly at work in the final statement of the Toronto Conference in 1988 which began with the stark warning that "humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.” The statement went on to endorse emission reduction targets that had been worked out in the energy workshop, calling for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and for immediate actions to reduce global emissions by 20% by the year 2005.

The 20% target became known around the world as “the Toronto target” and it began a profound rethinking of the way we use energy that continues to this day. In the next few years, an international treaty on climate change was drafted, signed and ratified by most of the nations of the world, agreeing that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases must not be allowed to reach dangerous levels. In recognition of the fact that most of the historical increase in greenhouse gas concentrations from fossil fuel combustion was the result of activities in the rich, industrial economies, it was also agreed in the treaty that the onus was on those countries to take the lead in financing and deploying the technologies and solutions for reducing emissions.

By the time we got to Kyoto in December of 1997, individual national targets and timetables were agreed to that specified the emission reductions each of the rich, industrial countries would achieve by 2012. In fact, the targets agreed to in Kyoto fell far short of what everyone knew would be required to stop climate change, but politically they were all that was possible. Even so, the United States Congress would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, pointing to the futility of reducing emissions in the rich countries while emissions from the developing world continued to grow exponentially. Some countries, like Canada, ratified the Protocol but failed to follow through with the policies and actions that would have been necessary to meet their targets. Other countries, particularly in Europe, went to work developing the policies, regulations and energy efficiency and renewable energy industries that could get the job done, and will meet their Kyoto commitments. Hence the windmills in the Danish countryside.

But the bottom line is that global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, the precautionary principle has not prevailed, and human-induced global warming has moved from a dire warning to a clearly evident and measurable reality. Without the early and active engagement of the United States, Canada and some other industrial countries, and with the double digit economic growth rates that have prevailed in China and other emerging economies, fossil fuel burning has continued to drive up the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are now irreversibly committed to continued global warming for most of this century, even with the recent reversal of U.S. policy and even if we can achieve a global acceleration of efficiency and renewable energy technology on an unprecedented scale.

That is the situation as the world gathers in Copenhagen this week, and the mood on the ground is tense. Thousands of young people are here, many of them angry, frustrated and bitter at the failure of their elders to take effective actions, to lead. That frustration extends to many of the official delegations from the poorest nations of the world, for whom the impacts of global warming will be most severe, and for whom a fossil fuel driven rise out of poverty seems to be a vanishing option. At the same time, it is more clear than ever that future growth in greenhouse gas emissions will be driven largely by China and other large developing countries, and that they are key to any viable solution for avoiding global warming beyond what is already locked and loaded into the atmosphere from historical emissions and the inadequate responses of the past twenty years.

But, at least we are talking, and there seems to be an understanding of the gravity and the urgency of the choices we face that is greater than I have experienced at previous gatherings of this type. Heads of state will start arriving here over the next few days, including President Obama, and they don’t like to come home empty-handed from such high profile negotiations. It has been a long and winding road from Toronto to Copenhagen, but we will make a choice this week where we go next.

There are circumstances when a “wait and see” attitude is the appropriate response. This isn’t one of them.

October 8, 2008
Climate - clean energy, climate change, federal action on climate change, GHG emissions, global warming, green business

This has been a busy week for climate change activity in the U.S. Here are three stories that struck me as particularly interesting:

Debate Commences on Senate Climate Legislation. The Kerry Boxer bill enters the ring, weighing in at over 800 pages (much of taken from the earlier Waxman Markey bill that passed the House in June), this is the bill that will define America’s response to climate change. Climate policy advocates swarmed the bill as soon as it was released and positions and alliances were already starting to form this week. The emission reduction target has been increased from 17% to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, the provision for the use of international offsets has been cut back, and a ceiling on carbon price has been proposed. Interestingly, there appears to be relatively strong support in the business community for this bill, but there will be a difficult path to passage. The world community convenes in Copenhagen in December to address the increasingly worrisome warnings that dangerous climate change is closer than had been hoped. Virtually nobody expects the bill to pass before the Copenhagen meeting, but the tenor of the US debate between now and then will go a long way to determining the outcome. Watch for more on this story, much more, in the weeks ahead.

Coming to a Post Office Near You! Perhaps realizing that in the absence of a climate law the administration will have to demonstrate its commitment to greenhouse gas reduction in other ways, President Obama issued an Executive Order this week calling for a 20% reduction in GHG emissions from government operations, and federal agencies have just 90 days to show how they will do it. This is a sleeper. The federal government owns 500,000 buildings and is a significant purchaser of just about everything that uses energy. If the government delivers on these targets it will cause a significant shot in the arm to the US efficiency, renewable energy and recycling industries, and it will have wide ranging repercussions for supply chains everywhere.

PG&E Quits U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest over its position on climate change. The PG&E blog entry announcing the move, entitled “Irreconcilable Differences”, makes for interesting reading. This is a sign of the times if there ever was one. Those of you who were around in the early days of the climate change policy debate will remember how rare it was to find any business support for action on global warming. That has changed in the last few years as the inevitability of an energy transformation has become apparent, and as astute members of the business community begin to appreciate the upside to climate change policy. American business is waking up to the enormity of the clean energy opportunity, and not a moment too soon.