Carbon Emissions Calculators and Ways to Improve Your Score

Last week, I looked at a new NYC law that lays out a mandated schedule for buildings larger than 25,000ft2 to reduce their carbon footprints. I also gave an example of an exercise that I give my students, which shows how to calculate your own energy use and carbon footprint and correlate them with the emissions of larger groups of students, NYC, the US, and the world. I mentioned that a previous law had already mandated buildings declare their carbon footprints to the City—calculated on the basis of their energy use. The new law includes heavy fines for non-compliance, so—while I may teach how to estimate our carbon footprints based on first principles—the important part is how the City counts those emissions.

A special NYC site that contains more information on the new law condenses this issue into one important question, which gives us a look at their method of quantification: How much carbon comes from each type of energy?

The building emissions law sets specific emissions factors for the 2024-2029 limits. It also requires that emissions factors applicable for the 2030 limits be set by rule no later than January 1, 2023.

For the 2024-2029 limits, the law sets electricity as the most carbon-intensive energy source per unit of on-site energy. These coefficients, except for district steam, align with the coefficients used in the EPA’s Portfolio Manager and the EPA eGRID 2016 coefficients, shown in the table below:

Owners will also have the option to calculate electricity carbon intensity based on time of use. Further details will be specified in Department of Buildings rules.

The practice of correlating the connection between energy use and carbon footprints  provides a good starting place for my students, as they calculate these carbon intensity factors from the chemical composition and the nature of the delivered energy.

Imagine that you want a quick way to find your own carbon footprint and some quantitative recipes and suggestions for how to reduce it with as little “suffering” as possible. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) website provides carbon footprint calculators, which are a good place to start.

Example of a simple online carbon-footprint calculator

Meanwhile, the ENERGY STAR site provides some of the most extensive and recognizable information regarding how you can limit your carbon footprint without sacrificing the conveniences that enrich modern life:

ENERGY STAR® is the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency, providing simple, credible, and unbiased information that consumers and businesses rely on to make well-informed decisions. Thousands of industrial, commercial, utility, state, and local organizations—including nearly 40% of the Fortune 500®—partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to deliver cost-saving energy efficiency solutions that protect the climate while improving air quality and protecting public health. Since 1992, ENERGY STAR and its partners have helped American families and businesses save 5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, avoid more than $450 billion in energy costs, and achieve 4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions. Over the lifetime of the program, every dollar EPA has spent on ENERGY STAR resulted in $350 in energy cost savings for American business and households. In 2019 alone, ENERGY STAR and its partners helped Americans save nearly 500 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and avoid $39 billion in energy costs.

One section in my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now | Momentum Press) is called, “Trivialities Add Up.” It details the energy involved in the flashing clocks on VCRs (the book came out in 2011), making ice,jj and appliances that stay plugged in for immediate access. The TV that I discuss there draws 40 watts of electricity. I estimate that, as of 2011, the US spent around 9.8×1010 kWh/year on electricity for this particular “luxury.”

My campus moved all classes online in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and our plans for the coming fall semester are still uncertain. Our campus is not completely empty of students but it is close; most have shifted to using their internet at home. Last summer (July 7, 2020), I described my students’ efforts to compare energy use before and during NYC’s lockdown to evaluate the school’s normal student-dependent energy use. The effort continues. One important aspect of this study has been locating network-connected electronic appliances that never turn off completely. Not surprisingly, there are many of them.

The two sites below describe energy use of many of these gadgets

Energy Use Calculator

Hopefully, in the near future (before the campus returns to in-person learning), we will be able to analyze the cost of at least leaving these gadgets in some sort of hibernation using the “Kill A Watt” power meter.

Let’s assume that an average individual private office space is 200ft2 in size, with one desktop computer rated at 200 watts—or 5 watts on “standby” or “sleep” mode. Given the pandemic, no one has visited this office or touched this particular computer for more than a year. If we calculate the energy this computer is using while left on standby, we see that we are wasting 0.005 kw*360*24 = 43 kWh of energy over that one-year period. Using the carbon intensity factors of electricity shown in the beginning of the blog, we can convert this energy waste into the idle computer’s carbon footprint for the year:

(0.08469 kg CO2/kbtu)*(3.412 kbtu/kWh)*43 = 12.4 kg CO2.

If we want to know by square foot, 12.4 kg CO2/ 200 ft2 = 0.062 kg CO2/ft2. This amount composes 1.5% of the emissions we will allow by 2024 (see last week’s blog). This may seem like a small amount but it serves nobody! While it is certainly better than leaving the computer running at full capacity the whole time, perhaps we can find an option for turning it off completely if no one is expected to use it for months at a time.

You can find much larger savings by following some of the suggestions provided in the following two sites:

Bob Vila

You turn off lights when you leave a room, combine errands to stretch a tank of gas, and run only full loads in your dishwasher. Yet even if you’re following the basics of home energy conservation, whether to save the earth or just save some cash, there’s still more you could be doing. In fact, chances are you still have a few bad energy habits that are leading to higher utility costs…

All those electronic gizmos that make modern life so convenient have a downside: They quietly suck energy even when not in use. Indeed, these so-called “vampire” or “ghost loads”—reflected in every small, unblinking red or blue light on your home electronics—may account for up to 10 percent of total energy use in a typical household. The most common culprits include cordless telephones, answering machines, computers, printers, televisions, and cable boxes. Turn them off or unplug them when not in use to save precious energy—and dollars.


Heat Follows Cold
If it’s 98 degrees outside but (thanks to central air conditioning) a comfy 72 degrees inside your house — and you open a window, the heat from outside will jump right in through the window and keep jumping in until it’s just as hot inside as it is outside. Like water, heat constantly seeks equilibrium; heat moves to cold until everything is the same temperature.

Since you probably spend much of your summertime reminding the kids not to leave the doors open, you already know that opening a window when the AC is on is a dumb thing to do (unless you have an evaporative cooler, discussed below). But open windows and doors are just the largest and most obvious avenues for mingling indoor and outdoor temperatures. The smaller avenues, like gaps around light fixtures in your ceiling, are much less obvious and usually ignored, yet these are often the ones that matter the most.

There are a lot of little things that we could all do to save both energy and money. I will expand later on the issue of using energy-specific carbon intensity factors to calculate carbon footprints.

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From Commitments to Penalties: Measuring Carbon Emissions

  carbon footprintSince President Biden’s inauguration, I have looked a lot at carbon emissions and what we are doing to minimize them. As an educator and a New York City resident, I am especially invested in this change. Not only do I teach about climate change but New York has passed a new law that mandates a reduction in carbon emissions in the coming years.

Until now, I have looked a lot at promises—at multiple levels—to convert to a carbon-free life and economy by mid-century. In most cases, these promises have lacked any provisions for enforcement, meaning I have treated them with a high degree of skepticism. Those instances that do include such measures have attracted a great deal of attention, including my own. One such example is New York City and State, whose new, concrete legislation has a significant enforcement component. NYC requires that all buildings larger than 25,000ft2 have carbon emissions limits. The legislation includes the methodology for finding and reporting carbon emissions, as well as the timeline and penalties for noncompliance. The methodology is based on the types and quantities of energy used by the building. To convert energy use to the law’s carbon emissions targets, you need to use “carbon intensity factors” (which I will explain in a future blog). Each energy source needs to be analyzed individually, as their carbon intensity factors can change, depending on their chemical composition. Of course, once the electrical grids are fully converted to carbon-free electric power (The Biden administration’s target is 2035), these restrictions will no longer be needed. Instead, facilities will need to be competitive on price and resiliency levels.

Calculating carbon footprints consistently is essential for instituting policies on any level but it can also be very difficult. I have all of my students try it so they have a better understanding. Here are some examples with global implications:

  • Measurements vs. calculation of carbon footprints during the COVID-19 pandemic (see my April 13, 2021 blog).
  • Critical adjustment of land mitigation pathways for assessing countries’ climate progress. This assessment was required to evaluate the global impact of all the commitments made by the signatories to the Paris Agreement. It also provided the baseline for adjustments to those commitments to better achieve the goal of reducing the increase of global temperature to below 2o. In the process, the authors found a large discrepancy in calculating carbon capture through adjustment of land use. Many countries and companies rely on forests to offset their emissions by using a cap-and-trade process but there is no set standard for measuring just how much carbon the forests catch, meaning that the calculations can vary widely.

As for New York City, the new emissions law is really interesting:

New York City’s Local Law 97 (Carbon Emissions Bill)  

What does it require and when?

Local Law 97 sets detailed requirements for two initial compliance periods: 2024-2029 and 2030-2034 and requires the City to clarify the requirements for future periods through 2050. Buildings over 25,000 gross square feet must meet annual whole-building carbon intensity limits during each compliance period based on building type or prorated for mixed-use buildings. Certain building types including city-owned buildings, affordable housing, hospitals and houses of worship will have alternative compliance options if they cannot hit the carbon intensity limits. To comply, building owners must submit an emissions intensity report stamped by a registered design professional every year starting in 2025 or pay substantial fines.

Table 1 – Carbon emissions intensity limits by building/space type

What happens if I don’t comply?

The City has set steep fines for buildings that do not comply. Buildings must pay $268 per metric ton that their carbon footprint exceeds the limit, annually.  There are also fines for not submitting a report and for submitting a false report.

How does my building emit carbon?

At first glance many may ask how does a building even emit carbon dioxide? Does one need to bring some “carbon meter” to the building to measure carbon emissions.  As most of you know, that is not how building-based carbon emissions are measured.

Carbon emissions, or the “carbon footprint” of a building is measured by totaling the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere during the production of the energy that is consumed by a building to heat, cool, light and power the activities of its occupants.  These emissions are typically the result of fuel combustion and can occur on-site as a result of an oil or gas boiler or off-site at a power plant that burns natural gas to generate electricity. The carbon emissions intensity limits set by Local Law 97 include onsite and offsite emissions in a single limit so reductions in lighting, heating, cooling and plug loads all contribute to reaching the goals.

How do I measure my building’s carbon intensity and know if it’s in compliance?

This is actually more complicated than you would think.  The US EPA’s free Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool is a good place to start.  All buildings over 25,000 square feet should have submitted their Energy Star Benchmarking data to the City by May 1, 2019 for Local Law 84 compliance. Energy Star Portfolio Manager, the tool required by the City for building owners to store and submit energy data for LL84, is able to convert a building’s energy use into carbon emissions.  However, it should be noted that the emissions displayed in Energy Star is slightly different from how it will be measured by Local Law 97, but it is a good starting place to see how your building compares to the 2024 and 2030 limits. Just make sure you are using the same units. Energy Star typically displays emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (KgCO2e) and the law lists the limits in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2e).

Once you’ve found your total carbon emissions in Portfolio Manager, you’ll need to calculate your carbon emissions limit to find out if you comply or not. To calculate your emissions limit, find your type of building in the table above and multiply the limit by the gross square footage of your building. This is the carbon emissions limit for each compliance period. If your total is higher than the limit, you are not in compliance. To calculate your annual fine, first convert your building’s carbon footprint from Kg to metric tons by dividing by 1,000, then multiply the difference between the limit and your actual carbon footprint by $268.  If this sounds too complicated, call an expert like CodeGreen for help.

The new law builds on a law from 2019 (Local Law 84) that already requires buildings to submit information about their energy use, as well as their carbon footprint. The City can then determine whether it meets the standards set in Table 1. These submissions must be signed by a registered design professional and failure to achieve those standards by the set time will result in heavy fines.

The law recognizes that everybody is on a learning curve in this process so it strongly advises flexibility in accommodating this fact as the planning and energy-saving attempts begin.

Below, I describe a simpler process that gives my students the sense of an energy audit and a way to understand carbon footprints. In this case, I am not using carbon intensity factors for exact numbers, but, instead, looking at the simplified chemical reactions of each of the energy sources. I often give this version to students who have never studied chemistry. This kind of exercise gives the students an important connection to their calculations—one that demonstrates the origins of the carbon intensity factors, which can otherwise seem arbitrary.

Individual and collective energy audit and carbon footprint calculation

Energy audits and carbon footprints are common assignments in all levels of my energy courses. Here’s an example:

The individual audit is based on the following categories: food, heating, electricity use, cooking, water heating, and transportation. They track the caloric values of their food and use their energy and gas bills to find data on electricity, natural gas, oil, and gasoline, all expressed in units of Cal/person-day. (Students can use btu instead of calories, as long as their units are consistent throughout the project.) Students must calculate the total amount of energy they have used, by which they calculate the carbon emissions of their energy source.

I have made some simplifications in these calculations. We assume that:

  • All food consists of the simple sugar glucose
  • Natural gas consists of pure methane
  • Electricity is powered by burning natural gas at 30% efficiency
  • Public transportation produces no carbon emissions

Since air conditioner and heating use are seasonal, students are asked to average winter and summer bills. I also provide all relevant chemical equations and explain how to read and use them.

One group consisted of four students with various backgrounds. Two of them occasionally use a car for transport; the others do not. The carbon footprints of the four students, in units of kg/(person-day), came out to be 15.9, 13.1, 9.4, and 5.1, respectively, meaning the average was 10.9 kg/(person-day). The standard deviation, calculating from the sum of the squares of the differences between the individual carbon footprints and the average, divided by the number of students:

standard deviation

The standard deviation came out to 4kg/person-day. In other words, the “standard” notation for the average carbon footprint of this group came out to 10.9 ± 4 kg/(person-day), of carbon dioxide.

The students also calculated the average energy use and carbon footprints of NYC, the US, and the world as a whole, using data from published sources. These came out to:

NYC = 16.7kg/person-day

US = 51.9 kg/person-day

Globally = 11kg/person-day

We discussed the possible differences in these numbers but it was rewarding to see how the group’s average coincided with the global average.

The City’s law relies heavily on the US EPA (Environmental Protection Administration) calculations of energy use and carbon footprints. This is known as the STAR program. Next week, I will expand upon this program and on various suggested ways to minimize both energy use and the associated carbon footprint.

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The First One Hundred Days

President Biden has now been in office for 98 days. We look at the first 100 days as an important marker of a president’s accomplishments:

The 100-days concept is believed to have its roots in France, where the concept of “Cent Jours” (Hundred Days) refers to the period of 1815 between Napoleon Bonaparte’s return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, after which King Louis XVIII regained the French throne.

When did the first 100 days become a key benchmark for a U.S. presidential administration?
In the United States, no one talked that much about the importance of a president’s first 100 days—until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. He took swift action to calm the nation’s crippling financial panic (cue the Emergency Banking Act and the “fireside chats” that became Roosevelt’s signature) and began rolling out the programs that made up his New Deal, including 15 major pieces of legislation in the first 100 days. FDR’s extraordinary productivity translated into enormous popularity, and he set a first 100-day standard against which all future U.S. presidents would (perhaps unfairly) be measured.

Well, Napoleon’s first 100 days was a period of intense activity and Roosevelt used his to work with Congress to bring an end to the Great Depression. Both of these historic examples are well documented, and we know what happened next in each instance. In this case, however, we have no idea what will follow.

President Biden focused his first 100 days on trying to tackle the same set of interrelated problems that I illustrated in a Venn diagram in my August 4, 2020 post. These include COVID-19, climate change, population growth, jobs, and equity. As we’ve seen from this latest transition of power, any lasting change will have to come in the form of legislation—a difficult proposition right now. The political landscape required to address any one of these issues is challenging, to say the least, and especially so in this intensely polarized time. To his credit, President Biden has already started to take on each of these topics: he has suggested increases in progressive taxes to fund remedies for inequities, he has met the job crisis with climate- and infrastructure-related job creation; he is updating immigration policies to address populations (in and out of the US), and, obviously, his team is working very hard on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, since Inauguration Day, I have focused primarily on climate change. Earth Day comes toward the end of a president’s first 100 days and President Biden took the occasion to signal his administration’s commitment to climate action. In a move to regain world leadership of climate change mitigation and adaptation, he (virtually) convened a group of world leaders and asked them to not only renew but upgrade their Paris Agreement commitments. He called for leaders to lower their countries’ carbon (and carbon equivalent) emissions in the coming years and to indicate what specific steps they are taking now toward those new commitments.

President Biden wanted this summit to occur ahead of the COP26 UN conference that is scheduled for November 1-12 this year in Glasgow, Scotland. COVID-19 is still striking almost everywhere, so we don’t know yet whether it will be held virtually or in person. Originally, that meeting was supposed to mark the updating of the Paris Agreement commitments but President Biden clearly wanted to reestablish America’s participation in and leadership of the Paris Agreement framework. Many of the countries were happy to have the US back (although some of them remained a bit skeptical):

President Joe Biden brought the U.S. back into the global fight against climate change on Thursday, pledging at an international summit he convened to halve emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030 and double climate aid to developing nations.

Poor countries made clear at the summit that they expect money from wealthier nations in exchange for accelerating their own efforts to curb warming, while China and India stuck to plans to continue growing their own carbon emissions before making any cuts, dismaying environmentalists who say the world remains on course toward catastrophe.

Biden announced in opening remarks for the two-day summit that the U.S. will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 50%-52% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade — significantly boosting a commitment made under former President Barack Obama that was scrapped by former President Donald Trump.

Of course, the hardest part comes after the two-day meeting:

President Biden’s summit meeting on climate change ended on Friday with the United States promising to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and help other countries do the same. But the real test will be Washington’s ability to steer the rest of the world toward cleaner energy fast enough to avert catastrophe.

The limits of America’s influence were clear. Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia made no new pledges to cut down on oil, gas or coal. Some countries said that they were being asked for sacrifices even though they had contributed little to the problem, and that they needed money to cope.

Away from the summit, the Chinese foreign minister demonstrated the difficulties the Biden administration faces in working with the country most crucial to lowering global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the new administration made it clear that it can back up its new commitments—both with executive orders and control over mechanisms that can distribute billions of dollars toward climate change mitigation and adaptation:

WASHINGTON — Federal officials, showing how rapidly the Biden administration is overhauling climate policy after years of denial under former President Donald J. Trump, aim to free up as much as $10 billion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect against climate disasters before they strike.

The agency, best known for responding to hurricanes, floods and wildfires, wants to spend the money to pre-emptively protect against damage by building seawalls, elevating or relocating flood-prone homes and taking other steps as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters.

The president has signed an extensive set of related executive orders:

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday signed a sweeping series of executive actions — ranging from pausing new federal oil leases to electrifying the government’s vast fleet of vehicles — while casting the moves as much about job creation as the climate crisis.

Mr. Biden said his directives would reserve 30 percent of federal land and water for conservation purposes, make climate policy central to national security decisions and build out a network of electric-car charging stations nationwide.

President Biden used the Earth Day summit to encourage new commitments but the results were mixed:

This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Biden, a Democrat, said at the White House.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the new U.S. goal “game changing” as two other countries made new pledges.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who visited Biden at the White House this month, raised Japan’s target for cutting emissions to 46% by 2030, up from 26%. Environmentalists wanted a pledge of at least 50% while Japan’s powerful business lobby has pushed for national policies that favor coal.

Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, raised his country’s goal to a cut of 40%-45% by 2030 below 2005 levels, up from 30%.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro announced his most ambitious environmental goal yet, saying the country would reach emissions neutrality by 2050, 10 years earlier than the previous goal.

For instance, some of the media coverage bordered on sarcasm when covering the commitments of China, Russia, and Brazil:

Xi also announced that China will start to phase down its use of coal in 2025 and “strictly limit” the increase of the most carbon intensive fossil fuel for the next few years. He also said the country would “strictly control” coal-fired power plant projects.

But in his remarks to the summit, Bolsonaro highlighted the country’s recent pledge to end deforestation by 2030, and alluded to a desire for international aid to help the country do so.

“There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes, to the planet at large, as a way to recognize the economic nature of environmental conservation activities,” he said.

The Russian leader said that initiatives by Russia would set it up to become carbon neutral “as soon as by 2025.”

“I would like to reiterate that Russia is genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation … to look further for effective solutions to climate change, as well as to other vital global challenges,” he said.

Contradicting these announcements, Mr. Bolsonaro significantly reduced Brazil’s environmental budget only a day after the Earth Day conference, a move that devastates any hope of follow-through on these new commitments. According to Congressman Rodrigo Agostinho, leader of the environmental caucus in Brazil’s Congress, “After years of ever tighter budgets, the latest cuts threaten to completely paralyze environmental agencies.”

To be fair, Prime Minister Modi, President Bolsonaro, and other leaders of developing countries probably have other things on their minds than what some may see as a virtual US photo opportunity. We are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic. On Saturday, the headline story in the NYT print edition focused on COVID-19’s dire impacts on Brazil and its digital and Sunday print editions added similar information about the situation in India. Hopefully, the upcoming COP26 will feature a more complete set of written, updated global recommitments.

One good thing that has come from these activities is that they have sparked a conversation about the shape that the world might take as a result of increased commitments to reduced fossil fuel consumption. In the US, for example:

In several recent studies, researchers have explored what a future America might look like if it wants to achieve Mr. Biden’s new climate goal: Cutting the nation’s planet-warming emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

By the end of the decade, those studies suggest, more than half of the new cars and S.U.V.s sold at dealerships would need to be powered by electricity, not gasoline. Nearly all coal-fired power plants would need to be shut down. Forests would need to expand. The number of wind turbines and solar panels dotting the nation’s landscape could quadruple.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, it will take a lot of patience to convert these discussions and suggestions into lasting legislation. The Republicans’ only official response to the American Jobs Plan so far has come in the form of a plan that quarters the budget—it dedicates most of that money to fixing roads and bridges, and completely ignores the other issues that I included in my Venn diagram. Traditional infrastructure is not inherently a bad thing to spend money on—it just doesn’t address the larger network of problems:

U.S. Senate Republicans on Thursday proposed a $568 billion, five-year infrastructure package as a counteroffer to President Joe Biden’s sweeping $2.3 trillion plan, calling their measure a good-faith effort toward bipartisan negotiations.

The proposal, which falls below even the range of $600 billion to $800 billion that Republicans floated earlier in the week, focuses narrowly on traditional infrastructure projects and broadband access.

The Republican plan would not result in higher taxes but be fully paid for with user fees on electric vehicles and other items, unspent federal funds and possible contributions from state and local governments.

Keep safe and stay tuned.

Posted in administration, Biden, Climate Change, coronavirus, Sustainability, US | 1 Comment

Earth Day 2021

Earth Day, birthday

Earth Day is in two days. It’s a big day. Among other distinctions, it is both my wife’s birthday and that of this blog (this is now 9 years!). From a climate change perspective, this year’s celebration is special because we are less than three months out of an administration that denied and ignored the existence of and our contributions to the phenomenon. In contrast, the new administration considers climate change one of its most important challenges. For his first Earth Day in office, President Biden has demonstrated this by inviting 40 heads of state to a (virtual) meeting to outline a joint commitment to renewed global climate change mitigation efforts.

The key items for discussion are:

  • Galvanizing efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions during this critical decade to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.
  • Mobilizing public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts. 
  • The economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation, and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.
  • Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, while also creating enormous new economic opportunities and building the industries of the future.
  • Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery and an equitable vision for limiting warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, and are working closely with national governments to advance ambition and resilience.
  • Discussing opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change, address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness, and address the role of nature-based solutions in achieving net zero by 2050 goals.

Next week, I will discuss the meeting’s results, in terms of concrete efforts and new goals. This anticipated meeting has drawn a unique response from many of the major players in the American business community:

310 businesses and investors with a footprint in the United States have signed a powerful open letter to President Biden indicating their support for the Biden administration’s commitment to climate action, and for setting a federal climate target to reduce emissions.

The letter was published as the world awaits the Biden administration’s announcement of a 2030 emissions reduction target, or Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) pursuant to the Paris Agreement, in the lead-up to the Leaders’ Summit on Climate.

Below is the first part of the letter:

We, the undersigned businesses and investors with a major presence in the U.S., applaud your administration’s demonstrated commitment to address climate change head-on, and we stand in support of your efforts.

Millions of Americans are already feeling the impacts of climate change. From recent extreme weather to deadly wildfires and record-breaking hurricanes, the human and economic losses of the past 12 months alone are profound. Tragically, these devastating climate impacts also disproportionately hit marginalized and low-income communities who are least able to withstand them. We must act now to slow and turn the tide.

As business leaders, we care deeply about the future of the U.S. and the health of its people and economy. Collectively, our businesses employ nearly 6 million American workers across all 50 states, representing over $3 trillion in annual revenue, and for those of us who are investors, we represent more than $1 trillion in assets under management. We join the majority of Americans in thanking you for re-entering the U.S into the Paris Agreement and for making climate action a vital pillar of your presidency. To restore the standing of the U.S. as a global leader, we need to address the climate crisis at the pace and scale it demands. Specifically, the U.S. must adopt an emissions reduction target that will place the country on a credible pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

We, therefore, call on you to adopt the ambitious and attainable target of cutting GHG emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is an impressive (and welcome) message, especially as it presents a major contrast to the concerted lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry. Colleges and universities are not far behind the business community in demanding enhanced mitigation efforts either. They too have called on President Biden to lower carbon emissions.

The letter above references America’s original commitments from the 2015 Paris Agreement. As I mentioned earlier this month (April 6, 2021), President Trump declared the US’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement only a few months into his term, a move which (ironically) went into effect the day after President Biden was elected. On the day of President Biden’s inauguration, he signed a commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Per that commitment, America promised to lower carbon emissions by 17% compared to 2005 levels by 2020 and by 26 – 28% compared to the same levels by 2025 (March 14, 2017 blog).

Well, we are now in 2021, one year after that first milestone, and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Figure 1 shows where we are; happily, it looks like we are right on target.

emissions, greenhouse gas, CO2, CO2 emissions, carbon dioxide

Figure 1

The UNFCCC details the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) commitments of all of the signatories, including the US.

The business community’s letter urges President Biden to use his April 22nd meeting to double our commitments, re-exert American leadership on the issue of climate change mitigation, and actually “make America great again.” Next week we will all find out the president’s response.

Posted in administration, Biden, Climate Change, Sustainability, UNFCCC, US | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The American Jobs Plan & Power Generation by Source

Last week, when I discussed the new $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” I listed the costs of items that directly address climate change mitigation. The second most expensive item was the $174 billion program for electric vehicle incentive. A few years ago, I wrote a set of three blogs (March 1226, 2019) that examined the sustainability of electric cars. I concluded that these cars are only as sustainable the electric grids that feed them. The Biden administration knows this is true. On another occasion, President Biden declared his intention for US electrical utilities to be carbon free by around 2035. Since the approximate lifetime of an electric power plant is about 20 years, this timeline would mean that every new power plant we build now must be carbon free. This week, I am trying to figure out where we stand on this issue—both on international and national levels.

Figure 1, taken from the International Energy Administration (IEA), shows the changes in the installed power generation capacity from the beginning of this century, extrapolated to 2040 based on IEA’s 2019 Stated Policy Scenarios.

power generation capacity IEA

Figure 1 – Power generation capacity by type

EIA summarizes the projected data in Figure 1:

The expansion of generation from wind and solar PV helps renewables overtake coal in the power generation mix in the mid-2020s. By 2040, low-carbon sources provide more than half of total electricity generation. Wind and solar PV are the star performers, but hydropower (15% of total generation in 2040) and nuclear (8%) retain major shares.

If the world is to turn today’s emissions trend around, it will need to focus not only on new infrastructure but also on the emissions that are “locked in” to existing systems. That means addressing emissions from existing power plants, factories, cargo ships and other capital-intensive infrastructure already in use. Despite rapid changes in the power sector, there is no decline in annual power-related CO2 emissions in the Stated Policies Scenario. A key reason is the longevity of the existing stock of coal-fired power plants that account for 30% of all energy-related emissions today.

Figures 2 and 3, taken from the American Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2021, show the expected electricity generation in the US, over approximately the same period.

electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 2

According to Figure 2, renewable energy production is projected to dwarf both nuclear and coal by 2050, with natural gas trailing close behind. Within that renewable label, solar and wind both see significant increases.

US electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 3

Interestingly, Figure 3 shows that the extrapolated competition between natural gas and zero-carbon power stations sources depends a lot on the available supply of natural gas. In other words, reducing the availability of natural gas could be an excellent mitigation policy. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be investigating this option.

None of these scenarios predict that the US will successfully reach zero-carbon electricity generation within President Biden’s timeline. However, both the internationally declared scenario in Figure 1 and the low gas supply scenario in Figure 3 predict that sustainable, carbon-free power will soon be on its way to dominating electricity production in the US.

However, recent results by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), show that even the American Jobs Plan’s proposed pace of slowing carbon emissions might not be fast enough. COVID-19 almost immobilized the world and there are predictions that there was resulting decline in carbon emissions around 7% over the last year. Unfortunately, we have not seen any sign from direct measurements of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that their levels have been significantly affected. Figures 4 and 5 show the results, followed by some possible explanations from NOAA.

global monthly C02 emissions

Figure 4Global monthly mean of carbon dioxide

global methane, emissions

Figure 5 – Global monthly mean of methane

According to NOAA:

The economic recession was estimated to have reduced carbon emissions by about 7 percent during 2020. Without the economic slowdown, the 2020 increase would have been the highest on record, according to Pieter Tans, senior scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. Since 2000, the global CO2 average has grown by 43.5 ppm, an increase of 12 percent.

The atmospheric burden of CO2 is now comparable to where it was during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period around 3.6 million years ago, when concentrations of carbon dioxide ranged from about 380 to 450 parts per million. During that time sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra.

Methane in the atmosphere is generated by many different sources, such as fossil fuel development and use, decay of organic matter in wetlands, and as a byproduct of livestock farming. Determining which specific sources are responsible for variations in methane annual increase is difficult. Preliminary analysis of  carbon isotopic composition of methane in the NOAA air samples done by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, indicates that it is likely that a primary driver of the increased methane burden comes from biological sources of methane such as wetlands or livestock rather than thermogenic sources like oil and gas production and use.

“Although increased fossil emissions may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels, reducing fossil methane emissions are an important step toward mitigating climate change,” said GML research chemist Ed Dlugokencky.

The NOAA results are certainly worrying but they are still preliminary at this stage. Of particular concern are the methane results. As a reminder, the radiative forcing per molecule of methane is 20 times bigger than that of carbon dioxide. In other words, not only must we work to significantly reduce methane emissions, we must also pay special attention to them into our mitigation plans.

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The American Jobs Plan

I started to write this blog a day after President Biden presented his infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The location’s symbolism was obvious; this was the same city where President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement:

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. (Applause) I promised I would exit or renegotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interests. Many trade deals will soon be under renegotiation. Very rarely do we have a deal that works for this country, but they’ll soon be under renegotiation. The process has begun from day one. But now we’re down to business.

President Biden announced the US return to the Paris Agreement via an executive order on the day of his inauguration. His real assurances, however, came during his April 1st speech, when he proclaimed his intention to codify his administration’s commitment to climate change mitigation via an innovative new piece of legislation. The plan is big on almost every level. Not only does he address the return to the Paris Agreement but he also details his approach to the overlapping issues of of COVID-19, climate change, jobs, equity, and population rise (see my Venn diagram in my August 4, 2020 blog).

Tables 1-3 show the details of this new “American Jobs Plan.” I will try to address them in the next few blogs. This week I want to highlight the magnitude of the proposed budget and its distribution, specifically in the context of the global post-Paris-Agreement situation.

Tables 1, 2 & 3 – Details of President Biden’s “American Jobs Plan”

American Jobs Plan, buildings American Jobs Plan, transportation

American Jobs Plan, jobs

In addition to the three sections shown above, $400 billion are proposed for “in-home care.” This money is targeted to: “Expand access to caregiving for those who are older and those with disabilities, and to improve pay and benefits for care givers.”

These are the main goals of the plan’s three sections:

Transportation: To revitalize the aging or crumbling corridors that get American people and products from place to place, while reducing the sector’s reliance on fossil fuels that drive climate change.

Buildings and Utilities: To make homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient; reduce the lead hazards of old water pipes; bridge the urban-rural digital divide; and modernize the electrical grid for greater reliability and wider deployment of low-carbon electricity.

Jobs and Innovations: The president has said that he wants to position America to compete against China and other rivals in the race to build and dominate industries of the future, like semiconductors and advanced batteries.

In Tables 1-3, I have highlighted the entries that can be associated with climate change, and which I will speak to specifically in future blogs. Of course, the whole effort addresses a multitude of overlapping issues; none of the items can be exclusively associated with one of the entries of my earlier Venn-diagram. Rounding up from the sum of the estimated costs for all of the entries, we come to $1.9 trillion. With the addition of the $400 billion for in-home care, we reach the plan’s quoted $2.3 trillion. The sum of the highlighted, climate-related items comes to $1.35 trillion, 70% of the total cost.

At this stage, the plan is a proposal, not a legislative commitment. In this sense, it is similar to the Paris Agreement (great intentions but little enforcement/implementation power). Right now, the size and the scope of the plan make it vulnerable to cherry-picking by both supporters and opponents. Serious questions remain in terms of timing (the plan is supposed to take the rest of the decade) and payment (suggested distribution over the next 15 years). The soonest, most important commitment in terms of timing is the promise of carbon-free electric power delivery by 2035.

Meanwhile, with regards to the rest of the world, a blog from Columbia University’s Earth Institute summarized the global climate change mitigation efforts since the Paris Agreement:

The Paris Agreement calls for countries to make their pledges to reduce emissions — called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — more ambitious every five years; the first step-up was to occur at the end of 2020. According to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, only 73 countries proposed revised goals, with 69 countries including the E.U., U.K., Argentina, and Ethiopia submitting more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

The E.U. pledged to cut emissions 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and the U.K. promised to cut emissions 68 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. While China has not formally submitted an updated pledge, at the summit it declared that it would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 and submit an enhanced NDC for 2030 in line with this goal; China also aims to peak its emissions by 2030.

Several other countries, including Russia, have kept the status quo. Brazil’s new pledge has effectively backtracked, and while Brazil did propose a 2060 net-zero goal, this would be contingent on receiving $10 billion a year in climate finance from other countries. Later this year, at COP 26, all other parties will have to submit updated NDCs.

The critical question, however, is whether or not countries can translate their long-term net-zero goals into the short-term policies that are necessary to realize them.

Figure 1 presents a comparison between the three largest economies’ major investments in sustainable energy resources.

Figure 1Global clean energy investments: Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) vs. the Americas vs. the Asia Pacific region (APAC)

I will continue to follow both domestic and foreign implementation/follow up of these plans and commitments over the next few months.

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Production Gap: Actual Emissions vs. Paris Promises

emissions, China, US, India,

Figure 1Relative country contributions to total global carbon emissions and percentages of emissions over time, 2017

The new administration and the accompanying new leadership of many federal offices have strongly signaled a renewed and strengthened dedication to confront the challenges that we face in battling climate change. Our country’s act of rejoining the 2015 Paris agreement (see December 14, 2015 blog) was a key step in marking this transition. The eye-catching figures above summarize various nations’ carbon emissions, as of 2017, as well as the rise in fossil fuel emissions relative to the birth year of the observer. Not only is the US the second largest emitter, close to 90% of the total global emissions have been emitted during my lifetime; I’m not directly responsible for all of that but I still feel guilty.

Recently, many around the world have made commitments to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by mid-century. This is a solid goal but it puts much of the burden on future generations. Many people who make such commitments now will not be alive to deal with the consequences should those promises prove hollow.

Last year, there was a report published that tried to quantify the actual commitments made during the Paris agreement, as compared to the overall objective of limiting carbon emissions enough to keep global temperature rise to less than 2oC (or 1.5oC). As we can see from Figure 2, the gap between intent and action is large.

production gap, fossil fuel, global warming, climate change

Figure 2 – This graph of global fossil fuel production (2015-2040) under 4 scenarios shows the vast disparities between the total Paris agreement pledges, a business-as-usual scenario, and the action needed to reach the objectives of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC or 2oC.

“The Production Gap: The discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C”

The first Production Gap Report was launched in November 2019 by leading research institutions and experts, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Modelled after UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report series — and conceived as a complementary analysis — the Production Gap Report conveys the large discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and the global production levels necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C and 2°C. This year’s report comes as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown measures impact societies — and their use and production of coal, oil, and gas — in unprecedented ways. The context for fossil fuel production is thus changing rapidly. Governments are pouring money into their economies, taking on increasing debt, and even changing environmental regulations in a bid to respond and recover from the pandemic’s economic and social fall-out. This could have lasting consequences for the nature and speed of transitions away from fossil fuels — and, consequently, for the production gap. This year’s report is a special issue that considers the production gap in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It recognizes that the world is still at a potential turning point towards a healthier and more resilient, low-carbon future. It considers government responses to the COVID-19-induced crisis and the implications of those responses for the production gap. It includes an interim update of the production gap, while acknowledging the current uncertainty of long-term government planning amid the focus on near-term solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Next year, the 2021 Production Gap Report will include a broader assessment of the production gap, including the country profiles that were a centrepiece of the 2019 report.

Key Findings:

  • To follow a 1.5°C-consistent pathway, the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030.
  • Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.
  • Pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of the growing global fossil fuel production gap, locking in severe climate disruption.
  • To date, governments have committed far more COVID-19 funds to fossil fuels than to clean energy. Policymakers must reverse this trend to meet climate goals.
  • Countries with lower dependence and higher financial and institutional capacity can undertake a just and equitable transition from fossil fuel production most rapidly, while those with higher dependence and lower capacity will require greater international support.
  • Policymakers can support a managed, just, and equitable wind-down of fossil fuel production through six areas of action.

Key Areas of Action:

  1. Ensure COVID-19 recovery packages and economic stimulus funds support a sustainable recovery and avoid further carbon lock-in.
  2. Provide local and international support to fossil-fuel-dependent communities and economies for diversification and just, equitable transitions.
  3. Reduce existing government support for fossil fuels.
  4. Introduce restrictions on fossil fuel production activities and infrastructure.
  5. Enhance transparency of current and future fossil fuel production levels.
  6. Mobilize and support a coordinated global response.

The steps suggested in the Production Gap Report are not much different from the new shifts in policy that President Biden announced on his inauguration day. Unfortunately, they are not quantitative and they don’t secure key requirements necessary to significantly slow mid-century warming. Next week, I will focus on intermediary markers and their feasibility and effectiveness in global efforts for long-term mitigation.

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Help: How Can We Set Up an Energy Education Park?

In 2012, I was with Vinit Parmar, filming the energy transition in the Sundarbans region in India as it moved from traditional hunter-gatherer life to an electrified society (Quest for Energy – 2012, see the April 29, 2014 blog). In addition to experiencing lifestyle changes in both personal and professional settings, those in this area of the Sundarbans started to learn a lot about energy production. These two photographs from 2007 show the general plan and an overview of the Energy Education Park in Kolkata.

Now we find ourselves in the beginning of a different energy transition, much closer to home. New York State and the City of NY, have mandated carbon neutrality by mid-century. They have set up a well-defined rate of change that start three years from now, with the prospect of penalties for laggers (see the July 721, 2020 blogs). I decided to use this transition as a teaching laboratory for my students. I also sit on committees that try to reorient our energy usage in ways that will minimalize carbon emissions.

In an earlier set of blogs (May 28June 18, 2019), I described my university (CUNY) and campus’ (Brooklyn College) efforts to follow the sustainability criteria that agencies such as Stars and the Sierra Club set up for American university campuses. I mentioned then that the consortium structure of our university means that “obvious” energy transition steps such as replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy sources are not as easy as you might think. Such choices are not under the control of individual colleges but are determined centrally by university administrations, albeit with their input. The colleges do, however, determine much of the energy usage. This means that the current lockdowns will prove to be a useful tool in allowing individual campuses to measure the difference between student-dependent and independent energy use, as I described several times last year.

Within this spirit, I suggested at a meeting of the Energy Utilization Committee, that we construct an on-campus energy education park similar to that I saw in Kolkata, with three main objectives:

  1. Make exhibits available to faculty and students at all levels for research and education.
  2. Convey BC’s commitment to action regarding the threat of climate change.
  3. Position the university to serve as an example and leader in helping the surrounding communities in the transition. The energy transition requirements apply to any building (larger than 25,000 ft2), and the university can demonstrate best practices.

We have a student representative on the Energy Utilization Committee. When asked about his opinions, he said that he didn’t feel qualified to respond to most of the other issues we’d discussed, but he was enthusiastic about the prospect of the energy park.

Not surprisingly, the committee’s agenda also addressed our budgetary restraints. The full year of lockdown has had an impact on all campuses. As with many other institutions, we are stretched for resources and will have to adapt to survive. The demographics don’t seem to be in our favor, though. Among other changes, our country’s younger population is projected to shrink in the coming decades.

The fraction of the college future prospect (under 18 old) is expected to slowly decrease while the fraction of older adults (older than 65) is expected to increase as the table below shows:

Table 1 – Census projection of older and younger age groups in the US

Year % of total population older than 65 % of total population younger than 18
2016 15 22
2020 17 22
2030 21 21
2040 22 20.6
2050 22 20.1
2060 23 19.8

Keeping all of this in mind, the committee chair asked me for an initial estimate of the cost of the park. I contacted friends around the world regarding science museums and other facilities but I am still waiting for their answers. That said, I realize that presently, the only answer that my administration will accept is zero.

The only option that seems feasible, then, is to attract local sustainable energy businesses and partner with them to demonstrate their products in a designated area on the college campus. The New York Times has reviewed several solar power facilities in NYC. There are quite a few such facilities in Brooklyn, specifically: Solar One, Brooklyn Microgrid, Brooklyn Solarworks, Solar Energy Systems, Solar Panels in Brooklyn, Sunset Park Solar.

In my view, such cooperation is a win-win situation for everybody. Our documentary in India showed the metaphorical and physical power of a solar energy transition. This is not limited to a large developing country such as India; we can benefit from adopting similar practices here. The companies that we invite to present their technology in the college will naturally work to advertise their products to potential new customers, while students, faculty, and our surrounding communities will be able to use the facility for advice, learning, and research.

After a time, if the project is successful, research by faculty, students, unaffiliated community members, and perhaps even local high schools will yield new discoveries that can also be displayed.

This blog is a cry for help: please let me know if you have other cost-effective proposals and energy transition examples from which we can all learn.

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Green Taxonomy

taxonomy, green, sustainable, sustainabilityOn December 27, 2016, I posted a blog, “Impact Assessment: Self-Inflicted Genocide and the Toronto Principle.” I cited an Op-Ed from Benjamin A. Franta:

Last December, a committee at the University of Toronto released a report on the issue of divestment, drawing a clear line by aligning itself with the needs of the Paris agreement. It recommended that the university not finance companies whose “actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050…These are fossil fuels companies whose actions are irreconcilable with achieving internationally agreed goals.” This principle, basic as it is, aligns rhetoric and action. It suggests that it is all institutions’ responsibility to give life to the Paris agreement. Harvard could adopt this Toronto principle, too, and the world would be better for it.

In practice, adopting the Toronto Principle would likely mean moving investments away from coal companies and coal-fired power plants, companies seeking non-conventional or aggressive fossil fuel development (such as oil from the Arctic or tar sands), and possibly also companies that distort public policies or deceive the public on climate. At present, these activities are incompatible with the agreement in Paris.

Since then, the US Federal Reserve and other financial institutions have strongly recommended that every business decision that we make should account for the impact of climate change (see my January 14, 2020 blog). Many schools and other institutions have indicated that they want their investments to be “green” but what does that mean? We need a taxonomy of the term. Wikipedia gives us the basics on taxonomy:

Taxonomy is the practice and science of categorization or classification based on discrete sets.

A taxonomy (or taxinomical classification) is a scheme of classification, especially, a hierarchical classification, in which things are organized into groups or types.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Among other things, a taxonomy can be used to organize and index knowledge (stored as documents, articles, videos, etc.), such as in the form of a library classification system, or a search engine taxonomy, so that users can more easily find the information they are searching for. Many taxonomies are hierarchies (and thus, have an intrinsic tree structure), but not all are.

Originally, taxonomy referred only to the categorisation of organisms or a particular categorisation of organisms. In a wider, more general sense, it may refer to a categorisation of things or concepts, as well as to the principles underlying such a categorisation. Taxonomy organizes taxonomic units known as “taxa” (singular “taxon”).

In other words, taxonomy sorts things into groups and subgroups based on shared characteristics. Now for the often-posed question: where/how can I invest so as to be able to label my investments as “green”? The Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI) released a comprehensive document in January regarding the sustainability of various industries:

The Climate Bonds Taxonomy identifies the assets and projects needed to deliver a low carbon economy and gives GHG emissions screening criteria consistent with the 2-degree global warming target set by the COP 21 Paris Agreement. It has been developed based on the latest climate science including research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), and has benefited from the input of hundreds of technical experts from around the world. It can be used by any entity looking to identify which assets and activities, and associated financial instruments, are compatible with a 2-degree trajectory. First released in 2013, the Climate Bonds Taxonomy is regularly updated based on the latest climate science, emergence of new technologies and on the Climate Bonds Standard Sector Criteria.

The Taxonomy is the foundation used by the Climate Bonds Initiative to screen bonds to determine whether assets or projects underlying an investment are eligible for green or climate finance. Where detailed analysis of a sector has been undertaken and specific eligibility Criteria have been developed, bonds in that sector can be Climate Bonds Certified. This is indicated via a blue ‘Climate Bonds Certification tick’. Where detailed sector based Criteria for Certification are still under development, this is indicated by a yellow circle. In this case, bonds in this sector cannot yet be certified under the Climate Bonds Standard.

taxonomy, green, energy, electricity, solar, infrastructure, generation

A traffic light system has been adopted to indicate whether identified assets and projects are considered to be automatically compatible with a 2-degree decarbonisation trajectory. Green Light is automatically compatible. Orange Light is potentially compatible, depending on whether more specific criteria are met. Red Light is incompatible. A Grey circle is used to indicate where further work is required to determine which traffic light colour is appropriate for a specific sub-set of assets or activities.

The figure above shows the first segment of the Energy category within the document, specifically the beginning of the Electricity and Heat group and the Solar subgroup. Other subgroups in this group include Bioenergy, Wind, Geothermal, Hydro Power, Marine Renewables, Fossil Fuels, and Nuclear Energy. The categories of Transportation, Water Infrastructures, Buildings, Land Use and Marine Resources, Industry, Waste and Pollution Control, and Information and Communication Technologies have similar taxonomies.

This kind of taxonomy has inconsistencies, however, especially when it comes to determining whether something is “green.” Just look at the case of electric passenger cars in the Transportation category. They got a green traffic light in the CBI document, indicating full compatibility with limiting the rise of global temperature to below 2oC, as advocated by the Paris Agreement. As I wrote in my March 12 and 19, 2019 blogs, however, while the idea of electric cars is great, they are only as “green” as their power sources. If they continue running on energy sourced from fossil fuels, electric cars just keep contributing to the same pollution as gas guzzlers. Similar connectivity holds true for many other entries in the CBI Taxonomy. The practice of taxonomy is great in helping us visualize anchors and connections, if not particularly helpful in describing them.

You can see an example of simple taxonomy just by looking at the “Category” section on the right side of this blog. The advantage here is that every entry in this list has a live link to the corresponding posts. However, as is often the case, the categorization is incomplete, failing to account for many of the issues that I have covered. So, if you want to know what the blog is about, you have two options: read it all the way through or randomly choose posts until you find some sense of consistency.

The NYT opinion piece, “The Secret Life of a Coronavirus” delves further into the difficulties in categorizing viruses, animals, and other “live” things.

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My “Now”

We are reaching the anniversary of one full year since we moved teaching and learning online. My school is preparing for face-to-face classes for the next semester (starting in the beginning of September), with some healthy skepticism and the provision that their status can obviously change with fluctuations in the pandemic. The transition was a large change for everybody. I, like many others, started the transition with asynchronous classes over Blackboard. My school offered professors some much-needed help: in addition to teaching and other duties associated with our jobs (all of which are obviously now online), we had the option take a class from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) for guidance in this new setup. This is my first pedagogical class in the 50 years or so that I have been teaching university students. It’s about time; I have plenty to learn. One of the issues that this class has emphasized is the importance of convincing students to take ownership of the material that they are learning by incorporating their own experiences into their work. Unfortunately, especially in classes with a large and diverse set of students, I often know next to nothing about their experiences.

In small senior classes that are anchored to students’ research, the issue is manageable. In the first class, I ask my students to give a short overview of their lives. That means that by the time we start on research projects, I can work with them to choose appropriate, personalized topics.

With larger classes—which often contain up to 50 students—this becomes more difficult. As well as sheer numbers, the diversity of backgrounds is considerably broader. These classes are also General Education and don’t require prerequisites, meaning that in addition to differences in personal and political backgrounds, there is the additional factor of academic level (from freshman to seniors).

For these large classes, I find that the safest starting point that I can offer my students is to describe my own background and its relationship to climate change.

Table 1 – Changes in global indicators from 1945 to “now”

Indicators “Early” Current
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 US$) 2030(1945) 5950(2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Electricity availability (% of population) 71% (1990) 87% (2016)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration(ppmv) 310(1945) 409(2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent per capita) 1336(1971) 1921(2014)

Table 1 is my starting point for this discussion. The year specified in the “current” column indicates the most recent year for which the data were available to me (usually from the World Bank database). As always, the database is a bit behind the actual date of the semester but the overall picture remains the same. I share part of the “now” with my students but we are worlds apart in our relationships to the “early” column. For most of my students, that time period feels like ancient history but I was born in 1939, so it represents part of my “now.”

I have described this distinction before. I dedicated my book, Climate Change – The Fork at the End of Now (Momentum Press – 2011) to my three grandchildren, all of whom were born around the beginning of this century. I refer to them as part of what anchors my use of “now”: I have used their expected lifetimes to demarcate the end of the period. Hopefully, that will be somewhere in the last fifth of this century. By combining Table 1 with the definition in my book, I have extended my “now” to cover approximately 150 years or about 6 generations.

In my August 25, 2020 blog, “School Curriculum: The NYT,” I quoted Einstein as saying, “The distinction between past, present and future is only stubbornly persistent illusion.” I focused that blog on the role of education in securing our next generation’s future. This week, my emphasis is on the “present” or “now” that I share with my students and my grandchildren (who are approximately the same age). In physics, the present doesn’t exist. It is simply a delineation between the past and the future. The “thickness” of this demarcation line depends on the speed in which my tool can gather data and my distance from the source of the information.

I am calling on my students to engage with the course material and make their own definition of “now.”

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