Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
One of the cruel ironies of climate change is that its impacts tend to fall hardest on the countries least equipped to manage them.
When drought or sea level rise strike the United States, communities at least have access to federal aid, top scientific expertise, public investment in expensive climate-ready infrastructure, and the like. But some of the most extreme effects of global warming are headed for developing countries—drought wiping out crops in East Africa, or catastrophic hurricanes pounding Southeast Asia—that don't have access to those resources.
New research from Maplecroft, a UK-based risk consultancy, paints a pictures of where vulnerability to climate change is most pressing. Their analysis drew on three criteria: exposure to extreme events, based on the latest meteorological science; sensitivity to impacts (i.e., does a country have other sources of income and food supply if agriculture takes a hit?); and adaptive capacity—are the country's government and social institutions prepared to work under adverse climate conditions and help citizens adapt to them?
Unsurprisingly, Africa and Southeast Asia ranked the lowest, while Scandinavian countries ranked the highest. (While definitely at risk from sea level rise, countries such as Norway and Sweden have rich, highly functional governments to manage adaptation.) The major global climate talks in Paris are coming up in just a couple weeks; the chart above makes it clear why it's so important for big players like the US and China to work closely with delegations from developing countries on solutions that will provide immediate support and relief.
With high-stakes climate negotiations just around the corner, things are looking rosy for the producers and sellers of wind turbines and solar panels.
In just a couple weeks, world leaders will gather in Paris to hash out a global agreement to combat climate change. On Thursday, top diplomats from the United States and France appeared to butt heads over the legal status of the agreement, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticizing a statement made by Secretary of State John Kerry that the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the agreement will not be legally binding.
Each party to the agreement offers its own target based on its abilities. The US, for example, has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The targets are a key piece of the agreement, since they represent countries' plans to limit the emissions that cause climate change.
Clean energy "is clearly something that's on all countries' minds, not a device for only the rich," Thomas Damassa said.
The targets offered so far—known in UN jargon as intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs—have faced criticism from environmental groups, in part because it remains unclear how they will be enforced, as Kerry's spat with the French makes clear. Moreover, cumulatively, they don't put the world on track to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as scientists and diplomats have agreed is necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
But that hardly means the agreement will be worthless. The INDCs also include information about how countries plan to reach their emissions targets. And as several recent reports have helped to illustrate, the Paris talks could be a huge boon to the global clean energy industry—an industry that was worth about $270 billion as of 2014 and is growing fast.
The first sign came from a United Nations analysis in late October, which combed through INDCs from almost every country on Earth and found that most of them include plans to invest in renewable energy within their borders. Some of those plans include specific policies—such as providing tax incentives or drawing on international aid dollars—and some more vague. Taken together, renewable energy appears to be the most common strategy for meeting emissions targets, compared to boosting energy efficiency, cleaning up the transportation sector, stopping deforestation, and other methods:
"Clearly countries are looking at renewables as a solution to tackle the energy challenges they're facing," said Thomas Damassa, a senior analyst at the World Resources Institute's climate program. "It's clearly something that's on all countries' minds, not a device for only the rich. It's a viable option for all countries."
According to Damassa's research, if Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, and the United States—which together represent 65 percent of global energy demand—follow through on their INDCs, the amount of clean energy on the grid will more than double by 2030. That represents an increase from approximately 8,900 terawatt-hours of global clean energy in 2012 to 19,900 terawatt-hours in 2030. (The US currently consumes about 4,000 terawatt-hours of total electricity—from renewable and non-renewable sources.) The chart below illustrates the projected change in a few of these countries:
Different countries have different definitions of "clean energy." For example, the US is the only one of Damassa's countries that doesn't count large hydro dams. India, China, and Mexico include nuclear power plants. In fact, China plans to increase its supply of nuclear power nearly 900 percent, Damassa found, accounting for nearly half of its total clean energy by 2030. That would be a big win for the climate, because nuclear power doesn't emit greenhouse gases, regardless of concerns about cost and safety.
Damassa found that the renewable capacity implied by these countries' INDCs is about 17 percent higher than the "business-as-usual" case, meaning that the Paris targets could have a significant impact on the industry's growth. Much of that extra growth could take place in countries such as India and Brazil that didn't previously have aggressive clean energy targets.
The impact of the United States' INDC may more muted. That target is based on the projected outcome of the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama's flagship climate regulations, which will limit greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Under that plan, the US aims to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, up from 7 percent now. Environmentalist have criticized that goal as not being ambitious enough.
"In our view, the targets set by the [Clean Power Plan] are not terribly stringent above and beyond what we anticipate will occur in the marketplace anyway," said Ethan Zindler, the head of policy at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Still, in the face of repeated attacks on federal tax credits and state-level clean energy policies, the INDC could be an important backstop, Zindler said, because it "adds greater certainty around renewables into the next decade."
In any case, the INDCs are just one piece of the puzzle. There's little doubt about which direction the clean energy industry is headed, according to a projection released this week by the International Energy Agency. That report predicts global investment in clean energy will reach $7.4 trillion by 2040, by which time renewables will provide about a quarter of the world's electricity. Wind is likely to be the biggest new source, according to the IEA:
The IEA's analysis includes the INDC targets, which it says "provide a boost to lower-carbon fuels and technologies in many countries." But it also cites falling prices for both renewable technology and for natural gas (which integrates more easily with renewables on the grid than coal does) as major drivers of the industry's growth.
Tom Kimbis, vice president of executive affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, argues that the clean energy industry is already prepared to compete in the global market—with or without political targets. Still, he concedes that at the moment, it's difficult for companies to make decisions about investing in clean energy projects abroad because the details behind many INDCs remain murky.
It's worth noting that IEA projections are notoriously conservative. In the past, the agency has often dramatically low-balled the growth of wind and solar, so there's reason to think the final outcome could be even bigger than what that group is projecting. (David Roberts at Vox has an exhaustive explainer on what goes wrong in their analyses.)
The simple fact that renewable energy shows up in so many INDCs is a compelling sign of hope for the industry, Damassa said. Back in 2009, at the last major climate talks in Copenhagen, there was nowhere near this level of interest in clean power, he said.
"People never would have guessed that renewables would be deployed as quickly as they are," Damassa said.
One thing every Republican presidential candidate can agree on is that they hate President Barack Obama's plan to tackle climate change. Now Hillary Clinton might have a way to remedy one of their biggest concerns.
During Tuesday's GOP primary debate, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said that his first action as president would be to repeal the "Clean Power Act." (It's actually the Clean Power Plan—it's a set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, not its own law.) The centerpiece of Obama's climate agenda, the new rules aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by a third by 2030, largely by requiring states to reduce their dependence on coal-fired power plants. The plan, Paul said, has "devastated my state," presumably a reference to jobs in the coal sector that could be lost.
Paul's coal-country politician peers agree. Kentucky is one of two dozens states that recently moved to block the Clean Power Plan in court, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is at the helm of an effort to block the plan in Congress. So far, their ideas to preserve the coal-country economy have focused on derailing the rules needed limit the gases that cause climate change, rather than retrofitting that economy for a new century powered by clean energy. In fact, neither Paul nor any of his presidential opponents (including Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley) have laid out what they would do as president to smooth the transition for coal communities as the market for our dirtiest form of energy rapidly shrinks.
Today Clinton produced her own $30 billion plan, which would use a smattering of tax incentives and grant funding to support public health, education, and entrepreneurial initiatives in coal communities from Appalachia to Wyoming.
Clinton's $30 billion plan aims to save the coal country economy by pouring money into infrastructure and public health projects.
You can read the full plan here. It follows the lead of a similar but much smaller initiative Obama rolled out last month. Much of it is targeted at rebuilding infrastructure—highways, bridges, railroads, broadband networks. The Clinton campaign says that kind of development would not only create new jobs to replace those lost in the coal industry, but be vital for growing new industries.
Paul is definitely right that Big Coal is suffering. 2014 saw a record number of coal plant closures nationwide; stock prices at several of the biggest coal companies have dropped dramatically over the past couple years. But while Republicans like to lay the blame for coal's decline at the feet of Obama's EPA, the truth is that stopping the Clean Power Plan—which can't be blamed for the current decline, as it hasn't even legally gone into effect yet—wouldn't save the industry. Coal is being challenged by rock-bottom natural gas prices, a booming market for renewable energy, and an emerging global consensus that burning tons of old rocks that produce pollution responsible for thousands of deaths each year while warming the climate just isn't a savvy 21st-century practice.
In other words, a plan to restructure coal country's economy is going to be necessary regardless of what happens to Obama's climate regulations. Of course, that might require Republican candidates to admit that climate change is, you know, real.
The desert in Southern California could be in for a climate-friendly makeover, after the Obama administration released its plans to develop more renewable energy projects on federally owned land.
On Tuesday the Interior Department released the final version of a plan that would open up about half a million non-contiguous acres—half the size of Rhode Island—for projects such as wind and solar farms in the Mojave Desert and surrounding areas. It would also more than double the amount of land dedicated to protecting delicate desert ecosystems that are home to vulnerable species, including the desert tortoise.
The plan will open up about half a million acres—half the size of Rhode Island—for projects such as wind and solar farms.
The Mojave Desert, which stretches across most of Southern California, is a potential gold mine for clean energy. Earlier this year, the world's largest solar farm opened there, near Joshua Tree National Park. According to Interior, the desert and the its surrounding area have the sun and wind potential to support 20,000 megawatts of renewable projects, about equal to the amount of solar energy installed nationwide today. In announcing the plan, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said that public lands will "play a key role" in helping the United States meet its goal of procuring 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (excluding large hydro dams) by 2030—up from about 7 percent now.
But over the past few years, efforts to develop all that potential have sparked clashes between clean energy buffs and conservationists who don't want to see pristine landscapes blanketed by vast arrays of solar panels. One pioneering project, the Ivanpah Lake solar farm, became a pariah after environmental groups said that it encroached on tortoise habitat and that its sunlight-concentrating panels were blasting superheated rays into birds' flight paths and killing tens of thousands of them. Subsequent estimates put the death toll much lower, but the Ivanpah controversy underscored just how hard it can be for government planners to find common ground between competing environmental interests.
The new plan (finalized in October but made public Tuesday) is meant to clear the air by painstakingly analyzing a 2 million-acre swath of Southern California and offering a comprehensive take on where to focus clean energy development. Scientists and planners from a host of agencies stockpiled research on wildlife, water, agriculture, historic and cultural sites, and other features in an effort to find spots that have high renewable energy potential with minimal environmental impact.
In the map below, the pink and red areas are where the Bureau of Land Management recommends that private developers focus their efforts. Orange and blue hatching shows areas proposed for conservation:
Anyone who wants to build a wind or solar farm in these areas still has to go through the normal permitting process that any development on public land has to clear. But the plan is meant to help developers avoid headaches by showing them the areas that the feds have already decided are either not ecologically sensitive, or that are already too degraded to worry much about building in. That's a departure from the previous modus operandi, in which federal officials made case-by-case decisions on each proposed project.
"It's a real change from how BLM has approached renewable energy development in the past," said Erica Brand, California energy program director at the Nature Conservancy. The agency, she added, is "protecting desert landscapes by directing development to areas that are more degraded."
Similar reviews of private and state-owned land will be released over the next year. And you can bet that there will be plenty of interest from renewable energy companies. California has the country's most favorable investment climate for renewable energy, according to Ernst & Young, and the state recently adopted the country's most aggressive renewable energy target: 50 percent of its electricity mix by 2030. That's up from 20 percent now.
"The [Mojave] Desert has some of the most intact natural landscapes in the lower 48," Brand said. "As we transition to cleaner energy sources, and work to meet our climate goals, we also have to keep those natural resources intact."
Just days after President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists were handed another victory Monday morning when New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released the results of an investigation that found one of the world's largest coal companies had misled the public and its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.
After several years of investigations, Schneiderman reached an agreement with Peabody Energy that won't require the company to admit it broke the law and does not entail a fine or other penalty. Instead, Peabody must file revised shareholder disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission with new language acknowledging that "concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion…could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities."
Climate change could pose a serious risk to investors in publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, as governments around the world move to restrict carbon emissions. Many climate change advocacy groups say those companies have an obligation to their shareholders to be transparent about how demand for their product could diminish in the near future.
Although Peabody escaped financial penalties this time around, it could still face litigation from aggrieved shareholders.
According to Schneiderman's findings, Peabody had known since at least 2013 that policies enacted in the United States and abroad to fight climate change could significantly diminish demand for coal—one of the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, one internal projection from that year found that climate regulations could slash sales at two of the company's US coal mines by one-third or more, according to the findings. But at the same time, the company filed disclosures with the SEC that claimed it was "not possible for [Peabody] to reasonably predict the impact that any such laws or regulations may have on [Peabody's] results of operations, financial condition or cash flows."
That mixed messaging, Schneiderman found, violates New York laws prohibiting false or misleading claims in the company's financial statements.
"As a publicly traded company whose core business generates massive amounts of carbon emissions, Peabody Energy has a responsibility to be honest with its investors and the public about the risks posed by climate change, now and in the future," Schneiderman said in a statement.
In its own response, Peabody said the agreement represented "no admission or denial of wrongdoing" and that "the company has always sought to make appropriate disclosures."
The agreement comes just days after Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, kicking off an investigation into whether the oil giant has misled investors and the public about the basic science of climate change for decades. Exxon has denied any wrongdoing. While the two investigations have some similarities, Exxon could face tougher penalties than Peabody, said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas programs at Ceres, an investor advocacy group. The allegations against Exxon stretch back much further in time and could potentially be more serious, so the attorney general could pursue more aggressive action against the company, Logan said.
Even with the Peabody investigation over, the coal company is hardly in a happy place. Its share price has tanked 87 percent this year, squeezed by the shrinking global market for coal. Many of Peabody's coal-industry peers are also gravely wounded. In fact, coal demand may soon hit its fastest decline in history, according to data released today by Greenpeace. And while Peabody escaped financial penalties this time around, it could still face litigation from aggrieved shareholders, Logan said.
"They're going back in time to change what they said [in their disclosure statements]," he said. "It's a very unusual thing in the securities world, and tends to bring real liability."
Meanwhile, the agreement could put pressure on the SEC to step up its enforcement of climate-related statements (or the lack thereof) made not only by other energy companies, but also by corporations in other climate-sensitive sectors, such as property insurance and agriculture.
"On the one hand, this action has been directed at two companies. But the reasons they were targeted could be applied to whole other industries," Logan said. "This is a huge victory for investors."