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 hard truths about climate change solutions—whether they're solar panels, protective seawalls, or carbon-sucking golf balls—is that somebody has to pay for them. This week the UN's climate chief, Christiana Figueres, told Climate Desk that global investment in clean energy technologies needs to reach $1 trillion per year by 2030 (a little less than the GDP of South Korea), roughly tripling where we're at now, to keep global warming within the limit agreed on by international climate negotiators.
So when more than 500 investors who hold the strings on the world's biggest purses—the heads of investment banks, insurance companies, pension funds, international development banks—descended on the UN headquaters in New York yesterday for a high-powered summit hosted by the sustainable business* nonprofit Ceres, you'd hope they would be ponying up for climate solutions.
There's just one problem: Investment is on the decline for the second year in a row, according to new statistics released yesterday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In 2013, investors worldwide put $254 billion into clean energy technology, 20 percent below 2011's record high.
"The figures this year are not great," BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told the group, which together represent roughly $20 trillion in assets. "But we are by no means in as bad a place as we could be."
"There are serious consequences to getting this wrong." -Anne Simpson
That might sound like damning with faint praise, but in fact analysts here insisted the numbers mask a more optimistic story of growing concern about climate change on Wall Street. One important factor behind the investment decline, Liebreich said, is the falling cost of renewable energy installations, meaning investors get more bang for fewer bucks. Just in the last 18 months, the cost of a typical solar panel system dropped 45 percent; from 2012 through 2013, the total number of installed systems worldwide grew 20 percent.
In other words, the volume of renewables on the grid is growing even though less is being spent on them. And overall, a range of green money analysts at the conference insisted that Google's $3.2 billion purchase this week of energy efficiency startup Nest is just the latest sign that mainstream investors are beginning to see moneymaking opportunities in climate protection.
Climate scientists are fond of global models that try to answer how much the whole planet is going to warm up in a given time period. That's all well and good, but it doesn't do much for a mayor or city planner trying to prepare for the future in her own city. But a new map from the US Geological Survey (screenshot below) combines a group of the top climate models and matches them with high-resolution NASA climate data to project exactly how much hotter your county will be by the end of the century.
The map shows how temperature and precipitation will change based on your selection of a timescale (in a few years, a few decades, or by century's end) and a future emissions scenario (higher or lower emissions). You can see averages for the whole country, individual states (minus Alaska and Hawaii... sorry y'all), and individual counties. My home of Pima County, Arizona, for example, will see a rise of 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit in maximum temperature but no change in precipitation in the longest-term, high emissions projection. The map shows some of the biggest changes are in store for the upper Midwest. Northern Minnesota's Kittson County, for example, is in for a 10.6 degree F rise under this same scenario. (Because the map was made by scientists, all the temperatures are in Celsius; if you want to convert to Fahrenheit, remember that change in temperature uses a different equation than simply converting between units. There's a good calculator here).
Temperatures like that won't just make you sweatier: Climate policymakers at the UN have long agreed on 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum threshold for avoiding the worst global impacts of climate change, including droughts and extreme storms. Steve Hosteler, the USGS scientist who designed the map, says that local officials could use the statistics to plan for future electricity use (hotter days means more A/C) and water drainage infrastructure (if more rain is the forecast).
While working to compile climate data on the US, he said, "it became pretty apparent that there was a need to take this data out of the modeling realm and make it useful for other people."
Most experts agree that slowing climate change is going to have to involve some kind of price on carbon dioxide pollution. Although the last attempt to pass a federal carbon price in the US failed in 2009, some of the world's most-polluting companies haven't let down their guard. A report last week from the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project found that 29 companies that operate or are headquartered in the US are planning for the future by using their own internal carbon price.
So how much do these companies think carbon pollution is worth? Not every company released a specific number, but we plotted those that did on the chart above. As you can see, there's quite a broad range, with the price officially recommended by the Obama White House ($37 per metric ton of carbon) falling north of the middle. For comparison, we also included the current prices in British Columbia (which levies a flat tax) and the European Union (which operates a carbon credit-trading market). An oversupply of credits on the EU market has recently driven the price to record lows, below where most economists believe it can be effective in curbing emissions. But a decision yesterday by the European Parliament to slash the number of available credits is expected to drive the price up 35 percent over the next year.
Ever since the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, world leaders have agreed on 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum acceptable global warming above preindustrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change (today we're at about 0.8 degrees C). But a new study, led by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University, argues that pollution plans aimed at that target would still result in "disastrous consequences," from rampant sea level rise to widespread extinction.
A major goal of climate scientists since Copenhagen has been to convert the 2 degree limit into something useful for policymakers, namely, a specific total amount of carbon we can "afford" to dump into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants (this is known as a carbon budget). This fall, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pegged the number at 1 trillion metric tons of carbon, or about twice what we've emitted since the late 19th Century; if greenhouse gas emissions continue as they have for the last few decades, we're on track to burn through the remaining budget by the mid-2040s, meaning immediately thereafter we'd have to cease emissions forever to meet the warming target.
The study, which was co-authored by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs and published today in the journal PLOS ONE, uses updated climate models to argue that the IPCC's carbon budget would in fact produce warming up to twice the international limit, and that even the 2-degree limit would likely yield catastrophic impacts well into the next century. In other words, the study says, two of the IPCC's fundamental figures are wrong.
"We should not use [2 degrees] as a target," Hansen said in a meeting with reporters on the Columbia campus in Manhattan. "It doesn't have any scientific basis."
The IPCC's climate models leave out the effect of some slow natural systems, like changes in the area of ice sheets and the release of methane from melting permafrost.
A better target to avoid devastating climate impacts, Hansen said, would be 1 degree Celsius of warming (only slightly above what we've already experienced), although he readily admitted that such a goal is essentially unattainable. According to IPCC estimates, human activities have already committed us to that level of warming even if we suddenly stopped burning all fossil fuels today. A grim, but perhaps more realistic, vision of what the end of this century will hold comes from the the International Energy Agency, which predicts that temperatures could rise as much as 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
As we reported this week, some of the world's richest nations are lagging behind on their climate protection pledges. Most often, these commitments follow the formula: "We aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions X percent below year Y levels by year Z." It seems like a straightforward proposition, but have you ever wondered where those numbers come from? The answer is a scientific concept known as the carbon budget, and like a teenager with her first credit card, we're well on our way to blowing right through it.
In the video above, Kelly Levin, a climate policy expert at the World Resources Institute, explains what our carbon budget is, how much we've already "spent," and why it matters.
Back in 2009, delegates to the UN climate summit in Copenhagen agreed that in order to avoid the worst potential impacts of climate change, global temperature rise should be limited to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. For their report this fall, scientists on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at how emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have warmed the planet since the Industrial Revolution, and extrapolated how much more we could emit before breaking the Copenhagen limit, the same way you might draft a budget to keep your checking account balance above zero.