Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
A worker checks solar panels at a factory in China, the world's biggest renewable energy investor.
The United Nations climate folks think global investment in renewable energy needs to hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 to keep global warming to an acceptable level. So it might seem disconcerting that in 2013, investment dropped for the second year in a row, down 14 percent from 2012 to $214 billion, according to new data released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) at its annual confab in New York this week.
As investment fell, so too did the total amount of renewable energy being installed worldwide. That's down nearly 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.
But don't worry—at least not too much. Even though fewer renewable power systems (excluding large hydroelectric projects, which BNEF doesn't count in this analysis) were installed last year, we were using more of it: Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of all the power generated worldwide in 2013, up from 7.8 percent in 2012. BNEF estimated that renewables saved 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to keeping 252.6 millioncars off the road.
In 2013, renewables saved 252.6 million cars worth of carbon emissions.
There are two forces at work behind the dropping investment figures, one a good news story and the other not so much. The good news is that 80 percent of the investment decline came thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy technology, primarily solar panels, according to BNEF Advisory Board Chairman Michael Liebreich. The cost of a rooftop solar system in California, for example, which is a good barometer of national trends, has fallen by a third just since 2010. The remaining 20 percent was due to a drop in actual construction activity, thanks to the uncertain fate of government subsidies and general economic sluggishness, especially in Europe.
Still, Liebreich told the clean-energy CEOs and investors gathered here this morning that Bloomberg's proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015. Even last year, renewables accounted for more than 40 percent of all the new power installations (including coal plants, nuke plants, etc.) built in 2013. In other words, any time a new power system gets built, it's increasingly likely to be renewable and not something dirtier.
"This is about a future that's structured differently than the past," Liebreich said.
The global trends weren't spread evenly across countries. Even though China's overall investment dropped, it still managed to surpass, for the first time ever, the sum spent by all of Europe, where a stagnant economy led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to cut spending on clean-energy subsidies. China is the world's top renewables investor, spending $56 billion on it in 2013 (the United States is at $35.8 billion).
In the US, the dip in investment hid a couple other important milestones: Last month California, the nation's biggest solar market, broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days. And in January, the United States got an all-time record 4.8 percent of its power from wind turbines, according to BNEF.
Exxon's new climate report says the company plans to extract all its proved fossil fuel reserves.
ExxonMobil has 25.2 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in its current reserves, it's going to extract and sell all of it, and isn't expecting any meddling climate regulations to get in the way.
That's the main takeaway of a report the company released this week to its investors, examining the risk that greenhouse gas emissions rules in the US and worldwide might pose to its fossil fuel assets. Exxon made headlines a couple weeks back when it promised to issue the report after facing pressure from shareholders led by Arjuna Capital, a sustainable wealth management firm.
If stricter limits on carbon pollution or high carbon taxes force energy companies to keep their holdings buried underground, the thinking among environmental economists goes, it could topple the companies' value and leave investors holding the bag. The result, economists warn, would be a collapse of the so-called "carbon bubble."
Some big energy companies (including Exxon) have already nodded to this problem, by building a theoretical carbon price into their projected balance sheets. But this report is the first time a large oil and gas company has published a detailed assessment of its own climate risk exposure, according to the New York Times.
The report doesn't present a very optimistic view of the prospects for aggressive climate action by world leaders.
"We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 'stranded'," the report says. "Stranded assets" is a term climate economists use to refer to fossil fuel reserves that could be stuck in the ground if countries around the world implement sufficiently stringent carbon regulations to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—a threshold agreed to at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen. The amount of carbon humans can release without exceeding this limit—roughly 485 billion metric tons of carbon beyond what we've already emitted—is often called the "carbon budget."
Exxon's report suggests that its planners don't believe serious carbon limits will be on the books anytime soon, leaving the company free to burn through its reserves of oil and gas. That's a disconcerting vision to come just on the heels of Sunday's new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which predicted a nightmarish future if greenhouse gas emissions aren't slowed soon.
"The reserves are going to be able to turn into money, because they're assuming there isn't going to be a policy change," said Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Climate Programs David Hawkins. "They're definitely saying that no matter how bad it gets, the world's addiction to fossil fuels will be so overwhelming that the governments of the world will just suck it up and let people suffer."
Should politicians and pundits who deny climate change be held criminally liable for the misinformation they spread? Gawker's Adam Weinstein—our friend and former colleague—thinks so, and has called for the arrest of outspoken deniers. "Those denialists should face jail," Weinstein writes. "They should face fines. They should face lawsuits from the classes of people whose lives and livelihoods are most threatened by denialist tactics."
Predictably, the denier crowd isn't buying the argument. A post on the Heartland Institute's website links Weinstein to "liberal fascism": "Liberals who are that soaked in the ideology of catastrophic man-caused global warming are fascists. Full stop." Even those normally on Weinstein's climate-change-believing side are pouring scorn in the comments section: "I also want a unicorn. One that shoots rainbow-colored lasers out of its ass. Since, y'know, we're talking about wish-fulfillment that will never, ever happen."
So who's right? Much as we like the spirit of Weinstein's argument, ultimately, we disagree with its premise. Here's why:
Supplies of some of the world's most important staple crops could drop, thanks to global warming.
The impacts of climate change are likely to be "severe, pervasive, and irreversible," the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said Sunday night in Yokohama, Japan, as the world's leading climate experts released a new survey of how our planet is likely to change in the near future, and what we can do about it.
Here's what you need to know:
We're already feeling the impacts of climate change. Glaciers are already shrinking, changing the courses of rivers and altering water supplies downstream. Species from grizzly bears to flowers have shifted their ranges and behavior. Wheat and maize yields may have dropped. But as climate impacts become more common and tangible, they're being matched by an increasing global effort to learn how to live with them: The number of scientific studies on climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation more than doubled between 2005, before the previous IPCC report, and 2010. Scientists and policymakers are "learning through doing, and evaluating what you've done," said report contributor Kirstin Dow, a climate policy researcher at the University of South Carolina. "That's one of the most important lessons to come out of here."
Heat waves and wildfires are major threats in North America. Europe faces freshwater shortages, and Asia can expect more severe flooding from extreme storms. In North America, major threats include heat waves and wildfires, which can cause death and damage to ecosystems and property. The report names athletes and outdoor workers as particularly at risk from heat-related illnesses. As the graphic below shows, coastal flooding is also a key concern.
James West/Climate Desk
Globally, food sources will become unpredictable, even as population booms. Especially in poor countries, diminished crop production will likely lead to increased malnutrition, which already affects nearly 900 million people worldwide. Some of the world's most important staples—maize, wheat, and rice—are at risk. The ocean will also be a less reliable source of food, with important fish resources in the tropics either moving north or going extinct, while ocean acidification eats away at shelled critters (like oysters) and coral. Shrinking supplies and rising prices will cause food insecurity, which can exacerbate preexisting social tensions and lead to conflict.
Coastal communities will increasingly get hammered by flooding and erosion. Tides are already rising in the US and around the world. As polar ice continues to melt and warm water expands, sea level rise will expose major metropolitan areas, military installations, farming regions, small island nations, and other ocean-side places to increased damage from hurricanes and other extreme storms. Sea level rise brings with it risks of "death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods," the report says.
We'll see an increase in climate refugees and, possibly, climate-related violence. The report warns that both extreme weather events and longer-term changes in climate can lead to the displacement of vulnerable populations, especially in developing parts of the world. Climate change might also "indirectly increase" the risks of civil wars and international conflicts by exacerbating poverty and competition for resources.
Climate change is expected to make people less healthy. According to the report, we can expect climate change to have a negative impact on health in many parts of the world, especially poorer countries. Why? Heat waves and fires will cause injury, disease and death. Decreased food production will mean more malnutrition. And food- and water-borne diseases will make more people sick.
We don't know how much adaptation is going to cost. The damage we're doing to the planet means that human beings are going to have to adapt to the changing climate. But that costs money. Unfortunately, studies that estimate the global cost of climate adaptation "are characterized by shortcomings in data, methods, and coverage," according to the IPCC. But from the "limited evidence" available, the report warns that there's a "gap" between "global adaptation needs and the funds available."
There's still time to reduce the impacts of global warming...if we cut our emissions. Here's the good news: The IPCC says that the impacts of climate change—and the costs of adaptation—will be "reduced substantially" if we cut our emissions of greenhouse gases.
A brand-new Tesla Model S comes off the line in 2012.
Electric vehicle sales in New Jersey ran out of batteries earlier this month, when the Chris Christie administration voted to ban car manufacturers from selling directly to drivers. The companies must now use third-party dealers. The ban applies to all car manufacturers, but seemed particularly aimed at Tesla, which had been in negotiations with the administration for months to sell electric cars straight from its own storefronts in the state.
The move was a win for the state's surprisingly powerful auto dealer lobby and a loss for one of the country's biggest electric car makers. But it also cemented New Jersey's place as a non-contender for the real prize: a $5 billion battery "gigafactory" that Tesla plans to begin construction on later this year. With an estimated 6,500 employees, the factory will likely become a keystone of the United State's clean energy industry and an economic boon for its host state. Now, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada are scrambling to get picked, and last week Republican legislators in Arizona began to try pushing their state to the top of the pile.
Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated."
It's the latest sign that, at least at the state level, the clean energy industry's best friend might be the GOP. Newt Gingrich quickly pounced on Christie after the direct sales ban for "artificially" insulating car dealers, just weeks after calling for John Kerry to resign after Kerry named climate change as a principle challenge of the generation. On Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated" nearly a year after a Democrat-backed bill to change the policy was killed.
New Jersey and Texas aren't the only states where you can't buy a Tesla car directly from the company: Arizona and Maryland also have direct sales bans. But a bill passed out of committee in Arizona's GOP-controlled Senate last week would reverse the state's position and allow electric vehicle companies to sell directly out of their showrooms. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Peterson (R-Gilbert) said he was spurred by the New Jersey situation to amend what he sees as a creeping assault on free market principles.
"For me, it's not about Tesla or electric cars," he said. "For me, a big concern I have now is we are limiting someone's choice."
But despite backing from some prominent Arizona Republicans (Sen. John McComish told the Arizona Daily Star he didn't see why the state should "prevent someone else who has a better idea from making an effort to enter that industry"), Warren said he's faced opposition from others who see the bill as damaging to the state's traditional car market or a handout to Tesla, arguments that swayed the decision in New Jersey.
"I have a tough time understanding why Republicans are opposed to it, because free markets are such a big part of the platform," he said. "States that moved away from this have made a big mistake."