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.
The construction site of a Japanese-financed coal plant in Kudgi, India
Japan is at it again. Back in December, the country got caught trying to pass off $1 billion worth of investments in coal-fired power plants in Indonesia as "climate finance"—that is, funding to fight climate change. Coal plants, of course, are the world's single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Japanese officials now say they are also counting $630 million in loans for coal plants in Kudgi, India, and Matarbari, Bangladesh, as climate finance. The Kudgi project has been marred by violent clashes between police and local farmers who fear the plant will pollute the environment.
Tokyo argues that the projects are climate-friendly because the plants use technology that burns coal more efficiently, reducing their carbon emissions compared to older coal plants. Also, Japanese officials stress that developing countries need coal power to grow their economies and expand access to electricity.
Putting aside Japan's assumption that developing countries need coal-fired power plants (a view still under much debate by energy-focused development economists), the real issue here is that there isn't an official, internationally recognized definition of "climate finance." In broad strokes, it refers to money a country is spending to address the problem of climate change, through measures to either mitigate it (i.e., emit less carbon dioxide from power plants, vehicles, etc.) or adapt to it (building sea walls or developing drought-tolerant seeds, for example). But there remains little transparency or oversight for what exactly a country can count toward that end.
The reason that matters is because climate finance figures are a vital chip in international climate negotiations. At a UN climate meeting in Peru late last year, Japan announced that it had put $16 billion into climate finance since 2013. Likewise, President Barack Obama last year pledged $3 billion toward the UN's Green Climate Fund, plus several billion more for climate-related initiatives in his proposed budget. Other countries have made similar promises.
Each of these commitments is seen as a quantitative reflection of how seriously a country takes climate change and how far they're willing to go to address it, and there's always pressure to up the ante. And these promises from rich countries are especially important because in many cases the countries most affected by climate change impacts are developing ones that are the least equipped to do anything about it—and least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that caused global warming in the first place. But the whole endeavor starts to look pretty hollow and meaningless if it turns out that "climate finance" actually refers to something as environmentally dubious as a coal plant.
These numbers will take on increasing significance in the run-up to the major climate summit in Paris in December, which is meant to produce a wide-reaching, meaningful international climate accord. So now more than ever, maximum transparency is vital.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a bold solution for any state that doesn't like President Barack Obama's flagship plan to slash carbon emissions: Just ignore it. The new rule, issued under the Clean Air Act, aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to devise a plan to cut the carbon intensity (pollution per unit of energy) of its power sector. By simply ignoring the mandate, McConnell reasoned, states could delay taking steps like shuttering or retrofitting coal-fired power plants until the rules get killed by the Supreme Court (even though the chances of that happening are pretty remote).
Last week, McConnell justified his unusual suggestion that state regulators deliberately ignore federal law by arguing that the rules themselves are illegal. And yesterday, he took his campaign to a new level by introducing—on behalf of GOP co-sponsors Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah)—an amendment to the Senate's massive budget bill. It would allow any state to opt out of the rule if that state's governor or legislature decides that complying would raise electric bills, would impact electricity reliability, or would result in any one of a litany of other hypothetical problems. The amendment could get a vote later this week.
Meanwhile, over in the House, Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have introduced a bill along essentially the same lines, which is set to to be debated by the Energy and Power Subcommittee, which Whitfield chairs, next month.
Republicans are pitching these proposals as necessary steps to protect Americans from the power-hungry, climate-crazed Obama administration. But if passed, they might do more to protect the interests of coal companies. In fact, the Portman amendment introduced by McConnell explicitly allows states to opt out if the rules would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity"—in other words, if they require the early retirement of any power plants. The apparent justification is that in order to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency, states will have to quickly implement sweeping changes to their power system that could leave residents with expensive, unreliable power.
In reality, many energy economists (not to mention utility companies themselves) have found that the range of options states have to comply with the EPA—such as mandating better energy efficiency and building more renewable energy—are more than enough to keep the lights on and bills stable, while simultaneously burning less coal. (Meanwhile, regardless of any new EPA rules, coal is already on a precipitous and probably irreversible decline thanks largely to the recent glut of cheap natural gas.)
Both bills also work on the assumption that the rules grossly overstep the EPA's authority by extending beyond coal-fired smokestacks to the whole power system. That question is likely to be at the heart of the inevitable court battles over the rule. But as leading environmental lawyer Richard Revesz testified to a House committee this month, wide-reaching plans like this have been successfully implemented under the Clean Air Act for other pollutants like sulfur and mercury throughout the legislation's 40-year history.
In any case, giving states the option to opt out of federal air quality rules essentially undermines the entire premise of the Clean Air Act, probably the most powerful piece of environmental legislation ever passed. As Natural Resources Defense Council policy chief David Doniger put it yesterday: "These bills would force us back to the dark days half a century ago when powerful polluters had a free hand to poison our air, because states were unwilling or unable to protect their citizens."
Under current utility pricing schemes, a poor family of four in California's AC-dependent Central Valley can end up paying rates far above the national average—while a Google-employed bachelor millionaire gets a bargain.
Power companies' beef with solar boils down to a clever payment system that was largely responsible for bringing about the solar boom in the first place—a practice known as net metering. Most solar homes aren't actually "off the grid": They stay connected to transmission lines, using regular power when their panels aren't operating (like at night). But they also feed electricity into the grid when they produce more than they can use.
Sounds great, right? Not really, say the power companies. They pay solar homeowners for their excess kilowatts—but argue homeowners aren't paying their fair share for grid maintenance. That has utilities in revolt, and the fight has reached a fever pitch in Northern California, where the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, serves more residential solar homes than any other.
Like many utilities, PG&E charges customers on a multitiered price scheme—the more electricity you use, the more you pay per unit. That can incentivize power hogs to conserve, but it can also mean that a poor family of four in California's AC-dependent Central Valley can end up paying rates far above the national average (and what it actually costs PG to serve them), while a Google-employed bachelor millionaire gets a bargain. If that tech dude decides to install solar panels, he pays even less—even though he still uses the grid.
To be fair, customers who generate their own electricity also save the utilities money, causing less wear and tear on transmission lines and less power lost along the way. But a study commissioned by California's Legislature found that in the Golden State at least, these benefits do not fill the hole left by lost revenue. Net metering cost the state's privately owned utilities $254 million in 2012, a price tag estimated to jump to $1.1 billion per year by 2020 as an estimated 500,000 more homes go solar.
The solar industry shot back with a study of its own, arguing that those costs are minor compared with the roughly $32 billion that California'smajorutilities earned in 2013 and that, for PG&E, the problem is not really caused by solar but by the huge gap—about threefold—between the company's lowest and highest rate tiers. Since solar is attractive to high-tier customers, who stand to save the most money, each one who saves by installing a system is a big blow to the utility's bottom line. Smooth out the rate tiers, the study suggests, and the problem disappears.
In the future, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources—like data flowing into a server from many places.
In 2013, California lawmakers told the state's utilities to do just that. PG&E's proposed solution, set to be voted on by state regulators in the spring, would reduce the number of price tiers and add a fixed monthly grid maintenance surcharge. The problem is that the fixed charge will erode the cost advantages of going solar, since you can't avoid it just by using less power from the grid. Sanjay Ranchod, a policy analyst for the solar installer SolarCity, sees the change as a sneaky way for the utilities to kneecap the competition. Imposing a fixed monthly charge, he says, is "one way you can inhibit the growth of distributed solar."
Similar battles are playing out from Utah to Wisconsin, as utilities fight to roll back net metering, restructure their rate systems, or impose special fees for solar users—and it's easy to see why power companies are sweating. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the gap between the cost of maintaining the US grid and the available funds will grow by $11 billion per year through 2020, since the revenue streams utilities have traditionally relied on to pay for those costs—investments in big power plants they can recover through increased sales—are drying up.
John Farrell, a program director at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argues that to succeed down the line, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources (much like data flowing into a server from many places) and investing in technology that helps consumers use power more efficiently. "There's no outcome 10 or 20 years from now that looks anything like what utilities have been before," Farrell says. "It's going to happen anyway, and you just have to choose whether you're gonna like it or not."
After 20 years at the helm of one of the United Kingdom's most influential newspapers, Alan Rusbridger is about to step down as editor of the Guardian. He's not going quietly: In an op-ed a couple weeks ago, Rusbridger pledged to use his waning weeks to launch a full-out war on climate change:
So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian's best resources to describe what is happening…For the purposes of our coming coverage, we will assume that the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming. We will leave the sceptics and deniers to waste their time challenging the science. The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics…
We will look at who is getting the subsidies and who is doing the lobbying. We will name the worst polluters and find out who still funds them. We will urge enlightened trusts, investment specialists, universities, pension funds and businesses to take their money away from the companies posing the biggest risk to us. And, because people are rightly bound to ask, we will report on how the Guardian Media Group itself is getting to grips with the issues.
The series kicked off with a pair of excerpts from journalist Naomi Klein's recent book on the tension between capitalism and the climate crisis.* Over the next few months it will include investigative features, daily news stories, videos and podcasts, and even original artwork and poetry. The pieces will appear not just on the paper's environment pages, but across all sections, from business and tech to lifestyle and the arts. The overarching idea is that from now until Rusbridger's departure in June, any climate story that any reporter has had kicking around but has never had time to tackle will get priority treatment.
"The media have not done a service to their readers in explaining what's really at stake here."
But the centerpiece is all about the penultimate sentence in the excerpt above: "We will urge…" This week the Guardian kicked off a petition calling on the world's two largest charitable organizations, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to divest their financial holdings from the world's 200 top fossil fuel companies. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had gathered over 94,000 signatures and earned the support of the country's energy minister.
If that sounds a lot like straight-up activism, that's because it is.
Rusbridger proposed the petition a few months ago at a meeting that included a who's-who of the paper's top editors, designers, and website coders, said James Randerson, an assistant national news editor who handles climate reporting.
"There were some voices who questioned whether a campaign was the best use of the Guardian's voice," Randerson said, "because the Guardian is about reporting and uncovering things that people can use in advancing an agenda." But Rusbridger's argument, Randerson said, was: "We've tried to do that for quite a while, and we needed to do something that had a bit more cut-through. We felt that it was time to take that step."
The idea of a newspaper undertaking an openly activist campaign straight from the playbook of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club might seem strange to American audiences, who are accustomed to news outlets at least purporting to adhere to some degree of journalistic objectivity. But in the UK, newspapers taking a step across the line between news and activism is, well, less newsworthy. In 2014 the Guardian waged a similar campaign against female genital mutilation. Prior to the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, the Guardian convinced 56 newspapers from around the globe to publish a front-page editorial calling for climate action. Randerson also characterized the paper's extensive reporting on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency as a kind of unofficial campaign against state surveillance. And the Times of London has an ongoing campaign to promote safety for urban cyclists, inspired by an accident that nearly killed one of its reporters.
Randerson said the campaign won't dampen the editorial rigor applied to reporting, editing, and fact-checking news stories.
Is it time for the Washington Post and the New York Times to launch climate petitions of their own? Randerson wouldn't say, but he did argue that especially in the United States, "the media have not done a service to their readers in explaining what's really at stake here."
Now we get a chance to see if a more direct approach does the trick.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Naomi Klein's affiliation.