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Bionic Planet: Your Guide to the New Reality

Earth. We broke it; we own it; and nothing is as it was: not the trees, not the seas – not the forests, farms, or fields – and not the global economy that depends on all of these. Bionic Planet is your guide to the Anthropocene, the new epoch defined by man's impact on Earth, and in each episode, we examine a different aspect of this new reality: sometimes financial, sometimes moral, but always practical.
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Now displaying: May, 2017
May 30, 2017

With the United Kingdom on the brink of leaving the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS), the United States locked in the inertia of a Donald Trump presidency, and populism stoking fears of slackening commitment to meeting the climate challenge, support for carbon markets is coming from two once-unlikely sources: namely, risk-adverse corporate boards and China, according to the International Emission Trading Association’s (IETA) annual Greenhouse-Gas Market Sentiment survey, which was released last week at the Innovate4Climate conference in Barcelona one day after Ecosystem Marketplace’s latest survey of voluntary carbon market practitioners, Unlocking Potential: State of Voluntary Carbon Markets 2017.

The Ecosystem Marketplace report identified transactions for roughly 63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) last year, including the 1 billionth metric ton transacted since the first State of Voluntary Carbon Markets Report in 2006. That represents a 24 percent drop from 2015, in part because two large participants failed to respond to the survey.

The total value was $191.3 million, and the report comes as governments around the world begin scaling up mandatory cap-and-trade programs to accelerate emission-reductions under the Paris Climate Agreement. In the past, governments have used voluntary carbon programs to incubate mandatory trading systems like the one currently underway in California. There are currently no plans for such incubation efforts, but the Dutch government recently became the latest government to formally endorse voluntary markets as a way to test new strategies and promote emission-reductions at home. At the same time, some voluntary offset types could be recognized under the aviation industry’s global cap-and-trade program, which kicks in after 2020.

The Need for a PR Offensive

The IETA report, which is built on a survey of 135 IETA members from across the globe and conducted by PwC, led to calls for a major “PR offensive” to counter populist rhetoric and anti-science propaganda, which reporter Jane Meyer ties to Koch Brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, and the DeVos and Coors families in her book “Dark Money“.

“The high of seeing the Paris Agreement enter into force last year was tempered by an increase in populist political movements that have pushed climate change down the agenda,” says IETA President and CEO Dirk Forrister. “While the changing political headwinds are cause for concern, we are encouraged by those that are stepping up to lead on climate action. Nationalism and isolationism won’t solve this global problem.”

Still, 77% of respondents said that climate change is a board-level priority, and 90% said board-level engagement has either increased or stayed the same in the past year.

On the voluntary carbon front, the majority of offsets sold came from programs that save endangered forests using mechanisms collectively known as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus other land-use initiatives) and wind projects. Landfill methane projects followed as another top project type.

A disturbing 54.4 MtCO2e of offsets went unsold.

In addition to the above podcast, Hamrick will appear in two webinars we’re hosting on June 6th and 7th. For more resources and to download the free report, visit this page.

May 11, 2017

One hundred and forty-four countries have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, and 143 of them say they'll stay-in-it – even if Donald Trump pulls the United States out. But staying in and delivering what you stayed in to do are two different things. One way to track progress is to track laws, and a newly-updated database tracks over 1200 of them.

11 May 2017 | The United States may be backsliding on climate under President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, but the country still has 8 federal laws related to climate change and 6 climate policies; and hundreds of lawsuits are going on, including 54 under the Clean Air Act alone.

Those numbers come from two databases: “Climate Change Laws of the World”, housed at the London School of Economics, and “US Climate Change Litigation”, housed at Colombia University.

Together, they track more than 1,200 climate change or climate change-relevant laws worldwide – up from a mere 60 in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol came into force. The LSE has spent the last few months combing through the data, and published their findings on May 9.

Laws as Proxy for Progress

Countries won't officially take stock of their progress under the Paris Agreement until 2023, when they sit down and see who did what and how everyone can do more, but at this point we don't even know exactly what activities countries will be taking stock of. 

That “stocktaking” is one of the things negotiators are negotiating this week and next in Bonn, Germany, but for now we just have proxies – like renewable-energy growth, rates of deforestation, and of course legal frameworks.

May 8, 2017

Climate negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany, the next two weeks to move the Paris Climate Agreement forward – even as Republicans in the United States seem intent on moving it backward. Most countries say they want the US to stay in the agreement, but there’s reason to believe it will be better off without us.

8 May 2017 | The dark-haired man looked haggard and world-weary as he leaned towards the microphone.

“We ask for your leadership,” he told US Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, with cameras running and the world watching.

“We seek your leadership,” he continued. “But if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way!”

The year was 2007, and the young man was Kevin Conrad, who represents Papua New Guinea in UN climate talks. The place was Bali, Indonesia, where George W Bush’s US negotiating team had been gunking up talks with silly games and doublespeak. The words perfectly captured the exasperation in the room, and delegates roared in rare applause. Bush’s team backed down.

But ten years on, it’s déjà vu all over again, except this time the world isn’t haggling over how to fix the climate mess. Instead, negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany this week and next to begin implementing the bottom-up fix that the world has already agreed on – a fix the United States was instrumental in creating: namely, the Paris Climate Agreement, which is a flexible framework that gives every country the leeway to meet the climate challenge as it sees fit.

It does require the creation of science-based rules for measuring and monitoring emissions, and the world’s media should be focused on the substantive efforts to develop a detailed rulebook for handling international cooperation on emission-reductions. Instead, however, the Trump Show has stolen the spotlight, and media is preoccupied with the question of whether Trump will or will not pull out of the landmark accord.

Most reports focus on the tragedy of him leaving, but some insiders fear the opposite: namely, that he’ll stay in and sabotage progress.

Gus Silva-Chavez is one of those. A longtime NGO observer, Silva-Chavez now runs the Forest Trends REDDX initiative, which tracks carbon finance – finance that depends on accurate measurements of greenhouse-gas emissions and reductions, as well as rigorous tracking of international carbon transfers.

It’s complicated stuff, but 99 percent of the work has already been done. Silva-Chavez, however, fears the Trump team will either complicate it even more or try to “streamline” it, which would undermine the environmental integrity of the system.

“They could go in and say, ‘The UN is not going to tell the US what to do,’” he says in an interview to appear on today’s episode of the Bionic Planet podcast. “They could say, ‘We don’t need an extensive, detailed rulebook. All we need are the basics, and we’re not going to agree to anything more.’”

That, he says, could slow the talks without formally appearing to do so, just as Republican strategists undermined civil rights while formally protecting “freedom”. Also, he adds, while the US stands alone now, any opposition could provide cover for other countries to also bail or stall.

“Right now, on the record, every country is saying the right thing: that they’ll toe the line,” he says. “But that could change if the US breaks its word.”

If that sounds far-fetched, we need just look back to the bad old days of the second Bush administration, which handed negotiations over to a previously unknown and famously unqualified congressional staffer named Harlan Watson.

The Triumvirate of Obstruction

Watson was a human wrench tossed into the gears of global diplomacy by ExxonMobil for the sole purpose of grinding those gears to a halt. For that task, we was actually well-suited, and his name elicits such visceral feelings of disgust among those who were there that it probably warrants a trigger warning. The parallels to today are frightening: ExxonMobil inserted Watson into the Bush administration via a fax “which Exxon Mobil spokesman Russ Roberts said was sent by the company but not written by any of its employees,” as Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin put it – foreshadowing the daily doublespeak that Sean Spicer now spews at every White House presser.

Watson, along with Dobriansky and energy industry lawyer James Connoughton, formed an unholy Triumvirate of Obstruction that neutered the US on the world stage, and as an example, you can look to Bali: after months of stalling and flip-flopping, Watson said the US would only sign an agreement without targets or numbers because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one direction.”

After another collective groan from delegates, it was former US Vice-President Al Gore’s turn to speak.

“My own country, the United States, is mainly responsible for obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now….One year and 40 days from today, there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States.”

He argued that even a watered-down agreement was better than nothing, so delegates passed an agreement that met all of Watson’s criteria, but Dobriansky still rejected it, prompting Conrad’s famous, exasperated retort and Dobriansky’s about-face.

As we all know now, Barack Obama won the next election, and his team incrementally helped shepherd the talks that resulted in the Paris Agreement – an incredibly flexible approach to fixing the climate mess that encourages a race to the top instead of binding targets.

Optimists like former Dutch negotiator Jos Cozijnsen point out that, from a rational perspective, the United States has no reason to either leave or torpedo the agreement.

“It’s not rational… and this is not Kyoto,” says Cozijnsen, who now advises environmental NGOs, referencing the Kyoto Protocol. “You can’t block anything anymore, and there is no reason for the US to do so.”

The Trump team, however, isn’t rational, either; and while they can’t formally block, they can gunk things up. Or they can get out of the way.

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