Friday, October 24, 2014

Why Divest from Fossil Fuels

                     Comment by Nov. 2, 2014
Although the following note was addressed to the readers of a special magazine the message is general and applies to all.

A Note from Bill McKibben to Tikkun readers, members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and our friends and allies

Tikkun readers don’t need my financial advice – I’m not exactly a stock market guru. Still, I did write the first book for a general audience on climate change (way back in 1989), and I did found the first big grassroots climate campaign (, so perhaps I can make a few observations about why the fossil fuel divestment effort has become the fastest-growing effort of its kind in history, according to Oxford University. And about why we need your congregations, your colleges, and your cities to join in this effort.
1. The fossil fuel companies aren’t normal companies. In the last few years we’ve come to understand that they have five times as much carbon in their reserves as we can safely burn if the world is to meet its agreed climate target of limiting rises in temperature to below 2 degrees. That is to say, if they carry out their business plan, the planet tanks. There’s no longer any real dispute about this – everyone right up to the World Bank has confirmed the math.
2. What this means in turn is that if you hold these stocks you in effect are wagering that the planet will do nothing to limit climate change. If we tried as a world to meet that two-degree limit – if we followed the principles put forth by all our leading religious and scientific bodies on this issue – the value of these stocks would plummet. HSBC, the world’s second-biggest bank, found that the values of these stocks would be cut in half by effective climate action.
3. Usually, dealing with companies doing something wrong, we can apply lesser kinds of pressure: proxy voting, say, on shareholder resolutions. But in this case there’s not a flaw in the business plan that can be corrected – the flaw is the business plan. Responding to such pressure earlier this year, Exxon – richest company on earth – said it would make no adjustments and thought it was ‘highly unlikely’ that they’d be restrained from using their fuel. That is, they said they’d burn the planet, and they didn’t think anyone could stop them
4. These companies and their investors also play a crucial role in sustaining the current system. If you invest in Exxon, you’ve helped send millions to climate-denial ‘think tanks.’ If you invest in Chevron, you helped send the largest corporate campaign contribution in history, designed to make sure that climate deniers kept continued control of the Congress
5. These positions are immoral. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage. Don’t trust me – listen to Desmond Tutu, perhaps the most revered faith leader on the planet at the moment, who earlier this year sent out a clarion call for divestment, especially for those of us who take the Scriptures seriously. “It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden ‘to till and to keep it,’” he said. “To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.” If, like me, you’ve traveled to places already devastated by climate change, then you know what he means. The one big study on this subject predicts that fossil fuel will take 100 million lives by 2030.
6. Divestment is not a single easy solution to global warming. It will not bankrupt the fossil fuel companies. It will, however, begin the process of politically bankrupting them, and making it harder for them to bend Washington to their will. In May, Christiana Figueres pleaded with faith leaders in a speech in London to divest immediately. By divesting, she said, faith groups can provide a “moral compass” to the planet’s other leaders. “Leaders of faith groups, from Christians and Muslims to Hindus, Jews and Buddhists have a responsibility and an opportunity,” she said.
7. And they can fulfill that responsibility without undue financial risk. In fact, study after study has shown that if endowments had divested of fossil fuels a decade ago they would have made far better returns over the period. And investors of all stripes are now calculating the risk that comes with the ‘carbon bubble’ – all those reserves of coal, gas, and oil that can’t be burned if we’re to come to terms with climate change
8. That’s why Anglican dioceses across Australia and New Zealand have divested, and why the United Church of Christ has urged its member congregations to divest, and why an astonishing array of cities (Seattle, Providence and dozens more) and colleges (from tiny Unity College to mighty Stanford) have begun the process as well. Here is a chance for the Tikkun readership, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the community you represent, to show its solidarity with young people and with poor people and with the rest of Creation. I hope you take it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Greenhouse of the Future

                                                   Comments due by Oct. 26, 2014
Are we grasping at straws or would the PPU, plant production unit, agricultural process prove to be significant ? One thing is clear though, if the global population is to add a  few billion more hungry mouths to the global food table then we need to find new and different ways to provide nourishment. Can we do that ?

– The challenge of ensuring adequate, nutrient-rich food for an expanding global population is a daunting one, especially given constraints on key resources like water and agricultural land. As it stands, the two leading approaches to enriching and enlarging the world’s food supply are genetic engineering and industrial processing with additives and chemicals. Now, a third solution is emerging: vertical farming.
Academic studies have found that locally cultivated vertical farms – stacked greenhouses that use artificial light to grow crops – can provide considerable savings, which could then be passed along to consumers. But questions about such farms’ fundamental economics, especially for commodity crops, have persisted.
That may be about to change. About a decade ago, four Dutch engineers – three of whom were also horticultural experts – initiated the “plant paradise” project to learn how high-value herbs, vegetables, and berries (not grains or tree fruits) grow best. They studied how much light green beans need to thrive; which wavelengths produce the most delicious tomatoes; what temperatures cause basil to flourish; and which combination of nutrients creates the healthiest cauliflower. Through persistent experimentation, they began developing recipes for each kind of plant, along with a blueprint for “plant production units” (PPUs) that can provide these ideal growing conditions wherever they are installed.
The project’s potential as a scalable business was enticing, spurring the four researchers to found PlantLab in 2010. Four years later, the company employs 35 people, including a chief partnership officer who previously managed supply-chain logistics for Flora Holland, the world’s largest flower market. The founders remain the company’s only shareholders; they want to retain control of the technology, while working with partners and investors to build the operating units.
Last year, PlantLab began the construction – set to be completed next month – of a $22-million, 200,000-square-foot (18,600 square meters) headquarters, including multiple PPUs and research units, inside the shell of a retail food-distribution warehouse 60 miles south of Amsterdam.
PlantLab’s pitch is that a PPU the size of a city block and just a few stories high could produce the same volume of high-quality crops as a large farm, while consuming fewer resources. The only water that leaves a PPU does so in fruits and vegetables; there is no evaporation into the air, no runoff into the ground, and no pesticides or weeds. As a result, the PPUs consume only about 10% as much water as traditional farms.
Moreover, like 3D printing, PPUs allow production to occur locally (thereby reducing transport costs and wastage) and on demand, under controllable conditions. In other words, any kind of fruit or vegetable can be grown anywhere, year-round (with a lead time of a few weeks). PlantLab proudly shows digitally enhanced photos of the same facility in a city, on a wintry tundra, in a desert, and – highlighting the PPUs’ ostensibly vast long-term potential – on Mars.
Not only do PPUs offer major savings in terms of resources and transportation; they are also not prohibitively expensive to build. Indeed, for something like $100 million, a partner could purchase the required land and construct a 500,000-square-foot (46,450 m2) PPU, with ten growing levels about five feet apart. (Operating costs depend, of course, on local water and electricity prices.)
The resulting farm would employ about 200 people for seeding, growing, harvesting, packaging, sales, logistics, maintenance, and management. And it would supply 50,000 people with a consistently high-quality seven-ounce (198.4 grams) daily requirement of fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground fruits like berries for at least ten years – all in less space that the average multi-story parking lot.
This might sound expensive. But, at just $2,000 per person, the cost is far lower than the $8,000 the average American spends in annual health-care costs. Given that a PPU will last for at least a decade, and offer considerable health benefits to local populations, it is a small price to pay.
If, for example, the world’s vegetable supply more than doubled, fresh, healthy food would become more affordable and accessible. Perhaps demand for corn syrup and processed foods would even decline.
As it stands, the closest approximation to this approach in the United States is marijuana production. With such high-value crops, it is worth honing the details of cultivation to ensure quality and minimize resource consumption. As global water supplies become increasingly scarce, more crops will become “high-value.”
It is not clear whether PlantLab will be the leader of the PPU movement, but it is clearly an important player. If the company’s processes offer all of the benefits that it claims, I hope that its founders license their patents broadly over time.
So why aren’t there already PPUs all over the place? Simply put, businesses, like plants, take time to grow. Part of PlantLab’s new site will be dedicated to Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness/breeding firm. PlantLab is now seeking additional partners in other markets, such as pharma, cosmetics, and food.
Funding for construction will not be the only challenge that PPUs face in getting off the ground. Traditional farmers are likely to view them as unfair competition. The same thing happened to Amazon when it threatened traditional bookstores’ business model, just as it is happening now to Uber as it challenges traditional taxi and limousine services.
But those objecting are the services’ owners, not their workers. Indeed, it seems that at least half of the Uber drivers I have met previously drove taxis. Perhaps half of vertical farms’ operators will be former farm workers, and the other half will be new to agriculture – or perhaps retired marijuana growers.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Water Usage and the California Drought.

                                                        Comments due by Oct. 19, 2014

That California and many other Western states are suffering of a severe drought is a major problem of concern to the residents of the affected states and to the rest of us who depend on the produce of these severely affected areas. None of this is controversial.

My only aim in this post is to highlight the fact that residential water conservation is to be encouraged but that its contributions in the final analysis are meager to say the least. Note that California is estimated to have at its disposal about 82 Million Acre Feet of water each year to be allocated among the various users.
Residential use, both indoors and outdoors amounts to only 5.6 MAF which is only about 7 % of the overall stock of water. The following brief news item about California touts the fact that water conservation efforts have already saved the equivalent of 27 Billion gallons. That is a fact that is not negotiable. But the real issue is how many MAF does that 27 Billion gallon represent?
You do the math: Each acre Foot is equal to 325,851 gallons. which means that 100,000 AF represents 32.5 Billion gallons. Which in essence says that all the water efforts have saved only 0.0012% of the average annual volume used by the state or a 0.0144 % if the effort is to be mainatined over a year.. Let me repeat that I am not arguing that we should not conserve but pointing out that our residential conservation efforts can never even make a dent in the problem that is facing us.


Water conservation efforts across drought-stricken California hit a new high in August, cutting use by 11.5 percent, according to the state’s Water Resources Control Board. About 27 billion gallons of water were saved over the month of August as Californians responded to a call by Gov. Jerry Brown to cut use by 20 percent overall, with no end to the prolonged dry spell in sight. “Many more California communities are taking the drought seriously and making water conservation a priority — and residents are responding,” Felicia Marcus, State Water Board chair, said in a release. “However, while we can hope for rain, we can’t count on it, so we must keep going.” The earliest numbers for October showed nearly 60 percent of California in the highest category of drought, according to an assessmentfrom the National Drought Mitigation Center. Eighty-one percent of California is now in a state of at least “extreme drought,” the second most severe category, up from 11 percent a year ago, with a total of 37,250,000 people affected.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Technology and Climate Negotiations

                                                   Comments due by Oct. 12, 2014

If the world is to solve the climate-change crisis, we will need a new approach. Currently, the major powers view climate change as a negotiation over who will reduce their CO2 emissions (mainly from the use of coal, oil, and gas). Each agrees to small “contributions” of emission reduction, trying to nudge the other countries to do more. The United States, for example, will “concede” a little bit of CO2 reduction if China will do the same.
For two decades, we have been trapped in this minimalist and incremental mindset, which is wrong in two key ways. First, it is not working: CO2 emissions are rising, not falling. The global oil industry is having a field day – fracking, drilling, exploring in the Arctic, gasifying coal, and building new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities. The world is wrecking the climate and food-supply systems at a breakneck pace.
Second, “decarbonizing” the energy system is technologically complicated. America’s real problem is not competition from China; it’s the complexity of shifting a $17.5 trillion economy from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives. China’s problem is not the US, but how to wean the world’s largest, or second largest economy (depending on which data are used) off its deeply entrenched dependence on coal. These are mainly engineering problems, not negotiating problems.
To be sure, both economies could decarbonize if they cut output sharply. But neither the US nor China is ready to sacrifice millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to do so. Indeed, the question is how to decarbonize while remaining economically strong. Climate negotiators cannot answer that question, but innovators like Elon Musk of Tesla, and scientists like Klaus Lackner of Columbia University, can.
Decarbonizing the world’s energy system requires preventing our production of vast and growing amounts of electricity from boosting atmospheric CO2 emissions. It also presupposes a switchover to a zero-carbon transport fleet and a lot more production per kilowatt-hour of energy.
Zero-carbon electricity is within reach. Solar and wind power can deliver that already, but not necessarily when and where needed. We need storage breakthroughs for these intermittent clean-energy sources.
Nuclear power, another important source of zero-carbon energy, will also need to play a big role in the future, implying the need to bolster public confidence in its safety. Even fossil fuels can produce zero-carbon electricity, if carbon capture and storage is used. Lackner is a world leader in new CCS strategies.
Electrification of transport is already with us, and Tesla, with its sophisticated electric vehicles, is capturing the public’s imagination and interest. Yet further technological advances are needed in order to reduce electric vehicles’ costs, increase their reliability, and extend their range. Musk, eager to spur rapid development of the vehicles, made history last week by opening Tesla’s patents for use by competitors.
Technology offers new breakthroughs in energy efficiency as well. New building designs have slashed heating and cooling costs by relying much more on insulation, natural ventilation, and solar power. Advances in nanotechnology offer the prospect of lighter construction materials that require much less energy to produce, making both buildings and vehicles far more energy efficient.
The world needs a concerted push to adopt to low-carbon electricity, not another “us-versus-them” negotiation. All countries need new, low-carbon technologies, many of which are still out of commercial reach. Climate negotiators should therefore be focusing on how to cooperate to ensure that technology breakthroughs are achieved and benefit all countries.
They should take their cue from other cases in which government, scientists, and industry teamed up to produce major changes. For example, in carrying out the Manhattan Project (to produce the atomic bomb during World War II) and the first moon landing, the US government set a remarkable technological goal, established a bold timetable, and committed the financial resources needed to get the job done. In both cases, the scientists and engineers delivered on time.
The example of atomic bombs might seem an unpleasant one, yet it raises an important question: If we ask governments and scientists to cooperate on war technology, shouldn’t we do at least the same to save the planet from carbon pollution?
In fact, the process of “directed technological change,” in which bold objectives are set, milestones are identified, and timelines are put into place, is much more common than many realize. The information-technology revolution that has brought us computers, smart phones, GPS, and much more, was built on a series of industry and government roadmaps. The human genome was mapped through such a government-led effort – one that ultimately brought in the private sector as well. More recently, government and industry got together to cut the costs of sequencing an individual genome from around $100 million in 2001 to just $1,000 today. A dramatic cost-cutting goal was set, scientists went to work, and the targeted breakthrough was achieved on time.
Fighting climate change does depend on all countries having confidence that their competitors will follow suit. So, yes, let the upcoming climate negotiations spell out shared actions by the US, China, Europe, and others.
But let’s stop pretending that this is a poker game, rather than a scientific and technological puzzle of the highest order. We need the likes of Musk, Lackner, General Electric, Siemens, Ericsson, Intel, Electricit√© de France, Huawei, Google, Baidu, Samsung, Apple, and others in laboratories, power plants, and cities around the world to forge the technological breakthroughs that will reduce global CO2 emissions.
There is even a place at the table for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Peabody, Koch Industries, and other oil and coal giants. If they expect their products to be used in the future, they had better make them safe through the deployment of advanced CCS technologies. The point is that targeted and deep decarbonization is a job for all stakeholders, including the fossil-fuel industry, and one in which we must all be on the side of human survival and wellbeing.
(Jeffrey Sachs)