Mandatory Sustainability Reporting Moves Closer to Reality

3 February 2021 | The Trustees of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation met on Monday to review responses to a consultation paper published last year — specifically, the board addressed responses focused on whether there was enough demand for global sustainability standards for the IFRS Foundation should play a role, and, if so, what the requirements for success in doing so. The responses indicate growing and urgent demand to improve the global consistency and comparability in sustainability reporting, as well as strong recognition that urgent steps need to be taken and broad demand for the IFRS Foundation to play a role in this.

IFRS Standards are required in more than 140 jurisdictions, but not in the United States, which follows the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s (FASB’s) Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The two bodies have tended to align over the years, and a move to mandatory sustainability standards could accelerate demand for renewable energy and carbon credits. The announcement comes just days after the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets unveiled a “blueprint” for ensuring that voluntary carbon markets can scale to meet growing demand without sacrificing quality.

Although voluntary reporting of sustainability criteria has soared in the past decade with 90 percent of companies in the S&P 500 index issuing some sort of sustainability report in 2020, there are no mandatory reporting requirements and no standards to ensure reporting is comparable and complete.

The IFRS Foundation began exploring the issue in response to a request from the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) as well as indications from regulators in the United Kingdom and Europe that mandatory reporting would soon be required.

Given this demand, the Trustees have agreed to undertake a further detailed analysis of feedback on the requirements for success and other conditions to be satisfied prior to consideration of whether to establish a new board. The Trustees agreed on the formation of a Trustee Steering Committee to oversee the next phases of work and added an additional key requirement for success—being the need for urgency to deliver global standards, most notably on climate.

Throughout the three-month consultation period, the Trustees led comprehensive outreach programs within their respective jurisdictions to inform their decision-making and to encourage broad participation across all geographies and stakeholder groups. This included more than 400 engagements across 33 jurisdictions, participation in more than 20 public events hosted by third parties and the hosting of webinars that attracted more than 3,000 registered users. Following that outreach, the IFRS Foundation received 576 comment letters from a diverse set of organizations and individuals from around the world. All responses to the consultation paper are publicly available.

The Trustees will be meeting next on 2-4 March 2021. Given the growing and urgent demand, the intention would be for the Trustees to produce a definitive proposal (including a road map with timeline) by the end of September 2021, and possibly leading to an announcement on the establishment of a sustainability standards board at the meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in November 2021.

Unpacking the New “Blueprint” for Bigger (and Better?) Voluntary Carbon Markets

27 January 2021 | After four months of exhaustive consultation among nearly 200 environmental and financial entities, including Ecosystem Marketplace, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) today released its “blueprint” for expanding voluntary carbon markets to support the global transition to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Launched in September by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (pictured) and the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the Taskforce estimates that carbon markets must grow at least 15-fold by 2030 to cut net man-made greenhouse-gas emissions in half by the end of the decade – a goal that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is necessary to prevent average global temperatures from rising to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels.

Such market growth will mean nothing if the underlying credits don’t work or if companies use them to continue emitting, and the Taskforce aims to forge agreement on practices that can help voluntary carbon markets scale up in ways that deliver verified ecological outcomes. The blueprint offers 20 specific actions divided among six topics, ranging from the creation of “Core Carbon Principles” (CCPs) and exchange-traded reference contracts to the establishment of a global regulator to coordinate existing standard-setting bodies. Once CCPs are established, the Taskforce envisions exchange-traded futures contracts that will provide a global reference price for a verified emission reduction as well as ways of valuing “additional attributes” such as habitat conservation and gender equality.

The blueprint identifies several impediments to growth, including the historical lack of climate awareness and the fragmented nature of existing voluntary markets and standards. It recommends ways of moving forward and establishes working groups to further develop recommendations in Phase 2 of the process.

Core Carbon and a Base Reference Price

As Ecosystem Marketplace’s annual State of Voluntary Carbon Markets (SOVCM) reports make clear, the voluntary carbon market is primarily an over-the-counter market, with credits from individual projects being sold bilaterally to intermediaries before finding their way to the public. The Taskforce recognizes that this practice may continue, but it envisions a global reference price similar to those used in other financial markets, especially those related to commodities.

In these markets, exchange-traded instruments – such as futures contracts built around specific baskets of interest rate products or bushels of corn meeting agreed-on grades and delivery points – are traded on a government-regulated exchange to generate a reference price, which in turn is used to set or negotiate prices in other grades or locations. These other grades and locations can result in either a premium or discount to the reference price.

To create the CCPs and market infrastructure, the Taskforce spawned working groups to also develop an umbrella organization that will coordinate existing regulators and standard-setting bodies.

Natural Climate Solutions

Drawing on research from McKinsey & Company and others, the Taskforce identified between eight and 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide credits that could be brought to market annually by 2030, with 65 to 85 percent of them coming from Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) – primarily conservation of endangered forests and peatlands, which accounted for 3.6 billion metric tons per year.

The blueprint, therefore, includes provisions for project-based REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus the enhancement of carbon stocks), but it emphasizes the need to nest such projects in jurisdictional efforts where possible and improve existing safeguards. It also recommends the creation of a supplier/financer matching platform that would make it easier to assess the creditworthiness of small suppliers.

Reduce, Report, Offset

The blueprint encourages consensus on when a company can utilize offsets to meet a net-zero commitment and encourages an approach similar to that championed by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), which the Taskforce summarizes as “Reduce, Report, Offset,” meaning a company should first come clean on its emissions in a verifiable way and create a plan for eliminating them through fuel-switching or other direct measures, then it should submit to audits on its progress, and finally it should use carbon credits to offset those emissions it can’t eliminate internally.

It recommends the creation of a “High Ambition Demand Accelerator for the  Voluntary Carbon Market” (HADA-VCM) that will coordinate with existing efforts such as SBTi, Climate Action 100+,  and the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance (NZAOA) to develop principles for utilizing credits and for marketing offsets at point-of-sale, which critics argue leads to “guilt-free” buying of fossil fuels and other products that generate emissions.

“This is complementary [to direct reductions],” Carney said during a panel discussion World Economic Forum. “it’s one piece of the puzzle, but we need this market.”

Reductions vs Removals

Several issues proved contentious during the consultation process, and the issue of reductions vs removals is one of these. It is likely to remain so in Phase 2.

In early drafts of the blueprint, the Taskforce proposed the creation of two grades of credit based on whether they reduced emissions – by, say, funding low-carbon technologies or conserving forests – or removed greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere – by, say, deploying carbon capture technologies or planting trees.

In early drafts, credits that generated removals were seen as a premium grade over those that generated reductions, largely due to market demand from new buyers. Opponents of the proposal, however, argued that it made little sense to emphasize removals over reductions at this stage, when markets should be utilized to accelerate reductions across the board. Many argued that even differentiation is problematic when natural climate solutions are involved because conservation both reduces emissions and enhances sinks.

In the end, a consensus emerged that reductions and removals should be emphasized now, with a gradual shift to emphasizing removals as trees grow and new technologies mature. The blueprint does, however, group credits into two categories – avoidance/reduction credits and removal/sequestration credits – while not making a quality distinction.

What About Old Credits?

Another contentious issue was what to do with older credits, which are often cheaper than newer ones and represent reductions achieved in the past. The Taskforce initially leaned towards eliminating older credits, as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had done with its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

Many consultation group participants argued that eliminating older offsets would punish organizations that took early action and that older offsets were a legitimate tool for offsetting historical emissions, as many companies are doing.

In the end, the Taskforce chose not to exclude projects based on vintage or start date but to review methodologies against the Core Carbon Principles (CCPs). The exact procedure for reviewing existing methodologies was left for Phase 2.

The Consultation Process: What Next?

The Taskforce published its first public Consultation Document on November 10, with 17 recommendations spread among six topics, and the IIF encouraged all market participants to submit feedback by December 10.

“Exactly how the infrastructure for the voluntary carbon market as outlined in this blueprint will be operationalized is still to be determined,” the blueprint states. “While there are important decisions yet to be made, we want to make sure that the final governance structure adds value and helps to drive further finance towards climate mitigation.”

Biden’s “All of Government” Plan for Climate, Explained

27 January 2021 | President Joe Biden is sending early signals that action on climate change will be front and center to his administration’s agenda, and that his climate policy will be intertwined with his economic plan.

“Biden’s economic agenda is his climate agenda; his climate agenda is his economic agenda,” Sam Ricketts, co-founder of the climate policy group Evergreen and a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank, told Vox.

Though many of Biden’s early actions are centered on speeding up Covid-19 vaccinations and more immediate economic relief for Americans, the White House is positioning its next big policy push on creating jobs through infrastructure. And Biden’s goal is to make his economic recovery green, based on conversations with those familiar with the president’s thinking.

“When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said in a July campaign speech announcing his $2 trillion climate plan.

On Wednesday, Biden signed a set of executive actions meant to begin making this plan a reality. In them, he directed his administration to take a “whole-of-government approach” to combat climate change, which includes — among other initiatives — ordering federal agencies to purchase electricity that is pollution-free, as well as zero emission vehicles, and directing the US Department of Interior to pause entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore.

These new orders come on top of Biden’s day one executive actions to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and directing his agencies to reverse a number of former President Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards.

But Biden’s real stamp on climate will come from intertwining ambitious climate goals like getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 with a bold economic recovery bill — set to be released next month. It will take action by Biden’s White House and Congress to make this plan a reality.

The president’s climate team is headed by two climate czars: White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, who will oversee the nation’s domestic climate policy, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who will represent the US on the world stage when it comes to climate. President Barack Obama’s administration had one climate czar, and experts told Vox that Biden doubling that number and placing several other climate experts in key Cabinet posts signals it’s a pressing priority for the president.

“The era of us having to do climate as this niche set of actions is over,” Josh Freed, the founder of the Climate and Energy Program at the center-left think tank Third Way, told Vox. “I think the thing that is really transformative potentially about this administration is it’s much bigger than a climate bill or a handful of bills.”

Of course, Biden’s aggressive goals to get the US to completely clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 is easier said than done. Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he’ll also have to balance the wants of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy with unions, some of whom are more wary of what it could mean for organized labor — in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Biden has a long way to go, but multiple experts say his ambitious plans coupled with his initial personnel picks are an encouraging start.

“I’ve done this work for a really long time and it was awesome to be a part of the Obama administration, but they’ve put this on steroids,” Carol Browner, who served as Obama’s climate czar and EPA administrator throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, told Vox. “It’s ambitious, it’s proactive, it’s durable action on climate change.”

Biden is hiring a lot of people with a background in climate change

McCarthy and Kerry will work in tandem from the White House. After four years of a Trump administration that treated Obama’s environmental and emissions regulations with a slash-and-burn mentality, they will have to start by undoing a lot of Trump’s actions.

McCarthy, who served as Obama’s EPA administrator from 2013 and 2017, is well-regarded by many environmental groups. “We know rejoining [Paris] won’t be enough,” McCarthy told reporters recently, outlining executive actions by Biden for his agencies to review and renege Trump’s actions on lowering emissions standards, including revoking Trump’s presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“There is enormous opportunity with a whole-of-government approach that this administration is going to take to make meaningful progress,” she added.

Kerry, who served as Obama’s secretary of state and as a close Biden adviser on climate, is a natural fit to represent the US in international climate talks. Climate change is a global issue, and under Trump, the United States took itself out of the international effort to reduce emissions under the Paris agreement. A big part of Kerry’s job will be working to rebuild goodwill with countries wary that the US pulled out of the agreement to begin with. To do that job effectively, he’ll need regular updates from McCarthy on what the federal government is doing at home to drastically lower US emissions.

“The two pieces have to coexist, both the domestic and international,” said Heather Zichal, a former Obama White House staffer who was integral in creating Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “We need to be prepared to say what we’re prepared to do as a country. The international work is once we know what we’re capable of, we’re better able to work with the international community.”

There’s also the potential that two climate czars who both report to the president could disagree over the direction of US climate policy. Kerry’s ability to do his job well will be entirely dependent on the ability of McCarthy and other domestic officials to make progress on climate at home.

In addition to McCarthy and Kerry, Biden selected former Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as a historic pick to lead the US Department of the Interior (Haaland is the first Native American to do so). His pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Regan, the secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Biden selected former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as US secretary of energy. To round out the list, McCarthy’s deputy in the White House is Ali Zaidi, the former New York chair of climate policy and finance.

Ricketts, the co-founder of Evergreen Action, told Vox that this team is “also one that’s demonstrated experience at the state level, and comes from places that are actually making progress. There’s a lot the federal government needs to learn from states.”

The president’s climate-focused picks also go beyond environmental agencies. Brian Deese is Biden’s top economic adviser and director of the National Economic Council, and was a key figure in negotiating the Paris agreement in Obama’s administration.

Biden’s Wednesday executive order charges Deese and McCarthy with leading a new Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, to try to prevent further environmental damage in communities impacted by coal mining, oil drilling and fracking — and see if some of these areas can be converted into hubs for renewable energy.

Some progressive climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement, were wary about Deese because of his time as the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. But Sunrise political director Evan Weber also told Vox that the fact Deese’s appointment to the National Economic Council was being framed around climate, as well as economic growth, was encouraging.

“We do hope there’s central coordination and direction. We see Gina and Ali hopefully as the conductors of the federal government climate symphony,” Weber told Vox recently. “I think that these are very encouraging signs, but personnel is the first step of the puzzle and the proof is going to be in the pudding. How urgent are they going to be in their action, how much more ambitious than Obama?”

Biden could put the full force of the federal government toward fighting climate change

Multiple former Obama administration staffers told Vox that even with all of these appointments, the person who really matters in all of this is Biden himself. Presidents have to be invested in an issue for them to throw the full weight of their administration behind it.

Biden becoming a potential agent of change on climate may be surprising for some; it wasn’t a top issue for the president throughout his decades in the Senate. But climate groups also saw some opportunity: Biden did plenty of work around renewable energy as vice president, especially during his tenure overseeing Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. And like Kerry and McCarthy, Biden is a grandparent who is concerned about what a warming planet will mean for his grandchildren’s future.

Biden’s bullishness on climate also comes in large part from the fact that he sees renewable energy options like wind and solar as having the potential to drive the green economy through power generation. Still, Biden could have his work cut out for him to convince some major unions that endorsed him that an economy completely powered by renewable energy is the way of the future.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently told Vox his union has told Biden’s team “what we think strikes the right balance between doing what we need to do to go green and at the same time not upending or putting a lot of people out of work in the process.”

It also comes from seeing the dire impacts of climate change in historic wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts. Science has never been more clear on our short 10-year window to bring down the earth’s warming or face catastrophic consequences — and many of those impacts can be seen each year.

“Leadership starts from the top,” Zichal told Vox. “The fact Biden has made it clear this is a top priority, we need to leave no stone unturned and move aggressively — that really, really matters.”

Past administrations have typically relegated climate change and environmental issues to a handful of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior.

Using all of the federal government to combat climate change also empowers agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement new sustainability standards for newly constructed or upgraded affordable housing. It means that the Department of Transportation could be charged with setting up more charging stations for electric vehicles, or spend more money on public transportation. And it means that the Department of Agriculture tries to work with the nation’s farmers to reduce the emissions coming from livestock and soils — about 10 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.

The White House and the federal government have a lot of tools they can use to combat climate change, even beyond pushing a green infrastructure package through Congress. In addition to using government regulations to change emissions standards for vehicles and appliances, Biden’s administration also plans to leverage its own buying power through federal procurement. This way, the federal government can spur change in the private sector.

“The government has many different tools; the good news about Biden is he’s looking to use all of them,” Browner said.

The US government is one of the world’s largest consumers, and Biden’s administration is already urging its agencies to buy American. It could also incentivize them to buy sustainably by being an outsize competitor in the free market.

“It’s a market signal of where large purchasers are headed, and it gives companies an early opportunity to move,” Freed, who works at Third Way, said.

The US economy is already trending toward renewable energy; renewables power about 11 percent of US energy consumption (the same amount as coal) but still pale in comparison to oil and natural gas. Biden’s administration could rapidly accelerate that trend. Biden has already staked out aggressive decarbonization targets, but his administration needs to move quickly to achieve them.

“The private sector and the economy shifted far more dramatically toward clean energy; it’s just happening,” Freed said. “The politics have changed, and the urgency has changed, and it makes the landscape look a lot different than it did in 2017 or even 2013.”

Network Connects Indigenous Knowledges in the Arctic and U.S. Southwest

22 January 2021 | On one level, the Arctic and the U.S. Southwest have little in common: One has kilometers of bone-chilling temperatures, ice, and months of darkness; the other has towering cliffs of red rock, parched soil, and broiling summers.

But Indigenous Peoples in each region face similar challenges to food resilience and sovereignty. Because of the colonization of Native lands, Indigenous Peoples have been restricted from accessing, cultivating, and managing their traditional foods. At the same time, climate change in both regions is rapidly altering the landscape.

The Indigenous Foods Knowledges Network (IFKN) connects Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, community members, and leaders from the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic and the U.S. Southwest to coproduce food sovereignty solutions. The research coordination network was created in 2017 by the University of Colorado and the University of Arizona and is driven primarily by Indigenous community leaders and scholars.

Members of the network exchange knowledge about ways to maintain traditional ways of life, from river restoration, community gardens, and farming practices to culture camps in which Indigenous Knowledges are shared with future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to the project, because Indigenous elders, who are often the knowledge carriers, are especially at risk from the coronavirus.

A Threat to Foods Is a Threat to Identity

The network focuses on a cornerstone of culture: food.

“It’s not just something [we] physically eat, but it’s part of our ceremonies….It is our connection to the land, to our nonhuman kin,” said Mary Beth Jäger, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a research analyst at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona who serves on the IFKN research coordination team. Jäger spoke about IFKN in December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2020.

Yet access to traditional foods for Indigenous Peoples is strained.

In the Arctic, ice is thinning dangerously under hunters’ feet. Animals like beavers have strayed from their natural habitats, bringing new diseases, such as giardiasis, to communities unfamiliar with them. In the Southwest, repeated droughts have left crops thirsty, and monsoon rains are changing in intensity.

Commercial pressures threaten food security, too. In the Arctic, the Gwich’in have sued the Trump administration for charging ahead with oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the tribe’s caribou habitat. Commercial interest in the traditional southwestern tepary bean by non-Indigenous customers is driving up prices and reducing access to the food staple.

Communities shouldn’t have to face these issues alone, said IFKN steering committee member and Native Movement deputy director Shawna Larson, who is also the vice chairwoman of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. “We can learn from one another, teach each other, and also work together on finding different solutions.”

Innovative solutions abound in communities: Ahtna leaders of Chickaloon Village in Sutton, Alaska, created a camp to share Indigenous Knowledges with younger generations. The youth learn to fillet and smoke salmon, collect wild plants, and scrape moose hides.

In the Southwest, the Gila River Indian Community has experience fighting for—and winning—rights to traditional resources. The community won the largest Native water rights settlement in history in 2004 to restore access to water taken by colonial settlers starting in the late 1800s.

Members of both communities hosted delegates from IFKN to share these success stories.

Braided Knowledge

Even though Indigenous Peoples have cultivated a deep understanding of lands and ecosystems, Western science has often disregarded these ways of knowing or even co-opted them.

“Indigenous Knowledges go through the ultimate peer review process,” said Lydia Jennings of the Pascua Yaqui and Huichol Nations. Jennings is an IFKN steering committee member and recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

“The knowledge one generates, say, [about] where an animal lives, where certain plants grow, is more rigorous because it literally means survival for communities who depend on traditional food or subsistence food traditions,” Lydia said. “If you collect inaccurate data, you might not eat or [you might] get sick.”

The network harnesses multiple ways of knowing, which Jennings likens to “braiding knowledge systems together.”

“Instead of focusing on Western science, it’s focusing on the idea of utilizing Indigenous research processes and embracing and respecting Indigenous Knowledge systems,” Jäger said.

Although the network includes some non-Indigenous researchers, those researchers center Indigenous Peoples, their communities, and Knowledges at the forefront and follow the lead of Indigenous members, said Jäger. The network is funded by a National Science Foundation program that emphasizes studying social systems alongside the natural and built environments.

Braiding these knowledge systems together is “very healing, in the sense of passing that knowledge down that’s been tried to be broken and to be removed out of the culture by colonization,” said Jäger.

Meetings on the Land

The backbone of IFKN involves visits to Indigenous lands to share stories, foods, and Knowledges. Issues discussed range from ongoing river restoration projects, getting traditional foods into nursing homes, and the effects of colonial mining and extraction on food and medicinal plants.

The first visit was by invitation from the Gila River Indian Community in 2018. “That’s a big, important thing for us, that we’re invited,” said Jäger. The network also compensates its hosts.

Importantly, participants say, meeting on the land provides space for deep connection. “There is a difference in how we act and how we talk,” said Jäger. “We eat a lot when we’re together. And we have really good laughs.” After one trip to Finland, Larson told a fellow attendee, a member of a Skolt Sámi community, that “she was like my sister.”

Members of IFKN have met with communities within Finland, Alaska, and Arizona. COVID-19 dashed plans to gather in person at the Hopi reservation, but the network had already planned a series of online webinars.

Quick to Pivot to COVID-19

The strong bonds of the network made it possible to quickly react to the pandemic.

IFKN members received a National Science Foundation rapid response grant to study the effects of COVID-19 on food access for Indigenous communities in the Arctic, the sub-Arctic, and the U.S. Southwest.

Interviews of Indigenous community members and data analysis will begin this month, and the grant will run for 1 year. Althea Walker, a tribal climate science liaison at the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Arizona, said the grant is important to understand the immediate vulnerabilities from COVID-19.

“Overall, addressing these vulnerabilities that have become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic allows us to be better prepared for other crises, like the climate crisis,” Walker said.

Crediting Wind and Solar Power for Saving Species

13 January 2021 | Eighteen to thirty percent of the species on the planet (8.7 million species) are at risk from the climate change that will occur if America and all countries do not rapidly shift to a net zero climate footprint. Using Energy Innovation scenarios, the U.S. needs to install approximately 750 GW of additional wind power and 550 GW of solar by 2050 to help prevent us from tripping into that extinction apocalypse.

Many of those renewable projects, especially ones on federal lands, require permits or authorizations under the Endangered Species Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, or other wildlife laws and go through an environmental impact analysis or assessment. However, today when those projects are reviewed, only their negative impacts on wildlife receive consideration.

Yet these are projects that will themselves prevent wildlife extinctions because of the kind of energy transition they deliver.

What might the beneficial cumulative effects analysis of this build-out look like for wildlife? How many extinctions would U.S. wind and solar development prevent? Here is a back of the envelope calculation.

  • Transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable power represents approximately 1/4th of the wedge of solutions the U.S. needs to put in place to meet a net zero goal – that is based on the 27 % contribution of the electric sector to US greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Actions in the U.S. represent approximately 15 % of the global solution based on the percent of the problem we are responsible for.
  • Eighteen percent of 8.7 million species is 1.566 million species facing a high likelihood of going extinct due to climate change. (a similar proportion are already at risk because of habitat loss, invasive species and other ongoing threats)
  • A gigawatt if wind power might take 418 commercial-scale wind turbines to produce. (However, turbine technology continues to evolve. In 2020, nearly 10% of new projects were proposing to use 4.0 MW turbines or larger ones. Therefore, it is likely that in the near future it would take 200 or fewer turbines to produce the same energy.)

42 prevented extinctions:

Put those numbers together and each gigawatt of installed solar or wind power is responsible for approximately 42 prevented species extinctions somewhere on the planet. Or to break it down further, every ten (2.5 MW) wind turbines installed prevent an extinction somewhere.

A wind farm like Shepherds Flat in Oregon, with 338 2.5 MW turbines, is tied to approximately 33 prevented extinctions of species. The Gemini solar project outside of Las Vegas would prevent 29 extinctions, or one extinction prevented for every 250 acres of solar panels installed.

NEPA, eagle permits, or endangered species permits and authorizations do not have any ready procedure through which to account for these beneficial effects or to discount mitigation requirements for other harmful effects on specific species, but documenting these benefits is nonetheless important. For example, the documentation would provide a strong connection between projects and public biodiversity conservation goals and could be use as the basis for public subsidy of required wildlife mitigation, funding for additional permit review personnel, or policy that gives a more favorable tax treatment to the wildlife mitigation expenses of renewables projects.

A programmatic EIS on a national wind and solar installation 2050 goal could establish a consistent basis for standardized analysis of these kinds of benefits on tiered project by renewable energy project reviews.

Impacts on a specific species must not be ignored because of benefits to other species, distant in time or space. Those impacts on endangered species, migratory birds, or eagles still need avoidance or offsetting. But its common sense that projects that create modest harms and major benefits get treated differently than projects that only create harms.

If we are going to solve climate change and mitigate its immediate impacts, we need a wildlife agency that is able to speak up for all wildlife species, through analysis like this, and policy that incorporates the analysis into decision-making.

What We Got Right on Deforestation in the Past Decade

12 January 2021 | We can all agree that forests are important for the survival of humanity. In addition to sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they provide a slew of unappreciated services: from supporting pollination of 75 percent of global crops, providing firewood for 880 million people, capturing water, and acting as habitat for endangered species.

Most current deforestation takes place in tropical developing countries, but it’s fueled by our developed world appetite for commodities such as beef, soya, palm oil, and avocados, which together account for 40 percent of all deforestation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) most recent State of the World’s Forests report. Even our shift to renewable energy is contributing to deforestation by fueling demand for minerals such as lithium.

While it’s easy to get depressed, there has been plenty of progress the last decade to turn forests into a sink, rather than a source of carbon emissions, while continuing to provide for the livelihoods of local communities. The devastating impact of zoonotic virus pandemics such as COVID 19, which are caused by human encroachment on natural habitats, might make 2020 a turning point to increase awareness and accelerate action to protect the remaining forests that are vital for a healthy global ecosystem.

Global Overall Slowing Deforestation Rates

Although the headlines have been grim, and deforestation is increasing in some areas, such as the Amazon, overall deforestation rates globally have decreased in the last decade compared to the 1990s and the 2000s – from 15 million hectares per year in the period 2000-2010, to 10 million hectares per year in 2015-2020.   Around half of the world’s forests are still relatively intact (49 percent) and 18 percent are legally protected, according to the FAO.

The FAO report further tells us that the geographical spread of deforestation is not equal, with net forest gains made in Asia, Europe and Oceania, and a decrease in deforestation in the last decade compared to the previous, in South America, Asia and Europe.  Note that these are aggregated country level datasets, and deforestation rates will vary from country to country.

Progress in International Mechanisms to Reduce Deforestation

When I started working in forest and climate change policy back in 2010, international negotiators at year-end climate talks in Cancun (COP 16) had just agreed that developing country governments who implement activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) should submit a national forest emissions reference baseline. This will be used to measure performance and receive payments for results to unlock $36 billion in funding committed by international and domestic finance to conserve forests.   Although progress has been slow and few countries have yet to receive payment for results, so far 50 countries have submitted an emissions reference baseline, which covered over 70 percent of all forests in 2018.

The importance of forests and REDD+ was highlighted in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, where 73 developing countries identified forest and land use as a key mitigation element in their nationally determined contributions submitted under this agreement.

As of 2018, five countries have submitted Biennial update reports to the UNFCCC, which has amounted to emission reductions 6.3 billion tons of  MTCO2eq, which is around the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. 

Increased Corporate Commitments to Eliminate Deforestation

More than 473 companies have committed to end deforestation in their supply chains through the Consumer Good Forum (CGF) and 2015’s New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF). Although signatories to NYDF as a whole missed the target year 2020, the pledges sent a strong market signal to improve accountability and transparency in the commodity sectors.   Progress has been made by the cocoa, soy and palm oil sector in particular to certify products to ensure that commodities are not continuing to encroach on forest land. The soy moratorium Brazil has shown to correlate with reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon.

A law has been proposed in the UK to make companies accountable for their supply chain and prove that the commodities they trade come from legal sources.  Although this would only cover a small number of large businesses, if approved, this law could set precedence for other countries to pass similar laws and for companies to improve traceability and accountability in their supply chains.

Improvements in Forest Monitoring Tools

Governments, companies and citizens have better information on forests than ever before, thanks to the rapid technological progress made in the availability and scale of satellite imagery, machine learning algorithms, image processing and automated classification. This has greatly improved the timeliness, scale and accuracy of land cover maps, which are being made available to anyone with internet access thanks to cloud- based information platforms. This progress has been evident through projects such as Forests 2020 that I have been collaborating on over the last four years. However, as a recent article in the Economist pointed out, artificial intelligence has its limits and a key finding from the project has been that improved human skill both in developed and developing countries play a vital part in classifying, validating and calibrating maps to ensure high accuracy.

We now have the tools to monitor the impact of policies, programmes, and supply chains on forests, we just need the political and corporate will to do some deep introspection and implement the necessary changes needed to adjust policies and investments.

Changes in Consumer Behavior

The conversion of forests to pasture for cattle is one of the leading causes of deforestation globally, especially in Latin America.  Pasture is then often converted to soy production, which is also used for animal feed, primarily pork.  Meat consumption has reduced during 2020, mainly due to fewer people dining out (where people tend to eat more meat), temporary closure of meat packing factories and reduced purchasing power.  According to FAO, beef consumption had already been reducing gradually since 2019, generally being replaced by increased consumption of chicken, which is better for the climate, as beef production emits four to eight times more emissions than pork or chicken.

The number of vegans in the UK has increased six-fold from 150,000 in 2006 to 600,000 in 2018, according to the Vegan society.  The meat free food industry is now worth £740 million in 2018, up from £539 million only three years earlier.  A vegan diet might not be for everyone, but more people are reducing meat consumption through “flexitarian” diets as well, and challenges such as Veganuary.

Barriers to Progress

Although I have listed some of the positive outcomes of the last decade to put a brake on deforestation, many 2020 targets such as halving natural forest loss by 2020 compared to 2014 and achieving deforestation free supply chains by 2020 have been widely missed. We are still far from the goal of increasing forest area by 2030, due to a variety of complex reasons, some of which are described below.

Deforestation in Chiapas, Mexico. Credits: Carlos Herrera

Wider Political Agendas

Although globally deforestation rates have slowed, Brazil hit the headlines this year with a surge in deforestation of 9.5percent compared to the previous year, to 11,088 km2 from 2019 -2020.  This is linked to the current president Bolsonario rolling back environmental protections and encouragement of mining and agricultural activities in the Amazon, which has undone the progress made in the last decade when deforestation was reduced from 27,500 km2 in 2004 to 6,200 km2 in 2011 (the size of Devon).  

Likewise in Colombia, deforestation hit an all-time high in 2017 when 5425 km2 was deforested, due to the Peace deal with the FARC leading to land grabbing and clearing for cattle in previously inaccessible areas in the Amazon.  It has now dropped to 1589km2 in 2019, but it illustrates how wider political processes can have an enormous impact on deforestation rates.

There are arguments that forest protections are being rolled back by developing country governments in response to the pandemic, in an effort to stimulate their economies (NYDF, 2020) and preliminary data show that deforestation in the global tropics might have increased during the pandemic compared to previous years.  However, more accurate data takes time to process so a more detailed analysis will not be ready until 2021.

Current planned Infrastructure investments such as dams, mines and other infrastructure total $777 billion globally which often adversely impact forests and communities living in them, making investments to keep forests standing look miniscule. Decisions are more than often made top-down and behind closed doors – even though these infrastructure projects are vital to alleviate poverty in some cases, a more integrated and participative approach is needed to plan developments to take into consideration the forests and communities that live in them.

Lack of real corporate action to eliminate deforestation in supply chains

Despite 78percent of companies making commitments to stop biodiversity loss, only 23 out of 225 companies (10percent) reported on their progress to meet goals and generally performed poorly. Many companies were not willing to shoulder the cost of changing production practices to become more sustainable while meeting market demand (TFA, 2018).

Excluding suppliers that deforest through commodity certification will not be enough to stop deforestation – more technical and financial support is needed for smallholders that make up the bulk of the complex supply and to prevent leakage to other regions that are not covered by commitments.  For example, although 65percent of global production of palm oil has committed to deforestation free certifications, in Malaysia and Indonesia, only a third of all production is covered by these commitments.

It seems that while companies are eager to sign up to commitments to greenwash their corporate image, few are able to implement the necessary changes and bear the costs of changing their production practices.   Although some important steps have been made in the commitments made by companies to reduce deforestation in their supply chains, there is an urgent need to link to larger scale regional wide agreements, involve smallholders and link efforts to public sector programs.


Even though there has been some progress made in the last decade to build the right tools, policies and frameworks to slow deforestation, it is a complex process that is influenced by many political, social and economic factors.  As consumers and citizens, we can put pressure on companies and governments to ensure that the products we consume and the infrastructure projects our taxes pay for, don’t continue to fuel deforestation.  However, we need a wider change in the development paradigm to ensure that forests are valued for the protection and benefits they bring.

We have more and better information to hand than ever before, so there is no longer an excuse for inaction.

Let’s hope 2020 marks the turning point in the next decade!

What Does 2021 Hold for Tropical Forests?

This story first appeared on MongaBay

5 January 2021 | 2020 was a rough year for tropical rainforest conservation efforts, as explained in Mongabay’s year-end wrap-up on rainforests. So what’s in store for 2021? Here are 11 things to watch.

Post COVID recovery

The pandemic itself presented incredible challenges for conservation, including crushing ecotourism-based livelihood models, creating hardships for local communities and researchers, pushing NGOs to pull out of field projects, spurring a rise in the price of many tropical commodities that drive deforestation, and redirecting funding and attention from environmental law enforcement. But measures to jumpstart the economic recovery made the situation worse in some places. Peru provided stimulus money to companies involved with illegal logging, Indonesia passed a sweeping deregulation law and other programs that could unleash large-sale deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines, and countries from Brazil to Cambodia turned a blind eye to illegal forest clearing and encroachment. As part of their stimulus programs, several tropical countries are pushing potentially destructive large-scale infrastructure projects while relaxing environmental oversight at the same time.

Bend in the Javari river
A bend in the Javari river in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

But conservationists argue it doesn’t have to be this way. A number of reports published in 2020 have called the post-COVID recovery a unique opportunity to shift away from environmentally destructive business-as-usual practices, including transitioning away from fossil fuels, investing in conservation and protected areas, and working toward a more equitable and just society for people and the planet.

As we head into 2021, expect to see tension between these two competing approaches as countries grapple with how to recover from the crisis.

Price change between Jan and Dec 2020 for commodities that drive deforestation in the tropics. Data from the World Bank.
Price change between Jan and Dec 2020 for commodities that drive deforestation in the tropics. Data from the World Bank.

A second area to watch under the post COVID recovery theme is macroeconomic factors that can affect deforestation rates, like the weakening dollar, the flow of remittances into tropical countries, inflation rates, and commodity prices. The pandemic triggered a large outflow of people from cities to rural areas. This may be temporary, but if it’s not, then there are potential implications for deforestation associated with subsistence agriculture.

Transition of power in the U.S.

Donald Trump sidelined the United States when it came to collaborative global efforts to address environmental challenges, including pulling America out of the Paris Climate Agreement. His administration also undercut environmental policies from endangered species protection to management of wilderness areas, actively denied the realities of climate change, and encouraged authoritarian regimes that have targeted environmental defenders and journalists–all of which are detrimental to forest conservation efforts.

With Joe Biden promising to put climate at the center of administration policy, look for a reset from the United States. This could translate to more ambitious climate and biodiversity targets from the U.S. on the international stage, stronger environmental policies domestically, leadership in greener economic development, and more support overseas for conservation projects. But a lot rides on who controls the Senate and how willing Congress is to work with the Biden Administration on these issues.

Deforestation in Indonesia

From a policy standpoint, 2020 was a disastrous year for Indonesia’s forests. The omnibus bill that passed in October removed several key legal protections for Indonesian forests. The changes look to be a boon to the palm oil and mining industries.

Sunset over forest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Sunset over forest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The government also moved forward on two initiatives that could lock in deforestation for decades to come: a “food estate” program and a biofuels mandate, which together could drive the conversion of millions of hectares of forests and peatlands to plantations. Critics say the food estate program risks a return to militarized industrial agriculture and forestry operations at the expense of local communities and the environment, while the biofuels mandate could require establishing new oil palm plantations a fifth the size of Borneo. The biodiesel mandate would create a huge source of demand for palm oil that doesn’t need to meet international standards for avoiding deforestation or human rights abuses, countering corporate zero-deforestation policies and import restrictions imposed by the European Union. Nowhere would the impacts of these programs be greater than in Papua, where vast areas of primary forest are slated to be logged and converted into plantations.


Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon topped 11,000 sq km for the 2019/2020 deforestation year, the highest level since 2008. Worse for Brazilian forests, the Bolsonaro Administration laid the groundwork for a long-term increase in deforestation with new infrastructure projects, evisceration of agencies that monitor and manage natural resources, dismantling of environmental laws, and legal and rhetorical attacks on Indigenous communities and civil society.

Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2008-2020 according to INPE.
Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2008-2020 according to INPE.
Aggregated short-term Amazon deforestation alerts from Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) and Imazon.
Aggregated short-term Amazon deforestation alerts from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) and Imazon.

That being said, Brazilian government data from INPE showed a slowing of deforestation in the latter part of 2020 relative to 2019 (Imazon, an independent NGO, showed the opposite). Nevertheless the deforestation and fire trend for the Amazon is ominous, as is the Bolsonaro Administration’s policy in the region.

La Niña

La Niña, the climate pattern that is the colder counterpart of El Niño, is forecast to run well into 2021.

La Niña is typically associated with wetter conditions in Indonesia and much of the Brazilian Amazon, reducing the risk of fire and drought, which could potentially mask some of the damage that’s being done by government policies in those two countries.

Destabilization of tropical forests

Scientists have been warning for years that the Amazon may be approaching a critical tipping point whereby large parts of the rainforest biome could shift to drier woodland or even savanna due to the combination of climate change, deforestation and forest degradation. In 2020 there were more indications that this transition is already underway, with the region experiencing widespread dry conditions, dry habitat species appearing in normally humid tropical rainforests, and increasing incidence of fire. Drying trends have also been observed in the Congo Basin and parts of Southeast Asia.

As noted above, La Niña is expected to continue into 2021, bringing wetter-than-normal conditions, which mean some of these effects may not be as apparent. But watch for scientists to release more research on how these trends tracked in 2019.

Government to government carbon deals

As noted in the year-end review, the governments of Switzerland and Peru signed a carbon offsetting deal under Article 6 of the Paris climate agreement in October 2020. Switzerland will get carbon credits generated by financing sustainable development projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the South American nation. Norway, which doesn’t get carbon credits from its climate and forests initiative, but nonetheless tracks avoided carbon emissions as the basis for its tropical forest funding, increased the rate it pays tropical countries to protect rainforests in November.

The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

In 2021 watch for more of these kinds of government to government agreements as well as criticism from actors who object to carbon offsets and “market-based approaches” to forest conservation.

Assessing the impact of COVID on rainforests

With advances in remote sensing and data processing capabilities, forest monitoring was better in 2020 than it has ever been before. Nonetheless, there is still a processing delay so we don’t yet have a clear, comprehensive picture of how forest loss in 2020 compared to 2019. Anecdotally, 2020 looks like it will be a high deforestation year, but we should get better numbers in the first or second quarter of 2021.

The timeliness and quality of satellite data should get a boost in 2021 after the Norwegian government funded three satellite monitoring technology groups — Kongsberg Satellite Services, Planet, and Airbus — to provide free access to high-resolution satellite imagery of the tropics.

More companies incorporate forest-risk into decision-making

Voluntary zero deforestation commitments (specifically “No Deforestation, No Peatlands, and No Exploitation” policies) took off in the 2010s, but analysis published in 2020 by ZSL indicated that companies are far behind on implementing what they promised. So in 2021 we’ll see a shift from voluntary efforts to government mandated compliance.

We saw the groundwork for such developments laid in 2020. The U.K. government put forth a law that would make it illegal for large companies operating in the country to use commodities produced from land that was illegally deforested, while France, which pledged in 2019 to stop “deforestation imports” by 2030, continued to move forward on its National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation, announcing it aimed to stop importing soy from Brazil. In a November referendum, voters in Switzerland narrowly rejected the Responsible Business Initiative, which would have held Swiss businesses — think Nestlé or Glencore — financially and legally liable for human rights violations or environmental damage wherever it occurs.

Even the Trump Administration had started to look at issues related to forest risk commodities. On December 30, 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection started detaining palm oil products produced by Malaysia palm oil giant Sime Darby due to allegations of forced labor on its plantations.

Rainforest mantis in Suriname. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest mantis in Suriname. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

This push however may cause friction with trade partners. Last year a row arose between French president Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro over deforestation and fires in the Amazon. And Malaysia and Indonesia have been furiously lobbying the E.U. in recent years to allow biodiesel derived from palm oil count toward renewable fuel standards. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are now working to overcome the loss of that market by scaling up national biofuel mandates, which are expected to become a huge source of new demand for palm oil that need not meet corporate ZDPE commitments or European government standards.

Environmental defenders under threat

2020 was a particularly ugly year for environmental defenders, hundreds of whom were threatened and killed in countries around the world. There are few indications that the situation is likely to improve in 2021 given the degree to which the pandemic has strengthened the resolve and capacity of authoritarian regimes and repressive governments to crack down on dissent. However, 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have now signed the Escazú Agreement, which means the treaty that links environmental protection to human rights in the region will enter into force in early 2021.

Another issue to watch in 2021 is whether the movement to address systemic social injustice consolidates its 2020 gains or fades in the public’s attention. The protests that erupted in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in the United States catalyzed movements around the world from New Guinea to the Amazon, but there’s no certainty that the momentum can overcome the repressive response in many countries or the resurgence of the pandemic. Progress may be more resilient within conservation organizations, where there is now much greater awareness around systemic racism, abusive power dynamics, and colonial legacy than a year ago.

International policy meetings back on track?

The pandemic caused the postponement of the bulk of the agenda-setting climate and biodiversity meetings scheduled to occur in 2020. We now live in a Zoom world, but depending on vaccine rollouts progress, some of these meetings may occur in-person in 2021.

Shades of REDD+:
Corresponding Adjustments for Voluntary Markets – Seriously?

Updated on 25 January 2021 to clarify language on the accounting of reductions.

21 December 2020 | In recent months, a chorus of ever-louder voices have argued that cross-border voluntary carbon market transactions must come with “corresponding adjustments” applied to national GHG accounting or risk obscuring progress in combating climate change. Such adjustments, the argument goes, are essential to ensuring the integrity of voluntary carbon markets. Advocates of corresponding adjustments see the voluntary market as undermining mitigation efforts.

I argue that the opposite is true.

Voluntary carbon markets: what, when, why

Voluntary carbon markets channel the money of corporations, civil society organizations, and individuals that want to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions into mitigation projects and programs. Investors, as well as project proponents, can be private or public, and they can be located in the same country or in different countries.

As indicated by the name, the nature of these transactions is voluntary, i.e. not mandated or accounted for under any regulatory or compliance system. Corporate engagement may be strategic — to earn a reputation as a good corporate citizen or linked to sustainability commitments. It may be greenwashing or driven by serious concern, but regardless of the motivation and credibility, it is not part of any effort to comply with mandatory GHG goals. Voluntary markets, as long as they operate within the limits of the law, do not concern government authorities.

Generally, voluntary carbon markets fill a gap where regulatory action is insufficient or absent.

Corresponding adjustments: what, when, why

It’s a different story when countries are using cross-border carbon markets to finance deeper emission reductions. Under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries and authorized entities can also transfer emission reductions, in which case they’re referred to as “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs). When such transactions occur, countries make “corresponding adjustments” to their national accounting against their climate target (see paragraph 36 of Decision 1/CP.21).  The country where the mitigation took place subtracts the emission reduction from its accounting, while the acquiring country adds the emission reduction to its GHG accounting.

Corresponding adjustments are a tool designed to promote the integrity of emissions accounting under the Paris Agreement. They are intended to prevent countries from counting any given emission reduction more than once towards Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs, or country climate targets). Avoiding this “double counting” ensures the integrity of carbon accounting at the international level, helping the world understand how much progress is being made towards achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goals of 1.5C and 2C.

The arguments in favor of corresponding adjustments for voluntary carbon markets

Those in favor of requiring corresponding adjustments for voluntary market transactions worry that the voluntary carbon market will let countries off the hook for setting strong policy or reduce the pressure created by NDCs to lower emissions in host countries.  Therefore, they argue that voluntary transactions should be treated as de-facto ITMOs under Article 6 of the Agreement. This would require voluntary transactions to be accounted for under the NDC where the buyer is located, even if that country isn’t seeking such credit.

According to this argument, if a German auto company wants to offset its fossil-fuel emissions by financing a conservation project in Zambia, then the Zambian government should have to subtract the reductions from its national NDC. The reason, advocates argue, is that credits not backed by a corresponding adjustment would result in double-counting or the double-claiming of emission reductions.

Those in the pro-corresponding adjustment camp argue that corporates should not be allowed to make a carbon-neutrality claim using emission reductions counted by a country towards its Paris target. This argument hinges on the belief that it’s unacceptable that “the buyer de facto finances the host country’s efforts towards meeting its NDC”. There is a fear that, without corresponding adjustments, and if “the host country does not increase its own target as a result of the sale of the credit, then overall emissions increase, because no extra abatement has taken place”.

These arguments simply don’t hold up.

And why these arguments are so unconvincing

Let’s take the last argument first. It starts with the false assumption that there is something shameful about having voluntary investors finance a country’s efforts to achieve its NDC. There isn’t. In fact, the opposite is true.

Considering that most carbon buyers and investors come from rich, developed countries, there is a strong argument for such carbon buyers to support the NDCs of developing countries. The principles of equity and common-but-differentiated responsibilities – cornerstone principles of the international climate regime – provide powerful arguments against corresponding adjustments for voluntary transactions. It cannot be acceptable that developed countries take advantage of voluntary corporate action to achieve their NDCs without any adjustments, but that developing countries should forgo the fruits of voluntary action.

To illustrate the point, let’s go back to our example: The auto company implements a climate pledge, and it begins by retooling its factory in Germany to reduce emissions voluntarily. In this case, Germany can enter the emission reductions in its GHG accounting, and no one will claim the automaker let Germany off the hook when it comes to climate ambition.

But if the carmaker compensates for remaining emissions by investing in a project in Zambia, then the expectation is that either Zambia undertakes a corresponding adjustment or increases the ambition of its NDC. Interestingly, it is not exactly clear whether the emission reductions would involve a bilateral transfer between Germany and Zambia or just the writing off of GHG reductions by Zambia. If Zambia agrees to execute a corresponding adjustment in a bilateral transfer, Germany could even double-dip in the carmaker’s voluntary action and count the transferred emission reduction against its NDC (there are currently no rules that would prohibit this). If there is no bilateral agreement backing the corresponding adjustment, the emission reductions used by the car company risk disappearing altogether from the Paris Agreement’s reporting and accounting.

In either case, while Germany is allowed to harvest the benefits of voluntary action, Zambia is not. Take a moment and get the taste of this.

Correspondingly perverse incentives

Approaching this issue from another angle: The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary NDCs and the notion that the positive experience of NDC compliance would lead to increasingly ambitious pledges. Success and breakthroughs would trigger a ratcheting up of ambition. In this vein, voluntary carbon markets should pride themselves in supporting and accelerating NDC compliance, particularly where investment happens in developing or least developed countries. By accelerating compliance, countries become more confident that they can meet climate goals and increase ambition in the next NDC cycle.

Skeptics claim that voluntary carbon markets would delay or deter government action, but there is no evidence that private sector action would displace public sector action. History tells us that NDCs and international goals need every extra push towards compliance. From the US refusal to ratify and Canada’s exit from the Kyoto Protocol, the Millennium Development Goals, ODA, and climate finance targets to the New York Declaration on Forests, there is a rich history of countries failing to meet global pledges or goals.

We also have little evidence that public policy would be held back by voluntary carbon market activities. Quite the contrary. Voluntary markets invest in early projects, test a technology, make it market-ready. The additionality requirement of carbon market transactions also means that voluntary carbon market projects populate niches that government regulation has not yet reached.

The accounting argument remains porous

And finally, the accounting argument. If voluntary carbon markets run parallel and ‘unseen’ to the Paris Agreement, they have no impact on Paris Agreement accounting. Emission reductions will appear in the GHG inventories of host countries (e.g. Zambia), and nowhere else. But let’s assume host countries agreed to make corresponding adjustments for voluntary carbon market projects. This would require an international agreement to account for various forms of GHG reductions, and it would require an understanding of how different segments of the voluntary carbon market operate. Few countries will have the capacity to make corresponding adjustments in the next years. Corresponding adjustments require legal approval of voluntary carbon market projects, a link between monitoring and accounting, robust transaction GHG registries, and an agreement between voluntary carbon market standards and national GHG registries. Most developing countries lack the infrastructure and institutions to establish the architecture to undertake corresponding adjustments. This means corresponding adjustments may not be possible for most countries in the foreseeable future.

To ensure robust accounting countries should invest in national GHG monitoring and tracking to have a good understanding of the GHG emissions in their country. Carbon markets also help to close data gaps and pilot monitoring approaches.

Finally, double claiming and net-zero carbon targets of corporates. As long as double claiming does not lead to double counting, I would consider it a problem of the second or third order. Companies claim a lot (how many ‘World’s best beer’ have we consumed already?). But good, let’s dive into that last argument: To avoid any double claiming, carbon neutrality would have to be backed by ‘fresh’ emission reductions that are not claimed by any government. All governments, whether representing developed or developing countries, would be responsible to meet their NDCs through government action and regulation. Any voluntary corporate action would come on top of this. So, in the previous example, the German government would need to subtract out all the German automaker’s emission reductions/removals not driven by regulation, whether occurring within the company’s Scope 1, 2, or 3 boundaries or if coming from a domestic offset project. Corporate voluntary GHG benefits should be subject to ‘neutrality’ reporting and set-aside accounts wherever emission reductions are achieved – through corporate direct mitigation action or offset projects. This would be clean and pure. It would also be fair, albeit unlikely to be embraced by developed countries, which currently get to count domestic voluntary corporate action in their NDCs. Alternatively, companies could clarify that their commitments support NDCs of their home and offset supplying countries. Corporates could also express confidence that their efforts result in more ambition in the next cycle of NDCs.

Accelerating not putting brakes on action

Let me suggest that we change the topic of our discussion. Let’s put all our energies towards defining and implementing ambitious mitigation actions. We don’t have time to waste. All hands on deck for climate action. Voluntary carbon markets play an important role in unleashing mitigation action. They can generate GHG reductions while governments put in place climate policies. corresponding adjustments have no obvious benefits in driving ambition, but they create significant accounting and bureaucratic barriers for urgent mitigation action. Any requirement that would demand countries to undertake corresponding adjustments for voluntary transactions would discriminate against developing countries that are unable to make the required adjustment, and these countries would benefit most from voluntary private engagement.

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A Tale of Two Transactions: the Corresponding Adjustments Story

This article is adapted from a story that first appeared on the Emissierechten blog. It is part of an ongoing effort to share opinions from thought leaders on a diverse range of issues. The views are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of Forest Trends or Ecosystem Marketplace.

18 December 2020 | The nation of Switzerland and the oil company Total, of France, are two completely different entities. One is a nation with thousands of companies and millions of people in it, while the other is a private company with operations in scores of countries. Both, however, have one thing in common: each has committed to slashing its net greenhouse gas emissions.

Switzerland aims to cut the combined emissions of all its factories, cars, and cows in half by 2030 and to slash them to zero by 2050 – right in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says all countries must do if we’re to meet the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting global warming to an average of 1.5°C (3.7°F) above preindustrial levels. The country, however, says it can only reduce by 37.5 percent in the next ten years using existing technologies, so it will get to zero by imposing a cap on emissions and purchasing international carbon offsets that finance reductions in other countries for another 12.5 percent. For now, the country is executing these transactions itself, but it may make it possible for large emitters to do so themselves.

Total aims to offer net-zero LNG to customers who want it as soon as it can, no matter where they live. Total argues LNG has lower emissions than oil, but the technology isn’t yet advanced enough to offer emission-free LNG around the world. So it, too, is using carbon offsets.

Switzerland is an example of the “governmental CO2 market”: the government is purchasing emission reductions, technically termed “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes ” (ITMOs), to help meet its national obligation under the Paris Agreement. ITMOs are tradable reductions beyond reductions that the country selling them needs for its own Paris commitments (“NDCs,” for “Nationally-Determined Contributions”). Accordingly, the ITMOs will be transferred out of the selling country, where the reductions actually take place, and into Switzerland’s national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory. This is termed a “corresponding adjustment” under the Paris Agreement.

Total is an example of the “voluntary carbon offset market”: the company is buying offsets to create a product that it can market as “climate neutral” rather than to meet a legal requirement. It is buying the offsets from a private company in one country to create a climate-neutral product that will be sold in another country, but the emission reductions will be credited to the GHG inventory of the country where the reductions take place. Total is, in a sense helping another country reduce its GHG emissions, but its only real claim is to having a climate-neutral product. As a result, there is no need for a corresponding adjustment – or shouldn’t be.

Here’s a deep dive into both of the above scenarios.

Switzerland and Peru Agree on Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs)

In mid-October, Switzerland and Peru agreed to work together to increase both countries’ climate ambition. Switzerland, as we saw above believes it can reduce emissions 37.5 percent in the next 10 years, but can achieve a net reduction of 50 percent by using the global CO2 market to finance reductions abroad. According to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, a country may use the surplus CO2 reduction of another country to help achieve its goal through so-called “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes” (ITMOs). Countries indicate in their climate plan which reductions they definitely want to achieve: “unconditional”; and which can only achieve with international support: “conditional”. Peru’s “unconditional” CO2 target is a 20 percent reduction from “business as usual” (approximately 14 percent above 1990 level). Peru indicates that it can reduce 10 percent more under the “condition” of “carbon financing”.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screenshot_7899-1.png
Minister of the Environment of Peru, Kirla Echegaray and the Ambassador of Switzerland to Peru Markus-Alexander Antonietti.

The countries have different economies and different resources. Specifically, Peru has leeway to reduce more with regard to forest protection and renewable energy, while Switzerland has little in the way of unoccupied land that can serve this purpose. So Switzerland has invested €20 million in the Tuku Wasi program, among other things. The program reduces emissions in Peru by distributing efficient cooking appliances, which means that less wood is used and less deforestation takes place. Peru is also negotiating similar CO2 agreements for the waste sector with Scandinavian countries. One part of the extra reductions counts towards the Peruvian CO2 target; the other part for the Swiss (see figure below).

They agree that the reductions transferred to Switzerland (ITMOs) will not be counted twice. That is entirely in accordance with article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement. This means that Peru will deduct the reductions that it transfers to Switzerland from its own reporting via a corresponding adjustment. In doing so, they anticipated implementation rules that will be agreed at the Climate Summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021 or the next Summit. New Zealand Environment Minister James Shaw told Carbon Pulse in November that Art 6 rules can even emerge earlier from these kinds of deals rather than from the UN talks themselves. Peru just launched an emissions reduction registry at IHS Markit to help track activities and the future transfer of ITMOs.

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Climate-Neutral LNG

Total announced that it will supply their “First Carbon Neutral LNG Cargo” to China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in Dapeng. The LNG comes from a production location in Australia. CNOOC thus sells CO2-neutral gas to domestic customers. The user remains responsible for the CO2 emissions from the use of the gas. Earlier this year, CNOOC already bought climate-neutral LNG from Shell.

The CO2 emissions from production and transport are offset by two CO2 reduction projects:

The reductions for wind energy and forest protection help meet the CO2 targets in China and Zimbabwe respectively. Total does not reduce the CO2 emissions with this of its own installations in Australia. These investments are on top of that. Large CDM wind projects like the above are no longer used by most compensation providers because these are already commercial and profitable. Moreover, the Kyoto Protocol, in which the CDM is regulated, will end this year and the CDM will therefore also expire this year. REDD projects and cookstoves projects, such as in Peru, are widely used in the voluntary CO2 market.

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The CO2 market will play a role in achieving the Paris Agreement

According to a study by Climate Focus, ten countries, including Canada, Japan and Chile and a number of international organizations, such as the World Bank, EBRD and Nefco are engaged in such international CO2 pilots.

Climate Focus: overview of CO2-pilots

These examples illustrate how two countries can achieve more ambitious CO2 targets using the CO2 market and international transfer of carbon credits. And companies that voluntarily offset their CO2 emissions through international CO2 projects contribute to achieving their CO2 target in those countries. These companies do this out of responsibility for their climate impact or because they want to sell climate-neutral projects or services. Companies that agree on the CO2 plans within the framework of the Science Based Targets may also use offsets in addition to their own reductions.

Future developments: EU Climate Law and EU ETS

In the future, the scope of CO2 obligations will increase and more sectors and companies will receive a CO2 tax from their government or fall under emissions trading. As a result, the reductions that are realized in another country will have to be transferred to contribute to the country in which that company is located (CA).

European Member States may in the future also make use of this opportunity. In November, Switzerland signed its second ITMO agreement with Ghana, and more are planned.  Sweden is preparing CO2 deals with Ethiopia, Nepal, Cambodia. German Secretary of State for the Environment, Jochen Flasbarth, said at a meeting last month that Article 6 reductions could be on top of the EU’s 55 percent reduction. In the European Parliament, an amendment proposal for this from the European People’s Party has not yet achieved a majority. But the examples mentioned certainly deserve to be followed. The EU Council did agree on the European Climate Law again in December and said it would just follow international progress. Also, this approach can become part of the ETS Reviews that will be discussed Spring 2021.

How Biden Can Ensure Every Federal Agency Is Fighting Climate Change

15 December 2020 | President-elect Joe Biden has an unprecedented opportunity to walk the U.S.—and perhaps the world—back from the brink on climate change. After four years of harmful deregulation, his work is cut out for him.

But to truly address climate change will require more than simply repealing President Donald Trump’s rollbacks and maybe strengthening a few rules on power plant emissions before calling it a day. Because climate change is an everything problem, the entire and considerable weight of the federal government will need to be thrown into addressing it. Like rowing competition, the race to address climate change can only be won if everyone is pulling in the same direction.

This “all of government” response to the crisis at hand is the only way to ensure a shot at keeping the globe from heating up more than the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, to say nothing of the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target outlined in a landmark United Nations report. Over the next four years, Biden will have to center climate change at every agency, from the obvious ones like the Environmental Protection Agency to others like the Department of Education and Treasury.

Earther has pulled together ideas and actions federal agencies can take to address climate change, based on conversations with dozens of experts who know the federal government’s levers of power and how to pull them so that they’re all geared to lower emissions. The ideas below are not exhaustive nor do they include solutions that can be applied at all agencies such as installing climate advocates at all levels, using procurement to electrify the government vehicle fleet, and diversifying the workforce so that new problem solvers are welcomed into the fold. But they do represent some of the best ones out there for how to get the ship turned quickly.

But importantly, the visions aren’t merely technocratic. The climate crisis is the result of an unjust system of environmental destruction and racial inequality and violence. Sure, President-elect Biden could issue an executive order to close all coal plants but without fostering a just transition for workers or putting in place plans to remediate pollution in communities, we’ll end up with the same crappy world with slightly cleaner air. Fighting climate change requires tearing down systems of oppression and allowing communities to chart their own course in the clean energy. It requires healing the scars left by more than a century of extractive capitalism. It requires reparations for people and the land.

“We all fight for Mother Earth, and right now she is ill and we have to find a way to make her healthy in order for us to be healthy,” Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, said. “This is [about] our viewpoint for seven generations to come and making decisions at that level of thinking that far out. You have to really think holistically.”

Below is an agency-by-agency along with other facets of the executive branch breakdown of how to reimagine the federal government for the climate change action era. If you know Joe Biden, please share these ideas with him. (And if you are, in fact, Joe Biden, please read this over carefully. Also hey.)

Department of Agriculture

Agriculture is responsible for some 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major contributor to the climate crisis. At the same time, farm and ranch workers have been experiencing losses due to climate-fueled disasters like California’s wildfires and the recent derecho in Iowa. A climate-focused USDA could tackle both sides of the coin.

The USDA presides over farming and forestry, both of which could be important avenues for greenhouse gas sequestration. In his Plan for Rural America, Biden promised to help farmers make money by planting crops that pull carbon out of the air. John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said this is a good idea, but must be enacted carefully.

“If you want just to maximize carbon sequestration, you’re probably going to be using heavy applications of fertilizers and pesticides that would end up leaching into groundwater,” he said. “You could have nitrate problems which could be a major problem in drinking water. So you might deal with a carbon problem to some extent, but you might make the pollution problem worse.”

This pollution could leave the U.S. with degraded soils, which could lead to poor plant growth and thereby reduce sequestration capabilities. Instead of tackling each issue alone, Ickert proposes a more holistic approach. In a 2020 report for Data for Progress, he and a half dozen others laid out a plan to financially incentivize carbon sequestration, but with many additional stipulations to protect the planet and workers.

“That would include reduced tillage, reduced use of pesticides, diverse rotations—no more monoculture,” Mackenzie Feldman, a food and sustainability fellow, Data For Progress and the report’s lead author, said.

This would also help farmers to get out of debt. Farm debt is now at a level last seen in 1980, which marked the dawn of a historic crisis in the industry.

The Forest Service, which falls in the USDA’s domain, could also be an important source of climate action. The agency oversees 193 million acres of land, equivalent to the state of Texas. Trump proposed a dumb program to plant a trillion trees, but more helpful would be expanding the department’s powers to protect existing forests from insects, diseases, and invasive species. Biden could also pour more resources into the agency’s important climate adaptation efforts to boost resilience to forest fires and help build food security, and climate science efforts, too.

Equally important is the department’s ability to boost equity. Black farmers received just 0.80% of the USDA’s loans between 2009 and 2016, and the problem goes back much farther than that.

“In 1910, one in seven farmers were African American, and over the next century, 98% of black farmers were dispossessed,” Feldman said.

Boosting these small farms could also be a climate solution, since small farmers are by-and-large more environmentally friendly than their huge, industrialized counterparts.

“The main thing is that the USDA should take on all these problems, and recognize that they’re all interrelated,” Ickert said.

Department of Commerce

At the root, DOC is largely the Department of Data and Information. And among its most prized data sources is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It has what NOAA stans affectionately refer to as a “wet” side and “dry” side, denoting its focus on sea and land (tbd on where the atmosphere fits). That trove of data can help the U.S. prepare for the coming climate crisis and ensure DOC lives up to its mission to “create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity.”

Under Trump, NOAA has been overrun with climate deniers and skeptics. Getting them out of NOAA is step one for the Biden administration. The Climate 21 Project, a group of experts who released a series of memos on climate and governance, suggested the Biden’s NOAA create a Climate Council to coordinate efforts across the wet and dry sides. In addition to collecting data, NOAA issues life-saving forecasts (the National Weather Service), helps manage waterways (National Ocean Service), and conducts science research from the deep sea to space. Ensuring all those moving parts address climate change is a tall task, but crucial to make sure the agency is pulling in the same direction. The best thing about a Climate Council as opposed to, say, forming a new division within NOAA, is it could be implemented without Congressional approval.

“They could do it right away and that would be a way for them to immediately encourage that collaboration across line offices,” Jean Flemma, director of the Ocean Defense Initiative and a Climate 21 author, said.

Because NOAA’s mission is to help keep the economy churning, the agency could also revisit its science priorities to focus on near-term climate change and forecasts. A community looking to build a boat launch, for example, may want climate projections for the next decade, not the next century. To do that type of work requires scientists and more computing power.

“The weather could be predicted really well 10 days out, and the climate can be predicted really well on the order of 50 years out,” Miriam Goldstein, an ocean policy expert at the Center for American Progress and report author, said. “But we don’t have a lot in the five to 10 year timescale.”

NOAA also does tons of work on the ground, including a program called Sea Grant that partners with local universities. Climate could again take center stage there and new projections like the ones Goldstein suggested could be disseminated through the program offices to help communities plan and restore coastal ecosystems. The latter is particularly important due to sea level rise and the protection restoration can afford as well as the fact that certain ecosystems, such as mangroves, can store carbon.

So yes, it’s about data. But it’s also about ensuring that data ends up in the hands of decision makers or is used to directly ensure people are protected. Oh, and also for the love of all things holy, no more Sharpiegates.

Department of Defense

The DOD is at once a big driver of climate change and affected by it. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government, using more than the entire countries of Sweden and Denmark. It’s also the largest institutional greenhouse gas polluter in the world.

Under Biden, there are limitless possibilities to clean up the military’s carbon footprint while also insulating its bases from climate change and improving national security. For instance, as the policy organization Climate and Security Advisory Group has suggested, the administration could charge its security advisors with making plans for climate security in the world’s most vulnerable regions domestically and abroad, helping those areas to handle climate stressors and deploy clean energy to preserve safety. It’s important that this is not simply used to promote American-made clean power, but that it promotes the use of the best-available technology.

The Pentagon could also continue to research which of its bases are most vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate like wildfires and droughts, and ensure they are ready to weather those disasters. It also has a chance to remediate land it has poisoned. Among hundreds of examples are Vieques, Puerto Rico where decades of Navy chemical pollution have hugely increased locals’ risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and working to investigate and eliminate the horrific impacts of the depleted uranium that troops used in Iraq.

When resources are set aside to carry out these projects, the administration should also ensure that those projects are seen through. This summer, the Pentagon received $1 billion from the nation’s covid-19 stimulus bill to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,” but it diverted the majority of those funds to defense contractors to produce military items such as parts for jet engines and armor. If funds are obtained for green projects, the administration should ensure that that’s how they’re used.

That doesn’t address the underlying issue of its use in destabilizing entire countries and regions. So while its role is purportedly meant to keep Americans safe, in practice, DOD perpetuates endless wars and contributes to the existential threat of climate change through its copious fossil fuel use, both of which put people at risk. Cutting the Pentagon budget could save countless lives by limiting both. But this doesn’t mean the government should spend less overall. Biden could reappropriate the funds for programs that reduce emissions and meaningfully make the world safer.

“Pentagon funding doesn’t keep people on the Gulf Coast safe from hurricanes, or people in California safe from wildfires,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “But investing in renewable energy, public transportation, energy efficient buildings, and ecological agriculture does help keep people safe. So if the goal really is to protect people from actual danger, we should be funding climate protection, not the Pentagon.”

An Institute for Policy Studies brief recommends starting by slashing $350 billion from the Pentagon budget, which is a little under half. That would still leave the U.S. with the largest military budget in the world. In addition, the brief includes a call to close hundreds of bases outside U.S. borders, many of which have leached dangerous pollutants into air and drinking water.

With the budget the department has left, the new administration should ensure that no wars are being waged to protect fossil fuel access. Since 1973, between one quarter and one half of all U.S. wars have been waged at least in part for oil. Instead, armed forces should be deployed to clean up the dirty legacy of war.

Department of Education

Though its name is education, the role of the department in setting the education agenda is fairly limited. It can offer awards to educators for bringing climate into their classroom, providing workshops or conferences for teachers focused on climate, and expand programs like Green Ribbon Schools, which it awards to schools and districts for sustainable operations. It could also help collect and ensure access to resources for K-12 teachers about climate change from agencies like NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, resources the Trump administration tried to memory-hole.

But ultimately, states set their own educational standards. So a Biden DOE isn’t going to be mandating climate in the curriculum anytime soon. Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said that perhaps the agency’s biggest role can be having a secretary who is vocal about climate change’s rightful role in the classroom, giving teachers the courage to approach it. At the end of the day, the position is a bullhorn to schools and educators across all levels. Having a secretary using it to shout a climate message might be the best tool in the department’s toolbox.

Department of Energy

The DOE oversees U.S. electricity use, which is responsible for 26.9 percent of the nation’s total carbon emissions. When it comes to the future of the climate, the agency has one of the most important roles in the executive branch.

A key responsibility of the DOE is setting efficiency standards for appliances. Under the Trump administration, the agency failed to update dozens of these regulations when they were overdue, and even eased requirements for some appliances. This meant the U.S. emitted tens of millions more tons of carbon than it would have under stricter rules.

The next administration could undo that damage and go even further to cut greenhouse gas pollution. If it chooses to, a recent report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy shows Biden’s DOE could cut the nation’s carbon emissions by up to 2.9 billion metric tons through 2030—the equivalent to the pollution from 25 coal-fired power plants—by making stricter standards for 47 different products, including water heaters, clothes dryers, and refrigerators. These would also allow Americans to save on their energy bills as well.

While these standards can make a huge difference for carbon pollution, DOE doesn’t have the power to take on greenhouse gas emissions in their standards directly. It couldn’t, for instance, mandate a cap on the greenhouse gas emissions generated by a dishwasher.

“That’s an authority that would have to be codified in law, and that would require Congress,” Jake Higdon, a senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund and fellow at Data for Progress, said. It can, however, encourage manufacturers and customers to go beyond its standards to reduce energy use (and, indirectly, emissions) with its voluntary certification programs, like EnergyStar. It can also ensure that grants and loan programs are going to deployment of low and zero emissions technologies, like the top performers in those programs.

Those grant and loan programs could also be used to prioritize energy justice. For instance, the agency could make an effort to fund community-owned solar projects or renewable-powered microgrids, which are resilient to power outages in the electricity grid.

“Those are initiatives that can help promote equitable access to energy,” Higdon said. “And it could focus on grantmaking in frontline communities…making sure these technologies are going to the communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution.”

The same goes for the agency’s clean electricity deployment programs, which exist but are very limited in their scope and funding. “Right now, there’s the Weatherization Assistance Program and the State Energy Program,” Higdon said. With Congressional approval, both could be expanded and better resourced to ensure more Americans have access to carbon-free power.

The DOE is also responsible for important research operations, and by hiring climate-focused staff, it could use those programs to further research into clean energy. That includes not only things like better wind and solar energy, but also technologies that have received less focus.

“The DOE hasn’t done as much work outside of the power sector, but efficiency standards can be really useful for reducing pollution and saving energy costs in, say, manufacturing and commercial building sectors,” Higdon said. “There, energy use costs a lot of money and it generates a big portion of those industries’ emissions. Appliances like big industrial boilers and HVAC systems for commercial buildings are really large, and they last a really long time, and right now they’re super expensive and polluting.”

The next generation of these technologies could be cheaper and less polluting, as well as kinder to the climate.

Department of Health and Human Services

The climate crisis and environmental degradation are top risks to human health. Amid unchecked global warming, an August study found that heat waves could kill as many people as all infectious diseases combined. Floods create public health emergencies, too, from sewage overflows to chemical leaks. To act on these threats, the first thing the HHS should do is call out the problem.

“The next HHS Secretary should declare climate change a public health emergency on Day 1 of the Biden Administration,” Ezra Silk, co-founder of The Climate Mobilization, said. “This declaration will empower the department to tap the Public Health Emergency Fund and launch a national public education campaign about the acute health risks of climate change.”

That campaign, Silk said, should also teach Americans about the less obvious public health dangers of environmental degradation, such as the ways it can bring forth pandemics. Covid-19, for instance, is a zoonotic disease, meaning it was transmitted to people from animals. Deforestation, factory farming, and other forms of animal exploitation put us at risk for more public health crises of this kind.

Beyond education, the HHS could allocate resources specifically for climate resilience. Renee Salas, a Harvard Medical School clinical instructor focused on the intersection of climate and health, said it could do so by creating a separate subagency.

“This office could work to advance national surveillance for climate-related health risks, bolster resiliency in our healthcare infrastructure and supply chains, among other things,” she said.

Department of Homeland Security

While the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks have focused around EPA and DOI, the administration’s sheer malevolence has been front and center at DHS. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are housed under DHS and have committed a slew of human rights and environmental abuses. The department is also home to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also dealt with fraud and morale issues over the past four years (though the latter predates Trump).

The Biden administration will have so much work to do to fix an agency Frankensteined together in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, let alone make it an agency to address climate change. But because of the scope of its work, DHS could be radically overhauled in ways that would protect the U.S. and those seeking refuge here in an increasingly upended world.

One of the first places to physically start the work is on the U.S.-Mexico border. There, the Trump administration has steamrolled environmental regulations to build its border wall. DHS should halt all construction, and at the bare minimum work with public lands agencies to do a real environmental impact assessment in line with bedrock laws on the damage already done. But the reality is it should go much further. The wall is a racist abomination that’s also cut through fragile desert landscapes, putting more stress on creatures that live there. As the climate crisis worsens, the borderlands need to be open to give those species a shot at survival.

“We’ll have to do what most American politicians haven’t done or American bureaucrats even and that’s view the borderlands and as an interconnected, interdependent bioregion and manage these incredible resources with that in mind,” Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “My dream is to help establish an international peace park at Organ Pipe with El Pinacate across the border in Mexico.”

Then there’s the human side of DHS. Climate change-fueled droughts in Syria and Central America have already led to mass migrations, and a growing body of research shows how it could exacerbate conflict and lead to more asylum seekers. Despite this, climate migrants lack protections. The Biden administration could accommodate those forced from their homes by the climate crisis through a number of channels, including temporary protected status. That designation was used to allow migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and elsewhere to resettle in the U.S. following disasters such as earthquakes or political unrest. Using it to help climate migrants is a fix Biden’s DHS could use to humanely help those in need after hurricanes, drought, fires, or other disasters supercharged by climate change. A Center for Strategic and International Studies brief also includes a roadmap on how DHS could create a resettlement program specific for climate refugees.

Then there’s FEMA. The agency is key for responding to increasing frequent and damaging weather as well as preparing the nation for them. Samantha Montano, an emergency management researcher at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said the agency needs to do is open up the hood and see where things stand after four years of Trump. But next comes getting a leader who gets the link between climate, disasters, and recovery, and isn’t afraid to set the agenda, something that just hasn’t happened to-date there.

“The number one most important thing is choosing somebody who leads FEMA who not only understands climate change, but is really vocal and up front,” Montano added.

While there’s no shortage of things a new administrator could do from overhauling the National Flood Insurance Program to ensuring rebuilding after disasters reflects Biden’s “build back better” principle rather than, as it currently does, build what was there before. But one of the biggest things FEMA could do is both model how to fit climate projections into disaster planning at the federal level for state and local agencies and use funding to compel those agencies to follow suit.

“If FEMA attaches having a climate adaption plan to your state getting FEMA funding for your next disaster, they’re going to do it,” Montano said. “You need somebody who is a visionary who understands what emergency management could be [to] motivate people not only at FEMA but the profession as a whole.”

Department of Housing and Urban Development

We urgently need to decarbonize the U.S. buildings sector, which consumes 39% of the nation’s energy. More than half of that is tied to residential buildings. At the same time, the climate crisis is making it all the more urgent to ensure all people have access to homes that protect them from increased heat, cold, rain, and other forms of extreme weather. HUD could help get us there.

Low-income housing needs particular attention. Right now, nearly half a million government-subsidized households are located in flood plains, and when floods destroy buildings, affordable units are less likely to get rebuilt. Poorer people are also far more likely to reside in areas that are heat islands—places where concrete and tall buildings create higher temperatures—and in poorly insulated homes, which is an issue in the extreme cold, too. This means these homes rely more on heating and cooling technology to maintain comfort, too, which results in higher energy bills and creates more indoor pollution from air conditioners, which can screw up air quality and also warm the climate. HUD could begin to take all of this on by changing its core housing mandates, which dictate standards for residences.

“Homes that do not protect seniors from the adverse health impacts of high-heat events, that do not ensure high indoor environmental quality (thermal comfort, air quality, pests, etc.), or that don’t enable residents to shelter safely in their homes during extreme weather can no longer be called ‘quality homes,’” Bomee Jung, former vice president of energy and sustainability at New York City’s Housing Authority, wrote in a memo calling for a HUD chief climate officer. From there, the agency could implement new climate-focused standards across all of its projects.

For instance, the Department of Energy has a buildings certification for Zero-Energy Ready Homes, which applies to buildings that are “so energy efficient, that a renewable energy system can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption.” That label is the most aggressive emissions targeting program in existence, but the federal government is now working on an even stronger certification for Zero-Carbon Ready Homes. Those will apply to buildings that have the lowest possible greenhouse gas impact and have offsets in place for any necessary emissions, such as electricity or gas use in areas that don’t have an available renewable-powered grid. They’ll also be ready to be transitioned to all renewable energy when the technology is put into place.

“One of the things that [HUD] has to do is to say, ‘we’re just going to take the most aggressive labeling program for residential homes, and we’re going to mandate for all of our new construction projects,’” Jung, speaking on her own behalf, said. “And we have a very well established base of technical capacity, pretty much throughout the country. We’re ready to build homes [sustainably] right now.”

Mandating that federal contractors meet these aggressive targets also encourages private companies to work toward meeting them, so that they can be eligible to work with HUD. It also allows them flexibility to work within their states’ climate targets, since some states are decarbonizing their grids faster than others.

The department also oversees multi-billion dollar grantmaking and financing programs, which could also be used to push forth sustainable building.

“Even without new funding from Congress, HUD has the potential to drive major new investments in climate justice in nearly every community in the U.S,” Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center, said. “Its various grant and finance programs—especially those in the Office of Community Planning and Development—could come with new strings that guarantee a larger proportion of its $32 billion budget goes toward building low-carbon working-class and public housing communities.”

That could include the agency’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, which provides grants each year for states and municipalities to develop residential areas. Fleming said that HUD could require that all recipients of CDBG funding develop policies to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution from the buildings sector and incorporate plans to adapt to extreme heat, sea level rise, and other threats.

To ensure that the department meets all of these goals, Jung said it should hire a climate officer to work in the secretary’s office. That person could liaise with other agencies to ensure it is prepared for coming climate policies, such as efficiency standards for appliances from the Department of Energy. Jung said HUD should also employ regional climate experts who are versed in local climate policies and are focused on ensuring housing in all parts of the country are meeting ambitious goals.

“There needs to be people whose entire job it is to think about climate all day,” she said.

Department of Justice

Judicial action can be a major arena to push forth climate action, as the DOJ has the power to bring its hammer down on polluting companies and entities. In recent years, lawyers have worked with activists and municipalities to file a growing number of lawsuits against oil companies and their allies in government for their contributions to the climate crisis. If they prevail, these cases could force these fossil fuel giants to change their behavior and pay retributions for the environmental and public health damages they’ve caused.

Reports have found that under Trump, the DOJ has worked with the polluting parties to fight off these cases, preparing amicus briefs in their favor. But Biden has pledged to order his DOJ to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.” The agency couldn’t force courts to rule in favor of the plaintiffs of these cases, but its support could seriously tip the scales in their favor.

“If the DOJ were siding with people over polluters moving forward, I think it would be an entirely different ballgame,” Richard Wiles, executive director of Climate Integrity, said.

The first step would be for new DOJ officials to stop helping oil companies fend off lawsuits. But the agency could also go further, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs instead. The advisory task force Biden formed with Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested the president-elect form an environmental and climate justice division within the DOJ, and the president-elect’s climate plan includes a promise to do so. Whether or not this happens will depend in large part on who Biden chooses to work in the DOJ.

“One of the first and most important things Biden can do is appoint an Attorney General and other Department of Justice officials who are committed to holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for deceiving the public about their role in causing the climate crisis,” Wiles said.

If he appointed someone brave enough, Biden’s DOJ could not only support others’ lawsuits, but could do investigations of its own. That includes following the template laid out by attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere to probe oil companies and executives that lied to the public about climate change. If the DOJ turned up foul play, the agency could levy those investigations to force bad actors to clean up their act. It’s not just fossil fuel companies who the DOJ could hold accountable for pollution, either.

“Biden’s DOJ could enhance enforcement efforts in the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division to increase enforcement under the Clean Air Act,” Jillian Blanchard, climate change director at Lawyers for Good Government, said in an email. Under the Trump administration’s so-called Clean Energy Rule, which gutted the U.S. Clean Power Plan, the agency’s ability to do this is limited, but the replacement rule is being challenged in court.

“The Biden Administration could ask for a stay of this litigation while it revokes Trump’s rule and re-issues an updated version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan,” Blanchard said. Then, the DOJ could revamp the Clean Power Plan and under it, ramp up efforts to enforce regulations and take polluters to court. That’s fallen to a 30-year low under Trump, and in his climate plan, Biden has said he will “direct his EPA and Justice Department to pursue these cases to the fullest extent permitted by law and, when needed, seek additional legislation as needed to hold corporate executives personally accountable—including jail time where merited.”

Department of Labor

Extreme heat and weather disasters pose safety risks to workers, especially those whose labor takes place outdoors. They also put workers under financial stress. A recent report, for instance, found that the U.S. lost a total of 2 billion potential hours of labor due to extreme heat last year, since high temperatures can make it dangerous to go outside.

“As the world warms, many occupations will become more hazardous and dangerous, and therefore will need the Department of Labor more than ever,” Joe Uehlein, founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said.

Labor rights are at the center of the transition away from fossil fuels. The covid-19 pandemic has made this clearer than ever, since oil companies, amid crashing fuel demand, have been cutting costs by laying off workers in droves while ensuring their shareholders’ pockets stay lined. Currently, the DOL has employment and training programs for dislocated workers, but if the agency were to have climate-focused staff on their team, it could build out entire programs specifically for those laid off from dirty energy industries. The agency could also create employment programs within those industries’ replacements.

“They could partner with employers from the clean industries of tomorrow for the transition away from our destructive economy, making sure that communities who are underrepresented in our workforce and especially in our fossil fuel economy, like people from frontline communities who have seen the worst impacts of it… get a fair chance to be to be trained for the jobs of tomorrow,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies, said.

It’s important that jobs in the clean energy economy are fairly paid and unionized to ensure that workers are protected. No worker should suffer worse conditions as a result of the transition to clean power. But unfortunately, the DOL’s options for improving workers’ rights to organize are limited without support from outside the agency. All of labor law needs an overhaul.

“The process by which unions are organized, according to U.S. labor law, is stacked in favor of employers. To promote workers rights in general, including those in fossil fuel industries, the process for organizing unions must be made easier and must not create many opportunities for employers to intervene and coerce and intimidate workers into not working in a union,” Sen said. Passing the PRO Act through the Senate would be a step in the right direction.

That said, even without Congressional backing, the agency could take steps to hold all employers accountable for violations of existing labor law. That includes wage and hour violations, wherein employers often try to shortchange on the number of hours actually worked. It also includes misclassification, where companies get out of giving workers benefits by saying they’re not employees—a violation upon which the entire business models of gig work companies is based.

“There will be a lot of people newly employed by the renewable sector,” Sen said. “Getting more aggressive about these kinds of violations would ensure that these jobs are good jobs.”

That would be a win for climate justice, and could also ease fossil fuel workers’ real concerns about the clean energy transition.

Department of State

The Trump administration has been a disaster for the U.S. image abroad. To rehabilitate it, Biden’s team will have a lot of work to do. And there may be no better avenue to doing so than the climate crisis, which doesn’t respect borders and will require cooperation on a global scale to solve. After decades of inaction, the urgency to get to work on reducing carbon pollution has never been higher.

“Climate is at the top of the international agenda,” Nat Keohane, a senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund who co-authored a document for Climate 21 on the State Department, said. “You think about a Venn diagram of what’s important to our allies and what can be done right away, climate is at the center of that Venn diagram. The Iran nuclear deal is important, but you can’t act on it right away. [Rejoining] WHO is easy to act on, but the US membership in the WHO is not like the thing that’s keeping foreign leaders up at night.”

It starts on day one and re-entering the Paris Agreement, something Biden has pledged to do. But that’s akin to stretching for the marathon ahead. As part of rejoining, the Biden administration will have to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a non-binding commitment to reduce emissions and address climate change. The one submitted under Obama called for the U.S. to reduce emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025. The U.S. was unlikely to meet that even before Trump pulled out of the agreement, but the urgency to address climate change has only grown.

Now, the world will eagerly wait to see what Biden puts forward and how much more ambitious it will be than the one Obama put forward. The timeline to do so will be tight with a major international climate conference coming up in November. Given that Biden has promised to decarbonize electricity by 2035. Keohane said a credible NDC would likely be around a promise to reduce all U.S. emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The State Department can’t just rely on showing up to climate talks once a year, though. It has to incorporate a mix of multilateral and bilateral conversations and commitments around climate so the world is working together to achieve emissions reductions. That includes bringing together high emitters such as China, India, the EU, and oil-producing states in the Middle East and coming up with a mutually agreed upon framework to wind down fossil fuel production. Aid can also be used to foster no-carbon development and help countries adapt to climate change, whether it’s rising seas, more intense droughts, or wildfires.

Climate 21 also includes a recommendation for a climate envoy who could ensure the State Department efforts are coordinated both within the agency and other departments, an idea echoed by others who have worked for the agency but wished to remain anonymous. The U.S. has more to offer than just money; it has nearly unmatched expertise in government despite Trump’s attempt to hollow it out. The Department of Energy’s national labs, for example, are working on revolutionary clean energy technologies. The Department of Agriculture has knowledge for dryland farming. NASA has satellites that can monitor pollution. The State Department can leverage that expertise to negotiate deals, offering assistance to nations that don’t have the voluminous technical capacity of the U.S. And the foreign service can include more climate experts—an idea put forward by Evergreen Action in a memo—to make sure the baton is passed smoothly.

“All that can be harnessed, the State Department can build that out,” Keohane said. “I think of the State Department like the external face, and that they need to be developing these good relationships with the technical experts.”

Department of the Interior

A fifth of the U.S. is under the purview of DOI. That’s a lot of land to create a climate plan for. Oh, and there’s also 1.7 billion acres of ocean the agency oversees.

The DOI’s climate mission starts with what’s under the ground; 42% of coal, 24% of crude oil, and 13% of methane gas were extracted on public lands in 2017. The agency leases millions of acres to fossil fuel companies, and Trump tried to turbocharge that by opening vast swaths of the ocean and the far reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploitation. Biden has promised to ban offshore and Arctic drilling. He’ll have a tail wind on the latter as all major U.S. banks have said they’ll no longer fund Arctic fossil fuel exploration.

But work will have to go well beyond that, creating a plan to wind down fossil fuel activity on all federal land while simultaneously ramping up renewables, particularly offshore wind. Ending leasing will have a relatively small impact since there’s already so much coal, oil, and gas being dug up on public lands on current leases. To wind down production will require going further.

“It’s no longer enough to simply stop fossil fuel expansion—it’s now crucial that leaders committed to climate success begin actively winding down some existing extraction with a just transition,” Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change U.S., said in a text. “Interior can do that in a number of ways without any new authority from Congress—by terminating fossil fuel leases which were issued invalidly, ending BLM’s practice of issuing lease suspensions, increasing and enforcing self-bonding requirements for oil and gas wells and coal mines, instituting health and safety buffer zones banning extraction in certain areas, reversing Trump’s attempts to shrink and repeal national monument designations, and more.”

There’s also the tall order of capping the estimated 750,000 orphaned wells, an unknown number of which are on public lands, spewing pollution. But that effort dovetails well with fossil fuel workers’ skills and could be a huge job creator while simultaneously helping wind down the industry without hurting workers.

Ramping up wind is already happening under Trump, with a record auction held in 2018. DOI could take money in this funding year’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management budget and transfer it from offshore oil to offshore wind projects as a short-term move. Longer-term, it could speed up permitting for offshore wind and set targets for power generation.

Public lands also offer ample opportunities to capture and store carbon through natural sinks like forests and grasslands found in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other locations. At the same time, the agency has work to do along with the USDA to make sure the carbon stored on public lands doesn’t go up in smoke. Wildfires have burned over the West with increasing intensity and severity.

The agency also includes Fish and Wildlife Services, which oversees the Endangered Species Act. Trump’s DOI watered that down in a way that makes it harder to protect species threatened by climate change. Addressing the loopholes he created is vital to protecting wildlife. The department also needs to work with DHS to remediate the border wall, which was built in a manner destructive to national parks and endangered species that live in the fragile borderlands.

Climate justice is also a huge area where DOI can make inroads. Under Trump, the agency shrunk Bears Ears National Monument against the wishes of local tribes. It could reverse course under Biden. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also sits within the agency and is tasked with improving economic opportunities for tribes. It could fulfill that mission by bringing opportunities to be part of the clean energy economy to reservations around the U.S. The Navajo Nation, for example, just saw the Navajo Generating Station shutter. While that reduced pollution, it also left a $40 million hole in the budget. BIA could support developing the renewable energy sector given the transmission infrastructure already in place and support other tribes so they could be part of the transition. There’s also the matter of pipelines that faced widespread Indigenous opposition from Dakota Access to Keystone XL to Line 3, and the need to engage tribes more fully in the consultation process and receive consent (or listen to the opposition).

Uplifting tribes goes beyond the government swooping in, though. Rather it requires respecting Indigenous groups as peers, including treaty rights, and reconciling a history of displacement and genocide. Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of Northern Arizona University’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, pointed to a document that tribal climate experts put together earlier this year in support of the House’s climate plan as a good starting point for the Biden administration as well.

“Just the recognition and the respect would be huge—and listening to us,” she said.

Department of the Treasury

The Treasury advises the president on economic matters. Given that climate change is a massive threat to the economy, the Treasury has tons of untapped potential to influence climate policy—and specifically, to put an end to fossil fuel financing.

“Banks, asset managers, etc., they’re putting money continually into oil and gas,” Brett Fleishman, associate director of fossil finance campaigns at environmental advocacy organization, said. “Financial regulators have the ability to dig us out of this hole.”

That ability is due in large part to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, commonly known as Dodd Frank. The legislation was crafted after the 2008 financial crisis to give regulators more power to shield the economic system from crashes. Banks caused that crisis with predatory mortgages, but the climate crisis should qualify, too.

“The argument, overall, is that climate is a risk to the financial system and that the Treasury should do everything it can to help and push banks and companies to mitigate those risks that they themselves are undertaking,” Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, said.

Climate change is a threat to financial stability in more ways than one. It has the potential to disrupt every aspect of American life.

“There’s the physical planetary risk to the economy from things like when there is flooding or wildfires or drought somewhere, since those kinds of climate events threaten the financial assets that these companies hold,” Graham Steele, director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, said. “And then there’s public policy risk, because when policymakers decide they’re not going to rely so much on fossil fuels in the economy anymore, then loans to oil and gas companies and assets and investments in them will suddenly become less profitable.”

Dodd Frank created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), a group chaired by the Department of Treasury’s secretary which includes all federal regulatory agencies. When the body identifies a risk, it can push regulators to more aggressively regulate the companies’ behavior.

“For instance, if FSOC says that because of their investments in fossil fuels and other carbon intensive industries, the country’s largest asset managers pose a risk to financial stability, it can tell the [Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates asset managers] to limit those investments,” Steele said.

If that approach doesn’t work, FSOC can then bring the Federal Reserve into the picture.

“In that scenario, if the SEC says they disagree and they decide not to regulate asset managers more, then under the leadership of the Treasury, FSOC can vote to take authority for regulating those asset managers away from the SEC and give it to the Federal Reserve. They can then say to the Fed, okay, now you have to do the stuff that we were telling the SEC to do,” Steele said.

There’s an even more aggressive path that the Treasury could take. At the end of Dodd Frank, a provision gives FSOC the ability to take any other actions it deems necessary to address the risks that companies pose. That could be interpreted to allow the body to create dollar caps on the investments that companies can make in polluting industries in order to limit global warming or measure and limit the amount of emissions companies are responsible for. It could even be used to ban investments in fossil fuels, if regulators are bold enough.

The Treasury also plays a key role in international diplomacy and should prioritize mitigating climate risk there, too. When negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, for instance, its officials should advocate for and participate in measures to draw down emissions. It can also increase the ambition of the country’s financial commitments to fighting climate change.

“At the upcoming UN COP [international climate talks] in Glasgow next year, the world will be looking to see how the U.S. rejoins the global community in tackling the climate crisis, and one of the key contributions it can make is by tackling one of the major sources of climate destruction in our country: Wall Street,” Ben Cushing, senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, said. If the Treasury takes steps to reign in polluting institutions, it will show the world that the U.S. is serious about taking on the crisis, and could encourage other countries to do business—and follow suit.

Department of Transportation

The single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is transportation. So while agencies like EPA or the Department of Energy might get the brightest spotlights for how they can drive emissions cuts, DOT is central to the U.S. achieving zero emissions.

DOT and EPA actually have a role to play together in addressing vehicle emissions standards, something the Trump administration rolled back to allow for more pollution. Under Biden, they could change course and implement more stringent standards. Ultimately, an efficient internal combustion engine is still a source of pollution, though, and long-term, the DOT has to help transition to electric vehicles to really make a dent in transportation pollution.

It could do so by investing in charging infrastructure to stimulate electric vehicle demand. States and even utilities are already looking at plans to build out charging infrastructure on both coasts, efforts DOT could help foster. The department could also offer a voucher program for trading in a gas-powered vehicle for an electric one, something Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed.

The agency also funds a miles and miles of roadway maintenance and construction. That’s where things get sticky. On the one hand, it makes sense for the agency to spend money on repairs and ensuring they’re done to handle this century’s climate extremes of more heavy downpours, intense heat, and sea level rise, to name a few impacts. But its funding for new roads and roadway expansion is where things can go sideways. Building new roads is a carbon pollution time bomb waiting to happen as long as the majority of vehicles are gas-powered, to say nothing of the ecological impacts and how they can negatively affect communities they cut through.

“Right now, DOT is largely a car and truck agency,” Costa Samaras, the director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon, said in an email. “We need it to be a clean mobility agency, and it can be. We need to revise the way DOT’s capital spending is given to states, the so-called 80-20 rule, where 80% is spent on highways and 20% is spent on transit.”

Expanding access to high-quality public transportation is where DOT could make major inroads to cutting carbon emissions. It’s also where money is urgently needed; just this week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced plans to severely curtail service after covid-19 sent ridership and revenue plummeting. It’s a trend seen across the country, and the DOT could help fill some of that gap while also contributing to a low carbon future for cities.

That might be less sexy than shovel-ready projects like highway expansion where the Biden administration can toss up a big sign saying it’s being built with coronavirus recovery funds. Emily Grubert, an engineer at Georgia Tech, said that “basically just continues to put money into a system that is really, really hard to move away from when you’re so invested in just this massive capital allocation to the roadway system.”

She also advocated for letting cities and towns tinker and find what low- and no-carbon transit works best for them, whether its light rail, bike lanes, e-bike and scooter programs, or better walking infrastructure. The agency could also connect with HUD to figure out how transit and increasing housing density can work hand-in-hand to reduce emissions and improve quality of life.

Any projects that DOT does fund to reduce emissions also need to address injustice. Highways and other transportation infrastructure have generally been rammed through communities of color that not only fail to reap the benefits, but are actively harmed by air and noise pollution. All that asphalt also causes heat to build up, further worsens quality of life and puts people at-risk of heat-related illnesses. That can’t happen again. Similarly, Grubert said the shift to electric vehicles can’t create new injustices by forcing people working at gas stations to lose their jobs without a fallback or transition period.

“We can’t repeat the injustices of the past when we reinvest in infrastructure,” Samaras said.

Department of Veteran Affairs

The VA doesn’t have nearly as long a climate to-do list as other agencies, but it isn’t exempt either. The biggest issue is improving its hospitals and other infrastructure’s resilience to climate change. That’s particularly pressing given the impact of increasingly extreme weather and the risks that poses to any of the 20 million patients that rely on the VA. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Brian Schatz, both on the Senate Armed Services Committee, made a request last year for the agency to update its adaptation plans.

The agency’s hospitals could also find ways to cut down on emissions as well. Common inhaled general anesthetics, for instance, also release greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Cutting down on them and switching to local anesthesia could yield substantial climate benefits from an unexpected source of emissions.

Environmental Protection Agency

Not to diminish the other agencies here, but the EPA is the beating heart of climate policy. Thirty-nine EPA rules have been or are in the process of being rolled back. Another seven were rolled back, only to be reinstated after legal challenges. We’re talking everything from power plants to waterways to cars to pipelines to toilets.

It goes without saying Biden will likely try to reverse a number of the rollbacks and strengthen rules and regulations. As we’ve seen with the Trump years, a tide of lawsuits will likely come in in response, though from conservative challengers. That behooves the Biden administration to lean into actually applying science in rule-making, something that was decidedly lacking under Trump. Which, hey, that’ll happen when you first appoint a zealot grifter as agency administrator and then replace him after he resigns in shame with a coal lobbyist.

The most important rule the EPA can make is all of them, but one of most profound things it could work on in the Biden era is updating the social cost of carbon. That’s a metric the agency uses to determine the damage that would result from a ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, and it’s crucial to how stringent the EPA makes rules governing carbon pollution. The Trump administration put the social cost of a ton of carbon from $1 to $7, which is climate denial at its finest. Obama’s EPA put it at $45. Scientists put it much higher, including a July 2020 Nature Climate Change study that put it between $100 and $200 per ton. Long story short: The EPA has a lot of work to do on defining it properly, and getting it right will be a huge determinant for how it sets climate rules.

Speaking of, that also means rebuilding morale for career staff who spent the past four years either under siege or sidelined. Doing so could be as simple as signaling trust in their judgment and putting them to work on projects that will meaningfully reduce pollution and help public health. Cleaning house in the industry-stocked advisory boards put in place under the Trump administration could also reinvigorate agency staff. Among the greatest hits are a Trump era advisory board falsely calling air pollution and public health research “not trustworthy.” Undoing former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rule to sideline real outside experts would be a huge boon.

For all the hackery done at the EPA over the Trump years, there’s one key lesson to takeaway for Biden. To quote Vox’s Dave Roberts: “blitz. Do everything at once.” Deliberate rule-making is no reason not to go fast and hard, especially given the scope of the climate crisis. It’s not about choosing whether to do car or power plant emissions rules first. There are any number of ways a Biden EPA can wield tools like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other statutes to target emissions and pollution from all facets of industry. It must use them all at once.

EPA, along with the Departments of Interior, Energy, and Agriculture could also fire up a cross-agency version of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known by its popular acronym, DARPA. The program aims at developing emerging technologies, including such hits as the internet. ARPA-E already exists at DOE for moonshot energy technology. A new ARPA, ARPA-C, could target all the non-energy ways to cut emissions. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force highlighted a few potential areas for breakthroughs in its final document, including decarbonizing industrial heat and construction, agriculture, and even improving agricultural practices to sequester carbon.

But the EPA cannot act without considering the impacts of rulemaking on those exposed to pollution. That means hooking up with states, tribes, fenceline, and even fossil fuel workers to hear about their experiences. It also means building up expertise in the agency’s Environmental Justice Office and actually enforcing fines for pollution, both which Trump weakened. Technocratic solutions to draw down emissions alone would address the climate part of the climate crisis, but not the crisis underlying it.

“There are a lot of more traditional pollutant issues that if EPA were more aggressive on, would provide a ton of remediation jobs that are in the places where a lot of people would be losing their work because they’re shutting down coal mines or shutting down power plants,” Emily Grubert, an engineer at Georgia Tech, said.

The Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve is the country’s central banking system, and it has “not only the responsibility but the tools to turn climate action into reality,” Carla Skandier, co-manager of the climate and energy program of the Next System Project, said.

Under Dodd Frank, the Fed—like the Treasury—is meant to limit systemic risks to financial stability. Last month, the agency took steps to acknowledge that climate change is one of those threats. In its latest biannual report, officials listed the climate crisis as a stability risk for the first time, and also applied to join a group of central banks focused on meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, an indication it’s preparing for Biden to reenter the agreement. But there are other, more concrete steps it could take to help the nation take on the crisis.

One of the Fed’s most powerful tools is its ability to create money. Through a policy known as quantitative easing, it can buy up government bonds and other financial assets to put more money into the economy and thereby boost economic activity. The agency launched the program amid the 2008 financial crash to pump money into the banks that caused the economic disaster in the first place. But it could use it now toward a better end—boosting the green economy.

“We believe the Fed could do this due to the powers it was given by Dodd Frank,” Mark Paul, who co-authored a report with Skandier on the proposal, said.

With its additional funds, the Federal Reserve could also invest on the order of $1 trillion dollars a year in renewable energy the nation needs. Doing so would also create jobs to build and maintain all that new infrastructure. The agency could also use these additional funds to buy up the nation’s fossil fuel companies, bringing them under national control in order to phase them out of existence. Skandier said that this moment, when oil prices and energy companies’ valuations are in the gutter, is the right time to do so. She noted that the government has already spent billions of dollars on bailing out fossil fuel companies using covid-19 stimulus money, but if it chose to, it could spend to help frontline communities, fossil fuel workers, and the planet instead.

“This is not only necessary from a social, labor, and environmental perspectives, but a must if the Fed wants to have a chance to fulfill its financial stability mandate moving forward,” she said.

Office of Management and Budget

OMB is the largest office under the president’s domain. It also may be the most underrated in terms of its importance for climate policy, because it sets the budget for every other part of the executive branch.

“If we could win on one agency besides the Department of Energy and the EPA, if we could have one more agency be led by a climate champion, you might want it to be OMB,” Max Moran, research assistant at the Center for Economic Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said.

While Congress controls the federal government’s purse, OMB can have massive influence over spending because it can insert itself into the process of determining what receives funding.

“George W. Bush’s OMB did this by essentially telling agencies that if they wanted to spend their discretionary funds on new business regulations, they had to first run it past OMB,” Moran said.

Biden could use the same power, but instead of doing so to bottleneck regulatory policy, he could force agencies to justify their funding requests in climate terms, ensuring each department is prioritizing reducing greenhouse gas emissions or at least not adding to carbon pollution. The agency could also institute an equity screen and ensuring that money is flowing to disadvantaged communities, a key priority identified in a new Evergreen Action brief. Biden has committed to targeting 40% of his clean energy plan funds to oft-neglected communities, and OMB offers a prime way to bake that into the entire federal government.

“If every other part of the executive branch has to go through a climate warrior in order to get their money, they are all going to start caring a lot more about climate issues,” Moran said.


Of all the climate-focused agencies under Trump, NASA arguably fared the best. After years of climate denial as a member of Congress, Jim Bridenstine staged a full turn around on the issue once he became NASA administrator. As a result, scientists have largely continued their climate work without interference.

Under Biden, NASA should redouble its climate efforts, though. Those include Earth-observing satellites, airborne missions, and climate modeling. Its satellites monitor everything from sea levels to pollution to gravity shifts due to melting ice (seriously, science is amazing). Continuing those observations and ensuring funding is available to keep data flowing is vital to ensuring a more granular understanding of what’s happening to the planet. That in turn can help feed NASA’s modeling program, which can in turn undergird decisions made across the government about how to respond to climate change.

Small Business Administration

Small businesses are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and covid-19. The Paycheck Protection Program was wildly popular as a way to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic. Nevertheless, small businesses are still hurting and will likely need more aid in the coming months.

While keeping people employed should be a top priority above all else, the SBA could propose and administer something along the lines of the PPP with the climate crisis in mind. One avenue could be a Sustainable Finance Fund, an idea put forth by Addisu Lashitew, a fellow at the Brooking Institute, that could help small businesses fund energy efficiency improvements or clean energy.

The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force also includes a call for “expanding federal tools for investment in marginalized communities and broadening access to capital investment and markets for women- and minority-owned small businesses.” The SBA could play a central role in that through grants and loans, ensuring that communities traditionally neglected are at the forefront of the clean energy economy.

The task for Biden to be a climate president begins on Day 1, flows through every agency, Cabinet-level or otherwise, and will require dedication to ensure the solutions he and his appointees craft serve all Americans. If anything is clear by the end of this, it’s that the Biden administration has a tall task ahead. But it’s one where failure is quite literally not an option.


Opinion: 15 Lessons from 30 Years of Voluntary Carbon Markets

This article has been extracted from a climate change micro-site dedicated to Carbon Offsets Round 2. It is part of an ongoing effort to share opinions from thought leaders on a diverse range of issues. The views are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of Forest Trends or Ecosystem Marketplace.  

15 December 2020 | In 1988 Applied Energy Services, working with the World Resources Institute, carried out the first carbon offset project via a CARE agroforestry project in Guatemala. I wrote the carbon quantification methodology for that project (based on conserving nearby forest).

While the idea of offsets has proved very popular in industry and other circles, the experience with carbon markets has been mixed at best. In fact, by 2015 is was less and less clear what the role of carbon offsets would and should be in mitigating climate change.

Then everything changed. Suddenly companies started announcing voluntary “net zero” commitments reminiscent of the first corporate emissions reduction commitments of the 1990s. Because “net zero” commitments almost inherently require carbon offsets, suddenly Carbon Offsets Round 2 was underway. Round 2 was given a huge boost with the establishment of the Task Force to Scale Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM), based on the suggestion by UN Envoy on Climate Change Mark Carney that voluntary markets will have to expand by a factor of almost 200 to help tackle climate change! The TSVCM then put out a consultation document focused on how to make that happen.

That consultation document has almost NO discussion of what we’ve learned from the last 30 years of voluntary carbon offset markets, which you’d think would be relevant to the idea of dramatically expanding those markets. So I’ve taken a very quick stab at identifying what some of those lessons are:

  1. It is impossible to maximize for the two primary goals of offsets: “cost containment” and “climate benefit.” There is a fundamental conflict between the two objectives, and cost containment almost always wins.
  2. Without constant attention to “willful blindness” and “capture of the system by stakeholders,” you quickly end up selling the equivalent of the emperor’s (invisible) clothing.
  3. Policy makers have generally failed to recognize that the truly key decisions relating to carbon offsets are policy decisions, not technical decisions that can be delegated to technocrats or stakeholders.
  4. The primary threat to the environmental integrity of carbon markets has been the definition, interpretation, and implementation of the “additionality” criterion. Not fraud and double-counting as is now being suggested because market participants would rather focus on the quantification and tracking of offsets rather than their origination.
  5. “Additional” emissions reductions or carbon sequestration have to be traceable back to the workings of and incentives created by the carbon market they are being sold into. That’s what makes them additional. No additionality, no climate change benefit.
  6. Carbon offset additionality testing is simply an example of hypothesis testing, which requires the balancing the number of “false positives” and “false negatives,” given that they are inversely correlated. But there is almost no discussion of this basic fact.
  7. There is almost never the opportunity to know with certainty whether a particular ton of reduced emissions or carbon sequestration is additional. It’s always a judgment call.
  8. It is not enough to characterize “additional” projects as projects that “wouldn’t have happened anyway,” or that “weren’t business as usual.” These ideas are so vague that they’re easily gamed.
  9. In the face of policy and market uncertainties, offset developers are motivated to get the lowest-risk and lowest-cost reductions and sequestration accepted into offsets markets. Those are by definition the least additional.
  10. The verification process associated with carbon offsets does not extend to verifying their additionality. Additionality testing involves building an a priori counter-factual case that verifiers accept; it can rarely if ever be empirically tested for later on.
  11. Additionality fatigue after 30 years of voluntary carbon offsets is similar to COVID-19 lockdown fatigue. Understandable, but in no way invalidating the need to tackle the underlying problem.
  12. The handling of offset permanence can dramatically change the economics of carbon offsets from some sectors, and even eliminate them as a source of offsets.
  13. Like additionality, leakage can usually not be empirically measured when evaluating carbon offsets, and often requires similar policy determinations.
  14. A key problem for voluntary offset markets has been that any offset approved by any of the offset standards organizations can claim to be as good as any other offset. There has been no way for offsets of demonstrably higher quality to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
  15. An alternative is needed to the “least common denominator” approach to approving carbon offsets. A “quality score” for offsets would provide consumers with much more information, and create an incentive for better and self-reinforcing market performance.

I’m not suggesting these are the ONLY lessons that should be taken into account if Carbon Offsets Round 2 is going to proceed as apparently planned, but they do seem rather relevant to that goal.



UN Secretary General: Without the US in the Paris Agreement, Humanity Faces Climate ‘Suicide’

2 December 2020 | “The way we are moving is a suicide,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in an interview on Monday, and humanity’s survival will be “impossible” without the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement and achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, as the incoming Biden administration has pledged.

The Secretary General said that “of course” he had been in touch with president-elect Biden and looked forward to welcoming the US into a “global coalition for net zero by 2050” that the UN has organized.  The US is the world’s largest cumulative  source of heat trapping emissions and its biggest military and economic power, Guterres noted, so “there is no way we can solve the [climate] problem … without strong American leadership.”

In an extraordinary  if largely unheralded diplomatic achievement, most of the world’s leading emitters have already joined the UN’s “net zero by 2050” coalition, including the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and China (which is the world’s largest source of annual emissions and has committed to achieving carbon neutrality “before 2060”).  India, meanwhile, the world’s third largest annual emitter,  is the only Group of 20 country on track to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, despite needing to lift many of its people out of poverty, an achievement Guterres called “remarkable.”  Along with fellow petrostate Russia, the US has been the only major holdout, after Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement soon after becoming president four years ago.

The new pledges could bring the Paris Agreement’s goals “within reach,” provided that the pledges are fulfilled, concluded an analysis by the independent research group Climate Action Tracker.  If so, temperature rise could be limited to 2.1 C, the group said—higher than the Agreement’s target of 1.5 to 2 C, but a major improvement from the 3 to 5 C future that business as usual would deliver.

“The targets set at Paris were always meant to be increased over time,” Guterres said.  “[Now,] we need to align those commitments with a 1.5 C future, and then you must implement.”

Reiterating scientists’ warning that humanity faces “a climate emergency,” the Secretary General said that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is imperative to avoiding “irreversible” impacts that would be “absolutely devastating for the world economy and for human life.”  He said rich countries must honor their obligation under the Paris Agreement to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries limit their own climate pollution and adapt to the heat waves, storms, and sea level rise already underway.

The trillions of dollars now being invested to revive pandemic-battered economies also must be spent in a “green” way, Guterres argued, or today’s younger generations will inherit “a wrecked planet.”  And he predicted that the oil and gas industry, in its present form, will die out before the end of this century as economies shift to renewable energy sources.

The Secretary General’s interview, conducted by CBS News, The Times of India, and El Pais on behalf of the journalistic consortium Covering Climate Now, is part of a 10-day push by the UN to reinvigorate the Paris Agreement before a follow-up conference next year.  That conference, known as the 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP 26, was supposed to take place this week but was postponed due to the pandemic.  On December 12, 2020, Guterres will mark the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement by convening a global climate summit with Boris Johnson, who as prime minister of the UK is the official host of COP 26, which occurs in Glasgow, Scotland, next November.

A total of 110 countries have joined the “net zero by 2050” coalition, the Secretary General said, a development he attributed to growing recognition of the increasingly frequent and destructive extreme weather events climate change is unleashing around the world and the “tremendous pressure” governments have faced from civil society, including millions of young people protesting in virtually every country as well as more and more of the private sector.

“Governments, until now, thought to a certain extent that they could do whatever they wanted,” Guterres said.  “But now … we see the youth mobilizing in fantastic ways all over the world.”  And with solar and other renewable energy sources now cheaper than carbon-based equivalents, investors are realizing that “the sooner that they move … to portfolios linked to the new green and digital economy, the best it will be for their own assets and their own clients.”

For a global economy that still relies on oil, gas, and coal for most of its energy and much of its food production, moving to “net zero” by 2050 nevertheless represents a tectonic shift—all the more so because scientists calculate that emissions must fall roughly by half over the next 10 years to hit the 2050 target.  Achieving those goals will require fundamental shifts in both public and private policy, including building no new coal plants and phasing out existing ones, Guterres said.  Governments must also reform tax and subsidy practices.

There should be “no more subsidies for fossil fuels,” the Secretary General said.  “It doesn’t make any sense that taxpayers’ money is spent destroying the planet.  At the same time, we should shift taxation from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters.  I’m not asking governments to increase taxes.  I’m asking governments to reduce the taxes on payrolls or on companies that commit to invest in green energy and put that level of taxation on carbon pollution.”

Governments must also ensure a “just transition” for the people and communities affected by the phase-out of fossil fuels, with workers getting unemployment payments and retraining for jobs in the new green economy.  “When I was in government [as the prime minister of Portugal], we had to close all the coal mines,” he recalled.  “We did everything we could to make sure that those who were working in those mines would have their futures guaranteed.”

The “cycle of oil as the key engine of the world economy is finished,” Guterres said.  By the end of the 21st century, petroleum might still be used “as raw materials for different products… but the role of fossil fuels as [an energy source] will be minimal.”  As for fossil fuel companies’ stated ambitions to continue producing more oil, gas and coal, Guterres said that throughout history various economic sectors have risen and fallen and that the digital sector has now displaced the fossil fuel sector as the center of the global economy.  “I’m totally convinced that a lot of the oil and gas that is today in the soil,” he said, “will remain in the soil.”

Biden Picks Kerry as Climate Coordinator

23 November 2020 | US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday said he would nominate former Secretary of State John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. The announcement was made on the page of the Biden administration’s transition web site dedicated to cabinet-level appointees.

As Secretary of State, Kerry negotiated and signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, and last year he launched “World War Zero,” which is a bipartisan organization dedicated to achieving net zero greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.

Biden had previously vowed to coordinate climate strategy across the government, and Kerry will be charged with implementing that strategy.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is. I’m proud to partner with the president-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy,” Kerry wrote on Twitter.

Further Reading:

The Climate 21 Project


Shades of REDD+
Pruning Expectations of Corporate Offsetting with REDD+

7 December 2020 | Increasing numbers of companies are taking steps to address climate change – such as reporting on greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs), adopting Science-Based Targets, or making other GHG-reduction commitments.  Many are encouraged by recent studies that highlight the cost-effective mitigation potential from forests, agriculture, and other land-based interventions. The result is a tidal wave of corporate interest in carbon offsets to achieve their climate goals – especially those generated through “nature-based solutions” or “natural climate solutions” (NCS), including REDD+.

Most of the near-term supply for these nature-based credits will have to come from offsets generated through “avoided deforestation”. This is because halting deforestation leads to rapid reductions, while newly planted trees don’t grow fast enough to satisfy the short-term corporate appetite for carbon offsets. At the same time, offsets generated through forest management, blue carbon, or enhancements to agricultural soils face challenges related to additionality, aggregation, or a lack of methodologies to generate emission reductions or removals at scale.

Current nature-based carbon credits come from projects accredited by independent carbon standards. In the future, some countries may also be able to generate carbon credits via jurisdictional, government-driven programs. However, carbon markets can only achieve a fraction of the mitigation potential from stopping forest loss.

In other words, offsets can finance some forest protection, but its reach is limited.

Supply from REDD+ Projects

Projects can address deforestation in scenarios where reducing deforestation or forest degradation requires local solutions. Projects can support activities with communities at the forest frontier, building sustainable economic alternatives, ensuring free, prior, and informed consent, and equitable sharing of benefits. Such work is painstaking and entails direct engagement with local stakeholders and operational capacity on the ground.

Forest carbon crediting at project scale cannot, by itself, tackle global commodity drivers — the leakage risks would be too high, making such projects ineligible under credible standards. About half of tropical deforestation is caused by globally traded commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, timber, rubber, and cocoa. Production of these agricultural goods that lead to deforestation is often funded directly or indirectly by large agri-business with demand and prices set by global markets.

Where deforestation is driven by corporates or linked to government approvals to deforestation, confronting these drivers requires a combination of host government policies, responsible corporate and consumer engagement, and policies by importing countries, such as prohibiting the trade of illegally produced commodities. For example, this is how chocolate companies, governments, and donors are tackling cocoa-driven deforestation in West Africa through the Cocoa and Forests Initiative.

In sum, projects can save forests in areas with local drivers where government policies are slow to incentivize change. They cannot confront larger economic forces and mobile drivers that are responsible for most deforestation.

Supply from Jurisdictional Programs

Projects tackling local drivers cannot generate the amount of emission reductions from forests that are needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. In response to this, initiatives such as the Green Gigaton Challenge suggest that corporate buyers could channel funds into efforts led by national and subnational governments to arrest deforestation. Those that promote this vision tend to discard projects, arguing that projects “risk diverting new sources of private sector finance away from the demand signal needed to incentivize jurisdictional performance”.

The logic behind that argument is (i) that there is a predetermined amount of REDD+ finance available and (ii) that governments will react faster to halt more deforestation if the financial reward – the carrot – is only big enough.

The current spikes in voluntary carbon markets, however, show that private funds react to market signals. They come and go, but they are not depleting a finite amount of funding.

Likewise, offering carrots to governments has been tried in the past with limited success. Since 2009, for example, Brazil has been offered over $2 billion for REDD+ results, but market forces and politics have resulted in deforestation rising this year to its highest level since 2008. In other countries, the disbursement of such carrots can be slow. In 2010, Norway pledged to pay Indonesia up to USD$1 billion to reduce deforestation, with the first results-based payment of $56 million only announced earlier this year for reductions that occurred over 2016 – 2017.

Tropical forest governments are often unable to adopt policies or implement measures that reduce deforestation in the shorter term. In many cases, forest loss is driven by a need to generate economic activity to combat poverty, which means that efforts to reduce deforestation need to be embedded in rural development measures. Or, it is a result of large levels of illegalities, conflict, and corrupt practices in countries with weak governance.  Where governments wish to reduce deforestation and put in place policies — such as moratoriums against cutting forests, delineation of protected areas, or systems to normalize land tenure — they often lack the technical, human, and operational capacity to fully implement and enforce such laws. Strengthening local institutions requires long-term investments that take time to translate into reduced deforestation.

Furthermore, many countries lack the technical capacities to generate market-ready credits at a jurisdictional scale. Country-level GHG reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is neither “fit for purpose” for carbon credits, and often does not meet integrity requirements for offsets, which require greater accounting precision at scale than many countries currently possess. They also need upfront finance and the prospect of future, results-based finance may fall flat if budgets do not allow the financing of policies and incentives today. Finally, governments may also find it hard to convince local constituencies of the merits of government-led sale of carbon credits, in particular in countries where forest carbon rightfully belongs to a mix of landowners, communities, and indigenous peoples.

The Solution: Public Policies and Private Investments

It is without any doubt that only governments can reduce deforestation in the long term and that stable and sustainable land systems need to be backed by sound policies. There is also no alternative to governments fighting illegality and corruption, and only governments can grant full rights of indigenous communities and ensure transparent and enforceable land titles. As mentioned above, these issues take time and likely require direct non-carbon market assistance.

Meanwhile, companies investing in carbon credits can support projects that protect some of the world’s last remaining and important primary forests; this can help hold the line against forest loss, but not lead to the economic transformation needed to stop tropical deforestation.  Companies involved in commodities that drive deforestation should clean up their supply chains, reduce their GHG footprints, and act as responsible corporate citizens. And importing countries should consider policies to reduce the trade of illegally produced goods to support producer country policies.

Ideally, projects and jurisdictional programs work hand-in-hand – with projects, supported by corporate investment, supporting jurisdictional frameworks that are taking a holistic approach to protect forests. Companies may also purchase jurisdictional credits, but only where these are robustly quantified, protect carbon rights, and have low reversal risk—it is likely that there will be few such available credits in the near term. To ensure the integrity of carbon accounting as well as the alignment of projects with policies and countries’ monitoring and reporting, projects can be nested into national systems.

There is a useful but limited role for carbon crediting to support forest protection.  Focusing corporate attention on jurisdictional offsets undermines the more important and harder work that companies should engage in on the ground to reduce deforestation, whether that is in improving supply chains that are responsible for the main drivers of deforestation, or working with communities to tackle local drivers or restore ecologically important forests.  And finally, there is an enduring and important role for non-market results-based payments, and investments, that provide incentives and support for government policies that are needed to halt deforestation.

How You Can Participate in this Series

This is the first in a continuing series of articles focused on REDD+. We invite you to post comments or propose your own submissions as the series evolves.

You can propose submissions by contacting the EM News Desk at Please write “REDD+ Series Submission” in the subject header.

More on the Bionic Planet Podcast

You can also follow our coverage of REDD+ on the Bionic Planet Podcast, which is avaiable on iTunesTuneInStitcher, and on this device here:

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Natural Climate Solutions Win Big in First Bezos Grants

16 November 2020 | Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on Monday used Instagram to unveil the first recipients of grants from the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund, and most of the recipients are household names.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) will each receive $100 million, with $291 million spread across ten smaller, more targeted organizations.

Much of the money will go towards natural climate solutions and efforts intended to generate further reductions by generating knock-on activities. WWF, for example, said it will focus on the restoration of forests and degraded mangroves in Colombia, Fiji, Madagascar, and Mexico. It will also support markets for biofuel built around seaweed.

EDF will use the money to support its MethaneSAT project, which aims to locate and measure emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas that traps 80-times as much heat as does carbon dioxide in the short term.

EDF will also use the money to “build confidence in carbon credits by improving scientific understanding of the storage and removal of carbon using nature-based processes in forests, agricultural soils, and oceans.”

NRDC will use some of the funds to “protect and restore ecosystems that store carbon (like forests and wetlands), and accelerate sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices.”

TNC will use its funds “to advance climate science, protect old-growth forest in U.S. and Canada, and promote climate-friendly agriculture in NW India.”

Among the smaller recipients, the Eden Reforestation Project will receive $5 million to plant trees, but the group’s web site lists no formal carbon methodologies.

“I’ve spent the past several months learning from a group of incredibly smart people who’ve made it their life’s work to fight climate change and its impact on communities around the world,” Bezos wrote. “We can all protect Earth’s future by taking bold action now.”

The Fund has been operating quietly since Bezos first announced its formation in February, and there is still no indication of where the remaining $9.2 billion will end up.


Voluntary Carbon Task Force Publishes First Round of Recommendations

10 November 2020 | The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets today published a long-awaited Consultation Document on how to ensure voluntary carbon markets are able to generate enough emission reductions to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 50 percent in the next 10 years and reach “net zero” by 2050. Carbon offsets can accelerate the first phase by funneling money into the most cost-effective reduction programs, and they can ensure the second phase by financing programs that actively remove gasses from the air.

Launched in September by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, among others, the Taskforce aims to forge agreement on practices that can help the market scale without sacrificing quality. The Consultation Document contains 17 recommendations spread among six topics, and the IIF encourages all market participants to submit feedback at

Six Topics

The six topics for action are as follows:

  1. Core carbon principles (CCPs) and attribute taxonomy. The Taskforce recommends the creation of a meta-standard that could serve as a global set of criteria for determining what constitutes a voluntary carbon credit.
  2. Core carbon reference contracts. To facilitate liquidity, the Taskforce recommends the creation of liquid reference contracts (spot or futures) that can generate daily price signals that serve as reference prices for over-the-counter transactions.
  3. Infrastructure: trade, post-trade, financing, and data.  To facilitate traceability and liquidity, the Taskforce recommends the creation of global clearinghouses and meta-registries.
  4. Consensus on offset legitimacy. To ensure best practices, the Taskforce recommends the creation of a consensus on when offsets can and can’t be used to make claims of carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions.
  5. Market integrity assurance. To ensure market integrity, the Taskforce recommends certification and licensing of participants.
  6. Demand signals. The Taskforce also aims to encourage companies that aim for carbon neutrality to purchase offsets that meet recognized criteria.

We will provide deeper coverage at the end of the day, after participants have had a chance to digest the document.

Banks Bankrolling Extinction to Tune of $2.6 Trillion

29 October 2020 | Major banks loaned more than $2.6 trillion to sectors driving the climate and extinction crises in 2019, an amount higher than the GDP of Canada, according to a new report called Bankrolling Extinction, published this week by The says most banks lack internal systems for monitoring biodiversity impacts and that current accounting rules shield them from liability. The report comes on the heels of a similar analysis by the Rainforest Action Network, which found that major financial institutions were financing activities without regard to the Paris Climate Agreement.

“This report from confirms what our research also shows, that banks globally still need to step up their game and develop an approach to protect biodiversity,” Peter van der Werf, senior engagement specialist at Netherlands-based asset manager Robeco, told Reuters.

Industrial agriculture has again emerged as a primary culprit, especially in Southeast Asia and the Amazon region, but mining, fossil fuels, infrastructure, tourism, transport, and logistics were also singled out.

The analysis was described as “a frightening statement of the status quo” by Dr. Robert Watson, former chair of both the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Mark Campanale, founder and executive chair of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, said that the report “reminds us that there is no time to lose for governments and financial regulators to create an appropriate rules-based system to oversee and ensure that banks cannot continue to finance this corporate planetary plunder, unconstrained and unnoticed.”

“Environmental destruction,” the report authors wrote, “can no longer be seen as an unfortunate byproduct of economic development.” Rather, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that healthy, biodiverse environments “underpin the functioning of our health, societies, and economies.”

The top ten offenders were Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Mizuho Financial, Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial, HSBC, SMBC Group, and Barclays.

Shades of REDD+
We Have to Talk About Leakage

28 October 2020 | Critics of REDD+ have long questioned the legitimacy of “avoided deforestation” projects as tools for reducing tropical deforestation on the grounds that deforestation halted in a project area simply moves someplace else through a phenomenon known as “leakage.” Some go so far as to argue that only a national system satisfactorily addresses leakage, while others dismiss carbon markets for REDD+ and avoided deforestation altogether. Proponents of project-level REDD+ counter this argument by pointing to the slow progress of national REDD+ and the essential contributions that projects can make, including in the context of national emissions accounting.

The polemic discussion around leakage alienates investors interested in tropical forest conservation and thwarts efforts of forest communities and projects to secure support through carbon payments. While leakage can pose a risk to mitigation efforts that need to be taken seriously, generalizations and misunderstanding can discourage real and effective efforts to reduce deforestation.

What Does Leakage Mean?

Activities geared towards reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can have positive or negative spillover effects: they can lead to an increase or decrease of emissions outside of the intervention area. Leakage can be positive or negative: positive if an activity triggers more greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions reducing action, and negative if an activity leads to additional or displaced GHG emissions.

Deforestation leakage can be triggered by a displacement of people, technology, or capital from an area that is newly protected or covered by a REDD+ policy to another area that is not covered by that protection or policy. The direct movement of deforestation agents (or drivers) is called activity leakage. Deforestation is also highly sensitive to market dynamics, and deforestation can be displaced because of a change in land values and rents, or because of increased pressure on forests in reaction to a change in commodity prices. These phenomena are two different types of market leakage. The risks of displacement are also affected by governance, including institutional collaboration and enforcement, information and communication, culture, and motivation (see Meyfroidt et al 2020 for a detailed discussion of the different drivers of leakage).

Leakage in the Context of REDD+

Negative experiences with leakage in forest conservation date back to the establishment of protected areas in regions with weak governance and limited opportunities for prosperous rural livelihoods. Protected areas have a mixed record and often lead to an increase in deforestation outside of the area’s boundaries. However, projecting the outcomes of ill-planned and ill-managed protected areas on all REDD+ projects fails to recognize the conceptual differences between activities that address drivers and the fencing of natural ecosystems.

It is true that activity leakage remains a challenge of REDD+ activities, in particular where drivers of deforestation are highly mobile and able to move from one forest frontier to another.  If agro-industrial companies or land speculators face a restriction on their activities—such as a deforestation moratorium—in one region, they are likely to move their operations to another region or country. Such leakage is structural and hard to avoid as large industrial players operate at a national or even global scale. An example of such leakage is the Soy Moratorium in the Brazilian Amazon, which has led to a 31 percent increase of soy production—and deforestation (increasing by 13 percent)—in the nearby Cerrado.

It’s even more difficult to capture leakage that doesn’t involve the movement of humans, but of capital streams and investments. Deforestation is strongly influenced by globalized flows of commodities, information, capital, and people. Such market leakage often comes with a time lag and is influenced by a confluence of compounding factors, which makes it hard to attribute and even harder to avoid. The globalization of commodity trade means that displacement effects are increasingly driven by distant markets, such as a growing urban consumer class in emerging markets. About a quarter of all deforestation is associated with international demand for agricultural commodities (2005-13). This facilitates international leakage, in particular where markets are integrated. Such leakage is significant, but difficult to assess.

Does the Scale of Implementation Reduce Leakage?

No. Leakage occurs at the project, regional, national, and international levels. While REDD+ puts the emphasis on achieving emissions reductions through government action at the national scale, the problem of displaced emissions does not disappear by emphasizing larger-scale solutions. In fact, in national programs, the causes of leakage and the associated emissions can be at scales larger than projects.

What is true, however, is that larger-scale GHG accounting can capture leakage effects within the boundary being monitored. Considering the significance of national and international leakage effects, ideally, leakage management would include interconnected monitoring at the intervention, investment, and consumption levels to capture spill-over effects and attribute GHG properly.

What to do About Leakage?

Accounting rarely solves a problem, it merely captures the problem in a spreadsheet. As a first priority, leakage should be avoided through the smart design of projects and programs. All major forest carbon standards demand project developers to actively address leakage and anticipate the increase in GHG emissions linked to the project interventions. Leakage management generally requires (1) consideration and reduction of potential leakage in the project and program design, (2) monitoring and accounting of leakage in a sufficiently large monitoring area, and (3) discounting of any leakage from GHG benefits claimed.

Considering that leakage management at the project level is hardly possible in the cases where deforestation is caused by industrial agriculture or large-scale investors, these drivers cannot be addressed through REDD+ projects. Deforestation by larger corporate players has to be addressed by host governments through regulation and law enforcement, by importing countries through standards and technical assistance, and by companies through responsible corporate policies.

The experience of protected areas and leakage risks has led most REDD+ projects to focus on engaging communities rather than merely hiring armed guards to protect forests. Good REDD+ projects find alternatives for local communities and farmers to change practices (away from those that result in forest loss). In return, they benefit by receiving ecosystem-service payments, or technical and financial support to improve agricultural yields and practices. Examples include the Tambopata project in Peru which engages local communities in agricultural projects around the buffer zone a conservation area that protects primary rainforest, or COMACO’s Landscape Management Project in Zambia, which established Community Conservation Areas covering over 1 million hectares, while creating new income sources for farmers, such as beekeeping and community poultry farming, alongside payments for conservation efforts from carbon sales.

How to Deal with Leakage: Recommendations

Activities that address deforestation are urgently needed, on all scales and by all actors that have the means to reduce forest loss:

  • Governments should build national systems, both to account for emissions and to adopt sustainable forest and land-use policies.
  • Projects can provide a line of defense against tropical forest loss, empower communities and attract finance, particularly where government programs are absent and the forest is under immediate threat.
  • Forest carbon standards should continue to impose requirements on project developers to undertake activities to tackle leakage—the design of such activities, with communities, to reduce leakage can support and inspire national systems.
  • Standards should also continue to refine how leakage is assessed and require projects to deduct credits for residual leakage. However, project-level accounting does not replace national monitoring, which remains essential.
  • All countries and companies should consider ways to reduce the risk of international leakage. Policies that seek to reduce emissions domestically can drive emissions at the other end of the world. It is essential that consumer and producer markets start cooperating in addressing deforestation and that consumers take responsibility for GHG leakage effects.

It is also essential to highlight positive leakage effects: Most local GHG programs and projects have positive displacement effects—interventions lead to learning and spreading of activities. They can change the culture and increase acceptance of conservation activities. Law enforcement in one area may affect behavior in non-targeted areas. This also applies to governments, as positive experiences in reducing deforestation while continuing to grow an economy may encourage other countries to adopt similar policies. Similarly, a change in attitude towards deforestation in one country can change the attitudes of producers, investors, and consumers in distant countries.

In summary, leakage should not become an excuse for inaction.  Some have suggested that leakage is a reason to avoid forest carbon projects.  However, the opposite can also be true—that well-designed REDD+ projects can create positive leakage impacts that benefit forests and the climate.

How You Can Participate in this Series

This is the first in a continuing series of articles focused on REDD+. We invite you to post comments or propose your own submissions as the series evolves.

You can propose submissions by contacting the EM News Desk at Please write “REDD+ Series Submission” in the subject header.

More on the Bionic Planet Podcast

You can also follow our coverage of REDD+ on the Bionic Planet Podcast, which is available on iTunesTuneInStitcher, and on this device here:


Subscribe to This Series

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Climate at a Crossroads as Trump and Biden Point in Different Directions

28 October 2020 | Among the myriad reasons world leaders will closely watch the outcome of a fraught US presidential election, the climate crisis looms perhaps largest of all.

The international effort to constrain dangerous global heating will hinge, in large part, on which of the dichotomous approaches of Donald Trump or Joe Biden prevails.

On 4 November, the day after the election, the US will exit the Paris climate agreement, a global pact that has wobbled but not collapsed from nearly four years of disparagement and disengagement under Trump.

Biden has vowed to immediately rejoin the Paris deal. The potential of a second Trump term, however, is foreboding for those whose anxiety has only escalated during the hottest summer ever recorded in the northern hemisphere, with huge wildfires scorching California and swaths of central South America, and extraordinary temperatures baking the Arctic.

“It’s a decision of great consequence, to both the US and the world,” said Laurence Tubiana, a French diplomat and key architect of the Paris accords. “The rest of the world is moving to a low-carbon future, but we need to collectively start moving even faster, and the US still has a significant global role to play in marshaling this effort.”

Few countries are on track to fulfill commitments made in Paris five years ago to slash their planet-heating emissions and keep the global temperature rise to “well below” 2C of warming beyond the pre-industrial era. The world has already warmed by about 1C since this time, helping set in motion a cascade of heatwaves, fierce storms and flooding around the planet.

Wildfires turned the sky over the San Francisco Bay Bridge orange this summer, the hottest on record in the northern hemisphere. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Progress might have been different had Trump not triggered US withdrawal from the fight in 2017, complaining from the White House’s Rose Garden that the Paris deal “handicaps the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense. They don’t put America first. I do, and I always will.”

Tubiana conceded the “Trump administration’s dangerous anti-climate stance has had a negative impact on international climate efforts”, pointing to backsliding by the rightwing governments of Australia and Brazil, which have variously sought to downplay or dismiss the need to cut emissions more rapidly.

Scientists say the world needs to halve its greenhouse gas emissions within the coming decade and essentially eliminate them by 2050 to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis. The four years that make up the span of the next US presidential term will be a crucial window of time in which emissions will have to be forced sharply downwards by major economies.

Trump has shown no inclination to use the US’s hefty influence to aid this effort, instead using a recent UN speech to attack “China’s rampant pollution”, just minutes before the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, used the same forum to announce the world’s largest carbon emitter would peak its emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. There needs to be a “green recovery of the world economy in the post-Covid era”, Xi said in a speech broadly welcomed by environmentalists.

To avoid the more dire versions of climate breakdown, the world will need to cut its emissions by about 7% each year this decade – a task that will only be achieved in 2020 due to a paralysis wrought by the pandemic that has shut down restaurants, factories, retailers, offices and other businesses.

The prospects of achieving this steep challenge would dim further with another Trump term, with the US and China now openly trading insults over each other’s climate policies. “It would be pretty much game over for the international system if he’s re-elected,” said John Podesta, who advised Barack Obama on climate policy. “China would feel zero pressure to do more and it would dampen ambition around the world. We’d miss the chance to avoid warming at a catastrophic level.”

The European Union has attempted to take up some of the climate leadership mantle that was forged for the US by Obama and then dumped under Trump. But diplomats see US engagement as crucial if meaningful progress is made at UN climate talks in Glasgow, shunted to next year due to the pandemic, where countries are due to explain how they are ramping up their climate efforts.

“Who wins between Trump and Biden will be hugely significant,” said Peter Betts, a former British government civil servant who acted as chief EU negotiator in the Paris talks. “If it’s Biden, he will convene an international summit to talk about climate, with the subtext that he’s there to talk to China. He will lean on all of the US’s allies around the world – Japan, Australia, Canada – while the EU and UK will raise their ambitions anyway. So a crucial element will be some sort of understanding with China.”

Climate change protesters disrupt former vice-president Joe Biden during a campaign event on 9 October 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Photograph: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A Trump win, conversely, won’t completely sink the global climate effort, Betts said, but will lock in a longer, more damaging and more expensive resolution to the crisis. “If it’s Mr Trump, it’s going to be a harder path,” Betts said. “It’ll be harder for the EU to build momentum and harder to get other countries to do more if the world’s second largest emitter isn’t.”

The world will “breathe a sigh of relief” if Biden wins, Podesta said, but the tangible impact will be minor if the former vice-president isn’t able to implement an ambitious $2tn plan to create millions of new jobs in renewable energy and eliminate emissions by 2050. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, he thinks ‘hoax’,” Biden has said, referencing the president’s infamous dismissal of climate science. “I think ‘jobs’.”

In a US where the green economy employs 10 times as many people as the fossil fuel industry, Tesla’s market value has overtaken ExxonMobil’s and a pandemic-driven downturn has caused mass joblessness, Biden’s agenda polls well. But it would still be blocked if the US Senate is retained by Republicans who are largely opposed to climate action and have accused Democrats, without basis, of attempting to deprive Americans of hamburgers and flights in order to reduce emissions.

“The main thing Biden has to do is get the US’s own house in order,” said Podesta. “He would rejoin Paris on day one or day two, but the US wouldn’t have much credibility of he can’t make progress on getting to zero carbon. It’s not just about showing up, it’s about what you do.”

A victorious Biden would be warmly welcomed by other national leaders alarmed by the climate crisis, Tubiana said, but not much time would be spent celebrating the US’s return from the wilderness. “There is no turning back, the sun is setting on the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “In a year of undeniable climate impacts, the urgency of keeping warming below 2C has never been more clear.”

Shades of REDD+:
Why the World Needs Both Projects and Policies to Save Forests

13 October 2020 | Demand for nature-based carbon credits is growing. This is encouraging. But progress is threatened by conflicting views on how best to design carbon credit schemes to stamp out deforestation. At one end of the debate are those arguing that governments must lead the way through policy. At the other end is a view that private sector investments in site-scale activities, or projects, are key to protecting forests.

This ideological debate stands in the way of the action the world urgently needs. In fact, if this debate keeps being conducted in a partisan manner, it risks turning off potential buyers of high-quality nature-based credits. This could, for example, result in a situation where planting new trees in developed countries is prioritized over avoiding the loss of biodiverse, carbon-rich, primary forests in developing countries.

Companies and civil society should not act on the basis of dogma but on the basis of evidence. And when looking at the evidence, the world needs both policies and projects.

The right governmental policies and incentives are essential to stopping deforestation. When policies and regulations are used to tackle climate change, they can lead to demonstrable and enduring results. A good example is the recovery of Costa Rica’s forests as a result of the government’s policies in the 1990s.

While policies are key, projects also have distinct advantages. Large-scale landscapes are complex and dynamic, inhabited, and used by many different stakeholders with different interests; from private land to government-issued concessions, from protected areas to indigenous territories. Project developers have the potential to be nimble, flexible, and innovative. They can adapt to local circumstances and tailor interventions to tackle specific causes of forest loss and with sensitivity to specific local contexts. And even though their scope and area might be more limited, there are places where they represent the only efforts to support local communities with alternative livelihoods and to safeguard biodiversity hotspots.

There is, however, more that needs to be done to ensure that every carbon credit from forest projects legitimately stands for the avoidance or removal of one metric ton of carbon dioxide. There are many carbon accounting standards. Most have been subject to a thorough process of development. But there are still gaps and opportunities for standards to improve. For example, there needs to be greater scrutiny over baselines (a prediction of the emissions that would occur in the absence of that project) particularly for projects that avoid deforestation.

So how best can policies and projects co-exist or, better yet, complement each other? There is no one size fits all approach – countries need to structure approaches based on their specific circumstances.

Work is underway. Countries with forests, such as Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and Cambodia, are developing national policies to address deforestation and are looking to integrate projects into national schemes – often referred to as nested systems. This is positive. These governments should be in the driver’s seat in determining how this nesting will occur. Foreign donors and companies should encourage these efforts and provide support as appropriate.

What role should the private sector play? For its part, Shell has launched a program to invest in natural ecosystems. Shell aims to invest up to $200 million between 2020 and 2021 in initiatives that support nature while reducing CO₂.

In addition to providing upfront finance to protect or expand ecosystems and, in return, receiving carbon credits, Shell also purchases carbon credits directly. Today, Shell only off-takes from projects as there are no jurisdictional forest carbon credits available.

Jurisdictional programs – where emission reductions are accounted at, for example, national scale – are built on the concept that government policies are critical to tackling deforestation.  It is unclear at the moment how a company, such as Shell, could invest in a jurisdictional program in a way that provides predictable returns.  This is a key reason why we find the project-based approach attractive.  At project scale, companies can gauge investment risks and, importantly, also manage a range of safeguards, such as ensuring community rights are respected and sensitive ecosystems are protected.

Looking ahead, we see four factors that are critical to a decision to purchase credits from jurisdictional programs.

First, crediting should respect the land tenure, forest governance, and land management system of each country and the resulting carbon rights

Second, carbon credits must be permanent. If our customers use credits to offset their emissions, we need assurances that the emission reductions will be long-lasting. At larger scales, such as national level emission reductions, this requires stable policies that cannot be easily reversed, for example after an election. In addition, there should be a robust insurance mechanism or legal liability, to compensate for unforeseen reversals. For projects, such mechanisms are available – for example, the Verified Carbon Standard buffer pool includes credits from a diverse portfolio of more than 150 projects across dozens of countries.

Third, credits should always be additional. For jurisdictional programs, this means emission reductions are a result of government-led structural changes, such as new policies, laws, or regulations.

Finally, emission reductions must be measured accurately. A real challenge at larger scales is the uncertainty of estimating these reductions. If not adequately addressed, the credibility of such units may be in question.

So how to move forward? Nature-based carbon credits have a critical and immediate role to play in limiting global warming when used in addition to other efforts that avoid and reduce emissions – like solar, wind, and hydrogen.

For a positive impact now, we need both policy-based and site-specific activities, and neither approach should hold the other hostage. Reforming forest governance takes time; it is challenging to overcome powerful interests that are often behind forest destruction. Projects can move more quickly and, as such, should contribute now to national climate targets and national aspirations for the forest sector. Truly successful projects build constituencies for complementary national policies. In the debate about jurisdictional and project credits, neither side should win – rather, the winner should be nature and the planet if both approaches work together.

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Demand for Voluntary Carbon Offsets Holds Strong as Corporates Stick With Climate Commitments

23 September 2020 | The forward-looking section of 2019’s State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets report began with the prophetic statement that “demand for voluntary carbon offsets will grow [in 2020] as the world finally begins to address the climate challenge.”

The next paragraph began, “Airlines will lift demand.”

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic grounded, but a broader and deeper legion of businesses, many of which had never engaged in the climate challenge before, stepped up with commitments that involved a degree of offsetting. As a result, 2020 looks set to outpace the strong 2019, when volume topped 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gas abatement, according to “Voluntary Carbon and the Post-Pandemic Recovery,” which is the first installment of the 2020 State of Voluntary Carbon Markets report.

Released to coincide with New York Climate Week, the report is available on the Ecosystem Marketplace Carbon Hub and includes a summary of data from 2019 as well as market sentiment for 2020 garnered from interviews with two dozen market participants. It also outlines findings that will be fleshed out in subsequent installments.

2019 Findings

Most voluntary offsets are transacted bilaterally, with no centralized repository for price and volume data, and Ecosystem Marketplace gathers this fragmented data by reaching out to all known market participants individually – first via a survey that has been conducted annually since 2005, and then via interviews with a representative group of participants. As a result, there is a lag in presenting data, balanced with interview findings that are quite current and have proven accurate over time.

The 2020 survey focused on 2019 transactions, and it identified a near-record volume equivalent to  104 million metric tons of carbon dioxide either removed or prevented from entering the atmosphere. This is a 6 percent increase over 2018, and the figure may be revised upward as more data becomes available.

Average offset prices remained flat in 2019, but with wide variance by type. Prices for offsets associated with Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) and Natural Climate Solutions increased by 30 percent, while prices for renewable energy decreased by 16 percent. Price and volume moved in opposite directions for these leading offset types. Agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) volume dropped 28 percent and renewable energy volume surged by 78 percent. Despite the lower volume, the market value of AFOLU offsets was more than twice that of Renewable Energy, and demand for offsets associated with forest management in developing countries (i.e., REDD+) remains especially strong.

2019 Price and Volume

In 2019, the volume of renewable energy transactions exceeded that of nature-based solutions in forestry and land use, but the prices garnered for nature-based solutions averaged more than three times those of renewable energy.

Topsy-Turvey 2020

The year opened with a strong tailwind from year-end climate talks in Madrid, but by late March and early April, COVID-19 had spread across the world. Greenhouse-gas emissions plummeted – but only because the economy had ground to a halt, and there was a widespread fear that emissions would spiral upward once the economy recovered. One news outlet declared that “new voluntary corporate climate pledges [were] likely to be put on hold.”

When we conducted a survey of market participants in April, however, we found something astonishing: while participants feared the worst as airlines rolled back their purchases to match lower emissions, broader corporate demand for voluntary carbon offsets was increasing. Then, as the year progressed, so did the number of carbon-neutral pledges from individual companies like Amazon and Microsoft – pledges that have since proliferated among companies that had never taken climate action before.

In June 2020, the Climate Ambition Alliance launched its “Race to Zero” campaign to encourage countries, companies, and other entities to deliver structured carbon-neutral pledges by the end of 2021.

September saw a flurry of activity. Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney launched a global taskforce to begin scaling up voluntary carbon markets to drive emissions down as quickly as possible. The Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) released its guidance for using offsets as part of a robust corporate emission-reduction program. The guidance contributes  to a growing debate over what is and isn’t “carbon neutrality.”

Carbon-Free vs Carbon-Neutral

At the core of the debate is a fear that companies will use offsets instead of – as opposed to in addition to – internal emission reductions. Many of the recent high-profile commitments, however, use voluntary offsets as part of a broader emission-reduction strategy, and previous Ecosystem Marketplace surveys have found companies that put a price on carbon tend to be the most aggressive at reducing emissions internally, with offsets serving as a way of deepening reductions.10

To take just one example, Google unveiled an accelerated emission-reduction strategy in September that looks a lot like the new SBTi guidance. The company isn’t a newcomer to the climate space, and it has been offsetting its emissions since 2007, meaning it has been carbon neutral since 2007, and it dramatically increased its use of renewable energy in 2017 to reduce emissions further. In September 2020 it announced a move beyond carbon neutrality to become carbon-free by 2030, meaning its operations will no longer emit greenhouse gasses. Until it achieves that, Google will continue to offset those emissions it can’t eliminate. It also announced that it had quietly gone carbon negative, meaning it had used carbon markets to offset more emissions annually than it emits – enough, in fact, that it has now erased all legacy emissions generated since its founding in 1998.

Renewable Energy Flies on its Own

Carbon markets have historically been used to finance renewable energy development because the technology was more expensive than traditional energy sources and couldn’t be implemented without carbon finance. This, however, is changing as renewable energy becomes more affordable, which means carbon finance is only needed to implement certain types of projects in some countries. As a result, carbon standards are phasing out their recognition of offsets generated through the provision of renewable energy.

The bulk of low-priced renewable energy offsets are located in India and China, and this will be addressed in more detail in a subsequent installment of this report.

Several of the market participants interviewed for this report also suggested that renewable energy offsets demand could be coming from companies that are new to carbon markets. New buyers have tended to focus on price over “co-benefits,” such as contribution to the SDGs. Co-benefits have historically been a key selling point for AFOLU, and these project types increasingly audit to the SDGs.

We should point out that carbon standards will continue to recognize offsets generated through the development of renewable-energy projects that clearly need carbon finance to exist – such as off-grid projects in middle-income countries and large-scale projects in least-developed nations or conflict zones within medium-income countries.

Turning to the surge in prices and a corresponding drop in volume for offsets associated with AFOLU, this appears to be associated with a few high-volume/low-price transactions that took place in 2018 and were not repeated in 2019. Most, if not all, market participants we interviewed saw a maintained trend in favor of nature-based solutions, and demand for offsets associated with AFOLU appears strong in 2020.

Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Climate and Agriculture?

22 September 2020 | Last fall—in debates, Town Hall meetings, and interviews—nearly every Democratic presidential candidate pointed to connections between food production and the climate crisis.

And the similarities went further than that: a whopping 10 candidates agreed that the next administration should pay farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices. Nearly as many also pointed to the need for regenerative practices that make soil a carbon sink, rather than a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, as the general election looms, the Biden agenda and the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform both include a “zero emissions” goal for agriculture as well as increased investment in conservation practices.

Meanwhile, the climate crisis is front and center like never before, with unprecedented wildfires raging on the West Coast and devastating storms hitting Iowa, Louisiana, and other states. And while Biden has been out in front on linking the current catastrophes to climate, big questions remain about precisely how a potential Biden administration will approach farming for the climate, and farmer groups, agribusiness, and environmental advocates are all jockeying to exert their influence.

“National Farmers Union members have long raised concerns about the fact that the climate is changing, that it’s affecting their operations and their lands, and that there are common-sense ways the government should work with farmers to help provide them with the tools and resources they need to lead on solutions,” said Jenny Hopkinson, senior government relations representative at the National Farmers Union (NFU).

That’s why when NFU members headed (virtually) to Washington, D.C. on September 14, climate change was on the agenda in meetings with legislators—even during a year when, for many farmers, it’s hard to focus on anything beyond the economic challenges caused by the pandemic. However, while Hopkinson calls the strategies NFU lobbied for “common sense,” other groups lobbying Democrats see some of the same policies—such as NFU’s support for methane digesters—short-sighted.

In fact, when it comes to building a resilient agricultural system that can both withstand the effects of the climate crisis and cut emissions, there is significant disagreement among advocacy groups and elected officials within the party as to just how radical the path forward should be.

While representatives of larger commodity agriculture (think industrial dairy) are advising Biden, progressive groups are working to push his campaign toward endorsing bigger systemic changes to agriculture. And those are changes that won’t likely please agribusiness.

When it comes to building a climate-resilient agricultural system, there is significant disagreement among advocates and elected Democratic officials about how radical the path forward should be.

At the end of August, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) delivered a letter to Congress that called for climate action on behalf of rural and agricultural communities, signed by more than 2,100 farmers and ranchers from around the country.

“There is a real desire to see transformative change in our agricultural production system,” said NSAC policy director Eric Deeble. “And many of those folks are frustrated by the fact that it does not appear to be a high priority for either potential administration. Within progressive, sustainable agriculture circles, he added, “folks don’t feel that their voices are being heard.”

Consensus on Incentives, Disagreement Elsewhere

When adjusted for inflation, overall spending on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs has risen only slightly over the past decade. Now, the one realm in which many Democratic lawmakers appear to agree is the need to significantly increase funding and expand programs that incentivize climate-friendly practices including cover cropping and rotational grazing.

In June, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its first report, including a section dedicated to agriculture. It lays out plans to expand existing agricultural conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and to support practices including agroforestry and organic farming.

Many of the recommendations in the report are tied to bills introduced by Democrats, such as the Agriculture Resilience Act introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and the Climate Stewardship Act introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). And when the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis released its own report in August, the first bullet point on what Congress should do for farmers is to “expand existing USDA agricultural conservation programs and include improved soil health and soil carbon storage incentives.”

Another approach to incentivizing carbon storage that the Senate report endorses is establishing carbon markets—a strategy that many powerful voices in the agriculture industry opposed when it was on the table a decade ago. Biden’s plan for rural America also appears to lean toward helping farmers participate in carbon markets. And some environmental organizations and many big food companies and farm groups including the NFU support the bipartisan carbon markets bill that was introduced in June.

“We think that carbon markets are a tool that should be available to farmers and we’re hoping that this bill will lend some legitimacy to the nascent efforts [to develop them],” Hopkinson said.

Some advocacy groups, however, say carbon markets will only benefit the largest farms. Kari Hamerschlag, the deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth (FOE) and its related PAC group, Friends of the Earth Action, doesn’t see voluntary markets as a strong enough step considering the urgency of the climate crisis. Instead, she wants to see subsidized crop insurance tied to practices that improve soil health—a tactic that many groups advocated for during the run-up to the 2018 Farm Bill but that didn’t make it into the final draft.

“If we are going to continue to provide subsidies, we need to ask farmers, in return, to implement healthy soil practices,” she says, adding that she sees carbon markets as “another false solution.”

Ethanol and other biofuels are also controversial. At a recent “Farmers and Ranchers Roundtable” hosted by the Biden campaign and moderated by NFU president Rob Larew, farmers brought up support for biofuels repeatedly, and NFU has long advocated for government support for ethanol as a financial boon for farmers and a climate-positive swap for fossil fuels.

But many progressive groups believe government support for ethanol props up the corn-dominated monoculture systems that dominate American farming in the Midwest, leading to depleted soil, polluted waterways, and dead zones in the Gulf. And they point to industry influence as a reason Biden still supports ethanol: The Democratic convention included a “Leaders of American Agriculture” symposium sponsored by a long list of seed and chemical companies that profit off of that system, including Bayer/Monsanto and Corteva, as well as the leading trade association for the ethanol industry. And last week, the Washington Post reported on the Biden campaign’s efforts to woo Iowa farmers by touting Biden’s support for ethanol and other biofuels.

Animal Agriculture’s Climate Impacts

“The biggest thing that is missing from both the Biden plan and the DNC platform is a focus on the role of animal agriculture in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the need to curb those emissions through reducing the overall amount of animals that are produced in this country,” said Hamerschlag.

In July, eight national and state-level groups including Family Farm Action, the Land Stewardship Action Fund, and HEAL Food Action joined Friends of the Earth Action in asking the DNC platform committee to endorse a transition away from industrial-scale animal agriculture “starting with a moratorium on new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and large-scale food and agriculture mergers.” But the final platform did not include any mention of animal agriculture.

Elected Democrats, however, are increasingly focused on the issue. Last year, Senator Booker introduced a bill to halt mergers and acquisitions in agriculture and the Farm System Reform Act, which would place a moratorium on new large CAFOs and phase out the largest existing CAFOs by 2040. Then, this summer, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), signed on to back the bill, and House Democrats introduced companion legislation. In early September, a coalition of 300 advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

Recent polls show increasing public support for a moratorium on large CAFOs, and progressive Democrats are increasingly focusing on not just the negative environmental impacts, but also on the impact on farmers and rural communities. While NSAC has not endorsed Booker’s bill, Deeble said it was clear that NSAC’s “membership is headed in that direction” in terms of supporting a moratorium.

Despite all this, the Biden campaign has so far stayed away from mentioning emissions from animal agriculture, except in the context of methane digesters, an emissions-reduction strategy that some environmentalists say props up and even incentivizes the growth of large CAFOs, allowing them to continue to pollute in other ways.

“There’s no way [Tom Vilsack’s] going to be advocating for regulation of his industry.”

Advocates say the Biden campaign’s silence isn’t surprising, since Tom Vilsack—the Agriculture Secretary under Obama, and who now represents a dairy group focused on large-scale exports—is advising the campaign. “There’s no way he’s going to be advocating for regulation of his industry,” Hamerschlag said.

There are also reports that Biden is considering former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp to lead the USDA. In 2018, Heitkamp ranked number one in Senate campaign donations from the crop production industry. She frequently sided with Republicans on resisting environmental regulations and was a frontrunner to head the USDA under President Trump.

And, instead of a panel that included small, diversified vegetable farms, regenerative ranchers, or organic crop farmers, the farmers given the microphone during the Biden campaign’s Farmers and Ranchers Roundtable were primarily large commodity producers.

“Given the fact that local and regional direct market farmers play such an integral role in resilient local farm systems, that was a missed opportunity,” said Deeble. “But I also think that it’s not the fault of the campaign. We’re looking at the end of maybe a 30, 40, 50-year arc of concentration and consolidation and there’s a notion that not rocking any boats is the right play right now.”

And yet, there’s a real opportunity to talk about what a better system would look like. Biden’s plan, for example, does include a bullet point to make sure “small and medium-sized farms have access to fair markets” by strengthening enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act—something small farm advocates have long been fighting for.

For NSAC members and other groups, a better system would involve policies that drive large scale shifts away from monoculture commodity crops and CAFOs and toward more small, diversified farms that minimize inputs, raise animals on pasture, and sell food directly to their communities—all with an eye towards reducing emissions and building soil that can hold carbon while increasing biodiversity.

A growing number of Democrats are on board with those changes. The Farm System Reform Act includes support for independent livestock producers in the form of payments to help contract farmers transition out of industrial animal agriculture and a restoration of country of origin labeling (COOL) on meat. The House Climate report includes a plan to reduce emissions from livestock operations by significantly increasing support for farmers using rotational grazing and silvopasture.

And Democrats have introduced bills in both the House and Senate that would increase funding for small farms that sell into local markets, many of which were left out of the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

But where Biden and his potential administration will land is still unclear. Progressives like Hamerschlag said that if the campaign were bolder on agriculture and climate, it could present a more hopeful path forward for rural America.

For example, the 2020 DNC platform includes a plan to fund research on “low-carbon crops” and organic farming, but Biden’s plan does not mention organics at all.

“Organic is such a bright spot for rural America . . . there’s just a lot of economic opportunity,” she said. “Big factory farms and big monocultures are not a winning economic development strategy for rural America, and we know that rural communities bear the brunt of the impacts from factory farms.”

BOE’s Carney Launches Global Taskforce to Boost Voluntary Carbon

2 September 2020 | Canadian economist and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney today launched a global taskforce to begin scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, which are seen as key to accelerating the growth of carbon sinks and moving to net zero emissions.

The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets aims to grow markets at least fifteenfold and possibly much more.

In addition to Carney, who also serves as UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance Advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for COP26, the initiative is chaired by Bill Winters, Group Chief Executive, Standard Chartered and sponsored by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) under the leadership of IIF President and CEO, Tim Adams. Annette Nazareth, a partner at Davis Polk and former Commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, will serve as Operating Lead for the Taskforce. McKinsey & Company will provide knowledge and advisory support.

“Companies and the investment community are increasingly focused on supporting the transition to a net zero economy and developing credible transition plans,” said Carney. “To achieve net zero, they will need to decarbonize and many will need to offset some emissions as part of the transition, creating a surge in demand for offsets.”

The goal is to harness the expertise of financial markets to build liquidity and increase transparency.

“Since the Paris Agreement was signed five years ago, one of the key elements to support its goals, an effective international carbon market, has been missing,” said Winters. “By scaling voluntary carbon markets and allowing a global price for carbon to emerge, companies will have the right tools and incentives to reduce emissions at least cost.”

In the coming months, the Taskforce will take stock of existing voluntary carbon markets and efforts to grow these markets, identify key challenges and impediments, build consensus on how best to scale up voluntary carbon markets and finally, present a blueprint of actionable solutions.

The Taskforce itself will be comprised of more than 40 leaders from six continents with backgrounds across the carbon market value chain. Participants bring expertise from the financial sector, market infrastructure providers, and buyers and suppliers of carbon offsets.

Voluntary carbon markets, a critical piece of emissions-reduction efforts world-wide, enable buyers to purchase credits that support emissions-reducing projects, thereby contributing to a smaller global emissions footprint overall.

Members of the Taskforce include:

  • Jeff Huang, AEX Holdings
  • Mary Grady, American Carbon Registry
  • (Representative to Be Confirmed), Bank of America
  • Meaghan Muldoon, BlackRock
  • Kyle Harrison, Bloomberg NEF
  • Francois Carré, BNP Paribas
  • Enric Serra, BP
  • Robert Coviello, Bunge
  • Edward Hanrahan, ClimateCare
  • Mikkel Larsen, DBS
  • Salla Sulasuo, DSM
  • Gérald Maradan, EcoAct
  • Zhao Jinling, Elion
  • Maryam Bin Fares, Etihad
  • Jochen Gassner, First Climate Markets
  • Owen Hewlett, Gold Standard
  • Kara Mangone, Goldman Sachs
  • Anthony Belcher, ICE
  • Kathy Benini, IHS Markit
  • Isabela Aroeira de Almeida, Itaú Unibanco
  • Joshua Were, KenGen
  • Claire Dorrian, LSE
  • Ben Readman, Macquarie
  • Emma Mazhari, Maersk
  • Anirban Ghosh, Mahindra
  • Jonathan Shopley, Natural Capital Partners
  • Esteban Mezzano, Nestlé
  • Peter Zaman, Reed Smith
  • Paul Dawson, RWE
  • Bill McGrath, Shell
  • Jenny Bofinger-Schuster, Siemens
  • Ingo Puhl, South Pole
  • Chris Leeds, Standard Chartered
  • Koushik Chatterjee, Tata Steel
  • Sebastien Pascual, Temasek
  • Huw van Steenis, UBS
  • Thomas Lingard, Unilever
  • David Antonioli, Verra
  • Guillaume Quiviger, Vitol
  • Ingrid York, White & Case
  • John Melby, XCHG

Economic Growth Is Faster In Healthy Societies

26 August 2020 | Rebecca Henderson is the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University and recently authored the book Reimagining Capitalism In a World on Fire, where she takes on the question of why businesses must play a leading role in addressing the climate crisis. Green Queen’s Sally Ho recently had the opportunity to sit down with the renowned Harvard University professor to talk about why capitalism needs a transformation, how the coronavirus crisis has disrupted business-as-usual and her hopes for the future.

GQ: Why does capitalism need to be reimagined, in your own words? 

RH: Capitalism needs to be reimagined because it is not working for very large numbers of people on the planet. It is creating long-term damage that will cause immense harm to the planet and to our society. Our capitalism has been radically unbalanced and this makes it dangerous.

GQ: Your book is based on your popular course. Why did you create this course? How did it come about?

RH: About fifteen years ago, some of the world’s largest energy companies started showing up in my office. They could see the world was transitioning to carbon-free energy, and I had spent the first 20 years of my life studying large-scale strategic and organisational change. So I started working with these companies and discovered that the single thing most important to helping them change is some kind of tax or regulation on greenhouse gases.

Intuitively, when renewable energy comes out of your socket, it doesn’t look any different to fossil fuel energy and firms that sell fossil fuel energy do not pay for the very considerable cost that it imposes on society. If you take, for example, five cents worth of coal fired electricity, it creates another 4 cents worth of health damage and another 4 cents worth of climate damage on future generations – and these are conservative estimates. If we are to transition the whole world into carbon free energy, you need an incentive. You need regulation to accelerate the innovation we need and I became interested in why business wasn’t pushing for this regulation because climate change is a huge danger to the long-term stability of the business environment. So I started a course at HBS to really work with the students and think through for myself about what businesses can do to build a more sustainable world.

GQ: What are your thoughts on WEF founder Klaus Schwab’s stakeholder capitalism, especially given its many critiques?

RH: Part of the problem is that there are many definitions of stakeholder capitalism. If by stakeholder capitalism we mean paying attention to all your stakeholders as you make your decisions – employees, customers, suppliers and local communities – as a way of running a thriving business, I think that’s just good business.

If by stakeholder capitalism you mean changing the way in which firms are governed so that instead of responding only to investors, you have a legal responsibility to stakeholders, that can be an important way of addressing some of these issues, but it’s much more complicated than proponents of stakeholder capitalism sometimes seem to suggest. In Germany and Japan, for example, where firms are governed using a more stakeholder-friendly approach, it’s not simply that you change the rules by which corporations are run, but the entire society and many investors have signed onto the idea that corporations should focus on a wide range of stakeholders. When that’s the case, focusing on stakeholders can be powerful. But if you were to go to an ordinary corporation in other parts of the world, then the question is: who’s in charge?

The great risk is that managers can say they are managing for stakeholders even as they buy themselves another corporate jet. For firms that are committed to stakeholders and have adopted clear measures of what that means and investors are totally on board, that can be powerful.

My personal approach is to say that we need every firm to be aware that managers have a responsibility to not only investors, but to the long-term health of the society and the planet, and most specifically, to the institutions for which capitalism relies. I don’t think we will address the problems we face unless and until we make sure that the institutions that balance the firms – government, labour, free media, independent press – can really hold firms to account. And just saying “be stakeholder-oriented” isn’t an answer unless you have the “what does that mean?” and “what measures?” and “who is enforcing it?”.

I believe in love, I believe in cooperation and being a part of something bigger than yourself and in real allegiance to the community.

Rebeccca Henderson, Author & Harvard Business School Professor

GQ: Then what about customer capitalism as the answer, as Steve Denning and Peter Drucker have argued?

RH: Again, firms really should care about their customers. But what do we mean by customer capitalism? Are we saying that investors have to get a lower return because they are doing everything they can to support customers? If customer capitalism is about the long-term prosperity of everyone, that isn’t customer capitalism, that’s just sensible and regular capitalism. But if you’re leaving money on the table, then who is investing in your firm? Or does customer capitalism mean that customers own the firm? Thats super exciting. But in either case, it must be clear who’s in charge for it to work.

GQ: As an economist, would you agree that most of human behaviour can be explained by the impulse to survive and basic self-interest?

RH: No I wouldn’t. I think humans are much more complicated than that. The pandemic is a major disaster, but one of its potential silver linings is that it made us very aware of how dependent we are on each other and how the “it’s about me” attitude is very destructive. There is a part of us focused on survival, for sure. But there’s also a strong part of us focused on our families, children and communities. I believe in love, I believe in cooperation and being a part of something bigger than yourself and in real allegiance to the community. In the long-run, the reason humans are complicated is because pure self-interest, people who think about nothing but themselves, we call them psychopaths. Humans don’t like psychopaths, it’s not a great long-term strategy. As a species, we’ve learned to have both sides of ourselves – parts of ourselves genuinely committed to our families and communities and also the parts of ourselves that are selfish. We need both because there is no such thing as  a single individual standing on their own and surviving. Humans have to work with other people. As I said, the pandemic has really put into focus how interdependent we are.

GQ: Aren’t shareholders always going to want profits, rise in share price and market cap growth above all else? Can shareholders ever be incentivised to care about society and the planet?

RH: I think they can. That’s at the heart of my book in many ways. Businesses can have strong incentives to care about the health of the planet and the health of our society. That’s easy to see at a collective level. Suppose you owned everything, do you have an incentive to care about climate change? Absolutely – it’s going to create all kinds of economic problems and have an enormous risk to the stability of the financial system. You also have an incentive to care about society because your business is going to grow much faster in healthy societies where people have access to healthcare and education, where there is more talent, better trade and consumers to spend. We know that economic growth is faster and more sustainable in healthy societies.

There is also increasing evidence that investors don’t need to sacrifice returns. Research is clear that investors in firms that try to do the right thing and are committed to ESG metrics do not perform worse than conventional firms and can even perform better.

And if we think about how the world will change going forward, many of the biggest investment opportunities are going to be solving these problems. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tesla is one of the most valuable automotive companies and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most successful IPOs in the past 20 years was Beyond Meat. We have to move, sooner or later. Businesses, consumers and employees are going to insist we start treating our society and planet gently. Firms out there in front are going to make a lot of money, so there is a huge investment opportunity.

Lastly, many investors are so large that they can’t diversify away from the risk of climate change or that societies will falter. They are essentially holding the world as a portfolio. In my book, I talk about Japan’s pension fund, the largest pension fund in the world. Hiro Mizuno, who was the chief investment officer until recently, said the biggest threat to the long-term returns of his portfolio and pensioners’ is the risk of climate change. That’s an example of investors seeing that these risks are absolutely a risk to their returns.

We know that economic growth is faster and more sustainable in healthy societies.

Rebeccca Henderson, Author & Harvard Business School Professor

GQ: In your book, you speak about the intersection between inequality and climate change, in what ways are the two related?

RH: At the most basic level, climate change is going to hurt people at the bottom of the income distribution most aggressively and quickly. Right now, the burden of fossil fuels causes enormous health damage on top of climate change. Here in the U.S. and in many parts of the world, marginalised populations and communities of colour are exposed to the most damage because they are forced to live in high-pollution areas near these plants. So the fact that we are not responding to climate change is already imposing enormous harm amongst the poorest. As climate change hits, it’s going to hit marginal populations the hardest. Floods and droughts are becoming increasingly prevalent and it’s the people who can’t afford irrigation who are forced to migrate, it’s the people who cannot rebuild as the floods come who are going to be forced to move and live elsewhere. We see in the pandemic, that the odds of dying from coronavirus are dramatically higher if you’re poorer and communities of colour are disproportionately affected because their levels of welfare and income are so much lower. For me, inequality and climate are intimately linked and it’s about taking care of our society and the climate at the same time.

Also, just as we have a strong interest in preventing climate change, I believe that addressing inequality is in our interest. To the degree that people aren’t getting the education and healthcare they need, they are being systematically excluded from participation in the economic mainstream. We are losing people who can be fabulous entrepreneurs, employees or great consumers. Here in the U.S., within the next 20 years, half the talent pool is going to be people of colour. We need to make sure that all that potential has the supported needs to fully participate in the economy. One of the ways the economy can grow is bringing in marginalised populations into the economic mainstream.

GQ: You’ve been teaching at MIT then Harvard, and in total teaching MBAs for 33 years now. What are some of the changes you have seen with regards to what your students care about generally? Have your students’ attitudes changed over the past decade in what is sometimes called the rise of “consumerist” culture? Do you see more of them interested in responsible business?

RH: They are so much more interested in these issues than they used to be. When I first started teaching, I didn’t remember anyone talking about these issues. Fifteen years ago when I first started my course on sustainability, students would sign up but it wasn’t a mainstream issue. When I first started teaching Reimagining Capitalism there were only 28 students in the room. Now, we have over 300 and I’ve been asked to take these ideas into one of the required courses in the first-year on leadership and ethics. I’ve gone from being a radical to the point that many MBAs accuse me of being too incremental! It’s so different than it was 10 years or even 5 years ago. Just as we have a strong interest in preventing climate change, I believe that addressing inequality is in our interest.

Just as we have a strong interest in preventing climate change, I believe that addressing inequality is in our interest.

Rebeccca Henderson, Author & Harvard Business School Professor

GQ: You also have spoken about how the pandemic illustrates “how quickly we can change when we need to”. We see a lot of people talking about change, but then going back to the way things were before. Do you think most people and businesses will structurally change the way they think and behave due to this crisis?

RH: I’m sure businesses can, but will they? As you know, I was the Eastman Kodak Professor at MIT for a long time. I spent the early years of my career working with companies trying to change and I know how hard it is. So I don’t want to minimise the depth of the change we need, or how difficult that’s going to be on the individual level. One of the wonderful things about publishing this book is that I’ve gotten the chance to meet so many amazing people working to change the world and their firms. All of them say that it’s pretty hard. There are loads of reasons why corporations are hard to change. When you think about how many moving parts there are, you don’t want to mess with things too quickly. It’s like changing the engine mid-flight. But can it be done? Absolutely. Will firms do it? I am hopeful they might. 

What the pandemic has done is alert us to the fact that things can go badly wrong. Before the pandemic, I would talk about how climate change can remake our society, and that inequality would lead to political breakdown. People have really changed the way they respond when I say these things now and there is a far greater sense of urgency. I also think the sense that our society isn’t working for people has become much stronger. People don’t believe capitalism works for them.

I found in my research that two things help firms change fundamentally. One is a real sense that the cost of not changing is too big to manage. It’s much easier to change the firm if you can see that otherwise, you’re going to fly into the ground. The pandemic has shown that we can change in a matter of weeks, not months. We’ve shown we’re much more responsive and flexible than we thought.

The other big thing to what really drives change is a shared sense of moral purpose. A sense that we must change and that it’s the right thing to do. Lots of research suggests that firms that have this have a much broader vision, they are more creative and more innovative than conventional firms. These are the firms that manage the large transitions – the moral purpose lets them deal with the uncertainty that comes with change. I think we can definitely change coming out of this. Is it guaranteed? Absolutely not. It’s important that all of us, as customers, as employees, as citizens, that we push for change. That we insist that firms have a sense of purpose and have a responsibility to the broader society and the world in which they’re embedded.

GQ: Could you share what worries you in the world? What’s the thing that keeps you up at night?

RH: I bet they’re the same things that keep you up! I’m afraid that we’re going to come out of the pandemic poorer than we were and when people feel stress, they fall back on familiar behaviour and won’t take the necessary risks to build a better world even though it’s clearly going to be better for the long-run. I’m afraid that we’ll see more authoritarianism emerge as people come disillusioned with democracy. I’m afraid that climate change will happen fast – everything the scientists are saying is it’s happening faster than expected. I wake up at 4 in the morning and go: it’s too late. But that’s my 4 in the morning thought. When I get up I think: it’s easy to despair but what good does that do? Nothing! So like many of us, I spend my time trying to make a difference because if we all do nothing, nothing will happen. If we all decide this is the change we want, it certainly will happen. We have the technology and the resources to build a just and sustainable world and a general sense of that must happen. We have a business case for it too. The costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of changing. So I think we’re going to be okay.

GQ: Final question – team noodles or team rice?

RH: Rice!

Investors say Agroforestry Isn’t Just Climate Friendly — It’s Also Profitable

This story first appeared on MongaBay

22 July 2020 | In the latter part of 2016, Ethan Steinberg and two of his friends planned a driving tour across the U.S. to interview farmers. Their goal was to solve a riddle that had been bothering each of them for some time. Why was it, they wondered, that American agriculture basically ignored trees?

This was no esoteric inquiry. According to a growing body of scientific research, incorporating trees into farmland benefits everything from soil health to crop production to the climate. Steinberg and his friends, Jeremy Kaufman and Harrison Greene, also suspected it might yield something else: money.

“We had noticed there was a lot of discussion and movement of capital into holistic grazing, no till, cover cropping,” Steinberg recalls, referencing some of the land- and climate-friendly agricultural practices that have been garnering environmental and business attention recently. “We thought, what about trees? That’s when a lightbulb went off.”

The trio created Propagate Ventures, a company that now offers farmers software-based economic analysis, on-the-ground project management, and investor financing to help add trees and tree crops to agricultural models. One of Propagate’s key goals, Steinberg explained, was to get capital from interested investors to the farmers who need it — something he saw as a longtime barrier to this sort of tree-based agriculture.

Propagate quickly started attracting attention. Over the past two years, the group, based in New York and Colorado has expanded into eight states, primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and is now working with 20 different farms. Last month, it announced that it had received $1.5 million in seed funding from Boston-based Neglected Climate Opportunities, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

A Propagate Ventures agroforestry project in Hudson, NY, planted in April 2020. Image courtesy of Propagate Ventures

“My hope is that they can help farmers diversify their production systems and sequester carbon,” says Eric Smith, investment officer for the trust. “In a perfect world, we’d have 10 to 20 percent of U.S. land production in agroforestry.”

For the past few years, private sector interest in “sustainable” and “climate-friendly” efforts has skyrocketed. Haim Israel, Bank of America’s head of thematic investment, suggested at the World Economic Forum earlier this year that the climate solutions market could double from $1 trillion today to $2 trillion by 2025. Flows to sustainable funds in the U.S. have been increasing dramatically, setting records even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the financial services firm Morningstar.

And while agriculture investment is only a small subset of these numbers, there are signs that investments in “regenerative agriculture,” practices that improve rather degrade than the earth, are also increasing rapidly. In a 2019 report, the Croatan Institute, a research institute based in Durham, North Carolina, found some $47.5 billion worth of investment assets in the U.S. with regenerative agriculture criteria.

“The capital landscape in the U.S. and globally is really shifting,” says David LeZaks, senior fellow at the Croatan Institute. “People are beginning to ask more questions about how their money is working for them as it relates to financial returns, or how it might be working against them in the creation of extractive economies, climate change or labor issues.”

Agroforestry, the ancient practice of incorporating trees into farming, is just one subset of regenerative agriculture, which itself is a subset of the much larger “ESG,” or Environmental, Social and Governance, investment world. But according to Smith and Steinberg, along with a small but growing number of financiers, entrepreneurs and company executives, it is one particularly ripe for investment.

Although relatively rare in the U.S., agroforestry is a widespread agricultural practice across the globe. Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation think tank that ranks climate solutions, estimates that some 650 million hectares (1.6 billion acres) of land are currently in agroforestry systems; other groups put the number even higher. And the estimates for returns on those systems are also significant, according to proponents.

Vulcan Farm in Illinois combines intensive perennial polyculture, windbreaks, alley cropping, and silvopasture, and also features an innovative long-term lease model that provides options to non-operator landholders and land access for agroforestry farmers. Photo courtesy of Savanna Institute.

Ernst Götsch, a leader in the regenerative agriculture world, estimates that agroforestry systems can create eight times more profit than conventional agriculture. Harry Assenmacher, founder of the German company Forest Finance, which connects investors to sustainable forestry and agroforestry projects, said in a 2019 interview that he expects between 4% and 7% return on investments at least; his company had already paid out $7.5 million in gains to investors, with more income expected to be generated later.

This has led to a wide variety of for-profit interest in agroforestry. There are small startups, such as Propagate, and small farmers, such as Martin Anderton and Jono Neiger, who raise chickens alongside new chestnut trees on a swath of land in western Massachusetts. In Mexico, Ronnie Cummins, co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association, is courting investors for funds to support a new agave agroforestry project. Small coffee companies, such as Dean’s Beans, are using the farming method, as are larger farms, such as former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s Caney Fork Farms. Some of the largest chocolate companies in the world are investing in agroforestry.

“We are indeed seeing a growing interest from the private sector,” says Dietmar Stoian, lead scientist for value chains, private sector engagement and investments with the research group World Agroforestry, also known by the acronym ICRAF. “And for some of them, the idea of agroforestry is quite new.”

Part of this, he and others say, is growing awareness about agroforestry’s climate benefits.

Gains for the climate, too

According to Project Drawdown, agroforestry practices are some of the best natural methods to pull carbon out of the air. The group ranked silvopasture, a method that incorporates trees and livestock together, as the ninth most impactful climate change solution in the world, above rooftop solar power, electric vehicles and geothermal energy.

If farmers increased silvopasture acreage from approximately 550 million hectares today to about 770 million hectares by 2050 (1.36 billion acres to 1.9 billion acres), Drawdown estimated carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced over those 30 years by up to 42 gigatons — more than enough to offset all of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans globally in 2015, according to NOAA — and could return $206 billion to $273 billion on investment.

Part of the reason that agroforestry practices are so climate friendly (systems without livestock, i.e. ‘normal’ agroforestry like shade grown coffee, for example, are also estimated by Drawdown to return well on investment, while sequestering 4.45 tons of carbon per hectare per year) is because of what they replace.

Photo of silvopasture system in Georgia by Mack Evans. Image via U.S. National Agroforestry Center.

Traditional livestock farming, for instance, is carbon intensive. Trees are cut down for pasture, fossil fuels are used as fertilizer for feed, and that feed is transported across borders, and sometimes the world, using even more fossil fuels.

Livestock raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produce more methane than cows that graze on grass. A silvopasture system, on the other hand, involves planting trees in pastures — or at least not cutting them down. Farmers rotate livestock from place to place, allowing soil to hold onto more carbon.

There are similar benefits to other types of agroforestry practices. Forest farming, for instance, involves growing a variety of crops under a forest canopy — a process that can improve biodiversity and soil quality, and also support the root systems and carbon sequestration potential of farms.

A changing debate

Etelle Higonnet, senior campaign director at campaign group Mighty Earth, says a growing number of chocolate companies have expressed interest in incorporating agroforestry practices — a marked shift from when she first started advocating for that approach.

“When we first started talking to chocolate companies and traders about agroforestry, pretty much everybody thought I was a nutter,” she says. “But fast forward three years on and pretty much every major chocolate company and cocoa trader is developing an agroforestry plan.”

What that means on the ground, though, can vary widely, she says. Most of the time it is a company’s sustainability department that is pushing for agroforestry investment, not the C-suite. Some companies have committed to sourcing 100% of their cacao from agroforestry systems. Others are content with 5% of their cacao coming from farms that use agroforestry.

Alley cropping is a common form of agroforestry, where annual crops like hay, grains, or vegetables are grown between long rows of useful fruit or fodder trees. Here livestock advisor Gaabi Hathaway and herding dog Bohdi inspect ‘mulberry alley’ at Tennessee’s Caney Fork Farms. Image by Sherman Thomas courtesy of Caney Fork Farms.

What a company considers “agroforestry” can also be squishy, she points out — a situation that makes her and other climate advocates worry about companies using the term to “greenwash,” or essentially pretend to be environmentally friendly without making substantive change.

“What is agroforestry?” says Simon Konig, executive director of Climate Focus North America. “There is no clear definition. There’s an academic, philosophical definition, but there’s not a practical definition, nothing that says, ‘it includes this many species.’ Basically, agroforestry is anything you want it to be, and anything you want to write on your brochure.”

He says he has seen cases in South America where people have worked to transform degraded cattle ranches into cocoa plantations. They have planted banana trees alongside cocoa, which needs shade when young. But when the cocoa is five years old and requires more sun, the farmers take out the bananas.

“They say, ‘it’s agroforestry,’” Konig says. “So there are misunderstandings — there are different objectives and standards.”

He has been working to produce a practical agroforestry guide for cocoa and chocolate companies. One of the guide’s main takeaways, he says, is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to agroforestry. It depends on climate, objectives, markets, and all sorts of other variables.

This is one of the reasons that agroforestry has been slow to gain investor attention, says LeZaks of the Croatan Institute.

“There really aren’t the technical resources — the infrastructure, the products — that work to support an agroforestry sector at the moment,” LeZaks says.

Pigs raised on New Forest Farm in Wisconsin benefit from tree shade, fruits and nuts. Livestock serve multiple purposes in agroforestry, such as pest management, soil fertilization, and additional farm revenue. Photo courtesy of Savanna Institute.

While agroforestry is seen as having significant potential for the carbon offset market, its variability makes it a more complicated agricultural investment. Another challenge to agroforestry investment is time.

Tree crops take years to produce nuts, berries or timber. This can be a barrier for farmers, who often do not have extra capital to tie up for years.

It can also turn off investors.

“People are bogged down by business as usual,” says Stoian from World Agroforestry. “They have to report to shareholders. Give regular reports. It’s almost contradictory to the long-term nature of agroforestry.”

This is where Steinberg and Propagate Ventures come in. The first part of the company’s work is to fully analyze a farmer’s operation, Steinberg says. It evaluates business goals, uses geographic information system (GIS) components to map out land, and determines the trees most appropriate for the particular agricultural system. With software analytics, Propagate predicts long-term cost-to-revenue and yields, key information for both farmers and possible private investors.

After the analysis phase, Propagate helps implement the agroforestry system. It also works to connect third-party investors with farmers, using a revenue-sharing model in which the investor takes a percentage of the profit from harvested tree crops and timber.

Additionally, Propagate works to arrange commercial contracts with buyers who are interested in adding agroforestry-sourced products to their supply chains.

“Here’s an opportunity to work with farmers to increase profitability by incorporating tree crops into their operations in a way that’s context specific,” Steinberg says. “And it also starts addressing the ecological challenge that we face in agriculture and beyond.”

This story first appeared on MongaBay.

This Really is our Final Chance to Act on Climate

15 July 2020 | The story of our warming planet can be told by degrees. The global thermostat has gone up 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and rivers of meltwater are now coursing off Greenland’s glaciers. Two degrees could mean crop failures and 500,000 deaths from malnutrition a year. Three degrees would be a hotter world than our species has ever experienced: The last time the temperatures rose that high was 2 million years before the evolution of homo sapiens.

Creep up another 2 degrees, and it could lead to the greatest mass extinction in earth’s history. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, things escalate quickly.

If you are like most people, you have a sense that climate change is bad, but would be hard-pressed to explain the exact consequences of each additional degree of heat. A few degrees of warming doesn’t sound that bad, maybe no more dangerous than nudging up your thermostat. So at what point do sweaty summers and mild winters turn into extinction and the collapse of civilization?

The cover for Six Degrees of Climate EmergencyA new book fills that knowledge gap: Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas, an influential environmentalist in England. Lynas is known for his ability to spin stultifying scientific evidence into compelling prose and for conducting long-simmering public debates with other public intellectuals. Back in 2007, Lynas published another book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, but in the intervening years the climate changed so rapidly that he decided it needed not just an update, but a top-to-bottom rewrite.

As of 2015, a world warmed by 1 degree is reality, not a speculative future. Sea levels have climbed 6 centimeters, and evidence that fossil-fuel emissions are amplifying hurricanes has solidified. There’s so much new evidence that Lynas had to start over and write an entirely new book built on the same structure as the old one.

Lynas recently spoke with Grist about how much has changed in the last 15 years, how the COVID 19 pandemic resembles climate change, and how he manages to live happily while carrying the knowledge of looming doom.

Q.There was a similar magazine piece to your book that got a lot of attention in the States by David Wallace Wells, which came under criticism for conflating the worst-case scenarios with the likeliest future. How did you deal with the tension between telling a gripping story and being rigorous about facts?

a.The beauty of using 6 degrees of warming as a framing is you can have it both ways. It’s a grippingly terrifying story because you’ve got a strong narrative going from the relatively moderate 1-degree world up to the utterly terrifying 6-degree world, and you can read it almost like a novel as those worlds unfold. I’m not saying that we will ever see 6 degrees; that’s a product of decisions we have yet to make. I just think it’s useful to get outside these polarized debates about what the future will bring, because that’s not actually the question. The question is: What will happen if we do X? I don’t have to address the question of how likely it is, that’s a collective decision humanity will make over the next few decades.

Q. One of the scariest things you mention is the positive feedbacks, where, for instance, a world with 4 degrees of warming melts the Arctic permafrost, which could release enough methane to bump us up to 5 degrees.

a.Yeah, and that’s probably what David Wallace Wells would point to. Even if we are not going to quadruple our coal consumption, we still face the possibility of crossing these tipping points which make the global heating process unstoppable. Perhaps I’m more nuanced on that than I was in the first book: Some people thought that it was saying that if we crossed 2 degrees it would trigger a tipping point which would get you to 3, and then a tipping point which takes you to 4 like a line of dominoes. It’s not quite like that because we are not sure where the tipping points are, and because it takes time for them to play out. That Arctic permafrost is meters thick, it takes decades to melt, rot, and hit the atmosphere, and then decades more for that to turn into warming and then melt more permafrost.

On a lot of these tipping points, we are talking about centuries. For instance, I think we have already crossed the tipping point where the melting of Greenland has become irreversible, but it will still take centuries to unfold.

a.I’m a pretty strong climate hawk I would say. If we want to save even a semblance of the world’s coral reefs, we have to stay on a 1.5 degree pathway, even 2 degrees leads to the bleaching of something like 99 percent of coral reefs. The saddest things for me are the annihilation of our biological inheritance — rainforests, coral reefs, the Arctic. You can argue that humans can survive perfectly happily for the first couple of degrees. But for me, it’s nonetheless profoundly important, and something I’m quite happy to spend my entire life advocating on.

Q What about the scenarios that might not lead to the collapse of civilization but that would create mass suffering among people without access to air conditioning in, say, South Asia?

a.The date at which we make parts of the world uninhabitable because of extreme heat keeps coming forward. The first research on this put that date within a 5-degree scenario. It’s now between 3 and 4 degrees. We’ve already been close to conditions that make it lethal to stay outside in some parts of the Persian Gulf — just about touched it for a few hours. It wasn’t supposed to happen for another 2 or 3 degrees. That suggests it’s going to come more quickly. In terms of human consequences, the two issues that stand out are extreme heat and food production. I’m not confident that we can adapt the world’s breadbaskets to survive even 2 degrees warming.

Q. How does this grim knowledge make you feel day to day? Does it make you depressed, energized, or what?

a.I’ve been through all that stuff. I’ve had my periods of depression and profound sense of loss. To be honest, I’m so used to it, I don’t find it difficult to cope. I’m quite good at compartmentalizing. And these aren’t immediate things — it’s not the same as a war or pandemic, so you can actually forget about it for a bit.

Q. Do you see a parallel with the COVID pandemic?

a.The pandemic is like climate change on warp speed. The cause and effect are much more closely linked.

The lockdown is also a bit like the need to change our lifestyles to reduce carbon. So we stopped the flying, we change our diets, we make the sacrifices needed to bend the [carbon] curve. And then in the longer term, you’ve got the prospect of a vaccine. The climate parallel is technology substitution: You can replace dirty power with clean power, you can find ways to do zero-carbon travel. Those all take time, so in the short term, yes, we need to stop flying, but you can’t maintain lockdown forever, either for this virus, or for climate change.

Q. It sounds like you see both a need to live more simply, and embrace technology?

a.Well, the living simply thing isn’t going to work in the long run. The part of the world that is living simply, namely sub-Saharan Africa and other places way below the poverty line, don’t want to stay in that condition. It’s not a viable argument in a practical or even moral sense. Yes, it’s a lifestyle choice for certain people, but to pretend even for an instant that it’s a climate solution is insane.

Q. Wait, but you just mentioned flying less, don’t you think the richer world must make sacrifices?

a.I do, but only in the short term. Remember you can only sustain things by moral exhortation for a short period of time, and then people tire of it and move on. Like with the lockdowns, it’s a matter of months really. I think the same thing will apply to climate. Look, there are technologies available that would allow us to decarbonize and continue to grow prosperity, especially in the developing world.

Q. But in this book you are just laying out the consequences. You don’t propose solutions.

a.I just thought, fuck that, I wrote that book five years earlier, called Nuclear 2.0 It’s got a whole strategy mapped out for a transition to renewable energy and nuclear, etcetera, etcetera. Plus, I’d never be able to sell the book in Germany if I mentioned the “N” word. I would rather have a book that could be read by a wider group of people and allow them to then investigate solutions in whatever way they want.

This interview has been edited for length, accuracy, and clarity.

COVID-19 Is Hitting Brazil’s Indigenous People Hard, With Tragic Implications for Climate Change

25 June 2020 | In the 1980s, a young chief of Brazil’s Kayapó people emerged from the Amazon forest to campaign on behalf of the Xingu River and its forests. His name was Paulinho Paiakan, and he not only saved the Xingu and its forests, but spent the rest of his life leading local, regional, and global efforts to protect other parts of the Amazon – the lungs of the planet – from loggers, miners, and others seeking to profit from its destruction. Paiakan’s life ended earlier this month, when he and several other Kayapó elders succumbed to COVID-19.

Deadly pathogens loom large in the recent history of all the people of the Amazon, who lived in splendid isolation until European invaders brought smallpox, measles, and influenza.

The invasions began 500 years ago, but are continuing today – with tragic consequences for indigenous people as well as the forests they protect and the global climate on which we all depend. The Paiter-Surui, for example, didn’t make First Contact with Brazilian authorities until 1969, and their population plunged from 5,000 to 290, while the forest they nurtured shrunk to a fraction of its previous size. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that roughly 23 percent of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we manage land, but that indigenous people around the world continue to manage land sustainably.

In April, the Kayapó ejected dozens of loggers from their territory – in part to save their forest, but also to protect themselves from COVID-19 – and ten years ago the Paiter-Surui tried to save their forest by launching the world’s first indigenous-led conservation project financed through the sale of carbon offsets. The groundbreaking project dramatically reduced deforestation within the territory for five years, but was suspended in 2018 after the discovery of large gold deposits in the territory sparked a surge in deforestation.

The pandemic is now hitting as new figures show deforestation surged 34 percent in President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office, accelerating a trend that began in 2016 following ten years during which Brazil was a deforestation success story.

It’s easy to attack Bolsonaro and his Alliance for Brazil for the acceleration of forest destruction, but neither he nor Donald Trump emerged from a vacuum. Both rode waves of resentment to power – resentment that flows in part from the fact that the world failed to adequately support the country’s efforts to save its forests after the country slashed deforestation a staggering 70 percent from 2005 through 2015 and reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than the entire European Union had in the same period.

Bolsonaro was elected on a platform of expanded agricultural development, including in territories over which indigenous people have legal authority, and the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) mapped 10,129 square kilometers of deforestation (3,911 square miles) from August 2018 to July 2019.

COVID-19 is hitting indigenous territories harder than other parts of Brazil, according to the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, “APIB”), which keeps a running total of known infections and deaths here, in part because of indifference and incompetence on the part of Brazilian authorities. On June 4, for example, the federal indigenous health service (SESAI) acknowledged that a COVID-19-positive doctor had visited several indigenous villages, an act that the attorney general’s office and APIB pin directly on shoddy reorganization of the service under Bolsonaro appointee Silvia Nobre.

Indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 and other communicable diseases, due to factors including often-poor access to health care resources, multigenerational living, and a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Mortality rates for indigenous peoples in Brazil are double the national average.  Access to healthcare is often poor to nonexistent: indigenous villages in the Amazon are on average 315 km away from an ICU bed in the Brazilian public health system.

The situation is even worse among uncontacted or newly-contacted people, according to the National Geographic’s Scott Wallace. He reports that the newly-contacted Kokama have lost 55 people to COVID-19 since early April, when a medical worker visited the village without following self-quarantine procedures that are routine for anyone visiting a remote village. Wallace also documents growing incursions by gold miners who practice an illegal form of alluvial mining (known as garimpo in Portuguese), which involves digging up massive amounts of soil, using mercury to draw out any gold, and then burning the residue. It’s the same practice that decimated the Paiter-Surui territory, and one that recent governments have turned a blind eye towards.

Forest Trends’ Response to the COVID-19 Indigenous Crisis

Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends and our partners in Amazon countries are working with speed to direct relief to indigenous communities to immediately confront the impact of the pandemic, and to secure funds to scale these activities further.

The following activities are already under development by Forest Trends. We’re working to secure additional resources to scale these efforts and expand our reach.

  • We’re acquiring and safely distributing food, cleaning, and hygiene supplies, including coordinating the production and distribution of more than 30,000 masks.
  • We’re arranging for transportation of fuel and food supplies purchased by indigenous families (in partnership with government agencies), so that indigenous people do not have to travel to cities.
  • We’re disseminating information, security protocols, educational campaigns, and opportunities to access emergency funds to all of our indigenous partner organizations. This includes a COVID-19 prevention information campaign. We’re also supporting a young indigenous leader in a series of videos interviewing elders and tribal leaders, which are being disseminated to indigenous communities as a short film and via WhatsApp.
  • We’re providing technical support for locally led projects responding to public tenders offering emergency funds, as well as crowdfunding campaigns. Projects are mainly focused on food security, communication, and obtaining working capital for indigenous enterprises including artisanal products and Brazil nut production.
  • We’re conducting a survey of food supply by indigenous organizations, establishment of partnerships with family farming organizations, and the creation of an operational distribution system with government agencies FUNAI and SESAI. We’re also partnering with communities on community-based food production systems, including traditional gardens and agroforestry systems.
  • Virtual communication based on internet connection is already a reality for indigenous peoples in the Amazon and is increasingly necessary and important in the context of the pandemic. We’re working to secure resources to support an indigenous-led communication network, identify connectivity gaps, install internet access points, and develop training and informational materials to improve health care at the village level.

Long Term Support

In the long term, there is a need for stronger surveillance and control. This means establishing and training a network of young indigenous monitors. Fences and gates must be installed at the entrance to indigenous lands, as well as checkpoints in strategic locations along roads and rivers. Surveillance expeditions, with the adoption of all security protocols, are also necessary in certain less populated regions of indigenous lands.

We envision a digital platform to engage communities, particularly young indigenous people, on territorial governance. This includes training materials on health care, economic resilience, food security, climate change adaptation, gender, intergenerational learning, and indigenous rights advocacy. A foundation of strong self-governance ensures strong indigenous institutions and territorial protection, including having the technological, financial, and technical resources to monitor indigenous lands against illegal incursions

Saving the Island in the Sky: Malawi Residents Protect Trees in the Mulanje Mountain Region

17 June 2020 | After years of cutting down trees for firewood, thousands of residents living at the foot of Mulanje Mountain in Malawi are placing their hope in a mini-hydro system to power their district and save the vital forests in the region.

Biziweki Makupe, 34, is a smallholder tea farmer and shopkeeper from Nkuta, a village just at the bottom of Mulanje Mountain, in Southern Malawi. At his shop, he has always had trouble to market soft drinks: with no power he couldn’t keep them cold.

Recently, a new mini hydro-power plant is changing his business. But not only for him.

Mulanje is one of Southern Africa’s critical ecological hotspots. The large rocky mountain—whose highest peak towers at 3,000 metres— is commonly referred to as an ‘Island in the Sky’.

On foggy days, the mountain is enclosed in a smoke-like haze from which the top bursts, which has earned it its name.

As a tourist blogger vividly described, “to visualise the plateau below the peaks, consider simply a world of streams and forests and unique species where people, instead of sniffing the flowers, smell the unique and unmistakable smell of the trees.”

Despite being officially protected since 1927, severe deforestation and degradation is still taking place and has led to the sharp decline of species like the Mulanje Cedar tree and the Mulanje chameleon, species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

According to UNESCO, the Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whyteii), Malawi’s national tree, is a key species found in the mountain high cloud forests and is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Its timber is highly prized for a variety of specialist purposes; however, illegal unsustainable harvesting has led to diminishing forest cover.

Although large swathes of the forest reserve are now bare due to human activity, a local charity’s initiative is using a hydro-power initiative as one way empowering the community to desist from cutting down trees in the forest. So far, it is bearing fruits.

Cold drinks, clean shaves and growing trees

For Makupe and his neighbours, the newly gained access to electricity has meant a qualitative change. The mini hydro-electrical power plant installed at the base of the mountain by a local charity, Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), is helping him to keep the drinks cold among other benefits.

“I am seeing more customers now after buying a refrigerator. Apart from closing later because of the extended lights, I also run a barbershop which has increased my revenue base. My life, and that of my family has improved,” he said.

The mini-grid infrastructure which generates about 220 Kilowatts was funded by international donor agencies. Revenue from electricity sales contributes to the cost of operation and maintenance. Customers are connected to the grid via pre-payment meters.

“We have power because of the mountain. Other villages in the district don’t have this opportunity,” said Makupe.

The $3-million project has also brought people like Makupe to understand the key role of the mountain, and interest to plant more trees has developed in the community.

Diness Sauka, 23, who dropped out of primary school, didn’t see the benefit of the mountain until recently. Although he has never hiked the massif, he recently got hired as a barber and he is now able to support his marriage from the wages.

“At first I used to travel a long distance to find jobs, but now I am employed right here in the village. My life has changed now,” he said, bubbling with a smile. While he used to be involved in logging for a livelihood, his wages are now enough to support him. He no longer sees a need to cut down trees.

Sauka makes around $30 dollars per month, which is enough to buy essential supplies for his family. His salary is roughly equivalent to that of some informal salespeople in larger townships.

Self-made power

“People were really excited because, at first, they would need to travel long distances, sometimes getting up as early as 2:00 am to access maize mills. Now, a mill nearby, the hospital and primary schools are being powered by the dam,” said Bertha Salima who heads the community committee managing the electricity.

Arnold Kadziponye, the project coordinator for the Mulanje Renewable Energy Agency (MUREA), which financed and supported the project, said that even students from the primary school are now performing better and the number of pupils has risen dramatically.

“Deforestation was very alarming because most people depended on firewood and producing charcoal from the trees in the mountain,” he said. Although the project started in 2008, the community only got connected in 2014.

Bring back the trees

But prosperity comes at a price. Kadziponye added that the population has grown in the country and the area. The energy demand has risen accordingly, and trees are being extensively cut down as a result.

“Most of the formerly forested area is now bare. Other people are coming up the mountain to cultivate and build gardens to sustain their livelihoods,” he added.

To tackle that challenge, and as part of the climate change mitigation efforts, the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, a charity under which the energy agency operates is now engaged in afforestation activities to replace the depleted trees along with the community.

“We have youth clubs trusted with taking care of the mountain. Planting a tree is one thing, making it survive is another. As of last year, the survival rate was over 85 per cent. That is encouraging because previously it was 35 to 50 per cent,” Kadziponye said.

The increased survival rate can be attributed to the community understanding the importance of the forest with the coming of the mini-hydro electrical project. A visit to the area showed transmissions lines across the villages with a large number of houses connected to the electricity. Various small businesses which depend on electricity have also sprung up.

By using clean energy, says Kadziponye, the people now appreciate why it is important to conserve the forest as the electricity largely depends on the availability of water in the mountain. And the tree-covered mountain facilitates rainfall which also enables them to grow their crops, including tea. Locations close to Mulanje receive more rainfall, and more regularly, than other areas further from it.

As part of the initiative, the organization distributed 300,000 seedlings, which were planted up the mountain—the source of the river where water is tapped from—to ensure the water flow is conserved.

“Unless we have water, we cannot talk about electricity, and people have this message at the back of their minds. They have taken up the responsibility to make sure that there is water flowing in the river all year round. And chiefs around the area have teamed up to ensure the watershed is well protected. We are supporting them with tree seedlings,” he added.

Not everything was wine and roses, though. The charity faced challenges to convince the people of the need to embrace the tree planting project as part of the electricity project. At first, there was low turnout during the tree planting exercises. Being the first independent power producer in the country, there was skepticism about its effectiveness, as people are accustomed to the country’s main hydropower producer.

This mentality has shifted over the years, with a significant number (fourteen per cent) of those connected to the mini-grid using the power for cooking. It’s expected that the number will rise with more awareness and financial support through loans.

A long summer in Mulanje Mountain

The initiative, however, is far from being perfect. During the hot season experienced between October and April, when water levels are lower, the community has to ration the electricity. And while the organization would like to connect over 5,000 households, the current capacity is able to support half that population.

“Going forward we want to be self-sustainable because we were donor-dependent and we used most of the resources to create the mini-grids. At the moment we are looking for more funders to reach more customers and break even. There is greater demand for electricity and with resources available; we can reach out even to 10,000 customers.”, said Kadziponye.

The residents agree that the power needs to be increased and would like to see a cut in blackouts which sometimes take some hours. Edwin Mapira, 39, who owns one maize mill which is serving over 5 villages, said he would like to add more mills once the power generated in the area increases. Still, he’s proud of his region’s surge.

“This area used to be neglected because of its location, away from offices and roads, but we’ve witnessed a complete transformation as we’re now self-reliant with the coming of electricity. Other communities in this district envy us when they see how we are progressing,” he added.

New Bill Would Ask USDA to Help Turn Farms into Carbon Sinks

9 June 2020 | At first glance, carbon markets seem like a perfect vehicle for helping restore the world’s soils. After all, human agriculture has extracted about 112 billion tons of life-giving carbon out of the world’s soils, and that translates into a staggering 425 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the air – or more than ten years’ worth of emissions.

In the first decade of this century, the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) pioneered the use of carbon offsets to promote “climate smart agriculture,” which includes no-till farming and the use of cover crops, among US farmers.

The program made ecological sense, but it failed to attract buyers – in part because climate-smart agriculture often pays for itself by improving yields and reducing the cost of inputs, although it’s not always clear from the start that it will work. Because the practice often paid for itself or cost very little to implement, it was difficult for farmers to demonstrate “financial additionality,” meaning they weren’t able to demonstrate that the carbon money made the emission reductions happen. Without additionality, they weren’t able to generate offsets that companies trusted enough to buy in order to reduce their own carbon footprints

It’s a quandary, because farmers who shift to climate-smart agriculture clearly benefit the rest of us, and the shifts do require risk and effort. We as a society should pay for those benefits, especially given the challenges that family farmers face today.

In the intervening decade, carbon markets have been used to help farmers implement climate-smart agricultural practices in countries like Kenya, where education and outreach were needed, but no one has found a way to make it work in the United States.

In the past year, companies like Nori and Indigo Ag are have picked up the thread by proposing the creation of offsets without financial additionality, while the American Forest Foundation is spearheading an effort to aggregate carbon impacts from small farms.

Now a bipartisan bill aims to ask the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to forge cooperation among these disparate efforts and create a nationally-recognized body of protocols that can be used to funnel carbon finance into sustainable agriculture, whether through offsets or through performance-based payments.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act is co-sponsored by Republican Senators Mike Braun of Indiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

The bill is technically an amendment of the Food Security Act of 1985, and it calls for the establishment of a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program that will certify market participants who have a proven expertise in both carbon finance and agriculture and provide a web portal for farmers to engage the markets.

UN Launches “Race to Zero” Ahead of Delayed COP 26 Climate Talks

5 June 2020 | With the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pushed back a full year – to November, 2021 – the UNFCCC’s Climate Ambition Alliance has launched a global campaign called “Race to Zero” that encourages countries, companies, and other entities to deliver structured net-zero greenhouse-gas emission pledges by the time the talks begin.

Launched via global webinar today, the campaign aims to codify commitments made via the Climate Ambition Alliance (CAA), which launched ahead of last year’s COP25 in Madrid. The CAA currently includes 120 nations, 996 businesses, 458 cities, 24 regions, 505 universities and 36 investment groups that have committed to achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Signatories are responsible for 23 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide and 53 percent of global GDP, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

“Race to Zero” is intended to be an umbrella campaign for coordinating commitments made under existing initiatives (listed below) by providing comparability and establishing criteria for best practices.

Clockwise from top left: Gonzalo Muñoz, the UN High Level Climate Champion for Chile; Mark Schneider, Chief Executive Officer, Nestlé; Erias Lukwago Ssalongo, Lord Mayor of Kampala, Uganda; and Warren East, Chief Executive Officer, Rolls-Royce, at a webinar launching “Race to Zero.”

What Are the Criteria?

The minimum criteria for establishing a recognized pledge were developed through dialogues coordinated by Oxford University and published here. Although pledges must include a clear net-zero target date no later than 2050, they must also begin immediately and include interim targets.

Much like the Paris Agreement itself, the criteria are designed to strengthen over time, but they begin at a level that reflects current best practices. They must, for example, cover all emissions, including measurable indirect emissions associated with the entity’s activities. For companies, this includes “Scope 3 emissions,” which are upstream and downstream emissions generated in a company’s value chain. For cities and regions, this includes all emissions within the territory.

What is the Role of Offsetting?

Offsets are emission-reductions generated outside a company’s own operations, and they are used in both compliance programs to meet mandated emission caps (“cap and trade”) and in voluntary programs to reduce a company’s overall impact (voluntary carbon markets).

Demand for voluntary carbon offsets hit a seven-year high in 2018 as companies moved to implement voluntary net-zero targets, according to Ecosystem  Marketplace’s 2019 State of Voluntary Carbon Markets report. Volume for 2019 likely achieved a record high, and anecdotal evidence indicates that demand remains surprisingly resilient in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The criteria do not define a role for using carbon offsets in achieving net-zero targets, but instead acknowledge the global debate as it currently stands.

The Race to Zero criteria emphasize that if offsets are ultimately recognized, they must only be used to to neutralize residual emissions that can’t be eliminated internally – at least not immediately – and recognizes the current divide between organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which emphasize the use of high-quality offsets generated under recognized standards to accelerate overall reductions, and organizations like the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which has been reluctant to endorse offsetting to meet net-zero targets.

Oxford published a mapping of criteria designed to summarize the views of organizations that participated in dialogues held over the past two months, and the summary reveals positions common to anyone who has been following climate negotiations over the past decade.

“Several respondents suggest more specific conditions, arguing that, to the extent offsetting is incorporated, it should be reserved for hard-to-abate sectors (Carbon Trust), not exceed 10% of baseline emissions (Exponential Roadmap), or be focused on nature-based solutions within the same jurisdiction (Local Governments for Sustainability),” it says. “Furthermore, a number of responders made clear that they see a qualitative difference between avoided emissions and removals (University of New South Wales, the Union of Concerned Scientists, WBCSD) and suggested that targets should be divided to specify emissions reductions and removals separately (World Resources Institute, Carbone 4).”

Which Existing Networks are Included So Far?

The campaign includes the following existing networks: