Providence, RI —
Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own. I'm Taylor Kate Brown, and a reminder that this newsletter grows by word of mouth. Please forward or share with friends, family and frenemies or share on social media like this lovely testimonial from Door. And thank you to a reader for letting me know the color for links was illegible for red/green colorblind folks. You'll see the change in this email. I'll be traveling next week, so the newsletter will likely skip next Thursday.
(Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash)
With the UN's annual climate conference, COP26, coming up in two weeks, you're about to see a lot about net-zero goals from companies, countries and everything in between.
Net-zero, in theory, is a straightforward promise: by a target year, a government or company will operate without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and further warming the planet. A net-zero pledge is a start, but how one plans to get to that point is far more meaningful.
These commitments can reflect a truly transformational change, or they can be a big fancy promise without any real thought about how to get there. Worse, they can obscure what is effectively a carbon accounting slight-of-hand, pages deep within an explanatory PDF.
So when you see your state or city make their own net-zero pledge, how do you know if it's any good? This week I was fortunate enough to interview Tom Hale, a professor at Oxford University and chair of the UN Race to Zero expert peer review group. They've studied net-zero commitments by companies and governments of many different sizes, and found while net-zero pledges are proliferating, the vast majority of them need to be strengthened.
Their criteria isn't complicated. A "robust target", Hale says, includes:
hitting net-zero by 2050,
a "fair" contribution to a 50% reduction by 2030 (i.e. if your government or company has been a historically heavy emitter and/or has the capacity to make relatively quick changes, the 2030 target should be more than 50%).
Targets should cover all greenhouses gases, not just carbon dioxide
Prioritize emissions reductions over offsets and take account of equity
The most common problem with many current net-zero targets are "time frame and coverage," Hale says.
"On timing, some set out plans for 2050, but don’t set out what they’re going to do in the next five years to begin that journey," he says. "Something as ambitious as net zero by 2050 requires immediate action today. On coverage, some companies in particular only tackle emissions they directly control, not the broader emissions across their value chain."
Hale's colleague, Kate Cullen at UC Berkeley, says a 2030 target is "primary tool" to force focus on near-term action.
So who's doing the best in the US? Cullen recently lead a review of net-zero pledges among states and cities in America. If you're into that PDF life, you can find it here. If not, here's what stood out to me:
A slim majority of Americans (53%) live in a state and/or city with a net-zero target. Are you one of them? Reply to this email and I'll let you know. (NB: This study was published earlier in 2021, enough time for some of the info to be out of date.) States like Iowa and Texas are making some progress on the renewable energy front without a target, Hale says, even as they fight to prolong the lifespan of fossil fuels. "Clean energy is just too attractive economically."
Only 11% of Americans live in a place that meets the "robust" criteria — New York state (and NYC), Los Angeles, Sacramento and Austin. Other leading examples, Hale says, are Hawaii and Vermont - because they have "strong goals set in law and clear plans" to how to deliver on them.
Only 23% of U.S.-headquartered business in the Forbes Global 2000 have net-zero pledges, and only two follow the "robust" criteria. But those who do have good targets are more likely to proscribe how they use offsets.
About those net-zero offsets: Instead of taking their actual emissions down to absolute zero, some of the accounting may include offsets of those emissions through investments in other reduction projects outside of the company or state. Others make projections about a company's ability to capture emitted carbon to offset their greenhouse gases, a technology that is not developed at scale.
Offsetting can be used to finance crucial projects today, but it can also be used as we'll fix-it-in-the-future accounting trick in these net-zero plans, avoiding the work of cutting emissions at the source. Race to Zero offers some helpful definitions of standards that go beyond net-zero.
"Offsetting has a relatively small, but still important, part of the net zero transformation," Hale says. Stopping deforestation in the short-term is crucial, he adds, and in the long-term, there will be a need to account for any residual emissions.
"But neither of these needs takes away from the most important goal: immediate emissions reductions in company’s own value chains. We need to "flatten the curve" urgently, and then deal with what might remain."
Here's a thing you can do: does your city, state or company you work for have a net-zero target? What were you able to learn about it? Let me know and I might take a deeper look at that particular plan.
Forget your personal carbon footprint: Did you know the idea of a personal "carbon footprint" was originally part of a oil company PR campaign? This essay by Emma Pattee argues for the idea of a "climate shadow" instead, a way of thinking of individual impact on addressing the climate crisis beyond "recycling and energy bills." I'm curious to know what my readers think of this essay.
Focusing on extreme heat: The city of Seville, Spain has announced plans to become the first major city in the world to start naming and categorizing heat waves, the same way tropical storms and hurricanes are named in other parts of the world. This has been an idea that several people have pitched the the National Weather Service. The rationale is that naming and giving a sense of the potential impact of a heat wave will alert people to prepare themselves and their community, the same way you would prepare for a hurricane or bad winter storm.
Two stories from Philadelphia from WHYY reporter Susan Phillips: PennEast cancels a natural gas pipeline project, citing a lack of environmental permits from New Jersey to cross dozens of waterways and wetlands, and residents of a Philly neighborhood could become the city's first climate migrants.
I'm fascinated by this odd story of a company using out-of-commission electric vehicle batteries as a storage system for electricity (i.e. the thing you need to manage for not-always-on energy like solar and wind) in the Mojave Desert. Is it scalable? Where did reporter Julian Spector rent an electric vehicle?
The mayor of Imperial Beach, CA is only somewhat laughing about Exxon accusing him of colluding with other towns to extort money from oil companies: "I love the fact that some lawyer in a really expensive suit, sitting in some horrible office trying to find evidence that we were in some kind of conspiracy with Santa Cruz, had to look at videos of my kids surfing."
California regulators approved another extension to keep the outdated, gas-fired Redondo Beach power plant operating through 2023. City residents and council members are frustrated and disappointed — and lost a $4.8 grant to restore the land because of delays.
My old colleagues at The San Francisco Chronicle have updated their transit project status maps and they look sooooo good.