Get Ready for Ugly as Markets Begin to Deal With Climate Crisis
Advocates of “market-based” climate solutions paint pastel pictures reflecting smoothly adjusting macro-economic models. Competitive markets gradually nudged by carbon pricing glide into a low carbon future in a modestly disruptive fashion, much as sulfur pollution from power plants was scaled back in the 1990’s.
But commodity markets for oil and gas don’t work that way. These real markets are poised to savagely strand assets, upset expectations, overturn long established livelihoods and leave a trail of wreckage behind them—unless climate advocates start owning the fruits of their own success and preparing for the transition. Schumpeter’s destructive engine of capitalism is about to show its ugly side.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Two powerful forces are currently driving energy markets and climate outcomes.
Fossil fuel prices are indeed opening the door to climate solutions, but not through the gradual carbon pricing mechanisms so favored by economists (and recently, reluctantly beginning to be explored by conservative thinkers). Instead, the divergence between clean energy price curves, which fall rapidly with market share and fossil fuel prices, which rise with consumption, are about to collide explosively.
Second, Investors are indeed, moving away from fossil fuel stocks and bonds, but not out of ethical concern over climate risk, or even an expectation of global regulation of carbon combustion. They are racing to the exit as bloated coal and oil stock values collapse on the other side of the “Commodity Super-Cycle” which until early 2014 was the dominant paradigm.
Two weeks ago I wrote two pieces in Bloomberg Views suggesting that the fossil divestment movement was arguably behind market trends in arguing that coal and oil were bad investments. The following week witnessed a cascade of commentary making my pieces look milquetoast and timid. Markets are abandoning carbon companies—even if society continues to burn far too much of it.
Look at the numbers:
U.S. coal consumption has fallen, in the face of competition from performance (efficiency), alternatives (natural gas) and disrupters (solar and wind.) Five years ago we burned a billion tons of coal; now we burn 850 million tons. Solid progress. But still 850 million tons.
What happened to coal company share values? In the last five years, a coal company has gone bankrupt on the average every month. The second largest U.S. coal company, Alpha, after one bankruptcy and reorganization, was just dumped from the NY Stock Exchange because its price fell below $1.00. Even a coal producer (Walter) whose output, metallurgical coal, still enjoys a strong market had to file for bankruptcy. The biggest U.S. coal company, Peabody, which traded in 2011 at $73, is now selling at $1.29. The bond markets have abandoned coal. All coal company debt is now graded “junk.” In the last quarter the three worst performing major U.S. bonds were all coal:
Alpha Natural Resources: -70 percent
Peabody: -40 percent
Arch: -30 percent
Coal, as an investment class, is effectively finished—coal companies will go through a series of reorganizations. After each one only those with the best balance sheets and cheapest mines will remain. The reclamation bonds which the U.S. government and the State of Wyoming allowed these companies to self-insure against their balance sheets are about to go south, creating sequential calls on capital that will push even more companies first into Chapter 11 and then into Chapter 7. Outside the U.S., 1/6th of Australia’s coal mines now operate at a loss. Companies in the sector are in liquidation, even though the world will use a lot of coal for quite a while to come. Eventually slumping demand will be overtaken by declining production and more mines will become cash flow positive, but existing stakeholders will be liquidated first. That’s the dynamic of shrinking commodity markets—investors, communities and workers lose fast even as markets shrink slowly.
Many investors thought they could be the last to make a profit on conventional telephone land-lines. Someone was that last lucky bottom-feeder. But most of those who entertained that illusion were wiped out. Coal investors can join the line.
But what about oil and gas? The public—and politicians—still view oil as the necessary evil and oil companies as the essential usurers of our dependence. But the markets are not so sure. Since 2011 a "five-point gap has emerged between market valuations for energy companies and the S&P 500, as returns on capital have fallen in the sector.” Federal banking regulators have begun warning lenders that many of the loans made to drillers at the height of the shale rush must be treated as “substandard.”
BP recently earned the dubious distinction of being the first of IOC’s integrated majors to have its bonds de-rated because of potential environmental liabilities from the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Shell was able to finance one of its recent pipeline projects at 23 times its earnings, but its own shares fetch only 9X. From 2006 to 2013 the percentage of Exxon Mobil’s proven reserves made up of tar sands and heavy oil increased from 15 percent to 32 percent. Relying on a larger share of more expensive oil reduced Exxon Mobil's margins and returns. Its stock value trailed the S&P 500 by 40 percent during those seven years—even as the company used the vast majority of its profits to buy back shares to sustain their value.
Chatham House in a recent analysis commented, “Even before the 2014 oil price collapse, equity investors were concerned that, with few exceptions, many companies in the oil sector were heavily committed to high-cost projects for which they had a poor record of execution.”
Now, with oil less than half its price a year ago, companies are desperately canceling projects; a few months ago $118 billion in oil exploration and development projects had been shelved; this month Wood Mackenzie said the total had risen to $200 billion, a cut of almost 50 percent in investments to replace reserves. The biggest victims: not just U.S. shale producers, but Canadian tar sands, declining North Sea fields and Brazilian deep ocean drilling. Big investors have been hit hard: Carl Icahn and John Paulson have lost hundreds of millions of dollars on their oil bets.
Investor owned oil companies are particularly vulnerable in an oil commodity-cycle price crunch because while their existing reserves include large volumes of relatively cheap to pump legacy reserves, their ability to replace those reserves is highly constrained to the world’s most expensive ultra-deep, super-heavy and wildly remote reserves. “Even before the 2014 oil price collapse, equity investors were concerned that, with few exceptions, many companies in the oil sector were heavily committed to high-cost projects for which they had a poor record of execution.” The remaining untapped cheap or moderately costly oil fields are mostly off-limits to IOC’s, reserved by Russia, Venezuela and Persian Gulf monarchies for their nationally owned oil companies, whose long term business plan is to squeeze the Western IOC’s out of business.
In 1915, as the American economy boomed, the huge supply chain that supported horse-drawn transport—harnesses and horseshoes, wagons and buggies makers (13,000 of them), farriers and blacksmiths, hay balers and feedmills—looked like a robust and vital segment for deploying capital. 1920 was the year of “Peak Horse” in the U.S.. By 1940 it was gone. This was not “low-cost”, incremental progress. It was an economic disruption so fierce that the phrase “buggy-whip maker” became a business simile for loser.
From both the standpoint of barometric pressure and stock market volatility we have sown the winds of fossil fuel capitalism for a decade too long—but bemoaning that fact changes nothing. As Christina Figueres says “Better late than later.” We still have time to prepare for the whirlwind. It will come whether we prepare or not.
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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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By Gianna-Carina Grün
While the first countries are easing their lockdowns, others are reporting more and more new cases every day. Data for the global picture shows the pandemic is far from over. DW has the latest statistics.
What's the Current Global Trend?<p>The goal for all countries is to make it to the blue part of the chart and stay there. Countries and territories in this section reported zero new cases both this week (past seven days) and the week before.</p><p>Currently, that is the case for 14 out of 209 countries and territories. </p>
How Has the Covid-19 Trend Evolved Over the Past Weeks?<p>The situation has improved slightly: 87 countries report more cases this week than last week. </p>
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