Richard Branson and Amory Lovins Join Forces to Accelerate Clean Energy Revolution
The world’s three biggest carbon emitters—the U.S., China, and the European Union—have all announced emissions goals or limits in the past few months. That’s great news, but global fossil fuel demand continues to rise, and with it, so do climate change’s risks—to the economy, to the environment, to security, to human health and to people living in poverty in areas where climate change will have a devastating impact. The most recent IPCC report (AR5) found that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” “human influence on the climate system is clear,” and “limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Photo credit: Shutterstock
The 2014 report Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States detailed the serious economic harm we can expect from climate change if we continue on our current path. But the challenge before us is about more than averting the worst economic impacts of climate change. As highlighted in the recently released Better Growth, Better Climate report from The New Climate Economy, it’s also about finding enormous economic opportunity in clean energy solutions that both tackle global warming and unlock growth opportunities for all.
The transformation to a low-carbon future is arguably the greatest business opportunity of our time. Combating climate change through energy efficiency, renewable energy technologies, clean transportation, and smarter land use can reap great rewards both economically and environmentally.
Fortunately, an energy revolution is rising all around us—enabled by smart policies in mindful markets, and led by business for profit. Efficient energy use fuels more economic activity than oil, at far lower cost, while its potential gets ever bigger and cheaper. In each of the past three years, the world invested a quarter-trillion dollars—more than the market cap of the world’s coal industry—to add over 80 billion watts of renewable capacity (excluding big hydro dams). Generating capacity added last year was 37 percent renewable in the U.S., 68 percent in China, 72 percent in Europe and 53 percent in the world. Last year, the world invested over $600 billion in efficiency, renewables, and cogeneration.
This growth is accelerating: solar power is scaling faster than cellphones. Last year alone, China added more solar capacity than the U.S. has added in 60 years. Electric vehicle sales are growing twice as fast as hybrid cars did at a comparable stage. Shrewd companies are realizing climate solutions’ enormous business opportunities—a prospect scarcely dimmed by cheaper oil, which makes only a few percent of the world’s electricity.
Global companies like IKEA, Google, Apple, Facebook, Salesforce and Walmart have committed to 100 percent renewable power. Tesla’s stock is up an astounding 660 percent over the past two years and has half the market value of General Motors Corp. The NEX index, which tracks clean energy companies worldwide, grew by 50 percent over the past two years—far outperforming the general market—while equity raisings by quoted clean energy companies more than doubled. Many of the world’s top financial firms concur that the era of coal and of big power plants is drawing to a close; Germany’s biggest utility is divesting those assets to focus on efficiency and renewables.
Yet we need to create even bigger and faster change. Which is why we are delighted to announce that our two nonprofit organizations—Rocky Mountain Institute and the Carbon War Room—are joining forces. By uniting two of the world’s preeminent nonprofit practitioners of market-based energy and climate solutions, we will help turn the toughest long-term energy challenges into vast opportunities for entrepreneurs to create wealth and public benefit for all.
United we stand to make a greater impact more quickly. Indeed, we already are. Our first combined program, the Ten Island Challenge, is making progress in six Caribbean countries. Caribbean economies suffer from some of the world’s highest electricity prices—perpetuating poverty, swelling national debts, and blocking sustainable development. They are also on the front lines of climate change, facing earlier impacts from sea-level rise, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events. Our alliance is laying the groundwork to transform these islands’ energy systems from dependence on costly imported diesel oil to cleaner, cost-effective efficiency and local renewables. This will cut electricity costs, boost private investment, and enhance and diversify local jobs. We are demonstrating that entire economies can adopt low-carbon solutions while strengthening their economies.
And islands are just the beginning as we build on our organizations’ initiatives already underway and on our new joint efforts to go further, faster together. In trucking, the learnings of our North American initiative will seed a new China program—strengthening an exciting collaboration with the Chinese government’s energy analysts that’s already showing the maximum share of efficiency and renewables that could support the forecasted economic growth of what will soon become the world’s largest economy. In cement, we will join forces to offset the energy surge from construction in the world’s fastest-growing economies. And we will combine our work on cracking the biggest nut of all: energy efficiency in buildings. Since they use nearly three-fourths of U.S. electricity, that’s the key to making electricity supply affordable, distributed, diverse, resilient, and largely renewable.
Switching to a fossil-fuel-free energy system will not only cost less, but will help re-ignite the world’s economies. In the U.S. alone, Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire analysis found that a 158-percent bigger economy could need no coal and oil and one-third less natural gas, yet cost $5 trillion less than business as usual. We are closer than ever before to transforming the world to a low-carbon energy system. Rocky Mountain Institute and the Carbon War Room are excited to coordinate their proven approaches to scaling transformational change worldwide. Together, we will more than double our impact on the scale and speed of the energy transformation to a clean, prosperous, secure and low-carbon world.
We will reach this better world only if we all collaborate. None of us can do this on our own. That’s why we are thrilled to be joining forces, and hope that others will be inspired to do the same—so we can build this exciting new world of opportunities at the pace our grandchildren require.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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'Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution': New Paper Outlines Vision for Climate Action
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A white paper out Friday declares that "there is hope right beneath our feet" to address the climate crisis as it touts regenerative agriculture as a "win-win-win" solution to tackling runaway carbon emissions.
Graph from Rodale Institute's new white paper "Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution."<p>The claim made in the new paper is bold: "Data from farming and grazing studies show the power of exemplary regenerative systems that, if achieved globally, would drawdown more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions.</p><p>"Regenerative agriculture, as the researchers describe, represents "a system of farming principles that rehabilitates the entire ecosystem and enhances natural resources, rather than depleting them."</p><p>In contrast to industrial practices dependent upon monocultures, extensive tillage, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, a regenerative approach uses, at minimum, seven practices which aim to boost biodiversity both above and underground and make possible carbon sequestration in soil.</p><ul><li>Diversifying crop rotations</li><li>Planting cover crops, green manures, and perennials</li><li>Retaining crop residues</li><li>Using natural sources of fertilizer, such as compost</li><li>Employing highly managed grazing and/or integrating crops and livestock</li><li>Reducing tillage frequency and depth</li><li>Eliminating synthetic chemicals</li></ul>