By Austyn Gaffney
Wayne Brensinger, 63, has spent his entire life exploring Deer View Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. From an early age, he hunted squirrels and deer, drank clean spring water, and meandered down game trails through 500 acres of Northern Appalachian woodlands, with just 25 acres cleared for corn and soybeans. The property, in his family for over 150 years, was an idyllic place to grow up and raise his own children.
Brensinger just assumed the trees would always be there; he didn't have a plan for how to manage them long term. Then came the gypsy moths.
Dotted with blue and red circles down their backs, the bristly gypsy moth caterpillars chewed through the leaves of 250 acres of hardwood trees, including an estimated 1,250 of Brensinger's favorite tree, the white oak, and over 7,500 chestnut oaks. The damage cleared the way for invasive species. Ferns and stilt grass, accompanied by the fast-growing saplings of birch and gum trees, took root and shaded out other valuable seedlings.
"They came in and just ate all the trees," said Brensinger. "We had some large die-offs due to those caterpillars."
Only half his woods remained. Brensinger hired a forester for the first time, and together they created a forest management plan ― a road map for the continual care of his forest. They applied herbicide and replanted ravaged trees, and his woods have started to rebound. But it will take over 60 years of continual management for the new, younger trees to grow to the maturity of the ones killed.
Brensinger's struggle is far from unique, it's hard to maintain healthy forests especially as the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced.
"Family forests face numerous threats, amplified by climate change, including invasive pests, pathogens and a legacy of unsustainable forest management," said Josh Parrish, director of working woodlands for the The Nature Conservancy, an environmental non-profit. Forest owners need support and resources to tackle these, he added, not just for their own benefit but because their trees represent a vital weapon in the fight against climate change.
Forests are natural carbon sinks, soaking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, and research shows that improving the stewardship of woodlands is one of the most effective tools for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Today, forests blanket 766 million acres of the U.S., and 38% of these woodlands ― more land than California and Texas combined ― are owned by families and individuals. There are more than 20 million of these private owners, and according to the nonprofit American Forest Foundation, their family forests alone store an estimated 14 billion tons of carbon ― equivalent to the emissions of 12,000 coal-fired power plants.
They could store much more.
Conservationists have identified these private woodlands as one of the best routes to increasing carbon storage in the U.S. Forests currently offset 11.3% of the nation's annual carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But they have the potential to offset around 20%, the American Forest Foundation says, if conservation programs are implemented.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recognized the untapped value: His company is putting the first $10 million of its $100 million Right Now Climate Fund ― an initiative aimed at removing carbon from the air ― toward family forest preservation.
In order to manage their forests in sustainable ways ― culling invasive species, cultivating mature trees and fighting pests ― many families need help. It requires a lot of work, expertise and financial outlay, which family owners can't always pull together.
"The first thing they need is a forest management plan, and less than 15% of forest owners in Pennsylvania have a plan," said Parrish.
Many family owners generate income by selling trees to loggers. But loggers often want to buy older trees and are willing to pay more for them ― a practice called "high grading." Selling off too many mature trees, however, shortens the lifespan of a forest and lowers its carbon capturing powers. In Northern Appalachia, where Brensinger is based, unsustainable logging is one of the biggest hindrances to cultivating healthy forest lands.
But there is another avenue to make money that conservationists say can both help owners maintain healthy forests and maximize their potential to tackle climate change: carbon offsets. Previously, only large commercial landowners and federal or state governments have had easy access to carbon markets, but now there is a new focus on bringing in smaller family-owned forests, too.
The idea of carbon offsets is simple: Carbon emitters purchase "credits" to offset their emissions, essentially paying someone else to remove carbon from the atmosphere in their place ― through actions such as protecting wildlife habitats or planting trees. The credits are popular because they allow countries and corporations to continue to emit and still remain within legally binding caps on carbon emissions. Global carbon markets are now worth around $214 billion.
In order to qualify to sell credits, forest landowners typically have to pay a forester to calculate the carbon in every tree on their property, which can cost upwards of $100,000. Then, sustainability standards programs like Verra determine what additional carbon storage could be obtained through conservation efforts over and above what the owner is already doing.
It's this additional carbon storage ― from not logging mature trees or not selling a portion of the forest to developers ― that is meant to be sold as offsets. The goal is to ensure that carbon polluters aren't trying to offset their emissions with practices that landowners were already implementing anyway.
"Existing healthy forests are the status quo," said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist and co-director of the University of California's Berkeley Forests. "We need to improve the situation by capturing more carbon and holding it."
The carbon offset process is long and complex. Plus, landowners entering the carbon market typically need huge swaths of forest ― roughly 1,500 acres ― to draw the interest of offset buyers. Family forest owners have an average of 67 acres.
To help these small forest owners capture additional carbon from their properties and enter the carbon marketplace, the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have started a program to aggregate the offerings of small, family-owned properties.
Called the Family Forest Carbon Program, it aims to sell carbon credits to companies based on those bundles of acres and to pay landowners annually from the proceeds. In March, the program's pilot effort opened applications for landowners in six rural Pennsylvania counties.
Bypassing expensive methods of measuring a forest's carbon storage ― like going tree by tree ― the organization developed a system that estimates carbon capture potential based on the overall health of the forest. It provides landowners with instructions on how to improve forest health based not on a costly assessment of their land, but on knowing what it takes to have a healthy forest in their particular part of the country.
For example, owners in the West might be advised to reduce a forest's vulnerability to wildfire by clearing debris and overgrown vegetation. In Pennsylvania, that advice would cover timber management practices, including high grading, which can damage the forest ecosystem by taking away important species, reducing both diversity and density.
The Family Forest Carbon Program hopes to persuade owners to forgo the short-term cash boost of high-grading by paying 20% of the "opportunity cost" of preserving mature trees for a more diverse harvest later on. The scheme will also foot roughly 60% of the cost of treatments that remove competing vegetation, like invasive species or overcrowding saplings.
Initially funded by a mix of foundations, companies and the U.S. Forest Service, the program received a multimillion-dollar injection from the Right Now Climate Fund this month, making Amazon its largest supporter. "Amazon's investment in the Family Forest Carbon Program showcases the significant role family-owned forests can play as a climate mitigation solution," said Christine Cadigan, director of the program at the American Forest Foundation.
The pilot had an initial goal of partnering with 100 family forest owners, together owning roughly 9,000 acres, by the end of the summer. By 2021, they hoped to roll out a larger pilot, banding together 1,000 landowners across Pennsylvania and expanding into western Maryland and West Virginia. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the mini-pilot has been put temporarily on pause.
But even without COVID-19, creating carbon credits is a challenging enterprise. While offsets have become a multibillion-dollar market, they've remained a controversial way to mitigate fossil fuel emissions.
One problem is "leakage," when storing carbon in one area simply leads to it being released in another. For example, while landowners in an offsets program may harvest less timber, the same quantity of wood may just be harvested elsewhere if the demand for wood products doesn't change. In California, a research paper found that around 80% of the offsets purchased for its statewide carbon program leaked in another location.
Programs must also address permanence. In traditional forest programs, this means offsets are purchased on the premise that the carbon will be sequestered from the atmosphere for at least 100 years. The Family Forest Carbon Program says that while it aims to partner with landowners for shorter contracts, between 10 and 30 years, it plans to have enough landowners participating so that carbon storage will be ongoing across the region, and eventually the nation. If a contract expires with one landowner, other forests will still be under contract or coming under contract.
Still, forests are inherently risky carbon containers, said Barbara Haya, a research fellow for the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at UC Berkeley. Climate change is causing a tremendous loss of forest carbon. Increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires as well as warmer weather ― which leads to more disease and pest outbreaks, like Brensinger's gypsy moths ― are destroying huge swaths of forestland.
"Drawing carbon out of the atmosphere with trees is never equal to, and it never truly offsets, our emissions from fossil fuels," Haya warned. While managing forests for carbon sequestration is something landowners need to do, she said, "it in no way takes the place of reducing our fossil fuel emissions as quickly as we can."
The less quantifiable value of projects like the Family Forest Carbon Program might lie in their ability to change the way society views forests, from the appraisal of what is removed to the embrace of what an intact forest can offer.
Parrish, the Nature Conservancy official, pointed to the "co-benefits" of carbon sequestration: protecting wildlife habitat for birds, mammals and amphibians; preserving the landscape with edible foraging and conservation hunting; and promoting recreation. These co-benefits can help sustain a forest owner's dedication to woodland management ― a dedication that Parrish, who manages 150 wooded acres in Pennsylvania, hopes to pass on to his daughters.
"A couple years ago I started thinking about legacy and thinking about when my two girls someday have the property and own it," said Parrish. "I want to make sure there are more tools around that can help them essentially understand the complexities around forest management and have the right tools to make the right decisions."
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Plant More Trees—Young Forests Use Carbon Most Effectively ... ›
- Human Activity Is Making Forests Shorter and Younger, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Best Type of Forest for CO2 Storage Depends on Location and Climate, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Keeping Trees in the Ground: An Effective Low-Tech Way to Slow Climate Change - EcoWatch ›
By Sarah Sax
At the end of February, thousands of cleaning workers in Minneapolis marched in what's believed to have been the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States. The protesters, many of them immigrants and people of color who have seen their communities harmed by everything from air pollution to drought, wanted their employers to take action on climate change.
Employed by more than a dozen subcontractors, these workers clean corporate buildings that are home to major companies like Wells Fargo and United Health Group. Their demands ranged from a guarantee of more environmentally friendly cleaning products to funding for a "green technician janitorial training program," which could help them push for more substantial changes during their day-to-day operations rather than wait for top-down measures.
Employee activists like those in Minneapolis are on the rise. And unlike the traditional union focus on better pay, benefits and working conditions, they're pushing for something even bigger ― for companies to align with their values when it comes to one of the world's biggest issues. Namely, climate change.
As public concern about global warming has risen, companies had already come under pressure from investors, shareholders and consumers to adopt more ambitious climate-related targets for their operations and products. But now that pressure is also coming from within. A recent survey of 375 global executives found that 4 out of 5 companies expect an "unprecedented rise in workplace activism" over the next three to five years ― with sustainability and climate change an increasing concern.
While strikes and walkouts may still be the most high-profile forms of employee protest, workers are also taking their efforts online and connecting with those in other departments to amplify their voices. In November, thousands of Google employees signed a letter circulated online demanding that the company take more aggressive action on climate change.
Physical protests with signs and chanting workers are obviously not wise during the COVID-19 crisis ― and more immediate concerns like health and job security are likely taking priority ― but employees' climate demands have not disappeared.
"I don't think [the coronavirus pandemic] will halt employee activism. Not being prepared for a major crisis like COVID-19 has demonstrated how ill-prepared we will be for extreme weather events due to climate change," said David Levine, co-founder and president of the American Sustainable Business Council.
Climate activists and advocacy organizations hope this new wave of activism from inside companies, driven largely by millennials, could be the key to getting businesses to do more than just "green" their operations. It could force companies to support ― rather than oppose ― serious government action on climate change or else risk losing valuable employees.
"We need companies to be really ambitious in what they're doing in their operations. And we need employees to push them to be more ambitious in that work," said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive who now runs the nonprofit advocacy group ClimateVoice, which pushes companies to go "all in" on climate change issues.
"But the thing that we really need them to step up and do," Weihl said, "is add their voice on the side of science-based climate policy everywhere."
Corporations Speaking Out
Advocates like Levine and Weihl argue that in the absence of U.S. leadership on the federal level, companies need to step to the front on climate change.
In 2015, nations agreed to limit temperature rise this century to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) under the Paris climate accord. Since then, the number of Fortune 500 companies pledging to reduce their carbon emissions has quadrupled, according to a 2019 report from the consultancy firm Natural Capital Partners ― with employee demands identified as a key driver behind much of this corporate action.
Microsoft and Google parent company Alphabet, for instance, recently made climate pledges in part prompted by employees demanding more action.
But according to Weihl, the companies leading on climate tend to focus on their own operations, while remaining almost entirely silent on the bigger public policy changes that are needed. There is a political risk in speaking out. Without public policy changes, however, "we are not going to decarbonize anywhere near fast enough," he said. And if other companies don't get involved, Weihl added, "that means the energy companies that are pushing in the wrong direction will continue to dominate the discussion."
Over the next decade ― the timeframe that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is crucial for avoiding catastrophic global warming ― corporate action will need to focus not only on operational measures like installing more solar panels but also on pushing for smart, science-based climate policy. Fred Kruger, president of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, implored CEOs in an open letter last year to "unleash the most powerful tool they have to fight climate change: their political influence."
Employee activism is critical to driving this shift, Weihl said.
He contrasts it with consumer activism. "If a company has 10 million customers, you have to move a lot of people before the company really notices and cares," he said. But most companies have far fewer employees than that ― which means smaller numbers of workers speaking up can have a big impact. Throw in the need for companies to recruit and retain employees, and workers' voices become that much more powerful.
Engaging With Employees
Perhaps no company's employee activism has been more in the spotlight recently than Amazon's.
Last September, along with several other corporations, Amazon made its "climate pledge," committing to net zero carbon by 2040 and 100% renewable energy by 2030, ahead of a massive planned employee walkout. Then in February, the online giant announced a $10 billion fund to fight climate change.
While broadly supportive of CEO Jeff Bezos' pledge and the climate fund, employees continue to push Amazon to embrace climate action across its entire business, protesting its role in providing oil companies with the technology to find drillable oil faster and in funding climate change denial groups. The relationship between Amazon and its employees remains contentious, as criticism rises over its response to both climate change and working conditions during the pandemic.
In April, the company reportedly fired two employees who had been outspoken about climate change. During a virtual webcast organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice on April 16 ― which the company reportedly tried to thwart ― the two urged their former co-workers to stage a virtual walkout to protest their firings and the treatment of warehouse workers amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Some companies have been proactive in accommodating their employees ― such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's, which closed their shops for the Global Climate Strike last September ― but Amazon has done the opposite. It recently introduced a policy barring employees from publicly criticizing the company without prior approval.
When asked about the rise in employee activism and the firing of the two workers, an Amazon spokesperson told HuffPost that "we support every employee's right to criticize their employer's working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies.
"The price of ignoring or dismissing employee activism could be huge. According to a survey by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, employee activism could cost organizations up to 25% of their global revenue each year due to the disruptive nature of strikes and reputational damage leading to lost business.
"Today the purpose of a company has to align with climate change and employees are calling really strongly for that," said Farid Baddache, the CEO and co-founder of the sustainability consulting and impact investing firm Ksapa.
The Future Workforce
Figuring out how to navigate a world in which employees expect businesses to operate with a purpose beyond the bottom line may not be easy for companies, but it is critical because this new wave of activism is connected to the shifting demographics of the workforce.
Millennials now make up over a third of the U.S. workforce, constituting the largest share of any generation. They are more likely than older generations to be employee activists, according to one survey by Weber Shandwick. And according to LinkedIn's 2018 Workplace Report, 86% of millennials would consider taking a pay cut to work for companies whose values aligned with their own.
For Jake Elliott, 34, who specifically chose to work for Vermont solar power company SunCommon because the firm shared his values, climate change is "the number one most important thing."
"When you look at global carbon emissions, the majority of carbon emissions are coming from businesses, so it is an obligation and requirement of business to address the climate crisis," he told HuffPost.
Younger generations "don't want to commit to work for a company that is contributing to climate change," said Baddache, "or if they believe that the company is part of the problem rather than the solution."
Corporate America is increasingly aware of this. "The talent Adobe wishes to recruit and retain expects us to set meaningful climate goals and work to meet them," Vince Digneo, sustainability strategist at Adobe has said previously. "Our employees want to see us take good action but not just among a flurry of other companies doing the same thing ― it has to have a meaningful impact."
This sentiment is true not just among current employees but also future ones. A group of law students at Yale and Harvard, for example, are boycotting internships with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison because it represents Exxon Mobil. They're accusing the law firm of enabling the destructive impact of the world's largest oil company in the climate crisis.
"Companies need to hire people and they need to retain people," Weihl said. This will all become more difficult "if they are on the wrong side of an issue that many of their employees see as an existential threat to their future."
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Amazon Threatens to Fire Employees Who Speak out on Climate ... ›
- 4,500+ Amazon Employees Call on the Company to Take Climate ... ›
- Jeff Bezos Pledges $10 Billion to Fight the Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Amazon's Carbon Footprint Rises 15% as Company Invests $2 Billion in Clean Tech - EcoWatch ›
- Amazon Launches Climate Label to Help Customers Make Greener Choices - EcoWatch ›
- Amazon's Prime Example of Labor Law Violations ›
- Amazon Warehouses Linked to Environmental Injustice in Southern California, Report Finds ›
Embracing solar power means reducing both your reliance on traditional utility companies and your environmental footprint, but the high upfront cost of solar panels can be a big deterrent for some homeowners.
If you're considering solar, you may have questions like: How much does it cost to install a solar energy system? What are some of the factors that can impact pricing? What else should home- and business owners know about going solar? In this article, we'll touch on each of these important topics, with the goal of helping you make a fully informed, financially responsible decision about solar energy.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost to Install?
To begin with, let's take a look at the basic price range for solar panel installation. According to the most recent U.S. Solar Market Insight report, in the first quarter of 2021, the national average price of a residential solar system was $2.94 per watt, which would mean a 5 kWh system would cost $14,700 and a 10 kWh system would cost $29,400.
The exact price you'll pay for solar panels will depend on a number of factors, including your geographic location, the size of your home and more.
Now, you might rightly wonder: What exactly are you paying for? The solar panels themselves usually make up just about a quarter of the total cost. Remaining expenses include labor, maintenance and additional parts and components (such as inverters).
What Factors Determine Solar Pricing?
As mentioned, there are a few key things that can lead to variation in solar system installation costs. Analyzing these can help you determine whether solar panels are worth it for your home. Let's take a look at them in greater detail.
Your Electrical Needs
The solar panels themselves will be rated for a particular wattage, which reflects the amount of energy they can absorb for storage and ultimately for power generation. You will actually pay according to wattage, which means that the greater your household energy needs, the more you'll have to spend to get the correct number of solar panels.
So, how do you determine how much energy you need for your home? The best way to figure this out is through a consultation with a solar installer. (We recommend shopping smart by requesting free consultations with two or three top solar companies in your area.)
Your installer will evaluate your home energy needs based on total square footage, the number of people who live in your home, the number of appliances and power-draining devices that you have connected and more. It can then recommend the ideal solar panel system size to accommodate your energy usage.
Type of Panels and Other Components
Variation in manufacturing can also affect the cost of solar panels. There are three basic types of solar panels, two of which are commonly used residentially: monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Of these two, monocrystalline options tend to be more energy-efficient and thus may provide you with greater savings in the long run. They are also a bit pricier on the front end. With that said, homeowners with a smaller roof surface area may benefit from getting the most efficient solar panels, even if the initial cost is a bit steeper.
Other components you'll need to purchase include inverters, wiring, charge controllers, mounts and more. The quality of these materials can affect your total solar system cost. For example, if you spring for the best solar batteries, they may add a few thousand dollars to your investment.
Another factor that can have a big impact on solar pricing? Your geographic area. Solar installation tends to be most cost-effective in parts of the country that get a lot of sun exposure, and thus a lot of photovoltaic light. This basically means that solar panels can operate more efficiently, and in many cases means that fewer total panels are needed. Those who live in states like California, Florida and Arizona — or really any areas of the Sun Belt or Southwest — will likely get the most out of their home solar power systems.
Both state and federal governments have established incentive programs to encourage homeowners to buy solar panels. There is currently a 26% federal solar tax credit, called an Investment Tax Credit (ITC), available for homeowners who install residential solar panels between 2020 and 2022. It is scheduled to reduce to 22% in 2023 and may not be extended thereafter.
Local incentives vary by state, but most of the best solar panel installers will help you identify and apply for these programs so you don't miss out on savings.
There are plenty of other factors that can impact solar panel installation costs. Different vendors are going to offer different levels of customization, expertise and consumer protections (including guarantees and warranties). The bottom line? It is wise to shop around a bit, determine the average cost of solar panels in your area and evaluate the value of services offered by a few solar installation companies.
Solar Panel Price Vs. Return on Investment
Clearly, your upfront solar panel installation cost may be a little steep. Now, let's look at the flipside: How much money will you actually save? And will your energy savings be enough to offset the initial cost of your solar energy system?
It is not unreasonable to think that you can cut your monthly utility bills by as much as 75% or more by switching to solar energy. Of course, the specific dollar amount will depend on where you live, the size of your home and the number of people in your household.
One way to look at it: The average household energy bill is somewhere between $100 and $200 monthly. It would probably take about 15 years for your energy savings to cancel out the cost of solar panel installation. In other words, within a decade and a half or so, your solar system might pay for itself. Factor in savings from tax rebates and other incentives, and most solar systems pay for themselves in closer to seven or eight years.
Note that most solar energy companies offer free solar calculators, which help you arrive at a ballpark for monthly energy savings. While these calculators are imprecise, they can certainly give you a general sense of the financial benefits you will experience when you convert to solar energy.
Free Quote: See How Much You Can Save on Solar Panels
Fill out this 30-second form to get a quote from one of the best solar energy companies in your area. You could save up to $2,500 each year on your electric bills and receive tax rebates.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Cost of Solar Panels
As you continue to weigh the pros and cons of solar energy, it's natural to have a few questions. The best way to resolve these is really to set up a solar consultation with a local expert, but in the meantime, here are a few general answers to some of the most common solar inquiries.
How much will it cost to maintain my solar energy system?
In general, solar systems are designed to run smoothly for decades without requiring any maintenance or upkeep. As such, you should not really need to factor maintenance into the equation for the first 20 years or so after you install your system. (And most solar companies will offer you warranties and guarantees to give peace of mind on this front.)
How will solar energy impact my property values?
Many homeowners want to know how going solar will impact the value of their homes. Going solar increases property values. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has reported buyers are willing to pay an average premium of about $15,000 for a home with a solar panel system. With that said, you are only going to see your property values go up if you own your solar system outright, as opposed to leasing it.
How can I finance the cost of solar panels?
Different solar installers may offer different financing plans, allowing consumers some flexibility. With that said, there are three basic options for paying for your solar energy system:
- Purchase your solar energy system outright (that is, pay in cash).
- Take out a solar loan to purchase the system, then pay it back with interest.
- Lease your system; you will pay less month-to-month but won't actually own the system yourself.
Which is better, buying or leasing my solar system?
It all depends on your motivation for going solar. If you want to maximize long-term savings and increase the value of your home, then purchasing your solar system is usually best. However, if you just want a low-maintenance way to reduce monthly energy costs and practice environmental stewardship, then leasing might be a better option. Also note that leasing can be a good option for those who do not plan on being in their home for exceptionally long.
How can I be sure my roof will accommodate a solar system?
If your roof faces south, has ample space and has little to no shade cover, it should work just fine. Even roofs that are not optimal can still be utilized with a few tweaks and adjustments. Your solar energy consultant will advise you on whether your home is a good fit for solar energy.
How long will my solar energy system last?
Solar systems are designed to be exceptionally durable. With just the most basic upkeep, most solar energy systems should continue to work and produce power for anywhere from 25 to 35 years.
Make the Best Choice About Solar Energy
Solar energy is not right for every homeowner, nor for every home. With that said, many homeowners will find that the initial cost of solar panels is more than offset by the long-term, recurring energy savings. Make sure you factor in cost, energy needs, tax incentives, home value and more as you seek to make a fully informed decision about whether to embrace solar power.
By Tom Levitt
The future of food doesn't have to include animals. At least that's what Miyoko Schinner believes. "A lot of farmers see us as a threat," Schinner said of her Californian plant-based dairy company, Miyoko's Creamery.
Experts have said we have to substantially reduce our meat production and consumption to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and improve population health. As people become increasingly aware of the environmental cost of raising livestock for food, plant-based diets are being embraced by the mainstream and alternative milks have gone from fringe request to flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, livestock farmers fear a war on their very ways of life.
But a change in tides doesn't have to spell the end of meat and dairy farmers' livelihoods, Schinner and others argue. She is among a wave of business owners intent on helping farmers transition to more environmentally friendly types of agriculture.
"We want to help bring farmers along with the change we think is necessary to tackle climate change and reduce the environmental footprint of farming," said Schinner. She's on the hunt for a dairy farm in California that will work with her company to ditch cows and grow plants for vegan products instead. Miyoko will provide financial support for the farm to convert to growing potatoes and legumes which the company will use to produce vegan cheese. The farm owner will also be paid for taking part in helping to research and development new plant-based products.
The Swedish oat-milk brand Oatly was one of the early corporate pioneers of this farmer transition movement when it began supporting a dairy farmer named Adam Arnesson to switch to growing more oats in 2017. Oatly used the oats to make a specially branded line of its milk and other animal-free dairy products. The company monitored the reduction in climate emissions from the farm as it completed the transition: Arnesson decreased his emissions and increased his profits.
"The big change is that we now can feed over 200 people with food on our farm compared to 60 when we started, and that our climate emissions have reduced to half per produced calorie," said Arnesson, who is now part of a bigger Sweden-wide project focused on transitioning farmers towards more plant-based food.
He said his farm still had a small amount of livestock but a much greater diversity of crops now. "The challenge [for me] is to maintain a truly sustainable farm and of course include other important values like biodiversity, social and economic factors. I hope and believe more farmers will follow."
Oatly said at the time it wanted to be a "catalyst" for helping farmers move away from animals to plant production, after having previously had a fractured relationship with the farming community in Sweden and around the world.
The project is changing perceptions of a company previously seen by some as "anti-farming," Oatly's sustainability director Carina Tollmar told HuffPost. "We've now got a new project helping 10 other farms diversify and had 100 farmers expressing an interest in being involved. It was a positive surprise that so many wanted to be involved with an Oatly project. We want to help farmers."
Arnesson agreed: "Oatly is a very different food company, they are definitely interested in supporting the transition and they have been very important to me in sharing risks and offering long-term agreements," he said.
Similar initiatives are cropping up across the U.S. The Certified Transitional program developed in part by Kellogg's Kashi brand has been designed to support farmers to transition from conventional to organic methods of farming. Organic farmers are not allowed to use chemical pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones on their farms and no chemicals can be used on the land for three years before the farm can be certified organic. The program enables farmers to label their produce with a transitional mark in the meantime, which helps them claim a premium from the market to support their conversion.
Kick-starting their Transfarmation Project this May, the nonprofit Mercy for Animals will partner with a handful of companies (not yet named) to support factory-style chicken producers to shift away from animal farming. Half a dozen poultry farmers will be awarded money to convert the large barns in which they currently house thousands of birds so they can be used for growing hemp instead. The temperature-controlled chicken sheds present ideal growing conditions for hemp without the need for a costly change to the existing infrastructure.
The NGO is championing the success of former chicken farmer Mike Weaver in West Virginia, who is now using barns that formerly housed 45,000 chickens to grow industrial hemp. Weaver says, compared to raising chickens, his hemp plantation uses around half the water, employs five times as many people, and will be much more profitable once once he's fully scaled up.
"The narrative is that we [animal rights and environmental campaigners] are coming in and taking away jobs and livelihoods," Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, told HuffPost. "It is a very negative view. We just want to create a better and more compassionate food and farming system."
It makes sense for farmers to get involved with changes in the food system, said Sanah Baig, chief of staff at The Good Food Institute, given concerns about the contribution of livestock farming to climate change, as well as the growth in sales of alternatives to animal products. The global plant-based meat sector is predicted to be worth $85 billion by 2030, a huge jump from sales of less than $5 billion in 2018.
"Diversification has always been a fact of life for farmers as markets and consumer preferences have evolved," Baig told HuffPost. "Now, they increasingly have to think about how they can maximize the land, resources, labor and markets they have access to in order to keep their businesses thriving while also demonstrating that they can be a key part of the solution to climate change."
It's a lot for farmers to take on, which is why Miyoko Schinner wants to show both consumers and farmers that food companies can be friend, not foe, in making a transition to more planet and animal-friendly farming. "We want to help them take part in the new food economy," she said.
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- The Dairy Revolution: Vegan CEO of Miyoko's Kitchen Is Also ... ›
- Animal Rights Group Hopes to Turn Poultry Farmers into Plant ... ›
By Maddy Savage
Americans love their cars — their gas-guzzling, air-polluting, smog-producing cars. Although the vast majority agree that if we all drove electric vehicles we could reduce oil consumption and pollution, only a third would consider buying one anytime soon. Far fewer are actually making the switch.
Compare that to the situation in Norway, the world's unofficial leader in EV driving, where more than 40% of new cars sold are now electric and thousands of drivers are on waiting lists for the latest models. It's a trend 30 years in the making.
"These things take time, because you need those first guys willing to break the mold, buy an EV and tell their pals, 'Shut up, this car is awesome!'" said Daniel Milford Flathagen, 36, from Trondheim, a government agency employee who waited 18 months for a Hyundai Kona Electric, his second electric vehicle.
Norway, a small, largely rural country with a population of just 5 million, has been steadily building hype for electric cars. Given their significantly larger populations, China and the U.S. report higher total sales numbers (around 1.2 million and 360,000, respectively, including plug-in hybrids, in 2018). The Scandinavian nation has the highest share of new electric vehicle purchases in the world.
Credit for this could go to an evolved cultural acceptance of functional electric cars over more "macho" gas-guzzlers, or Norway's long-held reputation as a nature-loving, environmentally friendly population. But there's a more direct, prosaic explanation: In Norway, it pays to drive electric.
"The environmental aspect is a very good bonus for everyone," said Elisabeth Sakkestad, a 32-year-old EV user who works for an aid organization in Stavanger. "You feel better about driving an electric car than a fossil-fueled one."
But it is what Sakkestad described as the "economic benefits" that have played by far the greatest role in persuading her — and huge swaths of the population — to switch to emissions-free vehicles.
Successive Norwegian governments from across the political spectrum have been offering financial incentives to electric car owners as part of their wider efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, as electric vehicles have become increasingly advanced in terms of speed, range and aesthetics, growing numbers of consumers have become motivated to cash in on the perks.
"In Norway we tax what we don't want and we promote what we want, and the consumer has, in this way, actually the opportunity to make the right choice," said Christina Bu, secretary-general of Norsk elbilforening, the Norwegian EV Association.
In Norway, most cars are imported. On top of the regular 25% consumption tax (Value Added Tax, or VAT) charged on most consumer goods, all vehicles used to be subject to an additional purchase tax. But that tax was scrapped for electric cars in 1990. EV buyers also became exempt from paying VAT in 2001. A few years later, they scored a fast-track commute when they were given permission to drive in bus lanes.
Until 2017, EV owners were exempt from charges for toll roads and eligible for free parking. Current rules allow municipalities to charge them no more than 50% the standard toll and parking rates.
The center-right governing coalition in Norway has promised to keep most of the incentives running until at least 2021 and aims to ban all new sales of gas-powered cars by 2025.
In Norway, as everywhere, electric cars tend to be pricier than their conventional counterparts. Bloomberg analysts predict price parity in 2022, but Norway's tax breaks mean that in some cases greener models are already cheaper. The base import price for a Volkswagen e-Golf, for example, is around $36,000, compared to $24,000 for a regular Golf. But after VAT, emissions taxes and other fees, the electric version is nearly $1,000 less ($36,300 versus $37,200).
"Buying a new electric car is more or less the same price as buying a nice petrol or diesel car now," said Bu, even before you factor in additional savings such as not having to pay for gas and lower maintenance costs.
Some critics have argued that the country's incentives favor those who are already wealthy enough to afford new cars, while low-income owners can often only afford used gas-fueled models, which remain cheaper than used EVs.
Ask Ibsen Lindal, energy spokesperson for Norway's Green Party, sees the second-hand market for gas cars as an impediment to the nationwide trend toward electric cars, but he said he hopes it's just a matter of time until EVs become affordable for virtually all Norwegians.
"What's been the most important goal of the Norwegian electric car incentive is that ... you hope to start the market moving, and then prices will fall and that is what we are seeing now within a very short time," Isben Lindal said.
He said he expects that in three to five years, EVs will push nearly all new gas-powered cars out of the Norwegian market.
Globally, analysts worry about how electric vehicle sales will fare with the coronavirus pandemic shaking consumer markets and oil prices plunging. One new report predicts worldwide EV sales will tank in 2020, a factor it partly pegs to global uncertainty, which may make people less willing to take a chance on technology that's new to them.
A potential glimmer of hope? A small survey of U.K. consumers in April found that air quality improvements resulting from stay-at-home measures are inspiring new interest in buying non-fossil fuel cars.
How quickly other countries around the world might catch up with Norway's incentivized buying is an ongoing debate in the electric vehicle industry.
Bu said she accepts that it is "probably politically very difficult" for most governments, including in the U.S., to introduce the type of wide-ranging tax differences for electric and fossil-fuel-powered cars that Norway has used.
"I think we will see different countries following faster than the others, but interest is growing," she said. "We definitely will start seeing the same development in country after country."
In Sweden, EV buyers get a bonus of up to 60,000 Swedish krona (roughly $6,000) paid to them six months after their purchase, while Germany recently expanded its subsidies to a similar amount, as long as owners keep their car for at least nine months. Costa Rica, which has committed to going carbon neutral by 2050, exempts electric car owners from its regular 13% sales tax on vehicles.
In the U.S., the federal government has boosted EV sales by offering a $7,500 tax credit to buyers. But that amount phases down once manufacturers sell 200,000 cars; Tesla has already hit the threshold for all its models, as has the Chevrolet Bolt. In December, Congress declined to expand the federal credit program.
Nearly every state and Washington, D.C., offers some incentives for buying an electric vehicle. But while the majority of Americans support the idea of tax breaks or other incentives, and even those who aren't actively considering buying an EV say such a break would encourage them to do so, eight out of 10 of people don't know whether any are available in their state, according to one 2019 poll.
Cost issues aside, American drivers, most of whom can't name an electric car make and model or describe how the vehicles work, are still largely paralyzed by two key worries: that they won't be able to get where they're going on a single charge, and that they won't be able to find a charging station when they need one.
Such anxieties persist among consumers even though today's EVs generally have enough range to handle most drivers' daily travel. The average American drives less than than 30 miles a day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, while more than half a dozen electric models now get over 200 miles on a single charge.
When it comes to charging infrastructure, Norway is miles ahead. It has been rapidly increasing the availability of charging points and electricity supply since 2015, when the government set the goal of having at least one fast charging station every 31 miles on major highways, offering subsidies to providers in order to accelerate installations. By mid-2017, there were more than 1,500 stations along these key routes, up from 300 in 2014.
The country was also the first in the world to introduce supercharger points, where more than two dozen vehicles can charge at the same time. The capital, Oslo, is working with housing cooperatives to install thousands more charging points outside people's homes, and it has started a program that provides wireless charging for its taxi network.
Environmental activists like Ibsen Lindal argue that Norway still isn't quite keeping up with demand. He said that although Oslo has gained a reputation as something of a trailblazer when it comes to charging infrastructure, other cities and municipalities are further behind.
Nationwide, there were about 1.7 electric vehicles per charging point in 2011, compared with around 19.5 today. Ibsen Lindal said that while hard data is limited, anecdotal evidence suggests some electric car users who are frustrated with the current infrastructure may be returning to fossil-fueled vehicles for convenience.
"There have been some reports on people buying electric cars, but then after a few months, they say that there are too many people in line waiting at charging stations, making EV ownership impractical for some people today," he said.
Trondheim EV-owner Flathagen said he has observed long queues at some rural stations and met customers, usually elderly people, who "aren't really prepared for how rapid charging differs from getting gas at a petrol station" or how to use some of the other necessary related technologies, such as apps or SMS messages to pay for electricity. (Norsk ebilforening's research suggests that while early adopters tended to be young, educated men, a much wider range of consumers are now buying the vehicles, including increasing numbers of women and people over 50 years of age.)
Geir Kulia, a 28-year-old in southern Norway who recently bought an electric BMW i3, admitted that while it's been surprisingly easy to charge his car, "the planning phase is a bit more important" when it comes to longer trips. "There is a limit to your freedom; you have to consider where to charge and the time it takes to charge, so you can't just go off driving around Europe."
For Americans with range anxiety, Flathagen said that although Norway is far smaller than the United States, in some ways it's a perfect proving ground.
"It's a rural country with a cold climate, where people drive longer distances than most other European countries," he said. (Cold weather saps batteries faster.) "If EVs work here, they should work everywhere."
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Electric Vehicle Sales More Than Doubled in 2017 - EcoWatch ›
- Will Norway Ban Sales of Gas-Powered Cars by 2025? - EcoWatch ›
- California Governor Signs Order to Ban Sale of New Gas-Powered Cars by 2035 - EcoWatch ›
- GM Is Bringing Back the Hummer — as an Electric Vehicle ›
- Auto Giants Knew About Car Emissions and Climate Change — in the 1960s - EcoWatch ›
- Ask a Scientist: Electric Vehicles are the Cleanest Option Today - EcoWatch ›
- COVID-19 Lockdown Study Previews Electric Vehicle Future ›
- Texas Blackouts Reveal How Electric Vehicles Can Provide Power ›
- 3 Truths About Electric Vehicles - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Facts About the Progress of Electric Vehicles ›