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A mind-boggling sum of about $800 for each person on the planet is invested into fossil fuel companies through the global capital markets alone. That’s roughly 10 percent of the total capital invested in listed companies. The amount of money invested into the 200 biggest fossil fuel companies through financial markets is estimated at 5.5 trillion dollars. This should be an impressive amount of money for anyone reading this.
Activities at the Black Thunder Mine outside of Wright, WY. Photo credit: Greenpeace USA
By keeping their money in coal and oil companies, investors are betting a vast amount of wealth, including the pensions and savings of millions of people, on high future demand for dirty fuels. The investment has enabled fossil fuel companies to massively raise their spending on expanding extractable reserves, with oil and gas companies alone (state-owned ones included) spending the combined GDP of Netherlands and Belgium a year, in belief that there will be demand for ever more dirty fuel.
This assumption is being challenged by recent developments, which is good news for climate but bad news for anyone who thought investing in fossil fuel industries was a safe bet. Frantic growth in coal consumption seems to be coming to an end much sooner than predicted just a few years ago, with China’s aggressive clean air policies, rapidly dropping coal consumption in the U.S. and upcoming closures of many coal plants in Europe. At the same time the oil industry is also facing slowing demand growth and the financial and share performance of oil majors is disappointing for shareholders.
Nevertheless, even faced with weakening demand prospects, outdated investment patterns are driving fossil fuel companies to waste trillions of dollars in developing reserves and infrastructure that will be stranded as the world moves beyond 20th century energy.
A good example is coal export developments. The large recent investment in coal export capacity in all key exporter countries was based on the assumption of unlimited growth of Chinese demand. When public outrage over air pollution reached a new level in 2012-2013, the Chinese leadership moved swiftly to mandate absolute reductions in coal consumption, and banned new coal-fired power plants in key economic regions. A growing chorus of financial analysts is now projecting a peak in Chinese coal demand in the near future, which seemed unimaginable just a couple of years ago. This new reality has already reduced market capitalization of export focused coal companies. Even in China itself, investment in coal-fired power plants has now outpaced demand growth, leading to drops in capacity utilization.
Another example of potentially stranded assets is found in Europe, where large utilities ignored the writing on the wall about EU moves to price carbon and boost renewable energy. Betting on old business models and the fossil-fuel generation, they built a massive 80 gigawatts of new fossil power generation capacity in the last 10 years, much of which is already generating losses and now risk becoming stranded assets.
Arctic oil drilling is possibly the ultimate example of fossil companies’ unfounded confidence in high future demand. Any significant production and revenue is unlikely until 2030, and in the meanwhile Arctic drilling faces high and uncertain costs, extremely demanding and risky operations, as well as the prospect of heavy regulation and liabilities when (not if) the first major blowout happens in the region. No wonder the International Energy Agency is skeptical about Arctic oil, assuming hardly any production in the next 20 years. Regardless, Shell has already burnt $5 billion of shareholders’ money on their Arctic gamble.
Those investing in coal and oil have perhaps felt secure seeing the global climate negotiations proceed at a disappointing pace. However, the initial carbon crunch is being delivered by increasingly market-driven renewable energy development, and by national level clean energy and energy efficiency policies—such as renewable energy support schemes and emission regulation in Europe, or clean air policies in the U.S. and in China. Global coal demand, and possibly even oil demand, could peak even before a strong climate treaty is agreed.
Investors often underestimate their exposure to fossil fuels, particularly indirect exposure through e.g. passively managed pension funds and sovereign debt of strongly fossil fuel dependent states. Assessing exposure, requiring fossil energy companies to disclose and reduce carbon risks, and reducing investments in sunset energy technologies will lead to profitable investment in a world that moves to cleaner and smarter energy systems.
Improving competitiveness of renewable energy, growing opposition to destructive fossil fuel projects, concerns on water shortage and the imperative of cutting global CO2 emissions all point in the same direction: Governments, companies and investors should all be planning for a world with declining fossil fuel consumption—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it makes economic sense. It is the direction the world will be moving to—faster than many yet anticipate.
Follow Kumi Naidoo @kuminaidoo
Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.
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In a pilot study at the University of Helsinki, dogs trained as medical diagnostic assistants were taught to recognize the previously unknown odor signature of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And they learned with astonishing success: After only a few weeks, the first dogs were able to accurately distinguish urine samples from COVID-19 patients from urine samples of healthy individuals.
Important Findings for Other Teams<p>The very rapid and promising findings from Finland are also important for other research teams, such as those in Great Britain and France, who are training sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19.</p><p>Fellow researchers from the <a href="http://assistenzhunde-zentrum.de/index.php/news/covid-19-hunde" target="_blank">German Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ)</a> have also benefited from the Finnish results.</p><p>"No one could tell us with certainty whether training with the aggressive virus is <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/dutch-house-pets-test-positive-for-coronavirus/a-53460111" target="_blank">dangerous or not for humans and dogs</a>. We wanted to gather more information first before we started training because the German virologists advised us against it — after all, so little is known about the virus so far," explains Luca Barrett from TARSQ.</p>
Where Does the Characteristic Smell Come From?<p>It is still unclear which substances in urine produce the apparently characteristic COVID-19 odor. Since SARS-CoV-2 not only attacks the lungs, but also causes damage to blood vessels, kidneys and other organs, it is assumed that the patients' urine odor also changes. This is something which the dogs, with their highly sensitive olfactory organs, notice immediately.</p><p>Certain diseases appear to have a specific olfactory signature that trained dogs can sniff out with amazing accuracy, Barrett says.</p><p>"According to one study, dogs can detect breast cancer with a 93% probability, for example. And lung cancer with a 97% probability," she says.</p><p>But dogs can also identify skin cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer or prostate cancer very reliably, according to Barrett. "The hit rate, which was not so good in the early days of training, has risen enormously in recent years," she says.</p>
Hit Rate Decisive<p>Besides cancer, the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dog-makes-1-million-drug-bust/a-53433307" target="_blank">dogs</a> can also detect Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's sufferers smell different even years before they have the disease. "That's how we came up with the idea of training dogs as an early warning system for Parkinson's," Barrett says.</p><p>Dogs are also trained to detect malaria, but the hit rate is not yet satisfactory, she says. So far, the dogs recognize seven out of 10 infected persons, which is not enough.</p><p>A high hit rate is, of course, also absolutely necessary when training for the aggressive SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, according to Barret. "We hope that the hit rate for the coronavirus is significantly higher in the fully trained dogs; after all, it would be very dangerous if COVID-19 were not detected," she says</p>
Trained Tracking Dogs<p>Dogs' ability to smell is about a million times better than that of humans. Humans have about 5 million olfactory cells, compared with 125 million for dachshunds and 220 million for sheepdogs.</p><p>Dogs also inhale up to 300 times per minute in short breaths, meaning that their olfactory cells are constantly supplied with new odor particles. In addition, dogs' noses differentiate between right and left. This spatial sense of smell allows the animals to follow a trail more easily.</p><p>During the training sessions, the dogs — mostly Labrador retrievers or retrievers in general, but also cocker spaniels or sheepdog breeds — are each trained for one scent. That can be the smell of a drug or an explosive, or, as here, the olfactory signature of a specific disease.This means that one dog cannot recognize several types of cancer.</p><p>The animals are trained with containers holding samples of breath or sweat, for example. As soon as they have identified the smell they are looking for, the dogs hear a click and get a treat. They are reliably trained for the one smell on this reward principle.</p>
Great Potential, Great Skepticism<p>Drug and explosive detection dogs have been used for some time. But trained medical scent detection dogs are also now working in hospitals. For example, they sniff the bodies of patients with suspected skin cancer to try and detect the disease — only with the patients' consent, of course. So these skilled snufflers are helping doctors in diagnosing diseases and detecting them early on.</p><p>However, so far there are only very few medical detection dogs. The dog owners almost always work voluntarily and the trained sniffer dogs live in normal households. There is great skepticism, especially among traditional doctors and health insurance companies, even though the first indications given by the dog have to be followed by further medical tests anyway and a lot of time and costs could be saved by early cancer detection.</p>
Possible Coronavirus Applications<p>If the findings from Finland are confirmed, the sniffer dogs with their extremely sensitive sense of smell could prove to be a great help in the fight against the new coronavirus.</p><p>Luca Barrett from TARSQ can easily picture coronavirus sniffer dogs being used in situations where there is a high risk of infection. For example, people attending football matches and other major events could be checked before they are admitted.</p><p>The dogs could also be employed at airports to scan people entering a country. "When the dogs go down the queue, they can detect if someone is healthy and can enter the country. But if a person smells of COVID-19, the handler could send that person to a coronavirus testing center instead," Barrett says. That is because a second test is still needed to confirm the dog's initial sniff detection.</p><p><span></span>Barrett says dogs could also be used to search for the virus on surfaces. For example, before passengers board an aircraft, a four-legged friend could first check whether the machine is free from SARS-CoV-2. Similar measures are planned for doctors' surgeries, aged care homes or nursing homes that have had to be evacuated because of COVID-19 cases. Before these are used again, a sniffer dog could check whether the environment is "clean."</p>
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Should you skip your annual checkup? The answer would have been a resounding "no" if you asked most doctors before the pandemic.
But with the risk of COVID-19, the answer isn't so clear anymore.
Are States Allowing Preventive Care Visits?<p>First things first: If you're experiencing a medical emergency, don't delay treatment.</p><p>While there's the potential that you could be <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/hai/data/portal/index.html" target="_blank">exposed to infections at the emergency room</a>, the health risks of avoiding urgent medical care could be far more severe.</p><p>Hospitals have also implemented precautionary measures, like distributing masks to patients, that help cut down the risk of viral exposure.</p><p>Now that that's out of the way, is it possible to start catching up on routine healthcare appointments, like physicals and dental cleanings?</p><p>"Different places are in different stages of opening up," said <a href="https://www.methodisthealth.org/doctors/arvind-ankireddypalli/" target="_blank">Dr. Arvind Ankireddypalli</a>, primary care physician and geriatrician at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. "Preventative services might not even be available in some communities, [and in others] medical appointments may be on a case-by-case basis."</p>
Is it Safe to Go to the Doctor?<p>If your state is open (or will end its lockdown soon), you may be able to start booking preventive care appointments, like Pap smears, cancer screenings, checkups, and dental cleanings.</p><p>But is it worth the risk of possible exposure to the new coronavirus?</p><p>Opinions vary among healthcare providers and the conditions of their patients, as well as the infection rate in their communities and availability of personal protective equipment.</p><p><a href="https://www.lenhorovitz.com/" target="_blank">Dr. Len Horovitz</a>, internist, pulmonary specialist, and director of Carnegie Medical, recommends that patients avoid delaying their annual physical or other types of preventive care.</p><p>"You will encounter problems that are best seen earlier rather than later," he said. "It is possible to provide a safe environment for a patient in the doctor's office. There's no reason for people to put off an annual exam; these are important appointments that help keep problems from getting out of control."</p><p>In an effort to curb the spread of infection, Horovitz has been following a strict set of procedures at his office, including allowing just one patient in at a time, requiring patients to wear masks and gloves, and disinfecting the examination room between every patient.</p><p>Other physicians, like Ankireddypalli, conduct a risk-benefit analysis for every patient before agreeing to see them in person.</p><p>"It is probably not appropriate to keep delaying visits for high-risk patients, like older adults or people with chronic conditions," he explained.</p>
Role of Telehealth Visits<p>Telemedicine visits, where doctors connect with patients via phone or video chat, can be an option if in-person appointments are risky or prohibited.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/benefits/downloads/medicaid-chip-telehealth-toolkit.pdf" target="_blank">Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services</a> and some private insurance companies have expanded coverage for telehealth services during the pandemic. As a result, some practices have seen the <a href="https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/during-pandemic-telehealth-visits-soar-10-week-300-group-practice" target="_blank">use of telemedicine services soar</a> over the last few months.</p><p>"Telemedicine is a way that patients can be seen, evaluated, counseled, and informed about their healthcare without being exposed to the dangers of going into lobbies and offices," said <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/biographies/ommen-steve-r-m-d/bio-20053861" target="_blank">Dr. Steve Ommen</a>, cardiologist and associate dean of the Mayo Clinic Center for Connected Care, which offers telemedicine services.</p><p>"It is particularly relevant for patients who already have a relationship with a provider, the appointment is for an ongoing care episode, and the patient doesn't need to be touched," he said.</p><p>A virtual doctor's visit can't be a substitute for all routine care, though. Cancer screenings, blood draws, evaluations of lumps, Pap smears, and other services still need to be done in person.</p><p>But even if you do have to go to the doctor's office, telehealth services can help cut down on the amount of time you spend there, thus potentially reducing your exposure to the new coronavirus and other germs.</p>
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