On Monday, June 2nd, the EPA released a set of proposed regulations that would decrease CO2 emissions levels by 30% from 2005 levels. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the proposal this week, representing a broad spectrum of opinions. While reducing carbon pollution in the air is undeniably a good thing, by just how much will our emissions as a nation be reduced? What will become of our current access to cheap, abundant electricity? Will it be enough to avoid adverse effects from climate change? These are all important questions that can be difficult to discern from news headlines and opinion articles. Hopefully, this post will help to contextualize the rules, explain what they mean, and how they will affect our economy and global climate in the coming years.
The EPA has proposed a rate-based (lbs CO2 per MwH produced) cap on carbon emissions from existing power plants across the U.S. You can think of a rate-based limit as the gas mileage on a car – if your vehicle doesn’t drive a certain number of miles per gallon of fuel used, then it will not meet its emissions standards. The purpose of a rate-based limit as opposed to an absolute limit is to allow states flexibility in meeting their target. In states where coal power is more heavily-used, for example, emissions targets can still be met by offsetting the CO2 produced by older, dirtier power plants with the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, or by creating an emissions trading scheme to ensure that the net amount of emissions for the state are below the permissible amount. As long as your state is able to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you do it. Giving states flexibility, however, does not mean the end of dirty coal as we know it. As long as coal states are able to offset their emissions through other means, they can continue to put peoples’ health at risk by producing soot and coal ash along with their electricity.
How will they affect the economy?
Cries from conservative organizations over the proposed rules claim that ratepayers will bear the majority of the burden of meeting the regulations, that the entire economies of coal-dependent states like West Virginia or Wyoming will crumble, and that hundreds of thousands of American jobs will be lost to overseas competition. There are a few good reasons why these things likely won’t happen. First, the projected increase in average electric bills doesn’t amount to more than a few extra dollars a month. More importantly, however, are the employment opportunities this proposal creates. Retrofitting old power plants and installing clean energy technology, essentially “rewiring” the country to run on clean power, will create many more jobs than continuing to use dirty sources of energy will preserve. Finally, burning coal costs the US hundreds of billions of dollars per year in costs from health impacts, missed work days due to health incidents, and environmental damage (and its impacts on the economy). Switching to clean sources of energy will reduce these costs dramatically.
How will they affect the climate?
Here is where the EPA still has room for improvement. Although a 30% reduction sounds like a lot, it’s important to note that since 2005, we have already cut our CO2 emissions by about 15%. That’s already halfway towards meeting our goal. By leaving ourselves 16 years to achieve this level, we leave an awful lot of time to continue burning fossil fuels as we do today. Additionally, growing economies like China and India currently have no such plan to reduce their emissions, and they are in no position to slow down their growth rates any time soon. China has indicated it is more open to reducing carbon emissions since the release of the EPA’s rules, but developing countries would be more likely to adopt rigorous targets if the U.S. acts as a strong leader. While the proposed rules are a meaningful step in the right direction, the EPA could undoubtedly implement stronger guidelines to reducing CO2 emissions from the nation’s electric power sector. It is our hope that we as a nation and a global community can continue to strive towards the common goal of cutting greenhouse gases from our energy diet – if not for our own sake, then for the generations that follow.
Following a series of reports from major Wall Street institutions, Barclays announced this week that it would downgrade the entire U.S. electric utility sector bond market ratings against the U.S. corporate bond index due to the “challenge from ratepayers’ increasing opportunities to cut electricity consumption with solar and battery storage.” Translation: the cost of powering homes and businesses with solar energy is continuing its trend downward as more consumers opt to get their electricity from the sun instead of from traditional utility grids.
Though Barclays warns against optimism over rapid growth in the solar industry, their downgrade represents a shift in paradigm regarding energy markets. Traditional electric utility bonds were long considered a solid, conservative investment, and they provided investors with steady returns while allowing people in most areas of the country to enjoy the use of consistent, reliable electricity. Electric utilities currently make up about 7.5% of Barclays’ U.S. Corporate Index by market value.
But as the grid ages and the price of fossil fuels rises, utilities struggle to maintain their position as the most cost-effective means of powering the modern world. Generating electricity with the sun’s energy and storing it in hi-tech batteries is sounding like the best bet for more people each day, and the financial world is catching on quickly. Though nobody can forecast the future, there is a growing consensus that advances in solar power and storage technologies will likely be the main challenge to utilities in the coming years.
Hawaii is the bellwether for this trend, seeing solar prices that are already competitive with traditional grid power in the energy markets. Analysts predict that California will see the same shift by 2017, with New York and Arizona following in 2018. While these trends do not forecast a certain dominance of solar power in energy markets in the coming years, they reflect the sentiment that solar technologies will disrupt the status quo very soon.
This isn’t great news for anyone with a stake in traditional electric power generation, but it represents a step in the right direction for socially-minded investors. An average household could prevent almost 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most closely linked to climate change, emissions over the course of one year by generating their electricity with solar technologies instead of fossil fuels. A wider adoption of solar power will also result in a reduction of other harmful pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in our air. Through increased investment in new energy technologies, we can shift our society away from dirty, antiquated energy sources and towards a profitable, sustainable, and healthy future. For more information on fossil-free investment options, visit http://www.greenamerica.org/fossilfree.
Chinese electronics workers are likely exposed to three times as much Benzene as US workers
Since launching our Bad Apple: End Smartphone Sweatshops campaign we’ve received a number of questions about benzene, one of the chemicals known to be causing worker illness, including leukemia, in electronics factories.
Benzene is both dangerous and ubiquitous. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies benzene as a “known human carcinogen” yet it is found in gasoline and cigarette smoke. Like all chemical substances, the danger of exposure to benzene is in the dosage, both in terms of concentration and length of time of exposure.
In the US, OSHA has set the permissible exposure limit (PEL) to airborne benzene in the workplace to no more than 1 ppm for no longer than eight hours, or 40 hours per week. Exposure at greater concentration for longer periods of time can have both acute and chronic health effects (detailed below). It’s worthwhile to note here that while OSHA has set a PEL of 1 ppm, the World Health Organization recommends no safe level of human exposure to benzene and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends only 0.1 ppm as an exposure limit or the lowest amount feasibly possible. Additionally, the EPA, which was formerly run by Secretary Lisa Jackson, now Apple’s VP of Environmental Initiatives, monitors benzene limits in the air and in water. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level for benzene (liquid form) in water is only 5 ppb (parts per billion), though the goal set by the EPA for benzene contamination is set at zero.
According to the Ban Benzene campaign, the permissible exposure level for benzene in China for an eight hour day is set at 1.878 ppm, or roughly double the safe limit established by OSHA. This is compounded by the fact that electronics workers in China work far more than 8 hours per day. Workers in Apple supplier factories have been known to work up to 12 hours per day, and average 60 hours or more per week (according to investigations by China Labor Watch and the Fair Labor Association).,. Assuming that these factories actually comply with legal limits, this means that workers in Apple’s supplier factories could potentially be exposed to roughly three times the legal permissible limits set for workers in the US.
Acute exposure to this cancer causing chemical can have the following major health effects on workers who are exposed to Benzene:
While most Americans understand that climate change is a real threat, they often see it as a problem to be dealt with in the distant future. However, a growing body of data is demonstrating that climate change is already impacting our lives.
Coming on the heels of increasingly alarming UN Climate Assessment Reports, the new National Climate Assessment, released on Tuesday May 6, 2014, quantifies the effects of a changing global climate on the United States. The report is comprehensive, covering all available climate data since the end of the 19th century for the US, as well as future projections obtained by climate models. The report explores the implications of a changing climate across 14 sectors in 8 distinct regions of the country. Given the fact that since the mid-1970s the US has observed between a 1.3oF and a 1.9oF increase in average temperatures, the NCA goes much deeper than making a case for the existence of climate change. Rather than stating that changes are happening, the report describes at great length what is actually changing.
For Americans, this report strikes a much more resonant chord than the ambiguously-worded reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Click on the links above to find out what is going on in your native region, or a relevant sector, and see in real time how climate change is affecting your life. President Obama spent the day of the release in interviews with local weather reporters in an effort to connect the complex global issue of climate change to an average person’s life. On the “Today Show,” the President explained to Al Roker, “Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires — all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.”
The report is a sobering view into the study of climate science, and a call to action. The effects of climate change are at the forefront of the report, trumping the traditional “range of scenarios” format of previous publications on the subject. The NCA is accompanied by a beautifully – crafted website. Instead of attempting to explain the findings of more than 300 scientists’ work compiled by a federal advisory board of more than 60 members from both the private and public sector, I encourage you to click around and find out how climate change is affecting your own region and way of life.
The report’s findings are summarized in the following aspects of global climate change:
Summaries for different regions across the nation are discussed in the second half of the report:
Recent high-profile settlements involving some of the nation’s largest banks have consumers scratching their heads. Since 2012, banking giants like Chase and Bank of America have come under fire from regulators in an effort to discourage the kind of egregious behavior that drove the economy to the brink of collapse in 2008. While the sums collected thus far by regulators appear to be huge, they are little more than a drop in the bucket for the megabanks. Have a look at some examples of the fines and settlements these banks have reached so far:
- Bank of America has paid over $15 billion since 2007 to settle claims related to the financial crisis, including $11.6 billion to Fannie Mae in 2012 to resolve repurchase claims related to bad mortgages between 2000 and 2008.
- Since October of 2012, American Express has refunded approximately $144.5 million to 585,000 customers for deceptive marketing regarding add-on products like payment protection and credit monitoring, as well as charging unlawful late fees to customers’ accounts.
- Capital One paid $210 million to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in 2012 to reimburse customers that they deceptively charged for unnecessary services like credit monitoring, generally targeting unemployed people and those with poor credit.
- Last year, Citi paid almost $1 billion to Fannie Mae resolving claims over nearly 3.7 million subprime mortgages it sold.
- In addition to paying $1.32 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over subprime mortgages, Wells Fargo reimbursed customers $203 million for organizing debit charges from highest to lowest, rather than chronologically, collecting excess revenues from overdraft fees.
These are only a few examples of settlements reached by banks and prosecutors. Consumer reimbursement accounts for only a small percentage of the fines paid; most of the time fees were collected by the FDIC and similar regulating agencies. Furthermore, these settlements account for a miniscule fraction of the damage done to the economy as a result of rule breaking or lax regulations and enforcement.
No one believes that the megabanks have learned their lessons, and several are once again engaging in speculative behavior and manipulating markets. For example, several megabanks are heavily invested in manipulating commodities. It was also recently revealed that Wells Fargo trained members of its staff to forge foreclosure documents. Despite continued efforts by regulators to control this sort of behavior, the banks employ massive legal resources to challenge regulations every step of the way.
If you believe that megabanks should be held accountable for deceiving customers and engaging in self-interested behavior at the expense of our society and natural resources, there are a few things you can do to make sure your voice is heard. First, you can move your account to a socially-responsible community development bank and stop supporting a megabank with your service and account fees – and let them know about it once you do. Second, you can stop using lines of credit offered by megabanks – each time you swipe your credit card, they collect a percentage of your charge. You can find a list of cards from banks that benefit communities and devote a portion of their interchange fees to environmental protection or community development here. And finally, you can take action and tell regulators to keep putting pressure on the megabanks by writing and implementing rules that discourage deceitful behavior. The more you know about what these banks are really up to, the more you can do to make sure they start working for the people and the planet.
Yesterday, Fossil Free Indexes, LLC released The Carbon Underground, a report identifying the top 100 public coal companies and the top 100 public oil and gas companies globally, ranked by the potential amount of carbon pollution represented by their fuel reserves. The report provides a much-needed update to the 2011 Unburnable Carbon report produced by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. The Carbon Underground frighteningly concludes that the carbon pollution of these fossil fuel reserves surpasses their “carbon budget” by a whopping 400%.
“Carbon budget” refers to the amount of carbon pollution that a sector must remain within in order to avoid the most dangerous consequences of global warming that would occur with a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature. The report states that the energy sector’s carbon budget, based on data from the International Energy Association and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will be spent within 22 years — even with emissions reductions of 10%. Moreover, at this level, three-fourths of the reserves will still be in the ground.
The report observes the astounding fact that despite the threats to the planet: “exploration and development of fossil fuel resources continue unabated.”
Investors have an increasingly important role to play in the tremendous shift needed to switch the economies of the world to reliance on renewable energy. The planet cannot sustain the continued burning of fossil fuels and the necessary decline of the fossil fuel industry means investors and the marketplace will face staggering “stranded assets” – assets that have become de-valued and become a loss. The New Abolitionism article in the already-released May 12, 2014 issue of The Nation magazine estimates that stranded assets could equate to as much as $20 trillion globally.
There is no time to waste in terms of profoundly cutting our greenhouse gas emissions. By divesting from fossil fuel companies and re-investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, investors can play an important role in pushing our economy in the direction required. Building on The Carbon Underground, Fossil Free Indexes, LLC will soon release broad market indexes that the average investor can use to divest from fossil fuel companies — for the sake of the planet and to help safeguard one’s personal assets.
In a move embraced by those opposed to the pipeline, just as activists were preparing for this week of actions, the Obama administration decided to extend the review period on the Keystone XL pipeline. It now seems likely that a final decision on whether or not the KXL will be constructed will be made after the November 4 Congressional elections. On April 18, the Administration announced that more time was needed for federal agencies to review the 2.5 million public comments made on the KXL and also to see the outcome of a lawsuit in Nebraska concerning the pipeline’s route. In February, a Nebraskan district court overturned a law that permitted the pipeline and there is no set date for Nebraska’s Supreme Court to address the issue.
The pipeline has been in review by the State Department since 2008. There is more than sufficient evidence to conclude that this pipeline, for the export of tar sands oil, is not in the interest of the American people, nor in the interest of our planet. For those who can come to Washington, DC this Saturday, help us send the “reject and defend” message to the White House. Sign up today here.
One of Green America’s goals is to teach consumers how the businesses you choose to support can have a big impact on the world around you. From the food we buy each week, to the clothes we wear, to the energy we use to heat and power our homes – on almost all levels of the economy, we have a choice between companies that operate with an awareness of the effects of their presence on the world, and companies that pursue the goal of growth over anything else.
And while it is easy to see the negative impacts of massive agricultural engineering companies, clothing companies’ sweatshops in faraway countries, and dirty international oil companies, the financial services industry influences nearly every sector of the economy – often with serious implications for people and the planet. And as banks actually sell very few tangible products, it is more difficult to recognize that our choices can drastically affect our environment and our communities. To give an example, let us look at commodities: the raw materials for nearly every product you can buy.
Recent news coverage of the banking industry has revealed that large investment institutions like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have been spending their money on warehouses. As in the large empty buildings where industrial materials, like aluminum and copper are kept before manufacturers buy them to produce goods. Why would a bank be interested in owning a warehouse?
There are a few reasons. When an entity like Goldman owns the rights to its warehouse, it can control the time it takes to process an order from a manufacturer for raw materials. While manufacturers wait for their orders, the banks make trades based on the projected future price of the materials in their warehouses. The catch is that the banks already know how much they have, where it is stored, and exactly when they plan on moving it. They use their knowledge of the location and inherent value of the commodities to make purchasers less “in-the-know” believe that the commodities are worth more. And as the owner of the facilities and the commodities inside, the banks are the ones who overwhelmingly profit from their position in an industry where they really do none of the work.
What is the result of a large investment bank purchasing industrial amounts of something like aluminum and then artificially charging more for it? Companies that use the metal, like Coca-Cola, pay more for the materials they need to make their soda cans, and then they pass this cost onto the consumers. So when you pay a few more cents for a can of coke at the vending machine, you are essentially supporting the monopoly created by the bank that purchased the warehouse in the first place.
So if banks are presently deregulated to the point where they can exert influence upon multiple levels of industry and profit across all of them, where does that leave us as consumers? It leaves us right where we started – with a choice. When we deposit our paychecks at, or use credit from a mega-bank, we are directly supporting activities like monopolistic commodities speculation that inhibit industrial efficiency and raise prices for consumers. And just like purchasing an organic apple, or fair-trade clothing, we can support local financial institutions that abstain from activities that come at a great cost to society. Green America’s Break Up With your MegaBank and Take Charge programs offer information and resources to help you make the switch from a megabank to a local institution that serves people and the planet. Check them out today!
Guest blog post and graphic by Allison Stewart of our Better Paper Project.
I was at a Sustainability in Packaging conference earlier this spring, and it hit home for me that we need better product and packaging development. If we develop products that have no further opportunity for re-use, then we are intentionally making unsustainable products and packages. If we support a circular-based economy – in which products are designed, produced,distributed, collected, sorted, and returned to be recycled and reincorporated into new products – then we can’t continue choosing lightweight but unrecyclable packages (see example below). These lightweight packages sound like great design innovation, but they are ultimately increasing the amount of unrecyclable waste in our landfills.
We are delivering more and more products in disposable, one-time-use, plastic containers and pouches. This trend is a result of lightweighting our packaging to decrease the volume and increase the fill-capacity of packaging. The process of lighweighting is one of the most effective ways to decrease the amount of plastic that is used for packaging.
Lightweighting is seen by most sustainability representatives of companies as the best way to economically invest in sustainability, and most would probably agree to that logic. Lightweighting can increase the amount of packaging that can be produced with the same material, it lowers shipping costs per item, decreases the volume (per item) of packaging going into our landfills, and thus is seen to have a lower environmental impact. The fundamental flaw, however, is that these pouches and containers – regardless of using less resources than previously – are not designed to be recycled or recovered.
I first heard of the idea “Light Weight, Heavy Impact” from McKinsey & Company’s report about the impact of lightweight materials across industries The variety of flexible and hard plastics, aluminum, and other materials used to create lightweight packages make it impossible to recover. These packages are literally “designed for the dump.”
Waste & recycling facilities, municipalities, and consumers are all wrestling with the new challenge of determining what packages can be recycled. For the past decade, most of our waste has been sent to China where Chinese recycling plants have made a lot of money reprocessing our trash and selling the raw materials. Last year they enacted a policy called the “Green Fence,” rejecting shipments of over-contaminated recyclables that don’t pass inspection. As a result of these demurrage charges and subsequently higher shipping costs, many waste and recycling facilities are looking for alternative solutions. The US now ships to India and other countries that accept it, though this isn’t a sustainable or long-term solution.
As companies continue to designing products and packages without considering the environmental fate, more packaging moves to hard-to-recover, lightweight materials that are designed for the dump. We need to consider the end-of-life of our products from the beginning, and design products with environmental intention. A system built on the idea of Cradle-to-Cradle design would set standards for developing non-toxic, sustainable materials and facilities that design products that can be later reutilized in new products. Biodegradable and compostable packaging will likely play an increasingly important role in a transition to zero-waste.
One strategy frequently discussed for building sustainability into our packaging system is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). “EPR is typically understood to involve a shift in responsibility (administratively, financially or physically) from governments or municipalities to producers as well as an encouragement of producers to take environmental considerations into account during the design and manufacture phases of product development.” (Source: Sustainable Management of Resources. Accessed March 12, 2014 via web: http://epr.eu-smr.eu/introduction).
Many organizations are already working to encourage EPR in packaging legislative action, to bring corporate responsibility into the equation. Canada is leading with and Europe already lead by example.
Canada has years of experience implementing EPR at the national and provincial level utilizing a variety of approaches. There is no national EPR authorizing legislation in Canada; instead, each province or territory is able to implement or pass its own authorizing legislation and regulations. Nearly all provinces and territories have their own programs and authorizing legislation.
EPR is widely used in Europe as a means of preventing pollution and minimizing waste. The European Union (EU) possesses the authority to issue legislative acts known as directives and each member state must “transpose” or create its own laws, if necessary, in order to implement these directives. The EU has issued a number of directives aimed at increasing producer responsibility across Europe. (Examples: https://www.ec.gc.ca/gdd-mw/default.asp?lang=En&n=FB8E9973-1, http://www.eprcanada.ca/, http://www.europen-packaging.eu/policy.html ). And NRDC has awesome infographics that demonstrate how EPR can be an effective strategy in California and other parts of the US: http://www.nrdc.org/recycling/files/green-jobs-ca-recycling-info.pdf.
The Better Paper Project of Green America is participating and working with other non-profits and companies to find sustainable solutions to our packaging challenges here in the US. How we spend our dollars reflects our values, and we tend to overlook the packages that deliver our products. This impact, however, is adding up – and ending up as marine debris and in landfills, as opposed to being recollected for further use. Companies, distributors, consumers, municipalities and government are all involved, and must work together to effectively minimize the environmental footprint of our products and source materials. If you have questions or suggestions about the ways in which consumers can play a part, feel free to share in the comment section below.
Some ideas include: supporting various take-back programs, choosing certified products that are also packaged and produced with end-of-life in mind, encouraging legislative action, working on local zero-waste initiatives, education campaigns, etc.
The latest installment of the U.N’s fifth Climate Assessment Report explores what we must do in order to lessen the negative impacts of a changing climate.
As our understanding of climate change continues to develop, we hear more and more about a few particularly important numbers: to ensure that average global temperature increase does not exceed 2oC by the year 2100, we mustn’t allow the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to exceed 350 ppm (parts per million). Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is about 400ppm, with an additional 2ppm emitted each year. Accounting for population and economic growth, CO2 concentrations are projected land between 750 and 1,300 ppm by the end of the century. To offset the emissions resulting from this growth, we need to substantially cut emissions by 2050 (by 40-70%), and to completely cease emissions by 2100.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released its third working group summary this weekend in Berlin, Germany, as a part of its fifth Climate Assessment Report. Previous working group summaries have tackled the physical scientific aspects of changing climate systems, as well as impacts, adaptations, and vulnerabilities for people across the globe. The latest installment examines the topic of mitigation: the “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”
There are currently great efforts underway to achieve both goals of greenhouse gas mitigation. Forests are one of our most valuable carbon sinks; trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use energy from the sun to convert the gas into glucose in a process called photosynthesis. Across the planet, reforestation projects aim to preserve the ecosystem services that trees offer.
But covering the globe in trees is not enough to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere, especially when economic growth depends on burning the fossil fuels that emit so much of the gas. Between 2000 and 2010, the IPCC reports, the “contribution of economic and population growth to CO2 emissions has outpaced emission reduction from improvements in energy intensity.” The panel cites the increased use of coal as a cheap, abundant energy source in developing nations as the cause of the reversal of the long-standing trend of gradual decarbonization of the world’s energy supply.
With ever-increasing demand for modern goods and services in countries where the population is growing at a rapid pace, restricting fossil fuels would cause significant immediate damage to highly vulnerable communities. The only way to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by our energy infrastructure is to update it – to find a viable substitute that can meet the demands of a world literally packed with people without contributing to carbon emissions. The developing world is waiting for wealthy countries to lead the way, starting with the U.S. And as a country that already has the technology available to make this possible, the remaining impediments to clean energy are largely political. The United States needs a new approach to make financing available for the expansion of solar, wind and other clean energy sources.
That’s why Green America is promoting the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. Sponsored by US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Doris Matsui, the CEVB Act of 2014 would issue United States Treasury bonds that would be available to all Americans for purchase. The funds raised from the sale of the bonds would go directly towards tax credits that clean energy industries, like wind and solar, as well as energy efficiency projects, depend upon. You can do your part to make the long-term investments needed to ensure that we won’t have to burn fossil fuels for much longer. Call your Representative, tell him or her you want to invest in a clean energy future, and urge him or her to co-sponsor the bill today.