Wednesday, May 10th, I went to USGBC Chicago‘s panel discussion in Chicago about climate change, Defining Carbon Drawdown: What it Means for Chicago and the World. The focus was on the book Carbon Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken. The book presents realistic and attainable solutions to climate change. Up for debate was which efforts to focus on in Chicago. The panel included 4 speakers from different environmentally-focused positions in the Chicago area. Everyone agreed that more needs to be done, but there was considerable debate about what to prioritize.
Jenny Carney was the moderator and she did an excellent job directing the conversation. Jenny is a principal at YR&G working to improve the performance of existing buildings.
The panelists were:
- David Archer, Professor, University of Chicago
- Grace Rink, CEO, Quercus Consulting
- Karen Weigert, Senior Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
- Mark Stenftenagel, Founder, Corporate Climate Alliance
Note: I’m using Chatham House Rules and not attributing who the idea came from partly cause I don’t want to mis-attribute and I don’t want to misrepresent what anyone was saying.
10 Key Points
CO2 doesn’t go away
When this idea was first mentioned, I thought I was missing something because I knew that CO2 is used by plants in photosynthesis. Everyone learns this in elementary school biology. However, the idea is that that there are natural sources and sinks of CO2. These main sinks of the ocean and forest are already part of the natural cycle of CO2. They can’t compensate for additional human produced CO2. This increase in CO2 can effect the equilibrium for hundrends of years having a profound effect on the climate. This is explained by Archer himself in the paper Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide the idea is succinctly summarized in the Nature Reports article, Carbon is Forever.
Priority on refrigerants
Different greenhouse gases have different sized potentials for global warming. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure of how much a gas will cause the earth to warm over a period of 100 years. It takes into account 1. how much heat they absorb and 2. how long the molecule lasts in the atmosphere. GWP is measured in units of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) since it is based off CO2‘s impact which has a factor of 1. Refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons can have up to 1,000 times more impact on the atmosphere than CO2.
Food as a Focus
Agriculture is both a contributor and victim of global warming. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), it makes up one-third of all global greenhouse emmisions. These include sources from agricultural production itself (tilling the soil releases N2O), fertilizer manufacture, supply chains, refrigeration, and indirect deforestation. This means that changes in this sector can have an outsized impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions.
It is of concern for agriculture because it will also feel an outsized impact of the efects of global warming. The same report estimates impacts o f decreased productivity of up to 10%-20% by 2050. This will require adjustments to what kind of crops are planted, how crops are planted, and when crops are planted.
Business Cajoling vs. Laws
There was some contention about whether it was better to approach the problem through government or business. On the government side is the impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) transportation standards and the Clean Power Plan. The point was made that these will be necessary to reach the 1.5% °C limit to global warming called for by the Paris Agreement. CAFE standards set mpg efficiency minimums for car company’s fleet of vehicles as a whole. The latest was put forth a standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Phase 2 of the standard could save 1.1 billion tons of CO2 and 2 billion barrels of oil. This not only goes a long way to achieving the Paris Accord, but also saves consumers money at the pump. This is under threat from Trump who ordered a review of this proposal. Final decisions might not come until April 2018.On the other side was the argument to pressure businesses by highlighting the business risks. The idea is that if you convince companies that global warming will impact their business not on a long-term timescale, but in the short-run, they will be much more likely to change their behavior. This is being done by the Corporate Climate Alliance. They are lobbying companies to recognize these risks and incorporate them into their decision making. There is the slight problem of “Why me?” Why should any one company make any change when others won’t? This is a game theory issue where everyone needs to commit to action. It is the same issue countries are facing at a global community level.
Rebates not relevant to middle class and below
The middle class and below are not able to take advantage of the majority of energy efficiency financial savings. There are two main reasons for this.
- The first is that most energy efficient products are more expensive. So, even after the savings, these products are more expensive thn the least-cost option. The lower-income consumer will choose the lowest-priced option which is less efficient. This continues to exarcerbate wealth inequality.
- The second reason is because the lower-income tend to be renters. In the owner-rentor scenario, there is a disconnect with energy efficiency investing. Why should an owner make the investment when they don’t pay the utility bill? And why should a rentor pay for the investment when they won’t be around long enough to re-coup the investment?
Specific, Measurable, Long-term Solutions
The solutions that are come up with need to be specific, measurable, and long-term in order to be valueable enough to have an impact. This is true for any endeavor. Being specific ensures that the change is tangible, real, and clear. Measuring ensures that it happens, creates accountability, and gives a metric for its impact. Long-term solutions are non-frivolous and are make a real change.
Funding – Impact Investors
Investors can have a major impact on how companies behave. One mechanism for this is for corporate boards to put pressure on management to address climate change risks. One recent example of this is Occidental Petroleum’s Board voting to have the company assess risks to climate change against management’s recommendation. “The vote puts the oil-and-gas industry on notice”, said The Nathan Cummings Foundation. Expect to see more boards to raise the issue of climate change impact to companies which will make it harder to deny.
Reach out to high schoolers to do advocacy (idea from audience member)
During the Question and Answer period an audience member had the idea to mobilize high schoolers to raise awareneess about global warming. The idea was that they are a large and energetic group that could be put to work. They could be motivated by different incentives including gaining extra-curricular experience to put on their college applications. The speakers agreed this is a good idea, but was already being done as part of programs such as USGBC’s EPIC Challenge. This is a program intiated by USGBC to engage, empower, and educate all the communities across Chicago to make an impact on carbon drawdown.
Chicago to use 100% renewable energy in city buildings by 2025
The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanual, and the city of Chicago announced that city buildings will be 100% renewable powered by 2025. Other cities have announced similar goals for the entirety of their cities. Only the three cities of Aspen CO, Burlington VA, and Greensburg KA have achieved the status so far. Yet, there are many more who are working towards this goal according to Go 100% Renewable. It’s tough to say exactly what their measure of being 100% renewable means because there will always be times when renewable energy can’t be had. Oftentimes, carbon offsets can be bought to say you are using renewable energy. It will be interesting to see what the city’s plan all includes because putting solar panels on top of the Shedd Aquarium to get a 50% reduction in energy use is different than getting to 100% on all buildings.
Chicago using LED streetlights influences other municipalities to do the same
Chicago’s choice to use LEDs in streetlights influences other municipalities to also use LED streetlights. Part of this is other municipalities recognizing the benefits and feasability of doing this after seeing Chicago do it. Another part of this is the buying power a big city has to make LED lights cheaper. Since Comed was picked to buy and install the lights, Comed will then go to other municipalities with better deals on LEDs to stay consistent and buy in bulk.
The event brings up the two most difficult problems of fighting climate change.
1. We need effective, tangible solutions.
2. We need a shift in mindset that gets public support of solutions.
These are two, very different fronts, but we need people working on both of them. In summary:
- Actually do something.
- Don’t do it alone.
- Tell someone you did it.
- Speak language of people.
More information about the book is available on the Carbon Drawdown site.