Verdant Light

Musings on sustainability and sustainable innovation.

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Hope in a Post-Trump Climate

Here’s a bold prediction: the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States will, at worst, leave the environmental movement unaffected — and may actually improve its prospects in the long term.

Anyone who knows me personally or has followed my social media knows how vociferously I opposed Trump’s election, for profligate reasons — not the least of which being his denial of climate science and avowal to dissolve our climate commitments, such as our intended nationally determined contribution to the COP21 Paris Climate Accord (which took the form domestically of President Obama’s signature Climate Action Plan), and our bilateral agreement with China to co-lead on decarbonization between presidents Obama and Xi.


But I’ve always been an eternal optimist, and as I try to accept our new post-Trump reality, I can’t help but look at our brave new world as not a crisis, but an opportunity.

First, some reality checking. I was in Paris for COP21 and cannot underestimate the groundbreaking nature of the Agreement and all that entails. President-Elect Trump has said he will abrogate our Paris commitment, but President Obama has already made the US a signatory; now that the Agreement has entered into force (as of 4 Nov 2016), no country can withdraw from it until it has been in force for 3 years. After that, withdrawal requires a one-year notice. So, the earliest that the US can withdraw is Nov 4, 2020 — by which time the American citizenry will have already decided whether we’ve had enough of President Trump.

President Trump can, of course, simply kill the Clean Power Plan and all US efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even if we’re technically still in the Paris Agreement. The Clean Power Plan focuses its regulations on coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for 31% of US GHG emissions; President-Elect Trump has already pledged friendship to the coal industry and stated plans to open more wildlife areas to oil and gas exploration. But regulation isn’t what’s depressing coal power; the industry has been in decline based on simple economics. Conventional coal plants cost $95 per MWh in 2015, even without the carbon capture and storage requirements that would add another $50/MWh. In contrast, a megawatt-hour of geothermal electricity cost $47; onshore wind, $74; conventional natural gas, $75; hydroelectric power, $85 — all cheaper than coal. Advanced nuclear power is at parity with coal at $95, and even solar photovoltaic electricity, currently priced at $125 per MWh ($114 after federal subsidies), has fallen 79% over the last half-decade and continues to fall. (Prices are given as levelized cost of energy, or LCOE, by the Energy Information Administration.)

Potentially more potent than rescinding specific environmental regulations is the prospect of eliminating or significantly gutting the Environmental Protection Agency entirely, another Trump campaign promise. Even if this were legally possible (difficult, at best) and the American public allowed it (we’ve seen bipartisan rebellion against eliminating environmental protections in the past), I might argue that this isn’t a terrible thing — if we seize the opportunity to rebuild a better Agency from its ashes.


EPA was founded by Richard Nixon in 1970 as a counterweight against corporations who were despoiling the environment with impunity. Its early regulations were designed to keep rivers from setting ablaze, literally and figuratively — certainly good things. But society’s relationship with corporations has changed. Many corporations now see investment in our country’s social and ecological fabric as a good long-term investment (see Andrew Winston’s latest book The Big Pivot for an in-depth explanation). We no longer need counterfactual, end-of-tailpipe regulations to advance corporate sustainability; doing less bad is no longer enough. We need to reformulate the rules of the marketplace itself, and then let business do what business does best: innovate.

It’s not like EPA hasn’t changed with the times. Acting on a recommendation by the Environmental Defense Fund, George W. Bush’s EPA scrapped a proposed counterfactual regulatory scheme to curb acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, and instead enacted a cap-and-trade mechanism that decreased SO2 emissions by 36% even as electricity generated by the affected coal plants rose by 25% — and at a cost savings of 15-90% less than the expected costs of the original regulation. The Economist called this “probably the greatest green success story of the [1990s]”.

Still, this hasn’t led to success on similar market mechanisms, such as carbon pricing (despite calls from companies ranging from Patagonia to ExxonMobil for a price on carbon), or better valuation of natural capital. Perhaps we need to go back to the drawing board to design an agency that can work with progressive businesses to define the rules of a clean economy. Let us use the discontinuity of this administration to lurch forward, not backward, in the way we rebuild our new economy.

As folks smarter than me have already argued, the sustainability movement has enough momentum to survive President Trump. I view this period as the dot-com winter of the 2000s: a harsh testing grounds for truly sustainable models. Strong models like Amazon and Google survived that testbed, and similar resilient models will outlast this sustainability winter. Let’s be poised and ready to lead once the spring blooms.


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What’s In the Paris Agreement?

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.


In case you were wondering how many pages it takes for an international agreement among 196 countries to change the fate of the world, the Paris Agreement is a mere 32 pages. In comparison, the TI-89 graphing calculator sitting in my desk drawer like an old war medal from my engineering days has a manual of 1,008 pages; page 32 is halfway through its “Getting Started” section.

The Paris Agreement is beautiful in its simplicity, matching the reality of our global condition: we have to reduce our carbon emissions or else. The Agreement was signed on December 12, 2015 and is set to take effect today, Earth Day, the 22nd of April 2016 in a signing ceremony at the UN. I’ll do my best to explain it here with matching brevity and clarity.

A Pithy Preamble

The Paris Agreement starts with the clear and compelling case that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

There’s a lot packed into this opening salvo. Climate change is an urgent and potentially irreversible: if we don’t act now, we may never be able to alter its course. We are, as Carl Sagan is often attributed as saying, “by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”

It is a threat first to human societies: although with a species extinction rate of 1,000 times the background rate, many scientists believe that we’re currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet—that sadly isn’t an argument that will sway world leaders to action. The threat to human societies is a more convincing argument for concerted human action. The Agreement specifically mentions upholding the human rights of “local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.”

Neutralization of this threat requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, a remark certainly directed at countries that weren’t bound (China, India) or didn’t ratify (USA) the Paris Agreement’s failed predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol.

Finally, the Agreement calls for accelerating the reduction of GHG emissions. I think this strikes the right tone of urgency, optimism and pragmatism: we won’t halt emissions any time soon, but must build on positive efforts already underway to reduce emissions. Acknowledging reality, the Agreement continues that “deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention”—that is, Paris is just the beginning.

In the Preamble, the Agreement lays out a clear performance metric: success is “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” While I was in Paris, there was a lot of excitement over the week over the introduction of language addressing the more stringent 1.5 °C target, which wasn’t in there at the start of the COP. This language was pushed for by many of the indigenous nations present—some present in their full native regalia—since half of a degree could mean the difference between their nations thriving, or being abandoned as they sunk beneath the waves like so many modern Atlantises.

Article 2: the Paris Agreement in a nutshell

After twenty pages of context-setting, Article 2 of the Paris Agreement actually spells out exactly what the Agreement is all about. Here it is in full:

  1. This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:
    1. Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
    1. Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;
    1. Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
  2. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

In order to achieve the goal stated clearly in paragraph 1(a) above, each country must act. But the way these actions are called for reflects paragraph 2’s “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” That is, most countries submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to our climate challenge, or INDC. Article 3 of the Agreement lays out exactly what these are:

As nationally determined contributions to the global response to climate change, all Parties are to undertake and communicate ambitious efforts . . . with the view to achieving the purpose of this Agreement as set out in Article 2. The efforts of all Parties [signatory countries] will represent a progression over time, while recognizing the need to support developing country Parties for the effective implementation of this Agreement.

Elsewhere, it defines exactly what INDCs are to include; they must have “quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in the light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention.” As mentioned previously, these mitigation pledges and plans of action are a revolutionary way to address climate change that rely on nations’ concrete plans for change rather than a top-down (and, in a political context, arbitrary) target. But the risk of such a bottom-up set of plans is that they don’t, in aggregate, add up to the change we need. Unfortunately, that is indeed the case here.

The most significant paragraph in the section on INDCs states that they currently lead to projected 2030 GHG emissions of 55 gigatonnes, whereas limiting warming to 2 °C would require a cap of 40 gigatonnes; and further investigation will determine how much lower the cap must be to limit warming to 1.5 °C. As the Agreement concludes: “much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.”

MIT professor John Sterman and his colleagues at the Climate Interactive research group estimate that if all the current targets are achieved, but nothing more, we will experience 3.5 °C of warming. Luckily, the Agreement has a plan to remedy this shortcoming.

Stocktake and Ratchet

It sounds like a phrase straight from the hipster business name generator, but the global stocktake and the ratcheting mechanism are crucial concepts of the Paris Agreement that will correct the shortfalls in the INDCs. First, every 5 years the world will come together and perform a stocktake: that is, a measurement of the global carbon stock. If we’re not headed in the right direction—or not headed there fast enough—each country will submit a new INDC, thus “ratcheting” up their targets to get us back into the safe zone. Beginning in 2018, countries will start reviewing their progress and targets to reconvene in 2020 and reassess their performance.

The Agreement also creates a few mechanisms to ensure that countries have the best shot and meeting their targets. First, fulfilling paragraph 1(b) in the Article 2 cited above, the UN secretariat will develop a website to share “low greenhouse gas emission development strategies,” as well as adaptation strategies, particularly for the developing countries. (Mitigation refers to steps taken to reduce emissions in order to prevent climate change; adaptation means dealing with the effects of climate change in order to lessen the impacts on human societies and ecosystems.)

And it’s not just tech-transfer. As paragraph 1(c) alludes to, a funding mechanism called the Green Climate Fund was conceived of during COP15 (Copenhagen) and formally created at COP16 (Cancun); the Paris Agreement calls for it to provide $100 billion (USD) to assist developing countries in mitigation and adaptation activities. You can track developed countries’ ongoing GCF pledges.

Final Analysis

All in all, the Paris Agreement is historic—and not enough. Alone, it will not solve our climate challenge; but it’s the best step forward we’ve ever had. It was a hard-fought accord that was nearly sunk with a single errant word, but its very stakeholder challenges are its strength. That is, 196 countries, representing 98% of the global population, signed on to fight a colorless, tasteless enemy; a fight that acknowledges that our long-term survival depends on changing our very way of life. That itself is a bold step forward—and should give us all hope. As French president Francois Hollande said upon its final gaveling: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”

"Espaces Générations Climat" at the Green Zone

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My Impressions from COP21

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

My company sent me to COP21 to demonstrate our commitment to sustainable innovation. This is the first COP I’ve had the privilege to attend—and it wasn’t exactly what I expected as a seasoned Net Impacter. (For those of you who’d like more background on past COPs, see the previous two blog posts in this mini-series!)

The main venue for COP21 was Le Bourget, a close suburb of Paris. Here the negotiations took place in the “Blue Zone”, an area strictly reserved for UN-credentialed negotiators (of which I wish I were one!). The adjacent Green Zone (pictured above, and in this photo) was open to the public, as was a neighboring Tech Gallery. Away from the main venue in the center of downtown Paris was the “Solutions COP21” expo at Paris’s most storied art exhibition center, the Grand Palais (pictured below). Additionally, independent organizations hosted hundreds of COP21-related side events around Paris, mostly to support the climate negotiations and spur the participants towards an international accord.

In my other posts, I noted the presence of both the business community and the general public at several of these venues and side events. The thing that really surprised me about COP21 was the disconnect—and simmering conflict—between the participation of the business community, and that of the general public. This is really a regressive view compared to what I’ve experienced at each of the eight Net Impact conferences I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

For the first time ever at a COP, the host city accepted corporate sponsorship to help defray their costs in putting on the conference, which was one major source of the conflict. For example, an artist-activists’ campaign called “brandalism” impugned companies for our sponsorship. Some of this pushback was well warranted: fossil-energy companies are still promoting dirty technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a bridge to more renewable technologies, which is controversial at best. Still, many of the sponsor companies were also unveiling cool innovations for a low-carbon society, such as:

this scale-model column of algae biofuel production that Suez Environmental is proposing to build to capture and utilize excess CO2 and heat from power plants; and

your humble scribe (left in photo) sitting in this city-connected, autonomous electric concept car from AKKA Technologies.

Adding to the public-corporate disconnect, many of the business community’s discussions and exchanges took place in private meetings such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) meeting and the Sustainable Innovation Forum that were closed to the general public.

My company and others were unwittingly on the front lines of this corporate/public conflict as protesters tried to stage a public protest against the sponsor companies at the Grand Palais, shutting down the expo for a few hours. As France is still under a state of emergency following the Paris attacks, such public demonstrations are banned, and so the government was fairly forceful in removing the protesters. Security was tight at the Grand Palais public expo—though I was credentialed as an exhibitor, I was patted down and my bag searched each time—and there were heavily armed guards patrolling our exhibition area. Still, this youth hip-hop group that was on stage one night in the Grand Palais was left undisturbed as they called for divestment from some of the sponsors’ dirty fossil fuels. The people would be heard!

Youth group raps about divesting from dirty fossil fuels

My takeaway from these split interests is that we as Net Impacters still have a long way to go to prove to the general public that business—corporations, non-profits, social enterprises—can be a part of the solution. Look out for my final post on the agreement that came out at the conclusion of COP21, coming shortly. My initial assessment is that the negotiations this year took the radically different approach of focusing on what countries can do to innovate for a low-carbon economy and society, rather than setting legally binding targets with no guidance as to how to meet them. This means that our roles as sustainability professionals will be central on the path forward from Paris to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Time is running out—as this melting ice clock art installation made clear and visceral for all participants!

Melting ice clock art installation
Melting ice clock art installation


COP21: Why This Year is Different

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

In my previous post I gave some background and history of the Conferences of the Parties (COPs), the annual UN Climate Change Conference. While this is the first COP I’ve attended, there’s ample evidence that “this year is different”. Here are a few reasons why:

  • First, most people say that they’re realistically hoping for an accord, not a protocol. That means it likely won’t be legally binding, and thus won’t need to be ratified by the US Congress (sorry for the name-dropping, but I had a chat with French ambassador to the US about this, and he told me that the US Congress was the main reason why they weren’t trying for a legally binding agreement).
  • To keep everyone still accountable, countries submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to spell out their reduction targets. Many countries submitted these, which nearly all emissions (see leading graphic). The US was among the first to submit (thanks Obama… no, seriously!) and committed to a 26-28 percent cut against 2005 emissions levels by 2025.
  • The US and China are finally committed. While our Congress has still maintained they won’t ratify a legally binding accord, the US and China announced a landmark climate agreement late last year, setting the stage for their INDC commitments. (President Xi of China said that China will peak its emissions by 2030, then start reducing them, if not earlier; and committed to 20% of its energy coming from zero-emissions sources by 2030.)
  • Europe is already committed to legally binding 40% cuts.
  • A major economic sticking point at COPs past, the rich countries have finally agreed to subsidize poor countries’ leapfrogging of cheap, dirty technologies into cleaner ones. In 2009, the developed nations agreed to send $100 billion each year to the developing nations.
  • The business community is here in force, such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), sending negotiators a clear message that we support a climate accord. (You can watch the full livecast of the WBCSD’s council meeting here.) Even ExxonMobil is calling for a carbon tax, as Ken Cohen (who keynoted the 2014 Net Impact conference) lays out in this blog post.
  • The public here—both Parisians and visitors—are as vocal as ever, from indigenous tribes from affected island countries, to Americans affected by fracking, to Asian citizens blighted with thick urban pollution.

In the next post I’ll give some of my impressions on attending some events at COP21 — and on these last two points in particular, the presence of both the business community and the public.


COP21: The UN Climate Change Conference

This four-part post originally appeared on the Net Impact Boston blog.

Excitement is the highest here in Paris for this year’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or “Conference of the Parties” (COP) 21, than any other single event I’ve been involved with in my sustainability career. It’s perhaps the most important COP since the one held in Kyoto in 1997, during which the Kyoto Protocol was signed. The conference has been repeated annually since the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, called the “UNF triple C”) was established in 1992. But this one is different—for a number of reasons.

First, some background for the less climate-geeky among us. The Kyoto Protocol was a seminal international agreement that recognized mankind’s role in warming and destabilizing the global climate. Signed in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, it was a pioneering protocol (meaning, a legally-binding agreement) that set reduction targets for signatory countries.

It wasn’t considered successful, though. First, India and China were categorized as developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol; the reality of their explosive development in the last two decades has shown that their treatment as modeling the emissions of poor, developing economies is way off the mark. Second, the world’s historically largest polluter, our fair United States, signed the protocol in 1998 under President Bill Clinton, but did not ratify it; any treaty must be ratified by the US Congress to be considered binding. Since Congress—then as now—refused to sign it, Clinton didn’t even put it to vote, and the US has remained unbounded by Kyoto.

carbon emissions by country chart

This chart of current emissions shows clearly why Kyoto failed to put a halt to global warming: taking into account the US (didn’t ratify), and China and India (the Protocol did not impose any emissions targets on developing nations), and Canada (who later pulled out), a full 50% of emissions weren’t counted under the Protocol—even before we get to the long tail of “Other” countries.

(At the time of Kyoto, the US was the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases; we’ve since been eclipsed by China, but still retain the dubious distinction of having the most cumulative historic emissions. Plus, with one-quarter of the population of China, the US remains the highest per capita emitter.)

So the world needs a new agreement. There have been several milestones leading up to COP21. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, negotiators—led by, surprisingly, the climate negotiation team under President George W. Bush—won a major victory in the Bali Accord, in which all countries—developed and developing—agreed to be responsible for reducing emissions or curbing emissions growth. (Whether the rich countries will subsidize the poor countries’ sustainable development has remained a sticking point.) Then at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders got very close to an agreement, but failed—and it nearly derailed international climate efforts. But subsequently at COP20 in Lima last year, the UN drafted an outline of an agreement that would commence in 2020. (Copenhagen’s outcome covered targets through the year 2020.)

So after years (decades!) of negotiations, hopes for a Paris agreement are high. In the next post, I’ll highlight some of the ongoing advances during this week’s negotiations, as well as my impressions of the week in Paris.

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Don’t Breathe the Air

There’s an adage that goes: “In a developing country, don’t drink the water. In a developed country, don’t breathe the air.”

This adage arose during a dirtier age — then a gift of a newly industrialized society. But in the last several decades we’ve gained a much greater understanding of the ills of air pollution, and have done great things like create a cap-and-trade mechanism for sulfur dioxide and NOx to reduce acid rain. Surely that old canard only now applies to rapidly developing countries like China and India.

My intern sent me an article recently that shattered this illusion, and reminded me that air pollution is by no means a thing of the distant past or equally distant Orient. Titled “Particules fines : 5e jour d’alerte en région parisienne” (fine particles: fifth day of alert for the Paris region), the article from Le Monde Planète describes that the Paris region had particulate counts that are off-the-charts — e.g., over 80 micrograms of PM10 (particles smaller than 10 microns in diameter per cubic meter) — for the fifth consecutive day on the 13th of this month. According to the article, particles this fine are known to exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and allergies, and even finer particles (2.5um) are proven carcinogenic. (Translations from the original French article here are my own, so please take them with un grain de sel.)

Générées par l'industrie, le chauffage et le transport (diesel), les particules peuvent provoquer de l'asthme, des allergies, des maladies respiratoires ou cardiovasculaires. | AFP/JEFF PACHOUD

The article describes how Paris currently has a perfect storm of poor air quality. In winter, like any major urban center, Paris generates plenty of emissions from heating, industrial usage, and diesel fumes. But for this stretch, the winter climate also created meteorological conditions of cold, dry, and still air, which led to the pollutants remaining trapped.

A coworker of mine who lives in Paris described how this recent spate of high pollution has significantly affected her life. Each day, she consults an app that reports the air quality of Paris, and on days when it’s this high, she cancels any plans to go outdoors with her young son.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when we are trapped inside by the very world we’ve labored to create.