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The Energy 202: Clean energy investment needs to triple to halt catastrophic warming, finds new report


with Paulina Firozi


Shortly after the United States elected President Trump, Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, organized a group of fellow billionaires to commit to funding clean energy technology.

With Trump promising to distance himself from policies to reduce atmosphere-warming emissions, the high-profile executives announced they had started a fund of more than $1 billion to go toward low-emissions energy.

But a new report finds that such sums from the private sector aren't sufficient to prevent dire climate warming — not by a long shot.

According to the analysis from the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford, to keep the planet under 2 degrees Celsius warmer compared to pre-industrial levels, the global economy needs to triple its annual investment in low-emissions technology — from $750 billion per year between 2010 and 2015 to $2.3 trillion per year going forward until 2040.

That’s trillion — with a “t.”

“The magnitude is just enormous,” said Jeffrey Brown, a lecturer at Stanford and co-writer of the paper.

Maintaining the planet's temperature under that threshold is an aim of the Paris climate accord, an international emissions-reduction agreement between nearly every nation in the world. Though brokered by the United States under President Obama, his successor has vowed to withdraw the country from the accord. 

Although the cost of alternative energy technologies — in particular, solar panels — has plummeted in recent years, another crucial resource needed to deploy renewables — financial capital — has proven to be, unlike sunlight, exhaustible.

"This work is within the mainstream," said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was not involved in the analysis. To decarbonize the world economy, Muro said, "on all kinds of measures there needs to be an astronomical increase" in investment.

In the first half of the decade, private institutional investors — which include pension, mutual and sovereign wealth funds alongside billionaires — invested a total of $3.4 trillion in the world economy per year, the analysis found. That means at current investment levels, two out of every three dollars invested per year would need to go toward clean energy to halt catastrophic warming — a tall order for which investors seem to have little appetite.

The arithmetic is not the only issue. Not every investable dollar is created equally. Pension and mutual funds, which together held more than half of all assets among institutional investors in 2015, tend to invest money conservatively because they, unlike high-net-worth individuals, aim to protect the retirement accounts of middle-class workers.

“It’s their view of their fiduciary duty,” said Chris Davis, senior director of the Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability. “Their mission is not to save the world from climate change.”

There are, of course, exceptions among those risk-averse funds, such as the pension funds for public employees in Washington state and for teachers in California that have chosen to put their retirement portfolios toward low-emissions energy sources. “Unfortunately, it’s not happening so much in the red states,” Davis added.

The categories of "clean energy" technology requiring investment include not just wind, solar and nuclear power, but less high-profile work like making the electric grid and buildings more energy efficient.

Energy efficiency is "not as exciting -- it's not as covered in the media," said Dan Reicher of Stanford, one of the co-authors of the analysis. "People are a lot more intrigued by solar panels on the roof than by an efficient furnace in the basement."

Another issue is geography. Unsurprisingly, much of the investable money globally comes from developed countries that are already weaning themselves off coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

Investing U.S. and European capital in foreign developing energy markets is not frictionless. For example, wild currency fluctuations relative to the U.S. dollar, such as changes in the rupee in India, make calculating the return on investment even more difficult for investors.

The Stanford researchers released their report over the weekend in the hopes that climate negotiators gathering in Bonn, Germany next month — facing a leadership vacuum after the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris accord — consider addressing the international financing problem for clean energy projects.

"These dynamics should be front-and-center for ministers meeting soon in Bonn," Reicher said.


-- An unprecedented move: After hinting in speeches he would do just this, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is poised to jettison scientists who have received EPA grants from from a key advisory group and replace them with industry experts and government officials from conservative states. The Post's Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report: "A list of expected appointees to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, obtained by The Washington Post from multiple individuals familiar with the appointments, include several categories of experts — voices from regulated industries, academics and environmental regulators from conservative states, and researchers who have a history of critiquing the science and economics underpinning tighter environmental regulations."

The heart of the matter: Critics say the move will bring more industry scientists with conflicts of interests regarding EPA regulations into the agency. But Pruitt has reversed the conflict-of-interest charge, saying the scientists who receive EPA grants should not be advising the agency.

Pruitt;s official announcement of the change is slated to happen at 2 p.m. today.

-- Under investigation: The FBI’s office in San Juan, Puerto Rico is reportedly investigating the $300 million contract that the island government 'spower company signed with Whitefish Energy, a tiny Montana-based firm, per the Wall Street Journal. The report follows the cancellation of the controversial contract over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Whitefish has hired a former Democratic lawmaker, congressman Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), to lobby on its behalf, Politico reported. Cardoza has also lobbied for California health care, real estate and water interests.

More on Puerto Rico:

  • As power blackouts continue more than 40 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island, Puerto Rico is officially enduring the longest blackout in the country’s history, Vox reports. Just over 30 percent of power customers had regained power as of Monday.

  • Read this piece from the New Yorker on the group that continues to profit off the territory’s financial troubles.


-- "Betray:" U.S. oil refiners are ramping up rhetoric against the Trump administration's decision to maintain the renewable fuel mandate. In an ad airing on Fox News, according to Axios, a coalition including independent refiners like Valero Energy and PBF Energy accuse Trump of "caving to ethanol lobbyists." It continues: "Tell him not to betray the American workers who elected him." The oil refiners are agitating after the Trump administration told corn-state senators it will maintain Obama-era RFS volumes. (Read my reporting on this contentious issue here).

-- Oil exports up: Crude oil demand from the United States is up for the second year in a row since lawmakers lifted a 40-year-old ban on oil exports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Per the Washington Examiner, oil exports rose by 300,000 barrels a day to a total average of 900,000 per day in the first half of 2017, compared with the same time last year. The United States reached a record 2 million barrels a day in late September — a rally despite Hurricane Harvey sweeping through the Gulf Coast earlier that month.


There's a trio of noteworthy climate-related research results out this week. Let's run them down:

  • Climate change is a threat to public health causing “unequivocal and potentially irreversible” health hazards, according to a new report in the high-profile British medical journal The Lancet. Those hazards include intense heat waves and the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes, write The Post's Ben Guarino and Brady Dennis. Researchers aren't optimistic about how the world has responded so far. “The answer is, most of our indicators are headed in the wrong direction,” Nick Watts, a fellow at University College London’s Institute for Global Health, told The Post. “Broadly, the world has not responded to climate change, and that lack of response has put lives at risk... The impacts we’re experiencing today are already pretty bad. The things we’re talking about in the future are potentially catastrophic.”
  • Winter is coming … later: The length of U.S. winters  is getting shorter, according to data from more than 100 years of weather station measurements. On average, the first frost of the year arrives more than a month later than it did 100 years ago, the Guardian reported, noting specifically that the average first freeze from 2007 to 2017 is a week later than that average from 1971 to 1980. The report also noted the freeze season in 2016 was more than a month shorter than in 1916.
  • CO2 at all-time high: World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned “we are actually moving in the wrong direction” after the agency said carbon dioxide concentrations increased at a record rate in 2016. According to the WMO, the United Nations' weather agency, there was an increase of CO2 to 403.3 parts per million, up from 400 parts per million in 2015, per the Associated Press. The Independent noted that the last time CO2 levels hit 400 ppm was 3 to 5 million years ago. The agency added says high levels of carbon dioxide could contribute to a 20-meter sea level rise and a 3-degree temperature increase, per the report.

-- And don't forget "The Cow and the Bull:” Two massive boulders on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera have become symbols of understanding the changing climate, writes The Post's Chris Mooney. There’s no obvious explanation for how the boulders got to their location atop a 50-foot-high cliff. One climate scientist suggested two years ago that superstorms put the boulders in place more than 100,000 years ago when there were higher seas and dangerous weather conditions, the type likely to return if polar ice sheets rapidly melt. But a recent study says that the boulders didn’t need superstorms to get to the high cliff, suggesting storms of today’s strength could have done the trick when seas were 20 or 30 feet higher, Mooney notes.

The bottom line: “The controversy over Eleuthera’s boulders underscores just how little we know about how the oceans will react to climate change,” Mooney writes.

Loss of Federal Protections May Imperil Pacific Reefs, Scientists Warn (The New York Times)



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on “new efficiency opportunities provided by advanced building management and control systems.” 

  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event to “unpack the proposed grid reliability and resiliency pricing rule under consideration at FERC.” 

Coming Up

  • The House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on “Examining the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program” on Wednesday.

  • The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute holds an event on developing low carbon economies in Latin America on Wednesday.

  • Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies holds an event on energy efficiency in emerging markets on Wednesday.

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of low dose radiation research on Wednesday.

  • The National Economists Club holds an event with the American Chemistry Council’s chief economist Kevin Swift on Thursday.

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on a review of emergency response and infrastructure recovery following the hurricane season on Thursday.

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on three water bills on Thursday.

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to receive testimony on potential for oil and gas exploration in the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday.

  • The Ripon Society holds an event on the Future of Puerto Rico on Thursday.

  • Axios and NBC News holds an event with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on Thursday.

  • House Natural Resources Committee reschedules oversight hearing for “Examining Challenges in Puerto Rico's Recovery and the Role of the Financial Oversight and Management Board” for November 7.

  • House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled for an oversight hearing on “The Need for Transparent Financial Accountability in Territories’ Disaster Recovery Efforts” for November 14.


Is the White House haunted? 

There is much lore surrounding the haunting of the White House. Here are some of the most shared ghost stories. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome trick-or-treaters to the White House on Halloween eve: 

The president and first lady welcomed trick-or-treaters at the White House on Oct. 30. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Watch volunteers rescue a deer with a Halloween pumpkin stuck on its head:

Volunteers from Anderson Township, Ohio, rescue deer with Halloween pumpkin stuck on its head on Oct 29. (Video: Aaron Meyerrenke)

From The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: "It's Mueller Time:"