It’s not just Coca-Cola: Corporations have co-opted the UN climate talks

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Once a year, delegates from almost 200 countries gather for the purpose of finding ways to keep climate change from spiraling out of control. This time around, they’re meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27. And the event is brought to you by the largest plastic producer in the world, Coca-Cola. While Coca-Cola is considered a lower-tier sponsor than the conference’s “partners,” which include Microsoft, IBM, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Coca-Cola’s role has garnered an exceptionally large amount of criticism. Nearly 240,000 people have signed a petition for the Egyptian government-led conference to drop the partnership with Coca-Cola, a corporate giant that makes roughly 4,000 plastic bottles from oil every second.  Over the years, climate summits have become a branding opportunity for corporations to attach their names to high-profile efforts to save the world. One report found that the companies sponsoring the 2015 summit in Paris, for example, had paid around $18.8 million, about 10 percent of the total budget. It can be hard for organizers of an expensive-to-run conference to turn down that kind of money. But those sponsorships have become a target of protest as activists seek to show how companies like Coca-Cola have contributed to the climate crisis, the very thing COP27 is supposed to address.  The Coca-Cola debacle inspired a recent political cartoon that contrasts the conference’s lofty goal of limiting climate change with the merch-filled expo that takes place alongside it. “Make sure you grab your COP27 gift bag,” says a comic by Australian cartoonist Andrew Marlton. The panels advertise fictional swag: a shirt that says “My environment minister went to COP27 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt,” an “economy-size bottle of greenwash,” and the new book by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (“no need to read it, just be seen with it”). Thunberg, for her part, decided to skip the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, in part because of the corporate-friendly atmosphere. All the logos on display at COP27 hint at what’s going on behind the scenes: Companies have been influencing the global climate negotiations since their inception in Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago, working to make sure that the final agreement would not force them to cut emissions from fossil fuels. Instead, they began volunteering “net-zero” pledges to cancel out their emissions at some later date. They’ve also started to shape the conversation at every summit. When COP27 attendees talk about “net-zero” and the need for ever-better climate data, for example, they are talking about climate change in a language that businesses helped develop, and one that experts say distracts from the true goal: the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions. The Coca-Cola sponsorship “seems outrageous to me,” said Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University at Buffalo. “But if you’re in a world where pretty much everything is voluntary and everything has to make, ultimately, business sense, then you’re going to get net-zero pledges, and you’re going to get corporate sponsorships of government or civil society.” Demonstrators in Zagreb, Croatia, protest greenwashing as COP27 is held in Egypt, November 8, 2022. Denis Lovrovic / AFP via Getty Images Even though oil companies haven’t been allowed to sponsor the talks, the fossil fuel industry still has a huge presence: By one count, it sent more than 630 lobbyists to Sharm el-Sheikh, a larger delegation than sent by any country except the United Arab Emirates, the host of next year’s climate summit. (It wasn’t until last year that the conference’s final agreement mentioned the phrase “fossil fuels” at all — and even then, the language got watered down.) COP27 has also been criticized for hiring a public relations firm, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, that has represented oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco, to manage communications. Climate advocates often justify corporate involvement by saying that companies have a role to play in financing the changes that are needed, said Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University. But she believes that corporate influence at negotiations is preventing “more transformative action” from resulting. Instead of denying the problem or undermining science, those who oppose reducing emissions are now focused on delaying climate action, Stephens said. “Part of delay is to acknowledge the problem and then present corporate interests as if they’re doing something to mitigate problems, when in fact, they’re not.” Despite talking about fixing climate change more than ever, for instance, all major oil companies are on track to increase oil production by 2026, according to a report earlier this year. “If they are still planning to extract all these fossil fuels in perpetuity,” Stephens said, “there’s no way we’re ever going to meet any of the goals that all the countries have committed to in this whole long, expensive process that so much time and effort has gone into.” So how did corporations become such major players in climate politics? It goes back to an old public relations strategy. In the 1960s and ’70s, environmental activists brought attention to how polluters were setting rivers on fire, spilling oil into the ocean, and spraying pesticides everywhere. Companies were branded as villains and were forced to get in line with new regulations to prevent pollution.  Around that time, a young PR rep named E. Bruce Harrison figured that the key to avoiding future regulations was all about compromise. Calling for “balance” between the “Three Es” — the environment, energy, and the economy — would make the industry’s position look reasonable and responsible, and leave environmentalists looking like they wanted to ruin the economy. By working with environmentalists, companies could appear to be doing the right thing — and get a seat at the table where decisions got made.  That’s exactly what businesses did leading up to a major U.N. climate agreement in 1992. The first order of business of the Global Climate Coalition — a group of utilities, oil drillers, automakers, and other companies assembled by the National Association of Manufacturers a few years earlier — was to influence the international treaty that would be signed in Rio de Janeiro. At negotiating sessions, industry representatives argued for a voluntary approach to reducing emissions, in the hopes of avoiding a binding one. They got what they asked for. A National Association of Manufacturers business activity report in 1992 congratulated itself on a “strong and effective presence” during the Rio negotiations. Former President George H.W. Bush signs an international climate agreement in Rio de Janeiro, June 12, 1992. J. David Ake / AFP via Getty Images After that, the Global Climate Coalition “actively lobbied” ensuing climate conferences to make sure companies wouldn’t be forced to cut emissions, according to a report by Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Brown University. It also lobbied Congress and the White House to make sure that the United States, the biggest emitter in the world in the 1990s, would not ratify any binding climate treaties that managed to pass anyway. In 2001, when President George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, which would have required countries to cut carbon emissions, White House staff met with the Global Climate Coalition to congratulate them. “POTUS rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you,” read the talking points prepared for Paula Dobriansky, the lead negotiator on U.S. climate policy at the time. The coalition disbanded in 2002, with its mission accomplished, but companies never left the scene of climate negotiations. They gradually took on more of a sponsorship role and began setting up official-looking side events. Corporations’ high level of involvement in the negotiations is a natural outcome of people’s lack of faith in government to take action on climate change, and the belief that businesses can help fill in the gap, Rome said — an idea that’s been in force since around 1990. “There’s obviously still a lot of people who are skeptical of what corporations will do,” he said. “But a lot of other people, whether grudgingly or not, have thought, ‘Well, government isn’t going to do anything. Businesses are usually powerful institutions. If anybody can do something, it’s business.’” Companies and governments often pledge to go “net-zero” — meaning that they’ll suck up as much carbon dioxide as they emit — but such plans are often light on the details. The United Nations says it wants to crack down on these wishy-washy climate promises. Last week, it issued a new report offering guidelines to make “net-zero” pledges more meaningful. The report was perceived as taking companies to task — the U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres, said there must be “zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.”  But experts told Grist that the bigger issue was that the United Nations was spending so much time talking about “net-zero.” While the concept of zeroing out emissions could work, in theory, critics say it is too ambiguous to be meaningful and easily gets exploited by policymakers and companies. A recent study analyzing public pledges from hundreds of large global companies found that 93 percent of them were on track to miss their emissions goals. For those who see “net-zero” as bogus, talking about it might end up perpetuating the problem. Rome thinks that the U.N. report’s focus on getting companies to follow through on their pledges seemed to be dodging a real solution: requiring companies to cut emissions. The report “only guarantees that we’ll spend a lot more time talking about the details, when the whole idea of it is the problem,” he said.  An attendee of COP27 walks past a mockup of the globe and advertisements from the IT and business consulting firm CGI, November 6, 2022. Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images Squabbling over details has become a feature of U.N. climate conferences as well as discussions around corporate sustainability, said Matthew Archer, a professor of sustainability at the University of York in the United Kingdom. Archer is writing a book arguing that “endless discussions” about metrics and measurements can distract from the real work that needs to be done on climate change. He argues that, while accurate data is needed, the search for ever-more-accurate numbers has become a form of delaying action itself.  “The whole conversation [around net-zero] is turning toward, ‘Oh no, you’re measuring it wrong, you haven’t considered this aspect,” Archer said. The debates “end up just becoming technical squabbles and people fighting over very minor methods and methodological questions,” while ignoring the bigger questions about power in politics — such as whether net-zero is a helpful way to achieve climate goals at all. Rome says that voluntary action from corporations will never be enough to solve the climate crisis. “The whole last 30 years has been this vast experiment in what they are willing to do voluntarily,” he said, with lackluster results. The world doesn’t need more “good” companies to make more net-zero pledges, Rome explained: It needs rules that force all companies to cut their emissions. Coca-Cola may be in the spotlight for greenwashing with its sponsorship of the latest climate summit, but the problem is much bigger than one company. The U.N. has been “trying to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in the corporate world,” Rome said. “That’s important, but it’s not nearly as important as pointing out that at the end of the day, we need something beyond more good guys.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s not just Coca-Cola: Corporations have co-opted the UN climate talks on Nov 15, 2022.

COP27 is covered with logos. But that's just the start of companies' influence.

Once a year, delegates from almost 200 countries gather for the purpose of finding ways to keep climate change from spiraling out of control. This time around, they’re meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27. And the event is brought to you by the largest plastic producer in the world, Coca-Cola.

While Coca-Cola is considered a lower-tier sponsor than the conference’s “partners,” which include Microsoft, IBM, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Coca-Cola’s role has garnered an exceptionally large amount of criticism. Nearly 240,000 people have signed a petition for the Egyptian government-led conference to drop the partnership with Coca-Cola, a corporate giant that makes roughly 4,000 plastic bottles from oil every second

Over the years, climate summits have become a branding opportunity for corporations to attach their names to high-profile efforts to save the world. One report found that the companies sponsoring the 2015 summit in Paris, for example, had paid around $18.8 million, about 10 percent of the total budget. It can be hard for organizers of an expensive-to-run conference to turn down that kind of money. But those sponsorships have become a target of protest as activists seek to show how companies like Coca-Cola have contributed to the climate crisis, the very thing COP27 is supposed to address. 

The Coca-Cola debacle inspired a recent political cartoon that contrasts the conference’s lofty goal of limiting climate change with the merch-filled expo that takes place alongside it. “Make sure you grab your COP27 gift bag,” says a comic by Australian cartoonist Andrew Marlton. The panels advertise fictional swag: a shirt that says “My environment minister went to COP27 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt,” an “economy-size bottle of greenwash,” and the new book by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (“no need to read it, just be seen with it”). Thunberg, for her part, decided to skip the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, in part because of the corporate-friendly atmosphere.

All the logos on display at COP27 hint at what’s going on behind the scenes: Companies have been influencing the global climate negotiations since their inception in Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago, working to make sure that the final agreement would not force them to cut emissions from fossil fuels. Instead, they began volunteering “net-zero” pledges to cancel out their emissions at some later date. They’ve also started to shape the conversation at every summit. When COP27 attendees talk about “net-zero” and the need for ever-better climate data, for example, they are talking about climate change in a language that businesses helped develop, and one that experts say distracts from the true goal: the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

The Coca-Cola sponsorship “seems outrageous to me,” said Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University at Buffalo. “But if you’re in a world where pretty much everything is voluntary and everything has to make, ultimately, business sense, then you’re going to get net-zero pledges, and you’re going to get corporate sponsorships of government or civil society.”

Demonstrators in Zagreb, Croatia, protest greenwashing as COP27 is held in Egypt, November 8, 2022. Denis Lovrovic / AFP via Getty Images

Even though oil companies haven’t been allowed to sponsor the talks, the fossil fuel industry still has a huge presence: By one count, it sent more than 630 lobbyists to Sharm el-Sheikh, a larger delegation than sent by any country except the United Arab Emirates, the host of next year’s climate summit. (It wasn’t until last year that the conference’s final agreement mentioned the phrase “fossil fuels” at all — and even then, the language got watered down.) COP27 has also been criticized for hiring a public relations firm, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, that has represented oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco, to manage communications.

Climate advocates often justify corporate involvement by saying that companies have a role to play in financing the changes that are needed, said Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University. But she believes that corporate influence at negotiations is preventing “more transformative action” from resulting. Instead of denying the problem or undermining science, those who oppose reducing emissions are now focused on delaying climate action, Stephens said. “Part of delay is to acknowledge the problem and then present corporate interests as if they’re doing something to mitigate problems, when in fact, they’re not.”

Despite talking about fixing climate change more than ever, for instance, all major oil companies are on track to increase oil production by 2026, according to a report earlier this year. “If they are still planning to extract all these fossil fuels in perpetuity,” Stephens said, “there’s no way we’re ever going to meet any of the goals that all the countries have committed to in this whole long, expensive process that so much time and effort has gone into.”


So how did corporations become such major players in climate politics? It goes back to an old public relations strategy. In the 1960s and ’70s, environmental activists brought attention to how polluters were setting rivers on fire, spilling oil into the ocean, and spraying pesticides everywhere. Companies were branded as villains and were forced to get in line with new regulations to prevent pollution. 

Around that time, a young PR rep named E. Bruce Harrison figured that the key to avoiding future regulations was all about compromise. Calling for “balance” between the “Three Es” — the environment, energy, and the economy — would make the industry’s position look reasonable and responsible, and leave environmentalists looking like they wanted to ruin the economy. By working with environmentalists, companies could appear to be doing the right thing — and get a seat at the table where decisions got made. 

That’s exactly what businesses did leading up to a major U.N. climate agreement in 1992. The first order of business of the Global Climate Coalition — a group of utilities, oil drillers, automakers, and other companies assembled by the National Association of Manufacturers a few years earlier — was to influence the international treaty that would be signed in Rio de Janeiro. At negotiating sessions, industry representatives argued for a voluntary approach to reducing emissions, in the hopes of avoiding a binding one. They got what they asked for. A National Association of Manufacturers business activity report in 1992 congratulated itself on a “strong and effective presence” during the Rio negotiations.

Former President George H.W. Bush signs an international climate agreement in Rio de Janeiro, June 12, 1992. J. David Ake / AFP via Getty Images

After that, the Global Climate Coalition “actively lobbied” ensuing climate conferences to make sure companies wouldn’t be forced to cut emissions, according to a report by Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Brown University. It also lobbied Congress and the White House to make sure that the United States, the biggest emitter in the world in the 1990s, would not ratify any binding climate treaties that managed to pass anyway. In 2001, when President George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, which would have required countries to cut carbon emissions, White House staff met with the Global Climate Coalition to congratulate them. “POTUS rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you,” read the talking points prepared for Paula Dobriansky, the lead negotiator on U.S. climate policy at the time.

The coalition disbanded in 2002, with its mission accomplished, but companies never left the scene of climate negotiations. They gradually took on more of a sponsorship role and began setting up official-looking side events.

Corporations’ high level of involvement in the negotiations is a natural outcome of people’s lack of faith in government to take action on climate change, and the belief that businesses can help fill in the gap, Rome said — an idea that’s been in force since around 1990. “There’s obviously still a lot of people who are skeptical of what corporations will do,” he said. “But a lot of other people, whether grudgingly or not, have thought, ‘Well, government isn’t going to do anything. Businesses are usually powerful institutions. If anybody can do something, it’s business.’”


Companies and governments often pledge to go “net-zero” — meaning that they’ll suck up as much carbon dioxide as they emit — but such plans are often light on the details. The United Nations says it wants to crack down on these wishy-washy climate promises. Last week, it issued a new report offering guidelines to make “net-zero” pledges more meaningful. The report was perceived as taking companies to task — the U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres, said there must be “zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.” 

But experts told Grist that the bigger issue was that the United Nations was spending so much time talking about “net-zero.” While the concept of zeroing out emissions could work, in theory, critics say it is too ambiguous to be meaningful and easily gets exploited by policymakers and companies. A recent study analyzing public pledges from hundreds of large global companies found that 93 percent of them were on track to miss their emissions goals.

For those who see “net-zero” as bogus, talking about it might end up perpetuating the problem. Rome thinks that the U.N. report’s focus on getting companies to follow through on their pledges seemed to be dodging a real solution: requiring companies to cut emissions. The report “only guarantees that we’ll spend a lot more time talking about the details, when the whole idea of it is the problem,” he said. 

An attendee of COP27 walks past a mockup of the globe and advertisements from the IT and business consulting firm CGI, November 6, 2022. Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images

Squabbling over details has become a feature of U.N. climate conferences as well as discussions around corporate sustainability, said Matthew Archer, a professor of sustainability at the University of York in the United Kingdom. Archer is writing a book arguing that “endless discussions” about metrics and measurements can distract from the real work that needs to be done on climate change. He argues that, while accurate data is needed, the search for ever-more-accurate numbers has become a form of delaying action itself. 

“The whole conversation [around net-zero] is turning toward, ‘Oh no, you’re measuring it wrong, you haven’t considered this aspect,” Archer said. The debates “end up just becoming technical squabbles and people fighting over very minor methods and methodological questions,” while ignoring the bigger questions about power in politics — such as whether net-zero is a helpful way to achieve climate goals at all.

Rome says that voluntary action from corporations will never be enough to solve the climate crisis. “The whole last 30 years has been this vast experiment in what they are willing to do voluntarily,” he said, with lackluster results. The world doesn’t need more “good” companies to make more net-zero pledges, Rome explained: It needs rules that force all companies to cut their emissions.

Coca-Cola may be in the spotlight for greenwashing with its sponsorship of the latest climate summit, but the problem is much bigger than one company. The U.N. has been “trying to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in the corporate world,” Rome said. “That’s important, but it’s not nearly as important as pointing out that at the end of the day, we need something beyond more good guys.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s not just Coca-Cola: Corporations have co-opted the UN climate talks on Nov 15, 2022.

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‘I use it because it’s better’: why chefs are embracing the electric stove

As evidence mounts that gas stoves are bad for human health, a growing number of professional chefs say electric even makes for a better cooking experienceThe evidence that gas stoves are bad for human health has grown so staggering over the last few years that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recently announced that it would consider banning the appliances. Though a conservative backlash prompted the White House to rule out the possibility of a nationwide ban, and some states have passed pre-emptive laws that prohibit cities from ever passing gas bans, other cities including Berkeley, New York and San Francisco have already moved to bar new gas hookups due to health and environmental concerns.One study from earlier this month found that one in eight cases of childhood asthma in the US is caused by gas stove pollution. According to the lead author on the study, Talor Gruenwald, a research associate at the non-profit Rewiring America, that means that living in a home with a gas stove is comparable to living in a home with a smoker. Gas stoves release pollutants so harmful that the air pollution they create would be illegal if it were outdoors, and that’s not just true when you’re actively cooking – gas stoves continue to emit harmful compounds like methane even when turned off. Beyond the adverse health impacts, those emissions are greenhouse gasses that also contribute to the climate crisis. Continue reading...

As evidence mounts that gas stoves are bad for human health, a growing number of professional chefs say electric even makes for a better cooking experienceThe evidence that gas stoves are bad for human health has grown so staggering over the last few years that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recently announced that it would consider banning the appliances. Though a conservative backlash prompted the White House to rule out the possibility of a nationwide ban, and some states have passed pre-emptive laws that prohibit cities from ever passing gas bans, other cities including Berkeley, New York and San Francisco have already moved to bar new gas hookups due to health and environmental concerns.One study from earlier this month found that one in eight cases of childhood asthma in the US is caused by gas stove pollution. According to the lead author on the study, Talor Gruenwald, a research associate at the non-profit Rewiring America, that means that living in a home with a gas stove is comparable to living in a home with a smoker. Gas stoves release pollutants so harmful that the air pollution they create would be illegal if it were outdoors, and that’s not just true when you’re actively cooking – gas stoves continue to emit harmful compounds like methane even when turned off. Beyond the adverse health impacts, those emissions are greenhouse gasses that also contribute to the climate crisis. Continue reading...

What to Know About the Risks of Gas Stoves and Appliances

This story was originally published by ProPublica. As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no […]

This story was originally published by ProPublica. As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no control over my appliances. So I mostly ignored it — until one day last fall when I smelled the rotten-egg odor of leaking natural gas while baking focaccia. I borrowed a $30 gas leak detector from a friend (a fellow climate reporter, of course). When I turned on the oven in my New York City apartment, the lights for a “significant” leak lit up. My kitchen was filling up with methane. According to the user manual, that meant I should “VENTILATE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY and move to a safe location” in case of an explosion. I opened the windows and ignored the evacuation advice (don’t follow my example), too intent on taking a video of the leak as proof for my landlord before turning off the oven. Then I vented my frustration by panic-texting friends and eating too much focaccia — after cutting it into pieces and baking it in my toaster oven. Luckily, my landlord replaced my faulty stove within days. I made sure to check the new stove (still gas, alas) for leaks after it was installed. “People still don’t recognize that there are health downsides to cooking with gas in your home,” said Regina LaRocque, a Harvard Medical School professor who does research on medicine and public health. “This is the 21st century, and we have better ways of cooking than over a fire.” The issue has caught national attention in recent weeks, as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission considers regulating gas stoves. Public health experts and environmentalists have long warned of the risks of gas ranges. One study found that indoor gas stoves were responsible for roughly 13% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. The American Public Health Association and American Medical Association have urged consumers to transition away from gas. LaRocque uses a traditional electric coil stove at home. But she and other experts advocated for induction stoves, which use electromagnets to heat up food. These stoves are growing in popularity as consumers choose them for climate, health and safety reasons, though they can cost more than twice as much as a gas range. The federal Inflation Reduction Act will provide rebates to upgrade to electric or induction home appliances (here’s a Wirecutter guide on that program). Some states, including Massachusetts, offer their own rebates as well. Induction stoves are much more common in Europe, LaRocque said. That cultural shift has yet to occur in the United States, where more than a third of households use gas stoves. As Mother Jones reported, the gas industry embraced the term “cooking with gas” in the 1930s; an executive even made sure to get it worked into Bob Hope’s comedy routines. More recently, the industry has opposed electrification efforts with lobbying and social media influencers who tout gas as a “super cool way” to cook. I consulted multiple experts on the hazards of gas stoves and what people can do about them. Their advice boiled down to this: homeowners who can afford it should switch to an induction or electric stove. For renters and others who can’t replace their appliances, the experts provided tips on lowering the health risks. Methane is a greenhouse gas. The gas that’s piped into your house is virtually all methane. When you burn methane to cook food, it turns into carbon dioxide. But unburned methane trickles out from loose fittings and faulty stovetop igniters. Every pound of methane released into the air is 30 to 86 times more effective at warming the planet than a pound of carbon dioxide. When researchers analyzed 53 homes in California last year, they found methane leaking from almost every stove. More than three-quarters of that methane came from stoves that were turned off. The act of igniting a burner or oven released additional puffs of methane. If these leaks are consistent across the nation, then annual methane emissions from U.S. gas stoves would equal the greenhouse gas emissions of half a million cars. These leaks are “pretty much universal,” said Robert Jackson, a Stanford University professor and a study co-author. Jackson, who’s spent more than a decade studying methane leaks from gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, said it can be hard to predict where the leak is coming from. Based on the description of the leak in my kitchen, he told me it likely was caused by ignition problems with the oven. Jackson’s research has inspired him to ditch his gas stove, furnace and hot water heater in favor of induction and electric appliances. “I did not expect to see the high levels of indoor air pollution we saw consistently,” he said. “It strongly motivated me to replace my own stove.” Large methane leaks can cause explosions. If you smell gas in your home, leave the building and call your gas company. The distinctive rotten-egg odor comes from chemicals that gas companies add to the methane to make it easier to detect, since the gas is naturally odorless. Some people are much more sensitive to the smell than others, so it’s not a foolproof warning for explosive risk. Eric Lebel, lead author of the methane study Jackson worked on, recalled smelling gas in some of the homes where he did the testing, even though the homeowners couldn’t smell anything. Lebel is a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit science and policy research institute. Burning natural gas releases nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant. Nitrogen dioxide exacerbates asthma and impairs lung function. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates these emissions from cars and power plants with national air quality standards, but those regulations don’t apply to indoor air. The Lebel and Jackson study measured nitrogen dioxide and a related compound. They found steadily rising emissions after turning on burners and ovens. “Simply having a combustion stove in your home is a health risk,” LaRocque said. In poorly ventilated kitchens, nitrogen dioxide levels could exceed outdoor air standards. “It would be like standing behind an idling car, or standing in a smoke-filled room,” she added. “I think if my child had asthma, I would definitely want to intervene.” Gas stoves leak benzene, a carcinogen that can cause leukemia. In a separate study published last fall, Lebel and his colleagues analyzed gas samples from residential kitchens. Out of 160 samples, all but one contained benzene. “If there’s a leak from that appliance, it likely contains benzene,” Lebel said. “It’s a rather unavoidable cost of owning a gas appliance.” Raw natural gas contains a mix of methane and toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene or formaldehyde. Gas companies strip out the impurities before piping the processed gas to homes, but they don’t eliminate all the toxins. Lebel’s team modeled the benzene concentrations from the leaking stoves and found a handful that failed to meet California’s benzene safety guidelines. They also found traces of other harmful compounds, including toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, which can cause dizziness, nausea and liver damage. A separate study of gas appliances in the Greater Boston area found benzene in 95% of samples, though at lower levels than Lebel’s study. Turn on the range hood above your stove. Paul Francisco, associate director of building science at the University of Illinois Urbana, Champaign, suggests cooking on the back burners and using the hood whenever you turn on the stove or the oven. The fans improve ventilation and will pull benzene, methane and nitrogen dioxide outdoors. However, this only works if the hood connects to the outside of your house. Follow the piping on the hood: If the top of the device goes through the ceiling or the wall, then it should help with air quality. Another type of range hood, called a “ductless” hood, simply recirculates indoor air. If your hood has grilles or vents on the front, then it’s likely, but not guaranteed, to be ductless, Francisco said. These fans won’t cut down on harmful gases, but they might be able to reduce particulate matter — tiny particles created during cooking, which can cause or exacerbate respiratory illness. A 2014 study found that cooking on induction stoves produced far fewer particles than cooking on gas or electric stoves. Open a window to improve ventilation. At a minimum, an open window will dilute toxic gases. If your kitchen is in the upper half of a building, opening the window should draw the contaminants outside as long as there’s no wind and it’s warmer inside than outside, Francisco said. If you live in the lower half of a building, opening a window in the winter won’t be as effective, he said, though any ventilation is better than none. Get an induction hot plate. If you can’t replace your stove, experts said the next best thing is to buy an induction burner. Here are some consumer guides with reviews of portable hot plates. During last summer’s heat waves, when I couldn’t fathom lighting a fire inside my kitchen, I did almost all my cooking using an induction hot plate, an Instant Pot and an electric toaster oven. Excessive heat is another reason why some chefs advocate for induction burners. What about air purifiers? These devices have become more popular as a way to improve air quality and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Most air purifiers won’t have any effect on toxic gases, though they do remove particulate matter, Francisco said. Some specialty models filter out volatile organic compounds, a class of chemicals that includes benzene. Should I buy a gas detector? There are a number of methane monitors that are designed for consumers, priced from roughly $30 to $200. Some will tell you about the presence of a leak. Others are sensitive enough to detect specific concentrations of methane. You can also find indoor monitors that detect particulate matter for $200 to $300. It’s much harder to monitor for benzene or nitrogen dioxide. The types of instruments used by Lebel and Jackson cost tens of thousands of dollars and require users to undergo extensive training.   The South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regulatory agency in California, maintains a list of “low-cost” air quality sensors (less than $2,000) that can be used by citizen scientists and advocacy groups. These sensors can be used to detect particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds.   Lebel said it shouldn’t be up to individuals to solve a systemic issue. It seems problematic, he said, “to be asking citizens to be scientists and try and discover if their stove is leaking.”

Fossil-Fuel Power Plants May Be on Their Last Legs

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. The global energy transition has reached a pivot point, in which fossil fuels have likely peaked in their use for producing electricity and are about to enter a period of decline. This is the idea at the heart of a […]

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. The global energy transition has reached a pivot point, in which fossil fuels have likely peaked in their use for producing electricity and are about to enter a period of decline. This is the idea at the heart of a new report from RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute), a nonprofit that does research and advocacy about the transition. The lead author, energy analyst Kingsmill Bond, makes a case that wind and solar power are going through growth that looks almost exactly like the trend lines for the early stages of transformative products and industries, across technologies and eras, like automobiles and smartphones. The growth begins slowly, with high costs, and shifts into high gear as costs shrink and efficiency rises. The optimism in this outlook is almost jarring in its clarity, and in its contrast with the pessimism I see and feel every day as the threats of climate change become clearer. The report argues that the fossil fuel demand has peaked in the electricity market in part because the annual growth in global electricity demand—about 700 terawatt-hours—is less than the electricity generated in 2022 by newly built power plants that have zero emissions, most of which were wind and solar plants. The report cites forecasts for a continuing increase in wind and solar development that will outpace the growth in electricity demand, a dynamic that will squeeze out the most expensive and dirtiest energy sources. The use of fossil fuels for electricity shifted in 2018 from a long period of growth to a plateau in which there is no clear trend up or down as measured by the amount of electricity produced. The report says the plateau is likely to continue until about 2025, followed by a long-term decline. The report acknowledges some big obstacles, like political resistance from fossil fuel industries and the challenges of running a grid that uses mostly intermittent resources. But it says the obstacles are surmountable, although I think this portion of the report feels insubstantial at points, with statements like “Innovation has solved most of the barriers to change.” (Bond acknowledged this is fair criticism, and said that the part of the report about obstacles is brief because he and his co-authors are working on a companion report that focuses on this subject in detail.) The report isn’t an academic paper, but plenty of academic researchers have used similar concepts to come to similar conclusions. For example, I wrote last year about a paper from University of Oxford economists and mathematicians about the potential for vast cost savings from a rapid transition to renewable energy. Bond, who is based in the United Kingdom, spent decades as an equity analyst and strategist for Deutsche Bank and Citibank, among others. He shifted a few years ago to focus exclusively on economic ramifications of the transition to clean energy, working for the UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative and now RMI. I spoke with him by video from his office, with follow-up via email. Here’s our discussion, edited for length and clarity: A lot of what you’re talking about feels like techno optimism, this idea that we can all relax because progress is going to solve everything. And that’s an idea that gets a lot of criticism, especially from environmental advocates. I hear what you’re saying that maybe we are understating the difficulties that we face. There’s nothing inevitable about change. We cannot relax for a moment. This is a battle between the forces trying to protect the fossil fuel status quo and those trying to change it. We have to go out there and drive the change we need. Change the policy, deploy the renewable technology, come up with solutions in the hard-to-solve sectors. There is nothing easy about this, but we still need hope and direction. As [Paul] Romer said, it’s the difference between complacent optimism and conditional optimism, the difference between a child wanting to be given toys and a child going and building a treehouse. How has the Ukraine war affected the trajectory of the energy transition? So the Ukraine war without any question has sped up change because it increased efficiency and sped up the deployment of renewables. The International Energy Agency, for example, put out two reports at the end of 2022, and one of them said that after a number of years of slow gains in energy efficiency, efficiency has increased this year to 2 percent, which is exactly what you would expect in the face of a supply shock. And that, of course, is just the beginning. So it’s increased the efficiency of our use of energy. And of course, the other thing that it’s done is it’s massively increased the deployment of renewable energy. So the IEA, for example, increased their renewable energy deployment forecast for the next five years by 30 percent. Meanwhile, solar deployment in 2022 increased by 50 percent to 270 GW, according to BloombergNEF, and EV sales rose by 60 percent. As so often, war has sped up change. So if I’m Vladimir Putin, this is pretty counterproductive in terms of my long-term global interests. As Talleyrand said, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. The situation was similar in the 1970s, when OPEC tried to achieve its own geopolitical aims by cutting off oil supply, and ended up setting the scene for two decades of significantly lower oil prices, which ultimately had very profound consequences, including contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This time around, we see a similar story of petrostate overreach leading to a speeding up of change. It’s not an unreasonable framework for us to be thinking about the consequences of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, that it will actually achieve the exact opposite of what he wanted, that is to say, a speeding up of change. Back to the idea of optimism: We live in a world where there’s a lot of justified pessimism about climate change. Are you optimistic about the world that our children and grandchildren will be living in? The reason I’m very optimistic is because we can actually see right in front of our noses this pivot point where we go from constantly rising demand for fossil fuels, to a plateau, and then a decline.  Four factors underlie my optimism: learning curves, meaning the cost of renewables gets cheaper every year; exponential growth, meaning renewables get bigger every year; tipping points, because they are happening right now; and feedback loops, which make change happen faster once you get to the tipping point. That means that this is the decade of disruption, where the energy system starts its long process of change. And as the energy system changes, we can fight back against climate change.  One of the other reasons why I’m optimistic is if you look backwards 10 years, it really was incredibly bleak. And all these technologies were much more expensive. But here we are, and what will happen in another 10 years, how much more innovation and deployment can there be? So yeah, I guess that’s why I’m relatively optimistic. And I should also say I have two children who share this optimism; they’re going into this field, as engineers to build out this brave new world.

Can board games teach us about the climate crisis? Game creators say yes

Board games might be the best learning device to think creatively about impending climate disasterEurope is planting trees to offset its emissions but is swiftly hit with massive wildfires. The United States is investing in mining operations abroad to wean off its dependence on fossil fuels but harbors concerns about trading with an abusive government. Meanwhile, a coalition of countries from the global south must decide whether to accept construction loans from China or the United States.These are not conversations at another high-profile global summit, but rather scenarios envisioned by the board game Daybreak, which hits shelves this spring. Four players – the United States, China, Europe and the “Majority World”, encompassing the global south – cooperate to reach zero emissions before hitting 2 degrees of warming or putting too many communities in crisis. Continue reading...

Board games might be the best learning device to think creatively about impending climate disasterEurope is planting trees to offset its emissions but is swiftly hit with massive wildfires. The United States is investing in mining operations abroad to wean off its dependence on fossil fuels but harbors concerns about trading with an abusive government. Meanwhile, a coalition of countries from the global south must decide whether to accept construction loans from China or the United States.These are not conversations at another high-profile global summit, but rather scenarios envisioned by the board game Daybreak, which hits shelves this spring. Four players – the United States, China, Europe and the “Majority World”, encompassing the global south – cooperate to reach zero emissions before hitting 2 degrees of warming or putting too many communities in crisis. Continue reading...

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