Will This Technology Make Fish Farming More Sustainable?

Civil Eats | July 6, 2016

Salmon farm

Salmon farm. Photo credit: antonalfred courtesy of Creative Commons

Wild seafood is disappearing rapidly and many consumers have turned to farmed fish as a way to help reverse the trend. But finding a sustainable source of food for carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna—which rank as the second and third most popular types of seafood in America—has been a persistent challenge for aquaculture producers.

Now, a group of scientists have developed a new form of fish feed that uses no agricultural land and requires very little water. It’s called FeedKind and it’s made from bacteria that eats methane and turns it into energy.

This approach is promising because for a long time fish farms merely fed these fish a diet consisting of wild “forage” fish and oil derived from wild fish. But it often took several pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish, making it a loss for the oceans.

Then, in recent years, the aquaculture industry turned to feed based on corn, soy, and wheat, usually using dried distiller grains. While these solutions are often better for the oceans, they also rely heavily on agricultural land, much in the way other animal feed does. Similarly, they rely on the use of pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean.

“We’re taking carbon from outside the food chain, which frees up more food for humans,” says Josh Silverman, the founder and chief products officer of Calysta, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley. “And we’re turning methane into a higher value product.”

Calysta says FeedKind could address sustainability problems plaguing aquaculture, which the Food and Agricultural Organization found is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries worldwide.

After raking in $30 million of capital from investors in a third round of funding—including animal feed giant Cargill—since December, Calysta is readying a R&D plant in England that plans to manufacture FeedKind at pilot scale by the end of this year. It’s also hoping to get a North American commercial production facility online by 2018.

FeedKind is made by first dissolving methane in water with the bacteria (methanotrophs that are commonly found in the top layer of soil). The bacteria gobbles up the methane molecules. Then, after the mixture is fermented, the protein produced from this process is extruded and formed into pellets.

“[People] have known about this bacteria for years,” says Silverman, who has a Stanford PhD in biotechnology and comes from the biopharmaceutical industry. “But no one had thought about how to use them in industrial applications.”

The alternative fish feed was originally developed over a decade ago by Norferm, a Norwegian company that won approval to sell FeedKind in the European Union. After Calysta acquired the company in 2014, Silverman says he refined the fermenting process.

Norferm only tested the product in salmon. But Silverman claims that FeedKind could also be used to feed other carnivorous fish such as halibut, sea bass, sea bream, eel, and shrimp—perhaps even terrestrial livestock and pigs, he adds.

Jan Brekke, the CEO of Sogn Aqua, a sustainable halibut farm in Norway, says he has not tested FeedKind on his fish, but is encouraged by its potential.

“The whole idea of [not] using biomass from the sea to produce fishmeal will turn global fish farming in a total different direction,” he said in an email.

FeedKind is not an environmentally pristine product. For one thing, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the fermenting process. And Silverman says that Calysta plans to source the methane for FeedKind from natural gas extracted from the electricity grid rather than capturing it from the atmosphere. (Methane is a significant component of natural gas).

Still, Carbon Trust, a London-based consulting firm, found that producing FeedKind consumed 76 percent less water than growing the same amount of protein found in soybean meal and 98 percent less water than wheat gluten. (Calysta sponsored the research, but Carbon Trust maintains that its conclusions were developed independently and the study was peer reviewed.)

Sourcing methane from the grid rather than capturing the emissions produced from human activities (such as fossil fuel production, livestock farming and decomposing landfill waste) may seem like a huge missed opportunity, considering that the greenhouse gas is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But because natural gas is so inexpensive, Silverman says there’s no significant infrastructure or market incentive in place for his company to capture methane at commercial scale.

Still, Jillian Fry, the director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, points out that the Carbon Trust study doesn’t take into account the large environmental impact associated with fracking, a process which is responsible for two-thirds of the natural gas produced in the U.S., according to the federal government.

“It’s a glaring gap,” she says. “Even if not 100 percent [of the natural gas and methane] comes from fracking, the water, land use, and the pollution need to be taken into account,” she says.

Silverman is hoping that commercializing FeedKind will help to stimulate further the unmet demand to convert methane into something more useful—and help to build the infrastructure Calysta needs to source methane more sustainably in the future.

Fry adds that because of the carbon dioxide that’s released and the methane sourcing, it’s difficult to say at this stage if FeedKind is something everyone should throw their support behind.

But she still thinks it has promise. “We need to strike a balance—we don’t want to kill all enthusiasm for a new product and say that there’s no progress unless it’s flawless,” she says. “It’s very exciting to hear about this kind of development.”

Note: This story was reprinted in GreenBiz on August 16, 2016.

How one company is feeding farms with food waste

Civil Eats | Sept. 21, 2015

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

You don’t have to dumpster dive to know that supermarkets send a steady stream of uneaten food to landfills.

Once there, the waste does more than smell bad. It also contributes to climate change by emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (one reason the USDA recently pledged to reduce food waste 50 percent nationally by 2030).

But when a new California state law [PDF] goes into effect this April, large grocery stores in the state will be required to ditch the landfill and compost or recycle their food waste instead.

In order for supermarkets to comply with the impending law, they’ll need more places to put the waste—and one Sacramento-based company appears to be well positioned to respond to this problem. California Safe Soil has developed a process that transforms truckloads of supermarket food waste into farm-ready fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest, or H2H.

“This was something that made perfect sense to me,” says CEO Dan Morash, who founded the startup in 2012, after leaving a career as an investment banker in the energy sector. “There’s this huge stream of waste from the supermarkets that is no longer safe to eat as it gets to the end of its shelf life, but it still has a lot of nutrients.”

Using fertilizer made from food waste also cuts down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, he adds, which can reduce the amount of nitrate runoff into local rivers and streams, which often lead to dead zones.

The company claims that since its launch in 2012, it has diverted over 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, preventing the emissions of 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases and preventing the need for over 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers.

Final Liquid Fertilizer ProductHow is Morash’s product different from standard compost? He worked with soil and fertilizer specialist Mark LeJeune to develop a method that fast forwards the composting process (which is fueled by aerobic digestion, or bacteria fed by oxygen that breaks down organic matter). The process turns food waste into liquid fertilizer in three hours.

First, the food is ground down into a liquid, then treated with enzymes to break down the protein, fat, and carbohydrates into the amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. Then, it’s pasteurized (that is, heated at high temperatures) to kill any pathogens that might be present.

“The average particle size is very small—26 microns,” Morash says. “This [enables it to] mix easily with water.”

There’s a separate stream for organic and conventional food, as California Safe Soil sells an all-organic version. Both are applied to the crops via drip irrigation.

In 2012, Morash and LeJeune opened a pilot plant in Sacramento to develop the technology. The product was commercialized in 2013 and is regulated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“The California Department of Food and Agriculture is concerned about food safety, so we had to prove that [the fertilizer production process] eliminates pathogens,” Morash says. “So we did a research project called a challenge test at the University of California, Davis.”

To show that the product was effective, the company conducted additional experiments with researchers, including one at U.C. Davis and a strawberry expert at U.C. Cooperative Extension.

Morash claims that use of his fertilizer on tomatoes has upped the rate of food production by between 10 to 15 percent.

California Safe Soil’s target market is mainly large farms that grow crops like strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens, almonds, and wine grapes. Several of the berry growers that he works with supply for Driscoll’s, Morash says.

Broccoli TrialBut orchard crops like fruit and nuts are especially well suited for this liquid fertilizer. Traditionally, orchard-based farmers “need to till the soil to get organic matter in without cutting up the roots,” he says. “So the ability to deliver organic matter to the soil in liquid form is a big positive.”

At the moment, the company processes food waste from 15 stores across five supermarket chains (Grocery Outlet, Nugget, Safeway, SaveMart, and Whole Foods) in Sacramento. Six days a week, the plant processes about 3,750 pounds of food from between seven to eight markets a day (each brings in an average of about 500 pounds daily).

The Sacramento facility is operating at capacity, but he hopes to build others in the coming years. The idea is to locate plants, like the one Sacramento, near grocery distribution centers. This way, after delivering goods to the stores, the centers’ trucks can fill up with food waste for the trip home, Morash says.

There are additional economic and environmental benefits to locating California Safe Soil plants near distribution centers, he adds. Turning food waste into fertilizer not only saves grocery stores the fees associated with sending it to a landfill, but it also prevents the greenhouse gas emissions and extra transportation costs often needed to deliver it there.

“This has a very positive environmental impact across the board,” Morash says. “It’s going to increase the sustainability of agriculture starting right here in California.”

Photos, from the top: Employees moving wasted produce into the processing machine; the final liquid fertilizer product; broccoli from a farm trial with the control on the left and the H2H produced product on the right. All courtesy of California Safe Soil.

This stove cleanly burns plastic and charges a phone

TakePart | Mashable | Nov. 14, 2014

KleanCook stove

The KleanCook stove inspired the design for the K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

It’s no secret that the smoke spewing from open fires and from indoor coal-fired cook stoves is a silent killer in the developing world, and a contributor to climate change. More than 4 million people die each year from health problems related to inhaling carbon monoxide or particulate matter released from stoves that burn wood, biomass, or coal, according to the World Health Organization.

Despite a long-running government campaign to eradicate dirty fuels from households, the problem persists in China. But thanks to two young entrepreneurs, a new kind of cook stove—one that can cleanly combust small amounts of plastic trash and convert its excess cooking heat to electricity—could be on its way into kitchens across China.

“Smoke-related illnesses are a bigger issue than malaria or HIV,” said Jacqueline Nguyen, one of the entrepreneurs and a University of California, Berkeley, senior toxicology student. “It kills more than HIV and malaria worldwide per year.”

While Nguyen handles business and marketing for Energant, the company behind the device, her best friend, Mark Webb—a 2011 Berkeley graduate who studied biochemistry—designed the K2 cook stove.

The K2 reduces smoky emissions by 95 percent, according to tests Webb conducted. Using the excess heat created during operations, it can generate enough electricity to trickle charge a mobile phone. It has the ability to burn biomass briquettes cleanly as well.

It can also burn plastic and wood without toxic emissions as long as the material—which emits volatile organic compounds when burned—doesn’t exceed 8 percent of the mass being used as fuel, according to Webb.

The ability to burn plastic and wood cleanly is what distinguishes the K2 model from the KleanCook stove, the product Webb designed last year.

Webb got the idea for the K2 cook stove during pilot testing of the KleanCook model in the Philippines this past summer, when he and Nguyen noticed people cooking food over open fires all across the country—and burning plastic bags as a way to get those fires started.

“We decided to make the K2, which was centered specifically around being able to burn off all of the toxic material from this trash,” Webb said.

K2 cookstove from Energant

The K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

But because the two wanted the cook stoves to generate income for local people who would sell the devices for profit, they decided to target the Chinese market, as business costs in the Philippines were too high.

How does it work, and what differentiates it from other clean cook stoves?

The stove’s built-in fan has a geometric design and resembles the turbo fan of a jet engine. When the fan blows air into the fire, it creates forced convection, which makes the stove more fuel-efficient. Carbon monoxide is then converted to carbon dioxide.

The stove’s greater efficiency means that 50 percent less fuel has to be burned to create the same amount of heat, resulting in lower emissions, according to Webb. A patent is pending on the K2’s design.

The stove also contains a thermoelectric generator. When one side of the device is exposed to heat and the other is kept cool, an electric current is generated as the heat travels from one side of the generator to the other. That electric charge is then fed into a voltage regulator to produce a steady current.

Because it’s made from cheap metal, the stove costs only $16 to manufacture. Energant plans to sell the stoves to regional distributors for $20 to $25. In turn, the salespeople will sell the units at retail for $50—a price that Webb and Nguyen say the Chinese government has deemed an acceptable amount to charge based on disposable income.

The debut of the K2 cook stove could be timely, as recent reports from China indicate there’s been an increase in burning trash and plastic, which releases carcinogenic dioxins.

Webb and Nguyen’s clean cook stove venture attracted support from Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab after the pair won the lab’s “Big Ideas” student innovation contest with the KleanCook stove.

The development lab is one of seven university efforts funded by USAID via the U.S. Global Development Lab. That initiative gives money to seven centers at universities around the country that support students creating solutions to global problems such as climate change, food security, health, and poverty.

“Our whole market approach to the KleanCook was to have the cheapest possible thing that was the most scalable and can deliver electricity for devices,” Webb said.

KleanCook also won prize money from the Clinton Global Initiative University contest this past year, which allowed the entrepreneurs to fund KleanCook’s pilot testing in the Philippines.

Though the K2 cook stove—KleanCook’s more sophisticated sister—appears promising, it isn’t ready for market yet. Webb says Energant has a pre-manufacturing prototype that he’s tested for efficiency using a consumer carbon monoxide sensor that recorded the carbon dioxide output of the stove.

To win the confidence of Chinese consumers, he says K2 needs to be tested using validated equipment—something that Energant would have to pay for specialists to do at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The company hopes to raise $30,000 from an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the testing.

View the original story here.

Space lasers could help count the carbon for the trees

TakePart | September 10, 2014

redwood_forestLasers, 3-D imagery and outer-space surveillance sounds like cutting room floor fodder of a scrapped Austin Powers film, but it’s all part of NASA’s latest effort to map the Earth’s forests and gain a better understanding on climate change.

Dubbed Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar—the nod to Star Wars may be entirely coincidental—the laser instrument will be designed to hitch a ride aboard the International Space Station. Once aboard, it will pump out large-scale 3-D imagery of forests. Lidar—the type of laser mapping tool that Google uses to guide its self-driving cars—will be deployed to measure the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

NASA and the University of Maryland hope the technology will give scientists a better picture of just how much carbon is stored in the Earth’s forests and the impact of logging on climate change.

“There’s an open question of what is the net balance between the amount of deforestation taking place and subsequent regrowth,” said Ralph Dubayah, a University of Maryland professor who is leading the GEDI project. “If we don’t know what that is, we don’t know what future atmospheric levels of CO2 are and it becomes hard to run climate models.”

With a 3-D picture—or fingerprint—of a forest, experts would be able to calculate the weight of its trees and figure out how much carbon they contain. About half of a tree’s biomass is carbon, according to Dubayah.

Armed with the new data, policy makers should be able to quantify the potential amount of carbon that could be released into the atmosphere by deforestation or forest fires. They then could determine what it would take to offset that release, such as by planting more trees.

Deploying lidar from space will be an improvement over the way forests are currently monitored.

Airplanes currently are used to shoot lidar lasers down into forests, thereby mapping the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

But the plane’s limited range restricts the amount of data that can be collected.

“From space, you can get access to essentially all the world’s forests,” Dubayah said. “Aircraft is expensive and if you’re in the middle of a rainforest, there are a lot of logistics involved in doing that. If you use lasers in space, you acquire much more data much more rapidly at cheaper cost.”

The GEDI system is still in development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is slated for deployment in mid-2018. Dubayah hopes that the first batch of data will be available by 2019, with the program running continuously from the International Space Station.

“If we’re going to make any kind of policy changes in the U.S., one way to do that is by planting trees and running climate and land use models to look at potential scenarios,” Dubayah said. “It’s hard to run models forward in time that evaluate alternative policy scenarios if we don’t know what we’re starting with.”

Photo of Northern California redwood forest by Kirt Edblom via flickr/Creative Commons

Are you ready for a 35-year drought?

TakePart | August 29, 2014

drought_utahWith the American West losing an estimated 63 trillion gallons of groundwater over the past 18 months, it’s hard to imagine that the drought could get any worse.

But it just might.

A new study estimates that the possibility of a decade-long drought hitting the Southwest sometime this century could be as high as 90 percent. And there’s as much as a 50 percent chance of a mega-drought that lasts for 35 years or more, according to Toby Ault, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.

“This is only the beginning,” said Ault, whose research will be published next month in the Journal of Climate. “The further south you go, the drier the average conditions really are, and the risk is greater.”

It’s the first research that quantifies the risk of drought from reduced precipitation and drier conditions caused by climate change. Scientists conducted their analysis by incorporating historical data of past mega-droughts in the Southwest—such as the series of long-running droughts that struck the region between 900 and 1400—into computer models of contemporary climate observations.

The drought forecast in the Southwest—which the researchers define as Central to Southern California, Nevada, Southern Arizona, Southern Utah, New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and Western Texas—compares starkly with predictions for the northern states. Ault’s computer models indicate that Washington, Montana, and Idaho, for instance, face a decreased risk for drought over this century.

“Dry regions get drier, wet regions get wetter, and places on the edge are uncertain,” Ault said.

Making global predictions about drought is harder as less data is available for many regions outside the United States. “But even so, we saw that the Southwestern U.S. looks like it’s exposed to risks that are comparable to other parts of the world, such as parts of Africa, Northern Mexico, and parts of Brazil,” said Ault.

Researchers at Scripps Institute of Oceanography recently found that the earth’s surface in the West has risen 0.16 inches over the last year and a half as a result of losing 63 trillion gallons of water. Another report estimates that water levels in California’s three largest reservoirs have fallen 70 percent.

So what would a drought prolonged for 35 years or longer look like?

“Take the current drought and double it,” Ault said. “In Arizona, there’s been a drought that’s gone on and off for the last 10 years. Doubling that, it looks very challenging.”

Next up for Ault is to calculate how much snowpack and groundwater would be lost in a mega-drought. He also plans to determine how much water the Colorado River would lose during a decades-long drought.

Though his predictions focus on the risk of drought brought on by drier conditions from climate change, Ault says he’s still not sure if the West’s current drought is a result of global warming.

But regardless of the relationship, he emphasizes that people should pay attention to how drought is affecting the region.

“It’s a glimpse and preview of what we expect to happen from climate change—and a picture and window into the future,” he said.

Photo of drought in Utah by Anthony Quintano via flickr/Creative Commons

Underground carbon store is a greenhouse gas bomb

TakePart | May 31, 2014

The Arikaree Breaks in northwestern Kansas is home to ancient soils that were covered in loess deposits over thousands of years. Photo by Joe courtesy Creative Commons.

The Arikaree Breaks in northwestern Kansas is home to ancient soils that were covered in loess deposits over thousands of years. Photo by Joe courtesy Creative Commons.

Although most of the attention given to greenhouse gas has focused on the air around and above us, another significant source of carbon could contribute to climate change and has been unaccounted for: soot and fossils buried in soil that formed up to 15,000 years ago.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who dug as much as six and a half meters below the surface in Kansas, Nebraska, and other parts of the Great Plains to reach ancient soils filled with black carbon and plants that have not yet fully decomposed. These carbon stores could be released into the environment via erosion, road construction, mining, or deforestation.

“It was assumed that there was little carbon in deeper soil,” said Erika Marín-Spiotta, a professor at UW-Madison and a coauthor of the study, published earlier this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. Most soil studies don’t penetrate deeper than 30 centimeters, she said, leading scientists to dramatically underestimate underground carbon reserves.

Only recently have scientists become more concerned about deep soil carbon, Marín-Spiotta said. Her research team believes a situation similar to that which it has documented in the American Midwest may exist elsewhere, such as in China and France. Because such carbon reservoirs in buried soils can lurk in a range of environments—under dust accumulation, in floodplains, in valleys, at the foot of slopes of hills and mountains and under lava flows—they are likely to occur in many other parts of the world.

Just how much carbon are we talking about? While it’s hard to get a global estimate, Marín-Spiotta said as much as 5.95 trillion pounds of carbon could be lurking in the depths of the Great Plains area her team looked at. That’s assuming the ancient soil forms a continuous layer across the region; the researchers were only able to collect measurements from specific points and don’t really know what portion of the region contains the carbon-rich soil, so Marín-Spiotta acknowledges that’s a high estimate.

“The large source of uncertainty is where these buried soils are located, at what depth do they occur, and over what spatial extent,” she said.

How could this giant carbon bomb be released? In some areas, it has already been exposed to the atmosphere. But for the subterranean reserves, Marín-Spiotta believes a number of factors are at work, including how much carbon there really is, how much has persisted since it was buried, and what kind of carbon is down there.

Though Marín-Spiotta says the buried reserves carbon don’t pose an immediate risk to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, she notes that land managers need to take precautions, as the researchers found the ancient soils are more reactive than was previously understood. Key among these, she said, would be to “estimate whether there are any [high-carbon] soils at a particular location [and if so] prevent erosion and exposure that would accelerate…release of CO2 to the atmosphere.”

Photo of the Arikaree Breaks in Kansas by Joe courtesy of Creative Commons

View the original story here.

Will UC make history and pull the plug on fossil fuels?

CALIFORNIA Magazine | April 21, 2014

When 29-year-old UC Berkeley student Ophir Bruck spotted Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount Pictures, on her way to a University of California Regents meeting, he was holding on to a key that he hoped she wouldn’t refuse.

“We’re here to call on the UC Regents to take bold action on climate change,” Bruck told Lansing last May, as she walked past 58 chanting students chained to two homemade structures designed to represent oil drilling rigs. “Will you symbolically unlock us from a future of fossil fuel dependence and climate chaos?”

“I drive a Prius,” Lansing replied, without stopping.

But now the issue is coming to a head at the University of California system, as activists push hard for it to become the nation’s first large public research institution to jettison fossil fuel investments. Over the coming months, the UC Board of Regents—trustees of a $6.4 billion endowment, one of higher education’s greatest—will be forced to grapple with the question.

As climate change accelerates faster than ever before—and with the world’s top oil, gas and coal companies already controlling a tremendous amount of fossil fuels—college students all over the country are urgently pressuring universities to divest their holdings of these corporations. Thus far 10 U.S. colleges and universities have committed to divest, and the movement is active on 450 campuses nationwide. To date, over 60 more entities (mostly municipalities, churches and foundations) have heeded the call to divest, attributing their actions in part to a desire to leave a world that future generations will be able to inhabit.

But it has particular frisson at UC Berkeley, where on Monday student activists dressed in black kicked off Earth Week 2014 by lying down in Dwinelle Plaza to simulate a “human oil spill”—and to demand the UC system divest itself of fossil fuel companies. With historically successful divestment campaigns targeting then-apartheid South Africa, tobacco companies and Sudan, Cal students have been catalysts for turning financial calculations into moral ones.

“If we do not divest from fossil fuels, and continue business as usual, future UC students will not have livable futures—and it’s part of the Regents’ fiduciary duty to ensure that they do,” says 21-year-old UC Berkeley junior Victoria Fernandez, one of Fossil Free Cal’s campaign leaders.

Student activist Victoria Fernandez chained herself to a mock oil rig as a protest against UC fossil fuel investments at a May 2013 Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Student activist Victoria Fernandez chained herself to a mock oil rig as a protest against UC fossil fuel investments at a May 2013 Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Fernandez, an environmental studies major, has made her cause consistently visible to the Regents over the past year. She repeatedly turns up at their meetings to give public comments, was one of the 58 chained to the oil rig, and regularly tries to engage the throng of students rushing through Sproul Plaza to join divestment efforts.

She’s motivated by her father, the son of a braceros agricultural worker from Zacatecas, Mexico who labored on a date farm in Indio, Calif. “My dad never wanted to waste anything and recycled everything—those values were cemented in me growing up,” she said. When her father immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 5, the family lived in the one tiny shack sitting in the midst of a huge stand of palm trees.

Bruck, an environmental studies re-entry student who is poised to graduate next month, says that divesting presents transformational promise for society. “It’s more than about just reducing carbon emissions—it’s a justice issue,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to rethink outdated political, economic and social systems out of which the crisis was born.”

While UC has been listening to what Fernandez and Bruck are saying about the need to divest, it’s not fully convinced. UC Regent Bonnie Reiss—who served as a climate advisor to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—and UC Chief Financial Officer Peter Taylor question the benefits of divestment from a portfolio tasked with bringing in returns to support faculty research and student scholarships, as well as whether divestment would actually weaken the industry at all.

“UC’s mission is not just to fight climate change—our primary mission is access and affordability to receive a great education,” Reiss says. “So it should be a really rare incident where you’re putting any restrictions on your investment criteria that are anything but maximizing your return on investment.”

Both Reiss and Taylor point to the UC’s decision to divest from tobacco stocks in 2001 as proof of such risk. Each year, the university system analyzes how the portfolio would have performed had it not divested. During the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the portfolio earned $44.9 million more without the tobacco stocks.

But when looking at its cumulative difference calculated between the portfolio and its hypothetical alter ego between 2001-2013, the portfolio lost $471.6 million. “Are tobacco companies any less vibrant since 2001?” Taylor asks. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for staff members make value judgments on whether we should invest in tobacco companies, if genetic engineering is good or bad, if fossil fuels are good or bad. Where do you draw the line? What’s the answer to that? I’d love to know.”

Back in 2011, a divestment campaign targeting a select group of coal companies failed to take off on campus. But a broader initiative gained momentum last spring, a few months after climate activist Bill McKibben spoke at Berkeley as part of a national tour to rally supporters around the campaign organized by his nonprofit organization 350.org. Its call: Institutions should divest from the top 200 oil, gas and coal companies.

Bruck was in the crowd that evening—one of just 15 to 20 students among a few hundred people, he observed, when McKibben asked all the students in the room to stand up.

“He called upon us, saying that you have the power to take action and to leverage your position as students and push your institutions to act on climate,” Bruck says. “The whole presentation—it gets you mad, it gets you scared. Not fearmongering-scared, but realistically concerned about everything you care about.”

350.org’s argument is based on research showing that if the top companies burned all of their reserves, it would raise the earth’s temperature beyond 2 degrees Celsius—the amount that governments agreed not to exceed collectively in the international climate agreement brokered at Copenhagen in 2009. Anything beyond this threshold, U.N. climate scientists predict, will create a world of heat waves, unprecedented sea-level rise and not enough food and water to support an increased population of nine billion people by 2050. Recently, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report concluding that greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut from 40 to 70 percent by midcentury in order to prevent a climate catastrophe.

And according to Carbon Tracker, the London-based think tank that conducted the top 200 companies research, these corporations have five times more carbon to burn than the amount that would keep the earth below the two-degree limit.

After McKibben addressed the students, Bruck recalls feeling a responsibility to take action, though he had never really committed himself to organizing on an issue before. “Things in my life culminated where I was ready to engage myself at this moment—and climate change was not one of those issues until I came out of that talk,” he says.

Students try to catch the attention of UC campus chancellors and the Board of Regents outside its May 2013 meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Students try to catch the attention of UC campus chancellors and the Board of Regents outside its May 2013 meeting in Sacramento, Calif.

Students at Cal and other UCs adopted 350.org’s call for action. They began asking the Regents to divest $11.2 billion  (a $6.4 billion general endowment pool and an additional $4.8 billion sitting in campus endowments) from these top 200 companies within five years of making the commitment. Their kickoff rally was at the Regents’ Sacramento meeting last May, when they chained themselves to the symbolic oil rig, chanted calls for divestment and gave a 15-minute speech to the regents via 15 students speaking one minute at a time, so as not to violate the one-minute public comment limit.

In January, after Fernandez and Bruck discussed the issue with a group of Regents over lunch, the Regents agreed to set up a task force comprised of students, Regents and faculty that would examine the issue and bring its findings to the Regents’ Committee on Investments. The task force would then make a recommendation to the committee, which would in turn make their recommendation to the full body of Regents. Finally, Regents would vote on whether to divest its endowment.

“It’s the same process that the Regents went through before voting to divest from Sudan in 2006,” says Bruck.

But unlike the Sudan divestment—one that involved just nine companies—oil, gas and coal companies are a trickier and more pervasive proposition. Taylor estimates that of the university system’s $6.4 billion general endowment holdings, “just north” of $100 million are invested in fossil fuel stocks.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s an uphill battle for the Regents to approve this,” says Reiss. “We need to analyze the true costs and benefits.”

She contends that UC initiatives such as its green building requirements, and UC President Janet Napolitano’s goal to get the nine-campus system carbon neutral by 2025, are more effective ways to fight climate change. Green construction, she says, not only reduces carbon emissions, but also creates markets for sustainable building materials and clean technology.

Students such as Fernandez and Bruck admit that if UC decides to divest from fossil fuels, it would be a symbolic gesture and probably not make an impact on the huge corporations’ bottom lines. But they insist there is more to gain by changing public opinion.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and take away their social license to operate,” Fernandez says. “The harmful things fossil fuel companies do to communities are not seen by the economy and the world as a whole. They hurt them economically and health-wise. Look at Chevron in Richmond.”

Creating that social stigma has worked before. Although UC Regents and Berkeley chancellors initially resisted thousands of anti-apartheid activists pushing for divestment from South Africa, the university system did so in 1986 after 18 months of demonstrations and physical confrontations between protestors and campus police, anti-apartheid activist and Berkeley alumni Steve Masover has recalled. In 1990, Nelson Mandela credited the Berkeley movement with playing a significant role in the downfall of apartheid.

Bruck is bracing for the long haul. After graduation, he says, he can see himself continuing to do climate change organizing full-time.

CEO Andrew Behar of As You Sow, an Oakland-based shareholder activist group, sees another compelling financial reason to divest. He’s among a growing group of investors warning of the risk of investing in fossil fuel companies because of the “carbon bubble”—the idea that the value of fossil fuel stock is overpriced. The theory goes like this: If governments pass climate regulations or carbon taxes to prevent the earth’s temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius, fossil fuel companies will be forced to leave most of their reserves in the ground. To keep that temperature threshold, according to a 2013 study by Carbon Tracker, only 20 to 40 percent of those reserves could be burned.

Behar estimates the value of the carbon bubble, or the industry’s “stranded assets,” as they’ve also been dubbed, to be $20 trillion. He says that in the last year, the bubble has already started to burst as coal has been dumped in favor of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

“Nine coal companies went bankrupt last year. If you bought coal two years ago, you lost 58 percent of their portfolio’s original value,” he says. “It’s moving more rapidly even than anyone thought possible.”

In March, in a response to pressure from activists, ExxonMobil released a report to shareholders that concluded “we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded.’ We believe producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide, and in preventing consumers—especially those in the least developed and most vulnerable economies—from themselves becoming stranded in the global pursuit of higher living standards and greater economic opportunity.”

Out of the 10 colleges that have chosen to divest in fossil fuels, most are small and private. The largest was Pitzer College, which announced on April 12 (via trustee Robert Redford) its decision to divest its $130 million.

There’s a reason why no large public institution has stepped into the ring thus far. “Many universities remain unwilling to risk their endowments and need, frankly, more certainty,” says Taylor, citing an op-ed by the University of Michigan’s Chief Investment Officer Erik Lundberg arguing that divestment was impractical.

And with a $32.7 billion endowment—the largest treasure chest among all U.S. colleges and universities—Harvard President Drew Faust emphatically dismissed divestment, citing concerns that the university would inappropriately appear to be a “political” actor, as well as risk future returns. (Recently, the university signed on to UN-backed principles for “responsible investment.” That is a non-binding framework, which critics see as an empty gesture).

But those who have studied the impacts of fossil fuel divestment—as well as at least one college that divested—refute the idea that it will inevitably lead to financial losses.

“Our analysis found that if you are doing market cap weighted indexing, there is very little cost to divestment from a risk standpoint,” said Liz Michaels of Aperio Group, a Sausalito, Calif.-based investment management firm specializing in value-based investing. The company doesn’t maintain a position on fossil fuel divestment.

Aperio—which subscribes to the philosophy that investors can only match the market, not beat it—used Barra proprietary software to remove a portfolio’s holdings in the fossil fuel sector, then asked it to reinvest and reweight them to match market performance as much as possible.

“We’ve done much better after divestment,” said Stephen Mulkey, the president of Unity College in Maine, which divested in November of 2012. “We’ve achieved significant gains because we are paying closer—almost daily—attention”—a constant watch of its portfolio funds to ensure that fossil fuel holdings stay below 1 percent of the college’s endowment. The college also invests all proceeds from the fossil fuel holdings into an internal fund that provides financing for energy efficiency, renewable energy, or other sustainability projects, with the money saved then invested back into the fund.

The UC Regents’ Committee on Investments Task Force has yet to be convened. At last month’s Regents meeting, Fernandez and Bruck dutifully waited their turn to speak at the public comment session and remind the assembled group of the task force’s importance. Still, the students say that a vote on divestment is possible within the year; Taylor says a Regents discussion by November is realistic.

Many divestment backers simply advocate switching from fossil fuel holdings to cleantech and green bond holdings. But Berkeley energy professor and divestment advocate Daniel Kammen, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says it’s also important to draw on the expertise of the oil, gas and coal companies, spurring them to help create an economy that does not rely on fossil fuels.

“In the transition to renewable energy, we need to move them from extractive companies to knowledge-based companies,” he says. “There are more people that are really well versed in technology and economic policies in the big energy companies than anywhere else. So it would be crazy not to forge partnerships with them and build on their resources.”

All photos of Fossil Free UC action at University of California Board of Regents Meeting by Mauricio D. Castillo

View the original story here.

Why Fox mentioned climate change more than…

TakePart | January 17, 2014

Broken ice on the Hudson River during the polar vortex

Broken ice on the Hudson River during the polar vortex

Why Fox mentioned climate change more than MSNBC during the polar vortex

Less than a month ago, the term “polar vortex” sounded more like the name of a Pixar film than a blast of Arctic air causing record-low temperatures. The flick would star a family of polar bears wearing red vests, I imagined. They’d stumble into a ring of gently falling snow. But the flurries would soon twist into a hard-driving blizzard, and when the family tried to escape, it would encounter all sorts of obstacles.

I wasn’t the only one with an overactive imagination during the recent cold snap. As the frigid air drove Americans into their thermal underwear and under their electric blankets, late-night talk-show hosts broadcast their own interpretations. Stephen Colbert pictured the polar vortex as a Nicolas Cage action film. Jay Leno envisioned the term splashed across Cosmo covers. And David Letterman free-associated the words “minus degrees” with Dr. Phil.

But Fox News had a different idea altogether. The channel interpreted the polar vortex–induced temperatures as evidence that global warming does not exist, according to an investigation of cable networks’ climate change coverage by Media Matters for America, a media watchdog.

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8—days described by The New York Times as “the worst of the polar vortex mess”—Fox News took to branding climate change as a dubious phenomenon. (Never mind that geologist James L. Powell found that only one of more than 9,000 authors of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in the last year rejected man-made global warming, or that in September 2013 the climate arm of the United Nations proclaimed with 95 percent certainty that climate change is both real and man-made.) One story that Fox News did cover during this week was that of a ship that got trapped in large amounts of Antarctic ice—notable to broadcasters as an example of “global cooling.”

During those seven days, Fox News brought up global warming in the context of cold weather nine times, Media Matters found. The network’s relatively “frequent” mentions of climate change during that period stand out when compared with its failure to bring climate change into its news analysis during a weeklong heat wave in 2011. During July 2012, the warmest month on record in the U.S., Fox News mentioned climate change exactly once—and only “to deny it,” wrote Media Matters’ Denise Robbins.

Let’s Be Clear: Weather Is Not Climate

Whereas weather is best thought of as atmospheric conditions over a short period of time, such as days or weeks, climate is how the atmosphere behaves over long periods, such as decades or centuries.

Yet Fox News’ on-air talent repeatedly ignored this key distinction, so much so that the White House was forced to release a set-the-record-straight video featuring Obama science adviser John Holdren. In it, Holdren tells viewers not to believe that the polar vortex, a short-term weather event and not a long-term climate trend, invalidates global warming.

“The fact is that no single weather episode can either prove or disprove global climate change,” he says. “Climate is a pattern of weather that we observe geographically and over the seasons, and it’s described in terms of averages, variations, and probabilities.”

Holden adds that a “growing body of evidence” suggests the extreme cold experienced by Americans is a pattern he expects to see more frequently as global warming continues.

What About the Other Television Networks?

Media Matters’ investigation found that while MSNBC mentioned climate change in the context of the polar vortex four times, it gave airtime to only those experts who debunked the climate skeptics’ position. CNN mentioned it in the cold weather context once and presented both sides in a debate format.

What’s worse, Sunday news show coverage of global warming on Fox News and the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) totaled less than half an hour—27 minutes to be exact—for all of last year, according to a previous Media Matters investigation of climate coverage.

On a slightly more positive note, nightly news in 2013 was more generous. Climate change coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC (Fox does not have an evening news program) totaled one hour and 42 minutes, the most since 2009.

Politicians Take Note—and Action

The study’s results pushed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and eight of his peers to write a letter to ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox yesterday advocating for increased climate change coverage by the networks.

“Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012,” their letter read, “given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.”

Photo of broken Hudson River ice during the U.S. polar vortex by Anthony Quintano via Wikimedia Commons

View the original story here.

Does fake meat have legs? The case for alt-proteins

GreenBiz | November 27, 2013

Beyond Eggs and real eggs

Hampton Creek Foods’ Beyond Eggs is one of the new protein substitutes that has hit the national marketplace.

Recently, two American chefs were asked to cook a meal of steak and potatoes. But when they got to the supermarket, none were in sight.

Sound implausible? True, the barren aisles were staged by Food Network TV producers. And the shortage had little consequence. No beef? They cooked habanero chicken sausages instead.

Less than 40 years from now, however, food shortages could become serious. By 2050, the world’s population could reach 9 billion. Environmental pressures will put a squeeze on farmland, water and fisheries, making it harder to feed everyone using current practices, according to a June report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

This means bad news for those who count on resource-intensive protein such as beef.

Instead of cuing in the doom and gloom, however, a swell of entrepreneurs have captured the public’s attention with alternative protein offerings that appear to be more sustainable. On the menu are edible insects, plant-based imitation eggs, fake meat and “schmeat” – that is, in vitro meat as found in Mark Post’s cow stem cell hamburger.

Go ahead and giggle at the term “schmeat” — yet, as Oxford Dictionary’s runner-up word of the year, the concept has legs. Will the emerging industry have a market for mainstream growth?

Is that a cricket you’re eating? I’ll take two

Edible insects are low cost, low-carbon emitting and full of protein, vitamins, fiber, minerals and fat, according to the FAO report. Its researchers also concluded that boosting insect populations by raising them for food would provide ecological benefits such as helping with plant pollination, improving soil fertility and controlling harmful pests.

“There’s an industry that wasn’t there before three years ago,” said David Gracer, a Rhode Island resident who has been educating the public about entomophagy — human consumption of insects — since 2001.

Gracer, who started eating insects out of curiosity in 1999, has traced mention of the practice in the media and academic journals. In the last four years, he has counted 1,200 articles about entomophagy in the media and 800 technical articles about the subject — a tremendous difference over prior years.

But the public’s mindset about entomophagy, shown via the comments on articles in American media, he says, shows a lot of disgust and mockery of the practice, which is commonplace in parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

What would it take to change these mainstream attitudes and increase market viability in America? “If things get scary out there in terms of climate change and food production and food stability, and [there’s] not complete mayhem, that’s going to be something that will change the game in terms of people’s perceptions,” he said.

Nevertheless, he continued, “When I got started, there were only a few people, and now there are domestic manufacturers for insect foods. There’s a much bigger community than there was five to six years ago.”

Tiny Farms

Berkeley, Calif.-based Andrew Brentano, wife Jena and friend Dan Imrie-Situnayake decided a little over a year ago to start Tiny Farms, a business that would support individuals and entrepreneurs interested in developing a steady supply of edible insects. Their idea wasn’t too outlandish.

After all, the Bay Area already had seen the debut of edible insect food truck Don Bugito, which hit San Francisco streets in 2011. Well before that, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences and the city zoo served samples to the adventurous. [In years past, I’ve sampled edibles at Don Bugito and the Academy of Sciences, along with chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Mexico].

Tiny Farm’s co-founders observed that there wasn’t enough supply to meet the needs for new businesses making insect food products, such as the Exo cricket bar funded on Kickstarter.

“It’s really tricky to get food-grade insects,” Brentano said. “That’s also an issue overseas because of import regulations and food safety issues.” In addition, most insects overseas are wild harvested and as a result likely will have accumulated metals and pesticides.

The emerging for-profit company’s core product will center around Web-based management tools to enable individuals and businesses to track their insects, receive alerts, and conduct data analysis.

“Right now, there’s not a market for our larger-scale plans,” Brentano said. “But there needs to be a feed-in. … Hopefully we’ll be growing with them so we can help with technical matters.”

In step with demand, then, Tiny Farms’ first offering will be open-source home assembly kits for bug farms. Brentano anticipates that the kits will be available in the first quarter of 2014.

Beyond Meat

Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, sought to develop a version of plant-based meat that was seamless with the real thing. He collaborated with biological engineering professor Fu-hung Hsieh and researcher Harold Huff at the University of Missouri, who had developed on a fake chicken product made from soybeans. The product got off the ground in 2012 at Beyond Meat’s Columbia, Mo. factory.

Company investors include the Obvious Corporation startup incubator and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.

Hampton Creek Foods

In 2011, Josh Tetrick founded Hampton Creek Foods in a quest for the perfect plant-based egg substitute. He was motivated to provide an alternative to eggs laid in unsafe, environmentally polluting industrial facilities (he explains in the video above).

“Since one-third of those eggs end up in food products, we focus on the products these caged chicken eggs end up in,” he said.

Heading up R&D is Johan Boot, who left his post as head of global R&D at Unilever to join Tetrick. In early research, Hampton Creek’s biochemists screened the molecular structure of more than 2,000 plants. Then, the company’s culinary director and food scientists took over. Eleven plants were “highly functional” as an egg substitute, Tetrick said, because they could aerate, emulsify and coagulate just like the real thing. The result was Beyond Eggs, a powder that can be used in place of eggs in baked goods.

Hampton Creek Foods also has developed a mayonnaise made from yellow peas. It’s available at 120 Whole Foods markets and will launch nationwide Dec. 5. Cookie dough and scrambled “egg” products are in the works.

Other large companies have shown interest in the San Francisco-based startup’s work, which counts Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and Kat Taylor’s Emerging Impact Fund among its investors. Tetrick said Hampton Creek Foods is currently collaborating with three Fortune 500 companies. Although he said he couldn’t talk much about this due to a nondisclosure agreement, there is a joint research project with General Mills.

“These companies see the prices of caged chicken eggs going up because they’re fed massive amounts of corn and soy,” he said. “They’re watching the problem, and it’s a natural way for them to save money.”

View the original story here.

Image of eggs and Beyond Eggs courtesy Hampton Creek Foods; image of cricket flour courtesy Exo

Carbon standard aims to benefit women worldwide

GreenBiz | April 18, 2013 | Original headline: How a new carbon standard seeks to benefit women worldwide

Laotian woman using biogas to cook

Using a biodigester means that women (here, in Laos) can use biogas as fuel for cooking and prevent their exposure to pollutant-emitting cookstoves. Photo: SNV

Women are the majority of the world’s farmers, yet carbon mitigation projects in agriculture and forestry are rarely designed in ways that benefit their economic and social status.

So says Jeannette Gurung, a Bangkok-based women’s development advocate whose group WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management) is trying to change that through the Women’s Carbon Standard. According to Gurung, no such standard currently exists for carbon projects or any other type of project that specifically addresses women.

“By and large, gender issues are not considered important to most climate change mitigation projects,” Gurung said at the standard’s launch on Wednesday in San Francisco. “There are a number of projects out there — for example, improved cookstoves — [developed] without even a thought about how to improve women’s [status]. We wanted to see if we could use the carbon markets to benefit them.”

The Women’s Carbon Standard aims to boost project benefits in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time. It requires that a portion of the profits from carbon offset sales be channeled back to the women’s community where the offset is based.

But despite its name, it’s really a social standard designed to measure outcomes benefiting women who participate in carbon mitigation projects.

“We call it ‘carbon’ because we feel like there’s a market around carbon,” Gurung said,“but it can be used on all sorts of activities.”

The mitigation project must exhibit certain indicators in income, health, food security, education, leadership and increased discretionary time before it can achieve third-party verification. For example, has the project increased access to education and improved air quality? What about water quality? Has it increased community funds under women’s control?

Christiana Figueres, the head and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), expressed support. “This approach to set up a carbon standard that measures in six different categories the very concrete impact that mitigation projects can have is a very good way of making sure that those projects are really making a difference in the quality of life for women,” Figueres said at the launch event.

To illustrate how the standard would apply to improve women’s lives, Gurung said that the choice to install a biodigester to provide energy for a gas cookstove makes a big difference. Just the one decision to use a biodigester, she said, will result in a number of improved outcomes for women’s well-being alone – not just reduce carbon emissions.

By stirring the contents of the biodigester a few times a day, gas is released up a pipeline to a kitchen stove.

“There’s no more smoke, there’s no more walking to the forest,” she said. “It relieves all those women from the drudgery of the fuel wood collection – something we see all over most of Africa and most of South Asia … The dependence on fuel wood for women means long work hours for women and health problems – respiratory problems and eye problems for those who have to work in smoky kitchens.”

And less kitchen time means more free time for women to pursue education, community leadership or entrepreneurial activities. In some cases, men have started cooking once the household has access to biogas, according to Gurung — an action representing a shift in traditional gender roles.

Figueres spoke about the need for women to be involved in the design and building of cookstoves used to replace open fire. When her daughter worked on a Clean Development Mechanism project in Guatemala, Figueres said, her daughter discovered that the first thing that needed to be done was “to get the women to be the builders of the stoves, and teach them how to maintain the stoves.” If the stoves didn’t work, she said, the stoves would be placed outside and open fire would return.

“If these women are given the entrepreneurial training to figure out how to build as a business, then now we have a very different type of leadership,” Figueres added.

The Women’s Carbon Standard was field tested in Western Kenya at an agroforestry project funded by SIDA, Sweden’s international development agency. WOCAN is also getting ready to launch three pilot projects using the standard in Laos (an improved cookstoves project), Cambodia (biodigester) and Vietnam (waste treatment) funded by the Asian Development Bank.

Gurung started developing the standard two years ago as a way to address the funding gaps she observed throughout her three decades of international development work with organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, CARE and the Peace Corps.

Gurung immersed herself in learning everything she could about the carbon market. She emerged determined that it could serve as an alternative system to provide social benefits and revenue to women around the world.

“After decades of attempts in influencing how those international aid allocations were made, it was high time to look for alternative ways to attend to the needs of those women,” she said.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have expressed interest in using the Women’s Carbon Standard, according to Gurung.

“The IMF told me all of the investors that they deal with are calling for green investments, and if we can give them green plus women, we don’t have a single investor who won’t jump on that,” Gurung said.

Business has also expressed interest in using the standard.

“We’ve had interest in companies we can’t name — a company who flies your documents around the world and is offsetting your carbon,” she said. “We’ve also heard indications of interest from pension funds who use corporate social responsibility guidelines to make guidelines about who they buy their offsets from.”

WOCAN has not determined which company will provide third-party verification services, but Gurung reported that she has already met with energy and sustainability company DNV KEMA in regards to this task.

View the original story.

Lessons for business in the age of climate change

Bill McKibben marching with crowd at climate rally in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013

Bill McKibben (center right) marching at Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2013. Photo: 350.org

GreenBiz | April 1, 2013

Perhaps one of the most well-known climate activists of our times, environmental writer Bill McKibben is on a mission to slow down the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth. Alongside his colleagues at the nongovernmental organization 350.org, McKibben has spearheaded a campaign calling upon communities, governments and universities all around the world to take action by divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Last summer, McKibben laid out his case for divestment in Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, an article he wrote for Rolling Stone. The piece stated that while the United Nations’ Copenhagen Accord climate agreement recognizes that the earth’s temperature should not rise by no more than an amount just under two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), global temperature has already risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius — and that many scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen believe that a rise of two degrees is too much. McKibben closes his case by highlighting research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative which reports that burning the total amount of coal, oil and gas reserves currently held by fossil fuel companies would release five times the amount of carbon needed to stay under the two-degree threshold.

McKibben is also reaching out to business. Later this month, he’ll speak to the health care industry at the CleanMed conference in Boston (April 24-26) about what it can do to fight climate change.

GreenBiz Interim Managing Editor Kristine A. Wong recently spoke with McKibben about lessons for business in the age of climate change.

Kristine Wong: There’s only so much government has been able to do to address climate change, and business is a clear part of the answer.  What are some of the top things that business needs to do to move this process forward? 

Bill McKibben: Well, I think that there’s a lot of things that individual businesses can be doing in their own business, and we’re seeing a lot of that start to happen already. Apple announced that their entire server farm is running off of solar energy. People are making good transitions in their operations in a lot of cases.

But just in the same way that we always say to people ‘It’s important to change your lightbulbs, but it’s more important to change the structures of your energy system,’ the most important thing that businesses can be doing is to join in a real concerted political effort to cause change – not letting the fossil fuel industry win through letting its vehicles like the Chamber of Commerce dominate the discussion. You need to bring pressure on [the Chamber of Commerce].

There may be no more important player in Washington – I haven’t seen the latest numbers, but in the 2010 election cycle they spent more than the Republican and Democratic National Committee parties combined. And they’re stone cold climate obstructionists. They filed a brief with the EPA saying something like don’t worry about climate change – if it ever happens, humans will adapt their physiology in order to cope. They’ve been way, way, way outside the mainstream on this issue, carrying water for the fossil fuel industry, and the rest of the of the business community has let them get away with it.

Wong: Why do you think that is?

McKibben: Because it’s not their main business to be focused on that. If you run a furniture company, your main thing that you spend all day thinking about is making and selling furniture. You don’t have a lot of bandwidth left to think about climate change – or at least you haven’t had a lot of it — and the only people who have that bandwidth left is the fossil fuel industry because they understand that doing anything for climate change is a mortal threat for their industry. They’ve been there day in and day out.

It’s starting to change because renewable energy groups and things are beginning to acquire some power, but lobbying power belongs to people who’ve made money already. It represents the accumulated money and power of the last 50 years, not the next 50 years. Fifty years from now, I have no doubt that the wind industry lobby will be powerful, and perhaps obnoxious. Maybe it will be stepping on the neck of the tidal power industry, or whatever else is coming next.

But for the moment, we need everybody who’s at all concerned about climate change — the biggest problem facing the world — to make it their business. This, at this point, is everybody’s business. And it better be fast because the economic consequences of not doing anything about it are staggering, quite aside from the moral human consequences.

Wong: There’s a lot of Fortune 1000 companies that have the money to do something — and they have sustainability departments. What’s the best way for them to be engaging with governments and the grassroots?

McKibben: Companies are deeply politically involved all the time. If they’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce, then they’ve joined the movement to do nothing for climate change. So maybe a good first step would be quitting. But internally within their businesses, it’s very easy to do figure out how to do things like setting an internal carbon price and quickly make fossil fuel reduction a priority. And these things are starting to happen at your better-managed companies now. And they’re important and good, but they’re also not a substitute for political engagement.

Wong: What companies do you think are doing a good job in this area, and who needs to improve?

McKibben: I don’t track individual companies. But I know there have been some interesting focused efforts at some of the chemical companies – DuPont, I think, has done an interesting job of energy use reduction. Sometimes, one’s a little sad that the same handful of companies are being held up again and again – Interface, for example — because it sort of implies others aren’t moving as fast as one might want.

Wong: What are some strategies to get businesses to change — whether it’s from within or from the outside?

McKibben: Consumers and others are increasingly putting pressure on businesses and trying to hold them accountable. In extreme cases of the fossil fuel industry, we’re now having a huge divestment movement break out across the entire country. It’s at over 300 college campuses now, and it’s moving to cities and religious denominations and things like that. People are cutting their ties with this industry.

But it doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones needing to change. Consumers are paying attention as well as activists and citizens. Climate change by far is the biggest problem that human beings have ever faced. So what companies do and don’t do will be long remembered.

Wong: Are there particular influencers that you think might have a snowball effect? For example, a company that can have an effect on its peers and unlock change?

McKibben: Yes. There’s companies that are starting to do — we all know what companies people really pay attention to as examples of good management and innovation and things.

In the tech sector, it’s Apple and Google. And both of them have done some progressive things in energy. And I believe that Apple anyway has severed its relations with the Chamber of Commerce, and I believe Microsoft, at least, has stepped down from its board. And there are sector leaders in almost every place that it would be good to see doing this.

One of the things that makes it more difficult is that there’s a constant ongoing desire too among many environmentalists and activists, including myself, to see a somewhat more decentralized, spread out and diverse business sector than we have at the moment. There’s a great interest for environmental reasons to have people moving towards more localized business opportunities too. So companies that figure out how to get in front of that trend and help it instead of hinder it, I think, will also be useful.

Wong: I know you’re fighting the Keystone XL pipeline right now. What are the next steps for you and 350.org?

McKibben: We’ll see what kind of decision comes down [on the pipeline] and whether our effort needs to be going to jail in Nebraska — we’ll find out. That’s a big and important paddle.

What we’re doing at 350.org is trying to take it all around the world. We’re convening a huge summit of 500 young people from pretty much every country on earth. We have about 5,000 applications we’re weeding through at the moment. It will be in Istanbul in June, and the purpose is to produce as many fired up and confident organizers to take this divestment campaign and spread it everywhere. We have to put the fossil fuel industry on the run, and fast.

Wong: What are some of the critiques and praises about how climate change has been covered by the media?

McKibben: The media has not done itself any great credit in the fight over climate change. It’s treated it as a ‘He said, she said’ thing. And in the case of Keystone, it hasn’t even done a very good job getting down what’s actually the facts of the situation. There has been a ton of lazy reporting. That’s starting to change because it’s becoming so obvious to everyone in this country that the climate is changing fast, so I think there are a lot of reporters starting to play catch up now.

I do think there are a few examples of people who have done strong powerful work on climate reporting over the years and have helped a lot. Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker would be a good example.

Wong: Later this month, you’ll be speaking at the CleanMED conference focused on sustainability in health care. You’re talking to an industry that has already made a lot of progress in greening their industry. What’s the message you’ll be bringing them?

McKibben: Since many parts of that industry come from the nonprofit sector, I’ll be bringing people up to date on this work we’re doing on endowments and portfolios around divestment from fossil fuel companies. In general, I’ll be reminding them that the rest of the business community needs to really sharpen their game on dealing with climate because they’ve tended to leave it as an issue to the fossil fuel industry, whose great desire is to have nothing happen at any time.