As Mayor Michael Bloomberg winds down his last month in office, his plan for protecting New York City from the threats of climate change has received an important boost. But there is still uncertainty over whether his successor, Bill de Blasio, has any interest in carrying forward Bloomberg's legacy on combating global warming.
New York last week was one of 33 cities worldwide selected to participate in the first round of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Network. The initiative grants cities undetermined portions of a $100 million pot of money for hiring a "chief resilience officer" and developing long-term resiliency plans to assess and tackle risks they face from climate and other disasters.
New York is ahead of the curve on both issues. It already has a director of resiliency in the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, as well as a comprehensive strategy in its Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR)—a $19.5 billion plan unveiled in June in response to Superstorm Sandy. The plan includes 257 initiatives spread across the city, about one-quarter of which could be completed before Bloomberg leaves office.
At the U.S. Department of Energy's Washington, D.C. headquarters, the fourth floor feels like any other nondescript outpost of the federal bureaucracy. But the no-frills landscape of desks and cubicles belies the immensity of the job at hand.
Each day nearly 200 staffers scour loan applications, track billion-dollar debts and manage borrowers' credit risk as part of the department's Loan Programs Office—one of the biggest clean energy finance shops in the world.
You may think you've never heard of the LPO—after all, its $34.4 billion loan portfolio for renewable energy, nuclear and fuel-efficient technologies pales in comparison to, say, annual federal student loans (roughly $1 trillion) or even the $68 billion Congress used to rescue just one troubled insurance company, AIG.
But chances are that you know of the program because of one very large and very notorious loan.
Peter Davidson walked nervously toward a U.S. Senate conference room in Washington, D.C. A lanky man with graying, wavy hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he was still studying the notes he had prepared when he stepped inside to face a dozen members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"My name is Peter Davidson," he said as he slid into a black leather chair and pulled a microphone close. "I recently joined the Department of Energy as executive director of the Loan Programs Office…one of the largest clean energy and transportation portfolios in the world."
Though few outside Washington know it, the Energy Department's eight-year-old Loan Programs Office is at the center of the nation's highly political battle over clean energy. The program backs innovative energy projects that can't get private financing because their technology is too new and risky.
A handful of U.S. utilities have discovered they can save money by encouraging small rooftop solar projects—the same projects utility industry leaders have insisted were too expensive and unreliable to be practical.
The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) in New York, for instance, is paying developers to build solar panels on top of buildings in tiny towns that are experiencing population booms but don't have enough electric grid infrastructure to bring in the electricity they need. The pilot initiative will allow the utility to avoid spending more than $80 million to build new transmission lines and grid equipment.
"It's actually cost-effective to add renewables" this way, said Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president of environmental affairs.
The program reflects some utilities' changing relationship with distributed generation, or DG, the name for small-scale energy generators like solar systems and micro wind turbines that produce electricity close to where the power is used.
Aggressive energy efficiency efforts by households, companies and motorists led to the decline in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in the United States, according to a recent report. The controversial finding contradicts recent studies that say the power sector's shift away from coal to cheap natural gas caused the bulk of reductions.
U.S. emissions last year fell by 205 million metric tons, or 4 percent, from 2011 levels. CO2 Scorecard Group, a small environmental research organization, says that nearly half the decline came from energy-saving measures such as retrofits and smarter appliances in homes and offices, as well as from Americans driving fewer miles, and using more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Natural gas is responsible for only about one-quarter of last year's emissions drop, CO2 Scorecard Group asserts.
"Everybody started to believe that shale gas is driving all these CO2 reductions," said CO2 Scorecard chief executive Shakeb Afsah, an environmental economist and co-author of the study. After investigating, he said he and colleagues found that "the numbers just don't add up."
For the third time in a year, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a trailblazing law that requires new federal buildings to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030.
But this time the effort is gaining momentum—in part because it has surprising support from mainstream energy efficiency advocacy groups in Washington D.C.
Their decision to back industry has ruffled the feathers of several environmental organizations and green building advocates, who say the law is critical to decrease America's dependence on fossil fuels. Some feel deceived.
"It was a slap in the face," said Ed Mazria, founder of the New Mexico-based Architecture 2030, a building sector advocacy group that focuses on climate change.
New York City's $19.5 billion plan to adapt to climate change may be the world's most ambitious. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hardly alone in trying to find ways to prepare his city for rising seas and extreme weather as the global fight to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius fades.
Roughly 20 percent of cities around the globe have developed adaptation strategies, according to a 2011 estimate by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the United States, city, county and state governments have developed more than 100 adaptation plans, a separate count by the Georgetown Climate Center found. And through a UN-financing initiative, wealthy nations have poured $11 billion into developing countries to help on adaptation in the past few years.
Experts interviewed by InsideClimate News said that unlike Bloomberg's plan—which detailed 250 climate adaptation strategies and put a price tag on most of them—few other cities have outlined specific actions or provided concrete details on how government agencies should implement initiatives or pay for them.
In 2008, Virginia resident Ruth McElroy Amundsen took her first stab at using shareholder activism to spur action on climate change—she introduced a resolution that challenged Dominion Resources Inc., Virginia's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to get more of its electricity from renewables.
Since then the 51-year-old NASA engineer and mother of two has helped spark a growing movement to pressure Dominion to respond to global warming concerns. Last month, the informal network of 20 activists achieved its biggest success yet: Shareholders representing nearly a quarter of Dominion's shares voted "yes" on a proposal to require the utility to report to investors on the financial risks that climate change poses to its business.
That wasn't enough to pass the resolution, but it was by far the highest number of "yes" votes ever cast for a climate resolution to Dominion. It was a surprising result, the activists say, because the company has been particularly resistant to climate and renewable energy policies.
California is replacing oil with cleaner-burning fuels in cars and trucks, thanks to a landmark low-carbon fuel rule, according to a recent report. But the rule's fate is uncertain amid legal chaos and a shortfall in the production of clean biofuels.
The report, conducted by researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, said California drivers saved more than two billion gallons of gasoline in the two years since the launch of the rule—about as much gas as the state uses in two months. The carbon emissions reduction is equal to taking half a million vehicles off the road.
Companies "are meeting and exceeding the standard," said Sonia Yeh, the report's lead author and a research scientist at the institute.
But the standard remains in legal limbo.
Shareholders of one of the country's biggest hotel chains have struck down a resolution that would force the company to consider replacing energy-guzzling shower heads with more efficient ones—yet its backers are claiming victory.
Although only nine percent of Choice Hotels shareholders voted in favor of the resolution, the proposal is one of a handful of global warming resolutions that companies tried to dismiss in this year's proxy season—but that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said must be put to a vote. The trend reflects continued concerns by the SEC about the business risks of climate change.
"They're enforcing their rules in a way that allows a lot more climate-related resolutions to go through to a vote," said Rob Berridge, program manager at Ceres, a coalition of sustainability focused investors with $11 trillion in assets.