Category: News

Princeton and Penn scientists win Philly award for their climate change work

Originally published by Frank Kummer for The Philadelphia Inquirer on November 20, 2023

Mann, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Socolow, of Princeton, were named 2023 John Scott Award winners.

Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania (left) and Robert Socolow of Princeton University are winners of the 2023 Scott Awards.Joshua Yospyn / David Kelly Crow -Princeton University

Michael Mann, a nationally recognized climate scientist at Penn, notes that Benjamin Franklin charted the Gulf Stream, launched complaints against tanneries polluting Philadelphia’s Dock Creek, and studied weather patterns.

Maybe it’s a bit of kismet then that he’s one of two scientists, along with Princeton’s Robert Socolow, named as winners of the 2023 John Scott Awards. The prestigious awards are named after the 19th-century chemist who endowed the prize in honor of Franklin.

“The award means a lot to me,” Mann said, “because it reflects sort of the legacy of Benjamin Franklin. He was an environmentalist. You could even argue he was an early climate scientist and a climate advocate.”

The awards this year focused on climate change, “recognizing the growing urgency worldwide to address the crisis of global warming.” Mann and Socolow will be presented with their awards Nov. 30 at the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 by Franklin in Philadelphia.

The award comes with a prize of $15,000 each. Winners are selected by other scientists from around the nation. The awards are administered by the Board of Directors of City Trusts, a group that manages dozens of charitable trusts for which the City of Philadelphia has been named as trustee.

Michael Mann: ‘Sticky’ myths

Mann, 57, is a presidential distinguished professor in the department of earth and environmental science and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. He was long associated with Penn State, until he took the job at Penn in 2022.

Mann became widely known in climate science after the 1999 publication of his “hockey stick” graph, which showed earth’s average temperature had been mostly stable for 1,000 years until 1900, when it spiked sharply up. His latest book, Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from the Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis, seeks to show how conditions that allow humans to live on this earth are incredibly fragile.

Mann, who has strong family connections to Philadelphia, said he’s glad he made the move in 2022 to Penn, where he focuses not only on climate science, but also on how to reach the public on misinformation that spreads so quickly on cable TV, the internet, and social media.

“My view is that the debate over the science has really moved on,” Mann said. “Obviously there’s a denialist fringe out there. But the debate has moved away from denial because that position is no longer tenable. It’s about division and distraction.”

He’s teaching a joint course in the spring with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, on the challenges communicating about climate and environment. He refers to new media, which includes social media, as “the Wild West,” where misinformation about climate science spreads virally.

“It’s sort of fun for me to be bringing together communication students and science students in the same class,” he said. “I think the interaction will be very interesting.”

Mann said myths are often offered up as facts, creating a “stickiness” that’s hard to dislodge.

“So if you’re trying to educate people, you first have to dislodge the misconceptions that have been driven by a concerted misinformation campaign,” Mann said. “One of the rules is that you’ve got to replace that misconception with something that’s just as sticky, just as memorable.”

» READ MORE: Mann: Ben Franklin was a climate activist, perhaps America’s first

Robert Socolow: Common ground

Socolow, 85, professor emeritus in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, is recognized for his research on climate and environmental science. With a focus on carbon management and energy use, his work led to creation of a partnership between Princeton and industry — the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI). Socolow, known for seeking middle ground in a solution to climate change, retired in 2019.

“It’s an amazing honor,” Socolow said of the award. “I just feel deeply grateful that this goes back to a person who admired Benjamin Franklin. That still sends chills down my spine. You certainly don’t imagine this kind of recognition.”

Socolow said he’s honored to be among his predecessors, which counts 20 Nobel Prize winners, most recently, 2023 Nobel laureates Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, of Penn, for their breakthrough into mRNA research.

Socolow said he’s been interested in climate change for 50 years. But addressing it, he said, will cost money. He cited the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s as an examples of how government can tackle big environmental problems.

“When we when we cleaned up the air, it cost money to do that,” Socolow said. “We did a rather extraordinary job.”

Socolow said he’s interested in an approach that builds alliances so that most efforts are spent collaborating “not fighting each other.” He’s led the CMI’s research into how to capture carbon dioxide that’s released by burning fossil fuels.

He said the oil and gas industry has impeded progress on climate change, which he hopes can be addressed at COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held starting Nov. 30 in Dubai. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates president of COP28, has urged attendees to seek “common ground” over the future of fossil fuels. Al Jaber is also CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. It’s the first time the U.N. has named the head of a fossil fuel company to run COP.

Socolow coauthored a recent Washington Post commentary he hopes can be discussed at COP28. The piece calls for transitioning away from fossil fuels in the next few decades. After the transition, fossil fuels would only be allowed for a use if carbon dioxide would not end up in the atmosphere. Remaining carbon dioxide could be captured and stored under ground or converted into products in a circular system, he wrote.

“I was, from a very early age, encouraged to think globally about our role as human beings on the planet,” Socolow said, ”and that we had a common fate that transcended nations.”

Trump 2.0: The climate cannot survive another Trump term

Originally published by Dr. Michael Mann for The Hill on November 5, 2023

This op-ed is part of a series exploring what a second term would look like for either President Biden or former President Trump.

Back in the home stretch of the 2020 presidential election, I stated that a second Trump term would be “game over for the climate.” That hasn’t changed in the years since. In fact, it’s become even more true.

Carbon capture and common misconceptions: A Q&A with Joe Romm

Originally published by Nathi Magubane for Penn Today on November 9, 2023

In a conversation with Penn Today, Joe Romm casts a sobering light on ‘solutions’ to curb
climate change

Aerial landscape view of a large coal fired power plant with storage tanks for Biofuel burning instead of coal
Joe Romm, a senior research fellow in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, has recently published two papers on carbon dioxide removal and bioenergy carbon capture and will be keynoting American University’s Third Annual Conference on Carbon Dioxide Removal Law & Policy: Carbon Removal Deployment: Law and Policy from Planning to Project. (Image: iStock/Teamjackson)

As the world leaders and climate policymakers brace for the forthcoming COP28, Joe Romm, a senior research fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, presents two new research papers that cast a sobering light on much-touted “solutions” to curb climate change.The papers—“Why direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) is not scalable, and ‘net zero’ is just a dangerous myth” and “Why scaling bioenergy and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is impractical and would speed up global warming”—serve as reminders that in the race to avert climate calamity, all that glitters is not green.On Nov. 9, he will deliver his keynote at The Third Annual Carbon Dioxide Removal Law & Policy online conference at American University. Ahead of the event, Romm, a met with Penn Today to discuss the intricacies of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and expose the fallacies that threaten to derail climate action.

Question: What inspired you to focus your research on CDR technologies and their role in climate policy?

Answer: I have been focused on the solutions to climate change since I was at the U.S. Department of Energy from 1993 to 1998 and acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. Over the last quarter century, the technologies that we invested in back then heavily—solar, wind, geothermal advance batteries, alternative fuel vehicles, and various energy efficiency technologies in buildings and industry—have emerged as the scalable solutions to the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

But in the last decade as global emissions have soared to 50 billion tons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent, carbon dioxide removal strategies have generated great interest. The three most widely analyzed and modeled are direct air carbon capture and storage which pulls CO2 directly out of the air and stores it underground; planting trees; and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, whereby growing biomass removes CO2 from the air and a CCS system on the bioenergy plant could permanently bury it.

Many people have even argued that because of these CDR strategies, we don’t have to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions so rapidly. But I had always been concerned that DACCS and BECCS are not even commercial yet, so relying on them was risky. So, that is why I took a close look at CDR.

Question: What are some of the primary barriers to the scalability of DACCS that you’ve identified?

Answer: The first barrier is simply how difficult it is to extract CO2 out of the air in large quantities. The overall efficiency of DACCS is very low (5% to 10%) and the price very high because CO2 in the air is so diluted—420 parts per million. For context, the entire Houston Astrodome contains only about 1 ton of CO2.

Per ton of CO2 captured and stored, current costs range from $600 to $1,000 or more. Yet as a document, many experts in and out of the industry believe that it will be difficult to bring costs substantially below $300 per ton.

Also, you must run the system on a huge amount of renewable energy to actually reduce net CO2 emissions. A 2020 review concluded ‘renewables-powered DAC would require all of the wind and solar energy generated in the U.S. in 2018 to capture just 1/10th of a Gt of CO2.’

But the opportunity cost of all this money and renewables is huge because you could have achieved far more CO2 emissions reductions for a far lower cost simply by using them to replace existing fossil fuel plants on the grid and to power electric vehicles to replace gasoline powered cars. So, studies make clear that until you have eliminated most fossil fuel use, which is unlikely to occur before 2050, DACCS is a costly distraction.

Question: What does ‘net zero’ mean, and why has it become such a focal point in climate discussions?

Answer: The science says that to stabilize global temperatures at levels needed to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to reduce emissions from 50 GT/year to zero by 2050. But, in theory, with a scaled-up CDR effort, we might only have to make reductions of, say, 50 GT/year if we could remove 10 GT/year.

This is a dangerous myth because it could easily delay or deter real emissions reductions in the next decade or two. And one 2020 study argues that if in fact all that CDR does not pan out, then that could result in ‘an additional temperature rise of up to 1.4°C’ (2.5°F).

And a great many people have even argued that with enough CDR we could conceivably overshoot a temperature target by mid-century and then turn global emissions massively negative to quickly cool back down. But this is dangerous magical thinking since, in reality, we don’t have anywhere near that amount of scalable CDR.

Given the complexity of climate models, how do you simplify the concept of carbon capture for a broader audience without losing the essential details?

I think that people understand the essential idea that we have to dramatically reduce total CO2 emissions sharply by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. The basic idea of CCS is that one way to reduce emissions is to put a system on an existing coal plant to capture the CO2 in the exhaust gas of the power plant and then bury the captured CO2 underground. So far, efforts to do this have failed to make this a practical, affordable, and scalable strategy. The U.S. government has created a large subsidy for CCS under the Inflation Reduction Act to see if that will fix things.

With BECCS, all you are doing is putting the CCS system on a bioenergy plant. DACCS is more complicated because you have to build a huge device to pull CO2 out of the air and then you use a CCS system to capture and bury it.

Question: You mention that massive tree-planting is not a practical climate solution. What are the limitations of this strategy?

Answer: The basic problem is that it requires a huge amount of land to achieve even modest impacts.

As an August piece I wrote with Climate Interactive Executive Director Andrew Jones explained, their modeling ‘found that planting 1 trillion trees, under optimistic conditions, would remove only 6% of the needed CO2 reduction [to limit total warming to 1.5°C]. And that would require a wildly unrealistic amount of land, over 2 billion acres, which is to say over 2 billion football fields—greater than the total land area of the contiguous United States.’

Question: If carbon capture isn’t the silver bullet, what alternatives do you believe should be our focus to reduce CO2 emissions?

Answer: The core strategy to reduce CO2 emissions is well understood. You need to rapidly decarbonize the electric grid by replacing coal and gas plants with solar and wind power–and other renewables as they become available. You also have to add storage technologies and strategies to deal with the fact that many renewables have variable emissions. You also need to continue the development of new carbon-free power sources that don’t need storage.

At the same time, you need to replace the technologies that rely on fossil fuels for transportation and heating and industrial processes with ones that rely on electricity. These include electric vehicles, electric heat pumps for heating, and the like.

This way by mid-century you end up with a zero-carbon electric grid and the vast majority of the economy running on electricity.

Question: Looking beyond COP28, what gives you hope about our ability to address the climate crisis?

Answer: What gives me the most hope is the tremendous advances in the last two decades in bringing down the cost of various technologies that are essential to rapidly reducing emissions. These include solar and wind power, batteries, electric vehicles, and various forms of energy efficiency such as LED lights. The vast majority of the technologies needed to address the climate crisis are already commercial—and the rest of technologies are near commercial. What we lack now is only the political will to deploy these technologies fast enough to minimize the worst impacts of climate change.

Apple Goes a Step Too Far in Claiming a Carbon Neutral Product, a New Report Concludes

Originally published by Phil McKenna for Inside Climate News on October 3, 2023.

The maker of the iPhone is a leader in efforts to reduce the climate impact of its products, but a recent claim about its new line of Apple Watches may be “climate-wash,” a Chinese environmental research organization says.

Apple’s recent announcement of its first-ever “carbon neutral” product was questioned in a new report by a Chinese environmental research organization that gathers and tracks data on greenhouse gas emissions from China’s manufacturing sector, which makes the majority of Apple products.

As part of a high profile environmental campaign including a 5-minute video featuring an approving “Mother Nature” played by actress Octavia Spencer,  Apple announced on Sept. 12 that its new Apple Watch was carbon neutral, meaning its production does not contribute to climate change.

But the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a well-regarded nonprofit entity based in Beijing, concluded in a Sept. 22 report that the company may be “climate-washing,” or overstating its efforts to address climate change.

Apple has previously praised IPE as “a leading non-profit environmental research organization” that is “dedicated to collecting, collating, and analyzing government and corporate environmental data.” The organization has been analyzing the environmental performance of production facilities in China for more than a decade.

In response to IPE’s latest report, Apple responded that the carbon neutrality of its Apple Watch line has been independently verified by SCS Global Services, a “leader in environmental standards and certification.”

“By far, the most impactful action a supplier can take to address climate change is to transition to renewable energy,” Apple said in a written statement. “That’s why we work closely with suppliers to help them procure more renewables and advocate together for reliable, cost-effective access to clean electricity in grids around the world.”

The IPE analysis concluded that Apple is not revealing enough information about suppliers who manufacture Apple products to substantiate the claim of carbon neutrality. IPE said it had received data on greenhouse gas emissions from fewer of Apple’s suppliers in 2023 than in prior years.

The report said that the company’s suppliers rely heavily on the purchase of renewable energy certificates, the efficacy of which have been called into question, rather than the direct use of renewable energy.

Apple would likely need 100 percent renewable energy to make carbon neutral watches. If the emissions profile of iPhones suddenly increased, as Apple also disclosed, one plausible explanation would be that the company allocated less renewable energy to iPhones so that it had more renewable energy to allocate to its watches, the IPE said.

“If this assumption is correct, is Apple’s carbon neutrality ‘milestone’ really a significant reduction in the carbon emissions of its product manufacturing process, or just a mathematical equation whereby Apple cherry picks the limited green electricity from its suppliers and allocate them to one relatively niche product?” the report asked.

Apple responded in a statement that it did not re-allocate renewable energy from the production of iPhones or other products to the Apple Watch. The company added that greenhouse gas emissions for its new  iPhone 15 Pro are 28 percent lower than the company’s 2015 baseline, due largely to an increase in the amount of renewable energy used by their suppliers.

In 2011, IPE released two scathing investigative reports calling out Apple for its failure to disclose information about its suppliers and for the pollution those suppliers released from their factories. Following the reports, Apple disclosed more information about its suppliers and worked with them to clean up their practices. IPE has subsequently ranked Apple at or near the top of its annual “Green Supply Chain” and “Climate Action” indices.

In 2019, Apple became the first among more than 400 companies with manufacturing suppliers in China to receive IPE’s “Master” title for their outstanding green supply chain performance.

“In many years of our index assessment, Apple was one of the top performers, so we did give it credit for that, but when it started making the claim of [a] carbon neutral product, that is a very high standard and I think it needs an even higher level of disclosure,” Ma Jun, IPE’s director, said last week.

However, Ma said that the company appears to be regressing on public disclosure. He noted that fewer than 30 Apple suppliers disclosed facility level greenhouse gas emissions data to IPE in 2023, down from about 100 suppliers in prior years.

“The number has dropped at a very special moment, when carbon neutral products are being released,” Ma said.

Apple disputed the claim and said many of its suppliers publicly disclose their greenhouse gas emissions data, and Apple encourages them to do so.

“We strongly support climate disclosures to improve transparency and drive progress in the fight against climate change,” Apple said. “For the last decade, Apple has modeled, measured, and voluntarily reported our greenhouse gas emissions across all scopes of emissions, and publicly advocated for disclosure around the world. As stated clearly in our Supplier Code of Conduct, we require suppliers to report their Apple-related greenhouse gas emissions to us each year, and to comply with any laws and regulations that mandate reporting of emissions to local or national authorities.”

Joseph Romm, a senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media, praised the IPE report and concurred with many of its findings.

“What exactly does it mean to say one of your products is carbon neutral” when reported emissions associated with the new iPhone 15 actually increased? Romm asked. “It seems to me to be kind of like saying your pinky is cancer free, but the rest of your body isn’t.”

Romm said Apple’s definition of carbon neutral, described in its 2023 sustainability report as reducing its emissions by 75 percent and balancing the remaining emissions with the purchase of carbon offsets, is arbitrary and less ambitious than other definitions.

He noted that the Science Based Targets initiative, a partnership that includes CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature, defines carbon neutral as reducing direct emissions by at least 90 percent and using carbon offsets to balance out no more than 10 percent of remaining emissions.

Romm said that the carbon offsets that companies buy to balance out their own emissions have come under increasing scrutiny. A white paper he published earlier this year noted that many companies and events, including Delta Airlines and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, have had their climate neutral claims challenged in court due to reliance on problematic offsets.

“A lot of companies have stopped buying offsets,” Romm said, citing recent news reports that Shell, Gucci and Nestlé all recently discontinued the practice. “Apple seems to have missed the boat, that the world is really changing here.”

The New Climate Institute, an environmental organization based in Germany, gave Apple high marks in its 2023 Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report but wrote in a recent blog post that the company’s carbon neutral claim for Apple Watches is “a bold exaggeration.”

A key challenge in Apple’s quest for carbon neutrality—the company’s goal is for all of its products to be carbon neutral in 2030—is manufacturing and the greenhouse gas emissions tied to the electricity its suppliers use to power their factories.

“The electricity that our manufacturing suppliers use represents the largest single source of carbon emissions throughout our manufacturing supply chain,” Apple states in its most recent sustainability report. The vast majority of Apple products are made in China, where 63 percent of the grid was powered by coal in 2022.

Apple has made substantial direct investments in renewable energy, including nearly 500 megawatts of solar and wind projects in China and Japan. The company is also widely recognized as a leader in helping its suppliers develop or purchase renewable energy to power their factories.

As of March 2023, Apple noted that “over 250 suppliers making up over 85 percent of Apple’s direct spend for materials, manufacturing, and assembly of our products worldwide have committed to using renewable electricity for their Apple production.”

However, many of Apple’s suppliers still have only limited access to renewable energy. IPE noted in its report that, based on Apple’s own reporting, 24 percent of the 250 suppliers that have pledged to use renewable energy “are unable to achieve clean energy substitution through onsite renewable electricity or renewable power purchases, etc., and need to purchase renewable energy certificates.”

Such certificates, which are intended to help fund new renewable energy development, are “unlikely to lead to additional renewable energy production” and “threaten the integrity” of corporate emission reduction targets, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Nature.

Further, some of Apple’s leading suppliers, such as Foxconn and Pegatron, report renewable energy made up just 8 percent or less of their electric power, according to a New Climate Institute assessment of the companies’ recent sustainability reports.

Recent media reports have named Foxconn as a producer of Apple’s watches, but it’s not clear what mix of renewable versus fossil energy it used in the specific factories that make those products.

While Apple said in its response to the IPE report that SCS Global Services has verified the carbon neutrality of its Apple Watch, Ma said more transparency is needed to substantiate that claim.

“Just to say that a third party has done it, that’s not sufficient,” Ma said. “Apple should be the one that needs to be held accountable for this and should provide a more transparent way for this to be verified.”

The world today: The crisis of climate-driven extinction

Originally published by Nathi Magubane for Penn Today on September 22, 2023. Image: Courtesy of Gabrielle Szcepanek.

In a session moderated by Simon Richter, panelists Erol Akçay, Michael Mann, and Zinta Zommers discussed the impact of climate change on efforts to conserve biological diversity.

In era punctuated by climate-driven disasters and an ever-worsening ecological crisis, the question of our planet’s future has never been more urgent. As wildfires, floods, and cyclones become increasingly frequent and severe, how we respond to these challenges could determine the fate of millions of species, including humankind.

Addressing this urgency, Perry World House joined with the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media and the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania to present a panel discussion, “The World Today: The Crisis of Climate-Driven Extinction.”

The Sept. 19 event was part of Climate Week at Penn and convened a panel of experts across disciplines to discuss the intersection of biodiversity loss and climate change, a crisis that the United Nations describes as a “triple planetary crisis.”

The conversation was moderated by Simon Richter, who specializes in cultural aspects of adaptation, resilience, and migration in the context of the climate emergency. The panel included Erol Akçay, a theoretical biologist; Michael Mann, a climate scientist; and Zinta Zommers, a former visiting fellow at Perry World House and specialist in risk management and climate-change adaptation.

Defined as a measure of variability and diversity of all life on Earth, biodiversity, Akçay explained, is as pervasive as it is important in maintaining functional and thriving ecosystems. In much the same way that diversity of producers and consumers can disparately facilitate exchanges of goods and services that have a ripple effect through economies at varying scales, biodiversity serves as a catalyst for ecological stability, he said.

According to Akçay, the interactions among various species are not isolated incidents but interconnected events that have far-reaching implications for the health of the planet. As such, threats to reducing biodiversity increase the risk of extinction for not just one species but for many others.

As an example to highlight the often-unexpected ways in which reduced biodiversity can impact us, Akçay noted how, in 2019, researchers discovered the first new class of antibiotics effective against gram negative bacteria, such as E. coli, since the 1960s.

“This is significant because antibiotic resistance is a grave concern for both human health and agriculture,” Akçay said.

He noted that the initial discovery was made in the gut microbiome of a nematode, a parasitic worm found in insects, and that, when you diminish insect populations, you reduce the diversity of bacteria essential for creating antibiotics. “If this situation is further exacerbated, it could lead to pre-penicillin-like condition, wherein a simple cut could lead to death, due to a lack of antibiotics to treat a possible infection,” he said.

Akçay said that, in the context of biological problems, consequences often cascade in unforeseen directions, making reductions in biodiversity a potential trigger for a host of unforeseen problems.

In answering Richter’s question regarding how human activity could set a course correction for mitigating costs to biodiversity, Akçay mentioned two major contributors to species extinction: land-use change, as in repurposing habitats for agricultural, housing, or business needs; and direct exploitation via hunting or fishing.

“If we don’t get a handle on these, we’re going to continually see massive biodiversity reductions in the face of climate change as fewer habitats and smaller population sizes due to exploitation mean less capacity of species to adapt to changing climatic conditions,” Akçay said.

Zommers brought up the policy-based efforts towards mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss and noted that both the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were created in 1992, “so, they are almost like brother and sister but both haven’t been successful in many ways,” she said. “The CBD had targets set in 2010  (the Aichi Targets) that outlined what the governments of the world should do to protect biodiversity, but in 2020 the CBD reported that none of these targets had been met.”

Zommers said that this highlights a major issue that plagues climate communities: “We’re making lots of pledges, but where is the action?”

She noted that in 2022 governments met to urge for more commitment to these targets in the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) and adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which set out an ambitious pathway to achieve the CBD’s goals. Zommers believes what’s interesting here is that both the CBD and the UNFCCC have these similar histories and, going forward, a similar framing, wherein both have goals and the idea is to ratchet up the ambition over time. And in both, she said, there is a great deal of discussion about financing these actions.

She mentioned that the difference is that the CBD now has a clearer road map for what governments should do such as, reducing subsidies in certain areas and helping industry focus on biodiversity, whereas UNFCCC has targets like the 1.5°C goal but with no clear road map for how this should be implemented and with each government is meant to come up with their own strategy.

“Overall, the two are tied to some degree, in that unless we achieve our climate goals, a significant amount of this planet’s biodiversity will be lost,” Zommers said.

In tying it all together, Mann said his research in climate science is congruent with the concerns outlined by Akçay and Zommers, as climate change is a major contributor to what has been characterized as the next major extinction event. He noted that in conducting research for his latest book, “Our Fragile Moment,” his perspective was colored by looking at past extinction events such as the The Great Dying Event, wherein 96% of all marine biota went extinct. He said that many look at as an analog for human-driven extinction related to human-driven activities that cause climate change.

“The extinction that will result from climate change could be much like the Great Dying Event, which was driven in part by climate change that occurred from carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere from a major volcanic out gassing event,” Mann said.

“Much like we’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere today, this was a natural addition of carbon dioxide, which also resulted in a massive deoxygenation of the oceans that probably led to an increase in hydrogen sulfide; my colleague describes this as a global stink bomb.”

Mann argued that humanity may be headed towards Great Dying-like conditions unless there is a major course correction. He said that, while this would be a “rapid event,” there are others that occurred 56 million years ago that are also considered rapid and led to mass extinctions; however, these “natural events pale in comparison to the events we’re witnessing today as the ones we’re seeing are at least 100 times more rapid than any of the natural events. And that’s the cause for concern,” he said.

He added that, although the planet has seen much higher temperatures, it hasn’t seen these rates before, which poses a major challenge for species to adapt to in terms of biological and evolutionary time scales. “If you have a long time to adapt to the changes we’ve made to the planet, like building elaborate housing and transport networks that interfere with the migratory patterns of animals, it’s much easier to adapt, but the rate at which we’re changing the environment’s conditions—via things like physical obstacles or contaminants to the natural environment—is unprecedented” Mann said.

“So, the lesson is,” he said. “it’s all about the rate of contribution of carbon input, and, if we continue on this trajectory, then I believe there’s no question that climate change will be a major contributor to what will be described as the sixth great extinction event.”

Simon Richter is professor of Germanic languages and literatures, a Perry World House faculty fellow, a faculty fellow of Penn Institute of Urban Research, and a faculty advisory board member of the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Michael Mann is a Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences with a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication and the director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania.

Erol Akçay is an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn. 

Zinta Zommers is a humanitarian affairs officer with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and served as the Wolk Visiting Fellow (2021-22) and a Visiting Fellow (2022-23) at the Perry World House at Penn. 

Opinion: Yes, there was global warming in prehistoric times. But nothing in millions of years compares with what we see today

Originally published By Michael Mann for the LA Times on September 24, 2023.

“The climate is always changing!” So goes a popular refrain from climate deniers who continue to claim that there’s nothing special about this particular moment. There is no climate crisis, they say, because the Earth has survived dramatic warming before.

Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy recently exemplified misconceptions about our planet’s climate past. When he asserted that “carbon dioxide as a percentage of the atmosphere is still at a relative low through human history,” he didn’t just make a false statement (carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they’ve been in at least 4 million years). He also showed fundamentally wrong thinking around the climate crisis.

“The climate is always changing!” So goes a popular refrain from climate deniers who continue to claim that there’s nothing special about this particular moment. There is no climate crisis, they say, because the Earth has survived dramatic warming before.

Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy recently exemplified misconceptions about our planet’s climate past. When he asserted that “carbon dioxide as a percentage of the atmosphere is still at a relative low through human history,” he didn’t just make a false statement (carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they’ve been in at least 4 million years). He also showed fundamentally wrong thinking around the climate crisis.

What threatens us today isn’t the particular concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the precise temperature of the planet, alarming as those two metrics are. Instead, it’s the unprecedented rate at which we are increasing carbon pollution through fossil fuel burning, and the resulting rate at which we are heating the planet.

Consider the warming event that paleoclimatologists point to as the best natural comparison for the rapid greenhouse-driven trend we’re seeing now. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum happened 56 million years ago, roughly 10 million years after the demise of the dinosaurs, which itself was caused by climate change (a massive asteroid impact event led to a global dust storm and, in turn, rapid cooling). The PETM warming resulted from an unusually large and rapid injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions in Iceland. Global temperatures increased by approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit in as little as 10,000 years, rising from an already steamy baseline of 80 degrees Fahrenheit possibly up to a sauna-like 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

That warming rate of about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit per century is extremely rapid by geological standards. But it’s still roughly 10 times slower than the warming today.

The impact event and Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum were, ironically, fortuitous for humans: They paved the way for our ancestors. The extinction of the dinosaurs (except the ancestors of birds) created a new niche for early mammals, and the stifling conditions of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum selected for small, arboreal mammals, including the oldest primate identified clearly by fossil materials, a primitive lemur-like creature named Dryomomys. Without either of these two events, our species likely wouldn’t have arrived at this moment — in contrast to the current warming, which plenty of evidence shows is a threat to our existence.

Extinctions followed another warming period in our more recent past, when the last ice age ended about 18,000 years ago. Driven by Earth’s changing orbit relative to the sun, and boosted by a heightened greenhouse effect as warming oceans gave up their carbon dioxide in the same way an open bottle of warm soda loses carbonation, the planet warmed by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the subsequent 8,000 years.

That rate of warming — which, again, was about 10 times slower than the warming today — was rapid enough to wipe out entire species. Gone were the magnificent woolly mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats that had roamed the plains of North America. A combination of climate change and overhunting by paleo-Americans did them in. A few of them got stuck in tar pits and are preserved — some at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

In the fall of 2017, I participated in a climate change forum at the tar pits museum, which is at the center of those ancient pools of asphalt — the viscous, evaporated remains of crude oil that seeped to the surface from deep below. I couldn’t help but see further irony there: Crude oil from beneath Earth’s surface threatens us today because we’re ensnared by it politically rather than physically.

Paleo-humans survived the end of the ice age because of the resilience afforded by our big brains, which gave us the behavioral plasticity to adapt to the changing climate. But that same intelligence has gotten us into trouble today. We’ve used it to create a global energy system dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. The great Carl Sagan once commented on the absurdity of our plight: “Our civilization runs by burning the remains of humble creatures who inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years before the first humans came on the scene. Like some ghastly cannibal cult, we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives.”

Our societal infrastructure — upon which more than 8 billion people now depend — was built around a global climate that was stable for thousands of years. The viability of that infrastructure depends on the climate remaining close to what it was, or at least changing slowly enough that the rates of environmental change don’t exceed our adaptive capacity as a species and a civilization. What finished off the dinosaurs and the mastodons was a climate that shifted too rapidly away from what they were adapted to, in the first case cooling and the other case warming. That’s our challenge today.

Can our big brains save us this time? They can if we make proper use of them and learn the lessons offered by Earth’s past. Paleoclimate data characterizing past episodes of natural climate change, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and peak of the last ice age, allow us to test the models that we use to project future warming. Our models pass these tests, reproducing the paleodata from historical periods when driven by the estimated changes in greenhouse gases and sunlight during those periods. The paleodata, in turn, help us refine the models.

The end result is that we can trust these models to peer into our climate future. They tell us that we can avoid a catastrophic trajectory for our global climate if we reduce carbon emissions substantially over the next decade. So this fragile moment in which we find ourselves is in fact a critical juncture.

As Sagan said: “We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising.” The choice between peril and promise is ultimately still ours.

Michael E. Mann is presidential distinguished professor and director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.”

Climate protesters will never get people to change if they keep acting like this

Originally published by Rikki Schlott for New York Post on September 27, 2023.

The petulant protesters just won’t let up.

On Sunday, climate activists attempted to interrupt the Berlin Marathon by dumping orange paint on the race course and lying down in the middle of the road.

Weeks earlier, Climate Extinction protesters wearing shirts reading “End Fossil Fuels” screeched and hollered during a US Open match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.

One even glued his feet to the floor, stalling the match between Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova for 50 minutes, thousands of paying spectators be damned.

And who can forget the viral soup-slingers who splattered Van Gogh’s iconic “Sunflowers” painting at the National Gallery last fall? Or the PETA protester — her mostly naked body painted with the words “Coach Leather Kills” — who crashed the brand’s runway show at New York Fashion Week in early September?

I’m actually sympathetic to her cause — so much so that I haven’t eaten meat since I was 14 — and yet I am embarrassed by her tactics. Imagine how many others whose minds could be changed were turned off completely.

Sure, these stunts get headlines … but for all the wrong reasons. Who in their right mind looks at a Van Gogh covered in tomato chunks and thinks, “Maybe I should listen to what the people who did that have to say”?

It’s also churlish to take the spotlight away from runners who trained for months and traveled around the world to compete in a marathon, or athletes who spent a lifetime working their way to the US Open.

But when these stunts meaningfully disrupt the day-to-day functioning of society — that’s simply inexcusable.

In late August, climate protesters in Washington, DC, sat cross-legged blocking traffic along Interstate 396, a multi-lane highway. Was anyone surprised when furious commuters emerged from their cars to snatch away signs and demand these people move?

“I want to go to work! I want to go to work,” one driver shouted.

“Y’all can find a better way to protest,” another chimed in. “Y’all holding me up.”

“I have kids to feed, b—ch,” a woman shouted in the face of one stoic protester. “You don’t think we know the Earth is f—king melting?”

And climate protesters in the United Kingdom went as far as blocking fire engines and ambulances from responding to emergencies last year — a move so egregious that even Greta Thunberg rightfully condemned them.

Disrupting innocent bystanders’ commute to work — or worse, their potentially life-saving ride in an ambulance — is absolutely unacceptable and entirely counterproductive.

I’m not alone in thinking these protests fail to change minds.

A 2022 survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of these sorts of stunts.

In fact, 46% of respondents said nonviolent disruptive protests decrease their support for efforts to address climate change, and a mere 13% said they increase them.

A similar poll from Germany found that 83% of respondents felt climate protests had gone too far.

The West has a laudable history of protesting, from women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement.

That heritage has led generation after generation to pick up the mantle of civil disobedience with righteousness — so much so that the organization behind the DC highway debacle took to X, formerly Twitter, to say as much.

“For us,” Declare Emergency organizers wrote, “this was a great way to honor the legacy of Dr. King and to carry on his tradition of disruptive, nonviolent civil disobedience!”

But not all protests are created equal.

As much as these self-righteous agitators might like to fashion themselves as the successors of King’s legacy, the truth is they aren’t. Having petulant meltdowns while dripping with glue and soup simply doesn’t have the same effect.

Is the UN Really Climate Neutral? No.

Originally published on September 13, 2023 by Jacob Goldberg, Léopold Salzenstein, Sarah Brown, and Shaz Syed for The New Humanitarian

An investigation by The New Humanitarian and Mongabay

About this investigation: The UN has long championed the need for urgent climate solutions. Yet its own actions – particularly its reliance on low-quality carbon offsets – undermine its leadership on fighting climate change. Building on our 2021 investigation that found the UN failed to count all of its emissions, The New Humanitarian teamed up with Mongabay, a US-based environmental news outlet, to investigate the UN’s claims of climate neutrality. In an investigation that took a year and spanned multiple countries, reporters obtained details about carbon credits purchased by 33 UN entities, representing more than 75% of its reported offset portfolio since 2012. More than a dozen of the projects that issued the UN’s carbon credits were linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health concerns. Others were deemed worthless by a number of leading climate experts.

The UN claims to be almost entirely climate neutral, yet that claim is based on buying millions of carbon offset credits that experts say do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, The New Humanitarian and Mongabay found in a year-long investigation.

More than 2.7 million UN carbon credits – 40% of those reporters were able to analyse – were issued by hydropower and wind projects, which climate experts say shouldn’t be used to offset emissions as the schemes often don’t need income from credits to be viable.

In addition, at least 13 carbon offsetting projects that received UN funds have been linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health problems – all issues the UN routinely works to prevent or mitigate.

One such project, the Teles Pires hydropower plant in Brazil, has drawn regular protests by communities and environmental groups who say the dam’s construction destroyed rainforests and Indigenous lands.

“It looks like there is little credibility in the UN’s [climate neutrality] claim based on the carbon credits that they have used,” said Gilles Dufrasne, of Carbon Market Watch, a watchdog group, referring to the high number of large-scale wind and hydropower credits in the UN’s portfolio. “I would qualify these as junk credits.”

  • At a glance: Why the UN’s claims don’t stack up

  • The UN has claimed to be at least 95% “climate neutral” every year since 2018, largely through the use of carbon credits.
  • Reporters tracked down the origins of more than 6.6 million credits that 33 UN entities purchased between 2012 and 2022 for nearly $8.5 million. Fifteen entities failed to respond or declined to share information, while several did not disclose their spending.
  • Of those credits, more than 2.7 million were issued by wind and hydropower projects, which many experts say fail to represent real emissions reductions. Offset certifiers like Gold Standard and Verra have restricted such projects due to quality concerns.
  • More than 350,000 credits were issued by 13 projects that have been implicated in displacement, environmental damage, and health concerns.
  • The UN spent an average of roughly $1.30 on each carbon credit, which experts say indicates low quality and is well below the norm.
  • Some NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières have sworn off carbon offsets in favour of direct reductions. Others, like Oxfam UK, which still buys offset credits, say they do not treat the purchases as reductions to their emissions or use them to claim climate neutrality.

The investigation, which spanned multiple countries, is one of the first to peer into the UN’s carbon offset portfolio, which has not previously been made public.

Reporters also found that many UN entities had little knowledge or oversight of the carbon credits they were purchasing. Many were also purchased at rock-bottom prices – bargains that experts say should raise red flags.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment David Boyd called the investigation’s findings “very troubling” and urged the UN to launch an independent inquiry into its offset purchases, with results to be made public.

Most UN entities referred questions about their carbon credit purchases to the UN’s climate change oversight body – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat. UNFCCC did not respond to detailed questions about this investigation’s findings but said UN entities purchase credits “randomly” and “do not discriminate between them”.

The UN is hardly the biggest offender when it comes to claims of climate neutrality or greenhouse gas emissions.

Roughly 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, while a recent study of climate neutrality claims from 25 multinationals found most were overstated. British Airways and Delta Air Lines, for example, have faced particularly stringent criticism over their claims.

Still, climate researchers and environmental advocates say the UN’s offsetting practices undermine its leadership on efforts to slow the pace of global warming.

Aside from overseeing multiple climate treaties, the UN is also a steward in helping governments meet climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, organising the annual COP climate conferences. This year’s COP28 starts on 30 November in Dubai.

Even as millions of credits in the UN’s own portfolio fail to meet high standards, it has been urging other organisations to do better. Last year, a “high-level” UN expert group advised organisations to buy only “high-integrity credits” and to refrain from counting those credits as their own emissions reductions.

“I do think it matters what the UN does,” said Joe Romm, senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. “The UN is effectively overseeing the world’s effort to address the climate problem.”

‘Unavoidable’ emissions

The UN set out to become climate neutral in 2007, when leaders agreed to reduce the world body’s emissions “to the extent possible”.

In 2014, then-UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon proclaimed: “We will be climate neutral by 2020.” The UN defines climate neutrality as balancing emissions so they are equal to or less than what the planet naturally absorbs.

Between 2018 and 2021, the UN said it had achieved near-total climate neutrality, despite reporting emissions of nearly 7 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide – roughly equal to the annual emissions of 1.5 million gasoline-powered cars.

This claim was only made possible by offsetting.

Other initiatives were also undertaken – pushing for renewable energy sources, hosting meetings online, and flying economy class instead of business – but none of those measures managed to bring significant emissions reductions, possibly due to increased staffing during the same five-year period.

In 2019, for example, the UN’s annual reported emissions were roughly equal to what they were in 2014: more than 2 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

In 2020, the UN’s reported emissions dropped below 1.5 million metric tonnes, but the reductions were largely attributed to travel restrictions and remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And these figures only represent the emissions the UN actually includes.

A 2021 investigation by The New Humanitarian found that the UN failed to count all of its emissions, including indirect emissions – greenhouse gases emitted up and down its supply chain. Without knowing the UN’s total emissions, claims of climate neutrality, or even of emissions reductions, become difficult to prove.

“The UN’s neutrality claim lacks credibility and is particularly inappropriate coming from an agency overseeing global efforts to combat climate change,” said Lindsay Otis, a policy expert at Carbon Market Watch. “The [UN] should stop making misleading neutrality claims.”

The UN says many of its greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable and need to be offset – at least in the short term.

But some other organisations have already forsworn carbon offsetting altogether. Last year, Médecins Sans Frontières published a roadmap for halving its emissions by 2030 without relying on carbon credits.

Oxfam UK, which does buy carbon credits, says it doesn’t use them to claim climate neutrality. Among commercial entities, both Gucci and Nestlé recently agreed to abandon “carbon neutral” claims on some brands.

Additionally, the EU has taken steps to prohibit corporate claims of climate neutrality that are based on unsubstantiated or unverified carbon offsetting programmes.

Switzerland’s advertising regulator also recently told the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) to refrain from describing the 2022 Qatar World Cup as climate neutral after research found the claim was largely based on offsets from renewable energy projects.

Responding to the UN’s reliance on these types of credits, Romm said: “Their [climate neutrality] claims would be ruled false in any court in the world… They’re utterly meaningless.”

But the UN is largely exempt from regulatory oversight, and because of its many entities and siloed operations, its offset portfolio has remained unexamined.

For this investigation, however, reporters were able to trace the origins of more than 6.6 million credits, representing more than 75% of the UN’s entire 2012-2022 offset portfolio, according to calculations based on the UN’s annual emissions reports and purchase records provided by UN entities.

The credits were issued by some 700 projects and purchased by 33 of the 48 UN entities that claim to be climate neutral. The UN spent nearly $8.5 million on carbon credits between 2012 and 2022, according to data the UN provided.

Fifteen entities failed to respond or declined to share information. Several of those that provided offset purchase records did not say how much their credits cost. Eighteen entities told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay they didn’t have their own purchase records and referred requests to the UNFCCC secretariat.

Do no harm

Of the credits the UN purchased between 2012 and 2022, more than 350,000 were issued by at least 13 projects that were linked to reports of environmental destruction, forced displacement, or health problems in communities near the projects.

UN entities spent more than $400,000 on these credits, according to information provided by the entities that made the purchases.

For instance, the UN Secretariat – the UN’s administrative arm headed by Secretary-General António Guterres – bought nearly 4,000 credits in 2021 from the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, an Indian project that has sparked environmental and health concerns.

Located in New Delhi’s Sukhdev Vihar neighbourhood, it claims to reduce emissions by burning organic waste to heat pressure boilers that drive steam turbines and generate electricity.

Community residents, however, have challenged the project in the courts for more than a decade, claiming the plant’s incinerators are fed mixed waste, including plastic, rather than organic waste, causing them to emit toxic pollution near their homes.

Air pollution tests submitted to an Indian environmental court in 2020 confirmed emissions of harmful particles well above the permissible limit, according to research by the New Delhi-based Centre for Financial Accountability.

Chanchal Pal, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Apollo 24/7 hospital – located around 200 metres from the Okhla facility – said she believes cases of bronchitis, lung diseases, asthma, nasal polyps, and sinus problems among people living in the area are linked to pollution from the plant.

“When plastics are burnt, it has carcinogenic effects on human health – this is a scientific fact,” Pal told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay.

Residents have also pointed out that the plant’s 40-metre proximity to some homes violates government guidelines requiring landfills to be at least 500 metres from residential areas.

Ranjit Devraj, a Sukhdev Vihar resident and former member of a Supreme Court committee on waste management in Delhi, said locals live in fear of boiler explosions that could flatten their homes and claim lives.

“It is an environmental disaster in the making because this plant is supposed to be some sort of flagship for a policy of incinerating waste in India,” Devraj said.

Neither the Timarpur Okhla Waste Management Company, which the UN lists as a project operator, nor site manager Sandeep Dutt, responded to requests for comment.

13 projects in UN offset portfolio linked to displacement, environmental damage, and health concerns

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), meanwhile, spent roughly $100,000 in 2021 on nearly 29,000 credits issued by Brazil’s Teles Pires hydropower plant – a project accused of destroying forests and Indigenous lands, and of harming biodiversity and fisheries.

The companies involved blew up the Sete Quedas rapids with dynamite in 2013, two years before the project began issuing carbon credits.

“Teles Pires flooded the Sete Quedas rapids, which are the holiest site for the Munduruku people. It’s where the spirits of the respected elders go after they die,” said Philip Fearnside, a biologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia.

The project has also been linked to greenhouse gas emissions that undermine its offsetting claims.

A 2018 study published by the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil calculated that deforestation and decomposition of flooded forests caused by the dam would add more than 60 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – more than double the amount it claims to reduce through the sale of carbon credits.

Neither WFP nor the Brazilian energy companies EQAO and Hidrelétrica Teles Pires, which the UN lists as the two participants in the project, responded to requests for comment.

‘Randomly assigned’

More than 1 million credits in the UN’s portfolio were issued by large-scale hydropower projects, which experts have criticised for decades for being particularly ineffective at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

When asked about these purchases, multiple UN entities either did not respond or deferred responsibility to UNFCCC.

Most UN entities rely on UNFCCC to procure offset credits on their behalf – a reliance that raises questions about what responsibility, if any, UN entities have in conducting their own due diligence when vetting and buying carbon credits.

“The [UN] Secretariat does not choose the projects,” said UN Secretariat spokesperson Florencia Soto Niño. “These are allocated through UNFCCC and they have certain criteria for their selection. I suggest you reach out to UNFCCC on this matter.”

Deforestation and flooding around the Teles Pires hydropower plant between 2000 and 2020. Some of the visible environmental degradation may not have been caused by the dam’s construction or operations.

UN officials told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that most UN entities outsource the procurement of carbon credits to UNFCCC, which in turn buys them from the Adaptation Fund.

The Adaptation Fund receives credits from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a UN-run offset certifier, and sells them to fund projects in countries trying to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.

Moses Osani, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the credits are “randomly assigned” by the Adaptation Fund to UNFCCC and then assigned again by UNFCCC to the purchasing UN entities.

Eighteen UN entities initially told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay they didn’t know which projects issued their credits, though most eventually requested records from UNFCCC and shared them with reporters.

“We do not have info ourselves about the specific projects where the money [was] invested,” said Marina Maiero, Technical Officer for Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, which did not provide transaction records to reporters.*

In theory, each carbon credit certified by the CDM should represent the reduction of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In practice, however, the CDM has registered thousands of projects that experts say do not reduce emissions as advertised.

A 2016 research paper published by the Germany-based Öko-Institut recommended that large-scale wind and hydropower projects be excluded from the CDM because of quality concerns.

A 2022 review of the CDM’s performance similarly pointed out that few wind and hydropower projects – large-scale or small-scale – achieved their emission reduction targets.

Gold Standard and Verra – two other major carbon offset certifiers – restricted hydropower projects in 2019 due to “non-additionality”, meaning the projects didn’t need revenue from carbon credits to be built.

What is additionality?

“If the money that you spend for the offset doesn’t have an impact on the outcome, then you can’t claim any credit for the outcome,” said Romm, the University of Pennsylvania climate researcher. “I don’t know why the UN would still be buying wind and hydro.”

Two UN officials told reporters there were limits on UN purchases of large-scale hydropower credits.

Osani, the UNEP spokesperson, said the mix of credits offered by the Adaptation Fund “excludes large-scale hydro” credits.

Dragoslav Jovanovic, head of the Procurement, Travel and General Services Unit at UNFCCC, said “certain large hydro” projects are meant to be excluded from what the Adaptation Fund can sell.

While some of the 1 million large-scale hydropower credits in the UN’s portfolio were purchased from other carbon credit markets, almost 900,000 were assigned to UN entities by UNFCCC, according to records UNFCCC and other entities provided, suggesting that unless they were using a different threshold, the exclusion was either being ignored or non-existent.

When asked whether large hydropower projects were meant to be excluded from UN purchases, Adaptation Fund spokesperson Matthew Pueschel declined to provide information, saying “all such transactions are proprietary”. He later added that all credits sold by the Adaptation Fund “are available for purchase in principle”.

Neither Osani nor Jovanovic responded to further questions on why almost 900,000 credits from large-scale hydropower projects were not excluded from UN purchases.

UNFCCC’s press office confirmed that “certain large hydro” projects were previously excluded from the Adaptation Fund’s credits but said “this criterion no longer applies”. They did not provide details on the threshold for exclusion or say when it was dropped.

This investigation found that UN entities purchased carbon credits from large-scale hydropower projects every year from 2014 to 2021.

Low ratings

While some experts questioned the effectiveness of the wind and hydropower credits in the UN’s portfolio generally, The New Humanitarian and Mongabay sought additional analysis from the London-based carbon credit ratings agency BeZero Carbon.

BeZero provides risk-based ratings, research, and analysis on carbon credits. Although it doesn’t specifically rate credits associated with UN entities, BeZero granted reporters access to its ratings platform to see its analysis of 23 projects that happen to be found in the UN’s portfolio.

Out of almost 300,000 credits the UN bought from these 23 projects, more than 60% were issued by projects that, according to BeZero, have a moderately low, low, or very low likelihood of achieving their stated greenhouse gas reductions.

UN entities spent almost $750,000 on these lowly rated projects. Wind and hydropower projects are among the lowest-rated.

For instance, BeZero gave a low rating to the Allain Duhangan Hydroelectric Project – an Indian dam that provided more than 39,000 credits to the UN Secretariat in 2021.

According to BeZero’s analysis, the preponderance of hydropower in the same region as the Allain Duhangan project “contrasts with the project’s claim to be first of its kind”, suggesting it would likely have been built regardless of revenue from carbon credits.

BeZero also gave low ratings to three Chinese wind power projects that supplied more than 24,000 credits to the UN Secretariat, WFP, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

All three ratings point out that wind power projects are financially viable on their own and are supported by governments, meaning they do not rely on carbon credit revenue and are therefore unlikely to be additional.

UNDP sustainability coordinator Anne Fernqvist told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that BeZero’s ratings are statements of opinion, adding that UNDP’s climate neutrality claim remains valid even without credits from the lowly rated Chinese wind project.

Soto Niño, the UN Secretariat spokesperson, deferred questions about the Secretariat’s purchases to UNFCCC, which did not respond to questions about specific projects.

WFP did not respond to requests for comment on its purchases.

Buyer beware

Several experts who reviewed the UN’s offset portfolio suggested the UN could have avoided the most common risks associated with carbon credits by selecting project types that are known to offer additionality and don’t come with unintended problems.

More than half the credits reporters managed to trace in the UN’s portfolio, however, were issued by projects categorised as high-risk by the Carbon Offset Guide, indicating that they are among the least likely to have a meaningful climate impact.

The guide, published in 2019 by the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, a Washington DC-based NGO that provides education on greenhouse gas accounting, categorises project types as low, medium, or high-risk, with low-risk project types being the most likely to be additional.

The New Humanitarian and Mongabay found that 51% of the credits in the records the UN provided were issued by high-risk projects, while only 25% were issued by low-risk projects, and another 24% were issued by medium-risk projects.

“The approach of a sensible [organisation] should be to check – what type of credits am I buying?” said Axel Michaelowa, a climate policy researcher at the University of Zurich and senior founding partner of the Perspectives Climate Group consulting firm.

Michaelowa also pointed out that the UN purchased small numbers of credits from hundreds of different projects rather than making large purchases from a small number of reputable projects, indicating that it wasn’t being selective.

“This is a clear indication that there is low quality control,” he told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay in a phone interview.

Dufrasne, of Carbon Market Watch, said that in addition to conducting more due diligence before buying credits, the UN should also stop claiming to be climate neutral.

“Where it becomes problematic is if those [offset] purchases create a licence to communicate false statements, such as ‘climate neutrality’,” he told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay.

Romm, the University of Pennsylvania climate researcher, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay in a phone interview: “It’d be better if the UN simply said: ‘We’re going to try to do what our own expert group said’,” referring to recommendations that offsets should not be used to claim reductions in an organisation’s emissions.

Romm added that low-cost carbon credits, such as those sold by the CDM, tend also to be low-quality. Other climate experts say higher-cost credits are often associated with projects that have better environmental, social, and economic results.

Carbon credits can sell for more than $100 each, with common prices between 2021 and 2023 ranging from $2 to $15.

The UN spent an average of about $1.30 on each of the credits it disclosed to reporters. WFP bought more than half its credits – 500,000 – for just 12 euro cents each, while UNFCCC bought nearly 60,000 for 12 US dollar cents each, according to records provided.

“Anything that’s in the $3 to $4 price range… you get what you pay for. The reason [CDM credits] are cheap is because they’re not genuine,” Romm said.

As scrutiny of offsetting practices intensifies, some organisations have stopped buying carbon credits altogether and are instead investing in reducing their emissions directly.

Last year, the UK-based airline EasyJet announced it would not buy offset credits as part of its latest plan to reduce emissions. The plan instead focuses on using more sustainable fuel and more efficient planes. A 2021 joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace revealed that the airline had been purchasing flawed carbon credits.

Victorine Che Thoener, senior strategic adviser at Greenpeace International, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that buying offset credits gives the false impression that governments, organisations, and consumers can buy their way out of the climate crisis without cutting their own emissions.

Theoner added: “Without truly functional climate procedures, the UNFCCC’s legitimacy is at risk – as is a liveable climate for us all.”

(* An earlier version of this article misstated the job title of Marina Maiero at the World Health Organization. This corrected version was published on 13 September 2023.)

Jacob Goldberg reported from Thailand and Léopold Salzenstein reported from France. Sarah Brown reported from Brazil and Shaz Syed from India. Graphics and illustrations by Eva Hilhorst, Marc Fehr, Léopold Salzenstein, and Sofia Kuan. Additional reporting and editing by Paisley Dodds in London.

Apple recently released a five-minute ad in which a fictional Mother Nature grills executives on the company’s environmental performance. The ad made Apple look self-critical and diligent.

But, to us, it represents monumental greenwashing. Worse, the company’s dubious carbon-neutral claims may even set the company up for a potential lawsuit. And Apple is not alone: Rival Microsoft — and many other companies — are playing similar games.

Apple used the ad to announce “its first carbon neutral products” — Apple watches. Fictional Mother Nature herself approved!

Yet, a new report finds that legal cases against corporations for questionable claims quadrupled this year. Among many others, DeltaKLM and the makers of Evian have already been sued.

The Swiss commission regulating ads ruled in June that FIFA misled fans by calling the Qatar World Cup “carbon-neutral” and told it to stop. Then, Nestle abandoned offsets along with its pledges to make products like Perrier and KitKat carbon neutral. This month, Bloomberg reported that Shell “ended the world’s biggest corporate plan to develop carbon offsets.”

Many of the lawsuits revolve around the dubious nature of carbon offsets, in which a company claims reductions of carbon dioxide emissions from an activity in one place to make up for emissions elsewhere. A company that wants to keep polluting might, instead of reducing its own emissions, pay a developing country to reduce emissions. If the buyer purchases enough offsets to cover all its emissions, then it calls itself “net zero” or its products “carbon neutral,” as Apple is doing.

But research on offsets shows “the large majority are not real or are over-credited or both,” as Barbara Haya, director of The Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, said earlier this year.

One of many recent media exposés reported that “more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by [the] biggest certifier are worthless.” Most of these deforestation avoidance offsets — used by big companies like Shell, Disney and Gucci — are, according to the report, “phantom credits” and may even “worsen global heating.”

And so the prices of the most popular “nature-based” offsets — planting trees or paying people not to cut down trees — have plummeted 80% in just the past 18 months.

As for Apple, it has decided it can call its watches carbon neutral if it has achieved “at least a 75 percent reduction in product emissions for each model” and then cover the remaining emissions with “high-quality carbon credits.”

But the courts have made it clear that companies don’t get to decide this, fictional Mother Nature notwithstanding. The leader in setting and verifying credible voluntary targets for thousands of companies is the Science Based Targets Initiative. They require a company seeking to make a net-zero claim to cut its own emissions 90% to 95% — which is hard to do — before it can offset the rest with “high quality carbon removals.” The UN’s High‐Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non‐State Entities embraced this approach in November.

In its Wednesday press release, Apple wrote that it “has so far reduced total emissions by over 45 percent since 2015.”

Saying that your entire company is far from carbon neutral while claiming a tiny number of your products are carbon neutral is like claiming your pinky is cancer-free when the rest of your body is not.

Apple’s new climate ad sounds like it could have been written by the fossil fuel industry; it fails to mention a single action that might disrupt the fossil fuel economy, such as corporate activism or lobbying. Instead, it focuses on tweaks to its own operations, which can never solve a global problem like climate change.

Double Claiming Offsets

In our view, Microsoft’s greenwashing is very different but equally problematic, as it has been claiming offset credits already claimed by their rightful owner.

The story reads like a crime novel. In May, the Danish government announced it was paying the bioenergy company Orsted to capture 450,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from two biomass plants and bury it under the Norwegian Sea. Denmark is claiming all those tons and will put them in its national greenhouse gas registry to help meet its official emissions reduction pledge for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Seems straightforward, right? These were Denmark’s emissions to claim. But Orsted also announced it was selling over half of those very same tons to Microsoft, which is using them offset some of its emissions. It’s like selling a piece of cake to Magnus, and then later to Sally. Sally’s probably going to go hungry.

Remarkably, such an absurd deal is not (yet) banned under the Paris climate agreement. And the voluntary market is entirely unregulated, which means that offsets don’t undergo any verification. It’s the Wild West.

Nothing here is technically illegal. The only crime is against a livable climate. Indeed, studies warn that allowing this type of deal could create “a race to the bottom in which the voluntary carbon market undermines the objectives of the Paris Agreement.”

Microsoft’s claim shows the voluntary market is a make-believe exchange that doesn’t sell anything other than PR. Ironically, offsets are turning into the bad kind of PR — the kind that lands you in legal trouble.

No wonder Mother Nature is assaulting humankind with every form of extreme weather imaginable to get us to take real action.

Joseph Romm, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. He is the author of the new report, “Are carbon offsets unscalable, unjust, and unfixable — and a threat to the Paris Climate Agreement?

Auden Schendler is the author of “Getting Green Done” and a sustainable business practitioner with 25 years of experience. 

PBS is coming to Philly to talk climate, community empowerment at Penn

Originally published by Vicky Diaz-Camacho for PBS and WHYY on September 7, 2023

On Sept. 12, PBS, WHYY, and the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media will convene community leaders, science communicators, journalists, and leading scientists to discuss the value of storytelling to educate about climate change.

Climate Solutions and the Role of Media” is a two-part panel to focus on “recasting the climate change narrative,” with a renewed focus on exploring solutions rather than emphasizing crises.

Panelist Michael Mann directs the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. He said journalism should draw connections and illuminate climate change’s widespread impact — for instance, how wildfires in one part of the U.S. worsen air quality in another.

“The last few years as Gen Z has come into their own and started using the power of our voice [which] has allowed us to see this focus shift from alerting the community versus empowering the community,” said Mann in an email.

In a recent interview with PBS Newshour host Amna Nawaz, Mann explained the connection among recent fires, flooding, and severe storms across the U.S.

“Climate change is no longer some subtle, far-off, possible thing. It’s here and now,” Mann said. “It’s impacting us here and now.”

“Explain without over-explaining — break down the lingo succinctly and accurately; and relate it to what is going on with the general public,” he added. “People will relate to issues better if they can see a way that it impacts them.”

Bill Gardner, vice president of programming at PBS, agreed.

“It’s about stories, and about community. It’s about people who are doing things and being active,” Gardner told WHYY News. “With a lot of scientific concepts, it can seem so abstract and so big.”

PBS focuses on stories that “give entry points for people who want to participate in the world,” and show how changes in the climate affect communities around them.

Gardner put it like this:

“You talk about the world that people inhabit, that they live in. And you put it in the context of understanding … the things that we’re experiencing.”

He hopes to equip people with tools to navigate the changing world.

Mann and Gardner agree that the evening will convey a clear message: The better audiences understand why climate change and the narratives surrounding science matter, the better equipped community members are to enact change — whether through lifestyle, education, or conversation.

Panelists will include:

  • Reporter and editor, Susan Phillips of WHYY News Climate Desk
  • Shane Campbell-Staton, Ph.D., professor, biologist, and host of PBS’s “Human Footprint” series
  • Bill Gardner, vice president, multiplatform programming and head of development, PBS
  • Maribel Lopez, Head of PBS Digital Studios
  • Michael Mann, Ph.D., presidential distinguished professor and director of Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media
  • Bethany Wiggin, Ph.D., director of Penn Program in Environmental Humanities
  • Fay Yu, Head of Current for Part2 Pictures

“Climate Solutions and the Role of Media” takes place Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 5 p.m. at the Harold Prince Theater on the University of Pennsylvania Campus. The event is free and offers open seating, however registration is required to attend. The talk will not be livestreamed, but a recording will be made available on YouTube shortly after.