1) The Sabah government strikes questionable deal with Tierra Australia and a private equity group in Singapore to reforest 5 million acres of land
2) The two recent landmark events/decisions that point to both progress and setbacks in transmission expansion
3) EcoFiber offers innovative solution for Chile’s fast fashion landfill problem
On October 30th, the government of Sabah, a Malaysian state on the Island of Borneo, struck a deal with Tierra Australia and a private equity group in Singapore to reforest 5 million acres of land and protect it from mining, logging, and industrial agriculture for 100-200 years.
At face value that sounds fantastic, right? We need government and private capital working together to protect our remaining ecosystems. And Sabah is a great target. It is on the northernmost tip of Borneo, an island mostly controlled by Indonesia, and has been decimated by agricultural deforestation. Primarily from palm oil. The highly controversial oil that Is responsible for the destruction of much of the Malaysian and Indonesia rainforests. Between 2001 and 2020, 25% of the forest cover in Sabah was lost due to palm oil, where 7% of the entire world’s supply is produced.
Their interest is not altruism. Its carbon markets. Investors are seeing big green dollar signs as so many companies and nations worldwide rush at carbon offsets to produce their net-zero accounting, an issue we’ve talked about a lot here at Animalia as something to be very skeptical of given these offsets can often lead to a deprioritization of lowering emissions in the first place, and companies get credit for them in most cases regardless if they are ever seen through fruition.
Now a series of questions about this deal and the lack of involvement of the local Indigenous communities in Sabah is raising rightful skepticism, highlighting how complex this issue is.
The deal states that 30% of the carbon monetization will go to Tierra & the Private Equity group, and 70% will go to the government of Sabah. Funds will not go direct to any of the Indigenous communities that actually live in Sabah, but the deal brokers say those government funds will be used to their benefit and they will have access to jobs and be lifted out of poverty.
If that kind of shady promise sounds familiar, it’s basically how we approached Native communities here in the US. Taking over their lands for our commercial interest with the promise Native people would get economic growth and better jobs. Fast forward a few hundred years later, how did that turn out? A majority of our Native communities live in absolute poverty, in food deserts, with no representation or say in governance while they’ve watched our industrial systems destroy our natural lands, devastate this climate, and benefit only the select few in charge.
Tim Burgess, the CEO of Tierra Australia who led the deal, claims that Indigenous leaders were consulted, although he refuses to name any of them specifically or make them available for reporters. He is saying he met the guidelines from the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, although the language in that says States shall “consult and cooperate in good faith with indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions”…..in the case of this deal, it has been reported that the Indigenous communities were not even aware a deal was going on. So how could they share concern over something they did not know was happening?
One of Burgess’ quotes to press kind of tells you all you need to know about this guy:
“If we had to go and sit around every campfire,” he said, “it would never happen. The Indigenous people and their lot will stay as is, and they will never, never see any benefits.”
Here is another problem. Indigenous communities are the true stewards of these natural lands. They know how to extract resources in balance and harmony with the land they cherish. If we actually want to protect these lands, they should be the ones making the decisions and governing how that’s done. By structuring it the way Tierra Australia has, it is less likely the goals will be fulfilled, and the future carbon sequestering that the buyers are paying for upfront via the credits will actually happen. Not to mention the many issues that could impede this outside of their control, like increased natural disasters due to climate change or damage from a neighboring state they have no oversight over.
We are all for protecting our natural ecosystems and putting a monetary value on doing so. We are not going to save this planet via altruism sadly, it’s going to have to come with the right commercial incentives. That said, we do not believe this is the exact right approach, and would modify such projects as follows:
1. Local communities should be put in charge of protecting their own lands and paid directly to do so if we want the best results. They should not be receiving the benefits “second hand” via a promise of future jobs or government investment
2. The largest, wealthiest nations who have caused the most climate damage and received all the economic prosperity from doing so – the US, UK, China, Japan, Germany, etc.. – should be funding these programs directly in addition to the private sector
3. It’s ok for private companies to also fund this work via purchasing carbon credits, but there should be distinct standards, goals, and protocols around net-zero plans and directly lowering emissions of your own operations. We can not and should not allow carbon offsets to halt or even slow down the work of lowering emissions
4. Carbon offsets need much tighter protocols. Companies should not get all the benefits upfront of future work that may or may not happen, otherwise the incentive to see it through is weak at best.
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WHY THE BATTLE OVER TRANSMISSION LINES MAY DETERMINE IF WE MEET OUR CLIMATE GOALS
This week’s podcast episode is all about the need to decarbonize our electricity grid and some of the policy work needed to get there. If we do not, we have zero chance of hitting our climate goals and keeping global warming below 2C let alone 1.5C.
One of the biggest, if not THE biggest, challenge is transmission. In a nutshell, we have enough clean, renewable energy to meet our electricity needs, yet only 40% of our electricity comes from these sources. Alongside improving storage/battery technology, one of the biggest issues is the fact that a lot of clean electricity is produced in rural areas (think wind, solar, hydro) but most of the electricity demand is in dense urban areas. Coal and natural gas can be processed right outside of these urban centers. Zero-carbon sources, other than nuclear, require more space and thus more distance to travel if we are going to phase out fossil fuels.
That is going to require bigger, more powerful transmission lines. The National Academies of Science estimates American transmission capacity needs to grow by 60 percent this decade to put the country on track for net-zero emissions by midcentury. Researchers at Princeton University reckon that the build-out could cost some $360 billion by 2030. For context, in 2019 we spent just about $20B on new transmission lines. So there is a big gap here and a lot of work to do.
In the past week, there have been two landmark events/decisions that point to both progress and setbacks in transmission expansion that really highlight the challenges here.
MAINE CORRIDOR GETS REJECTED
Let’s start with the setback.
We wrote about this back in the Spring, but the entire state of Maine has been boiling over this past year over a proposed electricity transmission line that would send hydro power from Quebec through main and into Massachusetts to help expand renewable electricity.
Backed by Central Maine Power, the state’s largest utility, the transmission line would require cutting a corridor of 54 feet through 53 miles of Maine’s forests and mountains. For local Maine residents, despite potentially lower energy prices and new jobs, they did not want their forests cut through for the primary benefactors being Massachusetts and a Canadian hydro company.
After a year plus of debate, and tens of millions of dollars spent in marketing both sides, Maine voters turned out in record numbers last week to vote yes to stop the project.
Look there is a lot to unpack here, so much that we are planning on putting an entire podcast mini-series around it, but one of the really challenge themes that developed is how the opposition was able to use environmentalism to stand against renewable electricity, and how this was primarily funded from fossil fuel companies who don’t want to see that changed. They harped on the destruction this would have on Maine’s forests and outdoor recreation to motivate Mainers to stand up against it. However the corridor itself posed no tangible risk to Maine’s forest ecosystem provided the transmission lines were built with state of the art protocols and regular reviews for any potential fire causing damage, which was included. But potential wildfires were not the talking point here – it was the aesthetic downsides of these transmission lines mixed with a bit of nationalism that opposed a Canadian company profiting from this alongside state pride in standing against benefits to Massachusetts, despite the advancement it would offer in clean electricity.
There are other issues at play here as well. The CMP did a really bad job of marketing this and has had a long track record of terrible customer service that creates a lot of doubt from local constituents.
Net net though, this was a blow for transitioning our electricity to renewables.
BIPARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE PACKAGE INCLUDES KEY TRANSMISSION GOVERNANCE CHANGE
Now for the progress.
In last week’s $1 trillion infrastructure package that received bipartisan support – the one paired down from the $3.5T version that Democrats had hoped for – there is a key change that will give the federal government via the Energy Department more say in future transmission projects.
It gives the department authority to designate national transmission corridors and override state decisions to oppose them, such as Maine’s vote last week. Along with some spending to accelerate this work.
Now, it’s not without challenges. The criteria for what qualifies for the federal override has been expanded but still leaves some gray area. And then there are still issues around who pays for these transmission expansions and the process for who connects them to the grid. Utilities are a bit of a matrix of private and public operations that still ultimately reward the lowest bidder of cheap energy production.
And the first time a state like Maine is overturned using this policy change, we’d expect a lengthy court battle and series of appeals.
Still, it’s the step in the right direction.
The battle over transmission expansion is messy yet critical to getting off of fossil fuels. In fact, barring an unprecedented bipartisan support and expansion of nuclear facilities in every major region or hitting an energy miracle like solving scalable fusion technology in the near-term (not going to happen), there is likely no way to clean up our grid and hit our climate goals without transmission expansion.
The two verdicts this past week point to the difficulties around this issue. In fact, many devout environmental purists stand against transmission expansion as well, as we saw in the case of Maine, despite the need to do so in order to hit our climate goals. So there is a lot of work to do and communications efforts to get right on this one.
It’s also a reminder of how fragile policy changes are and how critical it is to act on them while you still have the chance. If the last week of off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey (Congressional race) are any indicators, we are headed towards a possible Republican takeover of Congress in 2022 and of the Presidency in 2024. With that most likely would come a reversal of the transmission power granted to the Energy Department, as a long standing Republican principle is empowering states and municipalities, not federal government. The window to act on this may be short, so let’s hope we can get as much of this transmission expansion done as we can during that time.
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TURNING FAST FASHION LANDFILLS INTO AN ENERGY SOLUTION
If you are not already familiar, the clothing and apparel world accounts for roughly 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions globally. Some of that is going to be hard to lower until we can first reduce emissions of things that power manufacturing…such as decarbonizing electricity. Hence why we talk about that a lot here on Animalia. So much that this week’s podcast episode focuses on it!
We need clothing. However we also need the industry to push much faster towards true circularity because of the volumes of waste created, particularly from fast-fashion. A new study on “clothing landfills” in Chile really highlights this problem. Fortunately there is a really interesting company that has found a way to turn some of it into something valuable.
A lot of unsold clothing, particularly from fast-fashion, ends up in Latin America. Fast-fashion includes brands such as H&M, Zara, or Urban Outfitters. They make massive volumes of relatively cheap, trend-chasing apparel that also is not so durable long-term. This is great for sheer profit pursuit but terrible for waste, environmental damage, and workplace conditions.
It leads to a lot of unsold inventory. And once the trend shifts and they can no longer sell that backlog of inventory in Europe, Asia, or the US, they ship it off to Latin America. But by the time it gets there, much of it is not sellable or also not of interest culturally to those folks, so it just gets dumped in landfills.
However this type of clothing manufacturing is so toxic and chemical intensive that it is even unhealthy for regular, municipal landfills. Imagine making something so dirty and pollutive that you need your own landfill.
In the Atacama Desert in Chile, there are mountains of this discarded clothing. As much as 40,000 tons per year. These clothing landfills harm the local ecosystems, emit greenhouse gas, and can poison local water supplies. So while we for sure need to address the larger textile waste issue here, a company in Chile called EcoFiber has stepped in to offer an innovative solution.
CLOTHING WASTE AS INSULATION
The core of what they do is convert this waste into thermal and acoustic insulation panels for buildings, and because they essentially have “free” access to these materials – the Chilean government of course wants these clothing landfills gone the cost to them is their existence, not their removal – these panels are very affordable.
In many buildings and structures without such insulation, these panels can save up to 35% of their electricity usage. That’s pretty neat and helps conserve energy and dial back some electricity needs.
Today EcoFiber is processing 4 tons per day of textile waste to produce 800 panels.
On an annual basis that is only 1,460 tons per year of roughly 40,000 tons being dumped, but it’s a start. And while by no means can this exhaust the waste problem, it’s great to see innovation like this that has a dual benefit – removing waste & making energy usage more efficient.
This is by no means a greenlight to keep traditional textile waste and fast-fashion going. There is simply no way for EcoFiber or similar companies to keep up with that volume, which has only been increasing.
From 2004 to 2016, worldwide we doubled our clothing purchases on a per person basis. This is largely due to the rise of fast-fashion globally. Cheap, chemical and water heavy production is designed to be short-lived and push the customer to buy more and more, preying primarily on lower income folks by convincing them to buy more than they need and damaging the planet along the way.
There is a push towards circularity happening across the industry. Where brands are focusing on the full life cycle and end of life of their products to ensure closed-loop systems where every output ingredient is safe and beneficial. Although an article on Glossy points out that this system is really hard for existing mass fashion brands to retrofit into and more doable if implemented as the foundation for your production work.
As that industry hopefully accelerates that shift, it’s good to see innovative solutions like EcoFiber making use of the waste the fashion industry proliferates.
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OCEANS AND SOIL
There are so many nuanced and detailed ways these two issues interlock. Many more we still don’t even know. They are like two dance partners adept at Tango but commanded to dance and dance and dance to the point it is quite literally killing them, all for human entertainment, tired, exhausted, pleading for help to slow down and take a breath.
Yet keep ignoring them and clap along to amuse ourselves.
Maybe the simplest illustrations would be our oceans and soil. They are our two best natural carbon sinks. Oceans being #1. Soil being #2. This means, when healthy, they sequester a lot of carbon. Soil, for example, contains 2,500 gigaton of carbon, 3x as much in the atmosphere and 4x as much as plants and animals.
Climate change and biodiversity are casual and offshoot products of each other.
As the planet heats up and more GHG hits our ocean surfaces, this leads to ocean acidification (more acid), and this kills life such as coral reefs who can form their protective shells. That coral dies and with it the vast array of life that occupies it, which then negatively impacts the ability of coral reefs to sequester carbon, thus leading to more global warming which started the example in this chain in the first place!
As we continue to practice large scale, monoculture farming, we are using practices such as tilling and herbicides and pesticides that kill our soil, which then limits its ability to sequester carbon, which then leads to more global warming, which is leading to changing seasons and landscape hurting wild pollinators, which then lead to biodiversity collapse, requiring even more pesticides, which puts us back at the onset of this chain!
For a final demonstration of how these issues are linked together, let’s take forestation. Again another major natural carbon sink. Except for when we tear them down or wildfires burn them down. As we tear down forests, primarily in the name of low-cost agricultural growth – we weaken those forests by reducing habitat and driving plant and animal loss. Those weakened forests are also under increasing threat of higher temperatures and dryer conditions. This is making wildfires bigger and stronger and harder to stop. This further weakens forests and the biodiversity that keeps them strong, leading to less carbon sequestration, and more global warming. The Amazon itself has now crossed a point where it may be emitted more carbon than it sinks because of deforestation.
You see how these vicious cycles work? They are lethal, and once we get caught in them, they are very hard to unwind out of.
We should both stop picking sides here in these crises, as well as arguing about which one is the larger short and long term threat. If this planet is an electric car, the biodiversity crisis are the 4 wheels and the climate crisis is the battery. Good luck getting anywhere solving only 1 of those 2 and not both!