Saturday, April 30, 2022

What’s Hot About Heat Pumps | Calculating Carbon Handprints | Valuing Rainforests

Plus: How To Protect The Future


Hello, and welcome to this latest Current Climate issue, the last one I'm curating as my time at Forbes comes to an end.

Readers of this newsletter, whose first issue was sent a year ago Sunday, will know I have
welcomed feedback from the start, through a Google form that can be left anonymous. Some of it was positive, some thought-provoking, some hostile—a particularly memorable note described this newsletter as "left-wing propaganda." 

The idea that climate action is the purview of only one side of the political spectrum is a common but misguided one—everyone should have an interest in
cleaner, cheaper and more efficient ways to power their homes.

Take, for example,
heat pumps, devices that look similar to air conditioning units but can both heat and cool spaces as needed by moving heat from outside to inside a building, or vice versa. Because no combustion occurs, the heating process generates far lower emissions than a fossil fuel-burning boiler produces and no nitrogen oxides, which worsen air quality. (Of course, the process requires electricity, which could make using heat pumps more expensive to run than boilers, depending on local gas prices and taxes.) Plus, heat pumps are three to four times more efficient at heating than gas boilers and have a lifespan of about 20 years—compared to an average of 15 for a boiler.

Heat pumps have existed for years but were long considered a niche market, mostly for off-grid properties. Only recently, as more consumers look for
less carbon-intensive ways to heat their homes, has demand picked up, finally creating the circumstances for economies of scale. In the U.K., a three-year government scheme offers vouchers to cover 50 to 75% of the installation costs, making heat pumps price-competitive with gas boilers, and earlier this month energy supplier Octopus announced the acquisition of Northern Ireland-based heat pump manufacturer Renewable Energy Devices (RED) in an effort to boost its capacity to meet demand, which is currently outstripping supply.

As this is my last week writing this newsletter, I'm ending on a forward-looking note. Along with presenting customary big reads and news that highlights the progress and challenges in the fight against climate change, this week's
Climate Talks features a chat with an unusual type of public servant—one tasked with ensuring the interests of her country's future generations. She explains what it all means, and why companies are getting involved, too. 

Thank you for reading this newsletter; I hope you've learned as much as I have. I leave you in the capable hands of my colleague, science editor
Alex Knapp, who also writes our InnovationRx newsletter (for which you can sign up instantly here). Starting next week, he'll be delivering you Current Climate every Saturday.

Sofia Lotto Persio

Sofia Lotto Persio

Editorial Lead, Sustainability | Twitter

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The Progress

The number of new diesel cars being sold in the U.K. has fallen by nearly 90% over the last five years, according to campaigners.

A Finnish manufacturer of
next-gen materials is going a step further in calculating the impact its operations have on the environment, measuring both greenhouse gas emissions (the so-called carbon footprint) and its overall resource use (known as carbon handprint).

Sweden-based researchers have ranked the 12 most effective measures to reduce vehicle use in urban areas—and are looking for a volunteer city to serve as a test case. 

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin said they used artificial intelligence to successfully engineer
a type of enzyme that can break down PET plastic into its component molecules in under 24 hours.

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The Challenges

Four in 10 Americans currently live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the annual State of the Air report by the American Lung Foundation. It was released the same week as a Swedish study indicating that even short-term exposure to traffic pollution is associated with a heightened risk of Covid-19 infection.

mark Earth Day last Friday, Google dedicated its Doodle feature to the impact human-made climate change is having on the natural environment in different parts of the world.

A lack of a financially sound recognition of the value of rainforests as carbon sinks is a major obstacle to efforts to preserve them and protect them from logging and agriculture.

Two new studies this week highlight the
threats climate change poses to animals' habitats, whether in the sea or above ground, where closer contact between wildlife (especially bats) and humans could fuel future pandemics.

Climate Talks

Sophie Howe is future generations commissioner for Wales, an unusual role that tasks a public servant with countering short-termism and ensuring government policy stays true to, and progresses towards, the country's guiding principles. It's a principle the corporate world can learn something from, too.

Her answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

What led to the creation of this role?

When the government of Wales was established in 1999, there was a clause in the legislation which stipulated that the government should have sustainable development as a central organizing principle. In reality, that didn't really mean much. Some ministers wanted to make the requirement tougher, so they created this legislation [known as] the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which was passed in 2015 and required the appointment of an independent commissioner to oversee its implementation and the change that needed to happen.

Which policy areas are the most relevant to your work?

There are six areas that can make the biggest contribution towards our long-term wellbeing goals: housing, land-use planning, transport, job skills, tackling inequality and keeping people healthy—not just treating people when they're ill, but trying to prevent them from becoming ill in the first place. All of these issues are interconnected, and we look at them in an integrated and holistic way. Then that's when we start to offer long-term benefits for the future.

What are some of the changes you were able to implement?

I scrutinize the Welsh government budget to see whether their investment decisions are investing for current and future generations. For instance, while they were increasing their spending on direct action on climate change and on renewables, they were also spending about 25% of the infrastructure investment budget on building roads. So one thing was obviously canceling out the other thing.

We now have a completely new transport strategy, and there's a moratorium on all road-building in Wales. Building roads to deal with the problem of congestion is not in the interest of future generations, because we just carry on emitting carbon, we carry on polluting our air. As a commissioner, I was able to get the government not just to change that one decision, but to change the whole approach to transport. That's a massive shift in terms of how the budget is spent in the interests of future generations.

The other thing I would mention is reforms to the education system, which, as it was, was not fit for the future. We were still working on the basis of imparting knowledge to children and testing them on how they are able to recall that knowledge. So we have reformed our curriculum in Wales from ages four to 14, basing learning around the principles of our wellbeing goals. Children in Wales now will be educated to be ethical and informed citizens, to be creative and enterprising learners and healthy and active citizens. The next thing I'm working on is to reform the national exam system for those aged 14 and older.

Do you think there's a space for a role like yours in a company's board or other governance institutions?

It certainly could be replicated in the private sector. Some companies are ahead of the public sector and ahead of governments on these things, because they have to be thinking about the future to ensure their survival, particularly around climate change and its cost—investing now to deliver their long term future.

In Wales, even though the law doesn't cover the private sector, I am increasingly being approached by the private sector, who want to know how to get on board. [Businesses] like the fact that there is a long-term vision for Wales that doesn't change from one election to the next, and can plan ahead accordingly. We're working with a number of companies to start reporting their actions in line with wellbeing considerations.

When it comes to concerns about climate change, there's both a fighting spirit but also a certain defeatism, with posts on social media questioning whether it's even worth the fight, particularly from young people. What's your reaction to that?

Defeatism is almost like the new denialism. We can't allow ourselves to be defeated. It is incredibly tough for us to meet our carbon emissions targets in Wales and indeed across the world. But it's not impossible. If ever you think that you're too small, look at how Greta Thunberg, one young woman, has probably achieved more in terms of raising awareness about inaction on climate change than anything politicians have done.

Wales is a small country, and we are reforming our whole system to make it better, whilst also trying to deal with the symptoms of a failed system. I'm realistic, but I'm also hopeful about what people can do when they have to gather around a common vision.

On The Horizon

California's Attorney General Rob Bonta has launched a first-of-its-kind investigation into the role of Big Oil in "causing and exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis." ExxonMobil received a subpoena as part of the probe, though the company rejects the allegations. 


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