US insurance industry seeks to avoid climate change risks

A new report from Ceres, formerly the Coalition for Environmentally responsible economies, ranks large US insurance companies on their response to climate change.

Findings include:

  • most of the company responses show a profound lack of preparedness in addressing climate-related risks and opportunities.
  • insurers are using climate-informed catastrophe models to better quantify climate-related risks from more frequent and intense weather catastrophes.
  • barely 10 percent of the insurers overall have issued public climate risk management statements articulating the company’s understanding of climate science and its implications for core underwriting and their vast investment portfolios.
  • many insurers are seeking to reduce their exposure to climate change risks by not providing insurance in higher risk markets.
  • very few insurers are working with their clients to reduce risks through such measures as more durable construction techniques.
  • some insurance companies are going to court to fight claims that arise from climate change related events, and sometimes they win.

While GallonDaily is not aware of any similar research on Canadian insurer practices we suspect that similar findings may apply in this country. We invite comments from those with direct knowledge of such matters to comment.

A summary and a link to the 54 page plus appendices report [free registration required] can be found at http://www.ceres.org/press/press-releases/first-of-its-kind-report-ranks-u.s.-insurance-companies-on-climate-change-responses

Natural gas not nearly as beneficial in addressing climate change as proponents have suggested

A recent article published online by the journal Nature suggests that natural gas may not be of significant benefit in addressing climate change. The researchers suggest that gas from unconventional sources such as fracking could even add to the climate change problem. Many organizations, including some environmental groups in Canada, have advocated increased use of natural gas as an environmentally preferable substitute for higher carbon fuels such as coal.

The paper, by scientists from the Joint Global Change Research Institute of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland as well as others from around the world, states that increases in global supplies of unconventional natural gas do not discernibly reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. The findings are based on five different models but the fundamental reason for this situation is that natural gas provides a substitute not only for high GHG emitting coal but also for existing low emitting energy technologies such as renewables and nuclear. Use of abundant natural gas is shown to change carbon dioxide emissions by an amount in the range of a 2% decrease to an 11% increase. The authors state that “results show that although market penetratioof globally abundant gas may substantially change the future energy system, it is not necessarily an effective substitute for climate changmitigation policy”.

Apart from the obvious impacts of this report on a natural gas industry that has been touting its benefits as a transitional fuel to a low carbon economy the findings of this report may also have impact in the long-term on users of natural gas. If carbon pricing eventually comes to Canada, as it appears likely it will, the pricing of natural gas as a fuel with little climate change benefit instead of as a transitional fuel could lessen the economic benefit which it provides.

An abstract and a link to the full paper (fee or subscription required) is available at  http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13837.html#access

Walmart owners painted as black, not green

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a reputable and usually responsible U.S. non-governmental organization, has published a report accusing the Walton family, majority owners of Walmart, of using their wealth to support organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, and the American Enterprise Institute which are opposing government action on climate change and some of which some would describe as climate change deniers. This accusation has the potential to cause major new damage to the green image which Walmart has been trying to build.

According to ILSR:

  • Since 2010, the Waltons have donated $4.5 million to more than 20 organizations which are leading the state campaigns against clean energy.
  • A Walton-owned solar company, First Solar, was instrumental in helping Arizona Public Service, an electricity utility, win higher fees for grid connection and net metering of rooftop solar panel systems. First Solar builds large solar arrays for utilities and, according to ILSR, stands to benefit if households are blocked from generating their own electricity, even if it means slowing the overall growth of solar.
  • First Solar also helped instigate a World Trade Organization proceeding that could force several U.S. states to repeal laws that use solar incentives to spur local job creation. First Solar does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia.

ILSR states that the Waltons claim to have a deep commitment to sustainability, but their support for anti-solar initiatives, which ILSR supports, tells a different story. The Waltons are investing in efforts that both undercut clean energy and prevent average Americans from benefitting economically from solar power.

Last year ILSR reported that since Walmart publicly embraced environmentalism in 2005, the Company’s self-reported greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 14 percent and the company was generating only 4 percent of its power from wind and solar, despite pledging to go 100 percent renewable.  That share has since dropped to 3 percent.  ILSR’s 2013 report also found that both Walmart’s and the Walton family’s political donations heavily favour lawmakers who oppose legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The ILSR / Walmart battle illustrates one of the complexities of greening a company without “walking the talk”. Supporting and implementing policies and actions that run counter to stated environmental objectives may do more harm than good to a company’s image and reputation. ILSR describes its report as “an instructive case study of the complexities of contemporary green-washing”.

The 19 page ILSR report How the Walton Family is Threatening Our Clean Energy Future is available at http://www.ilsr.org/walton-report/#more-37387 

Lack of environmental planning creates problems during and after disaster response

A report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies assessing the environmental aspects of the disaster response to the Haiti Earthquake in 2010 and Tropical Depression TD12-E in El Salvador in 2011 has found that failure to plan for the environmental aspects of the response activities actually added to the lingering effects of the disasters. For example:

  • vehicle emissions were very high, especially from trucks hauling water. Emissions could have been greatly reduced if water had been transported by pipeline using pumps.
  • renewable technologies (solar, wind) for electricity would have had a much lower environmental impact than diesel generators.
  • packaging of relief supplies should be planned to minimize waste and packaging materials should be reusable for local purposes or locally recyclable wherever possible.
  • the environmental impact of such relief items as tarpaulins, tents, blankets and jerry cans should be evaluated and steps taken to minimize the impacts during all phases of the product lifecycle, especially including adequate end of life management.
  • discarded plastic wrap can create serious environmental problems, including the blockages of rivers and streams which add to flooding. Again recovery and recycling of materials is should be planned into distribution programs.
  • local procurement is preferable to flying in relief supplies.

This well written report should provide everyone involved in production and distribution of relief supplies with much to think about and do.

The 56 page report is available at http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=50829&.pdf

Four more substances added to very credible list of human carcinogens

The National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services has added four more substances to its list of agents, substances, mixtures, and exposure circumstances that are known or reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans. Products containing these substances, or industries emitting them, are likely to come under more scrutiny from environmentalists and, potentially, from government regulators. The four are:

  • 1-Bromopropane
  • Cumene
  • Pentachlorophenol and By-products of Its Synthesis
  • o-Toluidine

1-Bromopropane, also called n-propyl bromide, is primarily in industrial uses such as a cleaner for optics, electronics, and metals and as a solvent for aerosol-applied adhesives, such as those used in foam cushion manufacturing. It is also used in dry cleaning and solvent sprays for aircraft maintenance, asphalt production, and synthetic fibre manufacturing.

Cumene is a natural component of coal tar and petroleum, and is found in tobacco smoke as well as the exhaust from petroleum fuelled vehicles and machinery. It is used primarily to manufacture acetone and phenol. NIEHS urges that exposure to emissions from vehicles and machinery that run on petroleum-based fuel be kept to a minimum.

Pentachlorophenol is a complex mixture of chemicals used as a wood preservative. NIEHS states that technical-grade pentachlorophenol is a mixture, which includes by-products of its synthesis, many of which are higher chlorinated dioxin compounds that may contribute to its carcinogenicity. Virtually everyone who is exposed to pentachlorophenol is exposed to its synthesis by-products. To limit exposure NIEHS recommends limiting reuse of, and contact with, pentachlorophenol-treated lumber. such as utility poles and cross arms, railroad ties, wooden pilings, fence posts, and lumber or timber for construction. Also limit contact with soil in pentachlorophenol-contaminated waste sites or around pentachlorophenol-treated lumber.

o-Toluidine is primarily used to make rubber chemicals, herbicides, dyes, and pigments. It is also used in some medical products. People can also be exposed to ortho-toluidine outside of the workplace, through tobacco smoke, the local medical anesthetic prilocaine, products that contain ortho-toluidine-based dyes, or the environment. Environmental contamination occurs when ortho-toluidine is released into air, land, or water, through its production and use.

Much more detail is available from NIEHS at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/pubhealth/roc/roc13/index.html

Health statistics show there is no safe level of air pollution

In a paper published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Professor Adrian Barnett, a Professor of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, produces results that he claims show that there simply is no safe level of air pollution – health problems in the population rise in line with increases in average pollution levels.

Using Australian standards and data, Barnett shows that if air pollution levels in Australia were to rise to the maximums allowed by regulation, often considered by other environmental agencies and in the media reports to be ‘safe’ levels, there would be 6,000 more deaths across the country each year.  He says that the increase would hospitalize a further 20,700 people per year in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The population of Australia is about 23 million and that of the three major cities mentioned is about 11 million.

In his published commentary Barnett cites recent government environmental reports for the East-West road link in Melbourne and for trains carrying coal in Queensland that conclude that predicted pollution increases were ‘safe’ levels and that therefore everything is fine. Barnett is quoted as stating that any new project that increases air pollution will always mean an increase in illness. He is calling on authorities to use thorough cost-benefit analyses of increased pollution levels in future environmental studies. The increased health problems could then be balanced against the economic and societal benefit of the new infrastructure or industry.

In the University press release Barnett is quoted as saying that “Changes also need to be made to the National Environment Protection Measures documentation and web site to prominently state that the standards should not be used to judge whether individual projects are safe or dangerous.”

GallonDaily agrees that government, health and environment agencies, as well as businesses, should stop presenting any pollution levels in any medium as being ‘safe’. There is not much in life that is ‘safe’ though some exposures are of lower risk while others are of higher risk. Lower risk does not equate to safety. Obviously societies should work towards lowering the risks of exposure to hazardous pollutants, wherever they are to be found. If Dr. Barnett’s conclusions are supported by future research it is conceivable that, in the future, elevated levels of air pollution will become as socially unacceptable as tobacco smoke has already become.

The article, but no abstract, is available – fee or subscription required – at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1753-6405.12264/abstract  An article about the article is available at https://www.qut.edu.au/about/news/news?news-id=79577

US Inspector General report updates case against hazardous industrial waste into sewers

The case against allowing hazardous industrial waste to be discharged into sewers received a boost this week with the release of a report from the US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General. The report carries the self-explanatory title More Action Is Needed to Protect Water Resources From Unmonitored Hazardous Chemicals. As in Canada, the US EPA is responsible for discharges from sewage treatment plants while the municipalities that own the sewer systems are responsible for allowing or not allowing industry (and householders) to discharge to sewer systems. The problem arises in part because historically municipalities were led to believe that sewage treatment plants could detoxify almost anything. Today we know that sewage treatment plants are good at dealing with human waste and some biodegradable wastes but are not effective at dealing with hazardous materials including much of the toxic waste that is discharged by industry to the sewers.

Among the points made by the Inspector General’s report:

  • US EPA regulations are not effective in controlling the discharge of hundreds of hazardous chemicals to surface waters such as lakes and streams.
  • This is due to a general regulatory focus on the priority pollutants list that has not been updated since 1981, limited monitoring
    requirements, limited coordination between EPA offices, a lack of tracking hazardous waste notifications required for submittal by industrial users, or a lack of knowledge of discharges reported by industrial users under the Toxics Release Inventory.
  • The US TRI Program currently covers 683 chemicals and chemical categories including many, but not all, hazardous chemicals. [Canada's equivalent, the National Pollutant Release Inventory, covers 346 substances.]
  • EPA has not taken actions to address discharges of hundreds of hazardous chemicals from sewage treatment plants.
  • Sewage treatment plant staff do not monitor for hazardous chemicals discharged by industrial users.
  • Hundreds of hazardous chemicals are not listed as clean water act priority pollutants.
  • Under the general pretreatment regulations, industrial users are required to notify the sewage treatment plant, the EPA Regional Waste Management Division Director, and state hazardous waste authorities in writing of any discharge into the
    sewage treatment plant of a substance, which, if otherwise disposed of, would be a hazardous waste. This refers to RCRA hazardous wastes. However, when EPA staff were asked about these notifications, there was a general lack of awareness
    of the requirement.
  • Whole effluent toxicity tests are not effectively used for monitoring and enforcement.
  • Some sewage treatment plant operators believed, incorrectly, that monitoring of toxic chemicals was not necessary because the chemicals in question should be metabolized and rendered harmless in the sewage treatment process.
  • US EPA has agreed with a set of recommendations made by the Inspector General, including a review of chemicals monitored nationwide in sewage treatment plant discharges.

GallonDaily repeats its prediction that discharge of industrial wastes to sewers will be severely restricted within five to ten years.

The full 20 page report is available at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2014/20140929-14-P-0363.pdf

Is such a small mention at least a step forward?

The following is a brief extract from Prime Minister Harper’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City last evening:

That’s why Canada has always been ready and willing to join with other civilized peoples and to challenge affronts to the international order, affronts to human dignity itself, such as are today present in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and of course many parts of Africa. Canada’s positions on these issues are well known, and we will continue to contribute to the extent to which we are able in assisting our friends and allies in the international community to deal with these grave challenges. But while these extreme situations are being confronted, other problems, pandemics, climate change, and of course the problems of underdevelopment remain.

The complete address, in which he also said:

“As indicated by my colleague from Senegal, President Macky Sall, aid is needed for development but what is needed even more is investment. He is quite right. Yet, no matter how freely we trade, millions of people will for some time to come need a helping hand.”

can be found at http://pm.gc.ca/eng/news/2014/09/25/pm-addresses-united-nations-general-assembly-new-york-city#sthash.84rakV6X.dpuf

Canada not part of New York Declaration on Forests

Announced at the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday of this week the New York Declaration on Forests is a commitment by governments, industry and NGOs to end deforestation by 2030, with an intermediate target of halving the rate of deforestation by 2020.

Other goals of signatories to the non-binding Declaration are to:

  • Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper and beef products by no later than 2020, recognizing that many companies have even more ambitious targets.
  • Significantly reduce deforestation derived from other economic sectors by 2020.
  • Support alternatives to deforestation driven by basic needs (such as subsistence farming and reliance on fuel wood for energy) in ways that alleviate poverty and promote sustainable and equitable development.
  • Restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020 and significantly increase the rate of global restoration thereafter, which would restore at least an additional 200 million hectares by 2030.
  • Include ambitious, quantitative forest conservation and restoration targets for 2030 in the post-2015 global development framework, as part of new international sustainable development goals.
  • Agree in 2015 to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as part of a post-2020 global climate agreement, in accordance with internationally agreed rules and consistent with the goal of not exceeding 2°C warming.
  • Provide support for the development and implementation of strategies to reduce forest emissions.
  • Reward countries and jurisdictions that, by taking action, reduce forest emissions – particularly through public policies to scale-up payments for verified emission reductions and private-sector sourcing of commodities.
  • Strengthen forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those pertaining to their lands and resources.

Achieving these outcomes is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.5 – 8.8 billion tons CO2e per year by 2030, equivalent to removing every vehicle off the world’s roads.

The 27 countries that have signed on to the declaration include France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the USA. Among the 34 companies that have signed on are such well-known names as Asia Pulp and Paper, Barclays, Cargill, Danone, Deutsche Bank, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, McDonalds, Mondelez, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson, Unilever, and Walmart. The only company which GallonDaily recognized as a Canadian company is Sobeys.

The Declaration will remain open for signature until the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2015. Hopefully by that time both the second largest exporter of primary forest products in the world (Canada) and some of Canada’s leading forest product producers and processors will have signed on.

The New York Declaration on Forests can be found at http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/09/FORESTS-New-York-Declaration-on-Forests.pdf

The UN press release announcing the Declaration is at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48801#.VCQrH0pdXGV

UN Climate Summit achieves quite a bit more than expected

The Climate Summit convened by UN Chairman Ban Ki Moon at UN Headquarters in New York City yesterday was intended to be an event ‘to raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015′. In fact, the event encouraged the release of more commitments than are usually seen at the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change annual negotiating sessions. Among the many commitments tabled:

  • Many leaders called for all countries to take national actions consistent with a less than 2 degree pathway and a number of countries committed to doing so.
  • Leaders committed to finalise a meaningful, universal new agreement under the UNFCCC at COP-21, in Paris in 2015, and to arrive at the first draft of such an agreement at COP-20 in Lima, in December 2014.
  • Many leaders, from all regions and all levels of economic development advocated for a peak in greenhouse gas emissions before 2020, dramatically reduced emissions thereafter, and climate neutrality in the second half of the century.
  • European Union countries committed to a target of reducing emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Leaders from more than 40 countries, 30 cities and dozens of corporations launched large-scale commitment to double the rate of global energy efficiency by 2030 through vehicle fuel efficiency, lighting, appliances, buildings and district energy.
  • The New York Declaration on Forests, launched and supported by more than 150 partners, including 28 government, 8 subnational governments, 35 companies, 16 indigenous peoples groups, and 45 NGO and civil society groups, aims to halve the loss of natural forests globally by 2030. [GallonDaily will report on the New York Declaration on Forests tomorrow.]
  • Twenty-four leading global producers of palm oil as well as commodities traders committed to contribute to the goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and to work with Governments, private sector partners and indigenous peoples to ensure a sustainable supply chain.
  • The transport sector brought substantial emissions reduction commitments linked to trains, public transportation, freight, aviation and electric cars.
  • Some of the world’s largest retailers of meat and agricultural products committed to adapt their supply chains to reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change. They will assist 500 million farmers in the process.
  • A new coalition of governments, business, finance, multilateral development banks and civil society leaders announced their intent to mobilise over $200 billion for financing low-carbon and climate-resilient development.
  • Countries strongly reaffirmed their support for mobilising public and private finance to meet the $100 billion dollar goal per annum by 2020.
  • Leaders expressed strong support for the Green Climate Fund and many called for the Fund’s initial capitalization at an amount no less than $10 billion. There was a total of $2.3 billion in pledges to the Fund’s initial capitalization from six countries. Six others committed to allocate contributions by November 2014.
  • The European Union committed $3 billion for mitigation efforts in developing countries between 2014 and 2020.
  • The International Development Finance Club (IDFC) announced that it is on track to increase direct green/climate financing to $100 billion a year for new climate finance activities by the end of 2015.
  • Leaders from private finance called for the creation of an enabling environment to undertake the required investments in low-carbon climate resilient growth. They announced the following commitments:
    • Leading commercial banks announced their plans to issue $30 billion of Green Bonds by 2015, and announced their intention to increase the amount placed in climate-smart development to 10 times the current amount by 2020.
    • A coalition of institutional investors, committed to decarbonizing $100 billion by December 2015 and to measure and disclose the carbon footprint of at least $500 billion in investments.
    • The insurance industry committed to double its green investments to $84 billion by the end of 2015.
    • Three major pension funds from North America and Europe announced plans to accelerate their investments in low-carbon investments across asset classes up to more than $31 billion by 2020.
  • Seventy-three national Governments, 11 regional governments and more than 1,000 businesses and investors signalled their support for pricing carbon. Together these leaders represent 52 per cent of global GDP, 54 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost half of the world’s population.
  • More than 30 leading companies announced their alignment with the Caring for Climate Business Leadership Criteria on Carbon Pricing.
  • Leaders of the oil and gas industry, along with national Governments and civil society organisations, made an historic commitment to identify and reduce methane emissions by 2020.

In today’s Toronto Star, columnist Thomas Walkom observes:

Given his record as a spoiler, maybe it’s just as well that Stephen Harper didn’t attend Tuesday’s climate-change summit in New York. The prime minister has never liked meaningful plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Over the years, he has done his best to sabotage them.

The Chair’s summary of the event can be found at http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/05/climatesummit-chairsummary.pdf.