Experimental planetary drugs

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In climate news today...

Josh Petri's Week in Green

As much of the world retreated into coronavirus quarantine earlier this year, optimists were overjoyed to see energy use plummet, and with it, pollution levels. Social media feeds were flooded with crystal-clear images of normally smog-obscured landmarks from the Himalayas to the Hollywood sign. 

Climate scientists, who can be excused for their pessimism given our rapidly warming planet, warned the dramatic drop in emissions would do little if anything to slow climate change. And of course they were right. Planets, like battleships, don't turn on a dime.

Carbon dioxide levels reached a new record in May: 417.2 parts per million gas molecules in the atmosphere, continuing a trend that's gone unbroken for six decades. (Before the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 stood at 280 ppm.)

The pandemic that's so far killed more than 350,000 people has catalyzed calls to make the temporarily cleaner air permanent. As the death toll from Covid-19 continues to mount, studies in Germany, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. have stoked public concern that pollution and its effect on health is causing more coronavirus deaths. What had once been a debate about the long-term effect of emissions on climate change has suddenly become an immediate matter of life and death (though high levels of pollution are responsible for all sorts of dangerous health conditions, particularly among the poor.)

The Manhattan skyline on May 23, 2018.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than take action to combat the grave threat posed by such emissions, the Trump administration on Thursday took a big step in its three-year effort to allow more pollution of the air, ground and oceans. It announced plans to change the way it calculates the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, essentially making it harder to justify limits on air pollution.

Turning our attention to the private sector, it turns out that executives with direct links to clean-energy rarely hold senior leadership positions at or sit on the boards of 20 leading U.S. and European banks. Bloomberg Green analyzed the past and present professional affiliations of more than 600 directors and executives and found only a few with experience in renewable or sustainable industries.

Far more of them had ties to polluting industries. At least 73 have at one time or another held a position with one or more of the biggest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases, including 16 tied to the worst: oil or refining companies. The same 20 banks have helped arrange almost $1.4 trillion of debt financing for fossil fuel producers since the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2015, effectively bankrolling climate change.

An EVgo station in Baker, California, is one of the few charging stops between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Photographer: Philip Cheung/The New York Times via Redux

Before the pandemic struck, the auto industry had plans to spend at least $141 billion to retool supply chains in a historic shift from internal combustion to battery-driven machines. The financial reasoning was clear: Roughly one-third of U.S. drivers say they may go electric the next time they buy a vehicle. But there have been some recent speed bumps: the pandemic is slowing overall car sales and an oil price drop has reduced the financial incentive for would-be EV buyers.

And there is a major infrastructure problem, too: Huge swaths of the U.S. are without fast charging stations. It has become the final, biggest obstacle to mass adoption.

Finally this week, it just wouldn't be a global crisis if there wasn't a tech angle. In January, Microsoft pledged to be carbon negative (removing or paying for more carbon to be removed from the atmosphere than it emits) by 2030 and to spend $1 billion on a climate investment fund, much of it aimed at bolstering carbon-removal tech. It's a nascent field with lots of big ideas but only a handful of companies that are trying it. Microsoft's pronouncement was more a statement of intent than a concrete plan. Right now, none of this is possible, but here's how they plan on making it work.

If all else fails, there's a cheap (and scary) way to rapidly cool the planet.

Solar geoengineering, the reflection of some sunlight back into space, seems like a logical conclusion to our accelerating climate disaster. The principle is simple: Temporarily block sunlight from entering the atmosphere by releasing sulfur dioxide.

It's fast: Unlike cutting CO2, adding SO2 cools the Earth within weeks, not decades. It's powerful: Just millions of tons of SO2 could help offset the global warming effects of hundreds of billions of tons of CO2. But it's also highly risky: We really have no idea what will happen.

It is, in effect, adding one type of pollution to help counter the effects of another. Think of it as an experimental drug: It might show promise, but the side effects could kill you.

Josh Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions.

Here's what else you need to know in Green

A Green Megamansion Rises in South Florida

A billionaire is spending tens of millions of dollars to create his own environmentally friendly dream home.

No More Plastic Cups and Straws in Kenya's Parks and Beaches
Kenya is making efforts to cut pollution.
Germany's Green Power Finance Is Becoming Unaffordable
The program to switch to green power needs an urgent fix.
Green Tasmania Could Help Wean Australian Cities Off Coal
Tasmania wants to turn itself into a battery.

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