As COVID-19 resulted in varying levels of economic shutdowns around the world last year, scientists were quick to predict a decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Indeed, the peak of the decrease occurred in April 2020, with global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at seventeen percent below 2019 levels for the month, according to the Global Carbon Project. While recent estimates predict a seven percent overall reduction in GHG emissions for 2020, Earth has not escaped the tumultuous consequences of human-caused global warming. In fact, 2020 was the hottest year on record.
As economies continue to return to pre-pandemic growth and productivity, GHG emissions will resume their normal pace, unless countries take this opportunity to embrace a path based on clean-emissions technologies, such as wind, solar, and electric-powered options. Some large companies, too, are embracing behavioral changes, encouraging employees to continue working remotely for as long as they desire. But will voluntary changes at the level of individual companies result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? What is the role of policy in ensuring that all sectors participate in tackling climate change?
A core requirement for students in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs’ Master of Marine Affairs program is SMEA 521 (Climate Change Governance), a course exploring the complex processes driving climate policy in the public and private sector. Taught last quarter by Dr. Nives Dolšak, who regularly contributes to Forbes’ climate-related content with Dr. Aseem Prakash, the course culminated in team research projects that explored climate policies across multiple sectors and “actors” participating in the policy process.
We explored climate policy as it was developed and established prior to COVID-19 by some sectors of the economy not subject to stringent government regulation–even as a new administration prepares to take charge of policy regulation. Until revised, these policies will drive climate-affecting decisions as the world economy staggers back to normal, or to some new baseline we’ll start calling “normal.” I thought it would be interesting to summarize some of the climate policies my colleagues investigated in their team projects; specifically, I chose to examine the beef, airline, and financial industries because often GHG emission stories typically focus on the fossil fuel industry, yet every sector of the economy has some impact on the climate.
The Complexity of the Beef Industry
Agriculture, of which livestock is a subset, contributes up to a quarter of global GHG emissions and accounted for about ten percent of 2018 U.S. emissions. The beef industry makes up two percent of U.S. GHG emissions, but those are more than just cow farts and manure. There are many steps in the supply chain that result in packaged meat on grocery store shelves; Lowe, et al. identified four major steps:
- inputs (e.g. feed, veterinary services, and breeding);
- production (e.g. farms, feedlots, and dairy beef);
- processing and distribution (packing and wholesalers); and
- markets (e.g. supermarkets, restaurants, and food service suppliers).
Cargill, one of the largest feed producers in the U.S., claims that it is working to reduce its climate impact by 30 percent in the next 10 years. The company is working with The Nature Conservancy to advance GHG accounting principles and improve the ecological parameters of food production. Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the U.S., is focusing on emissions from its transportation sector. The company has upgraded its fleet with new, fuel-efficient vehicles, and requires all products to be transported by carriers participating in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) SmartWay program. And Walmart, which Lowe, et al. found accounts for thirteen percent of U.S. beef grocery sales, has set sustainability goals for its supply chain, aiming to influence sustainability of its suppliers’ beef production. Walmart also has worked with The Nature Conservancy to identify opportunities to improve soil health and reduce GHG emissions.
Scientists are seeking solutions to reduce bovine flatulence. Adding seaweed to cattle feed could cut their flatulence by as much as 98 percent, according to Tim Flannery’s research at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Seaweed farms in Tasmania should have its first crop this year, and seaweed farms have been established in Hawai’i and California.
Climate Goals Achieved and Missed in the Airline Industry
Explored by Alanna Greene and Clay McKean (SMEA)
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates aviation accounts for four percent of global transportation GHG emissions, and U.S. domestic air travel is forecast to grow nearly two percent annually for the next twenty years. This project focused on Boeing and Alaska Airlines, which operates half of the flights at Seattle’s airport.
Boeing, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer until 2019, has been issuing an annual Global Environmental Report (GER) since 2008, and has set lofty climate goals for 2025, including reducing its GHG emissions by 25 percent compared to 2017 emissions. However, Greene and McKean found Boeing is falling short of its goals, showing “staggeringly little progress, with no progress on reducing energy consumption and trending dramatically in the wrong direction in hazardous waste production.” Boeing participates in the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) and received an A- grade last year, reflecting that it exceeded expectations in reporting its GHG emissions. The EPA estimates aircraft contribute three percent of U.S. GHG emissions annually, and Boeing is a major player in that, although its strong CDP grade indicates that it’s more transparent than companies in the industry that choose not to disclose their emissions.
Alaska Airlines also has increased its transparency in GHG emission reporting, but in 2020 its CDP grade was a D, while several rival airlines had grades of A and B. Alaska’s approach rests predominantly in aggressive emission and waste targets, and it seeks new technologies or business strategies to meet those targets. For example, at San Francisco International Airport, Alaska Airlines has partnered with the jet biofuel company, Neste, which creates biofuel from forest management scraps. While using biofuel in some flights, Alaska also has goals to reduce in-flight waste, paper consumption, and energy usage at its facilities. Alaska exceeded its 2020 goal to reduce paper consumption, but did not reach its 2020 targets for reducing emissions or in-flight waste per passenger, according to Alaska’s GER.
In the Financial Sector, Green Always is Good
Explored by Ursula Jongebloed and Joseph Robinson (Atmospheric Sciences)
Finance rules our lives. We’re judged by our credit scores. Our credit cards have limits. Our banks charge fees for everything, even for making a deposit in some instances; for example, I get to pay my bank fifty cents for the privilege of depositing a check using my mobile phone.
But the financial sector is more than just banks. It includes investment firms, insurance agencies, real estate brokers and investment trusts, mortgage lenders, and consumer finance companies. The sector’s influence extends to its ability to provide or deny capital regarding asset management, loans, mortgages, and investments. And in recent years, the sector has begun to view climate change as a risk to future investments. For example, in a letter by BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, he notes that his company, the world’s largest asset manager, will look unfavorably at management in companies that are “not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them.”
Some of the world’s largest companies responded by announcing extensive pro-climate initiatives, including plans to cut emissions, invest in renewable energy, and become carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Through movement of capital, financial firms can support or deny support to industries, including fossil fuel companies. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde wants to update the bank’s strategy to cut purchases of bonds issued by heavy carbon emitters, according to a Financial Times poll of economists.
Though the financial sector as recently as 2018 had $1.9 trillion invested in fossil fuel companies, major players like BlackRock are catching on to what climate scientists have known for decades: if we don’t start taking the necessary actions required to address the growing climate emergency, certain future investments–such as in infrastructure–risk becoming worthless. The need for data transparency is increasingly important to hold companies accountable for their pledges.
Climate Actors All, Each and Every One of Us
While the policy actors highlighted in these team projects are a mere few pieces of the overall climate puzzle, it’s evident just about every sector of the economy impacts the climate–and therefore our environment–in some way. Yet while it’s encouraging to see some of the world’s largest companies proactively address the climate emergency, to what extent can their pledges be trusted? Are these actors merely acting? Are their actions attempts to influence policy to minimize regulation on their industry?
The non-profit Mighty Earth calls Cargill the world’s worst company, in part for its Soy Action Plan allowing suppliers to continue deforestation: a key cause of rising temperatures. The soybean production there also has negatively impacted Indigenous Munduruku communities in Brazil. Closer to home, Cargill continues to try and pave over acres of vital wetlands, an ecosystem type that can play an important role in climate adaptation.
Alaska Airlines’s commitment to emissions-reducing biofuel is encouraging as well, but its use is restricted to one airport, and Alaska is one of the largest passenger carriers in the U.S. As for Boeing, I learned through a team project in another one of Dr. Dolšak’s classes that its history in Seattle is long and complex, as a contributor not only to local industry but also to the degradation of the lower Duwamish River in South Seattle. That area is now an EPA Superfund site, within which Boeing is in part responsible for cleaning up historic pollution as part of the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group. However, the river continues being impacted by Boeing’s activities. The Currents editorial board’s previous attempt to interview Boeing regarding their restoration work last year were initially delayed, and ultimately refused.
Groups like the Sunrise Movement and high-profile Green New Deal supporters forced climate action into the conversation as one of the key issues of the 2020 general election, but it’s clear that politicians and non-governmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and The Environmental Defense Fund are not the only actors on the climate stage. About eighty percent of U.S. GHG emissions are directly and indirectly attributed to household consumption, which makes all of us policy actors, whether we’re deciding to adjust to a climate-friendly diet, lower the thermostat, or wash several small loads of laundry instead of one big one. However, we also know that there are only twenty companies and under ten countries responsible for the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions, and we shouldn’t take focus away from the behaviors of the main players at the heart of the crisis. There’s a role for all actors to play, but the key is to act, because the ending is the one we choose to write.