Sierra Club National

Behind the Veil: The Truth About Trade in 'Environmental Goods'

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 22 April 2014 - 2:58pm

The United States might be part of another disheartening trade deal veiled with a false promise of environmental protection. As I wrote about before, on Jan. 25, a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) members including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, want to eliminate tariffs on a set of supposedly “environmentally beneficial” products.

At first blush the idea makes sense. Eliminate the taxes, or tariffs, on a set of environmentally beneficial products and they’ll be traded and used more. The problem, however, comes when the so-called environmental goods that governments want to trade more of actually harm the environment.

Here’s a bit of background. The WTO negotiations will build on the work of the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2012, these countries agreed to reduce or eliminate tariffs by the end of 2015 on a list of 54 "environmentally beneficial" products.  Unfortunately, a number of products on APEC’s list could actually do more harm than good.  Incinerators, for example, are used to burn waste material and release toxic chemicals and byproducts into the water we drink and the air we breathe. Steam generators are found in equipment used in producing dirty fuels such as coal and nuclear power. And, centrifuges, which are used to filter and purify water for a variety of reasons, can also be used in the production of oil and tar sands — dirty fuels which should stay in the ground as more clean energy comes online in America. Yet each of these products is considered “environmentally beneficial” according to the APEC.

Sounds bad, but it might just get worse.

According to Inside U.S. TradeU.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Mike Froman sent a letter in April requesting that the International Trade Commission provide a report containing its advice as to the “probable economic effect of providing duty-free treatment for imports of environmental goods for all U.S. trading partners” on industries in the United States and on consumers.  Because there is no universally accepted definition of an “environmental good,” the USTR requested that the Commission analyze the effect of increased trade on a set of products attached to the letter.

Here’s where things get ugly.

The list attached to the letter contains hundreds of so-called environmental goods—many of which could be described as nothing other than destructive for our air, water, and environment. According to Inside U.S. Trade, a USTR spokeswoman said that the products listed comprise "all environmental goods" proposed for trade liberalization during past WTO and APEC meetings, in addition to "products we anticipate other WTO members may propose in the course of the forthcoming environmental goods negotiations.”

Here are just a few of the products listed:

  • Liquified natural gas, which is an extremely energy-intensive fossil fuel that, when exported, incentivizes more fracking;

  • Crude palm oil, which is made from the fruit of an oil palm tree and can be used to produce a variety of products from cosmetics to margarine to biofuels, and which, when exploited and exported, increases deforestation and habitat loss for endangered species;

  • Wood pellets, which the United States is increasingly exporting to Europe to be burned in power plants, and which, when cut and burned, are carbon intensive and associated with deforestation and habitat loss;

  • Nuclear reactors, which facilitate expensive and dangerous nuclear energy projects;

  • Ethylene, a flammable gas used to produce ethylene oxide, which the Department of Labor says is associated with cancer, reproductive risks, and other health hazards.

Vacuum cleaners and digital cameras also appear on the list. These items aren’t necessarily bad for the environment, but they also aren’t good – which raises the question of why any of these products are classified as “environmental goods.”

The answer to that question is increasingly apparent. This is merely a front for expanding free trade under the guise of environmental protection. In fact, these WTO members are considering tariff elimination without any analysis (that we know of) on the environmental impact. What we need for the health of the planet is not an expansion of the WTO or our current model of free trade. Instead, we need fair and responsible trade to sustainably manage natural resources and confront the climate crisis.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

World Bank's Tata Mundra conflicts with climate findings

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 22 April 2014 - 7:45am

If we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions now, we’ll soon be past the point of no return to save the planet.

That’s the conclusion of the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But how does Tata Mundra, a massive coal-burning power plant in India, fit into that equation?

It doesn’t.

For the local people living near Tata Mundra on the Kutch coast of Gujarat, India, this information is crucial. When the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) poured $900 million into one of the world’s largest coal-burning power plants, they were dooming the local residents to years of air and water pollution.

The Tata corporation attempted to justify these risks under the pretense of increasing cheap energy access for millions of people. However, Tata Mundra’s expenses quickly ballooned, and the Tata corporation requested permission to raise rates, forcing residents to foot the bill. Even if nearby communities could afford to pay for power generated by Tata Mundra they couldn’t actually access the power without costly grid extensions. Now, the residents are suffering from the health effects of coal pollution without reaping any energy access benefits.

Clearly, the Tata Mundra coal-burning power plant is not a viable solution to meet energy demands in India, and the IPCC report also shows it is the wrong choice for curbing global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report, the energy supply sector is the biggest climate disruption culprit. In 2010 alone, energy emissions from coal and oil accounted for 35 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions -- and we can already see the effects.

“The consequences of unchecked climate change for humans and natural ecosystems are already apparent and increasing,” the report concludes. “The most vulnerable systems are already experiencing adverse effects. Past emissions have already put the planet on a track for substantial further changes in climate, and while there are many uncertainties in factors such as the sensitivity of the climate system many scenarios lead to substantial climate impacts, including direct harms to human and ecological well-being that exceed the ability of those systems to adapt fully.”

But the IPCC also indicated that it’s not too late to halt the climate crisis, and the report’s authors have called for a carbon-free electricity supply in the form of clean energy for all. Over the past decade, the cost of clean energy has dropped dramatically and has “achieved a level of technical and economic maturity to enable deployment at a significant scale,” according to the report.

Additionally, the report reveals, “[t]here are often co‐benefits from the use of [renewable energy], such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.”

If World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim is serious about improving public health, providing a road out of poverty, and fighting climate disruption, he should direct the World Bank and encourage other international financial institutions -- like ADB -- to invest in the clean energy solutions recommended in the IPCC report. By doing so, the World Bank would support all three of Dr. Kim’s goals for a cleaner, healthier planet rather than defend dirty coal projects like Tata Mundra that will undoubtedly cause irreparable damage to our environment.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Kosovo Says No to World Bank's Dirty Coal

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 15 April 2014 - 2:02pm
                    Visar Azemi (center) at KOSID's fourth annual workshop.                     Photo courtesy of KOSID.

Editor’s Note: Visar Azemi is the coordinator for the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) and a faculty member at the University of Maryland. Before joining KOSID, Mr. Azemi, a Kosovo native, was an electrical engineer.

Leaders, journalists, and civil society organizations gathered at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the World Bank’s annual spring meetings. Halfway across the world, the people of Kosovo were and still are speaking out.

The Republic of Kosovo, nestled in the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, is home to approximately 2 million people facing an energy crisis. If the World Bank gets its way, our young country will be locked-in to a dirty energy future for decades to come.

The proposed Kosovo Power Project (KPP), a 600-megawatt lignite coal power plant, is slated to be built despite the outcry of the public. Lignite coal is widely considered one of the dirtiest forms of coal, and its use in the existing power plants is already taking it’s toll on our people.

In the World Bank’s own estimate, air pollution in Kosovo “is estimated (midpoint) annually to cause 835 premature deaths, 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 600 hospital admissions, and 11,600 emergency visits.”  The total economic costs for those health effects are estimated to be as much as 158 million euro annually.

If KPP is constructed, we can expect those numbers to increase.

Additionally, Dr. Ted Downing, president of the international network on displacement and resettlement (INDR), released a report earlier this week that sheds light on the potential involuntary displacement over 7,000 Kosovars will face if KPP is constructed. These thousands of people from the Obiliq municipality would be displaced in favor of an expanded open pit mining operation, called New Mining Field (NMF). Once again, money would come before the people.

The report warns that forced displacement would trigger, “a tsunami of likely outcomes, including joblessness, homelessness, loss of livelihoods and income-earning assets, marginalization, increased food insecurity, loss of common land and resources, increased health risks, social disarticulation, disruption of formal educational activities, loss of sacred sites, threats to cultural identity, disappearance of mutual self-help mechanisms, and the loss of civil and human rights.”

But we aren’t just going to stand by and let the World Bank evict our countrymen and decide the fate of our country.  The Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) wants to make sure its voice is heard. With 11 organizations on board, KOSID has been working to ensure that Kosovo’s future isn’t left out of the global conversation and our countrymen and women have a chance at a clean energy future.

As KOSID continues to bring awareness to Kosovo’s energy situation, we implore our government to pursue clean energy solutions for our energy crisis. The sequencing of measures the government and the stakeholders involved in the energy sector in Kosovo should take are of the utmost importance. By investing in energy efficiency and solar and wind energy, Kosovars will be healthier, our country will be more independent, and our future will be brighter than ever.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Signs of Life for Key Wind Investments in Congress - Will They Continue?

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 15 April 2014 - 1:11pm

The facts are speaking for themselves: wind is winning. But is Congress listening?

Deemed the fastest-growing energy source in the world, wind has created 80,000 jobs at over 550 U.S.-based manufacturing facilities, powered over 15 million homes, and added $105 billion in domestic investments over the last 10 years. In the face of severe weather and extreme climate disruption, wind has offered the U.S. and the world the opportunity to invest in a clean solution to meet our energy demand without exacerbating climate disruption.

But without the support of our legislators, the wind industry could--to the detriment of millions of Americans and our environment--slow its progress.

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) was enacted as a temporary provision over two decades ago as a part of the Energy Policy Act. Despite expiring eight times, the PTC has led to continual progress and job-creation in the wind industry.

More than four months ago, however, the PTC expired once again, leaving the wind industry in the lurch. In a positive move last week, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a package of renewable energy tax credits--including the PTC--marking the first step toward future wind progress. The next step in the process is moving the legislation to the Senate floor where it will likely face staunch opposition from Republican climate deniers.

But the facts don’t lie. Wind energy has created thousands of jobs and invested millions in our economy, and failing to renew the PTC would be economically and environmentally irresponsible.

A recent report released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reveals that “U.S. wind power deployment through 2020 is sensitive to both the prospective PTC level and market conditions over time.”

The report continues, “a reduction in domestic wind power deployment is likely to have a direct and negative effect on U.S.-based wind turbine manufacturing production and employment. This is notable as the manufacturing sector has been observed to represent a substantial share of wind industry jobs.” If recent history has taught us anything, it is that reductions in demand will rapidly lead to factory closures and job losses.

The report predicts that without a PTC renewal, yearly wind installations will drop to as little as 3-gigawatts a year, though by 2020, experts expect 9.6-gigawatts will be needed per year to help fill the 80 percent energy supply gap left by retiring coal plants. Additionally, the report calls for 38 gigawatts of wind energy to be added each year to completely decarbonize the energy sector by 2030.

Essentially, we won’t be able to meet our clean energy needs without wind and the PTC.

Wind energy has seen development and job creation in over 70 percent of congressional districts. If our members of congress are serious about creating jobs and bolstering our economy, they should support the PTC and invest in a clean energy future for their constituents, our generation, and the generations to come. Click here to take action and tell your member of Congress to extend this critical credit.

--Radha Adhar, Associate Washington Representative

Categories: Sierra Club National

WWF Holds Big Coal Accountable

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 14 April 2014 - 2:33pm

Wildlife is fighting back against big coal--the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is.

Yesterday, WWF filed a complaint against the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy.  The complaint, filed with Belgium’s Jury d’Ethique Publicitaire (JEP), alleges that an advertisement Peabody ran in the European edition of the Financial Times breaks JEP’s code for honest advertising.

While Peabody makes its billions though dirty coal, its advertisement scheme attempts to put the coal titan among the ranks of “clean, modern technology.” With a clean energy revolution thriving, Peabody is desperate to keep coal on top and wind and solar just out of reach for those who need it most.

When the ad appeared, WWF was quick to act.

“As coal loses ground in developed countries to more modern sustainable alternatives, Peabody is marketing its dangerous technologies onto those poorest countries with the least development options,” Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said in a press release.

“Trying to sell coal to poor people as a path to better and healthier lives is socially irresponsible and morally wrong. We already know that poor countries are most affected by climate change, and are the least equipped to fight its negative impacts.”

Specifically, WWF alleges that in the advertisement, Peabody “fails to disclose that the core of its operations is coal mining and supplying coal-fired power plants; claims that energy poverty is ‘the world’s number one human and environmental crisis’; claims that ‘clean, modern energy’, meaning so-called advanced clean coal technologies, is ‘the solution for better, longer and healthier lives’ misleading readers as to the negative climate, environmental and health impacts of coal pollution; uses absolute and misleading assertions such as ‘clean coal’ that are not substantiated by relevant scientific evidence and commercial application.”

In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report that revealed the majority of energy access investments need to be in distributed clean energy in the form of mini-grids and off-grid interventions--not coal--if global energy poverty has a hope of being solved.

Graphic from IEA report page 22

According to the IEA, “modern energy access for all by 2030 would therefore require more than three-times the expected level of investment in the New Policies Scenario, growing from $14 billion per year to $48 billion per year.”

The New Policies Scenario, outlined in the 2011 IEA report, “takes account of broad policy commitments and plans that have been announced by countries, including national pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and plans to phase out fossil-energy subsidies.”

This includes the “450 Scenario” to limit global temperature increase to 2°C, the “Efficient World Scenario” for energy savings to improve energy efficiency, and the “Energy for All Case” which “estimates the additional investment required to meet[...] the goal of achieving universal modern energy access by 2030 [...].”

With an increase in investments in these New Policies Scenarios, we can expect an increase in investments in clean energy, because when it comes to energy access, distributed clean energy is simply the right tool for the job.

The Sierra Club stands with the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to hold the coal industry accountable while working toward a clean energy future.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National
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