Twice a month, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Keep reading, and feel free to send us your feedback; we hope this newsletter continues to evolve and improve. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
As Poland diversifies its economy and gradually shifts away from a reliance on the coal sector, what insights from the Polish experience can policymakers apply to facilitate a just energy transition elsewhere?
At the end of April, Russia cut off its natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, citing that the countries declined to pay for the energy using Russian rubles. Since then, Russia has halted gas supplies to Finland, the Netherlands, and firms in Germany and Denmark. (Meanwhile, some countries in Europe have agreed to use rubles for their transactions with Russia.) However, Poland burns coal for most of its electricity, and some experts observe that the energy independence forced on Poland could speed the country’s transition to renewable energy resources, a transition that already is underway. A new Q&A blog post from RFF Senior Research Associate Wesley Look, alongside CEO and founder of Reform Institute Aleksander Śniegocki, summarizes a recent report that looks in depth at the energy transition in Polish coal regions. The country’s shift away from a dependence on the coal sector has been happening within the broader geopolitical and economic context; importantly, Poland simultaneously shifted from a controlled economy to a free-market economy when it joined the European Union. “An energy transition doesn’t mean cutting the cord on day one, but rather creating a plan for gradual phaseout,” Look says in the article.
What further steps are needed to keep private companies on track toward accurately reporting their environmental impacts and climate risks?
The World Economic Forum met in Davos, Switzerland, last week, bringing together international leaders and experts with the broad directive of improving the state of the world. While some observers cast a skeptical eye on the conference, prior accomplishments in Davos may indicate that the meeting can bridge public policy, business, and civil society to form collaborations on global efforts, such as mitigating deforestation and distributing vaccines. One topic under discussion at last week’s meeting: the need for common standards to measure and disclose environmental, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks in the business sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last week made progress in creating guidelines for ESG investing. And last month, the SEC proposed climate disclosure rules to ensure that publicly traded companies accurately disclose emissions information, climate risks, and the impact of these climate risks on business practices. Our special SEC blog series concludes with a fifth article that explores the international context of the proposed climate disclosure rule in the run-up to the end of the SEC’s public comment period. “The SEC, the International Sustainability Standards Board, and governments, along with standard-setters worldwide, all recognize the need to standardize how companies report on climate-related risks to their investors across capital markets,” says coauthor Virginia Harper Ho of the City University of Hong Kong.
What types of assets can help stabilize the electric grid and prime a community to navigate the transition away from fossil fuels?
Communities in the American West and Midwest are bracing themselves for a summer of rolling blackouts. In part, high heat, drought, and an inflexible and unstable electric grid may be to blame. High temperatures in Texas, alongside the unexpected failure of several gas-fired power plants, prompted a major grid operator to advise electricity conservation among its customers. But states such as Florida and Hawaii have turned to solar power to provide affordable power and bolster at least part of their energy needs. And just last month, the Wind Technologies Office at the US Department of Energy reported that wind turbines can stabilize the grid. In this week’s episode of the Resources Radio podcast, Chair of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative Bobby Tudor points to the wind and solar capabilities in Texas, citing the state’s access to low-cost renewable energy as one major reason that the city of Houston can be a leader in the transition to a clean energy future. “I think most people know now that Texas is the largest wind-power producer in the United States, and currently the second-largest solar-power producer,” Tudor says. “As we think about everything from green hydrogen to electrifying our heavy industry here, that access to renewable power is actually a big, competitive advantage.”
Weighing the Risks of Managing Wildfires
The largest wildfire in New Mexico history, formed when the Calf Canyon fire and the Hermits Peak fire merged, has destroyed at least 330 homes while it’s burned for the past two months and has led to the evacuation of thousands of people from the area. The Calf Canyon fire was started by the US Forest Service as a planned burn but reignited after months of dormancy, escaped its boundaries, and recently expanded out of control. The Hermits Peak fire likewise was a planned burn originally set by the Forest Service.
Both planned fires (like the prescribed burns that ultimately grew into the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires) and managed wildfires (discussed in a recent blog post by RFF scholars Ann Bartuska and Matthew Wibbenmeyer) provide means through which fire can be reintroduced to the landscape. Managed wildfires can provide resource benefits by allowing unplanned fires to run their course, thinning understory brush and saplings that otherwise could fuel larger fires, and helping forest managers mitigate wildfire risks. However, prescribed burns and managed wildfires aren’t possible in all cases—particularly when climate change, drought, and insect damage to trees make these fires more difficult to contain. Nevertheless, when successfully implemented, managed wildfires can help mitigate the overall risk of wildfires. “The tragic incident in New Mexico shows that prescribed burns come with risks. Likewise, managed fires have risks, as well,” say Wibbenmeyer and Bartuska. “But these are important tools that we can use in the short term to suppress wildfires in the long term. And not employing managed fires comes with its own risks.”
On Wednesday, June 8, RFF will host a webinar event that explores decarbonization and competitiveness in industry, including the steel, aluminum, cement, and chemical industries. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) will sit down with RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell to discuss a new proposal that addresses emissions and competitiveness. After their conversation, a panel of experts will explore how US industry can reduce emissions while staying competitive on the world stage. RSVP here for the event.
On June 15, RFF will host a webinar event for our ongoing Policy Leadership Series with special guest Andrew Steer, the president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. Born out of a $10-billion commitment from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the Earth Fund is a philanthropic organization that funds efforts to address climate change. Richard G. Newell will engage Steer in a discussion about the mission and goals of the Bezos Earth Fund, how philanthropy can contribute to systemic change, and what’s needed to accelerate decarbonization and protect nature. RSVP here for the event.
Upcoming Events—Border Carbon Adjustments and the Energy Transition
On June 27 and 29, RFF and the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE) will host two events in tandem with the annual summer conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. Register for the June 27 event, a workshop about the energy transition and how to approach related policies in a way that helps correct existing and transition-induced inequalities, featuring EIEE’s Massimo Tavoni and Elena Verdolini. Register for the June 29 event about border carbon adjustments featuring RFF’s Raymond Kopp, Billy Pizer, and Carolyn Fischer, along with EIEE’s Francesco Bosello.
A recent journal article about wildfire risks by RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer and Research Associate Molly Robertson reports that the hazard and impact of recent wildfires disproportionately affect high-income, white, and older residents in the American West—but while these demographics are the most at risk, they’re less socially and socioeconomically vulnerable than other populations that may be exposed to wildfires. “Wildfire mitigation policies that deliver financial assistance to high-hazard areas could be subsidizing wealthy households,” a Hill newsletter quotes Robertson as saying.
An extensive piece in Politico investigates systemic bias in the way that flood relief is distributed among communities in the United States, finding that wealthy, white people are favored in a federal flood program that elevates residences above floodwaters. “Elevation is really not that cost-effective,” says RFF University Fellow Carolyn Kousky in the article. “If your only metric is lowering flood damages, you’re wasting dollars.” Programs to reduce flood damage systematically favor homeowners that are able to cover funding shortfalls for construction projects, and who protect their homes with federal flood insurance. But the article quotes RFF Senior Fellow Leonard A. Shabman as pointing out the inequities that result from these criteria: “Very few low-income people buy flood insurance. In many parts of the country, low-income people are not property owners; they are renters.”
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of RFF this year, Resources Radio broadcast a special three-part podcast series that considers the past, present, and future of the organization. In the third episode of the series, host Daniel Raimi looks toward the future, as seen through the eyes of a handful of RFF’s research analysts and associates. The young scholars lend insights about the topics they think RFF researchers will be working on decades from now—and what role they see for themselves in that future. Stream the full episode.
Under discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week: the need for consistent, concerted efforts to decarbonize buildings. Our chart of the week, above, shows that emissions from buildings in Washington, DC, comprise a large proportion of the city’s total carbon emissions. One conclusion from Davos: cities around the world are applying various strategies to decarbonize their buildings, but global standards would improve practitioner access to best practices, scaled technologies, and action toward decarbonization.