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Turn on, tune in, COP out

The big climate summit is over. Now out with the talkers, in with the doers. Plus: Catch the first episodes of our new podcasts.
By Julian Spector

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A man walks through the empty Action Zone in the OVO Hydro building at COP26. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

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It can be hard to live up to expectations when you’re supposed to save the world.

That’s the metric that much of the media has been applying to the COP26 climate conference, which just wrapped up in Glasgow. And this gathering of diplomats, activists and business leaders most certainly did not make climate change go poof.”

But the actual halting of carbon emissions can’t happen within a windowless conference room. It needs to unfold across the many activities that people, companies and governments take part in worldwide. The diplomats toiled largely out of sight until they finally reached an agreement Saturday. That meant the news breaking throughout the event was dominated more by folks outside of government saying what they’re going to do differently to slow climate change.

As I tried to understand who the real protagonists at COP26 were, I called up our Political Climate podcasting colleague Julia Pyper, who recently returned from Glasgow.

She pointed out that, at the end of the day, the Paris Agreement is voluntary.

Under that 2015 treaty, national governments set their own goals. And within many countries — like the U.S. — much of the climate action is voluntary as well. Governments are putting forth targets, but often not mandating action to meet them. Increasingly, companies are stepping up to at least make pledges to reach net-zero emissions and take other steps to clamp down on carbon emissions.

When you have industry and corporate commitments, in some ways that’s the actual doers saying that they’re going to get something done,” Pyper said. Then the question is, Is it a genuine commitment, or is it greenwashing?”

If the corporate commitments end up upstaging the diplomatic work at this COP, that may not be a terrible thing. But those commitments are only as good as their implementation, and that will take more time to assess.

For more of Julia’s observations and reflections from Glasgow, listen to the latest episode of Political Climate. It tallies the global financial commitments from the event and analyzes how those could turn into real-world changes where they’re most needed. And stay tuned this week for more analysis of the late-breaking Glasgow agreement.

Clean energy strikes back

Speaking of podcasts, our inaugural episodes of The Carbon Copy and Catalyst with Shayle Kann are piping-hot and ready for your delectation.

The first Catalyst episode encapsulates the modern history of climatetech investing in under an hour. Host Shayle Kann and fellow cleantech investor Ramez Naam sift through the wreckage of Cleantech 1.0 to discern what went wrong and what, if anything, is different this time around.

If you’ve joined the clean energy world in the last few years, the early era of clean energy investing must feel ancient and inaccessible. Some heroes emerged from that late 2000s/​early 2010s epoch, but a lot of money went down the drain.

Venture capitalists bet millions on things you don’t hear much about these days, like thin-film solar panels and battery swapping. But mainstream solar PV whomped competitors like thin-film, and battery-swap startup Better Place collapsed after burning through a pile of cash. Hardware investments ended up looking like a terrible idea.

For years, the conventional wisdom was that venture investors had better forget about energy and focus on changing the world through enterprise software subscriptions.

Now investor sentiment is changing, and more money is flowing to long-shot climate hardware ventures. At stake is humanity’s ability to get breakthrough low-carbon technology up and running in time to stop runaway climate change.

Oil strikes back

VC enthusiasm for longshot energy hardware startups isn’t the only indicator making it feel like 2007 all over again. So is a surge in the price of oil.

If you buy into that whole concept of supply and demand, high prices should put a damper on fossil fuel combustion. That’s theoretically good for reducing carbon emissions. But when people have no real choice but to consume fossil fuels in order to survive and the price spikes, that creates financial pain, which complicates the ambitious undertaking to remake the global energy system.

If you care about the transition to clean energy, it’s crucial to understand how shifts in the oil and gas sector affect people’s appetite for change. That’s where Stephen Lacey delves for the first episode of narrative news podcast The Carbon Copy.

He’s joined by Deborah Gordon, a senior principal in the Climate Intelligence Program at RMI and author of No Standard Oil: Managing Abundant Petroleum in a Warming World. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Louisiana’s pathway from oil and gas to clean industry 

Oil, gas and chemicals are big business in Louisiana. But as climate impacts become ever more devastating for the Gulf Coast state, Governor John Bel Edwards (D) is moving to divorce the state’s economy from carbon emissions.

The way forward could include cleaning up the electric grid and building out hubs of carbon-free hydrogen production, according to an essay from analyst Olivia Ashmoore from think tank Energy Innovation.

Industrial activities are Louisiana’s biggest source of greenhouse gases by far. If the state switches fossil energy sources to electricity and hydrogen, it could drastically reduce emissions while adding jobs.

This sort of scenario upends the assumption that slashing emissions means gutting economic opportunity. By strategically clustering clean electricity production with green hydrogen production, Louisiana could instead model a new type of heavy industry.

Nobody’s pulled off this type of industrial shift yet, but other countries are already investing in it. Louisiana has a shot to lead the first wave of adoption.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.