February Climate News: butterfly, banking, and renewable energy updates this month
Read on to learn more about recent developments in US renewable energy and pressure on European banks to improve their climate change policies. And don't forget the butterflies!
By Ellie Kim Fromboluti
February 21, 2023
Hang in there, readers, spring is right around the corner. While you wait, here are four pieces of positive climate news.
State-side, butterflies on the West coast, wind power in the East, and the US law you probably didn’t realize will improve your life and the planet. Across the pond, European banks feel pressure from shareholders to clean up their acts.
Let’s start with the butterfly population rebounding!
Butterflies are back!
The Western Monarch Count is in, and the numbers look promising. The final tally for this year’s Thanksgiving count is more than 330,000 butterflies – a six-year high. The rebound continues a welcome trend since the count reached an all-time low of fewer than 2,000 butterflies in 2020.
Each year, western monarch butterflies migrate over 3,000 miles from breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and California through wintering habitats in coastal California (where they are counted) to points farther east when the weather warms. Western monarchs will return to the same sites – even the same trees – every winter, meaning these habitats are crucial to the success of the population.
This year’s count of western monarchs in California and Arizona remains low compared to the 1980s when butterflies numbered in the millions. Destruction of milkweed habitats and climate change are primary drivers of the decline in population.
Northern Maine wind power gets connected
In late January, Maine regulators unanimously approved new wind power and transmission line projects planned for northern Maine’s Aroostook County.
Despite its renewable energy potential, getting power from northern Maine to the rest of the country has been a longstanding problem. The region is not connected to the national power grid, so power generated here has to travel to the US via Canada. Thus, the cost of exporting power hindered the development of renewable sources.
Tasked with solving this problem, in 2021, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) began taking proposals for renewable energy and transmission projects that would meet the cost-effective, clean energy goals of a recent state law promoting the development and use of renewable energy resources in northern Maine. The PUC tentatively selected the King Pine wind generation project and the LS Power Base transmission line project for further development last fall.
The nearly 180 wind turbines of the King Pine project have the potential to power at least 450,000 homes each year. The LS Power Base project will connect that renewable energy source to the New England regional grid – a first for the region.
Until recently, financing was a missing piece of the puzzle. Maine regulators were hesitant to burden state residents with the full costs of the projects. Fortunately, Massachusetts was willing to share that burden and commit to a 40% partnership.
In the end, the projects will cost Maine consumers about $1 billion (distributed to individual power users as about $1 more on their monthly electricity bills) but have the potential to lower utility bills in the long run. Over the next few years, the projects will create jobs and generate tax revenue for local communities.
Would you pay an extra $1 per month to know your power came from a source that was good for the planet?
Inflation Reduction Act hits the road
At least in part, it’s because of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – a piece of legislation passed by Congress last summer. The IRA is a complex bill with many provisions, including a pledge of nearly $370 billion to energy security and climate change. It is the “largest US investment in clean energy in climate change history,” according to a report by Climate Power released in early February. The report details nationwide increases in Clean Energy jobs since the law was passed.
Yet a third of registered voters report having heard nothing at all about the IRA, according to one survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
Biden and his team are taking note, Politico reports. The White House has taken several measures to get the word out. Biden and other high-level government officials have traveled across the country promoting the benefits of the IRA for everything from electric vehicle and battery manufacturing in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada to rebates for home improvements and upgrades that use more energy efficient, cleaner options.
(And just to be clear – the government is not going to take away your gas stove or your gas car, though it may give you financial incentives to replace both with electric ones, thanks to the IRA.)
Shareholders urge European banks to clean up their acts
Earlier this month, investors responsible for managing over $1.5 trillion in assets called out European banks for their fossil fuel funding. The nearly 30 investors sent letters (like this one to Barclays) to five of Europe’s top fossil fuel financiers urging the banks, first and foremost, to stop directly financing new oil and gas field projects.
According to a 2021 recommendation by the International Energy Agency (IEA), further investment in new oil and gas fields is unnecessary to maintain stable and affordable energy supplies and is potentially contradictory to limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. Despite this analysis, European (and American) banks have continued to pour trillions into the fossil fuel industry since 2016.
Banks were also urged to take bolder action to reduce financial flows to the companies expanding oil and gas development. A recent report by ShareAction, the non-profit responsible for coordinating investors in this campaign, found that 92% of oil and gas financing went to companies expanding oil and gas exploration (meaning only 8% of funding came in the form of dedicated project financing).
ShareAction’s report tallies up financing volumes to fossil fuel expanders between 2016-2021 by the five target EU banks as follows.
Most banks responded by saying they are focused on supporting clients through the energy transition and that they have targets in place for reducing financed emissions. Barclays has already responded by committing to new restrictions on financing oil sands.
HSBC did not receive a letter (this year) despite being the top European bank financing oil and gas expanders (at $59 billion from 2016 to 2021). The bank recently pledged to stop funding new oil and gas fields. ShareAction believes HSBC’s example should be taken as “a new minimum level of ambition” for banks committed to achieving net zero by 2050.
ShareAction assures banks that shareholder pressure will continue each year – and increase – until they take action.
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