Tech Table Stakes

Forge the Future #52 - Should Microsoft give up their massive oil and gas contracts in the name of the environment?

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate. This week’s edition is a bit lighter on the news front, as bank holidays on both sides of the Atlantic have meant a slightly quieter week.

After Google’s announcement last week that they would stop ‘custom’ AI solutions for oil and gas contracts, someone decided to run the numbers on Microsoft’s work in the industry. AWS and Azure are far ahead of Google, and it turns out that the emissions just from Microsoft’s contract with ExxonMobil alone would increase its carbon footprint by 21%. Not the best look for a company trying to go carbon negative! It may be that Google’s announcement puts more pressure on Microsoft to move away from fossil fuels, but that may be too much to hope for given the vast amounts of money changing hands.

In the banking world, the importance of sustainability seems to be hitting home, as an ever-increasing group of managers (including BlackRock, Invesco and Allianz) are realising that ESG indices are generally not being hit quite as hard as conventional benchmarks, further fueling growth in the space. Citigroup announced last week that they will be adding an investment banking division focusing on sustainability, the latest of a number of banks to do so. As with all such macro trends, it’s gradual, but establishment mindsets seem to be more open than ever before to embracing sustainability. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 418.04 ppm
This time last year: 414.96 ppm

Cyclone Amphan has killed at least 88 people in India and Bangladesh. The full extent of the damage won’t be known until communications are restored, but it’s pretty severe, especially for two countries already hit hard by COVID-19. A new study released this week suggests that this could be a sign of things to come, as hurricanes have become steadily stronger over the past four decades as the planet has warmed.

A study on carbon absorption by tropical forests has found that 2°C of warming will push most such forests above their heat threshold, and potentially cause them to become net carbon sources. Various studies have suggested similar trends in the past, but this is one of the most comprehensive global studies to date.

Eastern Europe is currently being gripped by the worst drought in a century. Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic are suffering crop losses and other damage in some of the poorest regions of Europe, already hit hard by economic losses from the current pandemic.

In brighter news, wild white storks have hatched in the UK for the first time in hundreds of years. The nest is part of a project trying to reintroduce the birds to southern England, and they are hoping to establish a permanent community.

Visualisation of the Week

This week’s visualisation shows the massive spike in temperatures in Siberia this year versus the 1981-2010 average. The whole region is more than 5°C warmer than usual, and is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet.


One of the areas brought up in recent discussions of the big tech companies and their climate commitments is - how responsible should these companies be for what their customers use their technology for? 

Emissions are a complex topic - even the general division into scope 1 (direct emissions), scope 2 (emissions from electricity and heat) and scope 3 (emissions from supply chains and other sources) is not firmly agreed upon. Should a utility company pay for the emissions produced in generating electricity used by others? 

When a tech company provides AI tools to fossil fuel companies, should they be responsible for the emissions produced? They’re not actually burning the fuel, nor handling it directly. However they are accelerating extraction and reducing its cost (otherwise why would the oil co’s pay for the tools?). This fuzziness allows wiggle room for tech companies to shrug off responsibility for the emissions produced from the tools it produces, even in settings such as oil and gas extraction.

However, when a company has taken as strong a stance as Microsoft has on the climate, it feels very difficult to ignore the downsides of them continuing to do business with the fossil fuel industry. Yes, the contract sizes are massive, and thus the financial downsides to cancelling them are significant. But let us not forget - Microsoft has a market capitalisation over $1 trillion. These are companies with highly profitable business models and vast amounts of capital. Microsoft’s announcements on the climate front are significant, but given the relatively low direct carbon footprint of the tech business, and their huge profits, the cost of those measures is relatively cheap.

Microsoft are trying to have their cake and eat it - they want to be strong on the environment, but they want to keep their massively profitable contracts and turn a blind eye to the consequences. Their carbon negative stance is laudable, but means little unless they back it with meaningful stakes.

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

Other News

Long Reads

The End Times

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thanks for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it!

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

Planting Seeds

Forge the Future #51 - A week of (mostly) positive news amidst the pandemic

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate.

Just as I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, Google announced that they will no longer be creating custom AI solutions for oil and gas extraction. Their announcement follows a damning report from Greenpeace into the activities of Google, Microsoft and Amazon in the oil and gas business, despite (well, bar Amazon) their alleged green values and ethos. Hopefully this will prompt Microsoft towards taking similar steps (I sadly have no such hopes for Amazon).

Stripe has made its first negative emissions purchases after its pledge to fund carbon negative projects last year. In an excellent move, they’ve also published all of their materials, process and information to help others make similar moves - this is an excellent initiative, and hopefully will prompt others to take similar action.

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 416.90 ppm
This time last year: 415.02 ppm

This week has seen storms across the world, with the US receiving a glancing blow from Tropical Storm Arthur, the first named storm of the year, well before the official Atlantic storm season start (the 6th year in a row that this has happened). Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Typhoon Vongfong hit the Philippines, and India is bracing for the impact of Cyclone Amphan, which is set to hit its east coast. India in particular is struggling to balance the need to evacuate thousands from coastal regions whilst maintaining appropriate measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Copernicus Climate Change Service has published its seasonal outlook for Europe, and it looks like the continent is set for a sweltering and very dry summer. This is likely to cause issues for farmers, utilities as well as inland transportation on canals and rivers. Meanwhile, new research suggests that the conditions that caused the ‘Great Dust Bowl’ in the 1930s in the US are now likely to reoccur roughly every 40 years, and if warming hits 2°C above pre-industrial times, that could become a one in 20 year phenomenon. Improving farming practices may mitigate some, but not all of the impacts.

Visualisation of the Week

This week’s visualisation is a return to a theme I’ve highlighted before, namely the difficulty of reaching net zero emissions, and how that is increasing the longer we leave it before taking decisive action. I’m sure all of you are well aware, but this visualisation in particular really drives it home.


I’ve spoken previously about the links between the climate crisis and the current pandemic, as well as encouraging signs that world leaders are considering a green recovery. Those signs are looking stronger than ever, as more and more countries and businesses take a green stance. This week saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggesting that aviation should limit emissions once it resumes after the pandemic, only a week or so after France tied Air France’s bailout to reducing emissions and not competing with TGV services. Canada has also announced that bailouts for large companies will require those firms to disclose their environmental impact and commit to sustainable decisions.

Meanwhile, on the business front, a coalition of dozens of high profile companies organised by the Science-Based Targets initiative has signed a joint statement calling for a green recovery from the pandemic. Signatories include Adobe, Bayer, HP and many more household names. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has blacklisted several massive commodities firms from its portfolio over their use and production of coal, and a global coalition of 42 faith institutions announced a divestment of their £1.1bn in managed assets from fossil fuels.

Is this enough? Of course not, but the climate can often feel like an endless battle against a vast and unmoving foe, but there are definite signs that across the world, sentiments are changing (well, the US government excepted), and groups are making the first steps towards a better, greener planet. As the old saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

Other News

Long Reads

The End Times

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thanks for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it!

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

Hearts and Minds

Forge the Future #50 - Art as a means to make climate change real

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate.

A new research study published this past week surveyed over 200 of the world’s most senior economists, and their conclusion was that not only would spending money on green policies accelerate the transition to net zero, it would also offer the best economic returns on government spending. It will be interesting to see how different countries approach such matters as plans start to come together around COVID-19 recovery. As I covered last week, Europe is pushing strongly towards a green recovery, but the US and China look likely to take a more polluting route.

The Transition Pathway Initiative has analysed the climate targets announced by oil majors recently, and declared that all are insufficient to hit the Paris agreement goals. Shell and Eni went furthest, but even that wasn’t enough. At least part of the issue is wildly differing ideas of how to count emissions - there are few standards and agreements in the industry.

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 416.64 ppm
This time last year: 415.26 ppm

A new report from ActionAid describes how many migrants in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been forced from their homes by climate change-induced circumstances - floods, drought, and more. These people are now living in cramped camps, exacerbating their risk of catching COVID-19. It once again highlights the links between the two crises, and how they multiply their impact on the most vulnerable.

The UN has released new deforestation data, showing that whilst forest loss has slowed, it is still occurring at a significant rate, with most losses occurring in key tropical rainforests in Africa and South America. As nations are responsible for compiling their own data, the numbers may not even reflect the true state of the world’s trees - the FAO is conducting its own survey currently to confirm the numbers.

On a more positive note, a new study suggests that using LEDs to illuminate escape holes in trawl nets could nearly halve the amount of unwanted fish caught. The lights were particularly effective in deeper trawls, and it’s thought that they could help highlight the nets for dolphins and other marine mammals.

Visualisation of the Week

This week’s chart shows India’s emissions, which have declined this year for the first time in 40 years. A significant part of that decline is due to COVID-19, which is no cause for celebration, but it does look as though the lockdown could be accelerating India’s shift to renewables.


One topic I’ve not really covered in this newsletter is the role of art in the climate movement. I often focus on data, reports, and research - finding the hard numbers that highlight what is and isn’t happening in the world around us. That’s partly due to my own background as a data engineer, and also because the data is absolutely important. However, it’s far from the only part of the story. We’re all human, and for most of us, we’re not moved directly by numbers. Every now and again, perhaps, a particularly shocking figure strikes home, but for me at least, it can be at times hard to relate to. When numbers go into the millions or billions they go well beyond our capacity to grasp.

We resonate with stories, with experiences, with pictures. When you ask someone about why they became passionate about climate change, I suspect few will name numbers or data, though they may make powerful supporting arguments. They’ll name experiences - seeing a once-loved place changed by global warming, watching a documentary on the effects, reading an emotive piece of writing on the subject. Numbers back our argument, but stories, feelings and emotions are what drives us to care about this subject.

That’s why art is so powerful - it can connect us to a concept that can otherwise seem distant and too large to relate to - through experiences, by appealing to our hearts as well as our minds. And in this battle to save our planet, we need to connect to as many people as we can, make them understand what is happening, and what will happen - to find out how to make it resonate with each and every one of them. Only then can we count on their support to make the changes that are needed.

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

Other News

Long Reads

The End Times

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thanks for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it!

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

A Green Recovery?

Forge the Future #49 - World leaders hint at a greener route out of the current crisis

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate.

It seems that climate commitments are catching on for oil companies - Total SA has unveiled new targets for lower carbon intensity amidst a host of recent similar announcements from other firms. Oil firms are generally feeling the squeeze at the moment, with Shell cutting their dividend for the first time since the 40s. HEATED sat in on their investor call, and the impression is that they’re very much on the defensive.

I’m sure more than a few of you heard about Michael Moore’s new film ‘Planet of the Humans’. It has produced near universal outrage from environmentalists and climate experts, with a number calling for it to be taken down. The film casts renewable energy as a hoax, but uses outdated, debunked and misleading information to make its points. Unsurprisingly, right-wing think tanks have already leapt on it to promote anti-climate sentiments.

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 417.37 ppm
This time last year: 413.15 ppm

April was the joint hottest April ever, tying with 2016, according to the Copernicus program. Last month saw extremely high temperatures over parts of Europe, Greenland and Antarctica. A new study out this week suggests that 2-3.5 billion people could be exposed to unlivable heat by 2070, as rising temperatures bring more and more of the world above the level where living is possible without air conditioning.

Scientists are rushing to study the impact of ship noise on whales, as the current pandemic has lowered shipping traffic to unprecedented lows. Measurements have suggested a consistent reduction in low-frequency sound totalling 4-5 dB (which may not sound much, but decibels are logarithmic). A similar drop in shipping noise after 9/11 resulted in a landmark study showing that ship noise caused chronic stress in baleen whales.

Another global study on insect levels has found that numbers globally are down around 25% since 1990. In particular, sharp declines in Europe have shocked scientists. Freshwater insect numbers are up, but they make up only 10% of species. On a similar, but more surreal note, the hunt is on for asian hornets, recently discovered in the US. The massive insects have a sting powerful enough to kill people on rare occasions, but are more a threat to bees - a single hornet can decimate entire hives.

Visualisation of the Week

This week’s visualisation comes from a new study, using NASA’s satellite laser altimetry to quantify the changes in ice sheets across the globe (the above being Greenland, of course). It shows even more definitively than before that ice sheet losses globally have outpaced gains.


The world is still struggling under the burden of the coronavirus pandemic, and the scale of the impact is really starting to show - an IEA report out this week puts global energy down 6% over the year, with emissions down 8%. That may not sound massive, but that’s over six times larger than the financial crisis in 2008 - this is undoubtedly the largest ever impact on energy, and thus the economy.

Lockdowns have been ongoing in much of the West for several months now, and in Asia for longer still. The dust is starting to settle after the initial emergency bailouts and other economic support, and now leaders are starting to look towards what a recovery and restart of the economy might look like. It’s abundantly apparent that the world is not going back to the way things were before, but there have been encouraging signs that some leaders are starting to see the possibilities for a green recovery. The leader of the IMF, along with the German chancellor and UN Secretary this week all called for a green recovery that tackles climate change.

It’s long looked like tackling climate change might take the back-burner for a while until this current crisis is past us, but now the EU is discussing ending fossil fuel subsidies in response to the slump in oil prices - a move that previously would have been unthinkable. I’ve drawn the link between the current crisis and climate change previously in this newsletter, and other, more eminent voices have suggested links. Emily Atkin, of HEATED, has been making similar links with more panache since this current crisis started. She, and all the others are right - the two crises are undoubtedly linked - here’s hoping world leaders will take note as they prepare to forge a route out of the current situation.

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

Other News

Long Reads

The End Times

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thanks for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it!

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

Fossil-free Education

Forge the Future #48 - divestment continues despite the pandemic - activism works!

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate.

This week saw several major education institutions finally caving to sustained pressure and starting to divest from fossil fuels. In the UK, Oxford University has committed to a net-zero investment strategy for its £3bn endowment, and will immediately divest from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, over in the US, Harvard has finally promised to reach net-zero by 2050, with a gradual phasing out of fossil fuels from its $40.9bn endowment (the largest in the US).

Morgan Stanley has also updated its investment policy, and will no longer fund Arctic oil and gas exploration or development, along with thermal coal projects. After the spate of recent announcements, that now leaves Bank of America as the only major bank still open to such projects - here’s hoping they too rule out such endeavours soon!

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 416.16 ppm
This time last year: 414.44 ppm

NOAA predictions are suggesting that 2020 could well be the planet’s warmest year yet, eclipsing 2016. Last year was very close to the record, and if recent years are any judge, this is a trend likely to continue.

New data from the Copernicus program suggests that soil moisture is dropping in a number of key grain-growing areas across Europe, leading to fears that global warming could produce persistent droughts across swathes of the continent. In Germany, a lack of April rainfall has meant the Rhine is starting to become dangerously low. The river is a backbone of industrial goods transportation, and low water levels can stop traffic. In previous years, this alone has been enough to make a significant dent in the German economy.

Melting ice has revealed relics of an ancient Viking trading route. The route was discovered by the Glacier Archaeology Program, one of many groups worldwide studying what’s revealed as climate change causes ice and glaciers to recede and shift. The discovery is unprecedented, and would never have been found had the ice not receded in recent years.

In slightly more positive news, the lack of people and rubbish on Florida’s beaches has meant that endangered leatherback turtles have been able to nest far more successfully than in previous years. Lower levels of lighting have also likely helped the animals be less disoriented.

Visualisation of the Week

This week’s visualisation shows daily average coal use in the UK, as the coal-free electricity record falls once again. The UK has run for 18 days, 6 hours and 15 minutes without any coal power.


I’ve been pretty busy of late, heads down in the process of trying to start a climate-related company, and so I’ve not really had much opportunity to step back and take stock of Forge the Future in a while.

As a result, I thought I’d do something a little different this week, and instead of writing a longer feature, I’d like to ask for suggestions and feedback. I’ve kept the format of the newsletter fairly consistent for a good while now, so I’d like to hear what you think! Are there elements you particularly enjoy? Alternatively, are there bits you’d rather see less of? Is there anything novel you’d like me to incorporate? Any and all suggestions appreciated - drop a comment on Substack, reply to this email, let me know on Twitter - whatever works for you!

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

Other News

Long Reads

The End Times

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, thanks for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it!

Stay safe, and see you next week,

Oli

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