Greenwashed: How utility climate pledges are purely performative

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From a climate perspective, the new Biden administration is something to be happy about, particularly after a four-year stretch replete with climate change denial and rampant misinformation. Biden has made it clear that climate change will be a central focus during his time in office. This is good, but only the beginning of a multi-decades-long stretch of restoration and recovery. A New York Times analysis identified nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations “reversed, revoked or otherwise rolled back under Trump, [with] more than a dozen other potential rollbacks” that were never finalized. In his first day in office Biden undid a handful of rollbacks through executive orders, most notably rejoining the Paris climate accord. Biden and his team will have the opportunity to set the groundwork for a path toward a decarbonized nation—a task that will require the commitment of leaders across all industries and political associations. 

Even with the new, climate-conscious administration may feel like a silver lining, it’s important to remember that Mr. Trump’s undoing of emissions policies will have permanent consequences. The pollution from emissions will remain in our atmosphere for decades and policy changes can do nothing to prevent this. New innovations in carbon management and sequestration like carbon capture are promising for future use, but high costs and lack of scalability have prevented these technologies from being used to any meaningful extent. It’s possible, if not likely, that they’ll play a role within a decade. But until then, the damage is done. 

Joe Biden has stated he wants 100 percent percent clean energy by 2035. He plans to accomplish this in part by building on state-level renewable portfolio standards, stimulating significant growth in clean options by mandating utilities to buy a certain amount of power by a deadline. The price of renewables —in particular solar, wind and storage, have dropped dramatically in the past decade (solar as much as 80 percent, and wind by 40). These three elements are essential for all deep-decarbonization scenarios, and their prices have fallen enough that decarbonizing is often the cheapest option. So this begs the question: Is America taking advantage of these falling costs? The answer to this question is nuanced, and varies based on which subsector you look at. In this article, I wanted to highlight the electric utilities industry. Cleaning up the electricity sector is essential to nationwide decarbonization, and the companies in this industry will play a key role in ensuring a path to a livable future. 

In the first month of this year, The Sierra Club, an influential grassroots environmental organization published a damning analysis of the electric utilities sector titled “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges.” This study looked at 50 parent utility companies and 79 operating companies, who are currently responsible for 43 percent of the country’s electricity supply. 

The study examined their plans as of Dec. 1, 2020 to retire coal, stop building new gas plants and build clean energy in the next decade. They then assigned a score to every utility based on their findings out of 100. The average was a whopping 17 out of 100. The companies studied have committed to retiring just 25 percent of their coal generation by 2030. 

In addition, “thirty two of the operating companies included in this study are planning to build new gas plants totaling over 36 gigawatts through 2030.” Many of the electric utilities have pledged to decarbonize (still, over half have no such goal)—the problem is that almost none have plans to actually follow through or their goals fall short of what is needed to protect the planet. In fact, only five of the operating companies are legally bound to meet their goals. 

Lastly, the Sierra Club found that “The average score was 20 out of 100 for utilities with a net-zero climate pledge and 14 out of 100 for utilities without such a pledge, showing that the pledges have not led to any appreciable amount of near-term ambition or action.” These companies are spewing lies and false promises; the discrepancy between the greenwashed pledges being put out by the large parent companies and what is happening on the ground is astounding. In order to preserve a habitable climate, utilities must decarbonize, and they need to do it fast. 

In conclusion, I would implore you to learn about your state’s current plans to decarbonize. What proportion of your state’s energy portfolio is nonrenewable? How invested in fossil fuels is your state? How central of a cause is a green economy to your state’s political leaders? Despite it being only a portion of our country’s carbon footprint, a green electricity sector is foundational to a decarbonized economy. 

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