TBLI Weekly - September 13th, 2022


TBLI Weekly - Sept 13th, 2022

Your weekly guide to Sustainable Investment

Upcoming TBLI events

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TBLI Investor Salon - September 20 & September 27th

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TBLI news & announcements

TBLI launches revamped brand & website

We are thrilled to finally be able to share our revamped website with you, which brings together all the components that comprise of our organization: Our services, content, TBLI's community & how to engage with it - and much more

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The TBLI Better World Prize event page is live

People’s Choice Award for Best ESG Measurement System

30 November 2022

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‘Water is our most precious resource’: alfalfa farmers asked to give up crop amid megadrought in US south-west

Agriculture – mainly alfalfa – consumes 80% of the Colorado River’s dwindling water supply, prompting calls for conservation efforts

On an early August morning in California’s Imperial Valley, tractors rumble across verdant fields of alfalfa, mowing down the tall grass and leaving it to dry in shaggy heaps under the hot sun.

Here, in one of the oldest farming communities in the Colorado River basin, the forage crop is king. One out of every three farmed acres in the valley is dedicated to growing alfalfa, which dries into a high-protein hay commonly used as food for livestock.

The plant looms large in the desert south-west, not only because it’s the region’s biggest crop but also because it’s one of the thirstiest – its deep roots suck up water in a region scorched by a 22-year drought.

The large-scale production of alfalfa during a megadrought is, in large part, possible because the Imperial Valley is the single biggest controller of rights to Colorado River water. Now, with the basin on the brink of the most severe water cuts in history, the alfalfa industry has been propelled to the center of longstanding debates over sustainable water use and the future of farming in the west.

‘Teetering on the edge’: a dwindling water supply

The stakes have never been higher. The Colorado River, which supplies freshwater to more than 40 million people in seven states and 29 federally recognized tribes across the south-west, as well as northern Mexico, is in rapid decline. Reduced snowpack, drought conditions and higher average temperatures have all reduced the river’s flow in recent decades.

The two biggest reservoirs along the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are each close to hitting levels so low that the Colorado River could stop flowing entirely, a condition ominously known as dead pool. “We’re teetering on the edge,” said Jack Schmidt, a professor and director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.

The dire circumstances have cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the Imperial Valley’s alfalfa industry, which is not only one of the largest water users in the basin, but one of the most powerful. Farmers have faced growing criticism for what some have characterized as the “perverse” practice of growing a thirsty crop – none of which goes directly to feeding people – in a drought-stricken region.

“We’re irrigating alfalfa in 120-degree temperatures in the dead of July … how does that possibly make any sense?” Schmidt said.

Trevor Tagg, who runs a 3,000-acre (1,200ha) farm in Imperial Valley focused on forage crops, knows this criticism all too well but says he finds it frustrating. “Our country is so disconnected from our food supply chain,” said Tagg. “People don’t know what alfalfa is or what it’s even used for. So it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, we don’t eat that. So get rid of it’”.

Forage crops are part of a larger food system that includes the beef and dairy industries both in the US and abroad, Tagg said. He believes some issues – such as the rapid development of cities – should bear just as much scrutiny for water use. “Look at Vegas, Phoenix, Orange county and San Diego,” he said, cities that have undergone significant growth. “Every time that there’s ever been water needed in the metropolitan areas, they’ve always come into the ag areas,” he said.

Farmers in the south-west have long been drawn to alfalfa because of its reliability. The crop stores well and enjoys steady demand. But while alfalfa remains a dominant crop in the Imperial Valley, thanks to the region’s stable water supply, acreage dedicated to production across California has fallen significantly over the past two decades, in part due to the rising cost of water.

According to an analysis by the conservation non-profit Pacific Institute, alfalfa production in California uses around 5 feet per acre (6167.4 cubic metres) of water, making it one of the most water-intensive crops alongside the likes of almonds, pistachios and rice. Crops such as sugar beets use roughly 3 feet per acre (3,700 cubic metres), and dry beans as little as 1.5 feet per acre (1,850 cubic metres).

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Soaring energy costs could threaten future of electric cars, experts warn


Industry bosses in Germany say high costs are having an impact on vehicle production and sales

Soaring energy costs are threatening the future of the electric car, industry bosses in Germany have warned.

A rise in electricity prices as well as in raw material costs and availability, a chronic shortage of parts, and a widespread reduction in disposable income are having a considerable impact on the production and sales of cars. If the trend continues, there is also concern that there will be a knock-on effect on investors who will lack incentives to build charging facilities, making electric cars less attractive – because they would be more impractical – to run. Until recently ownership of electric cars had been gaining in attractiveness as the cost of petrol rose. But since recent rises in electricity prices – in Germany of around a third compared with a year ago – the price differential has shrunk. Electric car owners, whether charging their cars at home or through contracts with charging operators, have seen price rises of 10% or more. Further price rises are expected, owing to the fact that the price of electricity is linked to that of gas, which has become ever scarcer since Russia turned off its gas supplies to Germany almost two weeks ago.

Allego, one of Germany’s largest charging station operators, raised its prices at the start of this month from 43 cents a kilowatt hour to 47 cents. Express charging, via a continuous current, has risen from 65 to 70 cents a kilowatt hour while the fastest, so-called ultra-fast charging, has gone up from 68 cents to 75 cents a kilowatt hour. Discount supermarkets, DIY chains and furniture stores which had until recently offered customers free charging while they shopped are now introducing charges. According to the automobile economist Stefan Bratzel, the development is an immediate threat to the industry. “The electricity price explosion could end up being an acute danger for vehicle transition, and we need to be damn careful about it,” he told German media.

“If electric cars become more expensive to use, the surge in electric mobility is in danger of collapsing, because hardly anyone is going to buy an electric car,” Bratzel, who is also founder of the Center for Automotive Management (CAM), said. He and other electric car advocates are now calling on the German government to ensure that the electricity price remains under the price of petrol, which they say is crucial to the future of electric cars. “Electric cars are losing their charm,” Helena Wisbert, director of the Duisburg-based Center for Automotive Research, wrote in a recent commentary for the economic daily Handelsblatt. State subsidies of electric cars are set to halve to €4,500 (£3,900) from 2023, while buyers of plug-in hybrids, who currently receive a €6,750 payment towards them, will no longer be supported. The overall pot of money available is to be capped at €2.5bn, enough to cover bonuses for just 400,000 electric cars – less than 1% of the cars on German roads.

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Competition with China a ‘driving force’ for clean energy funding in the 21st century

Analysis of energy RD&D investment in major economies also found that commitments at COP21 yielded some positives. Ultimately, however, trends over this century are not consistent with the ‘cleantech’ funding levels needed to meet climate goals, say researchers.

The first major study of driving forces behind government funding of energy RD&D – and the public institutions generating it – over the 21st century shows that competition created by China’s rise as a technology superpower led to significant increases in clean energy investment.

The new study, led by University of Cambridge and University of California, Berkeley, and published in the journal Nature Energy, also finds that cooperation commitments at a UN climate conference were not just empty words, and did boost “cleantech” innovation, albeit a long way off levels required to hit net zero or prevent two-degree warming.

The research covers eight major economies – Germany, France, US, UK, Korea, India, China and Japan – in the years between 2000 and 2018, and finds that total energy funding among seven of these (excluding India) grew from $10.9 billion to $20.1 billion, an 84% increase.

The share of RD&D (research, development and demonstration) funding for clean technologies – from solar and wind to efficient energy storage – across these seven economies went from 46% to 63% during the first eighteen years of this century.

However, it came at the expense of nuclear energy investment, which fell from 42% to 24%, while fossil fuel funding remained “sticky” and relatively unchanged – propped up by huge increases in fossil fuel RD&D spending from China (over $1.5 billion from 2001 to 2018).

“Levels of investment in clean energy have yet to come close to achieving meaningful global decarbonisation,” said Prof Laura Diaz Anadon from the University of Cambridge, a corresponding author on the study.

“Annual government funding for energy RD&D needed to have at least doubled between 2010 and 2020 to better enable future emissions cuts in line with the two-degree Celsius goal,” Anadon said.

Prof Jonas Meckling, study first author from the University of California, Berkeley, said: “Our research reveals the drivers of clean energy investment that had most impact in the 21st century. A mix of cooperation and competition between nations, and a strategic shift towards commercialisation, led to advances that policymakers must build upon.”

Many consider high oil prices a key incentive for government spending on energy innovation as alternatives are sought, such as in the 1970s. Yet the study shows clean energy RD&D continued to grow despite declining oil costs after 2008, leading researchers to assess other possible “drivers” of cleantech investment this century.

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Vermont growers see potential in pairing saffron and solar production

As the growing season winds down at most New England farms, it’s only just gearing up at Golden Thread Farm, in Stowe, Vermont.

The plants that fill the farm’s two plastic-covered high tunnels are just beginning to come out of their dormancy. Come October, they will bloom into purple crocuses with thread-like stigmas that will soon after be hand-harvested for sale as saffron.

More commonly associated with Iran and Spain, the cultivation of saffron, an expensive spice prized for its flavor and medicinal properties, is “a side project” for Brian Leven, a lawyer and the farm’s owner. He sells the dried stigmas online for $50 a gram — roughly the yield from 182 flowers — and supplies some local restaurants and stores.

“I charge a lot more than what you could find online, but it is a better product — I can vouch for its purity,” Leven said. “It’s a nice little business for someone who has the time and commitment for it.”

That’s what Margaret Skinner, a researcher at the University of Vermont, had in mind when she and some colleagues began experimenting with growing the crop back in 2015.

“We could see diversified vegetable growers growing lots of spinach and kale, but they weren’t making any money at it because everybody was growing the same thing,” she said. “We felt saffron offered an opportunity for these growers to add a high-value crop.”

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Experts Confident EU Will Meet Its Ambitious Climate Targets

The European Union is widely expected to meet its ambitious climate targets under the Paris Agreement, according to a survey of hundreds of scientists and diplomats.

More than 800 climate experts were asked to rate a handful of major emitters according to their ambition — a measure of how much they plan to cut emissions given their capacity to do so — and their credibility, or how likely countries are to meet their goal.

“To truly gauge the success of the Paris Agreement, you need to incorporate the judgement, intuition, and expertise from those with real-world experience negotiating these policies,” David Victor, a professor of industrial innovation at the University of California San Diego and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Experts expressed high confidence that the European Union, which aims to cut emissions by 55 percent by 2030, will reach its aim. The European Union was rated as the most ambitious and credible overall, followed by China, Australia, South Africa, and India. The U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil ranked lower than these countries for both credibility and ambition. The findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The survey was carried out before the United States passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which put hundreds of billions of dollars toward clean energy. Along with other climate policies, the bill is expected to get the U.S. 80 percent of the way to its Paris Agreement goal. But even with this, Victor says, a credibility gap still remains.

“While the legislation is a big step in the right direction, it doesn’t deliver the same investment many other counties have already committed,” he said. “I think the major questions our study raises are ‘how does the U.S. boost its credibility’ and ‘why is credibility a problem?’”

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Bring on the parasitic wasps and hoverflies: Riverford embraces regenerative farming

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of the organic veg-box firm, continues to experiment with new ways of producing food and promoting wildlife, 36 years after his first harvest

In a field full of polytunnels containing row after row of tomatoes and cucumbers, laminated sheets covered in images that look like police mugshots are prominently displayed. Pictured are a list of “friends and foes”.

The “foes”, according to Riverford Organic Farmers, are aphids, spider mites and thrips. The “friends” are predatory and parasitic wasps, lacewings, ladybirds and hoverflies. There is no mention of herbicides and insecticides, which most farmers would consider friends. Crops have no signs of disease thanks to a system that has taken years to fine-tune, says the company’s founder, Guy Singh-Watson. “Attention to detail,” he says. “It’s good farming, really.”

This is a tiny section of Riverford’s Wash farm, which covers 525 hectares (1,300 acres). A third of the land is suitable for vegetable production, of which 60 hectares are used for growing vegetables in any one year. The land is managed as a mixed organic farm, with rotations between two years of growing vegetables to three years for the soil to rest, when the grass is cut for silage or grazed by a herd of dairy cows. The rest of the farm is taken up by species-rich meadows, woodland, scrub, agroforestry, orchards, streams and ponds.

“I wanted to go further than organic, and there’s a word for it – but most people ain’t got a clue,” says Singh-Watson. He is talking about regenerative agriculture, which few can pin down but essentially means regenerating nature on farms from the soil up, an idea that started as a fringe movement but is becoming more mainstream.

That is why boosting the strength and populations of “friends” is key. The team are experimenting with growing fennel next to tomatoes because hoverflies like it (adults pollinate while their larvae prey on aphids); a wildflower mix will encourage a healthier population of other predatory insects to keep aphid numbers low; and Singh-Watson is looking at planting black wheat, borage and nettles, which all repel certain insects, as other ways to keep pests away from the crops.

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