Climate Compass Blog

Harvey's lessons for flood insurance and resilience

Even as Hurricane Harvey continues to devastate Texas and Louisiana, experts and policymakers are drawing lessons to better prepare for the costly impacts of a changing climate. A key opportunity comes this month, when Congress takes up reauthorization of the nation’s battered flood insurance program. But the broader challenges of protecting communities against climate change require much stronger efforts on all fronts.

The Gulf Coast is historically prone to hurricanes, but climate change has contributed to a greater intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes and an increase in the amount of rain produced by those events. The rainfall total from Harvey was the most ever in the United States, but this is the third extreme flood the city has faced in the last three years. All across the United States, climate change, sea-level rise and development are driving up the risk of flooding and other climate disasters.

For nearly a century, the country’s primary defense against flood risk has been the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is intended to reduce the impact of flooding on private and public structures by providing affordable insurance to property owners. But with increasingly expensive weather events, the program’s chronic debt (covered by federal taxpayers) has ballooned to $24 billion and insured losses from Harvey could be between $10 billion and $20 billion, adding to the program’s deficit.

When the program was last reauthorized, in 2012, Congress ordered updated flood maps to more accurately reflect risk, and higher premiums to whittle down the debt. The premium increases, however, were later scaled back.

This time, bills offered in Congress have a range of objectives, from reducing costs to preserving the program’s affordability, in some cases by bringing in private insurers. Few, however, include provisions to proactively reduce flood risk. One exception, the bipartisan SAFE NFIP 2017 Act, introduced by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and John Kennedy (R-LA), would provide grants and loans for pre-disaster risk reduction efforts.

With the toll from Hurricane Harvey still rising, Congress could do much more in its reauthorization of the NFIP to address increasing flood risks:

  • Use modern, accurate flood maps based on the best available science that consider climate projections, especially sea level rise.
  • Gradually phase out subsidized rates for high-risk properties to eventually price flood insurance to reflect the flood risk of a property. This should be coupled with targeted assistance for low-income policy holders outside of the NFIP’s rate structure.
  • Incentivize community-led flood risk management and pre-disaster mitigation. Expand the Community Rating System which already offers flood insurance discounts for floodplain management activities to further incentivize mitigation, relocation of high-risk or repeated flooding properties, and natural flood barriers like marshes, wetlands, and floodplains. Mitigation activities that reduce risk to structures or communities should be tied to reduced insurance premiums.
  • Disaster recovery and flood damage payouts should go to resilient design and siting, and not replacement or repair of high-risk structures.

Beyond reforming the NFIP, Congress should reject President Trump’s proposal to ax important programs at the Federal Emergency Management Administration that help communities take steps to prepare before disaster strikes. Chief among these are FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation and Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Programs.

While the immediate focus is flooding, a warming climate is increasing many other types of climate-related risks. By mid-century, for instance, Houston will likely experience an increase in occurrences of two or more consecutive days of heat index above 108 degrees, from the current six to 25 per year.

Addressing these risks requires comprehensive community-based resilience planning with strong state and federal support. Smart strategies can address multiple impacts, like planting trees or using pervious surfaces to increase stormwater retention while cooling streets and homes. Many local governments are now actively planning for climate change impacts, but businesses too need to take extra steps to be prepared.

According to FEMA between 40-60% of small businesses permanently close following a disaster, highlighting that businesses are not adequately covered by NFIP. Stories from Houston of businesses investing in individual resilience measures (like the Texas Medical Center’s 2001 installation of floodgates) highlight the value of preparing for climate impacts, and the value of engaging businesses in city climate resilience planning and actions.

While natural hazards have always happened, climate change is increasing the threats that these hazards pose to cities and businesses across the country. Acknowledging and anticipating these risks locally, in flood recovery and disaster-preparedness, and on the national level, in the reauthorization of the NFIP, is key to making cities, towns, states and businesses more resilient to our changing climate.

Best in Class: Back to school on an electric bus

          Photo credit: Fastcompany.net

As kids across the country hop on buses and head back to school, what else are they taking in besides an education? The answer may be pollutants.

School buses, typically powered by diesel engines, can emit dangerous levels of pollutants. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of these emissions. A 2001 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that children in the back of diesel-powered school buses could be exposed to toxic pollutants at four times the rate of people in the cars behind those buses, and that riding in school buses powered by diesel could pose 46 times the rate of “significant” risk for cancer. A more recent 2015 study for the California Air Resources Board found that air pollution in diesel-powered school buses continues to put children in danger. The negative effects range from heightened absenteeism to persistent heart and lung conditions, such as emphysema and asthma.

Efforts to improve the tailpipe emissions of school buses could have wide-reaching effects. More than half of all U.S. students, or greater than 25 million children, ride in school buses. A 2015 study by the University of Michigan found that reductions in diesel tailpipe emissions had widely positive effects on children, from improved lung functions to reduced absenteeism.

One straightforward method of eradicating tailpipe emissions would be for school districts to adopt all-electric buses.

All-electric buses that plug in to the electric grid virtually eliminate children’s exposure on school bus trips to dangerous pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The buses also safeguard children’s futures by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. A switch to electric buses provides a double win of protecting our kids’ health and their environment.

Electric school buses have recently become available in the North American market. Only a few companies manufacture purpose-built electric school buses, but some school districts in the United States and Canada have committed to deploying them. Quebec company Lion manufactures electric school buses, and U.S. bus maker Blue Bird plans to produce electric school buses by the end of 2018 that will be able to put power back onto the grid or into a building. The capacity to operate buses with two-way power would improve the financial outlook of purchasing electric buses, which are more expensive to purchase but are less expensive to fuel and operate.

U.S. interest in electric buses is growing, although mostly for use in public transit systems (Los Angeles, for example, plans to switch its entire transit bus system to electricity by 2030). Recently, city planners have expressed the need to expand the benefits of zero-emission electric buses, such as better air quality and helping develop neighborhoods, to low-income residents and vulnerable populations. Falling battery prices and the introduction of new electric bus manufacturers to the school bus market will help extend these trends to school districts. Children, among the most vulnerable of groups, may soon be enjoying the quiet, pollution-free benefits of electric transportation.

US companies, communities rely on federal climate science

Businesses rely on government for factual, unbiased information to help them make decisions about where and how to grow.

They need U.S. Census data to see how patterns of population growth could affect the demand for goods and services. They need energy supply and demand data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to understand this critical input to productivity.

And they need climate data to help them identify the risks climate impacts pose to their facilities, operations, and supply and distribution chains.

The National Climate Assessment -- mandated by Congress -- is one of the tools that helps companies understand and prepare for climate risks – risks that more than 90 percent of major companies recognize. The latest version (still in draft form) is the product of researchers at 13 federal agencies and has undergone rigorous, independent peer-review by a 14-member committee at the National Academies.

But the administration is disbanding the federal advisory panel that helps policymakers and private-sector officials incorporate the National Climate Assessment into long-term planning. And researchers say they are worried the findings in the final release will be altered or suppressed by administration officials who oppose federal action on climate change.

That would be a mistake.

Government officials concerned about the health and competitiveness of U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy need to know that businesses rely on unbiased federal scientific data for decision making.

Sea-level rise projections let coastal property owners choose the right amount of flood protection for their needs. Accurate counts of frost-free days help farmers understand how growing seasons are changing so they can adjust their practices. City and state governments also need reliable data to ensure infrastructure is built to last and communities are prepared for more extreme heat waves, droughts, and downpours.

It is in the interest of the U.S. economy to see strong support for science continue at the federal level.

The National Climate Assessment is a valuable tool companies and communities use to plan for the impacts of climate change. It is by no means the only government report that gives evidence of the reality of climate change. Countless observations show us that the world of today is unlike the world of our parents. The annual State of the Climate report -- edited by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists, peer-reviewed, and published in August in the scientific journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society --  assembles the latest observations, including:

  • 2016 was the hottest year globally on record (surpassing record-setting 2015 and 2014)
  • Global mean sea level in 2016 was the highest since satellites began making measurements
  • Arctic temperatures reached 3.5°C above 1900 levels, a new high.
  • Greenhouse gas concentrations topped 400 parts per million for the first time in at least 800,000 years

Every credible line of evidence tells us that the Earth’s climate will continue to change in mostly harmful ways. That means governments, communities, and companies need to reduce climate-altering emissions and strengthen resilience to climate change impacts we’re already experiencing and that will grow worse without emissions reduction.

To help planners and risk managers in the public and private sectors make use of existing government climate data, C2ES is hosting a webinar to discuss “Using Climate Data in the Real World.” Government scientists from NOAA and Argonne National Lab will describe the climate datasets available for public use and how climate model outputs can be “downscaled” to provide granular data relevant to resilience planners. Business representatives will share their experience using this data in real world decision-making.

The September 27 webinar is just one component of C2ES’ work to promote information-sharing and collaboration between scientists, businesses, and governments to assess climate vulnerabilities and develop resilience strategies. 

Why clean innovation makes business sense

Microsoft clean innovation panel

Left to right: Bob Perciasepe, President, C2ES; Seth Roberts, Global Director, Energy & Climate Change, The Dow Chemical Company; Michelle Patron, Director, Sustainability Policy, Microsoft; Peter Fuller, Vice President, Market & Regulatory Policy, NRG Energy; Paul Steffes, CEO and President, Steffes Corporation. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Companies have discovered that finding innovative ways to procure, generate, and store energy not only helps them meet their emissions goals, but also reduces energy costs.

That’s why the private sector is leading the charge to invest in clean technology as companies seek to engage suppliers through supply chains, increase competitiveness, gain access to new markets, and diversify to prepare for long-term decarbonization.

Reducing energy use at data centers has become a priority for Microsoft, as the company continues to expand its operations. Michelle Patron, Microsoft’s director of sustainability policy recently told an event co-sponsored with C2ES that the company considers this both a responsibility and opportunity.

Microsoft is using cloud computing and advanced analytics to meet its goal of procuring 50 percent of its data center energy from solar, wind, and hydropower by 2018, and 60 percent by the early 2020s. By using sensors to accurately collect and process real-time energy use data, Microsoft has reduced energy consumption by 15 percent in 125 buildings across its 88-acre Redmond, Washington, campus. The advanced data collection has also saved the company $10 million a year on energy.

Microsoft is also showing leadership in the drive to obtain more energy from renewable sources. A recent agreement with Seattle-area utility Puget Sound Energy (PSE) allows Microsoft to directly procure renewable energy in the region, rather than buying energy from PSE, which generates most of its power from fossil fuels. In return, Microsoft has committed to buying more renewable energy than required under Washington state’s current renewable portfolio standard. To make the deal beneficial for all ratepayers, Microsoft paid a $24 million transition fee that will be distributed back to PSE customers. The company will also continue to make payments to PSE’s energy efficiency and low-income assistance programs.

The Dow Chemical Company is also a leader in procuring renewable energy. Seth Roberts, the company’s global director for energy and climate change, told the gathering that the company has committed to supplying its Texas facilities with 350 MW of wind energy—equivalent to the electricity needed to power nearly 50,000 homes. Roberts pointed out that this would have not been possible a decade ago, when renewable energy prices were not competitive with fossil-fuels and natural gas in Texas.

On the production side, Roberts said the company is making insulation that goes into lighter, fuel-efficient cars. It’s also providing reverse osmosis technologies for water purification that use 30 percent less energy than other filtration technologies.

Peter Fuller, NRG Energy’s vice president of market and regulatory policy, said his company is making a significant investment in carbon capture, use and storage at the 240 MW Petra Nova project near Houston. As the world’s largest carbon capture project at an existing power plant, the facility captures more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and sequesters 1.6 million tons of CO2 annually.

Fuller said NRG is on track to meet its science-based goals of 50 percent reduction of absolute emissions from 2014 levels by 2030, and 90 percent reduction by 2050. The company had already reduced its emissions 36 percent by 2016.

Steffes Corporation, a North Dakota based manufacturer of residential and commercial electric thermal storage equipment, serves more than 200 electric utilities across the United States and Canada. “Thermal energy storage is an extremely efficient and cost-effective way of storing energy and managing the grid of the future,” said CEO and president Paul Steffes.

The company’s devices include ceramic storage units that can store 15 to 500 kilowatts of energy. Steffes uses tools such as Microsoft Azure to process big data in real time for more predictable energy regulation and greater integration of renewables, saving consumers money, reducing emissions, and contributing to a cleaner grid.

While climate change is one of the most pressing global problems, these companies have demonstrated that it also presents to them an opportunity to be a part of the solution by investing in clean technology that is good for business as well.

Video: Why Clean Innovation Makes Business Sense
July 19, 2017 at the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center


 

Nations, companies driving toward cleaner cars

The British government’s recently announced plan to ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 shows the growing momentum globally toward a cleaner transportation system.

The ban is central to the British climate goal of zero emissions from the transportation sector by 2050. At the moment, the ban does not appear to be wishful thinking—a minister from the Department for Transport confirmed that Theresa May’s new government intends to honor its climate goals under the Paris Climate Agreement.

The United Kingdom joins other developed and developing nations that are taking action toward cleaner cars:

  • France made a similar announcement last week, identifying climate goals and improvements in air quality as reasons to ban gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles by 2040.
  • Both the Dutch and the Norwegian governments have discussed plans to implement similar bans by 2025, though legislators have not yet acted.
  • Parts of the German government have been advocating for a gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle prohibition. The Merkel administration has a goal of putting one million electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads by 2020 (though the target will likely not be met).
  • India’s government plans to switch entirely to electrified vehicles by 2030.
  • In 2018, the Chinese government is expected to implement a program based on California’s ZEV program that would require at least 8 percent of an automaker’s total auto sales in China be EVs.

Automakers are also steering toward clean transportation. In July, Volvo became the first major automaker to announce a switch entirely from traditionally fueled vehicles. It will only produce cars that include an electric motor (either EVs or hybrids) beginning in 2019.

Other companies are continuing to innovate in the EV space:

Though not an automaker, Royal Dutch Shell is planning to partially pivot to hydrogen and biofuel production in response to anticipated reductions in oil demand within the next two decades. CEO Ben Van Beurden said he plans to buy an EV next year, citing concerns for the environment.

In the United States, cities and states are helping lead the transformation to clean transportation.

A consortium of dozens of cities is looking into buying more than 100,000 EVs of all types. Seattle’s transit agency plans to have the largest fleet of zero-emission buses.

States from Oregon to Texas to Connecticut offer incentives for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles. And 10 states follow California’s ZEV program that requires a growing number of zero-emission vehicles as a percentage of total auto sales.

U.S. electric utilities are also innovating, with 44 companies offering some incentive for customers to adopt EVs.

Making a U-turn in the drive toward clean innovation, at least for now, is the U.S. federal government. Federal greenhouse gas emissions targets through 2025 for vehicles, which were finalized under the Obama Administration, have been reopened for review through 2018 despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that the standards are affordable and achievable. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently suggested that federal fuel economy standards through 2025 could be frozen at 2021 levels, pausing required improvements in the national fleet’s fuel economy.

More and more estimates show that global EV demand will rise considerably in the coming decades. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Energy Information Administration both increased their most recent adoption outlooks, with BNEF predicting that one third of new vehicles worldwide will be electrified by 2040. OPEC’s 2017 prediction for global EV sales by 2020 increased 500 percent over the 2016 prediction.

Nations, states, cities, and companies are leading the way toward a clean transportation future because it makes environmental and economic sense. The U.S. government should be doing all it can to foster this innovation, not curtail it.