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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries tagged "fossil fuels"

Electrifying Africa - But at What Cost to Africans?

September 16, 2013 ·

This originally appeared in IPS' Foreign Policy in Focus project.

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)As children throughout the United States head back to school, it’s a good time to remember that schoolchildren throughout Africa often attend schools with no electricity. In areas that do have the utility, frequent power outages are a constant reminder of the need for dependable access to electricity.

In June, U.S. policymakers announced two initiatives aimed at increasing electricity production in Africa. President Obama launched Power Africa, an initiative that makes a $7-billion U.S. commitment to the energy sector in six African countries. And Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act in the House, which sets a goal of providing access to electricity for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Both initiatives place increasing investment by U.S. companies in Africa at their center.

Africa is home to almost 600 million people without electricity, all of whom struggle to meet their basic needs as a result. Access to power translates into refrigerating vaccines, keeping food from spoiling, studying after dark—the kinds of activities that can dramatically improve basic health, education, and economic opportunity.

While rhetoric around the two U.S. initiatives is about reducing poverty and improving Africans’ quality of life, the approaches being outlined seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting, centralized power projects—not the decentralized, renewable energy systems that are the most efficient and cleanest means of reaching Africa’s poorest families.

Decentralized, renewable energy sources are best for the rural poor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that universal energy access can be achieved by 2030 with significantly stepped-up investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, it would require an extra $19 billion a year, and money pledged by the U.S. government could be a strong down payment.

The IEA also notes that the majority of the additional investment needs to go to small-scale mini-grid and off-grid solutions—which are more efficient at delivering electricity to people in rural areas, where 84 percent of the energy-poor live—not to centralized power plants. Small-scale systems produce energy at the household and community level from renewable sources, including micro-hydro, solar, wind, and biogas.

So an energy access win for the poor is also a win for the environment. By developing clean energy instead of burning fossil fuels, decentralized renewable systems help curb greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change. That’s important because if left unfettered, climate change is predicted to wreak havoc across Africa.

Africa will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

According to the World Bank, climate change is likely to undermine the development gains made in recent decades, pushing millions of people back into poverty. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the leading global scientific body on climate change—notes, warming on the African continent could be some of the developing world’s most severe, reaching one-and-a-half times the global average.

Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are expected to significantly compromise agricultural production and access to food in Africa. Yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some countries by 2020, and crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100. Food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition in turn will compromise human health.

Sea level rise is anticipated to threaten the 320 coastal cities and 56 million people living in low-lying coastal zones around the continent. And the cost to African nations of adapting to a warmer world could amount to between 5 and 10 percent of their gross domestic product.

“All of the above” means dirty and clean power.

While Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do include language about developing “an appropriate mix of power solutions, including renewable energy,” proponents of these policies have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent.

In fact, with only $20 million allocated toward project preparation, feasibility, and technical assistance for renewables, clean energy makes up less than 0.3 percent of the White House initiative’s budget.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is front and center. While gas is sometimes talked about as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, it can be even more polluting than dirty coal when methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide) is released during its production.

In other words, gas is no “bridge fuel” between energy poverty and the clean power that every person deserves. Once Africans are locked into natural gas infrastructure, they’re locked into 40 years of increasing emissions—and four more decades of global warming’s impacts.

Continued fossil fuel expansion threatens U.S. climate policy.

The push for natural gas is so forceful that one of the U.S. government’s strongest climate policies to date—the cap on greenhouse gas emissions at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)—has come under fire.

OPIC’s cap—an outcome of a 2009 legal settlement with environmental groups over the agency’s practice of lending to large, destructive oil and gas projects—forces a 30-percent greenhouse gas reduction across its portfolio over 10 years and a 50-percent reduction over 15 years.

The results have been notable. By 2011, the agency’s renewable energy finance had risen to nearly $1 billion—about a third of its total commitments that year. By contrast, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im)—OPIC’s sister organization—steadily increased investment in dirty energy, with fossil fuel funding doubling between 2011 and 2012.

Unfortunately, some development groups say that to achieve energy access for Africa, OPIC’s hard-won greenhouse gas cap has to be weakened. For instance, a lobbying document from the ONE campaign highlights how the Electrify Africa Act “unlocks OPIC’s investment potential by requiring OPIC to revise its existing policy on the carbon emissions of its investments to permit significant investment in the electricity sector of the poorest and lowest pollution-emitting countries.”

Ironically, the impacts of doing away with this policy—more greenhouse gas emissions and fewer renewable projects focused on access—would only come back to hit communities in Africa even harder as climate change intensifies.

While this provision is not yet part of the bill introduced in Congress, there are concerns that it will appear as an amendment now that Congress has reconvened. And that’s particularly worrying. Of the $1.5 billion that the Power Africa initiative promises from OPIC for energy, less than 2 percent has been earmarked for renewables.

Who stands to gain by busting the cap?

If large, centralized fossil fuel production won’t particularly help poor Africans access energy—and would exacerbate climate change, which in turn threatens development on the continent—why would anyone want to bust the greenhouse gas cap at OPIC?

For one possible explanation, look no further than the oil and gas fields recently found off the coast of Africa. Big reserves mean big money, and the business of extracting and processing new oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa will be lucrative.

It’s OPIC’s job to help U.S. companies gain a foothold in emerging markets like these by providing finance. And by doing away with lending restrictions on climate polluting projects, OPIC is free to grease the wheels for mega-deals between U.S. fossil fuel companies and African interests.

One of those companies appears to be General Electric, which recently signed a tentative deal with Ghana to build a power plant likely to be fueled with natural gas from the Jubilee offshore field. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, G.E.’s CEO traveled with Obama on his Africa trade mission.) According to Forbes, G.E. has recently pivoted its attention to Africa and is marketing power generation products like natural gas engines to African companies. Not surprising, then, that Ex-Im chairman Fred Hochberg called Power Africa a “$7B plan to power up General Electric” on Twitter.

Helping to bring electricity into the homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces of tens of millions of people living on the African continent is the right thing to do. The United States can support energy access through public finance—raised from innovative sources like afinancial transaction tax and by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies—and by directing the $7 billion Obama promised to decentralized, renewable energy systems. That would ensure that we’re spending our money to benefit African families, not U.S. energy companies.

Africans deserve to live full, dignified, productive lives free from dirty energy and safe from the climate disaster it promises. African schoolchildren demand no less. U.S. policymakers and taxpayers can power Africa best by protecting the planet and securing future generations.

Rope-A-Dope Revives the Hope

October 16, 2012 ·

President Obama owned Governor Romney in their second debate on issues of foreign policy, women, immigration, and the 47 percent. He even leveled a fatal blow regarding Benghazi. Don't get me wrong: Mitt was no wimp, and Obama was no progressive, but Obama had the better plans, the better attacks, and the better handle on the truth than Romney.

Obama strongly called out the funny math of Romney's claims that he can lower taxes across the board and not raise the deficit. Mitt's only defense was: "Of course my numbers add up. I am Mitt Romney." He may convince Ann with that response, but such a defense does little to engender confidence in the rest of us.

Obama was aggressive on jobs, touting his added 5 million jobs and his support of high-wage, good jobs over winning the global race to the bottom apparently favored by Romney. Obama hit Romney over the head repeatedly with his tax-cutting record, while maintaining his position that the wealthy must pay more.

By contrast, Romney was evasive and inauthentic. He tried to get away with answering a question about equal pay for women with a strange explanation about asking women's groups to find qualified women for his Massachusetts cabinet. Mitt said that women could be hired if only employers would figure out that they also need time to cook for their families. Pay? Isn't the gratification these women gain from putting some Hamburge Helper into the bellies of their families pay enough?

In an equally evasive and puzzling response, Romney blamed single mothers and a failed federal sting operation in Mexico for assault weapon violence in the U.S.

Then came the knockout blow, something like this: "The President took two weeks to call the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya a terrorist attack." "Governor Romney, I called it a terrorist attack the very next day." "No, Mr. President, you most certainly did not." "Candy, tell him...I did, didn't I?" "Uh...yes Governor, the President did say that. He is right. You are wrong. You are down for the count."

Boom.

DonkeyHotey/FlickrObama, for all his aggressiveness and better policy positions from Romney on jobs, taxes, women's health and economic issues and immigration, failed on the question of energy and the kind of revenue raising we need to get the country on track and to be the kind of country we want to be.

The incumbent almost channeled Sarah Palin with refrains of Drill Baby Drill. He agreed with Romney that the corporate tax rate is too high, and he again missed the opportunity to tell the truth that Social Security, Medicare and social programs don't need fixing, reforming, and slashing to reduce our deficit.

I still want to see Obama lead on the direct creation of jobs, and taxing financial speculation, dividends, and interest. I want to see him stand up and tell the truth: With the right priorities, we can spend far less on military, close corporate tax loopholes, and fund a transformative shift to an economically and environmentally more sound energy policy. I want to see him lead on real cost-control in a universal type Medicare-for-All health plan.

I want more than just a rope-a-dope surprise and a knockout punch. I want to hear the words: America Is Not Broke, we just have our priorities wrong. Then, I will be able to cheer a victory as something that is a victory for all of us, not just for a candidate's campaign.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. She'd appreciate it if the candidates could read the IPS report, America Is Not Broke.

7 Ways to End the Deficit (without Throwing Grandma under the Bus)

September 5, 2012 ·

This post originally appeared on Yes! Magazine's New Economy blog.

This fall, the U.S. Congress is going to wage a pitched, dragged-out battle over cutting roughly $120 billion a year to solve the so-called deficit crisis. Vital things like teachers’ jobs and Medicare could well get cut.

The Right is already launching new coalitions to push for an austerity budget, calling for cuts in “wasteful government spending,” including key safety-net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps. America has overspent, they say. America is broke. But at the same time, they are calling for an extension of the Bush tax cuts and ruling out cuts in military spending—both policies that will increase the deficit.

It doesn’t have to be this way. My colleagues at the  Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) have identified seven steps that, together, more than eliminate the deficit while making the country more equitable, green, and secure.

America is not brokeThese proposals, from the IPS study called “America is Not Broke,” would also address the two deficits that author David Korten says do more to erode our society than the fiscal deficit does: our social deficits (rising poverty and inequality) and environmental deficits (starting with the climate crisis).

More Fairness, Less Deficit

Our first three proposals could bring in $329 billion a year; this alone would solve the deficit problem while helping to close the yawning inequality gap.

  • 1.  Tax Wall Street: $150 billion per year. A tiny tax on stock and derivatives transactions, which several European countries are on track to adopt, would discourage Wall Street speculation, fill the hole in the deficit left by the Bush tax cuts, and leave plenty left over to fund lots of programs. The National Nurses Union and many other allies are fighting hard for this.
  • 2.  Tax Corporations and Stop Tax Haven Abuse: $100 billion per year. The Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency coalition has pointed out that one of the main ways that corporations avoid paying taxes is by declaring their profits in overseas tax havens like the Cayman Islands.  
  • 3.  Tax the Wealthy Fairly: $79 billion per year. Our rigged tax code lets CEOs pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries do (as Warren Buffett keeps pointing out). The proposed Fairness in Taxation Act (HR 1124) would address this by adding five additional tax brackets for incomes over $1 million.

These three policy changes would go a long way toward making our society more equal, and that means better health, too. There is a terrific body of global evidence, a lot of it compiled by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, that more equal societies are much healthier. People at all income levels live longer; they are more fulfilled; and there is less violence. The United States, a relatively equal society as recently as the 1970s, is now off the charts in terms of wealth and income inequality. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as we created a more just and vibrant economy and a strong middle class through fair taxes between 1940 and 1980, we can do it again through progressive taxation.   

More Green, Less Pollution

The second source of revenue would make the economy more green, a key imperative in a world where the environmental crisis is now as deep as the economic one. We found two simple ways to raise revenues and help save the environment.

  • 4.  Tax Pollution: $75 billion per year. A tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels would reduce our dependence on oil while cutting air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. And, as economist Robert Frank pointed out on August 25 in The New York Times, “News that a carbon tax was coming would create a stampede to develop energy-saving technologies.”
  • 5.   End Fossil Fuel Subsidies: $12 billion per year. This call should unite left and right. Why would anyone want to maintain a giant government subsidy to an industry that is the world’s major contributor to fossil-fuel emissions? 350.org has made this a centerpiece of their work. We should be able to win this.

More Savings, Less War

Finally, there are simple ways to cut the military while making the country and the world more secure. More than half of government discretionary spending now goes to the military. Congress has long avoided cuts, in part because they equate military spending with jobs, but IPS has pointed out that almost every other industry employs more workers per dollar than the military. Plus, there is now bipartisan support for two sets of significant cuts.

  • 6.  End Military Waste: $109 billion per year. A broad spectrum of experts has found over $100 billion a year in waste that could be eliminated with no sacrifice in security. Three recent commissions, two of them bi-partisan, have recommended roughly $1 trillion in military cuts over 10 years.
  • 7.  Close a third of our overseas bases and our Iraq operations: $21 billion per year. Over two decades after the Cold War ended, the United States still maintains roughly 1,000 military installations in other countries. A majority of the President’s own deficit commission, which includes three Republican senators—the National Commission on Financial Responsibility and Reform—backed a proposal to close one third of our overseas military bases.

These seven simple steps would raise close to $550 billion a year. They would quickly erase the fiscal deficit  and return the country to a healthy budget surplus. There would be hundreds of billions left to invest in key sectors that could make the country more secure, more green, and more equitable: care jobs, green jobs, infrastructure jobs.

In other words, this plan could help erase the nation’s dangerous social and environmental deficits.

Many groups—from Jobs with Justice to National People’s Action to the AFL-CIO—are organizing to counter a push by the Right to use the deficit crisis to shred social programs and our nation’s safety net. Let’s up the ante and spread the message. America is not broke. We have plenty of resources to rebuild shared prosperity in the U.S.

Josh Fox's New Fracking Gem

June 28, 2012 ·

If ever an online video should go viral, it is Gasland director Josh Fox's vital new 18-minute gem, The Sky Is Pink.

It should become a widespread hit because:

  1. It's brilliant.
  2. It's funny.
  3. It will scare the crap out of you and make you want to take action.

The film's title comes out of the mouth of a public official in Pittsburgh who, in Michael Moore comedic-style language, talks about how the media will report lies — "the sky is pink" — unless someone is out there to regularly rebut them. And if you say, "The sky is blue," the media will report this as a debate worthy of coverage.

What's brilliant about Fox's mini-documentary is that he both exposes the disinformation campaign being waged by the natural gas industry — and its allies in (very) high places — and reveals, in leaked documents and PowerPoint presentations, that the industry is fully aware that its fracking wells are contaminating water. Formally called hydraulic fracturing or shale-gas drilling — fracking requires large quantities of water and a cocktail of toxic chemicals. By poisoning drinking water and farmland, it endangers public health. 

The natural gas industry lies. Its executives know they lie. And we swallow their lies. Literally.

As someone who has wrestled with the climate crisis for over two decades, this mini-doc comes at a critical time. The crisis in journalism — with investigative journalism increasingly rare, and corporate control of the media at unprecedented heights — is one reason the Earth's climate is increasingly unstable. Tragically, we may already have reached critical tipping points, with dire consequences for everyone.

Watch this new film and weep for our water, our democracy, and our future.

Then spread the word and take action. Here are some great groups to support who are fighting fracking, working on media democracy issues, and trying to get the word out on the environmental crisis.

Daphne Wysham hosted Earthbeat, the only weekly radio show in North America devoted specifically to climate change news and interviews, breaking environmental news, and environmental justice perspectives from 2003-2011. Earthbeat aired on over 60 public radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. The show is on hiatus, but not for long.