Corporations Aren’t People And They Aren’t Nation States, Either

Despite what some politicians say, corporations aren’t people. But, even worse, when it comes to the world’s biggest trade deals, corporations are actually treated like nation states. Thankfully, a major storm is brewing that could put a crack in this fundamental pillar of the existing free trade regime.

Today’s free trade deals commonly include a set of rules that empower corporations to challenge laws and policies passed by democratically-elected governments in secret trade courts. Increasingly, corporations use these so-called ‘investor-state’ provisions to challenge energy and climate policies, public health and anti-smoking laws, and minimum wage requirements – among many others. That authority effectively gives corporations the same legal standing as other nations when it comes to international trade.  While civil society has long opposed this anti-democratic and anti-public interest process, new leadership in the European Union may help bury this system of corporate rights once and for all.

This process of “investor-state” dispute settlement has been a major and controversial issue in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. Back in December 2013, less than six months after negotiations for the trade pact began, more than 200 civil society organizations from both sides of the Atlantic urged investor-state provisions to be excluded from TTIP because:

  • Investor-state dispute settlement forces governments to use taxpayer funds to pay  corporations for public health, environmental, labor and other public interest policies and government actions;
  • Investor-state dispute settlement explicitly undermines democratic decision-making; and
  • European and U.S. legal systems are already very capable of handling disputes.

The United States Trade Representative (USTR), the part of the U.S. government that negotiates free trade pacts like TTIP, has been absolutely clear in its desire to keep investor-state provisions in the pact, despite strong opposition from U.S. civil society organizations, state legislators, and some Members of Congress.  The sentiment in Europe is more skeptical.

In January 2014, for example, growing public concern over these reckless provisions prompted the European Commission to halt negotiations on this part of the agreement and conduct a public consultation on the issue.  About 150,000 people responded to the consultation--one of the highest response rates ever for a Commission consultation.  The Commission is now compiling the results.

Continue reading "Corporations Aren’t People And They Aren’t Nation States, Either" »

Our clean energy potential is in the air

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94. That's the number of days this year the air was unsafe to breathe in Southern California because of smog. And it's up from last year, when the number was 88. Over the decades we’ve made progress towards cleaning up the nation's dirtiest, smoggiest air basin, but fossil fuels and air pollution still place a heavy burden on families across the region.

The toll of this pollution is immense. Every year, local kids miss more than 1.1 million days of school due to dirty air and Southern Californians suffer from more than 120,000 asthma attacks. Even worse, over 5,000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. And this problem does not affect us equally in Southern California. African American and Latino children are two to six times more likely to die from asthma than whites, and the people most vulnerable to smog are children and the elderly.

Our pollution problem is not only affecting the health of people, it is also hurting our economy. In Southern California, pollution costs each of us $1,250 every year. While burning fossil fuels puts a hole in our pocket books, it hurts the economy more broadly too. Workers miss 400,000 days of work every year due to air pollution, and in total air pollution costs the region's economy $22 billion annually.

Continue reading "Our clean energy potential is in the air" »

Coalition Launches New Website For Coal Activism

Today, a suite of environmental, social justice, and health advocates from around the world launched Endcoal.org, a resource for global communities, activists, students, and researchers who want to learn more about the problems with coal and the solutions to meet global energy needs

The website includes resources on the nexus between coal and climate, water, health, finance and economics, and mining as well as updates on international coal activism. It also highlights blogs from some of the leading international writers and activists on coal -- including the Sierra Club.

The site also hosts an interactive map and database that tracks all planned coal plants around the world since 2010. The Coal Plant Tracker, developed by CoalSwarm, allows the user to find out how many coal plants are planned in their country, track stages of development, and access more detailed information on the projects. Currently 284-gigawatts of coal plants are under construction and an additional 1,214-gigawatts have been proposed in 62 countries around the world.

But everywhere there is coal, communities also face devastating health effects and often violence and intimidation at the hands of companies or local officials. This, in turn, has fostered a global movement to stop deadly new coal plants and mines and pressure governments and institutions to take action to end our dependence on coal.

In the European Union, 109 proposed coal-fired power plants have been defeated. Since China’s air pollution crisis, mainly due to massive coal burning, 10 of China’s 34 provinces have banned the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Coal consumption in China dropped for the first time ever in the first three quarters of 2014, which indicates that China has decoupled its gross domestic product growth from coal growth.

Coal burning in the U.S. actually peaked in 2007 and has dropped by an astonishing 21 percent since.  U.S. groups -- including the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign --  have helped retire 179 coal-fired power plants, and more than 177 existing plants are slated for retirement.  

Meanwhile,  international financial institutions -- such as the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank -- have adopted policies restricting or eliminating support for coal-fired power plants.

While the movement to stop coal is growing, the coal industry is relentless in its push to mine and burn more coal. Endcoal.org seeks to help the global coal movement push back and move toward a clean energy future.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

The TTIP: A Very Scary Proposal

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Cartoon by Courtenay Lewis

What do Halloween and the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have in common? Both are packed with things that should make your skin crawl. Earlier this October, I joined a meeting hosted by the Catalonian Campaign against the TTIP in Barcelona to discuss the many risks of the TTIP, a massive proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and EU. That same weekend, towns and cities across Europe protested  the TTIP and its corporate-empowering, fracking-enabling rules. These events reconfirmed that Americans and Europeans share many reasons to fear the trade agreement, including these ghastly features:

1. Secret trade agreements are like vampires. In Barcelona, trade policy expert Susan George stated that, like vampires, the TTIP could not survive the light of day. Even though the agreement would have huge impacts on everything from the food we eat to the energy we use, the European Commission and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative are negotiating the TTIP in complete secret. The U.S. and EU public, press, and government officials are not allowed to see the negotiating texts.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of “trade advisors,” almost exclusively representing corporations, do have access to key texts and are actively influencing the pact. Our government should allow the public, at the very least, to have the same access to the texts as Halliburton has. And as Senator Elizabeth Warren has stressed, “If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the U.S.” 

2. Rise of the toxic sludge (in your drinking water). The U.S. is pushing for the TTIP to contain rules that empower corporations to sue governments—before private trade tribunals— over virtually any policy that the company claims could impact its expected future profits. Similar rules in the North American Free Trade Agreement have empowered a U.S. oil and gas firm to sue Canada for $250 million in response to a fracking moratorium in Quebec, demonstrating the threats that “investor-state” rules pose to countries and provinces’ policy-making processes.

Like in North America, countries across Europe are implementing fracking moratoriums and restrictions, often to the frustration of fracking companies. For example, when France implemented a fracking moratorium in 2011, a U.S. oil and gas company took this decision to court—and lost. Now corporations are pushing for the TTIP to give more “protections” to oil and gas companies, which – based on the NAFTA precedent— would allow foreign companies to circumvent government and court decisions over energy policies, and sue taxpayers over policies that companies deem inconvenient. In light of the air and water contamination and climate-disrupting emissions associated with fracking, the last thing communities need is rules that threaten their ability to regulate it.

3. The rise of Frankenfoods. In the EU, safeguards around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are some of the strongest in the world. The EU bans or restricts the import of GMO products and requires that GMO foods are labelled. The U.S., however, has no national laws requiring the labelling of GMO foods, even though polls indicate that more than 90 percent of Americans would support GMO labelling. In response to citizens’ concerns, more than 20 states have introduced over 60 bills that would require GMO labelling in these states—proposed rules that GMO-producing agribusinesses vehemently oppose. The TTIP would give industry a new vehicle to threaten these policies, as the trade agreement would likely identify GMO-labelling policies as “barriers to trade,” which could both stymie U.S. states’ efforts to label GMOs, and threaten the EU’s GMO regulations.

Be afraid. The TTIP could prevent countries and states from implementing policies that protect communities and stabilize the climate. Fortunately, people in the U.S. and EU are mobilizing to highlight the many tricks— and no treats— of this pact. With enough public pressure, U.S. and EU negotiators may finally be compelled to release the TTIP texts. Then we’ll see whether the TTIP can survive the light of day, or will go the way of the vampire. 

-- Courtenay Lewis, Campaign Representative, Responsible Trade Program

From Hurricane Sandy to the People's Climate March

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Two years ago this week, Myrtle Williams' life changed in a way she had never imagined. The healthcare professional was at work in a nursing home in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, New York, when Hurricane Sandy came ashore.

The deadly storm destroyed homes and knocked out power to tens of thousands -- including the nursing home. Yet despite damage to her house, Williams and many of her colleagues chose to stay in the nursing home and take care of the patients.

Now on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Williams has much on her mind.

"I'm still thinking about the realization of what all took place," said Williams, a member of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "I still think about how we were all affected, how many lost their lives, how it affected us in the healthcare industry. We were drastically affected by losing those we cared for."

But from her remembrance also comes an urge to take action. Before Sandy she never thought much about climate disruption, but October 2012 permanently changed her point of view.

"We have so far to go to make people realize that just because Sandy's over, that's not the end of this. We can see how the climate is changing around us, "said Williams.

Myrtle WilliamsWilliams joined tens of thousands of her union brothers and sisters and people from all over the U.S. at September's massive People's Climate March in New York City because she was ready to be a voice for climate action.

"It was important to march and make my voice heard, but also to do it for those who can't be heard," she said. "I marched for those who are sick and frail and need someone to care for them. There were so many affected in the nursing home around me and they could not go on their own. Going to the march gave me that feeling that I'm not just doing this for my community, but for a whole group of people who need assistance."

Williams' perspective as a healthcare worker is also valuable in the face of climate disruption. She knows that certain diseases will become more prevalent as the climate changes and has already seen an uptick in respiratory illnesses in her line of work.

She hopes the amazing diversity of groups and people who marched in NYC in September continues to push for climate action in the coming months and years.

"When Sandy hit, it didn't hit just poor people or those who were scraping by, or the middle class - it hit everyone around us. It affected the rich, the poor, the homeless - those who are caregivers, teachers, children -- so many people were affected," said Williams. "So the People's Climate March and movement in turn should include everyone in our society who can make their voice heard. We need to make that message clear that we are all affected.

"The People's Climate March made me more in tune with the fact that, yes, we can do something, whatever small part I play, I want it to be effective. It's not just for my family and the people I care for, but for future generations, for my kids, and their kids.  We need to take drastic action. We as a nation should do what we can to make a change."

-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club. Top photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen. Second photo courtesy of Myrtle Williams.

From Narmada to Tata Mundra: Iconic Indian Activist Demands Clean Energy Transition at World Bank

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Medha Patkar speaking in Washington, D.C. in October 2014. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ghio.

Medha Patkar made her name fighting the push for large dams in the 1980’s. Decades later, the fight rages on.

That fight all began with the Narmada River Valley Project -- the largest river dam development in India. When Medha was researching social inequality and social movements for her PhD, she learned of the plight of indigenous people in Gujarat in conjunction with the construction of the dam.

Wanting to help the cause, Medha  began working with Adivasi youth groups in the districts of Dang, Sabarkantha, and Banaskantha and farmers in the Narmada Valley in India. She worked with allies to found the Narmada Bachao Andolan -- an organization dedicated to fighting for justice for hundreds of thousands of people scheduled to be displaced by dams along the Narmada river.

Beyond the Narmada valley, Medha Patkar has played a crucial role in empowering people struggling to protect their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights across India. She she is a national Convener of the National Association of People's Movements (NAPM) and has won numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize.

I sat down with Medha Patkar while she was in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Narmada communities at the World Bank Fall meetings.

Nicole Ghio: How did you get involved with activism, and what is your history with activism?

Medha Patkar: “I was born in a family where both parents were activists. [My] father was a freedom fighter, and [my] mother was a government servant earning for the family. But she also was involved in the socialist youth organization. That’s where they got married. So since childhood, I was observing the meetings with the laborers taking place in my own house and also participating in student camps.  

“While in Gujarat, I came to know about the Narmada dam issue. I thought this was very symbolic. I went for a two day long walk in the tribal areas with an advocate wanting to take legal action. I thought legal action would not help. What was needed was mass mobilization and struggle. Going through those indigenous people’s communities, the Adivasis, I realized they were not told or asked about the project that is going to have huge impact on their lives and livelihoods.

“[The Narmada struggle] was seen as a symbol of the development paradigm. That’s why we couldn’t restrict ourselves to a single issue or project.[…] We thought that everything should be well-knit to present the paradigm as it is today, and the alternative vision.[...] Since we challenged the World Bank, we also questioned the whole international economic vision that these financial institutions are pushing and everything that comes with it.”

NG: What do you see as the alternate vision?

MP: “[One] that is based on the values and principles of equity and justice. To us, sustainability cannot be just compensatory measures, as World Bank and other actors put it. [...] It has to be linked with the equity and justice.”

Continue reading "From Narmada to Tata Mundra: Iconic Indian Activist Demands Clean Energy Transition at World Bank" »

Five Principles For Taming the Wild West of Beyond the Grid Clean Energy Policy

Misguided and inappropriate safeguards threaten to handicap some of the most dynamic and innovative approaches to ending energy poverty for 1.3 billion people around the world.

That the findings of Sierra Club’s latest report -- Expanding Energy Access: Beyond The Grid --  which proposes five policy principles to ensure clean energy access markets thrive.

If we don’t fill the vacuum of safeguards that exist for companies serving those living beyond the reach of the grid, we threaten the long term viability of these beyond the grid clean energy markets. These approaches are already pioneering cutting-edge Machine to Machine (M2M) technology, dynamic financial innovations like pay as you go (PAYG), and even big data to unlock clean energy for low-income populations. That’s all while unlocking tremendous economic opportunity in a $12 billion market.

But all of that is threatened if policymakers don’t set appropriate rules of the road. Without rules, we all but ensure that those most in need of energy solutions pay the price for the most expensive electron -- the one that isn’t delivered. An outcome no one wants to see because without access to electricity, communities may suffer from poor healthcare and restricted opportunities for economic advancement.  

In order to ensure these markets continue to grow rapidly and deliver for low-income populations, we’ve identified five principles for policymakers to abide by:

1. Energy Services Not Electrons: It was the LED light bulb, not just the falling price of solar, that unlocked clean energy for low-income populations by bringing down the size of all components in a solar home system. It’s vital we apply that principle -- that energy efficiency unlocks clean energy for low-income populations -- to the next steps of energy service delivery. That means supporting the deployment and development of highly efficient appliances and agricultural equipment.

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2. Build Markets From The Bottom Up: Starting with ‘pico’ power -- like solar lanterns and solar home systems -- populations get onto the energy ladder by displacing existing expenditures on dirty kerosene lighting. Lighting, however, is the beginning, not the end, of energy access. As people move up the energy ladder to higher levels of access, policymakers should transition deployment support to full access technologies like mini-grids and larger solar home systems.

3. Level The Playing Field With Fossil Fuels: Right now, clean energy access providers are getting hit both coming and going. Their competitors -- fossil fuel companies -- are highly subsidized, but clean energy companies are taxed. Policymakers should seek to direct fossil fuel subsidies directly to low-income populations and gradually eliminate the fossil fuel industry’s support over time (see Michael Liebrich’s paper on this here). At the same time, policymakers should focus on reducing taxes, like value added taxes (VAT) on solar products, which hinder our ability to end energy poverty.

Continue reading "Five Principles For Taming the Wild West of Beyond the Grid Clean Energy Policy" »

Millions in New Investment Cap Record Year for Beyond the Grid Solar Markets

It has been a record year for beyond the grid solar investment.

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Photo courtesy of OMC Power.

Over $45 million in investments have closed in the past year, including: $1.8 million for plug and play solar provider BBOXX, $11 million for industry pioneer d.light, and $20 million for mobile money pioneer M-KOPA. Not to be left out of a potential $12 billion market, three more new major funding announcements have taken place in the past two weeks alone.    

First, SolarNow, the solar asset finance company operating in East Africa, announced it closed a round of equity funding of €2 million (U.S. $2.56 million) from Novastar Ventures and impact investor Acumen.  Uganda-based SolarNow is, in the words of CEO Willem Nolens, “not just a solar product company or a pay-as-you-go service provider; we are an asset finance and distribution company with a focus on renewable energy.”  

SolarNow is living proof of two things: these energy markets are moving beyond just a light bulb, and its all about unlocking financing. SolarNow sells 50-500-watt solar home systems through an innovative in-house credit facility in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya designed to support a range of appliances including lights, radios, TVs, and refrigerators. This approach to solving affordability and distribution challenges is incredibly important as an alternative to partnering with financial institutions, such as microfinance institutions. The new round of investment will allow SolarNow to respond to growing demand from existing customers and to expand their distribution network to new East African markets.

On the heels of the announcement from SolarNow, ‘Tower Power’ pioneer OMC Power announced that it has secured major funding from Singapore-based Energy Investment Tech Pte. Ltd.  OMC Power, one of the companies featured in our video with the Center for American Progress about energy poverty in India, is at the cutting edge of micro-grid development, proving that micro-grids may just be the next big opportunity for beyond the grid markets.

Continue reading "Millions in New Investment Cap Record Year for Beyond the Grid Solar Markets" »

Industry Push Poll Breaks Cardinal Research Rules, Claims Voters Oppose EPA Clean Power Plan

A new industry-sponsored poll is resorting to biased push-poll tactics in an apparent attempt to offset the growing body of research that shows Americans support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants. The so-called “Partnership for a Better Energy Future,” a self-described industry association that includes the American Petroleum Institute and the National Mining Association, has released new polling they claim shows voters nationwide and in swing states are wary of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. But a look at the actual research documents reveals a blatantly-biased survey and a lack of transparency about the survey sample.

According to the Partnership for a Better Energy Future’s press release, the survey conducted by Paragon Insights “finds that Americans have major concerns about the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations and are unwilling to pay even a dollar more for energy in exchange for these new rules.” But while the survey documents look legitimate and detailed, this research breaks two of the cardinal rules of public opinion research: being transparent about research sampling methodology and avoiding bias in question wording and sequence.

One of the first steps in survey analysis is to double-check that the demographics of the final survey sample (i.e. the group of people who completed a poll) closely matches those of the population of interest. The Partnership for a Better Energy Future, nor their pollsters at Paragon Insight, are transparent about the demographic breakdowns of their sample. The population of interest for this research was “likely voters,” for which there is no standard demographic profile to compare a survey sample against. Some informed judgement calls are necessary when sampling from this population, making it even more important to release demographic breakdowns in a survey release. The omission of this information is puzzling and could be interpreted as suspicious.  

As any survey researcher will tell you, question wording and sequence are very important, as they influence how survey respondents interpret poll questions and how they answer them. And biased question wording or sequence will usually yield biased survey results. And given that this industry poll employs both biased question wording and biased question sequence, the results are automatically suspect.

To illustrate how biased the Partnership for a Better Energy Future’s poll is, consider its main finding that a plurality of voters (47 percent) oppose “the EPA regulations” while 44% support them. If you look at the parts of the survey questionnaire which were released, you will see that these results come from a question that appears after respondents hear a battery of arguments for and against the “Obama administration’s regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.” Instead of following industry standard and asking for respondents’ opinions before influencing them with qualitative information, this survey first presented twice as many arguments against it than arguments for it. While the negative arguments included questionable (and scary) claims like “the new regulations could increase your yearly household energy costs by as much as $130” and “could lead to job losses in your state,” the positive arguments were far less personalized. One reads “the new regulations could persuade other countries to join the fight against global climate change or the environment” and another claims “the regulations could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 1.5%.” Conveniently absent is any mention of the significant public health benefits of reducing harmful pollution from coal-fired coal plants. Our own research has found that protecting public health is seen as one of the most-convincing reasons to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

These arguments influenced how these respondents would respond to this question. If I did not know much about about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan before taking this survey, I would be more likely to say I opposed it after hearing just three “pros” and six “cons.” Especially if the list of “pros” did not include the top reason Americans support the plan: its positive impact on the health of America’s families.

There’s good reason to believe these biases yielded flawed data, as these survey results run counter to every major publicly-released poll this year. Earlier this year, a national survey conducted by Quinnipiac University found that 58% of registered voters support federal government limits on “the release of greenhouse gases from existing power plants.” These findings are consistent with a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which found that two-in-three American adults (67%) supported the EPA setting “strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” Another 57% said they would approve of a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from companies, even if it would lead to higher utility bills for consumers.

--Grace McRae, Sierra Club Polling and Research Strategist

Quiz: Is an Electric Car Right for You?

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A lot of people have heard the buzz around electric vehicles (EVs), but they don't know if an EV would be right for them. In fact, many don't even know what would be the right questions to ask themselves to figure out whether cars like the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, or Ford C-Max Energi would fit their lifestyles -- not to mention their budgets.

I'm happy to report that we at the Sierra Club have launched a 'pick-a-plug-in' web tool to help people figure out which electric cars, if any, are right for them. I hope you'll check it out and share it with your friends.

A poll last year found that nearly half of American households could purchase an EV for their next car; it would be a great fit for their driving needs, and they would have a place to charge it with electricity. We're talking about many millions of people. Are you one of them?

There are a lot of compelling reasons why more than a quarter million Americans have already bought EVs since they first came on the mass market a few years ago. They are cool high-tech wonders (imagine driving an iPhone!), there is little or no need to ever visit a gas station (depending on whether you purchase a full battery electric or a plug-in hybrid car), they are much cheaper to fuel (the equivalent of about $1 a gallon), and they are much better for the environment (even when considering the emissions from the electricity to charge them up).

Also, there is a $2,500-7,500 federal tax credit that comes with the purchase of an EV. And many people live in cities and states where they can take advantage of additional incentives, like a purchase/lease rebate (in some places get a check in the mail for thousands of dollars -- I am not kidding!), carpool lane access, and special utility rates for EV drivers. Linked to our new 'pick-a-plug-in' web tool is our online EV Guide that has all of this information if you enter your zip code. If you click on a specific EV, we'll even tell you how much you’ll avoid in carbon emissions and fueling costs compared to the average conventional car.

But are EVs currently the right fit for everyone? No. For example, some people don't have a place to charge them with electricity. For many, though, it’s simpler than they think. I had a basic 110 volt outlet installed on the side of my house, so I can charge up my car in our driveway. Easy peasy.

Many people ask me, "What's the best electric car to get?" My answer is always, "it depends." How many miles do you drive in a typical day? Do you take a lot of long-distance trips? How much money are you willing to spend? There are nearly 20 great models available in the US and more coming out every year.

So, what are you waiting for? Check out 'pick-a-plug-in,' and start your EV journey.

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative


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