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Guilt-free oil and artificial trees: how corporations are tackling climate change

March 19, 2020, 10:24 AM UTC

This is the web version of The Loop, Fortune’s weekly newsletter on the revolutions in sustainability. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning.

If you’d like a brief break from coronavirus coverage, Fortune’s latest print edition is dedicated to climate change and features outstanding reporting from our contributors and staff.

Vivienne Walt visited ten recycling plants in Malaysia across ten days to uncover the crisis behind our recycling ecosystem, which ships waste up to 8,000 miles away to be either sifted through by low-wage labor or dumped on foreign shores.

One crucial detail is that, even if it functioned properly, the efficacy of recycling has a limit as most plastics can only be recycled once. Walt writes, “Put another way: Almost every new piece of plastic we add to the planet may well stay here—along with almost all the old ones.”

In the U.S., Jeffrey Ball—who co-chaired our Sustainability Forum last year—investigates the promise, offered by oil pumpers such as Occidental Petroleum, of “carbon neutral” crude. To squeeze the last drop of oil out of the rocks in its drying oil fields, Occidental blasts CO2 into the ground in a process the industry refers to as enhanced oil recovery—although it could also be thought of as pneumatic fracking.

The promise is that one day the CO2 pumped into the ground will equal the amount released when the oil coming is burned, but that dream depends on our ability to capture carbon from the air.

One option could be artificial trees, as per Jennifer Alsever’s report on geoengineering—a practice that includes sci-fi scenarios such as stimulating oceanic algae blooms to absorb carbon, reinforcing glaciers with underwater walls, or cooling the earth by spraying chalk into the atmosphere.

Not all those ideas are as absurd as they seem, although “critics argue that such technologies may make it more difficult to curb the core problem because they remove any incentive for humans to stop emitting greenhouse gases,” Alsever writes.

You can see the whole climate change package here, or click on the individual stories below.

Keep safe.

Eamon Barrett


Business is finally starting to reckon with climate change by Brian O’Keefe

Sci-fi tech tackles climate change with fake trees by Jennifer Alsever

Wall Street is starting to put pressure on the fossil fuel industry—just not aggressively enough by Bill McKibben

5 charts projecting the cost of climate change by 2100 by Nicolas Rapp and Brian O’Keefe 

Inside ‘Project Odessa,’ an experiment in greener fossil-fuel power by Jeffrey Ball 

Plastic that travels 8,000 miles: the global crisis in recycling by Vivienne Walt

Big Oil’s Hail Mary by Jeffrey Ball 

Will the future of meat be animal, vegetable, or lab-born? By Daria Solovieva


Give a little whistle

The coronavirus is providing a litmus test for conscious capitalism, as business leaders are being tasked to remain loyal to their climate pledges during a time of unprecedented hardship. BlackRock at least appears to be staying the course. The world’s largest asset manager recently reiterated its pledge to hold portfolio companies climate-accountable. Financial Times

Banking on it

Contrary to the above, a study by a group of U.S. environmental groups found that global banks are “failing miserably” on enforcing their own climate pledges. The analysis of 35 global investment banks reported that financing for companies expanding new fossil fuel extraction had surged 40% since the Paris agreement was signed. The Guardian

Spoiler alert

The rich are the primary cause of climate change, according to a study by the University of Leeds. The university researchers gathered data from 86 countries and found that the wealthiest 10% consume roughly 20 times more energy than the poorest 10% in any region. Of course, so far as the climate goes, that wouldn’t be an issue if the energy supply was renewable—which it mostly isn’t—but the study also points to an underlying inequality in access to resources, which will be harder to correct. BBC

Switching tack

As countries enter lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, climate activists hunt for way to maintain momentum in their movement. Greta Thunberg called on Fridays for Future strikers to head online and share photos of themselves with placards, which might keep morale up but doesn’t have the same disruptive impact as a strike. Elsewhere, young climate activists are turning to lawsuits to get their message across. Bloomberg

Speaking of Thunberg

The latest episode of Fortune’s inaugural podcast, Leadership Next, opens with a clip of the Swedish activist’s impassioned speech to the UN last year. The episode features Fortune CEO Alan Murray in conversation with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson about the reality of the coffeehouse’s sustainability pledges. Fortune


News circulating on Twitter that the cloudy canals of Venice have turned clear as the city endures a coronavirus lockdown caught my eye this week. Images online show teems of small fish visible in the canal, while one or two claim to show the return of dolphins to the old waterways.

The improved water clarity and blooming wildlife is being presented as proof that the environment is improving in the absence of humans.

While it's true that carbon emissions have dipped as Covid-19 forces factories closed, takes cars off the road, and grounds airplanes, unfortunately the cutbacks haven't sparked an environmental renaissance in Italy.

According to the Venice mayor’s office, the waterways are not cleaner but simply clearer, because reduced boat traffic has allowed sediment to settle. Meanwhile, Internet sleuths found that the image of a dolphin is from Sardinia, where dolphins often are.

“The air, however, is less polluted,” the mayor’s office told CNN.


10 years

Cambodia has decided to not build any new dam along the Mekong River for the next ten years, putting two projects on hold. The suspension is good news for fishers and farmers who rely on the river flow and could be a plus for environmentalists, who have lobbied against increased damming of the vital river.

Hydropower accounts for 48% of Cambodia’s electricity usage while, last year, 25% of the supply was imported. That same year the country suffered rolling blackouts, which the government blamed on low water levels. Phnom Penh has pledged to increase investment in solar energy by 12% in 2020 as the government attempts to bring electricity to every village in the country.