From the Desk of Gen180: What We’re Reading

June 29, 2022

Looking to beef up your knowledge and get inspired on clean energy and climate this summer? We’ve got you.

Whether you’re tanning poolside this summer, finally hiking the Appalachian Trail, or lounging in a hammock between two palms, we’ve compiled a list of books that might suit your fancy—right from the bookshelves of the Gen180 team.

Author’s note: Wondering what the most climate-friendly way to get these books is? Skip the two-day shipping shortcut (it might be nice for you, but not the planet,) and support a local bookstore. Prefer to find your books online? Check out Bookshop, which gives readers the convenience of online shopping while supporting independent bookstores at the same time.

Jamie’s Pick: The Carbon Almanac, by Seth Godin et al.

Like any good book, it has to tell a good story, and what better one than the one we’re currently living in? The Carbon Almanac is presented in the same format of any other almanac, but also has an air of “choose your own adventure” to it. Readers can both learn about the chemistry of carbon and enjoy the beautiful illustrations of our (not so) impending doom. The book’s message is strong – we can still fix this. Keep reading →

Wendy’s Pick: They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, by James Gustave Speth

Fossil fuel operators have largely been seen as the perpetrators of climate misinformation in an attempt to delay the progression to clean, renewable energy fuels. This new tomb from the legendary climate activist, Gus Speth, points the finger for the delay squarely at the feet of our elected leaders. Arguing that every administration since the 1970s failed to heed the advice of climate scientists, despite being fully aware of the alarming facts, now forces our children to assume the responsibility for the failure of prior generations (Juliana vs. United States). It’s a sobering, and necessary, read to understand why we are where we are today in the climate fight. Keep reading →

Kay’s Pick: Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now, by John Doerr

Written by one of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers, John Doerr is well versed in what’s contributed to the climate crisis as well as the speed and scale at which it can be fixed. Readers will enjoy first-hand accounts from business heavy-hitters like Bill Gates, Mary Barra, and dignitary Christiana Figueres. There’s a reason this book (released last year) continues to receive rave reviews. It lays out a clear, purposeful, and actionable strategy to solve climate change. Keep reading →

Shakaya’s Pick: The Rewiring America Handbook: A Guide to Winning the Climate Fight, By Saul Griffith, Sam Calisch, and Laura Fraser

This book has been around for a minute, and while we are still a ways off from achieving the “electrify everything” goal, we have made significant progress toward it since this handbook came out in 2020. In what may seem like an inaccessible topic – electrification – the authors suggest tangible and practical  solutions to begin to fully electrify your life. That includes harnessing power from renewable, clean sources and divesting from coal and oil once and for all. In Rewiring, there’s no going back to dirty fuels once you’re connected to clean. Keep reading →

Tish’s Pick: Solar Story: How One Community Lives Alongside the World’s Biggest Solar Plant

This family-friendly book, set in Morocco, paints a picture of what it’s like for young students to live next to the world’s biggest solar plant and the benefits the facility brings to their local community–and beyond. It’s a fascinating and beautifully told story of how one community can transition to a clean, renewable power source that not only improves their environment, but their quality of life. If you (or your kids) liked this book, check out other books by Allan Drummond, which feature a variety of kid-friendly sustainable community stories to spark the imagination. Keep reading →


Should I buy carbon offsets for my summer vacay?

June 22, 2022

After a grueling couple of years, that summer vacation you kept putting off is right around the corner.

Between thoughts of piña coladas and palm trees, a wave of guilt washes over you—how much environmental damage will that round-trip plane ticket cause?

You’re not alone in this thought. Businesses and consumers alike have embraced the carbon offset market in recent years as a way of canceling out environmentally-damaging activities like flying.

The process for buying these offsets as an individual is a breeze—websites like Cool Effect make estimating your planned emissions and purchasing equivalent offsets easier than kicking back on the beach.

But, when you look under the hood, problems with this market start to emerge. Offsets can be greatly exaggerated, allowing companies to greenwash their efforts by claiming “net zero” operations while still producing substantial emissions. In many cases, that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of carbon offset ethics, let’s take a step back to understand how they work.

Carbon Offsets 101

Carbon Offset Guide defines an offset as “a reduction in GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions – or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or the planting of trees) – that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.”

It’s as simple as it sounds—your seat on a plane to Cancún represents a percentage of the flight’s total emissions, which is theoretically offset by a carbon-reducing activity initiated from your purchase.

Credit: The Guardian, Berger & Wyse

The more emissions you’re responsible for, the more offsets you need to buy. Bill Gates, who racks up emissions jetting around the world, has said that he spends “about $5 million every year to offset [his] family’s carbon footprint.”

While carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most well-known climate change culprit, it isn’t the only pollutant traded in these markets. 

Other compounds like methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) also have a warming effect. In order to compare apples to apples, each compound is calculated as a “CO2 equivalent” (CO2e). In simple terms, if a compound has triple the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, it would have a CO2e of three.

Methane and CFCs have much more GWP than CO2—so why the incessant focus on carbon?

Mostly, it’s because CO2 makes up the overwhelming majority of GHG emissions. Other compounds have higher GWP, but their concentrations in the atmosphere are far lower.

The point is—emissions offsets are priced in terms of CO2 equivalents, even if CO2 isn’t the compound being offset.

Voluntary vs Cap and Trade Markets

There are two types of carbon offset markets—voluntary and cap and trade. When you’re thinking about purchasing credits to offset vacation emissions, you’re in the former camp. Just as it sounds – voluntary means that individuals and companies are proactively opting into choosing to offset their emissions debt. This practice can be both altruistic and a form of greenwashing by some companies looking to gain public goodwill.

Cap and trade works a bit differently. In order to incentivize emissions-reducing innovations, governments allot a total number of metric tons of CO2e that each company within an industry is allowed to emit each year. Companies that stay under this cap can sell their excess emissions capacity to others whose operations put them over the limit.

With each passing year, the cap gets lower and lower until it eventually hits zero. The idea is that this scheme gives companies time to adjust their operations to a net-zero world, with innovative companies being rewarded in the meantime. Cap and trade is a mandatory policy lever that more than a dozen U.S. states participate in to meet their climate goals.

And some companies, like Tesla (ever heard of it?), have cashed in.

In the first quarter of 2021, Tesla generated an eye-popping $518 million in emissions credit revenue, representing nearly all of its profit for the quarter. As an automaker, the company receives credits that it doesn’t use, since it exclusively produces electric vehicles (EVs). It sells those credits to combustion-engine producers that need more than their allotted share to stay under the cap.

This all sounds good on paper. Tesla is doing the environment a favor by mass-producing EVs, and is rewarded with a double advantage—its competitors lose money from purchasing credits, and that cash goes directly into Tesla’s pocket. I imagine there’ve been many curse words directed towards Elon in Detroit boardrooms.

So, what’s the issue?

While offsets may work relatively well in the auto market, credits sold from other sources—especially protected forests—are more dubious.

Not all credits are created equal

Many assert that offsets have rightly hastened the transition to an EV future. But the question becomes thornier when offsets in the form of forest protections are sold.

Municipalities across the U.S. have their eye on the pot of money offsets represent. Michigan has already gotten into the game.

The state anticipates generating 10 million credits via forest protections over the next decade, creating a windfall for its government. The problem is, its forest managers don’t expect any change in how the land is managed as a result of the credits. There will be no reduction in timber harvesting and no increase in protected areas.

So, if management of the forests isn’t changing as a result of the credits sold, have the credits actually done anything to reduce GHG emissions?

Welcome to the problem of additionality. An offset is considered ‘additional’ if its purchase creates an environmental benefit that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. So, credits sold in the name of protecting a forest that’s already protected wouldn’t meet this criterion. States like Michigan assert that, in the absence of the revenue generated from selling offsets, timber harvests would drastically increase. Upon closer examination, this claim seems suspicious.

Forest management is a delicate exercise. Competing interests such as ecological protection, timber harvesting, recreation, and wildfire management all need to be balanced, and it isn’t easy to drastically increase or reduce harvesting quotas without knock-on effects.

And additionality isn’t the only cause for concern. Permanence is the second pillar of a high-quality carbon credit—it refers to the likelihood that the offset-induced carbon reductions will last forever, or at least a really long time.

In the case of forests, this is a precarious assertion. Just last year, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon burned nearly 400,000 acres, wiping out a fifth of forests set aside for offsets. Purchasers of those offsets were promised a one-hundred-year survival.

With the majority of carbon offsets in the U.S. being designated as “Improved Forest Management,” additionality and permanence concerns cast doubt on the future of the market.

Keep it local for a greater impact

If it’s not clear by now, the carbon offset market has a long way to go to become sufficiently transparent and reliable. It’s a good concept, but needs more robust enforcement.

In the meantime, there are better ways to reduce your footprint rather than purchasing carbon offsets:

  1. Instead of flying, take a train to your destination, if possible. Travel by train cuts your carbon footprint in half versus flying. (Author’s note: The problem is, there aren’t many trains to island destinations).
  2. Better yet, calculate the cost of offsetting your emissions using a calculator like Cool Effect. Once you have a total cost, donate that money to a local environmental initiative. This way, you can actually see a tangible climate benefit from your cash.
  3. Put that money towards savings for an EV or solar panel for your house. Switching to renewable energy sources is one of the most high-impact behaviors individuals can take to battle climate change.

This is all to say that navigating the carbon offset market is murky right now. But, there are a number of nonprofit groups, businesses, and individuals working to make it clearer for the millions of altruistic individuals and companies that want to make good on their intentions for the planet. Funding climate mitigation projects thousands of miles away may make sense for some companies making large offset purchases. In the meantime, individuals can make the biggest difference to minimize their carbon footprint through local choices made every day about where to eat, what to buy, or the types of transportation to use.

By keeping your climate impact local, you can inspire others and see a tangible benefit from your actions. Until carbon offset markets have matured, this is your best bet for minimizing your carbon footprint and inspiring action in others.


Why we love heat pumps and induction stoves, and you should, too.

June 15, 2022

Slowly but surely, the American electric grid is getting cleaner. In fact, we’ve added so much renewable energy that this summer, the biggest power generation boosts will come from wind turbines and solar panels. Just last week, President Biden announced an an Executive Order that will spur clean energy adoption, including help to expand manufacturing of heat pumps.

As growing amounts of clean energy come online, the electric grid becomes a key to unlock more climate benefits, because it can power a boatload of other products that historically have run on fossil fuels. This is why the idea to “electrify everything” is a major, common-sense solution for runaway climate change. Even better, it’s one we all have the power to deploy. 

“For the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass,” explains electrification advocate Saul Griffith. “This constitutes our ‘personal infrastructure,’ and it is swapping out that infrastructure that will be a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to green energy.”

Altogether, tens of millions of homes could be slashing their greenhouse gas pollution by switching out everyday equipment. Griffith’s nonprofit group, Rewiring America, estimates that a big part of reaching net-zero emissions comes down to replacing or installing 1 billion machines.

There are many ways you can put this into practice—Griffith names a lot of them above—but we’ll focus on two here: heat pumps and induction stoves. Why these? First, because more than half of a home’s energy use goes toward space heating and cooling. When it comes to heating, more than half of U.S. homes use some kind of fossil fuel. Second, at least 43% of us are using fossil fuels (again) in our kitchens. Mostly, “some kind of fossil fuel” means methane or “natural” gas, though in some cases, people are using propane and fuel oil.

Heat pumps… or… ‘clean green comfort machines’?

Some have argued that heat pumps need a rebrand, though great alternative names seem few and far between (we could be wrong, but guessing the ideas “Heaty McPumpface” and “Clean Green Comfort Machine,” from the Canary Media team aren’t likely to catch on anytime soon).The name is indeed misleading, since heat pumps aren’t just for heat. Whatever you call them, these magical machines work year-round by capitalizing on the difference in temperature between outside and inside your home. In winter, heat pumps harvest heat energy from outside (yes, even though it’s cold) and move it indoors. In summer, the heat pump funnels warm air out, cooling it with a refrigerant coil and sending it back inside.

Of the three different types of heat pumps, air-source heat pumps tend to be the most common. They’ve been in use for years in areas of the U.S. with mild winters, but the technology has gotten so good that they’re newly viable even in cold climes. And as the U.S. Department of Energy notes, in summer they also dehumidify the air better than standard central air conditioners. 

Because heat pumps are more efficient, they tend to save money on utility bills. In colder climates, one study found, they will save an average of $300 a year. If you’re heating with oil, as millions of homes do, especially in the Northeast, heat pumps could save you close to $1,000. The cost to install one is comparable to that for a furnace: The national average runs $5,676, according to one estimate. (See other handy guides here and here.)

While you save money, you’re making a big difference for the planet. By switching from a gas-fired furnace to an all-electric heat pump, a typical U.S. home could cut its pollution from heating between 45 and 72%, according to a study released earlier this year.  

Heat pumps are hot right now, almost as hot as George Clooney. For a laugh, check out the story behind this viral Twitter thread of heat pumps that resemble Mr. Clooney.

Instant heat, cleaner air with induction

Let’s give credit where credit is due: The fossil gas industry has done an awesome job of marketing gas stoves to us for decades, (laugh along with Samantha Bee and learn how), despite the fact that gas ranges come with dangerous indoor air pollution, potential fire or injury, and explosion risk from leaks. The conventional wisdom for home cooks has been that gas stoves deliver more immediate and precise heat than electric ones. 

Not so fast! Like heat pumps, induction cooktops have been around for a while but haven’t had the same promotional push behind them as gas stoves. That’s changing. As the hazards of cooking with gas become harder to ignore, it’s easy to find chefs and home cooks extolling the virtues of induction cooking, which works by transferring electromagnetically produced heat to the pan you’re using.

They heat-up fast—faster than gas or electric—and they offer the temperature precision you want. The cooking surface stays cool, and no methane-produced fumes end up in your lungs.  Most models on the market cost less than $200—start cooking with magnets by visiting this handy guide on induction stoves.

Choosing an efficient electric heat pump or induction stove will guarantee years of avoided emissions—getting us closer to the clean energy future we want while saving money and making your home healthier. 

Want to go a step further? Find out when you should go solar or buy an EV.


Investing in the climate while you sleep

June 8, 2022

This post originally appeared in Looking Forward, the climate solutions newsletter from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. It was written by Fix’s climate solutions fellow, Marigo Farr.

Earth with green dollar bill texture for land

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Shortly after I was born, my parents and grandmother started investing money that would be passed on to me as an adult. I didn’t think much about it until my early 20s, when I asked my father if he had any idea what kinds of stocks they had purchased. He said something like, “I believe I told the bank guy, ‘No guns, no tobacco, no oil.’” I hoped he was right, but I didn’t look into it for another decade. When I finally did, I realized he was wrong.

On this Earth Day eve, I’ve been thinking about what we do with our dollars — not by donating, which is also important, but by asking the question: “Where does my money sleep at night?” This concept was shared with me by Robert Mante, director of consumer investments at Amalgamated Bank. It essentially means that money doesn’t just sit around like treasure in a vault. Banks (or you) use it to finance something concrete in the world. The question is, what?

If you don’t know the answer, it likely includes something you wouldn’t be happy to support. The world’s 60 largest banks directed $4.6 trillion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2021. In addition to personal investments managed by these banks, everyday customer checking and savings accounts also contribute to a bank’s income stream, enabling the financing of things like fracked gas pipelines, Arctic drilling, and mountaintop removal.

But consumers are taking notice and demanding alternatives, calling on big banksuniversity endowments, and other institutions to divest from fossil fuels. And in parallel, new, greener banking services and investment options have emerged. In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d share some of the choices I’ve made about where my money sleeps, and how I’ve moved it to help support the kinds of projects I value.

If you have any amount of money in a bank

Blue piggy bank surrounded by dollar-textured leaves and yellow coins

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Just like you consider environmental impacts when weighing options at the grocery store, you can do the same when choosing a bank. After years of feeling intimidated by the myriad choices out there and the potential for “greenwashing,” I finally opened up a checking account at a green bank. I chose Ando and researched it enough to discern what buzzwords like “sustainable” and “green” actually meant to the company — no lending to fossil fuels, as certified by the third-party organization Bank.Green. Ando also gave me the option of naming my priorities, such as clean energy, sustainable transportation, and green buildings.

If you’ve been pondering a switch, you can check out other Bank.Green fossil-free certified banks here, or use the platform Mighty to customize a search for banks that reflect a range of values that are important to you. From my experience, it takes less time to switch than you think. A lot of these services do the heavy lifting for you, including quick account setups online and automatic transfer of your money from your existing bank.

If you want to try investing for the climate, with as little as $100

Hand cupped with dollar-textured stem growing from palm and yellow coins surrounding

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

In addition to divesting my personal accounts from fossil fuel lenders, I’ve been pondering the question, “What is the alternative I want to invest in?” I learned about an approach often referred to as community investment. Unlike purchasing publicly traded shares in for-profit companies, the idea is to put your money directly into mission-driven projects that often have community involvement, or mission-driven funds that finance those projects.

Energea and Sunwealth are both solar developers that let individuals invest in community solar projects. For me, helping to make a specific solar project possible felt like a really tangible way to start. With Energea, you can invest as little as $100 and receive monthly cash dividends immediately. If you’re new to this kind of investment, like I was when I put in my first $500, the Energea returns calculator is a helpful tool for visualizing projected outcomes and experimenting with different cash inputs.

Another example is Kachuwa Impact Fund, which provides financing for multiple mission-oriented companies, such as solar cooperative Namaste Solar and woman- and POC-owned energy-efficiency company ​​COI Energy Services. The fund is open to everyday investors at a minimum of $5,000.

You can also go the route of investing directly in your own community, if you know of projects you care about that are looking for backers.

If you want to explore the stock market, and do it as green as possible

Yellow arrow zig-zagging on blue graph paper with dollar-textured leaves surrounding

Credit: Grist / Unsplash / Getty Images

Last year, in my efforts to divest from fossil fuels, I sold all of my personal investments and put them into renewable energy portfolios like iShares Global Clean Energy ETF and portfolios screened as “socially responsible” or meeting Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. It felt like a good step, but since then, I have learned that some ESG portfolios can include fossil fuel companies. The good news is, there are investment services that can provide you with transparent, curated investment portfolios screened for fossil fuels — one example is Amalgamated Bank’s Fossil Fuel Free portfolio, which consists of a “sustainability” component as well as a strictly screened ESG component. (It does have a $15,000 minimum, but there’s no stated minimum for starting your own portfolio at Amalgamated, which you can customize with the help of an adviser.)

There are also plenty of investment management services, such as Natural Investments and Revalue, that specialize in environmentally and socially responsible publicly traded stock options as well as direct and community investing. And it’s worth noting that renewable power investments have been outperforming fossil fuels for years — a trend that’s likely to continue, according to Forbes.

The 2022 Banking on Climate Chaos report, compiled by Rainforest Action Network and other environmental orgs, states that in order to move toward a world that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and “fully respects human rights,” banks must prohibit financing for all fossil fuel expansion projects and phase out financing for existing fossil fuel infrastructure. I believe that is a call to action — and one that we can all be part of answering. I didn’t dramatically change my lifestyle in order to take steps toward aligning my money with my values. Mostly, it was a few conversations and clicks of a mouse. By doing that little bit of extra work, we can be levers in the shift to a greener, more compassionate economy.