Showing posts with label Climate Finance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Climate Finance. Show all posts

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Environmental Finance: A Roadmap beyond the Dirty Dark Spread

Do you know what a dirty dark spread is? To work it out you take the price of wholesale electricity, and you subtract from that the price of coal multiplied by an efficiency factor. What you’re left with is an indication of the profitability of a coal-fired power station. And we call that the dirty dark spread.

But why ‘dirty’? We call it dirty because there’s a clean version of the dark spread, called the Clean Dark Spread. It's basically the same as the dirty one, except it adds the price of carbon dioxide to the equation. What you’re left with is an indication of the profitability of a coal-fired power station within a system that explicitly puts a price on carbon. It's lower, but the key question is 'how much lower?'

The only reason we can make these distinctions is due to the existence of the carbon markets, brought into the fold through the Kyoto Protocol and the European Emissions Trading Scheme, perhaps the world’s most controversial market. 2010 though, saw the carbon markets tank amidst uncertainty over the future of global climate agreements, and last week’s Carbon Expo, held in Barcelona, undoubtedly saw carbon market participants doing some soul-searching. For quite some time, environmental finance has been associated with carbon markets, but the search for more holistic systems is leading to a shift away from pure carbon finance, to a broader focus on climate finance.

So tomorrow, the UNFCCC convenes in Bonn to talk climate in the run-up to December's COP 17 in Durban. The key question for passage-way conversations: How are we going to finance not only climate change mitigation efforts, which has been the focus of the carbon markets to date, but also climate change adaption? Another hotly controversial area is forestry finance. Two weeks ago, the Indonesian government finally signed a two year deal with Norway, in which Norway pays them $1 billion to limit licenses for forest logging. It’s the first major bilateral public climate finance deal, and a big step forward for the so-called REDD programme – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Nobody really knows how it’s supposed to work yet, but REDD is seen as a key pillar in any future climate finance systems.

The last few weeks have also seen some interesting progress in the UK, with the government launching the Green Investment Bank. The GIB will be in the business of project financing renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes, under the broader prerogative of moving Britain to a low carbon economy. Last week also saw the UK government releasing the National Ecosystem Assessment, an attempt at valuing the ecosystems of the British Isles. I have a vague feeling that, despite being at the cutting edge of economic research, trying to price an abstract concept like 'nature' will one day be looked upon in kind of the same way as we look upon eugenics, astrology, or other past pseudosciences. In the mean time though, it will, for better or worse, become part of the broader debate on ‘payment for ecosystems services’.

Outside of the arcane discussions about whether you can use financial options-pricing theory to value biodiversity, the real entrepreneurs are concerned with more practical matters. In the last month, I’ve been lucky enough to meet two guys separately working in the area of green bonds, credit instruments through which investors can lend money to environmental projects. These things are on the verge of going mainstream, with the IFC recently issuing green bonds to raise money for renewable energy. And that brings me to Luke, who I met whilst sitting in the CafĂ© at Foyles book store. Luke used to design algorithms for financial trading systems. Now he’s got a moleskine notebook with sketches for a new type of solar thermal tower which would use the sun’s energy to heat water to drive electricity-generation turbines. No mainstream bank is going to finance it – He needs renewable energy venture capital, an exciting and growing area of environmental finance aimed at the technology innovation market. “What I need,” he says, “is an old guy with too much money, and not enough time to spend it.” Maybe what he needs a government subsidy – like the feed-in tariffs – but the regulatory environment is getting pretty uncertain.

The most amazing thing about this all though, is that literally nobody has a clue on how it will all work out. We’re creating it right here, right now, ocean blueprints and forest greenprints. Will Luke’s solar project revolutionise the world? Will someone get venture funding to figure out how to harvest electricity from lightning? Will the green bond concept turn out to be a non-starting buzzword magnet? Will the carbon market exist in 10 years time? What innovation will emerge that we cannot yet conceptualise? Will Suitpossum be successful in designing a trans-generational environmental risk management system with almost no budget and a failing Wifi connection?

For more on all these topics, tune into the Suitpossum EnviroFinance series, starting tonight, and unfolding over the next several weeks on a computer screen near you.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Financing climate innovation: WRI and the bounty system

Last week the World Resources Institute (WRI) posted a challenge on Innocentive, the online innovation reward website, offering cash prizes to individuals for solutions to climate change adaption issues. There is a total of $10 000 up for grabs if you can articulate a clear and actionable vision for climate change communication strategies in vulnerable communities.

WRI’s approach adds to the broader debate on how you finance climate innovation. There’s much discussion concerning how to deploy money into existing technologies and ideas, but how do you best put money into creating new technologies and ideas?

In issues of strategic concern, governments have frequently used grants, for example, to support universities and research institutes to develop new ideas and technologies. That has the advantage of giving innovators space to develop ideas without an immediate need for commercialisation. On the other hand, government grants risk being too prescriptive: What if the government chooses the wrong initiatives to support, and sinks money into non-starting technologies and concepts?

An alternative strategy has been to encourage private sector involvement in research and development through establishing intellectual property rights regimes and legal patents. These do protect innovators that sink time and resources into R&D from the prospect of others freeriding on the products of that labour. On the other hand, they only do so at the cost of creating artificial monopolies, which can have very detrimental side-effects when it comes to crucial issues of welfare, for example, in pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps the most underused method for promoting innovation though, has been the bounty system – offering prizes to induce people to solve something. Back in the 1700s, the bounty system was used to induce the creation of the first accurate maritime clock that revolutionised ocean navigation. Prizes needn’t be purely monetary though: Academic prizes like the Nobel Prizes have done much to inspire much cutting edge research, providing innovators with goals to work towards.

Innocentive is an interesting example of the bounty system. Private companies and institutions post challenges, and offer to pay individuals who can solve the challenges. A lot of the challenges to date have been scientific – how to synthesise a chemical component, or how to make fizzy drinks that don’t go flat. It’s a quick and efficient way to hone in on people who are carrying necessary skills and to harness those skills without having to directly hire them. They can be anywhere in the world, but many come from developing countries, providing a potential source of income for bright PhD students.

The obvious shortcoming of any bounty system is that if a problem seems too complex, individuals might not feel it worthwhile to put in time and effort. Many people simply do not have the luxury to commit large energy to something without any guarantee of being paid, so the bounty system probably works best for relatively less complex puzzles.

The World Resources Institute puzzle seems complex enough, but seeks ideas rather than finished technologies. They want bright ideas for “communication platforms that will connect information about local community needs to public and private sector organizations that can provide solutions and support”, so as to improve community resilience in the face of changes brought on by global warming.

At the time of writing, there were about 200 people working on the challenge, with a deadline in June. That theoretically gives you a roughly 0.5% chance of winning, assuming all were equal in their abilities. If you think you have what it takes to turn the odds in your favour, why not join up? Even if you don’t win, it gives you a chance to develop and professionalise your ideas. And, yeah, I get to take a small commission from anybody who wins after reading this blog post.