They’re Not Sure What ‘Climate Finance’ Is But Say We Need a Ton of it

A resident climbs to his roof in Weatherford, Texas, on Sept. 3, 2013, to service solar hot water and solar energy panels. Photograher: Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images Close

A resident climbs to his roof in Weatherford, Texas, on Sept. 3, 2013, to service solar... Read More

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A resident climbs to his roof in Weatherford, Texas, on Sept. 3, 2013, to service solar hot water and solar energy panels. Photograher: Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Why is Google putting $100 million into financing rooftop solar power in the U.S.?

There are two answers. The first is simple enough. The company has made a strategic commitment to invest in renewable energy. It will help the company to secure its own reliable energy sources, develop new products and services around energy-use data, earn tax credits and cut carbon pollution.

The second is, that’s just the ad hoc way climate-friendly energy is funded.

It's all pretty new. Policy wonks traditionally weigh in on the economic costs of policy by framing debate about costs and benefits to GDP -- not who should fund what kinds of projects. “The realization that in the real world capital allocation is done on different grounds... is fairly new to the climate modeling community,” said Jochen Harnisch, head of climate change policy at Germany’s KfW Development Bank, in an email.

The primitive state of climate finance -- call it cli-fi (not to be confused with ‘climate fiction’) -- is the focus of the very last chapter of the most recent 1,000-plus-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which came out this month. It represents the first time in the group's 25-year history that the scientific body has looked at the scale of investment and finance that would be needed to transition to a low-carbon economy. Harnisch is also a lead author of the IPCC chapter.

With typically epic understatement, the authors found that keeping global warming within the two-degree Celsius safety zone will "require considerably different patterns of investment."

The study projects how global climate policy, or a lack of it, might shape these patterns of investment, from fossil-fuel energy, to renewable and low-carbon sources. The best estimate is that on average more than $360 billion a year qualifies as cli-fi, most of that going toward renewable power. It’s hard to say what the target number should be, or if we need one. Business-focused environmentalists are asking for a “clean trillion,” almost a tripling of the IPCC estimate.

Complicating assessments of how climate finance is doing is a lack of agreement about what it is. "Knowledge gaps are substantial" in research and "there are no agreed definitions for climate investment and climate finance," the IPCC writes.

It’s progress that IPCC policy folk are thinking about finance, but they still have a long way before they can point to widely supported estimates of what they’re talking about and what the aspirational dollar signs are. They just don’t speak finance. The IPCC draws a distinction between investment in climate change prevention -- mostly renewable energy -- and in adaptation to new conditions. That’s not the way investors think. They think in terms of capital and asset types -- not the motivation for building something.

In the meantime cli-fi remains in its "I know it when I see it” phase. What does it look like?

It looks like Google's announcement last week, which is part of a larger $250 million joint effort with solar-panel maker SunPower. The day before, Google announced it will buy 407 megawatts of wind power from Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

Some cli-fi looks like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $1 billion pledge to install 3 gigawatts of solar energy over 10 years -- a 10-fold increase from today's 316 megawatts.

It looks like the post-2008 stimulus in the U.S. and elsewhere, low-interest government loans, corporate debt, carbon taxes, down to household investments. Solar power is particularly dynamic now, as developers and investors are bundling projects together so that larger scale can make financing easier and more attractive.

Huge potential lies in state and local bonds, which have financed public infrastructure for a century of roads, bridges and hospitals for a century, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution. “Green bonds” would extend public financing to renewable energy projects, which today “rely upon an old fashioned and anachronistic form of financing that is different than how other parts of the economy are financed,” Richard Kauffman, New York State’s top energy advisor, has written.

Climate scientists have spent a generation tracking the flow of carbon, water and the other necessities of life all through the biosphere. The IPCC’s authors -- as a proxy for the research community -- are just starting to "follow the money" as it sloshes around, too.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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