Renewable energy sources grew at their fastest rate since 1999 last year when COVID-19 struck, the IEA says

Wind farm denmark
A working ship stands on stilts between wind turbines erected in the Baltic Sea between the islands of Rügen and Bornholm (Denmark). In the foreground is the “Arkona” wind farm about 35 kilometers northeast of Rügen with a capacity of 385 megawatts. In the background the offshore wind turbines of the Baltic Sea wind farm “Wikinger” of the energy supplier Iberdrola.

  • Renewable energy capacity increased by 45% in 2020 the International Energy Agency said.
  • The IEA predicts that renewable energy sources will cover 90% of global power expansion in the next two years.
  • Demand for renewable energy increased during the pandemic, whilst use of other energy sources declined.
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Renewable energy sources increased by 45% in 2020, accelerating at their fastest rate since 1999, as demand for clean power grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Energy Agency said in a report on Tuesday. Wind energy led the expansion, as global capacity increased by 90%. Solar energy capacity grew by 23%.

The IEA links this increase in renewable energy capabilities to global policy decisions and deadlines that countries had set themselves in terms of expanding their renewables sectors. China, the US and Vietnam are credited with leading the renewables push after momentum slowed when the pandemic first hit.

“Overall, IEA quarterly deployment estimates indicate that the slowdown in renewable capacity additions was limited to Q1 2020 only, mainly in China, while construction activity continued strongly in the rest of the world despite continuous movement restrictions and supply chain delays,” the agency said in the report.

Energy markets were hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw travel come to a halt, as lockdown restrictions forced people to stay at home. Oil prices fell and turned negative for the first time in early 2020, as demand for the fuel vanished. Crude has since recovered, as investors anticipate economies reopening.

The decline in fossil fuel use also affected biofuel demand, the IEA said. Production fell by 8% in 2020, but still exceeded expectations – 150 billion liters of biofuel were needed in 2020 vs the 144 billion the IEA had predicted. The agency expects demand to rebound in 2021 and grow by a further 7% in 2022.

Looking ahead, the IEA predicts renewable energy sources will be responsible for 90% of global power expansion in 2021 and 2022. The agency expects solar and hydrogen power to play key roles, while the growth of wind power is set to slow down after its surge in 2020.

“The acceleration of hydropower additions through 2022 is driven by the commissioning of mega-scale projects in China. Meanwhile, expansion in other renewables, led by bioenergy, remains stable and represents 3% of total new renewable capacity additions,” the IEA said.

China had already been the driving force of renewable energy expansion in 2020, accounting for half of the new capacity installations and is expected to keep this leadership position, the IEA said.

Despite President Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure plans, Europe is set to replace the US as the second-largest renewable market in 2021 thanks to national policies on climate change and deadlines that are looming. Biden’s infrastructure spending may not take effect until later this decade, the IEA said.

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American’s new climate ‘normal’ is hotter, wetter, and more extreme

In this Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo.

  • New climate data released Tuesday shows temperatures across most of the US are trending up.
  • The yearly ‘normal’ temperature for the country reached a record-high of 53.3 degrees over the last 30 years.
  • Climate scientist Mike Palecki said the higher normals were one sign of ongoing climate change.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

National data released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supports what scientists have been shouting for years: The ongoing climate crisis has created a wet, hot, American climate.

The country’s new normal temperature is one full degree hotter than it was only two decades ago, according to an updated set of thirty-year climate averages for the contiguous US known as climate normals.

Climate normals are calculated by meteorologists based on 30-years of data to avoid the randomness of daily weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updates the country’s normal every decade, noting annual, seasonal, and monthly climate normals for the country as a whole, as well as individual states and cities.

Tuesday’s data includes data from more than 9,000 daily reporting stations collected from 1991 to 2020.

“The biggest signal that we’re seeing is a warming throughout the United States,” Mike Palecki, project manager for US climate normals at NOAA, told Insider.

Except for a few states in the Northern-Central region of the country, the nation has seen a “pretty ubiquitous warming,” over the past thirty years, especially in the Western US, the Southern end of the US, and the East Coast, Palecki said.

The yearly normal temperature for the country as a whole reached a record-high of 53.3 degrees Fahrenheit (11.8 degrees Celsius) – one full degree warmer than the normal temperature twenty years ago. Since the country’s first normal was calculated between 1901 and 1930, the contiguous US has warmed 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius).

“The last couple of 30-year normal periods have shown very substantial warming over the contiguous US and Alaska,” Palecki said.

He noted that normals aren’t the best product for actually ascertaining climate change, but said they do reflect the impacts the climate crisis has had on the country’s normal, day-to-day climate.

Palecki said the hotter normals were “definitely” a sign of ongoing climate change.

“We’re taking this 30-year snapshot and we’re seeing the fingerprints of the kind of climate change we would expect related to increasing greenhouse gasses,” he said. “These are expected from a lot of our modeling studies of climate change.”

In addition to warmer temperatures throughout most of the nation, the new data also shows an increase in precipitation in the eastern and central parts of the country, while conditions in the West have become notably drier.

For example, New York City, Seattle, and Asheville all saw increases in rainfall. But in Phoenix and Los Angeles, rainfall dropped considerably.

Though people tend to focus most on warming temperatures, Palecki said climate change’s impacts are complex.

“Atmospheric circulation changes, cloudiness changes, rainfall patterns, snow cover, all of these things feed back into the temperatures, so you get a pattern of temperature change, and not the same temperature change everywhere,” he said.

Such complexities likely explain why states like Minnesota, Montana, and the Dakotas, didn’t see increasing temperatures, and in North Dakota’s case, actually recorded a cooler new normal than the previous thirty-year period.

Though climate scientists are somewhat mixed on how useful new normals are – Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told The Associated Press that adjusting the normal every decade “perverts the meaning of ‘normal’ and ‘normalizes’ away climate change” – Palecki said having a standard “normal” is beneficial for everyone from broadcast meteorologists to energy companies, and agricultural workers to retail vendors selling seasonal clothes.

“The actual normals themselves are key to…putting today’s weather in context and tomorrow’s forecast in context,” he said.

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Former Senator Bill Nelson is officially NASA’s new administrator. His goals: support climate research and put astronauts on the moon.

bill nelson nasa administrator confirmation hearing senator
Former Senator Bill Nelson appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 21, 2021, in Washington DC.

NASA has a new leader, but he does not plan to shake things up.

Instead, Bill Nelson is keeping his eyes on the same prizes as his predecessor, Jim Bridenstine: sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.

Nelson, a three-term US Senator from Florida who flew into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, was sworn in as the new NASA Administrator on Monday.

His plan is mainly to keep the ball rolling. During confirmation hearings, Nelson told Congress that he wants to see NASA achieve its most ambitious goal – sending astronauts to the lunar surface and, eventually, to Mars. He also advocated a renewed focus on climate-change research, which has historically been a big part of NASA’s directive but was deprioritized under the Trump administration.

bill nelson nasa administrator swear in
Former Senator Bill Nelson is sworn in as NASA Administrator, as his wife, Grace Nelson, holds their family Bible, and his daughter, Nan Ellen Nelson watches, May 3, 2021.

“The space program needs constancy of purpose,” Nelson said in a written testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. For continuity, he added, he plans to work with Bridenstine and “seek his advice.”

That consistency may give NASA a break from the whiplash it often gets with new administrations. President George W. Bush first asked NASA to pursue a return to the moon in 2005. Five years later, President Barack Obama shifted the focus to Mars. The Trump administration shifted back to the moon, with a tight deadline: to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. That’s four years earlier than NASA was previously planning.

“If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is to continue for us to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” Nelson told the Senate committee, of which he was previously a member, during a confirmation hearing on April 21. “There is a lot of excitement.”

Sending astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

NASA still hopes to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 – a feat nobody has accomplished since 1972. Nelson is on board, even though the timeline may be too ambitious. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently determined a 2024 landing is “highly unlikely.”

“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that, with some sobering reality, that space is hard,” Nelson told the Senate committee.

NASA’s plan is to launch an astronaut crew inside an Orion spaceship, using the mega-rocket the agency is currently developing, called the Space Launch System. Once in lunar orbit, Orion would rendezvous with a lander. Two of the astronauts would move into that vehicle then land on the moon’s surface.

NASA recently awarded the contract for that lander to SpaceX. Elon Musk’s rocket company intends to convert its planned Starship mega-spaceship into a lunar lander. But NASA was expected to pick two contractors instead of one, so the decision prompted SpaceX’s competitors – Dynetics and Blue Origin – to file complaints. While things are being sorted out, NASA asked SpaceX to pause work on the project.

NASA cited a lack of funding from Congress when it decided to award one single contract, and promised there would be a follow-on competition. Nelson stood by that statement, vowing that there will be competitions for contracts to send the first astronauts to Mars.

“Competition is always better than sole sourcing, because you can get the efficiencies and you get a lower price,” he told the Senate committee.

NASA aims to launch its first Mars-bound astronaut mission in the 2030s.

‘You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it’

earth clouds planet space amazon rainforest
Clouds over the Amazon rainforest, as seen from space, January 30, 2015.

During his hearing, Nelson defended a White House request to budget $2.3 billion for NASA’s Earth-science programs. That would constitute a roughly 15% increase from the agency’s 2020 Earth-science budget.

“It’s a very important increase. You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” Nelson said. “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”

Nelson vocally opposed the Trump administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System – a $10-million-per-year program that gathers data on how carbon moves around the planet. Congress subsequently reinstated the program.

“When I flew on the space shuttle, any time that was not scheduled with experiments or flight activities – which was not often – I would make my way to the spacecraft window to look at our home, our planet,” Nelson wrote in his testimony. “I was struck by how fragile it looked with its thin atmosphere. Combating climate change cannot succeed without robust observations, data, and research.”

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How one millennial resident in Honolulu maintains a simple and sustainable lifestyle to help fight the climate crisis

IMG_1030 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu.

  • Texas-native Jennifer Lieu moved to Honolulu 20 years ago and says Hawaii feels like home.
  • She’s focused on reducing waste and living sustainably to help preserve Hawaii for generations.
  • Her habits include shopping locally, biking instead of driving, and volunteering with local farms.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When Jennifer Lieu moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, 20 years ago, she said she felt a sense of “coming home.”

“I feel very, very fortunate and lucky to live in Hawaii,” Lieu, who’s originally from Texas and in her mid-30s, told Insider. “There’s so much natural beauty, and I’ve always been attracted to the ocean.”

During her time in Hawaii, Lieu has become dedicated to protecting its natural resources. She said she spends as much time as she can outdoors – swimming, running on the beach, or hiking. She’s passionate about giving back to the community by volunteering with sustainability-minded organizations, such as local farms and ecological groups, and strives to reduce her own carbon footprint.

IMG_0108 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu hiking.

And she’s seen other Honolulu residents also become more aware and involved in supporting issues of sustainability over the years, and the local government working to solve these challenges.

“It’s so special when you can eat, live, and play in a place that has the same values as you – it just seems it comes together, it’s much more natural,” she said.

Embracing minimal living

Lieu works as a program manager at a boutique information technology firm, but said yoga is her passion. She’s been practicing since childhood and became a yoga teacher in 2016.

“It gives me the ability to connect with my body, breathe, and be in Hawaii,” she said. “There’s a lot of like-minded yogis here. Part of that, they talk about minimal living. It’s just using what you have, and that also is a stepping-off of how I feel about sustainability.”

Hawaii is more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, Lieu said, because it’s surrounded by water. So she’s focused on reducing waste and living sustainability to ensure it’s a great place to live for generations to come.

“There’s a lot of things as a resident I can’t control,” Lieu said. “I can’t control energy costs. I can’t put a solar panel up because I live in an apartment. But things I can control are my carbon footprint and knowing that I can walk safer and I can bike safer on the roads.”

Before the pandemic, she used ride-sharing apps, she said, but she became nervous about jumping into an Uber during COVID-19.

Another way she lives sustainably and supports her local ecosystem is by shopping at farmers’ markets and buying locally produced foods.

“I usually buy local coffee because I want to support the coffee farmers,” Lieu said. Other meals usually consist of sustainably caught fish and locally grown vegetables, and she dines at restaurants that support local farmers.

Volunteering with local farms and organizations

On many of her weekends Lieu enjoys volunteering at local, “like-minded” organizations that support the causes she’s most interested in, such as local farming and cultivating native plants.

IMG_0060 credit Christina Kaoh
Jennifer Lieu volunteering.

Protect & Preserve Hawaii is one of these organizations. The group works to preserve and restore Hawaii’s native ecosystem, and Lieu’s volunteer work with Protect & Preserve involves planting native plants back on the island.

“There’s a lot of invasive plants in Hawaii, and unfortunately, they take over really quickly,” she said. “It takes away from the beauty that Hawaii has to offer.”

Lieu also volunteers at a local taro farm, which aims to restore native agriculture and ecology. Taro is a root vegetable that was a food staple for ancient Hawaiians.

She’s inspired by “ahupua’a,” an ancient Hawaiian term that means “mountain to the sea.”

“The way they built their taro farms, it was surrounded by water and the ability to have it self-sustaining,” Lieu said. “That was something that I was very drawn to, the fact that this one group of people could have such a sustainable plan as far as food and land and then, as things got industrialized, that got taken away.”

Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on clean energy and climate change solutions, is another organization that Lieu volunteers with.

“I think it’s important as a resident if you can give back, whether it’s time or money,” she said.

Putting state goals into practice

As a Honolulu resident, Lieu keeps an eye on how the local government is tackling sustainability and climate change, especially in areas like sea-level rise, plastics in the ocean, transportation, and energy costs, which are especially high in Hawaii.

She said she’s benefited most from the city’s efforts to promote multimodal transportation, such as the bike-share program Biki and initiatives to convert citywide buses to clean energy.

In general, she appreciates how the city and state governments are setting sustainability goals and holding themselves accountable through programs like the Aloha+ Challenge, which lets residents track the state’s progress on meeting these goals.

“The fact that the government is standing behind what they’re saying,” Lieu said, is really cool. “It’s not just nice to say – they’re truly putting in actions and doing things to support what they believe in.”

The biggest challenge is getting residents to put some of the sustainability programs into practice in their own lives. Lieu said residents often agree that initiatives to fight climate change, like cutting down on plastic or converting to electric vehicles, are needed. But since Hawaii is an expensive place to live, actually making these changes to meet these goals takes an investment of time and money.

“I think that people really need to own and love where they live,” Lieu said. “But I think to really have a full life is to love where you live and to really be passionate about these issues that not only affect you as a person but affect the future of the island or wherever you live.”

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TESVOLT cofounder Daniel Hannemann on how his company is changing green manufacturing

Daniel Hannemann, cofounder of TESVOLT

Insider: The building of Europe’s first gigafactory for battery storage systems in 2019 was clearly a decisive milestone since the foundation of the company just under seven years ago. What have been TESVOLT’s other biggest achievements in recent years?

Hannemann: Apart from that, there have been many other highlights. For instance, the many awards we have won, including the German Founder Award in 2018. However, we are above all also proud that we have created high-performance products. The useful life of our products is almost twice as long compared to other systems which are available on the market. This is a definite USP. The fact that we have created such a comprehensive and top-performing product portfolio in only a few years, is probably our biggest achievement.

Insider: What is TESVOLT’S growth strategy for the coming years?

Hannemann: We want to continue to press ahead with our dynamic growth course during the coming years and enhance our visibility further, both nationally and internationally. Our focus is to remain on energy storage in commercial and industrial environments, because this is where some of the highest environmental impacts are generated. Here we can provide obvious benefits. Our clear mission is to make available affordable green electricity anytime, anywhere. With this explicit message we want to substantially expedite the global energy turnaround.

Insider: What are some of the most recent developments and innovations?

Hannemann: One of our major innovations is the active battery management system Active Battery Optimizer (ABO). With this system we have created the only technology of this kind in the world, which optimizes all the cells within the battery. This technology is used in different applications, including for the optimization of self-consumption. Altogether we have now completed 1,500 projects with our energy storage solutions around the world, with market shares between 25 and 40% in different applications.

Insider: What are the biggest challenges right now for companies like TESVOLT and the energy industry in general?

Hannemann: We have little time. The sea levels are rising, the world climate is changing. The impact on ecosystems is enormous. The water is literally up to our neck. The decarbonization of the economic cycles must be pushed ahead much quicker to comply with the meaningful climate goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. This requires joint efforts by the business community, the policymakers, and the society. We must join our forces to save the planet. This sounds dramatic – but all scientifically recognized data confirm that the situation is actually dramatic.

Insider: How has COVID-19 impacted industry (and company) plans?

Hannemann: As challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic may be on a humanitarian level, we have hardly felt any economic impact of the pandemic. We very clearly benefit from the global megatrends of renewable energies and e-mobility and these developments have not been curbed by COVID-19. On the contrary, the environmental awareness of the society has grown once more in the middle of the pandemic. Our internal business processes have likewise almost not been influenced. Thanks to an effective and mature hygiene concept, our production has not stood still. In the areas in which this is possible, our employees also work from home. This works perfectly well thanks to our agile non-hierarchical corporate culture.

Insider: Has it provided an opportunity to increase your customer base?

Hannemann: As a globally networked company we have always strongly relied on digital tools. This has been further reinforced by the pandemic, which is a very clear advantage. On our customers’ level, this has triggered a significant change and they have likewise arrived more strongly in the digital world. Together we can act significantly more flexibly and efficiently in part. Instead of expensive business trips we now communicate mainly via digital channels with our customers or employees working for our subsidiaries in Australia and Korea. The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the world of work and we definitely consider this to be an added value.

Insider: Where do you see the company in 10 years’ time (and beyond)?

Hannemann: In my wishful thinking, by 2031 e-mobility and stationary energy storage systems will no longer be exceptions, but a living reality for many. We’re doing everything possible to be one of the main players proactively driving this positive development.

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Fox News host Larry Kudlow rages that Biden’s climate plan will force Americans to drink ‘plant-based beer’

FILE PHOTO: White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow speaks during a "small business relief update" video conference call event with banking executives to discuss the U.S. government's rescue program for businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Larry Kudlow participates in coronavirus economic “relief update” virtual event at the White House in Washington

  • Former Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow raged against the idea of “plant-based beer” on Fox News.
  • He also cited false claims that Americans must stop eating red meat to meet Biden’s new climate goals.
  • Kudlow neglected to mention that all beer is made from plant-based ingredients like grain and yeast.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Fox News host and former Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow raged against the idea of “plant-based beer” on his Friday night show, saying that Biden’s climate plan would require that Americans give up meat.

“Get this, America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry and fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and animal-based fats. Ok, got that? No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue. I’m sure Middle America is just going to love that. Can you grill those Brussels sprouts?” Kudlow said on Fox Business Friday.

“You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts and wave your American flag. Call it July 4th Green,” Kudlow said.

“Now, I’m making fun of this because I intend to make fun of it. This kind of thing is stupid,” he added. “It comes from a bunch of ideological zealots who don’t care one whit about America’s well-being. Not one whit.”

Kudlow neglected to mention that beer is made from water, grain, hops, and yeast – not meat.

The Fox News host expressed his unhappiness with Biden’s announcement during the Earth Day summit that he would halve the US’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to address the looming climate emergency. That would more than double what the US agreed to when Biden re-joined the Paris climate agreement, which former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2017.

But Kudlow objected to Biden’s climate goals, saying it would “wreck the fossil fuel sector.” He also said that Biden’s plan would mandate that Americans stop eating meat – an untrue claim.

Other conservatives also expressed their consternation at the idea of cutting meat from their diets, despite no one asking them to do so.

GOP lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert tweeted the false claims, with Boebert objecting to the idea of “cutting 90% of red meat from (her) diet” and telling Biden to “stay out of (her) kitchen. Meanwhile, Greene tweeted a reference to the misleading information, writing “The Hamburglar” and pairing her post with a shot of Biden eating a hamburger.

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A tiny, invasive bug and the climate crisis are changing how guitars are made, and shifting the course of music history

Climate change phasing out ash wood guitars 2x1
  • Swamp ash is a wood prized by guitar makers and musicians for its light weight and resonant sound.
  • But flooding, and a tiny bug, threaten the wood and the sound that is synonymous with rock music.
  • Fender is phasing out ash after 70 years of use, and ash trees could soon disappear altogether.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 1970, when Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page recorded the iconic solo on “Stairway to Heaven,” he was playing a 1959 Fender Telecaster.

The guitar was gifted to Page in 1966 by the guitar legend Jeff Beck, who used it himself in the later years of the Yardbirds. Page repainted the guitar, adding an elaborate design of red, green, orange, and blue on the body that vaguely resembled a dragon, giving the instrument its name.

The body of Page’s renowned Dragon Telecaster was made of ash wood, a longtime favorite for many of rock music’s biggest names.

Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy, Jerry Garcia, Nile Rodgers, and countless other rock legends have played on ash guitars through the decades, Justin Norvell, the executive vice president of Fender Products, told Insider.

But now, the trees that ash is harvested from are on the decline, and could soon disappear.

A small, invasive bug and excessive flooding are threatening the wood – and, by extension, the sound that epitomizes rock ‘n’ roll – serving as yet another reminder of the climate crisis and its wide-ranging impact.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Norvell said. “It’s one of the main woods we rely on.”

The shortage of ash prompted Fender to phase out its use after a 70-year run. The wood is now only available to customers willing to pay a premium for it.

Fender Stratocaster
A brand new Fender Stratocaster is shown on a routing machine in the Custom Shop at the Fender factory in Corona, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 19, 2010.

Ash helped make Fender the ‘Henry Ford of electric guitars’

“Fender has used ash for many, many years,” Norvell told Insider. “It goes back to the company’s origins in the late 40s.”

Leo Fender used ash in the early 1950s in some of Fender’s first Telecasters and Stratocasters, guitar models that remain among the most beloved electric guitars. At the time, Fender went with ash for two reasons: it was cheap and available.

But it also happened to have a nice sound, which, together with the low cost, helped Fender become the “Henry Ford of electric guitars,” according to Craig Snyder, a professional guitar player, collector, and high-end instrument dealer. In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, Fender mass produced guitars and sold them at affordable prices. The use of ash persisted, enjoying a decades-long run as one of two primary body woods Fender used for its electric guitars.

And it’s not just Fender. Snyder, who has played professionally with legends like Elton John and Roberta Flack, said Fender “set a platform for guitar design” that countless other builders still follow.

“Fender really made ash a bedrock of guitar-making,” Snyder said.

Fender-style guitars, even when not made by their namesake manufacturer, are among the most popular electric guitars and many still use ash.

Fender Stratocaster with Ash body by Fender
Fender Stratocaster with an ash body.

There are dozens of species of ash trees native to North America, but the most popular for guitars is green ash, or Fraxinus pennsylvanica. It grows across much of the United States and Canada, from Nova Scotia down to Florida and as far west as Alberta and eastern Texas. But the green ash most prized for electric guitars grows in the south, in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River.

“We like lightweight ash, called punky ash or swamp ash,” Norvell said. “It’s wood that is submerged for part of the year in swamps. When the floods recede, we go in and you can harvest the ash.”

As a result of growing in standing water, swamp ash is lightweight and soft. It’s famous in rock music for giving the guitar a sweet, clear and resonant sound. And while average listeners are unlikely to decipher the tonal characteristics of different types of wood, some players and makers say they can tell when a guitar is made of swamp ash.

“True swamp ash is real ringy,” said Stephen Marchione, who has been making high-end guitars for some of the world’s best players for more than 30 years. Marchione said in addition to its sound, swamp ash’s light weight is especially desirable, adding it can knock off nearly five pounds from a guitar.

“It might not sound like a big difference, but when it’s strapped around your neck for two hours it’s a lot,” he said.

Ash also has a beautiful, striking grain pattern, so it’s often used on guitars with a natural or transparent finish.

ash tree
An ash tree is injected with insecticide to prevent an emerald ash borer infestation at Sunset Golf Course in Longmont, Colorado.

A climate crisis and a tiny, shiny pest

In recent years, the floods in the Mississippi Delta have been receding less frequently, limiting the swamp ash that can be harvested and disrupting Fender’s ability to get it.

Mike Born, the former director of wood technology at Fender, looks at the water levels of the Mississippi River every day. He currently works as a wood consultant and salesperson for Anderson-Tully, the lumber giant that supplies most of the swamp ash used in guitars, including to Fender.

Born said the high water levels are driven by snowmelt and heavy rains, and not just over the Mississippi, but from all the rivers that feed into it as well, like the Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri.

Scientists say extreme precipitation is one of the impacts of the climate crisis. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, precipitation has steadily increased over the past century. In 2019, the Mississippi River experienced one of its worst-ever flooding events due to frequent heavy rains. That year was the second-wettest on record for the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The unpredictable flooding and receding has created a feast-or-famine effect. Some years, swamp ash can’t be harvested at all. In years when it can, makers like Fender stock up on as much as they can get, but that cycle, Norvell suggests, appears to be ending. He offered his assessment of the latest healthy supply of swamp ash, calling it “one of the final feasts of having a bounty of ash wood.”

There’s another factor compounding the problem: a shiny green beetle about the size of a grain of rice.

emerald ash borer
An entomologist at the Maine Forest Service shows emerald ash borer specimens.

Native to East Asia, the emerald ash borer was first detected in the US in 2002 and has since decimated ash trees, killing tens of millions across the country.

The invasive bug likely arrived in the US on shipping pallets from China, but early efforts to contain it were unsuccessful. Infestations were discovered in 35 states, and scientists say it’s the most destructive pest ever to plague America’s forests.

After the emerald ash borer lays its eggs on the bark of an ash tree, larvae bore into the tree and feed on its tissues, disrupting the movement of water and nutrients in the tree and leaving a squiggly trail in its wake. It ultimately kills the tree, and the trails left behind make the wood harder for guitar makers to work with because they have to cut around the markings.

While the flooding is causing the most recent swamp ash shortages, ash trees could soon disappear altogether because of the beetle. “It’s a mass-extinction event,” Born said, adding that without intervention, ash trees could be extinct in North America within a decade.

“With that, combined with the flooding in the last couple years, we just got to a point where in good conscience we could not maintain a stable supply of healthy quantities of ash,” Fender’s Norvell said.

In April 2020, after seven decades of making ash-bodied guitars, Fender announced it would phase out the wood, reserving it only for premium and historical models.

Norvell said it was an “unbelievably hard decision” for the company. “There’s an element to this that it’s the end of an era,” he said.

Boutique guitar makers are still able to get swamp ash in the quantities they need, so professional musicians and gearheads who are set on swamp ash can find it, at least for now, but its status as a go-to, everyday wood is quickly changing.

Fender Telecaster with Ash body and Natural finish by Fender
Fender Telecaster with ash body and natural finish.

Fighting to preserve ash trees, while looking for alternatives

Roots of Rock, a collaborative initiative between the US Forest Service, Fender, and the nonprofit American Forests, is working to save America’s ash trees from the emerald ash borer. Researchers have identified “lingering ash trees” that survived infestations after all other ash trees had died.

“We’re taking survivors that had natural resistance and breeding them with each other to produce a green ash species with resistance,” said Born, who helped start the project when he was at Fender.

Plans are underway to plant the first of these trees in Detroit, near where the beetle was first detected in the US. Even if successful, the project will ultimately take decades, but Born said it’s the first step.

“At least they’re going to save ash genetically and they didn’t have to hybridize,” he said. “This is pure American green ash.”

Meanwhile, guitar makers are working hard to find a suitable replacement for swamp ash.

Roger Sadowsky, a renowned instrument maker, has been building electric guitars for legendary musicians since 1979. When he first started researching, all the best musicians he consulted had Fenders from the late ’50s and early ’60s that were lightweight, which meant they were likely made of swamp ash.

Sadowsky said the last few months of 2020 he was calling every wood guy he knew to find ash. More recently, when it was available, he was stockpiling it to get through the next drought. But to compensate for the shortages, he’s been running listening tests to find a replacement. He has tested eight guitar bodies made of alternative lightweight woods.

“Ash is still the best sounding to my ears,” Sadowsky said. “What we’re trying to do is find the runner-ups as alternatives to swamp ash.”

The leading contender so far is eastern white pine, another tree native to North America that primarily grows in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes. Sadowsky said the white pine is best after it has been torrefied, a roasting process that emulates decades of natural aging.

Fender Telecaster made of Ash during Sanding by Fender
Fender Telecaster made of ash during sanding.

A new sound

Fender has also employed a torrefaction process with pine as a replacement for ash. Norvell said it has been very well-received, though there’s still a “wistfulness and nostalgia” for swamp ash.

According to the guitar-maker Marchione, musicians are extremely conservative when it comes to their instruments. “People are still trying to recreate what guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix did,” Norvell said. “Those guys had plenty of swamp ash.”

But Born said the deep love for the storied wood could, in some ways, be a chicken-and-egg scenario, rather than there being an inherent magic in the wood.

“I think it’s more that rock ‘n’ roll grew up with that as being the sound, so that wood became the tone that people like to hear,” he said. “It could’ve been something else and that wood might have had the same kind of myth to it.”

Regardless of the reasons, swamp ash is woven into Fender’s DNA, and the history of electric guitars in general. But Norvell said now it’s about finding the next generation of woods.

“The guitar continues to adapt and adjust, and the music people make changes. Everything changes over time,” he said.

“For us, now it’s about finding new voices and new tones and new woods.”

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Climate activist Greta Thunberg tells Congress ‘subsidizing fossil fuel’ companies is a ‘disgrace’

greta thunberg
Greta Thunberg speaks at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, New York on September 23, 2019.

  • Greta Thunberg said subsidizing the fossil fuel industry is a “disgrace” during a congressional hearing.
  • President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a detail aimed at rolling back US financial support of fossil fuels.
  • The Swedish climate activist said ending fossil fuel subsidies is the “very minimum” the US can do to combat the climate crisis.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg called subsidies for fossil fuel companies a “disgrace” during a congressional hearing on Thursday.

The 18-year-old climate activist testified before a House oversight committee on Earth Day to discuss the impact of the fossil fuel industry on the environment, saying that subsidizing fossil fuels is “clear proof that we have not understood the climate emergency at all.”

“It is the year 2021, the fact we are still having this discussion and even more that we are still subsidizing fossil fuels using taxpayer money is a disgrace,” she said.

Thunberg’s advocacy to address the climate crisis sparked a global movement, inspiring millions of people – including students who walked out of school – to protest and demand action on combatting climate change.

President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion vast infrastructure plan includes a detail aimed at rolling back US financial support of fossil fuels, which would bring in $35 billion to the federal government over a decade, The Guardian reported.

During the congressional hearing, Thunberg said putting an end to subsidizing fossil fuel companies is the “very minimum” the US should do in an effort to combat the climate crisis, otherwise lawmakers would have to “explain to your children why you are surrendering on the 1.5 C target, giving up without even trying.”

“Unlike you, my generation will not give up without a fight,” she said. “How long do you honestly believe that people in power like you will get away with it? How long do you think you can continue to ignore the climate crisis without being held accountable?”

“Young people today will decide how you will be remembered, so my advice for you is to choose wisely,” Thunberg added.

Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican from South Carolina on the committee, said “the left has resorted to fear tactics on climate change.”

Thunberg replied saying she does not want people to panic but instead, she wants people to “get out of their comfort zones” when it comes to the climate crisis.

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Subscribe to our new biweekly newsletter, Insider Sustainability

Act to Impact: Klaus Schwab and Marguerite Ward Fireside
Ahead of the newsletter launch, Insider senior reporter Marguerite Ward interviewed Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum.

Just over three years ago, Insider launched Better Capitalism, a section focused on how companies are moving beyond financial targets and actively contributing to a better world for their employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Sustainability has been a key topic we’ve covered along the way, and it’s only gaining momentum in the conversation around stakeholder capitalism. Last year, Microsoft, Apple, Ford, Starbucks, and other major corporations made big pledges to reduce, eliminate, or offset their carbon emissions. In January of this year, GM announced it would only sell electric vehicles by 2035 and pledged to be completely carbon neutral by 2040.

At the same time, the demand for ESG investing – which integrates environmental, social, and governance goals with investment – has skyrocketed, while more companies have agreed to report on their progress on ESG criteria.

Helping to lead this movement is Klaus Schwab, executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum, who convenes economic and political leaders annually to discuss innovative ways to reshape and advance industries. During Insider’s climate-focused virtual event, Act to Impact, on April 20, Schwab said the surge in interest in ESG means customers, investors, and leaders are focused on accountability. He also noted that there are over 300 ESG proxy issues headed to vote this spring.

“Leaders have a new mindset,” Schwab told Insider. “We have a new social consciousness.”

He also spoke about how the pandemic has only increased people’s alertness and sensitivity to corporate social responsibility, which includes how companies treat the environment.

The event also featured insight from David Sproul, the Global Deputy Chief Executive of Deloitte; Rebecca Marmot, the Chief Sustainability Officer of Unilever; Ruth Davis, the Director of IBM’s Call for Code initiative; Alice Sharp, the Artistic Director of Invisible Dust; and more.

Insider is investing more into our sustainability coverage by launching our newsletter, Insider Sustainability. With our new sustainability reporter, Karen K. Ho (who previously wrote for Quartz), at the helm, we’re highlighting the ways in which government, businesses, and society are coalescing responsible climate choice with their practices.

We look forward to sharing these stories with you. Subscribe to Insider Sustainability.

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The founder of the World Economic Forum explains why ‘a new mindset’ is giving him hope for climate action, and shares which companies are getting it right

Act to Impact: Klaus Schwab Fireside

When Klaus Schwab thinks of climate change, he thinks of his grandchildren and their future. Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, is worried – but hopeful.

“Many people have a tendency to see our fight against climate change as a cost, as something that is negative,” Schwab said. “Yes, it may be to a certain extent, but it’s also a great opportunity.”

For the economic leader, tackling climate change means leadership innovation. Company executives, investors, consumers, and political leaders will have to find ways to work together to enact change, he said.

And that means new economic opportunities: new infrastructure projects such as the one Congress is debating, new developments in technologies such as carbon sequestration, and new products such as expanded options for electric cars.

Schwab credits a good portion of his philosophy on climate change to Bill Gates, who he said is a leader in the green movement.

“Gates talks about how, in order to decarbonize the world or to make it carbon-neutral by 2050, a lot of new technological progress has to be achieved,” Schwab said. “I see here a great opportunity because we can move into an age of green innovation.”

Signs of this age of green innovation have increased in the past year. ESG investments, or investments that apply environmental, social, and governance principles to a company’s performance, have seen record growth and are projected to increase in the future, reports showed.

US assets under management that used ESG criteria increased 42% over the past two years to $17 trillion in 2020, up from $12 trillion in 2018, showed a 2020 report from the US Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

A growing number of companies have pledged large green initiatives. GM, America’s largest car manufacturer, said it would go carbon-neutral in its global products and operations by 2040. Apple committed to being 100% carbon-neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030.

Schwab is energized by these changes and believes the trend toward a more stakeholder-centric view of the world is ahead.

“I’m really excited,” he said, adding that society has changed over the past few years. “We have a new mindset. We have a new social consciousness.”

Insider spoke with Schwab about his new mindset and how leaders plan to embrace the ESG movement. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s more and more recognition that a viable economy not only relies on treating people well but treating the climate well. Do you think CEOs have fully adopted this mindset that treating the climate well is good for shareholders?

So the executives who have a longer-term thinking have clearly adopted this mindset. And if you look, there are two reasons – they are very obvious. So there’s first an economic reason. I think what we have learned from the coronavirus is that prevention – the cost of prevention is much lesser compared to the cost of responding afterward to the damage. So we have a situation where you have a kind of free ride because you don’t have to integrate all your external costs into your business model, but someone will have to pay for it. And it will be down the road.

And my fear is that we may end up like tobacco companies, which means, we will be in a situation where, down the line, you will have class action. Already today, investors recognize this danger, this risk. There are investors who hesitate to provide capital to companies who really are damaging the environment.

But there’s also a moral reason. I’m thinking of my grandchildren. I don’t want to have them facing a crisis that may be much worse compared to what we are seeing today with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you believe that investors are recognizing the risk?

I said investors who are thinking long term. Of course, if you want to make a fast buck, it’s a different matter.

But in the end, I think companies will recognize they will be better off economically if they take care of nature, because young people – I mean, at least my employees – they don’t want to work anymore for a company or for an organization that is damaging nature.

And I think clients and customers do not want to buy the products of such a company. So I think it’s in the direct, commercial business interest of companies to take care of the planet.

Here in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission just created an ESG task force to promote the disclosure and transparency of ESG criteria. And a report showed that over 300 ESG proxies are headed to a vote this spring. How do you feel about the surge and attention to ESG reporting?

I think it’s a great evolution. Some people would say even a revolution. But we should not forget that the ESG metrics – so measuring responsibility – are only part of a total integrated system.

It starts with defining your strategies, where you have to take into account the present and maybe even future expectations of your stakeholders. So it’s a strategy formulation. It’s the responsibility of the board. Then it is of course execution, not only inside the company itself but also in the supplying network. And at the end, you have some measurement system, the ESG metrics.

So we should not look at ESG metrics just as some kind of a formal, additional reporting system. I think to do ESG performance in the right way, you have to look at it as an ecosystem, which integrates a company as a whole.

There are those who are still against certain ESG metrics, for example, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett recently urged shareholders to reject proposals for more transparency of climate-related risks and diversity and inclusion efforts. What would you say to Buffett and others who reject more transparency?

I would like to have a discussion with him.

I would tell him: “Look, I can understand that on the level of Berkshire Hathaway, which is a kind of conglomerate, you will have difficulties measuring the ESG responsibility of each of your companies where you have a shareholding in. So, here, I would understand.”

But as far as his companies are concerned, where he has invested in, I would tell him: “Look, particularly because you are very heavily exposed to the insurance business, why don’t you engage actively into more ESG of responsibility? Because it may backfire on you one day, in your insurance business. You may be caught by not having an integrated policy where you pursue profitability but also take care of people and the planet.”

President Joe Biden is asking Congress to approve hundreds of billions of dollars to remake transit infrastructure in the US in a plan that the White House says will fight climate change. What do you think of this kind of package?

It’s not enough to hold only corporations responsible. I think we have a common responsibility, all stakeholders of global society, which means corporations have to absolve a lot of their responsibilities in this respect, but it’s also us individual consumers, and it’s the government.

And the government has to contribute to fighting climate change by creating the necessary incentives and also disincentives. I think there are still too many governments around the world that provide subsidies for activities that actually are damaging the climate. And I think we need the government to step in to build the necessary infrastructures.

What we need is an integrated approach. We cannot fight climate change by doing here a little bit, there a little bit. We need to have an integrated ecosystem approach. And I think here the government has a major role to play, to provide the kind of integrated vision for the future.

Going back to the corporate world for a minute: Doesn’t the case of Danone and the recent ousting of its CEO show that focusing on ESG metrics can lead to a nonconfidence vote of shareholders?

Yes, so we have the famous case of Danone. The CEO was ousted and the criticism was that he has been devoting his time and his attention much too much to the ESG dimension, and not necessarily giving sufficient attention to his shareholders. But I think that’s a wrong dichotomy.

We shouldn’t make an artificial polarization between profitability on the one hand and people and the planet on the other hand. I think the art of good management today is to create the right balance and not to be too much just keeping in mind stakeholders or shareholders. I’ll give you a practical example – if we compare Danone with Unilever.

Unilever is certainly recognized worldwide as a company that is at the forefront of ESG thinking, but at the same time the share price of Unilever has doubled more or less in the past 10 years. The share price of Danone has quite had some difficulties, especially over the past year. Shareholders are also stakeholders. Unilever is an example that you can give [attention] to your shareholders as well as your other stakeholders.

What company stands out to you as doing especially well when it comes to tackling climate change?

I’m looking at the hardest-hit companies, hardest in terms of those being confronted with a major need for transformation. Here – if I look at the oil industry – I take as an example Total, the French oil company. Total is one of the 70 companies that the World Economic Forum brought together to commit to report on the ESG metrics we have developed with the International Business Council, under the guidance of Bank of America’s CEO, Brian Moynihan, together with the Big Four audit companies.

If we’re talking about persons, I would say Bill Gates. I just read his newest book [“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”]. I think he has a very great contribution to offer us. Because he says, “Look, we need a systemic approach to fight climate change. Even if we take all of our goodwill, it will not be enough. What we need is innovation.”

He talks about how in order to decarbonize the world or to make it carbon-neutral by 2050, a lot of new technological progress has to be achieved. Our present technology does not suffice to get to the target in 2050. So I see here a great opportunity because we can move into an age of green innovation.

Many people have a tendency to see our fight against climate change as a cost, as something that is negative. Yes, it may be to a certain extent, but it’s also a great opportunity.

If I look at the young generations – the World Economic Forum has a community of 10,000 young leaders – if I talk to them, they have a different mindset. They have a different picture of the world.

It’s not only the material dimension, income, or GDP. It’s well-being. And climate change is interconnected with pollution. It’s interconnected with life expectancy. It’s interconnected with a lot of health issues. So if we want to invest in our well-being, then we have to invest in fighting climate change.

Recently, a number of major corporations such as GM and Apple have made pledges to go carbon-neutral – GM by 2040, and Apple by 2030. Do you think these timelines are realistic? And are they fast enough?

We speak about a carbon-free world by 2050. That’s the objective of the Paris Agreement. Most countries have subscribed to this objective. And many, many companies have now also issued statements that they would achieve carbon neutrality.

Now, we have to be aware that the situation is not the same for each company. We have the energy companies – the Exxons, the Chevrons, and so on – that will have much more challenges to reach this objective of carbon neutrality in 2050, compared to Google, or even a car manufacturer that understands the technology to make this transformation to the electric car.

So it’s good if companies that have fewer challenges, such as the high-tech companies, provide an example by setting very ambitious objectives. But again, I come back to this: Setting objectives is not enough. Being measured in the execution is important, and here the ESGs come in again.

Do you think the energy-sector companies such as Chevron and Exxon have fully bought into the stakeholder-capitalism model? Have they bought into addressing climate change?

I would answer that in the following way: If they haven’t bought in yet, into the stakeholder concept, they are on the wrong side of history, because I’m deeply convinced that we are now really at an inflection point where society as a whole does not tolerate any more companies that are damaging nature or that are not upholding diversity and social justice.

I think we have a completely new social consciousness. We now also have a world where every deficiency can be reported very fast, and that can create a negative reaction. So if I were Exxon or a company that’s really challenged – we should not forget, these companies need a complete transformation of their business models – I would commit to the stakeholder concept, but would also try to create understanding in the public. For me, being in the energy sector, it may be much more difficult compared to a company that’s already producing products that do not necessarily damage the environment. So it’s a communications effort.

How are you feeling about the corporate fight to tackle climate change? What, if anything, are you excited about?

I’m really excited because, as I just mentioned, we have a new mindset. We have a new social consciousness. People like Greta Thunberg got very aware that something is wrong here in our lifestyles – that either we will have to suffer down the road or our children will have to suffer.

So we are now in a situation where climate change, or the attention given to climate change, provides a higher sensitivity for other deficiencies that we have.

I mentioned already a lack of inclusion, a lack of social justice, a system that is not necessarily fair in providing everybody with the necessary opportunities. And I think the pandemic has contributed to this new alertness, to this new sensitivity. Some people may say this is inconvenient because we pinpoint weaknesses in our society, but it’s a wake-up call to adapt and to make sure that we have better lives. That’s what we’re fighting for.

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